40 years ago Harun Farocki released his first feature film, Between Two Wars. At the beginning there is a striking shot of him at seated his work table facing an arrangement of photos on his wall. According to Antje Ehmann and Volker Pantenburg, these are research images for the production of Between Two Wars.
This is a photo of my work table in Berlin. On the wall are an arrangement of notes, each one containing a topic, an idea, a name. They are research notes for one of my current projects. Looking at the first image of Farocki contained in this image, I see the difference: he arranges images, I arrange words. Continue reading “Clearing the Counter”→
I will also be hosting a conversation with director Deborah Stratman following the screening of The Illinois Parables at the Essay Film Festival on March 28, 2017.
On April 6 at 8pm I will give a talk at the Werkleitz in Halle (Salle), Germany. The Videorama will screen Transformers: The Premake every evening in April in its storefront display.
On April 14 I will participate in the Visual Practices symposium at the University of California at Davis. Professor Kriss Ravetto and I will present our research on Bill Viola’s Martyrs exhibited at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, produced for the 2016 Indefinite Visions workshop in London.
From May 11-14 I will attend the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, providing social media coverage for Sight & Sound as a way to engage with the festival’s theme program, Social Media Before the Internet.
On May 16 I will present a program of video essays at the Gallery for Contemporary Art (GfzK) in Leipzig, as part of the series “Temporal Disorder”, in the context of the current exhibition “The Present Order.”
On the week of May 29 I will give a talk “The Video Essay: A Ten Year Personal History” at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart.
One of the goals I originally envisioned for this residency was to do more reading; to immerse myself in subjects and theories as I rarely have. It didn’t happen as much as hoped, but now I am making up for lost time with a vengeance. Next month, I will teach two block seminars in the Media Studies department at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt. Since I’ve been using up a significant portion of my final week at the residency working on the descriptions for these courses, I’ll share them here.
I concluded the entry reviewing my video essay activity of 2015 by expressing an increased frustration with exploring the flat, two-dimensional parameters of screens. I was (and still am) seeking new ways to provoke a more palpable awareness of engaging with screens as not just a visual, but a physical activity.
The 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam presented an opportunity to explore these concerns when they became the first film festival to commission me to produce an original video essay. The festival’s Critics Choice program, organized by Dana Linssen and Jan-Pieter Ekker, is a selection of films where critics introduce the works prior to their screening. This program spotlights the role of the critic in mediating the relationship between film and audience. Typically this is realized through the critic writing a review or program notes on the film. But when the critic produces a video essay in the film, and that video essay plays on a big screen in front of the audience right before they get to encounter the film for themselves, this mediating role becomes much more pronounced and loaded with a burden of responsibility bordering on an ethical dilemma. If I am showing footage of the film and explaining it to an audience, to what extent am I pre-empting or ruining their experience?
I faced this challenge when I made a video to introduce the festival’s screenings of Hong Sang-soo’s newest film Right Now, Wrong Then. I opted to make two video essays. The first one would be a side-by-side comparison of two similar scenes with running analysis in text windows. The second would be a written anecdote of my personal experiences with Hong Sang-soo and his films. These videos play simultaneously on the top and bottom halves of the screen, and the viewer is instructed to hold their hand up to block part of the screen so that they can focus on the rest. The viewer is thus given a choice to control what information they want to receive about the film. It also makes the act of viewing more explicitly physical by prompting viewers to use their hands to control their field of vision.
If the blog has been relatively quiet for the past several days, it’s due to recent activities involving travel (talks at the École normale superieure in Paris and the University of California at Davis) and groundwork for future engagements beyond the Farocki Residency. It’s sad to think that this special three-month residency period is now in its final week. I cherish what I was able to do in this window of time that was unlike anything else I’ve experienced, even if it amounted to just a portion of what I hoped to do.
Among the things that occupy me at present are answering interview requests, one of which will be published on the website of the Institute for Contemporary Art in London in advance of my presentation there on March 30, as part of the Essay Film Festival. For efficacy’s sake, I referenced past interviews to see if I’d already answered some of the questions. In doing so I retrieved answers to interview questions emailed to me by Tilman Baumgärtel for an article published in Die Tageszeitung on April 15, 2015. As it turns out, little of the interview was quoted for the article, so I post it here as the answers still speak for me, and reviewing them lets me reflect on how to carry forward with my work (one of the major objectives I’ve had for this residency).
With the previous entry on 2014, I commented on the extent to which video essays had by that point yielded a vast and growing range of techniques to explore film and media. At the same time, I was becoming more interested in exploring the space outside the screen:
That was from a presentation I gave in graduate school in the fall of 2014. (The full presentation can be viewed here.) This was near the start of a period when, following the release of Transformers: The Premake, I began to receive invitations to give talks at film festivals, schools and other venues. Here’s one on video essays from the Boston Independent Film Festival in April 2015, and one on desktop documentary from March 17, 2015 at University of Sussex.
In 2014 I produced 52 video essays (48 of which were weekly entries for Fandor) while in my first full year of graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This would seem like an overwhelming workload, but it was really a virtuous cycle where the fresh encounters of ideas at school inspired new approaches to my video essay work. In turn, the video essays helped subsidize the costs of my education.
This period yielded probably the best edition of the “Who Should Win the Oscars” videos that I produced annually from 2012-2016. I used this series to apply different videographic analysis techniques to understand the Academy Award nominees. Most notably I used cinemetrics, the statistical-based measurement of different aspects of cinema, to find a different way to understand how performances work on viewers. I was specifically interested in the issue of screen time: does how much time an actor spends on screen affect our response?
What I didn’t expect to discover was that the Best Lead Actor nominees had nearly twice as much screen time as the Best Lead Actress nominees, suggesting an inequality between the sexes playing out on the screen itself. I reported my findings to the New York Times, the first appearance of cinemetrics research in a major newspaper.
On Feburary 20 the Internet Movie Database shut down its Message Boards, which had been a mainstay for online discussion of films for 16 years. As it was covered by most media, the shut down was attributed to the boards being overrun by abusive interactions by online trolls. Though IMDb never stated this as a reason for shutting down the boards, tough its statement alludes to the boards “no longer providing a positive, useful experience.” I can’t deny the pervasive negative impact that trolls have on online and social media culture, which these days can even be found amongst the most influential world leaders. But I do want to acknowledge that there was a time when the IMDb Message Boards were pretty much the center of my existence, where I devoted an obsessive amount of activity for the sake of nurturing my relationship to films.
This is a belated congratulations to Barry Jenkins for winning this year’s Best Picture for Moonlight, in most dramatic fashion. Three years ago I took a long look at the short films and commercial work he had produced up to that point, as I had wondered what had happened to him in the six years since he had made his first feature Medicine for Melancholy. I was struck by the clarity of vision in that film and wondered to what extent his works-for-hire bore that vision as well. I wondered what it would mean if he never made another feature: could this body of work – one feature, several shorts, even a commercial for Facebook – stand on its own?
That question has now been rendered moot as far as Jenkins is concerned, but remains valid to ask in its own right. What kind of body of work – or works within that body – are worth our attention? How much work should be considered in telling the story of a filmmaking career? Especially for those who may never make a feature film? Who are the greatest filmmakers who never made a feature, and how are their legacies considered differently from those who have?
In 2012 I made more video essays than in any other year yet still couldn’t maintain a living with this type of work. Little did I realize that the subjects of one of my first video essays of 2013 was suffering a similar fate on a far greater scale, despite winning an Academy Award that year.
The CGI production company Rhythm & Hues was breaking new ground in photorealistic animal special effects; I’d been so impressed with its Oscar-winning work in The Life of Pi that I produced a video essay for Sight & Sound charting its 20 year history of developing computer generated animals for movies. This involved the greatest amount of research I had performed for a video essay to that date: I interviewed several employees of the company and acquired proprietary test footage from several of their past projects. I wonder if one reason why they were so cooperative was that the company was in fact on the brink of filing for bankruptcy, and they were looking to tell their story to sympathetic listeners.
The company was one of several Hollywood special effects firms being run into the ground due to unfair financial arrangements with big budget production companies, despite these productions going on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. (Their story is told in an episode of the podcast series Freakonomics which can be found here.) These were industrial considerations of filmmaking that my video essays to date hadn’t really explored, including this one. But it would become more of a concern as the business aspects of my own work would become more pressing in my mind.
What this video focuses on instead are questions of how reality and affect are constructed and programmed on screen. These were questions I had been pursuing as early as The Spielberg Face, but now with a nascent curiosity in the uncanny, as I was auditing a course on the subject taught by Tom Gunning at the University of Chicago. In his class, Gunning skillfully staked out the terrain of the uncanny – one of uncertainty, irresolution and in-between states – and enabled his students to occupy it attentively. Continue reading “Video Essays from 2013 – Re-Educations”→