A Body of Work

One’s cinema is aligned to one’s self if it comes from a personal desire, question or natural curiosity

The private manifestation of loneliness [2] is something that is inherent in the apparatus of film, not only on the theatre stage. Peter Kubelka talks about cinema's ability to bring the spectator closest to "being in someone else's thoughts", comparing the camera's dark chamber to the cinema space, in which we are looking at the world through the viewfinder of the filmmaker. Art is about “sucking people into one’s head, making them seeing what I see, hearing what I hear”[3] – states Kubelka.

This analogy is a tempting one. It is historically indexed by the image of the  artist becoming one with his or her utensil: the camera as an extension of the hand, fingers, eye, mind etc. (Dziga Vertov, Jonas Mekas [4]). The frame is the eye of the artist, the intentionally chosen segment of all possible viewpoints, which turns the frame into an expression. Kubelka’s (modernist) approach to film carries a bias for the apparatus of sight and montage-technique, and it leaves a whole universe of different sensory manifestations out of the game.

I prefer to think of cinema as a personal, physical experience

It seems unimaginable to me that the material of a film could emerge from anything else than lived experience of being near by, or within the subject or theme – if subject and theme are understood in the broadest sense, unrestricted by language and the habit of naming. Achieving authenticity in cinema is essentially through being near by or within. Trinh T. Minh-ha talks about the  notion of film as critical process without a main or single motive in relation to her film Reassemblage:

“a love relationship [between an author and her subject] does not allow one to speak about the subject filmed as if one can objectify it or separate oneself from it unproblematically”

In other words, making a film does not separate the filmmaker from the experience of neither himself, nor the subject: they are interrelated the way our everyday experience is derived from an ensemble of perception, past lived experience and our choices and responses in the present time. Technically, the technology of cinema and film are reproductive means, so film does not (can not) become direct experience. Yet, film creates its own reality through the cinematographic document and the meaning derived from it. [5] Film constructs not truth but meaning, by the engagement of an individual’s practice implicitly or explicitly present in the work (T. Minh-Ha). These elements can be pointed out or left in doubt, which draws a line between communication (propaganda), and authentic expression through the medium of film.

A notable film experience where such authenticity and the identification of the author’s position is conspicuously absent is Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1933). In the sound version of the film Bunuel applies an unemotional, flat voiceover peppered with descriptions of extreme misery, while the image shows the daily lives of the inhabitants of the mountain villages of Las Hurdes. We are offered neither connection, nor compassion. The work can be understood as a critique (and almost parody) of the genre of documentary: the humanism is absent on all levels, the film is made near the subjects but it seems motivated only by a cinematic interest in their mysery.

Which raises the question: does seeing translate as lived experience? The unreflected gaze of the passer-by or the blank stare of the security camera are different from a reflected gaze: in the latter, time is taken to move away from and move back into the experience, allowing cognition and the body to participate in the process, whereby meaning comes into play.

This is what makes the subject of the body’s memory a relevant choice for me: in my work I want to explore the interrelatedness of the intimate and the technological aspects of cinema. Time, movement, seeing, imagining, selecting, going back etc., make the apparatus of cinema a perfect device for reflection on what and how is remembered, and how memories are forged. We cannot go back to the past, but we can inhabit our memories using sensory channels that transcend time: smell, touch, sound and images that trigger memory. Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1974) is discussed below, for I consider it one of the most important films of in the history of experimental, personal, auto-ethnographic cinema.

If cinema is understood as the imprint of a physical experience on celluloid, then what the body remembers can in fact be made visible and audible: the observation of gestures, sounds emanating from bodies, duration and the distances between subject-audience, audience-author, subject-author allow for implicit understanding.

Perhaps one’s body of work can be analyzed according to the degree to which pro-filmic experience enters the meta space of the film (projection, audience, author, subject, auditorium). The pro-filmic is inevitably reflected in the basic parameters: the presence or absence of text and speech, (a)synchronicity, mis-en-scene, duration. These parameters implicitly communicate a quality of human experience.

The Memory of Muscles

I recently saw Wim Vandekeybus’ remake of his 1987 show What The Body Doesn’t Remember. The performance is a series of vignettes with spectacular physical theatre, alluding to gestures of childhood and teenage years, in what seems to be a universe driven by violent dreams, male egos, emancipated sex and raw desire. The primary fascination here is with the gap between perceiving danger and acting on it: a moment of time where the mind skips thinking, thus the act of remembering as well. Instincts come first, the brain is in the gap. The everyday is brought on stage with a cleverly conceived bare minimum of gestures (stamping, throwing bricks, ripping off towels of the other, posing for a camera), without a sense of dramatic progression, apart from the physical exhaustion of the dancers calling for less intensive scenes from time to time.

Why is this piece relevant to my concept of a cinematic body of work?

Vandekeybus seems to go around cognition by the way of explicit danger and physicality, looking for primal responses in both choreography and in the music-movement conditions of the piece. The act of remembering is suffocated by strong, instant desire or violence. The performance is solely interested in the here and now of non-remembering.

The metaphysical possibilities of remembering, the body and what the body does remember are left unexploited: the show reflects a world of nowness that is forever oscillating between violence and tenderness. The everyday is a prop for the extreme (towels, bricks, coats, feathers). There is no reflection within the world of the performance, we’re only waiting for the next blow.

The world of the everyday could offer a link to the spectator, bringing the “spectacle” to our level of connection with violence and desire, expanding it beyond the here and now. As visual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann puts it: “Five minutes of everyday are interesting. I want to show the rest.” Because what happens in the rest of the every day is very similar to what Vandekeybus is looking for: depending on the cultural and genetic code, we desire, float, daydream, do maintenance, flush, make love, ramble, waste energy by thinking in general terms, remember, work etc. Does the body remember in this mode as well? This is not explored in his stage work – although I presume the body knows much more than avoiding danger. The gestures of the everyday are as symbolic of our times as the quickfire responses to a flying brick are to our primal instincts.

One may say that there are multiple forms to talk about our intimate personal experience through abstraction in art. But it may be symptomatic of contemporary western art-performance culture that the show has remained nearly the same between 1987 and 2013. Has nothing changed?

[2] Peter Brook: The Empty Space

[3] Peter Kubelka presented his oeuvre in Cinematek, Brussels, November 2012

[4] Lanthier: When you're filming, do you see the camera an extension of your consciousness?

[5] I use the film theory of G. Bódy here, who talks about segmentation of the pro-filmic reality using the apparatus of film. Primary segmentation includes point of view, the frame, duration, composition, light and pace, as well as the interpretative segmentation where meaning is assigned. He further elaborates on the over-determination of the cinematographic image, which means that a reproduced image will show more than intended by its maker (G. Bódy: Film School, Complete Works of Gábor Bódy, Part 1)

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