by Marius Hrdy
Image and sound are not always intertwined in Seeing Comes Before Words, a programme of films exploring the limits of perception – including non-human viewpoints, vertical features and the challenges of filming architecture.
In Julia Kater’s That Which Watches Us, a group of people builds a scaffold in a field – a construction that reaches for the sky in support of no other structure, asking questions about urbanity and the utopia of collective action. Zlatko Ćosić’s Dirty Look is a suspenseful study in stillness: the reduced movements of a seabird, returning our gaze, permitted the freedom to do what it wants and when it wants. Whose look is dirty – and who or what looks dirty?
Animals dance beneath radiant moonglow in Night on the Riverbank, Toby Tatum’s atmospheric found footage creation scored by British Sea Power’s Abi Fry. In Duncan Marquiss’ Mirror Test – named after the behavioural experiment in which animals are shown their own reflection – the disruptive movements of a curious jackdaw are juxtaposed with voice testimonies of its owners, a German couple who lived under the GDR.
In his film-poem Shades of Mensa, Jon Ratigan pairs glyphs and typograms from graphic aptitude tests prevalent in employment application processes with the evocative names given to commercial paint colours. Robert Orlowski’s Continuous Becoming, shot on 16mm film, repeats a 360-degree view of an urban park and adds a vertical partition to the frame on each rotation to expand on the relationship between perception, stillness and movement.
Gautam Valluri’s Midnight Orange deploys virtuoso use of 16mm techniques to capture structures, shapes and light encountered within a sacred building in Hyderabad, India – where family tombs equally evoke a competitiveness equal to their haunting sense of absence. And, presenting a divided image of light and shade, of the seen and the unseeable, Tetsuya Maruyama’s L.O.V.E.S.O.N.G. reflects on the physicality of the analogue film strip. Exposing a scratched image and crackling optical sound, the film abstracts notions of textural wear and tear, life and death, destruction and creation.
THAT WHICH WATCHES US
Julia Kater – 6’58 – Brazil
Zlatko Ćosić – 5’00 – USA
NIGHT ON THE RIVERBANK
Toby Tatum – 6’04 – UK
Duncan Marquiss – 6’10 – UK
SHADES OF MENSA
Jon Ratigan – 2’35 – UK
Robert Orlowski – 9’17 – USA
Gautam Valluri – 10’13 – France / India
Tetsuya Maruyama – 2’47 – Brazil
Julia Kater, That Which Watches Us
This film depicts the erection of a structure – a scaffold – usually designed to assist the building of another. But here, there is no other building. Could you say something about this unusual concept, and the significance of the action being a collective one?
My intention was that the action of building two scaffolds on an abandoned lot would reflect the aporia contained in the narrator’s speech. In watching the process of erecting the structures, the camera seeks to find a typography in gestures and isolated forms, like our brain when it is presented with an impossible proposition and, unable to recognise the complete image, focuses on the parts. The point of view was that of a group, almost like a shared conscience. Although we are presented with the construction of two structures by two separate pairs of workers, there is no competition, and no sense of ascension to any specific place.
This is a fragmented film. We never see the full scaffold, and even the field and the sky are shot in a way that we never see the full perspective, or the relationship between them.
The film is fragmented, so that the nature of the action is closer to a utopia. The figures are presented against the sky or against the field, to accentuate this fragmentation, and as if it were possible to distinguish one from the other. The actions are centred on the desire to fit, of construction and stability. And the narration speaks of the idea of place and of ways to enter it.
Toby Tatum, Night on the Riverbank
Night on the Riverbank depicts the reanimation of – as you call them – little creatures. The texture of the images points to a manipulation of sorts, and this film has a very different feeling to, say, your previous film The Loom. Could you say a little about the material, and about its reanimation?
Night on the Riverbank is unique in my oeuvre in that it utilises found footage. The initial idea of resurrecting the footage arose from a series of conversations I had with the artist John Stezaker, who proposed the idea of re-working a little-known Canadian black-and-white children’s television programme that he’d seen some years before. In making the film I’ve stripped away the programme’s pre-existing narrative structure and emphasised the dream-like elements implicit in the material.
In watching Night on the Riverbank we are invited to enter the world of the little inhabitants of the riverbank and to closely observe their secret nocturnal ways. It is a world over which the moon totally holds sway, enchanting these small creatures with its numinous power. As I edited the film I too fell under the night’s spell and was lulled half-asleep by the multiplying images of moonlight rippling on dark water. Night on the Riverbank is markedly different from my other works but, while making it, I enjoyed being liberated from my own aesthetic world.
Abi Fry, musician, on composing the score for Night on the Riverbank:
I have quite a specific process when composing for the films of Toby Tatum. My aim is to clear my mind and become a blank canvas whilst I watch the film many times in silence and allow ideas to surface. I try not to impose my own will until I have connected on a subconscious level and allowed the film’s magic to guide me. The first thing that came to me, when considering Night on the Riverbank, was the idea of stretching time and space and I began to experiment with cascading piano motifs to get this across, adding shimmering strings and floating harps to create the feeling of magic in the air.
Duncan Marquiss, Mirror Test
This is a film all about perception: what we make of other beings – systems, behaviours – and how we see ourselves in relation to them. It’s significant, in this context, that the two humans interviewed in the film lived in East Germany under the GDR.
The interview was recorded at the end of the shoot as an afterthought, I hadn’t planned it. I had several conversations with Kerstin and Stephan during filming and was really intrigued by their accounts of life under the GDR, and their thoughts on the subjective experiences of animals – which are inaccessible to us. We can’t know what a jackdaw feels yet we still recognise something when we look at her.
I kept wondering if there was some connection between Stephan and Kerstin’s experiences in East Germany and their attitude towards other species. But maybe that’s just my own tendency to search for patterns and relationships that aren’t necessarily there. Perhaps the interview creates some mystery for the viewer that remains unresolved. I’m often intrigued by films that leave something missing, gaps for the viewer to fill in themselves. Maybe surveillance involves an absent presence too, piecing together a picture from fragments of information about what is going on in another space, or in another mind. Apparently jackdaws have pale irises in their eyes so their chicks can recognise them when they enter the nest, as they like to nest in dark cavities.
Could you say a little about the relationship between the behaviour of the jackdaw in the film, which is seen living what might be described as a ‘free life’ – albeit within very domesticated human parameters – and your own interventions upon this space as an artist?
Initially the plan was to film the jackdaw interacting with a mirror. This was a reference to the mirror test, a famous animal cognition experiment which tries to determine if an animal has self-awareness depending on how it reacts to its own reflection. But Jackie was indifferent to the mirror I presented her with, so I took to shadowing her as she went about her business. Afterwards I thought it was better to have observed the bird instead of trying to manipulate her behaviour to make a film.
This reminds me of the differences between ethologist and behaviourist approaches to studying animal intelligence in zoology. Behaviourists studied animals in laboratory conditions, while ethologists study animals in their own habitat, as context has a big effect on behaviour. I think Jackie was obviously aware of my presence and at times she would come very close to investigate the camera, but at other times she seemed to ignore me. Whether the presence of an observer is affecting the behaviour of a subject is an issue for both field biologists and documentary filmmakers. But it seems a bit strange to make a film that pretends the camera operator isn’t there on the other side of the image, so we’re back to questions about self-awareness again – in birds and in filmmakers.
Jon Ratigan, Shades of Mensa
Could you say a bit about the core relationship at play, here, between the aptitude tests deployed by an employer like B&Q and those block colours you describe?
When I found that my local DIY store were employing these grandiose tools – in the case of the paint, overly verbose, uber-evocative language to sell colours, and in the case of job their application process, MENSA-like online graphic logic tests to sift through applicants – I knew I had to make a film that would explore any relationship which may exist here. In Shades of Mensa, I attempted to collide these graphic and textual elements in order to try to uncover resonances between them.
In putting the film together, small linkages presented themselves – coincidences between words and shapes, echoes between spoken consonants and text, resonances between graphic elements and overlaid colours. All colours, of course, have their own emotional impact on our physiologies possibly separate from any names they are given, and I was interested in all these registers of meaning.
I purposefully left everything ‘in the air’ so that layers – text, spoken word, colour, graphics, atmospheric sound – are at the same time separate but coincident, so that the viewer would be left to piece things together themselves, to actively uncover any poetry that may be there. I like that it’s so inconclusive.
With paint colours, exotically named for a consumer market, does seeing really come before words? It’s hard to imagine someone deciding to paint their living room with ‘Release the Hounds’ for instance. There’s a dark humour in the way you say a phrase like that and in its unpleasant, murderous connotations. Release the Hounds is also quite an awful colour.
It’s difficult to believe that the general consumer would be in any way swayed by these fancy names, though I suppose paint companies have done research that says otherwise. My guess is that as soon as the paint is up, the poetic descriptors are forgotten, they become secrets between the walls and the half empty tins languishing in nearby sheds.
But maybe, just maybe, very deep unconscious linkages are instantly forged forever, so that every time a hunting horn sounds in a movie for example, they are momentarily transported back through that exotic descriptor, through some chromatic temporal doorway, perhaps to the afternoon they spent trying to choose paint at B&Q in Cardiff.
But seriously, one of the interesting things about film or video as a medium, is that we can have it all – images, sound and text, at the same time, both vertically and horizontally. Wall paint doesn’t have that luxury.
Robert Orlowski, Continuous Becoming
This isn’t just any random space you’ve chosen to film. What did this location offer in terms of its cinematic possibilities?
The space that I chose to film was not arbitrary, but I would not say that when I decided to shoot in Herbert Von King Park, Brooklyn – the location of the film – that I was concerned with its ‘cinematic possibilities’. The space is quite beloved in the neighbourhood that I live in, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and depending on the season, the space offers host to many different activities – birthday parties, outdoor screenings, a place to read, a place to meet someone new. It is most certainly a community space, accepting of most people who utilise it. I found that it would be appropriate for the location to be here. That this would be my contribution.
My dear friend and exceptional filmmaker, Evelyn Emile, who also lives close by, mentioned to me upon seeing the film that she was really interested in how it dealt with the change that is happening in the neighbourhood. People are moving in, others are moving out, construction is happening in the park, which you can see in the film. I am sure that for the people who have been living here for their entire lives that collectively, they have seen the park change in its appearance. It is constantly evolving alongside the community who utilises it, slowly with each rotation that the camera makes.
Finally, the film is inspired by Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which is famously noted for its contributions regarding the theory of space-time, where time and space are not separate entities, but rather meshed together in a four-dimensional fabric. Einstein came up with some of his most famous ideas during thought experiments, notably during his commute. Since the park is on the path I chose to take to work, it is also where a lot off my personal thought experiments happen. This is my small ode to him and his methods.
This is a distinctly cinematic intervention: the rigid, horizontal pan, the absolute rigidity of the vertical partitions. It draws attention, repeatedly, to the cinematic construction of space.
In regards to the camera pan, Michael Snow said during an interview that in his films he wanted to ‘bring out the content that is latent in these techniques, so that they don’t disappear in their use.’ He said, ‘What I have been trying to do is make a more purely filmic experience.’
While to be completely honest, I did not listen to this interview before making the film, it is Snow’s words that help more eloquently illustrate what it is that I hope to accomplish with Continuous Becoming. Space and time are the essential tools of cinematic construction, which are often taken for granted. They are elements that are assumed, and endured. They are conduits of the image, a passageway for the illusion of film to be experienced.
Being inspired by Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which deals with these same aspects, space and time, I started to hypothesise about how a four-dimensional image might look via the limitations of a two-dimensional screen. What would happen to the image, if it were one that would celebrate and express its conduits, rather than endure them? What would happen to a film if its entirety would be shown at once – similar to the act of looking at a film strip, rather than at one frame at a time?
The image in the film is expanded upon by vertical partitions that are gradually added with each camera revolution. Each of these partitions is a frame ahead not only in time, but also space. So that the image in the end of the film, is not a 360-degree view of just space in one particular temporarily, but rather the two melded together. That the left side of the image is actually occurring before the right.
Additionally, what one sees throughout the film is how the amount of partitions affects the image. How certain increments of time and space allow for latent animations to be freed. Suddenly the static shadows on a wall are slowly evolving to a rhythmic flicker. The trees are full of life in a way that isn’t typically seen. The image is expanded upon and erupting. This is what gets me excited about filmmaking.
Tetsuya Maruyama, L.O.V.E.S.O.N.G.
You found the Super8 strip we see here in a flea market in downtown Rio de Janeiro, and you’ve written elsewhere that it originally contained footage of a Jewish wedding from 1980. We’re watching that footage and we’re not watching that footage. Or rather, we are watching but not seeing…
It is interesting to think that filming a wedding never goes out of fashion, and somehow this footage ended up in a flea market. On its cover is written, ‘Wedding Monique and Isaac March 27th Rio de Janeiro.’ The footage consists of two parts: a reception at home and a ceremony in a civil office. It also had a title at the beginning and the soundtrack. My practice emerges not just from aesthetic reasons, but also from political and economic questions. In South America in general, it is not easy to acquire fresh film stock and that is why many people are working with found footage.
And then these letters at the end: we catch one after another, spelling out the title of the film. It’s moving to think of a film strip as a love song…
The sound strip doesn’t have any sound recorded, so it is open to record ‘your’ love song, which is recorded every time it passes in a projector. I haven’t heard a love song since a long time ago and I thought it would be nice to share it in a format of a film. And definitely now the whole world needs more love songs!