Marginalia: occasional jottings on aspects of film and art

Black Box and White Cube: Thoughts on Technology, Storytelling and Post-Cinematic Forms.


Studies on what have been termed ‘post-cinematic’ forms and functions – pertaining to image, frame, editing and the wider media environment – are now well underway. The place of film or ‘the cinematic’ within the gallery – usually framed in terms of ‘alienation’ (Frohne 2008), transition (Denson/Leyda 2016, Paul 2009) or continuity (Parikka 2012) – continue to raise important questions about the medium. Outside the gallery, too, with the advent of live-streamed interactive movies, what we understand as the spatial characteristics of cinema (screen, proscenium arch etc) or even mis-en-scene, actor or spectator, are in flux. 

And one might say that the discussion surrounding all this implicates storytelling of necessity and from the start. Especially, when relating cinema’s inherent narrativity – whether argued historically as being too text-based (Greenaway 2003), persistently intelligible (Metz 1991, Bordwell 2008) or authoritarian (Le Grice 1997) – to the properties of digital media itself. 

The non-linear potential of database, dvd or computer gaming, its ability to allow a storyline or environment to change, be controlled by the viewer or randomly rearranged or combined, has largely deflated anti-linear (often, anti-narrative) arguments, raised by certain strands of experimental film in the 60s, which saw the spectator locked ‘into a consequence’ that unified the subject ‘impotently with and within the narrative’ (Le Grice, 1997). Interactive narrative videos by Toni Dove in the late nineties, networked and potentially open-ended ‘Template Cinema’ such as Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead’s Short Films About Flying (2003), looped interactive screens in works such as Adrian Miles/Clare Stewart’s Exquisite Corpse (2002) or a live-streamed audience-centred film such as Blast Theory’s My One Demand (2015), offer the audience a greater degree of agency than ever before. The audience is said to have moved from eye-witness to potential actor, from spectator to participant. Some suggest the abandonment of control over the image, in this way, ‘implies giving up cinema as we know it’ (Paul 2009, Greenaway 2003). Others anticipate the possibility of a co-existence of cinematic and post-cinematic forms (Clayfield 2007, Manovich 1999). Either way, in relation to storytelling, certain fundamental questions persist. One of the most obvious, relates to agency itself: the impression of authorship and affect in interactive storytelling. 

Recently, I watched Netflix’s Bandersnatch (Slade 2018). First slightly enchanted by my role in this context and by the seamlessness of form and subject, I was ultimately left mindful of Lev Manovich’s claim that narrative and database are ’natural enemies’ (Manovich 1999). Processes of selection, he suggests, can only lead to fixed narrative modes. And, sure enough, any real options in terms of resolution in Bandersnatch were soon ruled out. Reflexively, the episode itself declared (and perhaps this is all it had to say), you ‘can’t change things with hindsight.’ I remembered, once disappointment set in, that implicit in our engagement with early interactive video and films – such as Lorna (Leeson 1983) or Kino Automat (Činčera 1967) – was the understanding that to play the game with any conviction, you had to forget you could choose from only a predetermined number of outcomes. If you stopped to think about it – which today, we can be forgiven for not doing, since the illusion is most thorough – the feeling never really left that you were simply arranging and re-arranging fixed elements of a story along a defined path. Yet, Manovich’s preferred ‘logic’ (‘combination’ rather than ‘selection’) – where, from a seemingly open-ended or structurally generous database, any number of random elements might suddenly be juxtaposed onscreen – has its own limitations. First, because computer screens that accumulate events and images to the point of overload do not, depending on your frame of mind, automatically provide ‘numerous narrative paths’ (Manovich 2016). And second, because even a world wide web piece, such as Short Films About Flying (2003), is ultimately archived once the stream from random online sites has been exhausted. It reveals its own architecture, as Nicky Hamlyn might say (Hamlyn 2003) and, on one level at least, any further expectation of surprise, inventiveness or narrative rebellion drops from it. In the case of cinema, by contrast – take, for example, Dziga Vertov’sMan With A Movie Camera (1929) whose ‘database’ of visual experimentation Manovich so admired – we can continue to watch a film time and again, seeing potential new meanings on each occasion. With the mind’s vagrant ideation, we even remember things we were never shown. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, the perfect narrative can be revealed sometimes not through endless beginnings, but through ‘layers of a variety of retellings’ (Benjamin 1973). 

Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin suggested that a new form of communication confronted storytelling that was detrimental to it. That form of communication was ‘information’ which he felt was ‘incompatible with the spirit of storytelling ‘ (Benjamin 1973). Narrative – our ability to actually tell stories – could achieve an ‘amplitude’ that information lacked (Benjamin 1973). My first question then, given cinema’s rich history of expression and its potential in the gallery for spatialized narrative, is whether film (telecined or otherwise) is best served by digital models of storytelling. If not, what might those models be? 


2 .

It is interesting that Lynn Hershman Leeson, when describing the three possible outcomes for her protagonist Lorna, chose to locate her interactive story in the context of a communications breakdown. ‘When making Lorna’, she said, 

it occurred to me that here we are in the communications revolution and people have never been more alienated or more lonely (Recorded interview, date and source unknown). 

For which reason, my second point of entry into the subject relates to an aspect of storytelling Benjamin deemed essential to the art, one well suited to cinema: the ability to share experiences (Benjamin 1973). The promise of an experience shared is implied by live-streamed and/or interactive works. Yet, caught up in Grahame Weinbren’s Sonata (1991/3), walking around Lorna’s room in Leeson’s installation or rotating on the dancefloor in a 360° video by Glen Luchford, we are increasingly called upon to take our own cultural adventure. In the new and increasingly complex options for storytelling opened by technology, participants, unlike spectators, are relatively isolated from each other. (Psychologically, through a series of participatory acts that involve making decisions only for ourselves. Spatially, if participating online.) The programme’s author relinquishes responsibility for the telling. The participant writes the story for themselves. The random scatter of a potential ‘narrative’ seems to reflect the dissolution of the experience as a whole. 

Film has been brought into, or made for, the gallery in recent decades to serve any number of philosophical enquiries – on time, movement, illusion. But perhaps its most interesting potentiality now is narrative. Even when not subscribing to interactive content, many artists today tend to question linear narratives, carrying a story across multiple screens and hybrid forms. This is possible because (film) narrative, even when atomised into its constituent parts (as expanded cinema, for example, or with scenes or shots analysed or uploaded to YouTube, or when amplified by DVD extras) is thought of or remembered as an ‘entity’, as something more than the sum of its parts (Clayfield 2007). This might be less clear in film’s more abstract ‘narratives’ pertaining to materiality, apparatus and lens. But even here, the viewer’s experience generally coheres, tied to a sequential unfolding of time (Meigh-Andrews 2006) that is shared through common spectatorship. If current production in the gallery or online has sometimes gone too far in dissipating the narrative base of moving images, might it be time for cinema – with its language ‘enriched’ (Metz 1991) from years of narrative exploration of its own, to provide a more cohesive basis for renewal? Perhaps, though we might not wish to admit it, this can yet prove to be the more radical nature of the ‘web’ in which the ‘gift of storytelling is cradled’ (Benjamin 1973). Copyright: Julia Dogra-Brazell 2019 


The Art Object as a Potential Site of Evoked Memory

(Extract from a paper delivered at the ICA London in 1999)

…There is an art of imaginative intensification that lies dormant in the architecture of our first domicile that has little or nothing to do with the architectural embodiment of social ideals and structures in a strictly historical sense. The house we are born in, as Bachelard notes, ‘is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits’ and, as such, does not lend itself to description.It is a lost house conserved in fragmentary form within the individual. To state this, however, and no more is to reduce time – the present that is passing and the past that is preserved – to a wholly subjective experience; which could be, nostalgically, to concede artistic restitution to the anechoic chamber of killed time. For the house when in any way reconstituted materially – as in Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) or Ghost (1990) or in Kate Belton’s photographic images or indeed my own – can all too easily be rendered a souvenir, marking the ‘unrepeatability of an event…a longing for a vanished original.’Souvenirs, Susan Stewart suggests – traces of events, locations, experiences, objects – are always a nostalgic denial of loss which replace authenticity with narrative. But thinking of time in another way, thinking of it as Deleuze would, as the interiority in which we are (as opposed to what is in us) time, no longer purely subjective, becomes multi-faceted and endlessly renewable. In the cinematic space Deleuze calls the direct image of time, there are narrational schema which involve non-subjective and non-chronological memory in a way that confounds the very possibility of nostalgia, of description based on the discernibility of the real and the imaginary, the original and the copy. There is only a fragmented present (split into a present of the past, present and future) considered in relation to itself rather than any discrete entity called the past, or there are discontinuous leaps through sheets of time that can never be unified from the point of view of a single authenticator. In these contingent narrations Deleuze finds the very image of memory.

Psychoanalytic practice makes it clear after all that memory, on the most fundamental of levels, is unreliable and potentially ungovernable by the narrative, programmatic implications of architecture alone; even outside the infantile site of formative experience where there lies another environment, more inescapably linked to the urge to narrate. Foucault, looking at past treatises on the art of governance, finds citizens presented with visual models – such as the Paris promenades – which draw on the classical art of memory to ensure individual acts of self-governance through internalisation, memory and application. Memory can refuse to conform to connotative conventions and need not be appropriated into the ‘false’ or official memory of a unified and narrative history. First, as already suggested, because memories related by analysands are often phantasms – albeit therapeutically effective phantasms – of scenes and events that need never have existed. Freud calls such mnemic images ‘screen memories’, a process of displacement whereby indifferent memories – usually, but not exclusively, visual – owe their preservation not to their own content but ‘to an associative relation between their content and another’ which is repressed. The screen memory is essentially a mistake in remembering – ‘what the mind reproduces is not what it should correctly have reproduced, but something else as a substitute’ – and can refer to a time before or after the actual memories to which it relates or be contiguous with them. In this sense, trapped like a Robbe-Grillet protagonist, there is always another story that can block or disrupt our linear narrative at any point in time. Perhaps it is not surprising that when we stand before screens literally – as before Cristina Iglesias’ (Untitled [Eucalyptus Leaves I and II]) (1994) which are often shown together in a way that they cannot be seen and compared simultaneously, or Mariela Neudecker’s Never Eat Shredded Wheat (Memory Maps) (1996) which play with the idea of screen memory in that the maps are ‘mistaken’ and yet geographically significant – we are often called upon to match a physical experience to a mental image. We look, and are distracted by the memory of what we cannot see. The mind is unruly because, like Bachelard’s notion of space, it contains compressed time.

The second reason why memory cannot very easily be appropriated into an official history is because history itself, as Christine Boyer has pointed out, becomes increasingly composed of snapshots not narratives or stories as the structure of the modern city – fragmented, crowded and privatised – is rendered, as ‘a generating device for memory,’ simply ‘impoverished beyond recognition.’ The expectation that places and monuments can transfer meaning across generations has now ceded to the possibility that fragments may only provide the viewer with a threshold beyond which to ‘substitute invented traditions and imaginary narrations.’ A threshold of oneirism, Bachelard would have said, a door to daydreaming of a public sort. Which is a possibility for the past more palatable than being merely promoted to the status of memory and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position between the lost terminals of supermodernity. Early on – in the 1920s – the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs drew a distinction between narrative history and memory. He saw them as opposing terms: the one ‘manipulable and representable in a play of lost significance, the other ‘plural’, ‘alive’ and impossible to appropriate. Memory, on his terms and in Boyer’s words, is ‘above all an anti-museum and not localizable.’ It operates by way of ‘tactics of surprise, ruptures and overturnings that reveal its true power and its grip over the spectator’s imagination.’ In terms of place and memory in visual culture, one is mindful of the very unclassical nature of the art of classical memory systems which focus the mind (and eye) on irregular place, idiosyncrasy or strangeness. One is reminded too, of both Barthes’ unnameable detail that can fill a whole picture – the punctum that ‘rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces’ – and of Lacan’s traumatic encounter with the real (the tuché). The relationship between these two is amply documented by critics such as Hal Foster or played out by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Luc Tuymans or Aldo Rossi through sudden encounters with objects or spaces which call up ‘bizarre uninvited memory that has the power to bring on sadness, regret, mourning’. As Barthes intimates, there is something essentially inexpressible and unlocatable at the moment of such encounters. And perhaps something a little frightening.

The familiar, estranged through repression, that returns to us in the form of the dreaded or bizarre is uncanny. It is the transformation of something that once seemed homely (heimlich) into its opposite (unheimlich) and can be glimpsed in the fixed, pallid faces of Hopper’s ‘embryonic narratives’ or Casebere’s ghostly simulacra. Etymologically and conceptually inextricable, the heimlich/unheimlich is quite literally bound up with domestic space. It starts there, according to Anthony Vidler; as ‘a bourgeois kind of fear,’ the fear of a newly established class not quite home in its home. But as the metropolis expands, the uncanny soon becomes identified with all the phobias associated with spacial fear until its space is once more an interior space, the space of the mind. The uncanny, says Vidler, is not a property of…space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spacial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming. This inability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, the actual and the virtual through ruptures and overturnings, Deleuze understands, leads us to a temporal overload where we stand before a painting like Réné Daniels’ The House (1986), like Alice before Humpty Dumpty, unable to choose between equally possible yet mutually contradicting narrative explanations. These narrative possibilities do not, however, cancel each other out as they would in the cause of nostalgia or in simplistically fallacious works such as Boltanski’s 10 Photographic Portraits of Christian Boltanski, 1946-1964 (1972). They suggest a pregnant silence replete with all time and meaning and possibility of renewal. This is perhaps the silence Blanchot knew, a kind of silence that is the flip-side of an incessant and cacophonous roar whose only echo reiterates ‘it never happened, never for a first time, and yet it starts over, again, again infinitely. It is without end, without beginning. It is without future.’

And so, it is perhaps only by suspending our tendency to read or tell stories about ourselves in one time or place that artists can, like the viewer in Thomas Demand’s Tunnel (1999), remember without prescription, make replicas – like those of James Casebere, Cathy de Monchaux or Robert Gober – imbued with loss and longing and a familiarity whose origins cannot be located. And, once again, we can dream. ‘The house’, says Charlotta Kotik, ‘becomes a major catalyst for memory, for it is in this certain and defined locale that the range of human relationships and feelings…take place. The image of the house represents the topography of our most intimate selves.’ This image, however, must be of a house that is beyond the merely literal, sentimental or narrative in the specific sense, drawn from a memory – of a cell, of a lair, of a back porch – that is ultimately contextless. Nostalgia for its own sake is a waste of time. Like Louise Bourgeois, we must learn to differentiate between memories, sorting those that arrive uninvited from those we track down too self-consciously; and we must learn to trust the former. Narrative situations of the rebellious and dislocated kind only appear, after all, where reality is represented as lacunary and dispersive. Thought must be put into contact with unthought, the unsummonable, the inexplicable. Thought must learn to cherish the irrational promise of gaps.

When Rachel Whiteread cast House, she made only one alteration to the original structure: she removed the roof and levelled off the building above the first floor. To make our monument to the inarticulate mind, she removed the space where the ‘dreamer dreams rationally’; which makes sense. To explain ourselves rationally is to deny gaps. It is to concede to the linear time of an enunciated sentence. It is to announce, with Levinas, that reason is alone. In Levinas’ scheme, time is never the achievement of an isolated subject but is the relationship the subject has with the Other; and the Other, when it is life not death, turns the mind itself into a room, a camera of a subversive image that adds to its own interior what is nonetheless already there. For Levinas, this is not a traumatic encounter. Rather, every object experienced is reduced to ‘an element of reminiscence’, losing distance (the opening where unforeseen relations occur) in an inescapable solitude. Ultimately perhaps it is only by speaking irrationally that I can choose to inhabit a space between my work and you. © Julia Dogra-Brazell 1999