FCMM 2001: Sounding Off, Part 1
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is the perfect example of a dichotomy that exists in the universe of film festivals. Every festival has its films that always sell out despite their confirmed release date just after the festival’s close. Likewise, every festival has another brand of festivaliers who seek the rare and never-to-be-seen-again selections that are the true gold of festival week, leaving the stuff that has already found distribution for later dates. I am stuck somewhere in between these two approaches to festival-going, as I relish the opportunity to see exciting new films at the earliest possible date, and enjoy the energy that often accompanies festival screenings. I am also very aware that I often never get around to seeing some films outside of the festival environment regardless of how long a run they enjoy on post-festival screens. However, I do skew my overall viewing towards seeing as much of the rare and obscure as I can, since that seems to be the real benefit of the festival system.
Having said that, I saw Mulholland Drive twice within the 10 days of this year’s Festival International Nouveau Cinéma et Nouveaux Médias in Montreal (FCMM). Despite the fact that I found it to be his weakest effort in a long time, I believe that Lynch’s latest is especially emblematic of the spirit of this particular festival. FCMM is dedicated to showcasing new works that involve cutting-edge explorations of the interactions between humans and technology in the digital era. Whether in a live audio-visual performance, a new film/video, or a panel discussion, FCMM is the place to be if you want to see and hear what’s going on in the ever-expanding world of human/technological relations. Of course this means that music and sound have as much a place in this festival as do the visual arts, and as such the festival is also ground zero for exploring the symbiotic relationship between sight and sound as it exists both in the cinema and in our daily lives. Particularly in the realm of electronic music, artists are increasingly exploring how sight can play an integral role in the act of hearing and vice-versa. Interest in live manipulation of electronics has given way to an equal interest in such manipulation of image materials as well. Recent software developments (such as Coldcut’s VJAMM, the use of which can be witnessed in live internet broadcasts sent out regularly from www.piratetv.net) allow users control over audio and video samples simultaneously, and the experimental spirit of scratch DJs is now finding a home in the hearts of a whole new generation of filmmakers who want to expand their work beyond the confines of the recorded document. Lynch’s new film, while being a traditional filmed document, is firmly rooted in current explorations of many of the relationships that are at the heart of FCMM, including new dynamics between performance and the recording arts that are being ushered in by new technologies.
The live manipulation of pre-recorded audio/visual material raises a series of issues concerning our understanding of film, music, and the notions of creative process and performance that are inherent in both. Firstly, the role of the artist is called into question when music is performed without the playing of what we understand as a traditional musical instrument, or when a film is altered in real time. The very notion of what is acceptable as a musical instrument is called into question with modern technologies, as it always has been in the past. (The electric guitar is a particularly good example of an instrument that bridges the worlds of acoustic and electronic music. It needs to played in much the same way as an acoustic guitar would be, while the sound we hear is necessarily electronically processed).Secondly, the performance of an individual human being on a particular instrument in real-time is often treated as more authentic than a recording; concert-goers would generally not go to a concert to hear a pre-recorded piece of music. In the case of film, however, the exact opposite is true. It would perhaps be disconcerting if every time we saw a film it changed as though it were being interpreted differently through live performance. These two standards of expectation are exploited thoroughly in much of the new media performance work that is currently taking place, and many of the film/video work at this year’s festival also travel down the road of exploring these differences in perception.
With the changing world of image and sound relationships in art and the questioning of the place the artist holds in relation to the creation of a work, the notion of the artwork itself is called into question. What becomes of our idea of a masterwork in the absence of a defined artist or art object? We could think back to the beginnings of jazz improvisation and the trouble it caused for classical music purists for whom the great masterpieces of music existed on paper and awaited only the correct performance of them by master musicians capable of reproducing every preconceived nuance to a tee. With the onset of improvisational music, virtuosity lost some of its tangibility and became subject to the whims of passion caught in the midst of the very moments of performance. As electronic recording and instrumentation progressed, the debate grew over the status of the recording vs. live performance. High fidelity came to be understood as that quality level which most faithfully reproduced what could be heard if the musicians were right there in the room with us.
With high fidelity, however, there came also an interest in exploiting the high quality studio recording equipment to push music beyond what is possible in a live setting. In the hands of pioneers like Miles Davis’ long time producer Teo Macero, the studio itself became an instrument in its own right, an entity with as many possibilities for musical manipulations as any more traditional instrument in the hands of its player. We can see the most prevalent extension of this idea in contemporary DJs whose interest in the usage of turntable technology for its performative qualities is perhaps the clearest example of art that seeks to blur the established boundaries between production and consumption.
In his amazing look at the world of sampling technology, Any Sound You Can Imagine, Paul Théberge puts forth the thesis that the interaction between musicians and recording technologies creates a space in which one is both consuming and producing at the same time (1). Record players were designed for playback of performances long gone. For the DJ, these existing performances become the notes of new compositions that seek to simultaneously call attention to their recorded nature and disrupt the expectations that result from our understanding of what recording is. Friedrich Kittler notes that while Edison separated the recording and playback functions of his phonograph for practical purposes, it is the same stylus that is used for both (2). This give and take within one piece of technology would seem to invite similar interplay between the user and the machine.
Edison’s phonograph was no doubt one of the precursors to today’s samplers, and the use of the turntable as musical instrument demonstrates another important function of this kind of relationship between technology and humans: the incorporation of music-making technologies into the realm of domestic life. The home studio and home electronics demonstrate the importance of art as a function of daily life in both our consumption and production of that art. Western culture has historically sought to separate art and life, but artistic practice is finding its way back into the realm of the quotidian largely due to technological developments.
Interestingly, when technological artistic expression takes place within the home, the way we interact with our technologies becomes a function of our domestic experience. This domestic experience includes one of humankind’s most influential yet ethereal states of mind: sleep. The way our dreams deal with our daily experience through memory can be understood in terms of the ways in which sampling technology allows manipulation of that which has already passed. In Black Noise, Tricia Rose explores the ways in which DJ interaction with technologies of reproduction and existing recorded material can be seen as a kind of living history, where the past is always alive in the present, though undergoing constant recontextualization and reinterpretation (3). By taking records from eras passed and melding them with one another and with contemporary material, the way that we understand what we hear through recognition and lack thereof is emphasized. Much of the importance in DJ manipulations lies in our ability to recognize the material being manipulated so that we can understand the manipulations and become aware of the new context in which the old material is being placed.
An emerging trend in history these days is to view all of history as being plastic, and theorists like Walter Benjamin have espoused that approach in projects like his Arcades for many decades now (4). Benjamin puts forth the idea that history is a collection of quotations that are open to constant reinterpretation through recombination and juxtaposition. Memory can be seen in much the same way; history is, in essence, just the memory of the past. Frederic Jameson’s description of the Schizophrenic mind-state in which notions of context are lost and past and present mingle together as though co-existing in time is evocative of a plastic conception of history itself (5). It seems no accident that one of the premiere record labels in electronic music today is named after Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux where this Schizophrenic state of non-linear memory and the resultant folding of time is expressed in terms of the Rhizome, a shape which allows all points along its line to be connected with any other point at any given time (6). The state of dreaming can be understood in terms of the Rhizome as well where the mind breaks down its ordinary functioning and takes us on a rich journey through the endless possibilities of interplay between all the pockets of memory stored therein. This organic understanding of how the past and present are constantly feeding off each other to create our experience is at the heart of much of the electronic sampling work currently taking place, be it sound-based, image-based, or a combination of the two.
Amy Taubin suggests that Lynch’s latest film is his most explicit example yet of the surrealist theory of film as dream (7). For those of you who don’t know, Mulholland Drive begins with a fairly linear narrative describing the arrival in Hollywood of a perky young Ontarian actress. While staying at her aunt’s apartment, she encounters a mysterious dark haired woman who has suffered some amnesia resultant from a car accident. The two go on a journey to discover the mystery woman’s identity, and in the process they end up having a sexual encounter, then falling asleep, then waking up in some netherworld region of consciousness played out in the space of an otherworldly gothic theatre (the “théatro silencio”). Finally the whole thing is turned upside down and the aspiring actress turns out to be a jaded washout in the midst of a heart-breaking love triangle. Describing the film’s first part as the blissful dreamings of the young actress, Taubin suggests that the last hour of the film serves to comment upon what came before as though it were the harsh wake-up call of Hollywood dreams gone all to shit. While that is indeed a legitimate reading, I believe that there is more to the mysterious theatre of silence than simply a little otherworldly segue device between the film’s two distinct dreaming and waking sections. It sets up a whole philosophy for understanding this work that extends beyond the dream into a more holistic understanding of the way we interact with dreams in waking life through the processes of memory, and the way we express our experiences of memory through electronic technology. As such, I believe the theatre of silence also provides a framework in which to understand the entire FCMM.
When the two female protagonists of Lynch’s film follow Mulholland Drive to the theatre of silence, it is just after the two have become one, so to speak. Never minding the silliness of Lynch’s grand foray into the realm of lesbian love, the notion of oneness between separate entities is, and always has been, crucial to his work. In the shot following their little encounter we see a close up of their two faces in such a way that they appear to be one, obviously drawing on Bergman’s Persona as Rick Trembles so astutely notes in the Nov. 15th edition of his “Motion Picture Purgatory” cartoon. This wouldn’t be the first time Lynch has drawn on Bergman; Lost Highway is a particularly rich homage to Persona, though also very much Lynch’s own. He has a gift for giving his own voice to that which has inspired him, which is also a trait of the best sample artists and DJs who work with the material of others. Fittingly, the women’s union is then placed in the context of sound reproduction technology as it relates to performance. Lynch’s ongoing explorations of the connections and lack of connections between people have always occurred in conjunction with the presence of communications technologies in domestic space, and here he goes further with it than he ever has before.
After having had their relationship be almost entirely confined to the domestic space of the apartment, the two women take their seats in the mysterious theatre of silence where they are treated to a demonstration of the basics of the illusionism that recording technology can perpetrate. A master of ceremonies appears from behind the curtain and exclaims “No aye banda! There is no band! Il n’y a pas d’orchestre!” Considerate of him to make sure that the three official languages of North America are covered so that most of the audience can understand that while they might hear the sound of a trumpet, no trumpeter is in sight. And when a trumpeter appears in conjunction with our hearing of the trumpet, he stops in mid-riff and holds his trumpet high in the air while the sound still soars. “It is all a recording. It is all on tape.” It is this transitional scene that then gives way to the film’s turning inside out. The narrative of the first part of the film is broken up by little vignettes that present all manner of characters whose importance have not yet been established. Each of these scenes are then recontextualized one by one as Lynch wrestles each and every character and event from the place they have been logged within our minds and shuffles them around to show us the whole story anew. We recognize everyone but also recognize their new position as a result of the recontextualization.
The theatre of silence also calls into question our understanding of performance as it relates to the recording arts. Having already used a brief demonstration of the trumpeter who wasn’t there, a woman then takes to the stage and starts singing a powerfully rendered tune. Just at the point when we are most captivated by her physical presence and have most linked it to the sound of her voice, she drops dead while the voice carries on. The power of sound is well demonstrated here; I believe that had the sound cut off and her image carried on singing, we would have experienced much more of a sense of interruption. The silence of the theatre’s name might well be understood as that mysterious process whereby sound that we understand as having a particular source can be perceived by us in the absence of that source: the magic of recording technology. The evocation of presence and absence here can be understood in terms of the connection between people when they are physically intimate but not necessarily psychically linked. The fact that the two women’s domestic lovemaking gives way to this illustration of illusionism, and then in turn to the story of betrayal and heartbreak between the same women, suggests a link between the relationship we share with reproduction technology and that which we share with other people.
The silence of the theatre’s title also speaks of the impossibility of true silence, even for the deaf, since we are always perceiving sounds. Even in the absence of sound waves hitting our eardrums our brains are processing information that is understood as sonic material. As filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and theorists such as Michel Chion have suggested, information we usually associate with other senses is not necessarily broken down as such by the mind; rather, all sensory information is, in some sense, processed together thereby blurring the lines between our categorical understanding of the individual senses. This holistic understanding of perceptual experience is something I believe Lynch is very interested in, and he explores this interest here again through his depiction of the lack of holistic connection between the two women in conjunction with their experience in the theatre of silence.
Finally, the theatre of silence calls attention to the importance of space as it relates to the experience of sound. In the age of recording, the role of the concert hall or other performance spaces may not seem as important, while at the same time recording engineers work intensely to create particular sonic environments for their recordings. In the case of recording for film sound, the main objective is frequently the conveyance of a sense of space to accompany the appropriate images. Throughout Lynch’s films the presence of telephones, televisions, tape recorders and turntables have been clearly related to the spaces his characters often find themselves in. This notion of psychological space as it relates to sound reproduction technology also suggests the importance of physical space as it relates to sound reproduction, and Lynch continually equates this concept of physical exterior space with that of interior mental space.
All of these issues so wonderfully evoked in Mulholland Drive are present in the basic spirit of FCMM and are in evidence in a wide range of the works presented therein. Many of this year’s films and new media events push the edge of exploring the ways we understand our senses and the relationships that exist between humans and technology, sound and image, sound and space, recording and performance, electric and acoustic presentation, masterwork and fluid interpretation, and ultimately the relationships between one human to another that are most often the goal of any artistic practice.
At least two films directly address blindness and the role of our other senses in understanding what we call sight. Robert Kramer’s Cities on the Plane tells the story of a blind man and the life he lived that led to the loss of his sight. Looking almost like a documentary near the beginning, Kramer’s camera follows the blind man around an outdoor market while he shops, inserting long sections of black screen while keeping the sound on as though slipping us periodically into the man’s darkness as he makes his way around the crowded sidewalk. Through flashbacks we learn that the man has been utterly self-absorbed for his whole life, and that the violent incident that blinded him was a direct result of his selfish behaviour. So we are meant to believe that the man later pays for his wicked ways by losing one of his most important faculties. In so doing, he learns to depend on the relationships between his remaining senses to make up for the dependence he placed on one of them alone. A nice analogy for the dependence we all put on our sight. I believe we could all benefit from learning to share our sensory experience more between the totality of our beings, and that the world could indeed be opened up anew like a man who learns to reach out of his shell towards others after a life of gazing only inwards.
In Simon Pummel’s short film Blinded by Light, a man is faced with learning how to see again after having been blinded through cataracts. He describes how looking through his cataracts was not the sheer blackness we all imagine blindness to be, but rather varying intensities of light; he could still very much discern night and day. He then poses the question, if he learned what the shapes cube and cone were through touching objects shaped thusly, could he then know which is which simply by looking at them for the first time? By asking this the man directly questions the relationship that exists between the senses, and by extension, the relationship between sound and image that we take for granted when we experience cinema. Indeed, if we learn what something looks like, can we then tell what it is simply by hearing it, or vice-versa? Michel Chion suggests that one way we can rebuild the relationship between our hearing and sight on more mutual grounds is by first breaking down the established hegemonic relations that already exist. He suggests reductive listening – listening to a film soundtrack on its own to experience the sound for its own sake without forcing concrete associations with them through the act of seeing (8). With our imaginations free to roam, sound becomes something very different than what we’re used to hearing when we watch a film. Chion suggests that film has been centered on sight so severely that sound has always served that master of all senses. If we can strip away sound’s dependence on sight for its functioning, we can then begin a new and more equal relationship between the two, opening up a whole new world of cinematic possibilities in the process.
Stan Brakhage has made similar attempts to demonstrate the relationship of sight to sound through the making of silent films designed to call attention to the musical quality of the images themselves. If sound were to accompany them, he suggested during his visit to the Cinémathèque Québequoise last year, the music inherent within the images would be lost because the sound would provide our dominant understanding of the musical nature of the films. It is the dependence on one or the other of our two senses for our understandings of particular experiences such as music that takes away from the possibility of understanding what Chion terms “transsensorial perception” (9). By understanding the ways in which sight can be understood as sound and vice-versa, we can better come to understand why it is that cinema is such an intensely powerful medium, and by extension come to understand how we experience things as human beings on a more holistic level.
One of the most important things that an attention to sound can teach us is the nature of the space in which we live. In turn, an attention to space can teach us the nature of the environment in which sound lives. There have been an increasing number of experiments and full-fledged works designed to explore the complex interactions that occur between sound and space. Composers such as Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros have worked with the notions of designing pieces for performance within specific spaces, such as a cave wherein the echoes would form a part of the structure of the piece. Oliveros has coined the term “deep listening,” inspired by the act of perceiving sound in such an environment where the past, present and future merge to form a tight bond through the interactions performer, sound, and environment. “It puts you in the deep listening space,” she says. “You’re hearing the past, of sound that you made; you’re continuing it, possibly, so you’re right in the present, and you’re anticipating the future, which is coming at you from the past…So it puts you into the simultaneity of time” (10). Discussing the works of Alvin Lucier such as Composition for Pulses Reflected by Room Echoes, Stuart Marshall notes that “Western music has traditionally demanded the repression of space” (11). He illustrates the fact that such music “focuses attention literally on the position of the subject…Everything is in motion and no one can perceive the work as totality. This is a new notion of musical temporality which is intrinsically linked to musical space” (12). We’re all familiar with concert halls that are designed to make the sound as uniform as possible so that all audience members may share as similar experience as possible. It is an impossible task, however, and artists such as Lucier and Oliveros seek to take advantage of that impossibility by creating works that call attention to one’s position in space as it relates to the perception of the work.
Sensorband’s performance net_osc remix sought to explore some of the issues surrounding space as it relates to the performance of sound. The first principle they worked with was that the three members of the group were to be in three separate locations and would perform together via internet linkage. However, upon arriving at the show we discover that they decided it was not that important after all, and so two of the members were on stage together (the third remaining in England). The second thing we discover upon arriving is that the seats have been roped off. Many of us climb over the ropes so we can get a good seat to the show, only to be told that the point of tonight’s performance is to wander around the room so that the myriad varieties of sonic experience that exist in different parts of the room might be appreciated by all. Unfortunately, much as I enjoyed the concept, their attempt to exploit the sonic possibilities of the room were buried under a horrid onslaught of ridiculously sustained and damagingly loud tones. I wandered around the room, earplugs securely in place, with not much interesting happening from any one part of the room to the next. The best part was when I found myself standing directly in front of one of the large bass blowers on the floor that seemed to be emitting a sound even worse than what was intended by the artists. It was clear that the poor little guy was about to die as it belched forth loud mid-range paper-cone shredded gurglings. And then, right before my very eyes, the woofer emitted a series of sparks and a small flame, a burning smell filled the air, and it was fully blown. The sound it put forth then was a sustained ripping fart so intolerable that the sound guy ran over immediately to unplug it. This little ordeal poses another of the big questions that emerges in situations like this: “How can one horrible sound be considered art while another be interfering with the art?” This is of course answered by the age-old standby of artist intention. The notion that it is what the artists decides to put forth that should be considered art, and nothing else. Of course, so much contemporary music and visual art seeks to dispel that notion, bringing the act of perception into the process of creating art. Whether it’s John Cage’s 4’33” that seeks to call attention to the so-called silence of an audience awaiting the beginning of a performance that can be, in fact, a rich soundscape, or Brian Eno’s ambient works that are intended to be heard at the same volume as all the other environmental noise evident in the listening area, the idea has been in place for some time that perhaps the artist does not have the final say as to what the final art object will be.
In the world of film, the idea of a finished product seems absolutely necessary for the medium to work. Several of this year’s media performances have brought film into the realm of live performance through ideas like the live re-mixing of an established work. In a performance entitled Le film est déja commencé?, Rechenzentrum remix in real time the Maurice Lemaitre film of the same name. Using samples of the film loaded into software that allows their live manipulation, the duo draw on the suggestive nature of the film’s title to explore the possibility that in the digital age it is difficult to know where one work of art ends and the next begins. This concept of living art always evolving and not limited to the vision of any one particular person was also explored by Eboman in his piece The Driver Must be a Madman. Using samples from over 100 films, Eboman lays out an extended chase narrative that puts one of Hollywood’s favourite gimmicks into a new context. Extension through recombination is one of the foremost strategies of the contemporary DJ and sample artist, and here Eboman takes the chase that we always wish to cut to and turns it into an elaborate exploration of the art of cutting itself, and leaving us wishing for some of that romantic subplot or pastoral interlude that no doubt make up the thick virtual layering of Eboman’s cutting room floor (aka the Recycle Bin). Steina Vasulka also presented some of her real-time editing skills in her presentation of Re_Works using Imagineline software. And, of course, Montreal-based musical ensemble Wetfish performed their new score for a mildly remixed version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The Wetfish show dealt explicitly with many of the major issues that I’ve been discussing here. To begin with, just prior to the performance they had a quote from the film up on the screens for our contemplation: “Between the mind that plans and the hand that builds there must be a mediator.” The film indeed deals with the relationships between humankind and technology, and by extension the relationship between what goes on in the human mind and the machines that make these conceptualizations manifest in the real world. These relationships call into question the very processes of filmmaking as the work of a large group of people manipulating technologies based on the vision contained within one or more minds. Recent anti-auterist lines of thought have questioned the validity of thinking of film in terms of singular vision, and the art of re-mixing film is a way of exploring how even films as auteur oriented as Metropolis can find new life through technological manipulation in the hands of others.
The version of Metropolis Wetfish presented was re-edited and adapted for a three screen array by the group themselves. The array consisted of the film itself on a central screen, with the two flanking screens presenting loops taken from the film (and sometimes elsewhere) designed to enhance the events portrayed on the main screen at any given moment. For example, as we enter the factory for the first time we see the twirling gears and the like in close-up before carrying on with the progression of the sequence. These close-ups of the machinery at work were then repeated over an over on the flanking screens while the central screen carries on through the factory, thereby enhancing the sense of the intense mechanization of the factory. Similarly, after the establishing shots of the lush pleasure garden, these shots were repeated on the flanking screens while the scene progressed in the centre, thereby enhancing the sense of space inside the garden by literally surrounding the main characters with that space even when they are in close-up on the main screen.
Other strategies Wetfish employed included the use of the flanking screens as extensions of the mental space of characters, as seen when they were used to present a flashback of the machine explosion as the factory owner’s son recalled the events to his father. The group also incorporated materials from outside of the film to comment on the action within. Two notable examples of this were the presentation of the great architectural constructions of the world, including the world trade center, during segments of the film that featured the great outdoor shots of the mighty metropolis, and the appearance of the world’s great religious icons while the film takes us to the secret ceremonial space deep beneath the city. The use of loops to expand time or create thematic juxtapositions is one of the founding principles of music created through the use of sound reproduction technologies. Whether it’s John Cage, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley playing with tape-loops in the 60s or contemporary DJs extending their favourite parts of particular songs using turntable scratching techniques, technologies of reproduction have created new possibilities for consumers to engage actively with the music they listen to through the act of reclaiming consumer electronics for the purposes of self-expression. One of the main ways technology has provided these possibilities is through looping, allowing the isolation, extension, and juxtaposition of bits and pieces of works to explore new worlds opened up by these processes. In the end, this reclaiming of technology is not unlike what the workers wished for themselves in Lang’s film; Metropolis is indeed ripe for reinterpretation in the age of modern electronics.
The real gem of the show, however, was Wetfish’s music that also brought to light many of the topics at issue here. Five performers took to the stage behind a piano, a percussion array, a cello, a didgeridoo, and a microphone. The vocalist is a throat singer who can make sounds with his voice generally thought to exist only in the windpipes of exotic creatures or electronic manipulations. This use of the voice, echoed in the playing of the Didgeridoo which uses the very simple technology of a hollow tube to enhance a vocal performance, sets the stage for Wetfish’s obvious interest in an understanding of the human body as musical technology, an interest that can be seen in the film itself with its frequent allusions to the robot nature of the factory workers and the artificial human that is created to try to reinforce their position as mere machines.
The score also featured very electronic music, though, and it was clear that much of what was being heard was pre-recorded. This makes perfect sense to me because it was the electronically produced and sampled components that were pre-recorded while the acoustic material was performed live. This fact illustrates a very clear conceptual approach on the part of the group that comments on the never-ending debate over the difference between recording and live performance and electronic vs. acoustic instrumentation. Having seen powerbook after powerbook in an endless array of new electronic musicians whose performances consist of pointing and clicking for an hour, their faces eerily aglow from the light of their LCD screens, it was refreshing to see a group who isn’t afraid to leave that which is best left to the art of recording to that art, while complementing their recorded work with live performance on acoustic instruments.
This is not to say that I don’t believe in the art of real-time computer manipulation as performance. I just wonder sometimes about where the line should be drawn between what would best be presented as a recording and what would work best as a performance. For instance, at electro-acoustic presentations such as Montreal’s “Rien à Voir” festival, artists present their works as recordings while performing real-time volume manipulations across a multi-speaker array to enhance the flow of their pieces through the space of the hall. They make no pretensions that their work is being performed live, and somehow it is still acceptable to the audience. I love the art of recording and have had most of my most moving experiences in the company of a hard copy, be it film or music. I feel there is much room to present these arts in public spaces. Just as we go to watch a film understanding that it is a pre-recorded work, so too might we be able to enjoy recorded sound for its own sake presented in great facilities unlike what most of us could experience at home.
In conversation with one of the group members after the show, it was mentioned that what was sampled and assembled on the recording was material prepared by them directly, not culled from elsewhere. This also demonstrates a philosophy on their part. While recontextualizing the work of others can be very interesting, as they touch upon with their appropriation of Lang’s film and the use of external visual samples to complement it, they chose to keep the music entirely original, sampling and manipulating their own performances, then recontextualizing them further by playing along with their recorded selves in the live setting. This is an approach that can extend the notions of what sampling entails. Usually associated with appropriation, the idea of sampling and recontextualizing one’s self serves to further the questioning of the role of the artist in a work, the place of originality, and the notion of fidelity to performance rather than technological construction. Performance in the age of reproduction technology is explored in Wetfish’s show through their combination of live and pre-recorded performances of themselves, the manipulation of earlier performances through technological means, and the choice to present these manipulations as pre-recorded elements instead of incorporating them into the live performance through the use of samplers or laptops. There is almost a kind of purism at work here, where the pushing of buttons is deemed best left for the studio instead of the stage, while not devaluing the actual music produced through the pushing of such buttons by including this music in the overall work.
The concept of remixing is very evident in Jonas Mekas’ latest film As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. Over the course of this five hour journey through Mekas’ personal 70s home movie collection, his narration makes a great many statements about the nature of his filmmaking as it relates to his life in general, and in so-doing places himself firmly within many of philosophical spaces that have been at work in much of the rest of the festival. Early on in the film Mekas explains that he began compiling the footage with an intention towards linearity, but soon gave up on that and began just splicing stuff together in the order in which he pulled it off the shelf. With this process in mind, he draws connections between the way our memories work and the processes of filmmaking, sampling, and remixing. In this film Mekas is essentially remixing his own life, commenting on the relationship between the existent documents and his memory of them as processed by time.
At one point he mentions that, as he filmed his children, he was living the experience through his own memories of childhood, and was therefore filming his own memories. He then directs the following question to his wife and children: “How much of yourselves do you recognize in these images?” With this question Mekas suggests that the act of remembering can have very little to do with what we see on screen of ourselves, and that perhaps it is much more Mekas’ own experience that is being filmed instead of the experience of those in front of the camera. Later Mekas states that “I am in every frame of this film; you just have to know how to read the images.” I am reminded here of Stan Brakhage’s thoughts on amateur filmmaking, where the love of mother for the child she films can be seen in the unsteadiness of the camera, gently quivering with the very physical nature of the mother’s concentration not on the camera but on its subject. Here Mekas and Brakhage both espouse the idea that the act of filming infuses that film with the experience of the filmer, and that if we are aware of the filmer’s presence when watching their images that fact will become very clear. In one of the most hilarious turns I’ve experienced in some time, Mekas appended his comment by saying: “But how do we read the images? Didn’t all those French guys tell you?” An uproarious round of laughter burst forth throughout the theatre, and had me giggling long after. It is indeed important that we understand how we read images; where best to gain that understanding is open to debate.
By combining the hard fact of his footage with the processes of chance in their arrangement, Mekas invites an understanding of his work as being a part of that everyday life experience that is memory. I think here of Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, both of which explore the relationships between filmmaking and memory as lived experience. Fred Madison’s now classic statement in Lost Highway that he doesn’t like video cameras because he likes to remember things his own way, “not necessarily the way they happened,” is one of the most basic expressions of the strange relationship memory shares with its externalization through film. Memory is also very open to being likened with the processes of remixing, whereby bits and pieces of the past get recombined in new contexts through the act of simply living, our minds always evolving. Mekas celebrates the ravages of time, recontextualizing his own life not only through the non-linear presentation of his past, but also through his narration of the present experience of revisiting that which exists in his mind through that which exists on film.
The perfect summation of the combination of elements with which Mekas is working here comes in a shot of his wife and child sitting by a window with sun coming through. The refraction of the sunlight in the lens creates a circular flare that encapsulates the two as though in a bubble. The perfect completeness of this image created through the deliberate desire to capture his family on film and complemented by the likely unexpected lens flare brings chance and pre-visualization together to create an image that symbolically presents the family as unified through the act of filming.
As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty is a celebration of life, “a film about people who never have any fights or arguments and who love each other.” Mekas’ very personal narration, uttered over the course of his making of the film into his little microphone as he sorted through his footage, provides an intimate look into the process of his art and his own interaction with the film that lay before him. I will share with you a moment in the film that reached out through time to touch my heart with the hand of my own being within the world. A section of the film announced itself with the title card “Montauk, May 26th 1973.” That happens to be the exact date of my birth. Mekas’ own experience of juxtaposing document with memory came through loud and clear for me as I was confronted with a scene from the very day in which I came to know life in the external world for the first time. Of course I don’t have any conscious memory of that moment, nor do I recognize Montauk, having never been there. But the segment glowed with a magical aura none-the-less as it provided a window into the world that saw me come into being. The existential feeling of being disembodied and transported through time to my own birth was very strong, and reinforces for me the fact that there is something very powerful about the way film can reach me as a function of its indexical relationship with the world outside itself. Even films that are not overtly documentary in nature do share a one to one relationship with whatever passes through the lens of the camera, or even whatever might be applied directly to the filmstock itself as in the case of many experimental works. Indexicality can be argued in the age of digital effects and animation, but we’ll save that for a later date. Suffice it say that a look into a slice of the day into which I was born filled me with an amazing sense of connection with the images I was seeing on-screen, and really brought home for me the sense of self-exploration that Mekas himself expresses in the film.
As I was Moving Ahead…
A quote from somewhere in the middle of the film might sum it up the best: “The beauty of the moment overtook him and he did not remember anything that preceded that moment.” This makes me think of Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 film Afterlife, where the recently dead travel to a film studio where they are asked which memory they would like to carry with them alone for the rest of their lives. Having chosen their memories, the studio then produces films of those moments, and upon screening the films the deceased move on into an eternal state of living out those moments, remembering nothing of the rest of their lives. This beautiful film expresses the deep spiritual connection that humans can have with the cinema, and the relationship between human memory and the processes of filmmaking and film receiving.
My experience of the Montauk segment in Mekas’ film is very much like that moment which would last an eternity and which would eclipse all other moments accumulated to that point. A little gem in the midst of a long personal journey, the Montauk segment also happens to be the longest depiction of a single event in the entirety of the piece, and so stands out like an eternity even more so. If I were to choose my moment from Mekas’ life to carry with me on into the hereafter, it would be that moment in his film that depicted the world into which I crossed over from the herebefore into the here and now.
Mekas’ film also puts forth the importance of music for him in the experience of daily life. Most of the images we see in the film are combined with either piano or accordion playing. The accordion I’m quite sure is being performed by Mekas himself, and the piano is clearly an amateur venture as well. At the end of the film we are treated to Mekas singing over his accordion the title of the film along with other assorted lyrical gems such as “I don’t know what I am; I don’t know who I am; I don’t know where I am; I don’t know what I am doing; I don’t know anything…” The idea of amateur art is clearly one of the founding concepts behind Mekas’ work. Presenting home movies with home music in the context of examining the processes of filmmaking and memory through remixing suggest the importance of understanding all art as a function of our daily experience.
1 – Théberge, Paul. Any Sound you can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997:83
2 – Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999:33
3 – Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
4 – Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
5 – Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism or: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham:Duke UP, 1991.
6 – Deleuze, Gilles + Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987:7.
7 – Taubin, Amy. “In Dreams.” Film Comment. Sept/Oct 2001:51.
8 – Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Claudia Gorbman, trans. New York: Columbia UP, 1994:29.
9 – ibid: 137
10 – Toop, David. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound, and Imaginary Worlds. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1995:248-249.
11 – ibid: 247
12 – ibid: 247-248(FCMM 2001: Sounding Off, Part 2)