Forthcoming Events


"Film History as Media Archaeology" (Keynote, Message to Man International Festival, St Petersburg, 29 Sept. - 1 Oct., 2015)

"Fassbinder's Bodies" (Wie Körper erzählen können, Goethe Institut, Amsterdam 21 October, 2015)

"The Ethics of Appropriation" (Keynote, Museums of Film - Films in the Museum, Zagreb, 5-6 November, 2015)

"Double Occupancy and Self-Exoticism: Transnational Cinema" (Film Seminar, Liverpool University, 16 November, 2015)

Recent Lectures & Keynotes

2015

"Die Ruinen der Zeit: W.G. Sebalds Ringe des Saturns" (Keynote, Architectures in Motion, DokuArts 2015, Berlin 10 September, 2015)

"The Actor Troubled By His Own Face: Paul Wegener" (Stardom and Genre as Frameworks in Film, University of Bremen, 15-17 July, 2015)

"European Cinema: Abject Spaces" (Keynote, Space & Place in European Cinema, 15th Annual Conference, European Cinema Research Forum, NUI Glaway, Ireland 7-8 July 2015)

"Contingency and Coincidence as the Ruins of Time: W.G. Sebald and the Gothic Uncanny" (Keynote,The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Studies Past & Present, University of East Anglia, 26-27 June 2015

"The Camera as Sketchpad: Sigmar Polke's Films" (Alibis: Sigmar Polke Retrospective, Museum Ludwig, Cologne 12-14 June 2015)

"Simulation and the Labour of Invisibility: Harun Farocki's Parallel I-IV" (Life Remade: The Politics and Aesthetics of Animation, Simulation and Rendering, Birkbeck College, London, 5-6 June 2015)

"Greek Cinema and Nationhood: National, Post-National, Transnational" (Keynote, 1st International Conference on Greek Cinema, Thessaloniki, 28 May 2015)

"The Outside of the Outside: The Life of Pi in the Philosopher's Eye", Film and Media Studies, University of Groningen, 12 May 2015

"The Essay Film between Festival Favourite and Flexible Commodity Form" (Keynote, World Cinema and the Essay Film, CFAC, Reading University, 1 May 2015)

"Turn-off or Turnkey: the Arts on TV, or "Making the Good Popular and the Popular Good" (A Switched-on TV: The Arts in Black-and White, Montreal 25-28 March, 2015)

"Harun Farocki - Arbeit und Spiel" (Keynote, Eine Einstellung zur Arbeit: Harun Farocki, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 28 Febrary 2015)

 

2014

«Cinema Motion»: Energie/Entropie. Kino und Medienarchaeologie im Paradigmawechsel (NCCR Mediality, Universität Zürich, 9 December 2014)

Ethics of Appropriation (Master of Film Lecture, Nederlands Filmacademie, Amsterdam 26 November 2014)

The Body and the Senses: Harun Farocki Work and Play (Keynote: Labor in a Single Shot Conference, Boston University, 12 November 2014)

Keeping The Rules By Breaking Them (Breaking the Rules: Gender, Power, and Politics in the Films of Lars Von Trier, Pembroke Center, Brown University 7 November 2014)

Film After Film (Keynote, DCAM, Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisbon 28 October 2014)

Notes from Underground: On Marx and Belatedness in Alexander Kluge (Bernays Lecture, King's College London, 21 October 2014)

Transnational Cinema and the Digital Turn (Distinguished Visitor Lecture, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 16 October 2014)

Affect and Appropriation: Film Theory in the Digital Age (Film Culture and Theory, Monash University, Melbourne, 13 October 2014)

Cinema After Film (Daphne Mayo Lecture, University of Queensland, Brisbane 8 October 2014)

Digital Cinema - A Productive Paradox? (Centre for Humanities Studies, Lingnan University, 30 September 2014)

Zero Degrees and Tipping Points: Digital Retroaction (Keynote: Im Taumel - Digitale Schwelle, Akademie der Künste, Berlin 26 September 2014)

Ethics of Appropriation (Keynote: Recycled Cinema - Doku Arts, Berlin Zeughaus Kino, 11 September 2014)

Cinema: Motion Energy Entropy (Keynote: Archaeologies of Media and Film, Bradford 4 September 2014)

Between Autonomy and Social Fact: Adorno and Cinema (Critical Theory, Film and Media: Where is Frankfurt Now, Frankfurt 25 August 2014)

Cinema as Experience and Event (Keynote: Erfahrungsraum Kino, Hamburg 25 July 2014)

Der Poelzig Bau und die Grossbauten der Ära Landmann (Keynote: site|specific Has Poelzig film|architecture, Frankfurt 4 July 2014)

Loops of Belatedness (Cinematic Traces, Tel Aviv 8 June 2014)

Persistence of Hollywood: Further Thoughts (The Hollywood Turn, Paris-7 Denis Diderot, 5 June 2014)

Architekturen und Kulturen der Nachhaltigkeit: Leberecht Migge (Die Athropozän Küche, Humboldt Universität, 27 May 2014)

Zwischen Metapher und Material - die Handlungsmacht der Dinge (AUS-Stellen: Figuren der De-Aktivierung, Universität der Künste, Berlin 24 May 2014)

Transnational Cinema between Post-Nationalism and Double Occupancy (Transnational Cinema/Media Studies, NYu Abu Dhabi, 9 May 2014)

Media Archaeology and the Poetics of Obsolescence (Keynote: At The Borders of History, Udine 4 April 2014)

The Future of Obsolescence (Keynote: Orphans of the Cinema, Amsterdam 30 March 2014)

The Film That Thinks (The Future of Film Studies Panel, SCMS Seattle, 22 March 2014)

Genre Hybridity as Counter-Strategy: Productive Psthologies in Zero Dark Thirty (Narrative Justification in War Films Workshop Frankfurt 14 March 2014)

Affinity as Specificity: Siegfried Kracauer and Rudolf Arnheim (Tracing Specificity, Yale University, 8 February 2014)

Productive Pathologies: Melodrama and Mindgames (Jadavpur University, Kolkata 13 January 2014)

Cinema After Film (Golden Jubilee Lecture, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi 8 January 2014)

 

2013

Accidents We Afterwards Call Fate (Kluge Conference, Liege 11 Dec 2013)

Leben als Bewegung: Kino, Energie, Entropie (Black Box Leben, Weimar 12 Dec 2013)

Life of Pi and the Mathematical Sublime (Cinema Virtualita Corpo, Roma Tre 28 Nov 2013)

The Outside of the Outside (Classic Hollywood & kontinentale Philosophie, Mainz 15 Nov 2013)

Anders Wissen - Anderes Wissen? (UdK Berlin 21 Oct 2013)

Memory: Culture Media and Cognition (SUNY Stony Brook Manhattan 10 Oct 2013)

Islands of Memory (Nederlands Filmacademie, Amsterdam 17 Sept 2013)

Harun Farocki: The Future of Work (Reina Sofia, Madrid 17 May 2013)

Inseln der Bild-Evidenz (Inst. f. Kunstgeschichte, FU Berlin 15 May 2013)

What was Cinema? (Oberhausen Short Film Festival 5 May 2013)

What's European about European Cinema (U Mass, Amherst 26 April 2013)

Post-conflict Cinema and Cities (Cities of Memory, Belfast 4 April 2013)

The Return of 3D: Revolution, Retrenchment or Reaction? (Chicago Art Institute 7 March 2013)

Krieg und Mediengedächtnis (Krieg und Konflikt in den Medien, Tübingen 14 Feb 2013)

European Cinema and Post-Heroic Narratives of Nationhood (University of Notre Dame, South Bend 8 Feb 2013)

Persistencies of Hollywood (Chicago Film Seminar, Chicago 7 Feb 2013)

The Return of 3D (Norwegian Federation of Film Societies, Cinematheque Oslo)

Recently Published

Additional Online Resources

Thomas Elsaesser's Vimeo Page (with video essays) and Wordpress blog (articles and essays)

A Companion Page to Film Theory - An Introduction (2nd edition, 2015)

A career interview, part of the SCMS Field Notes project, here (transcript) and here (audio)

Turnkey or Turnoff: Rebranding the Arts in A Popular Medium (video lecture), Grafics, Montreal, 2015

Manuals for Life: Harun Farocki on Work and Play (video lecture), Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2015

Harun Farocki: Alex Alberro interviews Thomas Elsaesser (video), New York Artists Space, 2014

Cinema After Film (video lecture), Centre For the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, 2014

Film and Philosophy After Deleuze (video lecture), IKKM Weimar, 2012

The Cinema in the 21st century: Art form or Life form? (video), Kracauer Lecture, Frankfurt, 2012

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (video discussion), IKKM Weimar, 2012

Walter Benjamin, Global Cities and Living with Asymmetries (video lecture) Athens, Greece, 2011

 

Recently Published

Christian Petzold's Barbara - A Thought Experiment on a Vanished Country

Harun Farocki 1944-2014

Farocki: A Frame No Longer Visible

Lovers in Time (a new film by Agnieszka Piotrowska)

Siegfried Kracauer's Affinities

Philip K. Dick, the Mind-Game Film and Retroactive Causality (brief summary here)

Touch and Gesture - On the Borders of Intimacy (brief summary here)

Digital Cinema - Convergence or Contradiction (full text here)

Migration and Motif - The Parapractic Memory of an Image (brief summary here)

The "Return" of 3-D and Response to Miriam Ross (full text here)

European Cinema, Post-heroic Narrative: Claire Denis (full text here)

ImpersoNations

Avatar: Access for All

The Mind-Game Film (full text here and here)

Bergman's Persona (Criterion Collection)

Neuer Berliner Kunstverein

#Videotapes

In the series #Videotapes international filmmakers, artists, curators and theorists are invited to present works from the collection of Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and to comment on them. The project will be started off by Birgit Hein (filmmaker and author, Berlin, Vice-President of the Visual Arts section at the Berlin Academy of Arts), Thomas Elsaesser (film scholar and author, Amsterdam / New York, Professor of Film and Television, University of Amsterdam), Harun Farocki (filmmaker and author, Berlin, Professor emeritus of Film and Television, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna) and Catherine David (art historian and curator, Paris, Chief Curator Musées de France, Paris, Artistic Director of Documenta 10, Kassel). With this series, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein continues its online activities in the field of art education and offers new perspectives on the medium in the digital age. The Series #Videotapes is curated by Sophie Goltz.

http://nbk.org/en/

http://nbk.org/en/video-forum/video-of-the-month/aktuell.html

 


 

December 2013

Thomas Elsaesser presents Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea (2007)

Lovely Andrea

Lovely Andrea

Lovely Andrea was the first work by Hito Steyerl I ever encountered. I saw it on the second floor in the atrium of the Fridericianum on July 31st 2007, during the documenta 12, curated by Roger Buergel and Ruth Novack. Despite the slightly awkward placing of the video – trapped in what is basically a stairwell – I was immediately hooked: a fitting metaphor, since it caught my eye during one of Asagi Ageha's entrancing turns on the rope – suspended, falling, rising, floating. At first I did not quite know why the video held me spellbound, except that its cheerful insouciance did lightened up the rather serious and somewhat solemn atmosphere that seemed to hang over the documenta.

Lovely Andrea is an extraordinary inventive piece, full of sharp wit. It seduces with many unexpected but fitting juxtapositions: between "Spiderman" and "web-design", rope tricks and sweatshop garment factories, punk rock from X-Ray Spex and techno-pop from Depeche Mode, modulating into more somber associations with Guantanamo Bay's handcuffed prisoners, Abu Ghraib's notorious "hooded man with electric wires", and Japanese soldiers during WWII, tying up their Chinese prisoners before shooting or beheading them.

But there is also dry and deadpan humor, often of the self-deprecating kind, such as the 'tongue-in-cheek' name for this very personal quest: "à la recherche du cul perdu", or the fluffed takes and retakes that bookend the video. Not coincidentally these are (almost) the only scenes where the filmmaker herself is in the picture, deftly avoiding to give a straight answer to her German producer's question of what the film is finally about.

These meta-cinematic moments alert one to the fact that here is a documentary filmmaker very much aware of the increasingly difficult status of the documentary as genre and practice, especially in the digital age, especially when poised between cinema and television on one side, and art space, museum or gallery on the other.

In the art space of documenta 12 the video ran as a loop, so it really did not have a beginning, middle and end: another slightly counterproductive effect of showing it as "open plan" rather than in its separate "black box" (which Buergel and Noack explicitly banned from their show). And although commissioned by and for the documenta, Lovely Andrea is very carefully constructed in a filmic-linear fashion, despite the meta-filmic brackets. After all, it is a conceived as a quest, a search and a piece of research, which is why many commentators compared it to a "detective story", and even mentioned Citizen Kane. Its cinematic ancestors would also be ethnographic films, so that the missing photo of the young Hito as a bondage girl (as opposed to a Bond girl) becomes something of a pretext: to explore the seedy and frankly quite repugnant "nawa-shibari" (captured and suspended) soft-porn industry that services Japanese men's obsession with pubescent girls, some trussed like turkeys, others bound, gagged and wrapped like bundles of used rags ready for scrap or recycling.

As an exercise in erotic ethnography it has its didactic touches. We learn that Japanese bondage developed from the martial arts, when rope was used to capture, torture and transport prisoners of war. An aesthetic skill as well as a military drill, the rope's associations with eroticism is a 20th century phenomenon. We also get a bearded, chain-smoking "expert" leering into the camera, as he explains that "Japanese SM is submissive, it is based on the feeling of shame". Evidently pleased with his own cleverness, he adds, without being prompted: "and what is shame? - libido of the brain". But when an elderly gentleman in a natty suit, by the name of Tanaka Kinichi and deferentially referred to as "the Master" chuckles at the memory of how they used to trick or lure young girls off the streets into his studio, threaten them until they let themselves be bound and photographed, just in exchange for being set free again, the detective story has turned into a horror film, especially since it appears that this was the very man who photographed Hito twenty years earlier, and who even now proudly shows off his website with hundreds of such photos, insisting that they are "art" .

It's more subtle, though, in the video than in my description, but it does give substance to what is the final exchange in the film: "do you consider yourself a feminist?" Hito is asked: "Definitely" she replies, and as a feminist, her politics are both fiercely analytical and radically egalitarian. So, for instance, over shots of girls being prepared for a photographic shoot, she points out that "bondage is work", followed by "work is bondage": a nod to Jean Luc Godard's favorite rhetorical trope ("not just an image, but a just image"), illustrated with a video clip of rows of women in a factory, bent over their sewing machines as if they were shackled to them. The intertitles also draw an intriguing parallel between sexual taboos and political taboos, with the Japanese pornographers waxing nostalgic for the good old days of censor¬ship and police raids (when the business was more lucrative but also more edgy), and the teaser for the first Spider-Man film, which was withdrawn (censored) after 9/11 because it showed Spiderman trapping a police helicopter in a giant web spun between the Twin Towers.

But Lovely Andrea's politics extends beyond such comparison-equivalences. An important protagonist in the video is the already mentioned Asagi Ageha, a Japanese performance artist, former bondage model and now her own boss, who acts as translator to the crew and as go-between for the filmmaker. Ageha provides an alternative perspective, in fact a dual perspective: as an artist, and as a woman. As an artist, she uses her own body as expressive material, in the tradition of Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneeman in the 1960s and 70s, and Marina Abramovic in the 1980s. She calls her work "self-suspension", explaining what inspires and guides her in her performances, which are indeed extraordinary: "solo performances that draw on bondage modelling but emphasize acrobatic elements; in an inverted projection, [Ageha] looks as though she is propelled upwards, floating weightless." (Frieze)

As a woman, Ageha candidly talks about the pleasures of being bound: "in the air I'm really free, and on the other hand I am bound with the rope to the center of some¬thing", even conceding that "maybe I cannot live without this feeling anymore". She echoes a German bondage specialist and rope master who early on talks about some of the quote-unquote victims liking that floating sensation as well as the sight and the feel of the welts and bruises that the ropes leave on their skin, while another avers that "nur an Seilen fühle ich mich frei" (only tied to a rope do I feel free). It is up to us to "suspend" judgment, and "balance" the views of these women with what we see of the men who "assist" them, or with the macho swagger of the Tokyo rope masters and porn photographers.

But what about the title Lovely Andrea, and the missing photo? At first, it would appear to be the jokey nom de cul that Hito gave herself, when she was a film- and art-student in Tokyo, submitting to the titillating photo shoot back in 1987, for which the rope master wanted a taste of the exotic West to go with her bound body. Those who know Hito Steyerl's work, however, know about the emblematic significance of the name Andrea, the central figure of November (2004) and the unquiet ghost in almost all her work. From November we learn that Andrea Wolf was Hito's best friend when she grew up, whose fiercely independent and combative spirit the young filmmaker used to good effect in her first student film, and who later, under the nom de guerre Sehît Ronahî, joined the PKK, the Kurdish Liberation Movement in Northern Iraq, where she was killed in 1998. Hito has been doing mourning work for her lost friend ever since, especially since Andrea's body was never recovered, and all that survives is a poster photo, at one time paraded in protest marches where she was held up as a martyr.

A missing body, substituted by a photo in November, a missing photo substituting a fetishized (and "tortured") body in Lovely Andrea: Godard's trope of the cross-wise exchange applies here as well, since the relation of body to image goes both ways, as Andrea's image is also fetishized on the poster, while only God knows what happened to her body. Even though it seems the crew finally track down Hito's photo in one of the hundreds of glossy albums in the "sex archive", one gets the sense that an important ellipsis in Lovely Andrea is (the word) "missing", making the video a kind of rebus picture of all that has to remain an absent presence in both Hito Steyerl's work and her biography.

But lest we miss the wider (film-) political significance: One of Hito's constant themes in her film work and her writings has been the way that documentary images can be used and abused for political ends and propaganda purposes, and how the circulation of media images can change one's perception of reality in often decisive ways, so that the uncanny power of such images, prized from their context, but still trading on their "authenticity", is also an issue in Lovely Andrea. It makes the quest for the 'cul perdu' also the quest for lost 'cul' (French slang for daring or courage) of the documentary image, which came into filmmaking as a weapon in the struggle for truth and justice, but may now find itself both taken hostage and in bondage – in the art world perhaps no less than in politics.

Thomas Elsaesser
Amsterdam Dec 1st, 2013

[in German]


 November 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Christoph Girardet / Matthias Müller, Phoenix Tapes (#4 "Why Don't You Love Me"?)

screenshot

 Phoenix Tapes (#4 Why Don't You Love Me?), 1999

One of the popular blockbusters of the 2010 / 2011 international art-scene was Christian Marclay's The Clock, a 24-hour time-piece made up of thousands of fragments from Hollywood feature films, each sliver of film containing its own precise minute-by-minute index, while the on-screen time is perfectly synchronized with the spectator's own lived time. Marclay's tour de force could be called the apogee – the culmination, but also the conclusion – of several decades of artists extracting or surgically removing from (often well-known) feature films a single scene, an exchange of looks, a moment of dialogue or a setting, and crafting from these "found objects" an elaborate montage or "mashup" (as the web version of such aggregation is called) as well as grafting the parts onto a new body that is uncannily human and yet undeniably mechanical as well.

An early pioneer of these compilation skills is Matthias Müller, who experimented with found footage (various film formats, home movies, as well as off-air TV recordings) in the late 1980s and since the early 1990s has collaborated with Christoph Girardet. Home Stories (1990), for instance, is a compilation of women in 1950s melodramas tossing restlessly in their beds, slipping on dressing gowns, waiting anxiously at dusk or dawn, listening at closed doors or peering through windows with oppressively heavy drapes before running, panicked, along corridors or exiting, finally, into the open. Home Stories brilliantly condenses the hysteria of the genre into a ballet of bodies and gestures trapped in domestic spaces and yet magnificently breaking free of their cages, while sub-Bernard Herrmann strings and percussion on the soundtrack (by Dirk Schäfer) remind us that melodrama – considered as a body-genre – lives somewhere between the musical and the thriller, possessing the restless motion of the former and generating the heart-stopping suspense of the latter.

Despite having many imitators, Müller / Girardet's work is still fresh today, and especially so in their 'riffs' on Hitchcock, one of contemporary artists' most rewarding targets, considering all those who have taken the 'master of suspense' and the Sphinx of 'pure cinema' as their pretext: Judith Barry (1980), Victor Burgin (1984), Cindy Sherman (1986), Stan Douglas (1989), Christian Marclay (1990), Douglas Gordon (1993), David Reed (1994), Pierre Huyghe (1995), Tony Oursler (1996), Cindy Bernard (1997). In fact, Müller / Girardet's Phoenix Tapes were commissioned by Kerry Brougher and his co-curators for Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art in 1999, where most of the artists just mentioned had works on show, as well as the director Atom Egoyan, who repurposed scenes from one of his feature films to bring out the Hitchcockian allusions and overtones.

The Phoenix Tapes (1999 / 2000) – eventually becoming a six part opus taking apart forty of Hitchcock films – is an even more ambitious effort than Home Stories and if anything, provides an extra shot of adrenaline, by presenting the viewer with a veritable catalogue of compulsive fixations. The Guardian art critic captures the relentless pace of the Phoenix Tapes at the Oxford venue: "Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller have collected Hitchcock clips of pockets, wallets, handbags, corners and crossroads and trains, the light under doors, objects falling and breaking, bad mothers and mad lovers, stranglings, guns and violent disrobings, in their run-together snippets of clips from the movies, shown on monitors throughout the exhibition. These compilations are especially telling, in that they record the film-maker's abiding obsessions, his tics, his filmic repetitions. They give an inkling of just how rich Hitchcock is as a film-maker, how circular his obsessions." (Adrian Searle, "Hitch and Run Tactics", The Guardian, 20 July 1999)

One might call The Phoenix Tapes a "catalogue raisonné de la déraison", a reasoned catalogue of unreason and madness, with more than a touch of surrealism. Yet Searle makes the compilation sound a touch too much like a Hitchcock graduate seminar, illustrating the personal tics and consistent 'themes' of the cinematic auteur. I have chosen #4. Why Don't You Love Me? because it confirms some of these typically Hitchcockian motifs, while suggesting other possibilities as well. The question in the title, for instance, is both ironic and ambiguous, because it is not, as one might expect, addressed by a woman to her fickle husband or reluctant lover, but is left hanging in the air: since almost all the scenes feature mother-and-son encounters, it could be the mother silently directing the question to the son, or vice versa, the son talking to the mother (in which case, the question would be: "why do you love me too much"?): it is in fact a line lifted from Marnie. In short, the clips combine some of most monstrous mothers ever seen on screen, whose overbearing possessiveness (in Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on A Train, Psycho) turns their sons (and in the case of Marnie, daughter) into criminals, serial killers and psychopaths.

As an object lesson in Oedipal tangles and unresolved maternal fixations, The Phoenix Tapes are as much an homage to Sigmund Freud as they are interpretations of Hitchcock, and most aptly, they were on show at the Freud Museum in Vienna's Berggasse in late 2007. But precisely because they fit so well a certain idea of psychoanalysis (and several of the clips feature professional or amateur analysts), they leave one wondering whose unconscious is being revealed by these compulsive repetitions of identical gestures, identical turns of phrase and facial expressions. In the first instance, the fictional characters' secret desires and urges, of course, but with so many protagonists behaving in such similar fashion, a more general pattern imposes itself, which the skillful editing of near-identical scenes from vastly different films makes impressively evident. Such patterns we tend to attribute to the creator, that is: the director. And given a persona as flamboyantly self-created as Hitchcock's, and a person as darkly conflicted as his numerous biographers claim his life to have been, it is easy to leave it at that.

But why not treat Müller / Girardet's endless hours of viewing and selecting also as a 'thought experiment'? One proving that the cinema itself, and especially Hollywood genre cinema, has an unconscious: perhaps richer (and more troubled) than even its most brilliant practitioners? While Home Stories is pure choreography and flow, and thus creates an effect of synthesis (in contrast, say, to Martin Arnold's analytical-deconstructive exercises such as Piece Touché, Passage a l'acte, and Alone. Life Wastes Any Hardy) the individual installments of The Phoenix Tapes are more based on contrast and juxtaposition, at the same time as they bring out (just as Arnold does) the latent aggression and violence inherent in cinematic representation (or enunciation) itself: the violence on the screen is often merely the visual conduit for the violence of the screen. These montages, in other words, not only reveal the rough and hidden underside of Hollywood's smooth continuity system, but also why this underside is necessary, in order for us to be captured, hooked, drawn in, often against our will. It explains why not only Hitchcock's villains are more fascinating than his heroes: they have a richer and more conflicted "cinematic unconscious", and while their drives and compulsions are essential to propel the action, their actions are ultimately taken on our behalf. In this respect, #4 Why Don't You Love Me? is a question Hollywood (through Müller / Girardet's Hitchcock) addresses to us, in the form of a tease: "don't you just love me, in spite of yourself?"

Thomas Elsaesser, November 2013

[in German]


 October 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Johan Grimonprez Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter? (1992)

 Screenshot

Johan Grimonprez Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter? 

Johan Grimonprez is best known for his 1997 video dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which after 9/11 became retroactively prescient of disasters to come, and is now revered as a "cult classic". It casts a mocking and irreverent eye on the connections between high-jacked planes and high-heeled boots, PLO freedom fighters in keffiyes and TWA stewardesses in miniskirts. A similarly sardonic spirit presides over Grimonprez' other celebrated venture into the political macabre, Double Take, about men - some of uncanny, others of wholly improbable likeness - who make a living by impersonating the long-dead Alfred Hitchcock. Its political subtext, more retrospective than prescient (but who knows what will happen in Syria?), is the Cold War, the Atom bomb, US-Russian rivalry, and Fidel Castro visiting Nikita Khrushchev's dacha that looks like the Bates Motel out of Psycho.

But if one wants to know what unites dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Double Take, so apparently different from each other (one about television, terrorism, advertising and fashion, the other about an icon of pure cinema, master of suspense and manipulator his own public persona) there is no better place than Grimonprez' debut as a serious commentator on the contemporary than his 1992 film Kobarweng, or Where is Your Helicopter. A documentary that proudly takes its stand as an anti-documentary, Kobarweng is, as the credits inform us, the result of a research visit Grimonprez made in 1986–87 to the formerly Dutch colony of Netherlands New Guinea, now known as West Papua and since 1963 under Indonesian rule. We do not see much of the reputedly breathtaking scenery, except some blurry outdoor shots, possibly including the close-up of a chicken, and we do not see much of the indigenous people other than in a grainy video dupe of colour film stock shot by one Derk Jan Dragt in 1958. For the rest, the camera tracks down a narrow corridor that could have come out of the Brenner house in The Birds (or the hotel corridor in Marnie), leaving the viewer both claustrophobic and disoriented.

But while we may have to strain and lean forward in order to make out what it is that we are seeing, there is plenty we learn in these twenty-five minutes of film. Kobarweng is anthropological filmmaking with a vengeance, its nearest ancestors Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread (1933), Jean Rouch's Les Maitres Fou (1955), or Gary Kildea and Jerry Leach's Trobriand Cricket (1979). Papua New Guinea has long been a favorite among anthropologists, with its more than 7000 years of agriculture, its hundreds of tribes and languages, some of whom have still not been "discovered". New Guinea, in short, is to anthropologists what the Galapagos Islands were to Darwin and to students of evolutionary biology ever since. From Margaret Mead (Growing Up in New Guinea) to Jared Diamond (The World Until Yesterday), they have used New Guinea as a foil against which to measure their own cultural pessimism about our civilization's decline, while reporting with respectful awe about head-hunters and cannibalistic rituals, child rearing that leaves the young scarred for life and tribes that suffocate their old when they become too burdensome to take care of.

I have no idea what Grimonprez did during his field trip to the village of Pepera in Irian Jaya (the local name for West Papua). He may have been a political activist fighting on the side of the secessionists (the OPM); he may have done anthropological studies with a Belgian expedition team; or he may have prospected for copper or gold. The film gives little away on that score, and even suggests that the author could have been too mystified or traumatized by what he saw to entrust it to celluloid. And this he shares with his native informants: the shaky, jittery footage is traversed by a running band of script, reporting observations and remarks culled from anthropologists' interviews, eye-witness reports, and the reminiscences of those highlanders who recall those moments of 'first contact' between the white intruders (missionaries, prospectors, anthropologists, adventurers) and the local inhabitants: "We never tell everything, we always keep something for the next anthropologist" they are candid enough to admit to Margaret Mead, while another wit remarks: "We called the whites 'people of soap', but their shit smelled the same as ours."

"First contact", of course, is the primal scene of colonialism, a trauma for both parties, but with asymmetrical consequences. Knowing Grimonprez to be Belgian, one cannot help but think Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with the Dutch colony standing in for the Congo. There are enigmatic shots of a water kettle, whose lid tumbles to the ground in slow motion, and the raucous cries on the sound¬track could be a cockerel or a peacock, but the birds that hover over the film are airplanes, war-planes and cargo-planes, and in a shot that seems to last forever, we eventually make out the nose and wings of one of those giant bombers coming into focus. Kobarweng, the title of the film, is the name of one of the elders, born when his parents helped build the landing strips, so they called him "sound of the plane". As Grimonprez explains:

The point of departure [for the film] was Kaiang Tapior's question "Where is your helicopter?", a remark which puzzled me on the 6th of July1987, the first day of my visit to the village of Pepera. The question reflected an event which took place in June of 1959, when a crew of scientists, which included anthropologists, dropped down from the sky in helicopters—much to the terrified surprise of the villagers who watched in awe at these things out of the sky, the likes of which they had never seen before...

The challenges were formidable: knowing himself to be a latecomer to this game in every role – as colonial adventurer, as anthropologist and as filmmaker – Grimonprez had to up the ante, and up-end our assumptions. Not only did the locals wise up fast, since they have been telling the ethnographers for generations what they imagined their visitors wanted to hear, while making sure they came back for more (and with more money or merchandise). The very impulse behind anthropological research, let's call it a potent blend of fear and curiosity, is turned on its head, or rather, it reverses direction: here it is the indigenous informants that make the visitors their objects of anthropological study, smelling their skin, wondering where they come from, weighing and testing their objects, and poking in their droppings. Now it is us who try to hide in the bushes, by staying indoors, out of sight, and then taking off. One of the last shots of the film is out of a window onto a street that looks like New York.

But we would be missing a crucial point if we simply thought that the change of perspective, the look through the other end of the ethnographic microscope was all that Kobarweng is doing, and that Grimonprez just wanted to create a bit of confusion over who is actually investigating whom, and who is here the Other. For that, the film is too urgent, the pace too tense, the camera too traumatized. As 'we' look at 'them' and 'they' look at 'us', the real surprise is the shock of recognition: they are (like) us, and we are (like) them. Each is the other's double, and nothing could be more troubling, nothing more uncanny. This was the scandalous (some thought it merely frivolous) double take in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, where hijackers and media-hounds not only depended, but in a sense created each other. Such mutually sustained doubling, and the shocks of recognition it produced, came to the surface as the overt theme of Double Take/ Looking for Alfred, but there, the lesson was spelled out, in the Borges- attributed story that gives the film its moral spine: If you meet your double, you should kill him. Or he will kill you.

In Grimonprez' world, you will meet your double, sooner or later. And in Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter, everybody knows it, and may have to act on it. This is the terrible mystery, but also the terrible legacy of colonialism, and we are still living through its consequences. Which, of course, makes Kobarweng, twenty years after, in a Europe about to puts its neighbors once more into the place of the 'others', as retroactively prescient as dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y proved to be, and as Double Take might yet turn out to be.

Thomas Elsaesser, October 2013

[in German]


 September 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Dan Graham Past Future Split Attention (1972)

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Dan Graham Past Future Split Attention (1972)

The further we enter into the 21st century, the more important Dan Graham's work from the 1970s is becoming, not just for the history of video art, but for contemporary art in its efforts to rethink all its traditional parameters: time, space, materiality, subject, relation. In retrospect, Graham seems to have anticipated almost every major development over the past thirty years, and in particular, he pioneered the spatial turn well before anyone had thought of the concept. What is more, right from the start, he added 'time' as the fourth dimension of the art space that is the gallery.

Although his Time Delay Rooms are perhaps better known (and more fun), Past Future Split Attention is one of my favorites. It is Minimalism at its best and most impressive – especially when comparing its casual improvisation with the orthodoxies of the 1970s, in NY as well as among the international film avant-garde: in Graham, there is no need for reflexive formalism, no insistence on materialism, no fetish of media specificity. Instead, a situation of almost banal simplicity, recording a fleeting, impermanent and conversational exchange. And yet: even at the time, one might have seen it as a witty but not irreverent response to Jacques Lacan's "you never listen from where I speak", or as an ironic comment on the writings of the then very popular schizo-psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, with his intersubjective "knots".

Seeing it again, however, I am more struck by Graham's uncanny ability to think time and temporality into any spatial or interpersonal configuration whatsoever. This may be stating the obvious, since among this artist's innumerable experiments, innovative installations and bold performances, the co-presence of multiple temporalities has always been one of his hallmarks, but I think it is these time shifts, time delays, and time travels speak to us in such spontaneous and immediate ways that they mark him out as the towering figure of the 1970s revolution in the arts in America. Alert to the Zeitgeist and alive to his surroundings, he grasped the enormous changes that were taking place around him, in a way that was very physical and immediate, but also very conceptual and subtractive. Making full use of the humble unconventionality of materials and media that henceforth would enter into art-making, he nonetheless restricted himself in each work to very few basic elements, in order to push to the utmost their philosophical potential: in this respect, a true disciple of Marcel Duchamp, without ever reproducing or replicating the master.

Past Future Split Attention is delicately poised between a video, recording a unique and single performance, and a template or script for live action, inviting future – repeat – performances. Minimal instructions sketch the situation: "Two people who know each other are in the same space. While one predicts continuously the other person's behavior, the other person recounts (by memory) the other's past behavior. Both performers are in the present, so knowledge of the past is needed to continuously deduce future behavior (in terms of causal relation)." One can call Past Future Split Attention a dance piece or 'stand-up Beckett' but it is also an encounter that loops a therapy session with a boxing match. Like the latter, there are some ground rules, and a set of (creative) constraints; like the former, there is room for free association and massive transference. The two protagonists share the same space but live in different time-zones as it were. One is conjuring up the past while the other is commenting on the present, but as one predict what we are about to see, the other one has already consigned it to a memory. Words anticipate actions as if by remote control, while physical gestures are being cornered into the past tense. Having apparently shared a lifetime in each other's company, they can draw on background knowledge but such is the talking past each other that they also have to think on their feet, in order to go with the flow, stay in sync, and not fall out of the loop.

Graham has described Past Present Split Attention "a figure-eight feedback-feedahead loop of past/future'. In am ore technical language, one could say that it is the test-run of a system of transfer and exchange where positive feedback and negative feedback are not opposed to each other, but alternate with each other: negative feedback not regulating input-output but tending towards entropy, while positive feedback neither amplifies the signal nor feeds on itself, but pushes its excess energy towards a future that might never arrive.

So far, I have described Past Present Split Attention mostly in terms of the temporalities that it intertwines, overlays and loops. But, of course, the piece also functions as a mirror: a two-way mirror for the characters on the move, so sometimes one of them can 'see through' (to) the other, at other times, the other is completely opaque and he only sees himself in the mirror. The audience, too, has to decide: are they included, according to conventional theatrical space of the invisible fourth wall, giving them transparency and access to the action before them as if looking through a window? Or are we becoming so intensely aware of ourselves, our bodies, our fatigue and boredom, our nervous laughter, our embarrassment at watching painful and painfully performed acts of self-exposure, that the performance is in fact a mirror: designed to be opaque, given a brittle surface, so as to make ourselves see ourselves in the act of seeing. Not 'the mirror and the lamp' of romantic aesthetics, but 'the mirror and the loop' of (Rosalind Krauss') video narcissism morphing into social networking.

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Thomas Elsaesser • Reguliersgracht 20 • 1017 LR Amsterdam, The Netherlands • Email: elsaesser@uva.nl
Copyright © 2013, Thomas Elsaesser