CLOSE-UP OF WHAT?
Mattin 26th April 2003, london
"Structural/Materialist film attempts to be non-illusionist. The process of the film's making deals with devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of the film process. But by 'deals with' I do not mean 'represents'. In other words, such films do not document various film procedures, which would place them in the same category as films which transparently document a narrative, a set of actions, etc. Documentation, through usage of the film medium as transparent, invisible, is exactly the same when the object being documented is some 'real event', some 'film procedure', some 'story', etc. An avant-garde film defined by its development towards increased materialism and materialist function does not represent, or document, anything. The film produces certain relations between segments, between what the camera is aimed at and the way that 'image' is presented. The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently, a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary. In Structural/Materialist film, the in/film (not in/frame) and film/viewer material relations, and the relations of the film's structure, are primary to any representational content. The structuring aspects and the attempt to decipher the structure and anticipate/recorrect it, to clarify and analyze the production-process of the specific image at any specific moment, are the root concern of Structural/Materialist film. The specific construct of each specific film is not the relevant point; one must beware not to let the construct, the shape, take the place of the 'story' in narrative film. Then one would merely be substituting one hierarchy for another within the same system, a formalism for what is traditionally called content. This is an absolutely crucial point." 1
In Peter Gidals Films there are images. These Images (as you can imagine after reading his quote) try to expel any possible narrative from his work. To achieve this he has to get rid of signification, representation, reproduction, and identification... So yes, his work has a minimal, ascetic aesthetics. Narrative, through pleasure brings the spectator into the work. It takes over the physical distance that exists between the materiality of film and the spectator, Freud talking about scopophilia says how there is an erotic pleasure in looking at another people as objects, surveying them gives the viewer control.
Laura Mulvey in her famous essay "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema" says how the cinema is a good context for scopophilia, in this case the distance of the screen is recuperated not physically, but as window in which you are "looking in on a private world".
...Among other things, the position of the spectators in cinema is blatantly one of the repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire into the performer".2
But for this you have to identify with the performer and the more familiar it is, the easier this projection can happen. The arbitrary imagery and the material aspect of Gidals works make it difficult for the spectator to identify subjects, and therefore to see them as objects. The viewer is challenged to work out the work; he or she cannot easily bring their own Ideology. Through the course of the essay Ill try to articulate what Peter Gidals work does in opposition to what Adorno calls "Culture Industry" and its ideology.
Adorno in The Culture Industry Reconsidered says how the culture industrys ideology has replaced consciousness with conformity. As Mulvey continues, narrative brings the patriarchal ideology, so we could even say that it activates conformity: It confirms conformity and evacuates or flattens out any alternative position.
When the context of ideology gets narrower, the spectrum for possible ideas/thoughts/criticisms gets reduced. At the moment we are in times in which the context cannot be identified and defined we lose the narrative as well as the material aspect.
With fragmented narratives, we are no longer sure how to detect them; they are integrated in a complex way in which conformity solidifies itself in an undiscriptive way.
There is a difficulty in distinguishing between materiality and imaginary relation, as both contain elements of each other.
Here I should explain what I mean by Ideology. The way it functions and how is it perceived by the spectator?
"Ideology= an imaginary relation to real relations. "3
This imaginary relation works its way out through representations, and even if it seems to be always in the imaginary it actually has a material existence. Althusser in talking about the material ideological apparatus brings the idea of the subject. He continues:
"There is no ideology except for concrete subjects, and this destination for ideology is only made possible by the subject: meaning, by the category of the subject".4
It seem to me that Gidals work is trying to do the opposite, material relations activate the imagination of the spectator but never constitute him as a subject of reception.
When Althusser talks about material relations he is talking about the material actions that are inserted into material practices, that are inserted into material rituals, and these are part of the material ideological apparatus from which the subject comes in. The small fragments of this chain are always linked to a bigger structure. The materiality that Gidal is talking about is the concrete one of the film apparatus, which is supposed to have its own ideology outside the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) that Althusser is talking about. Gidals aim, as opposed to the ISA, is not to define subjects, but rather consist of a constant process of dealing with the relations that the material of the film can bring. But here we should be careful in distinguishing between the material and the process that he is talking about. When he talks of process he is not talking about the fetish aspect of it (scratches on the film, etc.) This should not become the focal point which could easily be adapted to a narrative, but rather the constant de-subjectification of the artist via apparatus-functions of the film-practice such as hand-held camera movements, lighting, angle, distance, speed, and so on. Another example in an another stage of the process (editing), is that the attempt would be made to erase any trace of subjectification through repetitions and re-take, on the "same" or "similar" film material. The artist, by engaging with the process of the material, keeps distancing himself as a subject, in order to not to let the spectator think of him as an originator.
Once one becomes a subject, one can easily be incorporated into a narrative and later on recuperated by the ISA. What should we call that which exists outside a narrative, how can we articulate it? It seems to me that its always going to end up in some way or another part the ISA, due to misunderstanding (because of the lack of vocabulary that I mentioned above) or because of the impossibility of isolation within society. What I am dealing with here: Can the film practice that Gidal is talking about exist outside Althusers ISA? Can his work have autonomy, as a discourse that is produced by itself? This is the importance of the dialectic, which by its materiality, tries to scrutinise some concrete context. What I mean is that the action in which the ISA happens is not in a specific relation to concrete objects, it works in relation to ideas. The concrete facts of Gidals work are studied according to the properties that have by themselves, they produce their own discourse.
Getting back to Althusser and the ritual we could say that by the lack of narrative, the viewer cannot perform any ritualistic approach in which they can bring their own preconceptions. If the spectator engages with the dialectics of the film, he has to be part of the process of a never-ending synthesis. Gidals idea of the "meaninglesness" applied to his work tries to " undermine the power of the pregiven "reality" and "truth" of a representation"5. This is done by a space of production created by the dialectic that has a simultaneous contradictory effect. This constant contradiction works in order to erode the signifying aspects (which have no nucleus) within his work, recontextualizing themselves constantly in order to be just a process. Never getting solidified, because the Ideology of the Material Film does not have an ideological structure. The structure is arbitrary, it is supposed to come not from a certain interest, but is there simply to put dialectics in motion.
Trying to get something out of the constant fight of arbitrary signifiers and their relationship with the materiality of his work leaves the spectator constantly in search of an object. Is this where Gidals films work best? Or is there something else?
What is the function of his aesthetics? Can they take over the dialectics?
NEGATIVE SP ACE
"...The goal of a structural/materialist film practice is to perform the seemingly impossible task of defining, over and against the massive domination of film by narrative stile and ideology, a series of negative strategies capable of derailing that history. In dividing narrative from the intrinsic possibilities of cinematic representation, structural/materialist film desires "to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images."6
By refusal and anti-illusionism, Gidal puts the spectator in a state of fragility in which there is nothing to hold except the place in which the different aspects of dialectics converge. This is a negative space in which there is not a clear and bright way out, in fact there is no way out. The "flatness" of Gidals work does not present you with open doors. You are left alone during the time of the screening to wander around rather beautiful images. But there are still aspects in the work that can deliver meaning specially now.
This meaning will always be subject to the spectators background and experience. But using 16mm nowadays inevitably has a meaning (as opposed to digital video); it brings implications of the avant-garde tradition of the 1960s and 70s. Laura Mulvey (in a paper called "Looking at the Old through the New") at the Screen Studies conference (held at Berwick on the 14th Feb. 2003) was talking about how when there is something new it instantly old even when it was not formed or defined. This enclosure or pigeonholing takes a variety of practices made within a medium and puts them on file based on that medium. It seems quite obvious that as time passes by and new technology comes up, the perspective on that subject becomes more generalised. Mulvey talked about the democratisation of film, in which one can stop, look and think, with the digital medium. A similar thing happens when film is presented in a Gallery context in which the viewer can come in and out at any time. The engagement of the viewer with the film practice has change radically since Gidal started to develop his films and theory. In aspects like this Gidals work loses its strength, as one of the most important aspects of his wok resides in the time-respect-aspect. The work is contextualised within the traditional cinematic presentation (and to some extent the Ideology that it carries.) There is a commitment once you get in to the cinema (you have to respect the quiet atmosphere). The gap of time that we were talking about before, in which this perception of the moving image has developed, can bring nostalgia to films like Gidals, which might detour the intentions of the work.
Elitism and exclusion are other important aspects to address in discussing Gidals work. His theory and films feed each other, so their discursive aspects are almost self-sufficient. It seems like a feedback effect. So where is the breakature, the hole in which the audience can enter, or should the audience make their own discourse? Does the familiarity of his theory do something else with the spectators perception? How familiar do you need to be with the theory in order to grasp the intentions of his films?
Gidal has formulated a theory that constant process is performative in itself, by constituting itself. But in another way, we could see that this could become a statement that could be applied as a tool or a fixed formula. He does not need to draw attention to the context that he is presenting his work in, because the object of criticism is elsewhere. So how is the spectator able to understand the specificity of Gidals work? Does he need to take responsibility for his work?
Al Rees at the Shoot, Shoot, Shoot symposium held at the Tate Modern last year, said that the students now have more problems accessing to the insides of new equipment, therefore to experiment with it. With the sealed architecture of the era of digital equipment, there is more difficulty of separating the different components of the moving image. But the possibility of acquiring equipment makes more people to do work, but what happens if all this work is rooted in narrative?
Here I would like to question the connection between the producers of narratives, and the consumers. Because for me the distinction seems to be disappearing.
" The consumers are made to remain what they are: consumers. That is why the culture industry is not the art of the consumer but rather the projection of the will of those in control onto their victims. The automatic self-reproduction of the status quo in its established forms is itself an expression of domination".7
For me this remark stills functions but in a much less distinctive way. More people are able to produce moving image through digital technology, the problem is what is it produced for? I am thinking about scopocholia again, but now the projection of the subject-producing-object becomes more active. The projection is still there; it is the process that has changed. People can take control of this process but are serving a certain Ideology. I would like to propose that the materiality of film make those involved n showing and experiencing it more engaged with the act of showing it.
Is there is something before the subject, which is not constituted, which might have an effect outside these chronic implications?
"Gidals radical asceticism thus poses itself between the impossibility of escaping the ideological in aesthetic signification, and the obligation to "express the political in art".8
Looking at the micro-narratives within Gidals work, do they work in a similar way to the ISA? If they do not adapt to this space of constant formulation. At the end of the day they might be exclusionary. Is the ideology that Gidal is talking about free from any intention of hierarchies (of knowledge) or power? Gidal when people asks him about he intransigent element of his work often brings a quote from Mayacoscki: "I make work for people who are awake."
"Volcano" was screened on the 13th of March at the Royal College of Art (thanks to the organisation Light Reading.) It is the name of the last work done by Gidal. This 30m. silent film follows a continuation of trying to practice his structural/materialist theory. It is in way quite different probably because of where it was filmed - in a Volcano in Hawaii. But the film still has the abstract imagery that resembles his previous films. In the brief introduction he gave prior to the film, he mentioned that the place in which the film takes place should not be the centre of attention in the work, but at the same time it is important. I think you can expect this by now. This is a perfect example of the kind of impossible aspect of his dialectics. Never resolving anything, so you cannot translate to an Ideology (ISA, Culture Industry). But what is the spectator supposed to do with this information? Would it make a difference?
The film starts with his habitual credits of "a film by Peter Gidal" appearing along with the title "Volcano", then quite fast moving camera shots of the volcano of similar duration are interrupted by a sequence of white and black. It finishes with a quote from Dante. This film affected me.
Brian Massumi in his essay, The Autonomy of Affect: "the strength or duration of the images effect could be called its intensity." He later continues:
" Intensity is beside that loop, a nonconscious, never-to-be-conscious autonomic reminder. It is outside expectation and adaptation, as disconnected from meaningful sequencing, from narration, as it is vital function. It is narrative de-localised, spreading over the generalised body surface, like a lateral backwash from the function-meaning inerloops travelling the vertical path between head and heart" 9
I would like to suggest the possibility that Gidals work best effect can reside in its affect. This is because the physicality of the affect and its position outside language can never fall into ideology. It can never be part of a narrative and it is not part of a structure. It is something that each individual brings to the work once it has produced something in the viewers body. You can think here about the unconscious, but affect works primarily with the body, it is faster than the mind in this sense, it is before that moment in which the mind cannot grasp the excess of uncoded information. It is not assimilable.
Therefore it generates its own discourse. It works like feedback, it is self-sufficient. It has no direct relation to meaning and to the logic that includes meaning. It can take elements of Logic. In my case, the appreciation of his use of 16mm helps the effect to be greater. It works as a platform to let the imagery resonate within the dialectics. There might be a delicate question here: Do the elements of the dialectics need to be understood to have an effect?
I think that both elements can be in the platform that I was talking about before, the dialectics can exist alongside the spectral. In the way that they do not take over the potentiality of the images. Because their meaning is never clearly given nor its function, they can exist before articulation, they can coexist in constant flux.
It is in this balance that the problematic can come in. Before I mention that Gidals film and theory can be seen as fixed tool. But it is within the balance of each work that differences come in. Some of the films really manage to get a special balance, a precision that it makes you forget about the preconception and takes you into the work. So you might get trapped within Gidals own contradictions. In some cases the abstract images can take over and give the spectator visual pleasure (which it might not be that easy to articulate,) but one could relate for example to abstract expressionism. An interesting experiment that I would like to do in Future would be to screen one Gidals silent film to patients suffering the cognitive dysfunction of global aphasia, and see what they make out of the films. Would they remain just images? Would they be able to make a narrative? What would they associate these images with?
Lately there has been some attention to film in the art world. Last year there was a big retrospective at the Tate Modern (and now on tour around the world), called Shoot, Shoot, Shoot showing an important works made by people from the London Film co-op. In last two Issues of October there were some articles addressing Film. The Screen Studies conference that I mention above, and a couple of independent curators are showing film work in alternative spaces in London (Light Reading being one of them).
I wonder if any work is going to come out of this revival, as Michael OPray puts it, (in relation to Gidals film Close-Up) "crystal hard, intransigent, and film in extremis."
I hope sentimentality does not come into this discussion dealing with film. Or that artists do not use it in a fetishistic way as some artists do now (ex. Tacita Dean) but rather to bring some critical awareness to the moving image. What I would like to propose is that the materiality of film can be a tool to de-territorialise the hegemony of the digital moving image era. Looking at the new through the old can be a way to resist current ideologies.
1 Peter Gidal, "Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film", Structural Film Anthology, 1976
2 Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema. Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology.. Laura Mulvey. P.137
3 Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Louis Althusser. Art in Theory 1900-90. p. 933.
5 Meaning and illusion. Materialist Film. p. 78. Peter Gidal
6 Anti-Narrative, or the Ascetic Ideal. p. 127. D.N. Rodowick.
7 Transparencies on film. The Culture Industry. p. 160. Theodor W. Adorno.8 Anti-Narrative, or the Ascetic Ideal. p. 127. D.N. Rodowick.
9 The Autonomy of Affect. Brian Massumi. p. 219.
Materialist film. Peter Gidal Routledge. May 1989 London
Srtructural Film Anthology. Edited by Peter Gidal. Published by the BFI in 1976. London.
The crisis of political modernism: Criticism and Ideology in contemporary film criticism. By D.N. Rodowick. Published bu University of California Press., 27 Mar 1995. USA
Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology. Eds. Kay Karyn, Gerald Peary. New York: EP Dutton, 1977
History Of Experimental Film And Video: From Canonical Avant-Garde To Contemporary British Practice. Rees, A. L. British Film Institute. April 1999
The culture industry : selected essays on mass culture / Theodor W. Adorno ; edited and with an introduction by J.M. Bernstein. London ; New York : Routledge, 2001.
Deleuze: A Critical Reader . Patton, Paul (ed.) 'The Autonomy of Affect". Massumi, Brian (1996) Oxford:Blackwell:217-239
The Undercut Reader, Critical Writing on Artists' Film and Video. Edited by Michael Maziere and Nina Danino. December, 2002. Wallflower Press
Art in Theory, 1900- 1990. An anthology of changing ideas Ed.Charles Harrison & Paul Wood. Oxford/Cambridge (Blackwell), 1993
October Magazine 100 Spring 2002 and 102 Fall 2003
Scratch Magazine No.6. Jan. 1985
Filmwaves - Issue 7, Spring 1999
Screen Magzine Volume 20, number 2 (1979)
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers' Co-operative & British Avant-Garde Film 1966-76
Real Audio of the Shoot,Shoot,Shoot Simposium:
The AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies: