metropolis m
no.2 vol.17 april 1996


Still Novel
Chris Dercon's last show at Witte de With

As we know, Eadweard Muybridge was the first to photograph a running horse and other movements of animals and humans, which he brought together in 1887 in a large volume of photo-sequences entitled "Animal Locomotion."

Muybridge photographed time, which means: he showed how one moment precedes the next; how a person's or animal's posture changes in motion; how each moment, frozen in time, is part and parcel of a sequence of postures, which together, in time, produce motion. This was something new. Until then painters and sculptors had seen motion as integral whole. Thus, a painting of a horse at full gallop would summarize the whole movement in a posture that, as Muybridge's photo sequences demonstrated, did not exist.

In the history of images, Muybridge's photo sequences represent a rare moment of 'truth.' Never before had people seen the structure of movement in such detail. Muybridge dissected movement and presented the parts in such a way that each could be seen separately. Although not an artist – he was a craftsman, a specialist of a new technology, a scientist at best –, Muybridge's influence on the visual arts was huge. The realization that movement can be understood as a sequence of discrete postures transformed the idea of the painterly pose. Henceforth, a pose, a posture would be part of a movement. The image had become a snap shot – not an eternity any more. Even if Muybridge's separated moments merged into a seeming whole again with the invention of cinema, soon after, still the flickering continuum of the image on the white screen retained the memory of what would henceforward be known as the "still image." Movement, once an ideal whole, was now a sum of parts, of "forme unique nella continuità dello spazio," as Umberto Boccioni would state poetically. Speaking about a "still image" only makes sense if there exist moving images; the "still image" never existed without film, except in that short decade between the experiments of Muybridge, Marey and Eakins and those of the Lumière brothers.

Looking back, it is almost impossible to see Muybridge's sequences without thinking of film. Since the invention of cinema, about a century ago, every sequence of photographed images is 'movie.' At first sight, therefore, it seems logical that "Still / A Novel," Chris Dercon's last show as curator of Witte de With, confronts Muybridge with Jan Dibbets, associating on the theme of the centenary cinema. Dibbets, too, has been making photo series of sequential moments for years. Sometimes he groups these into panoramic collages, sometimes he uses them to show a sequence of time, a shifting shadow...

There is, however, a fundamental difference between Muybridge's photos and those of Dibbets. Admittedly, both photograph a kind of movement, and in the galleries of Witte de With Dibbets' photo's, like those of Muybridge, are grouped as sequences. But there the similarity ends – Dibbets and Muybridge photograph rather different things. Muybridge records moving bodies – he observes movement that appears to him. Dibbets does the opposite; he photographs still objects, buildings, landscapes, tiled floors. Dibbets moves himself; he turns around his own axis, all the while looking and registering. Dibbets and Muybridge are poles apart, like subject and object. Muybridge observes and registers what is outside of him. Dibbets looks and represents how he experiences his environment. Thus, Dercon's exhibition works like parentheses, between which plays the relationship between art and cinema. Here, if Muybridge represents the technical root principle of cinema – the mechanical registration of short sequential moments –, Dibbets embodies the root principle of the cinematographer: the recounting of a way of looking.

In this contrasting of registering and looking lies a problem, which cinema poses to art. Indeed, objective representation of reality has long been discarded as primary task of art. "Realism" is therefore not the reason why artists use the medium of film. If Bruce Nauman has himself filmed while fishing that is not to dutifully record the occasion. The short movie is not about fishing, but about the experience of time – which lasts rather longer than the movie itself. Concurrently, a work by Jeff Wall is not a snapshot from reality. A photo by Wall mimics a moment in time, but its content figures amongst the most minutely and thoroughly directed theatre since the invention of film. In the photo works by Jeff Wall, complete stories are massed into an all-encompassing "still image."

Jeff Wall

Seen from this angle, Jeff Wall's work is cinema rather than photography. For regardless of the absence of literal movement in his photos, Wall employs the entire toolkit a century of cinema has produced. The cinematographic narrative movement is implicit in his compositions, in the montage of the various parts, in the lighting and posture of his 'actors.' These are photos which cannot be registered at a glance, as "decisive moments," but which unroll like a movie in the eye of the viewer.

In Chris Dercon's TV-documentary for VPRO, a Dutch broadcaster, which he made as complement to his exhibition, Jeff Wall states: "Motion pictures are but one of many possible results of cinematography." That is a key sentence when it comes to film's influence on art. The material Dercon shows in his documentary movie, sequences from movies and artworks in which photos, film and video have been used, underlines this statement. Cinematography not only produced movies, but also a way of looking, a method with which the visible and audible reality can be visualized in a structured way. Central to this method is the manipulation of time, of progression. The literally progressing time of film is by far not the only way of depicting the passage of time. Cinema has more instruments: montage and camera handling in combination with framing, lighting, transitions, zooming and focusing. This visual grammar, once exclusively connected to the medium of film, has by now become so established within our visual culture that it can be applied in other media as well, including 'still media' such as painting, sculpture and photography. In any instance of repetition, montage, manipulation of time, one can observe the influence of the visual apparatus of cinema. In Andy Warhol's silkscreens, for instance, the repetition of the same image of a car accident or Marilyn Monroe's head suggests a progression of time, regardless of the similarity of the frames' content. This impression is reinforced by the variations in print quality between the frames, which make that they are never exactly identical. This work does not address cinema explicitly, but it does refer to the proliferation of visual narratives  and iconic fragments from these narratives via cinemas, television and other mass media. Formally, the work produces a tension between the passing of time and simultaneity, which is in part created by making use of the cinematic grammar.

Noritoshi Hirakawa does that when he reverses an association with film in a series of three photos: the ideal of an image simultaneously experienced by many – so strongly connected with film – is offset with photos taken at the very moment Hirakawa made love. What is shown in these photos is not the act of making love itself, but seemingly random scenes which occurred at the same time, elsewhere. It is as if Hirakawa has the three synchronized camera's, which Muybridge used to capture three perspectives on the same moment, look back. Hirakawa's perverted Muybridge shows unrelated simultaneities, crudely edited into one space.
In architect Rem Koolhaas' buildings, too, one can detect the grammar of cinema: his sequences of spaces are often arranged as a montage of scenes, or as an uninterrupted 'dolly-shot.' The interweaving of fragments of time and their compression and expansion in film have their architectonic counterpart in Koolhaas' intertwining of sequential spaces. In Dercon's film, he states: "My work is script-writing with other means; what drives us is the principle of montage."

These few examples may indicate the diversity of image manipulation techniques and the multitude of media in which a core of the 'cinematic way of looking' can be recognized. With all of this, can we still speak of "The Cinema"? Hasn't the "seventh art," the "ars gratia artis", for a while already dissolved into the arts from which she once originated and from which she took a large part of her own grammar? Seen from the vantage point of the visual arts it rather looks like that. Technologically speaking, film has developed from an expensive and cumbersome medium into a visual tool, which in the combination of portable video cam-corders and TV-monitors has become as accessible as brush, paint and canvas. In this way it is used by contemporary artists: as one of the available means of expression.

A prime example of this could be seen at a recent exhibition of new works by Tony Oursler at the Lisson Gallery in London. Pocket camera-size video beamers projected talking heads onto white cushion-shaped heads of small and big puppets, each in their own setting. They were all very physically present and one had to move rather close to the small projectors in order to hear the soft murmuring from the tiny speakers. The puppets, with their staring eyes, their moving mouths and their nasty texts, provoked an awkward kind of intimacy and at the same time distance – the kind of distance the viewer observes toward reality TV. With the beamers and the literal projection of moving images on white canvas (the puppets) these works not only used the hardware of film and video, but also played with the visual and social codes, which meanwhile have become so tied to film and television: the remarkable combination of engagement and distance, the feeling of contemporaneity and virtual closeness. Still, the works at the Lisson gallery were presented as autonomous art par excellence, as sculptures, which demand a dedicated and concentrated eye.

In this kind of work – contemporary autonomous art, which has absorbed the cinematographic –, an age-old dichotomy seems resolved: the schism Walter Benjamin saw between traditional autonomous art and the cinema. According to Benjamin, the concentrated and strictly individual "Andacht," a condition for the experience of the traditional arts, and the collectively shared experience of film were antithetical. The experience of film, the new revolutionary art, was a "Rezeption in der Zerstreuung," a diffused,  absent-minded experience. In Benjamin's eyes, film was the prototypical democratic medium, which enabled large groups of people to share the same experience simultaneously. A century after the invention of cinema and sixty years after Walter Benjamin, we can say that there has developed a broad area in which both extremes meet. For not only the arts have amalgamated important aspects of cinema, also film itself has evolved beyond the collective reception in the cinema theatre. Television and video have principally enabled a far more personal, more intimate experience of film than Benjamin could have ever anticipated. Today's viewer can choose between 'Zerstreuung' and 'Andacht.'

Nonetheless, Chris Dercon still seems to hold on to the intractable antithesis between autonomous art (which has meanwhile incorporated the 'cinéma d' auteur') and the centrifugal forces of the mass media and the art that reacts to these media and is influenced by them. For although his documentary movie shows imagery taken from a great variety of cinematic art forms, and despite the perceptive words of Jeff Wall, the talking heads in Dercon's movie (film makers, artists and theoreticians) almost exclusively address the classic cinema: for them "The Cinema" is the movie projected on the white screen, the medium which has such a rich tradition of auteurs, from Eisenstein to Godard. That Cinema has become history. Time and again it is stated in both parts of Dercon's documentary movie: "The Cinema is dead."

The last resort for this Cinema, for the kind of film that "reflects on the status of the image, that refreshes our consciousness of representational codes," seems in Dercon's eye to be the museum: "The museum should salvage a certain kind of film, the kind that is akin to painting, the kind that refuses interactivity... Maybe the museum can provide a haven for such films, now that they have been exiled from the festivals." This lament, uttered during a debate on "exploding cinema" at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival, stems in part from an unmistakable nostalgia for an autonomous 'cinematic authorship' that is indeed under pressure, ever since Godard has stopped filming and reverted to talking instead. On the other hand it is evident that "a certain kind of film" has found the museum, if only as (part of) the work of visual artists. It is ironic that a great deal of that work refers to a rather broader idea of cinema than Dercon seems bent on protecting. Many of the artists who's work is shown in the documentary employ video and react to the language of the mass media in general, not just that of the cinema, but also that of television and advertising. On the basis of this material, and the innovative impulses in film itself, from Jarmush to Spike Lee and Tarantino, one would be hesitant to conclude that 'the cinema' is dead. So why this somber undertone in "Still / A Novel'?

It might be related to the precarious position of the 'autonomous artwork' in contemporary art, this invention spawned by the genius of an impregnable author, who turns his subjectivity into sublime objects, whether they be film, or sculpture, or a photo series like those of Jan Dibbets. Seen from that angle, the implicit juxtaposition in Dercon's documentary of the 'author's movie' of old and today's sampled video is understandable. In the same vein, his call for a safe haven for "a certain kind of cinema" can be seen as defense of an endangered culture. For in much of today's art, 'authorship,' not only of parts of an image but also of its content, is questionable. Artists (and film-, video- and TV-makers) are recycling the images produced by cinema, which play such an iconic role in the "representational codes" of contemporary culture, in bulk. They are mixing these icons with images and products from other environments, including the history of art. In such artworks and videos the idea of a 'decisive image,' extracted from reality or the artist's imagination with great precision and intense effort, seems to have become obsolete.

The slightly irritating aspect of "Still / A Novel" is that there seems no room for the conclusion that in all of these experiments, the cinema is alive and kicking, and that the old medium has reproduced itself with admirable litheness in new media and new contexts. The "first-aid kit" that Dercon purports to offer cinema with his documentary is implicit in the material he shows. It's a pity that he doesn't explicitly point to that fact, because now the viewer is bound to think that the "death of cinema," which is proclaimed in every possible way, is substantiated in the fragmentary images which silently trail along as backdrop for the spoken text. But this is not the case. Meanwhile, a whole generation of film-, video-, and computer-artists is busy grafting the grammar of cinema onto newer media. Here, the idea of the cinema is perpetuated, further developed and innovated. Here, a central cinematic concept like 'montage,' in the form of sampling, is elaborated into new forms and contents in ways the 'real' cinema hasn't seen since the work of archetypal experimenters like Walter Ruttmann in the 1920s.

The "pictorial art" of our days, as Jeff Wall called it, is saturated with the idea and means of cinema. Wall's assemblage of photographic images via the computer is very close to the methods and concepts of film-editing. At the same time, by using a combination of cinematographic and computer techniques, he approaches painting again – there grows a composition of pictorial elements, which is not directly taken from reality. Wall: "It's making something visible that didn't exist before it was constructed." It is precisely this constructedness, which is the essence of the filmic principle of montage, that finds an enormous expansion of its potential in new computer media like CD-rom and the World Wide Web. Whoever nostalgically laments the decay of good-old cinema reminds of someone who sings the praises of gas light at the very moment electricity is invented.

This is why Chris Dercon's call to return to the ur-principle of film sounds strange: "Maybe," he said in Rotterdam, "it is not too late to return to the beginning of film, to the cinema of reality, the pre-fictional cinema." At the very moment that the cinema, from the idiosyncratic artist's film to the blockbuster movie, has freed itself of the odium of technical representation, of a slavish mimicking of nature, Dercon calls for a return to the most basic realism! That is history now. There, the "adequate images" Dercon professes to be looking for are no more to be found than among the millions of "pre-fictional" family movies, which have meanwhile been made by millions of dutiful fathers.

The somewhat naïve eye on the world in motion, which Muybridge could still employ to fathom the mysteries of "Animal Locomotion," has gone. The viewer has grown up and the cinema has become grand-parent of a kind of art that again "refreshes our consciousness of representational codes." This 'post-fictional' art has learned from the cinema and uses it, perverts it and dissolves it by merging mechanical registration and coded visual languages into a visual amalgam fashioned from everything we know of reality.

This "exploded cinema" teaches us how different we see 'reality' than twenty, sixty or a hundred years ago, when Muybridge opened the eyes of his contemporaries. This art is always new, still novel.

max bruinsma