Battle of the Images by Raymond Bellour

First published in French and English “La querelle des dispositifs / Battle of the Images”, in art press no. 262, November 2000, pp.48-52. Translated from the French by L-S.Torgoff.

Les statues meurent aussi

Battle of the Images

Raymond Bellour

If there were an open polemic between today’s competing image delivery systems, some light might at last be shed. As it is, all we have is incertitudes – slip-sliding, straddling, flickering, hybridization, metamorphosing, transition and passages between what is still called cinema and the thousand and one ways to show moving images in the vague and misnomered domain known as Art because it is what art school graduates do.

The convergence about to smack us in the face will mean you can use the same appliance to trade stock, watch a movie, e-mail or make toast. The bottom line is that from now on Intel’s inside everything and our souls are networked, just as for so long “live” meant real-time television as opposed to real life. This means it’s time to reconsider cinema with reference to the only thing that can really distinguish it both from what is now overtaking it and may succeed it and from that which existed before it was born. As Godard put it so succinctly in Histoire{s} du cinema, cinema is film plus project ion, i.e. a recorded image shown on a screen in a dark room. Barthes, not exactly a movie buff, was attracted by the movie house ambience, with its “anonymous, populated, dense darkness” and “the dancing cone cutting a hole in the dark like a laser beam.”

Daney, who did truly love motion pictures, was struck by the motionless silence in which viewers must sit, a state of “frozen vision” with its own history. All this would suggest that movies became what we know today with the advent of the talkies, i.e. the loss of the subtitles and inter-titles that linked them to the theater and the novel, and of the pianist, not to mention the barker,a relic of still more ancient forms of entertainment. It took the first “death of cinema” twenty or thirty years ago to bring back and sanctify silent movies, and for the occasional orchestra or pianist to transform the movie theater into a museum. But above all, as Chris Marker, following Godard, said so well in his CD-ROM Immemory, where a second “death of cinema” is foretold, “Cinema is that which is bigger than we are, what you have to look up at. When a movie is shown small and you have to look down at it,it loses its essence … What you see on TV is the shadow of a film, nostalgia for a film, the echo of a film, never a real film.” Movies were unrivaled and never anything but movies for only a generation or two, depending on when TV started in your local time zone.But since then, despite being surrounded, cinema has continually reinvented itself. And because film continues to be a mirror of the world, as the Lumiere brothers and the first nineteenth-century moving picture machinery in­ tended, a critic’s job is not just to distinguish between good and bad movies but also to diagnose in certain symptomatic films whatever it is that remains of that intended essence and thus evaluate the state of the movies in relation to all the other image systems from which it is under siege.

This was what Daney was doing when he pointed out the degree to which today’s movies are cheating on cinema historically by unabashedly incorporating advertising iconography and hi-tech images. Thus Gladiator mixes whatever remains of Spartacus these days with synthetic dream sequences produced by Imagina software. But on the other hand, there also persists a stubbornly determined effort to make movies in the movie-making tradition, as if film were still alone in the world (the two extremes of this trend are marked by Straub-Huillet and Kiarostami). There are also those who bear ferociously despairing but joyful wit­ness to the new deal, as noted by Daney, observing in Fellini and Godard a passage from “natural” motion pictures to motionless pictures, as the cinema expe­rience becomes one of the spectator’s virtual activity when faced with new, more or less immobile images.

In Smoking No Smoking, Resnais gave us a fictional parallel of wired multiple reality and a narrative that mimics the possibilities of interactivity. With Level Five, Marker invented not the first movie to integrate IT (such firsts are necessarily American) but the first to integrate all the various levels of mutation brought about by the computer in terms of historical memory, subjective destiny and filmmaking. Like Astruc with his “camera-pen,” Marker evokes as lucidly as ever a “possible cinema” enabled by today’s new tools, a “cinema of intimacy, solitude, a cinema worked out face-to-face with yourself, like a painter or a writer.” But “you can’t shoot Lawrence of Arabia like that, or Andrei Roublev or Vertigo.” In other words, it rules out the best Hollywood-style block­ buster tradition, great Russian cinema and the finest auteur movies. All of this may be doomed, because Marker’s concept of “possible cinema” goes along with three gestures of acceptance, on his part, of the “honorable destiny” of the “death of cinema.” The first is his commentator-filmmaker who acts as a guide to this death in the perspicacious and moving homage to Tarkovsky (A Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich), in contrast to Godard’s approach in Histoire(s). The second is Marker’s long-term interest in video instal­lations from Zapping Zone (for Passages de /’Image) to his homage to the Silent Movie. The third is his CD­ ROM Immemory, a new genre of self-portrait, both installed in museums and sold like a book.

Or take Chantal Akerman. Twice now she has given in to some felt need to submit her films to the test of installation. With O’Est(au bord de la Fiction) , she has done exactly the right thing, transforming this movie three times in order to create an installation that compares the three un-movie-like display systems through which nearly all films today are shown:museum pseudo-movie theaters, multiple video screens, and television at its best, as a box for experimentation and thought. Projection, circulation, mediation; viewer, stroller-visitor, contemplator — all these physical and mental positions at the service of a single content. Technically lighter but no less significant is her installation now on view in Paris at the “Voila” exhibition, after Boston, New York, London and Brussels; Self-portrait/Autobiography : a Work in Progress. Here there are three monitors in front of which visitors station themselves – the O’Est principle again,but three monitors instead of the eight-times-three. Visitors can sit down in front of two screens to see Jeanne Dielman and the effect is decidedly un-movie-like – each screen shows a dif­ferent parallel narrative; and a single set-back moni­tor offers excerpts from Toute une nuit and Hotel Monterey. A voice-over accompanies the whole thing, Akerman reading excerpts from her book Une Famille a Bruxelles. This is a sort of a documentary about movies, as seen by the filmmaker herself, delivered up in space and transformable in keeping with place and time. This is all the more exciting when at the same time Akerman is presenting La Captive. her most pure and complete work of fiction, one of those films that seem increasingly unlikely these days, and in which cin­ ema achieves a sovereign brilliance.

Such is the un-demarcated tension that calls for a response. When filmmakers give in to the temptation of installation, what is it that they are surrendering to? Raul Ruiz, Peter Greenaway, Atom Egoyan, Harun Farocki, Alexandr Sokurov and Raymond Depardon (I am deliberately skipping the already-classic installation films of seasoned experimental cineastes such as Snow, Sharits, etc.) – they all have their own unique form of spatialization, settings, objects and simulta­neous projections with no time constraints. In a word, they invent one-off setups where, no matter how unique their films may be, each of them puts a little of the movies in the overall mechanism. Further, in the course of their exhibitions, their work is necessarily compared and contrasted with artworks of a differ­ ent order, from photos to installations and all of the innumerable varieties of media and form now fully appropriated by the fine arts. Clearly filmmakers often give in to the wishes of curators. But that hardly alters the question and does nothing to solve the mystery of the mutating works themselves.

Auto-biography of a man whose memory was in his eyes is one of the innumerable versions of Jonas Mekas’ endless diary. But instead of seeing it in one of its possible continuous versions during a structured movie theater showing, in the exhibition at the Paris municipal modern art museum we see it redistributed in three small screening cabins organized around three elements as if this were a CD-ROM. Even more CD-like, outside these non-projection rooms stands a vitrine stuffed with documentation.

Or take another small but perverse displacement, Visione de/deserto conceived by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi for the “Deserts” show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. A row of seats in the back mimics the movies, but in accord with the exhibition visitors’ trajectory, light comes in from the hall, spoiling the movie experi­ence. To avoid it visitors can sit on the cushions piled up along the wall and watch the film sideways. At the entrance, show times have been posted,just like at the movies. The film is the same and yet not really the same as one would see projected in a real movie house, or, for better or worse, recycled on TV.

On the other hand, there are some installations that could not exist without the movies. Revisited, remade, reworked and reduced to slivers,in these pieces film is taken hostage by someone else’s craving for art. Such works comprise a real fantasy of what is being lost, above all because of television, in both art and the movies. But there are also enterprises that evince a twisted and ridiculous desire to pump new life into exhausted art by infusing it with movies in an unsuccessful act of vampirization, a vain attempt at mouth-to- mouth resuscitation between art forms.

Witness David Reed’s insertion of one of his canvases into a sequence form Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as analyzed by Arthur Oanto in After the End of Art. There are also works that through an insanely exaggerated fascination end up teaching us something about both art and cinema – for instance, Douglas Gordon’s take on Hitchcock, from Empire to Feature Film. Between filmmakers drawn to installation art and “artists” for whom movies are raw material,there pulsates an enormous and protean mass of all kinds of installations (from Beat Streuli’s photographic dioramas to James Turrell’s rooms of pure light). For a long time they were dependent on the ideological effects of television and the inherent nature of video itself. Using the most diverse approaches, many of them gradually drew closer to cinema, reappropri­ating certain elements of the machinery of the movies as well as cinematic modes of Figuration and narrative postures — so much so that we can vaguely hypothesize the existence of an alternative cinema.

Two noteworthy examples of this at the 1999 Venice Biennale were the pieces by Doug Aitken and Shirin Neshat. The latter’s new work, Rapture, a more complex piece using the same principle of one monitor for each gender, was a hit at the Lyon Biennale. Faced with these shifts and media straddling, what is a poor critic to do? It would seem incumbent upon us to evaluate these works, in cases where that is worth the effort, from the point of view of dueling image delivery systems, at least in the implicit sense.

For example, it is important to note that so far this year we have already seen two films where the sound track is designed to be created live during the projection, like certain experimental efforts of the 1920s. Manuela Morgaine’s Va, about Casanova, comprises two shorts, one a talkie and the other silent,with the latter’s sound effects added live in Front of the screen (Morgaine defines this as “a kind of theater meant to take place in the Front of a movie theater”). Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s ipanema Theory, a very long documentary about the urban environment, is accompanied by invasive music improvised in a sound booth by two new-genre DJs. It was astonish­ing, during the brief discussion that followed the screening, to hear Gonzalez-Foerster tell a theater full of people who had been sitting for two hours that her “film” would be equally suitable for an open-air night-time showing. This is a fascinating indecisiveness that indicates the degree to which things are slipping out of control.

Anyone who attends exhibitions and showings cannot fail to notice the migrations big and small resulting from various mixes of media and presentation systems. It seems a bit premature – you never know – to theorize this phenomenon. Certainly we could see a cautionary tale in the sorry Fate of art theory since World War II, especially in the U.S., where the irresistible urge to concoct canons and labels in the name of painting or the so-called visual arts, of modernism or postmodernism, drew its self-justifi­cation from art history as if the latter were its own private reserve.It would seem wiser to stick to what Foucault called “the basic tasks of description.” That means, today, more than ever, grasping all the arts as part of one single ensemble and analyzing each work in terms of its mix of different art forms, particularly in terms of media, or the artist’s choice of confining oneself to one mechanism alone. What exactly, for example, is Moments de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Louis Boissier ‘s interactive CD-ROM? A film? A book? A picture album?

This is an unmistakable sign of an aesthetics of confusion about which we still know very little. It seems that computers have gone way beyond the TV that they are about to subsume and are the first machines able to make use of all modes of language and expression, and to transform one into another and modulate them any way anyone wants. They can even simulate installations and play movies.Thus cinema — an impure art, as Bazin said, because it draws its inspiration from all the others and has nothing of its own to offer except reality – is, paradoxically, becoming gradually more pure insofar as its most active verity is becoming that of its mode of display. Cinema will forever be unique, in relation to all the modes that previously seemed similar and also to those that imitate it and parody it today. The most twentieth-century form of art, it is at once more crowded-in now than ever and more alone in its splendor.

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