Category Archives: Articles

Philippe Dubois, “La Jetée de Chris Marker ou le cinématogramme de la conscience”

Philippe Dubois presenting on La Jetée

I’m seaching still for the full text of this presentation, published in Théorème 6: Recherches sur Chris Marker (Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002), and whose table of contents were published here a while back. Hopefully it might be available still somewhere, as it contains a great selection of texts on Marker. An excerpt follows, and then a link to the presentation (no embed code was available).

“La Jetée” de Chris Marker ou le cinématogramme de la conscience, Philippe Dubois

Philippe Dubois (Université Sorbonne – Paris III) : « La Jetée est donc ce film que Chris Marker réalisa en 1962. C’est un court métrage de “seulement” 29 minutes. (On a souvent fait remarquer que Chris Marker – il a les initiales de court métrage – n’avait quasiment jamais fait de film “normal” en termes de durée : des courts ou des [très] longs. Cela ne veut certes rien dire, sinon que chez lui le temps n’est pas un “standard”, qu’il ne se mesure pas, qu’il est chose infiniment extensible, et vertigineux.) Ce film, court donc, mais qui raconte toute la vie d’un homme en la condensant dans un instant-image paradoxal, ce film-vertige du temps est et reste absolument singulier, autant que mythique. C’est, si l’on veut, le seul film de fiction (et même de science-fiction) dans l’œuvre de Marker. À mes yeux, il se présente, avec une intensité remarquable, à la fois comme un acte théorique, une sorte de film-pensée articulant des modèles conceptuels complexes (du temps, de l’espace, de la représentation, de la vie psychique), et comme une pure œuvre, non une illustration d’un enjeu conceptuel, mais une création d’une force vive encore aujourd’hui irrésistible, sans équivalent, et qui finit par emporter toute théorie. C’est à ce double titre que cette œuvre m’intéresse et me fascine, comme elle a fasciné et intéressé plus d’une génération de théoriciens autant que de créateurs, son propre auteur compris : “La Jetée est le seul de mes films dont j’ai plaisir à apprendre la projection”, aime à dire Chris Marker. »
www.zintv.org

Philippe Dubois, presentation of paper “La Jetée de Chris Marker ou le cinématogramme de la conscience” – Video

Ricardo Greene, Iván Pinto Publish La Zona Marker

la-zona-marker

I received an email from Ricardo Greene with news of a new, important book on Chris Marker in Spanish: La Zona Marker The book is published by Ediciones FIDOCS (Culdoc series) in Santiago, Chile. It presents a collection of essays by Ricardo Green, Iván Pinto, Patricio Guzmán (“Lo que debo a Chris Marker”), Trevor Stark, Carolina Anaral de Aguiar, Chris Marker himself (“El ùltimo bolchevique”), Maria Paz Peirano, Maria Luisa Ortega, Gonzalo De Lucas, Eduardo A. Russo, Raymond Bellour (“Marker Forever” in its first Spanish translation), and Wolfgang Bongers. More information is available on the FIDOCS site at https://www.fidocs.cl/2013/06/18/la-zona-marker/. According to CinemaChile.cl, Ricardo Greene is a director, sociologist and visual anthropologist, and was the director of the 17th version of FIDOCS, a film festival founded by Patrizio Guzman.

The only other book on Marker in Spanish that I know of is Chris Marker Inmemoria, published by Ambulante Ediciones in 2013, edited by Maria Fortes and Lorena Gómez Mostajo, and published in Mexico. I will present the table of contents for that volume in a separate post. Note: Christophe Chazalon wrote me post-post, pointing to some other Spanish language publications on Marker, as listed on this page of chrismarker.ch (section “en espanol”). Thanks CH2!*

For those who wish to take a look at La Zona Marker in pdf format, you can access it on academia.edu at www.academia.edu/12500029/La_Zona_Marker.

Contratulations to Ricardo and Iván and happy reading. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

A post on fidocs.cl clarifies the tripartite organization of the book:

Además de lanzar una nueva competencia de cortometrajes en su honor y de presentar una muestra de sus películas, este año hemos decidido honrar a Chris Marker con La Zona Marker. Dividido en tres capítulos, cada uno de ellos está dedicado a las distintas “vanguardias” que pueden encontrarse en su vida y obra: la primera, sobre el militante comprometido, cuenta con artículos de Trevor Stark, Carolina Amaral De Aguiar y del propio Chris Marker; el segundo, sobre el explorador que se adentra en culturas desconocidas, presenta trabajos inéditos de María Paz Peirano, Maria Luisa Ortega y Gonzalo De Lucas; el tercero, por último, es sobre sus innovaciones en el lenguaje audiovisual y edita artículos de Raymond Bellour, Eduardo Russo y Wolfgang Bongers. A ellos se suma un trabajo introductorio de los editores y una carta de Patricio Guzmán, además de ilustraciones y fotogramas. Una obra dedicada no sólo a especialistas sino a cualquiera que quiera adentrarse en los bordes difusos de su enorme legado.
R.G.

Aside from launching a new short film competition in his honor, and screening a retrospective of his work, this year we have decided to play a tribute to Chris Marker with The Marker Zone. It’s divided in three chapters, each one of them dedicated to a different cutting edge point that can be found throughout his life and works: the first about the committed militant, includes articles by Trevor Stark, Carolina Amaral De Aguiar and Chris Marker himself; the second about the explorer that ventures into unknown cultures, with unedited works by María Paz Peirano, Maria Luisa Ortega and Gonzalo De Lucas; the third and last is about his innovation on the audiovisual language and has edited articles by Raymond Bellour, Eduardo Russo and Wolfgang Bongers. Furthermore, an introductory piece by the editors and a letter by Patricio Guzmán, besides illustrations and video frames. A book not just dedicated to the adept, but to anyone who wants to delve into the vague fringes of his huge legacy.
R.G.

Table of Contents

ÍNDICE
Agradecimientos

La Zona Marker: Preludio en tres actos
Ricardo Greene e Iván Pinto

Lo que debo a Chris Marker
Patricio Guzmán

CAPÍTULO 1: UN GATO CON GARRAS

El Grupo Medvedkine y la División Cinemática del Trabajo
Trevor Stark

El ímpetu revolucionario latinoamericano en el discurso cinematográfico de Chris Marker
Carolina Amaral de Aguiar

El último bolchevique
Chris Marker

CAPÍTULO 2: GATOS ERRANTES

Viaje, romanticismo y crítica cultural: La mirada antropológica de Chris Marker
María Paz Peirano

El coleccionista y sus geografías
María Luisa Ortega

You are my second chance! Composición política de la imagen en Sans soleil
Gonzalo De Lucas

CAPÍTULO 3: “… Y ERA UN GATO, DESPUÉS DE TODO”

Del atalaya al observatorio. El cine desde las instalaciones de Chris Marker
Eduardo A. Russo

Marker forever
Raymond Bellour

Cine expandido en la era de memorias erráticas. Apuntes sobre Immemory
Wolfgang Bongers

Selección de caricaturas

Biografías

Guillaume, Guillaume, Guillaume…

Guillaume, Guillaume, Guillaume (The cat named Guillaume)
Visiting Chris Marker in Second Life
Katie Rose Pipkin

guillaume-SL

I never really lived in Second Life. As an artist working in digital spaces this is patently uncool. But it is true; by the time I stumbled onto the massively multiplayer simulation it was already empty, a shrinking economy and user-base spread across a vast and often-private landscape leaving the world desolate at best.

Around this time, I attended a seminar in which a subdued Jon Rafman gave us a tour of the sim, not in his eponymous Kool-Aid man avatar, but rather (if I’m remembering correctly) as a understated goth animal, perhaps some kind of dog. We were shown around a few of Rafman’s old haunts; a sex-club, a unicorn glade; all abandoned. Eventually we went to a welcome area, where there were 20-odd avatars sitting around and voice chatting. A small, diapered man was running up against the architecture repeatedly- a winged, corseted goddess-figure was talking about their kids. When we said hello (in unison, all of us) the other players were kind and welcoming, if a bit bored. Rafman seemed surprised; he told us that this was rare culturally, that the general sentiment about his art-world tour presence (and perhaps the presence of anyone new) was animosity.

Unsettled, I didn’t visit again for at least another year.

In the meantime, I was watching Sans Soleil, Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental travel documentary. I say watching, not watched, as it turned into a process; after seeing the film several times in a month, I downloaded a text file of the script and read it like a charm, in pieces, whenever I needed to write or to think in elegance. It is still open, autosaved as Unsaved Pages Document 20. I was surprised it should be so important to me; the work is disarmingly sincere, almost saccharine at times.

He writes; “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

 

Katie Rose Pipkin, “Guillaume, Guillaume, Guillaume (The cat named Guillaume): Visiting Chris Marker in Second Life”, medium.com/@katierosepipkin/ Go to Medium to read the full text, merely excerpted above…

André Bazin on Chris Marker (1958)

lettre-de-siberie-bazin

Trans. Dave Kehr, © Cahiers du Cinéma, published in Film Comment, 2003.

Chris Marker, as you may remember, wrote the narration for Bibliothèque Nationale (Toute la mémoire du monde) and Statues Also Die (which the public still has only been able to see in a version cut to half its length by the censorship board). These incisive, powerful texts, in which cutting irony plays hide and seek with poetry, would be enough to secure their author a privileged place in the field of short filmmaking, currently the liveliest fringe of the French cinema. As the writer of the narrations for these films by his friend Resnais, with whom he shares a marvelous understanding, Chris Marker has already profoundly altered the visual relationship between text and image. But his ambition was obviously even more radical, and it became necessary for him to make his own films.

First there was Sunday in Peking, which justly won a prize at the 1956 Festival of Tours, and now, at last, there is the extraordinary Letter from Siberia. Admirable as Sunday in Peking was, it was also slightly disappointing, in that the restrictions of the short format seemed inadequate for such a big subject. And it also has to be said that the images, while often very beautiful, did not supply sufficient documentary material in the end. It left us wanting more. But the seed of the dialectic between word and image that Marker would go on to sow in Letter from Siberia was already there. In the new film, it grows to the dimensions appropriate to a feature film, and takes the weight.

“A Documentary Point of View”

How to describe Letter from Siberia? Negatively, at first, in pointing out that it resembles absolutely nothing that we have ever seen before in films with a documentary basis – films with “a subject.” But then it becomes necessary to say what it is. Flatly and objectively, it is a film report from a Frenchman given the rare privilege of traveling freely in Siberia, covering several thousand kilometers. Although in the last three years we have seen several film reports from French travelers in Russia. Letter from Siberia resembles none of them. So. We must take a closer look. I would propose the following approximate description: Letter from Siberia is an essay on the reality of Siberia past and present in the form of a filmed report. Or. perhaps, to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (“a documentary point of view”), I would say, an essay documented by film. The important word is “essay,” understood in the same sense that it has in literature — an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.

Generally, even in politically engaged documentaries or those with a specific point to make, the image (which is to say, the uniquely cinematic element) effectively constitutes the primary material of the film. The orientation of the work is expressed through the choices made by the filmmaker in the montage, with the commentary completing the organization of the sense thus conferred on the document. With Marker it works quite differently. I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence. The usual process is reversed. I will risk another metaphor: Chris Marker brings to his films an absolutely new notion of montage that I wall call “horizontal,” as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot. Here, a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.

From the Ear to the Eye

Better, it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual. The montage has been forged from ear to eye. Because of space limitations, I will describe only a single example, which is also the film’s most successful moment. Marker presents us with a documentary image that is at once full of significance and completely neutral: a street in Irkutsk. We see a bus going by and workers repairing the roadway, and then at the end of the shot a fellow with a somewhat strange face (or at least, little blessed by nature) who happens to pass in front of the camera. Marker then comments on these rather banal images from two opposed points of view: first, that of the Communist party line, in the light of which the unknown pedestrian becomes “‘a picturesque representative of the north country,” and then in that of the reactionary perspective, in which he becomes “a troubling Asiatic.”

This single, thought-provoking antithesis is a brilliant stroke of inspiration in itself, but its wit remains rather facile. Its then that the author offers a third commentary, impartial and minutely detailed, that objectively describes the unhappy Mongol as ‘”a cross-eyed Yakout.” And this time we are way beyond cleverness and irony, because what Marker has just demonstrated is that objectivity is even more false than the two opposed partisan points of view: that, at least in relation to certain realities, impartiality is an illusion. The operation we have observed is thus precisely dialectic, consisting of placing the same image in three different intellectual contexts and following the results.

Intelligence and Talent

In order to give the reader a complete sense of this unprecedented enterprise, it remains for me to point out that Chris Marker does not restrict himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but uses any and all filmic material that might help his case—including still images (engravings and photos), of course, but also animated cartoons. Like McLaren, he does not hesitate to say the most serious things in the most comic way (as in the sequence with the mammoths). There is only one common denominator in this firework display of technique: intelligence. Intelligence and talent. It is only just to also point out that the photography is by Sacha Viemy. the music the work of Pierre Barbaud. and that the narration is excellently read by Georges Rouquier.

Andre Bazin, 1958

Further Reading:  Chris Darke, “Chris Marker Eyesight,” Film Comment, 2003.

Jacques Rancière, In front of the camera lens

Eisenstein, Odessa steps

I’m still seeking to understand this piece of writing, which forgoes a close reading of Marker’s The Last Bolchevik for something else, something akin to thinking out loud in a somewhat associative manner, while using a film – a moment of a film removed from context – for purposes having only tangential connections with the film itself. It strikes me as the philosophical opposite of letting the object speak that Benjamin practiced beautifully and Adorno celebrated but, in the final analysis, failed to achieve in concrete terms (except in his music criticism, of course). It is not all Rancière’s fault, as philosophy struggles on a regular basis with use and abuse of cultural artifacts; either they are subsumed as paradigmatic or used as merely illustrative decoration on the conceptual inner architecture of a system or a way of seeing. This piece tries to be an essay, but it is something else. I haven’t figured out what genre of writing this piece belongs to. I’m reproducing it here to help myself figure this out, in part. If you understand Rancière’s ‘project’, please don’t hesitate to write and clarify things for me, for I feel in a fog after reading this and can only blame it on the author preliminarily, as a knee-jerk reaction. But I can’t stay there. This cannot be my final word, nor hopefully Rancière’s final word on Marker.

I. In front of the camera lens

Jacques Rancière, Figures of HistoryIt is an image from turn-of-the-century Saint Petersburg, both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. The imperial family is passing by, surrounded by an escort of officers and dignitaries. The crowd gathered there, at the side of the road, is addressed by an officer with an imperious gesture: when the Tsar passes, the thing to do is to remove your hat. The commentator’s voice is heard: I don’t want this image to be forgotten.

What is Chris Marker trying to tell us by placing this image at the opening of his 1993 film, The Last Bolshevik? Is he trying to say that the people really were oppressed and humiliated in Russia in the early twentieth century and that, in today’s latest round of score-settling with the communist era, we should not forget what came before that era and justified its coming? The objector will swiftly reply that the evils of the day before yesterday do not justify those of yesterday, which, in any case, were worse. What is can never be justified by what was, no matter what conclusions we draw about the past. Or, rather, such conclusions belong entirely to the realm of rhetoric. It is only there that images suffice as evidence. Elsewhere, they merely show, merely provide a record for posterity. The image of General Orlov and his men imposing a duty of respect on the crowd doesn’t tell us that, all the same, the Bolsheviks had their reasons and their excuses. It tells us both less and more: this was, it is part of a certain history, it is history.

This was. Our present is not beset by skepticism, as people often claim, somewhat superciliously. It is beset by negation.’ If the provocation of denying the Nazi extermination camps has resisted attack and is even gaining ground, this is because it is synchronous with this spirit of the times, a spirit of resentment, ressentiment, not just resentment of the ideals of the new man which people believed in, or resentment of the people who got you to believe in those ideals or the people who destroyed them and brought about the general loss of faith. The object of resentment, Nietzsche tells us, is time itself, the es war: this was. Resentment is sick of hearing about this past of the future, which is also a future of the past. It has had it with those two tenses, which are so good at conjugating their double absence. Resentment is only interested in knowing time without the trickery: the present and its conjoncture, its conjunction of circumstances, as a present that we go on counting endlessly to reassure ourselves that it is woven out of the real and nothing but the real: the time involved in ratings that are expected to recover next month or polls that are supposed to track the same trend one month later. Just as resentment abhors the times and tenses of absence, so it abhors images, which are always of the past and which have probably already been doctored and trafficked by the false prophets of the future.

But the camera lens is indifferent to all that. It doesn’t need to insist on the present. It cannot not be in it. It has neither memory nor ulterior motive and, so, no resentment, either. It records what it has been told to record: the imperial family’s royal procession at the beginning of the twentieth century; or, thirty or forty years later, mobile human pyramids in Red Square bearing vast effigies of Stalin at their apex, which pass before Stalin himself, who applauds his image (Rothschild’s Violin). Someone in power not only allowed images to be made of these parades, which look so damning to us; he ordered that they be made. Just as some other authority, in Indonesia, commissioned those images of local children twisting their mouths in an effort to learn to speak the language of the colonizer properly; or those images of faces in tears before a portrait of Stalin in Prague in 1953. The camera has captured these images faithfully. But, of course, it did so after its own fashion, as a double agent faithful to two masters: the one behind the camera who actively directs the shot, and the one in front of the camera who passively directs the camera’s passivity. In Jakarta, the camera recorded the rapt attention of a child who is so much more anxious to do well than the cameraman is (Mother Dad). In Prague, it not only noted the faces saddened by the death of the Father of the People. It also noted how the photo of Stalin sat behind a glass pane, in a little niche similar to the ones where people used to put statues of the Virgin Mary in the recent past and where they may well put them again in the near future. (Words and Death. Prague in the Days of Stalin). And so faithfully did it reproduce the defendants in the Prague trials, confessing and explaining their guilt, that the rolls of film had to be consigned to the cupboard and concealed even from those who had attended the trials and been convinced by what they had heard. The mechanical eye of the camera calls for an ‘honest artist’ (Epstein) and unmasks the one who has only learned his role for an occasional audience.

This was. This is part of a story. To deny what was, as the Holocaust deniers are still showing us, you don’t even need to suppress many of the facts; you only need to remove the link that connects them and constitutes them as a story. A story, une histoire, is an arrangement of actions according to which there has not simply been this and then that, but a configuration that fits the facts together and allows them to be presented as a whole: what Aristotle calls a muthos — a storyline, or plot, in the sense in which we speak of the plot of a play. Between the image of General Orlov and the images of the Soviet epic and its disastrous collapse, there is no causal link that could legitimate anything whatsoever. There is simply a story that can legitimately include them both. For example, the story entitled The Last Bolshevik, which ties all sorts of other images into the official image of the royal procession: images such as those from the rediscovered footage of Alexander Medvedkin’s films which, in various modes, accompanied the different phases of the Soviet epic. These range from the surrealist images of Happiness, whose burlesque lightness of touch seems mockingly to undermine the promises of the official version of happiness, despite the conformism of the script, to the militant images produced by the cine- train, rolling across Russia to shoot from life and immediately relay to the interested parties the debates of people taking control of factories, land or housing; from official images made surrealist — or surrealist images made official? — produced to celebrate the work of the architects of the New Moscow, to interviews with people close to the filmmaker or researchers busy reviving his oeuvre and status, to images that speak volumes about the Russia of today, such as parties held by merry — and, Marker would have us believe, gilded — youth toppling statues. They range from images of the renewed pomp of religion, similar to that staged by the man who made Ivan the Terrible, perhaps to embrace, in a single sweeping glance, the Russia of the Tsars and the priests and the Russia of the Soviet dictator, and to the enigmatic image of an old man with an inscrutable face taking part in a ceremony. He turns out to be Ivan Koslovsky, the Russian tenor par excellence, a man who traversed the torments of the century imperturbably singing the muted melody of the Indian merchant in Sadko or Lensky’s farewell lines in Eugene Onegin:

Where, oh where have you gone,
Golden days of my youth?

This makes a story. But also a history of a certain era: no longer just an arrangement of actions in the Aristotelian manner, but an arranging of signs in the Romantic manner: signs that immediately talk and fall into place in a meaningful storyline; signs that don’t talk, but merely signal that there is history-making material there; or signs that, like Koslovsky’s face, are undecidable — like the silence of an old man, meditative as a person is at that age, or like the muteness of two centuries of history, the history of the Russia of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky within the history of Soviet Russia.

So, we are talking about a history of a certain era, a story from the time of history. That expression, too, is suspect these days. The current Zeitgeist assures us that all our troubles stem from the malevolent belief in history as the process of truth and the promise of completion. It teaches us to separate the task of the historian (doing history) from the ideological mirage according to which mankind or the masses would supposedly make history. But doesn’t this convenient dissociation obscure the very thing that makes for the peculiarity of the image with which we started this essay — namely, the way the princes passing by and the crowd which parts for them as they pass share the same light and the same image? Maybe this is what the ‘age of history’ is, quite simply, at least to begin with. Long ago, in the days of history painting, people painted images of the great and their deeds. Of course the hordes and humble people could be in the picture, too. It would be hard to conceive of a general without troops or a king without subjects. Occasionally, the hero would address them. Occasionally, the roles might actually be reversed and the old soldier, in great distress at the sight, would recognize his general, the Byzantine General Belisarius, in the beggar crouching at his feet. But there was nevertheless no common fate, shared between the man of glory subject to glory’s reversals and the ‘ignoble’ man, excluded from glory’s order; between generals fallen on hard times and the ill-born, who had already ‘sunk into anonymity’, in Mallarme’s phrase. The old soldier’s image could share the canvas with that of Belisarius. But he did not share the story of the honest Belisarius’s greatness and decline. That particular history belonged to Belisarius’s peers alone, and lor them it was supposed to recall two things that were of interest only to them: that fortune is inconstant, but that virtue, on the other hand, never fails the man who has cultivated it. The name ‘history’ was given to the anthology of such great examples, worthy of being learned, represented, meditated upon, imitated. Each one taught only its own lesson, unchanging over time, and intended only for those whose vocation it was to leave behind a memory of their actions and accordingly draw an example from the memorable deeds of other men worthy of being remembered.

But the image of General Orlov offers instruction of quite a different kind, precisely because it wasn’t made in order to provide anything whatsoever to meditate upon or imitate. The person who took it was not intending to remind us of the respect due to royalty. He took it because it is only normal to get down all that the great and the good do when they’re putting themselves on show, and since machines can do this automatically, these days. Yet the machine makes no distinction. It doesn’t know that there are genre paintings and history paintings. It takes both the great and the small and it takes them together. It doesn’t make them equal by virtue of who knows what mission of science and technology to bring about a democratic reconciliation between noble and humble ranks. It simply makes those ranks liable to share the same image, an image of the same ontological tenor. It does so because, for the image itself even to exist, those disparate ranks had to have something in common already: they belonged to the same period of time, to precisely that time we call ‘history’ – a time that is no longer an indifferent anthology of memorable actions, intended for those who are supposed to be memorable too, but the very stuff of human action in general; a time that is qualified and oriented, that carries promises and threats; a time that levels all those who belonged to it — those who belonged to the order of memory and those who did not. History has always been the story of the people who ‘make history’ exclusively. What changes is the identity of the ‘history makers’. And the age of history is the age where anyone at all can make history because everyone is already making it, because everyone is already made by it.

History is that time in which those who have no right to occupy the same place can occupy the same image: the time of the material existence of the shared light of which Heraclitus spoke, the sun of judgment none of us can escape. It is not a matter of any ‘equality in rank’ in the eyes of the camera. It is a matter of the twin mastery the camera prompts, the mastery of the operator and that of his ‘subject’. It is a matter of a certain sharing of the light, a sharing whose terms Mallarmé undertook to define, a few years before the image we’re dealing with here was taken, in the extraordinary prose poem entitled ‘Conflict’. This is about the conflict between the poet and those bores, the railway workers who, laid out by heavy Sunday drinking sessions, ‘close off, by their abandon, the vespertine distance’. It’s about an internal conflict as well, over the duty incumbent upon the poet not indecorously to step over the ‘carpet of the scourge’ of which he must ‘understand the mystery and judge the duty’.

‘The constellations begin to shine: how I’d like it if in the darkness that runs over the blind flock, points of light, like that thought just now, could be fixed, in spite of these sealed eyes not making them out — for the fact, for the exactness, for it to be said.’ The French poet wanted to steal from the brightly shining stars the right light not only for illuminating the workers’ faces, but to consecrate the shared sojourn. To that dream, as to all dreams, a German philosopher had already responded, some little time before, in his taunting way: ‘Human beings only ever ask themselves questions they can answer.’ Fixing points of light over the ill-born, sunk into anonymity — that had already been done, technically, routinely. It was called photography, which is writing with light; and with the advent of photography, all lives entered the shared light of a writing of the memorable. But the idealist poet, who dreamed of new ‘acts of worship’ by and for the community, may well have seen the central point more clearly than the materialist philosopher of the class struggle: light itself is an object of sharing and distribution, partage, but it is only conflictually common. The equality of all before the light and the inequality of the little people as the great pass by are both written on the same photographic plate. This is why we can read, on that plate, what it was actually pointless looking for in the painting of Belisarius as a beggar: the commonality of two worlds in the very gesture of exclusion; their separation in the commonality of one and the same image. This is why we can also see there the commonality of a present and a future, the future Mandelstam was to celebrate in 1917 in two deliberately ambiguous lines:

O Sun, judge, people, your light is rising over sombre years.

But the sentence of light is not only, as some would have it, the history of the new myths of the red sun and the bloody catastrophe they led to. It may, more simply, be the ‘justice’ that the images from Mother Dao do to the colonized of the recent past. Dutch colonizers in Indonesia took those images to celebrate their work civilizing the natives. In the forest where wild creatures once lived, a humming hive of industry now rose and in it their sons gained skill, dignity and a salary by extracting and forming metal. At school, in the dispensaries, grown-ups and children consented to the teaching that elevated them, to the hygiene of showers, to the vaccinations that saved their bodies and to the signs of the cross that saved their souls. These images of the recent past have been organized differently by Vincent Monnikendam. And the underlying principle of their reorganization is not to show the dark underside of oppression beneath this civilizing parade, to move from the ‘happiness’ pictured by the colonizer to the unhappiness and revolt of the colonized. No doubt the poetic voice off that accompanies the images voices the suffering of the earth and of a life that aspires to resume the ‘course of its thoughts’. But this very accompaniment is not so much a counterpoint to that suffering as the manifestation of a capacity for voicing the situation, for turning it into fiction. What it thereby accompanies on screen is a minute yet decisive change in the appearance of the faces and attitudes of the colonized, in the ‘happiness’ they express: they respond to the surprise of these imposed exercises with attention, with a certain pride in playing the game, as perfectly as possible, before the blackboard at school or the iron at the forge. They quietly assert their equal aptitude for all kinds of learning, for all the rules and every kind of contortion; they assert their equal intelligence. And watching the face of the little girl who takes such pains to spell the master’s language correctly, we seem to catch an echo of a moment of sentimentality on the part of the ironist Karl Marx, when he recalls the gatherings of the League of the Just and celebrates the ‘nobility of man that ‘shines from the workers’ brows’. It is a nobility of the same kind that makes the eye of the camera wielded by the colonizer shine. Consciously or unconsciously. Intentionally and beyond what was intended.

Translator’s note: The French word for Holocaust denial or revisionism, is négationnisme. A revisionist is a négationniste.
Jacques Rancière, “I. In front of the camera lens”, Figures of History, Wiley, 2014.

Eisenstein, Odessa steps

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.

Trafic and Serge Daney by Raymond Bellour

Published here: sergedaney.blogspot.co.uk

Trafic and Serge Daney

Raymond Bellour

When Serge Daney decided to found Trafic, a ‘cinema review’, at the start of the 1990s, he began from the ‘realisation that the intellectual landscape in which cinema exists has changed a great deal. Changed to the extent that the traditional ways of writing about cinema do not “bite” anymore in relation to the reality of classic literary cinephilic consumption’. (1) Daney aimed thus at the way that we can live the cinema according to its current state, but at the same time attending to it in its largest possible sense. Undetermined, in the first instance, by the appearance of films as they are released in cinemas or at Film Festivals. Rather, a far more multiple ‘currency’, relating as much to the increasingly diverse evolutions of cinema around the world as to all the various modes of reflecting upon films, and to the life that is lived in their company.

For someone like Daney, who in the 1970s had directed the most prestigious monthly in the history of cinephilia (namely, Cahiers du cinéma), then worked for the ‘cinema’ section of a daily newspaper open (like few others) to current events in culture (namely, Libération), it was a matter, above all, with Trafic (a quarterly publication), of finding a different tempo. A time that is essentially free and vagabond, where it was as much a question of re-seeing as of seeing, and above all of composing an unexpected kind of ‘currency’, defined by the ongoing experiences of each Committee member of the journal, and of every author invited to contribute to it. So this presumes that, in Trafic, the desire to write always takes precedence. ‘Which is a way of saying’, according to Daney, ‘that the intrinsic quality of the texts will always win out over the relative opportunity of their subjects’. Thus it is that this ‘cinema review’ becomes – doubtless alone in the entire world of publications of comparable ambition – a magazine bereft of images, apart from a modest vignette on the cover. Because, in Trafic, it is above all a matter of showing how it is possible to think and write images.

In his programmatic text, Daney enumerated eight types of text destined to co-exist in the magazine. ‘1. Highly personal “chronicles” following, from day to day, what is current in cinema. 2. “Letters From …”, written in a deliberately epistolary style, coming from isolated, faraway friends at the ends of the earth. 3. Texts belonging to cinema’s past (whether French or otherwise) that have become unavailable. 4. Texts by filmmakers, of a “work in progress” nature, moments of assessment, stages or elements in the working process. 5. Texts more precisely dedicated to the “image” in general, and to the way in which such images illuminate, or are illuminated by, the cinema. 6. Free interventions by philosophers, writers, novelists. 7. Regular essays, cinephilic but gregarious’. Daney could also have specified that the magazine also pursues, as part of its vocation, the translation of many foreign texts – in order to reverse the dominant tendency in France, especially in approaches to cinema, towards national self-sufficiency. But the presence in the first issue of Trafic, out of fourteen texts, of Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Rossellini (presented by Adriano Aprà), Joao Cesar Monteiro, Robert Kramer and Bill Krohn was enough to make that point. And the ratio, since then, has only increased.

Already consumed by AIDS at the moment of this first issue, Daney only lived long enough to see the first three instalments of this adventure of a magazine which meant more to him than anything else. But a drive had been initiated, which would then be continued, strengthened, developed and varied, thanks to the energy of an Editorial Committee formed as a collective, comprising Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Patrice Rollet and myself. After Biette’s sudden death in 2003, and the realisation of an enormous 50th issue, both a celebration and a retrospective, the idea of which (titled ‘What is Cinema?’) we had conceived with him, we added an Advisory Committee comprising close friends of the magazine since its inception, people who stood for its many vocations: writer Leslie Kaplan, filmmaker Pierre Léon, philosopher Jacques Rancière, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, art historian and writer Jean Louis Schefer. Each one helps us, in their own way, to fashion the image of a singular cinema magazine.

If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional university writing. But both film critics and university teachers write, of course, for Trafic, provided they are carried away by a project of thought and style in which they are deeply engaged, and closely wedded to their choice of object as well as their personal sensibility. Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works of cinema, whether classical or modern (Mizoguchi, Walsh, Antonioni, Fassbinder, Ozu, Syberberg, Minnelli, Hitchcock, Lang, Ford … with two special issues devoted to these last three names), we have always chosen to support – by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine – a certain group of filmmakers, as diverse as possible, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers: for example, Manoel de Oliveira, Chris Marker, Stephen Dwoskin, Chantal Akerman, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Ken Jacobs, Pedro Costa, Jonas Mekas, Philippe Garrel, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Robert Kramer, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Abbas Kiarostami, Harun Farocki, and Philippe Grandrieux.

Extract from an essay published in the Masterclass booklet of the Jeonju International Film Festival, Korea, 2009.

NOTE
1. These words by Daney, like those that follow, are extracted from the short programmatic text which accompanied publication of the first issue of Trafic in Winter 1991.
© Raymond Bellour March 2009. English Translation © Adrian Martin March 2009.

Chris Marker Commentaires : English Translation Coming

I’m not sure of the publisher or publication date, but I learned today via the following essay of this project, which is a joy to contemplate. More as more is revealed, bien sûr, and heartfelt congratulations to Sergey Levchin, yet another longtime Chris Marker fan emerging with an essential project. Scanned copies of the out-of-print originals are available at the end of the post for download.

chris marker commentaires spread

Levchin’s article on the translation project was published on 2.20.15 in Pen America (pen.org).

Intuition and Reflection: On Translating Chris Marker

Sergey Levchin is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Commentaires by Chris Marker.

Chris Marker is a famous unknown, a cinephile shibboleth, his banal pseudonym perhaps first among the names that divide the pearl diver from a mere wader; a relentlessly self-effacing self-mythologizer, whose meandering, globetrotting, paradoxically personal philosophical essay-film about Japan-time-memory Sans Soleil (1983) is still the inevitable offering of any Intro to Film course, inevitably reserved for the make-up day. He is also said to have made a short film entirely out of still photographs that later inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Little more is generally known of the eccentric Parisian, whose remarkably extensive body of work includes some sixty films, hundreds of essays and articles, and dozens of avatars.

In the past decade or longer, longer certainly than I would like to admit, I have delved on and off into Marker’s filmography—tantalizing in sheer volume as much as rarity. In that time I learned to make films, to speak French, to translate … and the master himself had died. That was when we finally learned his name and birth date (91 years prior, to the day), both engraved on the casket.

Of course, by then “my” Marker was no longer a shimmering cipher: from his many works I had been able to tease out bits of biography, distinct stages of his long career, affinities and affiliations, artistic roots, circumstances, trajectories—all the things that strip away the veneer of mystery and reveal (in the best cases) a far deeper mystery.

The “essay film” is Marker’s invention and natural element, its best specimens brilliant orchestrations of image and text and sound, of intuition (the snapped photo—and Marker’s images are nearly always still, even when they are moving) and reflection (the commentary).

The two Commentaires volumes, published in France in 1961 and ’67, respectively, are a summing up of the essay-film phase of Marker’s career, which would hibernate for the next 15 years to re-emerge as the masterpiece Sans Soleil. These are the founding texts of the genre, print variants of nine early essay-cum-travelogues, two of which were never filmed. The title is deceptive—these are not merely “commentaries” or voice-over scripts torn from the fabric of the films, not the films’ pale shadows. Generously supplied with images, dynamically and idiosyncratically laid out by Marker himself, they become photo-essays, works of art—both visual and literary—in their own right.

And while the photos mercifully speak for themselves in any language, it is both remarkable pleasure and cringing toil to attempt to recreate Marker’s playful idiom and verbal pyrotechnics in English. I am deeply grateful to PEN for supposing I may be up to the task.
Sergey Levchin

This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.

Chris Marker Commentaires spread

For those who read French, we offer scanned PDFs of the originals here for the first time. These pdfs have been reduced in size as much as possible, and are compatible with Acrobat 9.0 and later. Still, they will take some time to download… Enjoy!

  1. Commentaires, 1961 [15MB]
  2. Commentaires 2, 1967 [17MB]

You can also refer to the cult knowledge/document sharing site aaaaarg.org [google it, the url is unstable] for the generous uploads, curation and downloads of all sorts of arcane literary, theoretical & philosophical materials. Chris Marker, Commentaires + Chris Marker, Commentaires 2. While you’re there, check out the rubric I curate on Essay Film: Essay Film, aaaaarg.org. Sign up and join the erudite fun, from ‘A Genealogy of Bibliographies’ to ‘Zone Books’.

NB: This post is being updated with new links for aaaaarg, which has moved now to https://aaaaarg.fail/

Chris Marker Commentaires 1961

Chris Marker Dialector Reloaded by André Lozano – English Translation

Many thanks to Dorna Khazeni for translating André Lozano’s interesting tale of bringing Chris Marker’s Dialector to the annual Appel II Convention @ KansasFest last summer. The original article in French appears in another post here, Dialector Reloaded, or We Aren’t In Kansas City Anymore.

§
André Lozano headed to Kansas City (USA) July 22-27 for the annual Apple II Convention, KansasFest, and to present “Dialector,” the original, previously unpublished program by Chris Marker, reactivated through his efforts, with the collaboration of artist Agnes de Cayeux, and the founder of Poptronics, Annick Rivoire. Back in France, he recounts the event, the ambiance, and ponders the retro-computing phenomenon.

How I reloaded Chris Marker’s Dialector at KansasFest

So, I took off with my 5 1/2″ “Dialector” diskette in my bag, headed to Kansas City, USA, to “reload” the program that Chris Marker had written in his spare time in the 1980s. This was going to take place not just anywhere, but in a singular technological and sociological environment: at KansasFest, the rendez-vous of Apple II enthusiasts.

What Annick Rivoire, Agnes de Cayeux and myself mean by “reload” is the reactivation, using period computer equipment, of the “Dialector” program written 30 years ago by the documentary filmmaker and multimedia artist. As “Dialector” is a program intended to make it possible to hold a conversation with the machine, we were inviting volunteers to activate it, we would then conserve the subsequent emotions and dialogue.

Arrival in Kansas City

Seventeen flight hours after my take-off from Luxembourg, via Munich and Philadephia, I landed in Kansas City, “the City of Fountains.” and found I had moved back thirty years on the computer science timeline.

Immediately upon my arrival at the University of Rockhurst, barely after I’d passed the threshold of the main entrance, I stumbled upon a mountain of cumbersome computer equipment. It’s a sort of tradition here: every year generous donors part with their collections. It’s a free-for-all cum yardsale for the cognoscente. This year Eric is parting with his equipment with a note of sorrow as he’s not sure, in view of his very advanced age, that he will be returning to KansasFest. Everyone helps themselves to the equipment and the sentimental patrimony according to their needs, and shares according to their means. In this trove, I came away only with a working joystick, the rest of it was either too voluminous, or was incompatible with European electronic standards.

I experienced a strange feeling at being here, 7500 kilometers from where I live, in this improbable place, a deserted Jesuit university, lost in a city in the middle of the United States, among 70 to 80 “attendees,” (participants), all of them fervent first generation Apple computer users. I wondered, “What is obsolescence exactly? Should one resign oneself to ever-changing equipment? What if the resilience of innovation were actually possible? Right here maybe, with Dean, Vince, Andrew and Quin? Young and old, initiated or debutants, a counter-innovation was set into motion.

“Apple II forever”

Let us resists the sirens of novelty, bye bye Ipod, Iphone and MacBook! Here it was “Apple II forever,” and everyone could marvel at an MOS 6502 processor. There reigns a sort of febrility among the participants that I imagine must resemble what animated those who conceived of computers toward the end of the 1970s, before the San Francisco West Coast Computer Fair. It’s easy to identify with the two Steves assembling the Apple I in Jobs’ father’s garage: that “garage” spirit reigns here. A digital environment that’s more bermuda shorts and t-shirts than business suits. The most incredible part of it is that the adventure carries on each year, growing even (some are happy to note there’s a greater number of participants in 2014) and it along with it, a trove of new computers, new equipment, and the craziest developments for a platform, namely the Apple II, production for which ceased… over 20 years ago. Respect!

They come almost every year from the four corners of the United Stated, from Nebraska, from New York, from California, by plane, by car, by truck even (more practical for transporting equipment). The first edition took place in 1989. At the time, Apple shifted its focus to the Macintosh, abandoning the pioneers Basic, l’Assembleur and the small companies that produced all sorts of peripheral electronics. A turning point for micro-informatique: the artisans were swept away by the industry, and Apple, Microsoft and company were the new IBM.

8bit fidelity

I am still surprised at this fidelity in Apple’s first generation. So, I put the question to those around me. When I asked George Elmore why he was passionate about these old machines, he confided this: “Nothing can replace a first love, you remain faithful to it your whole life, that’s just how it is.” Dave Schmenk, who develops the integration of Raspberry Pi in Apple, begrudges today’s machines their coldness. They are too “antiseptic” for his taste, whence his attachment to these old machines that are “warmer.” It’s often a matter of finding the “gameplayer” of their youth. And actually a lot of KFest is about playing. Better yet, new games are created for the Apple II, like the RPG “Lawless Legends,” presented as a world exclusive at Kansas City.

Still… how can one account for the attraction? The title of the book by Steven Weyhrich about the history of Apple, Sophistication and Simplicity, is perhaps a good shortcut for understanding what this generation of computers represents. As Apple’s first ad proclaimed, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” At once simple and sophisticated with its 64 kilobytes of memory, this micro-computer was open to all modifications and all development, an ingenious system that generated a true ecosystem around itself with large and small enterprises daily developing software, games, peripherals, hardware, etc. for it.

Climate and Air-conditioning

You’d have to be mad to look for 35 degree © weather with a relative humidity of 80%, the average in July in Kansas City, but in the United States, no worries! Cars, buses, shops, everything or almost everything is air-conditioned, cool and pleasant nights await us in the dormitories at Rockhurst. Except that KansasFest is a sort of marathon and sleeping is out of the question: at all hours of day and night, in rooms, their doors ajar, interminable discussions, improvised workshops and other demos are underway. Certain rooms are veritable digital gloryholes, my neighbor across the way is surfing the net with his Apple II GS, the one next door is composing music on a IIc, and a little further away, I don’t know but there’s people chatting till there are no more hours left in the night.

Four in the morning, prey to the inevitable jet-lag, I went downstairs to stroll through the “lobby,” thinking I’d get something from a vending machine, and came across ten or so Apple lovers in animated conversation. Geeks never sleep at KansasFest. Just as well, me neither, I’m no longer sleepy, the next day I’m giving my “Dialector” presentation.

“Dialector”, Chris Marker and Retrogeeks

KansasFest is the dream place and event for reloading “Dialector.” Putting aside the temporal jump of 30 years that puts us back exactly at the moment the program was written by Chris Marker, the Anglophone environment is perfect for a program that speaks English. Besides, this is the only place, with all these Applesoft Basic and Apple II specialists, where you can not only play with “Dialector,” but also analyze all its algorythmic subtleties. Together with Annick and Agnes, we have done everything to re-situate “Dialector” within its historic and technological context, so as to better seize its impact and pertinence. Here at KansasFest, it is the ultimate test. If tomorrow, the program meets with success, then Chris Marker will merit, more than ever, our profound admiration as a digital pioneer.

At the end of my introduction, it was Sarah who volunteered to talk to “Dialector,” on an Apple IIc original—and a Qwerty keyboard this once. Naturally, the dialogue was more animated than it usually is since so many of the puns are directly related to the wit of early days Apple Users. A great burst of laughter erupts when “Computer,” (the interlocutor’s name in “Dialector”) says “NEVER TRUST ANYONE OVER 256K” or “DO YOU PUT A ‘K’ ON YOUR SHIRT?”—geek humor impenetrable to non-initiates.

Throughout the presentation, the audience reacted perfectly, with their questions and their suggestions, to the artistic quality of “Dialector,” and to the sense of humor that is so specific to Chris Marker. Mission accomplished when the “Dialector” session ended in the public’s applause.

Apple Forever

Here we are Apple fans, but we don’t necessarily like Macintosh. Margot Comstock, at the end of her inaugural talk, confides in us that she stopped her magazine “Softalk” once the Macintosh arrived. Apple, under Steve Jobs’ impulsion, toward the end of the 1980s, turned toward ready-to-use machines, that required only the slightest understanding of computer science, rendering the community of users and their clubs, their magazines and their knowledge base completely obsolete.

When it came out, I was a big fan of the Mac’s graphic interface. However, when you think about it, that interface was at once the best and the worst thing that could have happened to computer technology. By making the computer as easy to use as a children’s toy, Apple made its users even more ignorant and dependent. Thirty years ago, 5% of us owned a computer but almost 95% of owners were technically capable of programming or modifying their machines. Today, we are going to suppose 95% of us own a computer and that we are no more than 5% who are technically capable of programming code or of transforming a machine.

Live video conferences from Kansas Fest

When I arrived here, I met Olivier, a Frenchman originally who had become American, who was also experiencing his first KFest. He had offered to do a daily write-up for the French Facebook page set up by fans of first generation Apple. He interceded on my behalf throughout my KansasFest sojourn. I was the only participant to have come from another continent.

It’s all about holding your own… We organized, broadcast and recorded four Google HangOuts meetings that we put on a dedicated YouTube channel, with the aim of allowing Americans and French to meet and converse. Each day after lunch in Kansas City and around 8 p.m. French time (technical conditions permitting), we had leisurely and good-natured exchanges of ideas with Annick, Agnes, Dean, Ken, Olivier, Stephane, and our friend Antoine Vignau, at their stations. A great occasion for soldering new transatlantic ties.

Bouquets of sessions

Each day, KFest sessions follow one another according to a well-established calendar. The offerings are highly diversified between the conferences, demos, workshops… There are “classic” talks like Margot Comstock’s about the adventure of the publication “Softalk,” a leading light of early 1980s computer publications, or Jason Scott from Archive.org’s presentation about the issue of archiving. Then there was my own on “Dialector.”

Numerous demos also took place: Peter Neubauer revisited the emulator GSPort’s latest developments, Ivan Drucker presented A2Cloud and A2Server (A2Cloud allows an Apple II to connect to the internet via a Raspberry Pi), Charles Mangin did a 3D printing demo for us to replace certain plastic parts, David Schmenk managed to fuse an Apple II to a Raspberry Pi…

There was no shortage of workshops either: Sarah Walkowiak traded the soldering iron for a needle and thread to make a cross stitch Apple out of thread; Vince Briel, already known for recreating the Apple I or Altair, reproduced the mythic Ohio Scientific Superboard II (OSI 600) with soldering irons and electronic components; the Hogans, father and son (11 years old), invited us to make rockets propelled by compressed air, piloted by the Apple II Joystick port.

A singular presentation by Quinn Dunki, a blond Canadian woman, who told us the story of how, over the course of four years, following in the footsteps of Steve Wozniak, she created her own computer, “Veronica.” Built from scratch, around the MOS 6502 processor. As a dare, with no end in mind other than mastering the hardware and software, propelled by playfulness and a wish to go beyond her own comfort zone, since she is not a computer scientist.

Meaning one does not get bored at Kansas Fest. Not to mention the games. For the five days of this gathering, we often had a chance to play, be it at “Structris” competitions—a sort of inverted “Tetris,”—or at “Lawless Legends,” just created this year, or, at more singular forms like “Jungle Adventure,” at its origin an interactive text game transposed as a collective society game by Ken Gagne, who himself incarnates the computer to which to give instructions (“human interface”).

The future of Apple II

During his presentation, Ken Gagne, the editor of Juiced.GS, surprised us by his presentation that made use of graphics that conveyed the growth in the numbers of his subscribers over the last five years. After a logical drop in the magazine’s distribution, linked to the obsolescence of the machines, it found a veritable resurrection which can be attributed to the emergence of retro-computing.

Ever since the computers created 30 years ago entered museums, they have become of historic interest to a whole new generation that is passionate about preserving its computer science patrimony. Ken tells us he is surprised by the ever greater amount of information there is to publish around Apples: each day brings its lot of new equipment and software.

Enthusiasm

In the course of my stay at Kansas Fest, I often heard the term “Apple enthusiast,” or “computer enthusiast.” I really like this expression because it turns its back on “nostalgia,” and immunizes us against the “melancholy” that accompanies the disappearance of machines that have fascinated us. In this enthusiasm resides a joy and a trust in the future, as if the past were still capable of surprising us and teaching us new wisdoms.

§

A few retrogeek links

The last word where news concerning first generation Apple is concerned can be found here:
https://a2central.com

Building a computer from the ground up, by Quinn alias Blondie Hack.
https://quinndunki.com/blondihacks/

Converting one’s venerable Apple II into a sort of vintage Arduino.
https://www.ivanhogan.com/kfest

The “Softalk” project set up by some fans that aims to digitize all the issues of the publication.
https://www.softalkapple.com

One of the first and famous sites for the conservation of digital memory and its best text files:
https://textfiles.com

The French site dedicated to the world of Apple is here.
https://www.brutaldeluxe.fr

This is the site where you can find replicas of the famous Apple I and the Altair:
https:.brielcomputers.com

“Structris,” the inverted “Tetris” game for Apple II:
https://bitbucket.ort/martin.have/structris/downloads

“Sophistication and Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer,” the indispensable book by Steven Weyhrick on the history of Apple.

Juiced.GS,” the trimestrial news publication about first generation Apple.

The Apple II France Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/a2france/

André Lozano

Rick Poynor Reviews Chris Marker’s Commentaires

Commentaires 1The Design Observer Group published an excellent review by Rick Poynor of Marker’s two volume Commentaires yesterday. The article explores the books, now out of print and – as noted in the article – exceedingly hard to find, from the perspective of book design.

Marker was an editer at Editions du Seuil for part of his career, and was responsible for the innovative design of the Petite Planète series. He brought this expertise to the making of his own books, which are characterized by customized layouts and a dialogic juxtaposition of text and image.

These characteristics are of course the basis for the essay film as well. While he claimed to have abandoned Gutenberg for McLuhan, Marker was clearly also a bibliophile and a book designer – as if he needed more titles to add to his resumé… The style of Commentaires (1961, 1967) is also on display most prominently in the earlier Coréennes (1959).

Rick Poynor’s review is a highly intelligent opening of a design perspective on Marker that has been missing in the voluminous commentary around his work. So please check out The Filmic Page: Chris Marker’s Commentaires.

Some books are magnetic, by their fluctuation in relation to and through the image, maintaining between words and images a vibration… They swarm with meaning, move, as if beyond themselves, become testaments.
Raymond Bellour, Between the Images, JRP | Ringier & Les Presses du Réel [French orig. L’ Entre-images: Photo. Cinéma. Vidéo., Éditions de la Différence, 1990, rev. ed. 2002, English trans. 2011]

commentaire-spread

Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, media, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.The Design Observer Group

Here’s Rick’s Amazon page.

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