“Is Everything Louder If The Image Disappears?” was presented on 30 September 2016 at The Projector, as two segments (Heard and Unseen) examining the sonic component of scenography, featuring the rare Chinese silent film PAN SI DONG ( 盘丝洞 / The Cave of the Silken Web) (1927).
(Image credit: Walter Navarro Peremarti)
The impetus behind Brack was to explore in a multitudinous way the different narratives that sustain socially-engaged art. As an editorial model, the editors sought to engage the actors, narrators and agents involved in the documentation, co-creation of and participation in such socially-engaged art forms. Since 2015 and the release of Brack’s first issue, this latter term – “forms” – is no longer incidental. Indeed, one such ‘narrative’ amongst many others, is the arguable significance of forms to socially-engaged art. Specifically, it is a narrative that attaches significance (even while it is being disputed) to an artwork’s formalist properties: its visuality, aural qualities, spatiality and so on.
If the above appears to meander slightly from the object of this essay, the Asian Film Archive’s screening of Dan Duyu’s restored silent film, Pan Si Dong (Cave of the Silken Web, 1927), it is because I hope to locate within this essay’s crosshairs, a possible conjunction between the film screening’s intended outcomes and Brack’s own interest.
The film + sound experimental programme presented by the Asian Film Archive and the Projector, is curated by musician and artist Bani Haykal. The programme attempts an archaeology of the hour-long film that was discovered and restored by the National Library of Norway. Incidentally, the stage was set up like the many fragments on an archaeologist’s table – sound actors huddled on one side, and musicians on the other, whilst apparatuses splayed out in the darkness. The found footage had Chinese and English inter-titles as was common for 1930s films in Shanghai. These original inter-titles were kept and Norwegian titles were added. The conceit of the evening was the addition of live foley sounds and ambient music improvisation by a cast of non-professional ensemble, who led the gleeful reactions in the audience by performing over the footage in the roles of the spider women and dawdling monks.
The second part of the evening repeated this experiment, only this time without the footage, signalling the event’s main enquiry, embellished by the programme’s title: IS EVERYTHING LOUDER IF THE IMAGE DISAPPEARS?. It is this deconstructing – quite literally – the formal specificities of film to its various components including sound that brings together the work done at Brack. If one narrative of concern to Brack is the continuing legitimacy of such forms to sustain and create a community, I would ascribe a similar concern arising to the Asian Film Archive’s screening: can film rouse a community beyond the slumber of the silver screen? Indeed, is everything louder if the image disappears and if so, what is being heard? Had one been privy to the preparations behind the event, one might have seen a micro-community being forged in the production of such forms, at least amongst the cast of voice actors, actresses and musicians. Certainly, the relay of sounds in tandem to the film necessitates the relay of responses to each other, as if in a feedback loop.
Whether this feedback loop remains closed to the community of film viewers (if any) is another question altogether. The issue of watching a film, in this regard, has always proven to be divisive. Roland Barthes’ recollection of going to the cinemas shores up one perspective to this issue. Like Camera Lucida before that, Barthes’ essay on the cinema keenly reflects revelatory moments contained in quotidian spaces and routines – in this instance, the “darkness of the cinema”, the “brightly lit sidewalk” and the act of “heading uncertainly for some café or the other”. Upon Leaving The Movie Theater, written in 1975, is triggered by that daze that accompanies emerging out of a cinema and the moments that quickly precede it, an experience not unknown to many moviegoers. For Barthes, it is the shock of the “brightly lit sidewalk” from the darkness of the movie theatre that moves him to reflect on the seamlessness of the movie theatre. It is a seamlessness that encompasses not only the indiscernible darkness of the black box, but from the screen, its soundtrack, and to the viewer. This is an experience familiar to many today, but which does not quite apply to the subject of this essay.
Nonetheless, Barthes adds as an afterthought, “it would take very little in order to separate this sound track: one displaced or magnified sound, the grain of a voice milled in our eardrums, and the fascination begins again.” This fascination that “begins again” is a deliberate choice of words, as if to distance himself from the rhetoric offered by the now rather trite spin on Bertolt Brecht’s alienatory and reflexive theatrical strategies. What was offered by the screening of The Cave of the Silken Web was an attempt to gnaw at this so-called seamlessness. Responding real-time to the film, the voice actors paused before speaking over the footage. As a result, a giggle or grumble was always a second delayed or lingered a tad longer, as if they, too were watching the Monkey God’s shenanigans anew. While one should be careful not to endow such instances with too much significance, such gestures in place of the lustre of the film, provide tools and strategies foundational to community-making: collaboration, reflexivity and immediate feedback.
This experimentation is however neither new to the history of film or community. Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov attempted birthing an urban audience not only through film, but with film. Their attempts belied a faith in the medium of film and its aesthetic possibilities to jolt or rouse an audience towards a social promise. As I write this, there is already a sinking suspicion that such examples are no longer sufficient in theorising today’s attempts. Perhaps the screening of The Cave of the Silken Web should be read as a searching glance to locate a new origin – one not located in the steps of Odessa, but in a cave filled with spurious spider women. It occurs to me that the rediscovery of this film and its reimagining by the Asian Film Archive has afforded its collaborators and viewers a chance to re-enchant a film already previously brimming with old-time cinematic magic – of teleporting ghouls and heroes. It seems to me then to ask not if the image is louder when the image disappears, but what that disappearance gives way to.
Nasri Shah is the Editor of Art Theory for Brack, a platform for socially engaged artists that aims to bridge art, audience, and context. Nasri is a graduate student in history of art at University College London, where he was a recipient of the J.L. Wine Trust Prize. His research has recently been included in events such as Rematerialising Feminism (2014, Arcadia Missa), An Aesthetic Project (2013, House Gallery) and Urban Body (2012, SCYA).