Contributed by Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
“Despite the proliferation of visual production and consumption that characterises our present time, artists continue to find new ways to relate to the moving image, challenging both its representations and forms…the exhibition highlights the shifting boundaries between the moving image, film and art; reflecting, too, the dynamic and deft ways in which artists can transform the media, even as the media itself continues to evolve.”
Dr. June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Programmes and Publications, Singapore Art Museum
As an extension and dialogue with Singapore Art Museum’s exhibition, Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia, the accompanying film programme Cinerama: Metamorphosis showcased fresh and meditative ways of transfiguring moving images within a cinematic setting. Co-presented by Singapore Art Museum and Asian Film Archive, the series of contemporary shorts and features will rejuvenate familiar mediums and repurpose modern visual technology, reframing how we perceive the material with all its potential evocations.
Archaeology is a term that has been widely used in recent years in film and media scholarship. We can trace the term to Michel Foucault’s influential 1999 work Archaeology of Knowledge, Friedrich Kittler’s 1999 monograph Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, as well as Thomas Elsaesser’s 2004 essay The New Film History as Media Archaeology. In a way, these works became the seeds which grew into a discipline known today as media archaeology. Though the definition of archaeology varies in each case, one aspect that unites the definition is that, here, archaeology is not just about the past. Instead, the term is used to disrupt the strict division of the old and the new. What (media) archaeology proposes is an attitude to ‘investigate the media cultures through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatus, practices and inventions’, or more specifically, a way to look at ‘the pre-cinematic technologies and practices as one resource for rethinking our current visual and media field’ (Parikka, 2012:2, 13).
In many ways, the version of archaeology in media archaeology illuminates the reading of media arts practices and film-related performances, but it tends to overlook a vibrant work in a traditional film screening setting. This may come from a standpoint that media archaeology has blurred or even eroded the idea of medium specificity of cinema in a sense that cinema is reconceptualised as a part of broader media practices – the idea which makes so much sense at a time that many exciting cinematic installations and film performances are taking place beyond the realm of movie theatres. That said, even I agree with that reconceptualisation, what I am personally interested is the evolution and the mix of the old and the new as well as the possibility of cinema that still takes place in the context of traditional, single-screened projection. And this is the potential that I’ve found in Cinerama: Metamorphosis.
Curated by the Asian Film Archive, Cinerama: Metamorphosis is a film screening programme positioned as an extension and a dialogue to the Singapore Art Museum’s Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia exhibition. Screened at the museum’s movie theatre, the programme consists of four feature films and ten short films. Whereas the Cinerama exhibition investigated the entering of film installation in museums’ space, which is a part of a migration of aesthetic experience that Francesco Casetti (2015) calls the relocation of cinema, Cinerama: Metamorphosis explores something different. As mentioned, film installation is one of the most vibrant areas in today’s film and media scholarship, and the Cinerama exhibition timely captures the movement from Southeast Asian practitioners. Yet, Cinerama: Metamorphosis suggests that the excitement in aesthetic development of moving images is also taking place in the context of traditional film screening. And the ways in which films in the programme are radically conceptualised and innovatively produced – from a feature film made from CCTV footage to an unexpected outcome of the images shot by iPhone – are a proof of that creative evolution.
In a way, although the archaeological approach by the abovementioned thinkers are very useful, the version of archaeology that I want to discuss with the Cinerama: Metamorphosis comes from a definition proposed by an Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as well as an elaboration and an interpretation of Agamben’s work by film scholar Janet Harbord. For Agamben, he does not explain the archaeological concept in relation to media, film or any art forms. Instead, he calls it a philosophical archaeology, a term he borrows from Immanuel Kant, who defined it as a science to search for ‘the history of the thing that has not happened yet’ (Agambem, 2009: 82).
What does it mean – to search for the history that has not happened? Agamben argues that, when we study something, there is always an alternative presence of the subject that we study. The history associated to the subject that we study is just a history, not the history because there is always an unlived version – a version of that thing that we have not lived through and experienced yet – that stays in a shadow as a potential. To see this potential, we need to go to, what Agamben calls, ‘the moment of arising’ (Agamben, 2009: 84). That is the moment in which the definition of the thing we study was being constituted. In the process of constitution, some characteristics were included and others were excluded from the definition of the subject we study. However, it does not mean that the excluded characteristics are of no influence, as even though they were excluded, they still produced an effect on the official version of what we study.
Harbord (2016) applies the concept to trace the philosophical archaeology of cinema. We are familiar with the idea of the origin of cinema, that cinema “was born” in 1895. Yet, considering Agamben’s account, the notion of origin seems like a false idea. We should not think that cinema was born on December 28th, 1895 – the first public screening of Lumière Brothers’ films, and before that time there was no such thing as cinema. Instead, that period was the moment of arising – the time in which the concept of cinema was not yet defined, only later did the official version of cinema gain recognition. In other words, the so-called origin is always constituted retrospectively. Looking back at the moment of arising, we can find an accumulation of ideas and forces, in which some ideas are later included and accepted as a cinema whereas other forces are left out of the official version of cinema. As mentioned, what’s left out, the archaeology of cinema, does not just disappear. It stays in a form of potential, and sometimes shows its face in a particular moment.
The question is, what is the philosophical archaeology of cinema? Harbord does not paint a complete picture of that version of cinema, and it’s good that she does not do so. Instead, with the help of Agmaben’s philosophy, she lists several traces that provoke further consideration. The trace to the archaeology of cinema firstly resides in insignificant details, characteristics usually treated as an area of ‘non-knowledge’ (23). These characters can range from certain material forms of apparatus, a glitch, or even an insect in a film’s frame – all of which are things that are usually rendered insignificant due to our obsession of stories in the image. Included in the sites of film archaeology is an incomplete film, or even an abandoned film script. Things treated as a part of a dead project can give us a space of potentiality to think of the trope of cinema that could happen. There is also a method of decontextualisation – a way to think of a particular shot and image beyond a context and a narrative that the image is originally produced. We can also think of a process of decontexualisation in relation to a montage – take a single film’s frame and strip it from original context, and put it in a different reel. The outcomes of this method holds the potential to think of the unlived cinema, such as, a version in which cinema is not an art form that obsesses with human consciousness, psychology and individuality, but gives privilege to exteriority, gesture and network; a version of cinema where scientific and medical laboratories are included as sites of film historiography; a version of cinema which does not celebrate the human species as the centre of the narrative, but instead calls the anthropocentrism into question.
Here is why Cinerama: Metamorphosis matters. Through Agamben’s archaeological lens, the work in this carefully-curated program does not just demonstrate the innovation in contemporary single-channelled moving image works, but reflects cinema’s philosophical archaeology – in each film, there are moments which many usually-overlooked and peripheral characteristics are pushed to the forefront. The experience of watching them altogether provokes viewers, at least this viewer, to imagine the version of cinema to come.
The programme begins with People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016) by a veteran experimental Filipino filmmaker, John Torres. From an overview, the film seems to fit with a theme of popular practices in contemporary essay films, that is, the use of classic film footage or archival found footage as a source for artistic experimentation and visual critique, a practice championed by the likes of Harun Farocki, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. To make a feature film with this mode of filmmaking in the context of Southeast Asian film practices is already outstanding. Yet, Torres’s film is even more special. His choice of archival image is not just of a classic film but an unfinished one. The film’s synopsis highlights that Torres used 20 film rolls from The Diary of Vietnam Rose (1986), an unfinished work by a celebrated director, Celso Advento Castillo. The fact that 1986 is the year of the People Power Revolution also implies the indexical quality of the project to that historical event. Moreover, an incomplete film is an opportunity to think of the possible version of cinema. “Treated as unprofitable waste in many contexts”, Harbord points out “the incomplete film is…the site of a potentiality retained in its state of possibility” (23).
Instead of analysing the narrative in the footage, or exposing suppressed issues in the images, or adding a new narrative to make the film complete, Torres embraces, what Agamben may call, the area of non-knowledge: the void and the ruin of the work; the decomposition and the destruction of the decayed film print. People Power Bombshell is not a film that directly analyses the narrative, makes explicit of the hidden social issue, or imagines the finished version of the film. Instead, the film emphasises the fragmentation and the unfinished-ness that is associated with the original reels and the film’s production history. What matters for me is the way in which the film reflects cinema as a medium of indefinite visions. The film makes me think of a version of cinema which opposes the values found in mainstream visual images – the idea that the good image is an image which looks clear and possesses a pristine high resolution image. What if cinema is a medium that celebrates a vision of uncertainty? This indefinite vision also goes against the trend of film restoration, especially for those who subscribe to the need to fix the decayed footage by making it bright, new and razor-sharp. The celebration of clear image and hi-resolution push the indefinite visions, or in Hito Steyerl’s term – the poor image, to the periphery. Yet, as Jacques Aumont (2017) argues, the vision of uncertainty is always a part of cinema and we can think of it as a veil. He points out certain moments in many films when the sunlight or a flare bath all over the images to the level that viewers cannot see the whole image clearly anymore. He also cites the decayed celluloid at which the image is fogged, reddish and decomposed as an example of cinematic veil. People Power Bombshell is a film that highlights this veil. It provokes viewers to think of the relationship between the veil and the fragments of stories behind the veil. Moreover, whereas Aumont focuses on the veil which comes from the poor film preservation, Torres is more playful as many fogged and reddish images are not originally a part of the celluloid but are newly produced. Torres also shot some parts of the film and made them appear decayed. He adds a new dubbing but makes it difficult to follow the logic of the conversation. The pinnacle moment comes in the film’s final sequence when the dusty veil and the image behind the veil fuse together in a form of a tornado – a visual gesture which maximises the power of the archaic decomposed images as well as the anarchic spirit of original filmmaking and the political power registered in the film’s production history.
Similar to People Power Bombshell, Sleep Has Her House by UK filmmaker Scott Barley also emphasises the visual uncertainty as a part of cinema’s archaeology. But this time, the kind of indefinite vision that the film embraces is a darkness. Here is probably the best film in this programme as well as one of the best debut features that I’ve watched in this decade. Barley reminds us of filmmakers and theorists in the early stage of the medium. If the masters like Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, and Bela Balazs explored how celluloid can create a particular vision of the world, Barley adopts a similar attitude and ambition but explores it with an iPhone. His work recalls the time in which cinema was not defined firstly as a narrative medium, but an artform which presents a particular kind of machinic and animistic vision. More than early filmmakers and theorists, Barley’s vision reminds me of the writing of Siegfried Zielinski who argues that the genealogy of film projection started long before the invention of film. In his investigation into the “deep time” of media, Zielinski discovered interesting figures such as Giovanni Battista Della Porta, an Italian scholar in the 16th century who rethought the role of a camera obscura beyond a context of astronomy by using it in a dark chamber in order to explore the potential of light projection as an art form of illusion, and Athanasius Kircher a polymath in the 17th century who explored the trajectory of sunlight entering into a dark room and its reflection on the walls and mirrors. Of course, I have no time machine that can take me to see how these light experiments actually looked like. Yet, the ways in which Barley lets each light slowly radiate in each frame is so new, it’s as if no one has projected a light this way. It is amusing to consider the small size of the iPhone and the gigantic film world that it produced through Barley’s vision. The world in Sleep Has Her House is also one without humans. It may be the world before humans, or the world after the humans. It is as if we have never seen this kind of world, so the film’s main function is to teach us, or re-train us, to see that world. We may enter Barley’s film world as a human, but we are slowly transformed into a nocturnal animal who views the world magically. There is a sweetness in his world, one which reminds me of the loving lyrics in Bjork’s Hyper Ballad: “I go through all this / before you wake up / so I can feel happier / to be safe up here with you”.
Where Sleep Has Her House presents a homogenous world of light and darkness, the short film programme goes in the other direction by underlining heterogenous elements which compose a film world. Here is the other version of film archaeology: cinema is not just made from a camera and other filmic devices, but it is made of an assemblage of other art forms, machines, tools, and earthly elements. For example, while Study of a Singaporean Face (2016) blurs the line between moviemaking and pencil sketching, Destination Nowhere (2018) compares the surface of cinema and photography with the process of engraving. Liquid Landscape (2018) highlights water as a cinematic element, and I Made You, I Kill You (2016) makes children drawing a part of cinema production. Various modes of art evolve into cinema in One Minute Art History (2015).
This notion of cinema as a product of heterogenous elements is a proper entry point to understand the characteristic of Ascent (2016) – an essayistic feature film by visual artist, Fiona Tan. The film is a participatory project that invites people to send Tan photographs of Mount Fuji. She also dived into several archives to collect still photos and moving images of Mount Fuji. The result is a gathering of various modes of images, including photos by tourists, photos by professional trekkers, photos of pilgrimage, Fujisan from a far, Fujisan up-close, Fujisan covered by a cloud, Fujisan and the military, Fujisan in the present, Fujisan in the past, and Fujisan in the deep past. Tan also traces the representation of Mount Fuji prior to the invention of cinema; she considers the illustration of Mount Fuji as a backdrop for early photography and later as a backdrop in movies such as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). It is interesting that, on the one hand, the participatory nature of the project goes along with the sense of collective memories presented through the series of photographs and moving images; on the other hand, the notion of assemblage goes against the auteurish control of the artist. In other words, there is a clash between the potential to release the images from the original context and the determination to use the images to support the artist’s narrative. While Tan references techniques pioneered by Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras and Chris Marker regarding mixing personal and collective memories through the juxtaposition between voices and images, I’m curious if there are other possibilities to release the images and/or piece them together beyond such influences. What interests me more than the romantic narrative provided by the director is the play of background and foreground – each is a role Mount Fuji has played. In some photographs, Fujisan is a background for visitors, yet in others it is a protagonist that tourists want to capture. The roles of background and foreground in the history of cinema relate closely to the relationship between the humans (who take control of the foreground) and the natural world (typically framed as a background). Thinking of the philosophical archeology of cinema, there are moments in the film that force one to recall the potential of cinema to subvert such a power structure. Can cinema be a medium which reveals a post-anthropocentric vision to the world? Can cinema really treat a non-human, such as a mountain, as a center of the medium? Can we tell a story of the mountain from its perspective without anthropomorphisation? Can we think of the Fuji in a world before and after the age of humans?
The notion of collective participation returns in the final film of the programme: Dragonfly Eyes (2017). Ironically, this version of participatory cinema happens while the participants may not realise their contributions. The film synopsis indicates that Chinese visual artist Xu Bing discovered ten thousand hours of surveillance and live-streaming footage, then used it to compile the film. Through a process of choosing and editing, Bing decontextualises the footage from its original narratives, functions and ownership. That said, he does not directly adopt Harun Farocki’s tone of analysing the “operational images” (Farocki, 2003). Instead, Bing uses the aggregation of footage to create an innovative form of entertainment. Using such footage taken out of the original context, Dragonfly Eyes tells a story of a teenage nun who abandons her vows for the big city. Though she soon finds love, her life is turned upside down by a series of unfortunate events. The narrative, which starts as a melodrama, is twisted into a thriller, and later enters the realm of absurdity and parody – a structure of emotion similar to internet fictions and too-crazy-to-be-true stories in popular web boards. Nevertheless, this version of cinema is highly indexical in a sense that, while following an entertaining narrative, viewers cannot help but guess the original context of each bit of footage. Though the film critiques the global culture of surveillance, I am personally interested in the way the film emphasises the CCTV/surveillance/streaming/YouTube footage as a cinema of attractions. The cinema of attractions is a mode of visual spectacle which had been a part of cinema’s main characteristics before cinema received its definition as a narrative medium. However, today’s version of cinema of attractions as presented here is very violent. It is as if the director exceeded the act of gathering surveillance footage and instead puts together a medley of snuff films: a car crash, a plane crash, a car hitting a cow, a car stuck in a sinkhole, a train accident, an angry man smashing a car window, an angry woman slapping another woman, or a woman falling into a river and disappearing. It is clear to most that the 21st century has a pervasive surveillance / panopticon culture, and everywhere there are cameras ready to record every second of an individual’s life. However, we may not recognise that we are addicted to consuming such images and big data. In this future version of commercial cinema, Xu Bing plays with the viewers’ curiosity and addiction. Should we laugh with the film? Should we allow ourselves to be entertained by it? One may question the filmmaker’s ethics of gaining and presenting these images, but one should first question the widespread addiction to this contemporary cinema of attractions as well, especially in an age in which humans spend hours watching and sharing viral videos daily.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto and Kevin Attell (New York: Zone Books)
Aumont, Jacques. 2017. “The Veiled Image: The Luminous Formless” in Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty, eds. Martine Beugnet, Allan Cameron and Arild Fetveit (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
Casetti, Francesco. 2015. The Lumière Galaxy: Seven Key Words for the Cinema to Come (New York: Columbia University Press)
Farocki, Harun. 2003. War at a Distance (film), Harun Farocki Filmproduktion, Berlin, in collaboration with ZDF/3sat.
Gunning, Tom. 1986. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, Wide Angle, 8(3), 63-70
Harbord, Janet. 2016. Ex-centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology (New York, London: Bloomsbury)
Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What Is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge: Polity)
Steyerl, Hito. 2009. “In Defense of the Poor Image”, e-flux, 10.
Zielinski, Siegfried. 2006. “Show and Hide. Projection As a Media Strategy Located between. Proof of Truth and Illusionising” in Variantology 1: On Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies, eds. Siegfried Zielinski and Silvia M. Wagnermaier (Köln: Walther König), 81-102
ABOUT THE WRITER
Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn recently graduated from the PhD programme at Queen Mary, University of London. His PhD project, as supported by the Queen Mary Studentship, explores the potential of forest in cinema as a space that reveals the post-anthropocentric perspective to the world. Beyond theoretical undertakings, he also works as a film producer and an independent film curator. Chulphongsathorn was recently awarded the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowship for his project ‘Southeast Asian Cinema and the Anthropocene’. He is on a 6-month fellowship at the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster. He is based in Bangkok, Thailand.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.