response by Dorothea Grießbach
An Audio-Visual Perspective on Working with Media
Research format Creating a Media Device, response by Dorothea Grießbach
From the perspective of a filmmaker, the entire (short) history of audio-visual media can be understood as an oscillation and interrelation between artistic practice, theoretical inquiry and technological knowledge.1 Sometimes, their interrelation is not explicitly formulated, sometimes it is in mutual rapprochement, sometimes in opposition, and sometimes it is problematised. As early as 1901, the ethnologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen were filming Australian Aborigines for research purposes (Middendorf 2006). There have always been artists and technicians who approached moving images and sound from their own perspective, reinterpreted them, broke conventions, pushed boundaries or initiated the development of devices that could implement their artistic or technological interests. Hence, research into the possibilities of audio-visual media as well as the exploration and design of new apparatuses and areas of their application has been evident from the very beginning of their invention. Hans Richter confronted the audience in 1921 with geometric, rhythmically cut, abstract forms and understood the essence of film as light, as richness in movement, and found it in the appeal of forms (Richter 1979 : 259). Germaine Dulac made the first surrealist film La Coquille et le Clergyman in 1928 (Lemke: 110). Maya Deren advocated for film as an art form, understood camera work as a choreographic act and pleaded for a liberation from predominant forms of film making: the feature film for entertainment purposes and the documentary film with its educational character. In order to be able to realise his artistic vision and show a landscape in its entirety, Michael Snow, together with the engineer Pierre Abbeloos, developed a remote-controlled swivel arm and described the camera as a disembodied eye floating in space (Noguez 1979: 107). Likewise, early experiments were made with interactions between live acts and projections or images with/out sound recording. With these experiments, the term ‘expanded cinema’ emerged, which also referred to an expansion of awareness (‘expanded consciousness’).2 A shimmering play of synchronicity, rhythmicity and abstraction, live act and cinematic design can be found in Lucinda Child’s choreography Dance (1979), which she realised as expanded cinema in 1979 together with the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (film) and the composer Philip Glass (Morgenroth 2004: 77). In 2011, I saw a restaging of the piece, a reenactment from 2009, with the music, film projections and choreography from 1979, but danced by performers (and in the context) of a later generation, at Kampnagel Hamburg. This performance illustrated, among other things, the many layers of knowledge that is stored in – in this case Sol LeWitt’s – projections. Watching the piece from a historical distance, Childs’s and LeWitt’s aesthetic interest and perspective in Dance became evident for me. It was uniquely shaped by the technical equipment, movement aesthetics, etcetera, available at the time.
Audio-visual media, in the interaction of artistic interest and available technical equipment, in the interaction of the recorded and the live, can produce knowledge in a variety of ways that can enter into an artistic and/or research dialogue. The emerging knowledge stored in the medium itself can be taken up, adapted, and re-evaluated. The so-called democratisation of the means of production now enables (almost) everyone not only to receive audio-visual materials but also to produce them. Internet-based platforms such as YouTube create the possibility of publishing at any time (Knight/Schönberger 2017:152ff). This fosters a vast potential within the framework of artistic research and/or transdisciplinary approaches.
However, questions also arise: When and how can one speak of developing a ‘media device’? What does it mean for artistic research if Creating a Media Device also entails the production of data? Are questions of sustainability now also relevant for artistic research/Creating a Media Device? And to whom does artistic research belong? What questions arise with regard to copyright?
My collaborative and transdisciplinary audio-visual work Centre of Hamburg, realised together with young people from a media group in a Hamburg youth social club, serves as an example here: “Where is the centre of Hamburg?”, was a casual question posed by an adult volunteer of the youth club. This initiated a reflection on the centre of a city (Hamburg) and brought up exciting considerations for the teenagers about including not only a geographical centre but also biographical centres. The participants created a collection of possible ‘centres of Hamburg’, which included places in the city centre of Hamburg as well as places on the outskirts. To make the ‘centre of Hamburg’ visible and audible in a video work, 360-degree pans were filmed at the places chosen by the young filmmakers. The pans were realised with a tripod and an HD camera with a good microphone.3 The first clockwise panning shot by a young adult became the prototype. The following recordings tried to adapt the panning speed, tripod height and focal length. Panning shots were made from a total of 17 positions – by different camerawomen and -men. Not all of them shot ‘their’ centres, they also shot on behalf of others. The shots were divided into equal segments and placed in a sequence that interlocked the different locations. On several levels – from preparation to realisation and public showing – this work enabled the participants to gain insights: The preparatory discussions about a centre of Hamburg clarified different concepts of city, identity and foregrounded the young participants’ own localisations. It confronted their experience of living on the outskirts of the city in a district that they perceive as unjustifiably stigmatized from the outside. The preparatory process was understood as field research and was guided by ethnographic methods of visual anthropology, participant observation with camera and notebook, and accompanied by many conversations. While turning the camera for the 360-degree pans, the participants learned that it is not easy to pan a camera evenly around its own axis, that this requires a great deal of concentration and body control. They experienced what it means to stand in a public space with a tripod and shoot a panoramic view and thus perform in public. Questions and comments from passers-by were just as much a part of the research as their demands not to be filmed. Finally, the audio-visual result contained the different (camera) positions, and was accordingly characterised by a collective authorship. It was shown publicly as a 19-minute loop. A short version with explanatory text ran for several weeks on monitors in some local bus lines – and thus travelled through (almost) the entire city. The ‘gaze’ of the teenagers became visible all over Hamburg. On several levels, aspects of knowledge production were reflected upon: the (implicit) knowledge of teenagers was foregrounded to be analysed and understood, while questions of empowerment, representation and aestheticisation could be discussed. The formal nature of the film counteracted the young filmmakers‘ ideas of audio-visual narration styles. Last but not least, the film could also be seen as an audio-visual work in the fine art context.4
The idea of making one’s own gaze visible and combining it with explorations of urban space was subsequently developed even further. Since 2016, the Media*City*Scouts (Medien*Stadt*Scouts) have created different postcard books depicting children’s photographic views of the city with different thematic focuses. The theme for 2020 is ‘Who are we?’ ‘Who are we?’ is a question that many researching artists and artistic researchers may ask themselves. Since the 1960s, reciprocal experiences between art, film and academia, especially in relation to ethnology, have developed each of these fields further. In visual anthropology, especially, research with and about audio-visuals has become a characteristic element. The fact that science and art bring in different approaches, expectations, cultures, production logics, etcetera, means that artistic research is sometimes accompanied by “dysfunctional stuttering” (Holfelder/Schönberger 2018:18). Can Creating a Media Device – as a practice, apparatus, or interface – create new ways for “dysfunctional stuttering that becomes fruitful for mutual fertilization and productive involvement”? (18)
1 The fact that film is also often subject to economic interests and intertwined with the film industry cannot be further elaborated here.
2 The terms were shaped by Sheldon Renan (1967) and Gene Youngblood (1970) (Siewert 2017: 235).
3 The stereo sounds recorded in a documentary style created atmospheres that expanded the perspective of the shown frame. It influenced the impression of the video loop immensely. (On the meaning of sounds in the context of urban studies as well as on artistic approaches in ethnographic research see Wildner 2015: 174.)
4 The project Centre of Hamburg is described more extensively in my workshop description. (Grießbach 2014)
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