September 27, 2013
Sometimes I wonder why I went left,
while I might have had to go right…
Raymond Depardon, Errance
The journey has always been a source of inspiration explored in many different ways in films from all over the world. The list of these productions is so vast that road movie has become a genre in cinema. In most cases, the itineraries of the trip appear not only as the place for the story but as a main character. Eventually it is also an element that would open up a space in the script making room for improvisation in the film.
In artist’s cinema, which can be generally understood as a specific segment in moving images based on principles of both production and distribution much more related to art, documentary and experimental cinema than the usual cinema industry, the journey – more than a source of inspiration – can become an active tool for creation. It places the artists in a modified state of mind and of contact with the environment around him. The artists can then make use of this condition to produce artworks expressing a personal, critical and poetic point of view about the world.
In these notes I intent to go through some aspects of artist’s cinema connected to the issue of mobility. These works are part of a specific segment in art in which the displacement, the journey, and/or the walk itself assume a major role in the creative process. They are relevant because they push us to reflect on the issue of mobility at the same time that they collaborate to expand the borders in moving images.
Mobility as a tool for creation
Displacement, exile, drift, crossing, wandering, roaming, etc. are all figures of mobility, and each one shows a specific aspect of it. The common point and maybe the reason why mobility becomes so important in the artworks is the fact that the journey places the artist in a modified psychological and relational state. This modified state allows him/her to be open to new and random encounters, and decentralize himself/herself, being in a position to think differently. It forces him/her to leave his/her confortable zone, to overcome inertia, and to produce. It also brings fruitful imaginations to be associated to stories and mythologies of the road between the ambivalences of the local and the global. The journey points out to a distinct reality in which the way to observe, think and react with the environment are not ordinary.
A journey is generally based on the trinomial composed by departure, displacement and return. Each one of these stages reveals a particular state of mind, fed with different expectations about what is ahead. If very often it is motivated by a more or less specific impulse, the journey does not necessarily have to be driven by a clear, logic or understandable reason, and it is not rare to be a goal in itself. The fact is that the movement is the entrance door for an unmediated geographical and cultural experience, for everyone’s personal will of a better understanding of the self and the other, of the space between here and there. As in an experimental creative process, the movement is an entrance for one to step into the unknown.
The journey sets up the context for production and appears as a space for creation and personal adventure. The principle of nomadism becomes the state of the artistic work. This aesthetics is fed with the movement and insists on the poetic necessity of the departure; on an experience that can only take place elsewhere. Some works focus on the itineraries and the roads as other on the places themselves. Between other specificities of these productions there is the fact that very often the process reaches the same relevance than the final result as well as a strong interest on the traceability and the cartography. The artworks frequently are a circuit connecting one place to the other.
Artists and directors combine both the production process and the experience of displacing itself, in a continuous exercise of creation. Presenting a higher or lower degree of intervention by the artist according to the nature of the project, these productions would range from documentaries to personal essays, from performative actions to fiction.
In some cases the artworks have a more documental approach in which the role of the artist is to capture the images trying to interfere as less as possible on the subjects. These productions share similar aspects with genres in documentaries and experimental cinema, where the act of observation seems to come out as the main source for the experience. Landscapes, cities and people will be the target of an accurate gaze.
A filmmaker that shows a remarkable look on the environment is James Benning. With an extreme minimalistic aesthetics in both the concept and the structure, Benning is able to capture the images of the places and organize them in long films that offer the viewer a beautiful level of contemplation and a positively immersion in his landscape films.
13 Lakes (16mm / 135 min. / 2004) and Ten Skies (16mm / 109 min. / 2004) are good instances of that immersion. As simple as indicate the titles both films are composed by a determined numbers of shots and are simply organized in sequence. Taking about 10 minutes each shot in these films is still, there is no movement of camera. The frame is totally dedicated to the landscape. 13 Lakes presents different regions across the United States and its frame is equally distributed between the sky and the water. The horizon line is right in the middle. Following basically the same process Ten Skies shows a series of skyscapes, filmed in a journey around Val Verde, California. This minimal and precise configuration intensifies the experience of duration at the same time as it reveals new perceptions related to scale, ephemerality and the cinematic frame. In the stillness of the frame in both works we can see a richly and subtle change of light and shadows conjugated with the natural elements: water, vegetation and clouds. It is interesting to notice the tension hidden in the length of time of the images. The shots show mostly a desert landscape, but in specific moments clearly affected by the human presence.
While Benning has chosen the fixed frame, the Canadian filmmaker and artist Michael Snow has done the opposite. His work called La région centrale (The central region / 16mm / 180 min. / 1971) is centered on the landscape and precisely on the camera movement, one the most basic elements on the film medium. Michael Snow presents us a principle of autonomy of the camera. The work is a monumental three-hour movie shot on a deserted mountain, in which a system was designed in order to rotate the camera without the need of an operator and being able to do complete 360 degree movements, craning skyward and in circles in all directions. Due to the unconventional camera movement, the artwork leads the matter beyond the landscape documented in the film.
From the deserted landscapes through the roads to the city we meet David Lynch and his Interview Project (video / variable length / 2009). In a completely different project compared with his fiction movies the director has produced a documentary composed by 121 parts which showcases interviews with ordinary people. If the way of production is peculiar, determined by the encounters he has in the roads, its way of display is also not conventional. These interviews are displayed in the artist’s website releasing a new episode every three days for the entire year. In his description David Lynch explicitly points out the character of chance within the project that is created based on random encounters along the journey.
From the position of observation and documental approach some artists would also add a layer of personal reflexions, very often expressed by his/her own voice, composing a sort of essay, diary or notes on the journey. A director (and photographer) who will take the camera in his travels with a remarkable sense of discovery is Raymond Depardon. His films are often a witness of his presence in a region that attracts the attention of his gaze. New York, NY (35mm / 10min. / 1986) is a black and white film composed by three sequence shots that result on a panoramic view of the city. The shots are associated with the voice of Depardon, describing – in an auto-critic discourse – the experience to make this very same film in the American city.
In a film produced ten years later, Afriques, comment ça va avec la douleur? (Africa, how are you with pain? / 35mm / 165min. / 1996), Depardon is even more expressive and fully opens up the context of the work and of his position as a director. Right at the beginning, he starts to expose his thoughts inside the film. So as there would be no distinction between what is the acting of filming and the film itself as a final result. The film begins and everything is clear. The viewer is invited on the trip. He works in a critic and auto-critic manner.
In the film Tokyo-Ga (16 and 35mm / 92min. / 1985), Wim Wenders had decided to make his first trip to Japan a tribute to director Yasujiro Ozu and an investigation about the Japanese modernity. It is a deeply personal movie, which gives us a small sample of life in Japan and the director’s view. Wenders goes to Japan motivated to know what he could find or meet, as he explains also right at the beginning of the film. Wenders goes through the city and meet people. The film focuses on the figure of Ozu and his films. The interviews with the actor Chishu Ryu and the cameraman Yuuharu Atsuta reveal a bit about the man behind the icon of the director. The result, however, is also a film about Wim Wenders, about his gaze and his way to become himself a director.
In order to replace the predetermined script and embark on the adventure of the unpredictability, directors and artists will create personal protocols to trigger the production of the work. These protocols mostly give priority to space and instant, improvisation and chance and are mainly a strategy to subvert or to create new structures of the discourse in moving images.
In the body of work of the Brazilian artist and filmmaker Cao Guimarães we can identify some particular protocols for creation. In the video Acidente (Accident / super 8mm and miniDV on DV / 72min. / 2006), co-directed by Pablo Lobato, the protocol takes places as a poem structured by twenty names of towns of the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The artwork is driven by imprevisibility and chance. Guided by such names the artists visit the towns for their very first time.
The poem leads the artist in a continuous itinerary. The camera observes the everyday routine and reveals details about life in these small towns. These images show different aspects of the local in these regions, a universe that has its own bases and is not connected to global strategies. Time in these places is different as is also different the contact of people with each other. The shots produced by the artists are meant to correspond to this specific frame of space and time.
The video Ação e Dispersão (Action and dispersion / DV / 6min. / 2002) by Cezar Migliorin is also protocol for the travel, and with a political component. The film was produced with public funding received from a prize for audiovisual production. In this performance-film the artist put in discussion the cultural politics and the circuit of cultural distribution. The director travels alone with his camera and the money to produce the film. He goes through several different countries. He records all means of travel he uses, all places where he sleeps and all kinds of food he eats. The only rule he adopts is never to stay two nights in the same city. He continues his journey randomly until the money of the prize is over.
As a vast source of imagination the journey will also feed the creation of the plot or the story in fictions. However, instead of being precise the narratives tend to show a quite minimal scrip. The story does exist but rather not as the center of the work.
The video-installation En la pampa (In the pampa / HD-CAM / five projection video installation / variable length / 2008) by Jordi Colomer is one of the artworks that are representatives of how the journey can build up the story in a fiction. In this installation, composed by five video projections, the artist invites a man and a woman to live certain situations in the Atacama Desert, in the north of Chile. These two people, that are not professional actors, did not know each other before the shooting. They will go through this region in the search of a story that does not exist beforehand. All the dialogues were created naturally from the contact between them and the landscapes. Considering the way as the installation was displayed at Jeu de Paume (in Paris, in 2008), five screens are placed in different positions within the room. Each projection displays a different scene of the story. To be able to access the whole content the visitor has to displace himself, standing in front of each one. The screens show a variable running time and are set in loop. The visitor is free to watch the scenes in the sequence he wants.
Acts of presence
The presence of the artist itself can also become an element in the creation. Based on the reality, some of these artworks show us particular discourses and gestures of the artist, as well as acts that affirm his presence face of the world. Between different figures of the wanderer and the traveller, the explorer is very often connected to the incursion to desert and remote lands.
Nummer acht (Number eight / 16mm to HD / 10 min. / 2007) is an impressive artwork by the Dutch artist Guido van der Werve. The film shows a huge ice breaker ship making his way through a frozen sea in a remote region of Finland. In front of it the small figure of the artist walks few meters ahead, as if he has to lead the way. In this monumental image the short distance between the artist and the ship, and the real imminence of a danger, makes you hold your breath. As typical of his work, this romantic figure is associated with a certain degree of irony on both the indifference how he walks in front of the ship as well as on the subtitle of the artwork “everything is going to be alright”.
A similar image is that made by the Russian artist and graduate from the Higher Engineering Marine School Alexander Ponomarev, in a performance called Baffin Figure (Video / 2006). Restituted as video and as photographs this is a performance in which the artist attaches himself in the front part of a ship. The ship goes through the open Baffin Sea, a marginal sea of the North Atlantic Ocean, located between Baffin Island and the southwest coast of Greenland.
Artist’s cinema made in the context of mobility pushes us to reflect on contemporary issues related to our globalized world at the same time it also questions the audiovisual production itself. Such works are somehow like heirs of experimental cinema and the old Glauber Rocha’s principle of making cinema with “a camera in the hand and an idea in the head”. This production looks backwards and recognizes the itineraries of moving images throughout the years, at the same time it looks to the future and tries to find out what are to be the new audiovisual works.
These works serve as a way to observe the environment, give room for improvisation, present personal discourses, replace the predetermined script by new protocols for creation, inspire fictions and allow the artist to mark his presence. They also can determine a critical attitude face to the established notions and indicate us changes in social institutions such as family, place of origin and nation. They show us a particular aesthetics related to the mobility, in which their elements suggest a skepticism about stability, roots, certainty and order.
Produced independently in the sphere of contemporary art or experimental cinema, these works explore many and different paths in the field of moving images. Through its dimensions of production and distribution set out of the strict and alienating rules of industrial or commercial cinema, these artworks allow us to believe that the artistic production resists not only as an inventive, but also democratic and liberating space. These audiovisual productions made in the context of mobility push us to important reflections about the art’s universe and our daily social universe. They collaborate to the renewal the field of moving images, to the understanding of our time, and to the establishment of a critical and poetic consciousness of the world.
Miro Soares is a Brazilian visual artist based in Paris. He holds a Master of Arts and Digital Media and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Filmmaker and traveller, he has participated in exhibitions and residencies in different countries.
Visit Miro Soares’ artwork at Art & Mobility online exhibition
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