This text is an attempt to write down and fold together a lecture performance and a research presentation in three parts that Marjana Krajač & Katja Vaghi created for and during the Research Academy 2017 in Zurich. The Research presentation is 45 minutes long and it was performed on 19th July 2017 by Katja Vaghi and Marjana Krajač, with the assistance of Ronja Siljander.
The Research Academy at the Zurich University of the Arts took place in July 2017 with 12 invited artists; choreographers, dancers, video-artists, documentarists and researchers, to explore and discuss together on the topic of Documentation and Beyond in performing arts. The resulting research was a layered collection of materials, protocols and procedures, regarding the dense and complex questions of the moving image, the camera, video-phenomenology, the documentation of an artistic work, the documentation of the process of an artistic work, the ethics of camera eye and of the collaborative exploration of the field of documentation.
In approaching a theme of a camera left in an empty room that was distilled as an idea for a research there was a large resonance with our current artistic practice. It also posed diverse questions about camera phenomenology, driving this theme to the junction with broader historical framework as well as spotlighting some echoing artistic practices from another eras, such as photodynamism or chronophotography. In 1912, Anton Giulio Bragaglia declared in his Manifesto Fotodinamica Futurista:
“The picture therefore can be invaded and pervaded by the essence of the subject. It can be obsessed by the subject to the extent that it energetically invades and obsesses the audience with its own values. It will not exist as a passive object over which an unconcerned audience can take control for its own enjoyment. It will be an active thing that imposes its own extremely free essence on the audience, though this will not be graspable with the insipid facility common to all images that are too faithful to ordinary reality.”
Following this narrow passage between diverse visual practices, cinematography and document-phenomena, we compounded for this research diverse strings of references and then we constructed these references further, toward ideas that are relevant for our thinking about these topics today, continuously having in mind our own questions that are deriving out of our own choreographic work.
As a part of Research Academy, Karin Harrasser from the Kunstuniversität Linz joined the group to give a talk titled: Camera agency. Some cases from visual anthropology and documentary film, focusing on how the presence of a camera modulates and transforms relations. In her talk, strong motifs were the cinematographic approaches of Jean Rouche and Robert J. Flaherty. These motifs were still lingering on as we embarked on our research. Furthermore, we realized that there is a missing link in the origins of Rouche’s and Flaherty’s cinematic approaches, specifically the influence of Dziga Vertov on large number of filmmakers. Diving in to the origins of that trace, we uncovered along the way other important references that are crucial for the understanding of the depth and layeredness of the approaches to this topic.
We embarked into our research from that standing point starting with cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité (truthful cinema) is a style of documentary filmmaking, connected to Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda and influenced by Robert Flaherty’s films. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator’s voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera’s presence. The best way to describe this type of cinema is probably to say that it is concerned with notions of truth and reality in film. Also feminist documentary films of the 1970s often used cinéma-vérité techniques. As Edgar Morin wrote: There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. In the same way, there were two ways to conceive cinéma vérité. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth.
In 1922, the year that Nanook of the North was released (a silent documentary film by Robert J. Flaherty, with elements of docu-drama) Dziga Vertov started the Kino-Pravda series. Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman; 1896 – 1954) was a Soviet pioneer documentary film director, as well as a cinema theorist. “The Kino-Pravda group began its work in a basement in the centre of Moscow” Vertov explained. He called it damp and dark. There was an earthen floor and holes one stumbled into at every turn. Vertov’s driving vision, expounded in his frequent essays, was to capture film truth—that is, fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In the Kino-Pravda series, Vertov focused on everyday experiences, eschewing bourgeois concerns and filming marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera, without asking permission first. The cinematography is simple, functional, unelaborate—perhaps a result of Vertov’s disinterest in both “beauty” and the “grandeur of fiction.” Twenty-three issues of the series were produced over a period of three years; each issue lasted about twenty minutes and usually covered three topics. The stories were typically descriptive, not narrative, and included vignettes and exposés, showing for instance the renovation of a trolley system, the organization of farmers into communes, and the trial of Social Revolutionaries.
Vertov is known for many early writings, mainly while still in school, that focus on the individual versus the perceptive nature of the camera lens, which he was known to call his “second eye”. Vertov is also known for quotes on perception, and its ineffability, in relation to the nature of qualia (sensory experiences). Vertov was clearly and emphatically dissatisfied with narrative tradition, and expresses his hostility towards dramatic fiction of any kind both openly and repeatedly; he regarded drama as another “opiate of the masses”.
The 1960s and 1970s saw an international revival of interest in Vertov. The independent, exploratory style of Vertov influenced many filmmakers and directors like Guy Debord. The Dziga Vertov Group was formed in 1968 by politically active filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. In 1960, Jean Rouch used Vertov’s filming theory when making Chronicle of a Summer. His partner Edgar Morin coined Cinéma vérité term when describing the style, using a direct translation of Vertov’s Kino Pravda. The Free Cinema movement in the United Kingdom during the 1950s, the Direct Cinema in North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the Candid Eye series in Canada in the 1950s, all essentially owed a debt to Vertov[i]. This revival of Vertov’s legacy included rehabilitation of his reputation in the Soviet Union, with retrospectives of his films, biographical works and writings. In 1962, the first Soviet monograph on Vertov was published, followed by another collection: Dziga Vertov: Articles, Diaries, Projects.II.
To further this first step, we considered the broader historical frame and while looking at practices from past eras, we came across a portion of Vertov’s work linked to his collaboration with the choreological laboratory, a research group, established 1923 at the Russian Academy of Artistic Science (Olenina, 2016)[ii].
Also known as RAKhN, the Academy was founded, among others also by the painter Wassily Kandinsky, a few years prior, in 1921, in Moscow[iii]. The brief venture of the institution, that lasted only nine years closing in 1930, was dedicated to the close study of the arts[iv]. In post-revolutionary Russia, the sense and the need to modernize detaching from the old regime was palpable and very much present also in the arts. The aim of the institution was thus to “uncover the materialist basis of arts by methods of hard science” (Olenina, 2016) so to find the common aspects and differences among the arts. An investigation of the materiality of the different media used in art, it brought together artists, researchers, psychologists, sociologist and philosophers in the effort to distil the core characteristics, in respect to channel, material and senses involved in each art form. In the hope of coming to term with the ephemeral nature of dance, the choreological laboratory aimed at researching movement and documenting the different artistic practices of early modern dancers in Russia.
The positivist approach of the laboratory pushed for the collaboration with young Soviet filmmakers to document movement and performances. Among these were Vertov and Lev Kuleshov. Cinema, still in its infancy, seemed to offer a natural answer to this call. If on the one hand, the movement was stripped from all signs of embodiment through the development of “photomechanical graphs of movement” (Olenina, 2016), on the other hand, the rhythm of the editing tried to convey the aesthetic experience of the audience during a live performance. Nowadays the latter is associated with Kuleshov[v] but at the laboratory Vertov and Kuleshov worked along similar lines, editing the body out of the movement in favour of abstract images and mechanical rhythms. Vertov had his actors move according to a metrical grid whereas Kuleshov used to record movement according to a metronome. Their fascination and main goal was to reach an efficient and precise body that they equated to the industrial machine, obliterating the experiences of the dancers completely. The camera lens was viewed as acquiring a third person position trying to produce a neutral recording of an event by focusing only on the viewers’ experiences. Still, the anxiety of understanding and documenting movement is much older than the experiment at the RAKhN or those by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. Unravel this, going quite far back in time, will help connected to another and opposite line of thinking and imagining movement.
The first documented trials of movement analysis can be traced all the way back to the ancients Greeks and in particular to Zeno of Elea and Aristotle (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016)[vi]. Their models conceived movement as a sequence of static poses. Zeno for examples considered the flight of an arrow as “a collection of discrete and static units of length” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016) and with Aristotle’s emphasis on the scientific study of nature, the transition from felt movement to movement as a “static object of thought” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016) was complete. Famous was the contention throughout history related to quadrupedic locomotion – if galloping horses did or did not leave the ground completely – that could only be solved, moving upward the time scale again, by Muybrige’s chronophotography. It is possible to argue as Nicolás Salazar Sutil and Sebastián Melo do in their article that this line of understanding movement that sees it from a third person position has produced the tools we use today to capture movement. Photography and film are thus a crystallization of this particular philosophical idea about movement that we now take for granted but in fact is only an idea, or an approximation of reality. Even anatomy books reflect the philosophy about the body current at the time they were published (Laqueur, 1992)[vii], and so it is with movement. Still, there has been a current of artists who worked towards a subjective understanding and recording of movement, allowing us to discuss the opposite end of the spectrum: the visceral camera, or the first person camera in which the sensation of the person filmed are of paramount.
These experiments are very much influenced by the thoughts of Henri Bergson on movement and time (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016) and occurred approximately ten years earlier than Vertov’s own experimentations at RAKhN. Central to Bergon’s understanding is that one should think “through movement rather than about movement” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016) calling this way of thinking, intuition. Following this more or less openly, futurist artists, in particular, used photography as a way to explore intuitively “movement and time as a subjective experience” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016). The artist Anton Giulio Bragaglia was the first who, in 1913, published pictures in the, so-called, photodynamic style. The long exposure images portrayed “nonrepresentational subjective expression of change, speed, mechanization” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016). In these images the body is seen distorting over time. Thus they do not “capture moments in time, but through time” (Salazar Sutil and Melo, 2016) allowing for subjective impression. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is also a good example of depiction of a body moving through time and not in time. In images such as these, one can see a clear opposition to the third person perspective of Marey and Muybridge. In a way, photodynamism could also connect to the argument of Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof (2016) of Loïe Fuller’s dances as anticipating the plurality of identities and fluidity of the self and the senses typical of the modern age[viii].
Wandering through the meandering pathways of this research, we were intrigued with the realization that similar core questions keep reappearing and haunting artists throughout history. At the same time, as an exercise in dialectics, occupying the opposite end of the spectrum helps to have a better philosophical understanding of the issues at stake. My question thus is what would be the correct equipment to capture the visceral camera? Would that be the contrary to the camera in an empty room? Is there a point were the two positions could collapse? Pinning this down would help us better understand the implication of the camera left alone in an empty room.III.
A thought-experiment of the Camera left alone in an empty room inevitably in the last instance calls the question of the room itself. Having in mind a choreographic and dance practice, a room of an intense significance is – a dance studio.
A dance studio is a specific space. In opposition to the atelier – which is usually filled with things, objects and traces – a dance studio is purposefully empty. If working in a dance studio, one is explicitly asked not to leave traces, to remove all things that you brought in and to leave the room as you found it. You are also asked to remove yourself in order for the next person or group of people to enter the place. This rhythmical exchange of things and people, of present and absent, is a core nature of the logic of the dance studio space. Emptiness is then a core state of the dance studio: it has to contain this inherent empty state in order to host different activities uninterfered. Holding the potential of diverse activities (and this diversification can be a logistical one but also an aesthetical as well as ideological one), a dance studio is a place of strong inherent potentiality, all contained in its very emptiness. Logistically, the dance studio is a predominantly empty: counting all the night hours or holidays, the emptiness of the dance studio almost precedes in meaning its occasional state of being filled with something. This empty holder is then a place of strong containment for other possibilities: containing light, containing temperature – a dance studio space is almost circulating ghostly matters[ix].
Avery Gordon describes ‘haunting’ as a sociopolitical-psychological state in which the edges of perception are not flush – cracks are exposed, things don’t add up, and the invisible becomes visible (or vice versa). Haunting, for Gordon, is one of the ways that life is “complicated”: “Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import”. The human sciences lack methods for understand how “social institutions and people are haunted, for capturing enchantment in a disenchanted world”. The ghost functions as the sign, or empirical marker, of a haunting in action. Gordon takes a turn from Laura Kipnis, who describes visibility as “a complex system of permission and prohibition, punctuated alternately by apparitions and hysterical blindness”. Thus, “To write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories. To write ghost stories implies that ghosts are real, that is to say, that they produce material effects,” which implies that “the dialectics of visibility and invisibility involve a constant negotiation between what can be seen and what is in the shadows”.
At the same time, if we observe the artistic work taking place in a dance studio, in a manner that is detached from the content – meaning, if we approach this observation with an attitude of Vertov, defining its artistic contents only as an activity, we could distill its rhythms as a dialog of radical presence and absence: activity that is taking place, activity that is starting or activity that is finishing. So the camera left alone in an empty dance studio would film exactly that: objectively documenting the presence coming to its matter and then removing itself from the containment of the space, thus inevitably filming a space (and a time) of in-between, of phase and of state of matter.
Let us recall here again the section from Bragaglia’s manifesto mentioned at the very beginning of this text: “The picture therefore can be invaded and pervaded by the essence of the subject. It can be obsessed by the subject to the extent that it energetically invades and obsesses the audience with its own values.” Bragaglia is here firmly stating that there is an interest beyond what is disclosed to us, beyond an appeared. Exactly that, phases an in-between of the appearance, or even more, the essence of the moving matter that reshapes itself as it progresses or shifts through the time-space. For Bragaglia that is the essence, meaning: the core of the value or the value itself. Making this terminology somewhat flexible, we could conclude that the essence is also in that which is not present – or seemingly not present. So concluding from the different past experiments that we summarized above: the absence in its degrees of matter-in-progress could be of stronger interest for us than the moment at which a presence is peaking (which is just a peak event of the ever-folding movement in progress).
Often equipped with the wall-size mirror, the dance studio is also a place of choreologic Fata Morgana. Since the filming camera also organizes a focus (a focus of emptiness, a focus of containment and a focus of time) that which is being focused upon is the basis of a dialog between that which is offering its material-dynamic to be filmed and the filmed dynamic of the material itself. An empty dance studio is a strong mediator between these experiences and occurrences, holding the place for containment and dissolving, articulatingly differing from the seduction of whichever narrative of its activity-content.
In an endless flux of available hours, a camera left alone in an empty dance studio would organize a flow-of-hours as data, extracting and transforming the notion of the texture of time. In a bigger scale of time, encompassing the dialectics of technical and subjective time, a camera itself entails then a potential for its own subjectiveness. Beyond the notion of the timestamp that gives us a code in time that we can orientate ourselves upon – a camera left alone, so to speak, to its own devices, would sink in to that time-dimension sans a fixed orientation point. And that inner-perspective is the very core of the subjective time.
The last question would then be: could we leave a camera running endlessly? A camera that would keep recording past the hours, days, months or years: an Eternal Camera forever electronically translating everlasting containment of the dance space. A camera that is left alone, in an empty dance studio, until it technically dies.
EMPTY DANCE STUDIO
- EMPTY ROOM / EMPTY SPACE
- SPACE OF NO TRACES
- SPACE OF REMOVED TRACES
- SPACE OF EMPTINESS IN BETWEEN ACTIVITY
- SPACE IF FILLED ONLY WHEN ACTIVITY IS TAKING PLACE
- THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT PERIODS OF EMPTINESS
- DANCE STUDIO IS PORTRAYED AS EMPTY
- EMPTY DANCE STUDIO IS A SPACE OF POTENTIALITY
- EMPTY DANCE SUDIO IS A SPACE OF “IN-BETWEEN” / A PHASE / A STATE OF MATTER
- SPACE IS USUALY MIRRORING ITSELF
- SPACE IS CONTAINING LIGHT
- SPACE IS CONTAINING TEMPERATURE
- CAMERA THAT IS FILMING A STATE OF MATTER
- CAMERA THAT IS FILMING ABSENCE
- CAMERA THAT IS FILMING POTENTIAL
- CAMERA THAT HOLDS PLACE BETWEEN ACTIVITIES
- CAMERA THAT IS DOCUMENTING THAT AN ACTIVITY IS TAKING PLACE, THAT AN ACTIVITY IS FINISHING, OR THAT AN ACTIVITY IS STARTING
- CAMERA THAT ORGANIZES A FOCUS OF EMPTINESS
- CAMERA THAT ORGANIZES A FOCUS OF CONTAINMENT
- CAMERA THAT REGISTERES DURATION
- ETERNAL CAMERA
- CAMERA THAT STOPS RECORDING WHEN IT TECHNICALLY DIES
[i] Barnouw, Erik (1974) Documentary: a History of the Non-fiction Film, New York: Oxford University Press, original copyright 1974.
[ii] The term ‘Choreology’ here is not taken from Rudolf von Laban’s writing on the study of movement, but rather as Ciane Fernandes argues, possibly the other way round, that Laban it took from somewhere else (59- 60). Fernandes, Ciane (2015) The Moving Researcher: Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis in Performing Arts Education and Creative Arts Therapies, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publisher.
[iii] At the time, Kandinsky was professor at the university of Moscow. He soon left afterwards for Germany as the government changed its interest in culture towards Social Realism at the expenses of experimentation. Olenina, Ana (2016) “Moto-Bio-Cine-Event: Constructions of Expressive Movement in Soviet Avant-Garde Film” in Rosenberg, Douglas (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, New York: Oxford University Press.
[iv] The American Magazine of Art of 1925 in an article entitled “Art in Present-Day Russia” reported the Art Bulletin issued by the Russian Society of Cultural Relations with part of RAKhN previous year activities. Listed as part of the RAKhN were a literary section closely connected to sociology, one of the Arts and Crafts and a Polygraphical section. There was also a cinema-commission that was yet to become a part of the Academy, a commission for the Preservation of Art Museums and Antiquities, a department of Dramatics under which theatre and screenplay writers were working and a department of Music. As the aim of the institution, the Art Bulletin reported research linked to propaganda giving also an artistic and historical framework: “when we are passing from eclecticism and revolutionary propaganda to the search for a style of artistic imagery adequate to our epoch; when the wrangle between futurism and realism is still acute; when the outlines of the art that is to become classic for our times are not yet clear” (n.n., 1925, 493). n.n. (1925) “Art in Present-Day Russia” in The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 16, No. 9, pp. 493 – 6.
[v] The famous Kuleshov’s effect considers how the montage can set a connection between images.
[vi] Salazar Sutil, Nicolás and Melo, Sebastián (2016) “Exposed to Time: Cross-Histories of Human Motion Visualization from Chrono- to Dynamophotography” in Rosenberg, Douglas (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, New York: Oxford University Press.
[vii] Laqueur, Thomas (1992) Making Sex: Body and Gender from Greeks to Freud, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[viii] Pruska-Oldenhof, Izabella (2016) “Loïe Fuller’s Serpentines and Poetics of Self-Abnegation in the Era of Electrotechnics” in Rosenberg, Douglas (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, New York: Oxford University Press.
[ix] Gordon, Avery (2008) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
This text is an attempt to write down and fold together a 45-minutes long lecture performance and a research presentation in three parts that Katja Vaghi & Marjana Krajač created and performed for and during the Research Academy, in July 2017 at Zurich University of the Arts. Written by Marjana Krajač and Katja Vaghi.