The Medium Exposed
The screen is inherently seductive. It can be used to tell engaging stories and fantastic adventures. It also contains within it incredible powers to persuade and convince. Just think of advertising, product placement and propaganda.
Students can harness these powers, but only if they question how they work. This doesn’t have to be through analytical essays, it can also be done through practical production of screen-based work. The most important part of this is for them to learn the conventions, but also to always ask why these conventions are there, what function the conventions perform and what do they do to the viewer?
Let us start with a question: Is screen-based work that different to painting? Painting maintains itself as an important art form because it reinvented itself as an art form about the medium itself. Painting stays powerful now because it doesn’t deny that it is anything but pigment and surface. Painting is about the image it represents and the stuff with which it is made.
The self-critical and self-aware nature of painting means that it doesn’t try and hide what it is, whereas much of cinema and screen-based work does. For art students, this difference is really important. Most Cinema and Hollywood films continually try to hide the fact that they are films at all. They want the audience to believe we are there while we are watching, which is where the term suspension of disbelief comes from.
Whereas painting and other art forms do not try to be anything other than what they are, this is an important concept and applies to other disciplines such as music and literature. An important thinker, Maurice Blanchot, explains the idea really succinctly when he wrote in his essay Literature and the Right to Death (1947-8), that “literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question”. The question is about itself, for Blanchot, the writing itself actually has to ask what it is. While it is doing this, it must look at its potential and limitations, which is why it becomes so much more poignant.
The same might be said of screen-based art forms. Art using screens comes to life when it becomes self-aware, when it doesn’t try to hide behind a veneer, but makes very clear and pronounces what it can be and what its limitations are. In order to treat video making as a question like Blanchot suggests, the work students produce has to ask a question. Not a question in the form of, say a documentary about another subject, but a question about the screen itself.
Gilles Deleuze discussed cinema and screen-based works significantly. Of cinema he wrote, “The question is no longer what we see behind an image but rather, how we can endure what we see in it already”. It isn’t that cinema is painful or difficult, but that it presented itself to us in such a powerful way, in such a real way that part of it exceeded any ordinary experience. As such, the experience of cinema was always and already an experience of excess.
Far from being a negative experience, it is this strength and power that forces the viewer to think. For Deleuze, it does this because the cinema brings with it an affect that is more felt than understood: “What can only be felt makes the soul ‘perplex’, which is to say that it forces it to pose a problem”. It is important here to also note that for Deleuze the relevance of this concept is its link to ethics. The experience of Cinema or the screen is intrinsically linked to the need to consider, understand and question, which is exactly what we hope art and design students will do all the time with their work.
This is a very powerful consideration for artists starting to work with screen-based and moving image. Screen theorists have consistently argued for more ethical films and more engagement by the audience.
Another very powerful position when investigating the screen and that cannot be overlooked is Psychoanalytic film theory. Especially film theories that rose with the breakthrough of Jacques Lacan, which came in the 70’s and 80’s.
For Lacan, the experience of the cinema paralleled the experience of growing up and forming an ego. Before seeing itself in a mirror or screen, the infant has no understanding that it is independent. Later, while developing an awareness of itself, the infant sees itself in the mirror and forms a consistent picture of only it. Essentially, the infant sees itself as this image and as we grow up we use this image to function in society.
Building on Lacanian theory, Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry saw the cinema screen as a mirror through which the spectator could identify itself in the same way. We don’t identify with the characters, but actually with the point of view of the camera. That is why Hollywood cinema tries so hard to hide the functioning of the camera. What gives the audience power and sense of well-being is their avoidance of being seen. An apt metaphor is the invisibility of the spectator in the dark auditorium.
Combined with a Marxist perspective, cinema maintains an illusion of our activity and hides our passivity. Much of the engagement with video, film, cinema and screen based work, from an artistic perspective, works with these notions of ethics and reluctance to be such a passive consumer. There are many artists that follow this path and produce work that asks what the medium actually is.
Looking at a simple artistic tool like the screen in this way helps make so much more sense of its power. It also helps to understand how it has become something so ubiquitous in everyday society, yet treated with caution and suspicion by many artists. However, screen is a really exciting tool to use and to include in work and its potential is being increased all the time through new technologies like touch screens and portable devices.
Lis Rhodes – where is the screen?
One artist that would be fantastic for art, design and media students to learn from would be Lis Rhodes. While studying at the Slade School of Art I was fortunate to meet Rhodes, an exceptional film-maker of deceptively complex work. I say “deceptively” because of how accessible her work can be. On a visit to the Tanks gallery in Tate Modern, I was fascinated by how easily children were able to engage with the playful elements of her work.
Rhodes’s films use systematic methods for investigating image and sound. The final films often resemble something more like computer language than what is normally accepted as cinema, yet they use the same medium. The concepts behind the films would appear far from child-friendly. Conceptual video and film art can frequently be more ambiguous than subtle and more austere than friendly.
Yet, these children were running around the room in fits of excitement and participating in the performative and physical aspect of the work. Two projectors face each other and project similar images across the room. At first it is the walls of the room that appear to be the screen.
Yet, what the children had quickly worked out was that once the audience takes part, the film becomes a performance. It is interesting to note that Light Music (1975) was actually created as part of an installation/performance itself.
The “one-directional” and consumer based aspect of traditional cinema is subverted within the work. The sense of spectatorship and viewer are reduced and replaced by the participant. There are many ways that new technology can add to this and involve the viewer, but the simplicity of the installation is its strength.
Traditional Hollywood cinema, so critiqued by Psychoanalytic theory, needs the images to be projected from the viewpoint of the spectator. Yet in Rhodes’s installation, instead of the images being projected from the position of the spectator as in usual cinema, the images are projected at the viewer. Moreover, they come from both directions. Through an interesting play of scales, shadows and direction of light, the more the participant tries to occupy themselves with one screen, the more they actually impact on the other screen with their shadows.
Sung Hwan Kim – DIY cinema
Sung Hwan Kim installation in The Tanks explores what movie making can be: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/taking-story-walk and further films: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern-tanks/exhibition/sung-hwan-kim
Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of why Hwan Kim’s films are so inventive is that he cannot strictly be defined as a “film maker”. He takes the position as a director, editor, performer, composer, poet and installation artist.
The Tanks installation, at Tate Modern (2012), present video in a very inventive way. The movies can be seen individually from beginning to end, or they can be viewed in a much more transitory way by moving in and around them. Some are large, others small, but the viewer can move freely between them. Engaging the audience in this way presents an experience for the viewer much more akin to visiting a painting exhibition than going to the cinema.
Allowing the eyes to move around the room, the viewer can take in glimpses that then link the movies in new ways. In a sense it is the audience that can compose or edit the movies into new relationships and narratives. This is possible because the images themselves cross boundaries between fiction and documentary. They also break many of the rules and conventions for narrative storytelling within cinema that we are so used to, and rely on so much, when going to the cinema.
As opposed to these strict conventions, Hwan Kim is much keener on the idea of possibility, change and improvisation. His performances really emphasise this. The stories have elements of fantasy, yet they are presented without computer generated imagery or special effects and rely on himself, his expression and very simple drawings.
Even in these performances that are turned into movies, the notion of the screen is very clearly put into question. We see Hwan Kim through a screen on which he draws, transforming himself and his face in relation to the narrator’s dialogue.
Sung Hwan Kim initially studied architecture at Seoul National University. The history of architecture leaves a telling feel in is work. Here, the cinema is not a shining palace of dreams, but much more accessible. The materials used to create the screens and furniture for viewing are as important as the films themselves.
This is why Sung Hwan Kim is so good for students to look at, he demonstrates that you don’t need huge budgets and complex software to produce inventive stories with real drama. Moreover, he also broadens the appeal of working with screens to students that wouldn’t normally consider it as within their remit. Because he is from an architecture background and treats the screen so sculpturally and also from a painting perspective, students from those specialisms will really see the potential.