The Audiovisual Essay: My Favorite Things
We invite the submission to our journal of original videographic work created using film, or other moving image, excerpts. The work, which can be of any length, should produce new knowledge about its subject, or about film and moving image studies, through its audiovisual form. ([in]Transition editors, “Contribute to [in]Transition”)
As [in]Transition throws open its doors to welcome submissions of videographic film and moving image studies (see the full guide to our open peer review process here), we devote its third issue to a timely set of meditations on the practice and theory of the audiovisual essay as a creative, critical or scholarly form. The aim with this issue was to generate lots of new reflections on videographicessaying, and on the new knowledge potentially produced as a result by scholars and critics who have taken up making and also teaching these processes and forms, in some cases, after many years of publishing their research solely in written formats.
So many valuable reflections were produced that a companion website has been created to archive a number of these by authors of videos curated in this issue. Indeed, every video featured in this [in]Transition issue has its own, written, “Making of” supplement (all are listed and linked to below), including one which problematizes the need for such supplementation. The auxiliary website also houses the papers and screening program from an international conference on The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory, which took place in November 2013 in Frankfurt, a city long associated with important considerations of the essay as a form (see Adorno, 1959). This conference very much inspired the shape that [in]Transition 1.3 has taken, and its two organisers, Cristina ÁlvarezLópez and Adrian Martin (of Goethe University/Monash University), were the first members of our esteemed editorial board to accept an invitation to curate (and to make) work, individually, for this issue – they delivered a joint paper at the Frankfurt conference. They are joined, as guest curators, by fellow board members Ian Garwood and Miklós Kiss who also generously share their experiences of making or teaching film studies videos.
While Martin and Álvarez both reflect on the use of experimental audiovisual research methods that take the researcher, as the former puts it, “wherever the film leads you”, in their individual entries Garwood and Kiss account for a process in which the research might pre-date, at least to a greater extent, the exploration of an audiovisual presentational form. While certainly still open to and interested in more “poetic” video essays, in their reflections these latter authors conceive of videographic film studies, in part, as a matter of transmedial scholarly adaptation or translation. Yet even the most tightly pre-scripted approaches to the audiovisual essay can be challenged in interesting ways by videographic processes, as Garwood is certainly happy to acknowledge. As my fellow [in]Transition co-editor Drew Morton also writes, in relation to the follow up video he made on Kubrick’sThe Shining after his explanatory study of Scott Pilgrim (which I have curated here):
While I still began with a script, my approach differed this time around because I decided to begin the production process with a video track. I found I was seeking aesthetically more creative ways of bringing out observations through dissolves, superimpositions, and split-screens. I was attempting to reinvent my own videographic language and, by doing so, I had found a tone that engaged with Stanley Kubrick’s film on its own ambiguous terms.
The pioneering online video-essayist Kevin B. Lee writes of a similar transformation in his audiovisual essay work, this time because of a video he made four months prior to The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots (which is the work of his I have chosen to showcase here):
[It was] a critical homage to HarunFarocki titled Interface 2.0 […]. At this time I had been making video essays for five years, mostly amounting to cinephileappreciations of different aspects of canonical films and filmmakers. Engaging with Farocki’s acutely observant, systematic yet poetic approach to analyzing images engendered new priorities in my own work.
If, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, all criticism is an experiment on the work of art (Benjamin, 1919, cited by Hediger), then, as Umberto Eco puts it,
The poetics of the “work in movement” […] sets in motion […] a new mechanics of aesthetic perception […]. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art. (Umberto Eco, 22-23)
For me, despite some small reservations about nomenclature, these experimental, indeed, at times transformational aspects of audiovisual research testify to the utility of retaining the notion of the “essay” in relation to it: while, as a noun, that term carries a (not always helpful) association with writing, as a verb it importantly conveys a sense of tentative exploration, of making attempts. This kind of essayistic open-mindedness ought to be as essential to the field of scientific realist explorations as it is to many forms of artistic or poetic practice. As Robert B. Ray writes,
If, instead of thinking about the avant-garde as only hermetic self-expression, we began to imagine it as a field of experimental work waiting to be used […], then, we might begin to apply certain avant-garde devices for the sake of knowledge. (Ray, 10)
Of course, not everyone is comfortable with academic work carried out in avant-garde, or “exploratory registers” or forms, as Jackie Stacey and Janet Wolff note in their recent collection Writing Otherwise But, in the UK, the country from which these authors and I write, there is a lively and relatively well established academic tradition of film research by audiovisual practice – and even a tradition of peer-reviewing that work for academic publication, often on the basis of similar criteria–say, originality, significance and rigor–as those used to judge written scholarship (see the peer-reviewed journal Screenworks for an influential example).
Partly because of this, a significant number of scholars cross over between writing and filmmaking in their academic work. This is certainly the case with Michael Chanan (author of the video I have curated for this issue on the films of the late Brazilian documentarist Eduardo Coutinho), even as he acknowledges that he is relatively new to the procedure of exclusively using extracts from the film work studied, especially in an unscripted context. As Chanan writes,
I confess I was not at all sure I could fashion these elements into a satisfactory whole. […] There is no argument being made, and there is no big story being told, only an accumulation of lots of little ones. A bit like the meandering temporality of free improvisation. I was surprised as the video came together that it took on the same feel. Even selecting the most telling clips, the material was diffuse and dispersed and yet refused to shed its particularity and individual identity. But this is exactly the world as Coutinho pictures it, and I remain happy at the thought that maybe this small digest of his films indeed manages to communicate something of the sentience of Coutinho’s filmic vision.
As Pam Cook argues, in relation to her own exploration of videographic film and television studies (which I have chosen to represent in this issue with her very concise but potent video Mildred's Kiss), audiovisual work can produce
a ‘writerly’ experience à la Roland Barthes in which viewers / readers / essayists generate their own meanings. The video essay constitutes an event; it transforms existing material to fashion an open-ended process of re-reading and re-writing.
For me, one of the most compelling demonstrations of the full potential of this kind of videographic open work is my favorite video essay: Christian Keathley’s 50 Years On. This is not the first time I have curated it: I did so at my blog just over three years ago shortly after the video went public online. If I look back at the note I wrote then, I see that, much as I appreciated it straightaway, the unusual form of this essay made me anxious to situate its meaning within its verbal film studies thread. My first impressions weren’t inapt. In holding onto them quite so tightly, though, I believe I closed the work down. I wrote:
[50 Years On] beautifully posits and explores the idea of two different viewing strategies in the cinema: what Keathley calls a "literate" mode in which "a single-minded gaze is directed toward the obvious [cinematic] figure on offer" on the screen; and a "non-literate" mode, less narrowly focused, roaming instead "over the frame, sensitive to its textures and surfaces".
But it isn’t Keathley who directly names anything in this video – even though he performs the voice over. He–the video–works instead through citing and siting: interspersing, in surprising ways, black screens with fragments from favorite film sequences and beloved accounts of cinema from a range of writers and filmmakers, withholding their sources and identities until the end. A regular editing rhythm is established, then, as soon as we begin to rely on its rules, it is modulated. The visual track similarly shifts between: plungings into darkness; flashings of light; dense textures; the interval of a blink; space for searching looks over staging in depth; foregrounding; surfaces; figures moving quickly, singly, in crowds; meanderings and stillness. We experience modernity, anachronism, synchronicity, asynchrony.
Above all, 50 Years On is an essay film about cinephilia. It is successful as an experimental adaptation of, or supplement to Keathley’s influential 2005 book, Cinephilia and History, Or the Wind in the Trees – performing the function, in my view, of a (concise) audiovisual Passagenwerk of personal and collective film history. It also stands alone. I watch it quite often and it has become as cherished an object as any of my favorite (cultural or intellectual) things. I find I am still curious about it, and gripped by its thrilling and insightful cinematic expedition through the terror of the unfamiliar to the comfort and, at times, pleasure of the familiar – and the other way around, too. But, almost unbelievably, one of the last things I really noticed about how the video works turns on one of my favorite things in it: a favorite song, from a favorite film scene. The soundtrack throughout is provided by John Coltrane’s jazz recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). In that film, this is the song Maria (Julie Andrews) comes up with to settle the children’s terror about the storm – it’s a hymn to, and performance of, the powerful effect of distraction, and the reassurance of immersion in (memories of) comforting objects when faced with anxiety. In using Coltrane’s improvised version, with its “quality of something so recognizable being edged toward unrecognizability (without falling into it)”, as Keathley puts it in his fascinating account of the video’s making, 50 Years On becomes an exploration of how cinema does and doesn’t comfort us. How the contract we buy into when we begin to watch a film involves us sort of knowing where it will take us, and not knowing at all, but going (or not) with the flow, relying on our curiosity and our senses to make our way. In the first (fruitily) spoken words of the video (“I am told […] that you have some views for sale”) I am now reminded of Steve Neale’s brilliant insight in his 1980 BFI booklet on Genre: “What the consumer buys at the box office isn’t a film as such, but the right to view a film […] a process not a product.” (54) The video and its music (like the cinema) create a reflexive container, or frame, for this experiential process, for its anxieties as well as its pleasures – a more or less safe, but usually exciting ride.
There are many more things I could write about 50 Years On, about its intertextuality with film studies, or about the new things it makes me think and feel. It is a video in which formal and semantic complexity are held in communicative balance throughout. It also helps me to understand deeply what Cristina Álvarez and Adrian Martin mean when they write of their own audiovisual essay editing process:
Every element we pluck out has many simultaneous levels, and multiple channels or tracks. When we confront any two elements, we are confronting two heterogeneous, internally multiple blocks. Montage means – and every editor knows this intuitively – finding which channels or tracks across these two pieces can be connected in some way, creating a ‘through line’, a passage or movement.
It is as if editing is all about, at heart, finding a means to ‘turn down the volume’ on some of the channels of a fragment, while simultaneously upping the volume on those that are important for you – and then forging that connection in the cut, making the channel flow on and forward a little more. (Álvarez and Martin, 2014)
Improvisational making and open-ended reading may make us more anxious than research in a more conventional, explanatory, demonstrative mode does, especially when we have to evaluate it as part of a publication process. However, as I noted in a recent interview about [in]Transition and videographic studies (alongside my co-editors Drew Morton and Christian Keathley for the Aca-Media podcast [2014C]), we should really have more confidence in our form (the audiovisual), and in our knowledge of it and of how it works, even as we undoubtedly have a great deal more to learn about it. Videographic film and moving image studies may not be for everyone. But rigor is not only demonstrated by footnotes, or length, or by the other conventional signifiers of “quality” in written scholarly work; it is equally visible (and audible) in capable and effective handling of audiovisual material and procedures, in thoroughgoing and thoughtful approaches to videographic research. Illuminating audiovisual accounts and arguments can be vertical as well as horizontal, associative and poetic as well as linear, as Maya Deren might have put it (1953; Zera, 2013). Or, as Martin Heidegger might have said, new knowledge, new thinking, can be meditative and material as well as explanatory and calculative (1966: 47; Grant, 2014A).
The one-day symposium, Indefinite Visions, will take place at the Whitechapel Gallery (London) and will allow speakers to present, share, and discuss their latest research on digital aesthetics. Invited participants will comprise contributors to the CI's upcoming edited collection on the role that 'indefinite' digital video effects and artefacts (including blur, glitch, pixellation, warping, distortion, and stutter) play in contemporary film and moving image arts. The symposium will be followed by a two-day hands-on workshop, designed to give the academic participants the creative context and technical skills necessary to make the leap to digital scholarship. The workshop will be led by three world-leading video essayists. In a supportive environment, mentored by these three practitioners, academic participants will consider the theoretical foundations of video essays and the practical issues involved in their creation, and will experiment with producing audiovisual essays themselves. The symposium and workshop will be supported by a public screening on each of the three days, that will showcase key examples of how visual artists and other practitioners have used digital images to interrogate digital images.
The symposium, workshop, and accompanying screenings will be organised by the PI with the support of the Whitechapel Gallery. The CI will contribute to event organsation by liaising with the academic participants. Both the PI and CI will present at the symposium, and also produce an audiovisual essay. The PI will additionally edit a special issue of [in]Transition: Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, which will feature a peer-reviewed selection of the audiovisual essays produced by the participants. This special issue will be essential for disseminating and promoting the digital scholarship explored in the workshop; it will leverage the participation of senior academics in the project to advocate audiovisual film and media scholarship, and provide a lead for film and media researchers ready to make the transition to digital practice.
The PI is a film-maker and video essayist whose work has been shown at festivals and museums on five continents, and is an editorial board member of [in]Transition. The CI is co-editor of Indefinite Visions (Beugnet & Cameron, 2016. University of Edinburgh Press), a forthcoming publication on digital aesthetics which will feature articles by the presenters at the symposium. Confirmed contributors include W.J.T.Mitchell, Jacques Aumont, Michel Chion, Raymond Bellour, and D.N.Rodowick. Combining the PI's expertise in digital media-making with the CI's international film and media research network, the project will pioneer the use of digital video technology as a critical tool, and so expand the expressive possibilities available to scholars in the humanities.
The project will generate a range of pathways to impact, including:
- Providing a public educational event and screenings at a popular venue that will contribute to the knowledge and quality of life of participants
- Providing a forum for UK-based moving image practitioners to reflect on and discuss current digital practices in the arts, and to develop their personal and professional networks, so helping enhance their creative activity and output
- Drawing in visitors to the Whitechapel Gallery, and so creating financial benefits for the museum and the local area
- Generating easily accessible academic research outputs in the popular and widely-viewed digital form of the video essay, individual examples of which regularly achieve wide scale online distribution, so contributing to public knowledge and cultural life within the UK and beyond
The public symposium will feature a line-up of participants who are exceptionally well known not only within academia but also across the artistic and broader creative communities. This line-up will combine with the Whitechapel's exceptional public reach (with an email subscriber list of over 45,000) to ensure active participation by the creative communities and the general public. The symposium will encourage open discussion and debate about issues relating to digital technology in the humanities, and will generate knowledge-exchange between academics and non-academics including media practitioners, artists, film-makers, curators, students, arts professionals, and the wider public.
The audiovisual essays that result from the subsequent workshop will be published in [In]Transition - an open access academic journal. Crucially, they will simultaneously be made available on popular online video sharing platforms and disseminated through user groups. They will be downloadable, will conform to the 'share alike' principles of Creative Commons licensing, and may over time themselves form the basis of subsequent digital outputs. They will thus make full use of already well-developed and extensive online infrastructures for the distribution of video essays. For example, Catherine Grant's various online networks have tens of thousands of followers, while video essays by confirmed workshop practitioner / mentor Tony Zhou regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. The video essay provides potential for a level of impact previously unimaginable among film and media scholars. Our project will help academics to achieve this potential.