Peterstransmedia’s Blog

Just another weblog

off to barca

Too much happening right now to give a clear summary of recent meetings — not only with Malcolm and Sofie, but also at the mid-term.
My inclination is to leave First milk to one side for a month or so, and then come back to it and see if I can deconstruct the more barbaric aspects of the present cut more completely, by becoming myself my own external pair of eyes.

I leave tonight for Barcelona, for the world premiere of Rinse and Spin in the Obliqua competition at the Mecal film festival.


By the time I get back, I will also have spent some time walking in the mountains, and maybe then my thoughts will be a little clearer!


apichatpong’s ghosts

From my mailbox, a new short film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that is being premiered online.


phantoms of nabua

quick round-up

Since I left my day job, it’s been a busy ten days, with two big TM seminars on video and sound art, and a number of searching conversations, including one-on-ones with Joost Fonteyne and Christiane, a discussion of my work plan with Steven, and a screening of the rough cut of First milk — now running at 52′ — with Jo.

And in the middle, a weekend in Paris for the first screening of two thousand walls since it was taken under the wing of the Collectif Jeune Cinéma, meetings with old and newer friends, dinner with the Dérives crowd, and a screening of Youcef’s film about Matoub Lounes at Les Trois Luxembourg (a huge improvement on the rough cut he showed us over a year ago in Brussels, much more fluid, and much funnier too). Visits to Tania Mouraud‘s installation Roaming at the Museum of Hunting in the Marais, and to Sophie Ristelhueber’s show at the Jeu de Paume, also provided much food for thought. (Tho the highlight of the trip was the two film portraits by Friedl Kubelka which the CJC have just taken into their collection.)

Jo’s input on First milk was extremely insightful, and the detailed notes he gave me will be very useful in working on the next version. It needs to be about 5-7 minutes shorter, and if I can remove the right 5-7 minutes, this should make a big difference to the subjective duration of the piece.

The main issue for me during this period has been how I see my research project lining up for the second year. Initially, the variety (disparity?) of my work seemed to be becoming a problem, and I found myself facing a dilemma in which any choice I made seemed to threaten to limit me, to trap me in pre-determined options, or to fuel rather than resolve the conflicts I feel. But Christiane provided me with the key to this problem when she suggested that what matters could be the process, not the results. This sounds like such a simple remark! Yet it was like scales falling from my eyes. Up till now I have been thinking in terms of themes (e.g. the relationship between animals and men), on the one hand, and forms (experimental film, video installation, documentary, fiction), on the other, which in turn led almost immediately to specific projects. But I had never really identified a subject — something precise enough that it defines a research process in itself. Once I being to think of something that is that precise and substantial, then the question of form becomes almost secondary, because what comes first is the research, and this will then throw up its own internal challenges, which will require me to invent or adapt forms which may be adequate to it. In other words, the process will become primary, and the record of that process will become itself part of the result.

This appeals to me enormously, because it leaves the question of medium/form open in a genuine and productive way, not just as a refusal to choose; because it means that there can be a number of outputs along the way, and even that the final output can be a collection of things, not just one thing; and because this is, in a sense, the way I always work. That is, I go to work because some specific event gets into my mind and becomes an obsession, and that obsession has to be resolved through something you might call a work of creation, or of art. So what is specific to my work is not that it is film, or a particular kind of film, as that it is a form which answers and assuages the initial stimulus. This always takes time. And the outcome is never, ever, what I think it is going to be.

(The specific subject CW and I discussed is less important than the way of approaching my work which it suggested to me.)

I found this new way of considering things extremely liberating. Not only liberating from my former indecision, but also liberating back into a form of potential political-ethical engagement with the world which I think I was losing sight of, as if this was less important to me than defining myself, in some slightly artificial way, as an artist.

Also, this displaces again — but productively, I think — the subject of First milk itself, which is perhaps less a film about men and animals, than it is a film about resistance, persistance, stubborness, not just as a character trait, but as a political and moral virtue. Seeing it in that way would certainly open up new connections between it and other work I have done, and plan to do.

As Jo said after we watched it together last Thursday, there’s a lot of refusal in this film.

L’enfant Ernesto vit encore:)

of animals and men

While traveling to Basel ten days ago, I finally found time to read Vinciane Despret and Jocelyne Porcher’s Etre bête (Actes Sud, 2007).

This is a very dense, and very important book, not just for what it suggests about its subject — the light which farmers can shed on the relationship between men and animals — but because in the process it proposes a small but extremely significant methodological revolution for social science field work.

Despret and Porcher’s previous work — on the sociology of industrial farming, and on the emergence in the 19th century of scientific approaches both to the study of animals in general, and to livestock farming in particular — led them to believe that they might learn more about the difference between men and animals by talking to farmers who raised pigs and cows, and interacted with them on a daily basis, without scientific suppositions. After all, the science of animal production constructed itself through the denial of knowledge to peasant farmers, whose proximity to, and affinity with, their animals was seen as anti-scientific. What might it be that farmers know which science does not know, and does not want to know?

To find out, the authors interviewed 23 livestock farmers in France, Belgium and Portugal. But instead of simply asking them what the difference was between men and animals, they instead invited the farmers to help them define the problem they were trying to solve. Their question thus took the form of asking the farmers whether this question of the difference between animals and men, with which scientists and researchers are highly preoccupied, was interesting to cattle farmers, and how they themselves, as stockmen, would advise them to formulate the question so that other stockmen would find it interesting, and might give them an interesting answer.

By thus approaching the people they were interviewing, not as objects of study, but as experts on the question that interested them (i.e. as equals, and even more that equals), they led them not only to help them formulate the question better, but also to give them answers which they might not have received otherwise. The result was a form of collaborative research, led by the farmer, rather than the researchers. They invited the people they met to think with them, rather than in front of them, and placed themselves in a position of explicit trust in and reliance on the other person.

(This approach is extremely suggestive, both in its method and in its results, not only for sociology and related disciplines, but also for documentary film making, where the relationship between the people behind and in front of the camera is often not only concealed, even when exhibited — perhaps most so when exhibited — but also totally mystified in the violence with which it predetermines the “subject”‘s behaviour, thus transforming a real person into an actor in someone else’s fiction. Just posing the issue in this way points out the huge chasm separating the work of, say, Jean Rouch from that of, say, Fred Wiseman.)

By approaching the question in this way, Despret and Porcher discover a world of trust and mutual communication, in which animals are themselves seen as experts in certain domains, and in particular in the domain of intentionality. For as one farmer says, “The animals know what we want, but we don’t know what they want” (p.55).

The implication that comes back time and again in the course of their conversations is, therefore, that society is not a given, but a creative process, and that this process of creation happens, in these cases, between animals and men. Researchers studying dogs in a laboratory make the dog stupid by treating it like a machine. Stockmen invite their animals to collaborate with them, to trust them, and even to talk to them. Just as children enter into intentionality because we anticipate this capacity in them, so the farmers’ animals cease to be predictable because they give them the opportunity to surprise them.

Thus the question that the authors learned to ask became , not how do men and animals differ, but, how do animals learn skills? And how do men learn to see these skills and encourage them? And the answers they received were never about animals in general, but about this animal in particular. Or in other words, what interests farmers is not how men and animals differ, but how his animals differ from another farmer’s animals. For, as one farmer says to them,

“How can you ask a stockman this question [about the difference between animals and men]? It’s obvious, it bothers him to be asked this question. I mean, it’s not rude, that’s not what bothers him, but it disturbs him, somehow. Because, let me tell you: there’s not a lot of difference between them.” (p.97)

Or as another farmer suggests: “What would be without our animals? That’s the question you ought to pose…” (p.109).

I only skim the surface of the matter covered here — just as the book itself leaves one with the impression that it only skims the surface of the wealth of material uncovered in Despret and Porcher’s interviews.

How does this feed my own work — beyond having encouraged me to pick up and run with the idea that there is something here to look for, that the way men and animals work together is rarely at the center of films about men who work with animals, and that this means that there is something very important about these men that is missing from those films?

I don’t have an answer to this question yet. For now, I simply add one suggestion of my own to the many suggestions which pour off the pages of this book.

The authors’ were given the idea of exploring the parallel between how we raise children and how farmers raise animals by Isabelle Stengers. And they follow this thought to the idea that animals and men as they were until recently, and in some places still are, are perhaps both the outcome of millennia of co-evolution, in which their essence was defined not against each other, but for each other. But many myths of creation and foundation of our societies tell not of co-evolution, but of humans who are descended from animal ancestors, or who are nursed and nurtured by animals (Asena, Romulus and Remus, …). And even Adam and Eve acquired their capacity for moral judgement only at the instigation of a snake.

What if it is not animals who continue to learn intentionality from humans, but humans who once learned intentionality from animals? Who had to learn it from them, because there was no one else to show them the way?

the territory of the spectator

I finished showing Malcolm my work to date, with the Super 8 films and my NFM shorts. Beyond any more specific comments, what I took away from this was the question (again): what do I want to do? What do I want out of Transmedia? What am I going to focus on?

There are many possible answers to these questions, but the most practically important one is that what I am doing now is editing the film about Eric and the calf. When that is finished, maybe the way ahead will seem clearer?

We also had a very interesting discussion about the specificity of the digital medium. Malcolm explained his view, that there is not a medium any more — that digitial doesn’t have any intrinsic characteristics. Its physicality lies beyond the range of what our senses can detect or construe. So its physical nature is not available to be worked upon. And at the same time, it doesn’t have a stable discourse, in the way that the cinema has proved to have, despite a number of attempts to undermine it. What Malcolm concludes from this is that the issue is not the medium, but the spectator: how do we work?

I hadn’t thought about it in this way before, and certainly this resonates with a lot of what one can observe in terms of the indecision brought about by the digital ‘revolution’, whether DV or HD. Certainly, the issue of the spectator interests me deeply — the idea of what it might be to leave ‘space’ for the spectator within the film. But is there any way of getting hold of this ‘space’ which is not deeply metaphorical, and thus tendentious? (Reading Boal for the first time after my first meeting with David Karam in November left me with an odd sensation of being totally convinced and simultaneously utterly unpersuaded that his redefinition of theatre in relation to Aristotle as counter-example would necessarily have any validity outside his own theatre work.)

Walking home after our meeting, I bought the February copy of the Cahiers du cinéma, only to come across the following in an article by François Fronty on Kiarostami’s new film, Shirin, in which he films the reactions of a group of Iranian women watching a film-version of a mediaeval Persian love story, without ever showing us what they are watching (we hear the text, but do not see the images).

“Beyond what might simply seem to some to be a virtuoso dispositif, Shirin demonstrates that the history of the cinema is still far from finished. This film should help us think about cinema’s ‘postmodernity’, or what Jacques Aumont has called its  ‘second modernity’, in so far as after the period during which mise-en-scène was central to cinema (say, from Godard on), now it it the spectator and film itself as a dispositif which is taking centre stage. And this shift of focus, which is also a shift in point of view in which the spectator’s perspective becomes the territory of the film, goes far beyond what is specific to Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema.”

(On the problems with translating the French term dispositif into English, see this note by Frank Kessler.)

I saw Kiarostami’s Taizé a few years ago when it was screened at the Halles de Schaerbeek, in which he applied a similar approach to a religious mystery play. Taizé was presented on two large screens set an angle to one another, with a small monitor between them allowing us to see what the people were reacting to. The dispositif seemed promising, but to lack a truly necessary relationship to the subject matter. Shirin is a single screen, long-format film, meant to be seen in a cinema. I will be very interested to see what difference this makes: certainly, the stills printed by the Cahiers suggest a far more dramatic, and more staged (less documentary) work.

love at first sight

Visiting, I came across a film which instantly transported me somewhere very familiar, where I had never been before.

The name of the film is Ariadne. It was made by Barbara Meter in 2004.

This had the same effect on me, seeing it for the first time, as The House is Black. Not so much a new world opening up, as something very ancient which I had forgotten, which all my ancestors had doubtless forgotten too, and which I now suddenly found myself remembering again, not only for myself, but on behalf of all of us.

Moskwood Media has a DVD of her work. They tell me it will be at my house in five days’ time.

[The postage stamp window below may not display properly in some browsers, but you really should open the full screen version in any case…]

by other means

Very interesting and stimulating discussion with Jo Huybrechts last Friday, even if short given the number of films we watched in an hour. We have now exhausted my back catalogue. The general verdict: “You don’t want to make documentaries! You use documentary as a starting point, but always to do something else!” I think there is more than a grain of truth in this. Since my favourite documentaries are The House is Black, The Lion Hunters and Letter from Siberia, it would be hard to pretend otherwise.

We discussed also the project for First milk as described in my work plan for H1 2009. Jo proposed that the brief outline of the film I had made there was actually the plan for the film. Meaning, that there doesn’t need to be any more than that. He was therefore surprised at my estimated length of 40-45′ — it sounded more like 25-30′ to him. Maybe he is right? I have a big question mark in my mind about the diptych structure, and the idea that there needs to be as much discourse as there is silence. It’s a nice idea, but it may not work in practice.

The other main thing which arose from this discussion for me was the idea that the uniqueness of what is documented by the camera, which is what interests me in ‘documentary’, could also be an obstacle. Not just in the sense that looking for uniqueness makes it less likely to happen, but also in the sense that a fixation on uniqueness may prevent me from seeing the ‘generic’ elements in the situation, and it is these elements which are actually those which might make a situation workable, from the point of view of montage. (Cf the work of Johan van der Keuken). I.e., that it may be that I could film the same events slightly differently (frame them slightly differently?), and that this intention (lack of intention?) would already be enough to make them more malleable when it comes to assembling them. To make them seem less like inviolable ‘blocks’ of reality.

So maybe one of the questions I need to address in my reflections is, how does this uniqueness effect work for me in determining my relationship to documentary — especially given that I am someone who is not ‘doing’ documentary, but rather using it in order to do something else?

(Worked again on First Milk over the weekend, and got it down to 52 minutes by removing a large section of dialogue in the first half. It could still be pared down a little more from where I stand now. Then it has to go before the world for some initial feedback!)