Last week Atanas Djonov organised a SMIC screening at the Figtree Theatre at UNSW. Entitled TrainInk, the evening presented videos generated through the relative motion of the camera and the photographed subject. This may sound like a banal idea (aren't all "motion pictures" about this?) but the particular collection of works which Atanas assembled was both conceptually challenging and highly enjoyable. This is no mean feat, I reckon.
Some of the highlights for me:
An Equal and Opposite Force (2004), by Sivanesan and Phelan.
In this piece, a man seems to walk down a busy street against the flow of pedestrians who walk backwards. While watching, it didn't take long to figure out the "trick" – that the walker had in fact walked backwards the whole way, and then the footage was reversed. Simple. But the effect was entrancing. The mind's ability to understand, conceptually, what was "actually" happening, battled constantly with the eye's desire to interpret the protagonist's walking as normal, and all the other pedestrians as "wrong". This effect was enhanced by his shadowed face hidden inside a hoodie – so we had no access to the weirdness of the situation which would have no doubt registered in his face. The tightness of the work (it was "just one simple idea," well executed) was bent slightly when the walker stopped occasionally to pick up ten cent coins from the sidewalk (ie, during filming, he had put the coins down). This introduced an alternative formal rhythm to the piece, besides the rhythm of footsteps. It also suggested some sort of narrative (reverse busking perhaps, for an odd street performance?)
All Quiet on the Western Front (2005), by Jamil Yamani
Again, an incredibly simple performance for video. Two men sit opposite each other at a dining table. One is dressed in traditional Muslim clothing, and eats an Indian meal, with his hand. The other, dressed like a western businessman, eats meat and three veg with a knife and fork. The Muslim diner has a glass of milk, or a lassi. The western diner has beer and wine. The piece evolves in real time. The men eat their meals. It takes about nine minutes. The tension in the room (both theirs and ours) is thick. Occasionally, one of them looks up thoughtfully, as if he's got something to say to the other. Neither says anything, although the western man burps loudly a few times. This piece was perhaps the most "still" of the videos presented – both the camera and the subjects were anchored to the floor. For me, All Quiet on the Western Front was largely concerned with audience expectation – that, by rights, "something should happen" during the course of our "consuming" a work of art. Of course, this desire for a crisis and resolution goes unsatisfied. This tension between artwork and audience is assisted by the "indexicality" of the work – the fact that it unfolds in real time – and that the real time of the eating corresponds to the real time of our sitting in a cinema watching the eating. (postscript – it seems that the two men were BOTH played by Yamani himself – in which case, clever editing!!)
I also enjoyed Yamani's Coming Together (2005), in which a single piece of footage (shot from a moving train) is duplicated, reversed, and threaded back upon itself to form a left-vs-right motion-tension. It's difficult to describe the effect – at the beginning of this short piece, the motion is mainly to the left, with only short bursts of motion to the right interspersed. Through some sort of simple arithmetic, this trend is reversed over the course of the film, and we finish moving in the opposite direction from which we started. The process of transferral from left to right is perceptible, just. Again, although it sounds complex, the work is simple, and enjoyable to watch.
Two works by John Hobart Hughes using stop motion animation, shot in bright sunlight. In the first, The Wind Calls Your Name, shots of a landscape (around Broken Hill?) are "brought to life" by being temporally chopped up and put back together again frame by frame. In fact, I think this work was made with individual shots from a digital camera, each shot one frame, assembled like a gorgeous colour flip book in the computer. The second work, Removed, extends this stop motion technique, introducing a narrative element through a mysterious character – the "shadow self" (literally a human shadow) who tries to come to life by assembling pieces of scrap metal around his form. This piece was clever, visually pleasurable, and managed (surprisingly) to avoid becoming a simple fairytale cliche. Actually, I found myself feeling rather sympathetic to the plight of the shadow-man, although I understood the emergence of his "darker" side (revealed at the end of the film, when he kills a real human) to be kind of inevitable. Like Yamani's dinner scene, both the shadow-man and the flesh-man he kills are played by the filmmaker himself.
Atanas Djonov presented three works which I enjoyed:
In Eisenstein’s Montage Powered by Google (work in progress, 2005), Djonov plays "word associations" with a complex aesthetic tract (in fact it is an excerpt from Russian filmmaker Eisenstein’s Film Sense). Each word of the tract is read out by a male voice, and at the same time an image flashes up on the screen. Sometimes these images are direct "illustrations" of the word, and other times they seem only obscurely associated. Either way, they flicker before our eyes almost too quickly to be apprehended consciously, and strangely, the effort to do so meant that I missed the overall content of the passage of text as well. The programme notes inform that the images are generated by word searches in google.
A short work by Djonov, Renaissance – an odd animation in which a flag atop a medieval tower rises and falls, in some sort of communication with a brick clocktower. A surrealist sketch lasting only a few seconds.
My highlight of the evening was Djonov's Wide-Open Fields (2005). Shot from a train moving through a desolated Bulgarian agricultural landscape, and accompanied by a live rendition of a Bulgarian song by the choir Nothing Without Belinda. The choir stood up at the back of the cinema, reading their songsheets by candlelight. The "subtitles" – English translation of the words to the song – appeared on the video screen. The song asked "who will look after our fields, when the great X [presumably the name of a great leader, I have forgotten] is gone? / who will look after our women, when the great X is gone? etc etc". The juxtaposition of this rousing propaganda, sung live and loud in the space of the theatre, with the devastated landscape, was very strong. It was a warm and poignant use of an "expanded cinema" technique.
Nothing Without Belinda then took to the stage and sang eight more rousing, fun, or sad pieces from around the world, including an East Timorese solidarity song.
PS: I also enjoyed Allan Giddy's The Crossing (2004) – sounds are triggered by the passing of differently coloured cars under a bridge. The music they generate is quite beautiful, and this is what pushes The Crossing beyond a mere "trigger-gimmick".