Brian den Hartog – A Dialogue With Cyberspace

By Petra Belc

Let us try to step out of our physiological frames just as modern science has done. Film should not just be a means, a medium, through which the author speaks of himself to the audience, but film should be a means of exploring the world-life in such a way that the author  becomes a curious person, a surprised viewer, an explorer.

Mihovil Pansini, Second Vision of Antifilm, 1967.

                               Given the uncertain times we live in, exploration of the formal qualities of media is no longer an end in itself; rather, it becomes a tool for analysis, juxtaposition and confrontation with the world constantly threatening to glide into entropy.

                                                                                                                                             25fps, Introduction, 2018.

More than half a century ago a group of film enthusiasts gathered around cine-club Zagreb to initiate what would decades later be recognized as one of the first festivals of experimental cinema in the European context: GEFF, the Genre Film Festival (1963—1970). In its first edition, inspired by a series of cine-club conversations revolving around the theme of antifilm, the GEFF organizers argued in favour of a pure exploratory cinema. In their theoretical projections they demanded a radical abandonment of the story, liberation of the frame-image from its subservience to meaning-making and narrative continuity, and a playful passage into an underexplored arena of pure (visual) research. The desired method for such a procedure relied both on the material and mechanical aspects of filmmaking: the camera, the chemistry, the projector… and explorations of the inner and outer (experiential) universe of the author and the viewer.

In his essay The cinema, or The Imaginary Man (1956), the French anthropologist Edgar Morin echoed Jean Epstein, underlining such deeply psychological aspects of cinema as an expression of a human spirit, calling the cinema d’esprit-machine, a spirit-machine, and a machine for thinking, machine à penser: “Its rooms are veritable mental laboratories where a collective mind materializes from a beam of light”.[1] Whether or not we accept such theoretical musings on (experimental) cinema, which claim for it the privileged space of epistemological games of signs and symbols, this particular artistic form has been regularly entered the arena of cognitive visual research, testing its own capabilities of an alternative production of knowledge.

After several successful years, numerous screened films and international visitors, GEFF’s fifth edition, was planned for 1972, with a theme of Unknown Energies, Unidentified Emotions. However, for reasons known and unknown, presumably economical and organizational, GEFF simply ceased to exist after its 1970 edition. Precisely 45 years later, following the spiritual and historical trajectories of GEFF, Zagreb once again established its new celebration of cinéma maudit — the 25FPS festival of experimental film and video. The festival grew out of a TV show called Videodrome, a “television festival of experimental film and video” which ran regularly for a couple of years on the first channel of the Croatian national television (HRT) and featured both new and canonical works of experimental cinema. Stepping out of the TV screen and into the theatre hall, 25FPS opted for the beautiful space of the Student Centre (SC), located in the very heart of the city. Equipped with two theatre halls, an intimate experimental cinema hall tied to a film lab, newly restored  circular pavilion, a gallery space and one of the biggest cinemas in this part of Europe — with its two thousand seats and an incredibly large movie screen — SC stands a reminder of the astonishing achievements of the socialist modernism.

Student Centre Map

In 2018, 25FPS marked its 14th edition as a full blooded cinema-based festival. Taking place annually at the end of September, over the years it has hosted numerous filmmakers, theoreticians, programmers, artists and musicians. The festival has continually pushed the limits of the exhibition formats spread across the polyvalent space of the Student Centre, playfully adjusting its curatorial conceptions and showing a vast array of international experimental cinema-work, chosen from among the approximately 1,000-2,000 applications received each year.

Time / Memory — Representation / Reality

There were several common threads running through this year’s competition program, encompassing the themes of time, memory, representation, and reality. The viewer was confronted with the devastating flow of capital, military aggression, and governmental power in the 21st century. Pia Borg’s Silica, one of the Grand Prix winners[2] takes the viewers to Coober Pedy, “the world’s opal capital” located on the edge of Australia’s Victoria desert. As the story of this nearly deserted town unfolds, in the form of a diary narrative of a fictitious location scout, the viewers are slowly seduced by long, static takes of an otherworldly landscape enclosed in a subdued ambient soundscape. The opal is rare, and the miners work alone in precarious conditions, often selling their stones on eBay, where they are competing with the much cheaper, synthetically produced versions of the crystal. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between the fake and the original, just as it is impossible to identify Coober Pedy as a real place. This deserted landscape used to be a film location for various narrative feature films, such as Pitch Black (2000), Mad Max — Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991), while nowadays such locations can be artificially created, challenging our untrained eye to recognize the difference between the CGI and the 35mm shot of the land. By conflating the myth of the opal origins and the multiple illusions of Coober Pedy’s existence, Borg is juxtaposing the mythopoeic and the contemporary rational, just to ultimately show the circularity of the unstable nature of our visual cognition.

Maybe it is only our memory which is real after all, uncertain as it is, but always at hand and ready to be replayed exactly like the ghostly, immaterial images on our smartphones. This uncanny gap between a lived experience and its optical trace seems to have been the starting point of two quiet and tender yet conceptually complex shorts — Isabelle Tollenaere’s The Remembered Film and Pang-Chuan Huang’ Last Year when the Train Passed. Tollenaere and Huang’s films each rightfully won a 25FPS prize, Tollenaere’s the Grand Prix and Huang’s the Critics Jury’s[3] special mention. In Huang’s case, that in-between of a world of yesterday and the one whose temporality continually unfolds before our eyes, is captured by a question: “What were you doing while I took this photo when the train passed by your house last year?”. And indeed, the author presents these almost randomly chosen protagonists with snapshots of their homes, captured in passing the year before; a simple gesture unravels a myriad of memories, destinies, thoughts, and feelings, illustrated with subtle grainy fragments of the surrounding nature, people’s faces and their home’s interiors — all triggered by a couple of black and white photographs. A question of remembrance was also present in the Tollenaere’s Remembered film, albeit one that remains hidden in plain sight. In her film, we see young soldiers existing almost purposelessly in an unidentified forest. Their uniforms reveal the simultaneous existence of the 20th and the 21st century wars, while the film itself meanders between fiction and documentary as we listen to the painful stories of the seemingly cheerful protagonists. Precise in their observations, they speak of wars and battles with such an eerie, careless distance, and by emotionally or contextually detaching these memories from the usual and expected narration of war — in a way a Brechtian gesture — Tollenaere renders military violence senseless and ultimately absurd.

Conceptually similar but performatively different in its investigation of the anatomy of war and memory, based on its material trace and the technology which enables us to capture it, was Khaled Abdulwahed’s Backyard. A transposition in a 3D model — a slow, technically precise reconstructive procedure — of a destroyed field of cacti in Damascus, today preserved only in this photograph, enables the author to create a meditative visual essay on the nature of the irreversible consequences of war. Soft buzzing sound of a 3D printer produced a small scale model of this lost piece of home as a reminder of the irrevocable fact of the Western-aided destruction of Syria’s land and cultural heritage.

Tulapop Saenjaroen – A Room With a Coconut View

Formal Explorations and the Ethics of the Image 

Another important aspect of the contemporary filmic exploration is undoubtedly the formal beauty of the medium of film. Even if we insist on relating a certain film to the complex intellectual or political issues conceptually underlying its visual investigations, we cannot deny the pleasure of engaging in pure formalist research (which also alludes to the virtuosity of its author). One could think of these films as a form of visual music — not to be confused with the historic technique/genre of the same name — in which a commentary, an emotion, an idea or a thought, exist solely in the movement of light across the screen, the manipulation of the photochemical processes or the concealing and disclosing of an object. Such was the film of Richard Tuohy, China Not China, in which the author overlaps images of Taiwan and Hong Kong by using multiple exposures and mirroring the complexity of historical layers which these two places bare in relation to Mainland China. Another delicate miniature in the medium of 16mm was Helios by Eric Stewart, a yearlong time-lapse portrait of the cacti and succulent, blossoming, blooming and constantly changing light and darkness in an elegantly choreographed play of superimpositions. Visually and aurally stunning was the film debut of Hrvoslava Brkušic, The Mountains. Made from found footage, this film centres around mountains selected from a number of black and white educational slides Brkušic found in local classified ads. Slides were produced by the mid-20th century company Zora film, located in Zagreb, and represent a valuable national legacy whose destiny testifies to a country’s attitude towards its (unwanted) Yugoslav cultural heritage. Luckily, Brkušic saved these fascinating slides and transformed them in a mesmerizing sensorial journey through the numerous intermittently abstract and figurative static frames of the hills, accompanied by an equally stunning soundscape composed by Hrvoje Nikšic.

The shapes of contemporary images and the ways they are being produced, distributed, re-used and consumed were embodied in Felipe Elgueta’s and Ananké Pereira’s Snap, and in Tulapop Saenjaroen’s A Room With a Coconut View. Elgueta and Pereira created an unsettling reminder for anyone who performs their life on social networks, questioning the ethical dimensions of the contemporary distribution and use of images. Over the course of 2 years, the authors followed approximately 40 Snapchat users, recording and archiving their posts, which Snapchat claims are deleted after 24 hours. From the selected material they structured the story around three protagonists, and using their recordings (with their previous consent) created an intimate, polyphonic visual diary of identity performance and a social critique of hyper-consumption, homophobia, and class inequality in Chile. “I shit on your prices”, says one of the protagonists standing in front of the MacOnline, a chilean version of the Apple Store, a company probably most accountable for this ungraspable expansion of the distribution of the Self in the intangible arena of the visual social exchange.

Filipa César and Louis Henderson – Sunstone

Visual activism

Saenjaroens’s video, on the other hand, uses contemporary visual language of second-rate tourist commercials and the overall visual identity of the mass-tourist market, in order to outline the scope of the political malversation, corruption, criminal and tourism pervading his home town Bangsaen, Thailand. Centering the video around the conversation between a foreign tourist Alex, and the robot-tourist guide Kanya, Saenjaroen essentially creates a bitterly humorous portrait of Kamnam Poh — businessman, criminal, murderer, and politician, whose company Bang Saen to a large extent built this resort town (hence the name of the town — Bangsaen). Halfway through the video the robot-guide drifts off to sleep, dreaming her outlandish digital dreams, and allowing the tourist to emancipate himself and begin his bizzare journey through Bangsaen. This video is at the same time a collage-like simulacrum of a town which might be defined as a simulacrum itself, an artificial environment created to bring profit to the Kamnan Poh’s family, which — as it seems — basically runs this town.

The political potential of art’s optical dimension and the role of optics in the history of increasing militarization and surveillance of the Western civilization figured as central motifs in Sunstone, another festival laureate (as chosen by the critics’ jury). Subtle in its visual complexity and multiple layering of analogue and digital, this op-essay emerged as a collaboration, a “cine-dialogue”, between Filipa César and Louis Henderson, completed by the narration of Roque Pina, the head lighthouse keeper at Cabo da Roca. In his telling of the adversarial history of lighthouses and power relations embedded in the development of the contemporary GPS systems, Pina movingly interweaves fragments of his personal life — the experience of racial discrimination and the precarious working conditions of lighthouse keepers, a profession which might very soon become obsolete. In its incisive weaving of materialist postcolonial critique, Sunstone also intertwines the visual fragments of Santiago Álvarez’s recordings of the first Tricontinental conference held in 1966 in Cuba, and what seems to be a rare documentation of the 1960s New Tendencies/Op-Art exhibition in Havana. Both of these events resonated with Croatian/Yugoslav cultural space, through Zagreb as the origin of the New Tendencies (1961-1973) and a precursor of the Op-Art movement, and the Brioni declaration (1956), signed on the namesake Croatian islands, by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josip Broz Tito and Jawaharlal Nehru, which sealed the emergence of the Non Aligned Movement, an important step in the historical path from the Bandung conference to the Tricontinental. These visual fragments seem to carry an immense potential for the idea of the optical-political activism underlying Sunstone, and their short one-time appearance seems like a missed opportunity of its stronger visual or narrative elaboration and integration within the material body of this film.

Mika Taanila – Future is not What it Used to be

Around film

This year’s side program was once again visually captivating and educationally enriching. The Jury’s Choice program presented the opportunity for the jury members to screen some of their favourite films as well as present their own work. Jesse McLean curated a program of films which shaped her authorial poetics and “empowered her artistic growth”, showing the work of Deborah Stratman, Lillian F. Schwartz, Arthur Lipsett and Michael Robinson, while Mika Taanila presented several films from his oeuvre subsumed under the title Eclipsed World. These works displayed a range of Taanila’s artistic preoccupations, spreading across found-footage of scientific and visual experiments, and ending with the fascinating documentary Future is not what it used to be (2002). An hour long portrait of Erkki Kurenniemi, Finnish experimental musician, scientist, philosopher, thinker, and an artist, Future is not what it used to be depicts his innovative work, and an almost life-long endeavor to create an archive of his life, a database of himself as a particular human being, in the hope of amassing enough material which would in some near future serve as a basis for the digital reconstruction of his consciousness.

A rare opportunity to see a fresh 16mm print of Glenn Miller 1 (High School Playground 1), made by one of the major Yugoslav structuralists, Tomislav Gotovac, followed a book presentation on the life and work of this neo-avant-garde filmmaker, multimedia artist and grandfather of Yugoslav performance. This highly personal, very informative and richly illustrated book was authored by Gotovac’s close friend Slobodan Šijan, a cult Yugoslav director himself, and was co-published by the Multimedia Institute, whose main program coordinator, Petar Milat, formed part of this year’s Grand Jury.

The expanded cinema program was sensorially copious, as always. Gliding smoothly from one hall to the other, flowing from Thursday to Sunday, from the cinema to the theatre and from the theatre to the pavilion, the audience was immersed in the dreamy, hilarious and haunting worlds of contemporary cinema reaching beyond the edges of the frame. French collective Nominoë played with the phenomenon of parrallax in the performance of the same name, using four 16mm projectors and three screens to manipulate our perception and create a colourful analogue holographic image, a poetic monument to the beauty of the film strip. Mika Taanila joined forces with the cult Finnish band Circle (Taanila on the 16mm projectors and Circle on the instruments) and produced SSEENNSSEESS — an uproaring rock spectacle full of comic excess. Dressed as a loony fusion of 2000s Madonna and the characters from The Knife’s music videos, Circle played the flashiest range of rock and roll music loudly and energetically, moving their hips and bending their backs in such a ludicrous slow-motion that the audience wished for the show to last forever. On the opposite side of the musical spectrum were experimental film and electronica artists Camila Fuchs & Manuela de Laborde, followed by one of the pioneers of minimal sound, William Basinski. Camila Fuchs — a musical duo consisting of Camila de Laborde and Daniel Hermann-Collini — performed their second album Heart Pressed Between the Stones, while William Basinski played his latest composition On Time Out of Time. Camila de Laborde’s voice, visually enclosed in Manuela de Laborde’s abstract imagery and seamlessly blended with Hermann-Collini’s electronic sounds, carried some dark Björkian overtones, and was a fitting overture to Basinki’s latest achievement. On Time Out Of Time was inspired by the literal sound of the Universe, more precisely, the gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two black holes, first detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in the September of 2015. Basinski initially promoted the composition as the sound of “what happens when two black holes fuck”, and what we heard might indeed be described as a super–slow, celestial lovemaking with a never–ending transhistorical orgasm.

Stefan Kruse – The Migrating Image

The Unattainable Text of Today

There were many intelligent, skillfully made and captivating films in this years’ program that simply did not fit within the scope of this article; from the visual analysis of the representation of the contemporary migrant crisis, and the complex relationship between human and machine (Stefan Kruse’s The Migrating Image and Brian den Hartog’s A Dialogue With Cyberspace), to the mind-bending research of narrative and animation (Nina Yuen’s Britney and Lilli Carré’s Tap Water), personal as well as mythical stories poetically embedded in celluloid (Friedl vom Gröller’s Paris Episodes, Antoinette Zwirchmayr’s The Shadow of Utopia, Mónica Baptista’s Strong Waters) and digital explorations of audiovisual noise and 3D experiments (Takashi Makino’s and Manuel Knapp’s At the Horizon and Vladislav Kneževi’s Dokument Parakozmik).

In a world oversaturated with images (as well as film festivals) and numerous co-existent modes of production and various formats tied to various social networks, it is equally difficult to choose an image’s forms and shapes in production as it is to select those to display in a particular competition program, or to choose the ones to write about afterwards. Considering the plurality of possible positions and the relevance of either numerous contemporary burning issues or simply legitimate artistic themes, it seems as if the existence of almost every image can ultimately be defended or justified. “Just as not all of us write the same way, not all of us observe the same way” wrote the duo OJOBOCA, another this year’s Grand Prix winner, in the paratext of their sensorial “psychological test” Comfortstations, a performative piece consisting of a peculiar stream of sounds and images — varying from microscopic shots of animals and human skin to wide shots of the landscape — arranged as a set of “bizarre attractions” and accompanied by a handout, a set of instructions for viewing the film.

Where does an image begin, and where does it end? How will a film look like, where does one draw borders around these images’ new and underexplored possibilities and shapes, and how will this ‘newness’ reflect upon the film analysis? In his essay “The unattainable text” (1975) — a comforting read for anyone engaged in deciphering and translating (experimental) film in the form of a written text — the French film theorist Raymond Bellour called film analysis a strange perversity, claiming that “… it constantly mimics, evokes, describes; in a kind of principled despair it can but try frantically to compete with the object it is attempting to understand. … [O]ne speaks the more ‘about’ an object the less one can draw it into the material body of the commentary.”[4] Hence, perhaps, the length of this review.

During the festival’s four days installations co-existed with spatial 16mm performances, digital was fused with analog, and formal explorations paralleled politically engaged narrative and semantic research, testifying to the vitality of contemporary experimental cinema in its tireless visual research and the hybridization of genres. The program of this year’s 25FPS once again managed to represent the idea of the moving image in its multiple forms, encompassing the abundance and variety of visual material roaming through the endless glowing screens in the world of today.

[1] Morin, Edgar. The cinema, or The imaginary man. University of Minnesota Press. 2005: 201.
[2]  The members of this year’s Grand Jury were Jesse McLean, Mika Taanila and Petar Milat — https://www.25fps.hr/en/jury.
[3]  The members of this year’s Critics Jury were Alejandro Bachmann, Miro Fraki?, Silvestar Mileta — https://www.25fps.hr/en/jury.
[4] Bellour, Raymond. The Analysis of Film. Indiana University Press. 2000: 22-26.