By Julian Ross
With the proliferation of videos shot using mobile phones, the vertical image has become increasingly omnipresent on our screens and has questioned the dominance of the horizontal format preferred by the film industry. As Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014) shot on 1:1 aspect ratio hit theatres around Europe, Vertical Cinema landed for the first time in the U.K. last weekend at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival.
First launched in September 2013 at the Kontraste Festival in Krems, Austria, Vertical Cinema has since been presented at International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 2014) and Stedelijk Museum (February 2014), with accompanying talks by distinguished scholars on screen media, including Erkki Huhtamo (UCLA), Noam M. Elcott (Columbia) and Erica Balsom (King’s College). Vertical Cinema was a project initiated by Dutch curators Sonic Acts involving a 90-minute program of newly commissioned site-specific works by artists from the Netherlands, Austria and Japan. Its monumental presentation of 35mm celluloid in vertical cinemascope has been one of the most widely celebrated events in the past year.
Julian Ross, Staff Writer at Desistfilm, sat down with two members of Sonic Acts, Lucas van der Velden and Gideon Kiers, to discuss screen formats, scale and the limitations they seek to conquer curating moving image media. The conversation continued with Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino, with whom Lucas and Gideon collaborated for the film Deorbit (2013) as members of the Dutch media art group Telcosystems. The interview took place on 30 October 2013, but has been published for the first time on the occasion of the screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival.
Desistfilm: How was the project initiated?
Lucas van der Velden: Sonic Acts has been working in tall buildings for the last fifteen years or so. In Amsterdam with the venue Paradiso, which is a former church, and we also began presenting works in a church for Kontraste Festival, Austria, in 2011. While working at these particular venues, we began thinking about the visual aspect of how to show audiovisual works in a building that isn’t designed for presenting works on a horizontal axis, and began considering the vertical axis.
Of course, the idea of “expanding” cinematic space and the cinematic experience has been of interest to us as artists but also as organisers since we’ve been working with art. I remember the first time I saw Gideon Kiers make something was when he installed a projection dome, the Dutch United Media Base (D:U:M:B) Dome, with Marnix de Nijs in 1996. One of the first times we collaborated, in 1999, we made huge vertical towers in Paradiso onto which we projected images for an untitled audiovisual improvisation. The notion of expanding the screen has always been an interesting area for us.
Thrift Tryout (Telcosystems, 2012)
Desistfilm: There are also more recent projects by Telcosystems, such as Thrift (2012), that was also presented on a vertical axis. To what extent was this work connected with the Vertical Cinema project?
Lucas van der Velden: We’ve been making a lot of vertical works as Telcosystems. As well as Thrift, our installation 12_Series (2009) and our collaborative Orch.AV performance we organised for the Holland Festival in 2006 was also vertical. So it has been growing out of these activities, but it was when we were asked to present programs in a church that we realized we had to make something out of it. I think one of the other instigators was the fast and rapid shift from analogue to the digital filmmaking.
Desistfilm: Vertical Cinema has strong correlations with Tacita Dean’s Film (2011) that was presented at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, as part of their Unilever series, which was a film that was also presented as a swansong to celluloid cinema. Of course there are other noteworthy precedents, such as Brian Eno’s DVD 14 Video Paintings (2005) that asks the viewer to put the television monitor to its side. How important were these predecessors that dealt with image displays on a vertical axis?
Lucas van der Velden: I think one of the first images we found of a vertical screen was a little picture in the Future Cinema book, a work by Jaroslav Fri?, called Vertical Cinemascope (1970) made for The British Columbia Pavilion, Expo 1970, Osaka, Japan.
Gideon Kiers: From the curatorial perspective of Sonic Acts, we’ve been researching expanded cinema for a long time. We think about how to arrange projections differently for most editions and seek to become a curatorial platform to support new and expanded works.
We’ve been putting together the vertical cinema project for three or four years. As Sonic Acts is mainly organized to produce a bi-annual festival, it was new for us in terms of production and fund-raising to actually commission ten new works. Usually, an artist is hired for a specific project or work and you rent the film from a distributor or archive. Basically, it was a lot of Euros-per-minute and it took us a long time to get the financing sorted to get the project running.
Lucas van der Velden: We also had to get the right partners in place. Together with the Kontraste Festival with whom we were working, we also encountered the unique possibility to use celluloid printers for an affordable price. All of a sudden we had an economic way of printing on 35mm.
Gideon Kiers: For a long time we were looking for interesting filmmakers to work with and to join a project like this. Along the way, Tacita Dean was also doing the same thing for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Her work also closely deals with celluloid – at least, the disappearance of traditional ways of filmmaking – which comes with a certain melancholy. We tried to stay away from the melancholy, instead to bring about a celebration of the medium and a renewed investigation into the threshold between analogue to digital and what the transition means. 2013 is already different from 2012, and the old world is getting further and further away. For us, both as filmmakers and curators, it was interesting to find other ways to experiment with the medium rather than mourn its loss. I think a lot of the filmmakers we invited also found this interesting. It was a unique opportunity for them to make celluloid prints of their films, which is a procedure that is now rare.
Lucas van der Velden: Another thing worth mentioning is that most of the artists involved are working digitally. Sonic Acts is a festival that stemmed out of the digital revolution in the 90s where laptops became available for real-time audiovisual presentations. For us, celluloid is just one of the mediums with which we work. People forget is that the film industry is only one of the industries that use the medium. For me, it’s not really a choice between those two – there are many things only possible in both the analogue and the digital domain.
For instance, it’s very difficult to modify a digital projector; however, you can modify analogue projectors quite easily. We shouldn’t forget analogue has certain qualities that cannot easily be replaced. And why should we? The facilities are there to make screening copies for not a lot of money. If we did this totally digitally, we wouldn’t have saved that much money. Although projecting 12m high wouldn’t be an easy task with a digital projector, we can project up to 20m with a customized analogue projector.
Desistfilm: You describe your project as being site-specific, and I’d like for you to elaborate on that. I thought one of the remarkable aspects of this project is its ability to escape from the cinema screen and move to buildings, or churches, and the screen ratio is even analogous to that of a mobile phone. Would you allow these films you’ve commissioned to be presented on different formats as long as the ratio is correct?
Lucas van der Velden: I think the cinema is just one of the useful places to show works that we have on this planet, but it’s definitely not the only space. I think as soon as you step out of the streamlined infrastructure, there’s no longer any reason to work horizontally. With vertical cinema, we pose a question to the world of cinema. Why do we only think in terms of efficiency? Why do we commit to one infrastructure, one carrier, and one approach? If you talk to a painter, most painters don’t just work on the same type of canvas. I think reconsidering the format, the carrier and the space can influence the experience. The Vertical Cinema screenings have proven this. If we had commissioned ten films for a normal cinema setup, the audience and filmmakers would probably have been less excited for the project.
Gideon Kiers: In our own work as Telcosystems – performing live, arranging installations and projecting audiovisual work – we constantly find ourselves somewhere in the middle. We often find ourselves having to build a cinema in a museum.
Desistfilm: It almost seems the struggle you’ve experienced trying to accommodate your works gave birth to the idea for Vertical Cinema.
Gideon Kiers: Exactly. For us, it’s a constant struggle. On the technical side, how do we best present our works? But it’s also a matter of the audience’s experience. If you go to a concert, the audience expects a concert experience. The context of our work never really fits the ‘correct’ experience. We’ve always had to adapt the environment to our work. In a way, it’s the same for Vertical Cinema. First, we presented it at Kontraste Festival in Kremz, Austria, in 2013, which is a performing arts festival. Secondly, we’ll show it in a film festival context at International Film Festival Rotterdam. After that, we’ll show it in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum, which is a contemporary art museum.
Lucas van der Velden: For us, it’s always been important to make interesting art and model the environment around it. But it’s often the case with institutions that you have to fit your work in their building. The artwork is often compromised. It’s the institutional layer that compresses the work to behave in a certain way. As museums are usually a big open chamber, it’s difficult to display sound works. Sometimes all you see is a reel of tape displayed as an object in a glass case, even though the whole idea is that you have to experience this type of work.
In a way, Vertical Cinema is a proposition to all these different worlds. If you want to show it, you have to commit to the vertical format. If you want to show it, you have to figure out how to show it. You can’t modify it into something horizontal and it needs a lot of sound. It demands for the space to be taken into consideration, which is something that we should never forget as artists.
This is also the case regarding the scale of the work. The experiential aspect of these works is something that shouldn’t be put to the side. Some people consider it an option. For us, it’s not an option but a necessity. I think the impact on the sonic and visual level is not something to be compromised. It’s not something we’d like to show on TV with little speakers as you just don’t experience it.
If you talk to visual artists, they have clear definitions of how you should show their works. For example, land art can’t just be presented in a small back yard. But when you make a work on a computer, all of a sudden people start asking about the size of its presentation and whether it can be compromised. Our question to them is – do you want to show it or not? Something went wrong when artists began to compromise when consumer technology and small-scale equipment became available.
Desistfilm: When bringing time-based media into the museum, what is also often compromised is the aspect of time. Perhaps the most fascinating moving images works made for museums are the ones that incorporate the experience of a museum visitor.
Lucas van der Velden: Why do people walk in and out? It’s usually because the works are presented in a way that doesn’t ask anything from the viewer. If you place a good-size PA and a big screen, people would stay because the experience is functioning. But if you scale it down, people start leaving. It’s a clash of culture.
Gideon Kiers: Wherever we present our works, we face a clash of culture. We are asked to somehow fit to the context, rather than the context adapting to the optimal experience for the work.
Lucas van der Velden: When we commissioned two installations with Sonic Acts for the Stedelijk Museum in 2013, the sound piece, by freq_out, was pretty loud and the light installation by Matthijs Munnik, Citadels: Common Structures, was very powerful too. Both works asks commitment from the audience. And it worked. People really wanted to experience it. So it’s possible. It’s a matter of how important you find the presentation.
Desistfilm: I wanted to ask a question about your selection of artists for the Vertical Cinema project. Starting with Takashi Makino, who you approached, I feel his films seem to be evade depth and axis – in a way, a sense of gravity is lost – and I think this might be the case for many abstract works.
Perhaps if the works had images we associate with everyday life – such as gravity, buildings, and the horizon – the verticality of the presentation would be further enhanced and explored.
Lucas van der Velden: On the one hand, we want the audience to realize the difference; on the other hand, the project is not meant as a demonstration of the vertical screen.
Gideon Kiers: Manuel Knapp’s film, V~ (2013), has an architectural quality.
Desistfilm: Indeed, it deals with grids and we’re made aware of the axis.
Gideon Kiers: And, of course, there’s Johann Lurf’s Pyramid (2013), which only features a pyramid. From the curatorial point of view, we wanted to approach Austrian artists for a variety of reasons: the first presentation was scheduled to be in Austria; much of the funding came from the country; and, in terms of our own taste, we’ve been engaged with Austrian audiovisual works for a long time. The other half of the funding came from the Netherlands, which is why we approached five Dutch artists. The artists also had to be approachable – most of the people who participated in Vertical Cinema were people we’d worked with before. We only had three or four months to realise the project, and therefore we had to approach people we knew would be excited by it. For this reason, it made sense for us to approach experimental filmmakers, rather than documentary filmmakers.
Lucas van der Velden: In the end, this is what Sonic Acts is about. We’re not an organization that focuses on documentary. We’re interested in experimental film. Beyond that, we also thought about what the individual artists in the program represents. We chose artist that work in an artisanal way with celluloid, such as Esther Urlus, and others artists that work completely digitally. In the end, we could also make an entire program on space or architecture. If you ask another organisation to make a vertical cinema project, they’d come up with something completely different.
Takashi Makino & Telcosystems
Note: After discussing with Lucas and Gideon on the curatorial approaches that Sonic Acts took for Vertical Cinema, I moved onto questions on their collaborative film, Deorbit (Telcosystems & Takashi Makino, 2013), which was commissioned as part of Vertical Cinema. Takashi Makino joined the conversation.
Desistfilm: Takashi, you’ve been making works that expand the experience of cinema but a vertical screen was a first for you. How was the experience?
Takashi Makino: When I shot the material, I didn’t consider the vertical format. But during the process of editing, I realised to what extent the vertical format is different. I knew we were going to screen in a church, so I realized people would be looking up at the screen. What people usually see when they look upwards include trees, the sky and stars. Usually when we watch a film in the theatre, we look down towards the screen as the seats are raised at an angle. During shooting and editing, I tried to shoot things that are visible when you look up in everyday life. Of course, water is different but I tried to make the splashes sparkle like stars. I tried to be conscious of how it will be seen by an audience when shooting and editing the film.
Desistfilm: You’ve worked with many artists – mainly musicians – but it seems to me this collaboration was quite different. In terms of the enormity, impact and scale, your works are quite similar, but Telcosystems work digitally while your work straddles celluloid and digital.
Takashi Makino: Although our works may appear similar in their outcomes, the ways we make our works are radically different. Telcosystems make their own computer programs using computer software – they don’t shoot footage using a camera – but all images that I use is first shot on a camera. When I saw their film Vexed (2012), one section of the film appeared so organic and also felt quite similar to my own films. Nevertheless, we’re worlds apart. Their films are made completely digitally on a computer program and mine are captured outdoors. They approached me with the idea to collaborate on a film when I was thinking about how interesting it is that our films appear so similar. Usually, when I work with Takashi Ishida or Jim O’Rourke, our roles were separate. For Deorbit with Telcosystems, however, we really worked together. We made the images together. I shot footage outdoors and inserted the footage into a program Telcosystems developed in order to create noise. We edited the footage and sound together, and even the music, which was recorded separately, combined and edited. It was the first time for me to collaborate at this level. Personally, I like it when things that ostensibly seem so different – like the universe and individual cells – appear to resonate with each other. It was because we have such different approaches that I felt our collaboration could work. Even with digital noise, I feel our film remains organic. The other thing that intrigued me was the prospect of printing a film that was so digital in many ways onto celluloid film.
Desistfilm: Towards the end of your film 2012, you also incorporate digitally shot footage. Are you considering moving completely into the realms of digital filmmaking?
Takashi Makino: After this project, I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to show my films on celluloid. When I was approached with this project, I was aware that it would probably be the last opportunity to present my work in such a way. This is one of the reasons why I was so interested in this project. Now that it’s going to get increasingly harder to work on film, I think I’ll be experimenting more with digital cinema. I’ve been incorporating digital and film projection into live performances to incorporate physicality into live presentations.
Desistfilm: Indeed, your recent project Space Noise (2013) has incorporated both film and digital projection in a live presentation. Sonic Acts as an organisation is engaged with performative arts, and the works of Telcosystems are also often presented in a live context. To what extent was the custom-made celluloid projector a limitation as it constricts the possibilities for performance?
Gideon Kiers: Not at all. We also make films that have a defined time frame.
Desistfilm: Many of your digital works you manipulate live.
Gideon Kiers: We did a lot of editing for this project rather than real-time manipulation.
Lucas van der Velden: In a sense, what was newest for us was the collaboration with Takashi Makino. We like to come up with new settings and environments to make artwork. There always has to be a progression at all levels.
Gideon Kiers: It was a good way to practice and research in a laboratory-like environment. Live performance, for us, is often used as a way to research material that will end up in our future films. In our studio, we can only experience our work on a small screen, although our PA is pretty loud. It’s different to see your work on a big screen.
Desistfilm: My question is on the incredible soundtrack. The drums by Balázs Pándi bring intensity to the film.
Gideon Kiers: We edited the visual material in ten days. Over the summer, we worked on the sound, and the end result was printed to film.
Once we finished the film, we sent the film to Balázs Pándi. He booked a studio for a day and improvised live. After four takes, he sent the material to us. We used the first take, which is the basis of the drums in the film, onto which we added a lot of our own sound material. We all separately made sound materials and brought them together as the soundtrack.
Lucas van der Velden: This is totally different to our own practice. For Telcosystems, images and sound are usually a networked system. Usually, in our work, sound comes first in terms of composition, and the images follow, although we basically make them at the same time. Here we also thought it would be interesting to reverse our normal strategy.
Takashi Makino: When we were editing, we spoke about how drums would be useful for this film. The reason was because many of the Vertical Cinema participants are electronic musicians. I had a feeling the sounds might seem quite similar. By including analogue drums onto the soundtrack, I was hoping the film would stand out in the program.
Desistfilm: Gideon, can you describe the editing process you went through for the soundtrack?
Gideon Kiers: By that time, we were all in separate places: Takashi in Tokyo; Lucas in Rotterdam; Balázs in Hungary; and I was in Zagreb. Balázs just gave us the drum files and we took it from there. I made many versions and we slowly worked towards the deadline.
It was a challenge for us as Telcosystems as we usually work with sounds that are completely digitally constructed. We don’t even use samples. I had never mixed drums before, for example, so I had to learn how to do it. The other challenge was editing by myself and, at times, making decisions individually. Although when you work together in the same space you feel you’re working towards a shared goal, if you’re not, it sometimes feels like everybody has different intentions. The visuals were a common reference, the unifying factor, but sonically the sounds came from different spaces. It was challenging to bring the worlds together and keep them connected to the composition of the film.
For the sound of our film Vexed, we recorded both the video and the soundtrack combined, real-time, and in one take. But it took us four years to reach the point where we technically able to do so. To build this network of machines that was able to give us this dream of making image and sound from the same source, with the same intention, and make something together at the same time.
Desistfilm: Are you considering presenting Deorbit horizontally?
Gideon Kiers: We’re considering it. It would enter a completely different world – film festival distribution, DCP and all. But I’d still be interested in making it difficult to screen – for example, with only surround sound and stereoscopic video. You always have to raise the bar a bit.
When we made Deorbit we turned all the computer screens to their side. But since we’ve positioned them horizontally again, I realize there is a difference.
Takashi Makino: Usually when I make films, their impact is at the centre. But for Deorbit, the impact was positioned towards the top.
Gideon Kiers: The water becomes even more abstract when you position the screen horizontally.
Lucas van der Velden: It’s not as easy as we thought. I would change quite a few things. There’s a lot to consider – just flipping it and distributing it is not an option. We’re going to test things out. Although it’s a work very much designed for one purpose, it’s interesting to change the rules to see what happens. It’s not a problem but an interesting question.
The interview with Lucas van der Velden, Gideon Kiers and Takashi Makino took place on 30 October 2013 and has been published for the first time on the occasion of the Vertical Cinema presentation at the Leeds International Film Festival on 7 and 8 November 2014.