15 May 2010

A History of British Avant-Garde Film - Part I: 1896-1930

Originally published in FILMWAVES magazine in 2005.

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‘Fifty odd years hasn’t done so badly in getting an art into the world that fifty more will probably turn into THE art, but now, after somewhat magnificent growth, one feels here is its critical age’ . So wrote Kenneth MacPherson in his first column in Close-Up, the journal launched in 1927 by himself, the Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and novelist Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) as an attempt to initiate a culture of avant-garde filmmaking and intellectual criticism in Great Britain.

Across the visual and literary arts, there were various international attempts to establish avant-garde movements, rooted in opposition to artistic traditions. For artists, figurative painting, so popular during the nineteenth century, became redundant after the invention of photography, while many writers believed that cinema would appropriate the exteriorised narratives central to ‘Realist’ literature and so became more interested in exploring internal consciousness, a possibility that believed beyond the reach of the camera.

Formal boundaries had often been challenged, but usually by artists who spontaneously produced single works of striking originality, or organically developed a unique personal style. What was specific to the fin-de-siècle was a heightened awareness of entrenched artistic convention, with numerous theories on aesthetics drafted by diverse writers, such as Tolstoy and Wilde. The radical philosophical questions to rational, post-Enlightenment philosophy asked by Freud, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, all interested in the relationship between art, the individual consciousness and society, often coloured these theories.

Such artists were not solely interested in recent philosophy. Rapid innovation between 1839 and 1903 – photography, electricity, automobiles, radio, flight and of course film – made them believe that their age was that of modernity. They strived to create art that reflected this ‘newness’, engaging with the complex ideological and technological realities of the early twentieth century world. Individuals who attempted to discover new forms were often labelled ‘Modernists’, but the term ‘avant-garde’ was applied for such organised Modernist groups that combined theoretical energy about the relationship between aesthetic and socio-political issues with deliberately unconventional creativity.

Although most European Modernists were fascinated by the possibilities of film, it was not until the 1920s that many became actively involved in film production. The only notable exception was the Italian Futurists. Italian film had already developed a strong literary flavour, producing epics like Quo Vadis and Cabiria, scripted by poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. The Futurists issued a manifesto concerning film in 1916, declaring ‘The Cinema is an autonomous art. The cinema must therefore never copy the stage …. ONE MUST FREE THE CINEMA AS AN EXPRESSIVE MEDIUM in order to make it the ideal instrument of a new art’ . The Futurists were able to produce two radically anti-theatrical films, Vita Futurista and Perfidio Incanto (also known as Thais); the former, now lost, was first shown publicly at the Niccolini Theatre in Florence on 28 January 1917. Elsewhere, the ‘mainstream’ film conventions that an avant-garde would explore were still being determined: however, the Futurist idea that cinema had appropriated theatrical conventions to compensate for its lack of tradition (a lack which they believing liberating) became central to avant-garde theorising about cinema.

Oswell Blakeston, writing in Close-Up, bemoaned the ‘disagreeable fact … that Britain lacks film tradition’. Blakeston argued that ‘haphazard’ production techniques meant mainstream British film was unable to acquire ‘the slick polish that America spreads like treacle over her sentimental bread and butter plots’ . Consequently, there was no British Caligari or The Last Laugh, because the failure to establish any film culture meant that a prospective counter-culture had little to define themselves against, nowhere to conduct theoretical debates, and immense difficulty in obtaining support for original creative ideas. The disorganised British industry and the resultant lack of a strong film ‘tradition’ meant that British cineastes had to look abroad for both an institution to react against, and for an oppositional cinema to identify with.

The enemy was obvious: Hollywood. American production swamped the British market – by 1918, 60% of films shown in British cinemas were US imports . Whilst certain directors working within the Hollywood infrastructure earned (often grudging) admiration from British critics, Modernist film enthusiasts despised Hollywood’s narrative conventions and commercial mindset. Consequently, they became interested in European film production, either within a studio system (such as Germany’s UFA) or within independent frameworks of production and distributions. Fractious collaborations between European directors and Hollywood producers only solidified British sympathies: noted German directors such as F. W. Murnau and Erich von Stroheim, when asked to work in Hollywood, often found their films were butchered by Hollywood executives, most famously with Stroheim’s Greed (1925), the butchering of which by MGM outraged Britain’s cineastes.

The British intellectuals were, like von Stroheim, caught between mainland Europe and America. Geographically, they were closer to Europe; linguistically and culturally, their country shared much with the United States. Despite its inchoate nature, they did identify certain trends in British film production. Early filmmakers like R. W. Paul and James Williamson experimented, like Méliès, with stop-motion photography, or simply shot scenes of working-class factories, football matches or horse races; many critics dismissed these films, believing that their medium could never produce art. It was not just the content of these one-reel films that convicted such critics – the fact that they were exhibited at fairgrounds convinced them that they were no more than an amusing novelty.

In response, those who saw in film greater potential attempted to lend the new technology prestige by infusing their reels with British theatrical tradition. F. R. Benson, Percy Stow and others filmed short versions of Shakespeare plays, and many silent films were adaptations of popular Victorian literature and drama. These films often told stories of class transformation or, as in Maurice Elvey’s adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (1927), criticised petit-bourgeois social morality. They were never, however, explicitly revolutionary films, and no prominent films tackled the General Strike or other contemporary political unrest.

This issue of exhibition context became extremely important. Hollywood cinema had not just incorporated dramatic conventions into its characteristic narrative style: D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (adapted from Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman) had been presented with an interval and a printed programme. The prestigious quality of Griffith’s productions meant that this theatricality became a model for mainstream US directors and producers, one imitated in Britain. Important to this illusion of prestige was where the films were shown, and if this prestige was to be derived from theatricality, then their exhibition space had to resemble the theatre.

The domination of Hollywood over British cinema, and the position Britain occupied between Europe and the United States, made the character of its 1920s avant-garde markedly different from its continental counterparts. One curiosity was that, with very few exceptions, British-based Modernist writers and artists failed to involve themselves in active film production. They may perhaps have been that the British Modernists in literature, drama and art were often more conservative, politically and aesthetically, than those in mainland Europe. The Futurists’ (somewhat less incendiary) British counterpart, Wyndham LewisVorticist group, ignored film entirely, and it was more ‘traditional’ writers, such as H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, who became involved in cinematic production.

Bennett scripted Piccadilly for E. A. Dupont, a German director, whose film Variété (1925) was praised by British critics. Piccadilly was considered an ‘art’ film: its aesthetics were not representative of a desire to destroy entrenched aesthetic tradition or develop new forms. Rather, by involving a respected author and director, and utilising several imaginative camera devices and shots, it attempted to explore cinematographic possibilities within established narrative and formal convention. The avant-garde aim was similar to the artistic one, but was far more inflammatory – the difference was crucial.

Ivor Montagu
– a personal friend (and translator) of Eisenstein – made Bluebottles in 1928, from H. G. Wells’ scenario. Elsa Lanchester starred as a woman who inadvertently foils a criminal gang by blowing a whistle. Like Adrian Brunel’s burlesque travelogues, Bluebottles was a comedy, satirically appropriating the class stereotypes that characterised mainstream British film for comic effect, and drawing much from popular culture. However, neither Brunel nor Montagu conducted major formal experiments, and the retrospective definition of their films as ‘avant-garde’ smacks of desperation to rediscover a vibrant ‘experimental’ film community operating during the silent era – these films barely captured the imagination of Britain’s avant-garde critics.

Instead, it was European ‘art’ and ‘avant-garde’ films that influenced criticism and production. For example, Sinclair Hill supervised COD – A Mellow Drama (1929), an affectionate parody of the German Expressionist films so beloved by Oswell Blakeston and H.D., both of whom were integral to Close-Up magazine.

Close-Up was not devoted to fierce experimentation so much as a demand for quality film, in any form. It endorsed the ‘art’ films produced in Germany by Wiene, Murnau, Lang and Close-Up’s favourite, Pabst, and both the avant-gardes described by Peter Wollen in his seminal essay The Two Avant-Gardes. These were the abstract films of Richter, Ruttmann and Eggeling (which influenced Len Lye’s British-made Tusalava), which attempted to avoid image-signification entirely, and their counterpart, the ideologically committed films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov and other Soviet director-theoreticians.

The publication was not primarily a forum for the publication of manifestos; its editor, Kenneth MacPherson, was ambivalent about the idea of ‘theory’, although it did print Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Aleksandrov’s manifesto on sound film. More often, they offered detailed, intellectual analysis of individual films, and suggested what British filmmakers and audiences could learn from them.

This was perhaps a product of the tension between the stridently avant-garde MacPherson and the more conciliatory attitudes towards mainstream film (especially its literariness) of other contributors. It demanded a film culture informed by modern art and literature, hardly surprising given that H.D. and Bryher were part of its editorial staff. Another crucial contributor was novelist Dorothy Richardson, author of Pilgrimage, an epic stream-of-consciousness novel. The least anti-Hollywood, Richardson’s ‘Continuous Performance’ columns explored film technique and exhibition practices, as well as the gender connotations of cinematic sound and silence. MacPherson was able to persuade several other influential writers to contribute, including Gertrude Stein, Marc Allégret (André Gide’s adopted son, and later a director), Anita Loos and flamboyant Surrealist poet René Crevel.

Bryher was particularly concerned with the detrimental effect of censorship on British film culture. The BBFC, founded in 1912 amidst early debates about the potentially deleterious effect of film, had 43 laws restraining its sexual and political content. When the BBFC barred Battleship Potemkin from general release in 1926, amidst the General Strike, Bryher was outraged. Eisenstein had meant his film, however avant-garde, to reach a mass audience, to whom its ideological message was undoubtedly addressed, and he wanted it to do so through the ‘mainstream’ system of distribution. A loophole in the censorship laws, however, meant that it could be shown at private Film Society screenings; that is, to a selected bourgeois enclave. A short-term attempt to prevent this loophole from stopping proletarian audiences from seeing revolutionary Russian films, the Federation of Workers’ Film Societies, was launched in 1929.

The Potemkin controversy highlighted the necessity, felt by the (largely) socialist-inclined avant-garde, of analysing the ideological nature of the industry’s infrastructure, which they felt essentially conservative, and whether this infrastructure should be subversively utilised, or completely bypassed. Where, Close-Up asked, should ‘experimental’ films be exhibited, and to what extent should they attempt to capture the commercial market?

This question also highlighted the (artificial) divide between the two avant-gardes that Peter Wollen later identified – those primarily demanding formal innovation, implicitly linked to revolutionary politics in so far as their aesthetics challenged ‘bourgeois’ thought, and those who made explicitly ideological works. The former, often consisting of artists wishing to test the new medium, preferred to show their films in galleries or at soirées, alongside experimental poetry or dramatic pieces. The more political filmmakers dreamed of capturing the international commercial market – it was the ideological frustration of this dream of achieving this that so upset Bryher. As importantly, they were split geographically: the abstract, Dadaist and Surrealist filmmakers constituting the first group were based in Western Europe, whilst the latter consisted mostly of Soviet filmmakers.

The English avant-garde sought to unite these groups, realising that it was not their political or aesthetic positions that fundamentally differed, but merely the emphasis placed upon them. In 1929 Ivor Montagu invited Hans Richter, at that time the most prominent abstract filmmaker (whose films were becoming increasingly political) and Sergei Eisenstein (who, aware that he was obliged to tackle revolutionary themes, began focusing on form) to make a film together in London. The result, Everyday, a frantic, repetitive critique on modern urban lifestyles, was not completed until 1969, but it did represent an effort to form a dialogue between avant-garde strands which, although they mutually respected each other, had thus far been unable to co-operate on actual productions or even exchange ideas.

Anticipating the Cahiers du cinéma critic-directors of the nouvelle vague, Close-Up’s editorial staff produced their own films. The Pool group, comprising of MacPherson, H.D. and Bryher, created Wing Beat in 1927, which they described as cinema’s first ‘free verse poem’ . It is unclear whether Wing Beat or their subsequent shorts, Foothills and Monkey’s Moon were ever shown publicly, but their most ambitious project, Borderline (1930) most definitely was.

Borderline represented an attempt to take the critical debates conducted in Close-Up’s pages and use them to inform experimental film production, creating a dialectical relationship between film theory and practice like that in Russia. MacPherson called Borderline ‘the only really ‘avant-garde’ film ever made’: certainly, it was the most deliberately avant-garde film ever made in Britain at the time . Paradoxically, it was silent, made three years after the onset of sound, a possibility that excited many European experimentalists – Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov wrote about sound in Close-Up, and its French correspondent, Jean Lenauer, also expressed enthusiasm about its potentialities. The journal’s British contributors, particularly Dorothy Richardson, were less keen, believing that the silent film transcended linguistic and, therefore, national barriers, and that the internationalist basis of their attitude to cinema would be irrevocably undermined.

If Borderline’s attempted praxis was influenced by Kuleshov and the Soviet avant-garde, its over-arching aesthetic style was closer German ‘art’ film, particularly those of Pabst. However, much besides in Borderline remains of interest, notably the presence of Paul Robeson in the lead role, another major coup for MacPherson, who also persuaded H.D. (under the name Helga Doorn) to perform. Thematically, the film confronted racial prejudice, being set in a nameless, ‘borderline’ European town. Bryher and H.D., besides steadfastly opposing the racist statements of films like Birth of a Nation, possessed fluid sexualities, and the film also tackled issues regarding sexual diversity, in an understated, subtle fashion.

Borderline was central to MacPherson’s (paradoxical) dream of inaugurating a British avant-garde tradition, and its poor critical reception distressed him greatly. MacPherson commented that ‘They [the English] reject Borderline not because it is complex … but because it is a film of sub-conscious reasoning’ . The defensive nature of his response hinted at fundamental pessimism about the possibility of constructing a domestic avant-garde film culture: the arrival of sound and the changing nature of international relations that followed the Wall Street Crash were blows to Close-Up’s ideological and theoretical basis that the magazine was never quite able to overcome; the magazine folded in January 1933.

In terms of production, there was very little genuinely avant-garde activity in 1920s Britain. The film parodies of Brunel, Montagu and Sinclair Hill hardly seem avant-garde to contemporary audiences, and Lye’s Tusalava appeared several years after Viking Eggeling’s pioneering exploration of painterly, abstract film. Artists’ films were sparse: Duncan Grant’s Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound was an inventive use of the image-processing technology that preceded film, but not committed to celluloid until 1974; Dr. Turner’s Mental Home, by Dora Carrington and Beacus Penrose (Roland Penrose’s brother), was probably only shown once, at Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s home in London. Neither film signalled a large-scale involvement of Modernist painters in British film.

Before the Great War, virtually all production was experimental, in that filmmakers were always exploring the technical possibilities of the medium. However, the simple fact that they were always doing so meant that this project was not avant-garde: they simply tested the potentialities of cinematography without regarding to the aesthetic or ideological connotations of their experimentation. The consciously avant-garde film did not become possible until after the war ended; the conflict’s nature meant that when it did, British mainstream production lagged so far behind America that a national cinema struggled to assert itself, consequently hampering avant-garde productivity.

Close-Up remains more significant than any avant-garde film produced in Twenties Britain. Its fiercely internationalist attitude to film became hugely influential, encouraging subsequent British cineastes to closely follow developments in experimental film across the world. Its effort to centre an avant-garde, combining criticism, theory and production in one place, with one set of people, anticipated the attempt of the London Film-Makers Co-operative to do the same during the Sixties.

The debates conducted during the 1920s about whether film should ally itself with theatre and art, whether it should place emphasis on radical aesthetics or politics, and (crucially) whether it should welcome the onset of sound led to the initiation of several discourses within British avant-garde film practice, traditions which continue to the present day. These issues, not concluded before the arrival of sound, did not make the jump from theoretical debate to film content until the 1930s, but the flowering of a very different, politically engaged British avant-garde during that decade owed much to the critical framework established during the 1920s.

13 May 2010

I'm Too Sad to Tell You about 'I'm Too Sad to Tell You' - A Short Story

Originally published in THE LONDON MAGAZINE in 2008.

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Sometimes, journalists call me and beg me to tell them about Bas Jan Ader. I’ve always told them it’s too sad to talk about, but as time has passed, they’ve become more persistent, so I’ve decided to tell you about I’m Too Sad to Tell You. But this is the last time.

*

I studied with Bas Jan in Los Angeles. One day he invited me to his studio. He arrived as I did, camera in hand, and led me inside. He handed me the camera, stood against the wall and started weeping. I turned on the camera and made the lens stare at him.

After three minutes and twenty-two seconds, the 16mm film ran out. Immediately, the tears stopped, the last one leaving his cheek the moment the film finished.

I put the cap back on the lens and turned to leave. He tapped me on the shoulder, then led me to a café, bought me coffee and sat down.

“Did you walk here?” he asked. I nodded. “You saw anti-war protesters everywhere, yes?”
I nodded again.
“Why?”
“Well … they believe America has no right to be in Vietnam,” I replied. “And they’re angry about the senseless loss of life.”
“You’ve read the papers,” said Bas Jan. “They’ve misunderstood – perhaps deliberately. The war stimulates their anger, but it doesn’t generate it. Intellectually, those protestors think the war is wrong, yes; but their protest provides an outlet for emotions that they aren’t allowed to express. The fundamental emotion is sadness – the most painful feeling, and the hardest to comprehend. People feel angry because they can’t understand their sadness – the way society shuns those who make it explicit means they have to repress it, and it becomes anger.”
“So why isn’t everyone out protesting?”
“Because people act on their anger in different ways. Some people protest against wars; some make them. Some don’t express the anger at all – they feel they’re not allowed to express anger any more than sadness – and they become depressed. That’s why we’ve made this film.”
“Won’t it make people more depressed?”
“No. It will make people reconnect with the raw emotion they repressed as they became adults, and force them to confront it.”
“Why not challenge them with happiness?” I said. “The happiness we all felt in our childhood.”
“The happiness we claim to remember from our childhoods,” he replied. “I think that before people can even contemplate happiness, they have to understand their sadness.”
“People will say the film is too much for them.”
“They will become ready.”
“You think you’re Christ.”
“I’m not dying for anyone!” he declared. “I just make films.”
“How will people know you’re not faking it?”

Bas Jan stood, without looking at me, took his camera and left. I didn’t call him: I heard nothing from him for several years, until I heard that I’m Too Sad to Tell You was screening in Los Angeles. Bas Jan’s handwritten title flashed silently across the frame, then for the next three minutes and twenty-two seconds, his head rolled in genuine anguish, tears streaming down his cheeks.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“You’re crying,” said Bas Jan.
“You made me.”
“My next work will make you happy,” he said. “Come to my studio tomorrow.”

*

His door was open when I arrived.

“You inspired me this,” said Bas Jan as I cast my eyes upon the boat that dominated the tiny studio. “This is the Ocean Wave. It’s the only tangible part of my next project, In Search of the Miraculous. You think it’s very small. It is – only 13ft. When I sail from Massachusetts to Falmouth in England, it will become the smallest craft ever to cross the Atlantic.”
“That’s insane!”
“The project will hopefully contain elements of what some consider insanity. The mental voyage is far more important than the physical one. Amidst the calmness of the ocean, without any distractions, my mind shall be focused purely on attacking the roots of human sadness, until it can only collapse and give way to pure happiness.”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“By focusing upon nothing else, until I’ve found the answer,” he said. “The journey I record in my logbooks shall be purely psychological. When I return to land, I shall publish them. They will show the way.”
“You imagine yourself finding a universal formula for endless happiness?”
“Of course not! I hope to find happiness for myself, within myself. It’s up to other people whether or not they follow my example.”
“It’s too much for you. You’ll go mad.”
“This is an experiment. If I fail, I fail.”
You think you’re Christ, I thought, but I didn’t repeat myself. I shook his hand, wished him luck and walked away.

*

The telegram arrived as I was alone in my flat, half-watching a family strive to win thousands of dollars on a quiz show.

EMOTIONAL PATTERNS ESTABLISHED BEFORE CONSCIOUS MEMORY STOP SO THE FIRST STEP IS THE ONLY STEP STOP ACCEPTANCE OF SADNESS IS VICTORY OVER SADNESS STOP HUMANS LOOK FOR HAPPINESS WHEN THEY SHOULD BE SEEKING CONTENTMENT STOP THE MIRACULOUS HAS BEEN FOUND AND THE SEARCH CAN STOP

The Ocean Wave was found drifting off the coast of Ireland, nine months and two weeks after I received the telegram. They never found Bas Jan Ader, or his notebooks. When I heard, I sent a copy of the telegram to several national newspapers, all of which said that Bas Jan was not famous enough for them to publish it, especially as its content might upset emotionally fragile readers. Since then, I had kept it in a box with the paintings I have been unable to sell, and it’s too sad to show it to anyone.

9 May 2010

24 Frames a Second: Peter Tscherkassky, Gustav Deutsch and the Austrian avant-garde

Originally published in FILMWAVES in 2007.

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Peter Tscherkassky is, in many ways, a pivotal figure in the history of the Austrian avant-garde. Tscherkassky, born in 1958, was inspired by the two main currents in this history: first the Vienna Actionists, whose post-Dadaistic texts and brutally explicit filmed performances were astoundingly visceral reactions to one of post-war Europe’s most stiflingly conservative societies.

Concurrently, Austria also fostered the works of Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren, concerned with the materiality of film, and it is this strand that Tscherkassky has strived to develop, both through his own filmmaking, and the establishment of Sixpack Films in 1991 to organise the ‘Found Footage – Filme aus gefundenem Materialto’ festival and distribute non-commercial Austrian works. Tscherkassky has also promoted other successors to this tradition, including ‘found footage’ artists Dietmar Brehm, Lisl Ponger and Gustav Deutsch.

Tscherkassky’s films allude to a wide range of influences – Dream Work (2001) was ‘dedicated to the cinematic art of Man Ray’ (and explicitly references his work) while a recoloured sequence recalls Berlin Horse by Malcolm Le Grice, whose films also drew upon Kubelka and Kren. Tscherkassky’s chief interests and influences, though, are Austrian. Since Aderlaß (1981), an attempt to process the Actionist tradition in Super-8, Tscherkassky has gravitated towards Austrian materialism, by working exclusively with found footage and treated filmstrip.

For Motion Picture (1984), Tscherkassky projected a frame from Lumière’s La Sortie des Usines Lumière, the first film Louis Lumière publicly demonstrated, across fifty unexposed film strips in his darkroom, with the individual strips run together to make a new work. This brief work exemplifies Tscherkassky’s propensity for Formalist defamiliarisation, taking recognisable images and inserting them into radically different contexts.

Tscherkassky often employed these techniques with idiosyncratic humour, and Happy End (1996) is perhaps his funniest film. It depicts an Austrian couple enjoying their Christmas dinner, closing with footage of a dancing woman suddenly freezing, her facial expression hinting at the emptiness behind her festive rituals. Tscherkassky’s rearrangement, backed with Michel Chion’s caustic reworking of ‘Chocolat’, aims to render the footage absurd: a stop-motion sequence reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer, where an empty table becomes overburdened with condiments, creates a powerful associative link between Austria’s bourgeoisie and irresponsible opulence.

L’Arrivée (1998), the first of Tscherkassky’s CinemaScope trilogy, reprises his interest in Lumière. Taking Lumière’s infamous train as the birth of cinematography, the film commences with a white screen, upon which sprockets impinge before the locomotive images, drawn from Terence Young’s Mayerling (1968) and drained of colour finally assert themselves. The final kiss between Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif provides relief after the horrific crash following the arrival of a second train – a gentle conclusion after the meaning of the crash has been reinforced by the violent disruptions to the film’s projected surface.

In Outer Space (1999), Tscherkassky undermines the convention of Hollywood horror films. Its footage comes from Sidney J. Furie’s film The Entity (1981), in which Barbara Hershey plays a woman possessed by a violent spirit. Here, Tscherkassky’s manipulation of his material becomes far more intense: the technical aspects of the film strip (the sprockets and the optical soundtrack) relentlessly encroach upon the images and continually shock the viewer out of the complacency of narrative expectations.

Music is crucial to the film’s effect. Tscherkassky has stated his admiration for avant-garde composers including John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and John Zorn, and for contemporary electronic composers such as Pierre Henry and Luc Ferrari, and his cut and paste approach to narrative construction draws upon musique concrète as much as Kubelka and Kren. The music, like the film, establishes a haunting tone but is continually fragmented, reinforcing the disorientating effect of the images, where several versions of Hershey’s face punctuate the frame simultaneously. The narrative eventually collapses, replaced by a white screen filled with sprockets, overlaid with funeral music, asking the audience whether they should lament the ‘death’ of narrative in this film, and, implicitly, film in general.

Finally, Tscherkassky uses the defamiliarised footage to make an oblique comment on developments in psychoanalytic film theory. That the manipulation of these images creates a commentary on the nature of film is signalled by the intrusion of the film’s mechanics: the inclusion of Hershey smashing a mirror, followed by a brief meditative silence is, according to Rhys Graham, ‘playfully exploding the notion of “film as a mirror” articulated by Christian Metz’, and we know that Tscherkassky is striving to create a new cinema free of the conventions that allow audiences to complacently identify themselves with a protagonist.

In Dream Work, Tscherkassky looked to find a new direction for the Surrealist film tradition, by returning to Freud’s theories of stimuli in The Interpretation of Dreams and the aesthetic principles laid down by André Breton in his original manifesto. Specifically, Dream Work (the final CinemaScope film) adheres to Breton’s conceived exploration of ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state’, investigating ‘the actual functioning of thought’.

Dream Work’s footage was copied by hand, frame by frame, on to unexposed film stock. It opens with a woman falling asleep. For the Surrealists, this was the important state, creatively, in which Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote Les Champs magnétiques, the founding Surrealist text. Light penetrates her blinds: Tscherkassky’s images partially switch to negative, taking his audience into the woman’s dreams, and these rays immediately form stimuli in her unconscious – one dream image seemingly triggered by this light is a scene of tacks exposed onto the film by shining light across them, clearly referencing Man Ray’s Le Retour à la raison (1923).

Dream Work, as might be expected given its subject, is less intense than Outer Space, retaining its visual density, but incorporating it into a narrative that challenges its audience to unravel the film’s internal logic and connect its apparently disparate images. Its reverent approach to Freud and Surrealism, comprehensively dissected by Matthew Tomkinson in an essay on Tscherkassky’s website, seems to demand a return to the starting-points of psychoanalytic film theory, initiated by studies of Lacan, a figure actively involved with both psychoanalysis and Surrealism.

Tscherkassky’s most recent film, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine won the Gran Premio Experimental at the 2005 Vilo de Conde festival in Portugal as well as the Gecko Jury Award at CinemaTexas. Most of its footage is culled from a Western, although the opening shot of a man with a film camera humorously sets up an opposition far more powerful than cowboy battles: betweem the protagonist and the very film that sustains his existence.

The camera whirrs on the soundtrack, and gradually the workings of the film overtake the images. The music becomes increasingly incongruous, eventually aligning itself with the rhythm of the film’s projection (at 24 frames per second) as the narrative is fractured until scissors cut the ‘tail’ of the film strip and the screen is engulfed in white. A graveyard appears in negative, and it is clear the hero has died, not at the hands of the cowboys, but at the hands of the omnipotent filmmaker – the appearance of the ‘Footer’ and the Production Number constitute a second, definitive ‘death’.

Tscherkassky’s films can clearly be situated within a line of Austrian film practice that includes Kurt Kren’s post-Actionist works, Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966) and VALIE EXPORT’S Syntagma (1983), which combines original and found footage to question the validity of social questions that rely upon notions of ‘the woman’s body’. Indeed, Tscherkassky’s films have successfully extended this line, exerting a strong influence upon a younger generation of Austrians inspired by the visually and intellectually stimulating effects of his filmic manipulation.

Gustav Deutsch, like Tscherkassky, works primarily with found footage, creating original work from an astonishingly varied selection of sources. Born in 1953, Deutsch’s filmmaking career began in 1982, just after Tscherkassky’s, making a number of short films before branching into feature-length work with the hour-long Film ist. in 1998.

For his most recent features, Deutsch has favoured the dream-like qualities of silent film stock. The material comprising Film ist. 7-12 (2002) and Welt Spiegel Kino (2005) is almost entirely drawn from footage older than 1930 and, as in Tscherkassky, the relationship between image and soundtrack is as crucial to their aesthetic impact as the juxtaposition of frames.

Film ist. 7-12 picks up where Film ist. left off, wryly exploring the possibilities of film as imagined by the silent pioneers. The film opens with possibility 7 – ‘Komisch (Comic)’. A woman tentatively opens a door, walking into the world of film, and a farcical narrative where a fight between a man and woman is soon overtaken by footage of a robot, doubtless intended to be frightening at the time but preposterous now, terrifies hiding residents of the house it destroys. Serious music defamiliarises the slapstick scenes (most of which feature wayward ladders), turning them from popular entertainment into a slightly sinister relic from a period whose innocence was decimated by the First World War.

‘Magic’ constitutes part 8. In its infancy, moving pictures often formed a side attraction at fairs, and Georges Méliès’ background as a magician in Victorian London did much to shape the character of early film. Deutsch acknowledges Méliès’ importance by including snatches of his work, recognisable by its beautiful hand colouring, but the ‘magic’ that Deutsch documents is the fin-de-siècle wonderment at the visual trickery that the cinematograph made possible.

Part 9 is ‘Conquest’: Deutsch’s footage refers not just to the European colonisation of Africa, at its apex around the time that film was invented. Film captured ‘exotic’ African cultures for white audiences, turning them into objects of curiosity to be stared at in amazement, much like the earliest films. In 9.3, a ‘tribal’ boy with a deformed mouth is examined by a white colonialist, illustrating the stern sense of superior knowledge behind the imperialistic concept of the ‘White Man’s Burden’.

Deutsch also uses ‘conquest’ to refer to the technological innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that helped Western man conquer not only land but also the skies. After the aforementioned Lumière film, trains became emblematic of modernity (their ability to transport large numbers of people and heavy goods was integral to the development of nineteenth-century industry and imperialism) and a popular focus-point for early filmmakers.

However, the errors of those pioneers are highlighted, or at least implied. Although no footage explicitly references the 1897 Charity Bazaar fire that killed 121 Parisian filmgoers, or the airship or train disasters of the period, Deutsch’s rail footage stops abruptly, suggesting a crash. His eerie footage taken from an airship’s point of view shows a flaming plane hurtling towards the ground, reminding the viewer of the precariousness of fin-de-siècle technology.

Section 10, entitled ‘Writing and Language’, playfully questions the idea of silent film as the ‘international language’, so characterised by intellectuals concerned by the potential effects of ‘talkies’. Numerous title cards, varied in design and tongue, are paraded: viewers with an extensive knowledge of European languages may be able to pull out a narrative from the succession of intertitles.

‘Emotion and Passion’ form Part 11. Deutsch presents some of the worst excesses of melodramatic silent over-acting, which proves far funnier than the comic section Seven. Part 12 is the most fascinating of (early) film’s functions – ‘Memory and Document’. The mood changes rapidly: frivolous dances give over to shots of fire, with buildings (and perhaps lives) lost before the cold eyes of the camera.

Film ist. 7-12 draws on films by early French filmmakers such as Ferdinand Zecca, Segundo de Chomón and Marcel L’Herbier, and scored by Werner Dafeldecker, Martin Sievert, Burkhard Stangl and Fennesz. The latter two also score Welt Spiegel Kino, which recycles a little footage from part 12 of Film ist. as the basis for a very different, much more dream-like montage that plays beautifully on the temptation to speculate upon the fate of the individuals captured by early filmmakers.

The knowledge that everyone portrayed in Welt Spiegel Kino gives Deutsch’s film a genuinely haunting quality. At points, this otherworldly atmosphere is redoubled by the decay suffered by the nitrate film stock, recalling Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) – another film where the haunting images are complemented (and at times contrasted) by a soundtrack drawing heavily on avant-garde electronic composition.

Again scored by Fennesz and Stangl, Welt Spiegel Kino is divided into three thirty-minute sections, all starting in different locations, all of which contain a cinema: the Kinomatograf Theater in Vienna in 1912, the Apollo Theatre in Surabaya, Indonesia in 1929, and the Cinema São Mamede Infesta in Porto in 1930. The vagueness of the long shots of people outside the picture houses allows Deutsch to close in on passers-by in those modern crowds and transition to speculated lives, created from found footage.

Every ‘life’ featured in the film alludes to its historical context: this becomes clear immediately, as Deutsch zooms in a man outside a poster advertising Hamlet and then transitions to a uniformed soldier with a gun on his back, who turns and salutes before Deutsch cuts back to the cinema, two years before the Great War breaks out. It is the shadow of war that gives Episode 1 its eeriness: it looms over the boxer proudly displaying his medal on a podium, as he could easily have become one of the 7,000 Portuguese killed at the Western Front.

For Episode 2, Deutsch takes us to a time of uneasy peace, to a place outside Europe but ruled by Europeans. The cinema at Surabaya shows a European film: Fritz Lang’s mystical epic Siegfried, and Deutsch shows this amidst the montages of an Indonesian society fighting to maintain its identity against Western control. People are showing dancing, in Eastern costume – to the European viewer, this is the colonial ‘Other’, a culture existing in resistance to Western ideas of modernising their empires. Again, however, the viewer knows that those people in far-east Asia may well be drawn into the European conflict that breaks out ten years after Deutsch’s cinema scene.

In Portugal, Deutsch shows us a society embracing Fascism after the military coup d’état of 1926 – a Fascist regime nowhere near as well remembered as those in Italy (which it often aped), Spain, Germany or even Hungary, led by António de Oliveira Salazar. Here, a general awards honours to tearful veterans, throngs are transfixed by a board relaying football to a crowded square, and mothers toiling at a sardine factory dream of freedom from a regime that bleeds its workers.

Welt Spiegel Kino is a film to get lost in – an alternative, antique world vividly recreated through a varied, often slightly surreal combination of images that seems to draw as much from Modernist poetry (particularly the cityscapes created in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot) as from Tscherkassky and the Austrian materialist tradition. Deutsch’s works, particularly Welt Spiegel Kino, are best experienced on the big screen – although they were assembled in the age of video, their component elements date back to a golden age of film, with Kino’s protagonists often surprised to be captured by the camera.

Having completed Film ist, Deutsch has stated his determination to turn Welt Spiegel Kino into a series. Theoretically, the series is infinite: the end credits for episodes 1-3 list an extraordinary large number of sources, from 1906 to 1939 – the only limits are imposed by the clock, as finding, cutting and assembling this footage must be incredibly time-consuming.

Deutsch and Tscherkassky continue to produce, and Sixpack continue to distribute the works of Austrian artists in tune with their aesthetic ideals. Their films are challenging, although to describe them as ‘difficult’, especially in Deutsch’s case, would be unfair. Although they work very well on a surface aesthetic level, viewers who watch with a strong working knowledge of not just Austrian materialism and the Vienna Actionists but also Surrealism, European history, experimental composition and the filmmaking and editing process will be richly rewarded.

Situating Cinema: The film work of Guy Debord

An article on Guy Debord and the Situationists' relationship with film, originally published in FILMWAVES in 2005.

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‘The Avant-garde is Undesirable’, proclaimed the Situationist International in 1961. ‘The aesthetic debris of the avant-garde (pictures, film, poetry, etc.) have become both desirable and ineffectual. What is undesirable is the complete reorganization of the condition of life such that the basis of society is altered’. The Situationists reflected the widespread disillusion with Modernism among post-war thinkers; their critique of the avant-garde as ‘desirable and ineffectual’ highlighted the complicity between the avant-garde and the state, and the incorporation of experimental forms into advertising and propaganda during the inter-war period.

While in England and America, many (but by no means all) creative artists turned their back on formal exploration, a number of European intellectuals aimed to rehabilitate the avant-garde, wanting to take the theoretical rigour and revitalising energy of the early movements (such as Futurism and Dadaism) while maintaining an opposition between art and the state, with its attendant ideological culture. The Situationists grew out of the Lettrists, a group concerned with the relationship between culture and society who produced both theory and radical art. Guy Debord became involved in 1951, a year before Charlie Chaplin’s visit to France, and Debord joined in their incendiary attack on one of the few Hollywood directors to have been championed by the inter-war avant-garde. ‘Because you’ve identified yourself with the weak and oppressed, to attack you has been to attack the weak and oppressed … Go to sleep, you fascist insect’.

Gil J. Wolman joined this protest against Chaplin – his L’Anti-concept (1951) reinvigorated Debord’s belief in the potentialities of avant-garde cinema. L’Anti-concept was an imageless film originally projected on to a weather balloon, with a frantic stream of consciousness narration. The next year, Debord made his first film, Howlings in Favour of Sade. Here, Debord consciously (if ironically) wrote himself into a potted canon of avant-garde film, with one of the voices that formed its soundtrack declaring “What a springtime! Crib sheet for the history of film: 1902: A Trip to the Moon. 1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 1924: Entr’acte. 1926: Potemkin. 1928: Un chien Andalou. 1931: City Lights. Birth of Guy-Ernest Debord. 1951: Treatise on Slime and Eternity. 1952: L’Anti-concept. Howlings in Favour of Sade’.

The French censors banned L’Anti-concept almost immediately; Debord and his collaborators responded by publishing Wolman’s script and the article No More French Cinema. The protests demonstrated the Lettrists’ understanding of the ideological function not just of films in themselves, but also in social context: the film text, not necessarily explicitly ideological, assumed an implicit political role as a cultural product, created by individuals or corporations with specific interests to rouse or placate its audience.

Situationism and the New Left
The Situationists, with Debord as their self-appointed spokesman, found themselves as part of a wider project to rehabilitate Marxism and redefine Leftist thought after Stalinism, the Spanish Civil War and the Hungarian Uprising. Louis Althusser’s radical reinterpretation of Marx differentiated between ideology and theory – ideology was a pervasive, dogmatic set of political concepts used by an established power maintain that power by binding the state together, whereas theory established a basis for revolutionary action, being open to constant redefinition in relation to social praxis. Althusser’s belief that ‘Every ideology must be regarded as a real whole, internally unified by its own problematic’ proved enormously influential.

Althusser’s ‘problematic’ was the set of questions that the theory on which ideology was based set out to answer. Although for the Soviets, Marx’s crucial ‘problematic’ was his investigation into economic class relations, expounded in Das Kapital, Althusser and Debord both shifted their focus on to Marx’s early writings, highlighting his concept of alienation. Marx’s alienation was specific: it related to the separation of the workers from their produce, and their distancing from power through complex class structures. Debord used this concept to create a political analysis of mass media, influenced by Walter Benjamin’s theories on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, existentialism and psychoanalysis. His aim was to create a theoretical socialism that would eliminate alienation in everyday life and free the individual from subordination.

This rupture in Marxist thought was the basis for the New Left, a loose alliance of students, intellectuals and artists, and the skilled working class who prioritised action over organisation) and wanted to break with the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had led to the establishment of oppressive bureaucracies. It was this opposition to bureaucracy, not just in its Stalinist incarnation but in all systems of political organisation, that underpinned their fascination with social structures.

The media was fundamental to ‘the exclusive right to representation by established parties and intermediary groups’, which so antagonised the young revolutionaries. Their aim was to negate traditional structures of authority with opposing power, using both avant-garde theory and avant-garde art to propose a new, experimental system of political organisation led by those marginalized by the existing system.

The New Left were central to the disturbances of 1968, which swept the world but were manifested in France in a bitter struggle for power in Paris. The Situationists were prominent amongst the students and intellectuals who led the revolt, which culminated in the largest general strike in French history and caused a massive rupture between President de Gaulle and his Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, as Pompidou’s declared belief in collective bargaining and negotiation contrasted markedly with de Gaulle’s maxim “the state will not surrender” . Ultimately, the New Left struggled to define itself amidst the turmoil, and it was defeated by a combination of the more organised Old Left and the Republic’s political infrastructure. The New Left itself, bereft of a plan of action, split into two groups, contributing not just to its defeat but also its failure to sustain the energy necessary to formulate a response to May 1968.

The Society of the Spectacle
The protestors owed much of their popular support, as did the American anti-war movement, to the power of mass media. Debord’s most important text, The Society of the Spectacle, had appeared the year before; it was his most sustained attack on the co-option of the media by the state for ideological purposes. Debord made a film based on this text in 1973, as a personal response not just to 1968 but also to changes in the media, and its systems of control, that had taken place since.

From its inception, intellectuals of all political positions had worried about the narcotic effects of cinema, but the defeat of 1968 had both heightened Debord’s sense of the potential of the moving image and exacerbated his despair at its use as state propaganda. The Society of the Spectacle was a montage film, juxtaposing an astonishingly varied selection of images with Debord’s voice-over, reading from his text. Shots of the Vietnam War, Mao and Nixon in negotiation, addresses made by Stalin and the French police destroying the protests of 1968 were combined with clips from Battleship Potemkin, They Died with Their Boots On, Triumph of the Will, Johnny Guitar, Rio Grande and For Whom the Bell Tolls, among others.

Crucial to the construction of the film was Debord’s opposition to cinematography, and the ‘game of praise’ that attended it . Debord felt that the New Wave directors had simply created a cheaper alternative to the ‘star system’ by exploiting their reputations as critics and auteurs: the prestige this lent them added weight to their opinions, meaning they would be heard by the public, consequently ensuring the success of their films. Essentially, the New Wave circle constituted a support network similar to the Hollywood system they ostensibly opposed. Debord inserted a caption into The Society of the Spectacle (immediately preceded by footage from the moon landings, perhaps the ultimate spectacular political act) reading, ‘One might still recognise some cinematic value in this film if its rhythm were to be maintained; it will not be maintained’.

Certainly, Society of the Spectacle is difficult viewing, the audience being bombarded with theory and a dizzying array of images unified only by their implicit ideological purpose, generated by both their content and their pervasion of the systems which Debord felt mediated social relations. The suggestion was that while dictatorships use their unilateral media to propagate directly ideological images of their leaders and state functions (particularly their armies, holding spectacular marches and displays, which appear in Debord’s film), democracies used the media in a similar way: however, in order to perpetuate the myth that individuals were free from political interference, the media in democratic states was instead dominated by mindless ‘entertainment’, the logical conclusion of which was pornography, combining the commodity fetishism that upheld capitalist society with sexual fetishism. The Beatles, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe were criticised as representations of lifestyles that were turned into viable commodities and sold to the proletariat in order to alienate them intellectually from political organisation. The spectacle, claimed Debord, was ‘ideology par excellence’, epitomising the essence of ideological systems.

Consciously didactic, Debord’s aim was to make the implicit function of ‘the spectacle’ explicit, by taking film – which had become the most important medium to state representation – and using it against itself, creating a radical opposition to both form and content of exemplary films from capitalist and anti-capitalist societies. The film was certainly not ‘desirable’ for fans of Hollywood cinema, or those of the New Wave. Eschewing the radical cinematography of Godard’s films, or the lyricism of Truffaut’s, The Society of the Spectacle reduced the philosophical film to its bare essentials. The viewer is alienated by the rapid succession of images, yet engaged by their juxtaposition with Debord’s radical criticism of the mediated society, the interest being sustained by his (mostly) effective combination. The stripped-down simplicity of the montage shifts the focus from form, where it usually lay for critical film viewers, on to the content. The aim was not to unite an audience through either a strong, closed narrative (like the Hollywood films that Debord presents) or through praiseworthy artistic innovation, but to instigate a lively theoretical debate.

After the spectacle
The Situationist International had broken up in 1972, having expended its theoretical energy amidst the collapse of the 1968 insurrection and the wave of expulsions made by their autocratic leader. As for Debord, he followed The Society of the Spectacle with a filmed version of Refutation of All the Judgments on Society of the Spectacle, constructed in a similar manner. His final film was In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni (1978), in which Debord attempted to justify (or at least explain) himself and his ideas. It opened aggressively, with Debord stating, “I will make no concessions to the public in this film. I believe there are several good reasons for this decision, and I am going to state them. In the first place, it is well known that I have never made any concessions to the dominant ideas or ruling powers of my era” . The film is generally acknowledged to have been Debord’s most successful, aesthetically, but it was The Society of the Spectacle (perhaps as a result of its affinity with his book, which had no copyright and so circulated freely) that became the best known and is seen as his most effective use of the medium of film.

Rarely screened, Debord banned any showings of his films during his lifetime after the assassination of their producer Gérard Lebovici in 1984, still unsolved. Debord was implicated tangentially, interrogated by the police and defamed in the media; his libel suits were victorious. He made no more films, writing Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici (1985), The Game of War (1987, with second wife Alice Becker-Ho) and Panegyric (1989), his major post-Situationist work.

The French media had always refuted the importance of Situationism, but their position changed radically after Debord’s suicide in 1994, aged 62. There was renewed interest in his writings, which Jean-Jacques Pauvert persuaded Gallimard to reprint, but his films were not seen again until 2001, when his widow began the process of re-releasing them, starting with a complete retrospective at the Venice Film Festival. There was another complete screening in Paris in 2002.

Understanding film: Viewing and acting
Throughout his life, Debord asked for people ‘not just to engage in some sort of revolutionary art-criticism, but to make a revolutionary critique of all art’ . It may be, still, that echoes of Debord’s philosophy appear more in documentary than in narrative works, even in the adaptation of Young Adam, from the novel by Alexander Trocchi, a former Situationist International member, or the most radical works of the post-1968 New Wave directors. One imagines that two documentaries made by Mark Achbar and collaborators, The Corporation (2004) and particularly Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) would have satisfied Debord. Chomsky’s theories about the use of the media in the US had much in common with Debord’s; in this film, Chomsky detailed the shared interests of the media and the government, and the structures which they create to reinforce each other’s power, with wealthy newspaper barons standing to benefit from American foreign policy, and deliberately misrepresenting both motives and events to win the support of a public whose routines did not allow them time to challenge the barrage of received ideas, encapsulated by sound-bites strengthened by constant repetition. The film consciously used its own medium against itself, conversations with Chomsky being constantly interrupted by found footage of archive Chomsky interviews, news reports and graphic sequences (subverted those popular with mainstream news sources) to remind the viewer that Chomsky’s theories are a point of view, which should be subjected to the same criticism as the monolithic media infrastructures that Chomsky attacks.

The theories that Debord expounded in his books and films have the potential to revolutionise the way audiences, and their individual members, criticise cinema. Every nation has films, constructed with discernable artistic virtuosity, which reinforce either aspects of the official ideology, or that ideology in its entirety (or essence); some, such as Eisenstein’s films from Strike to Ivan the Terrible, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Humphrey JenningsListen to Britain were commissioned by branches of the state, while others such as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, were not. The radical, self-reinvigorating theories about aesthetics and politics developed by the Situationists, demanding an art linked with oppositional power, are useful in assessing the impact of counter-political films like Godard’s Week-End or Costa-Gavras’ Z, with its climactic unravelling of layers of state corruption that occur after the assassination of Yves Montand’s leader figure. They are just as useful, however, in developing a highly critical attitude towards the label of ‘entertainment’, a label carefully weighted by Hollywood producers, as they encourage viewers to view everything they see in ideological context.

The second part of Eisenstein’s aforementioned Ivan the Terrible is of particular interest, beginning life with a commission from Stalin, who wanted parallels drawn between the founder of modern Russia and himself. Although Part I had largely satisfied the Communist Party leader, Part II deliberately incurred the wrath of the dictator. Eisenstein, incensed by the censorship which had destroyed a number of cherished projects and the bureaucratic terror of the Stalinist regime, famously emphasised Ivan’s increasingly paranoid despotism aggravated by the perceived ‘Boyar’s Plot’, and his brutal purges: thus the officially sanctioned film became a searing denunciation of state barbarism, and was banned. Typically, the Situationists were unimpressed, attacking Eisenstein’s ‘formal conceptions and political submissiveness’ in their article ‘Cinema and Revolution’, but Ivan the Terrible still provides a striking example of how an individual can confront overwhelming state power through radical art in even the most poisonous of political atmospheres.

Situationist theory, with its uncompromising attitude towards state ideology and the purveyors of banal culture, is a potential source of inspiration for any filmmakers bored with a cultural landscape in which cynically erected structures allow anodyne, apolitical (or deliberately misrepresentative) works to dominate the media and public consciousness. The energy of their texts and films and their militant division between the avant-garde and the state have inspired films such as Alice in Wonderland or Who is Guy Debord? – an animated spoof in which Alice travels from Victorian England to present-day society in which she is drowned in spectacles, her only hope of escape being to locate the Situationist provocateur – as well as the Exploding Cinema movement and other fiercely experimental groups across Europe. Now more than ever, when the (predominantly Anglo-American) attempt to move away from the idea of ‘avant-garde’ and aggressively dialectical culture has led most art into a dead end where outmoded, deadened forms once again dominate the visible culture, and the transparently consensual politics of the 1990s (which were, of course, never consensual; dissident voices were merely diffused and marginalised) have been shattered by a global conflict between two groups of religious fundamentalists, it is necessary to overturn the integrated spectacle which makes the dominance of conservative culture and politics possible. With the surreal, farcical election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Republican senator of California, in a campaign where political issues were subsumed by rhetoric infused not by ideology but by Arnie’s spectacular movies, it has become necessary to counter the domination of the political by the spectacular and infuse the spectacular with the political, and create undesirable works of art which unflinchingly question all formal expectations and received ideological rhetoric.

Transgender Adventures: An interview with Pia

This is an interview with the trans performance artist Pia, published in Trespass magazine, issue two (2008).

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When did you realise you were gender-gifted?
From a very early age. When you go to school it becomes more apparent, because you grow up with your mother, and you see a lot more of your mother than you do of your father, so gender doesn’t matter – you’re just a little tiny child. But when you go to school it’s clear you’re intrinsically different – and not in an understandable way.

I was in a ring of children at playgroup and the teacher was asking everyone what they wanted to do when they grew up. Everyone said “train driver” or “hairdresser” until she came to a little boy called Trevor who said he wanted to be a nurse. The children rounded on him, angrily, purely because of their education about what boys can’t do and girls can’t do. So I just said, “train driver”.

You’re allowed to dress up as children – I wanted to dress as a girl. But dressing up box stopped for me, unless I wanted to be a cowboy – I wasn’t allowed anything else. Which wasn’t fair: I couldn’t express myself through the clearest means – clothing.

What did your gender transition involve?
The last 25 years of my life, getting to the point where I started transitioning. Actually transitioning caused a lot of pain. It was a trial by fire. I lost money, security and many friends. Even when they know you’re trans, the decision to become more female than male is often difficult for someone you meet with career and relationship goals.

Some people were fine, but initially others were hostile because I was doing something that made everything else seem a bit inane. That profound commitment to transitioning – people don’t understand how gender is such a fundamental part of you, because they’ve never questioned it. I hate it when people refer to being a ‘tranny’ as a ‘hobby’ – you don’t live and die by hobbies. You need belief that you’ll survive – being into model trains isn’t quite the same.

Is gender transition a continuous process?
It’s a spiritual path – I find it’s continually growing. You’re learning more about yourself, having been censored for a very long time. You start to express yourself more – whereas you’ve been constantly tailoring your persona, you become free to let go and find your place between feminine and masculine values, which, within people’s social conditioning, can be very confusing.

That’s why transgender people have such a negative press. We make people question their own gender and sexuality because we intrinsically confront them about it. People ask themselves if they’re gay if they fancy a transsexual – no, because gay men fancy men and lesbians fancy women. We are in the LGBT community, which is great, because we all face the same fears, which is coming out and telling everyone your darkest secret, which is “I am this.”

People are castrated – punished – for what they are. Transitioning demands willingness to throw oneself off a mountain. You have to come out and say, “This is me” and if you accept me, great, but if you don’t, so be it. That’s what I find is upsetting when people think we like Barbie dolls, conforming to negative feminine stereotypes – I’m like Barbie, but with a knife.

What do you think causes your gender identity?
I think you’re born with it. I don’t think you become transgender – I think you are. You can hide it. There are lots of trans people in the closet, denying themselves expression in preference of the Other – a straight, normal life. You can have a straight, normal life if you’re gay, bi, trans or whatever, but stepping out of that 2.4 children construct is intimidating, and I don’t know if there is a cause. Maybe it’s a water system overloaded with oestrogen.

Throughout history there have always been trans people and they’ve always been revered, from the Native Americans to the Greeks and Romans, especially the Pagans, who had a lot of belief systems based on nature. In nature, there are hermaphrodites everywhere – in frogs, for example. If there are too many male frogs they’ll turn into females and vice versa. I think the cause is natural – it’s not a choice, and you can choose whether to hide it or be proud of it.

Who are your inspirations (trans or otherwise)?
Social mavericks: people willing to disenfranchise themselves for their beliefs. People with unshakeable beliefs with a good grounding: not in religion but in their vision of reality. If you prove one thing that isn’t in the textbook, that disproves the textbook – and I think that’s the essence of transgenderism.

I admire Nikola Tesla, because he, not Edison, is the father of modern electricity. Viktor Schauberger, for his theories about dynamics. Wilhelm Reich, who hypothesised that the constriction of your sexual identity and self-expression was harmful to the human spirit.

Trans people – April Ashley for her remarkable story, her strength of character and her will, as well as the Paris is Burning girls from New York.

How has being TG influenced you creatively?
The Seventies pioneers – Warhol superstars like Candy Darling – inspired me but as a child I didn’t know them. So my creativity came from exploring gender came from within physicality. I like creativity with a message. Some art I don’t see the point in. Duchamp’s urinal, for example – I understand the concept, but it needs to be seen in context, and contextualising is what I’m about.

How would you describe your performances?
It’s very fierce, very provocative, quite incendiary – like some bitch with tits and a cock on napalm. I’m quite humble as well, but when I’m on stage I’m on fire, and I make a formidable adversary if I’m dancing with someone. I draw on the energy of the changing seasons and the precession. My cause is for the freedom of people, particularly transgender people, to express themselves. I think it’s important that people are allowed to express themselves from childhood to adulthood without being made to feel guilty. I try to have a child-like state of belief when performing – I feel like I’m becoming an adult, the adult I wanted to be when I left puberty – I draw strength from being proud of what I am, whereas before I wasn’t.

I do a flag dance, which is called Declare Independence. I come on stage and people think I’m a girl. I have flags representing conflict facing each other – China and Tibet, America and Cuba, the gay flag opposite the Saudi flag, the cross and the arrow symbolising male and female, and on my dress I wear ‘Jesus Loves You’. As a cape I wear the Jolly Roger. I strip the flags down while dancing vigorously. I lose the flags – eventually I’m left with the Jolly Roger, which symbolises independence from everything, especially the prescribed notion of the masses, and then Jesus Loves You, which symbolises so much, including the Solstice. Then I drop that and I’m naked, and the illusion that I am a woman – and an angry woman at that – collapses, and I’m declaring independence from everything.

I do another show to O Superman by Laurie Anderson. I come on as a bastardised Clark Kent, and wear a rubber fuck-doll face mask, and I slowly strip in a nasty, Friday 13th fashion. When I shed the Clark Kent suit, you see I’m Superman, and then I take off the Superman suit and I’m a muscleman. As I remove that you see I’m a woman, but between that and my skin there’s a thick layer of fake blood, as though I’m being flayed or peeling off the exterior to reveal the inner heart of Superman. As I peel the chest down, people don’t see my breasts and with my mask they don’t see my face – when I had my suit on they thought I was a male stripper. Then I peel off my bottom half at the end to once again confuse the issue – first they thought I was a man, then a woman, then I’m trans. Maybe that’s why Superman is so wholesome – because he’s got a trans heart.

I did things at Glastonbury this year with NYC Downlow, including building a gay bar with my friend Gideon, as well as Horse Meat Disco and Jonny Woo.

In your mind, what is a man and what is a woman, and where do you fit in?
Well, men generally have a cock and women generally have a vagina. Along the spectrum of sexuality there are so many different permutations, with intersex in the middle. All of light together is white – male – and all absence of light is black – female, represented by Cybele, the Greek deification of the Earth Mother – and between there is a rainbow.

I think people would fit an explanation of gender more comfortably if society allowed wider variation. In Native American culture, if a little girl wanted to go and hunt she could. Society is much more accepting of tomboys – if a man wants to be nurturing, it’s seen as weakness. Recently we’ve had the New Man, Nineties Man and Noughties Man. People aren’t allowed to fully express themselves yet – but that will change. Here, we’re twenty years behind New York and San Francisco.

In the future, we’ll start a more female age. We live on a female planet – they have more of a connection with it, because they create, they have a womb. I’m in awe of that. That doesn’t make me, or men, any less. At the moment it appears the patriarchal phase is ending and the matriarchal phase is beginning, which is crucial – if it doesn’t, the planet won’t survive.