SWITCHING THE POSITION OF VIEWERS
A conversation between Marta Popivoda, Corinne Bopp and Mathieu Lericq*
The French edition of illegal_cinema was initiated by the Walking Theory (TkH) collective during the first year of their residency at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, in the context of their project How to Do Things by Theory. Illegal_cinema is an "open source" project that explores different procedures and formats for watching and discussing films, with a strong contextual approach. Thus the process of its progressive autonomy started early on: as a regular program of Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, it is now producing new relation(s) within the context of Les Laboratoires and the wider cultural scene in Paris. However, it remains theoretically attached to Walking Theory research and its ideological positions in order to enable us to follow and study the process of translation from one context (Belgrade) to another (Aubervilliers) as well as to further develop the concept of theoretical activism.
During the first few months of TkH’s residency at Les Laboratoires, we met many actors of the experimental cinema, documentary and video-oriented contemporary art scene in Île-de-France¹. These encounters were organized in order to get to know the context better and to determine specificities and focuses of illegal_cinema within it. The Montreuil-based non-profit organization Périphérie has been involved in the discussions since the very beginning (participation in the same roundtable at the Côté Courts festival about "alternative spaces" for the dissemination of cinema in June 2010, etc). We thus invited Corinne Bopp to pursue and publicize this exchange about what is at stake with the implementation of illegal_cinema at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers.
Corinne Bopp As general coordinator of les Rencontres du Cinéma Documentaire, I have a lot of experience moderating debates with filmmakers. My point of view is that of a practitioner, not a theoretician.
Marta Popivoda I am not a theoretician either; I am a filmmaker.
CB I wanted to ask you a few questions about the illegal_cinema session I attended in June. Two films by Sven Augustijnen² were selected and screened by Bojana Cvejić³, your colleague from TkH. Had you seen the films before?
CB Thus you were a simple viewer, a typical illegal_cinema viewer, like us.
CB If you remember, I said during the discussion that I suffered a little during the screening of Johan, the second film. The first film, L’École des pickpockets, was not problematic for me. It is a fiction film, with a documentary part, but it is easy to grasp: one cannot imagine anything. It doesn’t try to convince anyone or to change one’s point of view. The second film is different. It provoked a strange reaction, a feeling of unclearness. What was unclear to me was its status as a documentary film.
MP Are you referring to the position of the person who did the video?
CB Yes, I am, but even more to the position of the viewer. During the discussion, one of you said that it was not a documentary film, that it is more than a documentary film. I was wondering what you meant? To be honest, my field is documentary film and not video art at all. But from my point of view, this field is very large. In fact, this is the field of cinema. We could also talk about the differences between cinema and video art, both regarding the status of filmmakers and the status of viewers. What struck me is that the place ‒ a movie theatre, the name ‒ "illegal_cinema", and also the way Bojana Cvejić introduced the film were very close to the way I introduce documentary films myself. I was in the position of a viewer watching a documentary film, but it was not the same, even though the film had a strong documentary dimension. I mean, it is real, the situation happens, it has a beginning, a middle and an end... However I couldn’t consider it a documentary film because my place as a viewer was not conceived of by the filmmaker the way it would have been for a documentary film. My place was different. I thought that maybe I was not supposed to be sitting in a movie theatre but watching it in a different way, on a monitor, in a gallery, in an exhibition, whatever.
MP What would be different if you were sitting in a gallery? Do you think that the film imposes a one-to-one relationship on you?
CB Yes, it is not a triangle. It is very difficult for me to define the position of a viewer in front of video art. In front of a documentary, there is a triangle: the filmmaker, the person who is filmed and the viewer. The filmmaker really proposes a certain type of relationship between the three. He is at the centre of the documentary film. And here, in this video, I couldn’t understand how the triangle functioned.
MP I would say that the film creates a direct communication between the person who is filmed and the audience. I also had a kind of strange feeling about this video. There is something uncomfortable about it. Maybe the fact that the person who is filmed is aphasic, and then there is the issue of the content. Or maybe because of the way it is composed – everything is in one shot and you don’t explicitly see the author’s perspective. It’s more like the whole video is exposure of the situation. Then there is the matter of the filming procedure…
CB In documentary films, there is an infinite number of possible forms. And sometimes the author’s view can be very difficult to spot. So of course you’re right: one could not easily identify a point of view or what the director thinks about this.
Mathieu Lericq Maybe the problem is that the film is based on one shot. Only one. As the film exposes a problematic situation, we could have defined the author’s point of view, his discourse, through the editing. This is not the case here. Usually an image is only a part of a bigger, larger system. And the triangle seems possible only if you can define a discourse throughout this system. In this specific film, the exposure of the situation is difficult to see because of the absence of editing. Don’t you think?
CB I don’t think so.
ML Or it may also be the fixity of the shot.
CB No, because there are examples of films that are completely static. Take for instance He Fengming⁴, a three-hour film by Wang Bing. There are a variety of shots but ninety percent of the film consists of a single static shot of a 70-year-old Chinese woman narrating the story of her life. It is very, very long. Yet the clock is running and you don’t have this feeling at all. One has a sense of the passing of time, as the light dies for instance, until Wang Bing asks the woman to turn the light on. So she goes to do it, then comes back and starts talking again. Where is the editing?
MP Maybe editing is not the problem...
CB But the woman is addressing us. She is addressing Wang Bing above all.
MP She is conscious of the situation.
CB She is very conscious. She is in another consciousness because she wrote a story down and even published it. She worked on the story, she thought about it a lot, she is able to articulate her discourse. But that is another point. The important thing is that she is addressing Wang Bing, and us through him. This is the huge difference with Johan in Augustijnen’s film, because Johan is not addressing us but his therapist. I think that is the point.
MP In Johan, there is also a kind of triangle because of the therapist...
CB Yes, but it is an inner triangle. The problem is: where am I as a viewer? In a certain sense, the therapist is making a kind of show. It turns into a show. Is therapy a show? At the very beginning of the film, the director speaks directly to the character. There I have my place as a viewer, because I understand what the filmmaker is staging with this person, and this person’s expectations. But when the therapy began, I started to lose my place.
ML So your issue with this film comes from the fact that you can feel the director losing control of the situation step by step, to the advantage of the therapist. The director is losing control over the film.
CB Yes. And it is the director who attributes a place to me, nobody else.
MP But I feel the director throughout because I feel that everything that is done in front of the camera is done for him.
CB Well, it’s ambiguous. But you know perfectly well that nobody is the same in front of a camera. The therapy that day differs from another session another day with another camera. It is film-therapy.
MP So you think that the uncomfortable feeling of the film has nothing to do with the content but with the form?
CB Yes I do. The problem is not being aphasic. It is the way the film deals with it. Actually, in one part of Wang Bing’s first film, West of the Tracks⁵ ‒ a nine-hour film describing the fall of a huge industrial steel complex ‒ there is this terrible sequence with a father and his son. The son is in a desperate situation and gets drunk. He falls on the ground, and his father picks him up. The place is crowded and everyone is staring at him. It is a very tough scene, but as a viewer, there is no problem.
ML What is very interesting in Wang Bing’s films is that he leaves time for the spectator to enter the process of understanding the characters. That is not the case in Johan. Thus, if the first point is duration, the second one may be distance. In Johan, one has the impression of being too close to the character and therefore unable to grasp the situation. In He Fengming, one feels the presence of the director deeply, his position in space. It comes from the distance. In Johan, you don’t know where people are, they escape your perception, maybe this explains the trouble you have.
CB Yes. My conclusion is that I could cross the symbolic place and the physical place. When I am in a movie theatre, I am static and captive. When I am in an exhibition, I move, I walk, I can stay for a while and see something else… I build relationships between different things that are offered to me. My symbolic position is different.
ML You act as an editor, building a discourse while watching an exhibition...
CB Yes, in a way.
MP But it is not the same for every work of art. Sometimes, you have to sit and watch, and it is very much like being in a movie theatre. Last month, I shot interviews with several international video artists such as Rosa Barba, Tim Etchells, Julieta Aranda, etc. I asked them about the difference between video art and art film. They don’t see a lot of differences, besides maybe the institutional framework, and economy of the video medium in comparison to film. One of the video artists said that, to her, making video is a good way of doing journalism, as it was in the past, critical journalism. You can do something in the moment; you can have an instant critical perspective. It is not the same when you make a film, you have to construct a lot and it takes time. But, besides this, they didn’t make precise distinctions between the medium of experimental film or video art.
ML Corinne, do you think that the space of the movie theatre is what defines cinema?
CB It is a complicated question. Nobody can define cinema, so I won’t. But, yes, there is something about the place. It remains, even nowadays, the best place to watch films. Strange, isn’t it? This is why I was joking about the symbolic and the physical place.
MP I could say that illegal_cinema is more a symbolic cinematic space because it always uses different kinds of physical spaces. But do you think that the format and procedures of illegal_cinema actually influenced your feelings about the video we watched?
CB The reason I mentioned these personal feelings at the beginning of the discussion is because they relate to illegal_cinema in general, beyond the specific experience of watching Johan. Is this question of the viewer’s position relevant to you in the context of the project? What questions were you hoping to trigger through the screenings?
MP Yes, the viewer’s position is a fundamental issue for the illegal_cinema project, alongside that of the context. How does contextualizing a film differently affect the viewer’s experience? More specifically, I like the hybridization of the situation that allows you to come one day and watch video art in a movie theater, and come another day to watch traditional films. I like this situation of switching the position of the viewer. The other big switch is that the viewers or participants are the ones making the programs. They somehow curate themselves. It is not already programmed for them. I think about the dispositif rather than trying to provoke a special kind of reaction to the choice of films. I don’t control the situation. I don’t curate the program. The main change is to make the audience active, in terms of expressing an opinion. This is not so unusual, one can do it during proper screenings. Yet, when somebody is presenting someone else’s film, the situation is more amenable to discussion because no one is expecting to get an answer from the source of the film, from the author "who knows what it means". Illegal_cinema is really based on discussions among ourselves, on what this film means to us and what kinds of questions it raises. People have to familiarize themselves with the situation in order to be able to discuss the film freely.
CB That is very interesting. It is an unusual undertaking: questioning what I feel as a viewer, rather than understanding the director’s vision, which is more or less the purpose of debates about films.
ML And Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers is not a movie theatre. Watching films in that space ‒ which looks like a real movie theatre but is not ‒ offers the audience the opportunity to try out a different kind of screening, of debate.
MP Also, it’s different from an exhibition situation.
CB An exhibition would provide a very different, very rich viewing situation. In a certain way, the time that one may lack, one regains it in the accumulation of works. The viewer may get used to a particular situation and it may then become possible to define one’s own specific position in response.
MP This is interesting for me. Illegal_cinema is about watching films in different formats. Speaking of which, it might be interesting to see how some video installations function in the movie theatre, as a continuous and narrative process. Because you loose synchronicity and you don’t miss any details. You have everything and you have time to position yourself.
ML Maybe we can raise the basic point that, in cinema, a curator or moderator requires that you watch the film from beginning to end. In an exhibition, if the film doesn’t function for you, you can leave it and go to another one. It is contingent. The opposition between contingency and necessity seems relevant here. Of course in cinema you can leave the theater but the director calls upon you to watch the film from beginning to end. As an open program situated in a center for artistic research, illegal_cinema allows contingency and necessity to be brought together.
CB The issue is not obligation, but acceptance. One accepts that one must stay.
MP The format of illegal_cinema stresses collectivity. We can now see each other as individuals in a collective and not just as an anonymous mass in the dark, who watches a film and then leaves in silence. Concretely, in Belgrade illegal_cinema is a cultural project, dealing with issues of context and audience. It is a process of creating community, similar to what we have here. But I also did illegal_cinema as an artistic project within some exhibitions⁶. There, it has more to do with the process of thinking about certain topics in the medium of film. For example, I was asked to do illegal_cinema as a side-program of an exhibition in Istanbul. Yet I decided not to do it that way, because I wanted to see how it could stand up as an artwork. So I asked other artists in the exhibition to try to think about the topic of the exhibition in the medium of film, or to expose their references, side ideas and so on. This is a completely different thing. In Belgrade and Aubervilliers, it has a lot to do with wider context and community. And, as I am not from here, I would like to know how you see this initiative in the context of the scene of Île-de-France. What are its specificities and what is interesting about it for you, if it is interesting at all. When we started here, we had a lot of doubts about illegal_cinema, wondering if it would function here, so close to the "city of cinema"! Here you have access to a lot of films. It is very different in Belgrade, where we have very poor film distribution.
CB In my opinion, your position, which is different from the one you have in Belgrade, is that here you are not showing films that are never shown or can only be seen with great difficulty. Rather you focus on context. The way you make works travel between video art, documentary and so on is very important to me. It is a crucial point in this day in age. I was in Marseille in July for an international documentary festival that actually showed art videos in a movie theater and 50- minute documentary films at an exhibition. One was unable to appreciate the films time-wise, as the starting times of the screening weren’t mentioned in the space. One couldn’t even see them. What is the point?
ML In that context, you think that illegal_cinema has a role to play?
CB Yes, because one can talk about it, think about it, try to confront different points of view. You can move forward. It is a field of thinking, really, which is rarely dealt with. Except of course by a few people, like Olivier Marboeuf in Khiasma⁷.
ML Actually, the film by Polish director Maciej Mądracki⁸ that got the prize at the FID in Marseille is a film that is situated at the threshold between video art and narrative. There is a narrative thread, in this way of filming the old Polish workers and seeing them singing, speaking about their lives. And the film ends with a choreography in a soccer field that has a very art video dimension.
CB Video art’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is very close to performance. This film is a documentary that focuses on a performance at the end.
MP I have the feeling that there are several different projects dealing with the question of how to show cinema or video, or something which is really rare, etc. on the scene of Île-de-France. But it is always about programming. It is always about showing something that is not shown anywhere else, to bring some originality to the themes or formats being shown. But those projects don’t try to create a community. Illegal_cinema in Belgrade really fits the context of the independent scene. It is organized for the scene, as a public space where people can bring up certain issues through the medium of film or video. I have this feeling that here people think more about different kinds of programming than about doing away with the opposition between audience and programmer or curator, or about rethinking this relationship. But you must have a much wider perspective than me.
CB In fact I don’t know if this has been around for a long time or if it’s new, but there are screenings and programs in Île-de-France that are organized by young people who are not programming professionals. Though it is true that some of the collectives that I know, like Les Yeux dans le Monde or Histoire(s) de voir, are made up of filmmakers and function as a way for them to show their own films.
MP Do you think that, because everything is so structured and available here, there is a lack of self-organized initiatives, or do you think that the scene is vibrant in these terms?
CB You know, it depends on what kind of films. Yes, it is true that you can see almost any film, but mainly fiction, feature films. For art house films it is not so clear. And for documentaries it is very difficult, there are not so many places to see them. There are places for video art and experimental films, there are collectives, there is experimental film programming at la Cinématheque française, there is pointligneplan… But not much else. I don’t know if it is vibrant. I don’t know if people have the desire to show things, or rather I don’t know whether the scene is big compared to other scenes.
MP But what is typical is that Les Yeux dans le Monde, Histoire(s) de voir and pointligneplan propose screenings of documentary or experimental films in a context where people know each other or share common ground. They show the films for themselves in a way. At Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, this is not the case. People come from very different backgrounds. There is this process of finding a common ground every Monday evening.
CB Yes, in a way it is the topic of discussion that provides a common ground in this context. If the topic of the discussion is "why do we see this film in this way here", it’s a discussion that we are not used to. And it needs time. This is what illegal_cinema should be working on.
ML What I mean is that it’s even harder here than at La Fémis⁹ (where the pointligneplan screenings happen), where people go on a regular basis. We would like to create a kind of community of spectators step-by-step.
Transcription: Mathieu Lericq and Virginie Bobin
Published in Le Journal des Laboratoires (jan-april 2011)
* Marta Popivoda is a member of TkH and initiator of illegal_cinema, Corinne Bopp is a member of Périphérie [Centre de Création Cinématographique, Montreuil] and the general coordinator of les Rencontres du Cinéma Documentaire, and Mathieu Lericq is the coordinator of illegal_cinema at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers
¹ Le Peuple Qui Manque, Braquage, La Promesse de l’Écran by Pierre Leguillon...
² The fifth meeting of the illegal_cinema project, presented and moderated by Bojana Cvejić (TkH) took place on June 21st, 2010. Two short films were screened at the event: L’école des pickpockets (Sven Augustijnen, Belgium, 2000, 52 min.) and Johan (Sven Augustijnen, Belgium, 2001, 23 min.). The debate focused on the filmmaker’s point of view on the medical profession and, specifically, the aphasic individual at the center of the film Johan.
³ Bojana Cvejić practices critical theory in writing, teaching, dramaturgy and performance in dance, theater and contemporary music.
⁴ He Fengming, A Chinese Memoir ("Chronique d'une femme chinoise", Wang Bing, 2007)
⁵ West of the Tracks ("À l'Ouest des rails", Wang Bing, 2003)
⁶ Read about previous occurrences of illegal_cinema in the Sept.-Dec. 2010 issue of Le Journal des Laboratoires.
⁷ Based in Les Lilas (93), since 2001 the Khiasma Association has been bringing together art professionals (editors, visual artists, video artists, cultural mediators, graphic designers) and educators (teachers, researchers, students, psychologists) around the production and dissemination of projects that combine the social field with artistic practices concerned with pedagogy and hands-on participation.
⁸ The Work of Machines ("Praca Maszyn", Gilles Lepore, Maciej Mądracki & Michał Mądracki, Poland, 2010)
⁹ La Fémis is a national film school in Paris.