Too busy to write, too busy to think. The last months have been dogged with the avalanche of daily chores – a few days a week teaching, daily trying to edit one thing or another; emails to write and answer, DVDs to package and post, festival entry forms to fill, along with the usual daily chores of cleaning up, cooking, sharing with Marcella, going to dentist, checking new cameras, and so on. A clutter of conflicting things unconducive to real thought or the time needed for it.
Amidst this I’ve twice been asked to participate in academic symposiums, some months back one on Digital Media and Art at Chung An University, which I printed here a while back; and just a few weeks ago, one on Narrative which was done this weekend at Yonsei. I didn’t attend the first session, done in un-translated Korean, and was present only in my section. As usual there was little information given before regarding what was going to be done, but on arrival, on being handed the program notes I saw I was listed first, and a word on the other two speakers – a Finnish man talking on video art from Finland, and a Frenchman doing something on animation – and I quickly thought perhaps it would be better if I was last as my piece (see below) was a bit serious. Thought it might be an unhappy dampener for the others. I proposed going last and this was agreed to, and after the scramble of the three of us doing tech-checks, we commenced.
The young Finnish man, Pontus Kyander, was a curator, critic, and said he’d worked programming for Swedish public television. He talked a bit – inarticulately, stumbling around a bit aimlessly, mouthing critic-speak about the young generation of Finnish video artists and then showed one work, Power, by Salla Tykka – a one-idea item which started with a quote, “I wanted to make a film about my mother but I could only think of my father” and was followed with a rather long sequence of shots of a young woman – the filmmaker I think – boxing with a man who might have been her father. 10 minutes or more. Competently shot, edited mundanely, nobody knocked out, and coming to an anticlimactic end as the protagonists walk off ring and off screen. It was basically boring, though our critic then lavished haltering words upon it, pressing to give it a weight it did not have. This was followed with further fumbling critic-speak, and finally another film, Lasso, same maker, similar in its conservative style, and again we were informed of the post-modern irony, the expropriation of movie clichés, etc., as our critic fumbled more with his rote academic theory terminology, and underlining for us this was real “art” he said it had been in the Venice Biennale, sure-fire proof. And then another film, a bit better if still locked in movie conventions long ago worn out and clearly under the sway of Eija-Liisa Ahtila, whom I find similarly dubious. This all took a long time. Ended with some final stammers – it wasn’t his handle on English language but the man’s dim thoughts which made for the clumsy verbiage. The Frenchman, Jean Poulot, (who proved not so French – he’d live Portland some years, travels on a US passport, and knew one of my actors from HOMECOMING) who was sitting beside me leaned over and confided I could be thankful, he’d be a lot shorter. After a short break, he commenced, a born raconteur, nimbly telling about himself and what he does, and then with lights turned down, he went behind a box with an HDV camera mounted above it, and in a matter of minutes using his hands and sand, he animated live a little tale built around the thought of messages in a bottle cast into the sea. It was fluid, his technique fascinating and flawless, and done in all humbleness. A real treat – especially after the turgid Finn and his student-work as “art.” Another break and it was my turn.
Given the present social-political reality, and the general triviality which I find in my students here, (and in general), I tend to take these unrequested opportunities as a chance to make a harsh and needed corrective to the generalized head-in-sand consumerism, not to mention the lifeless PC discourse which usually afflicts these academic affairs. So I wrote to challenge what I assumed would be some likely topics or assumptions. Here’s the piece, written in haste the days before.
NARRATIVE: Seduction or Gang-Bang?
It is normal in a circumstance such as this – an academic symposium presuming a certain level of intellectual commonality – that it is assumed that everyone knows and understands certain terms. In fact it is one of the typical ways in which professionals of all kinds wall themselves off from others by using arcane jargon, which while proposing to make for more exacting and precise discourse usually does exactly the opposite, and obscures and hides simple things with a facade of complexity.
So I will start here by taking a look at one of the words we are using today: narrative. Excuse me if I use Indo-European languages as my source, but they are the ones I am familiar with. I would be very interested to know if in Korean a similar examination would arrive at a very different conclusion.
According to our dictionaries, a “narrative” is something constructed – it can be oral, written, in music, theater, or other forms – which describes a sequence of events, which may be fictional or true, and which contains a kind of internal logic which holds it all together. Normally we’d use the word “story.”
The origins of the word comes from a Latin verb, narrare, which means “to recount.” So we can see already that this is a process which is second-hand, that we are re-counting, or re-telling something. It’s not “the real thing,” but rather a kind of replica, a replacement or a substitute.
In Latin, this word is related to the adjective gnarus, which means “knowing” or “skilled.”
So putting 1 and 1 together, we can then say a “narrative” is a kind of skilled and knowing form of storytelling, of linking one thing to another, in a way which holds an audience’s attention and interest.
Finally, these Latin origins refer back far earlier to a Proto-Indo-European root, gnō-, which means “to know”.
So a real narrative is, by definition, the re-telling or re-counting of a sequence of events, in a skilled and knowing manner, which at the end leads to “knowing.”
So, we might say, that the function of a narrative is to lead us to knowing, it is in effect to teach us something by making a series of linkages, so that we might learn and come to know something.
Now I’d like now to place these thoughts in a personal perspective.
I’ve been making films now for 45 years. From the very outset I was very much concerned with the formal aspects of how to make a narrative – not in the sense of how to make one that works by the conventions that largely govern filmmaking or other narrative arts, but rather how to extend, re-arrange, or otherwise alter those conventions, with the thought that in doing so one might re-new the spectator’s interests, and be able to slip deeper into the spectator’s sub-conscious.
In this sense I was in step with similar thinking in all the creative arts in the 20th century, be it in literature in the form of Joyce or John Barth or Robbe Grillet, or cinema in the form of Godard or Marker or many experimentalists, or the plastic arts in painting and sculpture, as well as in the sciences where old paradigms were shattered and completely new forms of thinking revolutionized the world of physics, and in turn our lives.
I’d like now to show a few sequences from my early films, ones which in a way address these questions, and show a small bit of the concerns involved.
[I then screened some clips from early films, sequences which in one way or another interrogated the story-telling process in words and/or filmic terms. The films were: 13 FRAGMENTS (1967), SPEAKING DIRECTLY (1972), and ANGEL CITY (1976).]
Perhaps today the matters broached here seem quaint – in part because the very idea that things should mean something, or that truth matters, is in some quarters thought old-fashioned or passé, defeated by various so-called post-modernist theories. Or, more cynically, if we move away from the arid world of academia, which in fact has little impact in the larger world, the defeat is more obvious and blunt: commercialism, consumerism, rampant capitalism, have simply swept all else aside, and concerns about narrative forms seem silly when the proper concern of the times is only how to construct a narrative which will make as much money as possible, or how do we continue to milk box office out of Indiana Jones? Which, I note, earned $311 million dollars in global box office in its first week, so said the film trade papers the other day.
From either of these perspectives, pondering the process of a search for truth through narrative devices, or questioning the moral and ethical nature of what stories we tell, and how, and at what cost, must seem simple-minded and foolish. But, along with a few others, I seem to persist.
Which brings me to a leap to present day concerns, to the recent fashion for “interactive” narratives and art. In the last decades, particularly with the advent of computers, CD-Roms, and similar technologies, there has been a concerted wave of interest in the idea of interactivity in the arts. This impulse is usually buttressed with quasi-political assertions that the intention is to democratize or communalize the arts, to in some way let everyone be an artist.
The techniques usually involve some manner – using buttons or joysticks, or motion sensors – to allow the spectator to either change the course of a narrative, or the shape of some visual or aural thing. It is claimed that in doing this the spectator becomes an active participant in the art-making process, and becomes a story-teller rather than a mere listener, active rather than passive. There are myriad manners in which this is done – in theater, in the electronic arts, in some kinds of literature – all with the same fashionable patter about interactivity, participation, and so on. And more or less all are reliant on one or another technical gimmick to accomplish these ends.
An examination of the end results of most of these, or shall I say every instance I have seen, amounts to little more than video-games, or the fraudulent kinds of choices we find in a normal so-called democracy – that is the choice between two or three or perhaps more things, none of which we actually want, and all of which were carefully and fully orchestrated as our choices before we are allowed to enter the position to make an alleged choice.
You should have been able to guess by now that I think very little of these fashionable theories and practices in so-called interactive arts. I do find them, while sometimes technically of interest, for the most part to be vapid and empty little exercises, things which attract tech-heads, and people interested in machinery and electronics, or those interested in theory, and their counterparts in the audience-world, people who basically want to play video-games, which similarly provide an illusion of choice within the box of a prison.
For me, the irony of the theorists and practitioners of alleged “interactive” arts is double, first in that most often it is made by persons who seem to have little real artistic skill or intuition, (just as the early so-called video artists were by and large persons with no aptitude for the other arts), persons who are more adept at either technique or theory, and so take refuge in this newfangled concept where they can appear to be competent. And secondly, and far more importantly, is that they evidently have missed understanding the most important and obvious thing: that good art, and all great art, is inherently interactive – to say all great art engages its spectator at the deepest of levels, as well as on the surface, and requires to be confronted again and again, and with each new engagement, new and deeper insights, understanding and knowledge can be gleaned, again and again. This is the genuine interactivity of the arts, and while it may seem elitist to say it, and it may seem “undemocratic,” the simple truth is that real art is a difficult kind of work, even a very dangerous work, and one doesn’t arrive anywhere near it by playing with a joystick or flicking a few buttons, or choosing between fork A, B or C in a prearranged pattern. In consequence most people, even offered the opportunity, choose and would choose, even under the best of circumstances, not to be artists; many artists on the other hand do not and did not choose their course, but were compelled, as if by fate, and they can do no other, whatever the personal price they must pay.
In my view the idea that one can – whether with a re-structuring of narrative forms to include spectator options, or with the addition of some technological new gimmick – open up an art to include the spectator on an actively participatory level is essentially an abdication of the artist’s real responsibility – the responsibility plunge the essentials of life, to speak to those essentials, and to effectively convey that to a spectator. When one has done that, then it is the passages in the spectator’s mind and soul which open, and lead to a genuine activity, which is the function of art.
I now quote some diverse sources:
“Art has no other purpose than to brush aside… the conventional and accepted generalities, in short everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself.”
(Henri Bergson, French philosopher of the early 1900’s)
“The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable.” (Lucian Freud, contemporary painter)
“Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.” (Andrei Tarkovsky, filmmaker)
Each of these quotes suggests that art’s purpose is to press the spectator to see reality, and in turn to suffer some kind of discomfort and pain.
One might argue conversely that one deals with “reality” every day, all day, so what’s the big deal. And, some might ask, who needs “art” that rubs our nose in what is around is all the time?
And so, to return to the topic with which we began, the matter of narrative. Properly defined, as we suggested at the outset, a narrative is a story-telling, done with skill and craft, which leads to a knowing, to knowledge. Whether that story is valuable or not depends on two basic things – whether the story is told with the needed skill and intelligence, and whether the knowledge acquired is worth the time spent in the telling and receiving. There are many stories which are cleverly told, even brilliantly told, which might leave us empty, or even worse, negatively touched by the skill and talent used to a worthless purpose. The entertainment world is full of such works, where the disproportion between the effort and the content becomes absurd and sours the soul. [I recently had such an experience at the Jeonju festival where I finally had the chance to see the work of the much lauded and favorite of the festivals and critics, Bela Tarr. His work is long, with a marked aesthetic, and I am amazed that it is so respected when - similarly to Wim Wenders - what he has to say through his cinematic efforts is at best sophomoric, and more appropriately described as stupid.]
And then there are narratives, often of a disarming simplicity, which strip our souls bare, and leave us, in Tarkovsky’s words, traumatized, but in a manner which we seek out, and which elevates our spirits.
So to just what “reality” is it that Freud, and Bergson, and Tarkovsky point? A reality which we apparently would avoid, and which requires a special skill and artistry to reveal to us? A reality which we must be seduced through the magic of art to confront?
It is the reality which religion institutionally exists to deal with, but at which, in our time, it largely fails – perhaps in another time it succeeded: the reality is a simple one, one which each of us knows in the core of our being, but which we spend most of our time fleeing, avoiding, evading, ignoring, doing whatever we can to distract ourselves from considering it.
It is the reality that our lives are fleeting and brief, and that death awaits each of us, and with death – whatever your religion may or may not have you believe – “you,” as a conscious and sentient being, cease to exist, and your passage in life ends. It is that reality.
And this is the function of art – to remind you of this, not as a morbid exercise in self-flagellation, but rather as a necessary step to in turn fully embrace life and live it to its fullest. And narrative, properly done, is an art and its purpose is and should be to awaken in the listener a consciousness of the fullness of life, and conversely, of the finality of death. In its myriad of ways, harrowing and/or exhilarating, all good art does this, and in turn it fully engages the mind and spirit.
It is up to the spectator, though, to open one’s self in order to see and to hear, to think and to feel, and to actively participate in the fruits which all great art offers.
These days, against the clamor of an insatiable consumer society in which distraction is the constant and norm, this seems nearly impossible. In the noisy echo chamber of our world, with its cell phones, I-pods, PC parlors, the rush of work, the avalanche of trivia which is pop culture – a culture carefully cultivated and developed for socio-economic-political reasons – there is almost no chance for art to exist, to be made, or to be properly utilized (certainly not in most museums where it is reduced to yet another commodity to be swiftly consumed, a kind of cultural trophy hunt, as the circle of tourists who surround Mona Lisa having their pictures taken aptly shows).
In our world, the fundamental narrative thread of art is too easily lost in the cacophony which surrounds it.
Rather than having the space, the time, and the conducive atmosphere in which to be seduced by the serious narrative of art, and its contemplation of life, we are instead gang-banged by the constant and shrill distractions of a society rushing madly, and it seems mindlessly, to its auto-destruction. It is a world in which all perspective has been lost, and in which, for yet another idiot toy or brief superficial thrill, we risk our collective suicide. It is a world in which the genuine concerns of art is utterly alien, and in which the rich fundamental narrative which animates all good art has been ripped to shreds and replaced with the ersatz sex and death of a video-game.
As a small echo of what has been lost, and needs to be regained for us to survive, literally, and to regain our balance, here is a tiny hint:
Following the talk, Seo Hyun-suk, the Yonsei colleague who had organized the symposium opened it up for questions. Following the predictable student silence, after a long pause, Jean, the Frenchman sought to break the ice, and asked me a question about video, about its being inexpensive now, and letting almost anyone (in a wealthy part of the world) make something and express themselves. To which I concurred, noting I’d spent the better part of my life encouraging people to DIY, to make their own films or video, but than adding that there was a difference between “art” and other things one might make, and I cited the Finnish works, saying that for me the boxing one was at best student level work and scarcely merited being called “art” whatever the poobahs of the Venice Biennale might claim, and I referred to an essay by John Updike on his visit to the 1999 Biennale which I’d visited and caustically commented on in 6 Easy Pieces.
This then provoked an intervention from Pontus, who defended (weakly) the Finnish pieces, though he clearly took great offense at my dismissive views of it. This led to a fuller discussion in which I suggested most of contemporary art is a kind of fraud, having little to do with the real functions of art, and more to do with business, money, and so on. Pontus, more deeply antagonized, ended shooting back that the clips I’d shown were bad, he’d fallen asleep, and otherwise in his own view, he spoke insultingly, or so he said in an end-of-session apology. It hadn’t bothered me at all, and the students had finally become engaged and said a bit. We went off after for a nice dinner where we managed a nice long talk with Jean and a few others. Pontus kept himself away.
And then yesterday evening, a few days after, arrived an email, ostensibly to me, but sent also to Seo Hyun-suk, to Jean, and to Mira, one of the student helpers in organizing the symposium. Here it is:
I send this letter to you all, although it is adressed for Jon Jost. As I experienced yesterday’s debate as lacking in respect, and my unpolite final remark as a result of provocation, I also regret my apologizes for overstepping cordiality. Today I think I just said too little, and due to Jon’s age I was initially too polite.
As a debate only becomes meaningful, if there is some little openness for the arguments of the other participants, I find the discussion we had quite meaningless. If we only had managed to talk about what these artists want and work hard to achieve! But no, it was “bad”, “ridiculous”, “too long” – and this comes from one whose lecture and works put me to sleep several times, an art critic with 14 years of enduring also the dullest art works and presentations imaginable, and being supported by another, whose sand animation was for sure beautiful and skillful from a technical point of view, but actually also could be cut a bit shorter…
May I say that the debate was disrespectful, and I regret taking part in it? No shadow on Hyun-Suk though. The lack of minimal respect for me I can only understand as motivated by an arbitrary animosity, which I notice I evoke in some people. I talked about artists currently working, giving a unique opportunity to see their work in full, artists having very clear aesthetics that can be discussed and disliked. But how about some arguments to supplement such disregard as was presented?
So I attach the letter to Jon, to you all.
My best regards,
And then the letter with the letter:
To Jon Jost,
Hope this finds you well.
I was – to say the least – surprised by your criticism of yesterday, and honestly also taken aback by its unpolished nature and hostile tone. I did resist for a while getting as personal and polemical, but gave in for the impulse of uttering an as unjust and simplified statement about your work. The time did not allow me to get any more specific, so I feel I owe you some more precise remarks.
First of all: I know too little about your oeuvre in general to give any such kind of criticism. I am sure you have better works in your production stored away somewhere, and the lack of interest I have to express in regards of those you showed might be due to the fragmented nature of their display. Although I also have to say, that the texts of the first two ones might have done for essays in some minor magazine for poetry and aesthetics of the sixties, and might serve a good purpose for historians interested in the positions of the time. I do not believe these texts are good for anything else today, though, than expressing a standpoint of their author – as a comparison, as this letter expressing my viewpoint now and hereafter, nothing else, and no other ambition. Their style and argument I found dull, and the way they were voiced in the films were not improving that impression. I admit I did slumber at occasions. As for their ”experimental” nature, and their technical appearance, I just note that they are pretty poor, image as well as sound. I see the same kind of dull experiments today, much longer though, in those ”video installations” you so strongly denounced, by young self indulged artists. Shaky camera, lack of focus, no check whatsoever on sound, step by step opening aperture while reading a statemnt in the wind – well what shall I say? Maybe give yourself your own advice, to cut it down to a half, a fourth, a tenth of the actual length? As I saw only half the work, I am inclined for the latter. The last work, as I understand something still in production, seemed to me as a very good introduction to some educational program in art history for a night school adressing itself to elderly citizens. One of Bach’s incredible cello suites, with images of indisputable art works of some different epochs… well, well, what shall I say this time? From now on, I cannot listen to Bach cello suites without having their almost crazy dynamics banalized by this latest experience.
I also hope you are not tutoring any students with the kind of attitude you showed. I see it often in artists looking for someone to carry on their own strivings and ideals. Times change, the way artists express themselves change. Anyone who choses to stand by the side and whine about the present state of everything may do so, for whatever satisfaction that might give. Although exclamations about how everything is going bad might be a bit wasted on a generation, that has no other time to live in, and that might not have the same perspective on life. Another approach is to actually make a minimal effort to understand, to at least have a minimal openness to expressions differing from your own.
As for the work Power of Salla Tykkä, I find myself in the bizarre situation of explaining the most self-evident aspects of the work, to another artist not the least inclined to understand. Too long – well, it is a matter of timing of many things, as she chose to use three different tempi and soundtracks. As I actually have ten years of experience in the field, as a documentary feature maker on contemporary art for television, I believe there might be some 15 seconds to cut here and there, but that consideration still has to deal with timing. The actual 4’15, or 3’45? I cannot see this is a major point of critique. And I am ready to accept and like a work also with some small imperfections.
Expressing viewpoints of a young woman and artist today, it actually has several obvious good points: Her claim of wanting to make a work about her mother, but only being able to think about her father – this can of course lead to the simplified opinion by someone, that it is a work ”about” domestic or gender violence. It is, but it is also a number of other things. It is ”about” fighting back, it is optimistic, it has a slapstick humor, with the classical underdog perspective of Buster Keaton and others. It has some historical references that I find interesting: Revolution on the Barricades by Gericault, with a bit of humor added. Amazons and other female warriors or fighting/hunting goddesses in greco-roman art. With a sympathetic reading, much can be deduced from the work. With an attitude which discards it from the first moment, it can of course give nothing.
I am convinced that you denounce this work and others because it expresses – and this is further emphasized in the work Lasso – aestetics and ambitions running totally contrary to yours. All these artists (less so with Anu Pennanen) express a Romantic inclination (Romantic as in the period esthetic), have a general interest in ”Beauty” and strongly stress emotional and sometimes personal or even autobiographical content. Their work is ”literary” in a different way than yours. Their narrative builds on cinematic means and traditions. They do not ”experiment”, instead they use quite classical compostions and cinematic modes of narrative – including the choice of soundtrack. They work with film, it gives better colour depth and also some limitations, as the necessity to plan and script in advance. And they actually have check on focus and sound, which is a relief to me, having endured hours and hours of ”experiments” with sound registered by the camera mic and the camera set on autofocus. I suspect you find these works conservative in expression. Maybe they are, personally I don’t mind, since radicalism in general (political or aesthetic) is usually just a pose – and when not, often a disaster (as I have worked with some truly radical artists and see them as my close friends, like Gustav Metzger and Sture Johannesson, I also know the price they have paid for not compromizing and for aggravating the wrong people. They do not travel the world on residencies as we do. But despite their age they are still open and curious!).
But is the continuation of the same luke-warm experimentation as has been going on at least since the sixties really an alternative? Is that progressive? I find it just as conservative, and usually much more stereotypic.
This letter is as mentioned before motivated by my lack of real possibility to advance my standpoints yesterday – to a criticism I was totally unprepared for, as being invited for, as I thought, an event where different standpoints were welcomed, and where there was a curiosity about different approaches to narrative. As it proved, only one viewpoint, the loudest and most simplistic, took most of the airspace… With due respect for your age, it was like arguing with a child of the age of five, screaming in the street: ”I don’t like chocolate! I HATE chocolate! I want JELLY BEANS! I WANT JELLY BEANS!!!”
I thought to write a response, but then thought it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie.