April 24, 2013
Illustration, Comics and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College
I'm just back from one of two comics conferences I'll attend this spring, "Illustration, Comics and Animation" at Dartmouth. The motivating idea behind the conference, Michael Chaney explained the presenters on Saturday morning, was to create a conversation between researchers who've focused on illustration, comics or animation in their work, but have tended to present in specialized panel sessions in the past. The program will give you a pretty good idea how this worked. Instead of attending panels in small groups according to our major research interests, we were all healthily exposed to each other's perspectives. Even if some might have stepped out of their comfort zones for a moment, I believe most of those who were there found this strategy very rewarding. I certainly did.
This was my first trip to this part of the states (I've neither been to Vermont nor to New Hampshire before). The program was tight, as it should be when a couple of dozen scholars gather for a couple of days, but fortunately we had time enough to get to know each other a little. A special thank you goes out to David Beronä, whose work on wordless comics have inspired me much in the past, and who was great company - David was kind enough to write me an entire list of "Things To Do" in New York City, where I had a little time before and after the conference. So then I came there with an even longer list. -ØV
March 18, 2013
SCMS in Chicago
Last week Henrik and I returned from the annual SCMS conference in Chicago. Luckily, we flew in the night before the city was hit by a snowstorm that caused numerous cancelled or delayed flights, affecting the morning panels on the first day of the conference. Coming out of the Art Institute of Chicago, where we had just seen the "Picasso and Chicago" exhibition, the city was so enshrouded in mist and snow we could hardly see its celebrated skyline. But over the next few days the weather slowly improved and the conference got going. We both presented and chaired panels. Henrik's was on "Landscapes and Other Visual Imaginaries," whereas my own panel was on "The Opacity of the Image," which is part of the new Copenhagen-run research project "The Power of the Precarious Aesthetic" (there will probably be more about that in later posts).
Now in its 53rd incarnation, the conference seemed larger than ever this year. There must have been around 500 panels and workshops, so I will not make any attempt at even a cursory summary of the event here. My general impression is that this conference could not quite compete with the one in Boston last year - which was by far the best SCMS I have ever attended - but still it had so many exciting things going on at any given moment that choosing which panel to go to was always rather difficult. Should I attend the one on film history in the digital age, or the one on convergences between experimental film and TV? World archives, or video and installation? What is the philosophy of film, or digital humanities and film and media studies? The afterlife of Oberhausen, or cinema as geography?
In the past, I have often found the conference workshops particularly rewarding, as they typically tend to focus on general areas and topics that are both urgent and relevant for the scholarly community at large. This year I also went to quite a few of those, starting with two sessions the first day on open access and digital publishing. A salient issue that was brought up in relation to the former was the question of sustainability and human labor, which was seen as even more of a challenge than the technological aspect. Also, the participants were understandably eager to dispel the recurring misunderstandings in which open access publishing has been enmeshed, primarily that its information is unfiltered and unreviewed, which is obviously not the case. While open access has been on the agenda since at least 2004, it is only now, it seems, that it is gaining traction as an increasingly viable and attractive vehicle for disseminating research.
From that workshop I went straight to the one on "Publishing on Digital Platforms," which I found to be even more useful, although the themes addressed were not exactly surprising. The notion that digital journals are still seen as less prestigious than more established, paper-based journals was mentioned by several of the participants, as was the opinion that research funded by the public should be accessible and free to everyone. Why, asked Kim Akass from Critical Studies in Television, are we paying for publishing that costs next to nothing? And does it matter at all where we publish our research as long as we know it has been properly peer reviewed? The workshop delegates also spoke about their own experiences with running digital projects and about taking advantage of the features and possibilities not available to traditional journals. Most obviously perhaps, digital journals can incorporate moving images, as Jennifer Porst from Mediascape pointed out, and moreover they can offer comment sections, which may create a new relationship with the readers. Contributors can also update their own pieces, which makes the whole process of scholarly publishing potentially richer and more flexible. Another way in which digital journals may differentiate themselves from conventional academic journals is by offering a space for a kind of writing that, as John David Rhodes put it, isn't "necessarily being supported by traditional publications." For instance, the journal World Picture, which Rhodes co-founded, encourages contributions that are at once both rigorous and creative, something that sees itself as writing first and research second. Rhodes also points to a considerable strength of digital publishing - which is immediacy, that texts can be put out shortly after they have been written. Other issues discussed in this workshop concerned the possibility for crowdsourcing intellectual labor, the value of the visual essay for tenure and promotion, the power that digital forms of publishing could have in changing what scholarship means, the problems of marketing a digital journal, and the question of how to maintain academic rigor in online projects. While platforms such as Scalar and Vectors have already shown the promise of digital publishing, a question that remains, as workshop chair Christopher Hanson reminded us, concerns who should lead the charge; graduate students, senior scholars or academic presses?
Throughout the following days I visited several stimulating panels, for instance on "Art Historical Models and Methods," "Conceptualizing Nature and Culture," and "Permeable Boundaries: Documentation in the Visual Arts," to name but a few. With such a massively eclectic constellation of papers one would be hard pressed to identify any particular trends, although a couple of keywords seemed to be recurring; for example, the apparatus, perspective, seriality and the post-cinematic. I also had the impression that there was a certain gravitation toward what Jean-Christophe Royoux has termed cinéma d'exposition, film exhibited in galleries and museums, as well as toward art history and visual culture (that noted VC scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff was this year's very deserving recipient of the Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award for his The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality might perhaps be a symptom of the latter). An excellent panel on the topic of "other cinema" was "Cinema as Timepiece: Perspectives on The Clock," Christian Marclay's monumental 24-hour video collage and art installation consisting of thousands of time-related clips from cinema history synchronized with the actual time of day. Erika Balsom talked about the work as an "event" and "phenomenon" that by now has been purchased by many big institutions. A work that forced venues like MoMA to change their opening hours, The Clock may be seen as a slightly subversive but perhaps also quite commodifiable venture that has managed successfully to merge the turn toward the archive characteristic of so much contemporary (experimental) cinema with grand spectacle. In her paper, Nora Alter also underscored the accessibility of Marclay's work, which is rather unprecedented for this kind of cinema, pointing out that almost everybody loves The Clock, from critics to tech heads to children. She then compared the work to Jean-Luc Godard's no less ambitious but far less popular Histoire(s) du Cinema, a much more complex and densely layered project. In The Clock time flies, in Histoire(s) it creeps, Alter noted. The third speaker, Eli Horwatt, took the most critical approach, observing that Marclay's work assembles data rather than knowledge and erases the entire political dimension, thus turning a project seemingly steeped in film history into a troublingly ahistorical one. The Clock, Horwatt concluded, is a slick, palatable assemblage of cinematic images, a marathon movie for the YouTube era. Finally, panel chair Catherine Russell in her paper suggested that The Clock might be read as a kind of essay film on cinephilia and as a dispositif, a cinema machine organized by its own internal rules. Whether one sees it as an instance of archival cinema or meta-cinema, the question still left open is this: does Marclay's project amount to an act of criticism, or is it simply a pleasure machine?
Questions pertaining to the future of cinema have been posed for at least a decade and a half now, and in Chicago the topic was back on the agenda. The panel "What Cinema Will Be? Film Caught between the Television Revolution and the Digital Revolution" may not have provided any easy answers to that question, but it certainly presented an astute and rewarding assessment of the current situation. Philippe Gauthier, who had assembled the panel and chaired it, focused his talk on the impact of "the disorderly medium" - television - on the French filmology movement of the 1940s and 50s. Gauthier's meticulously historical and historicising paper explored the ways in which television occasioned a redefinition of cinema by way of differentiation, while ending in the present and with the suggestion that film history might transform itself into the history of images. In the future, will we simply speak of moving images rather than film?
Following Gauthier was John Belton, until recently an editor of the journal Film History, who talked about how film is a very different experience on TV (the interruptions, graphical changes, the distractions of the domestic sphere), about Bazin's theoretical project in the ontology essay and how nobody has been able to resolve it, and about indexicality and the digital in the work of scholars such as Philip Rosen, Mary Ann Doane and Tom Gunning. The concepts of simulation and modeling appear to be much better terms than indexicality for comprehending contemporary images, Belton argued.
"It was different from cinema, but he was ready for it" - this is how Dudley Andrew summed up André Bazin's take on television. In his fascinating paper on Bazin's thoughts on television, Andrew shows how the French thinker was rather welcoming of "the small screen," praising what he considered its chief draw, intimacy. Bazin's hopes for television seem to echo his support of neorealism. Not unexpectedly, he favored the social problem program and imagined the possibility of new forms of audience participation. Bazin, Andrew said, would have had his TV preset to the Discovery channel. He would have looked forward to YouTube, and he would have been the biggest blogger."
The last two speakers, John Caughie and respondent Martin Lefebvre, also approached the film-television relationship from a historical perspective. Noting that early television was a medium of attraction both in aesthetic, technological and ideological terms, Caughie underscored contemporary TV's apparent robustness in the face of the digital revolution. Unlike cinema, television seems infinitely adaptable and immune to dying. However, both speakers questioned the notion of telephilia, suggesting that television as a much less aesthetically oriented medium than film has generally failed to invite that anxious love so characteristic of the cinema. Lefebvre also made the rather interesting observations that the current academic surge of interest in television is in large part driven by narrative pleasure (all French film scholars now seem to write on Mad Men and Six Feet Under) and that it is film studies which provides television studies with its analytical and interpretive tools.
Some of those tools were the subject of the Friday morning workshop on close reading and the art of description, "Surface Tensions: The Stakes and Fates of Close Analysis." As Mary Ann Doane stated in her contribution to the panel, analytical practices seemed somehow to have slipped through the cracks in the decades-long contest between historical and theoretical approaches within cinema studies. Chances are that the notion of "close reading" itself appears more evocative of the days of new criticism than of contemporary scholarship, yet film analysis is still what many of us do on an almost daily basis, whatever else (history, theory or philosophy) we might be doing simultaneously. This is also what several of the workshop participants remarked upon in their discussion, that in our practical work as film scholars, description/analysis is usually inextricable from various forms of theoretical reflection. Description is never just description, as Lesley Stern put it. The speakers all brought their individual views on the meaning and function of close analysis to the table. For Victor Perkins, criticism is a kind of conversation, and we engage with it out of a sense of both suspicion and admiration. As critics we want to understand the nature of the artistic achievement, we want to examine both the relation between the part and the whole and the sequences of the work that are representative of and aberrant from that whole. Perkins also stressed the difference between seeing and noticing, as well as the importance of calibrating discursive clarity - "not too little and not too much." Suspicious of any singular methodology of close analysis, Perkins also accentuated the role of sincerity as a benchmark of any critical practice. For Jean Ma, close analysis should be able to excavate the historical dimension beneath the filmic surface. For Doane, a good analysis is one that tells us something about medium specificity, and thick description should always point to something outside itself. Finally, for Stern the answer to the question why we should continue to do thick description in an age where the image thanks to new technologies has become more easily quotable is that - even as students of the visual - we are infatuated with words. We aim for exactitude, for those rare moments when our language matches the image. Perhaps this logophilia is something that has not been adequately addressed by our discipline, Stern wonders. In any event, she also seems to embrace new modes of analytical work such as the video-essay, ending her talk with the hopeful observation that "the future possibilities for criticism are expansive." And so seem the possibilities for the field as a whole. -A.G.
October 8, 2012
The sixth Nomadikon conference "Ecologies of seeing, or Seeing Whole" took place in Albany, New York in late September, a magnificent event jointly organized by The College of Saint Rose and co-hosted by Mark Ledbetter, Susan Cumings and Theresa Flanigan. What was different this time, then, was that Nomadikon, rather than hosting the conference on our home turf as has been the case with the previous five meetings, went on a little transatlantic excursion. It was an intense but hugely rewarding four days academically as well as socially. Spanning a vast array of topics from the face of Anonymous to the politics of the stare, film screenings in prison, Joe Sacco, Virginia Woolf, the planetarium, Chinese cinema, the aesthetics of lingerie, artless photographs, the panoptic sublime and environmental art - to name only a few - the presentations were invariably excellent and the connections between them many and pertinent. Rarely have I been to a conference with so many effortlessly and eleganty overlapping themes and concerns. On occasion the kind of expansive interdisciplinarity that we try to encourage in Nomadikon can lead to cacophony; in Albany it led to a mellifluous fugue of intersecting discourses and voices. The high academic level notwithstanding, the sixth Nomadikon Meeting will be equally remembered for its enriching social dimensions and its friendly vibe, in no small part due to the incomparable hospitality of Mark, Susan and Theresa. I have a feeling that this Sixth conference - the last one planned - will be not so much a conclusion as a beginning. -A.G.
September 12, 2012
I’m just back from Ecologies of the Visual, the Third Visual Culture in Europe Meeting held in Trondheim last week, which was expertly organized by our local host in Trondheim, Nina Lager Vestberg, with the energetic administrative assistance of Kari Anne Bye. When Nina and myself – both members of the Visual Culture Network – distributed the call for papers for this event late in the Autumn of 2011, we envisioned a dialogue on the relationship between ecology and visuality in the broadest sense – on the persistent notion of “an ecology of images” on the one hand, and on the other, the visualities of ecology, or the place of environmental issues in contemporary visual culture. But of course we had no idea what to expect. The response was exactly what we had hoped for: a tight group of focused proposals which seemed to connect quite neatly into a varied, yet coherent seminar programme. And so it was thrilling to see the presentations come together the way they did in Trondheim last week – have a look at the program to get an idea. (Thanks to Marja Seliger for the group photo!)
We don’t know at this point what the next Visual Culture in Europe conference will look like, but more information about that will follow in not too long. One thing is certain: it will take place in Zagreb some time in 2013. –Ø.V.
August 24, 2012
The 40th Norwegian International Film Festival wrapped up in Haugesund yesterday, and earlier in the week I made time to watch some of the long anticipated films on the program. Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s supposedly “unfilmable” novel On the Road was not a complete disaster, although I found its stylistic rendition of the author’s largely autobiographical adventures much too polished for the material at hand. Michael Haneke’s Amour, an exceptionally sensitive yet wholly unsentimental portrayal of old age, withering health and mortality, consolidates both the Austrian director’s unique body of work (the film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in May) and – despite the presence of a gentle humanism not often associated with Haneke – his unwavering partiality to scenes and images uncomfortable to sit through. But even Haneke was upstaged this year. As a scholar and cineaste who watches films incessantly, I’m not easily thrown off guard; in fact I cannot even remember the last time that happened. But Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s first feature after a thirteen-year hiatus, explodes all previous frames of reference for what the cinema can still be. It might be the most unpredictable and maddeningly imaginative film in a decade. Narratively straightforward yet drenched in imponderable enigmas, Carax’s untethered exploration of – among a host of other issues – the pliability of self and cinematic performativity, takes the form of a very long limousine drive. A man named Oscar, Carax regular Denis Lavant, is chauffeured around an uncannily beautiful Paris by Celine, played by Edith Scob from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. His job is to make a series of “appointments” around the city the fulfillment of which requires rather resourceful disguises as well as a stupendous versatility when it comes to acting. Oscar at various points embodies a deformed old woman begging in the streets; an assassin; a motion-capture videography artist dressed in a black spandex suit; a monstrous gnome living in the city’s sewers; a concerned father; and an old man on his deathbed, to name a few of his characters. These performances, we are lead to assume, are recorded by unseen cameras that webcast Oscar’s exploits to voyeuristic subscribers. But this bizarre odyssey is prefaced first by a few flickering images from Etienne-Jules Marey’s motion studies of a nude man running and then a shot of a still and seemingly paralyzed motion picture audience. The film playing appears to be King Vidor’s silent The Crowd (1928). In subsequent shots there is a pajama-clad man (Carax himself) who unlocks a secret door that happens to lead him inside the movie theater, in which an immense black dog is walking down the aisles in slow motion. The sequence is immediately reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, Mulholland Drive in particular, and this surrealist sensibility remained throughout. But Holy Motors easily outweirds even Lynch; as a matter of fact it might be stranger than anything you have ever seen and I’m sure it will become a deeply polarizing film. As some critics have been quick to point out, there is also a touch of Alice in Wonderland and Metropolis here, and, while I have not seen it yet, there seems to be an obvious parallel between Holy Motors and another film that also involves an extended limo drive and which played at Cannes this year, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. But Lynchian reverberations aside, Carax’s film is a largely unprecedented work. It is unusually rich visually (it was shot in high-definition video by Caroline Champetier, who won a Cesar for Of Gods and Men, and Yves Cape), and apart from being entirely unrestrained, deranged even, where it impresses the most, perhaps, is in its subtly alternating moods, as exhilaration, comedy, provocation, shock, sadness, melancholy, and grief all bleed into one another. Holy Motors is the kind of film that alone is proof that the creative possibilities of the medium of cinema are far from exhausted. -A.G.
June 8, 2012
Last week I gave a five minute "Lightning Talk" at Now! Visual Culture in New York City, in an opening session titled "What is Visual Culture Now?" It was my first attempt to present some preiminary reflections on the events that shook up Norway last summer and that we still have only begun to grapple with. Here it is.
The attempt to develop a critical vocabulary in the face of contemporary events, and allowing terminology to take shape in response to what seems urgent in the now, are in my view testimony of the intellectual vibrancy of visual culture studies. And so it is my training as a scholar of visual culture that enables me to look at this image and think of how this kind of landscape, which is very typical of Norway, and as beautiful as it is ordinary to me, has now been transformed.
As scholars have observed, the Norwegian Trekking Association has standardized and unified the Norwegian landscape in such a way that following a trail somewhere outside of Oslo involves the same techniques as following trails through the high passes of a mountain range – and through these processes a national landscape, as well as a nationalistic and touristic image of it, is produced. This imaginative geography has now been disturbed.
During the cause of a few afternoon hours on July 22nd last summer, a car bomb exploded in the executive government quarter in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than two hundred. Then, less than two hours later, at the summer camp of the Worker’s Youth League held every year at Utøya island – where this press photograph is taken – a gunman dressed in a homemade police uniform killed 69 of the participants there and injured more than a hundred.
In response to the question, ”What is visual culture now, in Norway,” one obvious and immediate answer would be: transformed by those events. Now, almost a year later, we’re nearing the end of the seventh week of the trial against a mass murderer who claims to have acted in defense of his country. Scholars from academic institutions across Norway have analyzed and commented on the various societal and political controversies that have followed in the wake of the brutalities: Debates on the quality of preparedness and crisis management; Heated discussions on the status and authority of forensic psychiatrists, who disagree on the question of the sanity of the mass murderer.
A few weeks ago the steering committee for the national July 22 memorials submitted its report to the Norwegian government, arguing for two specific sites of commemoration and describing the reasons for their selections. At every such decision made, I sense a heightened critical awareness in my own response. Will we end up being what Marita Sturken has called ”tourists of history”? Certainly, a national television award show recently proved without a doubt that Norway is not beyond the kitschification of these events.
Then there is the extensive circulation of images of the mass murderer on the front pages of national newspapers, leading people to turn them around at newsstands – a senseless proliferation of his image and the ill-fated prohibition that followed.
The media coverage of the ongoing trial is strictly regulated, and the media has protested the decision that most of it would not be broadcast. Instead of live images and audio we saw the massive distribution worldwide of the image of the mass murderer saluting the world with his raised, clenched fists.
The first visual art, a tremendously controversial portrait of the killer as a sad clown, was exhibited in April, and plans are being made for numerous documentary films. Commemoration books that resemble coffee table books in design have already been published.
In his skeptical introduction, James Elkins warned scholars of visual culture and of the humanities more widely to be cautious that ”[W]riting about 9/11 has been a poor decision for many scholars.” But this is the time and the place to say that these ongoing events in Norway have compelled me to describe and analyze them to the best of my abilities, in spite of any warning that it might be a risky decision.
Some of you might remember that the mass murderer published his visions of a crusade against what he described as ”Marxists” and ”multiculturalists” in his so-called manifesto on the internet just hours before the attacks. Just last week an anthology was published consisting of articles by Norwegian scholars from a wide range of fields, each debating a central tenet in that manifesto, offering a critique of the foundations of its right wing extremism. The title of the book was Motgift, Norwegian for ”antidote” – a term that signals an intent to counteract a form of poisoning. What I’d like to leave you with is this question:
What would an ”antidote” look like from the perspective of visual culture studies? A strategy of countervisuality? -Ø.V.
Marq Smith and Sina Najafi
June 7, 2012
"Now! Visual Culture" - some afterthoughts.
It’s been two years since the launch of the International Association for Visual Culture in London (see our field report of May 30, 2010), and last weekend the follow-up convention took place at Cooper Square in lower Manhattan. Organized by Nick Mirzoeff at the NYU, the event was named “Now! Visual Culture,” a title which almost sounded like some kind of rejoinder to that of the “Farewell to Visual Studies” symposium hosted by the Stone Summer Theory Institute (as its last) in July 2011. While undeniably inhabiting more or less the same academic field – and taking place only ten months apart – there was little overlap between the two seminars in terms of subject matter and scope. Pretty much the only allusion to the earlier event was the convener’s concluding remarks after the first session; “some people say farewell to visual studies – we say farewell to them.” As the moniker so explicitly put forward, the order of the day was the question of the contemporary, of the contemporaneous moment, and so both the past and the future of visual culture studies were really not so much on the agenda in New York.
The gathering kicked off on Thursday afternoon with a series of lightning talks (a format perhaps inspired by New Media conventions), the first of which was Øyvind’s on the events of July 22 (see entry above). In a virtual deluge of mini-lectures that also included a Skype transmission, this opening session crystallized many of the themes and preoccupations that would dominate conversations the following days. Marita Sturken talked about efforts to commemorate fallen soldiers, to catalog and make visible the dead, in the face of powerful mechanisms of erasure. Noting that the war in Iraq has come to be seen as a defining event of contemporary visual culture, Sturken spoke engagingly and perceptively of the ongoing strategies of counter-visuality at work to confer visibility upon the victims as well as the larger reality of the war itself. Many of the ensuing presentations seemed to revolve around two topical clusters in particular; one regarding what we might call “the digital visual moment” and the other manifesting the increasing fascination on part of the visual culture community with the discourse of Occupy. In one of the session’s most involving contributions David Darts talked about surveillance cameras, practices of hiding, the interdisciplinary media artist Hasan M. Elahi’s project Tracking Transience, and how in the future “everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.” Darts is also the creator of a file-sharing device, the PirateBox, for the discreet dissemination of data and communication. Wendy Chun’s address was roughly in the same area, demonstrating a concern with the illusion of privacy and security on the Internet. Chun underscored the fact that computers do not simply reproduce images but in fact generate them, and that they are sending and storing information even when the user isn’t active. Other presenters emphasized the need to look inside the digital media device rather than at it (Bernard Geoghegan and Lisa Nakamura, the latter also pointing out that the labor required to assemble the digital apparatus often is supplied by poorly paid women workers). The other vital thread had a distinct activist undercurrent. Jill Casid focused on the “imperative mood” in a time of institutional crisis and the need to occupy art history; Diana Taylor was interested in the critical potential of the imbrication of performance art and visual culture, and insisted that seeing can also be a doing; Stephen Monteiro talked about visual culture in terms of occupation/unoccupation as well as about the desire to be undisciplined in order to be able to recognize and critique structures of power; Dena Al-Adeeb discussed among other things Malek Alloula’s Colonial Harem – about turn of the century French postcards of Algerian women – in the context of transnationalism and transdisciplinarity, stressing the importance of challenging Eurocentric notions of visual culture; and Awam Amkpa’s subject was the efficacy of photography as a vibrant medium of social activism and how Occupy Nigeria put 14 million people in the streets of Lagos to protest rises in the country’s gas prices.
Over the next two days there were about ten workshops on a variety of topics, ranging from the student debt crisis to interdisciplinarity, the practice of visual culture, the object of visual culture studies, feminism and technology, publishing and diasporic Asian visual culture. Unfortunately, I missed the session on “Debt, Academic Labor and the Crisis of the Knowledge Economy,” but Invisible Culture has published a fine blog essay on it, here. One of the most productive workshops, in my opinion, was the one chaired by Safet Ahmeti on Friday afternoon. Taking as its starting point the recognition that interdisciplinary work is always practiced and concrete, the panel broached an eclectic range of issues, from the politics of the black bloc to the historical transformations of women’s bodies and its encoded meanings, and to the methodological challenges of transdisciplinary collaborations between bioscientists and humanistic scholars. In an environment perhaps not too keen on theory, this panel also contained two of this conference’s most sophisticated instances of theoretical analysis: Allen Feldman’s dense reflection on the complex relation between the visible and the invisible in the management of the war on terror, and Joanna Zylinska’s rearticulation of the ontological question of visual culture in terms of ethics. In her talk, Zylinska suggested that we shift our attention from the objects of visual culture to processes of what she calls biomediation, which seem to encapsulate both the Mitchellian notion of the animistic image and the act of mediating life through visual culture forms. A particularly salient concept that informed this presentation was that of the cut, and how a cut is made in the creative flow of life and mediation. To cut well might be a practice imbued with an array of ethical implications, extending as it does the problems of alterity and the question of who and what has a right to become an image. By talking about the ethics rather than the ontology of visual culture, Zylinska adroitly gestured toward an intellectual framework that promises to resonate well with the call for a renewed engagement and activism that characterized the weekend’s proceedings.
Highlighting forms of visual culture practice seems to have been an overriding ambition for this convention, and at least three more panels were in various ways dedicated to exploring work in this area: the Friday seminar simply called “The Practice of Visual Culture” that featured talks by practitioners in the field, the Saturday morning workshop on the object in visual culture studies, and finally the panel on the future of publishing. The session on “Locating the Object in Visual Culture Studies” showcased objects and practices that have been rather marginal to the field of art history and that also straddle both visual and material culture (in two of the cases, anyhow), design, fashion and illustration. The artist talks were all quite thought provoking and certainly succeeded in showing how artistic practice itself can constitute a form of intellectual inquiry. Wafaa Bilal’s ethically confrontational and interactive performance project Domestic Tension brought zones of conflict and comfort into distressing contact with each other. For a whole month, the artist locked himself inside a small room and invited viewers to shoot at him using remote-controlled paintball guns and a camera hooked up to the web. Also fascinating were artist and NYU professor Natalie Jeremijenko’s many projects at the intersection of experimental design, new technology, urban studies, environmental ethics and public and participatory art. The third kind of practice-oriented session, finally, was about something that affects most of us present and that also happens to be in the midst of a series of (often painful and confusing) transformations, namely the art of publishing. A rich panel organized by the Journal of Visual Culture, “Futures of Visual Culture Publishing” brought together people with vast expertise in the matter – Sina Najafi, founding editor of Cabinet; Katherine Behar, web editor of Art Journal; Gary Hall from the Open Humanities Press; Tara McPherson from Vectors/Scalar; and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy and director of scholarly communications for MLA). I won’t try to paraphrase the fertile discussions that took place in this session, but some of the most significant issues touched upon, in my view, were (in no particular order) the conflict between the business model of scholarly publishers and the dissemination of free knowledge, the multiple challenges that emerge from the rapidly changing technological landscape (for instance the curse of the standardized platform; Najafi told us about an app developed by Cabinet that of course cannot be distributed to iTunes except through Apple), questions of authorship and originality, how publishing in fundamental ways shapes how we work, act and think as academics, the question whether online publishing promotes tenure, how certain journals are capable of identifying and defining new scholarly fields, how new forms such as the video-essay may alter the way in which we study the image, the move toward more collaborative and transdisciplinary forms of publishing, the future of the referee system, the imposition of natural science models on humanistic publishing, and last but not least, the changing role of the journal editor. Given the fact that both referees and editors significantly contribute to emerging scholarship on a regular basis, it seems rather inexplicable that their labor goes largely uncredited and unpaid.
As the conference neared its end on Saturday afternoon, Giuliana Bruno and W.J.T. Mitchell kindly offered their perspectives on “Now! Visual Culture” in a concluding talkback session. Admitting that the event was impossible to summarize, Bruno nevertheless observed that the discursive spaces opened up by this event involved, among other things, the relationship between the visible and the invisible, the public and the private and the transparent and the opaque. She also identified three areas of particular importance to her: the question of history in relation to visual culture, the materiality of the object, and surface and design. One question she posed concerned history and the archive and the ways in which the contemporary incorporates the traces of the past. Urging us to make interventions in the archive, Bruno also brought up the question of the methodology of visual studies. She also sensed that there was a longing for the material, for the physicality of the object, in some of the discussions. In conclusion, Bruno suggested that we should rethink the notion of the image in relation to that of the screen, the surface.
The question regarding history and temporality was immediately seized by Mitchell too, as he endeavored to connect the “now” of the conference with two past “nows:” that of 1968 and 1992. Cautiously optimistic, Mitchell claimed that part of the spirit of that remarkable year, 1968, may have returned to us, evidenced in the augmented vitality of political activism globally, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement. Where demonstrations have a rather limited temporality, he noted, occupations as a form of social and political protest indicate that the demonstration won’t end. Two and a half decades on from 1968 the new approach of visual culture is in full development, challenging a particular distribution of the sensible – the disciplinary and epistemological hegemony of art history. In 1992, Mitchell presented his influential essay “What is Visual Culture?” at Princeton in memory of Erwin Panofsky’s 100th birthday, which he sees as an undisciplined and possibly anarchistic response to the discipline of art history. In 1992 the concept of visual culture promised a certain liberation from the canon, as new subjects of scholarly research such as fashion, design, illustration, video games and more were started to be seen as legitimate. Back in 1992, Mitchell recalls, scholars of the visual were preoccupied both with spectacle (Debord) and surveillance (Foucault), whereas in 2012, or at least in the context of this conference, there has been little critique of the former. Maybe we have reached a state, Mitchell proposes, where nobody believes in the spectacle anymore? Following on from that he goes on to mention another phenomenon that was there twenty years ago but now seems to have vanished, namely semiotics. On the other hand, a lot of things that are here now weren’t there in 1992: the Internet, social media, the October questionnaire and a much altered relationship to the art sphere. Two decades ago, the nascent field was influenced by artists that could not care less about visual culture (the minimalists, the performance artists, the word-image artists), whereas the contemporary version of visual culture has absorbed artistic practice to a much larger extent as an intrinsic part of the field.
If I were to condense some of my impressions from this event, if certain tendencies could be pinpointed, it would go something like this:
* The conference site was not very far from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, so it makes sense that the influence from the Occupy movement on the conference was formidable. On his blog, Mirzoeff even had to specify that “Now! Visual Culture” is “not an occupy event as such but it takes place in the context of Occupy.” Many of the talks referred directly to Occupy and even those that didn’t were suffused with its basic sensibility. For someone who was a student during the complacent, introspective, irony-drenched and rather decadent 1990s, this is good news. The activist current feels reinvigorating and I agree with Mirzoeff that we need to get out of the university. If I have a reservation, however, it would be that a scholarly association such as IAVC should be careful not to be seen as indistinguishable from the movement. It needs to be more heterogeneous than that, since not all the epistemological gaps that visual culture scholars seek to fill are necessarily related to Occupy. Moreover, I don’t much care for the implication that visual culture by dint of its anarchic impulses should have some kind of particular responsibility with regard to “getting out of the university.” The commitment to the most pressing political challenges of our time is one that applies to all academic quarters, from the humanities to the natural sciences, from the disciplinary to the indisciplinary. Finally, I do worry a little bit that the commendable activist initiative could be too much a product of this particular “now” that we are in, that it will never last, but I certainly hope that future conventions will dispel these doubts.
* The visual culture community’s understanding of itself as self-consciously anti-disciplinary was very much re-affirmed by the discussions that took place during the event. If memory serves it was Mitchell who brought up the term “epistemological anarchism” in his talkback.
* Performativity is on the rise. There was a marked sense of a turning away from the object/medium to the process and from theory to practice-based research.
* The question of the contemporary versus the historical came up on several occasions in the course of the conference (and with that title, how could it not?). I have to say that I was struck by the overwhelming gravitation toward the immediate present (and this is coming from someone whose research nowadays is mostly on contemporary objects).
* Perhaps to reiterate a point alluded to above: if the “Now! Visual Culture” event is anything to go by, we seem to be headed back toward a post-theory period. The last decade or so has seen a kind of rebirth of inventive and sophisticated theory in many fields, not the least in visual culture and cinema and media studies, but with a few exceptions this wasn’t much in evidence in New York. I might simply have missed them, but where were the references to, off the top of my head, the work of theorists such as Lauren Berlant, Davide Panagia, Brian Massumi, the most recent Kaja Silverman?
* Finally, whatever happened to the aesthetic dimension, to quote a philosopher whose thinking seems quite compatible with the new activism but whose name was also curiously absent from the conference discussions? The good old cultural studies tradition wasn’t always very welcoming vis-à-vis the aesthetic; I have to say that, brilliant as some of the conversations at “Now! Visual Culture” seminar were, at times it did make me feel that I was present at a cultural studies conference. -A.G.
March 27, 2012.
I have just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference, which this year took place in an unseasonably warm and summery Boston. Over the last decade or so I have been to quite a few SCMS conventions, and in my opinion the program has never been better. Even the glorious weather – on the day of my arrival it was an astonishing 25 degrees Celsius outside, the streets and parks coming alive with people, music and spring enchantment – could not compete with the virtual smorgasbord of panels, workshops and screenings on offer. The only downside of this intellectual feast was of course the luxury of having to choose which event to go to. Sometimes logistics took care of that, as especially popular panels were too crowded actually to get into. In the overly rectangular Whittier room on the fourth floor of the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, for instance, I managed to squeeze in at the far back, standing all the way through Giuliana Bruno’s brilliant presentation on “Surface Matters: The Architecture of the Screen.” Over the five days I spent in “the City on the Hill” I went to panels on “What’s New in Classical Film Theory,” “Mad Men: Industry, Programming, and Audiences,” “Remembering Sidney Lumet,” “Dirty Ethics: The Meaning of Trash,” and “Bodies in Extremis,” to name just a few. My own, on Saturday morning, was called “Violent Images” and featured presentations on “Revisiting Anempathetic Music: Visible Violence and the Audible Offscreen” by Jacqueline Waeber and “Narrative Form, Violence, and the Female Body” by chair Ora Gelley. The 2012 SCMS meeting particularly excelled in the breadth and quality of its many workshops; I’m very sorry to have missed discussions on subjects such as “Teaching the Archive,” “Collective Scholarship in Digital Contexts,” “Video Essays: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Form,” “Digital Methodologies For Screen Histories,” and “Where is Film Theory Today?” But I did manage to attend some very timely workshops, such as “A Profession in Transition: Promises, Pitfalls, and Opportunities” and “Should Studying the Politics of Representation Be History?” The former, which included short talks by representatives of important university presses such as Rutgers and University of California Press, was very much geared toward two major topics of concern to everybody working in the field of media and films studies today: the ongoing crisis in the humanities, and the future of book publishing in an increasingly digital age. The latter, with comments by among others Herman Gray and chaired by Ron Becker and Julia Himberg, took as its point of departure the gradual shift away from issues of representation to questions of both reception and aesthetics that has occurred in our field since the 1980s and onward. Knowledgeable and informed as all the participants were, there could be no more eloquent affirmation of the continued relevance of studies of representation in visual culture than the very real case of Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was shot dead by a vigilante thug in Sanford, Florida on February 26. Also mentioned by one of the panel’s participants, the incident was the major news item (besides Mitt Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstorm’s instantly classic “Etch as Sketch” comment) during the week of the conference. The mindless killing of Martin, an African American who was followed and subsequently shot by George Zimmerman, who, inexplicably, claimed his actions were performed in self-defense (the police let him go), caused a lot of turbulence and mass demonstrations throughout the United States. On my way to The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on Thursday March 22 I witnessed such a rally first hand, as I emerged from the city’s red line onto Harvard Square. The Harvard Film Archive hosted an evening with experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr and no less than the world premiere of some of his recent films – the absolutely mesmerizing Work in Progress, followed by the equally wonderful Abracadabra and Auto-Collider. For me, Gehr’s phantasmagorical visions were truly one of the conference highlights, and the filmmaker himself turned out to be a very entertaining and sympathetic presence. It would be quite a stretch to speak in similar turns of the Harvard Film Archive’s special guest the following night, none other than the octogenarian Claude Lanzmann, whose short film The Karski Report – featuring the second day of interviews with Polish resistance movement fighter Jan Karski, material omitted from Shoah – was screened on March 23. Mr. Lanzmann, who at the time was suffering from a fever, methodically shot down every question from the audience and was predictably unwavering in his belief that the Holocaust cannot be grasped and certainly should not be represented in any way.
It goes without saying that this short account only scratches the surface of everything that was going on at the conference. Crisis or not, my impression is that the field of film and media studies is more relevant and in better shape than ever. Next year’s SCMS conference will take place in Chicago between March 6-10. -A.G.
January 24, 2012
Just back from the Tromsø International Film Festival, where I was on the jury for the Norwegian Peace Film award. A place still enveloped by darkness for much of the day, the city provides a fitting context for indulging in the world of cinema. And rarely have I seen a more enthusiastic festival audience. Most screenings I went to were packed, no matter what time of day it was, and conversations everywhere seemed to involve some form of film commentary. After five exhilarating days of movies and deliberations we gave the award to Ruben Östlund's hanekesque Play, apparently to everyone's surprise. In our statement read at the awards ceremony, we wrote that the film in "an unusually perceptive and powerful way" manages to "capture the complex psychology of cultural violence among suburban youth." Östlund's film "addresses some of the most urgent problems of our time head on: the dissolution of individual responsibility, the failure of empathy, the descent into apathy and destructive indifference." Distributed by Arthaus, Play opens in select theatres across Norway this Friday. It comes warmly recommended. -A.G.
December 06, 2011
A Few Images from IMAGE=GESTURE
Slide from Garrett Stewart's keynote address "Biblioclastic Gestures: The Sculpture of Negative Ekphrasis"
Thanks to Peter Bengtsen for pictures. -Ø.V.
November 22, 2011
Neville Chamberlain's Umbrella
In a recent report posted here in August I described a brief film segment Errol Morris screened for me at his studio in Cambridge - on the so-called Umbrella Man at Dealey Plaza. Today sees yet another anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and as crowds are gathering in the Plaza Morris's segment is posted as an "op-doc" - a new genre launched by the New York Times. It's an entertaining piece. -Ø.V.
October 31, 2011
I spent most of last week in Odense where the Nordic Network for Comics Research gathered for the very first time in a meeting expertly organized by research director Anne Magnussen and steering group member Rikke Platz Cortsen. Our first conversations were tremendously inspiring, whether addressing lofty topics like the status of comics scholarship or more specific questions concerning the nature of our future plans to collaborate in a variety of ways. The roundtable discussion that set things into motion was perfect in the way in which it carefully veered between optimism and pessimism with regard to the future of the field. Bart Beaty described how lonely he had been as a comics scholar when he started out, and how today students line up outside his office to enlist for courses. Several of you will know Bart’s piece for the Cinema Journal this spring, where he addressed ”the evolution of comics studies” (Vol. 50, no. 3, 2011, pp. 106-110); in Odense he reminded all of us of how much has happened in the field over the last few years. Roger Sabin then brought the more dismal perspectives of the current situation of the humanities more generally on the table; whole departments are being closed in England, he said, and the humanities have to defend themselves in arguing for the necessity of their existence. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not enough, Roger pointed out, as he described what he saw as ”an attack on the humanities” in the wake of recent economic downfall. What impact will this have for an emerging field’s capacity to argue for its own existence?
These last few weeks have brought many great opportunities for thinking about comics and comics scholarship, not least our conference in late September, ”Hollow Land,” which gathered prominent international guests such as Joe Sacco, W.J.T. Mitchell and Eyal Weizman for a heady day of discussions (we were delighted to be reported by Mitchell on the new Critical Inquiry blog).
I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Sacco’s company in September, and went with him to Stavanger were we attended the literary festival Kapittel together. In addition to interviewing Joe in front of an attentive audience I was asked to chair a session which concerned comics and cultural politics in Norway.
The background for the panel was as follows: Every year the Norwegian Ministry of Culture award specific books in various genres – fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, and the like – with a Book of the Year prize. There is a prize for the best comic book as well. The jury for this book is administered by The Norwegian Institute of Children’s Books (established in 1979), an institute which ”works to develop knowledge of children and young people’s literature” (to quote from their website). In 2010, they did not award a prize for the Best Comic Book. This was in part a political statement from the Institute reflecting the oddness of having to select among titles that were obviously directed at an adult audience.
Three well known and respected Norwegian comics artists – Steffen Kverneland, Lene Ask, and Inga Sætre – took part in the discussion with an editor, Steffen Sørum, from Cappelen Damm, a publisher that puts out a number of comic books every year, and Kristin Ørjasæter, who is head of The Norwegian Institute of Children’s Books.
There is a prize that is awarded yearly for comic books: SPROING-prisen, which has been given in three categories every years since 1987 by Norsk Tegneserieforum, Norwegian Comics Forum, to create interest in comics and in comics books. But the only official prize is administered by an institute for children’s literature.
Steffen Kverneland, who has made comics since the early eighties, and who in recent years has made some amazing books, put it this way at the debate: “The problem is not that we fall between chairs, it is rather that there is no chair for us.” There are grants and various forms of economic support for writers, illustrators, photographers, and filmmakers, but none specifically aimed at comics artists.
The Arts Council, which is fully financed by the Ministry of Culture, is the main governmental operator for the implementation of Norwegian cultural policy, and functions as an advisory body in giving grants and support. They also decide which books will be bought by the public library system in Norway, under the so-called Innkjøpsordningen.
As Kverneland pointed out at the debate, there is nobody with a particular competence on comics in the Council. There is specific expertise on poetry, film, etc., but not on comics. When confronted with this, the Council answers that ”in total” their members have the competence needed anyway.
After chairing the debate, it struck me that even if it is not the mandate of comics scholars to advocate a specific cultural policy, it seems urgent that comics scholarship in Norway – such as it is – engages itself with creating a greater awareness of comics as a cultural form. I would also think, more specifically, that getting someone with more knowledge about comics into the Arts Council would be a benefit. Anyone that would be in a position to influence these processes should get in touch with the Nordic Network for Comics Research; I’m sure we could suggest a number of candidates for membership in the council.
On the plane to Denmark last week I read about Steven Spielberg’s effort to bring Tintin to the big screen in a cover story in Time Magazine. ”The Tintin stories, as satisfying as they are, weren’t quite camera-ready,” Lev Grossman wrote; so Spielberg and Peter Jackson (producer) took The Secret of the Unicorn and ”cleaned it up, punched it up and built it up using elements from the other books.” It’s not difficult to tell that the plot ”has been run through the well-tooled mills of an American movie studio,” as Grossman wrote. Back in Bergen I went to the movies with my six year old son yesterday to see the film. There are thirty-three years between the two of us, but we both pretty much agreed on the fact that making Sakharin, a minor figure in The Secret of the Unicorn, into Captain Haddock’s antagonist in the film, and to even make him related to Rackham the Red, was a spectacularly bad choice. I hope someone I met in Odense takes up the challenge to describe why at more length. –Ø.V.
August 26, 2011
Here is an overdue follow up to Øyvind's rapport from Visible Evidence in NYC last week. My final conference day came to trail a remarkably consistent series of panels on documentary space, beginning with a morning session entitled "Contemplative Geographies" which discussed the displacing effects of landscape in auteurist documentaries like Torossian's Stone Time Touch, Sokurov's A Humble Life, and Herzog's Lessons of Darkness. In the following panel - "Case Studies in Global Documentary and Political Modernism" - Yuriko Furuhata analyzed the potential for foregrounding space in relation to the Japanese concept of Fûkeiron. Literally translating as "landscape theory," Fûkeiron was originally a manifesto for a cycle of leftwing films in the late sixties and early seventies which approached landscape as the embodiment of state power. Exemplified by Masao Adachi's AKA: Serial Killer (1969), Furuhata showed how this mode of filmmaking turned away from the readily recognizable figures of authoritative power to scrutinize instead the management of the everyday as evidenced in eventless, quotidian spaces.
A workshop on "Documentary's Haunted Spaces" brought the conference to a close. Moving from the familiar examples of S21 and Night and Fog, where the dark and damaged spaces of the former prison and camp readily materialize haunting, Jennifer Malkowski case in point was the Golden Gate Bridge, a site she described as stubbornly resistant to haunting. Discussing various attempts to commemorate suicide jumpers, Malkowski analyzed how documentary can be an agent of haunting, rather than just a chronicler of it. To my mind, the discussion that followed got mired into Roland Barthes canonical proposition of haunting as a property of every photograph. As the presentations themselves had exemplified, it seems more productive to consider haunting in the active tense, in terms of agency and social practice, rather than as a fixed ontology.
On my way to JFK the following day, I stopped in Brooklyn to visit artist/photographer Mikael Levin in his new studio. I have previously written about Levin's photo-essay War Story. The book retraces a journey undertaken fifty years earlier by the photographer's father, war correspondent Meyer Levin, who travelled with the allied forces from Paris to Prague during the final days of the Second World War. Thus, War Story offers a particularly potent example of the topics that had been addressed the previous day. Haunted spaces have also been a persistent theme in Levin's more recent work - I strongly recommend checking out this rich oeuvre at: www.mikaellevin.com -H.G.
August 17, 2011
Interview with Errol Morris + Visible Evidence 18
I had been talking with Errol Morris for an hour or so about the philosophy and the poetics of documentary reenactment, his most recent feature Tabloid, and his energetic investagations into the circumstances surrounding Roger Fenton’s two photographs from the Valley of the Shadow of Death in his fresh off the press book Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, based on his blog entries for the New York Times, when he lit up at my passing mention of my new book Zaprudered (which is also just out). “You have to know that I know Josiah Thompson?” Morris said, enthusiastically. This I did not anticipate. “Really?” “Yes!” Morris said, and led me out of his office and into the editing room of his spacious studios at Cambridge Street.
It turned out that Morris had known Thompson for decades; in fact, they had both worked briefly as private detectives for the same Berkeley company in the seventies. I know Thompson’s 1967 book Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination well. It’s sort of a classic in the extensive library of the assassination, and it was one of the first books I checked out when I began my research on the Zapruder film, some ten years ago at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where I found a copy of the original publication.
When we entered the editing room, Morris instructed his editor to look for a specific segment, and I had a seat. Soon enough Thompson appeared on the screen, talking about what in the assassination lexicon is known as the Umbrella Man – the man captured in photographs and footage who can be seen holding an open umbrella in a sun-bathed Dealey Plaza, and thus came to play a central role in conspiracy theories, notably in Jim Marr’s Crossfire (which informed Oliver Stone’s JFK).
According to Thompson, the Umbrella Man had come forward with an explanation for his mysterious appearance. I won’t spoil the surprise here, since Morris might include the segment in future work, but I suspect I’m not revealing much when I say that the reason the Umbrella Man gave for opening the umbrella had nothing to do with any conspiracy, and furthermore, that it is more hilarious than anything anyone might have made up – perfect Morris material, in other words.
"Are you doing work on the Kennedy assassination?" I asked Morris when we returned to his office, admitting that the thought had struck me over the years, that I have speculated whether he would not address some aspect of the event at some point. “Therein lies madness,” the filmmaker sighed; “I’m not going down that rabbit hole.” And yet there it was, the segment, and Morris had to admit he was toying with a few ideas, with the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination looming in the not too distant future.
Perhaps his greatest challenge would be to fit such a project into his unbelievably hectic calendar. Two new books will follow soon, one on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case (Penguin), a blog entry for the New York Times that grew so extensive that they wouldn’t publish it; another book, The Ashtray (University of Chicago Press), is based on yet another essay for the New York Times (in which Morris describes his contested relationship with Thomas Kuhn). Several film projects are under way; when we burst into the editing room, work was being done on a film that originates from Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer, on the anthrax threat. Morris is also working on a fiction feature, We Froze the First Man, an adaptation of Robert F. Nelson's memoir (Nelson is the man who invented the cryogenics technology).
An eclectic mix to be sure, and Morris described himself as very, very overworked, but yet he did not show any sign of stress, generously allowing me to spend two hours in his company. His working environment is uniquely relaxed; when we walked over to his office, his companionable two dogs followed in tow. As we sat down one of them crawled onto my lap, and in the end they were so companionable that Morris had to throw them out. ”Guys! We can’t do this with you in here! You have to get out!” he said, and called assistant Karen Skinner to escort them out of the room.
In the days preceeding my visit with Morris I attended the Visible Evidence conference in New York City with Henrik. The Nomadikon delegation had the great pleasure to present in a panel we shared with Matthew Flintham titled ”Picturing the Invisible: The New Landscapes of Global Conflict and Defense." The conference was fantastically well-organized, with a range of fascinating panels, workshops, and screenings, and I’ll only be able to mention a couple of the highlights here: the opening workshop ”The Future of Documentary Studies,” which gathered several of the leading scholars to reflect upon the pressing issues of the field; a panel, ”Arts of Surveillance,” the central topics of which interplayed fascinatingly with our own presentations; and the screening of Klaus vom Bruch’s compilation of 1977-78 German television and news footage regarding the Baader-Meinhof gang. Being held in New York City, there was also a range of possibilities outside the program, and Henrik and I found time to visit two exhibitions that tapped into several of the questions raised in various panels (including our own): After the Gold Rush, at the Met, and Images of War, the Harun Farocki exhibition at MOMA. Before I went to Massachussetts to meet Morris I had the chance to attend the first public screening of Charles Musser’s fresh documentary on Morris, which was on the conference program. I would certainly recommend the engaging film both to those who are familiar and to those that are new to Morris’s work. -Ø.V.
May 30, 2011
Conference and Exhibition in Boston
I'm in Boston this unusually hot and humid Memorial weekend, where I have given a paper at the American Literature Association's annual convention. My panel was on "Literature and Visual Culture" and provided me with an opportunity to present a segment from a work-in-progress project about new forms of ekphrasis in contemporary American literature. In a previous article I approach this topic from the point of view of the "unquotability" of the visual object, whereas in the current paper I wanted to explore exphrastic writing as a site of what I call "transaesthetic resonances." The literary works I examined were Mark Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Don DeLillo's Point Omega, which are both concerned with the cultivation of a contemplative and deeply immersed mode of viewing. My argument, in very simplified terms, is that the way of looking at an image encouraged by these works is rife with ethical and epistemological implications, and that it produces a kind of experience and knowledge that can only be had in transaesthetic encounters.
The early morning session's other two papers were, respectively, on the aesthetic relations between Edward Hopper's iconic paintings and the work of Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates (the latter of whom wrote an interior monologue poem about Nighthawks, a traveling image if there ever was one), and on the influence of Giorgio de Chirico's "metaphysical paintings" on the poet John Ashbery (who wrote an introduction for de Chirico's only novel Hebdomeros). The talks were both very stimulating and gravitated in their own ways toward this transaesthetic space that I find so intriguing. I was trained as an americanist, so I was quite happy to be able to be present at an American Studies conference again, if memory serves my first in two or three years.
From my Back Bay base near Copley Plaza, named after the 18th century painter John Singleton Copley, I also embarked on several small excursions (Boston is after all a walking city). One destination was the Institute of Contemporary Art, beautifully located on the city's waterfront. For a long time now I have wanted to see the exhibition "The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl," and now I finally had the chance (sorry Øyvind, just couldn't wait...). As a collector and as co-editor of a book on album covers, I admit to having had rather high expectations, my anticipatory mood boosted by being offered a sample of some energy cocktail outside the museum (a peach and mango combo, I've had better). The current exhibition, however, was not so much about record sleeves per se as about the re-appropriation of actual vinyl as a substance for a diverse range of artistic practices within contemporary art. In that sense, "The Record" was just as much an expression of the field of material culture as of that of visual culture. While many of the installations were wonderfully inventive and while there was plenty to like, I have to confess that the exhibition left me wanting a bit more. It's not that I have any craving whatsoever for yet another rehashing of already ubiquitous album covers (though I certainly enjoyed David Byrne's large polaroid photomontage of 1978's classic More Songs About Buildings and Food), but there was perhaps a too strong emphasis on works featuring records of a mostly anthropological interest. I also felt that a keener sense of historical contextualization would have enhanced the show and that its jubilant eclecticism, admirable in some respects, came at a cost.
"The Record" consists of 99 works by an array of international artists both established and comparatively unknown, from Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Carrie Mae Weems and Laurie Anderson to Dario Robleto, William Cordova, Taiyo Kimura, Robin Rhode, and Lyota Yagi. The works also encompass a wide variety of media, from painting, drawing and sculpture to installation, photography, sound work, video and performance art. One of the exhibition's highlights, for me, was Jeroen Diepenmaat's splendidly conceptual and graphically striking Pour des dents d'un blanc éclatant et saines (2005), in which a stuffed bird plays a record by applying its bill to the vinyl's grooves. One of the strengths of this exhibition is the way in which it frequently cannot help but incorporate the viewer into the artworks themselves, in effect making us participators rather than mere observers. This quality was rendered most explicit by the installation Cover to Cover, made up of 7 listening stations with accompanying crates of albums curated by 9 artists and musicians. You were welcomed to flip through the crates and put on whatever record you wanted to hear. Each crate consisted of 20 albums and an unspecified theme, to be creatively inferred by each listener as he or she riffled through the collections. The setup of course neatly encapsulated the extent to which every private record collection ultimately constitutes its own narrative, its own unique story. -A.G.
May 7, 2011
I’m just back from Across Media: Contemporary Literature and Media Culture, a conference organized by scholars from the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim involved in the research project Transcultural Aesthetics: Contemporary Literature and Media Culture. Going to this particular conference had a peculiarly symbolic quality to me, since I have a background from American Studies & Literature, Nordic Literature, and Contemporary Literature at the University of Bergen, before I found my way to the media studies department here. My inclination as a student of literature in early years was always to find movements across media fascinating and worthwhile, but at the time there wasn’t the kind of academic growth around this problematic that this conference in Trondheim must be said to reflect. It seemed only fitting, then, that W.J.T. Mitchell, whose Iconology and Picture Theory were revelations to me when I came across them a little more than a decade ago, gave the opening keynote lecture here, ”Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture.”
The talk, which was dedicated to the memory of Miriam Hansen and to Mitchell’s screenwriter son Gabriel, turned out to revolve around a course, more specifically a film seminar, that Mitchell has been part of teaching at the University of Chicago. ”What do the movies bring to madness?” Mitchell asked. ”And what does madness bring to the movies?” As expected, the talk was thought-provoking and opened up for a host of new perspectives on this double question, and I could have gone on listing the many associations the several memorable images, films, and quotes produced. But I’ll leave it to mentioning my favorite part of the talk, its second and according to Mitchell ”speculative” part, in which he rhapsodized on ”how smoke rendered the cinematic medium visible,” both on screen and in life. Remembering his visits to the cinema as a child, Mitchell described how he used to lay back in his seat to watch the beam of light, the passage between projector and screen – which was highly visible in those ”good old days” because visitors could enjoy a cigarette or two – and suggested that some of his fondest memories of going to the movies simply consisted of looking at smoke made visible by light. He then moved on from the anecdote to theory, from theater to screen, in describing how sharing a cigarette in noir classics created a ”bridge” or connection between characters which enabled a genuine meeting of minds.
Even if I had to leave early and missed a day of sessions, I had a great time in Trondheim and attended several inspiring talks, including: Jørgen Bruhn’s keynote on ”Scandinavian Misanthropology” (a phrase borrowed from Norweigan writer Abu Rasul AKA Matthias Faldbakken), which combined theoretical perspectives with close readings of poetry by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a very unpleasant and engaging scene from the astonoshing movie Man tänker sitt (Hellström and Wenzel, 2009), and Rasul’s Unfun; a great panel on ”Theorizing Concepts” where Eivind Røssaak gave a dense and very inspiring re-reading of Derrida’s Of Grammatology from the perspective of its discussions of techne and with some reflections on implications for a conception of post-hermeneutics, and Knut Ove Eliassen gave an introduction to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; a panel on digital literature, of which I know little but am certainly going to find out more (Anders Skare Malvik talked about Simen Hagerup and Kristian P.’s ”Viva Zombatista”, Hans Kristian Rustad about Kate Pullinger et. al.’s Flight Paths, and Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen about David Hjave Johnston’s ”human-mind-machine,” and everyone involved agreed that drawing up the boundaries between what to call digital poetry / fiction and net art was a complicated operation with many foreseen and unforeseen implications). My own talk, in a panel on visual culture, addressed what I describe as the ”ekphrastic impulse” in Don DeLillo’s most recent novel Point Omega, and in particular its descriptions of a fictitious visit to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho.
In conversations, Mitchell – who together with Eyal Weizman and Joe Sacco will visit Nomadikon and Bergen in September, for a seminar on landscape, memory, and politics – told me about a new essay he’s finishing, ”The Historical Uncanny,” a sequel to his recent book Cloning Terror. It will be presented at an event at the University of Westminster on June 13, for those of you who will be in London at the time. –Ø.V.
May 4, 2011
The San Francisco International Film Festival is on for the 54th time these days, boasting a cornucopia of movies from the last year's crop of contemporary world cinema. Among the festival's many treats there was one event that I had been particularly looking forward to - catching the British band Tindersticks perform a selection of their film scores for Claire Denis while scenes from her movies were being projected on a screen behind the band. I write about two of Denis's films in the book that I'm about to complete (Trouble Every Day and Vendredi Soir), and I have been an enthusiastic follower of Tindersticks' music since the mid-90s, so this was an opportunity not to be missed. The show at San Francisco's famed Castro Theatre was one of only two stateside performances, the band landing in California after having played London's Queen Elizabeth Hall and Paris' Eglise St. Eustache in late April.
Over the last decade the SF International Film Festival has hosted several similar collaborations: last year's event featured Stephin Merritt's live rendition of Stuart Paton's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916); in 2003 Lambchop performed Murnau's Sunrise (1927); Superchunk scored Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness live in 2002; Yo La Tengo did Jean Painlevé's series of short undersea documentaries, The Sounds of the Sounds of Silence, in 2001; and Tom Verlaine provided original scores for silent film classics by Man Ray and Carl Theodor Dreyer in 2000. When Tindersticks were approached about doing a show for the current festival, it was initially suggested that they too perform music for a silent movie. Given the unique nature of the Denis-Tindersticks partnership - spanning fourteen years and six features - it seemed however more obvious to present a selection from this incomparable body of work. And last week, the Montreal-based Constellation issued the handsome five-disc box set Claire Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009.
Opening with a scene from their first collaboration Nénette et Boni (1996), the band - composed of Stuart Staples, David Boulter, Neil Fraser, Dan McKinna, and Earl Harvin with additional musicians on strings and brass - performed material from all of the six films: Trouble Every Day (2001), Vendredi Soir (2002), L'intrus (2004), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and White Material (2009). Tindersticks' sound is of course invariably described as "cinematic chamber pop," but these film scores reveal a much broader stylistic range than what is implied by that term. While the numbers featuring Staples's trademark baritone croon, for instance "Tiny Tears" and "Trouble Every Day," may be reminiscent of the sound of their 1990s studio albums, many of the instrumental parts go in very different directions. The clamorous, almost dissonant intensity of L'intrus, composed by Stuart Staples alone, and the dreamy, intimate melodica-driven wistfulness of 35 Shots of Rum may be without precedent in their catalogue.
Watching interspersed fragments from so many of these films within the space of roughly 70 minutes was an exhilarating experience. One notable effect of such a compressed collage of images was a certain magnification of key traits of Denis's cinema: the consummate tactility of bodies and objects, the gestural refinement, the never foundering attention to detail, and, perhaps most conspicuously, the disturbing alternation between moments of meditative sensuality and shocking acts of violence. -A.G.
April 25, 2011
This term I'm a visiting professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Film & Media, and last week I was invited to give a lecture for the Berkeley Film Seminar on the topic of "Entropic Cinema: The Case of Antichrist/Irréversible." The talk examined Lars von Trier's and Gaspar Noé's films in light of the particular scopic psychology that underlies the notion of what I call "unwatchable cinema." My argument addressed problems of desire and (un)pleasure in relation to the kind of cinematic experience such films may offer. The unwatchable does not merely have a literal application, I suggest, but could also present us with a conceptual tool by which to rethink issues of spectatorship, film and ethics. My discussion was an excerpt from the article "On the Unwatchable," which is forthcoming in the anthology The New Extremism in Cinema, edited by Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall and published by Edinburgh University Press later this summer. -A.G.
April 18, 2011
Meeting up to discuss future events: the Visual Culture in Europe group; from right, Kresimir Purgar, Almira Ousmanova, Marq Smith, Anna María Guasch, Safet Ahmeti, Max Liljefors, Nina Lager Vestberg, Øyvind Vågnes. A group of scholars of whom many like to touch their chin thoughtfully during discussions. (Pictures by group member Joaquín Barriendos)
A few days ago I attended the second Visual Culture in Europe conference, Visualizing Europe: The Geopolitical and Intercultural Boundaries of Europe in Barcelona, an event expertly organized by Joaquín Barriendos and Anna María Guasch from Culturas Visuales Globales. The tight, multifaceted programme made for two dense days of intense discussions on a variety of subjects, all in one way or the other raising seminal questions concerning European identities and various contested sites of engagement; there were papers on EU image politics; exhibitions and cultural identity; contemporary photography and cultural identity. A highlight to me was Max Liljefors’s fine-tuned reflections in his talk ”Bodies, Borders, and Bio-imaging: Biological Tropes and the Migrations of Persons and Organs To and in Europe” (which as several presentations these days showed the impact of Agamben on recent thinking and writing in visual culture). Together with Nina Lager Vestberg (NTNU) I presented the findings of a questionnaire, "Visual Culture in Europe," that we’ve been putting together over the last few months. We received mini-essays from 15 European scholars, and hope to share the responses in one way or another in the near future.
On the day after the conference those who were present from the research network agreed that next year’s Visual Culture in Europe conference will be in Trondheim in September, hosted by Nina and myself. We’re in the process of defining the thematics of that event, about which there will be more to say soon.
My first visit to Barcelona happily coincided with what the locals told me was a significant rise in temperature; I didn’t much miss the Norwegian spring weather, which has been consistently tragic. When I got up in the morning to leave, Bergen was rainy and cold at five degrees; in Barcelona we got near to thirty. The time I had outside of the seminar room was thus mostly spent sipping coffee in various plazas and walking around in the beautiful city enjoying the sun. I had time for two exhibitions though. Finally I had the chance to see Goya’s etchings in Los Desastres de la Guerra, which according to Susan Sontag represented ”a new standard for responsiveness to suffering” in art, and were exhibited in the Museu Diocesá right next to my hotel. And on my last afternoon I went over to the CaixaForum to see two video installations by Omer Fast, The Casting and the more recent Nostalgia, both brilliant, and the latter of which provided more than one afterthought to several of the discussions we had had over the last couple of days in Barcelona. When I stumbled out into the blinding brightness of the day after a couple of hours inside the gallery crowds marched the streets to protest healthcare budgets. Obama gestured from a news report on a screen in the Placa Espanya subway terminal, followed by updates from ongoing events in Libya, and the images and words from Fast’s highly resonant works stuck with me. –Ø.V.
March 17, 2011
The annual "Society for Cinema and Media Studies"-conference concluded last Sunday in New Orleans. The theme this year was "Media Citizenship," though, as usual, the numerous sessions charted a wide range of topics. Of special interest a propos the upcoming nomadikon conference in November was a panel titled "The Secret Life of Gestures." The performative aspect of gestures was highlighted in Eivind Røssaak's analysis of Hito Steyerl's Lovely Andrea and Christian Refsum's reading of Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Trond Lundemo, finally, presented a survey of attempts to classify and archive the gesture - from Muybridge's chronophotography to present-day motion capture techniques - pointing to the inherent paradox of this endeavor; since the gesture always is attached to a particular body, it remains ultimately unattainable. In all, the panel offered an enticing sample of Giorgio Agamben's proposition of a "gestural cinema." My own presentation focused on Jean-Luc Nancy's essay ‘Uncanny Landscape' in relation to the films of Claire Denis. -H.G.
February 27, 2011
This weekend I was fortunate enough to participate in "Cinema Across Media: The 1920s," the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema, an event presented by the Department of Film and Media at UC Berkeley and which, broadly speaking, focused on what one might call the transmedial history of cinema. While institutionally this is a brand new department, the film culture at UCB has obviously played an important part in the evolution of film studies as a discipline and field of research. It was here that the major journal Film Quarterly appeared in 1955, around the same time that Pauline Kael embarked on her vocation as a film critic for the New Yorker. Kael was also the director of the first repertory theater in the United States, the Berkeley Cinema Guild, and through these efforts she helped galvanize the growth of a burgeoning cinephilia on the West Coast. So vital was this film culture that the entrepreneur Ed Landsberg, Kael's husband, had to open a larger venue in Berkeley in 1961, The Fine Arts Cinema (once an ice cream factory, it was recently converted into a housing complex, and by sheer coincidence an apartment in that same building became my home in 2006-2007 when I was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley). In the 1970s a film program was established at UCB, the Film Group Major, founded by the English professor William Nestrick in collaboration with Bertrand August from Comparative Literature and Seymour Chatman from Rhetoric. A fertile period for Berkeley's film culture, that decade also saw the launch of three epochal cinema journals, Camera Obscura and Women and Film in 1972 (the latter until 1975) and Jump Cut in 1974. With such a rich history in screen studies it seemed quite appropriate that UCB should host such an extraordinarily successful and intellectually vibrant event.
The opening panel of the conference was dedicated to honoring the memory of Miriam Bratu Hansen, who passed away on February 5. It featured appreciations by moderator Mark Sandberg, Tom Gunning, Linda Williams and Daniel Morgan. In addition to keynotes by Paolo Cherchi Usai, Gert
rud Koch, Thomas Elsaesser, Anthony Vidler and Tom Gunning the conference highlighted the silent cinema's relation to other arts and media across a range of exciting panels with names such as "Film Artistry and Multimedia Practice," "Mobilizing the Archive: Projectors, Exhibitors, Industries," "Media Consolidation and Conglomeration" and "Cinema, Light, Architecture." As part of the program the Pacific Film Archive also screened Marcel L'Herbier's L'inhumaine (1924) and a selection of silent comedies from the late 1920s. -A.G.
January 3, 2011
Disasters of War
The University of Chicago Press Blog recently introduced a new feature, Traffic - "an exchange of thoughts between leading figures from across the humanities, social science, and the hard sciences, whose prescient views on current events help to share the way we interpret the world around us." The first of these conversations is between W.J.T. Mitchell and Tzvetan Todorov, whose new books are out on Chicago. -Ø.V.