«Places and Monuments» – Transforming the Temporal Flux

At the outset of each of the individual episodes in the Places and Monuments series, I film live action images which are subsequently subjected to a series of digital manipulations, and then to interventions on a frame-by-frame basis using animation techniques. Filming takes place in various locations throughout the world; the objective for the transformations, to which the primary footage is subject, is to elaborate on the significance as well as underline the immanent links in such a way, through an accumulation of segments from a wide geographical spread, that a comprehensive image of the real world ensues. This vast project entails these individual components being drawn from the seemingly mundane course of daily life.


This project is rooted in my constant practice of interweaving animated images with those taken in the real world, which over the course of the years have been endowed with varied and even on occasion opposing values. At the outset, it was a case of testing animation images in terms of filming the “real” world, to which I had attributed, somewhat naively, the status of “real” so as to offset the fantastical levity of the animated images. This can be evidenced in my film Memories of War (1982).


Eventually, this polarity underwent a volte-face, notably, in my feature film The Human Plant (1996) where it was more a case of real images being put to test by the animated images in such a way as to put into perspective, in this particular case, the so-called realism of the live footage. At the same time, there were several attempts where, beyond this analytical dichotomy, I made use of animation to transform our way of seeing real images, (Etienne and Sara 1984, Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World – the Subway 1984 and Adieu Bipède 1987) and to infuse them with poetic virtue. Places and Monuments constitutes a sequel to this series.


Over the course of the performance tours Living Cinema, the musician Bob Ostertag and myself often introduced, in addition to the main piece, a short improvisation based on images shot that very day at a location in the city where we happened to be performing. Over time this gave rise to my interest with “places”. On January 19th, 2005 in Rome, we chose as our theme the statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo dei Fiori. This was the first manifestation of a monument, in the true sense of the term, as a chosen location, and it resulted in the film: The Statue of Giordano Bruno. This indeed was the starting point for the Places and Monuments project.


With my subsequent film, Herqueville (2007), which also deals with a specific locality, a minimalist approach with animation––together with some crucial digital manipulations––took prominence, setting a precedent as to what was later to become my methodological basis for Places and Monuments.


This manner of conceiving linkages between real footage and animation, following the principle of minimum intervention, strikes me as being rather unusual. Generally speaking, the interweaving of real and animation images is conceived so as to follow a particular visual logic of foreground/background in which one expects the animation work to be expressive and display a certain virtuosity. In Places and Monuments, however, the animation comes into its own in the “cracks within the image”, implying that every image is “cracked”, and moreover, generally speaking, it remains unobtrusive, rarely if ever taking center stage and avoids, in as much as is possible, any rhetorical excesses.


That which I am aiming for is that animated images, rather than being posited as an autonomous form of discourse, fracture as it were the real image and subsequently penetrate it, or again appear to emanate therefrom. Either way, they remain absolutely contingent upon the graphic and dynamic configurations of the primary footage so as to influence the way in which spectators perceive the images, and to provide them with a dynamic intensity that at once shatters that latency and muteness often acquired at the outset.


Consequently, if animation remains totally contingent to the form and content of real images, these, in turn, find themselves completely transformed so as to re-penetrate this formal and meaningful “convulsion” that the inclusion, however minimal, of animated images trigger. Their quantitative contribution aside, the aim is for a total inter-penetration between both categories of image, that effectively render them qualitatively contingent upon each other.


This ascetic approach involving little or no animation developed gradually. Starting out from the radical standpoint, whereby animated interventions were duly restricted to an absolute minimum, this approach mutated over time into the practice of incremental interventions, invariably minimal, invariably based on the contrast between the limited scope of a line and the extent of the consequences – a sort of butterfly effect – which through its cumulative nature enables much more substantial constructions, as can be seen in my latest work, John Cage, Halberstadt. These constructions are not the culmination of a planned schema, but rather ensue from a progressive repetition of minimal strokes, which hits upon its own particular form during the process.


This animation work is preceded by a phase of digital manipulations that take the form of a stripping down and reconstructing the various visual components of the primary footage. In referring to “stripping down and reconstructing”, I am not merely alluding to procedures used in conventional film-editing such as selecting certain rushes and re-organizing them in a linear fashion, but rather to much more radical interventions that even utterly transform the spatiality of a given image by cutting it into both its spatial and temporal fragments. What ensues is a profound re-configuration of the image, that recomposes and compresses it as it were over a much shorter and more condensed time-scale.


These digital manipulations are thus intended to “densify” the resources to hand. And notwithstanding the fact that these interventions sometimes modify the original image considerably, the reference to the real, as in the original footage, has not been ruptured, and still comes across unmistakably as a form of commentary on the real, and not some series of phantasmagorical images with little or no bearing to the original footage. Interlinking threads, which are not obvious at first glance, come into focus and the mere semblance of appearances, without depth, transforms into a stratified system of relations and convergences.


Densification is a centripetal process that encumbers depiction. While it’s possible to increase the scope of denotations, inertia sets in. Hence the need for animation to activate this mass, to intensify it, by tapping into its remarkable potential energy. This “intensification” is a centrifugal process that enables a lightening up of this densely stratified and compact material, ultimately giving way to the emergence of a profusion of meanings.


From the outset my shooting routine follows certain simple guidelines that must take into consideration in advance the subsequent animated and digital procedures to which the footage will be subjected. Insisting on static takes during filming, allows a clear conceptual separation of the “place” as such, filmed in its immobility in terms of space and persistence in time, independent of all moving elements within the frame that have been caught on camera. The fixity of the frame renders the chosen location an image of permanence. And moreover, establishing a fixed frame greatly facilitates both the subsequent digital manipulation and animated interventions.


My first consideration is the choice of locality and the manner in which it testifies to a particular historical episode or memory, and its insertion into the time-span. Other vectors are the temporal construction to which the place itself becomes enmeshed in a constantly singular fashion, the past, the present and the future, the presence or absence of a monument, the character of a site which could be perceived as a monument, and finally, the people, the anonymous crowds who stroll about the vicinity. What counts is the manner in which one looks at the place itself. It is recorded as a unique spatial and temporal construction above and beyond the mere factual and obscure proceedings, captured as it becomes an allegory in Benjamin’s sense of the term. The formal directions herein outlined have neither importance nor relevance insofar as they render possible this trans-substantiation of the place itself and the time spent there. Consequently, these directions can be disregarded if and when necessary.


With this particular project the act of filming is considered a unique occasion: It is not conceived as simply gathering raw materials, but rather as the beginning of a cognitive process. In principle, my starting point is that “something” will eventually transpire somewhere, or at a given location; if I have the necessary patience and staying power to continue filming, a fissure will eventually appear. In this context, however, the notion of “anywhere” isn’t particularly useful, not in the earlier stages at any rate. In reality the formidable constraints of setting up (positioning and adjusting the camera in a public space while dealing with questions from passers-by as to what I’m doing there) as well as the energy and necessary determination render it nigh on impossible to film just “anywhere”. One needs to approach this choice with a busy mind, futile though this might seem. This implies a procedure, which in conventional cinema, is referred to as location scouting.


I thus have to search out a suitable location, but the prerequisites for such a search are not easily definable insofar as I am constantly pursuing the unexpected. In the beginning, before I had truly realized the scale of this project, opportunities to film randomly arose without any conscious volition on my part during the course of my performance tours. I was confronted with situations where the only thing I could do was film. Once the project assumes a structured form, I need at the very least to specify a methodology, given the lack of precise criteria.


Then, there is the question of “monuments”. Monuments play a pivotal role in the project, primarily in a metaphorical sense. I thus refer to “monument” in the broader sense of the term. Consequently, it’s not per se indispensable that a monument in the vintage sense of the word always features in the footage. However, in order to define a given site as a “monument” – which perhaps in the more literal sense could not be thus described – I had to film enough “authentic” monuments so that the theme could function as a touchstone for the entire series.

What, then, fascinates me about monuments? One thing is for sure; their commemorative aspect links them to a historically linked time scale. In this respect, they serve as a model for film making, which, in the end, should become a monument of sorts, as a celebration of time. As soon as they are erected, all monuments––whose essential function is to commemorate––point to past events. This univocality doesn’t interest me; rather, with my films I seek to create a more flexible and complex relationship with time and memory in which several layers of meanings could come into play, and where forgetting and what has been forgotten play a decisive role. This approach generally excludes monuments which are too well-known, whose commemorative branding has forged such a profound impression that it counteracts any interpretation other than the prescribed one.


Monuments also interest to me due to the fact that they inevitably––thanks largely to their commemorative aspect––demarcate public space. That this public aspect is at once well known and inspires admiration has no bearing on the matter, especially given that we are living through a time in which public space, generally speaking, is in decline, and all the while increasingly under attack from diverse forms of privatization and militarization. These films, as it were, constitute an apologia for public space as a corner stone of democracy.


Consequently, this project is underpinned by an interest in anonymous crowds who move about in public spaces around monuments, or even those sites that pass for one, focusing on the man among the crowd such as depicted by Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. An attentiveness thus to the tension between files of people weighed down by life’s difficulties and the hushed monuments whose commemorative significance has been sundered from the vibrancy of its surroundings, in as much as historical monuments more often than not commemorate the powerful by having us forget the past, a phenomenon that is becoming so prevalent in modern-day societies.


Returning to the question of methodology in the search for filming locations, it isn’t by mere coincidence that I refer to the figure of the flaneur in this regard, as expounded by Walter Benjamin. The only way of locating “places” is to embrace the absent-minded stance of someone ambling aimlessly throughout the city streets, in search of “places” that in the main are unknown to me, and that harbor the potential to become “dialectic images” or, to borrow yet another of Benjamin’s terms, “thought figures”.


This image of the flaneur likewise typifies the manner in which filming occurs, particularly in the sense that I need to film for protracted periods so as to enable these micro events to happen, without in any way forcing things. This moreover describes the vital absented-minded stance I adopt so as to avoid a too head-on approach with the subject, and to enable filming to take place. As a rule of thumb I make no attempt to conceal the camera, and yet act as though I wasn’t present by assuming the air of a stationary passer-by waiting on something or other, with little or no interest in what is happening directly around me. It often transpires that it is only after the fact, by looking at the results of the day’s rushes shot through a “flaneur’s” gaze that the essential elements––that hitherto went unnoticed—surface from the mass of micro events.


It is in this way that I wander bemusedly from continent to continent, with the aim of creating, by means of these impromptu filmings of seemingly non-consequential things, an oblique image of our world in crisis.