02.11.2017 by Alejandro Bachmann
"What if we simply do not accept the inscriptions of a camera?"
A conversation with the filmmaker and artist Philipp Fleischmann.
Alejandro Bachmann: Your work was one of the first that came to my mind when I started participating in the RESET THE APPARATUS! project because it deals with the apparatus on a number of levels, which I would like to address in our conversation. Obviously, a work such as Cinematographie (2009) is – at its very core – interested in what an apparatus is, how it functions, how it can be altered, or reset. I have heard you talk about it on a number of occasions now, and, if I understood correctly, the point of departure was a misunderstanding with regards to something that Peter Kubelka, himself, an artist very much interested in the capacities of the apparatus, regularly talks about.
Philipp Fleischmann: True, the filmic apparatus and the various concepts that are inscribed into it are very central to my work with film. The 16mm film you mentioned, Cinematographie, is actually the result of my very first encounter with the medium of analog film. In 2006/2007 I studied at the school for independent film and artistic photography of Friedl Kubelka in Vienna, which was not only a crucial education in art for me, but also introduced me to the art form of film and the history of experimental cinema. At one point, the head of the school presented to us the work of Peter Kubelka, notably Arnulf Rainer from 1960, by showing the score of frames which the work is based on. I remember sentences like „film deconstructed to its basic elements“, „a truly purist approach to the medium of film“ or „a radical abandonment of cinema that is concerned with depiction and representation of reality“, this impressed me very much. I had not seen the film Arnulf Rainer yet, but its mere concept and thinking was utterly mesmerizing to me. During a film workshop, I finally had the chance to directly engage with analog film myself. I was expecting “to see” Arnulf Rainer on the filmstrip. Black frames or white frames. As I was taught that the frames are the basic and essential elements of film, I was convinced that they must be on the material of film itself. But I happened to have a blank 16mm filmstrip in my hands. There was nothing on it! No frames were to be seen! It was a celluloid filmstrip of 16mm with sprocket holes – that was all. This misunderstanding on my behalf raised important questions for me, though. Where does the concept of „frame“ come from and what does it stand for? This lead me to an investigation to the very apparatus of the film camera and the notion that it is thinking in units of frames.
AB: And this investigation led to yet another camera, yet unheard of, which you used for Cinematographie but also for Untitled (Generali Foundation Vienna) and Main Hall. And while all of these works are very different from each other, what they have in common is a camera that does not separate what it registers into the unit of the frame but rather becomes a tool to continuously register space on a film strip. How would you think of this camera in relation to Kubelka’s interest in the single frame, in how far does it rethink the medium of film and where does this thought lead you?
PF: The different cameras I construct for my analog filmmaking are technically based on the same principle, that of a spacious camera obscura surrounding the filmstrip in its entire length (unlike the filmstrip being rolled up and then put into the camera). Yet, their actual form and their specific intention varies from project to project. Let me first come back to the filmic camera and its conceptual inscriptions. The traditional architecture of a filmic apparatus is already thinking how to engage with the world around you before you actually start filming. The maker is thought to be invisibly positioned behind the viewfinder. The camera-apparatus is a spacious body, which is not visible in the image it creates. The gaze is put into a rectangular frame, and this frame depicts and represents physical reality in a central-perspective manner. This is all done 24 times a second, of course, in order to achieve a smooth representation of space, time and movement that somehow equals our human perception. But what if this form of representation is not the concern? What if we simply do not accept the inscriptions of a camera? What if we do not agree with how the traditional camera makes use of the filmstrip? The analog filmstrip itself doesn’t necessarily think in frames. It’s a continuous light sensitive strip which can be inscribed with different concepts of recording and depicting. This lead me to the idea of constructing my own apparatus and to enter physical space with it. Once I freed my mind from the concept of the traditional apparatus, I felt I was able to do whatever I wanted to do and create my own relationships between the material and the subject matter of the recording. All of a sudden filmmaking felt more “sculptural” and less like a purely visual medium. My work in the last couple of years has really been about investigating that area.
Regarding your question about the unit of the frame, I simply wanted to get rid of the frames all together! They are to me the product of the industrial, representational camera and its concerns. Structural filmmaking has obviously an enormous influence on me. I admire the thinking and the unique areas explored by artists like Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow or VALIE EXPORT. Yet, in accepting the single frame as the smallest and essential unit of filmmaking, I simply do not agree.
AB: What differentiates Untitled and Main Hall from Cinematographie then, is that you transfer museum spaces onto the filmstrip by means of your self-constructed camera. In Untitled this is the gallery space of the former Generali Foundation in Vienna and the camera is a long art-object placed in the space, in Main Hall it is the main exhibition hall of the Secession - which, if I am not mistaken, is the place where the first White Cube was installed – and the camera is placed all along the walls of that space. What strikes me in both instances is that you are confronting, or are bringing into contact, one apparatus with the other – the film with the exhibition space...
PF: The apparatus of Cinematographie is basically a circle designed of a 30 meter long camera. Inside the camera, two 16mm filmstrips are placed next to each other - one facing the outside, one facing the inside of that very apparatus. At one moment, we – the people standing inside that circle – expose this construction, the apparatus, to its surroundings, which in this case are both the inside and the outside of the circle. Light enters into the construction simultaneously from every angle via small pinholes, and a continuous image is inscribed on the two filmstrips. The apparatus of Cinematographie expands the material of film into actual space. It wants to question the hierarchy usually inscribed into a filmic camera. Here, the gazing subject is no longer invisible behind the apparatus and its monocular point of view. The construction of the film (the apparatus and the people using it) is as present and important as the image the device depicts. I placed this apparatus in a forest and loaded it with 16mm b/w material. For me, this work is pretty much about its own construction and tries to highlight questions of orientation in a not clearly defined environment. But you are absolutely right: the actual space becomes way more prominent in the following films that deal with exhibition spaces. After Cinematographie, I did puzzle a few years what this spacious apparatus actually means and how to continue with analog filmmaking. In the meantime, I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna with Dorit Margreiter, which were very important and shaping years for me. We engaged a lot in questions about the format of exhibiting, the role of institutions and how to possibly deal with this set-up as an artist. I do mention my art studies, because I feel like thoughts, ideas and motivations do not come from a place of nowhere and an education rightfully should play an important role in one’s development. However, as we know, art history and film history, as shall we say, have a historically complicated relationship. Reading texts of artists, important to the field of institutional critique (like Daniel Buren or Michael Asher, for example), gave me this abstract notion that the very concerns of critical thinking in relation to the exhibition space are actually somehow very close to the critical thinking of structural filmmaking towards film. In my work, I became very interested in trying to think the fields of film and art in relationship to another. You could say, as you do, that it is about bringing two apparatus that make something visible, in contact with each other – the filmic camera and the exhibition space. The way how the material of film is put in relationship to the exhibition space, varies in both instances though. For example, I consider Main Hall not a film, but an art exhibition with the means of the medium of analog film. The frame of reference for Main Hall is a long tradition of solo exhibitions by various artists that took place at the main exhibition hall of the Vienna Secession.
To put it shortly, many of the artists deal, in one way or another, with the history of the space itself and its status as one of the first white cubes in art history. In my research, I was especially interested in exhibitions that work with the concept of site-specificity. I simply wanted to add a site-specific exhibition myself – but with the means and thinking of analog film. The spatial apparatus I constructed for Main Hall, functions like a tool. These devices make it possible to see the point of view of the architecture gazing at itself. Whereas in Untitled (Generali Foundation Vienna), the apparatus is thought of as an art object itself, which is displayed at the former exhibition hall of the Generali Foundation as such. I was curious to think of an object not only as something that can be exhibited but also as a form that has its own point of view. A material shape that is potentially able of gazing (and not only of being looked at). So Untitled (Generali Foundation Vienna) definitely is a film! Maybe one could call it an “object film”.
AB: It is interesting to hear how you getting involved with artistic practices of institutional critique, shaped Main Hall and Untitled, because I always had the notion that your interest in let’s call it „that which shapes perception, that which gives form“ and an urge to change and play with that already seems present in According the Script, which predates your involvement with analog film. Here you seem to take apart that which shapes commercial cinema, which could also be thought of as an apparatus….
PF: You are already hinting at a crucial term for this project - commercial cinema. According the Script is based on the 2006 teen horror movie Dead in 3 Days directed by Andreas Prochaska and produced by Allegro Film. The film itself was not really my core of interest nor a subject I was specifically critical about. It was the film's very pre and post-production that caught my attention. To be more specific, it was a public casting, which was very present in the media before they started shooting the film. “I’m sure the next big acting talent is somewhere hidden in Austria, just waiting to be discovered.” Such sentences from the film director were quite present in the media and were used to attract young people to the casting. They basically made a public rally throughout Austria, something which reminded me more of TV productions like “The next best _______ (fill in as you wish)”. One could say, the target audience that should go to the cinema to watch the film (and buy the DVD afterwards) was addressed by suggesting that they themselves could potentially be the next shooting star in a film. Producing and casting became marketing. Of course, the production found their cast for Dead in 3 Days and the film became a big success in Austria and internationally. Though, once the film was out, not a single review had anything critical to say about the process and the strategies of its casting. It was simply reviewed as a feature film. One, which successfully put the idea of making genre movies to the Austrian film scene. I thought something was missing and I started this project. I re-staged the production of the film as an art project. I re-shot the casting, I re-shot a scene of the feature film and I re-shot interviews of the DVD’s making-of. Everything was done with the young adolescents who came to the casting for of my film, According the Script. The title actually refers to the strategy of this work. Everything was done according to the original source. I worked with the same casting director, for example, the applicants had to read the same texts, the scene of the feature film was an exact 1:1 remake of the original movie, etc. Although each part is shot in variations and each version offers a different cast. Having the specific genre of a “teen horror movie” in mind, I wanted to question common criteria of casting. What are the reasons for choosing someone for a specific part? Talent? Look? Sex? Gender? Genre-specific rules? My variations of the cast were aimed to reflect upon that and offer some possibilities. With According the Script, I wanted to mimic something that already existed as detailed as possible, so when you are watching it, you accept what you see as “the real thing”, so to say. I wanted to be as close to the commercial filmic apparatus as possible in order to achieve a critical dialog. At one point, I even offered Allegro Film to put my project as a bonus on the dvd of their sequel Dead in 3 Days 2. I would have loved that! There obviously was some humor in that offer. Needless to say that it did not happen. So, even though According the Script was all shot digital (Dvpal, Hdv, Hdcam), you are right, one could see shared concerns with my analog filmmaking.
AB: I guess what kind of weaves your work together then could be called an interest in how perception is created, standardized and thus becomes natural – may that be how the analog camera records the world, how a white cube creates a space to perceive art or how a commercial film casts its actors. And in a way this is the basic notion I feel at work in the idea of "resetting the apparatus": To grab what is given, take it apart and re-accumulate it. To see what else is possible when we let go of what is normally given as the set of possibilities. While this might be a basic notion of making art, it nevertheless surprises me, that we see practices like this flourishing at the very moment when the world around us is often perceived as providing too many options, basically making everything possible. The way digital images are marketed are a good example of this: Now everyone can make any form of image, it is freed from financial restraints, it is freed from having to depict what it finds in reality, it is even freed from the usual ways of distribution. And in that very moment artists turn their attention to analog film not only to use it but to actually reconfigure it and find new ways, and even more possibilities…..
PF: There are obviously many different reasons why contemporary artists choose to work with analog film. I personally think that one reason might lie underneath them all. It is not only a question of aesthetics which is specific to this medium. (That would actually feel quite nostalgic to me) The current turn to analog film might be driven by the threat to loose a certain connection to history. An analog film camera, a 16mm or 35mm filmstrip does somehow – concrete and physically - bring one right back in contact with film history and film's status in society and culture at specific moments in time. What does the digital camera apparatus or the digital image tell us about the Lumière Brothers? About the films of Man Ray? The cinema of Maya Deren? Stan Brakhage? Kurt Kren? Not much, I would argue. To me, analog film continues to be the key to access the path of independent voices in film making. This is highly important to me. Of course, you’re right - the digital image-making has great potential and its endless and immediate reproducibility seems to fit much better to our current society. It is not really my thing, but that is where we are right now. Though I think that artists, as well as cinema/museum visitors, art lovers, theorists, writers, curators, museum directors, publishers, film distributors, do not want to accept the idea that the digital would be the natural replacement of the analog. It just is not. There is still so much to discover in analog filmmaking! If the constant industrial threat of the “end of analog film” has a positive side to it, it is exactly this: it creates a new awareness, a broader interest, the freedom to reconfigure and rethink, and motivates more and more people to make analog films. That is wonderful. It certainly motivates me. I want to see things I have not seen yet.