GALLERY: Space Travel

Installations by Paul Spengemann, Helena Wittmann/Nika Breithaupt und Alexandre Larose

Wednesday - Sunday, 6 pm-2 am @ Festival Centre

Even though we easily slip into a story in the cinema and lose ourselves in forests, deserts, labyrinths and other forms of architecture, the camera’s recording still transports a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional plane. And, in spite of all the magic, we can’t enter that. Still the spatial illusion is the fundamental attribute of film, and this space should not just be understood as a narrated one or as a setting, but as a merely created or even destroyed or mythical one. A meta-illusionism, if you will. And maybe an even greater assertion of the medium, which also works once we are ›inside‹.

In the cinema, accepting a flat film image as a space of movement, time and experience is already facilitated by the visual condition of sitting in the dark while looking at a bright screen. Then there is the ›contract‹ between the cinema and the audience, which has often been celebrated by film theory and which states that the audience willingly allows itself to be drawn into the diegetic film world. In short, the filmic space has been central since cinema’s baptism in the fairground stalls.

So how exciting can it be when three film makers and a sound artist congregate installation versions, avulsions or recreations of their filmic œuvre in one exhibition room? Especially when it’s four artists who work very differently with filmic space?

On the one hand there is Paul Spengemann, who rearranges the room by tumbling from the ceiling, laterally intersecting the performance space and by alternating between crawling and high-flying perspectives, ruling out any attribution in the sense of ›Who-or-what-is-looking-here-anyway?‹. In his first animated work ›Walking Stick‹, he created an eponymous insect which is faking the look of a twig in its natural habitat while dwelling in Spengemann’s potted plant. Once it has left the hydroculture behind, it enters the unknown terrain of human home décor. Overassimilating, we see it sitting on a newspaper, purporting reading motions by moving its head from left to right. Another mimesis in which it seemingly cognitively acquisitions the foreign world through writing and language. This artistic evolutionary leap, this illustrated species change and the redefinition of a living space form the narrative of ›Walking Stick‹. All created by a computer and a space dismantling, dynamizing and redefining camera. For in the beginning was the eye. That’s its genesis.

›Wildness of Waves‹, in which Helena Wittmann had fixed her camera to the rigging and the deck of an unseen sailing ship, thus handing over control to the wind and the wave, can almost be seen as an antithesis of this. To the astonishingly extensively spatial sound by Nika Breithaupt, this works allows us to coast down a tremendous surface full of natural beauty. The sea and its subtle magic, this infinite entity of time and space, is experienced through the eyes and ears and not through reason. It’s the size of the element, the idea of the eternal existence which incidentally underpins the sensual experience with life’s great questions. The first image of the waves’ force and incessancy, this large and often black as liquorice blanket of water already takes us into the middle of a drama that combines human smallness, death and disintegration with the friction of beauty and threat.

It is precisely here where Alexandre Larose’s work ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹, which tells of a past of working in the mines, hollowed out natural giants and disappearing people, both fits in and disturbs. In his multiple exposures, Larose combines these images with his very subjective sense of time and space by putting his father in relation to past work in the mines and the resting zones of former workers. In different camera perspectives, he shows us spaces and places from more than a hundred years ago, thus creating different timelines which are only differentiated by their places. The shots, which were taken with a calm and frontal camera, turn into a distinct reinterpreted space in their overlaying simultaneity.

Text: Birgit Glombitza

Q&A Paul Spengemann

All your films share an incredibly dynamic photographic precision and the associated artisanal quality. For you as a film maker and video artist, to what degree is camera movement essential not only for pictorial design, but as an overriding artistic concept as well?

Paul Spengemann: I became familiar with film making by working with the camera. I started photographing early on and eventually ended up working as a camera assistant and later as a DOP. That’s why pictorial design has always been an integrative element for me as well as a neat assignment which allowed me to participate in lots of different productions, including documentary, fictional and commercial ones.

What is the connection between your works in your opinion? Is there something akin to a permanent crossing of rooms, a search for yet unexplored visual territories?

To create connections between my works would militate against my naïve attempt to do everything differently with each new work. Whether I succeed at that is another question, of course, after all, you can’t step out of yourself in the end. The world passes through this weird ›self‹, and then there’s a reaction. That’s the work. Done.

In ›Walking Stick‹ you use animation to create an artificial species which finds its biotope in your private rooms. Is the impression accurate that you optically create this habitat with your tumbling, flying, crawling camera, thus giving the viewing apparatus life of its own, if not a creature-like existence?

What a neat observation! At the moment, I can make a lot of use of a crawling posture, and if that translates itself in one place or another into all segments of the film, something must be working right. For this film I wanted to work with a viewing apparatus which enters a weird symbiotic relationship with the virtual stick insect’s 13 crawling little sticks. For this I offensively dabbled with the speech forms of wildlife films. I wanted to take this format, which has always been caught in the conflict between entertainment, scientific nature and responsibility, into my own home. In that sense, everything that’s crawling and scuttling there is also a product of how we picturize nature.

Last year, your works were presented leaning between columns and directly on the floor at Produzentengalerie Hamburg. Daylight and the shadows of the window crosses transformed the exhibition room into a picture room with the simplistic, very cinematic play of light and shadow. How did this staging come to pass?

It’s of essential importance to me that works enter a dialogue of some kind with their exhibition room. I think it’s important that my work is exposed to pre-existing things. I try to deal with a given situation, refer to it and not refuse turning this involvement into something productive. A key moment during my time at the university was when I presented my rather classical narrative short film ›Philosophieren‹ for one evening in the university’s library instead of a cinema. I was fascinated by two things coming together, interacting and lending new life to each other, even though they initially didn’t belong together. I accept windows in a room, as in the above-mentioned exhibition. I only darken them a little in order to create a democratic relationship between technically necessary conditions for the work and its exhibition room. It’s an additional boon for me when looking at the work allows the perception of the outside world, especially when the formation of shadows makes time itself visible. In moments like these, the work becomes truly alive, since each repetition of the identically looped film shows something different, which at times is not even under my control anymore.

›Walking Stick‹ will also get a classical presentation in this year’s German Competition, thus finding its way into the black box of the cinema. How do you think will the reception differ in a room with fixed chairs from one in which the viewers can move freely within a cacophony of different works? What kind of perception did you initially have in mind while conceiving ›Walking Stick‹? After all, it all involves mounting pictures and texts as well.

My naïve interest for all my works lies in my intention for them to work anywhere. That’s why it’s so important for me that they could be screened in very simple conditions. In the case of ›Walking Stick‹ there is one image track and two sound tracks. From a technical standpoint, that’s all there is, allowing it to work in both cinemas and exhibitions. I view this simple concept as analogous to the likewise very simple production conditions of my work. In my last three works, I confined myself to one room as a setting for the shooting, hoping that creating these simplistic conditions will lead to thinking about complicated matters. For me, it’s part of the works’ identities that they work differently, maybe for the better or for the worse, at different places. In the end, this is the moment where I am getting something back. I think it’s important that they are exposed to ›risqué‹ conditions, since that’s the only way for me to get ahead and to gain experiences for the next steps, because in the end, participating and not withdrawing into some secure cultural rooms is crucial to me. After all, I want to have a say as well, preferably in all rooms!

Q&A Helena Wittmann und Nika Son

The shooting of your first feature length film Drift, which very vaguely tells the story of a scientist crossing the Atlantic ocean and which has been touring festivals since its sensational premiere in Venice, is the origin of the images used in the installation: What visual ideas did you start with, what were the axioms for recording, camera position, movement, cadrage?

Helena Wittmann: For us, the film which eventually became ›Drift‹ was always akin to a sun around which other projects can develop like satellites. Still we perceive these works as independent. They developed out of aspects which we encountered during our work and which we deemed valuable enough for additional attention. In that way, ›Wildness of Waves‹ contains many images which weren’t shot for the film.

With ›Drift‹, we only decided to focus on the sea’s movement when we were on board of our ship ›Chronos‹. The movement felt decisive for our sensual experience, it influenced us so strongly that it left us no alternative. In a way, it put itself into the focus. This resulted in the decision to fixate the camera by mounting the camera on a tripod. The ocean’s movement transfers itself very immediately and very simply to the ship, the camera, the image. There are no panning or tracking shots. The camera is moved by the ocean and the ship.

Early on, as my interest for the sea was developing, I thought of the sea as a gigantic projection surface. I called it monster projection surface. That’s how I perceive the ocean for ›Drift‹. That’s how I perceive cinema.

How did you develop the idea for the installation ›Wildness of Waves‹? How did you get from the 2D of the cinema and the feature film, which very vaguely tells the story of a researcher’s sea passage and which has been moving from festival to festival ever since its spectacular premiere, over the twin-channel 2x2D installation to the multiple room which the milling exhibition audience can experience?

Helena: ›Wildness of Waves‹ emerged when ›Drift‹ was being edited. At that time, Nika and I hadn’t dared to approach the sea part yet. We saw the installation as a great opportunity for openly and impartially approaching the material. In a way cinema is stricter than the exhibition room. The framework conditions are very different regarding the room, the resulting possibilities, the audience and its expectations.

›Wildness of Waves‹ is about waves. They are complex, spatial, three-dimensional, they expand. Their rhythm is deceptive and constantly changing. Since our imagery is limited to two dimensions, I thought it would make sense to have these two dimensions at least twice in our installation and to work with these two levels while using doublings, repetitions, counterpoints and long passages.

We also followed our wish to collect our three specialities – ethnology/science (Theresa George), sound (Nika) as well as imagery and narration (me) –  in one evening, not only thinking in an interdisciplinary fashion, but acting according to it as well. The installation was framed by a lecture about monster waves held by anthropologist Stefan Helmreichs and a talk between him and Theresa. This worked well, it felt like taking a little trip together.

How did the sound develop for ›Wildness of Waves‹ and in which way is it conceptually different from that of ›Drift‹?

Nika Son: We both knew that for ›Drift‹, the sea part would pose the greatest challenge in the editing process and on the sound level. While working on ›Wildness of Waves‹, we tried to abandon all narrative, content-related and formal boundaries that the film demands during the editing process along with our expectations. Initially, we approached the material independently of each other and decided to compose the aural part first and the imagery afterwards. The journey wasn’t that far in the past yet, so all the images and sounds were still pretty close to us, and it was exciting to re-immerse ourselves in the unsteady rhythm, sounds and depths of the sea. Without the weight of the cinematic framework, it took me only one day (and a night) for the composition, which partially wrote itself. I was practically sucked in. While arranging, I naturally had images in my head. Those were my own, but still they were shared ones, since we had all collectively experienced the journey over the ocean.

Unlike ›Drift‹, the installation shows underwater shots. The camera pierces through the surface which it intensely scanned in the film. Now this is a linear vertical diving down, with its inherent sculptural aspect. Did it play a role in the installation?

Helena: Since we were all about the waves, I had to enter the waves themselves. Their force is unbelievable. Under water, the movement of the waves only becomes visible in an oblique way, either through refractions or when the waves move other visible elements, such as grains of sand, plants, bodies and particles. On the surface, it doesn’t look like it, but when waves break at a coast, they create quite a chaos. Diving into the depths creates another level as well, creating a strong vertical dimension in addition to the horizontal dimension of the horizon. We were only able to intuit and imagine this in ›Drift‹.

The sculptural aspect wasn’t part of the concept, but then again, I always consider my editing process to be inherently sculptural. I never exclusively approach it in a linear fashion, but in levels and layers. I think Nika’s approach is similar. The sound level of all our mutual works share a great dynamic range. I understand that in a spatial sense as well.

Nika: Absolutely. I too always think sculpturally in my work with sounds and noises. Once modulated, a single sinus wave opens up a room and develops perspectives, which I can direct in all possible directions by using different parameters. Adding a second wave makes the room bigger, more complex, and condenses it. For the sea part of ›Drift‹ I also used underwater recording which create a completely new perception in combination with images from above the water surface. There is so much happening under water which will be forever hidden from us. Maybe you can imagine this world best with musical means, leaving the frame of the recorded image and telling unexperienced stories from the depths.

Q&A Alexandre Larose

Your film ›Brouillard - Passage #14‹ received the Hamburg International Short Film Award at our festival in 2014. It features multiple exposures of 35mm film all showing the same passage leading down to a lake. The way leads through different seasons and layers of images and is strikingly and pointillistically beautiful. Which artistic road did you choose that lead you to ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹?

Alexandre Larose: Initially my impetus in this project was to find myself in isolated conditions, in a space and a culture I wasn’t familiar with. I also wanted to work with the film medium, knowing I wouldn’t be able to process any of the material prior to my return to Canada. That tension is something I tend to look for when I work: not being able to control all the variables, focusing on process and the unpredictable qualities of the medium. The work somehow responds to this context, although I didn’t anticipate how exactly at the time.

Two years ago ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹ was presented as an installation in New Zealand for the first time. It uses images of a derelict gold mine, the interior rooms of a former billiard saloon and finally in superimposed layers images of your father as well. What was the process that brought those places, times and finally your father together in a conceptional way?

In retrospect I wonder if this project indirectly asks what it means to age: what does the passage of time produce on a physical body, whether a landscape, a house or eventually a human being? What traces do they leave as evidence of their resistance? The sand and quartz dunes around the Blue Lake in Saint Bathans were the trigger point. They’re part of the heritage left by the gold-mining industry, which sluiced out an entire hill over a period of about 70 years. The house I inhabited was one of the few original constructions that remain in the village as well. The mud-brick surfaces, the windows, doors, most had been preserved and contained, much like the landscape outside, traces of temporal erosion. I find that the accumulated filming of these exteriors and domestic spaces end up revealing or accentuating the grooves carved by this action of time. And this process is very much mirrored in the filming methodology, where the celluloid emulsion – itself a physical body – is cyclically exposed to changing light, over time.

Your installation is set up in a way which lets the audience circle around it and contemplate it from both sides. What kind of connotations does this set up and the special gaze of the screen entail in your opinion?

The back projected screen allows for a very intimate viewing of the material. You can get as close as you want without casting a shadow. And you can almost touch what you see, which is something definitely not possible in the cinema theatre. With this particular setup I also acknowledge the surface of projection. The content is visible because light is intercepted at a very precise distance from the beam. Images in this way are ephemeral, vulnerable. I find that the translucent fabric screen emphasizes that aspect even more. Something fascinating that happened accidentally the first time it was shown was the double-image appearing beyond the suspended screen. A white back wall was a few meters behind and made visible part of the light that filtered through the fabric, forming a slightly out-of-focus and delayed image. Wandering spectators could position themselves in between these artificial layers and momentarily inhabit the filmed spaces.

Would you agree that by moving from one layer of the images to the next, from one exposure to another you also expand the filmic space and the events in their given time by synchronies on the one hand and multiple spaces on the other hand?

This is a very interesting observation. Though I feel like to interpret the material in this way one needs to understand how it was fabricated. Perhaps the presence of my father activates this reading of the work? The slight variations in his gestures do make visible the interstices between the accumulated temporal layers. It’s really because of his movement across or within the frame that in some ways the process of filming becomes visible as well. In that sense the multiple recordings do in a way expand the spaces and events: it gives them an additional weight and grounds all that is static.

Your work has also been screened in the cinema, for example at the IFF Rotterdam. With a fixed screen and static seating – wouldn’t ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹ lose some of its aspects of spatiality in such a setting? How does cinema work for you in this particular surroundings and what aspects might even be added?

Although it does prevent the spatial encounter with the screen, projecting this work in cinemas on the other hand focuses the attention on the images: the construction, the editing and the narrative trajectory. In some ways, cinemas are ideal spaces of visual/aural concentration because it mutes all surrounding distractions. So although I was initially reluctant in taking ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹ out of the gallery, I think it does produce an experience of its own.

Why was it important to you to include your father as an element of time and images? And how does he feel about his own inclusion?

I have been working with my parents for a couple of years now, documenting staged enactments of their everyday lives as filmed layers. At some point through the residency in New Zealand I started to figure out what I was really doing and my father became a central figure in the conceptualization of the work. His inclusion inscribes ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹ within a larger theme that I’m still very much involved in at the moment. It also juxtaposes the portrayed cultural heritage of the filmed landscapes and interiors with my own, making the work perhaps more intimate. How does he feel about his own inclusion? Very good question.

Did this installation and the way it is presented alter the way you perceive your own filmic work? Is it a shift toward exhibitions and the art world and do you have any new plans for the future?

I have been experimenting with moving image spatialization for a while, too. ›Brouillard‹ also has multiple exhibition strategies, including looped gallery projection. To install ›Saint Bathans Repetitions‹ is a continuation of this on-going investigation. The aspects of scale and screen presence are definitely parameters that I feel can really affect how these works are experienced in a gallery context. The moving image content becomes sculptural and potentially forms a whole with the projection apparatus; whereas the cinema space conceals anything that could distract the perception of what’s on the screen. Plans for the future definitely tend towards exploring more of how the gallery space transforms or augments the moving image material I’m generating.

Supported by Botschaft Government of Canada