Our Film/Video staff surveys the world of moving image art from classic to global, experimental to digital.
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where […]
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where articulation and circulation have become profoundly interwoven through the burgeoning availability of self-publishing platforms, the essay has persevered as a remarkably contemporary form. After all, the conventions of the essay already incorporate crucial attributes of contemporary circulation: translation, interpretation, quotation and citation, and an indefinite lifespan of reprinting (legally or not). And while the essay has continued to be the mainstay of traditional scholarship, its malleability has allowed it to filter into other contexts similarly engaged with issues of narrative and circulation—nowhere more so than “essay film.”
A notoriously murky genre, essay film is nonetheless emphatic about its authorship, often rendering argument through voice-over commentary and presenting images as if they were evidence, despite the fact that essay film draws equally from both fiction and fact. Film critic André Bazin was one of the first to define the term “essay film” in his review of filmmaker and artist Chris Marker’s Letters from Siberia (1957), where Bazin described the film’s persuasiveness as follows:
I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence.
The essay’s characteristic self-consciousness about process, language, and structure—essentially, its hyper-attentiveness to its own form—is what allowed it to so seamlessly insert into the obsessions of narrative filmmaking, like Marker’s. But there are two key differences of use between essay and essay film: firstly, where the scholarly essay hopes to present a truth, the artist’s essay film seeks to engender vision; and where the scholar maintains the conventions of the essay, the artist regards it merely as a strategy that can be redirected to other ends.
Attentive to such distinctions, artist Thom Andersen examines the porosity between essay film structure and subject in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1967), a feature-length work on the life and motivations of its titular protagonist, arguably the forefather of moving images. Through voice-over, sequencing, criticism and philosophy, Andersen renders Muybridge as a nebulous character whose biography appears and recedes as much as his photographic work. Andersen notes in voice-over (spoken by an actor):
Each of Muybridge’s exposures lasted only one-hundredth of a second, so less than a thirtieth of the movement is actually photographed. The rest is lost.
Here, Andersen offers up a kernel of his inquiry: the absence of information is a crucial structuring principle of both narrative and circulation. (It’s interesting to note that this is a detail Andersen assimilates into his own filmic medium—16mm celluloid, running at 24 frames per second.)
Although essay film can easily be attributed to the practice of Andersen, Marker, and others including Agnès Varda, Jean Luc Godard (particularly resonant in his new film Goodbye to Language, 2014), Alexander Kluge and Helke Sander, the genre has also produced some unlikely inheritors and contemporary modes. The use of Powerpoint, for example, should certainly be considered as a performative decedent of the film essay, with its mode of montage with voice-accompanied narrative and system of argumentation. Coming to terms with the principles of essay film can also be instructive for assessing the context and role of expanded cinema. In this years’ Oberhausen Short Film Festival, the annual thematic program curated by Mika Taanila was called “Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film.” Largely examining the legacy of expanded cinema and structural film, Taanila’s programme re-enacted previous artistic attempts at the emptying out of cinematic space.
While the reconstruction of once-radical moments are perhaps always destined to fail—previous radicality always adrift and merely illustrative in a contemporary context—there is something useful about considering expanded cinema not as a turn away from essay film, but as a redirection. Where once essay film was narrative image and sound, committed to celluloid, and passed between cinemas, the expanded film (or the “film without film”) became a repository for the fragmentary narratives of an audience careering towards post-modernity. Muybridge’s strobing images of bodies in movement, projected on a cinema screen, metamorphosed into Tony Conrad’s “flicker”—a field of black and white, able to be projected on to bodies-as-screen. And from there, the strobe and its multiple narratives have been exploded into the split subjectivities of techno space—an essay film on the dance floor.
In the second installment of a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss how artists practically relate to “the moving image.” This conversation begins where our first installment, “Moving Image” History and Distribution, left off. […]
In the second installment of a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss how artists practically relate to “the moving image.” This conversation begins where our first installment, “Moving Image” History and Distribution, left off.
Fionn Meade: I thought we could bring in examples from artistic practice regarding making decisions to use formats in certain ways and with certain contexts and viewing conditions in mind. Sheryl, you recently brought artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen to Minneapolis for a Walker Dialogue. There are some interesting aspects to the way McQueen thinks and talks about his practice and the history of his practice, but also his identification with the moving image.
Sheryl Mousley: McQueen comes out of the artistic practice of painting and sculpture, and started by making films as short works specifically to be installed into gallery and museum settings. He is very assured about presentation. Yet the content of some of these works—and I am thinking about Drumroll (1998), for example—are really about how the frame works. He was always very conscious, cinematically, about the movement within the frame, how the activity happens, and he emerges from that sensibility rather than from an abstraction or a desire to manipulate the image. It’s very physical. It’s often about bodies. It’s about moving in space. In Illuminer (2001) the viewer sees the luminescence of a television screen over his body lying down in bed. The television reflects a documentary on French television of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. These things come out of an interest and fascination, I think, with the cinema, with television, with moving image and how it affected him and how it affects the viewers.
Meade: Into an active spatial context.
Mousley: At the Walker McQueen talked about making the transition to feature films with Hunger (2008). He mentioned that Bobby Sands and the IRA was a story that he saw on television as a child, and recalled how the number of the days on hunger strike added up daily on the television screen. It called out to him and he knew it had to be a feature film. It was not a short film. It was not a sculpture. It had to be a feature film. He had never made one before, so it was interesting to hear him talk about figuring out how to do it, and of how the experience was different from making the earlier films. I use the word “film” very generically here, as McQueen often shot his art films on Super 8, 16mm or 35mm. He moved into the feature-length scenario by telling this story. Of course, he’d worked in three very distinct ways within this single film. The opening section is about resistance; the middle section or transition scene is a single shot of two people, Sands and the priest talking; and the third is the resolution and death. He used a different film language to frame the story than a traditional feature filmmaker would.
Meade: I think of McQueen’s earlier works shown in gallery contexts, and how much of an awareness and influence of work from the 1970s there appears to be—one could even talk about Derek Jarman here—but also evident is an engagement with Dada filmmaking. In particular, there is an emphasis on choreography, gesture, the performing body, and gestural emphasis. McQueen’s early works have such a particular resonance with avant-garde history. When you then you see this vocabulary then get translated into the feature-length film format, it’s still there. It really distinguishes his vision, his voice, and also challenges the feature-length format in an interesting way.
Isla Leaver-Yap: He’s also one of the few directors who produces films in an anti-narrative way or, rather, he produces very short narratives that nonetheless rely entirely on cinematic conventions. This non-narrative impulse, for instance, is evident in 12 Years a Slave (2013)—there we have the narrative in the title. Hunger, again, has the narrative in a condensed titular way. Each have the quality of a study. This quality, and this performative aspect you both refer to in terms of bodies, is a particular mode we think about in terms of artists moving image, as opposed to cinema. This is not to say short or non-narrative doesn’t exist in artists moving image work, but it’s presented as a pliable structure. Fionn, just recently you were talking about working with Laure Prouvost, for example, who presents a strong anti-narrative style within her moving image work, but completely outside of the vernacular of cinematic gesture.
Meade: There’s a great moment in 12 Years a Slave that was particular to seeing it in the cinema; it was a very powerful experience. In the audience, I could see a lot of people from different backgrounds or various levels of familiarity (or unfamiliarity) with Steve McQueen came to see that film, including kids. There was a moment where the main character Solomon Northup confronts the camera. He has this moment of address looking at the camera, holding his gaze for 15 to 20 seconds. A very powerful moment, I thought, and really well-timed. Behind me, after the movie, I heard someone saying, “That was a really great movie, but what was up with that part with ‘the pause’?” That person’s comment was a moment of questioning; it wasn’t dismissal. The audience was interpreting the film through that moment, or trying to go back and think about the film through this particular gesture and moment because it was unfamiliar to them. It wasn’t a familiar cinematic concept or approach. And I say that because it returns to the idea of avant-garde awareness and gestural emphasis deployed in McQueen’s feature-length work.
With Laure Prouvost what’s fascinating is that she’s bringing back to life the cinematic convention of the inter-title. While the voice-over narration is addressing directly the viewer (almost in a form of come-on or seduction), you have inter-titles giving you editorial commentary that deviates form what is being said. And, in some cases, subtitles appear, as well. So, you have subtitle, inter-title, voice-over—these are all different cinematic conventions of using language. It relates a lot to Alexander Kluge’s principles of montage in certain ways, but it’s also embracing the conditionality of, say, Snapchat, or how we send people a text with a video or GIF attachment. Laure’s work responds to a sea change in the moving image, where rapid-fire montage is now part of our daily lives. She takes that condition, accepts it and mixes it with past conventions into a tragicomic form of storytelling. She uses all kinds of things, from stand-up like comedy to performance art to music video, to make a unique form of storytelling that’s very much hers, and yet it accepts the fragmentary condition of the moving image. She’s one of the most interesting artists from a younger generation to create a very unique storytelling voice out of that condition, not about that condition. In other words, she’s telling her stories the way she wants to tell them, but through an acceptance of that condition, not through saying it’s about the status of the moving image (how boring). Instead, she’s giving us dynamic, vital stories in the tragicomic tradition, but through the acceptance of our montage condition or symptom.
Leaver-Yap: Laure’s ingested the way the use of the contemporary image has morphed. It reminds me of the artist and critic John Kelsey who asks what the difference is between distribution and dispersion. Dispersion would be, in his words, something that is less concerned with the finished product. In that way, one might think of film distribution as sending out discreet objects into the world. Whereas when I think of Laure, there is a sense in which the video that she has shot is totally extruded from the language of appropriation. She appropriates from her own life, her techniques of seeing it, but also of other people’s techniques of seeing, and in this way she acknowledges that that is a collective way of viewing and collective way of interpreting. It is a situation in which everything “counts” as material.
Meade: That’s increasingly a part of contemporary viewing and contemporary thinking. Artists can have very acute presentation formats in one context where they really want it to be presented in a particular way, but then are willing to experiment in other situations with aspects of the same material. This sense of translation, of migrating formats is very prominent with the moving image, and perhaps increasingly with art in general.
Mousley: It also recalls the work of Meredith Monk, and the interest you have, Isla, in performance within the moving image.
Leaver-Yap: Yes, and particularly in relation to Fionn’s discussion of Laure. It’s perhaps useful to think of Laure’s recent performance in St. Mark’s in New York, in relation to an atomized legacy of Meredith Monk. Monk has a very expansive idea of appropriation, and continues to pursue a highly interdisciplinary practice. In 1966, when Monk was in her early 20s, she made a performance called 16 Millimeter Earrings. (I should also say that what we see when we look at 16 Millimeter Earrings on film now is the same performance re-staged in the 1970s for documentation, shot on 16mm film.) In the original performance, Monk had recently graduated and the piece was performed in the Judson Church. This performance was occurring in or perhaps just after a seminal minimalist period in dance, where Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton and Simone Forti were really emptying out and stripping down ideas of performance. But Monk’s performance was really about throwing all of this material back into the frame. 16 Millimeter Earrings has a lot of appropriated dialogue; the text she uses as a voiceover is extrapolated from Wilhelm Reich’s ‘The Function of Orgasm’, overheard conversations, and folk songs. In terms of physical material, Monk uses her own body as a screen space—not in an expanded cinematic context—but a canvas upon which to project pre-recorded 16mm images of her own body. There is this very strange feeling that when you’re watching it on the 1977 documentation, you’re seeing an expression of both a younger version of and a more mature performer. For Monk, anything could be material; it could be her hair, her own body, anatomical diagrams, her own crossed eyes. This is taken more as a given now, a contemporary condition. It’s interesting to look back on Monk’s long relationship with the Walker in terms of both her music and performance. It was Siri Engberg (Senior Curator in Visual Arts) who recently told me the Walker acquired the props and scenography from 16 Millimeter Earrings. There is something about Monk that feels very pertinent to contemporary forms of appropriation, materiality, not to mention the circulation of both of these strategies. But it’s important to remember that it was very unfashionable or, in any case, very rare then, at a point of high minimalism.
Meade: There’s also an awareness within the Walker’s history of the way in which moving images actually have been shown, and the different range of possibilities that we’re talking about here. There’s a really interesting cross-disciplinary history that resides in these practices and also in the archives—not just in terms of the knowledge of a given artistic practice, but also in terms of knowledge about the conditionality of the moving image and its moments of transition. There is an analogous moment happening right now with performance-based work, as it’s now being collected, editioned, and acquired.
Specific artistic practices are often the best examples in emphasizing instances that we can use to help define how these terms function in the present and future tense, rather than just some sort of abstract, theoretical kind of argument. In short, this amounts to thinking of these as “working terms” and the terms of production. Meredith Monk is a great example of that.
Mousley: Artists have worked in many different forms for a long time, often with the idea of crossing disciplines, if you will, or not even using the word “discipline.” With Meredith Monk, I first think of her with music and performance, and then moving images support that work. But been there’s so much crossover, that it’s hard to define these terms, then and now, as we go back and talk about history. It is time for looking forward, yet we struggle with this because the Walker is described as a multidisciplinary organization. We’re unique because we present distinct disciplines and artists can do one or all of them at the same time. But it doesn’t feel like we’ve yet defined it. We’re also reluctant to keep the word “discipline” at all, yet we haven’t found a replacement because it’s at the core of the way it’s been discussed. Discipline relates to format, presentation, or something that’s very clearly defined in an artistic practice, and that’s what we’re trying to get rid of. How do we shake off that consciousness and just move forward without this discipline-based integration. I think, these words and definitions are part of our struggle. What is the new word? What is the new way of talking that can help us step out of this and into something else? That’s what we’re working toward.
Meade: I think one thing is clear: artists think in formats and not necessarily in mediums or disciplines. For instance, it was 1964 when Merce Cunningham developed his “Event” and “MinEvent” frameworks as ways of excerpting from across his repertory to present more agility and site-responsive flexibility and possibility, from the ruins of Persepolis in Iran to a basketball gym here in Minneapolis. That’s a re-formatting invention and a significant one. And it’s no small matter that among the first dancers to perform “Events” in 1964 were Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton. That’s not to say that the histories of modernism and its disciplines aren’t relevant, of course they are. But I think the living aspect of working with collections is about pushing the intelligence embedded in the work itself, and that often immediately gets us into the discussion of crossing formats and using formats differently rather than strictly saying, “Here’s my new post-medium work.” Artists don’t talk that way.
There’s one more question I have. If we are in an “after” status of mediums and disciplines (a big “if,” I know), perhaps it’s important to notice that we’re not actually reliant upon a negation of terms that came before as a classic avant-garde strategy of defining “the new.” Rather, if we’re in an “after” status that has much more to do with circulation, dispersion, and formatting, then the condition of the moving image seems all the more important to thinking about visual culture more generally.
Leaver-Yap: Or just a more thoughtful space in which to use those terms. I think they still have functionality. I think the way we put these words together has created useful, sometimes contradictory composites, and we’ll presumably continue to do so.
Meade: You’ve organized some things explicitly with the term we started with.
Leaver-Yap: Yes. Last year I organized the second annual edition of the Artist’s Moving Image Festival, at Tramway, Glasgow. The terminology of the festival’s title operated as a way of being able to encompass different types of work. Practically, then, I used the idea of “artist’s” literally and possessively, in that the entire festival was programmed exclusively by artists. So, regardless of previous descriptions of the material screened, it necessarily became “artist’s moving image.” To briefly mention a couple of examples: the artist Sarah Forrest screened an interview of Kathy Acker and excerpts of Acker reading one of her own books. Forrest paired this documentary video with her own “interlude” text which she read aloud. Later on, the artist Kathryn Elkin presented Stuart Sherman’s videos (which are largely documentation pieces), and Elkin performed her own monologue about Sherman alongside his work as an embedded, direct dialogue. The AMIF screenings were about influence, but also about lived contact with those influences. The terminology of “artists’ moving image” (and my excessive and perhaps dogged literalness to interpreting that phrase) became a more malleable way to deal with moving image as both an art form and a medium at the same time. The fact that it is an umbrella term is useful; it presents an array of paradoxes and contradictions that one can nonetheless hold in the mind, and use productively.
Mousley: Similar to that, the entire listings of the Ruben Bentson Collection is held in the database under the title of “Moving Image.” I think of Hollis Frampton represented by text and image as a moving image, especially his work Critical Mass, and how Kerry Tribe takes the moving image and performs disjunctive text as if it were a live film. There’s a lot of synergy in past and present, projected and live moving images.
Launching a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss “the moving image” and its relationship to frequent synonyms “film,” “video,” and “cinema.” For part two of this discussion, read “Moving Image” In Practice. […]
Launching a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss “the moving image” and its relationship to frequent synonyms “film,” “video,” and “cinema.” For part two of this discussion, read “Moving Image” In Practice.
Isla Leaver-Yap: We’re here to discuss this term “moving image”—how the terminology has appeared, what we might mean by that phrase, and also our personal experiences of working with the moving image in recent years. So, let’s talk about some basic terminology.
To begin, we could say “moving image” is an image that moves by itself without some form of human interruption, for example: dynamic images, like an animated cat .GIF and MP3 visualizers from iTunes, as well as movies and YouTube clips. They encompass a vast array of image types. But “moving image” is also an umbrella term that we use within artist cinema, artist film, artist video, and also artist installation work.
One general distinction we could draw is how this differs from cinema. “Cinema” we typically understand as a situation in which we are seated and the projected image moves. But in moving image there’s no such specificity. This morning, I went on to Wikipedia and typed in “moving image,” and it’s not by accident that I was automatically redirected to the “film” page. So, moving image is clearly still a term that’s up-for-grabs. Film, meanwhile, is an interesting case as a moving image because it’s static images that appear to move at 24 frames per second. Movement is an illusion. This history emerges out of photography, namely Edward Muybridge who took sequential photographs of bodies in motion—the human body, of horses, of people wrestling, dancing, and so on—and animated them in his machine, the zoopraxiscope.
This is the early point of cinema. But by the 1960s, artists began to depart from those cinematic conventions, and move out from the cinema and into the space of the gallery, which is really where the moving image becomes a functional term. It’s the beginning of intermedia, it’s the beginning of expanded cinema. Essentially, it’s the spatialization of a temporal form.
Fionn Meade: I think “moving image” is a term that’s being revised and negotiated because it has more currency at the moment. Perhaps because of the ways in which everyday people use the moving image in a much more prominent way. We’re editing moving images ourselves, and the editorial thinking of the moving image is becoming a bigger part of daily life. One could say it’s approaching the status that the photographic image previously held as far as something we identify with in every facet of our life. I would say we identify with the moving image in personal and cultural terms in very different ways than, say, even 15 years ago.
Also key to this conversation is the availability of digital transfers, as well as the ability to bring things from different periods into a more consistent and (to some degree) stable, shared status, which is what we are currently doing with the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. As opposed to a situation where you can say “film is film,” by its material definition, the moving image starts to become perhaps more accurate as a negotiable space for the different formats, conventions, and periods that we actually are working with in museological contexts, including exhibition and screening contexts.
So, we have a newly popular, cultural prominence of the moving image as editorial and familiar. And then we have the moving image within our field as a negotiable space for thinking through the relationships between cinema and film as an art form, video as an artist format, and installation art as something in-between.
Sheryl Mousley: If we go back and take a look at history—these terms and where some of them came from—it’s interesting to see flipbooks, the zoetrope, and how moving image was based on photography. It comes back to this idea of moving image because motion pictures were really a distinction from the still photograph. This was then shortened to “the pictures” before. And then, in the 1960s, filmmakers (I call them The Renegades) revolutionized the use of the moving image by taking it out of the motion picture world, which was then Hollywood and movie theatres, and asking where else can we show moving image art? Alternative spaces sprang up. Showing them in your house, in a gallery, in some kind of non-movie space, because there wasn’t yet a subset of cinematic experience for art films. They were never intended to be in a movie theater; they were outside. Film artists changed the rules completely. So then we had the motion picture industry and an independent film industry, which chose the word “film” because they were using celluloid at that point.
But when artists started using video, it was a different kind of form. Video was in the galleries, video was installation, another kind of moving image. Here at the Walker, a department was started 40 years ago that was called the Film Department. In the 1980s, with the acquisition of a lot of videotapes from artists, we added the “/video.” Over the last several years, we have been asking: “How outdated are these two words?” We keep going back and saying, “Well, film means celluloid, and video means a type of projection and presentation format. But at this point neither of them really exist anymore.” So, why would we use those two words? They have a historical reference back to these historical eras. But if we’re looking forward, “moving image” certainly moves us in that direction and encompasses, as you’re saying, so many other things, other than just the cinema or the gallery.
Meade: Exactly. It’s built into the term as a kind of translation between formats, but also between periods. But that’s also where it needs the expertise that you ably demonstrated. It’s not about leaving the conventions of film or the conventions of video art behind. Rather, it’s about bringing them into dialogue and in closer proximity with the way we historicize things. For example, you have the Portapak video format prominent in New York in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of video art came out of a certain moment in gaining access to easy to use new technology. But that’s also when you have experimental film experiencing its New York heyday. The formats cross paths but with very different strategies, and yet they’re part of the same moment. In some ways, even then, the moving image might have been a helpful term.
Mousley: Yes, it would’ve solved a lot of problems and ended a lot of conflicts between organizations. In the Minneapolis community in the 1970s and 80s, there were two organizations: Film in the Cities, which was a film education and presentation program, and University Community Video—two very separate entities because no one thought these two formats would unite. Film and video were so distinct in what the words meant; they were opposites and had to take different paths. Coming back together in a new way would have solved this concern if we could have used the term “moving images” right from the start, and let it develop and evolve. But it feels like it’s going there now. It’s certainly an evolutionary moment, a looking forward.
Leaver-Yap: I think some of these histories that you were referring to, Fionn, come up a lot just in even how organizations currently describe themselves—most notably, the distributors of moving image. Notably in a museum context, we have the Museum of Moving Image, which opened in 1988. But, in terms of how moving image distributes on an organizational as well as a commercial level, we’ve got a number of key distributors that all articulate their activities differently. This is very pertinent because the Walker has acquired collections from Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, which defines itself as “a resource for video and media art”; Video Data Bank Chicago, which describes itself as “the leading resource in the United States for videos by and about contemporary artists.” And then we have slightly slippery terms in Europe. We have Lux, which is very explicitly articulating itself as an “artist moving image distribution agency,” in contrast to Paris, where we have we have Light Cone, which talks about itself as being a center for the “distribution, exhibition, and conservation of experimental film.” One is constantly negotiating these terms within their collection, or within their circulation. Light Cone still distributes celluloid and U-matic tapes, whereas Electronic Arts Intermix can now provide clients with a download on their website. Moving image relates to the new networks of circulation as much as it does its own material support.
Mousley: Lux and Light Cone contain the words light, lumen, lumiere, as an idea of projected light. But this is also going to change. It used to be that images were projected and now they’re not. Handheld screens are luminous, as well, but the idea of light projected into our eyes is more a cinematic way of seeing.
“Working Terms” continues with “Moving Image” In Practice.
In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production. “To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. […]
In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production.
“To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue – who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with the exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.”
And so begins the opening lines of Canadian poet, Greek classicist, and scholar Anne Carson in her short text “The Life of Towns.” I hesitate in how I should describe this text to you: should these opening lines be described as a short essayistic poem or a poetic essay? As readers, and particularly readers of Carson’s writing, the division between the scholarly essay and the poetic form is not always identifiable. Nonfiction writing by authors such as John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Nan Shepherd, and Robert McFarlane similarly attest to the porosity of scholarship and poetry, where moments of intense metaphor, narrative, imagistic writing, might lead us to rethink systems. And, by equal turns, close analytical writing adjacent to moments of poetic license might allow us “to see the lines that are there,” in Carson’s words.
In a rare early interview, Carson admitted to having two desks in her house: one for writing poetry, one for writing scholarship. The division was clearly personally significant, even if it isn’t always so clear (or crucial, even) to the reader. But like the clarity of two desks, the division between art and scholarship tends to be sharp. To put it bluntly: in place of poetic text, there is the art object. And so, as a term, scholarship remains fairly distinct as the analytical or systematic “reading” of the art object. Here is the object; there is the text about the object.
While it’s safe to say that the definition of the art object cannot be clarified here (nor should it), I want to identify what we might mean by this other, seemingly more stable term “scholarship.” The word unsurprisingly comes from the Greek σχολαστικός, which can be translated as “that which belongs to the school.” I find the Greek root term especially interesting because the difference between the school, the schoolmen, and the school pupils in this scenario is not entirely clear. In any case, it identifies a core principle of learning, though who is learning, who is learned, and what is learned is nebulous. Learning, then, is taking place.
The dissemination of Greek learning was via the format of “scholarly instruction.” This was a three-step process. The first part, called lectio, comprised a reading of a text; the second, meditatio, was a reflection upon said text; and finally the third, quaestiones, was the group’s responses to the text. This structure is essentially unchanged in its current form of the public lecture, the artist’s talk, or a filmmaker’s question-and-answer format that often follows a screening of the work where the filmmaker is present in the audience. The German word for “scholarship” is Wissenschaft and is a bit more specific than the Greek in that it can be translated literally as “knowledge.” More specific still, the German Forscher is a “research scholar.” But in its current English use, “scholarship” can be defined as the systematic pursuit of knowledge and learning.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s landmark 1837 speech “The American Scholar” is a key text in identifying the characteristics of modern scholarship — crucial, in fact, for extending the analytical role to one of invention. “There is,” Emerson declares, “creative reading as well as creative writing.” His personal definition of scholarship broadens the purely systematic aspects of the scholar’s dependencies on primary texts and objects, into one of active participation, original production, and influence. Indeed, “The American Scholar” might allow us to arrive at definitions for the contemporary scholar: an individual who maps and engages with the migration of information and art; who is attentive to the contexts in which art occurs, and the unique temporal pressures that affects such the production of culture. As for my own definition, I would also fold in the enterprises of the editor, curator, and publisher. These are figures that each provides intermediary roles between information and knowledge, artist and audience.
The shifting definition of what scholarship is and what it might entail presents a unique set of interests in relation to the contemporary scholar’s approach to artists’ moving image – the position in which I now find myself (“film scholar” encapsulates a myriad of mediums: video, celluloid, installation, monitor and projection, to name only the most basic of distinctions). The key, then, is to admit that the contemporary scholar is one who endeavors to show facts amidst appearances by taking a position, while also holding on to the paradox that any position must be constantly revised in order to be accurate and responsive to the work, text, film or subject at hand. This is a peculiar period for contemporary scholarship; we live in an era that is both one of instant historicization and constant revision. Scholarship must reflect this. The formal distinctions between the desk of art and the desk of scholarship are useful in setting out starting positions, but one must admit that sometimes, maybe now more than ever, it’s useful to push the desks together.