Working Terms: Moving Image in Practice
Conversation between Fionn Meade, Sheryl Mousley and Isla Leaver-Yap published May 21, 2014 by the Walker Art Center
Steve McQueen, Drumroll, 1998
In the second installment of a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, Sheryl Mousley, Isla Leaver-Yap and Fionn Meade discuss how artists practically relate to “the moving image.” This conversation is the second installment in a series published by the Walker Art Center’s Moving Image department which began with “Moving Image” History and Distribution.
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.
Steve McQueen, Hunger, 2008
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.
Laure Prouvost, It, Heat, Hit, 2010, video
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.
Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance
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 Earringshas 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.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Points in Space, 1986, video
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.