Europe, past future

NICARAGUA. Managua. 1979. Street fighter.

11 December 19u, TABAKALERA International Centre for Contemporary Culture, Donostia / San Sebastián.

Program proposed by Stoffel Debuysere (Courtisane) in the context of “Europe, past future,” a project by Pablo La Parra Pérez produced within the 2016 Artistic Research Residency.

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Nicaragua: Voyages
Marc Karlin, UK, 1985, 16mm, video, 42′

The first film in Marc Karlin’s four-part series on the Nicaraguan revolution that brought down President Somoza’s regime in 1979, Voyages is composed of five tracking shots, gliding over blown-up photographs that Susan Meiselas took during the insurrection. The film takes the form of an imagined correspondence, which interrogates the responsibilities of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
“Photographs are in a way far ahead of our ability to deal with them – we have not yet found a way of dealing, living with them. We have appropriated them in a channel – ‘language’, ‘papers’, ‘magazines’, ‘books’ – all of which seem the only tools by which we can give them an earthbound gravity. We brush past them, flick them, demand of them things they cannot give… Liberate photographs from its priests and jujumen – including myself. We do not need interpreters. We need looks – and thus the task is up to the photographer to renew his or her contract i.e. what can photographs and their arrangement do to defy the prison house interpretation à la John Berger – and make us think of ourselves in relationship to Nicaragua.” (MK)

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Twilight City
Black Audio Film Collective / Reece Auguiste, UK, 1989, 16mm, 52′

“A love story about the city and its undesirables,” this third film by the Black Audio Film Collective evokes the New London – in the filmmakers’ words “a fading world of being and unbelonging, invisible communities, the displaced and the rise of redevelopment.”
“The film presents an imaginary epistolary narration of a young woman’s thoughts as she writes to her mother in Domenica about the changing face of London, then in the throes of the new Docklands development. She fears it is a city that her mother would not now recognise should she return. The film cuts between this narrative voice and interviewees bearing witness to their youthful experience of the city as a territory mapped by racial, cultural, sexual, gender and class boundaries, a place ‘of people existing in close proximity yet living in different worlds.’ This polyvocal narrative moves restlessly back between past and present, reflecting on the loss of roots and erasure of history caused by the demolition of old established neighbourhoods. The further displacement of already marginalised communities falls under the shadow of the films’s recurrent motif of the public monument to a heroic British imperial history notable for its effacement of its disruptive descendants.” (Jean Fisher)

Talk with Nicolás Pereda

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21 October 2016 19:30 Cinematek Brussels.
A collaboration between Cinematek, Courtisane, Embassy of Mexico in Belgium, VDFC, Universiteit Antwerpen and Nederlandse Filmacademie Amsterdam School of the arts, supported by Instituto Cervantes Brussels.

“Cinema is about believing. On some level you have to believe what is happening in front of you… I find it strange that there is still this division between fiction and documentary. Both are interpretations of truth. When you grab a few tools from documentary and introduce them into fiction, then fiction can become more ‘real’ in viewers minds. I like when fiction and documentary become hybrid, when all the conventions of documentary filmmaking fall apart. Right now documentary has a strong hold on truth, which is ridiculous.”

Perpetuum mobile, Latin for “perpetual motion,” refers to both the unattainable ideal of a self-motive motion of bodies that continues as an unspooling of inconsequential events without external motivation or compulsion, and to a form of composition in which sections and themes are repeated, often with varied modulations and progressions. Perpetuum mobile is also the title of Nicolás Pereda’s third feature film, and the phrase, in both senses, could as well be applied to describe his body of work as a whole. First, because Pereda wholeheartedly rejects the conventional narrative logic that represents the actions of men according to the laws of probability or necessity, and instead seems to focus his attention on what has traditionally been asserted as its opposite: the observation of the mundane world of everyday lives. A world of lackluster prosaicness in which nothing much happens, taking place in an empty, stationary time in which gestures have no continuation or effect and exchanges are either unproductive or rendered trivial by a consciousness of their futility. Secondly, because each of Pereda’s films tends to resonate with the others through the use of repeated themes and the same actors, playing characters who often have the same names, placed in an ever-shifting configuration of relationships to one another and their social environment, which is predominantly set in Pereda’s country of birth, Mexico. This escalating set of variations and permutations reveals itself as one grand, unfolding exploration of cinema and its possibilities and limitations of representation and narration. Pereda’s interest in class divisions, social structures and family relations in Mexican society seems to have fueled his determination to cross boundaries and blur categories, which has resulted in a constant drift between the documentary and the fictional, shifting between interviews and enactments, between actors portraying fictional characters and performers playing themselves. Each film, relying on bare dialogues and long takes, probes anew the borders of fiction as an arrangement of actions linked by verisimilitude and necessity and characters defined by consistency and credibility. As if the filmmaker, in creating a multiplicity of indirections, indeterminations and irresolutions, seeks to stretch fiction beyond the limits of its logic: at which point will the fictional pact between cinema and its spectators shatter beyond rebound? How far can one go in blurring the lines between artifice and reality, in defying the dramatic codes of transformation and resolution, without annulling the cinematic game of identification and distantiation altogether? The greatest merit of Nicolás Pereda might be that he tackles this challenge to the heart of cinema to its fullest extent, while managing to deepen its very mystery.

Figures of Dissent : Artur Aristakisyan

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17 November 2016 20:30, KASKcinema, Gent. Presented by courtisane.

Ladoni (Palms), RU, 1994, 35mm, b&w, 139′

“Even as a child I had a relationship with film as if it were a church. It was a God-given territory upon itself. You can’t watch a film without wanting to be saved. It’s a meeting with the living light. The light works with you as you work with it. I would like the film to answer the need for community – to show how people are tied together, sometimes paradoxically.”

In a striking sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vrai faux passeport, which the filmmaker has chosen to describe as “a documentary fiction on the occasions for passing judgment about the manner in which films are made,” two different ways of filming poverty are being compared. First, we recognize a fragment from Chantal Akerman’s D’Est showing a long tracking shot gliding past a line of people standing in the snow at a Moscow bus stop, waiting to sell things. Then a fragment from another film appears, showing an elderly woman with a crooked back pulling a large trunk behind her, before cutting to a shot of a blind boy begging in the streets. A voice-over recounts how, in order to survive, the woman would allow her back to be kissed for money, and that the boy has been told by his parents, who are also blind, that everyone in the world is in fact blind, that no-one can see oneself. Godard, always the examiner, gives the first approach an all-too-severe “malus,” while appraising the second with a “bonus”. While the former approach tends to over-stress the will to art, he says in a commentary, the latter shows no compunction whatsoever, which makes it much more grandiose and frightening. Where does this mysterious piece of cinema, with its handheld shot, overly-contrasted black-and-white images and this haunting, solitary voice-over narration, come from? It is taken, so we learn, from a film entitled Ladoni. It was the graduation film of a student of the famous Moscow All-Union State Institute, whose name is Artur Aristakisyan. We learn that the footage of Ladoni was collected over the course of several years after the fall of the Soviet Union and Moldova’s independence, during which the filmmaker lived amongst the outcasts and marginalized of Kishinev, the capital of Moldova. The film’s “heroes” are a woman who has been lying on the ground for over forty years, fighting her own struggle against the system; a young man who has escaped from the mad house, shrouded in silence till the day when people will have exhausted all combinations of words; a legless man roaming the city on his knees, fortune-telling about the girl he once loved; the hunchbacked old woman who keeps the head of her beloved hangman in her trunk; the blind beggar boy who has figured out that all people are women, throwing coins at him for being a man; a mute old man who believes that the state of Israel lies within the borders of his house, collecting a pile of rubbish so that it can reach the sky… In recounting these parables, Aristakisyan addresses his yet unborn son, offering him a path to salvation, the path of sacred “madness.” An anarchic messianism pleading irrationality as an escape from the rational structures that define our waking lives? A gnostic mysticism that finds hope in a transmigration of souls and a resurrection of bodies at the price of deprivation? Whatever sense we find in its delirious message, rare are those truly “grandiose and frightening” films that leave you with the conviction that, against all odds, you haven’t seen anything yet. That the shudder of awe and wonder has never left cinema.

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

DISSENT ! Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige

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9 October 2016 14:00 Cinematek Brussels

Screening of El film el mafkoud (The Lost Film) (2003, 42′) and The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012, 93′), followed by a conversation with Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige. As part of a retrospective dedicated to the work of Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige in the context of L’Age D’Or Festival 2016.

“We have always feared that it would start again. In fact, we never really believed it was over, hence our focus on latency, on the state of what exists in an unapparent manner but can, at any time, manifest itself. Traces, recollections that become ghostly and haunt, the photographs, the films and the documents, whether true or false. This latency coincides with an ambiguous relation to images, as we have been working on them since the end of the Lebanese civil war.”

What are the stories that can be told about a region that continues to be submerged in turmoil and chaos? What narratives are left to write when the thread of History is broken? How to devise fictions that can give new visibilities to places that have been overdetermined by images of violence and suffering? From places like these we tend to expect testimonies of suffering and death. We are used to consume info-bites larded with descriptive captions and knowledgeable commentaries. In the films and installations of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige we get none of that. Instead, their work attests to what the violence inflicted by war has in common with the violence inflicted on its images: absence. A Perfect Day (2005) tells the story of a woman who has to decide whether to pronounce her long-disappeared husband deceased, entailing a transformation of a lack of visibility into a residue of words. In Khiam (2000-2007), a detention camp in South Lebanon, of which no images exist, is represented by way of spoken testimonies of six former prisoners. The Lost Film (2003) documents the artists’ search for a copy of their first film which has disappeared in Jemen, resulting in an interplay of images that are allowed and those that are forbidden, those that have been suppressed and those that have been preserved. Since the beginning of the 1990s, as Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war came to an end, Hadjithomas and Joreige have explored the prism of invisibility and latency to tear the representation of their native country away from the dominant regimes of tele-information and propaganda that never stop producing images of war and wars of images. In defiance of the voices that lament that there are “too many images” or those that mourn that there is “nothing left to see,” their work has persisted in producing ways of seeing differently. This operation also involves the re-introduction of fiction in a landscape that supposedly no longer allows it. In Je Veux Voir (2008) fiction is introduced by way of two bodies, belonging to two different actors who play themselves: Catherine Deneuve, the French film star who wants to see the effects of the war of 2006 with her own eyes, and Rabih Mroué, the Lebanese artist-performer who acts as her guide while admitting to feel “like a tourist in his own country.” Together these two out-of-place bodies carve out a singular trajectory through the landscape of ruins and rubble, at the same time recomposing its visibility and displacing the expected sentiments of good-willed commiseration and reductive generalization. In The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012), the search for fictions takes us to a past time of dreams and aspirations, in particular to a moment when a group of students and researchers attempted to develop a Lebanese space program. How does this echo from a forgotten history resonate in a time when the dominant imaginary evokes missiles rather than rockets? Hadjithomas and Joreige take this question to its limits by building a rocket identical to the original and moving it through the streets of Beirut. Introducing fiction in the present by giving presence to what is absent: this remains the main principle of what has established itself as a singular art of resistance, an art that keeps on redrawing the landscape of the visible.

14:00 The Lost Film
15:00 The Lebanese Rocket Society 
16:30 Discussion with Hadjithomas and Joreige

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG.

About DISSENT!

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

Figures of Dissent // book

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2016 / 256 pages / 21 x 14,8 cm
Published by AraMer

This manuscript came about in the framework of the research project Figures of Dissent (KASK / University College Ghent School of Arts, 2012-2016). Research financed by the Arts Research Fund of the University College Ghent.

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? This question was the starting point for Figures of Dissent, a four-year research project that was initiated in February 2012, with the generous support of the Arts Research Fund of the University College Ghent. In an attempt to tackle this vast conundrum, which has been pondered and pontificated upon since cinema’s beginnings, an extensive series of public encounters and screenings was organized in various locations in Belgium and abroad. The principle aim of this series, which came about by dint of a broad network of organizations and institutions, was not to define or illustrate a singular theory that could somehow shed light on this cumbersome relationship, but rather to give impetus to a culture of exchange that would allow for a variety of views and insights to be shared. The challenge taken on was thus not so much to determine how cinematic forms might be able to measure up to political ideas or ideals, but rather to create resonance spaces that could give expression to the infinity of resistant emotions, perceptions, movements, gestures and gazes that the universe of cinema has to offer. Not in order to learn how to decipher and calculate the meanings that might inhere in them, but simply to bring about a circulation of sense, a circulation of fictions and frictions that might have their own role to play in the rearrangement of our sensible world.

This project came into being at a moment when a wave of collective mobilizations erupted on the global political landscape. The year before had started off with the Arab Spring and had culminated in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, shortly to be followed by protests in Bulgaria, Sweden, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as manifestations of movements such as Los Indignados and Aganaktismenoi, to name but a few. In conjunction with this wave of insurgency and the growing concern with emancipatory thought and practice, more and more artists seemed to take upon themselves the responsibility to fill the void created by the consensual practices of governmental politics and attempt to invent new forms of intervention and participation. This so-called “political turn” could to some extent also be felt in the world of cinema, not only in a retrospective fascination for the past ventures of “militant cinema,” but also in the endeavours of numerous contemporary artists and filmmakers to give cinematic expression to the injustices and inequities perpetrated on a global and local scale, as well as the struggles aimed to defy them. In light of these invaluable efforts, Figures of Dissent could not pretend to offer anything but modest echo chambers which allowed for some of these efforts to find a multiplicity of resonances and dissonances, whether in the form of appearances or in the ring of words. The dozens of public showings and exchanges that were proposed did not profess to be able to directly participate in the much-needed organization of collective political dissent — they merely sought to bring about communal situations where time and attention could be paid to remote figures brimming on the surface of the screen.

How to make sense of these “figures”? Do they bespeak the represented characters and embodied emotions that invite immediate identification, or rather the mute shapes and flickering shadows that tend to resist identification? Do they denote the material presence of bodies and objects or the apparitions and operations that tend to diverge from this presence? The forms of life that appear in front of the camera lens or the forms of art that are produced by the filmmaker? And what about the “figure” of the artist as producer of aesthetic appearances, as author of the work carrying her or his signature? Oscillating between the personal and the impersonal, resemblance and dissemblance, the polysemy of the word “figures” seems to underscore some of the fundamental ambiguities and paradoxes that are inherent to the art of cinema, as well as the political promises and efficiencies that have been ascribed to it. Are political effects to be located within the cinematic work itself, in the intention of the filmmaker or rather in the subjectivity of the spectator? Can a film have a dissensual potential in and of itself or is it contingent on a broader disposition of sensible experiences? How to negotiate the relation between appearance and reality, between recognition and disruption? How could the mediation of cinematic appearances possibly make a difference in light of the immediacy of the real? Trying to come to terms with how these questions can be dealt with today cannot but lead to an inquiry into the ways in which they have been met in the past. That is why, from the outset of the Figures of Dissent project, it was clear that tackling the conundrum of cinema and politics required a deep plunge into the topographies of positions and arguments that have attempted to define the capacities and incapacities of cinema and those of its spectators for making sense and significance.

The writings that are assembled in this publication are a tentative outcome of this plunge. They have taken the form of five letters addressed to five people whom I have met in the context of the Figures of Dissent project. Each letter was written as an exploration of certain shared paths through the landscape where the territories and geographies of cinematic appearance intersect and collide with those of political actuality. The first letter, addressed to Evan Calder Williams, was written as an intuitive inquiry into some of the questions and confusions that had remained lingering in me after having organized The Fire Next Time conference, which was set up as a revisitation of the practices and theories of “militant” cinema, in particular those that were associated with the upheavals and movements that swept the world in the 1960s and ’70s. What were the conditions that made these particular modes of thought and action conceivable and effectual? What makes something thinkable in one era but inconceivable in another? These questions were refocused in a subsequent letter to Mohanad Yaqubi, in which I tried to figure out some of the changes in form and attitude that can be discerned in cinematic engagements with political struggle, in particular those that have been dedicated to the Palestinian struggle. Central to the investigation is a film that Mohanad and I had been discussing in the course of earlier encounters, a film that returns in several of the letters: Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et Ailleurs. My writing to Barry Esson too was triggered by an impression that one particular film had made on me, an impression that caused me to rethink my work and role as a so-called “curator.” I saw this film, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, as part of one of the “Episodes” that Barry has been organizing with Arika, a Scotland-based political arts organization devoted to the cultivation of a collective practice of study. The letter was composed as an attempt to make sense of this experience while at the same time questioning expectations of what cinema can do and what we can do with cinema. I was inclined to engage with this challenge once more after meeting with Sarah Vanhee, who spoke to me of a “crisis of the spectator.” She was speaking from her experience as an artist who tries in her own way to create modest fissures and fractures in the texture of the sensible landscape by disputing widely held antinomies between art and non-art, activity and passivity, activating and spectating. I responded by coupling my own wrestling with these antinomies with my impression of a film I have been regularly showing in the past years, Handsworth Songs by the Black Audio Film Collective. A fifth letter was drawn up as a reaction to the perception of yet another “crisis,” which a friend has referred to as the “depression of fiction.” Why is it that the traditional forms of cinematic fiction seem to have trouble to give expression to the injustices that haunt our times and the struggles that aim to defy them? Which network of expectations, arguments and paradoxes underlies this perception? These questions, which enkindled a fragmented journey through the history of the meeting grounds of art, cinema and politics, were addressed to Ricardo Matos Cabo, whom I have been exchanging thoughts with ever since we met in the company of Pedro Costa, a filmmaker who takes up an important position within these writings. Finally, in May 2016, just before this manuscript was supposed to go to the printer, I decided to add a sixth letter in which I followed up my correspondence with Barry Esson with a general reflection on the Figures of Dissent project. The issue in particular that elicited this addendum was a demand addressed to me which has for some time taken me aback: a demand to clarify my position as “spectator” or “producer.”

Some of these letters, which are published here in chronological order of writing, found their motivation in the experience of specific film works, others tried to work their way through an entanglement of discursive strings. Some set out to untangle particular knots that bind the forms of a cinema of politics with the outlines of a politics of cinema, others zeroed in on the challenges and ventures of curatorship or spectatorship. Some might have a more intimate and even emotive ring to them than others. But all of these letters have in their own way sought to give resonance and continuance to unfinished conversations and dangling thoughts, without any certainty of outcome or response. Far from being the result of well-planned journeys, these writings have unfurled as aleatory trajectories that join a variety of impressions, associations, derivations, convulsions and digressions. Rather than the accomplishments of a determined search for certainties, they remain speculative forms of study that stem from the wanderings of a bricoleur who has attempted to put things into play and construct a meaningful meshwork of thoughts and half-thoughts, interpretations and misinterpretations. Their zigzagging and meandering motions, with no appropriate destinations in sight, bear witness to the development of an erratic learning curve, one that has by no means reached a finality. Like the many encounters that have been made possible over the past years, the writings that have accompanied them are but provisional explorations of an inexhaustible question which provides for a multitude of departures, junctions and disjunctions. Like messages in a bottle launched into the vast expanse of possibilities, they are merely waiting to be furthered.