ARTIST IN FOCUS: Ben Rivers

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ARTIST IN FOCUS: Ben Rivers

21 Apr 2008, Sphinx, Gent.
Program produced by Courtisane as part of the Courtisane Festival 2008 (21-27 April 2008)

At the 2008 edition of Courtisane, British film director Ben Rivers is placed centrally. Rivers is the co-founder of the Brighton Cinematheque and has been making movies since 1999. His recent works are mysterious impressionist films in which loners, abandoned places and memory play the leading roles. Ben Rivers’ films are drenched in a spooky spiritualism, like bits of dreams that find their way into your consciousness. Rivers documents his subjects carefully. Abandoned buildings illustrate their own decay, landscapes draw themselves, stories from the past come in a shade of mystery, a cocoon breaks gently and becomes a subtle poetic portrait of an Einzelgänger. He hand-processes film and prefers black and white film stock with a thick, tactile grain, that’s why his films bare resemblance to documentaries from decades ago. Ben Rivers kicks off the festival with a compilation of his own work and a selection of his favourite filmmakers.

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Old Dark House
2003, 16mm, b/w, 4′

“Rooms in an abandoned, burnt out house revealed by multiple in-camera superimpositions of a single torch-light. This marked the start of my hand-processing film, which I continued to use from then on.”

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House
2005, 16mm, b/w, 5′

“My first sequel. Another old dark house, where only fragments remain of a once animated domestic history, reoccupied by a history of horror films. Crumbling interiors. Stained, peeling walls and forgotten furniture. Dust sheets on rotting floorboards. The unfolding process of abandonment, decay and renewal. All made on a 1:12 scale.”

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The Bomb with a Man in his Shoe
2005, 16mm, b/w, 15′

“The closest I’ve come to doing a commercial – commissioned to show in fancy boutiques in Japan, USA and Europe. Initially supposed to be a few minutes long, the film began as a very loose kind of documentary, where I would turn up with my bolex and lights once a week over a two-month period, filming the various stages of making 400 pairs of shoes. All the superimpositions were done in-camera on out-of-date stock, hand-processed as I went along. As the filming progressed I felt we needed to get outside, to see what would happen on a few walks in the great outdoors. It’s pretty senseless.”

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The Hyrcynium Wood
2005, 16mm, b/w, 3′

“I found the title in an out of date Thesaurus looking up the word ‘mystery’ – which is essentially what this film remains to me.”

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The Coming Race
2006, 16mm, b/w, 5′

“A film in which thousands of people climb a rocky mountain terrain. The destination and purpose of their ascension remains unclear. A vague, mysterious and unsettling pilgrimage fraught with unknown intentions.”

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Astika
2006, 16mm, color, 8′

“A portrait of Astika, who lives on an island in Denmark. He has lived in a run down farm house for 15 years and his project has been to let the land around him grow unchecked, but now he has been forced to move out by people who prefer more pristine neighbours.”

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This Is My Land
2006, 16mm, b/w, 14′

“A portrait of Jake Williams – who lives alone within miles of forest in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Jake always has many jobs on at any one time, finds a use for everything, is an expert mandolin player, and has compost heaps going back many years. He has a different sense of time to most people in the 21st Century, which is explicitly expressed in his idea for creating hedges by putting up bird feeders.”

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Dove Coup/Greenhouse
2007, 16mm, b/w + col, 2×2′

Two sketches

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Ah, Liberty!
2008, anamorphic 16mm, b/w, 20′

“A celebratory portrait of a family’s place in the wilderness – living, working, playing on a farm throughout the seasons; free-range animals and children, junk and nature, all within the most sublime landscape. The work aims at a sense of freedom, the scale of which is reflected in the hand-processed Cinemascope format, and focuses on the youngest of the family to show us what’s what. There’s no particular story; beginning, middle or end, just fragments of lives lived.”

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Laurel & Hardy
Big Business

US, 1929, 16mm on video, b/w, 19′

A common routine Laurel & Hardy often performed was a “tit-for-tat” fight with an adversary. Typically, Laurel and Hardy accidentally damaged someone else’s property. The injured party would retaliate by ruining something belonging to Laurel or Hardy, who would calmly survey the damage and find something else to vandalize. The conflict would escalate until both sides were simultaneously destroying property in front of each other. An early example of the routine occurs in their classic short, Big Business, which was added to the Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1992.

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Artavazd Pelechian
Obitateli ou Bnakitchnère (Inhabitants)

URSS, 1970, 8 min)

“Pelechian’s films are remarkable because they stare upon fundamental and cosmic themes, edited with a
mastery of scale and rhythm which makes all life on earth swarm and bloom through the celluloid. Inhabitants in 1970 is a hymn to the animal world which aspires to formal abstraction, clouds of silver birds pulverising the light.” (J.S.)

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George Kuchar
The Mongreloid

1978, 16mm, color, sound, 10′

“A man, his dog, and the regions they inhabited, each leaving his own distinctive mark on the landscape. Not even time can wash the residue of what they left behind.” (G.K.) “The Mongreloid explores at the problems and joys of human-pet relationships from Kuchar’s typically cracked perspective. He engages in what appears to be a one-way conversation with his dog Bocko, his reminiscences intercut with photos and film footage from the times in question. Kuchar’s companion Curt McDowell also makes an appearance, albeit at one level of remove from reality.” (J.S.)

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Walerian Borowczyk
Les Jeux des Anges

FR, 1964, 16mm, 12′

“Walerian Borowczyk was a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness. He started out making extraordinary animations, graduated to directing classics such as Goto, Island of Love and La B te, and then ended up directing Emmanuelle 5, which I think is a perversely fitting end. Les Jeux des Anges was my first experience of animation that was utterly impressionistic. It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.” (Terry Gilliam)

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Margaret Tait
Portrait of Ga

UK, 1955, 16mm, 4′

A Portrait of Ga was the first of many portraits made by the Orcadian artist Margaret Tait during her long life of filmmaking. A portrait of her mother, it was shot on a visit home from the Film School in Rome. It signals the beginning of her commitment to making simple films about real life and real people.

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Lewis Klahr
Daylight Moon

US, 2002, 16mm, 13′

“There are things I could say about Daylight Moon, but very few I want to before someone sees it. But I will say this: of all the films I’ve made using collage to muck around in the past, this one gets the closest to what I’m after.” (Lewis Klahr)

Luther Price
Same Day Nice Biscotts

US, 2005, 16mm, 5′

“A mournful dissolving jewel set in bruised magenta sends out votive glints of dying light. A lone bird chirps and branches cover our eyes. Working from a stack of abandoned multiple film prints (nearly identical and close to thirteen in number) Luther Price makes reiterative loops that underline futility, echo hope, and mark every camera movement with the vain promise of fresh outcome and inevitable predestination.” (Mark McElhatten)

Economies of the Commons

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“Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.”
— Stewart Brand, 1984

Looking forward to the ‘Economies of the Commons’ conference, that will take place in Amsterdam on April 10 – 12. This conference on “the economies, sustainability, and opportunities for creative reuse of these public audiovisual resources and archives” is organised by De Balie, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, in collaboration with Knowledgeland, Images for the Future, and Virtual Platform and brings together the likes of Peter Kaufman (Intelligent Television), Rick Prelinger (Prelinger Archives), Roei Amit (INA), Kenneth Goldsmith (UbuWeb), Florian Schneider (Kein.tv) David Bollier (On The Commons), and many others.

the main issues are:
– What kinds of strategies are available to facilitate the growth of these emerging public knowledge resources, and guarantee their longer-term sustainability?
– How is value created around the emerging digital commons, and how can this value be capitalised on for the public good?
– How can these resources be activated as a creative productive force for contemporary culture, and how can the reuse of these enormously rich resources be facilitated and stimulated?

Meanwhile, the flood of online audiovisual content is growing out of proportions: During a panel at the Media Summit in NY on March 12, YouTube Inc. ‘s Philip Inghelbrecht, strategic partner development manager, dropped this nugget of information: Ten hours of fresh content is uploaded to YouTube every minute! “If you can’t solve the search question quickly enough that’s a problem,” said Inghelbrecht.

In this article, Frank Smith, has some interesting remarks: “But this explosion of digital content could come at a cost. A study released by IDC sponsored by information management firm EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) found that the total volume of digital content being produced today has exceeded existing storage capabilities. IDC estimates that 281 billion Gbytes were uploaded in 2007, which amounts to about 45 Gbytes of content per each human on earth. Increased use of digital televisions and camcorders, part of YouTube’s stock in trade, is where the greatest amount of this content is coming from. It leads one to wonder if search rather than storage is going to be the biggest hurdle for YouTube to cross in the future.”

(by the way, I recently stumbled upon the Search-in-Video application, developped by Reuters and powered by Viewdle, a video indexing platform that includes face-recognition technology for true, real-time and contextually-relevant appearances of people on screen. “A new way to search, Viewdle gets you from query to relevant clip in seconds. No more waiting for download or buffering to check the relevancy of returned results. No more irrelevant search results. No more searching for just “files” when you can narrow in on precise moments. Search-in-Video helps you find the information you need — fast”)

Anyways, Smith continues: “Search factored in big at the panel Hollywood and the Digital Consumer, with Inghelbrecht suggesting that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) isn’t done making big moves in advertising. ‘If you can solve the search question and then catapult into the advertising business, a Turkish airline can automatically know there’s a video of Turkish folklore dance on YouTube and create a bigger market.’ But what if this content is owned by someone else? ‘If the copyright content appears on YouTube or any other Web platform, the knee-jerk reaction is to take it down,’ said Inghelbrecht. ‘The person who uploads Entourage is probably the biggest Entourage fan. So the question we ask ourselves is not only how do we detect copyrights but turn them into opportunities?’

The question about business models is a pressing one – one that is being examined in lots of public sponsored projects worldwide, including BOM-vl here in Flanders and Images of the Future in the Netherlands. It’s clear to all parties, including publishers and broadcasters, that the traditional business model for the distribution of information has been challenged in fundamental ways, now that new audiovisual, digital and network technologies have made the production, reproduction and dissemination of all kinds of data relatively cheap and easy (although the current legal constructions aren’t equiped at all to handle the resulting social and cultural paradigmas). Harry Verwayen of Images of the Future gives the example of publishers in the academic field, who traditionally operated in a closed environment where they sold packages of journals and books through an annual license to libraries, are now exploring models in which authors are paying for the publication service in exchange for posting in so-called ‘open access‘ journals, where access is free at the point of use. “In this particular case it looks like a suitable business model has been found, as this model takes advantage of the power of the internet and leads to a greater return on investment for authors (visibility) while securing revenues for the service providers (publishers). The audiovisual industries are facing similar issues but have yet to find a grip on the situation; content is more often than not available for free through P2P networks therefore a large part of the incentive to go to a shop and buy a cd or film has vanished. As we are digitizing vast amounts of audio-visual cultural heritage we are facing the same questions: what models can be developed that fulfill the need for broad accessibility for the public while securing a solid return on investment for owners of the material (authors, producers, directors, etc).”

Some, like Chris Anderson (the propagator of the ‘Long Tail’ theory), in his forthcoming book’ Free’, believes that ‘free’ will be the leading business model in the networked media society. Until recently, ‘free’ was really just the result of what economists would call a cross-subsidy: You’d get one thing free if you bought another, or you’d get a product free only if you paid for a service. But now that the cost of processing power, bandwidth and storage is falling fast, the so-called “freeconomics” is growing out to be a full-fledged economy, and no longer a marketing gimmick. See for instance the recent booming of free music offerings, and of course the services of YouTube or Google, free to users while advertisers pay the bills. Anderson writes: “The Web is all about scale, finding ways to attract the most users for centralized resources, spreading those costs over larger and larger audiences as the technology gets more and more capable. It’s not about the cost of the equipment in the racks at the data center; it’s about what that equipment can do. And every year, like some sort of magic clockwork, it does more and more for less and less, bringing the marginal costs of technology in the units that we individuals consume closer to zero. (…) The Web has become the land of the free.”

The result is an “economy of abundance”, in which resources should be used with abandon, without concern for waste, so choices are actually deferred to the end users – but this also implies that succes is dependent on attracting and keeping users, as benefits are increased as the number of users increase. This is also related to the “freemium” model (term coined by Fred Wilson) that his being used by “web 2.0” companies like Flickr and Linkedin. It basically works by offering basic services for free, while charging a premium for advanced or special features – what Kevin Kelly calls “generatives”. Other categories of the pricelles economy are, according to Anderson, advertisements (google just released a beta service of video advertisements: Adsense for Video ), the good ol’ Cross-subsidies, and the free-to-all models, like communities sharing their music or videos just for the fun of it (“Zero marginal cost”), Free services in exhange for ratings like Digg (“Labor exchange”) or the real “Gift economy”, which goes to show that money can’t be the only motivator. But Anderson’s theory might not be as stable as it looks, as Andy Oram recently stated in his comments. He thinks that information’s current state is highly volatile and that the ‘free’ phenomenon will be driven in very different ways from the six models mentioned. to be continued.

(Image above: still scenes from Rick Prelinger’s ”Panorama Ephemera’ from 2004, composed of sequences drawn from a wide variety of ephemeral (industrial, advertising, educational and amateur) films form the Prelinger Archive. Available on Archive.org, released under a Creative Commons Licence)

Adam Curtis’ Alarm-Clock films

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“Le cinéma est fasciné par lui-même comme objet perdu tout comme il (et nous) sommes fascinés par le réel comme référentiel en perdition.”
— Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacres et Simulation’

Lately I’ve been doing some research on the recycling of images, mainly focussing of filmmakers who use pre-existing footage to explore how time, memory and perception is constructed, delving beyond the intended message, disarticulating and rearticulating media rhetorics, subverting the image, exploring the limits of representation, to problematise and decentre the gaze, to bring forward the contradictions and aporias in the image, to show what is being excluded, reduced, denied. More on that later.

Somehow related to that I got interested in the Adam Curtis films. Last year Ken Jacobs recommended me the powerful ‘Power of Nightmares’ series, which basically investigates parallels between the rise of the Neo-Con movement in the US and radical Islamist ideology (of course never shown on Belgian – or American for that matter – TV, but available for free on the net via Archive.org, published with a CC licence), and now I’m systematically looking for and watching his other works, especially ‘Pandora’s Box’ (examines the dangers of technocratic and political rationality), ‘The Living Dead’ (investigates the way that history and memory have been used by politicical forces), ‘The Mayfair Set (looks at how the climate of the Thatcher years was shaped by a club of buccaneer capitalists), ‘The Century Of The Self’ (documents how the rise of Freud’s individualism led to Edward Bernays’ consumerism) and his latest ‘The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom’ (which is, as Brian Holmes suggests, about “coming to grips with one of the great enigmas of the present: how neolib goes neocon”). In all of these works (made for the BBC) Curtis uses the same method: he delves deep into the history of the 20th century and explores genealogies of power, how ideas and ideologies have grounded and spread over time, how our image of the world, reality and identity, is constructed, and history is (re)written. Although these stories are partially based on conventional models of ‘talking heads’ interviews and didactical documentary clips, they really stand out for their use of, in this case literally, “found” footage. Curtis: “‘The BBC has an archive of all these tapes where they have just dumped all the news items they have ever shown. One tape for every three months. So what you get is this odd collage, an accidental treasure trove. You sit in a darkened room, watch all these little news moments, and look for connections.” Curtis does not only use footage that is regarded as “historically authentic”, but also includes fragments of commercials, fiction films, scientific clips and popular music in an uncanny fashion, resisting the linear movement of the traditional documentary narrative, a method, as Curtis admits freely, that didn’t come very natural: “it was just a disaster until I suddenly realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation.”

Curtis communicates his critical perspective by building on the ruins of our audiovisual memory, realigning the dismembered body of the past with the constellation of the present, creating in his montage, as Errol Morris suggest, a powerful resonance, that really accents the fundamental message of his works: “Here stock-footage becomes expressionistic – never literal – an excursion into a dream – or, if you prefer – nightmare.” The results are, as Brian Holmes writes in his wonderful essay, audiovisual experiences that “come very close to reproducing the uncanny gap one often feels between the steady flow of inner discursivity and the startling movements of one’s own imagination (…) hour-long bursts of awareness that what we are living through today has been constructed, that behind common knowledge there are hidden sciences, and that government is basically the choice of a ruling epistemology, about which the public is never sufficiently informed. Curtis, like Foucault, consistently asks: “Do you want to be governed like that?” And he asks it with respect to the most contemporary forms of psychological manipulation, of military and security rhetoric, of economic doctrine and workplace organization. These are alarm-clock films, wake-up calls for passive populations whose only recourse would be to think sociologically: but not as their masters do.”

Read more:
Eli Horwatt, ‘Refuse is the Archive of Our Times. The Metaphorical and Expressionistic Use of Found-Footage in the Documentary Films of Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin’
Brian Holmes, ‘NEOLIB GOES NEOCON. Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century’

and of course, watch.

Warum 2.0

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“As a maker (of documentaries), what was not possible anymore for me to do the last 10 years, could well be possible again now. Not exactly making documentaries that is, but having the tools and the posse force ready to start up processes of ‘seeing’ and ‘making visible’ out of the logic of the ‘war of images’, far from impact that is, outside the global revolving panorama in the closed circuit of the audiovisual scene”
Stefaan Decostere

Video and Audio Documentation for the Video Vortex Conference in Amsterdam, in which I have been involved, is now available HERE. All presentations can be watched as flash video and listened to in your web browser or downloaded as mp3. A reader is being prepared.

In the meantime, Stefaan Decostere, who was, for me, one of the most interesting speakers at this conference, premiered his installation WARUM 2.0 during the Artefact festival in STUK, Leuven (Belgium). A fascinating piece of work, that is, in a sense, a cumulation of his work as a filmmaker (for the Flemish public broadcaster) as well as the explorations with the (now defunct) CARGO platform, a context in which he investigated the effects of new technologies on the ways we deal with and create with media. It is clear that, as a mediamaker and -philosopher, Decostere is constantly looking for ways to intensify, involve and capacitate the ‘user’. ‘Use’, that is, after all, what new media are about : discovering and proposing new uses, and with that, introducing experiment and development into the existing media practice, subverting standard (industrial pushed) protocol, connecting media to the here and now. WARUM 2.0, as well, is essentially an attempt to create an intermediary space, consisting of set of tools that can be used to engage with, or if you will, against media. With WARUM 2.0 Decostere “revisited” ‘Warum wir Männer die Technik so lieben’ (1985), in which he investigated how war, speed and technology organise and reorganise reality, in collaboration with the American painter Jack Goldstein, French urban architect Paul Virilio and German video artist Klaus vom Bruch. A new interview with Virilio is at the heart of the WARUM 2.0 installation – or better call it “labyrinth” or “playfield”, an “arena of struggle”. Whereas the original documentary was a lineair narrative, although complex and multidimensional in its structure, this work wants to leave narration and interpretation in the hands and minds of the active user. Whereas the documentary was originally made for and shown on analogue television screens, here these has been replaced by projections, flatscreens and interactive modules, multiplied and spread over space. As Decostere writes: “The squared screens do not any longer function as windows neither, as their views create more blindness than clarity (…) If narration is still possible, it will have to be invented by the viewers. And where could it come from, if not out of their experience, as walkers in the dark or as searchers online. Unless something happens, there will be no great story to tell. So then, waiting for the event, in the cave? Or will you visitors call it a labyrinth, a playfield, a studio, a mess (hopefully not a mass. Please)”.

“A pen, candle and paper are not sufficient any longer. We need to enlarge and equip our working table. Neither an internet connection nor some hard & software are sufficient any longer. We need more of this, as well as a solid network of kindred spirits deeply involved, technically that is, and in content (critically I mean), and engaged somehow, actively that is local, and thinking broad”.

Warum 2.0 is now on the move, in search for its next possible destination….

Google Will Eat Itself

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One of the things I picked up on Transmediale08 was GWEI – Google Will Eat Itself, a project by the UBERMORGEN collective that has a straightforward mission: “We generate money by serving Google text advertisements on a network of hidden Websites. With this money we automatically buy Google shares.'”Anyone can join this noble mission by becoming a shareholder of GTTP (Google To The People Public Company). Google itself has not been a big fan of GWEI: the project was actually removed from Google’s search engine (so that it was impossible to find it with Google), but after a few months it was allowed to appear again. The creators never received any proper information from Google about why they were banned and why the ban was removed.

Some of the folks behind GWEI have also been involved in Amazon Noir – The Big Book Crime, an automated piece of software that makes books available online for free by grabbing them page by page from Amazon.com by missusing the “look inside” feature. This was carried out by sending 5.000 – 10.000 requests per book. After this process the data was logically reassembled into pdf-format by the SIB-Book-Generator. “Amazon Noir was scripted as an internet-movie. The whole digital action (media hack) was carried out in the global massmedia, within the art world and on a highly sophisticated technical level in the clandestine matrix of our global networks.” Amazon USA, U.K., Germany and France were vulnerable targets. During the attack they transformed part of the Search Inside the Book technology to defend the rights of the copyright holders – without actually solving the problem. Over 3000 Books were downloaded and distributed through p2p between April and October 2006. In July 2006 Amazon France and Amazon USA threatend to litigate. The matter was resolved out of court October 30th, 2006. Amazon (USA/France) bought the Amazon Noir software for an undisclosed sum – both parties signed a non-disclosure agreement.

The law system definitely tries its best to shut down these projects. An earlier UBERMORGEN project, [V]ote Auction (a satire about campaign financing and free-market economics that billed itself as “the only election platform channelling ‘soft money’ directly to the democratic consumer”), resulted in multiple lawsuits in US, the total amount of paper that detailed these lawsuits weighted around 700 kilograms (!). James Raskin said about the project: “These people are just 50 years ahead of their time in seeing that the ultimate destination of the current [electoral] process is that everything will be for sale.” After lawsuit threats by the New York State Board of Elections and Chicago Board of Elections officials (and heavy-handed comparisons to treason), the site was sold on August 18th, 2000, to maverick Austrian entrepreneur Hans Bernhard, who re-opened it. The deal was brokered by legendary culture jammers ®TMark. On October 21, 2000, the company Domain Bank illegally froze the Voteauction.com domain, capitulating to authorities. Bernhard immediately registered the site as Vote-Auction.com with a non-U.S. company. On November 1st, 2000, Network Solutions (the for-profit company that administers .com, .net, and .org domains) violated international law by removing Vote-Auction.com from its root servers. See here for the story.