Phonography and the Drift

By Owen Armstrong

in-the-city-of-sylvia-jose-luis-guerin.jpgIn the City of Sylvia, 2007

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there… But the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psycho-geographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.” – Guy Debord

From its opening moments – the shadow play of passing traffic on the walls of a peaceful night time interior – In the City of Sylvia is a markedly refreshing piece of visceral cinema. Guerin’s arrangement of sounds and images recalls the compelling simplicity of Philip Groning’s Into Great Silence. Similarly, Guerin’s film is an un-intrusive collection of moments from a variety of lives, weaving its way through the often unremarkable shimmer of noise and intermittently settling on the curiously preoccupied young man around which the film is loosely based; ostensibly, it is the story of his search for a woman he met in bar six years earlier. Cutting between groups of people, catching glimpses of their conversations, Guerin focuses on occasional and insignificant glances between strangers as they sit either in contemplation or light exchange.

So accomplished is the symphony of sound that percolates In the City… that it is a film that can be heard and not seen. Echoing the work of sound recordist Chris Watson, Guerin illustrates all the diversity and complexity of noise that penetrates city life. Where Watson exposes the plethora of sounds that decorate the natural landscape, so too does Guerin bring to the fore an array of everyday noise and ever present interruptions that illuminate the urban milieu. The phonographic function that these recordings perform is embellished by Guerin’s limited use of dialogue. Meaning literally ‘sound-writing’, the phonography of In the City… is given space and time to flourish, writing the atmosphere of Strasbourg and acoustically observing the geography of the city. Guerin illustrates this with the slightest of gestures; while sat outside a busy café, the unnamed protagonist removes a pair of headphones to listen to his surroundings. With this action he does as Guerin is does, directing his attention to the soundscape that engulfs him. It is unclear to what degree In the City… is a re-telling of Guerin’s own experiences, but this alignment of purpose certainly brings his observational absorption into the foreground.

in-the-city-of-sylvia-jose-luis-guerin-2.jpgIn the City of Sylvia, 2007

Guerin’s companion piece to In the City… – a compilation of photographs exploring the landscape of Strasbourg – further rouses the possibility that his film is more autobiographical than may first seem apparent. His appropriation of mood and drift certainly suggests an element of reality and genuine intrigue that places it outside the realm of fiction. In part it is a unique breakaway from the stylistic trends that have come to dominate the cinema screen - it is not often that a film so accurately reflects the cacophonous bombardment of distractions, interjections and interactions that penetrate the lives of its audience. In addition to this though, Guerin’s preoccupation with places and movement is represented in the character of the drifter – an embodiment of the psychogeography of the city and what Debord terms dérive, or drift. Guerin’s acute awareness of urban interaction and the fluctuating ambience within the merest of spaces confronts the reality of actually inhabiting an environment and this is something that flows through his body of work. His earlier film, Work In Progress, is perhaps a more direct dissection of the economic implications of geographical situation, as the El Xino quarter of Barcelona undergoes a significant industrial shift, pushing long time residents away to introduce wealthier habitants to the area. As with In the City… Guerin constructs his sonic environment as carefully as he selects the way in which his film is seen, and again seemingly devoid of forced artistry. He acknowledges his own compulsion to bathe in the totality of his surroundings, expressing the notion of exploration and possibility yet also accepting of the fact that it may lead to nowhere.

As he sits making endless sketches of strangers, the young man eventually sees the woman he believes to be Sylvia and, after following her through a maze of alleyways and onto a train, he confronts her. Suppressing the sentimental thrust of the young man’s emotional irrationality, the woman denies having ever met him and moreover, is justifiably horrified that she has had to endure the threat of being followed by a stranger. Whether or not Guerin is facing demons of his own through the character of the young man is less significant than the fact that In the City… does not end here. Returning to the bar in which he claims to have met Sylvia, the young man pensively props up the bar, visibly desperate to interact with the people around him and yet too introverted to rely on instinct and openly become immersed in his environment. While Guerin seems to advocate this, his character is trapped inside his own introspection. Perhaps this is something that Guerin has learned through personal experience; that despite the emotional trauma of unrequited affection, the world around us remains in constant flux and does not stop to sympathise – the drift continues.

in-the-city-of-sylvia-jose-luis-guerin-3.jpgIn the City of Sylvia, 2007

For a film so unique, it is impressively broad in its consideration of space and society, exploring the simplest notions and meandering through the myriad thoughts and feelings of day-to-day life. In his essay entitled Listening to Myself Listen – a discussion on the performance of listening – S. Arden Hill writes that the sonic landscape around us such as traffic, mechanics, and the relentless sound of movement, is something that is ideologically silenced and that we essentially choose between listening and hearing, distinguishable by the degree to which we focus on sounds. Just as Debord imposes the dichotomy of being in two states – that of having to exist both inside and outside ourselves – the discerning phonographer continually shifts his attentions between focused listening and immersion. Hill goes on to point out the extent of effort and technologies required to create John Cage’s perception of silence – testament to the attention that Guerin pays to the audio tapestry so often dismissed as such.

Guerin documents the architecture and clamour of Strasbourg with a fastidious detail reminiscent of Patrick Keiller’s London. As an illustration of the potential of cinema to nourish and edify us, he draws from variety of ways of thinking about and perceiving ourselves in a given landscape. He resists the indulgence of profound clarity and grand cinematic gestures wherein the central character’s actions determine an overarching moral agenda. Both Guerin and the young man are ultimately as perplexed as the rest of us, wishing to be more impulsive, yet repeatedly drawn back to pensively basking in the bustling serenade of their surroundings.

in-the-city-of-sylvia-jose-luis-guerin-4.jpgIn the City of Sylvia, 2007

In the City of Sylvia is a film unclouded by the veil that separates cinema from its audience, to the point that it almost defies interpretation. Unlike the debatably limited scope of having to interpret and decode a series of images with noises that appear to help them make sense, the signs and meaning within Guerin’s landscape are transient. His attention to the apparatus of cinema – the co-dependence of sound deign and cinematography – is just another of his film’s sentiments. Succinct and absorbing, In the City of Sylvia is a reminder of the achievable scale of thoughtful, methodically collaborative art and, in contrast to its deceiving simplicity, makes much of contemporary cinema seem like an extravagant waste of time.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and content. He lives in London.