Anxious Visions

By Keith Griffiths

"Art does not portray what is visible, but renders visible." – Paul Klee

There is something in the air. The general outlook is mostly dull, overcast with early morning fog. Drizzle expected later. What’s new?

institute-benjamenta-brothers-quay.jpgInstitute Benjamenta, dirs. Brothers Quay. Photo: still by Jill Furmanovsky, ©1994

In writing about the current climate in which we work it is obviously easier to focus on the direct experiences and obsessions of one’s own production output. These are probably not necessarily shared by all, but I have a vision that the birds on the wire have stopped singing and I think the climate may have poisoned them.

Jurgen Glaesemer was one of Europe’s most thoughtful and provocative art curators. As well as running the Paul Klee Stiftung in Bern, Switzerland, he was also closely involved in the work of ‘outsider artists’ – in particular Adolf Wolfli – and curated some remarkable European contemporary art shows. The most challenging and eye-opening for me was in 1987, ‘Die Gleichzeitigkeit des Anderen’ (‘The Presence of the Other’). We worked on and off together for a couple of years trying to evolve a different approach to the making of films about ‘art’ or more particularly painters. One film was to be about Klee and another about Bosch. Partially due to his untimely death by AIDS, both remain unrealised to date. It was, however, this exhibition, ‘The Presence of the Other’, that profoundly affected my way of thinking about the films and TV programmes that I was either making or producing. His large-scale show brought together works of quite diverse contemporary international artists and was complemented by an extensive programme of performances, jazz concerts, plays, spoken text, lectures and movies. The artworks were not isolated.

cardinal-and-the-corpse-chris-petit.jpgThe Cardinal and the Corpse, dir. Chris Petit Photo: Marc Atkins

The theme of ‘The Presence of the Other’ prompted an examination of artists’ work for their magical content. Not the informational content or other logically comprehensible elements in their work, but into the ‘other’ or that which is hidden behind the rationally understandable elements of art. This was an exploration of art which not only portrays the visible but as a voyage into the interior, renders visible. This requires the recognition that the other does not primarily reveal itself to us through our intellect, but through deeper regions of perception which dwell in us – in so far as we are prepared to open ourselves to them.

At a time when a senseless belief in technical progress per se has proved to be a dead end, the language of the other takes on a new and more serious meaning. Art has always grappled with the other and the presence of magic is a component of the artistic power of testimony, though materialist thinkers have continuously tried to exclude and deny this dimension.

dimensions-of-dialogue-jan-svankmajer.jpgDimensions of Dialogue, dir. Jan Svankmajer. Photo: Large Door Ltd

This exhibition focused on a range of contemporary artists who have been intensely interested in the creative forms of expression of non-Western civilisations. These artists, who during sojourns of many years among ‘alien cultures’, had come to terms with the experiences, the knowledge, the thoughts, the pictures, the music, the animistic, the magic and religious heart of these cultures and grappled with the spiritual dimension of the other – rationally as well as emotionally. But, the show also brought into sharp focus that the other can also be found closer to home – within us. Its discovery is a journey which can be undertaken without changing place. One can touch the frontiers of the other in our own experiences, presentiments and in the full recognition of the phenomena of being human – such as birth, sensual feeling and love, insanity, various forms of trance and death.

The awareness of the importance of this tension between ‘reality’ and ‘magic’ and the experiences to be gained from walking the tightrope between the two, lies at the heart of my personal choices in the production of films and programmes and of the collaborations that these inevitably involve. Of course not every film-maker with whom one works will see things this way – but it nevertheless provides me with an anchor and a position from which to make choices. Every week I’m sent presentable and professional scripts to read, some will make excellent productions of one kind or another, but most don’t contain any recognition of the potential of that indefinable element of the other or any desire to seriously engage or search for it. This factor is central for me to want to spend weeks, months and often some years of one’s life developing and producing a film or programme. This tightrope is the well established one between Lumière and Méliès and the second history of the moving image. This second history which we are about to celebrate, dating from the mid-1890s, is now relatively well excavated. But the first history (pre-history) remains one still rich for exploration and speculation and one where the alliances and conflicts of myth – magic/imagination and technology await further feverish research, though the tightrope to be walked by the filmmaker is still the same. It is within this alchemical laboratory that future works of imagination will be born.

food-jan-svankmajer.jpgFood, dir. Jan Svankmajer.

Of course it is necessary to recognise that the administrators commissioning TV programmes, however well intentioned, are not at all interested in ‘intensity’ or ‘experience’. They seek to design and construct neatly defined spaces, with recognisable structure and perspective, with clear agendas and menus to address our modern times. It is clear that arenas created of illusions and false perspective are not to be trusted, they are unlikely to be spaces for passive contemplation. Disparate elements would be unsettling for an audience and disorientation would be at best intolerable. But it is these very boundaries that need transgressing if we are really going to address our modern world. Moving pictures must be made and shown which are an irritation to our familiar ways of experience. Film-makers need to be architects of the fantastic to help enable us to see the world afresh. But to see things anew and with an open mind the audience must first shut their eyes to the immediately visible, then in Svankmajer’s words, ‘they might see something!’

Two contemporary British writers, the late Angela Carter and Iain Sinclair, stand as beacons in the literary landscape for their challenging and imaginative work. The work of both has provided possible routes through the labyrinth that film-makers in Britain should currently be confronting and exploring. Both directly and indirectly, they have consistently walked the tightrope and grappled with a search for the other. Sinclair himself in his review of London for Sight & Sound sewed a thread linking the work of Patrick Keiller and Chris Petit, both of whom I have had the opportunity and excitement of producing.

jurgen-glaesemer-with-the-honey-pump-josef-beuys.jpgJurgen Glaesmer, with ‘The Honey Pump’ by Josef Beuys.

Most responses to Petit’s film Radio On in 1980 concentrated on the obvious influence of Wim Wenders and the European genre of the ‘road movie’. But the inner magic of the film remains for me the oblique and startling way he looked at Britain at this point in time. Within a fractured narrative, populated by minor and often inconsequential characters, the force of the images of landscape and weather are striving to construct a different emotional way of looking at the world. It is within his more recent TV documentaries and essays (in particular Weather; J G Ballard; The Cardinal & the Corpse; Surveillance and Thriller) that he has tentatively sketched a freer and imagination-driven way of opening up a portrait of our age and the way we experience it. Despite a relatively prolific output it has hardly been a path that endears him or his work to the more conservative-minded TV executives. Though the programmes are not all wholly successful they do present provocative and different ways of constructing the so-called documentary and presenting reality. The narrative of these programmes is never at the expense of experience. They are perhaps closer to the manner of ‘speech’. If one listens closely to the way we talk or chat to each other, the narrative fractures – yet we listen – make connections and the empty spaces between can become as important to our way of seeing and creating meaning as the flow of words themselves. In Petit’s work the flow and richness of the images and text themselves strive to render visible the invisible.

For some, I presume that the subject and ‘problem of London’ is the most important aspect of Patrick Keiller’s film London. Much of its success at the cinema must relate to the real concerns and anxieties that people retain about this inexplicable and mysterious metropolis. For me, however, its interest and magnetism lie elsewhere. Despite an important legacy of ‘poetic’ English documentary cinema, the film still takes an audience by surprise as it confronts their expectations. The confusion over defining the film – as either ‘fiction’ or ‘documentary’ lies at the heart of its power and the inclination to divide or separate these definitions is purely a pragmatic one. With the spirit of the surrealist flâneur, Keiller opens our eyes and literally drags us into a real metropolitan labyrinth to discover a vision of the city which can only be mapped by surrendering to the forces of imagination.

photograms-len-lye.jpgPhotograms by Len Lye

The actual process of making this film itself challenged many orthodox procedures of production. It was only Ben Gibson’s (BFI’s Head of Production) courage to engage with this that made the film possible. Whilst a ‘script’ of a kind existed, the images of London photographed by Keiller were created first and the text or narration followed. The film was created with only 50% of the structure in place, the other 50% could be defined as a form of ‘creative chaos’. But, it is exactly in this very space and with this particular tension exactly that invention happens. With the experience of a body of short films behind him, Keiller was able to construct his own imaginative and poetic logic for the film from a fragile foundation.

Believing in the process of risk or chance and trusting the visionary film-maker is something which TV administrators rarely now have the stomach to undertake, which is of course why the resulting programmes are either so dull, bland or inept. This failure to trust the proven desire of the audience to engage with the potential collision of ‘reality’ and ‘magic’ in films and TV programmes which London embodies is one of the most critical challenges for producers and film-makers or we will be wallpapered over whilst dozing off in the armchair.

rehearsals-for-extinct-anatomies-brothers-quay.jpgRehearsals for Extinct Anatomies. dirs. Brothers Quay

The presentation of a ‘script’ or idea is the moment at which a film-maker’s vision can provoke the reality of a film or not. It is at this very point that risks need to be taken and ideas given the chance to breathe. Most ‘screenplays’ are written so that one reads the film, which for me is self-defeating and discourages the imaginative tensions and visual and sensory pleasures to be gained from the creative play of both ideas and material. In writing about the realisation of his film Faust, Jan Svankmajer wrote that it ‘combines the dream plane with the plane of reality. For example, the transitions from setting to setting are linked at the level of dreams, the shortest connecting line... If you live with your film – by which I mean that you are with it 24 hours a day, that you go to sleep with it and wake up with it – then it is natural that your subconscious starts to influence the film’s reality and vice versa. In this state a written script is normally of no use at all. You have to start again... And so, suddenly and inadvertently, you find you are making a film that you are not familiar with, although you are its only author. This adventure of the imagination is what truly makes the film a real statement... I have always preferred this chaotic, but authentic process to the professional realisation of the perfectly written screenplay.’

When reading Angela Carter’s (an enthusiastic supporter of Svankmajer’s work) strange and amazing tales you immediately experience a similar force of the imagination at play. It is this very quality which gives the work such power and presence. However, most film-makers tying their flag to the Carter/Svankmajer mast risk being told to walk the plank. The opportunities for metamorphosis and magic to evolve between the spaces, narrows dramatically. Despite the strain of seven years of patient development work the Brothers Quay (and co-writer Alan Passes) took substantial risks with the script for their first live-action film Institute Benjamenta. But it paid off and their single-minded determination that the script should not be written in a conventional format has indeed provided them with the freedom they needed to expand the margins with their indefinable, meticulous and startling visual invention.

secret-joy-simon-pummel.jpg Secret Joy. dir. Simon Pummel

The Brothers Quay are true cinemagicians, and though their work is often compared with Svankmajer’s, more accurately follows in the footsteps of other pioneers like Starewicz, Borowczyk and even Franju. The strength of the work has, like Keiller’s, been built up through the ability to produce a formidable body of entirely personal and innovative short films, enabling ideas to be tested, rejected or transformed. As animators the required skills have been hard learnt through painful trial, error and experiment. The artisanal nature of the work provides another strength and an ability to retain as much control over their work as possible. Keiller, likewise, photographs and edits his work himself and Petit increasingly has turned to the use of Hi-8 which enables him to control the image more personally. Viewed one way, such film-makers could easily become marooned and isolated on a kind of desert island. But from another perspective, such an island can provide the opportunity, like Robinson Crusoe’s, to construct from scratch, with invention and freedom, a skilfully camouflaged base from which to launch occasional and unconventional pirate raids on unsuspecting ships bearing riches or untold knowledge.

The opportunity also now exists to venture to virtual islands and digital cities on voyages of discovery and exploration which are as challenging and exciting as the early days of the second history of cinema. In the catalogue of ‘Videonale 6’, Siegfried Zielinski, the newly appointed Director of Cologne’s impressive and significant Academy of Media Arts wrote, ‘In Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal artists are like a shadow plant that lingers at the edges of the night. Working with advanced technologies, the artists at the close of the 20th century are no light shunning rabble. They are close to the light and enlightened by it. They are exposed to the glowing monitors of the programming machines, the editing studios, the workstations from Macintosh or Unix. For them, the light-defying blackness of the Night has the status of a luxurious possession existing outside their work. Their creativity needs electricity as its soul, electronic-building blocks as that soul’s filigree cavities. The digital is their radiant all-illuminating myth, the new binary polarity (basal construction on which are built all great historical mythologies from the I Ching to the Kabbalah) from which artists seek to conjure up their visions of the other by teasing out potentially infinite combinations.’

This is the prevailing climate of the future, a moment in time, where the doors of the magic circus, with all its pleasures and skills, are again open. The streets outside buzz with the excitement of radical technological change. The unpleasantly named information superhighway provides an open laboratory for creative and imaginative work to flourish. It is an environment where with even relatively modest electronic and computer hardware the artisan film-maker, in particular, has the potential to uphold and develop their critical and subversive role. Simon Pummell, whose animated and short fiction films have with extraordinary imagination embraced both an alliance and a conflict with new technology, is one of a younger generation of film-makers who will inevitably become an acrobat on the high-wire of the new electronic networks. It is not strange to be afraid of this new environment, but it would be perverse to either ignore or fail to engage with it.

­Jan Hoet, the ex-boxer and controversial curator of ‘Documenta IX’, whilst preparing his epic show, courageously remarked in an offhand moment that his ‘sparring partner will be fear’. Some of the senior management of TV in Britain seem to have caught a common virus in our unpredictable weather and seem incapable of confronting or embracing their fear of tackling difficult subjects and themes (both documentary and fictional) in free and imaginative ways, in allowing the montage of images to do the work of well informed talking heads. The infection is spreading rapidly to the floors below them. The only known antidote is an injection of a familiar and well tested formula – ‘information’. To engage and search for intuitive and creative solutions is condemned as chatting only to like minded peers. This increasingly prevalent fear urgently needs to be challenged and debated. Even in a modest way the success of both London and Faust at the cinema box office demonstrates a certain hunger from the audience for something different that provokes the imagination, for films or programmes that enable the individual to search for often hidden meaning. On the week of their release, both films achieved the highest screen average in London and were more successful at the box office than new traditional fare costing three times the budget of these films.

It would of course be hypocritical not to acknowledge that all Koninck’s output mentioned above has been financed either fully by either Channel 4 or the BBC or in co-production with overseas partners. It would also be insane to draw any conclusion from my anxieties that I expect the TV stations to metamorphose into wall-to-wall stations broadcasting obscure programming relating to my own obsessions with the fantastic. So are these concerns merely a case of bad faith, of biting the hands that feed one? I hope my anxiety about the increasing return to ‘traditional values’, the sloganising about relevant ‘agendas for the 90s’ in programming and the prevalent fear of more indefinable visionary work, can be read as an expression of real concern and discussed more widely. We need to spar more not less.

I increasingly fear that the argument for films and programmes that are truly inventive and challenging is seen as a special plea for a play-pen at the margins of our culture and as an expensive luxury. Further, that there is a commonly held belief that such films will lose an audience, which is both short-sighted and patronising. One is not proposing making self-indulgent images purely for peer groups, but creating subjective work that is both challenging and engages with a desire to build a wider audience. Films and programmes that are ‘cultural, political, engage with counter cultures and question notions of taste’ do need to be made and seen, but ones that are themselves imaginative and pursue a search for the elusive and invisible. This ingredient cannot be taken for granted and is noticeably and increasingly absent from both the debate and the majority of material currently being produced. Such work doesn’t grow on trees, it needs careful nurturing and a passionate declaration of its importance so that creative confidence can be sustained. In order to deal with the agenda of the 90s and the future we face, one can’t just make the world more visible or more contemporary by continually revealing it as it is. As Alexander Kluge stated (in his enlightening discussions at the ICA) one needs to put everything on the table – the past and the present – bring it all into discussion and test it. One needs both analysis and synthesis, both pepper and salt. One should not be afraid of demolishing the visible in order to construct something new. This is the authentic and often cruel experience of life.

It could be argued that once upon a time, at night, mothers whispered fairy tales into the ears of their children. Here were tales of hair-raising intensity, where with closed eyes, new worlds were imagined and the fantastic illuminated reality. Possibly in many homes, TV and movies have replaced the mother and those raw awe-inspiring experiences. But, it is on those very screens that such worlds can and need to be created, ones that challenge us to close our eyes and render visible the visible.

Whilst in self-imposed exile in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a memorable essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ which I re-read often with trepidation in the current climate.

‘The past is all of one texture – whether feigned or suffered – whether acted out in three dimensions, or only witnessed in that small theatre of the brain which we keep brightly lighted all night long... what we call true, and which a dream, there is not one hair to prove. The past stands on a precarious footing... There are some among us who claim to have lived longer and more richly than their neighbours; when they lay asleep they claim they were still active... There is one of this kind whom I have in my eye... He was from a child an ardent and uncomfortable dreamer... This honest fellow had long been in the custom of setting himself to sleep with tales, and so had his father before him... tales where a thread might be dropped, or one adventure quitted for another on fancy’s least suggestion... But presently my dreamer began to turn his former amusement of storytelling to (what is called) account; by which I mean that he began to write and sell his tales. Here was he in quite new conditions. The stories must now be trimmed and pared and set upon all fours, they must run from a beginning to an end and fit (after a manner) with the laws of life... all the rest of the family of visions is quite lost to him: the common mangled version of yesterday’s affairs, the raw-head-and bloody-bones nightmare... these and their like are gone; and, for the most part, whether awake or asleep, he is simply occupied – he or his little people – in consciously making stories for the market... No fear of his being frightened now; the flying heart and the frozen scalp are things bygone.’

The outlook for tomorrow...

The substantial quantity of work produced through Koninck over the past 15 years could not have been made without the trust and inspiration of the film-makers I have worked with: the creative support of Larry Sider; the constant exchange of ideas from Simon Field, John Wyver, Michael O'Pray, Rod Stoneman, Lutz Becker; the collaboration and production skills of Janine Marmot and Diane Freeman and the inspirational friendship of Siegfried Zielinski.

Keith Griffiths produces films through his company, Koninck. Recent titles include Patrick Keiller’s London and the first live-action film by the Brothers Quay, Institute Benjamenta.