“What’s the Difference?” – a discussion on the relationship between art and documentary filmmaking
Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert discuss the relationship between art and documentary filmmaking with artists Yael Bartana, Annika Eriksson, Anri Sala and Gitte Villesen
Jörg Heiser: Gitte, your three-channel video projection The Building – The Bikeshop – Andy’s Furniture (2001) is about a community project by artist Dan Peterman in Chicago that includes a bike shop. You use the camera as a navigational tool for a particular social structure. There is an ambivalence implied that is typical of documentary modes: passive presence versus active intrusion.
Gitte Villesen: To begin with, I shot some videos where I said to people, „sit there and do that“. But then I felt the work should follow rules that are like the rules in my life: I wanted the subjects to have more control and I wanted the piece to be open to chance, although I was aware that in the end I would take full responsibility for the edit.
JH: Do you always explain to your subjects why you are filming them?
GV: Yes, but sometimes when I tell them what it’s for, it’s still too abstract. In the case of „The Building…“ Andy, the guy who runs the bike shop, was vital in gaining the trust of local teenagers.
JH: He comes across as quite grumpy.
GV: Though he’s from Chicago, he’s like so many people from the west coast of Denmark, where I have a lot of relatives – people talk less with words than with subtle allusions, pauses. As I understand him he is actually quite open to the situation, a bit shy though.
JH: So are you looking for things that take place between people on a very subtle level?
GV: Yes, all those things that are just as much communication as speech is.
JH: You chose to map a microcosm in a kind of home-movie way rather than setting up a fixed structure for people to enter.
GV: Even though Annika (Eriksson) and I share an interest in social networks, we approach things differently in terms of setting up a structure and asking people to enter it.
Annika Eriksson: That is true, I edit in advance and you edit afterwards.
Jan Verwoert: Gitte, what are your principles, in terms of editing? In most documentary films there tend to be fewer images of stubborn or dysfunctional people who simply don’t want to talk.
GV: For me, these people are communicating. I see most of the people I work with as being quite talkative or at least communicative, but I know what you mean. There was an article once in a Danish film magazine that said my work was made up only of the bits that would normally be edited out. I thought: well, maybe not only those bits. (Laughs)
JV: You once said that you were looking for the ‚un-ordinary‘ ordinary person.
GV: I definitely look at the rules that define the way you deal with concrete reality when you dream about how life should be. Bus Stops and Parties (2000), for example, deals a lot with unspoken relationships between the sexes and with how, in a very small community (and I’m from a small village myself) you can have fun – as long as you fit in. However, in my piece these Norwegian kids go a step further by organizing a mini-bus so they can all go to town together on a Saturday evening.
JH: When you are filming, do you try to avoid being spoken to, or is it an accepted part of the experiment?
GV: It would feel weird, in terms of editing, not to include the moments when people come up to me and ask what I’m doing.
JH: The early piece Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market (1994) consists mainly of a close-up of a guy at a fairground who tries to persuade you to stop filming and join him for a beer.
GV: This was my first ever video work, and after filming it I was surprised at the way he had followed the traditional male role of being obviously active and me the traditional female role of being apparently passive. He is doing the talking, I smile and laugh and react: if not, the communication would not have continued for ten minutes.
Anri Sala: Which brings in the aspect of ‚the game‘ – the rules of the game.
Yael Bartana: Were you aware of those rules at the time?
GV: I don’t think I could have done it if I had been fully aware: to be convincing for him, I also had to be a bit lost in the situation. It was a surprise to realize how well we both knew the unwritten rules for that kind of situation.
JH: That work makes it clear that the camera as a piece of technology can both reduce and amplify: it creates a particular social situation. It’s a bit like teenagers obsessed with texting: trying to engage and disengage at the same time.
GV: The guy seems more seduced by the camera than by the possibility of getting a girl to have a beer with him.
AE: In family or school gatherings there are always one or two men with a camera. It’s another form of detachment.
JH: Your video The Session (2003) was made with musicians who are the opposite of detached.
AE: Yes, that is an important aspect of the work. I was in Sao Paulo two years ago and came across Pardal de Saudade and Verde Lins, two street musicians doing ‚Repente‘, a musical tradition from the north-east of Brazil. They are masters of improvisation and rhythm and I had the idea to suggest they collaborate with a young Hip Hop band, „S’Africa Brazil“. Although these groups come from different contexts, they share an interest in the spoken word and improvisation.
JH: As in in earlier works, for example Staff at Moderna Museet (2000), you created a kind of ‚tableau vivant‘. There is one image from a slightly raised angle, no pans, no zooms, more or less no cuts: in the best sense, it’s sort of a cross between a soapbox and a karaoke booth. Is this a ‚universal‘ framework, an apparatus that fits musicians in Brazil just as much as museum staff in Sweden?
AE: It is a method that I use to create realness and presence. I use the camera as a filter of reality. The idea originally came about when I organized an event with the Copenhagen Postmen’s Orchestra in 1996. They usually play marching music, but I asked them to play „Sour Times“, by Portishead. By capturing the performance on video, I made it available for the audience visting the exhibition.
JH: The Session is projected roughly life-size, creating a kind of hyper-presence, as if the musicians were in an actual room behind the screen.
AE: Yes, and in addressing the camera as an audience they directly communicate with us.
JV: This is politically interesting. The life-size projection frames me just us much as I frame it, which prevents the subject being exoticized.
GV: You often work with people in their own environments, but encourage them to do something they wouldn’t normally do, such as the staff at a museum walking into a room and saying their name and profession into the camera.
AE: Especially with Staff at Moderna Museet, I’m interested in the way people define themselves as individuals, and as members of a group.
JH: You flip institutional critique around – rather than investigating the museum, you use it as a tool to look at society at large.
AE: Yes, I use it as a model of society, from the technicians through the secretary to the director. I explore social hierarchies and in the process small, interesting things happen: like, for example, David Elliott, the then director, squeezing in between the carpenters.
JV: We are discussing the critical edge of documentary pieces, and of course you can find that edge in the content. But isn’t the point more about the formal approach with which the film is realized?
AS: Maybe the problem is that our discussion is too much about reception. So far we have only related the form to the reception, but we should consider its dependence on the means of production. We have seen many hours of documentary and fiction on cinema and TV, and we know how to see them. If we are able to do something different or ‚in-between‘ it’s also because we can work with the conditions of production offered by art spaces, rather than those defined by cinema and TV. If the resulting work doesn’t fit the existing reception models of the public, it doesn’t necessarily need to be situated. In a way, the question of what constitutes the critical edge of these pieces in terms of form doesn’t need to be answered. It’s like that game where you balance a ball without letting it fall into any of the holes. Why should we let the ball fall in the holes?
JH: But you as a producer are involved in reception, too. You’re always aware of these ‚holes‘ in the game; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to move around them.
YB: Without the reception there is no work.
AS: Without the public, there might be no work, but the work exists even when it doesn’t respond to pre-existing receptions.
JV: The feeling that I get from some of your videos, Yael – as with the cars stopping on a motorway („Trembling Time“, 2001) or jeeps in a sandpit („Kings of the Hill“, 2003) – is that I see what I see but still I don’t know what it is that I am looking at.
YB: I don’t make straightforward documentaries because I’m not interested and I wouldn’t be good at it. I try to stay as close as possible to what interested me in the first place. In „Kings of the Hill“, I was attracted by a western social phenomenon and its local character.
JH: „Kings of the Hill“ evokes a very basic level of amazement, creating an almost ghostly atmosphere, especially at the end, when the sun sets and there is some reverb on the sound, and slow motion. And the car lights…
AS: The landscape and the sea in the video remind me of pre-Renaissance paintings.
YB: Yes, very romantic! (Laughs)
JH: But in terms of documentary we would expect more specific information. There is no text that tells us, ‚this takes place every weekend near Tel Aviv, and these people are Israelis‘. You’re walking a tightrope between the abstraction that allows the viewer to be amazed and the narration that allows the viewer to get a critical understanding. How far can you go?
YB: I’m not interested in telling the viewer about a specific social class, or the history of these SUV-type cars in Israel. I wanted to comment on the symbolic implications, both locally and globally, of this weekly event.
AE: When I saw the „Territories“ show at Kunst-Werke in Berlin about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a great deal of information had to be digested in order to make sense of some of the works, and it was refreshing to see your piece. It’s entertaining and humorous, and it made me curious to find out more.
JV: On the one hand the piece is a statement about class, gender, nationality and a certain political relationship that people have with land. But on the other, the statement is only made via images, by attracting my attention to something I’ve never seen before. The interesting thing is that I can’t reconcile the different levels.
GV: I don’t think you need to – I want the line between art and documentary, fiction and reality, to be blurred. I studied literature before I studied art – novels often give me experiences that are real. The way I lead my life is a mixture of fantasy and ‚real‘ experiences.
JH: Truth, according to Jacques Derrida, is something that declares itself in the structure of fiction. It’s like the play within the play in „Hamlet“, which reveals the terrible truth about the king.
JV: You’re talking about speech, narration, fiction. But how can we translate that to the category of images?
YB: „Kings of the Hill“ in fact has a narrative, a timeline from day to night.
AS: Think of wildlife documentaries, when the kind of animal you are looking at determines how you film it and from what distance.
YB: So the subject determines the form.
AS: Exactly. If some good wildlife documentaries were shown in a context that’s more conducive to concentration than TV, that dimension would become clearer.
JH: Isn’t that the function of the art world, to act as an overall amplifier of meaning? Through the way things are displayed and framed.
JV: So a documentary enables us to examine images properly. Perhaps there’s a paradox in the fact that this approach has reintroduced the visual into art discourse – the idea of looking at an image as an image, not as a text.
YB: Maybe it has to do with a particular education in art. I showed „Kings of the Hill“ to a so-called ‚visual anthropologist‘ to get his reaction. Visual anthropologists film, say, tribes in a passive way, with no interaction, and at a distance. Often they don’t even edit. This guy said to me, „you are very much an art school product.“ According to him, my choices would never be accepted in his department: they would not be deemed objective enough. You wouldn’t be allowed to use slow motion, for example.
GV: Earlier on you said that the subject determines the form. The subject of the image also determines its duration and speed.
JH: There is a contemplative effect that Jan described. But when it takes too long it’s almost like you’re cut off. It’s a two-way thing: for four minutes you’re totally transfixed, and five seconds later you suddenly lose it.
AE: I do not fully agree. For instance, Chantal Akerman’s „From the East“ (1993) lasts for several hours and the narration is slow but its length is its strength – it creates a feeling of reality.
JV: Reactionary criticism of exhibitions with documentary pieces often tends to be about the fact that you need to set aside so many hours to watch the show. Remember the last Documenta?
AE: But that is the interesting aspect of art: that you can twist time around.
JH: Stretching and condensing time – do you see this as a Conceptual heritage?
AE: Yes, I do.
JV: We’ve talked about the necessity of form – how long to stick with an image before the next cut. Anri, there has been a strong shift in your work from narration towards the idea of ‚just‘ showing images.
AS: I’m interested in working with things that seem totally reduced, empty of meaning, open. When I did „Intervista“ (1998), I was curious about what my mother was saying in the silent footage I had found, so I went to some lip-readers. It’s only when I subtitled it and put the credits at the end that I realized: this looks like a film. With „Nocturne“ (1999) it’s different: each of the two guys‘ stories is interesting enough to make two separate films. But I was interested in how you could create a level where it’s more than about each of them – to make their worlds meet, although they never actually did. At that point it’s definitely not documentary any more.
JV: Narrative is an instrument. But if we take the narrative away, what is the image without it?
AS: There are other concepts that are just as important. For example in „Ghost Games“ (2002), the scene with crabs on a beach at night definitely has more to do with games than with narrative. Games create territory and action, relations and scenarios but no narratives – at least not the ones we discussed so far. What makes a taxi driver follow a football match on the radio as he drives, is it the narrative of a story where a team wins or loses or is he imagining the space and the action taking place in it?
JH: Isn’t that development in your work also a reaction to the reception of your work, that people tried to pin you down as making narrative films about identity, and the history of Albania?
AS: It’s a bit unfair to say that it was a reaction. For me it’s more about finding something that is not related to answers you have already given yourself.
GV: If you knew everything beforehand, you wouldn’t feel the need to do it.
JH: „Dammi i Colori“ (2003) is about a project initiated by the mayor of Tirana to paint the facades of a group of housing blocks with brightly coloured patterns. The way you filmed it treated it like an artwork: for example in the scene at night where you light the scaffolding in front of one block, creating a kind of kinetic sculpture. You are using a documentary mode, but looking at the world as an artist.
AS: I wanted the city to look half real and half as if it existed in someone’s head, in the thoughts of the one who speaks, the mayor. I was interested in the political dimension implied: is the decision to paint the houses authoritarian? The geographical dimension: can democracy be established everywhere in the same way? And the aesthetic dimension: can colour have an impact on the city’s life?
JH: My initial thought was, that’s exactly where modernity goes wrong – expecting a nice pattern on a wall to effect social change. The irony in your piece, for me, is that it makes me think that, yes, there are situations and localities where it might really be the right thing to add some colour, to cheer the place up.
AS: When the painting of the facades started, reactions were very heated, so the Mayor organised a poll with two questions: do you like it and do you want this to continue? 60% of the people answered that they liked it and 40% didn’t, but 90% wanted the process to continue and only 10% didn’t. I wanted the film to be about what changes behind the walls, not just on the walls.
JH: To bring this back to the question of how you film something: a TV crew would probably have gone up to people with a microphone and asked them for their opinion. You chose not to do that. Why?
AS: Because it’s my choice. I wasn’t interested in being a mouthpiece for every inhabitant of the city although I could tell you plenty of anecdotes about people’s reactions.
JV: How do all of you, as artists working in a documentary mode, feel about being perceived as experts of a particular social context, sort of involuntary ambassadors of your countries? In the biennales around the world art functions by allowing people a certain experience of what it means to be in a particular country. A documentary mode invites this reception.
AE: I’ve never felt as if I was invited to represent Sweden. But I can see that I’m very much a product of that environment.
GV: I didn’t choose this approach in order to inform, but I’m aware that there is an assumption there. But the form the work takes also implies the question of how to inform and how to communicate.
YB: You have to retain the choice to be a representative of a region or identity when it’s relevant, or not when it’s not. For me it’s really about responding to a specific reality I am familiar with, about starting from everyday life.
AS: Really? If you had come across the scene with no camera on you, wouldn’t you later have made „Kings of the Hill“ by hiring 30 people and 30 cars, travelling into the same landscape and making it happen?
YB: I think it would have been possible to do it that way, but I like the element of chance, of being in a place and letting things happen that aren’t under my control.
AS: In the case of Annika’s piece, the musicians wouldn’t have played together if she hadn’t gone to Brazil, while in Yael’s case the cars would go up the hill anyway. Why are we all around this table? Our practices are all very different.
YB: But we have one thing in common: we are not documentary filmmakers.