The Practice Exchange: Imaging Experience
Date: Wednesday 6th June 2012, 14:00-17:00
Venue: The Green Room, Chelsea College of Art and Design, Millbank
Present: 42 MA students and PhD researchers including Deniz Akca, Sam Burford, Lee Campbell, Angela Hodgson-Teall, Catherine Long, Robert Luzar, Elizabeth Manchester, Sarah Rhodes, Pratap Rugani and Scott Schwager.
introduced his presentation ‘Working with the Body under a Post-Phenomenological Methodology and Documentation of Performance’. The title of his thesis is ‘Drawing Upon Multiplicity: Body, Mark and a Trace of Thought’. It is about conceptual mark-making and he is presenting his methodology. The aim of this area is to describe the approach and outcomes of his research. It includes both a performance-based presentation of the body and notational mark-making. Through his mark-making performances, he is citing the body generally and he is also situating his physicality in specific places. His research does not take place within his normal drawing practice, but within his performances. It critically investigates the performer’s subjective state. He works with a video camera to explore the parameters of the performance with its documentation, and to question its meaning.
Using himself as the subject of his investigation into performing drawing he is also challenging a purely phenomenological approach to his research. He explores with his body while focusing on it as a problem. This raises the issue of individual experience versus a description of a universal essence. What might be universal states of being? Is this a necessary question that guides the performance? Every experience he has performing a drawing goes through theoretical analysis. Research through action requires explicit reflection on that action. This might involve initiating actions as performance, recording the performance, analyzing the recording – at this point it becomes self-reflecting notes. Robert is considering how far it is possible to use the body as an irreducible entity.
Robert outlined the different factors that affect the nature of the drawing performance. He attempts to work with elements in the space – he improvises – he is not concerned with any kind of engendering. He is focused on the speculative quality generated by working attentively until he is unable to do so, at which point video recording and notational diagrams (notes, sketches, and images) are used. The body becomes present when it loses sensory sensitivity. He is exploring the boundaries between the body and the mind which non-sense might articulate. As Anthony Howell wrote: ‘a space and a time are ground as tangible as any caves’. Whereas Anthony is interested in an existential gap, Robert proposes that there does not need to be a way to theorize or to express an integral void from which to perform. This difference is crucial: Robert does not only perform but also mediates the live act to see what other ways of working can become possible. In other words, and with no contradiction, he starts working with the body but does not try to keep it as a primary tool.
Through changing poses/postures Robert causes effects in materials. He then uses the materials to help him find the next direction of the work. Sequences of actions tend to bring the work back to where it started. Employing video is essential to analyzing his actions. Some of the questions he is attempting to answer in dismantling his experiential actions are: how far are they spontaneous? How much do they need to be researched? What might he need to be doing differently?
For him the camera creates a mental view of the studio – it doubles the box of the studio space. As the body repeats movements it mimics the rhythm of machinery. The performer is integral to the scene by being abstracted from it. The abstraction of his postures allows him to select and combine forms of marks. He is interested in the ways that spaces can be setup with marks and postures to display the body that is immediate and thing-like – the opposite of being live and viscerally incorporeal. He selects frames from the video footage to repeat and develop these combinations. Robert showed a working drawing with video stills, diagrams and text describing the action that he had written on it. He uses marks like asterisks, periods and brackets as a private code. Drawings down the side of his images explain what the action was – how it developed over the course of the images. Most performances by Robert describe a task. Like an action, a task is significant because it cannot be described as expressing an idea or concept. Documentation helps to rectify this.
Robert’s main question is how it might be possible to put the phenomenological and the intellectual together. If the agency of corporeal gesture has been done away with, the body is in itself irreducible to a higher theoretical schema. Phenomenology demands immediacy of experience for results. For Robert, the artist-researcher is inherently dislocated.
Elizabeth Manchester asked about how Robert negotiates body memory when he is trying to be spontaneous. Also, how does he think about the divide between the conscious and the unconscious in relation to his performances? How can he be conscious but not purposeful?
Sam Burford asked Robert how the research is going forward. Robert answered that is currently writing up and has been talking about the work he has been developing since he began his PhD in 2009. Sam asked if his reflections have been changing since he began? RL replied no, he’s stuck! He feels that his contribution to knowledge through his PhD is like a slight detail in a field – but tiny changes make all the difference – slight nuance details have enormous impact.
Sam commented that RL’s research/practice are very internalized – will RL use his drawings as a way of getting outside his self-reflection? Does he have to keep drawing? Or does he need to stop? RL said that his method of working with mark-making will make him feel he’s drawing differently. He is looking for critical intensity – theoretical sensitivity and intensity and fragility. Can thinking and doing at the same time work? (Robert referenced a quotation from Alain Badiou, saying that drawing can show a kind of “intensity of fragility”; which for Robert is how thinking is ‘indicated’ as a question in the work – rather than a something ‘sensed’ within the mark or the performer.)
Lee Campbell asked about remembering as a phenomenology – because our bodies are trapped between past and present. He asked RL what the difference between performance and entertainment is for him. RL replied that entertainment provides a heightened experience for the audience. The most successful performance has an effect that is almost unnoticeable but provocational – a downplay of the visceral talk-based fluidity. This only works by removing experiential elements of initial performance – by paring it down.
Angela Hodgson-Teall asked about nonsense. RL replied that he is looking for intelligibility and nonsense simultaneously.
Robert Luzar is in the 3rd year of a practice-based PhD at Central Saint Martins College of Art. Entitled Drawing Upon Multiplicity... his research combines live-art and conceptual forms of drawing, and attempts to assess the role of a philosophical mode of critical reflection inherent in drawing. Multiplicity is a condition of thought implicit in working, particularly with bodily gestures and marks. It is a term that Robert is articulating artistically to locate the role of (re)-evaluating conditional elements that inform how gesture invokes an act of thought.
Robert’s artworks have been presented through a series of live art events and exhibitions in the UK and Europe, includingThe Open West (2009), and The Creekside Open (2011). Robert has been commissioned to create a durational performance-drawing at the Making Sense conference supported by Jean Luc Nancy (2009), and has participated in group exhibitions such as Can You Here It, curated by Franko B, Nunnery Gallery (2010), and London International, 2011 curated by Edward Lucie Smith (2011).
For the Practice Exchange, Pratap presented The Dance of Ethics in Documentary-Art, a paper exploring the unique power of actuality - what might be called the ‘lightning charge' of documentary and its indexical relationship to life, which raises practice-based ethical questions for the sometimes separate tribes of artists and documentarists. He addressed a vexed question: how to create documentary work where subjects are not physically able to give consent in a form that’s usually understood in academic and documentary contexts?
Part 1 "The dance of ethics in documentary art"
Pratap is interested in bringing together artists and documentary film makers, who he referred to as separated 'tribes'. In framing his questions about the ethical responsibilities of both artists and documentary filmmakers, he pointed to a wariness amongst documentary film makers to refer to themselves as artists, and a correlative wariness amongst artists, who may worry about the label of documentary film making undermining their artistic freedom and authorship. For him this wariness is instructive - he noted that artistic techniques and framing conventions can be just as mannered as those present in documentary film making.
This tussle offers a way into some of the structural tensions between the 2 'tribes', but this division is eroding. Pratap referred to the film 'Man With a Movie Camera', 1928 which has an ambiguous status as both an art work and a documentary film.
One way the tribes do define themselves, however, is by their respective ethical norms - in some cases, the primacy of aesthetics can be seen as depoliticising. For Pratap, the strongest work inhabits a place where politics & art, ethics & aesthetics meet. He referred to Jacques Ranciere here, whose work speaks to the tension between and possibilities for politics and aesthetics.
Pratap gave several examples of artists such as Mona Hatoum who don't treat their subjects as 'objects'. He noted Isaac Julien's film 'Ten Thousand Waves', shown at Hayward Gallery, in which he displayed thermal imaging footage of cockle picking Chinese immigrant workers who drowned at Morecombe Bay. In this work, the raw records of a tragedy preface highly stylised sequences. He also referred to Amar Kanwar's 'The Lightning Testimonies', 2007, which reflects on a history of conflict in the Indian subcontinent through experiences of sexual violence. These works all raise ethical considerations about how to document the unspeakable.
Susan Sontag's treatment of holocaust imagery raises a question about how much of the work risks re-victimising the victims, and Pratap noted her term'spectators of calamity'.
Some artists have interpreted the gallery as site to rethink the ethics of documentary film. For example, Phil Collins' work 'Shady Lane Productions', 2006, included in the Turner Prize was an installation which included a working film studio. He foregrounded the invisibility of production ethics and recast the ethics of documentary production as exhibition material in its own right.
Part 2 "Documentary and disability; a troubled history"
Pratap is currently working in collaboration with Gideon Koppel on a film whose subject who has an advanced neurological disorder, and is unable to give consent. He has not been able to find many artistic or documentary films engaging with this subject. He showed a clip from Luis Bunuel's 1933 film "Land without bread", the late sequences of which feature a community of people with mental disorders. The film demonstrates an acute alienation from its subjects, particularly in moments when they are referred to as 'village idiots' - hostile shots are calculated to distance audiences from any empathy with the subjects. Pratap asked whether the films' ridicule or contempt undercuts documentary conventions? Although at the time it was made it was banned by both left and right wing authorities, the approach was relatively conventional, and it was common for a lack of empathy to characterise early doc films. It would perhaps have been more shocking to find out how the land actually looked to the subjects. Films such as "Land Without Bread" have become documents of geographical and physical empire - revealing the colonialism of the able bodied aver the disabled. In Post War documentary there are more sympathetic examples, such as in the films of Werner Herzog.
Pratap continued to discuss this issue of consent, quoting the BBC guidelines, which state that consent giving is a 2 stage process, which should be followed both at the recording and the transmission phases of the making of a film.
Pratap introduced Project Artworks, described on their website as follows: 'Through responsive and collaborative practice, Project Art Works conducts a wide range of visual art based projects with people who have profound intellectual disability and multiple impairments. Its work is national, regional and local in its scope and reach.' http://www.projectartworks.org/index.htm The organization is artist led, and its programmes embrace and address the social, cultural and political forces that both enable and disable individuals affected by neurological impairment. It plays a leading role in driving forward inclusive collaborative practice, initiating exploratory approaches to diversity and excellence in mainstream visual arts.
Project Artworks' production process refines ideas of the ethics of consent by including notions of 'assent' and 'dissent'. Their films understand that a significant encounter means preparing the grounds for empathic communication. Kate Adams encourages engaging in a realm of 'not knowing' - exploring ethics frame by frame, and letting go of the idea of the omniscient authorial author. For her the 'other' may never be fully deciphered, but some responses may be approximated. Who is the artist here? How does art emerge through relationship?
Pratap finished by showing an excerpt from Gideon Koppel's 2011 short film "A Portrait of Eden". His approach was developed through being with Eden rather than adhering to pre-determined ethical principles. He is cautious about the way Academia approaches ethics - for him its about listening to 'transference dynamics' in the process. He was touched by Eden's sense of being alone in amongst the people helping her or telling her what to do. In response to this he filmed her putting on her slippers alone.
Key ethical questions:
- Is there a problem if the potency of actuality becomes just another colour on the artists palette?
- What is the makers relationship and responsibility to their subjects?
- What rights and duties obtain as an artwork circulates or becomes a film?
- When there's a tension between artistic freedom and a subject's response to it, how is this resolved?
Victoria Salmon commented that she had made a film which demanded a similar ethical rigour - in her case the subjects loved film she made, but their carers wanted it to be edited. It comes down to informed consent. Pratap noted that informed consent originates in Nuremberg trials. The BBC and other broadcasting organisations rely on consent forms, but when you move beyond norms to areas which are typically excluded, you have to ask whether a consent form as a tool is too blunt. Can we move to notions of assent and dissent?
Pratap was asked what the difference is between assent, consent, dissent. He said that this was his next paper! But, assent is about configuring relationships - developing a sense of what is ethical via spending time with the subjects.
Scott Schwager commented that the effects of the film may go beyond the immediate release, and asked if this is something Pratap has considered. Pratap noted that he would like to see more broadcast organisations taking a lead and training people to make films using assent and dissent. Scott asked how Pratap thinks the work will impact the subject in the long term - P isn't sure! He needs to stay in relationship and see, but be mindful of key impacts.
The ethical responsibility is to not know - both for the institution and the filmmaker.
Lee Campbell asked about the politics of form and questioned whether Pratap is privileging film, or if he feels there are any particular ethical imperatives which follow from the form? Pratap noted that actuality is a 'lightening rod to reality' - perhaps responsibility and connection flow from that? Lee mentioned Gill Gibbons' "Radical Witness", as a possible reference for Pratap.
Pratap Rughani is a documentary film director/producer whose work straddles artists' film practice and broadcast contexts, with commissions for the British Council, Channel 4 and the BBC. His work is wide-ranging, from investigative to observational documentary film and photographic practices. He is interested in developing newer forms of inter-cultural documentary film and cultivating pluralized spaces through which deeper understandings of the relationship between 'self' and 'other' - of ethics and aesthetics - can evolve. He is course director of MA Documentary Film at LCC.