Moving Image with James Newitt
Task 1: Narrating a single shot
Brief: Create a short video to capture a single shot, and a narration which will provide a narrative structure for the image.
Document the research process and provide a 200/300 word critical reflection describing the decisions you made and why, as well as briefly outlining the concept for the project.
This blog will act as a journal for the project, and all posts will be entered under the category ‘Continuum Vacuum’. I will also use the hashtag #continuumvacuum on social media (particularly instagram).
I have been trying to indirectly find a way to engage in a project that addresses contemporary matters, and immerses me in contemporary popular culture. Continuum vacuum follows on from my retrospectively focused 77to15 project, which had me working with events from the year 1977 that were dictated by a framework set by events in the year 2015. This particular project and the greater body of research that it includes will be my focus for the year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 memoir Between the world and me was the starting point for the project, it led me to search YouTube for video examples of police brutality and to Eric Garner.
Ramsey Orta’s cellphone video of his friend Eric Garner being choked to death by an NYPD officer in July 2014, and George Holliday’s videotaped beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, in March 1991 were the inspiration for this work. Besides the actual content of these videos their formal qualities interested me. The amateur nature of the footage and the poor material quality of the image, but also the ways in which they are disseminated to the public were highly influencial factors in the formation of the concept.
The decision to build the project around these videos was made partly because they are a single shot, and therefore fulfilled the core focus of the project brief, but also because what I was reading, and how I personally felt after watching these videos I had to respond to them.
I decided early on that my approach for the video would be to let the camera roll and just capture action, but rather than wait for some chance action to materialise I decided i’d have to stage it. I also knew I wanted to base this action on the Rodney King tape.
I focused on these two videos in particular because they embody the concept of sousveillance–the witness as documentarian–though there are many other shocking examples of real life events captured by the nonaesthetic documentary camera: The police killings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford for example (also highlighted in Coates’ book) were both filmed by surveillance cameras.
The aesthetic problem
I knew I wanted my staged image to be highly aesthetic in contrast to the nonasthetic image of the King tape. I knew that this could be problematic, and that this would be the point.
The problems inherent in the aesthetic value of shocking imagery is something difficult to reconcile with. Thomas Hirschorn’s Touching Reality (2012) powerfully highlights this as a hand casually explores a series of gruesome images on an ipad.
I watched the King tape repeatedly during the development of this project in order understand it from many angles. This itself requres investigation. Can repetition and oversaturation create an affinity with the nonaesthetic, ugly image? Does this lead to an inevitable desensitisation to the nonaesthetic image, and therefore render the once shocking image aesthetic? If so might there be something problematic with showing the Rodney King tape in an artistic context?
Would a viewer experience this or not? Hirschhorn believes that “it is important…to look at images of destroyed human bodies”, he doesn’t want to turn away and distance himself from them. This leads directly to Harun Farocki’s provocative introduction to his work Inextinguishable fire (1969) Farocki opts not to show us the image of the effects of Napalm, because he knows we will close our eyes to them, and instead decides upon the re-enactment, or the abstract depiction.
In his 2015 Artforum essay Material Witness, Art historian David Joselit…
“takes up the case of Garner and its challenge to the very concept of visual evidence or representation—and its denial of images and objects as evidence of fact. Joselit considers the possibility of critical and artistic practices that may counter such failures of representation…” [Artforum]
Joselit suggests that
“with regard to the Garner case, as well as to our own affairs in the art world, we need to be more skeptical of the ideological promises of representation.
The documentary image in art
Andy Warhol’s red, white and blue Race Riot (1964) shows us the repeated image in a non linear matrix that has us searching for discrepancies, and perhaps therefore perpetuating the power of the image through its repetition; we start to loose the image but it always comes back, we are perpetually returning to the actual event depicted once we have searched through the details.
In response to the death of Michael Brown, Titus Kaphar turns the news photograph iconic in his painting, Yet Another Fight for Remembrance (2014). Kaphar was commissioned by Time magazine to create this work to illustrate its 2015 Person of the year nominee; The ferguson protesters. In an interview with Time, kaphar talks about his personal struggle as an artist trying to respond to current events, which quite accurately reflects my sentiments.
“Like so many others, I’ve been struggling with what to do in response to what is happening in Ferguson and throughout the rest of this country,”
“Over the last few years I’ve found myself immersed in criminal justice research. I’ve been trying to make paintings that speak to the gravity of the situation. Honestly, it feels beyond me. What I make ends up feeling more like catharsis than communication.”
“The act of painting itself becomes a fight to remember the names of all the young black men who were taken too soon. A fight to remember that when this issue disappears from the media, it is not permission to forget. A fight to remember that change is possible.”
Edit 3-4-16: This Time magazine video revealing its person of the year 2015 runner-up, coincidentally features a shot very similar to my video, yet in reverse.
The power of the image
In On photography Susan Sontag compares the role that the image played in the American wars with Korea and Vietnam. Whereas the Vietnam war was highly visualised and therefore highly criticised, the Korean war was largely ignored in imaging terms.
“One would like to imagine that the American public would not have been so unanimous in its acquiescence to the Korean War if it had been confronted with photographic evidence of the devastation of Korea, …The public did not see such photographs because there was, ideologically, no space for them. No one brought back photographs of daily life in Pyongyang, to show that the enemy had a human face, as Felix Greene and Marc Riboud brought back photographs of Hanoi.
On the power of the image through its shock value she goes on to say:
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised—partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. “
Process: The Rodney King tape and found footage
We see the police officers beating Rodney King from the detached, distant vantage point, described not only by the physical distance of the camera to the subject but by the screen on which it is displayed, the probing eye of Holliday’s camera enables us to look only, we can never get closer. Separated by the screen then, the image at once attests to authenticity but also paradoxically to fiction, the image is shocking in its unbelievability–its ‘novelty’–but is there is a danger that this might initial shock might lead to an almost morbid fascination with the image itself? As it plays repeatedly on the screen just as it did back in ’91. And then as we become desensitised to the image–as the temporal distance extends–might the image start to lose its power? Maybe by showing both fact and fiction juxtaposed, and by showing a continuum, maybe the power of the image can be retained.
I knew I wanted to use the King footage as a focus and my initial thought was to re-enact the beating in a studio setting. Touching on the idea police re-enactments, dramatisation, ritual and questioning truth and fiction, but also in response to how the LAPD defence attorneys managed to abstract and neutralise the King tape in court sessions by removing the audio and scrutinising the footage frame-by-frame, effectively rendering the action a series of static poses. A macabre abstract ballet.
I perceived the problems this re-enacting might raise, yet I had to use this particular image. I worked through the problems I had with representing the officers and King, particularly the victim; I knew I couldn’t just have the actors pretend to beat a black man, so I had to find a stand in. Whilst watching the King footage it occurred to me that the police officers didn’t seem to see their victim as human, therefore, to use something inanimate in his place would be the solution. I originally thought to use a watermelon in reference to childlike or idiotic inclinations, but this was quickly ruled out because of the watermelon’s racist connotations. From a practical perspective too–I have to admit– it would be far too messy and wasteful to destroy a watermelon in the studio. Then I thought a cushion or an empty box would be more suitable, something that could be hit but would not overly ‘react’. I worked through these problems and eventually came to the conclusion that it was the power of the image that the police and attorneys had to discredit and this made me think of the mirror; ultimately the image of themselves is what they are trying to discredit and destroy. But it was in this actual power of the King image that the the solution was found.
I concluded to have the image play on a non-consumer Sony monitor. I had been looking for the model of camera that George Holliday shot his footage on–the Sony Handycam, and in this search I came across the Sony PVM monitor. This kind of monitor reminded me of video art installations I had seen.
This took the concept on a new tangent, I would remove the image from the domestic scene where it was originally seen, and place it in the studio setting. Luckily there was a bunch in the uni store room! This thought process and solution developed the idea that the actual action of re-enactment should become static, partly because I didn’t want the actors to hit a monitor and break it, but this pushed the concept further to consider the only motion in the video should be the motion of the tape playing out on the screen
At this point I did not know how I was going to get the image on the monitor. I assumed I would have to get the image onto VHS and go from there. Talking to the technician though I was introduced to the Raspberry pi a single-board computer that can be configured to output video via an RCA cable. It worked perfectly, however for some reason the image came out black and white but I decided I could live with this.
To begin with I had the monitor on the floor but it was too low. I wanted to have the monitor and image shown full frontal in the frame, I found a small plinth which seemed ok but on reviewing the footage i’d shot it also seemed too low, the camera was looking down at the image because the dolly I was using wouldn’t lower to a height of less than a metre. To get the right angle I tried a taller plinth, this instantly made the monitor look like an art object, I kept the wire trailing to emulate the taser wire attached to King but incidentally this just reinforced the idea of a video installation.
Chromakey / the fourth wall
Early on I decided I wanted to use the chromakey wall in the studio. Not for its intended purpose however, the desire to use the green screen was purely aesthetic at first and was based upon a setup i’d seen in the studio (below), which directly inspired the set up of my scene. I wanted to use the aesthetic qualities of the green screen, but also use it to act as a visual prompt for the studio setting and as a stand in for the idea of image construction and illusion.
However Hito Steyerl’s work How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) was an early inspiration for this and her work and writing have been influenctial. Here is an extract from MoMA’s Leora Morinis’ statement about Steyerl’s work, she articulates better than I can:
“Central to her work is an ontology of the digital image: she argues that images have ceased to function as representation or index of any a priori truth, and have instead taken a more powerful seat in constructing reality.”
This statement and Steyerl’s work relates to other things i’ve been reading–Walter Benjamin’s The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936) , Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations (1983), and also the Jacques Ranciere text Film Fables (2006), all of which I do not have the time to discuss here but no doubt these influences will be evident in the work.
I decided to shoot the actors in static poses because I felt the action would be too contrived, but also that the King footage itself should be the focus rather than weakening its power by distracting the viewer, plus I did not want them to be actually violent and hit the monitor, instead just simulate the threat of violence by their presence. I liked the idea of the tableau as used by Gillian Wearing in her work 60 Minutes Silence (1996), and this also tied into how I perceived the LAPD trial screening of the King tape frame-by-frame. However I did not want to simply shoot from a static camera position, I wanted a challenge.
I can’t remember when I decided to zoom out from the screen but it was based around the reveal. I didn’t want to show the whole scene at once, I wanted to create a tension, by focusing on the image then slowly revealing the whole picture. Whilst researching camera techniques on Vimeo and YouTube I discovered the exact technique I was after had been used by Kubrick in the intro sequence to A Clockwork Orange, a simple zoom-out. (Note also how Kubrick uses the tableau to great effect here.)
This camera technique has a really powerful effect; It introduces the characters and the threat of violence, and this shot when coupled with Walter Carlos’ eerie and menacing Moog synthesiser version of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, Z. 860. produces an hypnotic, un-natrual sensation that sets the tone for the film perfectly.
I tried a version of my video with this audio and it worked in a very similar way; at once referencing the scene and therefore bringing with it it’s sense of menace.
I tried to use a dolly in the studio but found it too technically difficult to keep the thing steady and focus at the same time, and instead decided to work with the zoom only, once I solved the problem of how to actually get a smooth zoom, (the manual zoom ring on the camera was insufficient, even using the rubber band trick) after watching a great instructional overview of the camera I was using (the Sony HVR-Z7) I discovered the servo zoom function, and with a lot of practice I managed to get the level of zoom I was looking for.
To begin with I just recorded the audio coming from the Sony monitor using the shotgun mic attached to the camera, this was ok, it gave me a structure to work with: The King beating (1’43”) set the duration framework for the video, this closely matched the time it takes to slowly zoom out from the screen (1’40” approx). I had planed to have a passage of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book read over the footage, or maybe one from James Baldwin’s The fire next time, but there was something in the the local sounds and of the King tape that interested me. On closer listening I heard witnesses talking amongst themselves, and this acted as a kind of nararation to the scene. I looked again at the Eric Garner Videos and also the Tamir Rice surveillance video with the 911 call added. The added Audio was extremely powerful in the case of Tamir Rice, the narration it provided to an otherwise silent image made clear how audio can alter what is seen. There was something that interested me too in the audio of a second video of Eric Garner, filmed by Taisha Allen in a beauty supply store. She narrates the scene but the radio in the background is selling automobiles, the mundanity of this seemed to parallel the incident itself.
Finally I decided on the strength of the Tamir Rice audio and the final words of Eric Garner “I can’t Breathe” which became a rally cry and adapted to become a social media hashtag used in protest after his death, #wecantbreathe. The Rice audio matched the duration of the video well and provided a clear narrative whilst Garner’s last words, tapped into the idea of the continuum.
In an iteration of the video that I presented for critique I had the piece end with the an audio extract from an interview with a CHP officer, but I removed this after critical feedback deemed that it resolved the piece too quickly by removing too much of its ambiguity.
More Kubrick references
The zoom camera technique favoured by Kubric and the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange provided much inspiration for the video.
Two of Stanley Kubrick’s films came to mind whilst researching prior to finding the camera technique: 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Both initially for their depictions of beatings.
The beating of Rodney King reminded me of the ‘Dawn of man’ scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the apes discover the use of weaponry and defeat a rival tribe. This scene is strangely reminiscent of the King beating and the sudden act of intense violence speaks of something innate in humanity.
Another scene this time from A Clockwork Orange represents a similar sentiment yet with darker overtones, here the protagonists encounter a drunken tramp in a darkened city underpass and proceed to beat him, for their own pleasure and out of disgust for what he represented to them, or at for least Alex the narrator whose friends seem to just go along for the ride.
A central concept in my video is the Ludovico technique, a fictional aversion therapy from A Clockwork Orange. In Kubrick’s film the ‘humble narrator’ of the story Alex, is shown undergoing the Ludovico technique. In this famous scene he is straightjacketed and strapped to a wheelchair in a clinical cinema and forced to watch violent imagery projected onto the screen, his eyes are kept prised open with specula so he can not look away, whilst a clinician stands by administering eyedrops throughout, it is an extremely powerful and unforgettable image.
I wanted to allude to this technique by forcing the viewer focus on the image in-front of them, before the camera slowly zooms out from the image on the screen to a wide shot of the studio to reveal themselves implicated as witness.
The concept for the video is not completely clear yet, I don’t want the project to be focused directly on the concept of racism, but to look deeper into themes of violence and ideology. I’m not taking a stance here and pointing my finger at the police and i’m not simply sympathising with the victims. I am asking questions, I think that’s all I can hope to do.
It is important to note that the concept is still not set by this stage, I didn’t know how the scene would look once the actors were in the frame and the audio was added. I think this is an important part of the art making process, we set out to create something we have in mind, but the act of creation reveals things we hadn’t thought of and new ideas and readings emerge. No doubt once the video is completed, the viewer will also see things I haven’t, no matter how much I refine the concept and try to control the image and the idea it projects to the viewer. This references Roland Barthes’ concept “the Death of the author”, that there can never be a single reading of a work, only interpretations.
Once I got the actors in front of the camera I realised that they represented both the aggressor and the viewer. That somehow the act of viewing the image revealed that they were implicated into making an interpretation of what they were witness to, and also what they were a part of.
They are in a constructed set that represents a studio where images are made; that also resembles an art installation. Yet they are reconstructing an actual event that they are also watching. One reading then is that the work is about the image and representation.
Clearly the content is about watching violent imagery; the violence of the image; and actual physical violence applied because of an image, because of an idea or an ideology. There is something deeply disturbing here and I need to explore it further. I think the Kubrick films reveal two sides of this, the violence borne of fear and the violence perpetuated by ideology.
The meta content (is this a thing?)
The iPhone capturing the scene excludes its operator, but our camera captures him. Who then captures us?
Lee Booth, Continuum vacuum, digital video, 2016, 2’10”