This article is part of the series ‘Research/Practice’, which explores the intersection of (academic) research with (creative) practice, or otherwise questions this distinction.
How does making video differ from writing about it? What power do images and video-making tools have to change thoughts, or even to think themselves? These questions motivated this virtual roundtable discussion between individuals with differing intellectual and professional relationships to video practice – thinking with and through video art, essays and documentary, alongside and as alternatives to more traditional forms of academic research. Addressing medium-specificity, the word/image dialectic and modes of address, the resulting conversation explores the nebulous and productive space between video, authors and audiences, tracing new paths for knowledge and political possibilities beyond the written word.
To begin, please introduce yourselves as video makers and researchers. How do you understand the relationship between these two roles, from experience?
Ilse van der Spoel:
My interest in video essays and combining practice-based work and written work all stems from the idea of medium specificity and that different ‘objects’ or media have different storytelling techniques rooted in the possibilities of a medium. Film and prose, for example, can be similar in the way they tell a story, but never identical due to the different nature of the media. What may take pages of description for a character’s appearance in literature, for example, might take only one shot in film to invoke. This medium-specificity has always been my main focus throughout my bachelor in Film and Literary Studies, and what led me to an interest in video essays and the question: Do different objects also demand different analytical approaches, responding to the media you are analysing? With the appearance of PhDarts programmes, academia is starting to take more seriously the combination of traditional academic research with more practice-based approaches.
My interest in the relation between practice and theory also stems from my work in the field of film, having worked for film festivals, in film archiving and as a cinema technician. I further explored this combination in the professionally-oriented MA programme Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image, which focuses on theory of film practices. This programme allowed me to rethink my own work as a cinema technician into a theorisation of film projection as a practice that is mainly neglected in archival theories of preservation and restoration.
I had never been interested in actively doing filmmaking or editing myself, but after doing two masters and so many university courses I felt sick of writing papers. When a tutorial came up that enabled the choice between writing a ‘traditional’ paper or doing a more creative project, I figured I would try to make a video essay based on a paper I wrote before to see how arguments would work out differently by ‘thinking’ them through images. I continued this work in the excellent course ‘Thinking the Moving Image’, which combined the history of the essay film with film-philosophy and the possibility of creating A/V essays.
My practical training developed within the field of photography, but before that my theoretical background was informed by theatre and film studies. After years of looking at films as texts and dissecting them, I felt I needed something as close as possible to a firsthand approach, which led me to photography. Alongside this, I have always had an attraction to the written word, which stems from my family. I see my work with video as a combination of different aspirations derived from these diverse influences and experiences.
Whenever I have happened to plunge into a medium, I have always tried to scrutinise it from its periphery, from what it is not — or it is not supposed to be — rather than from what it is. I think that this attitude of trying to tease and break the medium rather than feeling at home within its boundaries is important to my own modes of research. That said, visual research through image-making feels to me more open and, to an extent, more direct than traditional written research. There is an apparent readiness to communicate within it that I find really intriguing. At the same time, the image can be more slippery than the written word, but in this uncertainty rests part of the seductiveness – especially of moving images. However, I don’t necessarily see image and word at odds with one another, and in recent years more often than not I have attempted to combine the two in different ways.
I started to make documentaries and video work in Turkey, most probably due to the anger provoking and therefore mobilising the political climate in Turkey towards the end of 2000s, and due to the realisation that the moving image had the capacity to move people, and to circulate beyond expectations. One of the starting points that I can identify is my willingness and excitement to create situations that people become part of, and that shape and transform them. I realised that the camera enabled this, sometimes more easily than written words. Most of the video work I was involved in revolved around this idea of creating situations: What would happen if I changed the cards of the board game Taboo into the political and cultural taboos of Turkey – for example, the Armenian Genocide, the Kurdish issue, homosexuality – and made university students play the game? (Taboo) What would happen if I followed a trans woman to a hairdresser to provoke discussions with the people who happen to be there? (Hair Dyeing: 45 Minutes) What would happen if I asked people, mostly men, the dreams they have about military service before, during or after they serve? (Dreams of Military Service) What would happen if we used the camera to mobilise people around a Lenin statue that was found in a little northern town in Turkey in the sea, stored in a dusty municipality room and nearly forgotten? (Welcome Lenin)
As I worked on these films, they were certainly informed by my academic work and started to inform my research on nationalism, visual culture, aesthetics and resistance. I got to see that thinking and producing at the intersection between what is considered academic research and artistic/cultural practice, shows that they are not necessarily separate fields of which there is an “intersection”, but are different ways of exploring and intervening that can inform each other. I also think that multiplying research forms can be a healing practice that has the capacity to respond to the institutional, affective and epistemological claustrophobia that can be experienced within the established boundaries of these fields.
Let’s think a little deeper about the apparent word/image opposition mentioned by Ilse and Rossella, as it relates to medium-specificity. How have you found video responsive to questions or arguments in your research and practice? What can and can’t these images do, in terms of thinking — what limitations and opportunities arise, compared to working with text and writing?
The video essay offers overwhelming possibilities compared to writing. In writing you work in a linear way and there often seems little room for variation, as the text is structured into an argument. With video essays, your argument can be made through images, text, sound design, voice-over and editing (slowing down, zooming in, distorting, split-screen etc). The video screen in your editing suite is like a canvas you can divide architecturally. I think all these possibilities can be scary, but for me personally have also opened up the potential of revealing arguments or ‘thinking’ ways of addressing film that would never have been possible in writing. This is because the images also do things by themselves, whereas in writing you are structured by language, your vocabulary and the format of academic writing. I have often found that there is something that surprises you or creates meaningful links in ways you would not have imagined before starting the process, and creates a dialogue between words, images, sound and other elements. And I think this potential of finding a different way of thinking arguments and images makes the video essay revolutionary, or at least a medium worth exploring, for academia and freeing oneself from the ‘claustrophobia’ Aylin describes.
At the same time, with these possibilities, depending on the kind of video essay you want to make, you can still find yourself resorting to writing first, for drawing out a structure or writing a script. Considering the time limit – most are around 10 minutes – and the form, you have to change the way you write, to be much more precise for example. This can be challenging, and in my experience has created interesting back-and-forths between written text and the editing of a video – a dialogue between text and image on that level as well. I would not say, therefore, that with video essays there is a disregard for writing, but rather that it creates a different process: practically, and in thinking and engaging with objects.
In a curious film titled Venom and Eternity (1951), the poet Isidore Isou announced the birth of the “discrepant” film – one which would see the divorce of word and image. I came across Isou’s film too late to call it influential, but there’s something in his way of thinking that oddly matches my own. I feel that it often makes little sense when text and image try to address the same problems or convey the same ideas. I find the most interesting way of using moving images and text together is when each of them pushes in diverging directions. This allows me to be in different places at the same time. In my film “The Splintering Sun”, for instance, the aim was to explore the ambivalence existing between utopian and dystopian thinking, following distinct paths. I see this short work as a kind of hybrid video essay in which the retelling of the story of the philosopher Tommaso Campanella uses images not as illustration of the text, but rather as a counterpoint to it. I have adopted similar techniques in other works as well.
Working with photographs, I realised early on that images alone are not capable of providing the same amount of punctual information as text can, and this can be an advantage rather than a limitation. Even the most impudent, obvious, straightforward image manages to leave space for me as a maker, and I believe also for the viewers to expand on it regardless of any intended meaning. Personally, I always find that at the end of the process of working with images I am left with more questions than answers — which is probably an achievement in itself, at least when it comes to artistic research. There is a doubt inherent to the medium and to the way it can be used that urges one to move further — or, if you like, sideways. I think to an extent this reflects what Ilse stated earlier, too.
We can talk about so many different things that images can do: illustrate, contemplate, destruct, distract, act, intervene and many more. To think of images and words at odds with each other is bound to fail, as Rossella mentioned before, since words can do all these things as well. This reminds me of W.J.T. Mitchell saying that the dialectic of word and image is a constant within the sign system that a culture is based on.
For instance, on a more personal level, making Image Acts (2015) – a video work that is part of my doctoral thesis – was an attempt to get inspired by theory in the way I frame and produce images and to get inspired by images in the way I write. It was also a way to express my discomfort with the long and lonely process of writing a doctoral thesis. In addition to this, (some forms of) video work/film-making require more collective work in their production and circulation than writing, especially in an academic form, which I think is another precious contribution to ‘research’ in general. I find it quite exciting, this possibility of collectivity and turning the creative process into a situation/intervention in which people can participate and shape, construct and deconstruct.
Perhaps a way around this word/image dialectic is, as suggested above, a consideration of video’s communicative functions or modes of address. How do you consider the relationship between your video work and its audiences – also as that relates to what Ilse calls the “dialogue between text and image”?
Aylin aptly mentioned collaborative modes of film-making. There are of course different stages of collaboration, which include but are not limited to the productive phase of any given film and video work. As suggested, collaboration is also the result of an exchange with the audience, or audiences. Film-making is always to a degree the outcome of this exchange. It has to be, if as makers we want to communicate and not simply to broadcast or dictate, and this is regardless of the kind of work we produce —documentary, fiction, essay, or any kind of hybridisation of these. To communicate, you have to actively rely on the audience as an integral element in the creative process.
Making films and videos as a form of research is an open-ended operation in which you put the audience face to face with your work, but the work is not complete until recipients initiate their own conversation with it, bring into it their curiosity and vision, make their own associations, and by doing so — by embracing or even rejecting it — they ultimately enrich it. On the one hand, it’s true that this process is not specific of moving image-making, but rather concerns any form of creative work. On the other, it is more evident in the case of moving images, because, as stated earlier, they provoke reactions that can easily exceed those we expect.
Naturally, every maker follows different strategies to establish a channel of communication with the audience. This calls for various degrees and modes of involvement on both sides. In the way I’ve been working, the aim so far has been to have spectators sit in the silent space between image and word. It is a kind of precarious territory in which I am a foreigner myself and as such one on which, fortunately perhaps, I have limited control. This is where the work can truly come alive, or fail.
As the production of a film/video is collective, so are the processes of its circulation and viewing. Rossella beautifully describes the “precarious territory” in which not only word and image interact, but also the work and the spectator. This is indeed a political and affective zone, or situation, which has the capacity to transform the spectator, the artist and the work itself. I find Rosella’s emphasis on “being a foreigner” in this territory crucial, since it alludes to not taking an all-knowing position in the communication, and being open to be done and undone by one other.
These ideas resonate with one of the collectively made films I was involved with in the editing phase, which is about the protests against the demolishing of an old and central movie theatre in Istanbul to be replaced with a shopping mall. The planned demolition of the theatre was symptomatic of larger, ongoing urban transformations, including the commodification and gentrification of city spaces. The number and diversity of people who gathered to prevent the demolition was astonishing. The film was made from footage shot by the protesters (some also filmmakers) and was later on mostly shown in places (theatres, squats, etc.) that are also threatened, in one way or another. During the screenings, the film became a facilitator in triggering discussions about common urban problems and political acts, informed by but not limited to the film, which was, in line with this wish, called “Audience Emancipated”. The idea was to make the film “expand” by eventually including within the film the discussions that were triggered by the film. This is not realised yet, but maybe, after the forced self-censorship period that prevails now in Turkey, it might still be possible. Going back to one of our earlier points on the image’s capacity to intervene in what it depicts, we can add how the audience and the context intervenes in the image, through an ongoing and open-ended process.
The word-image distinction does not necessarily entail a false dichotomy. I believe there are things that images and words do differently, and that countering the two can be very productive to reveal specificities within certain media. But I do agree with Rosella and Aylin that this should not be considered in terms of essences, but rather depends indeed upon, as this question puts forward, the mode of address. This directs your viewer and positions them in a certain way: a ‘poetic’ mode might direct them to “feel the images”, while a more ‘authoritative’ mode might guide them through the steps of an argument. Then again, there is always this open-endedness to the “precarious territory” that Rosella and Aylin describe, which goes beyond the way you try to position the viewer. Just as with the serendipity between images and ideas that occurs during the editing process, the viewer might notice elements that you did not intend, or that you might have neglected. In this way, the precarious territory, for me as someone who has just started experimenting with editing, also includes the idea of putting your creation ‘out there’ in the world for others to see. It felt more vulnerable than writing, like putting an artwork up on display for others to criticise. With academic writing, on the other hand, getting published or accepted to speak at a conference perhaps already entails a sense of validation.
When the question of audience arises, I also think of the issue of access. Both the process of production and the models of distribution can be very different in academia and practice-based work. This not only applies to the difference between academic writing and making video essays, but also between video work as an artistic practice, and video essays as a journalistic, critical or academic exploration. I have shared some of my video essays on social media – to see if anything would happen to them, and to know how that mechanism works and see where it leads. Social media and digital technologies in general provide new platforms. How ideas find different audiences (e.g. through online platforms, film festivals, individual screenings etc.) outside of academia in turn might allow us to think of other ways of doing writing. Is the book (chapter) or the article published in a journal still the best way to go for academic writing? Are other forms of writing within academia also possible? How else could you ‘find’ your audience(s)? And how do different settings for critical thinking also influence the way you do research? I think these kinds of questions are important, and suggest how practice-based work might enable us to rethink institutionalised academic forms.