In the last few months, when thinking about my desire to make films, this fragment by Jan Verwoert came to mind:
«a way to work without any mandate or legitimation, in response to the desires and dreams of other people, but without the aim or pretense of merely fulfilling an existent demand. It is a way of always giving too much of what is not presently requested»1.
It is from the essay Exhaustion and Exhuberance in which he discusses modes of production beyond ideas of high performance, success and failure. It argues for a way of working, as described above, that exposes process, to think of our work, all of it, as part of a cumulative conversation we are having with each other and something essentially unfinished. In his choice not to work on demand, he is locating the origin of all creative endeavors in a state of idle curiosity in which we find a desire to learn for the sake of it. Another proposition in his essay, is to break from the idea of a lineage that is passed down from a master to a disciple in a traditionally patriarchal context and to engage with our work and the work of others in a horizontal space of mutual appreciation, an acknowledgement of the inspiration we receive from others.
I begin with these two ideas, work as process and influence as a form of dedication because they are vital to my methodology and describe the spirit that permeates concrete aspects of my work.
I grew up in Bilbao during the transitional period of post-Franco Spain. At Bard, I studied filmmaking with Peter Hutton with an emphasis on descriptions and portraits of landscape on 16mm and feminist film and video theory and practice with Peggy Ahwesh. I went to graduate school at CalArts, where I was introduced to James Benning’s structuralist methods and approaches to landscape and finally to my mentor, Thom Andersen’s critical essay practices on the misrepresentation of Los Angeles in Hollywood films.
My films are primarily shot on 16mm in and around Los Angeles, California. I refer to my practice as Landscape plus, which involves shooting in natural landscapes with non-actors and sound-events including live music, the reading of texts and field recordings of the surroundings. I employ a fragmentary approach to editing in which cinematic forms of storytelling are replaced by a focus on process and materiality. I live in places temporarily with my collaborators making site-specific works. I am interested in regionalism, and my work is partly about the process of engaging with local landscapes and conditions.
During my graduate study I paid close attention to the role of landscape or location in narrative film, it’s backdrop relationship to plot and character. I began to create intricate structures that generated a space that could be misunderstood as being narrative, with people, a certain mise en scence and diegetic synch sound to invert that set of relationships. In my films, landscapes, objects, people and the soundtrack are all floating in a horizontal space lacking a narrative at its center.
Studying with James Benning I encountered the way rule or concept based films divide their attention between the landscape as subject and the tools of filmmaking as another subject. This makes the experience of immersion in the world of the film impossible, as we are continually thinking about the materials and the structure of what we look at. In my films, bodies and people appear against landscapes partly blocking our view, the frames are interfered and what we see is not an image of a landscape but an image of the filmmaker in the landscape, this idea is nicely put by Mark Wigley: «So each image appears halfway between the world and the photographer [...] an image, in the end of the photographer in the world»2.
Filming in Los Angeles
Thom Andersen’s teachings, including his essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself reveal Hollywood’s way of creating false images of the city. Thom calls silly geography the distorted rendering of real locations in Los Angeles in favor of the advancement of plot. I came to think of filming in Los Angeles as an ethical praxis. In my films there are recognizable locations like City Hall or the Paradise Motel, and this is part of an interest in geographical description, where spaces in the city stand for themselves. To paraphrase Thom, to make films here, is in a way, to enter that space of contested representation, sharing the same locations and to a certain extent, the same (discarded) filmmaking resources.
The enthusiast Carrey Mcwilliams describes Los Angeles as «rurban: neither urban, nor rural but everywhere a mixture of both... It is paradoxical region, a desert that faces the ocean»3. In this approach to geographic attentiveness I encountered a city with little public space (as compared to the European cities I knew) and my descriptions of it swing between the intimacy of interior spaces and the magnitude of open landscapes. Interiors and open land appear as the two points of maximum variation. Windows, walls, and other types of architectural demarcations that appear in the interior of my films are way of calling attention to that relationship of the outside and inside.
Even though most of my work in shot in southern California, I have made some excursions to the South West and Arctic Circle in Norway applying similar concerns.
A world of Sounds
Most of what happens in my films is the making of a soundtrack. I became interested in taking apart the way non-diegetic music works in conventional narrative as something hidden that alters our emotions. I follow Robert Bresson’s note:
«No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement, no music at all. With the exception of course of instruments that appear on screen»4.
Music and sound in my films are always diegetic, often seen as well as heard. They sometimes enter into a kind of conflict with the image or get desynchronized. The music recordings are made live during the shooting, all sound and music is part of a field recording with ambient sound. Field recordings with micro events like the sound of a coyote, footsteps and cars, constitute a sense presence of a world beyond the screen. I work with off screen sound often, as I am interested in the way that it creates a kind of visual silence.
Michel Chion5 describes diegetic music as Cosmic Indifference 5 as something onto itself that fails to accompany other elements and acts as a reflection of the mechanism of cinema, the projector, the recording... Film can communicate emotions, but the mechanism itself is a machine that records and projects, is indifferent and mechanical, not the hand of a painter.
Feeling and Loss
The minimal and rigid structures of structuralist film practices, as well as the restrained language of Snow, Bresson and Akerman to name a few, leave so much room for the audience to feel. In my films there is a play between these transparent, minimal structures and an emotional space that pours over them. The theme of tears and affect appears repeatedly in my titles, I am interested in a heightened state that is not entirely located, absorbed or understood by language.
In an article called “New Wave Rock and the Femenine” Dan Graham6 describes Kristeva’s concept of the Chora, and its potential for inhabiting a feminine position in which the voice and by extension the body, becomes a mode of production. I’m interested in tears in this regard, a physical and visual representation of something intractable. Ideas on tears, crying, and loss in the work of Melanie Klein and Andrea Fraser have shaped the emotional landscape of my films. Cinema is able to create a sense of proximity as absence enacting states of desire and loss in the viewer.
«All creation is really a recreation of a once loved and once whole but now lost and ruined object. A ruined internal world and self. It is when the world within us is destroyed; when it is dead and loveless; when our loved ones are in fragments and we ourselves in helpless despair. It is then that we must recreate our world anew. Reassemble the pieces, infuse life [into these (?)] fragments. Recreate life»7.
Gesture as the medium of Human Beings
The people that appear in my films are also the ones making the film that you are seeing. They are often not filmmakers themselves and we do a basic run of through the procedure of shooting synch sound and other practices. This enables a space free of technical specialists and fixed roles. I work with people that don’t want to be on camera or at least, don’t want to act.
There are a set of simple instructions that are given and a space is created in which actions are performed without acting or choreography, this relates to early Fluxus and immaterial practices in which the making of a work is itself a way of being through the work.
Through a balance of experience inhabiting landscapes and moments of shooting, I wish to arrive at an intimate state in which people can be themselves in front of the camera. That is, acknowledging that the camera is there recording, and not acting for it. What emerges, if I am successful, is a sense of presence, of gesture.
I am interested in the subtraction of movement in Andy Warhol’s films and the way people play themselves in Peggy Ahwesh’s films. In “Notes on Gesture”8, Giorgio Agamben describes the role of cinema at its origin: «a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss». The preoccupation with body language and the technology of cinema were developed at the same moment. In Agamben’s essay, cinema is described as the necessary development by which the image is liberated from stillness into gesture. And he goes on to say that films can describe gesturality, the medium of human beings, and that therefore cinema is essentially social. This «being in the medium of human beings» is something that I am after in my films and determines the way I work with bodies within the frame.
As mentioned earlier, my films work to undo the relationships of sound and music to images in conventional narrative forms. They also play with working against continuity principles in editing. For instance in Cry When It Happens there are a number or fake pov shots, as well as a rapid crosscutting between images that implies a acceleration of action, while my images are still.
In this way, there is connection between my films and the pop culture forms that they take apart. The consolidation of cinema as a populist medium by which people absorb themselves in a state of suspension of disbelief within a closed narrative is something that I am interested in bringing up as a shadow while watching my films. I want to undo these formal habits in search for a more complex experience of viewing.
Raul Ruíz’s writings on fiction are an inspiration to me, in its approach to a more is more narrative language in which plots become interjected by other plots ad infinitum and characters from other films return implying that a film is only catching a few moments within an impossible dense net of connections. These type of work reminds me of modern and contemporary Spanish language fiction and some of Ruiz’ ideas are materialized in Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films. This way of approaching fiction has been an inspiration in my newest film: We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning in which a moment in a Bioy Casares story is explored visually.
I’m currently inspired by an open framework for fiction that Rosalind Krauss touches upon in her writing on Marcel Broodthaers’ work Voyage on the North Sea9: «Indeed as the books "pages" unfurl, this voyage appears to be one of a search for the work's origins, such an "origin" being suspended equally between the materiality of the work's canvas flatbed (the modernist "origin") and the image projected onto that opaque surface as the index of the viewers originating desire to open up any given moment of experience to something beyond itself (reality as “origin”). In both enacting and encompassing such desire, fiction is, then, the acknowledgement of this very incompleteness».
1Jan Verwoert, Exhaustion and Exhuberance. A pamphlet for the exhibition, Sheffield 08: Yes No and Other Options, Sheffield 2008.
2 David Reinfurt, “The Aesthetics of Distribution (2). An Interview with Mark Wigley. A Rear Guard”, Dot Dot Dot,14, 2007.
3Cary McWilliams, Southern California An island on the Land 1946, Peregrine Smith, Santa Barbara 1973.
4Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, Urizen Books, New York 1977.
5Michel Chion, Audio Vision, Sound on Screen, Columbia University Press, New York 1994.
6Dan Graham, “New Wave Rock and the Feminine”, in Dan Graham Rock/Music Writings, The MIT Press, Cambridge/London 1994.
7Hana Segal, “A Psycho-Analytical Approach to Aesthetics,” International Journal of
Psycho-Analysis, 33, 1952, pp. 196–207. Cited in Andrea Fraser, “Why Fred Sandback Makes Me Cry”, Grey Room, 22, Winter 2005, pp. 30–47; © 2006 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p.43
8Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”, in Giorgio Agamben, Means without Ends. Notes on Politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1996.
9Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage to the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, Thames & Hudson, London 2000.