Towards an Aesthetics of Videocontemplation

Erica Cho in conversation with Nicolás Grand & Lata Mani

Transcript of a post-screening conversation on 'The Poetics of Fragility', University of California, San Diego, 17 October 2016, lightly edited for readability.

Erica Cho: I wanted to start with this idea of approaching filmmaking as videocontemplation. There are assumptions and stereotypes across cultures about the aesthetics associated with an act of contemplation; something austere, perhaps minimalist, in order to convey this idea that we have to let go of worldly concerns. Your film, The Poetics of Fragility engages with another idea about contemplation which is that it’s a text that has plural voices, it’s meant to be reconsidered multiple times and to invite interpretations that may change with each engagement. So I was wondering if you can talk about this idea of videocontemplation as well as its connection to both the form and the process.

Lata: In different ways we have each been thinking about the exhaustion of a certain kind of instrumentalist language which seems to predominate in this time and the visual excess in which we live. How does one reanimate visual or textual language? How can words, the camera, open up possibilities as opposed to being a kind of forensic tool which guarantees meaning? In my books one way I have been trying to do this is by working with multiple genres and by taking the idea of the fragment seriously. Partly it arose from the fact that I was living with a brain injury which gave me only five minutes of concentration and I had to figure out how to write or think or express myself within those constraints. So initially the form suggested itself in response to injury. But as I started to work with the form and to rethink the monograph in relation to it, I started to discover its methodological value and I was building on that.

Meanwhile Nicolas had been exploring the poetics of the image. So when we started working together we started thinking together about these questions, initially in videopoems and then in relation to “videocontemplations” that invite the spectator to be in a relationship of what I call “intimate remove” to the work. You invite a certain kind of deep engagement. At the same time, you build into the form a mode of reflection, a mode of stepping back, both in the way you structure the film and through the multiplicity, the heterogeneity and the plurality to which you refer.

Nicolás: Also core here is the idea of “portraying an idea.” How can we crystallize that idea through a kaleidoscopic lens in which in which we explore a concept in its different facets and provide an expansion of its possibilities? Contemplation is related to that: you stay with a subject and start to see all its different facets in order to expand it and understand it. Not as a conclusive thing but as something that keeps bringing questions. I think that is the potentiality of this kind of approach in which it is the “we” that is thinking. We are thinking. Part of the process involves the performer because it is not that we went with this idea of “we want you to do this exactly.” We sent a proposition and there was a reaction to our proposal, in this case the fragment of text. We thought together of a location. Maybe there was an idea of “OK I want you to be on a stool or maybe I want you to be in this kind of situation.” But then we work together towards a way of exploring that possibility, that mise en scène.

Erica: In response to that, I notice the script was credited to you, Lata. And it was improvised as well? How much of the writing itself was in response to the person you had invited to be part of the process? I was curious whose voice it was. At times it felt really aligned with the person who is on the screen and at other times it felt performed and one didn’t assume it was their voice at all.

Lata: The script was entirely written by me and it was written to transit through other bodies. In the process of people making it their own and us having a discussion of how it would take shape in front of the camera different things happened, things that one could not have predicted in advance. The idea was to take what is generally experienced as an individual experience and to make it collective and social. Part of the social construction of fragility is as individual weakness, a modification of strength or of potential.

Intrinsic to contemplation is taking a step back and observing closely. To build that into the form, one device that we used quite consciously, was intermixing public figures with unknown persons. Angela Davis, Cherrie Moraga and Nora Cortiñas speak in ways that people are not used to hearing them speak. It was a conscious choice to have Angela Davis open the film with the poem “A strong woman is sometimes strongly fed up.” So there is a kind of disjunction that happens between your assumption about these public figures and their language and performance. This also connects to making the biographical social, making the individual collective. There are different kinds of defamiliarizations that happen as a result; some of which were planned for, some of which were accidental. And it is also the effect of whether the words are spoken onscreen or as voice over, so many different things. We first got together with people and recorded their voice. And then the performance gradually evolved. They did not write the text. I was not describing their experience. They were performing the script. 

Nicolás: An interesting thing happens in terms of poetics in having these historical figures and making them speak words that don’t belong to them. In this meeting of different kinds of references - the historical and those that come from a poetic horizon - there is a kind of collision that provides a universe of possibilities. And for me that is very related to the poetic image itself in which the attempt is to reclaim the mystery of the image in a world in which it is mostly related to the information paradigm. What would happen if we really made the image explode with different kinds of references and different kinds of possibilities in order to widen the notions this brings?

Erica: I appreciated going to your website. I was delighted to find all these different ways in which you thought through these ideas in different forms. The website states, “All finished work distills a process even as process is itself work distilled. Form, as the film says, is transitory coherence.” I was struck by the idea of the connection between the body and fragility and the form of the film. Transitory coherence is fragile in itself and your inviting other voices to participate on the website and make almost contemplative engagements with your own film felt important to expanding the ideas of your film. Can you talk a little bit about why that was important to you or why you chose to work in all these different media and also engage other filmmakers or sound artists? 

Lata: It goes back to the idea of the kaleidoscope. In many ways since we are talking about portraits of ideas, about exploring ideas through the visual medium, it’s about shifting perception. The wonderful thing about a kaleidoscope is that you have a number of elements that are in a certain mobile relationship to each other. It’s always inter-relational. Nothing is static. And as you turn the kaleidoscope the pieces rearrange themselves and create a different pattern. So you are both drawing attention to the fact that there is a pattern and you are always aware that that pattern is always in motion; form as transitory coherence. The idea of a kaleidoscope then expanded to what different mediums could offer. Ours is an aesthetics of the sensible. Tactility is important. The senses are really important. How do you bring the senses alive through visuality?  

Temporality is really important too. In a film you are required to access the text in a linear fashion. In a book too in a linear fashion. But in a book you can play with temporality. I call it print duration. You can go back and forth; you can rethink the elements in context of a book in a different way. The book offers a tactile experience that is also different from the kinds of tactility it is possible to produce or manifest in a film. And the website frees you entirely from linearity which I found very exciting. The way the script has been offered on the website, you can enter it at any point. In the seed the entire tree is contained. If this is so, then it should in principle be possible for the text/script to be remapped and continue to make sense especially in a film like this where each fragment is adding a certain texture or dimension to a single idea that is being explored gradually across the entire film. I just intuitively reordered everything and started reading and found that it was making a different kind of sense.

The three mediums take the idea of the kaleidoscope further. Also the artist book is expensive and we wanted people to have access to the script. Making it available on the website seemed like a democratic thing to do. And if indeed one is inviting people to rethink, it made eminent sense to invite people to engage creatively. We are hoping that the website can be a community resource on the one hand but also that people can continue to offer their own reflections and extend the work.

Nicolás: I would only add one thing that really began pushing my approach to the image, this idea of the erotics of the gaze and the erotics of art, what Susan Sontag proposed in Against Interpretation. She says that we need to relearn how to feel again. So I guess inviting different kinds of mediums expands our sensibility towards the things we explore. And on the other side it also promotes the kind of dialogue that I think we need much more of, different disciplines talking to each other. In that way we might really start broadening not only our poetic and aesthetic discourses but also our imaginations and that can include the political and social as well as our own practices. How can we start fostering that more? 

Erica: Finally, can you address the gender choices of the performers, actors, readers and voice overs of those you invited? You start the film with an empty chair which seems like an invitation to the viewer and then Angela Davis’ performance immediately addresses the figure of a woman, the position of a woman or the voice of a woman. 

Lata: The choice of characters was conscious and deliberate, obviously. I guess the deeper philosophical question is how can we in our practice propose a different – I don’t want to say universal – but a different mode of heterogenising? It is taking the idea of heterogeneity and diversity seriously, taking the critique of universalism seriously, and yet trying through a multiplicity of different kinds of voices and bodies and beings to pluralize shared experience. So that you have distinction that does not solidify into difference as otherness and you have heterogeneity and diversity which simultaneously points to shared human experience. In many ways this film is an homage to the Bay Area, my love letter to the Bay Area. The cast of characters reflects something of the diversity and specificity of the Bay Area and the film draws on that specificity to point to something broader than itself.

Erica Cho is a visual artist and filmmaker who teaches in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego. More here.