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La Fondation de France

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In 2013, Ismaïl Bahri was in creative residence with the Fabrique Phantom (  Throughout this period of research, he maintained a written dialogue with Olivier Marboeuf on the subject of his work. In June  2013, he published a new exchange with Olivier Marboeuf after his first Lundi de Phantom at the Espace Khiasma

Marie Doyon et Ismaïl Bahri lors du lundi de Phantom N°3, le 4 Mars 2013 (Photo : Alissone Perdrix)

Magic Again

Olivier Marboeuf : What seems magical to me in the pieces you propose for the exhibition «Mandrake a disparu » (Mandrake disappeared) is the sensation that revelation does not diminish the illusion. The image, the film, progressively allow us to understand what is happening. This is the case with « Denouement »—the title itself plays on the polysemy of the term. « Film » is a bit different perhaps because the protocol disappears almost completely from the final video : the rolled up newspapers unroll towards us as if by magic, navigating in a mysterious space. And yet, even if we learn tangentially « how it works » (by reading the program notes, for example), the trick can be repeated again and again…

I find extremely interesting this notion that touches on language and what is said in the margins of works—it’s a pivotal concern for mediation in particular. How do a work and its commentary function and who takes charge of them? Commentary is able to effect a sense of displacement in what we see; in itself that’s not a problem for me, but rather an additional trail—a trail as in musical editing, like an additional layer in the sensitive register and not as we’re often inclined to consider it—and practice it—as an intrusion of a language obsessed by understanding. Why couldn’t commentary, on the contrary, be unclear, or troubled?

In the case of «Film», there is a specific phenomenon I find very interesting: the description of the procedure in no way nullifies the magical process that animates the image. At most, it is transformed into a fable, as was the case with Claire Malrieux’s work «Lunar Far Side». Are we really looking at the cartography of the dark side of the moon, engraved on the marble? This data doesn’t exist in terms of information as much as it does as fable, that is to say as «word which permits vision» and which engages itself in a form.

Ismaïl Bahri: In Dénouement, the image develops to the rhythm of a gesture that takes a long time to appear. A gesture that at the end of the video reveals everything, or almost, about the making of the film. That is to say that we understand after several minutes the nature of the line that divides the white, abstract surface and the cause of its vibrations. I also realized that when they began to understand what was happening onscreen, some people started to invent the scene of the making of the film. The identity of the figure coming towards us remains mysterious, but supposing that it is the operator coming towards the camera could reactivate certain speculations: how can you film and frame from a distance? It then becomes possible to presume that the arrival of the silhouette replays, but in a very elementary fashion, certain movements of the person filming: to arrive is to view and frame, to arrive is to adjust and try, as here, to move towards greater clarification and, finally, to arrive up against the lens of the camera is to act as a natural shutter. Making so many suppositions is part of the pleasure of confabulation.

Image du tournage de la vidéo « Dénouement »

Claire Malrieux’s « Lunar far side » is indeed interesting in its capacity to activate speculation. When I visited the exhibition, it took me a while to understand what was going on in the block, what process was being woven. And it’s true that it was the program notes as much as your explications that allowed me to see a path towards understanding what was proposed. The slab of marble has the potential to activate thought and speech; it questions knowledge. This massive block is haloed by a precise confusion. In the sense that we don’t really know what we’re regarding while at the same realizing that this confusion is, precisely, what the work is about.

Lunar Far Side de Claire Malrieux (vue de l’exposition « Mandrake a disparu »)

And here we come to something that interests me a lot: the tension that can exist between confusion and precision, and especially the possible ways to compress these two opposing elements into one object or one space. In this sense, « Mandrake a disparu » interests me because the exhibition is articulated, in part, around this idea. It seems to me that it is the ambiguity between precision and confusions that contribute to the success of magic. If we revisit the exhibition, almost all the pieces support the idea of a real precision, whether we’re talking about Alexander Schellow, Julien Previeux or Maider Fortuné. This can take the form of diagrams, by gestures or figures of precision that activate, not a fixed or codified form of knowledge, but on the contrary a form of confusion/ambiguity and speculation. And to convoke the figure of the Mandrake, what fascinates me with magicians or mimes is their way of manipulating with an extreme dexterity an effect of confusion. When you watch them, there is always a moment when you’re no longer completely sure what you see before your eyes. Which, as you suggest in this exhibition, in no way prevents us from believing what we see. A nebulous operation (Maider Fortuné), a punctuation of the absent (Alexander Schellow), a dose of reflection and shadow (Badr el Hammami): each time it’s a question of moving closer to something that escapes us.

Maider Fortuné’s « Carroussel » convokes this. The films situates us in a myopic relation to space. We are associated with the objects that pass before us and the image intensifies a very sharp optic relation to them. In « Carroussel », we feel the lens, we sense that we’re passing through an optical filter and are carried by a continuous movement, whose trajectory we couldn’t trace on the floor. We think of microscopes, telescopes, of all these instruments of precision that bring the observed object closer as much as they drown what remains to be known in nebulosity. There is the obsession of the potential ‘out of range’ and, here again, the speculative. Alexander Schellow’s video explores the finer points of the forms of memory. It is a way of maintaining direction even as one drifts. An attempt at limiting the undefined, to retain omission between the infinity of abscissas and fictive coordinates.

« Ohne Titel » d’Alexander Schellow (vue de l’exposition « Mandrake a disparu »)

In these pieces, precision is always embodied in a sensitive and concrete form. You speak of «engaging with a form» and it’s true that we feel this in the exhibition. And we’re constantly seeking a moment of shift or swing: where form, by its very presence, convokes mystery. It is notably this that can solicit, in return, the spectator’s engagement. Observing the enigma that hides in the form can lead to engagement by thought. And there, the disposition of the space and the exhibition can eventually trigger the activation of such thought.

What motivates me in your proposition of written correspondence is the idea of not contenting ourselves with exhibiting or working on pieces, but trying to produce a form of thought concerning our respective research. I can feel this in what you write. You evoke your obsessions, you rethink the exhibition, the works, the space; you also reveal, in a certain manner, the wires that hold together the ongoing processes of fabrication at the Espace Khiasma. In the sense that what is also at stake in ‘Mandrake a disparu’ overflows the strict form of the exhibited works. The space, as it has been thought out, as it is constantly evolving, itself becomes an operator of magic.

Film, vue de l’exposition Mandrake a disparu, Espace Khiasma, 2013

In any event, you sensitize me to your obsession for creating the necessary conditions to promote the emergence of words and thoughts concerning the works. Hearing you evoke this makes me realize that we don’t usually think enough about the way in which a site functions as a conduit for words and an activator of confabulations. I recall what you said on Radio France Culture, when you rather maliciously remarked that the Espace Khiasma is a «magical» space because it is constantly changing, one day in one form, the next another; like a magician, so as to stimulate the spectator’s belief. It’s true that what is striking about this place is that it is in constant redeployment. I experienced this personally with the Phantom Mondays, for example: the site develops in synergy with what is proposed and tends toward the fabrication of images but also commentary and word. The space functions in the interstices of what is proposed there.

Archives and Politics

Olivier Marboeuf: I wanted to come back to our discussion and in particular to the question of politics that we evoked in a previous dialogue. I know you have a certain defiance towards the political beast even if I have the impression that in your case it’s not a rejection, but more the need to respond to it by finding a specific place of capture as you do with most of your works. As I indicate in the hypothesis below, I don’t think there is a political subject, but essentially acts and that the act of framing the flux of «what arrives» is for me the essence of what constitutes the politics that interest me.

In a recent discussion at Khiasma with Gérald Collas from the INA (Institut National des Archives), he emphasized a point I find very pertinent concerning the question of archives—and that is, in my opinion, a rather extraordinary position for someone who works in an establishment where archives are sacrosanct, with a power of truth. For him, we can submerge ourselves in archival material and move beyond the sad passions they inspire only if we work them, edit them, frame them. In other words by «fantasizing archives», which is the subject of much research conducted by a number of artists whose work interests me and a pro-eminent element of my own work on the subject of theoretical narratives. On the same occasion I learned that the INA is currently recording live all the flux of public televisions—with the exception of fictions—with no filtering, which represents an absolutely stupefying mass of information. This helped me to rethink your video series «Film» in a new light. In order to render such a continuous flux intelligible, it has to be contained, framed, the kinetics have to be attenuated in order to attain the space and time of a regime of thought.

The piece «Etale (ricochet)», in which you film a running tape of news items reflected in a flowing line of ink is paradoxically, for me, a way of making intelligible something that is not, paying close attention to the speed, which, in a way, becomes imperceptible, to show the flux as a political construction of globalized information that literally traverses us on a daily basis; to speak of a certain violence. All of this seems to me to be a political position—I specifically use the word position here, I could also say point of view, rather than opinion, to emphasize the fact that it is a manner of experimenting space and that it is an act continually renewed. Which is why I also like the term engagement, for example, because it allows you to speak in the same movement of something that touches on the corporal and the conceptual. I’m aware that these terms have been rather misused, because circumscribed to their implications with political parties or unions, which has limited their scope and, in my view, their meaning.


projection de la vidéo « Etale (ricochet) » lors du Lundi de Phantom N°3

Which brings me to this idea of revolution. As I’ve told you, I approach «Film» as a revolutionary film, beyond a perhaps too literal reading of the Tunisian context, but rather as a situation that is continually happening. Here again, there is a tension between the revolution as movement and politics as frame. Here again, the frame make things intelligible, it has a seductive form, but the device, if it is to remain faithful to the dynamics it captures/records has to be continued in the form of a new experience; if not there is the risk of it becoming deadly—as politics can sometimes be today, by refusing to reinvent its gestures and vocabulary. Which is a danger for art, too.

That’s why I’ve always tried to think of the exhibition space above all as a specific dynamic, a gesture to be reinvented, a situation rather than an institutionalized space, that is to say, an evident form.

Ismaïl Bahri: I don’t feel defiance vis-à-vis politics, but a certain distrust in its treatment in general. It’s not easy to approach these questions delicately and it’s notably for that that I lean towards the subject. And so, yes, I try to film and frame certain signals and flux of «what is coming» in order to pass them through the filter of my experiments. The word filter is interesting because that’s what this is: constructing very elementary devices of video-graphic capture through which flux and selected images will pass (whether they be newspaper or television signals); to frame them, then alter them and finally, perhaps, to extract a sort of essence. Obviously, the word essence is not precise enough. But in any case, there is the attempt to rejoin the original point of thought at the intersection with simple phenomena and signals that come from outside. I evoke the outside with precaution, because I don’t know exactly what is hiding there, but I use the word in conjunction with the «what is coming» you evoke. In this case, the images coming from all horizons. I observe these signals that I manipulate by re-framing them, either by tearing up the rolls of newspaper, or by cutting out pictures. Framing is also reducing the flux to a certain scale, much smaller, to the scale of my work desk, but also to a more human scale, where thought is possible, the scale of a different rhythm. In this sense, framing means making sense of something that seems beyond our comprehension.

I also wonder to what extent these short takes could become tiny echo chambers of this outside…
In « Film » the newspapers—with their content rendered enigmatic because re-framed and fragmented—are used in such a way that they seem to come towards us endlessly. The inked content of the papers, static and coagulated, begins to move. We watch a slow and precarious kinetics lacerating an uncertain space. You describe «Etale» very well, there is a question here of extracting a hypothetical essence from signals of information and, in this case, the only thing that is retained from the flux of information is its flow, its speed. The signal becomes pure flux, an invertebrate writing—flowing without being written—a non-persistent impression.

It’s perhaps a way of showing flux as construction. I’d never thought of it like that. In any case, I like the idea of revealing the structures, however frail, of things as evanescent and formless as flux, in this case two fluxes, apparently in confluence: a flux of ink and a flux of information. There is something futile here that I want to hold on to. And in this sense, it could be a question of position, of engagement, or involvement. In the way the relation to flux is treated via the mediation of the sensitive and the matter. There is something of the concreteness of things, a brute materiality in my little experiments. And, always, an attempt to touch on the poetic by means of the prosaic. But all the ambiguity hinges on bringing the elements at play to the precise point where images and materials are embodied without coagulating. This explains my interest for ambiguous images, that appear, then disappear, even while paradoxically remaining. Attention is drawn to the moment when something in flux swings into another register. At attempt to reflect on these images via their transformations, perhaps, as a way to prevent them from being annexed. And so yes, in that sense, the revolutionary in its becoming interests me.

Rights and accommodations

Olivier Marboeuf: There is a great deal to say on this question of movement and framework. It makes me think of another preoccupying subject: the question of rights. I have the impression that in order to be progressive, rights have to be inscribed in a movement—a struggle? And so, paradoxically, there is a certain manner of brandishing individual rights today that seems more conservative to me than a source of development because it is not linked to a movement of collective social transformation, or the invention of a new context of emergence and commitment. In this, I think the tendency is a deadly sign in the history of democracy. These rights seem a bit orphaned—from history and from the necessary confabulation to imagine and welcome whatever may come. But I’m getting off the subject. Except to say that for me a venue or site must be careful to build a context of emergence, something that doesn’t exist in an obvious manner or that is inherent to the physical space or exists only by the collective presence in the same space. There needs to be something more, an attentiveness, a secrecy, that corresponds to something present—the spirit of the site?—that has to be activated and encouraged, in the idea of a spin, a state of excitement of the real that allows us to see that something is happening. In the same way that for the works, these aren’t situations that can be convoked in an authoritative manner; this makes the incantatory call for a collective thought rather inefficient. The experience must be constructed; once again, a frame and its parameters. Isabelle Stengers speaks of «recipes», of ways of proceeding that we invent and share with others in function with a given context and with a precise objective—notably to break the spell of capitalist witchcraft and the deadly state of things. It’s a question of a transmission of knowledge that invents its framework at the same time as it convokes the contribution of all. It is also a way of distancing the idea of ideology, which would be a sort of ‘all terrain’ thought—in this case, it clearly points towards the Marxist paradigm—and to think instead in a logic of experience and the idea of the construction of situations that I feel close to. Here again, we come back to the idea of empiricism and also to something you speak of, about the nature of the contact that you seek between form and idea, something that doesn’t quite reach a point of coagulation, that aims at the moment of contact where everything is in balance and still polysemous. The ideology could be this crystallized moment of the experience—something that demands the real—and it is in this sense that I find the idea of recipe very apt, as long as we don’t apprehend the notion as ‘ready-to-think’ but as something that has to be accommodated, revised in a precise context. This principle of accommodation that reverts back to cooking is important to me. It reminds us that a singular experience always remains possible if there is a principle of thought and especially that it can/must be continued, each time with new ingredients. I know you share with Simon Quéheillard the idea of the repetition of a protocol, research by iteration of the same element, this quest for the best approach, the perfect tangent.

Ismaïl Bahri: The spirit of the site—the haunting circulates in the spaces of the Other, animating but never completely possessing them. Lithe and supple, the ghost moves furniture and objects, sowing the signs of his presence without affirming them concretely. This ‘house spirit’, as much as the image of a recipe, immediately evokes the project of Phantom Mondays. That is to say, the sharing of an experiment-in-progress and a redistribution of the space around a work that is still evanescent and spectral. Often existing at a very fragile state of intuition, the experiment revealed risks remaining an élan without a trajectory. Dropping down a plum line to see what happens, not foreseeing the future. To show a work in a hazy, nebulous state, when it is in the process of becoming, still seeking its structural supports. It’s not easy to show research still in its embryonic stages. Things can go wrong. It’s a bit like building a cabin in a storm. Perhaps the house spirit watches over these attempts. It might be wise to invoke the spirit, as sailors do when going to sea.

vue du Lundi de Phantom N°3 à Khiasma

Right now I’m preparing for the next Phantom Monday in six days time. I’m looking for a recipe to share. What I’m imagining is the unfolding of a series of images that are in the process of being thought of, being fabricated. The last time, the evening took the form of a presentation of work. The images were revealed at the same time as the words concerning them were spoken. This time I want all the images to be projected in the space so that they are visible at the same time. I don’t see yet what this will be like, precisely, and that is precious. It’s so rare to have a space and a group of people ready to welcome in the best possible conditions the arrival of such a moment of hesitation and discomfort… I’d like to share the concrete elements that are manipulated in the atelier every day. Papers, images, photographs, the tail end of intuitions, notes.

I’m glad you mention Simon Quéheillard. I keep a close eye on his work, with which I feel certain affinities. What interests me in particular is his way of managing repetitions, framing to better capture an escape, a fall, a problem. He has a refined intelligence of situations or, rather, the staging of situations. What differentiates us is perhaps the relation to scale and the choice of frame. I have the impression Simon frames larger and is more welcoming of the context in which the filmed trouble occurs; a highway, a busy street, an escalator… the question of inclusion in a context concerns me also, but I try to welcome and elicit the indices of unwinding situations, without revealing them outright.

The Logic of Situations

Olivier Marboeuf: The logic of situations I spoke of earlier corresponds to an attention to «what could happen» without «foreseeing it», without trying to know beforehand the experience—perhaps at a future date we’ll talk about the question of culture in terms of its institutional acceptation which today seems to be built around the idea of forecasting and not of experience and so becomes completely incompatible with an experimental artistic practice. Empiricism and speculation are characteristics specific to science while in common discourse we tend to imagine a science built on certainties. We lose sight of the possible dialogues between art and science at this precise junction of research methodology…perhaps because here, too, for economic reasons, we’re afraid of not knowing.

Ismaïl Bahri: What you speak of concerns me directly because it’s clear there is rarely any foresight in my work. This touches on the question of finding the right distance which I obsess about. I want to position myself at a point of contact that, paradoxically, allows me to free myself, to escape. And so to never foresee things ahead of time. The will to probe a horizon remains. You speak of a situational logic, which makes me think of the «potential of a situation» that François Jullien evokes in relation to ancient Chinese thought. This idea interests me in terms of its tendency to follow «what happens» as closely as possible without trying to change it. In tandem with this line of thought, there is the formulation of a critique of the efficiency of the plan, the project and the result.


Dénouement, vue de l’exposition Mandrake a disparu, Espace Khiasma, 2013

Concerning the experience, I’d like to speak of the importance of gestures and hands. Of the groping hand that reaches out to encounter what rises up to meet it. Alex Pou remarked that I film hands frequently—my hands to be exact. I think this is linked to the notion of experience, to my desire to record something that is in the process of (self-)discovery. To see via touch is related to haptic perception. (Note: haptic perception is the process of recognizing objects through touch.) Deleuze speaks eloquently of this in relation to Bresson’s Pickpocket. Haptic perception interests me in the way it apprehends the fold. Fumbling, trying to ‘see’ with the tips of your fingers means intimate contact, permanently caught in a fold, linked to the spire that forms. It also involves integrating ‘what happens’ in the real time of the creation of the piece. In relation to gesture it makes me think of the difference between the «small hand» and the master hand of grande couture, if you see what I mean. The small hand busies itself with the fluidity of the material without necessarily understanding the overarching plan for the whole, the ‘pattern’ designed by the couturier or artist. In my work, one needs to be a small hand, but still able to experiment with the ‘pattern’, to disturb its lines…

Art and science can perhaps meet at a point of in-calculation. There is a wonderful saying of Duchamp that I use a lot: «precise, but inexact». Discovering the recipes for an inexact precision equates with exploring refined gestures in the search for disturbance. Duchamp emphasizes the importance of having recourse to intercessors, to instruments of precision. Chance was Duchamp’s intercessor (Standard stoppages), but there are so many more to explore. Simon Quéheillard uses phenomena, whether they be optical, atmospheric or other. For him, for instance, the wind is an instrument of inexact precision. This touches me, as does his way of invoking Tati and Keaton and their aptitude for exploring a form of clumsiness with great precision. Precision can be rendered by an extreme speed (Keaton), a restrained suspension (Tati); through the mediation of movements that precipitate multiple escape routes.

The return of possession

Olivier Marboeuf: I’ve moved away from the pieces, but with the intention of coming back to them from a new direction. Their context of insertion is important because, as you mentioned earlier, I’m looking for something that happens between the context (that I think is not neutral) and the works (which I think are not stable). There is a form of reciprocal movement. A possession. The oeuvres displace and create their space. And the care and the recipe used to reveal the space deploy new significations. As I’ve said before, this idea of possession is at the heart of my current research. It’s a question of (re)thinking appropriation as a gesture that produces a return effect. I began with the colonial movement and its appropriation of bodies and lands with the objective of showing how much the bodies of those who wanted to possess everything are today possessed by their seizures.
It’s what could be called the backlash of capture. In response to a capitalist predation, a possession by bewitching. It is always delicate to speak of bewitchment, as my Caribbean origins—and your Tunisian origins for other subjects—could mislead, with the idea of an exotic form of thought. It’s more a question of all the fluxes—poetic/political—that participate in the fabrication of the contemporary body and to determine to what extent it becomes a territory, a battleground—whose most salient form today is the theory of genres, that I think it is urgent to extend to relations between the human and the non-human. And in your last series, you work with recumbent figures, that evoke the multiple fronts of struggle that are crystallized in the body—the military as constituted body, the homeless as body stripped of all social status, the naked body, nullified, which doesn’t count—the body without status at the heart of Mohamed Bourouissa’s last important piece, ‘The Utopia of August Sander.’

There are several things that clearly touch on the idea of territory in this work in progress. First of all the act of setting the body in movement from the inside. It is no longer placed in a space but is itself a moving space, dissolving into itself. The other thing is the choice you made to crop the bodies and position them on white paper, to remove them from their context and place them on a «white sea»—a sea of intranquillity Pessoa would say—where a magical movement is going to unfold. This imposes the reading of form by counter-form and immediately made me think of the islands. As I’ve already mentioned, this brings up an essential point for me. A new dynamic for the reading of the world that would place the ocean at the center and the continents in the margins. I began this reflection—as a far-off echo of the fabulous book ‘Black Atlantic’ by Paul Gilroy—using an episode of Deuxième Vie (Second Life), a long-term performative narrative I’ve been developing. There’s a character called Joseph—who could as easily be the father of Jesus as the German friend of the coyote, and probably shares characteristics of both (note: the German artist Joseph Beuys and his three-day performance living in a closed space with a wild coyote in New York in 1974)—who becomes lost in a forest of privets at the edge of an unidentified suburb. Joseph thinks he will never find his way out, that he is truly lost. He’s carrying with him an encyclopedia on Guadalupe that he was supposed to sell. Feeling completely hopeless, he tries to hold on to the idea of a new geography, a new relation to space that could save him—a shamanistic relation with the invisible nature of the world. He tells himself that if he can manage to identify the shape of the island of Guadalupe he’ll be saved; he tries to envisage the form, but it keeps slipping out of his mental line of vision. When he is at the point of giving up, he decides instead to think of the form of the Ocean, hoping that in the counter-form of its form, the shape of the island will reveal itself and save him. We’ll talk some time about the way I use theoretical narration to theoretic ends because this episode has become a tool for texts such as the one I wrote for the Benin Biennial. I’ll read the Deleuze text you sent me. I don’t know it. We’ll speak of it later..

Ismael Bahri: Recumbent bodies—it’s true that there is a sense of that and I hadn’t seen it. Recumbent, or the relation to the weight of a fallen body, slumped, sleeping, wounded… I’ll have to think about it more, but the remark helps me. For the moment, I’m collecting images without trying to classify them. But I can already see family groups forming. The sleepers, the soldiers, the workers, the crowds—whether they be demonstrators, bands or others. Countless images of bodies cut from diverse newspapers, re-framed, then subjected to a slow dilation of the points of color—the molecules—that constitute them.

I try to work the image like a membrane; that is to say like an element of a supple body crossed by internal movements. The molecular movements provoke an occupation of the body, as well as a slow loss of body. It is at this intersection that the bewitchment you evoked seems pertinent to me. You speak of possession. What is interesting here is the relation to an inner space in Michaux’s sense. I’m thinking of alterations, movements, internal fluxes activating a hidden part (and invoking a counter-form?). It brings to mind voodoo, acupuncture… all these practices that allow us to connect a part of the body—the point of attack—to a fantasized ‘hors champs’: bodies, landscapes, worlds…

How do you turn the internal space into an echo chamber of the outside?

There’s also a question of a return: submitting the images to such a regimen of dilution is rather like returning them to their original state—to fluidify them, I’d like to say. Return to sender: the printed color news image returns to diluted and formless ink. And from the form, we return to our process. The metamorphosis of a film, transpiring inside the image, in its very molecules.

What you say about islands and oceans, of the inverting of the relations of forms and markers, interests me greatly. In particular, the relation to a topology specific to a space that is remodeling itself from the inside out. It might be this sort of topology that underlies the videos I’m currently working on. To get the images to redeploy themselves in an immanent manner, emanating out from a point of attack. Redeployment, redistribution of a space: I see here a variation on the work already done on folds and knots (Film and Denouement).