After filming in the south of France in autumn 2013, the artist Ismaïl Bahri talks with Alissone Perdrix and Clément Postec, who accompanied him during his visual experimentation. Reflections on the challenges of developing a device for visual capture, its limits and horizons.
Ismaïl Bahri : We’ve just returned from three days of filming in the Montpellier region, where the objective was to ameliorate the filming device tested this summer in Tunis. It’s an apparatus born of progressive experimentations that I hope to refine. We had three cameras equipped with the device, with which we canvassed landscapes, looking for elements to film. I retain a rich, intense memory of these days spent scanning the light and the wind.
It felt like we never stopped moving and working, sometimes in unfavorable weather conditions that were particularly difficult since the device is fragile. It was a very intense time that, although it was not a failure, reminded me (or confirmed) that the modality of “film shoot” is not the best suited to my work. I haven’t watched the totality of the videos. I need to write before seeing them, to think before plunging into them. Despite that, it is less on the images obtained than on the work experience that I want to reflect here.
Clément Postec : I’d like to react to the experience.
You proposed that we write with you about what we experienced, in own ways, with our own words. You say that we don’t all use the same vocabulary to qualify the elements of an adventure that was both modest and communal. I haven’t yet assimilated everything we experienced; I’m clear about what we attempted (we elaborated, constructed, reflected, responded to your indications, or refused to respond), but I still don’t know what value to apply to the experience, nor what conclusions to make.
A “film shoot” is a strange event (to be in and out of the world at the same time) and your magic is, without a doubt, other, elsewhere. Since each “shoot” is different, wouldn’t that be a call to affirm your process of work? In my opinion, this “film shoot” took us out of the atelier—and this, on two levels: at one of the last Phantom Mondays at Khiasma we closely observed collages, colors, forms of paper—and at that point I had only accompanied you from in front of my computer or in other interior spaces; this time, we went outside.
Alissone PerdrixYou taught us about the form of your device to better prepare us to accompany you on your quest for sense. How to film? What to film? Where to film? It was a rite of initiation, entering into your work that was expanding outwards, with a multiplication of cameras, devices, and operators. You trained us to follow you, we tried to accompany you and all throughout the filming experience, questions emerged. Why film with three cameras? What was the reason for increasing the means, when your work unfolds in the precision of less? With Clément, were we at all useful in the process? In short, I was, we were, I think, traversed by questions that upset our tranquility and serenity. We fumbled and tried things, discussed them intensely during those three days. You seemed insatiable. I was tired, it was cold, we were soaked, but we stayed with you to the end because you bewitched us with your device, you led us into your folly in your quest to obtain a form of precision based on a mountain of uncontrollable, uncertain and approximate constraints.
Ismaïl Bahri: Clément, up until now you had a global vision of the project, as you are the person who has organized and overseen all the technical and logistical parameters of my residency with La Fabrique Phantom. This filming session allowed you to experience the work from the inside, to have a completely different approach: from the global, you moved to the local; from a wide horizon, to single details. Alissone, I immediately proposed that you participate because you’ve watched the project develop from the beginning. You were there at the first experiments in Saint-Etienne, where you’re from; then you accompanied me for all the collection of images in Tunis. It was important for me that you continue to be present. In particular you helped me this summer in perfecting the device and our discussions allowed me to see certain things that had escaped me. Let’s look at what I think it’s important to take note of and share. It’s something that we managed to formulate during the work process without actually managing to implement it. As Alissone remarked, I have the impression that this work demands our remaining in one place for a long period of time in order to observe things with acuity. We would have had to explore the places that interested us for a much longer time before reaching the sensitive register of observation. Later I talked about this with Olivier who helped me clarify this point: my research is characterized by the long-term and this form of condensed, short-term work perhaps doesn’t suit me.
In addition, I think that in itself the subject filmed has an importance that I neglected by giving priority to moving rapidly from one site to another in the hope of multiplying experiences. I was preoccupied by the idea of being efficient in regard to the short amount of time at our disposal.
Alissone Perdrix: On the contrary, I don’t think the device adapts itself to the specificities of the sites it is destined to film. In any case, I don’t think that is the finality. Your device is self-sufficient. It is autonomous, it adapts to no one, not even us, the operators! I believe it is the specificities of the landscape that adapt themselves to the device. It’s a sort of catalyzer, or magnet, a fascinating object that attracts things to it. It’s necessary to remain in one place so that it begins to have meaning, to give it the time to embody the space, and thereby access what you call the sensitive register of observation. We tried to tame the device, which in turn tamed the sites in the sense that they are places inhabited by people. And taming takes time.
Clément Postec: I’m thinking: shouldn’t a device be like a trap, in the sense: prepared, predisposed to catch a subject, an object? If you want to record chance happenings (which you did in Demna in Tunisia: the shutter oscillates and the young boys appear and disappear–a dramatic situation born of their mere presence), then, despite all the preparation and the mastery, don’t you need, in point of fact, a chance happening? A spark, an epiphany, a magic trick–a bizarre element too: because the youths in Tunisia, I believe, prowl. They don’t play. They defend their presence, and are wary of yours. And so, you need time–and the same patience and prudence a man observing a rare bird needs. Otherwise, the device is, but it reveals nothing other than itself. It is life that redirects things, always. Your work–when it reveals itself, is the encounter between a meticulous preparation and the unexpected, which has an enormous dramatic value within the device itself. I can’t forget the film Observaions. It is the presence of the Other, and his incomprehension of what you’re doing, that reveals the depth of perspective against which you would have been blinded if chance hadn’t brought you to meet that man. You’re facing the surface of the glass of ink you’ve been carrying and it’s the man who stops you and questions you who in the end reveals all the depth you were seeking: an experience of phenomenon, from form to conscience. What happened this time, during the « film shoot »? Did something similar happen? Did we leave the surface and reach the depth?
Alissone Perdrix : Clément speaks of your device as a sort of trap for catching a subject, capturing it. The device could be seen as a rigorous protocol (you installed a large gamut of shutters for different wind forces, etc.) but the protocol is only efficient because it allows chance to re-enter the equation. And that by its very principle: it functions with unpredictable givens (the wind, light, the arrival of people, etc.).
Ismaïl Bahri: Clément said: “it’s a real work of patience”. The device necessitates a great deal of calibration: a good orientation vis-à-vis the wind and sun, a good anchoring of the shutters in function with the viewfinder, the use of a shutter with a weight proportional to the force of the wind… All of this is as artisanal as it is delicate and usually one or the other of the parameters doesn’t work. In the long term, this observational device adds a degree of acuity to incomplete forms. If observation occurs, it seems to pass by the occlusion of what is (or could be) potentially seen in the field. And it is this mechanics of shuttering, precisely, that is being observed. In these videos, observation becomes other, it arrives in infinitesimal glimmers, by the volatile acuity of an inconstant impression. But in order to observe what is incomplete, to embrace the blank—the time of a blink—I need to come back to a slow form of work that is distilled in homeopathic doses.
Ismaïl Bahri : Clément, at one point you evoked the possibility of having recourse to a method of « script», to better anchor the « blocks of time» or better manage an eventual choreography of characters. I remember you said it because Alissone and I were haunted by an experience we had in Demna, in Tunisia. The moment we were trying to recapture was when you see three adolescents enter the field of vision, exit it, appear,then disappear to the rhythms of the swinging of the shutters. We were there, it happened at the exact moment of a certain light, a very special wind… I was obsessed by trying to ameliorate, or refabricate, that incomparable block of space-time. Cycles of research always contain the risk of coagulation. And we often forget that risk…
Clément Postec : I undoubtedly had the reflex—was it cinematic?—to want to know what we were recording in order to see how the choreography of observed situations unfolded. That was when I thought of a « script ». Even though the nature and function of a script are completely opposite to spontaneity or to what is called direct cinema. But it seemed to me that the long wait for a chance occurrence to happen could be channeled by a written trace. And also because there were three of us, three viewfinders, etc. With hindsight, I realize that such a «script» wouldn’t have been a good solution. It was when I was confronted by the infinity of possibilities that I thought of the «script», but the experience progressively led me to see what you describe: a work on incompleteness because intrinsically linked to minute details. Looking back today, I can’t really see how a register of attempts—the famous «script», would have been more efficient. Except to follow a protocol. Would it have protected us from the risk you mentioned earlier? We were constantly obliged to change our guidelines; because that was only way, surprise, surprise, we could react.
Alissone Perdrix: It’s good to talk to about Demna, because as you so aptly said, we were haunted and still are haunted by the experience. You had been to Demna before we went there to film, you fantasized about the light, the landscape, the colors. You already had an attachment and so you were able to capture a tiny fulgurance: the eruption of the adolescents in the scene. Demna is dazzling, a small state of grace. In the first place because there was a meeting. Between us, a certain light, a wind that perfectly activated the flap which was (oh miracle!) of the right thickness, a completely incongruous device (the best of antenna technology) and three adolescents. And then because there is the particular beauty of adolescence, a way of approaching the other, a very particular relation to the world. These adolescents came towards us, attracted by our strange presence. And they prowled around us as we moved around the device. Also because, as adolescents, they had the time to explore. (Even more so since we were in their territory!)
And their prowling around us formed ellipses, and those ellipses created a dramaturgy, sketched out a narrative whose subject was the device, revealed in mirror image, which inverted the situation. In opposition to a cinematic structure that can guarantee a passage between a will to make a film and another to receive a film, your device, by its unpredictable nature, its inherent mystery, the relation to the irruption (of figures) and the attraction it induces, occupies a central place. It is not a point of passage; it is a point of gravitation.
Ismaïl Bahri: As I wrote to Olivier, concerning my experiences in Tunisia, I think what is at play here is the tension between surface and distance. The operation of projection in the depth of the image is disrupted. Which sometimes rejoins the effect of a blank projection, of a pure luminous surface. These videos are articulated around the movements of a swing: everything depends on the image turning to a blank projection and the moments when, conversely, the light comes up and unveils what the shutter hides.
The rhythm of this intermittence is difficult to adjust. I retain a sense of evasion from the experience of these three days. The impression that something, constantly, escaped us. And that is the subtlety I must refine. I need to accommodate with more precision the elementary mechanics of the device in terms of the free variation of the elements. This resistance reminded me how much the device, despite its apparent simplicity, requires adjustments. At it is at this point of tension that the interest of the work resides–it’s when it resists that the passionate and untranquil stubborness begins. It reminded me, in other measures and in other forms, of the difficulty posited by the video ‘Dénouement’ in its attempt at long-distance framing. ‘Film’ also required months of manipulations before I was able to get the little falls of newsprint to arrive at the right time. We used three cameras to try to recapture, by a simultaneity of takes, the line of the landscape and make match cuts. But this three camera device prevents the relation of immediacy and the arrival of the image. It seemed uncomfortable to me, for example, to go home at the end of a long day of filming without having been able to be present for a large part of what had been filmed. I imagine it’s possible to work this way but I need to be closer to the image that arrives, to accompany the event that makes it happen.
I’ve just watched the rushes and certain things really work; for example the takes where the shutter is dark (because it’s in shadow) and is clearly revealed against a luminous background. These videos, projected in a room of equal darkness could give form to a sort of dark room opening out onto nebulous out-of-frame views. Limited zones of light piercing through the projected image would make it seem as if the room is connected to, or echoes the filmed exterior. Contrasting with the very luminous white shutters, which resemble a projection without a film, here we would have an inverted projection, as if we were behind the screen, leaning in towards this underside of light. It reminds me of my attempt at making a sort of enormous engine of cinematic capture that I evoked in August. This huge dark room with multiple shutters could be one of the links. Now I just need to find the appropriate consonance between the mechanics of the movement of the shutter and what is hidden behind the surface of the image. As much as the question of substance and form or the relation to luminosity, there remains the question of subject, of the tension to be built between these mechanics and what has been filmed of the world. Why film a road, a factory, a wall, a demonstration with this device? For the moment, it all remains too random; that’s my problem.
La Fabrique Phantom, October 2013