The Image of Fiction
In 1980, in order to bridge the gap between video festival and video gallery, GáBOR BòDY founded an international magazine on video cassette: Infermental. The only constant element of the magazine is its name - everything else is subject to change: editors, subjects, focus of the selected material, ad the cities where the editions are published. Previous editions appeared in Berlin, Hamburg, Budapest, Lyons, and most recently it was the turn of Rotterdam to produce a Dutch edition: Infermental 5.
Infermental 5 was produced by the CON RUMORE foundation, and consists of some forty videotapes from twelve countries. The tapes have been divided into thematic groups, forming five cassettes of one hour each: The Hero, Desire, Narrative Video, Electronic Sign Language, and Sound. The first two themes The Hero, and Desire, have probably been selected primarily because they offer the opportunity to observe how video artists deal with images from the mass media. Narrative Video has been chosen in order to show that video can -in her own way- tell a story, if we do not simply interpret narration as just staging a scene or a play. Electronic Sign Language mainly has a cataloging function, and Sound wants to show how sound is dealt with, and how it takes possession of space.
This set-up is attractive, because, contrary to video festivals, the selections focus on a certain theme, and in this way one is spared the impression of being lost in a video labyrinth. It is a pity, however, that Infermental does not in any way function as a magazine: Infermental can still only be seen in galleries, the cassettes cannot be leased and taken home, so there is no possibility of leafing through the magazine.
Besides the fact that the cassettes deal with a certain theme, the attraction of lnfermental lies in the links and cross- references that are made, consciously or unconsciously, between the videotapes. These are not just productions to be seen in isolation, but together they form a collection of which the several parts tell something about each other, supplement or contradict each other. The editors of lnfermental 5 did not only selected the tapes and put them in order, but also interspersed the videotapes with statements directly related to the theme and the tapes. The spectator should realize that these prominently shown statements are not meant to be serious; yet what one remembers afterwards is not their irony, but their pomposity, and for this reason they annoy rather than stimulate. The editorial comments on the tapes, published in the accompanying catalogue, are also rather ponderous, and often have an old-fashioned rin about them. A statement such as: Most people do not only need identification, they also want to play the hero themselves (from the text for Cassette 1: The Hero) does not only sound rather worn out, but also underestimates the diabolic games still played with heroes and heroism. The editors still look upon the hero as a fiction blown up by the media, a fiction that has to be dismantled, exposed, and debunked. Not a word about the way in which heroes deflate themselves beforehand (DAVID BOWIE, ANDY WARHOL), or the way in which fans pervert their heroes and make fetishes of them, instead of simply and obediently believing in them.
But how dus this affect the selection of the tapes in Cassette I: The Hero? This cassette consists of very feeble parodies (Heroes by KLAUS BOEGEL, Go for it, Mike by MICHAEL SMITH, Blue-blind by BYRON BLACK), heroines in adventures that are doomed to fail (Aufwarts zum Mount Everest by ULRIKE ROSENBACH, Beauty Becomes the Beast by LYDIA SCHOUTEN), and superficial analysis of heroism (MANFRED HULVERSCHEIDT 's Tschak, Tschak, and Coupe du Monde by GEOFFREY SHEA). Only DARA BIRNBAUM's aggressively cut Fire with music by JIMI HENDRIX is slightly more exciting. Perhaps this is due the fact that she does not try to sympathise with or accuse the heroic image, but instead turns its emptiness into a weapon.
The same objection apply to Cassette 2: Desire. Desire is also seen as directed at an imaginary world, constructed by the media, a world which we are longing for, and which contrasts sharply with the world we live in. The same alienation theory applies here: television and film have taken possession of daily hie. They have created a pseudo-hie, in which 'youth' is . eternal, and the existence of death is denied. Some of the tapes (Calling the Shots by MARK WILCOX, and True Life Romance by MARTY ST. JAMES & ANNE WILSON) indeed work out this idea, but a tape such as, for instance, Cosmic Sperm, is not at all concerned with an individual longing for immortality, nor with desire corrupted by the media. In this tape KEES DE GROOT and FRANK MORSSINKHOF create a sultry atmosphere in which desire is not linked to human beings, but lies hidden everywhere, rank and diffuse, eating away all life; this desire is visualized by means of withered flowers and a buzzing spiral that pierces a young girl's heart.
By far the most surprising compilation is Cassette 3: Narrative Video. Surprising, because narration is not simply taken as the presentation of a coherent and finished story, but rather as the creation of an atmosphere in which a narrative might develop, or an atmosphere that suggests that something has just happened, of which an afterglow is still perceptible. I shall try to deal with this cassette in some detail.
To Sorrow by KIT FITZGERALD, the first tape of Narrative Video, is a small miracle from beginning to end. The opening images will probably suggest kitsch; imagine a picturesque green landscape with grazing cows, sheep, and horses, a complete children's farm. An idyllic scene, but without the stuffiness of an idyll. Something, I'm not quite sure what, shines through this pastoral scene. The images remain grand and open. How does FITZGERALD achieve this? This effect is perhaps partly due to the music by PETER GORDON, which remains so beautifully transparent, with a trumpet functioning as a second, sonorous horizon to the meadows of the countryside. Perhaps it is also due to the careful cutting, which makes the images flow into each other in a smooth and spatial way. Or maybe it is the way in which all the animals have been put in a framework: tight, stiff, close to the skin, which lends a centrifugal force to the image. Look at the horse on the right-hand side, shaking its head - in slow motion - with wide open mouth, as if growling and yawning at the same time. There is no relation at all between the horse and the landscape behind it, there is too much space in between, a hiatus. Or look at those cows, filmed from behind, and flood-lighted by the headlights of a car. In the dusk only their impassive behinds, almost filling the screen, can be seen glimmering vaguely. Is this an idyll? Everything points in this direction, but whether you watch the horse's head or the batch of cows, you keep wondering what is wrong, what has disturbed the quiet. The clear and apparently innocent images of this pastoral have a much more unheimlich effect than a grubby image accompanied by neurotic sounds. Those tapes that were meant to be sinister (Tango de Perro by JAN BULTGEEK in Electronic Sign Language, or Media Vita in Morte Sumus by DEDO in Sound), are in fact not very interesting, because they only offer an amorphous agglomeration. There is a difference between surprise and alienation. If a tape surprises you, you may have the feeling that something may leap at you any moment -in this way To Sorrow gives you the idea that some kind of monster may burst out of the horse. If a tape is alienating, you do not even get a chance to suspect, or be surprised, because in this case the image does not hide a strangeness, it is strange itself. This is the reason why To Sorrow remains grand and open: it is open to all kinds of interpretations, it does not turn you away (by noise). Instead it gives you well-known images, carefully hiding their venom.
The next tape, Like Paradise by SASCHA WONDERS, is a simple black-and-white registration of three men who leave their cares behind to enjoy a day out in the country. The difference between the ambiguity of nature in To Sorrow and the naive, and indeed innocent, nature in Like Paradise is striking. (This is the merry Moscow country says one of the men in the course of their conversation.) The men also are without the tension of the animals in the meadow. But this was probably never the maker's intention. Like Paradise has the charm of a holiday film which you show every now and then to hear the story of the three men again... In the third tape, Everything's just Fine, a merry and not very angaging video-song, HERBERT WENTSCHER does his utmost to upset his performance of the song by making feeble jokes, with the intention of creating a disturbed and perturbed video clip (TONY OURSLER, however is much better skilled in breaking down his own stories).
This is followed by Imagination by RICHARD HEFTI. A long transparent sheet with drawings on it is slowly passed from left to right, while behind, the same sheet, in a mirror- reflection, is passed from right to left. Together these sheets create ever-changing configurations. The drawings consist of colourful blots and smears, resembling leaves and branches blown by the wind. Autumn seems to have come. The tender and fleeting atmosphere of the images is empathized by the haltingly spoken words. You can hardly hear them. Sometimes it is possible to hear what is said (Amsterdam, KURT SCHWITTERS), just as sometimes the drawings represent a recognizable image (man in hat and raincoat), but words and images never go together: they do not explain each other, they have evaporated as soon as they are spoken. Yet before they vanish, each has separately transmitted something of a gigantic space, a treasure-house full of diaries, notes, drawings, and old photographs. Imagination.
What these tapes have in common, is that they do not tell their story in a linear, but an elliptic way -for instance, by showing the setting of an imminent event (To Sorrow), or by making the spectator conjecture about the accompanying anecdotes (Like Paradise), by breaking up and disseminating the plot (Everything's just Fine), by hesitantly lifting only a tip of the veil of the plot (Imagination), or by making the narrative functions of image and sound work against each other: the image as an emblem, the sound as a saying. This happens in Island Stories by NIGEL ROLFE, the fifth tape of Narrative Video. The image is turned inwards upon itself, while a heart-rending song tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl (who doesn't seem to finish up very well). No matter what kind of video you make, whether it is a narrative video or not, everything depends on the sound, the shades, the frame-works, and the speed of the first images. Looking at the opening images of Island Stories, one feels that nothing can go wrong anymore. The screen is a black field of which two oblong spaces have been cut out: to the left, a field of gravel which is being raked, to the right, a muddy hole filled with water, in which a spade is striking. Both sequences are shown in slowmotion (clearly visible from the glistening water dripping from the spade), and everything is submerged in a golden haze. At first one hears the sound of a typewriter, belonging to the image on the left, which changes into the sound of moving gravel. Simultaneously we hear the sound of cymbals, synchronous with the spade striking down. Both the rake and the spade are observed from different angles, but we cannot see who is handling them. Slowly these sounds make way for the song, which is accompanied by an emerging madonna-like statue, in the middle between the cut-outs. Together this produces a ridiculous image: a heavenly apparition, caught between two earthly actions.
The most beautiful part of lnfermental 5 is PETER FORGACS' Ironage - a tape with images so simple and at the same time so astonishing, that you cannot burn them out of your memory. The protagonist of lronage is a blind man; in his company are four women, one of whom embraces and kisses him in the opening scene. Actually, it seems rather cynical to film the embrace of a blind man and a woman who can see (- yet why? How does he know where her lips are? And what is that thing creeping in the upper left corner of the screen?). Clearly this is not an embrace à la RODIN, virtuous and romantic but rather à la CéLINE, TOM WAITS, or LUCEBERT, sour, but passionate, and yet nothing is more disarming than this kiss. And this goes for the rest of the tape as well. Filmed in black-and-white, but in very tender shades. This was recorded on Super 8, and look what one can do simply by manipulating the film when it is turning. Shaking images follow each other, as if FORGACS stops the film again and again. Especially in the beginning, this produces an effect of great tension, when the man and the woman are standing close together, and you do not know exactly what they are up to, because the film is shaking or shown in reverse. In Ironage there is the same threatening atmosphere as in To Sorrow, combined with the holiday mood of Like Paradise, but lronage surpasses both in sensuality. Only listen to the sound of an echoing flute in slow-motion, which together with the images produce the effect of a hot and sultry summer's day.
After having seen this tape, Double Lunar Dogs by JOAN JONAS, is rather a wash-out, in spite of the fact that it is in fact the only really narrative video. There is quite a lot of narration going on in Double Lunar Dogs, but it is done in such a pathetic and emphatic way that one cannot endure listening to it for very long. And the special effects, so proudly shown off in this tape, are used in such a bland way that one cannot endure watching this for very long either. What remains? Nothing.
Cassette 4: Electronic Sign Language provides a good survey of the several ways of exploiting video techniques. There are tapes that move at dizzying speed (Rotorama by INGO GüNTHER), which are so disorientating that afterwards all videotapes seem to be played in slow-motion. HANNO BEATHE, on the other hand, has produced a stilled, diaphanous, ode to sand: Flugsand.
The last cassette, Sound, is just like Electronic Sign Language, a kind of video-catalogue. Here the supremacy of image over sound comes under attack, and the invisible, but always perceptible, role of sound is evaluated. In Ironland by LLUREX, for instance, the image reacts directly to the sound. In SERVAAS' Fish from Holland the sound is criticized by the image. In Nightsoil, RICARDO FüGLISTAHLER has melted image and sound into one rhythmic whole, while in the chaotic Tale Enclosure by GARY HILL sound and image compete with each other. Halfway through the cassette - a truly marvelous idea - one is all at once sheltered from all sound: Watching Out, a tape in which NAN HOOVER keeps watch for ten minutes, in utter silence.
If you'd like to quote something: Nio, Maurice. "Infermental 5." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 1 # 2 (1986).
Translation: Fokke Sluiter
Infermental 5 Rotterdam 1986
dr. Vera Bòdy, Köln.
Kijkhuis, den Haag