The Makes (2009), HD video, 26 min. All images: Courtesy Eric Baudelaire.
ART iT: It seems that Japan, specifically your residence at the Institut Français in Japan’s Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto in 2008, was a big experience for you and shifted your awareness as an artist and filmmaker. But was it specifically the encounter with Adachi that had this effect, or was there something more general behind it?
EB: I actually met Adachi the year after I left Japan. So there were two shifts. When I arrived in Japan in 2008 I was essentially a photographer. I had made two videos, but they were both very photographic. Sugar Water is about the relationship between photography and film, the distinction between the still and the moving image, while Circumambulation was a very intuitive response to 9/11. There was no editing in either film, no thought about constructing them in a cinematic language. I was functioning more as a photographer with a video camera. But what I realized after arriving in Japan is that I would not photograph. Of course I took pictures, but they were personal – a diary of observations. Photography itself, in my practice, reached its limit in Japan. I felt that with regard to what I was observing here, photography as a medium would not enable me to do anything of interest. Postwar photography from Japan is absolutely marvelous, and there is nothing I have to contribute beyond that, which is a very humbling and beautiful feeling – not frustrating at all. Also, some of the texts I was reading, like Barthes’s Empire of Signs, helped to locate a space where I wanted to interact with Japan, which would require words, and that meant rethinking my approach to images.
The first film I made in Japan was [sic] (2009), about the practice of self-censoring potentially “obscene” images of genitalia by manually scratching them out of imported books. There are no words in the film, but it addresses the disappearance of the image and the slippage of understanding about what an image contains with regard to intangible notions like desire, death, place, time. These are intangible ideas that photography has a hard time confronting, because it cannot show things that are not material, so images must try to approach this immateriality through suggestion, and that’s what that film is about. The second film, which was made after my return to France but uses material I found in Japan, The Makes (2009), re-imagines Michelangelo Antonioni’s unmade films as if they had been shot in Japan.
A year later, I came back to do The Anabasis, and that was the second important shift – the meeting with Adachi and starting to think about cinema through the idea of fukei ron, while also developing my own theory about the relationship between voiceover and images. This was in a way a solution for combining my love for the photographic image, landscape, narrative and oral history, based on the immensely complex possibilities for conceptual construction through editing.
ART iT: Was it Japan that brought you to Lebanon, or did you already have an interest in Lebanon?
EB: Japan did not create my interest in Lebanon, but it gave me a good reason to finally go to Lebanon. Politically, my interest was always in the Middle East. At university I was a political science student specializing in Middle Eastern studies. I had studied some Arabic and wrote my research dissertation on the first war in Iraq. Arriving to Beirut via Japan was accidental. But this geographical migration opened up the possibility of dealing with the subject not as a Japanese story, or a Lebanese or Palestinian story, but as a transnational political story related to subjects that are also relevant in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere.
Circumambulation (2006), two-channel video and wall text. Installation view at Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, 2007.
ART iT: It’s ironic that since the 1990s and this latest wave of globalization, the idea of the international as an imaginary to which people connect has been deflated, and it’s important to go back to understand how that situation came about and whether there’s anything we can recover from internationalism. One thing, though, that I think is an issue with fukei ron is the question of how to prevent the footage from becoming touristic.
EB: It’s a problem that Adachi evacuated in the very first film. In AKA Serial Killer (1969) there are endless shots of sunsets, flowers, people riding bicycles across fields. They are postcards. I imagine that a German approach to fukei ron would have been extremely rigorous: the images would have been far more “ordinary.” In its very first implementation, Adachi and the filmmakers involved in the collective fully accepted the idea that they were seeking beautiful images, which they would juxtapose with images of poverty, decrepit housing, industry and military formations on the street or at US bases, and then they edited this under a free jazz soundtrack which is absolutely aesthetic in its function.
I think fukei ron is more of a conceptual theory than a practical filmmaking device. There is no seminal text or manifesto of fukei ron, and the only film that implements it, AKA Serial Killer, betrays the very structuralist nature of the theory at the onset. That’s what I find beautiful – there is something extremely free about the way Adachi and his comrades thought about it. Fukei ron is a proposition, then it circulates and we are free to think about it. In fact, the biggest impact of fukei ron is us walking in the streets today and looking at the landscape: we will make our own fukei ron.
That is why I implemented it in The Anabasis in an equally free way. I didn’t seek to make a historically precise journey through the places I knew May Shigenobu and Masao Adachi had lived. I went to the cities and neighborhoods where they had lived, but then I just experienced the landscape and filmed it.
The Anabasis also turns fukei ron on its head by incorporating the idea of the commission. Once we see Adachi’s request that I film certain sights for him, the film accepts the idea that within the fukei ron images there are also commissioned images, and within these commissioned images, there is my disobeying of Adachi’s instructions. He asks me to bring back images of the beautiful seaside of Beirut, and instead I film waves crashing on the rocks. Or he asks me to film the Roman ruins of Baalbek, and instead I film Iranian tourists photographing each other inside the ruins.
I think this was necessary, because while the promise of fukei ron is interesting, there is also something incredibly problematic about it, because it is an incredibly deterministic theory. It says: this man killed a handful of innocent people because of an alienation that was caused by structures of oppression that are visible in the landscape. It removes agency from the individual. It asserts that we are simply the subjects of these structures. So we can’t take the theory at face value, but we can take it as an interesting proposition while also being aware of its limitations. That’s why we go back to the postcard image, that’s why it is necessary to be playful, to create poetic spaces within it.
When we talked about this last night, Adachi said his big interest today is the individual revolution, the place of individual subjectivity. That’s his answer to an otherwise very demoralizing political analysis of the world today. You can say the Left has lost, neoliberalism is triumphant, the superstructure has crushed any hope for positive reform or revolutionary possibility. What Adachi says to that is: Yes, but personal transformation is the solution. So he’s actually absolutely non-deterministic in his perspective today.
ART iT: I noticed that there is a sculptural undertone to many of your works, which I associate with paper materials and folding practices like origami. In Sugar Water, you convey the physicality of working with large sheets of paper. In The Makes, the critic Pierre Zaoui is handling old photographs which have been folded and torn. There is something paradoxical about the fold’s ability to suddenly connect two opposed points, or bisect an unbroken plane, to create a complex form out of a unified substance. The fold is a simultaneous union and disjunction. Is this something you consciously develop in your works?
EB: Deleuze was very interested in the fold. He would say that he was interested in the figure of the surfer because the surfer lives inside the fold of the wave. I like the idea of Deleuze being obsessed with surfers because they live inside the fold.
As it applies to our discussion, the fold turns the image into movement, and also a volume. The fold hides or reveals things, so it transforms the image. I did this piece once, which I would like to revisit, called 13/1000 Cranes (2008). Having visited Hiroshima, I was aware of the legend that if you make 1000 origami cranes you will be granted a wish, and of course in the case of Hiroshima, this relates to the young girl Sadako Sasaki, who hoped to recover from radiation-induced leukemia by folding 1000 cranes, although she eventually died.
Right after the election of Barack Obama, there was this immense wave of hope, and a tsunami of print publications with Obama’s face on their covers. I started a collection of Obama covers, which I tore off and folded into origami cranes with the architect Kieu Nguyen. I knew we would never be able to make 1000 cranes out of the magazine covers, so we would always be left with the unrealized chance of “Hope” coming true. We were of course bound to be disappointed. That was another time when the work was about the fold.
13/1000 Cranes (2008), with Kieu Nguyen. Origami cranes made with magazine covers of President Obama published the week of his inauguration, gold paint.
ART iT If the revolutionary aesthetic to date has always been constructivism – taking separate elements and juxtaposing them to show how they relate – maybe the fold is the post-revolutionary aesthetic.
EB: The fold and collage are also two different metaphors for editing. For me, editing is about folding text, in the form of a voice, onto an image. Depending on how you fold the text onto the image, you will get an entirely different reading. The brain is conditioned to expect that voice and image will be related – that’s how film has been made for generations – so it creates interesting spaces when you start dissociating what the voice says from what the eye sees.
Maybe what I have explored the most intensely in my practice has been this gap you can create between the two. There will be times when the image is absolutely synchronized with the content of the voiceover, and there are times when the image is contrary to the voiceover, and then there is the in-between area where it’s unclear whether they correspond or not. It is a very rich space and I don’t think it’s been explored so much. This is what Adachi calls anti-cinema. But is the fold a post-revolutionary aesthetic? I don’t know.
ART iT: You shot The Anabasis on Super 8, whereas your other films are all digital. Does the materiality affect how you film?
EB: I am interested in materiality. I think there’s a real sensuality in image making – in framing, in light, in color theory. I absolutely embrace these traditional approaches to the image, although it doesn’t mean that I don’t like poor images as well. For me, there is an engagement with what is on the other side of the camera, and the engagement is physical. That is usually tempered in the editing, where you set the structure of the film. Editing is a delicate balance between structural concerns, which are intellectualized, and organic concerns, sensual decisions, the “elegance” of a cut. When you splice a scene in which somebody is walking, you have to make a decision: do you cut when the foot hits the floor, or when it lifts from the floor, or in the middle of the gait? You could spend an hour trying to find the right place. This has to be felt, and there is definitely a sensual relationship to editing that I enjoy. Your question was about the materiality of film, and somehow I think it is related to the sensuality of the cut… What I enjoy about film is finding a balance between the sensual experiences and the deliberate, structural choices that you make. The balance between thinking and feeling is difficult to find, but it is the place of filmmaking.
ART iT: Speaking of cutting, the classical Chinese philosophical text Zhuangzi has this great passage about a butcher discussing how he cuts an ox, in which the butcher says, in essence, that you don’t impose your order onto the meat, but rather it’s the structure of the meat that tells you how it wants to be cut.
EB: That’s a great analogy. For God knows what reason, I recently became interested in how butchers cut meat when I found out that meat is cut differently in different countries. This is governed not only by tradition, but also by legal regulations. For example, in the US, the USDA does not allow butchers to cut meat in certain ways, which means that the Brazilian way of cutting beef, which is important in traditional Brazilian cooking, is illegal there – although you can find bootleg Brazilian cuts in New York and buy them through the back door.
I like this idea that the meat imposes a certain cut, but if that’s true, then in different cultures the meat imposes different cuts, and the same piece of meat, when cut differently, creates different ways of cooking. The same holds for a film cut. The image imposes certain cuts, for sure, but it’s very culturally induced. Sometimes, as an editor, you feel the stream of images is imposing a cut on you, and once cut, it feels correct – it tastes good. But put a different editor in front of the same image, and if they are good, they will find a different cut that also tastes delicious.
ART iT: So when you edit Super 8 versus digital, does it lead you to different decisions?
EB: Hugely different. In a way that was one of the reasons for shooting Super 8 in The Anabasis. I had started shooting on HD with an HD camera in Tokyo – an HD city – but, watching the images on an HD screen, I felt there was something problematic. There was no cinematic displacement. Because of the time periods it dealt with and the way I was going to cut Beirut with Tokyo, the film required something more impressionistic than HD. Shooting Super 8 was a pure coincidence. A friend of mine in Tokyo had a camera, I started playing around with it, and then I decided to shoot the whole film with it. But it became a central choice. I found it was easier to film with Super 8 in Tokyo, because the people walking in the street had a different relationship to me than if I had an HD camera. It allowed for a common acceptance that we were dealing with a form of representation that is cinematic and perhaps more personal, not journalistic, because the passersby I was filming on the street also had a relationship to Super 8 from their childhoods, and it created a softer dynamic.
[sic] (2009), SD video, 15 min.
ART iT: This brings me back to fukei ron. Especially in the way it evolves in your hands, I wonder if you draw a connection between Adachi’s theory and the figure of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur.
EB: For sure. There’s something about fukei ron which I think is related to Benjamin, as well as Baudelaire. The idea of the flâneur circulating in the city is also related to Guy Debord and the Situationist idea of psychogeography. It’s related to many ideas of drifting and observation.
ART iT: Yet my impression of how the flâneur has been deployed in subsequent aesthetic theory is that it has been weirdly depoliticized. It’s envisioned as an agent of modernity as opposed to a political figure per se.
EB: Yes. It’s a big mistake. I think there’s necessarily something political in the idea of the flâneur because it means you are outside of circulation – you are observing that circulation – and you are extracting yourself from the utility of that circulation. That’s what artists do, necessarily, and that’s why art still offers the possibility of resistance and the development of new subjectivities – because of this deliberate extraction from utility.
It is also political in that the word flâneur itself contains the idea of “no direction.” It’s the same in psychogeography and to some extent in the way fukei ron has been implemented, this idea that the city guides your movements as much as you determine where to go. You are sensitive to the world while observing it, and influenced by the world while in motion within it.
ART iT: The flâneur as the sensory butcher’s knife cutting through the body of the city?
EB: It’s true. The camera cuts as it moves through the streets.
Eric Baudelaire: A Landscape, Cut and Folded