The Perceptive Fracture. Peter Tscherkassky's Films from a Dark Room

A DVD Review by Diana Bulzan

In the Index DVD Series

Peter Tscherkassky, still from Dream Work, 2001, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 11 min. Music: Kiawasch Saheb Nassagh. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Peter Tscherkassky, still from Dream Work, 2001, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 11 min. Music: Kiawasch Saheb Nassagh. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The singularities that puncture the history of avant-garde film had been standing on their own as emerging events, gushing with destructive power and often materializing in concrete dissolutions of expressive boundaries. The corrosion of the medium in order to bring out new forms of expression can be thought of as a constant back and forth movement between territorializations and deterritorializations of artistic territories, since the movements of the avant-garde preoccupied themselves with the limits of artistic mediums, constantly searching for novel dimensions of expression and conceptual delimitations in an essentialist obsession with the “new.” However, this perpetual conquest finds itself tributary to a movement of entropy as the ideology that saw artistic progress as a continuous destruction of the medium was finally confronted with an unbridgeable fracture – film was either conceived as pure materiality or transformed into a concept, describing a dead-end for the avant-garde. [1] Thus, following the explosive and rebellious disentanglement of the film material and the image from their ideological corollaries, their release from the signifying chain, the Austrian movement Expanded Cinema concluded with the impossibility to move forward. In other words, the limit reached by the avant-garde – from the nothing left to be seen or thought arose the question of what was there to see in the first place – acts like a mirror, reflecting the historical inscription of the cinematic apparatus, unearthing its unconscious and acquiring a critical stance. As such, the works of Peter Tscherkassky perfectly oscillate between these two breaking points of the filmic medium, functioning along the lines of a historical inscription – the predominance of found footage serves as an excavation site, while his use of contact printing as a means of manipulating the elements of the film creates a thread connecting the medium of film to its past, portraying technical steps forward in the light of their ancestors.

As a consequence, the accent falls on the materiality of the film, its visuality is haunted and fractured by its manual production, scratched and pierced by its tangible yet invisible dimension. The Manufraktur, the trace of the intersection between the figurative quality of the image and the psycho-apparatus [2] of cinema is made visible through cuts and tears, through the visual metaphor of two trains colliding in L’Arrivée or even through the invasion of the filmic space and the frame by its invisible counterpart; the line that punctuates the DVD anthology reveals itself to be an expansion of the filmic image through the manual production taking place in the dark room. For while Miniaturen – Viele Berliner Künstler in Hoisdorf was filmed on Super 8 and then subjected to experimental procedures and analysis, the anthology presents chiefly found footage films and their alignment seems to point to a certain becoming of the image – commencing with the illustrious CinemaScope Trilogy, the image is anchored in its historical perspective with an early reference to the Lumière Brothers, a technique reminiscent of Man Ray’s rayographs, while the image itself is slowly invaded by its exterior and the screen flooded with the invisible frame, a.k.a. the sprocket holes. The trilogy concludes with an exploration of the dream mechanism centered around the figure of the woman (another red line subtending the trilogy) or the object of desire. Preceded by Manufraktur in which the image is expanded in itself and its inner tension fully explored, Motion Picture (La Sortie des Ouvriers de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon) reaches a conceptual peak where the mechanisms underlying the spatiality and temporality of the motion picture are re-assembled after having been nothing more than still frames – in other words, the conceptual temporality of the film is necessarily synonymous with the author’s action of restoring temporal and spatial dimensionality to what first appeared to be historical artefacts. [3] The anthology has as its subsequent exponent Get Ready, made for 1999’s Viennale, using found footage from Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity as an explosive build-up of film intensity, before the ending offered by Miniaturen’s Super 8 hints to a nostalgic era of film celebrating the inner life of the image. [4] The result is a re-interpretation of the medium in such a way that what seems to coincide between past and present is the understanding of cinema as a profound manner of experiencing the world.

Peter Tscherkassky, still from Get Ready, 1999, 35 mm CinemaScope. b/w, 1:04 min. Music: Kiawasch Saheb Nassagh. Get Ready was the official trailer of the International Film Festival
Peter Tscherkassky, still from Get Ready, 1999, 35 mm CinemaScope. b/w, 1:04 min. Music: Kiawasch Saheb Nassagh. Get Ready was the official trailer of the International Film Festival "Viennale" 1999. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The CinemaScope Trilogy serves as conceptual and historical entry point, as the opening of the DVD coincides with the advent of film metamorphosed into the arrival of a train in L’Arrivée – the tabula rasa of the screen is rendered as the locus of inscription of the cinematic image, progressively invaded as the train (the image) struggles to reach its destination. In its first reference, Tscherkassky’s L’Arrivée plays the part of an imposture – a false historical reference to the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train à Ciotat (1895), [5] it strives on this historical hint while playing a double part. The arrival of the film coincides with the arrival of the female figure and concludes with the happy reunion of two lovers. The actual footage is taken from Terrence Young’s 1968 Mayerling, depicting Catherine Deneuve’s arrival, possibly linking and offering a commentary on the birth of the medium itself and its development into narrative fictions and happy endings [6]. Tscherkassky’s manipulation of the footage using contact printing allows the advent of film to manifest as a collision of the image with its double, destabilizing its figurative qualities and traditional framing. The coming of the image is prepared by the appearance of sprocket holes – thus, its visible nature is announced by its invisible margin, as an audience anxiously awaits for the train (in this case, an analogy between the types of audiences could be proposed, as the crowd waiting for the train is reminiscent of the crowd waiting at Ciotat, the viewer of the film could also be mirrored by its forefather, both placed in the same historical position, creating a cinematic bridge between generations.) The image seems to ruffle under the light of the projector, the soundtrack becoming almost palpable in the cuts and the scratches of the image, as it ventures forth from both sides of the screen, reaching towards itself before it finally collides and overlaps in a desperate attempt to stabilize. Once its place on the screen is gained, the figure of the woman appears as central figure of the (hi)story (of film). Thus, it could be argued, the arrival has three dimensions, or three actors – the medium of film, the main character of the trilogy (the woman) [7] and historicity as a form of aesthetic expression. [8]

Tscherkassky’s Outer Space seems to further the relationship between the medium and the figure of the woman in a visually violent fashion, carrying out the feminist premises already present in L’Arrivée. Using contact printing, strips of film taken from Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982) are rearranged, overlapped, decomposed, sometimes at such a high frequency that the fragments are impossible to separate, creating a vertigo of violent attacks that seem to have the female character as a target. As such, the initial premise of Sidney J. Furie’s film – a woman subjected to sexual assaults by a spectre – seems to find its thorough elaboration in Tscherkassky’s Outer Space. Via its feminist point of view, the spectre becomes an analogy to the medium of film, the woman becomes the object of desire/the object of the gaze and the cinematic apparatus is subjected to critique in its psychological aspects. The film opens with a trembling black-and-white image of a house, slowly stabilizing itself, before the figure of the woman becomes visible. The soundtrack seems to accompany the figure as she slowly opens the door and enters. The picture follows her movements closely, the image duplicating itself, on the verge of bursting as if there was barely a force holding it together. It’s as if the entire cinematic apparatus is slowly disintegrating, only able to withhold the tension by concentrating on this central figure. The soundtrack amplifies the tearing apart of the film mechanism, as the interior space portrayed by the image is ravaged by an exterior force – the character is also split into different doubles, unable to preserve her unity. The image progressively loses its integrity, its negatives are exposed as it finally breaks down, surrendering to the white or black nothingness of the screen on which nothing more than sprocket holes remain visible. Attempting to regain its stability, the opening sequence of the house returns, this time announcing a type of struggle between the woman and the medium itself, achieving a momentary peace after she desperately crashes the mirrors, temporarily suspending her filmic reflection. [9] Two voices become discernible – the voice of the psychoanalyst investigating the attacks and that of the woman describing them. Concluding the film, the scenes focusing on her eyes, surrounded by the darkness of the image, could point to a shift in accent from the woman as the object of the gaze to the affirmation of her own gaze, the recovering of her voice, as well as the renouncement of her image. Regaining her reflection (nothing more than the face is visible), the last frames see the image pulsating, uncovering her eyes, before finally receding into blackness.

Peter Tscherkassky, still from L'Arrivée, 1997/1998, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 2:09 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Peter Tscherkassky, still from L'Arrivée, 1997/1998, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 2:09 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Tscherkassky’s title could be a reference to the filmic space as interiority, the outer space signifying the violent rupture of the medium in contact with the exterior persona of the filmmaker, losing its integrity as the image is manipulated by exterior forces. The manual traces still present on the image construct the continuum between the image and its alterity, [10] allowing the simultaneous presence on the screen of both sides. Since figuration and narrativity are appropriated and revalued as legitimate cinematographic techniques, this dematerialization is counteracted by the traces of manual manufacture and the dimensionality imposed by the visual is threatened and fissured by its materiality. Not only this, but the conceptual nature of this study upon the image is perfectly balanced by its practical opposite, theory and praxis each seen through the perspective of the other, thus reinforcing an overpass where a rupture once laid. The theme of the fracture as the theme of the mirror brings along a swift imbalance in the gaze.

As a final piece, Dream Work uses the footage from The Entity to further the allusion to the mechanism of desire subtly present in the previous works. As such, the ticking clock that introduces the film, the image of the curtains and the dark interior of the bedroom all point to the representation of an interior space, hinting at subjectivity, of the intimate space of the female character as she takes off her shoes and removes her panty hose (probably an allusion to the Hollywood-type, comercial construction of female subjectivity). [11] However, one may wonder if the viewer is not placed here in the position of the voyeur and if, as a consequence, it could not be the simple act of perceiving interpreted solely as voyeurism, namely as drive? The prelude is neatly represented, distinguishing all the preparatory moments leading to sleep and finally concentrating of her face as the pulsating light prepares the leap to the unconscious. The mechanisms used by the film are precisely the ones described by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: as the screen is invaded by fragmented and overlapped images, metaphor and metonymy bring forth displaced moments of what seems to be the normal life of the heroine. In order to convey the feeling of watching someone’s dream, Tscherkassky uses contact printing and a laser pointer to amalgate elements from different film frames, [12] creating an imbalace in the picture that disfigures its representational quality and overlaps the picture negatives so that the clear daylight distinction inside–outside is blurred. As the image becomes less distinguishable, it also becomes more evocative and more evidently sexual. The sudden invasion of the alarm clock’s ringing seems to accelerate the accumulation of sexual tension and as the woman is portrayed removing her bra, it perhaps creates a historical liaison to surrealism through the common theme of sexuality to introduce, as a return of an unconscious surrealist repressed element, the thumbtacks reminiscent of Man Ray’s rayographs. The mechanism of the dream seems to expand beyond the basic frame of the film to include the unconscious of the cinematic apparatus itself – soon enough, the film celluloid becomes visible as well, before finally engulfing the filmmaker himself, seen manipulating the strips of film, captured in an attempt to re-create Man Ray’s technique. Through the filter of the dream state, the metaphoric hands of Man Ray become a symbol haunting the trilogy, a ghost trapped inside the apparatus of cinema. Soon after, the alarm rings again, scattered fragments of the dream remain as daylight invades the screen, letting the filmic image dissolve under the light of the projector. The new aesthetic format present in the trilogy also functions as a condensation of gestures, [13] imbricating the psychoanalytical and feminist dimensions of critique with the historical; through metonymy, the historical unconscious is rendered.

In Manufraktur, the archaeological component of Peter Tscherkassky’s work gains more focus, this time creating visual and conceptual connections with the much closer to home Austrian Avant-Garde. The conceptual handling of the image in Manufraktur, bereft of all “semantic burden” [14] is evocative of Kurt Kren’s early treatment of the image as image, discarding all vectorial meaning to an exterior reality, while the visual (the car scenes) alludes to Peter Kulberlka’s Mosaik im Vertrauen. [15] Throughout, it is the manual manipulation of the image that is subjected to a historical becoming. The complex temporal displacement takes place through disruptive manoeuvres, corroding the integrity of the image – the materiality comes forth through the deterioration of the image and completes its potential “in destruction and the ruins.” [16] The conceptual armature of the anthology reaches its peak with Motion Picture (La Sortie des Ouvriers de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon), toying with the idea of filmic spatio-temporal sequences as sculpture and with the concept of film temporality. On the other hand, it is also the most practical film of the anthology, as it barely contains any images and the found footage is used solely as material to be worked on – the motion picture is taken apart, separated then reconstructed. [17] Strips of film are taken and expanded into space, pinned on the wall: from capsules containing their own spatio-temporality they become sculptural elements belonging to space themselves. A still is taken and projected onto the grid and the elements are then transformed again into the unity of a film; put through the projector again, they are once again moving pictures, but with a different temporality. They were nothing but sculptures of condensated time and space, ironically subjected to historical becoming. When they are again motion pictures they are infused with a new sense of time under the contemporary gaze of the filmmaker. [18] In returning to movement, the workers have changed while having nonetheless remained the same, they have become embedded with the history and the traces of their own becoming.

Peter Tscherkassky, still from Manufraktur/Manufracture, 1985, 35 mm, b/w, 2:54 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Peter Tscherkassky, still from Manufraktur/Manufracture, 1985, 35 mm, b/w, 2:54 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Peter Kubelka’s Adebar (1957) was in fact a spatio-temporal sculpture, a container of rhythm most elegantly exposed as a musical score on a wall. Much in the same manner, Tscherkassky’s Motion Picture stands witness to the becoming of the film, to the imprint of the manufacturing process, doubling itself in the light of its history – the still frame that illuminates them plays this part, like a conceptual act of restoration. The little to see here allows the accent to fall on the experience of time, giving rise to temporal coincidences: the time of restoration is the same as the time of the film, which is the time of its becoming. Not causal links or circularity, but rather imbrication and continuum. The only question that remains is the temporal indeterminacy of the viewer, a subtle allusion to the future becoming of film itself.

Get Ready is the last film of the anthology using found footage. Fragments from The Entity are once again disarranged, rendered in an ascending order that leads to chaos. The calm of the sea shore opening the film is counterbalanced by the aggitation that ensues and the increase in tension is metaphorically portrayed in what seems to be a car racing its way across the film, destabilizing the picture. The focus is here placed on the radicality of movement as inherent quality of film, rendered through the rapid and seemingly abitrary motions that follow. [19] Meanwhile, Miniaturen – viele Berliner Künstler in Hoisdorf, filmed on Super 8, revels in the colourful inner life of the image. Not meant for public viewing, the film was conceived as more of a personal take on some events that took place in a weekend trip to a small village in Schleswig-Holstein. As the title suggests, filmed moments from the artists’ outing are overlapped, then subjected to experimental becoming. Further addition of the soundtrack compliments the visual qualities of the picture, while nonetheless acting as a meta-narrative thread. As such, fragments of a conversation between the author and Thomas Kapielski, a commentary recorded during the viewing of the film and manipulated directly using a synthetizer, are intertwined with short musical compositions by Kapielski. [20] Though the soundtrack is here and there incomprehensible due to sound effects, it would seem to add a further emphasis on the personal nature of the film and the nature of images that Super 8 can produce in particular. Known for its wide use in amateur home videos, the grainy qualities of the images were adorned with the aura of personal experiences – with no commercial editing or professional filming, the beauty of these images lies in the clumsiness and imperfection, in the familiar banality of experience. As the last film on the anthology, Miniaturen brings into view new elements of the filmmaker’s technique and it is by no means an accident that it was chosen to close the anthology. As Tscherkassky is mostly an author known for his work with found footage, Miniaturen – viele Berliner Künstler in Hoisdorf adds a wonderful touch to an already impressive selection of films, concluding a series of cinematic appropriations with a definition of cinema as experience to which Super 8 images seem to be the perfect embodiment. His treatment of the images entails an “archaic component”, [21] uncovering the material layer by layer. This in-depth analysis coincides with the unearthing of historical traces. Understanding cinema also means re-creating these traces in search for their conditions of possibility, performing a work of translation so that “the concrete processes through which the social became form” [22] become visible and understandable through contemporary lens. His work gains even more weight when considering the context: they come about in a period when film is slowly replaced by video and should only become more important today, in an age when analog film is hardly produced anymore, leaving room for the more accessible digital production. Thus, the historical and critical perspective opened by Tscherkassky will only become more relevant, utterly capable of becoming an object of its own reflection as footnotes from the entire history of cinema expose the structure of the apparatus that has proven crucial to understanding the world – it is itself written history. The anthology Films from a Dark Room acts like a mirror offering a reversible passage from history to contemporary, a journey through the (looking) lens of cinema.

February 16, 2015

Peter Tscherkassky, still from Outer Space, 1999, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 9:58 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Peter Tscherkassky, still from Outer Space, 1999, 35 mm CinemaScope, b/w, 9:58 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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