Author: Wyn Mason
Format: DVD Loop
The project was commissioned by Cardiff 2008 as part of Cardiff’s bid to become European Capital of Culture. Welsh-based artists, Artstation, were invited to create an art installation in Cardiff as a response to a placement at Europe’s largest and oldest asylum seekers’ reception centre – Le Petit Chateau, Brussels. The team included established international installation artists Glenn Davidson and Anne Hayes, along with climate physicist Hervé Gouget and me as filmmaker.
The project was a collaboration between filmmaker and artists, who inevitably bring different approaches to cultural practice drawn from respective disciplines. I came from a background of making documentaries for television, but was aspiring to make art cinema films. Free from the restrictive briefs of TV commissioners, I saw the Paperwork project as an opportunity to pursue an art cinema aesthetic. Explaining Artstation’s background is somewhat more complex. Glenn and Anne make architectural paper forms using working methods derived from cybernetics. Cybernetics is a term that is widely misunderstood to be solely connected with computers and robotics, while in fact its methods of analysis have also been extensively used within social sciences and, increasingly, within the arts. (1) Cybernetics, in essence, understands the world as a web of inter-related systems. Artstation, inspired by cybernetic thinking, see art as the interface between systems. Thus the Paperwork project was approached with this question in mind: What kind of artwork can we produce that can positively intervene between:
a) The asylum seeker system and Cardiff 2008, and b) Le Petit Chateau and the European Parliament?
The video was produced within the context of an Artstation project and adopted similar working methods. Its research value lies in its process-based experimentation, investigating how a cybernetic methodology can colour traditional filmmaking practices.
The project posed the following research question:
How might an approach derived from cybernetics impact upon standard filmmaking practices?
To apply the discourse of cybernetics – or, more specifically, cybernetician Prof. Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory – to each stage of the video production process. Pask’s theory asserts that all learning grows out of conversation, that new knowledge is created when one system interacts with another. (2)
The Paperwork video was projected as a 10-minute DVD loop alongside a large-scale, bridge-like paper sculpture – with accompanying website, texts and photos – which constituted Artstation’s Cardiff 2008 art installation, Paperwork. (3)
The research resulted in the following outcomes:
• In order to facilitate a better understanding between the various systems we consciously sought to create a viable metaphor. The metaphor created was the concept of suspension, because almost every single aspect of the lives of asylum seekers is held in suspension. This metaphor was conceived as a ‘user language’, which is a language that enables users of a given system to more competently negotiate and modify their system.
• The video foregrounds the suspension metaphor, rather than using metaphor in support of theme and character, which is what normally occurs within cinema. The video becomes the carrier by which the ‘user language’ is communicated and interpreted.
• The video camera itself was utilised as a research tool to aid conversation with asylum seekers. The suspension metaphor was thoroughly discussed with asylum seekers and they were encouraged to visually demonstrate what suspension meant to them. These were filmed and incorporated within the final edit, despite the technical deficiencies of some of the shots. Including such footage added authenticity to the suspension metaphor and was therefore deemed worthy of inclusion. The function of video as intervention within and between systems is considered as important as aesthetic quality.
• An attempt was made to allow cybernetic principles to dictate the form of the video. For example, the video has two screens, which can be said to be ‘in conversation’ with one another. Also, the video took the form of a DVD loop, which connects with a key cybernetic concept: feedback. Conversations with asylum seekers led to the creation of a ‘user language’, which in turn feeds-back to the asylum seekers’ understanding of their situation.
• The video is an open text – the two metaphors of suspension and journeying paper are placed alongside each other without explanation and the video has an ambiguous ending. Viewers are thus invited to participate in the process of creating meaning, they can be said to be ‘in conversation’ with the artwork.
• As well as being screened in Cardiff the video also got shown at Le Petit Chateau to an audience that included staff, asylum seekers and MEPs – the first ever MEPs to have visited the asylum reception centre. As a cybernetic video is designed to intervene within a given system, it is crucial the appropriate audience is reached.
The piece should be judged as research according to the degree it addresses the following question:
Does it increase practitioners’ understanding of how cybernetics can be used to inform video production and inspire further research?
1) Anthropologist Dr. Margaret Meade, for example, defines cybernetics as ‘a common language that people who are from different disciplines use to communicate.’ Mead, M (1968) ‘The Cybernetics of Cybernetics’, in Von Foerster, H et al (eds.) Purposive Systems, New York: Spartan Books.
2) For background information on Prof. Gordon Pask and his Conversation Theory, as well as cybernetics in general, go to: www.pangaro.com
3) To find out more about the project and Artstation’s work in general, go to: www.artstation.org.uk/paperwork
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept, rewrite statement
Empirically grounded work that juxtaposes loosely determined images of asylum seekers in the reception centre with an evocative visual metaphor (paper, landscape and the elements). Interaction between images provides some creative dialectical juxtapositions but I sense that it works more effectively as part of an installation as originally intended.
Summary Originality and Significance The larger project of which this is a part sounds interesting, original and may well be significant. However, the documentation needs considerable revision in order to establish the significance of the screenwork within this. There is evidence of rigour in the process but, again, difficult to determine the extent to which the film initiates or simply records.
It’s borderline for me – probably worth including on balance for what it’s trying to do as much as what it achieves, so any form of exhibition will require a context note.
Suggested Amendments to Supporting Statement:
Context More detail needed on the APG approach requiring art to be judged by effectiveness of intervention in non-art environments rather than by ‘the intrinsic qualities of the art object itself’. No further information, evidence or criteria offered about how Paperwork might be / have been judged in the context of the work of the asylum seeker’s reception centre.
Research questions General statement of research aim needs to be rephrased or dropped; the two specific research aims look interesting and original but terms need explanation (‘politically resonant user language’). The ‘impact on filmic structures’ needs greater precision in terms of the creative aims; too many concepts are wrapped up in a short sentence; probably best to deconstruct elements here into further separate, more focused research questions.
Methods Need to clarify the cybernetics-based ‘user language’ approach. This section also seems to incorporate further questions centred on Artstation’s creative and political processes, which should be incorporated in the research aims or moved to the context section. Nature of collaboration needs clarification.
Research assessment criteria A number of statements, none of which provide a criterion.
Research outcomes None identified that relate back to research aims
Review 2: Accept subject to minor rewrite of statement
I found this an exemplary and excellent project in all aspects. The two-screen piece is intriguing, powerful, poetic and ambiguous. The impossibility of the asylum seekers’ situation is brilliantly captured in the metaphoric strands of the work. The working process in which the images generated by asylum seekers themselves lends the piece a powerful clarity.
The research statement seems excellent to me. Full details of viewing, commissioning and historical contexts are made available. The allegedly cybernetic method offers an intriguing original take on art in social context and community art practices.
The piece seemed original to me both in its consultative method and in its outcome which finds eloquence through its symbolic method. It might well be significant in terms of research in so far as it encourages new ways of working with ‘issue’ based practices.
The piece seemed to me to answer very successfully the question of ‘politically resonant ‘user language’ but less so the use of cybernetics. It would be good to have a bit more evidence of this in the supporting statement, since finding systems-based methods of working in this context is a very important challenge for the field and offers potentially very original research for issue-based art practices and ethics.