Notes on Travel, Art and Inspiration
Author: Rachael Jones
Format: Essay Film
Duration: 15 Minutes
Published: October 2017
Notes on Travel, Art and Inspiration (2016) is an essay film by Rachael Jones, with voice-over by academic, Dr. Dario Llinares, who originally wrote the featured excerpts for his own personal travel diary and later published in his blog. The film ruminates on the privilege of travel, the access to culture it affords, and the potential for creative expression and critical thinking when moving through different physical environments. Through a self-reflexive approach to stylistic form and artistic process, the film explores the elusive yet profound potential for cultural inspiration.
Inspired by a trip to Madrid, the film follows Rachael and Dario through the outdoor spaces of the city and the indoor spaces of art museums, depicting the interrelationship between material experience, visual imagery and written reflection. Its intention is to create a space for engagement that one can access throughout the film, made accessible through a personal and subjective approach to filmmaking, characteristic of the essay film (Rascaroli 2009).
Although the visuals are at times illustrative, reaffirming comments in the voice-over, at others they create their own nuance of meaning and subjectivity. In these instances, the visuals through their composite juxtaposition are intended to provoke thoughtful reflection. For example, in the sequences that incorporate split screen, each fragmented frame acquires new meaning when presented next to another. Alternatively, when visuals are placed next to or over the narration, voice-over acts as mediator to the visuals, as it could be said to do in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982). Here, unlike Lopate’s definition of the essay film as needing to represent “a single voice” (in Rascaroli 2008: 31), Notes on Travel has two voices of expression: that of the filmmaker and the voice-over diary entry. However, it could also be said that perhaps the film does have a single mode of inquiry and expression belonging to the filmmaker, which can be traced to her visual response to a written account.
The film’s approach to mixed media along with spaces between shots, can allow an audience to make their own connections to what is being said, and perhaps, to identify with the individual behind the camera. As Laura Rascaroli suggests, to communicate ideas subjectively and reflexively is the main focus of the essay film (2008).
This personal perspective is what comes across in the film, where no one intention is expressed, rather, a range of ideas and feelings are entertained. Bazin poses that the essayistic filmmaker has the freedom to use “all filmic material that might help the case–including still images (engravings and photos), of course, but also animated cartoons.” (Bazin in Rascaroli 2009: 27). In Notes on Travel, the filmmaker deploys its comments and ideas through mixed media, found footage, montage editing and split screen. This collaged multi-faceted representation suggests there is no one standpoint or opinion being expressed, and therefore it is up to the viewer to interpret.
On the essay film, Paul Arthur describes the use of found footage and collage, which, “produces juxtaposition between the past tense of archival images and the present tense of the commentary” (Rascaroli 2008: 34), placing the emphasis on inquiry rather than nostalgia. Perhaps then, in Notes on Travel, the invocation of nostalgia is purely playful, and that the real essence is on poetic representation and personal reflection. As can be said of Harun Farocki’s found footage installations; it is the practice of appropriation and critique where images are extracted from their original source and placed in a different context to acquire new meaning and interpretation (Wees 2002).
As with Sans Soleil, Notes on Travel (2016) incorporates verbal ruminations on culture and history with visuals, creating what could be called a personal travelogue or essay film. Self-conscious in its artistic rendering of film and editing, filming actual works of art naturally inspire questions of representation.
Though not quite as playful or ironic as F for Fake (1973), Notes on Travel is nevertheless self-conscious in the way form and content are addressed. Specifically, the visual connection that is made between the intellectual musings of an academic on artistic and political representation, together with an archive educational video on “how to draw”, serve as to playfully lighten the weight of the voice-over’s content and bring the focus back to the visuals.
The majority of the film’s visual imagery can provoke questions of nostalgia, not only through found footage but also in the filmmaker’s incorporation of old footage from Franco’s Spain, which were filmed off gallery walls as installations. The power of the image on memory and post-civil war Spain is precisely what Victor Erice expresses in his film La Morte Rouge (2006). In this film, that Erice himself narrated, memories are in fact embedded within the cinematic experience. Here, he physically filmed people watching a projected film in the cinema, and then in the finished film, through voice-over, he reflects on the nature of memory (Martin and López 2016). As in Notes on Travel, it is the present experience of watching the past through representation that allows for memories and nostalgia to be considered.
A film that depicts a camera moving through a museum to a voice-over discussing art and the politics of representation, will invariably bring to mind John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) series. In Notes on Travel, however, the intention is not to offer up any definitive answers or insights on art. Rather, it is a first person diary entry that is complicated by the irony of discussing representation while representing ideas using various filmic and editing techniques. As Jean-Luc Godard considered, the cinema is a “form that thinks and a thought that forms” (in Rascaroli 2008: 25). As Hans Richter suggests:
In this effort to give body to the invisible world of imagination, thought and ideas, the essay film can employ an incomparably greater reservoir of expressive means than can the pure documentary film. Freed from recording external phenomena in simple sequence the film essay must collect its material from everywhere; its space and time must be conditioned only by the need to explain and show the idea.
(Richter in Rascaroli 2008: 27)
José Val del Omar’s Fuego en Castilla (1961), installed at Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, is a documentary that takes the viewer into the world of art and religion. Using innovative sound and lighting, the 17-minute film depicts the religious sculptures of Alonso de Berruguete, ruminating on death and religion through its visual imagery. Placing snippets of Val del Omar’s film within the essay film Notes on Travel, serves as to pay homage to a great Spanish filmmaker whose aspirations of film were to explore its representational limitations through innovative visual and audio techniques (Torres Hortelano 2011). Its place within Notes on Travel is additionally a reminder to the filmmaker of the richness of film in other cultures, transgressing and entertaining representation through time and space. It is this transgression that Rascaroli says is a characteristic of the essay film, which takes an ever-shifting subjective, reflexive and fragmentary form (2008).
Within all genres there are constant strands of crossover that lead to hybrid forms as has been attributed to the essay film, not to mention documentary film. The particular nature of reflexivity and style of filmmaking that this practice has taken suggests that the essay film can allow for a continual inquiry within the filmmaker’s field of practice, and where representation through artistic and reflexive approaches to filmmaking can continue to be explored.
Debord, Guy (1967), La Société du Spectacle. Paris: Buchet-Chastel.
Martin, Adrian and Cristina Álvarez Lopaz (2016), ‘Video: Haunted memories – the cinema of Víctor Erice’. Sight & Sound 5 September [online]. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/video-haunted-memories-cinema-victor-erice [accessed: 28 February 2017].
Rascaroli, Laura (2008), ‘The Essay Film; Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments’. Framework, 49(2), 24-47.
Rascaroli, Laura (2009), The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. London: Wallflower Press.
Torres Hortelano, Lorenzo, J (2011), Directory of World Cinema: Spain [volume 7]. Chicago: Intellect, The University of Chicago Press.
Wees, William C (2002), ‘The Ambiguous Aura of Hollywood Stars in Avant-Garde Found-Footage Films’. Cinema Journal, 41(2), 3-1
Berger, John (1972), Ways of Seeing [Television].
Erice, Victor (2006), La Morte Rouge [Film].
Farocki, Harun (1989), Images of the World and the Inscription of War [Film].
Marker, Chris (1983), Sans Soleil [Film].
Val Del Omar, José (1961), Fuego en Castilla [Film].
Welles, Orson (1973), F for Fake [Film].
Methods derive from advanced editing skills, Fine Art (collage and printmaking), Art History and Philosophy, Film Studies and Education.
The structure of the film follows the form of the blog post, on which it is based, which has ten numbered entries. This particular structure is influenced by political texts such as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, originally published in 1967, which deploys short theses, or aphorisms, in order to engage with an in-depth subject matter. Debord’s form could be envisaged as a combination of critical conciseness, stream of consciousness, philosophical abstraction and analytical observation. Additionally, it offers a useful and relevant structure upon which to base an essay film.
In the case of this film and its collaborator, environments were experienced together. Notes were taken by hand and scenes were shot with a rudimentary compact digital camera thus capitalising on the immediacy of captured thoughts and impressions. The filmmaker allowed influences from collaging and printmaking to inform a particular editing approach.
The self-reflexive and subjective experimental approach, arguably, encourages audience engagement in contrast to an analytical style and content that can be applied to a literal or narrative filmmaking structure. As a result, I would further argue that a subjective and personal self-reflexive approach to filmmaking is a favourable tool for communicating complex ideas about representation and could also be a useful application in teaching (allowing for a variety of different interpretations, fluidity of thought and imagination).
The work was self-funded on a micro budget and motivated by personal creative ambitions.
It has been accepted and was screened at the ‘Future Imperfect Symposium’ at Plymouth University, April 1 2017.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
An engaging short piece which is as stimulating response to the blog with which is it is connected which it undoubtedly enriches. It provides an insightful and layered perspective on the experience of travel or rather, tourism, commenting effectively on the issues of class and cultural capital that such journeys entail. The image track works very well to qualify, nuance and comment on the spoken monologue and the editing is creative and effective. The film draws on a legacy of the essay films and the dérive, and ideas of montage and uses these traditions to create a novel work reflecting on subjective experiences of visiting a major cultural site of Europe. The method used – a visual response to a journey taken with a companion, to whose written account of the journey it also responds – is an intriguing and innovative one, mixing different genres well. Overall, the film provides an original filmic approach to the subject of travel and subjectivity which has been much dealt with in written texts, but less through such a sensual use of the film medium.
The statement contextualises the work well through an appropriate frame of reference to related practice and theory. The author has well articulated a rationale for her approach to the essay film and how she has drawn and built on examples of the practice to further non-narrative and hybrid methods for the documentary. In relation to the question of context, the author might also think more about the dissemination and creating an audience for the work which would also help them to reflect more on where the film might sit or who it might specifically engage in the interesting dialogue that it performs between image and text.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The possibilities offered by such filmmaking to activate questions as to the self and subjectivity within context of art practice and academic scholarship.
The film follows the ten points of Dr. Dario Llinares’ blog of the same title and in general ‘illustrates’ and ‘reinforces’ his views about art, travel and inspiration. What the film doesn’t do, because of the way it is structured by the text, is provide any filmic/visual counterpoint to the written and narrated text, which limits the film’s ability to reveal anything new in relationship to the premise of the blog essay or connections it makes to Madrid. The text overwhelms the screenplay, editing and cinematography. The film might have been, for example, in a critical dialogue with Linares’ text. Ironically, this is a point made by Llinares in the narration and blog about the function of good art, however, it remains illustrative of the text. The film doesn’t open a critical space of dialogue with the text and hence struggles to operate on the self-reflexive terms it suggests for itself. An important consequence of the hermeneutic of the film/text, is that no space is afforded to the viewer to enter a reflexive dialogue with the film and its ideas/feelings. Here the question of who the film is intended for comes into view, (not the refugees referenced in the film, I hazard a guess!). The small audience for this film is largely drawn from the academic community of interest in art, media and filmmaking practice and its relationship to practice led or based research. As such it seeks to mount a dialogue with academic scholarship, but is less than clear about the field or discipline it addresses and this is a limit and disappointment. It might for example have taken a museological, cultural or urban geography text, whereas, it dwells on the nature of fine art practice, which in the context of the film becomes solipsistic.
From an interdisciplinary academic position of understanding art museums, modernism, audiences and globalisation, there are many aspects of Dr. Llinares’ blog which one could take issue with, some of which I mention here. Is Madrid a ‘global city’, for example? If so we are not offered a definition that distinguishes between European capital cities and global cities. The privileged position of cultural tourism afforded to the cosmopolitan elite, against that of refugees is referenced, but then this contradiction is ignored in favour of exploring the individual value of art from the cosmopolitan perspective only. The blog is in danger of repeating the 18th century European ‘Grand Tour’, in focusing upon privileged individual experience at the expense of the way museum culture functions to both exclude as well as include collectivities within the city. Aesthetic modernism within the art museum is itself commodified yet the position adopted to art within the film rests upon a modernist and connoisseurial view of the art spectator. The position of individual self-reflection of the art viewer closes down the possibility of expressing any new alliances between different forms of global mobility, place and culture, as much as it excludes any comment upon the relationship between art collections and tourism. The blog’s attempt at self-reflexivity, by recognising the privileged position of the cultural elite does not develop into a critique nor a politics, but rather hovers around a form of cultural narcissism.
How the film visually draws and aestheticises the themes of the text
The film sequences cry out to be liberated from the weighty text/narration. Watching the film without the soundtrack is a much better experience – its mix of archival footage and contemporary material of Madrid city centre, museum spaces and paintings and sculptures through a combination of multiple windows on screen. It creates an aesthetic of distance from the scene, which has a relationship to the film essay form. Again it is a shame that the film is regimented by the ten points (only eight of which are covered). Its aesthetic carries something of Benjamin’s flâneur, but without the analysis which goes with it. There are many thoughtful and visually realised sequences in which contemporary and archival footage seamlessly come together. There is a rich fabric in the visual play, which could lead rather than follow the narration.
Film editing, its relationship to collage and how such processes capture the fractured and ephemeral nature of experience
There is something of a contradiction between the linear editing of sequences of images related to the eight points of the blog covered, and the use of multiple and split screens and double framing. If anything the imagery is crying to escape and mingle with the world as well as the archive, but is constrained by the narrative. If anything there is both too much and not enough imagery, which does not really sustain the length of the film.
How the film plays with various generic conventions of documentary film, art-film, installation, travelogue, experimental film, home-movie
The film certainly calls up various styles and types of film, assembling them in sections, which follow, or even represent the text. In this sense the assemblage is rather like a list of styles, rather than the deployment of specific conventions to challenge convention or contest the narration, or indeed contest the relationship between convention and representation of something posited as reality. The postmodern stance of visual excess or even the ecstasy of communication might be more apposite a style with which to examine global tourism.
It is a bold and ambitious claim that the film is, “an exploration and contestation of the relationship between ways of being and ways of knowing” and “an interrogation of the feeling of “being there”: representing the sense of presence within the artistic/filmic space and deconstructing how embodied experience dictates cognitive understanding and subjective identity”. The film certainly aspires to address the phenomenological conundrum of being and knowing, but strangely doesn’t give itself the freedom of post-digital bricolage to do so.
Interestingly the two points of the blog not covered by the film, Llinares’ trip to Madrid (Point 5) to see for the first time Velaquez’s Las Meninas and Picasso’s Guernica and (Point 8) ‘The contradictions and questions thrown up by digital culture’, hold the most interest in relation to the film’s aspirations and a possible key to how filmmaking might explore current academic thinking about the visualisation of space and place. Strange then that these two points of the blog were omitted from the film.
As the authors will obvious know when John Berger made Ways of Seeing in 1972 he used Walter Benjamin’s 1939 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as the basis of his analysis and exploration of visual culture’s relationship to ideology and power. Equally we might say that Chris Marker developed a new cinematic form based upon the still image that challenged the dominant conventions of film time and space used by Hollywood. These are worthy references and show how in different forms of practice radical and liberating challenges can be made. In both cases there was a rigorous analytic and political process entailed in the practice. In Notes on Art, Travel and Inspiration such an analytical and reflexive politics is only illustrated rather than realised.
Review 3: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
Rachael Jones’ Notes on Travel, Art and Inspiration is a complex, multi-layered essay film in the guise of a travel journal. The guiding voice of the traveller takes us on the film’s journey but one may assume, despite being male, he is also a surrogate for Jones’ own cinematic journey. This character is generally unseen but in one or two shots a man appears briefly, suggesting the traveller himself. This ambiguity is fascinating rather than frustrating. The film is constructed using varied visual techniques, including split screens and superimposition, and archive images generally referencing Spanish history; the result is a visually rich and expressive montage of well chosen images that create a unified structure via the guiding hand of the voice-over and the location. Many of the archive images come from newsreels and unnamed sources, sometimes films, forcing the spectator to sift through their own memories or knowledge of where these images come from. The film’s structure and visualisation is not particularly original or novel, deploying many techniques from the vocabulary of the moving image artist filmmaker, and is beautifully edited, but its poetic voice-over ruminations on art, war and traumatic memory, and what it means to be a creative human being in today’s globalised world, provides a fragmented narrative structure that juxtaposes history, memory and subjectivities into complex cinematic language. The framing of the images, their juxtaposition through split screens is imaginative and the voiced reflection and use of non-diegetic sound is illuminating.
The film is divided into 10 sections, and after the introductory sequence of a semi-abstracted view of an airport and restricted view of its travellers, images appear of the view from a plane window; this sequence amusingly cuts from images of arrows on the wings of the plane pointing forward, with archive of rich travellers from the past shown in saturated colour; the film then locates itself in Madrid. This opening of journey and voice-over creates a filmic pact between spectator and film typical of the essay film; the spectator is taken on a journey safe in the guidance of the voice-over. However, the voice-over in his introductory remarks say he has recently been to Spain and the film then proceeds on a journey to Spain, but it is unclear if it is a re-enactment of the original journey, or a completely new one. This ambiguity is distracting. The use of separate numbered sections tightens the fragmented structure but has no obvious relevance thematically. The move from discussion of travel and its energising effects on the voiced traveller in a globalised world, along with the problems of surveillance moves into an interesting discussion of art and politics. The film is packed with moving images, cutting from split screen to split screen and single screen, and to digest these as well as the content of the voice-over is sometimes difficult. It is a film that requires several viewings. The film is at its most effective when the voice-over creates a dialectic with the images and other sounds and when images, such as the black and white archive shot of a dancing woman, are repeated and framed in varied ways. We first contemplate the image of the dancing woman in a split screen and then later in the film see it again, this time projected on to the wall of a modern art museum, thus forcing us to consider the way art and images are viewed. It is at its least effective when the content of the voice-over creates no obvious connection with the images and other sounds. Overall, Notes on Travel, Art & Inspiration enables the spectator to ponder problems in the cinematic mediation of memory and it is effective in its use of hybrid strategies to present ideas about art and politics, history and the trauma of war.
The statement explores the essay film in relation to Jones’ practice in some detail. It is rather repetitive and somewhat poorly structured. It is strong in its analysis of the use of specific cinematic strategies and the cited films are useful reference points for clarification, but some of the texts, for example Berger’s, are not fully explored in order to develop an argument. It would be helpful to elaborate more fully on fewer texts. Jones’ points to problems in relation to the use of voices of expression, her own voice and her collaborator’s, and the existence of his written blog – this is central to the practice and it would certainly benefit from further analysis. If a link to the blog was supplied in the statement this would be useful.