Chek Lap Kok (Hong Kong Airport) 21.00 01.12.19
Author: Stephen Connolly
Duration: 6′ 48″
Published: October 2020
The ‘Spatial Cinema’ is a filmmaking practice that researches articulations of spatial narrative in cinema. Developed over the last decade, this practice has migrated to a practice-as-research paradigm, exploring the intersections between the spatial thought of Henri Lefebvre – the social construction of space – and the possibilities offered by cinema for the articulation of spatial relationships (Lefebvre 1991). The ‘spatial’ is framed as a social and material resource rather than a landscape or an aesthetic treatment of space. As a resource, space is contested and a subject of social conflict (Deutsche 1996). This spatial antagonism has become an issue in novel conditions in 2020; this is fertile ground exploration in the moving image. A spatial emphasis does not displace the temporality so important to moving image – time is a fundamental property in the animation of space and cityscapes in film (Bruno 2007). The conjunction of moving image and spatial theory is distinctive in a spatial cinema practice.
This work is also invested in recognising that materiality can be vibrant, forming assemblages that constrain and enable activity and labour. Furthermore, matter itself can ‘act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’ (Bennett 2010). Amongst the filmmakers who have influenced this practice are the artists Chantal Akerman, her D’Est (1995) marking a watershed for the encounter of the camera and the cityscape; and James Benning, cartographer of the material infrastructures of California (Akerman 1995; Benning 2001).
A product of this approach to practice-as-research in moving image, Chek Lap Kok (Hong Kong Airport) 21.00 01.12.19 (2020) was made as a part of a GeoHumanities Commission investigating the mobility of people and things, hosted and funded by RHUL and University of Padua. This is a practice-as-research application of the moving image to a disciplinary field at a tangent to, yet congruent with, documentative framings of the moving image within film practice. This version of the film introduces a first-person perspective to the text to lend salience and pertinence to the voice-over in addition to information.
This research project addresses questions of how the global movement and mobility of people across distance can be conceptualised and represented as a precursor for imaging how they might be different in the future. The subject chosen is the mobilities connecting the cities of London and Hong Kong; two metropoli on almost opposite sides of the globe yet extensively linked by air at volume. The Covid Pandemic has shut down international air traffic. The infrastructures of air travel are exposed in their materiality; airport aprons are currently (June 2020) huge parking lots for grounded aircraft. In response to the pandemic, questions of mobility and this subject has been refined to focus on the materiality of infrastructure that enables mobility – as it was construed in 2019.
A further research question concerns what the moving image can bring to a discussion of this content – in terms of the enhancing our understanding of it. I’d suggest this film is an application of ‘free indirect discourse’ in moving image, as developed by Deleuze from the intuition of Pasolini. These representational forms situate the ‘vision’ of the camera as lying on an axis between ‘a perception-image and camera-consciousness’ (Deleuze 2005). Can this practice of ‘making the camera felt’ be deployed in work that aims to address socio-political issues, soliciting a consideration of audience complicity with this content? In this broad sense, this is an open question – yet salient to the issues explored here.
In terms of the current theoretical approach, the anthropocene themed research of Ursula Biemann has explored the materiality of the environment in a video essay mode (e.g. Deep Weather 2013; c.f. Scott & Swenson 2015; https://www.geobodies.org/). Biemann’s work has recently shifted to focus on the research process itself as generative of new knowledge. Some of the work of the group of filmmakers associated with the Sensory Ethnography Lab has also focused on film as a sensory probe into the world as a kinetic, material, space.
In terms of content; the televisual moving image has often shown airports in an illustrative manner as assemblages of processes and infrastructure; explored through the narratives of those who labour within them. Of the many commercially orientated films exploring air travel, the early film short Air Outpost (Keene & Taylor 1937) is an exception, focusing on the organisational and material impacts of operating an airport in the emirate of Sharjah, on the Persian Gulf. It documents the work of locals supplying materials for the comfort of air travellers on the British Imperial Airways service, concluding with the landing of the plane that will be serviced by their labour. The hidden infrastructural demands of air travel are visualised in this early treatment, focus on the labour and materiality of aviation.
In documentative images and sound, the film is a both a vehicle of personal experience – a hurried walk towards an airport terminal – as well as a registration of the materiality of the area in proximity to the terminal. Relating to the experience on an affective level, an audience may sense jeopardy in missing a flight. This jeopardy, in combination with the voiceover and associated temporal remapping of the footage, maintains audience affinitive to the experiential aspect of the film. This negotiation between an individual perspective and a material interest is an important balancing act in the work.
The alignment of the camera as a perceiving probe uses the simulacral properties of the moving image. Here, the ‘simulacral’ means that in its production of images, the camera visualises its engagement with the world. This ‘simulacral’ engagement offers an experiential relationship with the world to spectators in the auditorium. Heard on the soundtrack of the work are the footsteps; the material engagement of the camera/artist with the world; and the intake of breath foregrounding the physical exertion expended in this perspective shift of camera from building site to airport terminal.
In content, materiality is central to the address by the camera of the world of construction of new airport infrastructures. This material world, undergoing work and change, is shown as a barrier – rather than an enabler – of access to the terminal. This resistive aspect of the materiality is disavowed by the impetus behind the movement – to get to the terminal. In many senses, to make the flight is to overcome this materiality. The altered temporality of the film when conveying the voice over information is an index of deterritorialisation and in a contemporary idiom accelerationism.
A further layer, referred to in the voiceover, is the actual route taken by the person/camera. The film documents a walk from the Asia World Expo to the airport terminal, on the Chek Lap Kok artificial island. Although the walk was undertaken before the Pandemic spread beyond mainland China in January 2020, the Expo building has since become the Covid-19 testing facility for passenger arrivals to the Hong Kong SAR. This lends a conceptual dimension to the work; the geographical movement of the camera is cogent to the issue being addressed in the film. This fidelity to a spatiality and mobility is important to the spatial cinema approach.
The voiceover is delivered in a whisper. This acoustic register is conducive to a relationship of spatial and haptic proximity between screen and audience, in a literalisation of ‘speaking nearby,’ theorised by Trinh T. Minh-Ha and denoting reflection on, yet also the refusal of a seizure or claiming of, the object of speech (Trinh 1992). Within this aporia, a suggestion of complicity can enter into the performativity of the depiction and the relation between filmmaker and audience. A self-and-audience disclosure of implication should, I believe, be key feature of discussions of privilege and climate change going forward, More expansively, the whispered voiceover has been in my work since the 1990s, initially inspired by JLG’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’ elle (1966), and long a touchstone to my filmmaking practice.
This work is early in its cycle of screenings and showings. It will be shown online as part of the UEL Media Virality and the Lockdown Aesthetic festival in July; an online exhibition by the Intervals Collective in Montreal, Canada, and other contexts soon. As an artwork made in response to the pandemic, the web is an appropriate home for the work.
A slightly modified edition of the work is hosted on the Geohumanities Creative Commission website. This context frames the film as an outcome in a speculative future project of re-imagining air travel as impacted by novel conditions and energy priorities in an era of climate change.
Biography and Filmography
Artist filmmaker Stephen Connolly’s work explores space, materiality and mobility, and has been widely shown internationally since 2002. His work current focused on the spatial cinema as a post-landscape framing of our surroundings, and researching looking at social issues of space, finance and the city as they pertain to cinematic representation. Stephen is a lecturer in Film Production at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, UK.
Eyrie 9’ (2015)
Film for Tom 12’ (2005)
Folkestone Obscura 18’ (2004)
Great American Desert 16’ (2007)
Happy Valley / Kennedy Town 3’ (2005)
Machine Space 24’ (2016/18)
Más Se Perdió 16’ (2009)
Postcard from Istanbul 6’ (2002)
The Reading Room 3’ (2002)
The Whale 9’ (2003)
Zabriskie Point (Redacted) 27’ (2013)
(Films credited as image/edit/sound – Stephen Connolly)
Akerman, Chantal. D’Est. DVD. Icarus Films, 1995.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2010.
Benning, James. The California Trilogy. DVD. Österreichisches Filmmuseum Vienna, 2012.
Biemann, Ursula. Deep Weather, 2013. https://www.geobodies.org/art-and-videos/deep-weather
Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso Books, 2007.
Deleuze, G. (2005). Cinema I: The Movement-Image. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A Thousand Plateaus. A&C Black.
Deutsche, R. (1996). Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Keene, Ralph, and John Taylor. Air Outpost, 1937. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=253vJ6uYpq4
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. First English language edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
Scott, Emily Eliza, and Kirsten J. Swenson. Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
Trinh, T.M. Framer framed. London, Routledge, 1992.
 Listing of busiest air traffic volumes- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_busiest_passenger_air_routes
 Dubai, the neighbouring Emirate, has leveraged its 8-hour flight proximity to 80% of the world’s population to construct the world’s biggest airport by international traffic by 2014
 See for deterritorialisation see (Deleuze and Guattari 2004)
 The presence of subtitles and their large size in relation to the frame are accommodations to embedded video screening on webpages online.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Reviewer 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement.
This is an interesting project both in the critical position the piece takes and the utilisation of film for this purpose, revealing some original and relevant approaches. The spaces of the film, Chep Lap Kok (Hong Kong Airport), and, more specifically, the walk from the Covid testing hall to the terminal, offer a suitable trajectory across which to ask the questions which are central to the work, such as how mobility will be framed post-covid and potential restrictions to mobility. Basing the core of the voiceover text around these questions works well, bearing in mind the situation we are in, with so many possible outcomes. As Connolly states, near the end of the film, he considers these mobility questions to be framed by the material, specifically the infrastructures of air travel, hence the form of the film. There is directness to this method. Moving through these spaces – the vastness of the airport and surrounding infrastructure – is revealing and places the questions in an immediate context. Overall, the film and the statement are a worthwhile package of practice and theory. Having further explored the contextual references in the statement, it also seems clear the practice is well supported.
I did have some additional, more specific points, that the author might consider:
– In the context of urban cultural studies, Les Roberts used a similar filming method in his project, ‘The Bulger Case: A Spatial Story’ which might interest the author, if they’re not aware of this work. The original project appeared in his book ‘Film, mobility and urban space: a cinematic geography of Liverpool’ and there is a separate paper available at here. The films can be viewed at here.
– Lefebvre’s ‘Production of Space’ is referenced in the statement. I also couldn’t help but think of Lefebvre’s ‘Rhythmanalysis’, when watching the film and reading the statement, bearing in mind the interest surrounding this mode of analysis in recent years, and the subject matter of the film. To note, Ben Highmore’s ‘Cityscapes: Cultural readings in the material and symbolic city’ has an interesting final chapter on Rhythmanalysis. Perhaps the author could take a look into this area if they have not already done so.
– The whispering (of the voiceover) I took to be a critical artistic point. Could this have been unpacked more in the statement? There is some discussion of the voiceover but nothing specifically about the whispering. In some ways, I see this as fair enough – leaving the whispering open to the viewer – but, in another way, it seemed such a prominent element, that it might be addressed. Are these questions whispered out of fear, in the backyard of the airlines? Or was there a link to Biemann’s work – I watched segments of that film (in the process of the peer review) and noted a similar style voiceover? Perhaps the author could reflect on this.
Reviewer 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
The work situates itself within ‘spatial cinema’ and seeks to answer specific questions around “how the global movement and mobility of people across distance can be conceptualised and represented as a precursor for imaging (sic) how they might be different in the future”. In that sense, the work goes some way to doing this. Stylistically, it is simple: a walk from the Covid-19 testing hall to the terminal using a hand-held camera and completed in one take. The hushed, breathless and urgent tone of the voice-over is reminiscent of a more journalistic style or someone under surveillance which, given the recent political events in Hong Kong (the protests and the introduction of the new security law) provides a sense of the walk as a potentially political act.
The content is more reflexive: more questioning than documentary but not quite polemical enough to be essayistic. It provides a clear sense of the ‘materiality’ of the walk and the ways in which the practice of flying has been affected by Covid-19 restrictions but also poses wider questions about travel after Covid. The accompanying statement is well-written and situates the work well within certain traditions and in the work of certain theorists: notably, Lefebvre. The claim in the statement that it is “a harbinger of lean and informal travel arrangements which may be a feature of time to come” feels a little weak in that the visuals of the walk do not really add to the power of the voice-over. The temporary materiality of the parts of the walk outside the terminal is, though, interesting in that it is not the usual approach to the terminal building and so does highlight the more utilitarian backstage spaces not normally seen by tourists or travellers. The voice-over highlights the route between Hong Kong and London is “an airbridge between the Asian and European financial centres” and, by doing so, explicitly raises the notion that mobility is related to power. The question “Will mobility be restricted to elites?” seems to hide the fact that mobility, especially international mobility, is, and always has been the preserve of those with economic and cultural power. Even though we don’t see the person providing the voice-over, they appear to be ‘Western’ and educated. Historically, travel for such people is easy as they have the capital – both economic and cultural – to enable travel. For many others, including the local people working at Hong Kong Airport, foreign travel is much more problematic owing to monetary considerations, restrictions put in place by their own governments and visa restrictions put in place by other governments. These kind of restrictions to travel are both implicit and explicit in the additional questions posed and in the phrases used: for example, “dimensions of privilege”. The broad scope of the questions posed means that any answers to these questions or any overall conclusion would be difficult to achieve but the lack of both feels a little disappointing and is something that could be addressed if the author felt it necessary to improve the film.
Response to Reviews
Thank you to the reviewers for such insightful, pertinent and kind responses, observations and contributions to the work.
The submission has been revised to address the interesting point made by reviewer 1 regarding the whispered delivery in voiceover. To also clarify for this reviewer, Lefebvre’s Production of Space is a touchstone for this work because of his insistence of the centrality of representation to spatiality, the social relations inscribed in proximity and distance. As invested in representation, the emerging spatialities of post pandemic societies and climate change and migration can be usefully addressed by the animated visual and experiential media; the moving image. This is an implied agenda for a spatial cinema. Thank you for the references to Lefebvre’s other work and Les Roberts.
Responding to Reviewer 2; migrant labour from the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia to the city states of the Persian Gulf is a significant flow of aero-mobility. This movement serves extreme privilege, and could be an interesting topic of mobilities research. I’m also aware the film feels a little unfinished and contingent; thank you for this observation. I’d justify this openness by reference to the changing flux of this time and a desire in the work not to be definitive or reach for conclusions.