Thinking Through Form
Author: Elisabeth Brun
Format: Video Essay
Duration: 7′ 00”
Published: February 2021
Does this film demonstrate how essayist filmmaking can be explored and further developed as a way to think topographically: that is; to think conceptually through non-verbal techniques such as camera movement, camera position and montage, about place forms and place structures, and their affordances for the way place is experienced?
In the video 3xShapes of Home (2020), the first thing you see is the texture of slow-moving waves, while my voice over speaks:
“It is said that our times are oceanic, that we are connecting, reconnecting.. It is said that the moving image is oceanic.. connecting, reconnecting….”
In what follows, the camera moves over the wavy patterns of a beach: traveling shapes from fluidity to (still wavy) solidity, while I ask : “..but does that mean that everything is fluid? Look at these forms migrating…” The opening of the video experiment is meant to set the stage for your reflection as a viewer. The question is intended to stimulate the viewers´ pondering on how textures in environments are taken up as metaphors by the human subject. How the complexity of forms in the environment exceeds the human simplification, and have projective powers, in altering the human perspective. As the English scholar Sean Silver points out, the forms that are inherent in metaphors works in both ways. The metaphor is created by our embodied vision, the sense of touch, we attribute meanings to the forms we encounter: we shape the metaphor, then the metaphor shapes us. Is it not powerful, then, to think subjectively through form, about the forms through which we think? Importantly, with form, I mean not only film form, but form in the broader sense. Literary theorist Carolyne Levine notes that form, in spite of its variety, has a common definition as the “arrangement of elements – an ordering, patterning, or shaping.” One of the main features of form, she says, is that it travels – it migrates from one materiality to the other, as well as from materiality to the abstract, from one domain to the other.
The 7-minute video-experiment is a formal experiment on all levels. On one hand it explores the topographies and architectures of my childhood village Strengelvåg, a place of approximately 180 inhabitants situated in the Arctic North of Norway. In this film, I investigate through non-verbal techniques, such as camera position, superimposition, split-screen and algorithm, how the oceans, mountains and built environments, have shaped my attachment to that place as well as my thinking. I render the experience through a set of film techniques in three separate returns over a period of two years, every time with new filming strategies and new camera technologies at hand. It is a testing of my own subjective position in relation to place, in relation to the agency of the camera apparatus, in relation to the agency of an algorithm, and in relation to the subjectivity of other creatures such as a fish and a crab. It is an experiment of going beyond my own frames of reference; a hunt for insight, in and beyond the subjective experience of place.
I call my video a topographical moving image experiment, a point to which I will return. The driving question of this practice-led research process, is to what extent essay film practice may be understood and developed as Topographical thinking; that is, as a distinct way to think conceptually through moving image form, about place and how places are perceived, imagined and conceptualized.
3xShapes of Home was guided by the intersection between an essay film and a structural experiment. The filming strategy is inspired by non-verbal essayistic works such as Portrait (2002) and Landscape (2003) by the Ukrainian experimental filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. In these experimental documentaries he visits places on the Russian countryside, rendering the experience through only a few cinematic techniques. Here Loznitsa combines moving image techniques and place in a minimalistic manner in order to produce a tension, to evoke association. In Landscape (2003) for instance, he allows the camera to make a continuous pan over the snow-covered rural scenery, in which people gathered at a bus-stop are treated no differently than the landscape itself. The camera lens as well as the microphone sweep panoramically over the crowd. We hear natural sounds and snippets of conversation appear and disappear as the camera moves on. There is a tension derived from the images of Landscape (2002), perhaps due to the fact that the camera technique of the panorama is usually associated with pictorial landscapes. His formal operations reconfigure how we see these places, as well the people of these places.
3xShapes of Home and its function should also be understood in light of structural experiments, such as Kurt Kren´s pioneering 3/60 Baum im Herbst (1960), and Michael Snow´s La Region Centrale (1971). In structural, or materialist films such as these, the subjectivity of the camera is put in tension with a systematic and structural operation with the camera/video apparatus. Materialist film is a mode of filmmaking that tests and expands perception in various ways. The artistic practice is based upon the view of film as a structuring or patterning practice, which aligns with my own position. It is not discourse or ideology which is the main target, as commonly in essay film practice, but the perception of space, place and time, exploring the edges of technology and the human world. In Kurt Kren´s film for instance, the images of trees, the shapes of leafless branches, are rapidly cut against each-other, one shot lasting at most, a third of a second. I agree with Ryan Conrath that in Baum im Herbst (1960), the cut produces a gap for cognition, which does not evoke any metaphorical synthesis, but rather, triggers an act of comparison of similarity and difference that directs attention towards form, and the limits and potentials of the camera apparatus itself. One may say that Kren and Snow´s film make visible relations between place, technology and perception that otherwise would have remained obscured.
I have approached 3xShapes of Home as the “machine” through which I, as a filmmaker-researcher, can alter my perspectives, generate discussions and develop my arguments. As such, formal operations of this experimental work are conversations starters, altering perspectives, and “opening up” for thought through producing tensions rather than thinking issues through. Thomas Tode says about the essayist approach that it “is not to impose a definitive meaning to the images, but to create openings.” Laura Rascaroli similarly argues that the antagonistic essay film “thinks,” through forging gaps between elements of the moving image, and that it thinks through disjunction and re-linkage. The essay film, she says, is an open-ended process of uncovering, “a method of in-betweenness that produces something new.” The new perspective, a new meaning, something that has not yet been thought, “the unthought.” My video-experiment puts her point almost to the extreme.
Performing what Rascaroli calls a “strategy of knowledge,” 3xShapes of Home quickly leaves what it starts, and it is meant to, as the work forms a central part of my doctoral study “Essay Film as Topography” where the discussion continues in the written component and, hopefully, in the viewer of the film. Importantly, when I speak about topography, I refer not only to the study of the earth´s surface, but to Philosophical Topography, a conception of place and a methodology of thinking about place, originally developed by the philosopher Jeff Malpas. In Malpas’ place-philosophy, conceptual thinking is regarded as inseparable from the way we orient ourselves in spatial environments. Conceptuality, in this view, is topographically structured. Knowledge and understanding are produced in a similar way as we orient ourselves in a region of land by measuring the relationship between objects, or features, seeing one element in the light of another. The premise is that the human mind does not function radically differently from early pre-google times, although we speak mostly about flows and networks. At the heart of Malpas´ topography, is the concept of topos, the Greek word for place which Malpas develops as a general and encompassing structure for human experience, for conceptuality and agency. Place is what structures experience, and the formation of concepts. Topography, then, is to think conceptually about place texture, as well as the role and character of place as a concept in thinking about experience, scrutinizing these in relation to one another.
The argument which I have developed though making 3xShapes of Home (2020), is that the moving image, and in particular the film practice called essayistic, has a distinct ability to foster topographical thinking about place, through its non-linear, associative, potentially subjective, dialogical, and disjunctive strategies of knowledge. Essay film practices may bring patterns of place, from the pre-conceptual and into the reflective light of conceptual thinking. It is my argument that knowledge-strategies of creating “gaps”, or tensions between elements of the moving image, are topographical in the sense that they enable the filmmaker-subject as thinker, to scrutinize conceptual structures, by altering them, by creating productive tensions, by going beyond the subjective.
In order to show, to some extent, how it is that the camera thinks topographically, I will go briefly through the topography of 3xShapes of Home, and the reflections and discussions that were generated from its making. The video is, apart from its introduction, divided into three forms: Sediments, Configurations and Gaps and Fissures. The forms, derived from geology, capture the dynamic between conceptuality, camera technology and place generated from each encounter. The geological forms in turn function as a kind of structure mapping, a way to detect similar patterns in what are conceived of as isolated entities. The finished film, expresses the different experiences of place that are generated (for the filmmaker) as the voice-over shifts from serious, to poetic, to playful and numb.
The application of filmic techniques in Sediments, such as the fixed frame, and superimposition, for instance, triggered a conception of place and memory as sedimented. Interestingly, the geological structure of sediments implies a suspension, as well as a certain layering of material. Sediments are, by the The Dictionary of Geological Terms, defined as “solid material settled from a suspension in liquid.” The philosopher Gaston Bachelard says about memory that it is a series of fixations. We do not remember in concrete duration (in the Bergsonian sense), with events on a timeline. In the process of recording for Sediments I inserted myself into particular places, in order to see if I, by means of the camera, could “find” or “retrieve” memory fixations: these transparent fossilized sensations of which Bachelard speaks. Memory captures the sensation of place, in a way that resembles a fixed camera position, the fixed-frame. Similarly, for me, recording in this case was not so much to bring into re-membrance, as to keep these places in re-membrance. The motivation for capturing these places as a still-frame was to sediment memories, to suspend them, as a way to keep them. To capture affects. Because affects erode too.
Important here is also the technique of superimposition, which has its closest relative in the textual type of the palimpsest. The palimpsestic image invites for a dialectical reading, rather than a linear one. It is a vertical awareness, an accumulation of meaning – through layers that are porous. In geology, sediments may be porous, with other substances flowing in and out, unless they are subjected to significant pressure. In sum, to think of the dynamic between moving images, topographies of place and mental images as sediments, opened up a discussion about the way the techniques of the moving images may interact with memory in that they may hold places still, suspend them, as well as providing a layering structure of images. This leads, in turn, to the creation of metaphor, the integration and preservation of elements, the Heideggerian dwelling in poetry.
Configurations and Gaps and Fissures, on the other hand, generated very different responses. I will go more briefly through these forms due to limited space. Configuration is defined as the “relative arrangement of parts or elements,” – such as shape, contour of land, or as a functional arrangement: the way something is sized, arranged and organized. The word is used in many sciences, also geomorphology, the study of the formation of the earth´s surfaces, meaning the geological features of a place, the shape and arrangement of solid and liquid material. The form of configuration captures the way an experience is reconfigured by the camera apparatus. Whereas Sediments is derived from layering and holding places still, affording a metaphorical gathering of elements, the juxtaposing of contrarian perspectives in Configurations affords the dissolving of symbols, critical distance, and a deconstructive understanding of place.
Gaps and Fissures, on its side, suggest the response of adventure, play and numbness. The form captures the essayistic knowledge-strategy of forging gaps between moving image elements, here performed by the split screen. Introducing also an algorithm widens the gap between camera-agency and subject, and provides an experience of place that goes beyond human affect. Gaps and Fissures recalls for instance the experimental play of artists such as John Cage, who go beyond the human in their quest for patterns of the universe, that are invisible to humans.
The film is quite new, and so far it has not been screened publicly. It has, however, won the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment 2020 and will be screened at the 67th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (May 2021) and the 9th InternationalVideo Poetry Festival, Athens (March 2021). Being awarded this prize is a confirmation that the film does not necessarily need to be accompanied by the written dissertation in order to spark reflection. I plan therefore to screen the film in festival and art contexts, in which I can have a conversation about the film and its argument. The theoretical arguments, I plan to mainly disseminate through academic articles and book chapters, with a link the film provided. Overall, my hope for the 3xShapes of Home is that it evokes thought about how conceptual structures projected by place are integrated in our understanding. I hope to spark reflections upon the way forms limit and open up human perspectives. I hope to contribute with a way of performing moving images as research that challenges the filmmaker-researcer´s own habits of mind. In the broadest sense I hope to spark reflections on how forms and dynamics in environments, subjective experience and creative practice are interwoven, and how forms may have very similar affordances across mind, and materiality.
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions.
3xShapes of Home (2020) is structured around three visits that the filmmaker has made to her hometown, approaching this site as it is being experienced and imagined. Letting the camera move softly over sand, waters, and grass, she introduces architecture and place that she knows well, such as the kitchen window or the school she went to as a child. Then the film ventures off route, as the camera moves towards a mountain reflecting on her own experiences of questioning religion. The mountain itself takes different forms through effects in editing, suggesting a shift in her perspective. Then, she gets bored (she claims), letting an algorithm decide how to film. Further, she breaks the frame: the pane that is the surface of the ocean, filmed from below and from above depicted in two sections, a fish is caught. What did she find out? The film ends in an open-ended way.
This piece of work asks how essay filmmaking could be understood as a form of topographical thinking and place-making. Buildings upon relevant and existing scholarship on essay filmmaking and architecture, the author offers an original contribution to knowledge on practice-led methods, topographical thinking and the concept of place. The film offers a rare and personal exploration of a landscape that is much photographed and well known, both nationally and internationally. Although the landscapes are incredibly photogenic, the filmmaker resists to rely on its beauty, taking surprising and refreshing turns. 3xShapes of Home (2020) is successful in its aims, well-executed as evident in the editing and the use of voice over. It is and ambitious piece of filmmaking, where a thought process is conveyed to the audience in a playful manner. Being such as a successful, simple and clear example of filmmaking as a tool used to explore space, I believe that this film could be used in teaching scenarios with students of architecture, design and geography.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions.
There are some very interesting propositions made by this film work, and a/effective formal treatment of the place and the ideas generated by the research process. The author of this work is exploring essayist filmmaking as Topography. They ask: to what extent essay film practice may be understood and developed as Topographical thinking? They are interested in exploring how the camera apparatus, as an ‘epistemological machine’, can open up an understanding and experience of place where, rather than place-making, we see how places produce concepts.
I think the researcher is making an argument for a topographical thinking through the camera, which is a methodological claim. If this is so, is the film the ‘evidence’ or outcome of this methodological approach? Would it be instructive to discuss the researcher’s own response to this outcome?
There is quite a lot in the research statement that complicates and distracts from an in-depth exploration of these central questions. My advice would be to remove the extraneous material that reads as though part of a much larger PhD project, and focus on the specific aspects that will deepen our experience and understanding of the film work submitted here.
A little more unpacking around the way the researcher uses the term ‘conceptual’ would be instructive, because it sets up a relationship to the formal, as well as the affective. This dynamic is a little underdeveloped. I think it might help to connect, and further develop this in relation to ‘the architectural agencies of the camera’.
I wonder whether it would help the researcher’s argument to refer to other film works, in particular essay films, and specifically essay films that work in the area of ‘city’ or ‘architecture’ films. And I also think some research into eco-cinema (literature and practice) might help unpack the arguments around the agential capacity of place on concept.
In the opening, the evocation of texture, and how textures move, and reconfigure, achieves the artist’s aims of enquiry around the way the images of place can open up (or structure, as the author might put it) the conceptual space as articulated by the voice. I think the research statement goes some way toward unpacking this, but I would find it satisfying if this was unpacked in greater detail in the research statement, with examples of the various ways the film work does this at other moments in the film.
In the film, formally, as well as structurally, there is a lot going on, especially for a short work. I think we lose a sense of the ‘parts’ overall, and how they might relate to one another. The voice speaks of a kind ‘tidal’ movement of time, which suggests a particular kind of structural organisation, which could be taken up, for example. In the first section, in the layered images, a sense of scale (of time and space) is evoked. The voice that speaks about ‘leaving’ (expanding into the world?) and coming back to safety, to the small house, being held. So in this sense, topographical thinking as it ‘happens’ in the moving image, through the apparatus, seems to me to be about ‘making co-present’ in specific ways, specific to the form. It’s in the very final shot, after the credits, that I really get the sense of the place and agency, and perhaps how topographical thinking happens through the camera lens.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.