Authors: Josefine Baark, Christian Laursen, Anne Troldtoft Hjorth
Duration: 39′ 12″
Published: July 2022
Tactile and beautiful technologies have always played a major part in how we view and respond to the world, whether it be self-moving ivory Chinese models, the newest smartphone or the film camera. The art historical research presented in The Mechanism and conducted by Josefine Baark tracks the provenance of mechanized sculptures representing primarily Chinese, but also European figures, houses and boats built in China and exported to Europe in the 1730s.
The core research was prompted by the question: how did Chinese craftsmen, European merchants and global aristocratic elites use mechanical craftsmanship to inform artistic tastes, as well as to represent and influence one another?
Yet, as work on both the film and the research progressed, another core question arose: What impact does the technology-driven, cinematic framing of the research journey have on academic art historical methods?
The post-doctoral fellowship, whose process The Mechanism largely documents, explored the mechanical sculptures’ position within the network of formal and informal technological and aesthetic systems that characterized eighteenth-century society. Using transculturation as a theoretical framework, Baark’s approach employed both textual analysis and a degree of prosopopoeia (animating the object) to track the layers of use, interpretation and restoration of mechanical tableaux and to reconstruct material encounters (Prown, 1982). The objects’ transcultural techne (art, craftsmanship) subvert the boundaries between ‘art’ or ‘technology’. Hence, by combining the Western art historical ekphrasis (close looking and describing) and the Qing Chinese emphasis on gé wù (encountering/investigating things), the research tracked how groups and individuals used miniatures to model their lives and define their realms of knowledge. The source material (mechanical tableaux, ships’ logs, auction records, inventories and illustrations) were found in the museum archives and national libraries in the U.K., Denmark, France and the Netherlands
Preliminary research had demonstrated that when technologically complex artefacts crossed into the realm of aesthetic cross-cultural appreciation, they instigated innovation in how the fundamental core of global exchange – information – was mediated (Baark, 2016; 2022). Moreover, the objects’ transcultural techne (art/craftsmanship) had the potential to destabilize historians’ reliance on written accounts detailing the transfer of mechanical knowledge to China. Hence, the research entailed an interdisciplinary, visual and haptic approach achieved through collaborative filmmaking with the film company, ARareCompany. The collaboration became a core means of shedding light on the historical processes underpinning the sculptures by drawing a parallel between early modern knowledge exchange and contemporary research methods. Ultimately, the art historical and methodological questions pursued in the film pointed to a framework for using material culture, art, and technology to think about connectedness in two new ways.
First, new technology was never passively appropriated. Mechanical clockwork prompted new aesthetic avenues of creation by Chinese artisans, while the filming of the research added new tools to the research process. A detailed understanding of the materials and composition of the sculpture demonstrated that these Sino-European hybrids demanded complex abilities, networks of information, communication arteries and nodes of planning, manufacture and circulation. For instance, a detailed knowledge of the workings of gears was integral to creating not only moving figures, but to building gear mechanisms on such a small scale. Filming this close observation of the sculpture mobilized several technological tools, such as an x-ray machine, a computer model and a micro camera. In addition, the hours of film material allowed for the researcher to return to the observation in a more concrete way than would otherwise have been possible. A connection between artisan and researcher emerged from the material.
Second, archival work revealed the artefacts’ changing positions in different communities, how they were executed, traded, gifted, and experienced. Moreover, significant gaps in their provenance appeared. In many ways, the archives undermined the information provided by the close examination of the sculptures. In response to these gaps in knowledge, the documentary framework was challenged, and a more artistic approach became necessary. We decided to treat the film material as an archive that could enter into a dialogue with the historical records, thus allowing the instabilities inherent in the process of historical research to come to the fore. In this space, the imaginative elements of the artistic voice usefully overlapped with the educational detail of the academic voice. Thus, a core conclusion has been that the intersection between the documentary and artistic process of filmmaking provides an exciting opportunity to explore new frameworks for understanding the material culture, art, and technology of the past.
Entering the space between academic and cinematic methodologies, we drew on recent research from the fields of filmmaking and soundscape (Howard and Moretti, 2009, LaBelle, 2010, Vansø, 2016). In tandem with the rise of these sub-disciplines, discourses across fields have made a strong case for the validity of practice-as-research as a method of documenting aesthetic processes and a means of understanding embodied experiences (Kahn, 1999; Cox, 2011; Langenbruch, 2018). Despite the resurgence of interest in ‘the nature of the repercussions that […] the art of the film [has] had on art in its traditional form’ (Benjamin, 1932), traditional art historical discourse has not yet registered an impact. This lacuna may be due to institutional anxieties or as Robert A. Rosenstone has it ‘a widespread fear, […] even within the [humanities] profession, that the visual media […] have become not just a rival of academic history, but in terms of audience, its master.’
The art historical state of the art engaged by the research was predicated on two core theories. First, Jonathan Hay’s (2010) theory of ‘surfacescapes’, which postulates the decorative object produced in China as an interactive and affective surface. Baark’s aim was to advance Hay’s haptic approach by considering the consumers’ tacit knowledge of the unseen interior (the mechanism), while also presenting object history as an alternative means of framing world history, to highlight overlapping narratives and identities. Second, Baark sought to marshal the large volumes of new research in material culture history to take stock and to incorporate economic and scientific findings with new global approaches and interdisciplinary methods (Finlay, 2010; Berg, et al. 2015; Gerritsen and Riello, 2016; Findlen, 2021). In doing so, she hoped to use object histories to give voice to multiple centres and peripheries within East and West, drawing from Giorgio Riello and Robert Finlay’s important methodological precedents in the studies of cotton as global commodity and the pilgrim flask as a transcultural influence on economics, politics, and social identity, as well as Kristina Kleutghen’s (2014) reframing of occidental objects from Souzhou.
The Mechanism was funded primarily by the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Mads Øvlisen Post-Doctoral Award for Art History, through which Baark was hosted by the University of Copenhagen for a year of research. The impact and dissemination funding was largely at Baark’s disposal. As a result, the economic context of the film production allowed for one European trip for Baark and Laursen and thus, the research and visual material were confined primarily to Danish examples, with one journey to Sweden. Had the budget allowed, the film would have been improved by a trip to China to bring more voices and points of view into play. The film relied in large part on the generosity of cultural, publicly, and privately funded institutions in granting access to their collections, as well as the individual generosity of experts, who offered their time.
Throughout the filmmaking process, the guiding principle was to ensure that Baark’s research methodologies were as clear and visual as possible. In this approach, the filmmaking took its inspiration from two core examples. First, it looked to Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams (2013) directed by Nic Stacey and written by Simon Schaffer. The film documents Schaffer’s research into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century automata in Europe. It follows a standard presenter-style documentary approach, but occasionally deviates and theatrically reveals Schaffer’s role as authority in ways that subvert his position. For instance, he is shown presenting on European authoritarianism from a throne.
Second, it looked to the popular style of ‘participatory’ educational art documentary filmmaking produced by public broadcasting companies where the presenter is also the writer (for instance Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature on BBC 4, directed by Ben Harding and written by James Fox; Ways of Seeing, directed by Michael Dibb and written by John Berger; Nichols, 1991). The use of a narrator (positioned as expert) to allow the viewer to follow the trajectory of the research is a common trope of this genre. The emotional hook of Baark’s personal narrative and research process was thus supplemented by her active participation in the filmmaking process (Goldman, et al., 2008). In The Mechanism, this narration was initially written to bridge the gap between public and academic audiences. Taking further inspiration from the essay film genre (Rascaroli, 2017), the narration was conceived of a means of allowing the academic conclusions to veer into the poetic, drawing on the art historical methodology of ekphrasis or poetic description. In response to the Screenworks peer-reviews, the narration was re-written to make the personal, artistic voice more prominent and self-reflective.
Films focusing on art history are also found in museum exhibitions and on their online platforms. Hence, the filmic approach took inspiration from films such as National Gallery (2014) directed by Frederick Wiseman, which employs a fly-on-the-wall approach to document the minutiae of the museum institution. In The Mechanism the camera is much more present, but the attention to the details of the research process derives from this approach. In many ways, the use of film to document a work of art drew inspiration from Margaret Mead’s argument that ‘finer recordings of […] precious materials can illuminate our growing knowledge and appreciation of mankind’ (1975).
Ideally, viewers of The Mechanism will come away with a grasp of cross-culturally informed art historical working methods. It is also hoped that they understand more about the dynamics of how national and individual histories are increasingly traced through the ‘lives’, of everyday objects, luxuries and gifts traversing international borders (Appadurai, 1986). In the end, viewers – whether art historians or the public at large – might gain new knowledge of how individual histories complicate narratives of cultural exchange between ‘East’ and ‘West.’
The film was initially intended for broad public consumption. However, as it engaged with academic research methods and grew to deal more with the complexities of traditional art historical research methods we searched for a platform where these considerations would have an impact. Hence, formatting the film for publication by Screenworks, as a peer-reviewed online publication, has taken precedence over editing the material for network television, hosting services or social media, etc.
We hoped that editing the film for publication by an academic, peer-reviewed platform would also potentially mould it for viewing in the museum and heritage industries. This has only partly been the case. In September 2022, The Mechanism will be shown to an audience of museum visitors at the David’s Collection as a onetime event. The screening will be accompanied by a short introduction by Baark and followed by a Q&A session. The museum collection is not featured in the film, but the core themes of cross-cultural interaction and aesthetic exchange are shared. Although the sculpture at the heart of the film is in the National Museum of Denmark collection, the museum has not responded to multiple offers to screen the film. The Maritime Museum of Denmark has declined offers to screen the film, because it does not fit the communications program. These obstacles to achieving public impact were expected, given the length of the film and its use of academic language, but they have also been useful in demonstrating that institutional housing continues to be more prevalent in the heritage industry.
The film was screened as part of a two-day workshop on 5-6 March 2020 co-organised by Josefine Baark, filmmakers from aRAREcompany and the peer-reviewed, digital publication, British Art Studies called ‘Making Knowledge Visible’, which was funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick. The aim of the workshop was to break new ground in the field of digital humanities, academic publishing and institutional collaboration focusing on using filmmaking to convey new research. Hence the film was part of a conversation about the artistic and creative possibilities that result from collaborations between curators, academics, filmmakers and publishers. A survey sent to participants subsequent to the workshop demonstrated that it had served as first step toward developing a guideline for practitioners, funding bodies and institutions that clarifies the underlying processes, as well as the strengths and limitations.
Baark, J., 2022. Toys in Trade: Playfully Poetic Technology in Qing Dynasty Canton. Journal of Early Modern History, 1(aop), pp.1-28.
Baark, J., 2016. A Home Away from Home: Sophie Magdalene’s Clockwork Chinoiserie. In The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences (pp. 171-189). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Benjamin, W., 1935. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.
Berg, M., Gottmann, F., Hodacs, H. and Nierstrasz, C. eds., 2015. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: trading Eurasia. Springer.
Clunas, C. 2007. Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Cox, C., 2011. Beyond representation and signification: Toward a sonic materialism. Journal of visual culture, 10(2), pp.145-161.
Finlay, R., 2010. The pilgrim art. University of California Press.
Findlen, P. ed., 2021. Early modern things: objects and their histories, 1500-1800. Routledge.
Gerritsen, A. and Riello, G., 2016. Introduction: The Global Lives of Things. Material Culture in the First Global Age. In: A. GERRITSEN, pp.2-28.
Goldman, S., Booker, A. and McDermott, M., 2008. Mixing the digital, social, and cultural: Learning, identity, and agency in youth participation. Youth, identity, and digital media.
Hay, J., 2010. Sensuous surfaces: the decorative object in early modern China. Reaktion Books.
Howard, D., Moretti, L. and Moretti, L., 2009. Sound and space in Renaissance Venice: architecture, music, acoustics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Kahn, D., 1999. Noise, water, meat: a history of sound in the arts. MIT press.
Kleutghen, K., 2014. Chinese Occidenterie: The Diversity of” Western” Objects in Eighteenth-Century China. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 47(2), pp.117-135
LaBelle, B., 2010. Acoustic territories: Sound culture and everyday life. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Langenbruch, A. ed., 2018. Klang als Geschichtsmedium: Perspektiven für eine auditive Geschichtsschreibung (Vol. 1). transcript Verlag.
Mead, M., 1975. Worth and Adair: Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration of Film Communication and Anthropology. Studies in Visual Communication, 2(2), pp.122-124.
Nichols, B., 1991. Representing reality: Issues and concepts in documentary.
Prown, J.D., 1982. Mind in matter: An introduction to material culture theory and method. Winterthur portfolio, 17(1), pp.1-19.
Rascaroli, L., 2017. How the essay film thinks. Oxford University Press.
Vandso, A., 2016. Musik som værk og handling. Aarhus Universitetsforlag.
Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature (Ben Harding, 2016, UK)
Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams (Nic Stacey, 2013, UK)
Ways of Seeing, (Michael Dibb, 1972, UK)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
Investigating the impact of the re-invention of European clockwork in China on 18th century trade and society in both places, The Mechanism intends to also demonstrate how the film-based documentation of the research journey can make an innovative contribution to academic art historical methods. Its production values are impressive. The slow-paced, close-up filming from multiple angles of the central object, a miniature pagoda, and also of other, similar mechanized artefacts, in combination with the painstakingly composed soundscape make for fascinating viewing, providing insight into aspects of the artefacts that would not be so easily accessible in a traditional viewing context at a museum or archive. The gradual visual exploration of the pagoda’s material layers and affiliated meanings, including the animation of the actual clockwork mechanism and the translation of its printed panels, is effective. Baark’s consultation of experts presenting diverse angles on the artefacts’ historical, socio-economic and cultural ramifications is well-documented, illustrating the integrity of her research process.
Considering the above, not only does the work contribute to the understanding of “the dynamics of how national and individual histories are increasingly traced through the ‘lives’, of everyday objects, luxuries and gifts traversing international borders (Appadurai, 1986)” [accompanying statement], The Mechanism’s complex visual approach also convinces in its insistence on the artefacts’ ‘visual presence’, emphasizing their ‘mystery’, their ‘silences and secrets’. As for the actual analysis of the historical, cultural and socio-economic context, however, the project remains sketchy in places. An emphasis on more concrete examples of how exactly the artefacts were used and perceived by a variety of stakeholders might have been helpful. For example, despite making reference to the concept of social mobility and its connection to the China trade, i.e. the empowerment of the merchant class versus the gradual undermining of the supremacy of royals and aristocrats, more could have been made of how precisely this affected the artefacts’ makers, traders, owners and all that came into contact with them.
The accompanying statement mentions that ‘Chinese authoritarianism, meritocracy, cultural stasis and fabled wealth had a powerful effect over European trade and government’. In the actual film, however, the exploration of China as a ‘projection board for European ideas’, i.e. the concrete impact of cross-cultural assumptions and misunderstandings, is somewhat reduced to China’s enduring ‘mystery’. Regarding her filmic approach Baark refers to ‘participatory’ and ‘performative documentary’ as defined by Bill Nichols. The film examples listed against these genres, however, e.g. Supersize Me and Bowling For Columbine, don’t have much in common with The Mechanism. Revisiting this part of the accompanying statement is recommended.
Considering the project’s affinity with the above genres, adding more information on what initially motivated the research and some of Baark’s personal conclusions could also prove a useful addition. The accompanying research statement is extensive. It includes all relevant information to illustrate the intent, scope, methods, impact strategy and overall integrity of the project, but could be condensed.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The focus on the visual representation of an object and its peculiarly mirroring cultural history is interesting as detailed as a research aim in the supporting statement and in the voice-over of the film itself. The objects and archival documents that appear in the film are beautifully photographed, often using a narrow depth-of-field to purposeful visual effect. The portraits of the various contributing academics also have a stylistic unity – albeit one common to many contemporary documentaries.
Despite the coherence achieved through the application of these visual aesthetics (resulting from the professional collaboration indicated), there is a danger that the work will only communicate to the viewer at the level of a research-led academic presentation, rather than as a film. There is a quest, which could lend the work the dynamic of a film, but there is little opportunity for the viewer’s own imagination to come into play – this possibility closed down by the film’s too dominant academic nature. To mitigate against this, the voice-over, in terms of both the formulation of its content and its delivery, needed to be pitched a little differently. The research itself is of course totally valid within its field of study and the film does provide a coherent overview of that research and its progress. There are also surprises and revelations along the way, but the tone of the film is too even for these to penetrate through the academic veneer. As an educational film in the context of such academic historical research, it successfully fulfils its purpose (and possibly offers a model to follow – as proposed and outlined in the supporting statement), but this does not necessarily make the work filmic (as seems to be claimed). Further reflection on the perceived success of the film, in terms of its reception by a wider public – beyond academia – would benefit the statement. Documentary theory is referred to, but examples of films, exploring similar historical or object-centred concerns and adopting a range of visual strategies wider than is indicated by the works cited, could have further informed the outcome. These criticisms, and any possible misjudgement of the film and its achievement here, may in part be due to the absence from large sections of it, as viewed, of English subtitles.
In visual terms, the ‘X-rays’, and the manner in which they reveal the automaton’s workings, are certainly mysterious and intriguing. This imagery might have been exploited still further in ways that could have imbued the film with a greater sense of poetry. The imagery of Baark photographing details of the automaton do add an effective theatrical quality to the film – enhanced by how, in visual terms, these sequences are shot (location in relation to forms of participatory and performative documentary can be identified here).
Technically, the recording of the voice is uneven, with some sections clearly of a lesser quality. The imagery included of a virtually hosted conversation seems awkwardly at odds with the high image quality that persists throughout the rest of the film.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.