Painting in the Void: an audiovisual reflection of the creation process of Kūkaku
Painting in the Void, a film by Horacio Curti made in collaboration with Ariadna Pujol, provides insights into the creative process that led to an experimental performance piece called Kūkaku. Combining sound/music, movement/dance and live video by a trio of performers (Horacio Curti, Ariadna Pujol and Vika Kleiman), the performance piece takes inspiration from, and recontextualises, several aesthetic concepts that are important to Japanese hōgaku (‘national music’). Painting in a Void, then, might be understood as an audiovisual narrative about a collaborative process of artistic research. It offers glimpses into different aspects of the artistic research including Curti’s fieldwork in Japan, some of the aesthetic concepts that inspired Kūkaku, and the trio’s ways of working when preparing for a live performance. Attempting to move away from conventional textual explanations of creative processes, Painting in the Void endeavours to harness the unique characteristics of the audiovisual to narrate the making of an exploratory, multimedia performance.
Authors: Horacio Curti Bethencourt · Universidade de Aveiro & Ariadna Pujol
Format: Documentary Film
Published: October 2022
“Because knowledge in the West is scriptocentric, we need to recuperate from performance some oppositional force, some resistance to the textual fundamentalism of the academy” (Conquergood 1998, p. 25-26). Such search for a balance between the use of the written word and other media within the academia aligns with a search for epistemological emancipation, one in which the oppositional force can also come from the use of the audiovisual media. More than twenty years have passed since Conquergood’s publication quoted above and much has been explored in relation to these issues within the humanities in general and ethnomusicology in particular.
Painting in the void was created together with Ariadna Pujol as part of my PhD, Aesthetics of sound in Japanese hōgaku. Ethnomusicology and Artistic Research in dialogue (Curti 2022). Within that project, this piece could have been a recount of the aesthetic dimension of Japanese hōgaku (‘national music’), but its objective was the narration of the creation process of the performative piece Kūkaku, developed from the field of artistic research, in all its subjective dimensions.
- How can audiovisual media be used to narrate the subjectivities of a transdisciplinary creation process?
- How can an artistic creation process be studied from a dialogue between the fields of ethnomusicology and artistic research aided by audiovisual media?
- How can a film represent the different roles played by audiovisual media in a research process that includes fieldwork and artistic creation?
The use of film in ethnomusicology is not new, even though its trajectory is more modest than in ethnography or anthropology. Already in 1971 in the first edition of ‘The ethnomusicologist’, Mantle Hood (1988) highlighted the value of film for the discipline, a value shared by pioneer researchers such as Feld (1976), Zemp (1988) and Baily (1989) among others. Their writings and films articulated the idea of a promising medium for ethnomusicology. However, as summarised by Ben Harbert: “The problem is that it is stalled in the category of “promising.”” (Harbert 2018, p. 249).
Some problems in the relationship between ethnomusicology and film might be traced back to old criticisms to the use of film in the humanities centring on film’s ambiguity, its lack of precision, the tension between the scholarly and the artistic based on their different ways of seeing and understanding, and the limited ethnographic value of film. Finally, the widespread consideration that dense description can only be achieved through the written word should not be forgotten. This has relegated the audiovisual to its use as a documentation tool, perpetuating the dichotomy of the written word vs image, with the former occupying a clear position of power. Many of these views overlook the potential of the audiovisual to suggest, inspire and to actually narrate findings, in ways that the written word cannot achieve, precisely through the use of ambiguity and subtleties as suggested by Taylor (1996) and Heider (2006).
In recent decades, researchers such as Harbert (2012; 2018), Norton (2010; 2021), Terada (2013) and Ranocchiari and Giorgianni (2018; 2020) have been reflecting and exploring this relationship in new ways concomitantly with the rise in the presence of film within fieldwork. An increase in the use of film in research that may be linked to the lowering of costs, and the simplification of use and transportation of this technology. However, it might also be related to epistemological aspects regarding the valorisation of subjectivity, of the experiential, of the sensory and other elements that make the audiovisual a useful tool for both researching and communicating knowledge in line with authors such as Pink (2006).
These elements suggest new opportunities for the use of audiovisual media within the discipline. One such opportunity may be our ability to strengthening its role beyond that of documentation and of emphasising the value of audiovisual media and what it can contribute. Elements that could allow for the use of film in ethnomusicology both as a media for communication of knowledge as well as part of the creation of it, would complement the written word.
Painting in the void narrates the creative process of the performative piece Kūkaku using materials made during the creation of the piece as well as other footage filmed during ethnomusicological fieldwork. Kūkaku could have looked for inspiration in the forms and ways of the Japanese artforms studied but instead it gave a central role to the subjectivity of the collective process of creation. This was achieved through the embodiment of aesthetically relevant concepts within the particular context of Japanese hōgaku sound and the potential of these concepts as a stimulus for interlocution.
The recontextualised and transdisciplinary nature of the work is based on the idea of freeing the creative process from the codification attached to any specific musical or performative genre. The aim was to widen the spectrum of possibilities for the exploration of the aesthetic concepts through a less conditioned creation process; a process in which the trio decided on all creative matters except for those understood as requirements related to the artistic research.
The creation process can be summarised as having four phases: (i) free improvisation without relation to concepts; (ii) the introduction of the selected concepts to the group and the act of improvising freely from them, watching the filmed materials of us playing on stage and verbally reflecting on and debating the materials explored; (iii) the creation of the piece itself, including the choice of materials and qualities (of movement, sound, image); (iv) the finalization of the performative piece in regard to props, costumes, light design and transitions between sections. All the aspects of the process were filmed, and the resulting materials can be organized into four different categories according to their provenance: (a) footage from an external fixed camera, controlled by Ariadna Pujol and myself, which filmed the playing situations, the watching and the debating; (b) material coming from what Pujol was projecting live onstage as part of the piece; (c) footage from a camera used in a series of interviews; (d) material from the final dress rehearsal at the La Farinera Theatre, which included a fixed camera, a handheld camera (operated by a cameraman hired for the occasion) and the materials projected by Pujol during the performance on that particular occasion.
The materials included in Painting in the void that were filmed during fieldwork as part of the ethnomusicological research for my PhD included work with specific Japanese artforms, which presented the best potential for developing a conceptual understanding of the aesthetic dimension of hōgaku. The research was informed by sensory and audiovisual ethnography and was influenced by issues such as hegemonic systems of knowledge creation, emancipation-oriented knowledge and scriptocentrism as raised by such authors as Conquergood (2002; 2013), García Gutierrez (2013), Santos (2016) and Denzin (2003). Fieldwork also offered an opportunity for exploring less conventional ways of acquiring information and constructing and communicating knowledge in ethnomusicology. Considering that non-verbal communication has great importance in the transmission system of most Japanese artforms and that they heavily rely on the sensory, the experiential and the embodied, many of the in-depth interviews were modified in a manner that could allow an exploration of communication beyond the verbal. These modifications in the format of the interviews were organized around the two-section idea of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ in which the latter corresponds to the conventional articulation of the in-depth interview in ethnomusicological fieldwork, while the former represents the possibility of knowledge transmission closer to the ‘doing’ and the non-verbal favoured in the transmission of the above-mentioned artforms. This was positive both for the interviewees during the process of filming and in relation to the use of the material as the main way for communicating the knowledge gained through these interactions in the audiovisual narration of the film.
Granting a central position to the audiovisual as the medium for knowledge communication is a continuation of the work that has been taking place already for several decades in ethnomusicology and for an even longer time in audiovisual ethnography. This also reverberates with the potential of the audiovisual to convey certain aspects that could not easily be translated into explicit knowledge in a meaningful way through other media, and with the importance of the non-verbal transmission in the artforms and fieldwork methods presented here.
The value of the dialogue between ethnomusicology and artistic research in this project was key to finding alternative ways to develop understanding that could encompass the artistic with the academic in a meaningful way. In turn, this allowed for a broader exploration of certain dimensions of the musical that cannot be accessed through other means. These explorations are certainly not novel, but developed from previous work by authors such as Hood (1960), Titon (1995), Baily (2001) and Wong (2008; 2019) over several decades.
Collaborative research practices (Sardo 2018) were constantly present in this project. In the creative process, such practices added to the richness of the approaches being explored and implicitly contributed to the de-hierarchisation of the research. During fieldwork, collaboration facilitated the recording of materials and opened up possibilities for different fieldwork experiences to be considered. Finally, the audiovisual piece Painting in the void was created together with the filmmaker Ariadna Pujol with whom I had worked previously. The fact that she was present both in the creation process as well as in several parts of the fieldwork, offered an interesting balance in the control of the mechanisms of knowledge production as well as the invaluable dialogue between the artistic and the academic.
In the PhD, Painting in the void was used as the sole narration of the creation process of Kūkaku. This provided both positive contributions as well as limitations that need to be further explored.
The benefits include: the affinity between the non-verbal way of communication of most Japanese artforms and that of audiovisual media; the potential of the synergies between the artistic and the academic; a contribution to epistemological emancipation; and finally, the exploration of the poetic and sensory nature of the audiovisual media with all its communication potential being explored through artistic research, sensory ethnography and other fields. Painting in the void follows these paths in its own way. The limitations of this kind of approach include: firstly, the smaller number of options for sharing academic knowledge created outside the realm of the written word; secondly, projects using these strategies have budgetary implications; and thirdly, the need to master the technical aspects of filming and audio-recording as much as audiovisual narration construction and media aesthetics with equal proficiency as the written word.
The use of media beyond the written word can contribute to enriching the communication of research findings both in ethnomusicology and artistic research. This can be achieved by exploring the full communication potential of the pieces developed through the creative processes as well as through the use of the audiovisual media itself. In this kind of communication, ethnography can act as a sort of linchpin; an ethnography that is very much aligned with the sensory, opening up to the “multisensoriality of experience, perception, knowing and practice” as presented by Pink (2015, p. xi), within artistic research as well as within ethnomusicology.
Painting in the void seeks to be useful in the context of education, where it could help methodological explorations and further debate concerning the ways of creating and communicating knowledge and the balance between the artistic and the scholarly. In regard to research within the artistic realm, it aims to make a contribution to debates about the different possibilities artistic research offers to artists by presenting the power of audiovisual media, as well as by calling attention to the potential of empowering the creator through different tools of knowledge creation and communication. Finally, it has relevance in relation to developing strategies to effectively communicate aspects of the process of artistic creation.
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Conquergood, D. and Patrick Johnson, E. (2013). Cultural struggles: Performance, ethnography, praxis. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press.
Curti, H. (2022). Aesthetics of sound in Japanese hōgaku. Ethnomusicology and Artistic Research in dialogue. [unpublished]. Universidade de Aveiro.
Curti, H., Kleiman, V. and Pujol, A. (2021). Kūkaku [Performative piece]. , 2021.
Curti, H. and Pujol, A. (2017). Eolssigu! Poetic piece [audio-visual] Spain. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xde0mzR9cwk.
Curti, H. and Pujol, A. (2021). Painting in the void.
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Filmography and performative pieces
Curti, H., Kleiman, V. and Pujol, A. (2021). Kūkaku [Performative piece]. Spain: Unpublished.
Curti, H. and Pujol, A. (2017). Eolssigu! Poetic piece [audio-visual]. Spain. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xde0mzR9cwk.
Curti, H. and Pujol, A. (2021). Painting in the void. Spain.
Harbert, B.J. (2012). Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians. [film]. Films Media Group. USA.
Norton, B. (2010). Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh. Watertown, MA : Documentary Educational Resources.
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
This is a powerful documentation of an artistic process in the making. The inclusion of the videographer as an equal part of the process was very well documented here and left the viewer with a strong impression of her involvement. A few comments to the film.
In the film you are referring only to some of the most celebrated and also officially promoted mainstream art forms in Japan: noh, calligraphy, tea ceremony. They are considered the artistic face of Japan and also considered as the grand classical art forms, which the Japanese government have been investing and still are investing money in to create a certain image of Japan? It made me wonder what the reasons for choosing only so mainstream art forms were.
There is a large jump from these classical art forms to what the collaborative performance art in the film. Is the reason for this jump? It also made me wonder, if any other creative artists in Japan was contacted and interviewed or collaborated with during the fieldwork? Artists, who are doing more contemporary art also informed by the classics? They could have been steps between you and the grand classics.
The very detailed filming gave the viewer a very good impression about the efforts and the intensity in the process. However, the Japanese classical counterparts were not so detailed and gave me, the viewer an impression of a distance. The filming and editing style gave the impression of it being a painting, thus the title felt very accurate.
A few details, that I would have liked to see clarified:
What is meant with noise here? In Japan they have several words which all will be translated to noise.
The dancer has always somewhat a painful expression during her dance – which strongly contrasts Japanese dance clips. Is she more inspired by Butoh dance?
Somehow, I wish the so-called title “shakuhachi master” would not be used in an academic document. We do not say I am a guitar master, so why should this be the case with the Japanese word shihan? But that is of course a detail.
Comments to the research statement
The background explanation to the use of ethnographic film was nice and informative. But there were several places where statements were made that would have benefitted from having references. Such as ‘scriptocentric nature of most societies’… but which societies are included in most? And who claims this?
The research questions could be reformulated, so they were more precise. I did not really understand the difference between question 2 and 3.
Some Japanese terms could have been explained – especially in the way used here. And example is hōgaku, which is a very difficult word to define. Or “original environment of shakuhachi”.
It could also have been useful to have had more explanations on how film can aide decolonization of academia.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
What are the main claims and purposes of the work?
The stated aims of the work are to explore how a transdisciplinary creation process can be narrated audio-visually, and to use audio-visual media in a way that transcends ‘scriptocentrism and other hegemonic ways of knowledge production’, in particular by placing performance and creation in a central position. This is done within the context of the author’s PhD which aims ‘to deepen the knowledge of the aesthetic dimension of sound in Japanese hōgaku music’.
Does it seem to make a genuine new contribution to knowledge or understanding of practice-research?
The work does make some contributions. It is successful in its aim of using audiovisual media to go beyond hegemonic modes of knowledge production, allowing the viewers to observe, for example, how a shakuhachi master and a Nō actor/dancer explain aspects of their practices. In the parts of the video showing the creative process behind the collaboration between a video-maker, dancer and shakuhachi player the audiovisual medium allows us to view interactions between the three participants. However, these segments of creative interactions were relatively short and disjointed, and as a result I do not feel that I gained much insight into the processes involved in their collaboration.
One of the author’s stated goals is to ‘deepen the knowledge of the aesthetic dimension of sound in Japanese hōgaku music’. Although some definitions of the aesthetic concept ‘Ma’ are given in the video, I was unable to learn much about the other Japanese concepts (Neiro, Shōgai, Seigen) mentioned and drawn in shodo (calligraphy). This was largely due to lack of definitions given for these concepts and also the relatively disjointed nature of the narrative. The Japanese masters who were interviewed beautifully conveyed a few details of their performance practices, but it was often not clear how or whether these comments related to the aesthetic concepts drawn/mentioned. It was also not clear how the performance project by the three non-Japanese collaborators related to the aesthetic concepts. The concepts were sometimes mentioned, but as a viewer unfamiliar with these concepts, the video did not provide enough information to allow me to reflect on their meanings and relevance.
Is there any important relevant work that the submission does not acknowledge?
In the accompanying written statement I would have liked to see references to work by Japanese culture bearers and authors. Considering that the project has explicitly anti-hegemonic and decolonizing aims, the apparent absence of any Japanese authors in the reference list seems particularly jarring.
How strong is the research and theoretical context of the accompanying written statement?
The research context is provided and structure of the written statement works quite well. The written English is largely comprehensible notwithstanding frequent grammatical issues.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Horacio Curti Bethencourt was trained in Japan as a shakuhachi player, completed ethnomusicological studies in Barcelona and a PhD in Aveiro. He is a collaborator of INET-Aveiro and associate professor at Catalonia College of Music.
Ariadna Pujol is a documentary filmmaker focused on ethnographic research. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Documentary and collaborates regularly with researchers, dancers, performers, musicians and poets. Her first feature-length documentary, Aguaviva (2005) received the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 9th Malaga Film Festival.
Eolssigu!, by Curti and Pujol, was awarded the first prize for short film at Eight International Folk Music Film Festival.