Echo and Narcissus


Author: Coral Houtman
Format: Multi-screen drama
Duration: 11 minutes, 30 seconds

Research Statement

The legend, as told by Ovid, is that Echo loves Narcissus but is unable to express that love because she does not have a voice of her own, and Narcissus is unable to hear and respond to her call, because he is trapped within self love, and his own image. Echo is all sound – only her “echo” remains after her death – and Narcissus is all image, and this seemed to me a very good basis for constructing an installation using sound and image in a formally innovative way. My initial thoughts were to create a Bill Viola like installation using slow motion and high definition images with Narcissus at one end of the video space, captured in his own image, looking into a pool, in slow motion, and expressing love for himself, whilst Echo at the other end echoes his call of love and opens her arms towards him. The sound world would then be open for the spectators’ sounds also to be echoed. However, although this speaks to the reflexivity of gallery video work, I decided that the piece needed more context and more of a story, and I decided to use the film craft skills of myself and my collaborators to create a narrative piece. The piece needed more space for the narration and became a five screen installation, with screens surrounding the audience on all sides, where for, I believe, the first time, the five screens create a coherent imaginary space where characters interact in piece of dramatic interaction which moves away from video art to become a film drama “remediation”(Bolter & Grusin) of multi-screen, gallery work.

Research Questions
The theme of Echo and Narcissus is the need to overcome narcissism in a hyper mediated age. At the time of the conception of the piece, the Second Gulf War was taking place, and I knew no one who agreed with the policies of the Allies – there was a great feeling of political impotence, particularly in the face of the media. Echo, with her voice dictated by those of others, and Narcissus’s self involvement are powerful emblems of our lack of agency in the face of wrong, and the Gods Hera and Zeus, who reduce them to this position, symptomatic of the arbitrary nature of current political discourse. Zeus and Hera control a mediatized world – they have a television remote control through which they see and control the human world.   I also wanted to show that we are not completely powerless in the face of abusive power, but have some chances of speaking discourse differently. I therefore created new endings for Echo and Narcissus where, despite the seeming lack of choice they face, they do manage to surmount their difficulties and change the world. However, the endings are not conventionally “happy” or even totally controlled by the characters, but are “performative” in Judith Butler’s sense of the word.

The questions relate to the field because a) the drama thematises psychoanalytic and feminist literature and explores how to make this fiction, and b) the multi-screen experiment explores a growing field of gallery and expanded cinema.

The piece remediates various different fields of practice: video art, theatre, multi-screen fiction film, and it is primarily this mixture which creates a new advance on previous practice.

Multi-screen gallery fiction (expanded cinema):

John Adams’ Hindsight (Parip 2005), based on the Orpheus legend, also uses multi-screens displayed around a gallery, in this case, to create the effects of Orpheus looking back to see Eurydice which is mirrored by the audience looking back across the screens. Echo continues this experiment, but also includes interactive elements.   It also uses Shakespearian staging (with upper and lower levels) to provide interest, and to explore audience point of viewl.

Split Screen fiction: David Hockney has argued for a number of years that viewers of both still pictures and video are bored with linear, photographic perspective and that multi-screen montage offers a new way of building of creating a more psychologically truthful way of looking that reflects the human eye’s multiple points of focus and is using video for his latest landscape pieces (The South Bank Show Season 37 Episode 6 David Hockney Revisited, May 2nd 201. The context for Echo is Eisensteinian montage, developed in the 1920’s but more recently: Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966), Multiple SIDosis (Sid Laverents, 1970), Prospero’s Books, (Peter Greenaway,1991), Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2005). However, although Echo deploys many of the techniques of these other films, particularly freeing up time and using screens to show tangential material, the main advance is that Echo is a synchronised drama where characters talk to each other and pursue action between screens instead of just within them.

Video Art: Bill Viola’s The Crossing (1996) and TV Buddha (Nam June Paik, 1974), were both primary sources for exploring narcissism within the gallery. Although Echo has moved away from this contemplative reflexive visual art, screen savers of Echo and Narcissus still reproduce some of the effects whilst being integrated in a drama.

My main methods derive from fiction film making. This includes script-writing, storyboarding, directing actors and crew, editing, producing etc.

How to create a setting of virtual space which creates a holistic sense of a fictional world through the use of eyelines, synchronized sound and character interaction between screens

The creation of a geographic world through the adaptation of the conventions of Greek and Shakespearian theatre, so that the action happens on several levels (the Gods in “Heaven” above; the humans at eye level, and the demi-god Tiresias, below). These are linked through dialogue, eyelines, and use of landscape shots in montage on various screens.

The use of slow motion and speed effects to create dialogue interaction between characters in different environments on different screens

The use of “screen savers” to stand in for characters’ when they are not directly interacting within scenes.

How to use the metaphor of game choice to create drama, where the audience reflect on their need for agency in the story and in the wider social order.

The work was funded in the development project by a Research Support Scheme grant from the University of Wales Newport in 2007, and the filming was supported by the Skillset Screen Academy Wales.

It has been shown in development at the Meccsa conference 2008, 2011, at the JMP Conference 2008, 2011, and at the ASCA Workshop in Amsterdam in 2010.

It will be shown in the Riverfront Art Gallery in Newport in Autumn 2012.

Peer Reviews

 All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.

Review 1: Invite resubmission with re-edit of statement
tarting with the work itself, this is an interesting project which is well realised in terms of telling a story across multiple screens and offering three choices to create an interactive ending. It is a script-led work, which is unusual for multi-screen screen works and which makes good use of the form. The three layers of screen – top, middle and bottom – work well within the context of the story being told, referencing Greek drama and Shakespearean theatre in an appropriate manner. In relation to this, the film techniques used to reflect the three lines of site – from heaven, through earthly world, to underworld – are effective. There is also a good sense of movement between the screens, as characters talk to each other and move in and out of each other’s frames. This works very well, as does the juxtaposition of long-shots and close-ups across the different screens. Although the acting is a little hammy at times, this piece works well as a remediated dramatic narrative told in an expanded film context.

What is less resolved in terms of the work is the context of its viewing. What is presented here is essentially a linear film with an interactive ending. Whilst the author says that the piece is to be made more interactive for the web, with the viewer being able to roll over the individual frames to enlarge them, the purpose of this is not at all clear. How does this add to the delivery of the story? Also in the supporting statement the author says that the work has already been shown in various places but the context of the screenings is not made clear. Is the work intended for a communal interactive cinema type experience, in which the audience is required to engage with the complete work in one sitting, or is it more for a gallery installation context? If it is the latter, then what are the issues involved in bringing a mediated dramatic narrative into a gallery context where video art is the norm? These questions need to be addressed, in order for the work to be placed in context and the issues arising from it to be recognised.

In addition to this, the theoretical framing of the work is underdeveloped. There needs to be more discussion in the author’s statement around expanded filmmaking and remediated dramatic narrative. It is not good enough to suggest that this work is unique in its efforts to create a script-led approach to expanded cinema. The author needs to do more research into this field and to place the work within a much stronger theoretical context for it to be presented as a piece of theorized practice. There are too many statements that are taken as a given – for example: why does the author want to construct an installation using sound and image in a formally innovative way, why did the piece need more of a context and a story, in what way are the endings performative in the Judith Butler sense of the word? The work, on the other hand, could either be left as it is or could be presented in its web-based format. Either way, the author will need to provide some context behind its intended viewing and some discussion of the issues arising from bringing this type of work into that context.

I feel that it will be worth the extra work, as the piece itself is interesting and well realised. The film-making is poetic and the work addresses a set of themes/issues that are highly relevant to our times. Although I think that the author is over-claiming its innovative nature, there is enough to warrant publication in Screenworks if the author can find an appropriate form of contextualization.

Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of statement
Echo and Narcissus is a 5-screen work inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The screens are arranged with one screen at the top, three in the middle and one at the bottom. The three planes represent the Gods, the human earthly world and the underworld respectively. The work itself is interesting on a number of levels. Formally, it experiments effectively with the multi-screen configuration, building on works such as John Adam’s Hindsight and the idea of expanded cinema. The arrangement of screens is interesting and the timing and editing between screens work so that they interact between both the upper world of the Gods and the lower world of Tiresias. A lot of thought has gone into the matching of eyelines and how the screens relate to each other. In the version presented the multiple endings offer a glimpse of how the interactive version might work. If the interactive version is now available it might be worth linking to it from the screenworks site when published. The acting is somewhat stylised, and rather reminiscent of 1950s epic films, but this is partially explained by the reference to Shakespearian drama.

The project is also interesting as an exploration of gender and sexuality, with Hera offering a counterpoint to the usual roles available to women, as a sexually active older woman, in tandem with the androgynous Tiresias; Narcissus’s self-love and homoerotic desire and the multiple readings of Echo and Narcissus’s relationship. Indeed it is Hera’s argument with Zeus about the nature of sexual pleasure which propels the narrative. More could have been made of this in the research statement, particularly in terms of the psychoanalytic theorisation it might afford. The project attempts to engage with contemporary politics with the conceit of the Gods having a remote control surfing through new channels on Earth and the statement outlines the project’s wish to comment on the second Gulf war. The Gods’ remote control also functions to introduce the interactive element of the story with at one point three choices appearing, inviting the viewer to save Echo and Narcissus, leave it up to Fate or leave it up to the Gods.

The statement offers a useful reflection on the development process, the way the project shifted from a more conventional gallery-based installation, to one that drew more on traditional narrative film techniques within the innovative multi-screen framework. The inspiration for the idea as located in the image of Narcissus as opposed to the audio of Echo is interesting. However, I wanted more clearly laid out research questions at this point and there is a sense that the work has not been fully described in its entirety here. For example in the outcomes it mentions “game choice” but this does not relate to the description of the project – could this be expanded upon in relation to the “interactive” web version mentioned at the beginning. Indeed, more sense of the different exhibition set-ups would be useful. The work is presented as a single screen divided into 5 screens – is this the intended viewing format, what is the gallery set up? – again this could be elaborated briefly.

The context section could usefully refer to more Shakespearian and epic film references, but the gallery and split screen context is good as far as it goes, although it would have been useful to see Able Gance’s Napoleon in there as evidence of multi-screen work having a longer history – it might also be worth having a look at to situate the project within the wider debates in scholarship in this area. The statement could generally do with more rigour in terms of including the references in a bibliography / filmography for ease of reference.

The methodology is weak – describing the process of filmmaking, rather than a research framework – what about the research into Greek myth or the mediatisation of war mentioned in the statement? What about the R&D into the multi-screen set up and the collaborative process? This section of the statement needs to be revisited if the work is to be published on Screenworks.

Other points to address:

Research Questions
Para 1, “I believe for the first time” – can this be explored further?

Bolter & Grusin – include in bibliography

You haven’t really elaborated on the “game choice” mentioned here above – can you unpack and explain a bit more?
Research Questions
Para 1, “I believe for the first time” – can this be explored further?
Bolter & Grusin – include in bibliography

Para 2, “created new endings” – Is this the game element mentioned below? Can you elaborate on this? You mention an interactive web version – how will this work and how will it differ from the gallery installation?
Judith Butler – include full refs in bibliography
Add research questions.
Elaborate on viewing options / interactivity, etc.

Para 3, include these films in a filmography?
Add Able Gance’s Napoleon and wider split screen studies context.
Add something about the gender politics explored in the work?

What about research methods into a) Greek mythology b) mediatisation?

You haven’t really elaborated on the “game choice” mentioned here above – can you unpack and explain a bit more?

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