#4- 28: Make film politically

Dmitry Vilensky /// What Does It Mean to Make Films Politically?

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01. Old Questions

All those who understand that aesthetics, politics, and economics form a vital nexus believe that art can reveal with particular force the most acute problems of social development. History is a clash between different groups who defend not only their right to speak out, but also their vision of the future. If we wish to continue the political project today we must first pose the old question: Who is the subject of historical development and knowledge? And we must actualize the simplicity of the old answer: the struggling, oppressed class itself (Benjamin).

Contemporary political art strives to be consonant with the search for this subject, not with the mythic subject of previous social revolutions. As in the mid-19th century, we are once again hard pressed to say what this subject will be like. Nowadays we should, rather, speak of a fidelity to the old answer. This doesn’t mean that filmmakers, intellectuals, and artists should personally keep faith with the current anti-capitalist movement. They should remain faithful, rather, to the space of subjectivity that gave rise to the movement.

It is this space where one affirms that making film politically means striving towards a historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development. The artist/filmmaker should discover himself in the process of becoming-“proletarian.” He should use his work to further the becoming-artist of the “proletariat,” via the participation of the masses in different forms of creativity. The question remains the same, then. It is a question of the artist’s political position: Whose side are you on?

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Igor Chubarov /// Participation and/or Manipulation: The Communicative Strategies of Eisenstein and Vertov in the LEF

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It’s all a matter of confronting the visual elements one way or another. It’s all a matter of intervals.
Dziga Vertov, “Kinoks: Revolution”

The journal of the Left Front of the Arts, LEF, was where the fathers of Soviet and world cinema, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, first announced their theoretical projects. It was still difficult, however, to sense in these brief manifestos (“Montage of Attractions” and “Kinoks”) the principal differences in how the two men saw the nature and tasks of (Soviet) cinema. These would become apparent later, in the late twenties, and would be impartially discussed in the pages of New LEF.

Their approaches might be crudely summarized as affective-manipulative (Eisenstein) and machinic-democratic (Vertov).

These stances made absolute two discrete aspects of the aesthetic doctrine of productionist art as developed within the LEF—namely, a notion of art’s goal as the sensual manipulation of the emotions of the viewer, listener, and reader versus the view of art as life-construction involving the creative participation of everyone.

It was no easy task to find a balance between these stances towards leftist art. For the LEFtists, considerations of craft and professionalism marked the limits of democratization, while the limits of professionalization itself were found in democratization’s demand that the model of art making as a closed caste of priests and “teachers of the people” be rejected.

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Florian Zeyfang /// “The Two Avant-Gardes…”

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If one approaches the ubiquitous Jean-Luc Godard from the “other side,” the other of Peter Wollen’s “Two Avant-gardes,” it seems that the experiment is what made it possible (for Godard and others) to make film politically in an ideal film world. What did this mean to experimental filmmakers? In how far is (and was) their work political?

In “The Two Avant-gardes,” an essay that appeared in Studio International in November 1975, Peter Wollen describes the discussions between two avant-garde movements. The filmmakers – he mentions the auteurs in France and a few Germans – are on one side, while the co-ops – experimental filmmakers who come from art, most of them from New York and England – are on the other. For the purposes of this small contribution, the debate between these two side can be summed up as follows: the filmmakers accused the co-ops of being elitists; the co-ops refuted this with an attack on the traditional form, whose retention would make real change impossible.

In fact, this debate has its history, if one looks at Eisenstein’s rather traditional narratives – only interrupted by short experimental sequences – and reads it in relation to Dziga Vertov, whose films Eisenstein criticizes as being camera games and nonsense. But it was precisely Vertov’s enthusiasm for formal experiment that made him into the forerunner of Cinéma Vérité AND experimental film. Eisenstein’s influence on Jean-Luc Godard is just as well-known as his love for Vertov, as manifested in the foundation of the Groupe Dziga Vertov (with Jean-Pierre Gorin and others). Godard was to radicalize Eisenstein’s concept of montage, breaking it open with camera experiments, though by that time, he had become an unknown to most of the audience.

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Christiane Post and Michael Schwarz /// The Desire for Industrialization or the Quest for Happiness

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In one of his essays [1], Jacques Rancière asks: what type of fiction is the genre of documentary film? His answer is that a documentary is not the opposite of a feature film only because it presents images of everyday life or evidence from archives instead of falling back on actors interpreting a fabricated story. It is rather a different mode of cinematographic fiction, a different way of constructing a plot, breaking down a story into sequences or assembling shots to form a story, of prolonging or condensing time. According to Rancière, a documentary film is both more homogenous and more complex. More homogenous because the person who conceives the film is also the one who realizes it, documentary cinema is thus the epitome of the author film; and more complex because sequences of heterogeneous image material are usually connected.

Our piece combines sequences from Dziga Vertov’s films “ENTHUSIASM (The Donbass Symphony)” (1930) and “THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN” (1934) with images from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s FILM-TRAIN (1932 / 33) and his feature film “HAPPINESS” (1934), setting them in relation to one another by means of montage. [2]

The films of Medvedkin and Vertov document the attempt to directly and also critically intervene in the production process via the medium of film, on the one hand through interviews with workers, film screenings and on site discussions [3], on the other by means of production propaganda. Apparently, both filmmakers were motivated by the desire to pursue “happiness” through rapid industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture, pointing out grievances on the huge construction sites, factories, and kokhoz farms of socialism, working toward their solution, [4] and predicting an idealized future. [5]

Two cycles of our collage are dedicated to this utopian illusion; in them, sequences from Vertov and Medvedkin’s film are juxtaposed through cross-fades. [6]

However, the Russian filmmakers’ efforts to stimulate the economy in the framework of the first five-year plan remained purely illusionary, especially insofar as happiness is concerned, since they did without any psychological or biological clarification of the mechanisms of desire or happiness in the human organism, either bracketing these out entirely, or relating them to the simplistic model of the conditional reflex. The relationship between economy and hedonistic emotions receives a far more differentiated treatment in Thomas Raab’s “Nachbrenner.” [7]

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Oliver Ressler /// “More visibility to activist practices…”

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I began to make films because of I was interested in forms that allow the presentation of artwork beyond the boundaries of art, a field I sometimes find restrictive. The majority of my films could be understood as attempts to afford more visibility to activist practices and social movements by describing actions, organizational forms, possibilities of agency, and underlying theories from the perspectives of the protagonists involved. Since my films do not take a “neutral” stance, they are often accused of being “partisan,” and this is something people often hold against me. However, I doubt that this “neutral” stance is even possible, since the very definition of “neutrality” derives from social power relations.

While the choice of interlocutors is influenced by the desire to transfer contents into a film, an equally important aspect is to provide certain people with a strong, self-confident position of the speaker, thus supporting their political concerns and activities. The protagonists speak in produced settings, opening a space of communication and public. A number of my films pursue the conceptual approach of using interview outtakes as the sole carrier of information, consciously leaving out voice-over commentary and bridge texts, producing the film with nothing more than the montage of these outtakes. This method gives some spectators the unintended impression that the interlocutors’ statements are overdetermined, and that the film does not question their positions enough.

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Kerstin Stakemeier /// Revolutionary Reproduction – Productivism and its Recession

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Already in their own times, Russia’s revolutionary artistic avant-gardes of the 1910s and 20s offered a highly desirable point of reference for artists outside of Russia. Be it for those who were hoping for a subsequent spreading of the revolution towards Europe, or for those who, after the frustration of those hopes in the early 1920s, believed that artistic practices could proceed to form an independent starting point for revolutionary tendencies within bourgeois capitalism.

Even when the rise of fascism in Europe demanded a drastic change of artistic politics from attacking the petit bourgeois sentimentality to countering the fascist aggression, it was the politics of the popular front, issued by the Comintern in 1934, and exiler’s journals like “Das Wort” published in Moscow, which served artists on the left in Europe as points of orientation. This was the case in spite the fact that the avant-gardes in Russia had been dragged into passivity years before. The CPSU’s decree of april 1932 “On the adjustment of all literary- and artistic organisations”, officially dissolved all autonomous artist associations into the state-run Union of Sovjet Artists and settled the dispute between the constructivist and productivist artist associations and those whose realism was based on artistic traditionalism in favour of the latter. Already since 1928, the state’s cultural policies had centralized working permissions for artists so severely, that constructivists like Gustav Klucis had to publicly denounce their commitments and obey to the national union’s slogans. In 1938, when Bert Brecht, Ernst Bloch and Alfred Kurella debated the revolutionary capacities of realism for a popular front in Europe in “Das Wort”, Klucis was arrested. In 1944 he died in a Gulag.

Stretched between affirmation and contestation, the avant-gardes in the East and West may have shared the abstract will to turn “art into life” (Tatlin), but while in Europe this meant the introduction of everyday objects and subjects into artistic practices without being able to effect an actual challenge of the role art played within bourgeois capitalism, in Russia this possibly meant the dissolution of artistic practices into means-oriented production. Boris Arvatov, one of the major theoreticians of this productivist branch of the constructivist avant-gardes formulated the revolutionary artists’ assignment in clear terms: “The work of the artist-engineer will build a bridge from production to consumption and this is why the organic engineer-like diffusion of the artist into production will, amongst all other things, be an indispensable condition of the economic system of socialism, ever more necessary as the course of socialism is completed.”

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Tom Sherman /// Vernacular Video

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What Are the Current Characteristics of Vernacular Video?

― Displayed recordings will continue to be shorter and shorter in duration, as television time, compressed by the demands of advertising, has socially engineered shorter and shorter attention spans. Video-phone transmissions, initially limited by bandwidth, will radically shorten video clips.

― The use of canned music will prevail. Look at advertising. Short, efficient messages, post-conceptual campaigns, are sold on the back of hit music.

― Recombinant work will be more and more common. Sampling and the repeat structures of pop music will be emulated in the repetitive deconstruction of popular culture. Collage, montage and the quick-and-dirty efficiency of recombinant forms are driven by the romantic, Robin Hood-like efforts of the copyleft movement.

― Real-time, on-the-fly voiceovers will replace scripted narratives. Personal, on-site journalism and video diaries will proliferate.

― On-screen text will be visually dynamic, but semantically crude. Language will be altered quickly through misuse and slippage. Will someone introduce spell-check to video text generators?

― Crude animation will be mixed with crude behaviour. Slick animation takes time and money. Crude is cool, as opposed to slick. Slow motion and accelerated image streams will be overused, ironically breaking the real-time-and-space edge of straight, unaltered video.

― Digital effects will be used to glue disconnected scenes together; paint programs and negative filters will be used to denote psychological terrain. Notions of the sub- or unconscious will be
objectified and obscured as quick and dirty surrealism dominates the creative use of video.

― Extreme sports, sex, self-mutilation and drug overdoses will mix with disaster culture; terrorist attacks, plane crashes, hurricanes and tornadoes will be translated into mediated horror through vernacular video.

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Hito Steyerl /// The Uncertainty of Documentarism

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I vividly remember a strange broadcast a few years ago. On one of the first days of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a senior CNN correspondent was riding in an armored vehicle. Jubilantly, he stuck a direct broadcast cell phone camera out of the window. He exclaimed that never before had this type of live broadcast been seen. And that was indeed true. Because one could hardly see anything on these pictures. Due to the low resolution, the only things in sight were green and brown blotches, slowly moving across the screen. Actually, the picture looked like the camouflage of combat fatigues; one could only guess at what these abstract compositions were supposed to depict.

Are these documentary images? If we use a conventional definition of the documentary, the answer to this question is obviously no. They bear no similarity to reality; we have no basis for judging whether reality is being shown here in any objective way. But one thing is clear: they seem real enough. No doubt many people in the audience think they are documentary images. Their aura of authenticity is a direct result of their unintelligibility.

The answer lies in their lack of focus, their uncertainty. This lack of focus does not only give the images the desired feel of authenticity; it is also very revealing, if one looks more closely. Because by now, this type of image has become ubiquitous. We are surrounded by rough-cut and increasingly abstract “documentary” images, shaky, dark, or out-of-focus, images that show little else than their own excitement. [1] The more immediate they become, the less there is to see. They evoke a situation of permanent exception and constant crisis, a state of heightened tension and vigilance. The closer to reality we get, the less focused and jumpier the image becomes. Let us call this the uncertainty principle of modern documentarism.

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Ashley Hunt and Katya Sander /// But you, you’re not cinema. (Sorry I have to tell you this)

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>>> I thought I had written this down somewhere in my notebook, but it’s not there. Maybe I wrote it somewhere else.
>>> Maybe you dreamed it, or maybe you should make sure no one’s ripping pages out of your notebooks. They could be stealing your ideas.
>>> In any case, I am interested in the camera. Or what it means to see a camera; the frame that is presumed when one sees a camera.

If you catch these thieves, you might ask them how vision is affected by the mass-distribution of images — images captured by cameras, framed by lenses, operated by camera operators and directed by directors and paid for by producers, translated into emulsion, magnetic waves or digital bits, edited by editors and distributed massively by entities with an enormous reach into the spaces we inhabit and travel through?

>>> You’re not talking about seeing a camera, you’re talking about just seeing, right? Do you mean how they see the world differently because of the images that exist in it as well as of it? In-and-of the world?
>>> And the structure of those images. What they picture and what they conceal; what they postulate and what they shut down; where they place you and who they ask you to be. Similarly, how do these technological images in turn structure how we see the world? Is our vision technologized?
>>> Okay, I’ll do that. Should I record their answers?
>>> Please.
>>> By now, most people know how a camera works, how it “sees,” or at least most people feel they know this. They don’t just see the black piece of equipment on the tripod or the shoulder of the camera-operator, they see something else too: They see a space in front of the camera, a space defined by the framework of the lens and what can be seen through that lens; what can be recorded.

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British Sounds. Transcript of the film by Jean-Luc Godard

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In a word, the bourgeoisie creates a world in its image.Comrades! We must destroy that image!A spectre is haunting Britain: the spectre of communism. All the forces of the old and new imperialism have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: British Petroleum and pop music, the Eurodollar and anti-trade union laws, Elizabeth the dunce and Wilson the traitor.


Eurodollars are time deposits denominated in U.S. dollars at banks outside the United States, and thus are not under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve. Consequently, such deposits are subject to much less regulation than similar deposits within the U.S., allowing for higher margins. The term was originally coined for U.S. dollars in European banks, but it expanded over the years to its present definition: a U.S. dollar-denominated deposit in Tokyo or Beijing would be likewise deemed a Eurodollar deposit. There is no connection with the euro currency or the euro zone.


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Hito Steyerl /// In Defense of the Poor Image

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The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.

The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology. Not only is it often degraded to the point of being just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all. Only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.

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This special issue of Chto Delat is published in the framework of the exhibition “The Electrification of Brains”
Idea and realization: Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat /What is to be done?)

This publication is published in the frame work of the project “The Electrification of Brains”,
a project funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation
the Saxonian Cultural Foundation
the Saxonian State Ministry of Cultus
the City of Dresden, Department for Cultur and Heritage


Das Projekt “Die Elektrifizierung der Gehirne” wurde gefördert durch:
Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Kulturstiftung des Freistaates Sachsen
Sächsisches Staatsministerium für Kultus
Landeshauptstadt Dresden, Amt für Kultur und Denkmalschutz

Special thanks to all artists, authors, translators, and friends who made this publication possible.

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