Breathless - A Postproduction by John Abrams
Breathless - A Postproduction Year of production: 2011 Running Time: 3:43 min
The purpose of this paper is to clarify the direction and goals of my project Breathless - A Postproduction and to define its creative mission within a conceptual context. In the process of breaking down the boundaries between media – particularly between traditional and new media – new ways of looking can be found. Breathless - A Postproduction is a creative undertaking that seeks to push these boundaries to develop a work of art that is capable of slipping between the categories of existing visual art disciplines. The slippage itself acts as the punctum, the element that activates the work, develops a resonance and makes it vibrate.1
The most exciting development in contemporary painting, in my view, is the adaptation of the methodologies used in time-based media. Especially pertinent to my project is the strategy of using existing cultural objects – film, art and narratives – that already have systems of signs and signifiers, existing languages. These languages or codes can then be applied – like the artist’s palette of colours – to reconstruct, remake or alter the dynamic of the conversation. This approach allows me to communicate to the viewer in a common vocabulary and offers a point of entry into the ongoing dialogues that make up contemporary culture. With my project Breathless - A Postproduction, I address the world of pre-existing images and visual systems into which we are born.
The material form of the final product will be a video, though my process will employ various artistic techniques and strategies. In Breathless - A Postproduction my central undertaking will be to alter and transform Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film A bout de souffle (Breathless). In the process of my transformation I will employ four key elements, four layers of distortion through which to examine the respective languages of modern painting and cinema and, more broadly, the narrative of modernity as a whole. The result becomes a sixty minute artistic spectacle that does not restrain itself, and which tests the limits of artistic contribution with its creative process.
Breathless - A Postproduction proposes and investigates a series of interrelated questions:
1. How do cinema and art, as advanced systems of representation, structure ways of seeing and pleasure in looking?
2. Where are the precedents in appropriating found cultural forms to remix and create alternate works?
3. What strategies are best suited to deconstruct and at the same time offer an analysis of existing narratives?
4. How do the various modes of interaction with cultural forms shift our perception of relationships between the transmission and reception of art?
This looks to the writings of Nicolas Bourriaud, Jacques Rancière and Laura Mulvey to analyze the potential for meaning that can unfold throughout this process of disrupting the structure of cinematic language.
The first layer of distortion in Breathless - A Postproduction involves a dual slippage of the cinematic image from film to painting and back to film. Using as source material a series of images that I have appropriated from Godard’s original work, film stills transformed through the possibilities of the painted medium, this step involves converting the painted canvases into digital images and reinserting them into the original movie. The act of introducing these altered images back into the work from which they were sourced unsettles the film and creates a tension between the two media. At the same time as the paintings flow with the narrative of Breathless, they also perform an analytical function, invoking style, influences and forms of knowledge from the perspective of the painter.
In the tradition of Cubist, Dada and Pop art, the Breathless paintings that I have produced in recent years are part of a body of work that has gained its inspiration and images from various forms of popular culture. The focus of my recent artistic practice has been to investigate the possibilities of translating existing cinema into the language of painting. The reworking of formal, conceptual and aesthetic ideas across visual art mediums has been an exciting and informative endeavour in my practice, allowing for involvement in the current dialogue of time-based work and addressing challenges to more traditional ways of making art. Film acts as a shortcut to reality; we are so well-versed in film’s strategies of presentation that we often describe our personal lives and personal realities in filmic terms.
My practice of taking pre-existing films, painting sequential scenes and then installing them in a variety of different configurations offers alternate possibilities for reading cinematic and narrative codes. For example, taking a set of twenty-five scenes from the film Lawrence of Arabia, painting them in a 6 x 8 inch format in various shades of blue, and then hanging them in the shape of a drop of water politicizes the imagery, alluding to issues like the commoditization of water and the dividing-up of the Middle East. Other projects from this series of work have engaged the language of painting as a way of interpreting the language of film, not dissimilar to the way a book is made into a film, or a script is turned into living theatre. Each translation is open to reinterpretation through different productions over time. In these endeavours I have utilized the gallery wall as a screen in order to expose a different visual relationship with the audience than is experienced in the cinema. As Nicolas Bourriaud suggests, we inhabit pre-existing narratives and never stop fabricating the forms that suit us.2
The second strategy that I employ to interact with Godard’s film is to re-shoot certain scenes from the narrative of Breathless, then re-mix them back into the original. It is interesting that the shots can develop a direct dialog with the scenes originally captured on film fifty years ago, reflecting the distance the passage of time has left in its wake. This process of linking the high tech of the original Breathless and low tech of the re-mix is another approach to creating a dialogue encompassing both clash and continuum. Jacques Rancière describes the practice of setting up a conflict between heterogeneous elements and tying them together, creating meaning while at the same time reflecting a history displaced.3 This zone of displacement becomes the arena of discourse between different ideas, forms, narratives and generations.
The third layer of my reworking involves using the tools available in various editing software to explore different ways of looking and modes of perception. The aesthetic choices made by Godard in A bout de souffle are carefully thought out and deeply evocative. The ability to digitally manipulate elements of the images themselves as well as choices in sequencing, framing and perspective holds enormous potential for deconstruction and analysis. Focusing on the interplay between the individual image and the sequential narrative, I can experiment with presenting the images that make up the film.
A key element of Godard’s film – of the cinematic form as a whole – is its use of music, dialogue, atmospheric sound and silence to evoke meaning. I am interested, particularly in the slippages in meaning that occur between multisensory and purely visual forms of art. The sound for Breathless - A Postproduction comprises a remix of sound effects, music and the film’s original dialogue, addressing and stimulating ideas around history and memory. Like other aspects of this video project, heterogeneous elements work together to form a continuous line of thought while simultaneously remaining at odds with one another, creating clashes that resonate by oscillating back and forth.
In considering the selection of sound components for this video work, a key part of my artistic vision has been the use of the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil. Notably, Godard was invited into the recording studio by the Rolling Stones in order to film the song’s creation and recording, a project which became Godard’s well-known film of the same name. This event took place ten years after the making of A bout de souffle.
The two filmic creations, A bout de souffle and Sympathy for the Devil, offer two separate narratives yet are also the same story in the context of Godard’s career; the two forms of history vibrate when used in unison. Godard also moved back and forth in the making of his Rolling Stones film, from documentary-style footage to a staged format that develops a reverberation of cinematic ideas, between the fictional narrative and the narrative as witness to history.
The final phase in developing Breathless - A Postproduction is to interweave with the existing plot a narrative of modern art, more specifically the canonical narrative of Modern Western art. This act functions as an investigation into the notion of modernity and in a certain sense collaborates with Godard’s investigation into what, exactly, it means to be modern. This combining of narratives becomes another method of setting up conflicts between heterogeneous elements throughout the narrative of Godard’s Breathless.
In this phase I draw on images and symbols in recent art history, using them as signs and signifiers that build a language and allow an insight into the dialogues and relationships that enriched the Modernist experience and in turn propelled new strategies of finding the new in art. My goal in re-interpreting a series of available cultural products and commingling the narratives therein is to create an artwork that in the end becomes a personal expression and iteration of my artistic stance. Collaging these various found time-based elements functions not only as an investigation of these pre-existing narratives but also a re-animation of the various stories in a common zone where relationships and exchanges manifest. This work creates a space for these time-based ideas to meet, exploring these potential relationships by opening dialogues or exchanges.
The act of remaking inscribes the work of art with signs and signifiers, inserting the piece into an area of dialogue, a zone of activity and a space of exchange.4
A bout de souffle takes systems of existing codes and begins to create a space to explore their creative potential. Godard brought together different cultural references through images, sound and narratives, provoking a confrontation with the myth of the artist as the autonomous creative genius.
There is a synchronicity in reworking and reshooting a Godard film; at one time Godard himself planned to reshoot the film Love Story. This approach to creating cinema, the seventh art, leads us to one of Godard’s main objectives: to remind the audience that film and art have histories and have evolved through many conventions.5 In A bout de souffle he inserts abundant references to the history of art and film, boldly exposing his points of reference by not only placing these signs but also incorporating them within the narrative. For example, at one point in the story, Michel, who is on the run, stops to contemplate an image of Humphrey Bogart, leading the spectator to consider Godard’s film noir influences.
This method creates a place where two different desires are in conflict with one another: the desire for continuous narrative structure and the desire to investigate film as a larger set of structures and conventions. These two logics, the dialectical and the symbolic, create a stress in the image sentence, two clashing narratives.6 Like a guitar string, the resulting tension between the two ways of thinking becomes an instrument, capable of expressing ideas in the form of a note or song when played.
In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey talks about the importance of analysis in transcending outworn or oppressive forms, breaking with normal pleasurable expectations to conceive a new language of desire. Mulvey addresses the language and structure of film, the ways in which it uses gender together with the act of looking to reflect the assumptions and obsessions of the society which produced it.7 Traditional narrative film, which A bout de souffle at once conforms to and critiques, uses the sexual objectification of the female character as the object of the gaze. She is placed within the film narrative as an erotic object for the characters in the story and a sexual object for the spectator in the theatre. Mulvey states that the active/passive heterosexual division of labour controls narrative structure, the man’s active role serving to make things happen in the story. This allows the male character the power, leaving the female lacking.
The fictional world on the screen becomes subject to the laws of the prevailing symbolic order; Freud’s castration complex and Lacan’s mirror stage are at play within the formal narrative at the same time as the male stars function as ego ideals through which the spectator may voyeuristically derive pleasure. Godard’s film presents to us yet again these images from the established symbolic order, images that have been used to maintain the status quo; yet the structure of the viewing experience has become more encompassing and potent, more influential, even in its power of reinforcement so that now the resulting filmic analysis becomes a political act of subversion.
In mapping out the strategies of Breathless - A Postproduction it becomes evident that the images are political and the power inherent in their use and meaning, as in any of the forms that language takes, has the potential to contribute to the reinforcement of the established order and its oppression of the individual. Because the strategy of integrating found cultural objects, used as creative materials, develops from a system of functioning codes, the artistic activity that endeavours to alter, change, navigate and re-evaluate the substance of this material becomes a form of analysis. Mulvey clearly illustrates the potential for analysis to empower.
Bourriaud also addresses this connection between analysis and artistic activity, describing them as “two sorts of subjectivity production, interconnected, two operational systems, two preferred tool systems,”8 when he writes about Felix Guattari’s work on subjectivity. Breathless - A Postproduction breaks in to investigate and participate in the existing conversations that have developed from the concepts and methodologies incorporated in the work of artists like Jean-Luc Godard, Marcel Duchamp and Douglas Gordon.
With Breathless - A Postproduction, I investigate Rancière’s idea that the mixing of materialities is conceptual before it is real.9 The precedent of appropriating existing forms finds its roots in the artists of the Dada movement, the Surrealists, the Pop artists and the Fluxists, who all used found images and source material harvested from popular culture in their work to blur the boundaries between art and everyday reality.
When Marcel Duchamp made the creative leap with his readymades he opened a whole new avenue of possibilities; by using found objects, and, by extension, existing cultural objects, one can interrogate art’s relationship to the world and the world’s relationship to art.
Joseph Kosuth states that in act of creating the readymade “art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said...this change – one from appearance to conception – was the beginning of modern art and the beginning of conceptual art.”10
The idea of the artist’s act of choosing having conceptual significance changed what art could be. The idea itself became the work of art, sparking the birth of conceptual art. Duchamp selected objects from the everyday – a snow shovel (En prevision du bras casse, 1915), a urinal (Fountain, 1917), and a coat rack (Trebuchet, 1917) – and exhibited the pieces in gallery settings with little interaction between the artist and the art. When Duchamp presented the manufactured object as a conceptual work of art, he changed the emphasis of the creative process from manual skill to the gaze of the artist. Bourriaud concurs, when he writes with reference to Duchamp’s readymades that the act of exhibiting the found objects completes the meaning of the word creation: “to create is to insert an object into a new scenario, to consider it a character in a narrative.”11
My project strategically employs found objects, challenging what is considered appropriate to recycle in the spirit of artistic scrutiny. Cultural objects like film narratives, art, images and histories already function with a system of signs and signifiers; they are structures of representation, strategies already in place to analyze, create and use in various approaches. The arrangement of forms that make Breathless - A Postproduction allows for alternate modes of reading the codes that shift the problems of language and boundaries to expression, these problems that reflect the position of the viewer in patriarchal society.12 The spectator encounters familiar visual systems that, when placed in different contexts, question the prevailing methods of perception in contemporary culture.
“Instead of prostrating ourselves before works of the past, we can use them.”13
Godard’s interaction with and involvement in social, artistic and cinematic histories, uses the narrative function to deconstruct established forms of knowledge. He rebels against conventional cinematic grammar by integrating histories into the film. For instance, the inclusion of president Eisenhower’s visit to France in A bout de souffle becomes part of the setting by chance, evoking the political moment when America starts to get deeply involved in the war in Vietnam while France is simultaneously withdrawing.
Bourriaud states that the real, to be really thought, must be inserted into fictional narratives.14 A bout de souffle then becomes ideal to use as a core structure to mold with other levels of stories to challenge established notions that support the official edifice. In Rancière’s writings on history as fiction, he affirms this line of reasoning; the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.15 Politics and art construct stories, using images and signs to create relationships between what is seen and what is said.
History as a narrative has the potential to constantly shift meaning, depending on its placement and juxtaposition with other subjective views and relationships. Painting has its own narrative that tells of the path taken, the challenges encountered, the tactile experience derived from the act of painting and of course the barrage of ideas gleaned from wherever the artist finds inspiration. The possibilities are exciting; Breathless - A Postproduction explores what can be done with these materials to invest in artistic development and compose new formations.
Mixing historic narratives, personal experience and cinematic tropes allows me to explore the gap between what is perceived as fiction versus what is perceived as reality. Poetics needn’t to succumb to the tyranny of the timeline to evoke meaning, but work does become more powerfully engaging when it incorporates forms from actual existing material.
With the insertion of paintings into film, another deeper level of reverberation occurs, between the ideas of memory inherent in the two different media. Painting involves a certain form of memory; considering a subject, whether in literal space and time or in the mind’s eye, and then shifting the gaze to the canvas, the artist retains the vision of the original image while applying the memory to the canvas. The mechanical process of the camera presents a different form and a different process of memory.
Roland Barthes helps define the relationship between painting and photography in Camera Lucida. He writes:
“Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs, which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often “chimeras.” Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography.”16
A painted scene from a movie shares the imagery of the still shot from the film but the painting and the film do not share the same meaning. They fall into the realm of binary opposition. The event of combining the cinematic scene and the same image rendered in paint becomes an act of deconstruction.
Creating and recognizing oppositions between diverse elements activates the processes that make up Breathless- A Postproduction. The various processes that together will comprise the final video work incorporate existing cultural objects with existing language which can then be applied in ways that alter or remake the relationship between the narrative, the artist and the spectator within contemporary culture. Breathless- A Postproduction questions these divisions to create a work of art that is capable of making the boundaries between the various media reverberate.
This paper has concentrated on addressing the conceptual and processual elements of a video work that explores various contemporary strategies of art making. The modification of Godard’s established film becomes a zone of action that activates relationships between multiple media and representational structures to investigate how we perceive our surroundings and ourselves. Ultimately, the finished video work is an exploration of the boundaries, and an attempt to take things to the limit and beyond, activates a dialectic between the wildness of the form and the introspection of the idea.
1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 43-45.
2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas &Sternberg, 2002) 64.
3 Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London, England: Verso, 2003) pg 60.
4 Bourriaud, Postproduction,17.
5 Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976) 543.
6Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (London: Verso, 2003) 58-62.
7Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen (1975) 16.3:6-18.
8Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les presses du reel, 2002) 88-99.
9 Rancière, The Future of the Image, 42.
10 Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy,” Art in Theory 1900 – 2000, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (New York: Blackwell, 2003), 854.
11 Bourriaud, Postproduction, 25.
12 Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun”, The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan (New York: Routledge, 2000) 182-184.
13 Bourriaud, Postproduction, 94.
14 Bourriaud, Postproduction, 57.
15 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004) 38.
16 Barthes, 76-77.