“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations”
― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
I've been thinking recently that it is possible the 'real' fake news, is that fake news is news and ‘post truth’ is a thing. (see for example, Ed Straw). The idea that we have suddenly descended into an era where /truth/the real is no longer identifiable seems bizarre to me, given the dominance of the post-war postmodern discorse that has been around since the 60s, ie
“the rejection of certain central features of the modern project, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge, along with its dualism and its assumption of the goodness of knowledge.” ― Stanley Grenz and John Franke, 2001
The dominant contemporary discourse seems to be veering back towards - or even beyond - a modernist certainty of absolutes. Are we now post-postmodern? From a quick internet search, it turns out (of course) that many people are thinking about what post-postmodernism might be. As well as post-postmodernism, there’s formulations of 'altermodernism', 'trans-postmodernism', 'postmillienialism', 'pseudo/digimodernism', 'metamodernism'. For example (eg see wikipedia), Metamodernism:
“the 'informed naivety', 'pragmatic idealism' and 'moderate fanaticism' of the various cultural responses to, among others, climate change, the financial crisis, and (geo)political instability. The prefix 'meta' here refers to a movement between opposite poles as well as beyond”.
― Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker, 2010
I don’t know about you, but this chimes with my anxiety about the complexity and high stakes of what is going on and our inability to respond to it. I come from a background of conflict resolution in which the starting point is there is no such thing as ‘a truth’. There is, however, an assumption: that the root of the conflict will be uncertainties. And those uncertainties – and the assumptions that are made in the face of them - can only be reduced through looking at things from multiple perspectives, coming to some kind of deeper understanding that won’t pin point a truth, but will enable a more nuanced ‘something’ to emerge.
“In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one 'episteme' that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.”
― Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
Given these concerns, I was interested to find out about two ‘hybrid formats’ (for want of a better word) that are being increasingly used by artists to ask questions and explore/subvert ‘knowledge’ - Essay Films and Performance Lectures. Both the Essay Film and Performance Lecture are a bit tricky to define. They lie on a contiuum of other forms of film, essays, art, performance and lectures, but they have somehow carved out a niche that someone (who?) has deemed specific enough to be named. I have a sense that they are an idea or an organising framework than actual things.
But I like they way they have potential to incorporate different Ways of Knowing: emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, language, memory, reason, sense perception… [Isn’t it interesting how alphabeticising the list makes it look ‘loaded’?]… as well as questioning those ways of knowing. In particular they offer a way of messing about with/minimizing the use of language, in a sort of poststructuralist kind of way. And there are a lot of women artists using both formats.
So here's a bit of information about both, just in case you are interested....
The Essay Film
From what I can gather (and please feel free to correct me!), Essay Film seems to be something of a “sprawling international phenomenon”, a form of film making that combines elements of documentary and experimental filmmaking with personal and /or politically engaged exploration. They are varied in length, complexity and subject matter, ranging from video-essay activism, documents of the impact of war, historical reconstruction, poetry as anti-colonial gesture, self-portraiture, the diary form, found footage historiography, and meditations on landscape and bloody histories layered and rooted within them. There is also often some kind of first person voice over, a kind of a cinematic form of 'thinking out loud'. And there is often a critical engagement with forms of cinema, as well as questioning the world that the cinema inhabits. And there are lots that have been made by women.
Essay films – or films that could be described as essay films - seem also to have been around a long time: There’s an indepth piece about the essay film by the BFI, together with clips of examples across the world, spanning early 1900s to present. I particularly enjoyed No 10, the Black Audio Film Collective“Handsworth Songs”; No 9 Sans Soleil by Chris Maker; Toute La Memoire Du Monde by Alain Resnais; The House is Black by (Khaneh siah ast) Forough Farrokhzad.
In April, I quested to the Film Essay Festival at the ICA in London. There was a sense that the Film Essay was having a renaissance, full of contemporary relevance: “Coursing through the entire programme,” they said, “is a keenly felt apprehension of how the present connects with the past, how the individual connects with the social body, and how seeing is inflected by power and ideology – preoccupations that seem especially urgent and pertinent at this troubled juncture. “
Two film-makers stood out for me, Babette Mongolte and Deborah Stratman. “Sometimes I make films that are more essays, visual essays”, said Stratman, “when there is some complex idea that I want to get at, and I want the film to do the intellectual work, but without relying on language”. If you'd like to find out more, you can see her Masterclass on vimeo
There are also Essay Films to be seen in the Tanks at Tate Modern at the moment (although they aren't labelled as such), for example John Akomfrah's 'The Unfinished Conversation', 2012 three screen exploration of identity as a product of history and memory....
The Performance Lecture
"Speaking at length about something does not offer the slightest guarantee that thereby understanding is advanced" ― Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening
“The lecture as we know it has been declared dead. A new type of lecture, the metalecture or lecture 2.0 must take its place” - Pablo Helguera, Theatrum Anatomicum
The second hybrid format I’ve been finding out about is the Performance Lecture (Lecture Performance/Performative Lecture). These are “Contemporary performative events concerned with the dramatization of knowledge and its dissemination”.
The Performance Lecture can be used to 'creatively explore' the practice of and interface between lecturing and performing, challenging ‘expert’ nature of the lecturer, artist and their modes of communication. It also seems to offer the opportunity to reflect on the passive role of the ‘listening audience’, seeking out creative ways of drawing out the dialogical potential of ‘presentation’ and blurring the boundaries between production, communication and criticism. They have a pedigree that takes in big names like Joseph Beuys and John Cage and moves onto works by V-Girls, Andrea Fraser, Martha Rosler and the Xavier Le Roy. It was surprisingly difficult to find examples on the internet. In the UK, the Canterbury Centre for Practice-Based Research in the Arts are exploring the performance lecture. There are videos of performances if you want to see some in action.
The best thing I found, though, was a book by Pablo Helguera, Theatrum Anatomicum (and other Performance Lectures), that describes what he thinks a performance lecture is, and gives the scripts from seven of his own. It’s a good read.
“The easy definition of a performance lecture is that it is a live presentation imparted by an artist who takes advantage of his or her artistic license and of the conventions of academic pedagogy to create a work that straddles fiction and reality … yet … the genre is in a constant process of self-definition, sometimes delving into stand-up comedy, poetic presentations, recitals, speeches etc”.
Helguera's formulation of the performance lecture is interesting. For example, in the 2003 performance lecture, 'The First Mexico City Congress of Urban Purification', Helguera and Ilana Boltvinik advertised a conference on the premis that 'culture, like the environment, is polluted' and called for papers on how to 'purify it'. Six submissions were selected and six others were scripted and read by actors (unbeknownst to the audience). Two, one calling for the elimination of national arts funding on account of it only supporting the bureaucratic apparatus rather than art making, and the other a proposal for a US run cultural policy programme for Mexico, caused a small media scandal and led to a public debate on cultural policy.
So, maybe over the next few years, I'll get to play with essay films and performance lectures. The first opportunity maybe at the National Eisteddfod in August, as part of Manon Awst's Troelli, where we - Lisa Hudson, Jonathan Malarkey, Rhys Trimble, Ketherine Betteridge and Sioned Eleri Roberts are taking the Pontio show Llif to y Lle Celf and delivering a 'performance lecture' on 10th August.