About Jennifer Stob

art and film historian

The sober joy of thieving

I’m happy to have my review of Judith Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings published in the current issue of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. Rodenbeck’s framework for conceptualizing happenings is central to the discourse surrounding art and the everyday in the 1960s. An excerpt from the review here below:

With her narrative, Rodenbeck deliberately sidesteps the dualism of formalism and the avant-garde that has dominated many of the art historical narratives of the 1960s. If happenings are best characterized as intermediary, open-ended, relational, and interdisciplinary, then their historicization would do well to reflect this, she reasons. Her book calls for and models a scholarly “matrix through which to approach a generation of postwar artistic efforts” (27). Her contribution lies in a series of individual “material, rhetorical, and discursive” histories (18) that enhance ourunderstanding of what happenings were and what they aspired to be. The wealth of material on the sociological climates, the architectural practices, the technological metaphors, the theatrical methodologies, and the photographic conditions that surrounded happenings acts like connective tissue, shaping and securing them within art history.
In this sense, then, the art historical matrix to which Rodenbeck contributes should be thought of as a sort of expanded field for happenings where the artworks of Kaprow and company are no longer contrasted with painting alone but with all other experimental intermedia and the areas of inquiry intermedia shares: the everyday, the aleatory, and the participatory. Measured and formal in tone, preeminently readable at the same time, Rodenbeck’s book is often like an unexpected treasure hunt amidst the presumed familiar.
“Let’s look for traces of civilization!” the trio in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) exclaim delightedly to one another as they wander through a wooded area to the beach. Readers of Rodenbeck’s histories are led to wander, too, finding known documents, theories, and artworks linked freshly and illuminatingly to one another.

Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

Interview with Jodie Mack

Image: Jodie Mack at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Photo by Alex Inglizian. Accessed at http://incite-online.net/mack.html

What a pleasure it was to interview experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack for the “Back and Forth” series of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

You can read the interview (illustrated with some fantastic behind-the-scenes photos) here.

The small fraction of a human that is human

It was a true pleasure to write a short essay for multimedia artist Liz Rodda’s exhibition of Total Body at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas. You can see the dual-channel piece in LAC’s project space until June 13, 2015 and watch an excerpt of it on her website. My thoughts on her excellent work below.

Where is the human body in the twenty-first century? At the gym, in traffic, outdoors, or home alone? Wherever the emblematic sites of embodiment for the present day might be, they are always also online. We pass bodies and their parts to one another via smartphones, we post them on websites, and we find them—absurd, touching, sexy, troubling—when streaming digital video from all sorts of online caches. We can ignore our bodies and those of others, choosing to withdraw into the abstract thoughts that our bodies house. Even so, we can never empty those thoughts entirely of the sensations our bodies produce.
Despite its wry title, Liz Rodda’s dual-channel video piece doesn’t explain
what it means to be flesh and blood. It doesn’t identify the mishmash of
existential musings that make up its soundtrack, or distinguish humanistic, virtual actions from those that are virtually human.
Total Body shows us the extreme irreconcilability of each “small fraction of a human that is human” mentioned in its voiceover. This is no tragedy. Paradoxically enough, Total Body suggests it may be a primary source of life’s pleasure. Rodda is one of the most distinctive artists working in expanded media today. Her aesthetic is cerebral—and rousingly funny. Her work in digital formats as well as her installation practice avoids obvious moral questions of consumer culture and identity, zeroing in on the uncanny forces that drive our media and object-based interactions.

Harun Farocki on DER RIESE (1983)


DER RIESE, Michael Klier, 1983. Video still.

I was pleased to lend Ekrem Serdar a hand in revising a rather clunky translation of film notes written by Harun Farocki for a screening of Michael Klier’s Der Riese / The Giant (1983). Der Riese is an 80-minute compilation film of video footage taken from FRG surveillance cameras. Experimental Response Cinema screened the film earlier this spring.

Farocki was deeply inspired by Der Riese. It anticipates his sustained interest in posthuman vision.

In “Written Trailers,” translated in the 2010 exhibition catalogue, Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? (Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun, eds.), Farocki explains, “I begrudged Michael Klier his idea of making a film entirely out of surveillance-camera imagery.” (227)

In the same catalogue, Volker Pantenburg suggests that Der Riese (The Giant, 1982), “is an obvious model for Farocki’s Counter-Music.” (98)

Pantenburg continues,

When Farocki wrote about Klier’s video in 1983, he sensed that there was something genuinely new in these types of images. Something that made him think of how photographs must have appeared to the first people to behold a still image: ‘The first photographs – and this can appear over and over again – demonstrated that unimportant people, objects or events can also become the subject of images. Being images in the same way as intended and planned images, they raise the question of what hierarchy, meaning or sense are supposed to be.’ (Farocki, “Kamera in Aufsicht,” Filmkritik 9/1983, p. 416) (98)

Our revised translation of Farocki’s film notes on Der Riese can be found here, on ERCATX’s website.

History in the present tense

I’ve written in the past on this site of my rewarding experiences at the Flaherty Film Seminar. This intense week of experimental media art and documentary film reliably delivers on its promise of thought-provoking and hotly debated film programming. In 2013, the seminar was programmed by Pablo de Ocampo, currently Exhibitions Curator at Vancouver’s Western Front. It was a fantastic week of film and video, and I wrote an extensive review of it for volume 3 issue 1 of MIRAJ, the Moving Image Review & Art Journal. An excerpt here:

A film still from the finale of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was the Seminar’s leitmotif, featuring prominently in publicity materials as a representation of the conceptual work to be accomplished at the gathering. In the wild joy of mutinous seamen greeting another battleship in solidarity with their uprising, de Ocampo indicated his intentions for the kind of history and the kind of happenings on which the week would focus. It was a history that film was continually heralding, retrieving and revising; a history of collectivities both utopian (insurgent groups and jazz collectives) and dystopian (occupied territories and people’s militias); a history of ecstatic or transgressive affect; and a history of films that struggle on two fronts, politicizing the form in which they convey political subject matter.

Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Greenhaven Prison, a video made in 1973 by the community collective, the People’s
Communication Network opened and closed the Flaherty. It operated in the Seminar as a conceptual reverse shot to Eisenstein’s seamen, a response across the decades to their call of brotherhood and revolution. In it, civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore stands at a microphone set up outside of the walls of the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Connecticut. She recounts a moment of armed resistance from her youth, in which a black audience who had gathered to hear Marcus Garvey in New Orleans successfully forced white officials to rescind their ban on his scheduled speech.

Moore asks, ‘How do you go, determined to keep the powers
that be from preventing your leader from speaking to you?’. In Moore’s Jim Crow-era South, the answer was to arrive at the lecture with guns and satchels of ammunition. Her question lingers throughout the seventeen-minute address, posed to the unseen men in the prison behind her, the group of fellow activists assembled in front of her, and to the contemporary viewers who encounter this video.

In her question is embedded the belief that the act of speaking and securing speech may be the only retribution possible in a society that does not see its own systemic crime in the histories of its individual criminals. Thieves like the ones that both Queen Mother Moore and the seamen on the Battleship Potemkin call ‘brothers’ are the product of centuries of social, political and economic theft. Speech, de Ocampo’s programming suggested, is symbolic reparation. It cannot promise actual reparation, but it is the only thing that actualizes its potential.

Ignorant teaching and emancipation

Some old Rancière but good Rancière: selections below from The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987, tr. 1991).

The book is from a period in Rancière’s theory focused on proletarian histories, one that predates his focus on politics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, one of the most striking passages in the book is the last reproduced here that does deal with aesthetics and does so in nearly utopian fashion.

In it, Rancière examines artists in particular as “ignorant schoolmasters,” those who seek to level out knowledge acquisition’s traditional hierarchy as they teach. It offers me a good working distinction between what art does/what artists do and what visual culture writ large does not.

Rancière writes that all work is a means of expression for artists. For them, experience alone is not enough–fulfillment comes in the sharing of an experience and the feelings it provokes. A society of emancipated teachers and students would be a society of artists, he concludes.

Rancière is unrelenting in the demands he makes on educators: they must do nothing short of liberating their students. However, he also gives lucid and pragmatic instructions about how this liberation might be brought about.

– Relate everything new to that which was learned previously.

– ABS, always be searching. Perhaps more importantly, make it your duty to keep your students searching, always.

– Emancipate yourself by knowing yourself and understanding the way your work contribute to or resists societal systems.

– Stumble without shame. Teach your students to do so, too.

Food for thought this October, a time when the novelty of learning has faded since the start of the school year and as the first obstacles–the ones that will eventually constitute the lesson that will endure–are encountered by students and instructors alike…

Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. 18

A book is that totality: a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one can understand each of these new things, find the ways to say what one sees in it, what one thinks about it, what one makes of it. This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it. 20

This is the way that the ignorant master can instruct the learned one as well as the ignorant one: by verifying that he is always searching. Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows. What is essential is the continuous vigilance, the attention that never subsides without irrationality setting in–something that the learned one, like the ignorant one, excels at. The master is he who keeps the researcher on his own route, the one that he alone is following and keeps following. Still, to verify this kind of research, one must know what seeking or researching means. And this is the heart of the method. To emancipate someone else, one must be emancipated oneself. One must know oneself to be a voyager of the mind, similar to all other voyagers: an intellectual subject participating in the power common to intellectual beings. How does one accede to this self-knowledge? “A peasant, an artisan (father of a family), will be intellectually emancipated if he thinks about what he is and what he does in the social order.” 33

“Know yourself” no longer means, in the Platonic manner, know where your good lies. It means come back to yourself, to what you know to be unmistakably in you. Your humility is nothing but the proud fear of stumbling in front of others. Stumbling is nothing; the wrong is in diverging from, leaving one’s path, no longer paying attention to what one says, forgetting what one is. So follow your path. 57

The artist’s emancipatory lesson, opposed on every count to the professor’s stultifying lesson, is this: each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others. The artist needs equality as the explicator needs inequality. And he therefore designs the model of a reasonable society where the very thing that is outside of reason–matter, linguistic signs–is traversed by reasonable will: that of telling the story and making others feel the ways in which we are similar to them. We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. 70-71

His Master’s Voice

A free copy of DOX Magazine that I picked up at this summer’s Flaherty Film Seminar reintroduced me to the work of Nicolas Philibert. I had seen and enjoyed To Be and To Have (2002) without knowing anything more about the director’s work.

In the interview DOX ran, Philibert stresses that the category of “documentary” filmmaking doesn’t mean anything for him. He strives to make films whose philosophical purview becomes much more expansive than either the film’s initial subject or his subjective process of learning about the topic at hand.

In the print interview, Philibert references the first feature-length documentary he made with Gérard Mordillat–His Master’s Voice (1978)–and criticizes their over-usage of “talking heads” style framing. Despite this critique, the film’s description was intriguing to me. His Master’s Voice is a montage of interviews with twelve French CEOs that constitute a bourgeoning managerial discourse on global corporate multinationalism.

The internet’s magical video treasure trove offers it to us at the Youtube link above, complete with English subtitles. It doesn’t disappoint, especially the wry and self-reflexive first ten minutes in which the CEOs unhappily try to rebrand the film that has been produced about them.

The framing is indeed quite basic, but the historical insights the film reveals are not. Philibert and Mordillat intercut the forecasting, tactical defense and careful posturing of each CEO with several minutes of actual work accomplished on the factory floor–working bodies and machines that are the foundation of each manager’s long-winded dialogues, yet somehow never directly described or addressed.

The film demonstrates how exquisitely formed these men were in the humanist canon as well as in the strategies and economic theory of their chosen business. They seem to be the last of a certain breed of carefully-groomed French grand écolier. In their statements, they repeatedly try to couch their increasingly ravenous market share acquisition in the terminology of some sort of civic project. This is markedly different from the “proferential speech” that so many contemporary business school visionaries employ, a way of talking cribbed from motivational coaching and used to promote their company as product.

As old-fashioned as their citation of literary classics seem, the actual changes in global business that the French CEOs describe are totally prescient and reflect the transformation since then in worldwide business. It’s highly instructive to hear how completely they misunderstand workers’ rationale behind organization and unionization. On this issue and a host of others, Philibert and Mordillat don’t provoke or antagonize their interviewees, but rather patiently give them enough rope to hang themselves (or at least get uncomfortably knotted up).

More info on the documentary can be found in French, English and Spanish on Philibert’s website.

Maurizio Lazzarato has argued that the separation between enterprise and factory of which Philibert’s and Mordillat’s film documents the beginning is now complete. It is “emblematic of a deep transformation within the capitalist mode of production” (188), he writes. This transformation is one from capitalism as a mode of production to capitalism as a production of modes, from productive labor to immaterial labor. His Master’s Voice for 2014 would be a found footage film, compiling the TED talk rhetoric of twenty-first century CEOs as a way of demonstrating the managerial discourse of immaterial labor (with Benjamin Bratton’s bracing, clear and efficient throwdown of the TED model as a chaser).

Harun Farocki, 1944-2014

Gif from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

GIF from “Images of the World and the Inscription of War” (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

What a loss for militant filmmaking, for art and for critical thought that Harun Farocki has died.

His fluency in working across so many different kinds of artistic media–in the art gallery and on the silver screen–was inspirational. His devotion to understanding the histories and the ideologies behind scientific and technological development was equally laudable. His insistence that sight lines and their documentation from any era must always be examined as vectors of power was unwavering.

He was a crucially important twentieth-century figure whose work consistently sought to teach its audience without pedantry. His films braid together historical materialism and media archeology without wasteful political rancor or snobby exclusivity. The cold comfort in his death is simply the numerous contemporary artists and theorists whose lives and ideas his touched.

Last night’s Farocki screening thoughtfully organized by the Experimental Response Cinema was a wonderful way to bid farewell; it contrasted the absurd humor and the mercilessness of An Image (1983) with the dense, intricate logic of Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988).

Re-viewing Images of the World, I thought of Nora M. Alter’s explication of the “political anamorphosis” Harocki performs only very fleetingly at the very end of the film. He draws an explicit but easily-missed parallel between the Allied failure to bombard the railways leading to Auschwitz in the 1940s and the need to protest nuclear power as well as nuclear stockpiling in Germany in the 1980s.

Alter suggests that the repeated use of footage taken from within a wave machine in Hannover is a further example of political anamorphosis, alluding to the potential of green energy as an alternative to nuclear energy. How easy it is (and how self-defeating) to view these sequences as representing instead the inexorable, amoral, dialectic translation of measurement to image and image to measurement over the centuries. Knowing Farocki, he clearly intended both meanings.

Here’s hoping that a pair of scholars compile a series of warm and genial conversations on Farocki’s films in the same manner that Farocki and Kaja Silverman did on Godard’s films. That would be a really fitting goodbye.