Originally published as "Cinéma(s) de l'histoire: Dark Rooms, Speaking Objects, More than Film: Gustav Deutsch as a Museum Maker" (2009). Translated from the German by Renée von Paschen. The essay was first published in the book Gustav Deutsch, edited by Wilbirg Brainin-Donnenberg and Michael Loebenstein, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, Vienna 2009.
Above: Gustav Deutsch.
In the course of the European Cultural Project Light/Image/Reality, a camera obscura was built on the Greek Island of Aegina in 2003. Those responsible were Gustav Deutsch (idea/concept), Franz Berzl (architecture) and Gavrilos Michalis (realization). It is a cylindrical building with twelve small openings evenly allocated on its perimeter. When they are opened, the light from the surroundings is reflected in the building onto twelve screens, which are suspended from the ceiling in a circle. These natural projections result in a twelve-part panoramic view of the surroundings, mirror-inverted and upside down. The building was erected on the foundation of a German anti-aircraft gun emplacement from World War II and is a steel construction with wooden paneling. It is the first camera obscura building in Greece and the first in the world to project a panoramic view. Matthias Boeckl writes: "The upside-down world, as well as the ritual entrance through a chute or gateway from the outside world, gives you the feeling of 'another' world, which is actually still our own."
The "other" world, which is actually still our own, also finds its way into the cinema. What is seen there has, however, passed through more than one dark room. We may consider the camera obscura a lost utopia of the medium of film; a room that is simultaneously a camera, a laboratory and a cinema; a room where filming, development, printing and projection take place simultaneously—at the speed of light. On the other hand (and inspired by Bazin), we may also consider the film medium the historically last and most advanced of those recording or representational systems, which are still linked with reality through physical contact, such as the camera obscura—real gateways to the outside world. That is, systems of representation, in which reality doesn't just appear in quotation marks.
The work of the artist, filmmaker and camera obscura designer Gustav Deutsch deals with such systems and gateways; the zones of contact between two "worlds" or realities, which should by no means be played against each other or separated entirely from one another. "Our" world takes a deep interest in the "other" and vice versa; each of them is a part of the other. Deutsch's preferred term for the "other" world (which is nevertheless still ours) is film. In the titles of three of his works, he uses the formulation Film is. and puts a dot in place of the numerous historical, contemporary or future definitions (or "reductions") of the medium of film. The dot, or the period, comprises several meanings or movements in one small space. Firstly, a full stop, or the decision that film exists—independent of the individual definitions and uses that humanity makes of it. "There is 'another' world." Secondly, a valuation, which lies in the reverent brevity of the formulation, the pathos of evidence: "It is a wonderful world." Thirdly, an explosive opening up in all directions, the paradoxical counterpart to the first movement. The dot is infinite. It provides its own gateway, a resistance to be overcome, to be flooded by all the experiences, expectations and potential that the word "film" (and the fact of the actual, extra-linguistic existence of film) has released. "Film is infinite, and infinitely meaningful. Film speaks many languages. Film is more than film."
It is that "more than" which suggests some of Gustav Deutsch's major interests, as well as the characteristic convergence of scholarly and artistic processes in his work; scholarly work that is conscious of its aesthetic and poetic elements, and art that strives to be seen as explanatory, enlightening and clarifying.
Above: Film ist. 2
The "more than" is, for example, that of the psychoanalyst or poet, who recombines the fragmentary material available to him or her in a new manner, or discovers a new rhythm and sound in it. Deutsch's found footage films are all related to such activities. Images, which seemingly have nothing or little to do with each other (in terms of origin), or "don't belong together," are compared, interlaced and considered related. There are often external correlations, formal correspondences, or hidden connections, which lead to such sequencing. Only then is a third (or sixth) sense recognizable, like in a dream or a rebus. For example in the night verses of Film ist. 2.2, which are accompanied by a barking dog: shadow figures made by hands; the moon behind the passing clouds; a spotlight illuminating a storm-stricken town; a full-frame shot of the moon; moths in a light; space—the final frontier; a lunar eclipse; a human eye—the pupil responding to light and dark; and finally, a circular accumulation of bacteria around a pool of light. All of life, inside and outside of the cinema, is based on "phototactic behavior."
Gustav Deutsch's "more than" is also the primary motivation behind a certain tendency in cultural studies, investigating historical artifacts in order to decipher the forces, potentials, and power relations at work in a given society—and make them useful for the present. A further example from Film ist. illustrates how larger structures can be recognized in small, seemingly arbitrary finds of film footage. The dirty, trashy piece of film, which appears in chapter 4 of Film ist., was acquired by Deutsch at a flea market in Brazil. A test strip damaged by cleaning agents, it contains two frames each from all scenes of a movie or TV melodrama. At some later point in time, a cleaning lady had used this old film strip to clean floors with, as a practical means of recycling materials. Here a psychoanalytical perspective goes hand in hand with the sociological reading. The test strip still carries within itself the narrative neurosis and ideological preoccupations of the dominant film industry, but it also exemplifies an opposing force. In artistic terms, it is an experimental film, which—as each scene is reduced to two frames—ridicules the ideological essence of its origin and gives birth to a different, dynamic beauty. And it is an "experimental film" in practical terms, which—due to the specific material properties of the emulsion coating—brings to light its own surprising cleansing effect in the hands of a cleaning person. This naturally also ruined it. The fact that the cleaning lady, who used it, was also—potentially—part of the mass audience that watched the original soap opera, makes the whole story even more scintillating.
"Macht kaputt, was Euch kaputt macht" ("Destroy whatever is destroying you") was the title of a rebellious 1969 song by the German band Ton Steine Scherben. If one assumes (like many people did in 1969) that film and TV melodramas are "destroying" their audiences by turning them into "passive victims" of the dominant ideology, then the Brazilian cleaning lady represents the concept of an emancipatory counterstrike. Even if one believes (as do many contemporary scholars of film and cultural studies) that the audiences of such soap operas have access to various strategies of subversion and revaluation, and should not only be seen as victims, the film as a cleaning article represents a nice allegory of such a revaluation strategy. This proves more difficult, however, when we speculate about the results of the cleaning process in question. Is the floor perfectly clean, does the home sparkle when the owner comes back from her daily shopping spree? Her gem of a cleaning lady has bettered her own record. At the very least, she deserves an extra tip, or at friendly pat on the shoulder. Did the filmstrip, therefore, serve to stabilize the social system for a second time around? Did the cleaning lady outdo herself with the help of the strip, or did she do herself in—in the belief she could do better work? First, when she dreamt of "another world" while watching the original film on the screen, and then when she used the material residue of that film to improve her own work, maintaining the master and servant relationship in the process? Or could it be a lot less sophisticated? Didn’t the filmstrip simply contribute to helping a person with high professional standards master a particularly difficult task—giving herself a real degree of satisfaction?
Above: Film ist. 4
It's not a coincidence that at the end of such a chain of thoughts, more questions have come to light than answers. The clarifying and enlightening aspects of Gustav Deutsch's artistic practice should not be confused with solutions, answers or conclusions. What his work results in are insights into the multi-faceted relationship between "our" and the "other" world. History is engraved into the reality of the images and objects that surround us, just like in the case of the camera obscura on Aegina, built on the foundation of an old German anti-aircraft gun emplacement. "Our history" and "our lives" are also depicted in film images, and inscribed on the filmstrip itself, but in order to illuminate all of their contradictions and social dimensions (no matter whether it be for an artistic or a scholarly purpose), working methods are required other than the currently widespread surfing, downloading and revamping of the supposedly "unlimited" reservoir of images available in the digital world. What is needed, for example, is a premeditated approach that slows down the work, makes it more arduous and limits its scope—in order to create situations, where the "resistance of objects" (Helmut Lethen) manifests itself and the objects themselves become articulate.
Deutsch's "visits to the archives"—since the beginning of his work on Film ist.—not only serve to reclaim hundreds and thousands of stored filmstrips and images from earlier times, but also to recapture these kinds of situations. His repeated trips from film archive to film archive, his communication with the archivists about their potential and actual holdings, his long viewing sessions at the editing tables on site, his vast notes or visual transcriptions of these viewing sessions (mostly in the form of sketches made together with Hanna Schimek) and the retranslation of those notes into a first draft of the film—all these activities are attempts to measure and experience the "inherent weight" of the original film footage, in order not to make things simpler (for himself) than they are in the context of their genesis and their meaning. Corresponding working methods can be traced way back to Deutsch and Schimek's artistic biography, at least until the 1980s: performative research in the desert; the five-year project of "Planning a public garden in keeping with artistic and usability criteria;" projects entitled The Art of Traveling, etc.
The dual evidence of film lies in its function as a vehicle for the photographic images captured in it, as well as its inherent function as a "material witness," which carries with it the history of its use. At first it would appear completely logical that this dual function can be better recognized and studied in an archive (on the editing table, in one's hands or under a magnifying glass) than in a museum (in an exhibition, in the cinema, during projection). According to this logic, Deutsch's visits to the archives are a mark of progress, e.g. in contrast to the well-known notion of the artist, who goes to a museum exhibition to find inspiration in the masterpieces of the past. Such an artist will mainly adhere to the surface of these images, their perception and their aesthetic traditions. In an archive, assisted by the restorers, researchers and cataloguers, he or she would find out much more about the material and contextual history (the "verso side") of the works in question. In addition, museums usually exhibit "museum pieces," meaning a relatively narrow, "outstanding" part of the complete inventory—that which correlates with the aesthetic and art-historical premises which are prevalent at a given time. In the archives, on the other hand, there is always more—"more than" the canon, more than can be found hanging on the walls or than is regularly screened in cinemas or film museums. This is also where the proverbial "revenge of the archive" comes in—not only in that trivial sense, in which a journalist sometimes exposes someone's lies or schemes to the public by confronting them with contradictory or incriminating images or statements from the archives. The return of long-forgotten, cobweb-ridden, non-canonical artifacts can also be characterized in a more positive sense—as the potency of artifacts to be uncovered as alternatives. Their "different" or "foreign" shape, which derives from their former, now historical—or "outdated"—normalcy, naturally contradicts the current "normalcy" and thus also the custom of passing off the current state of a society as inevitable and unalterable, as a natural state.
Above: Film ist. 9
In order to actually set free the potency of the artifacts, to enable them to reappear as alternatives, it is advisable to follow up the arduous archival work with another "step of progress"—the step towards a genuine re-presentation of the recaptured images, offering a new view of them on the basis of the experiences made in the archives, on the editing table. It is a step back into the public sphere, to a new work of art, or simply to an exhibition, to the cinema or the museum—with the difference that the "double-sidedness," the dual evidence of the film now tends to be exhibited, too. In addition to the generally accepted connection with reality that the filmic or photographic images have, the "hidden" weight of the original film footage will now also become evident, the unique history of the materials used and the historicity of the medium as a whole.
Gustav Deutsch's works, particularly those beginning with the phrase Film ist., take such a step with ease and confidence—even in places where they create new clusters of meaning (with the help of newly composed music, for instance). They can neither be reduced to closed narratives, nor to the function of "historical proof" (a common practice whenever archival material is being used on TV). As demonstrated by the structure of Deutsch's film Welt Spiegel Kino, there is always another or more-than-one other image behind each image, and this will also never be the definitive or final one. Chapter 9 of Film ist., for instance, reaches beyond the sort of dry evidence that its subtitle—Conquest—would seem to promise at first glance. It offers a cultural and social-historical outline of the expansionist ideas which characterize Western bourgeois society in the late 19th and early 20th century, and demonstrates how film accompanied, reflected and supported these ideas—from claiming territory by various new means of visual and material transport (train, cinema, airplane) to the more or less "peaceful" incorporation, measuring and exhibition of what is deemed "savage," and the violent conquest of land through war. In decisive moments, however, these passages invite a different reading. When lions suddenly leap out of fireplaces into middle-class living rooms, or a python snakes out of a night table, one can sense the fear of the bourgeois that the savages might invade the innermost hearth of civilization. From the perspective of the latter, of course, this means the colonial system is finally beginning to tip. The European peoples' arrogance and lack of humanity have become obvious during the passages which show how indigenous peoples were measured and "documented"’ by means of medicine and cinematography. But in Deutsch’s utopian selection of images, the counter-attack of the ‘savages’ is even stronger: They are sending us their full register of animalistic revenge, via our fireplaces and night tables, into the bedrooms of our bad conscience. At the end of the sequence, the python creeps over a magnificently ornamented carpet that is going up in flames.
The proverbial "cussedness of things" would be a good metaphor for this and many other examples from the Film ist. series. With innumerable archival finds, and with his sparse and gentle manipulations of the footage (slow motion, reverse motion), Deutsch demonstrates how strong the "alternative" potential of cinematic artifacts is. It only takes a nudge and the ideas and objects recorded on film begin to work against their apparent purpose—including the filmstrip itself, as the example of the Brazilian cleaning lady has shown. Chapter 7.1 celebrates a whole series of "cussed objects" (doors, ladders, bicycles, hoses); 7.4 proposes the reversal of time, of sexual difference, and of all the destruction wrought by man and woman; and chapter 8 (Magic) is entirely devoted to the suspension of everyday logic—most beautifully in the case of 8.2, with its "resurrections" and its invitation to roam freely between life and death or Heaven and Earth.
Above: Welt Spiegel Kino
In the Film ist. project, Deutsch never makes a secret of the various inscriptions the archival footage carries, that is the extremely varying textures, the grades of color or black and white, and the degree of damage accumulated on the film. On the contrary, he exhibits them—and encourages the viewer to ponder this "hidden weight" of the film artifacts. It is a sort of counter weight to all the representational capacities of film, to the "real world" references that we’ve come to expect from film images. Whoever exhibits these inscriptions, opens the floodgate for one of the most beautiful dreams of film, which is usually suppressed: the dream of someday being able to tell its own story, not just the stories of the people depicted. The dream sequence in chapter 8.3 of Film ist. refers to this very set of circumstances. A sleeping woman is tossing around in her dreams. A paper-mâché cave appears to her and to us, in the middle of which the image threatens to disappear. At the time when the original piece of nitrate film was preserved in the archive, the footage had obviously already disintegrated to a good degree—exactly at this spot. The flickering damage in the frames worsens from second to second, and the damage itself takes on the place of the image. It is an exciting image that wasn't premeditated, an image the film footage produced "by itself" in the course of its history, that is to say blindly. Some film archivists call these images the "flowers of evil." At the climax of the shot, and at the center of the image where the damage is now in full bloom, the paper-mâché cave turns into the horrifying maw of the devil—as if both aspects of the medium, its recto and its verso side so to speak, were now communicating with each other, as if the images captured one hundred years ago and the damage accumulating over one hundred years were aware of each other's most intimate secrets. The floodgate enabling these two worlds to be in contact with each other would seem both allegorical and tangible, right in front of our eyes. And in-between, we keep on watching the sleeping woman, whose dream—assisted by more devil's maws, superimpositions and ghostly apparitions—turns into a fantasy of flying and (sexual) escape; a contradictory narrative of (self-) empowerment through forcible interventions by a "dream savage." He tears the woman out of her bourgeois existence and flings her upwards, into space, where she experiences the wonder and the glory of floating free. At this point in Gustav Deutsch's production, the woman is playing the role of the film.
"The rest is history," is what we usually say when everything that matters seems to have been said. However, it has never all been said, and the rest is not only infinite and never-ending—"to be continued," as indicated in the endings of several films by Gustav Deutsch—but also another (hi)story. It is that, which has not yet been entirely illuminated and exposed or "demystified" by scholarly practices. It doesn't yet have a name. It will only be exhibited in the museums of the future—or may already be found in the utopian, poetical, polemical "museums" of some contemporary artists.
Above: Film ist. 8
As cultural techniques, which stem in almost equal parts from scholarly work (the need for demystification and knowledge) and showmanship (the need for entertainment and remystification), the media of film and the museum can be considered closely related. Both of them are simultaneously sites of research and cabinets of curiosities; systems for storing images of the world, and systems in which these images are displayed, promoted and interpreted. Both employ forms of mise-en-scène through which the public can experience history. And since they both came into being in a capitalist society, they both tend towards a "proprietary" view of the collected evidence of the past. The utopian, poetical, polemical "museums" created by some filmmakers may be seen as an alternative model. Amongst them—that is alongside the multi-faceted work of Chris Marker, the short films by Bruce Conner, Dziga Vertov's "laboratory" of cinema, the Histoire(s) du cinéma by Jean-Luc Godard, the unique television programs produced by Alexander Kluge, or Peter Kubelka's practice which includes filmmaking, teaching and the creation of an actual museum—the films and film-related works by Gustav Deutsch have increasingly secured their own special place. The individual "Cinemas of History" built by these artists are greatly varying constructions, and are sometimes even critically opposed to each other. The archives they make use of, and the manner in which they do so in order to create their own collections, vary just as greatly. They often invoke similar philosophies of history, yet also quite different ones, in part. They sometimes do so explicitly and sometimes only implicitly. Sometimes they investigate what remains of the great names, but many of them tend towards the rest, to that which has been excluded, since "verses are fostered by waste" (Anna Akhmatova), and not in showcases. All of their "museums" are processes of transcription in the public eye. They are neither blind mirrors (as archives tend to be), nor are they too highly polished ones (the way museums often function). They are "living mirrors of a new world," as Tom Gunning wrote in reference to Deutsch's Welt Spiegel Kino, “revealing the cinema as a play of reflections that stretch across modern life.”
Some of them, such as Godard, produce obituaries for the cinema or describe how film came to be at fault in the face of real historical challenges. For example, how it became clear in 1945 that the cinema of the spectacle had failed, whereas "the poor cinema of newsreels" now "has to wash clean of all suspicion / the blood and tears / just as the pavement is swept / when it’s already too late / and the army has opened fire on the crowd." Others, like Gustav Deutsch, show that the "poor" cinema of newsreels, home movies, educational films, and half-disintegrated "prehistoric" films is just as helpless and at fault, as its wealthy counterpart which lays claim to the name of "film history." And that, vice versa, the poor relatives are certainly as suited for revitalization as their canonical cousins are; that is, for a "reverse-engineering" of history to the point where the things and ideas that have ‘survived’ in our minds are joined by those that have not.
Walter Benjamin writes: "It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is dedicated to the memory of the nameless." This may also be applied to the textual construction at hand. It is tempting, because it is easier, to deal with famous works and names. Yet since then, partially as a result of Benjamin's continued presence, we have seen far more artistic and scholarly projects taking the "arduous path" than he would have anticipated when writing these last words in the year 1940.
In Film ist. 12—Memory and Document, there is a single shot by which an anonymous man immortalized himself in a fashion reminding us of the famous ones. The goal of this textual construction is to honor him—and to also honor the man, Gustav Deutsch, who was the first to pay tribute to him in Film ist. by means of painstaking work in archives, museums and art. The anonymous man is standing with a camera and a tripod in the center aisle of a moving train car. He is filming. No one else is filming him, so the only reason why we can see him at all is that he's filming the large mirror in front of himself on the door to the next train car. The landscape flies by in the left-hand window—the "mobilized gaze" from the train, which is today considered an important forerunner of the "cinematic gaze." But the world outside is much too bright. We cannot make out any details in the pictures framed by the train window, all the more so because the filmmaker then swings the camera around to the center, directing it at himself in the mirror. In the course of this pan, he captures a third and forth type of image in his film. To the right of the door, beside the mirror, there are two gauges, instruments for the purpose of recording reality, the characteristics of which—temperature, air humidity or speed—are being translated into the movements of indicators and into the figures they indicate, that is, into geometrical, abstract and scientifically based "moving images." To the left of the door, beside the mirror, there is an easily recognizable landscape painting, which takes the place of the real landscape rolling past the train window. Due to the light conditions in the car, the "real image" is "overexposed" and can only be perceived indirectly—as flickering reflections of light on the "artificial" surface of the painting: on the screen.
As a whole, it is a perfect and completely open film image of film—a sort of allegorical self-portrait of the medium. It is also the self-portrait of an individual, and while it does not attribute a name to the anonymous man, it gives him a continued existence and a concrete place in time. His is the smallest and one of the most beautiful of all "museums" that filmmakers have yet created.