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Rotterdam 2019: Cinema Without a Camera

Three examples of expanded cinema, including a hypnotic slideshow, exemplify the festival’s wide range of cinematic experiences.
the eyes empty and the pupils burning with rage and desire
One of the perennial grumblings at Rotterdam is about sheer number of films programmed, whose reason for selection, or even organization within the festival, is frequently less than obvious. The festival has an admirable reputation of emphasizing under-known filmmakers, underexposed countries and new talents, but this stance gets easily drowned out by quantity of highly variable quality. It’s a festival that offers cinematic adventure through bountiful options and possibilities, but it’s an adventure that exists hand-in-hand with that very contemporary sensation of fear-of-missing-out: sure, this minimalist art-house film is moving along just fine (read: slowly), but what about the three other similar films programmed at this exact time, and perhaps in this exact theatre? Oh, the angst!
Luckily, around the outskirts of the immense main program one can usually detect more curatorial sensibility, and as such can experience and enjoy more pointed expressions of what cinema can offer. Case in point is the “sound//vision” section, a nightly expanded cinema presentation confronting different ideas of cinema’s sensorial split in a multifunctional non-cinema space near the festival center. The first night’s program bodes well for the nights to follow. It began with After SFX, a semi-performative piece by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose short film about the forensic possibilities (and confusions) of audio analysis, Walls Unwalled, is also playing here.
After SFX is an extension of the same project and includes some of the same material. It begins with Hamdan reading a list of objects alphabetically to the audience, before two screens start running through the same list in projected digital text. Some items are enumerated on the screen with additional information, and it turns out each item is part of sonic evidence or an aural anecdote related to how humans identify events (like crimes heard, or a jailor’s presence) through sound, and how the perception of those sounds is intrinsically tied to each person’s own memory and imagination of sound. So, when relating a sound, a person—on trial, or an “ear witness,” or in many cases ex-prisoners and victims of human rights abuses that Hamdan is investigating—may compare it to another sound entirely, how the beating of a person sounds like a belt hitting a leather bag or how the sound before a house collapsing into a sinkhole sounds like popping popcorn. Some of the objects that make sounds are part of Hamdan’s list, but so too are these aural similes, the list also including objects that makes sounds that sound like another sound. This confusion is intentional, as is the library of sounds being played in the space as the text is typed out, sounds that may or may not be the actually thing, or merely one version (perhaps of many) of one thing that sounds like another. Hamdan evocatively reports back his research both in-depth and anecdotal, underlying the importance, yet fallibility, of human hearing specifically in relationship to crime. He has made a clear-cut, wry work whose own lack of imagery beyond text is an obvious evocation of the theme that one thing often must stand in for another, but can never do so fully.
The second piece of the evening was Spanish artist Luis Macías’s slideshow performance, Spectral Landscape. I have a soft spot for any kind of projector or slide-related performance, for its hands-on nature—invariably operated either in the booth or in the cinema itself by the artist—is always an intimate encounter, one where the usual separation of artist from their art is impossible, and in fact one can often feel the hand of the artist in the presentation. It is also an art that calls back to early and pre-cinema, of magic lantern shows and indeed, Macías’s piece, like Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern performances, evokes the very pure and simple magic of the moving image, prompting you to wonder just how he did that.
How, I don’t know—but it did involved four projectors which, in the piece’s first half, conjured a cosmic creation, a black hole in the center of the screen haloed by undulations of light. Layering one projection on another, this solar end or beginning shifted and pulsed, as if a hole was being burnt through the wall and into space. This shuddering effect—probably produced, like Jacobs’ illusionist motion, by a shutter-like fan in front of the projector light—was enthralling, oscillating between eye-piercing and hypnagogic. It was an effect I could fall into all night, and so some disappointment registered when the piece’s second half revealed a real image on the screen, not just warped abstractions of light and dark. Yet that image too contained its mystery and wonder: Was it a close-up of someone’s skin? The twiggy, mossy bark of a plant? Or perhaps an image from an electronic microscope or a sub-molecular form? It was, at any rate, unidentifiably gross and tangible in a way the soft cosmic light was not, as if we’d plunged from the macro scale of space itself to the nitty gritty flotsam of earthly bodies. This image trembled and twitched, layers of colors applied and peeled off, but it would not budge. At the very end, the glowing, gaping white planetoid dot of the beginning returned, a hole burnt into the middle of the screen, unifying the distant and the close, the clarity of abstraction and the murk of the absolute for one brief moment.
Even more impressive, two nights later, was another new work by Luis Macías, titled the eyes empty and the pupils burning with rage and desire, this time performed in a cinema with two modified 16mm projectors which allowed even more layers of overlapping imagery. Imagery of what exactly—again!—I could not say, but it was truly a spectacular experience: We seemed to watch, in a rare kind of awed silence from the audience, the gestation of something on the screen, a luminous ochre object like an egg, crystalis, or amniotic sac, blurring into existence and then morphing. The performance was part of a series of shorts projected on 16mm titled “The Skin Is the Film,” and it was Macías’s work that not just looked but felt like an evocation of flesh formed, destroyed and then re-grown. Despite not being film traditionally run through the projectors, the tactile sensation of motion was uncanny and almost squirm-inducing, for we witnessed not the illusion of animation that film normally produces, but rather the evolution of film before our eyes, often seeming to bubbling or burst, and in some cases actually melt, accompanied by the vivid smell in the theatre of, indeed, burning film.
The motion Macías was able to produce was some alchemic combination of multiple planes thrown by the light, tweaked through focus and fades and the two projectors, creating fleeting forms of beauty and texture that seemed to be visions of a nearly microscopic level of life-creation—a meaning that I subjectively threw onto this unidentifiable projection, for it is in fact a highly abstract experience of organic shapes and light whose very definition mutated. It was literally transfixing; you couldn’t look away for the intuitive sense that this moment, each moment, will never return, that whatever we’re watching now would be different the next time around, that you’re witnessing something truly living and spontaneous. With Macías working in the back of the room outside of the projection booth, the gentle, liquid silence of the imagery is accompanied only by the strange mechanical sounds of the beast, the machine manipulated somehow behind most of us creating this screen creature. The temptation to look behind was immense, to dispel the magic and expose the effect. Afterward, even though the “How did you do it” question was palpable in the audience, the Q&A seemed to gingerly dance around asking the artist what, exactly, he did. We all wanted to know, but I don’t think anyone really wanted to break the spell.

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