Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 2010 

David Claerbout. Uncertain eye

A conversation with Inka Greaeve Ingelmann

Graeve Ingelmann, Inka (ed.), 'David Claerbout. uncertain eye', München: Pinakothek der Moderne, 2010 (

You began experimenting with video following your art studies in Antwerp and Amsterdam. One of your earliest and most well-­‐known works today is Kindergarten  Antonio  Sant’Elia,  1932 (Kindergarten), which contains a number of stylistic devices you have repeatedly used and developed over the last 12 years: the idiosyncratic mixture of photography and video into a form of expressioin combining characteristics of both media, the utilisation and digital processing of historic photographs and the approach to time as a virtually scultpural element within your visual creation. What brought you to video art and why is the aspect of time, of duration, such an important feature of your work even today?

1996 was a threshold moment. My “cutting and pasting” was done using scissors, a darkroom, paint and pencil. Gathering source material still meant having a lot of prints on a wall. A piece of paper had different value then, it had a weight to it. I spent a lot of time in front of a single image on my wall. Somehow I felt that things were changing. I was obsessed with getting rid of the physical evidence of work. My dream was to scan everything and then project it onto the wall. I was simultaneously hungry  for  technology  and  old-­‐school.  When  I  started  using  video  I  was  27  years  old  and  knew nothing.
I was unaware of the work produced a generation before, and I was often reproached for this. For my part, I am certain that I reproach my peers for the same lack of historical knowledge. Artists working in video are quickly forgotten, and the question is whether this is any different today considering the nature of the medium.
Until the early Nineties video was too expensive for non-­‐professional filmmakers who wanted their share of the brightness of cinema (people measure the quality of their lives against cinema). Once the low-­‐res / low-­‐cost tools of cinema became accessible to all, it was not surprising to see a massive appropriation  of  its  language  by  artists,  eagerly  bio-­‐dissecting  industry-­‐standard  film.  Once  the privileges of filmmaking are decoded, all hell breaks loose.
A film’s pace is determined by constantly remaining one step ahead of the viewer, who is under the illusion of all things still being possible. There is a perfectly timed order there that is paradoxical to the contingency in film.
In my work the pattern of expectations is hampered. Meanwhile the viewer is there and conditioned to expect. Not unfolding over time, expectations drop to the floor, the resulting eventlessness feels like failure. And because video/film is traditionally a highly technical art form, it can feel like a failure of technology, or a failure to progress or even a regression. This is the threshold at which my films start to do their job. Every expectation has its deception built into it, every excitement its disillusion, every forward movement its regression, all simultaneously and on the same flat surface (The same applies for building up/tearing down). Cinematic deliverance is avoided and narrative threads are evaded.

In Kindergarten you develop an artistic vocabulary that also appears in your later works. This vocabulary consists of nature frequently embodying the moment of movement, such as the almost imperceptible movement of a tree’s leaves, contemporary or modernistic architecture of the type we see again in Shadow Piece and Sunrise, and the conscious application of light and shade. But Kindergarten’s most intriguing appeal is found in the inherent tension produced by the parallelism of two different temoral layers; the frozen moment, which simultaneously harkens to something gone by; and movement, characterising the here and now. This combination collides with the observer’s traditional concept of space and time.

Both time-­‐layers of past and present could be compared to similar magnetic poles that can never be united. Still, they are at rest on the same projection surface. The flatness of a picture is what makes me look for a secret entrance into it in order to reveal physical concrete evidence that something in the picture exists in the here and now. (Photography’s question.)

Your works have become more complex and technically elaborate over the course of time. How do you create these pieces in which frequently many people are involved?

Until  my  methodology  becomes  commonplace,  I  will  be  an  artist  who  runs  a  video  and  post-­‐ production facility in his atelier. It is a place where audiovisual production meets spontaneous improvisation, and sometimes this happens in a professional way, sometimes not.... I never work with an external production company or with borrowed money. The artists and filmmakers I work with know all the cameras, lights, sound equipment and computers present at the studio. So do I.
We are between six and ten visual artists crossing over to filmmaking (forgive my abuse of the term “film”.) In my experience it has been more difficult to find young film professionals crossing over, courtesy of cinematographers’ devotion to their god: storytelling. I still don’t get the reason for this segregation. Why do visual artists show their works in galleries and filmmakers at film festivals? Is it because artists make the big gestures that impress a small and exclusive public, while filmmakers produce insignificant gestures for a large public? One position seems agoraphobic and the other claustrophobic.

Long Goodbye is an almost epic work on parting, on loss, a subject addressed in many of your works. It fills the viewer with a great sense of melancholy, not only due to the beauty and harmony of its scenery, but also through the unresolved tension between the deceleration in its first part and the acceleration that emerges in its second part. Shooting this work represented a new challenge for you and your team. Can you describe how you went about it?

Due to intensive tweaking, finalising Long Goodbye took some eight months longer than planned.
The first plan was to find an actress capable of performing extremely slow movements, and then speed up a single take on location, lasting several hours. Her movements would still appear calm while dusk was rapidly setting in around her, combined with a retracting camera movement. But that was  all  too  much  like  “acrobatics”  and  sport-­‐chronometry.  So  I  decided  to  film  both  movements separately. She was filmed with a high speed camera, the house and garden were photographed at variable frame rates of between 1fps and 0.2 fps (frames per second). At the slowest speed it could take an hour for the camera to retract one metre. We had to move backwards across the whole garden and the swimming pool that was drained for the occasion.
The lady waving goodbye clearly appears to be a subject, but it really is about the light in the garden. The woman’s gesture signals a goodbye from a missed encounter.
The significant gesture is that of the collapsing light, not that of the actress. I often enter a subject by using actors and objects in a conventional photographic setting, but it should be understood that the reason for this “collaboration” is to clear me of the suspicion of wanting to obtain anything special... It is crucial for me that the photographic (or film) image is initially read as eventless, devoid of energy. My way of coding narrative indirectly via natural phenomena drives some people crazy; in my work, the economist of cinematic time will find only wasted time.

In one interview you cite the paradisiacal garden as your prime inspiration for Long Goodbye, but the garden itself is hardly seen in the work. In Sunrise, one of your latest works, the inspiration was the music of Rachmaninov, which the observer nevertheless only hears at the end. How do you develop your ideas, and what visual, accoustic or literary qualities does a source of inspiration have to possess in order to be fruitful in your opinion.

The spectrum and strength of an idea can be measured by the resistance of this idea to analysis, despite the cycle of “archaeological work” that is necessary from the first thought to the resulting work. Usually, what happens is that an image will provoke other images that are of a different sensorial order. I am currently working on a piece called The Quiet Shore to illustrate this : During my stay in Brittany I spent time on a beach in a region that is known to have the strongest tides in Europe. The beach is fascinating at low tide, when it is empty and the sand is still soaked in water, creating a shore that is temporarily so still it could almost reflect the world around it like a mirror.
I think the fascination came from the stillness of the silvery water, with silver itself relating to the history of photography. The shore has an icy look (you can see its temperature) despite the summer (you know its temperature) that is so clearly present through the attributes and people of the season.
Among the villas surrounding the beach, there is one that inspired Alfred Hitchcock for his 1960 “Psycho” house. Today, this reflects back onto those villas, bringing cinema back to the margin of the scene, where it should be. None of my ideas come directly from film or literature.

Your works demand that the observer takes time to engage with the work at hand. At the same time, you refuse any form of narration, creating images that depict unspectacular everyday scenarios: people unsuccessfully trying to enter a house, a woman waving goodbye, a maid cleaning house and preparing breakfast. In general, as in Riverside for instance, nothing at all or very little actually happens, presenting a contrast not only to the lenght of some of the pieces, but also to the technical and logistical effort involved in their creation.

Cinema, YouTube, 3-­‐D films, literature and film festivals demand a prolonged physical immobility of the viewer. Music, exhibitions or a walk in the park don’t. In return for giving up his or her mobility, the viewer expects something now, and it can’t wait until tomorrow. Economy of time cannot exist without discomfort as its cause (I.e., pants being too tight or work that is waiting, or just getting old). If this did not exist there would be plenty of time.
For some reason I am lucky enough to show my works in a gallery, where time’s ticking clock can’t be heard. That is the point of a museum: looking back. Without this, my work would not stand a chance. But because of this I am able to spend 2 years working on a piece and premiere it when it is ready.

In one interview you talk about the “autistic“ character of the film. What does that mean?

It refers to the limitation in any form of projection, screening or television to relate to its direct environment, as can be experienced in larger exhibitions that include a lot of film or video works. The phenomenon of projection is fine as long as you have just one. As soon as there are more, things collaps and you have a conflict in which volume knobs and plasterboard walls are the main weapons. It also helps to be there and be aggressive. The floor plan speaks for itself. You don’t even have to see it. You can hear it.
A time-­‐based picture is not very sociable. It wants you, it wants everybody, but it does not tolerate another  film  nearby.  I  don’t  think  of  my  work  as  video-­‐sculpture.  Video  sculpture  represents  a conflict in terms. The tangible elements of it are light and time, not space (Audio made for it is exempt from this). Take away the light in the moving image and you are alone in the space.

Sunrise, Kindergarten and Shadow Piece are works where contemporary architecture plays a decisive role and in which we repeatedly note a perceptible subtle discrepancy between the individual and the architecture; the human does not give way and integrate himself/herself into the architecture, but he/she is also not its master. The natural elements depicted in these scenes have a similar relationship with the architecture.

In architectural photography I discovered a photographic pendant of what I was very keen on while drawing: composition. This particular kind of photography is populated by people posing in service of something other than themselves, literally: the bigger picture. Just like with totalitarian planning it is impossible to live in the proposed picture. It diminishes the role of flesh and blood people, but keeps them perfectly composed.
This brings me to the thought that totalitarian planning is in love with the memory of the life it proposes before it has been lived. That is how I keep actors imprisoned like temporary objects (Kindergarten, Bordeaux Piece), because as a filmmaker my tool is memory, not film. And memory likes a good composition.
In Sunrise, this imprisonment reaches near perfection by keeping the housekeeper (maid) constantly choreographed in front of a backdrop of geometrical and perspective lines formed by the house. The film does not acknowledge her misery; instead she remains elegantly composed.

Sound seems to be playing an increasingly greater role in your work, particulary in newer pieces like Sunrise and Riverside. How do you define the relationship between sound and images?

Sound is ever-­‐present. A film is never mute. We know that when the picture appears, it dominates sound. On a film set and in post-­‐production, sound engineers have as much power as the director of photography, but few are credited for it. It is a wonderful position they are in, even if on a film set the sound person is at the bottom of the pecking order: “Oh, yes, the sound... er.. yes, when we are done filming, ok?”.
Unlike the picture, the sound is allowed to travel through the room. Compared to the terrible flatness of the moving image, sound is sculptural without the boundaries or limitations of the object.
The American Room (2009-­‐2019) uses a hyper-­‐defined surround piano sound linked to the pianist in the picture, but travelling with the position of the camera. A crippled sound, it nevertheless defines the room correctly and gives orientation to where the spectator is in relation to the sound source (piano).
The result is that the music is uninterrupted, but the sound is broken. The political strength and patriotism that speaks from the scene is fragmented and broken up while keeping everything visually in order     except for the unusual linking of the sound-­‐source and the camera movement.
In Riverside, much attention was spent on directing the sound of the flow of a river (creek) to convey to the position of the camera in relation to the river.
The extreme linking of audio to the fiction questions the spatial qualities of that sound and has a disenchanting effect, regardless of Riverside’s theme of the return to nature.
The sound determines EVERYTHING for both Riverside and The American Room. The woman (car stereo) and the wounded man (bleeding ear) and, the left and right screen, the river, the lack of stereophony; all of this was conceived in the idea of restoring full aural completion to broken stereophony just for a brief moment at the end of the film. The climatic part happens in the space between your ears, and at one point a river runs through your brain. This discrete phenomenon (we are used to hearing clearly and in full stereo) replaces an understanding that would traditionally come from the resolution within the story. I wanted to give something “tactile” while being well aware that the viewer wants larger emotions and remains unsatisfied.
Sunrise 2009 was entirely conceived on the basis of the music. When I first heard “Vocalise” by Sergei Rachmaninov, I felt that it was missing a film. I like to call the piece a video clip, with the difference that music comes at the sunny end and puts the entire night scene (almost mute) into perspective. Underneath are the conflicting layers of the modern and the romantic. The maid (housekeeper?) finally chooses sides by starting her own day cycling into the “romantic” part of the film, leaving behind a museum piece, too fragile for light.

In your 2001 piece Villa Corthout, music plays a special role that is essential in supporting the entire work. The same can be said of Piano Player, Sunrise, and The American Room. In cntrast to your images, which often depict banal, everyday scenes, the musical pieces you select are very emotional indeed.

As I wrote above, I seek to create sound between the ears. In Sections of a Happy Moment including The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment, the visual part is unspectacular, as you write. In this case the audio is a matching counterpart: both the audio and video sequence are made to go on forever without encountering obstacles. Still, the audio has a bottleneck: it directs the mood of the work, not unlike a homemade video under which any soundtrack is added to cover up for a boring edit. The evenness  and  non-­‐articulation  of  both  the  image  and  sound  allow  for  time  to  flow  uninterrupted. This not being a purpose in itself does however slowly modify the certitude of the photographic still, changing into stone-­‐like petrifaction. If human and social dignity are present in the beginning, then by the end (around 30 minutes) there are just objects.
When comparing film with a conflict or war zone, the music would be the instigator of force. It attacks  and  has  a  purpose,  while  “muzak”  (so-­‐called  elevator  music)  is  more  like  the  UN  blue helmets, keeping the peace. It is not expected to take you to new highs.
In Piano Player, in which the imaginary and the physical switch sides, the fiction is about a woman’s encounter with someone playing piano alone in a room. At one point, creeping up from behind the spectator (from a hidden surround audio system), a string orchestra softly joins and supports the piano player. This leaves the woman confused, and she disappears into the rain.
An imaginary element, the orchestra, can’t have been there. But because it is defined from a real room (other than the film’s fictional space), it is the most tactile element. By doing so, all other sounds -­‐ the rain, the leaves, the piano, footsteps -­‐ are moved to a fictional category, despite being diegetic with the image.
The original composition by Maurice Ravel was rearranged and rerecorded. I conducted a small chamber orchestra out of which a symphonic orchestra grew after post-­‐production.

You were very specific in deciding which of your works would be presented at the Munich exhibition and in what order and dialogue situation they would be depicted. How would you describe the selection and presentation?

We have built the exhibition around two works that are in the collection of the Pinakotek der Moderne. The square exhibition space is roughly divided in two chapters. The part when you enter has no audio, save for Shadow Piece (this audio reflects people trying to enter a building; visitors entering the exhibition room do the same.). Two new walls were added on the right to an existing wall in order to house the dark nucleus of the show, Sunrise. I would say it is the room with sunglasses on. I am happy we decided to leave all the other walls white. This way the eyes have to adapt more when entering into the Sunrise space.
Next to this is the second audiovisual piece, consisting of two projections spread over the entire wall. Together with the large bench, while the room for Sunrise is a dark nucleus, Riverside spreads out like a line. Because of limitations in space and reasons described in the above interview, we chose to exclude more pieces that have sound.

David Claerbout ©2024