Email Interview with Johan Grimonprez
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
A question about digital television: so far, digital channels are being watched by very few people. Does this “non-Audimat” situation create a laboratory, openness for experiments? To finally go beyond program television whose " homogeneity ... is intrinsically hostile to art " (Alexander Kluge)
Couldn't homogeneity possibly trigger a creative context to read mainstream imagery in deviant ways, to read against the grain? Homogeneity, as a vocabulary, actually did provide a huge source of inspiration to explore certain themes in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. How do you struggle as an artist or filmmaker to position yourself vis-a-vis mainstream media? Art and mainstream media seem to remain mad twin sisters, always arguing. Hence the rivalry between a novelist and a terrorist staged as a metaphor in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. In this plot it's the terrorist who holds the winning hand, since he's able to play the media. The narrative is taken from DeLillo's book Mao II, which contends that the novelist's role within society has been replaced by that of bombmakers and gunmen. "What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” says the book. The end of the film though alludes to the fact that the media nowadays outplays the terrorist.
With 600 channels soon provided on New York cable, might the overall homogeneity not desire the other part: the urge for an extreme diversity, a kind-of-supermarket-idea with specialized departments, evidently to push the viewer's quota? The recent corporate merger of ATT-telephone, MediaOne & Microsoft might very well give new meaning to the act of zapping. Impossible to surf every channel in a nighttime. We are destined to plug in the computer-browser, let the searchfunction pop up our favorite clips from the scifi-channel or the history-channel. We could also let a random-veejay-option simply perform the zapping for us, click for: TELEVISION ON MUTE and tune the stereo to some inflight groove.
The homogeneity of mainstream imagery does not necessarily dictate a homogenous perception of that imagery. Video-viewing rituals amongst the Warlpiri community at Yuendumu (Central Australia) for example sustain cultural invention. Decodings of Jackie Chan movies or Australian TV-soaps like Neighbours would be interpreted along kinship obligations and different story-lines appropriate to Warlpiri narrative . Similarly the gossip culture of catholic mothers in Northern Ireland would see Joan Collins from the feuilleton Dynasty as an emancipatory icon: wasn't Joan rich enough to act independently and trash all those men? Translation of global culture across geographical (& political) boundaries can be read in most contradictory ways: commercials were the most powerful messages of the West, remarked East German writer Heiner Müller.
The television viewer is maybe not a passive consumer: isn't there always a sense of appropriation, creating one's own terms to read mainstream imagery with a certain iconoclastic pleasure? It became the point of departure to set up a mobile videolibrary: Beware! In playing the phantom, you become one, a project made in collaboration with filmcritic Herman Asselberghs, and that has been travelling since its initiation in 1994.
Beware! In Playing the phantom, you become one is your mobile video library and archive includes films, documentary films, commercials, soaps and sitcoms. The program changed from Kassel to Paris where it was shown after Documenta X. How do you relate global issues through a travelling archive with local adaptations and local necessities? It is interesting that the program in Paris was different, it is no longer possible to send homogenous exhibitions on tours and impose them to places but the terms have to be (re)negotiated every time.
How do you integrate participatory elements into your films and other works in general?
McLuhan speaks of hot and cold media, cold media being participatory media with few details, like paper, while hot media offer little possibility for participation, for example television.
In an interview I recently made with Alexander Kluge he said that he tried to make films which are also, in your words: " the ideology of zapping which can be an extreme form of poetry, going much further than collage". Could you tell me about this last point, about how zapping transcends collage, where does it lead?
The participatory elements would be sometimes as simple as a hot cup of coffee! We would never install our videolibrary without having the cookies, the smell of coffee and the remote control. These elements already induce a platform of conviviality, an atmosphere for chatting. You are invited to pick up the remote to zap through your own choice of videotapes, in a way to be your own curator. The stack of tapes we put out range from twisted commercials, underground documentaries & alternative MTV to mainstream stuff spinned off from Hollywood and CNN. The visitors are also invited to include their own homegrown camcorder tapes: their honeymoon horrors, UFO-testimonies, their top ten of Oprah Winfreh Shows.
The library alluded to the fact that the very act of watching television already contains a participatory nature. The way we receive, contextualize and recontextualize images - it's exactly what we do with the zapping tool (say: “zaptitude”). Zapping buys into the supermarket ideology, but at the same time it can embody a critical distance as well. It stems in fact from videodeck terminology: zapping, i.e. fastforwarding the videotape past the commercial. Commercial break = zapping time.
No need to zap though, the poetry is right there on CNN. CNN has totally surpassed the way Eisenstein and Vertov envisioned montage as a revolutionary tool. Similarly in how the avant-garde filmmakers of the 60s & 70s have become displaced by MTV's nature to swallow every different sort of novel style. The arrival of MTV on Moscovite TV in Russia was trumpeted in the Russian press as the biggest event since the 1917 October revolution: Vertov reconsidered through the eyes of MTV.
A zapping mode splices blood with ketchup, like CNN: images of war cut with strawberry icecream. It would rather point at an epistemological shift in how a "zaptitude" has transformed the way we look at reality. A jumpy fast forward vision has replaced our conventional models of perception and experience. Sometimes I don't even know anymore if we're still in the middle of the commercial break or whether the film has already started. Soon we’ll be mistaking reality for a commercial break.
The taboo of visible death is usually kept from the public sphere into the private realm. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y evokes Holbeins’ sarcophagus painting where the viewer is both inside and outside, the active and passive view coincide Allegorical death and death as a dumb fact.
We are inside and outside, there is the obsession with death in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (You elsewhere described TV’s complicity with death as "the desire we have for the ultimate disaster is one aspect of our relationship with death”). It reminds us of what Georges Didi Huberman wrote about Sarcophage: “Ce que je vois, ce que je regarde.” In your text Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter you write: " The observer observed."
Virilio remarked once that television turned the world into an accident, and that with the advent of virtual reality the whole of reality will be ‘accidented’. Each technology invents its own catastrophe, and with it a different relationship to death. The boat invented the sinking of the boat, the airplane invented the crash of the airplane. Television has reinvented the way we perceive reality and the way we relate to catastrophe, history and death.
TV has turned our notions of private and public inside out, but, more importantly, the representational modes for portraying actuality and imagination have become intertwined: CNN borrows from Hollywood and vice versa. The everyday talkshow has zapped the family right off their couch and into the studio. In the opposite direction catastrophe culture invades our living room.
The territory of the home overlaps with the space of TV in a much more profound and psychological way than we are possibly aware. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y ends also with a scene of a hijacked, crashing plane accidentally framed by some honeymooner’s camcorder. The couple was immediately invited to guest on Larry King's talk show on CNN to tell how they were able to shoot the footage! The dynamics of abstract capitalism thus allow the spectators to be the heroes and political issues are simply reduced to explanations of how to operate a camcorder. Patricia Mellencamp calls it the shift from catastrophe to comedy: "We can't change the world, but we can change our socks ," according to one Nike ad: "It's not a shoe, it's a revolution."
First published in Camera Austria #66 (Graz), 1999