Blog #5/21 Drowning in the Livestream
By Anuj Malhotra
The video continues to hang, a network snag, and as is always the case, it is difficult to figure out at whose end. Anyway, by this point, she is a blur – I can hear her, yet the image is a few thousand pixels short. She moved away to another continent last week; no longer a lover but a facsimile – a performance that continues to load. In a few minutes, the image resolves, and she asks: “Yes, so where were we?”
The world was already a collection of a set of aggressive systems – the pandemic has merely placed a set of ornate frames around it. This translates to a perpetual self-awareness; we no longer merely are, we also know that we are. A debate begins as part of the annual Berlin Critics’ Week (this an event that is mounted already upon its knowledge of itself – it is now in double remission), and our cast of characters appear slowly on screen: a filmmaker from Mexico, another from Cambodia, a Germany-based actress from Argentina, her local peer, and an Austrian critic to steer the “performance”. This is not a declaration of cynicism, for discussions at film festivals always seem to know they are discussions at film festivals. There is an undeniable nobility to them, perhaps even honour, but they seem possessed by an anxiety that is borne out of their own intrinsic nature – a ceremonial annexation of everything that is, in essence, mysterious or even absent. We can talk of film, but how do we talk of film, except through analogies. The critic, eager to centralise the chief theme of this particular debate (titled Playact, therefore, about reality and representation), remarks to the Mexican filmmaker: “…in a way, narcotics is the chief cultural export of your country to the world.”
An enormous osmosis is underway – the screen drips into life, life leaks onto the screen, etc. (cue a meme of a professional video call interrupted by a dog in the background), existence itself is a blooper reel. Lately, I have been watching a lot of older videos of professional wrestling, amazed by the elegance with which the entire affair teeters on the edge between, as the debate would label these, reality and fiction. With these wrestling shows almost everyone is on the secret, so to say, and yet, the audiences engineer a collective, touching enactment of faith (or Faith) – we know, however, we will pretend we do not. It makes me think of the hide-and-seek we played as children, when my mother could spot me standing behind an almirah but would loudly declare: “Oh! He seems to have vanished into thin air. How ingenuous!”
At a point in the debate, Fauna‘s director Nicolás Pereda remarks about his process: “I work with the same actors, who are all my friends. I am not very interested in the characters, but I am interested in the actors who play them. I write characters for them, so I can learn more about the actors themselves.” This is as moving an artist-statement as I have heard recently. Art as a way of getting to know people better – we assign people different masks, so that they can reveal themselves to us at their own pace. I recall that James Benning said something similar about his film Twenty Cigarettes (2011): “When people begin to smoke, they are performing for the camera. Slowly, they become who they are.”
It is late in the night, and the debate seems to stretch on longer than we had anticipated – even if the pandemic has flattened geographical hierarchies, time zones are still real. Danech San starts to get sleepy, as it is close to 4 a.m. in Phnom Penh. She mounts a tremendous effort to stifle a yawn, and for a moment it seems she may excuse herself, yet she rallies on. Bert Rebhandl does a tremendous job of keeping everyone involved, and swiftly stimulates her with a question. There are artists who have remarked in the last year about the way digital exhibition facilitates “democratic access”, but this presumes, in the first place, a hierarchy of the audience and the exhibit – a separation between the two, if you like – that belongs to the analogue universe. In the digital display, this hierarchy has itself collapsed: no one is the performer, everyone is the performer; no one is the audience, everyone is the audience. The only omniscient view of the entire situation lies within the system itself; companies that rely on analytics data for their revenue state this outright when they say “we observe the behavior of those who use our services.”
The interesting part about the “debate” is that it is not really a debate – when it was conducted atop a stage, the layout could serve this illusion. The filmmakers would sit on one side, the respondents on another, and in the middle – the moderator. Within the digital interface, such a demarcation no longer exists, everyone exists on the same plane as a character within the grid. When someone speaks from within their allotted cubicle, waveforms flare, and a yellow rectangle frames them in order to ascertain the role within the schema that is being invoked within the given moment. A little later, Rebhandl asks San: “How do you represent your national context within your cinema?” She replies: “I am not really sure. I just show things that are around me.” In essence, everyone talks, only not to each other but to the server.
Two to three days ago, I received in my email an “invitation to collaborate” – the editor of this blog and its coordinator wrote to me, requesting that the writing be “impromptu, critical, and audiovisual”. This is consistent with her larger practice, and I wonder about the impulse which propels this pursuit – I sense in it a disdain for the aristocracy inherent in “our” existing systems of film culture. Things have to change, you know. A little later, I receive the films that the “debate” will be organized around as private links, home truths as data packets. As is often the case with my connection and high-definition uploads on Vimeo, the films begin to hang and buffer. A new type of an image forms on my screen – characters in stasis, and a circle that revolves around itself in the middle of their faces. I like this, especially in films about performativity – the film is rendered even more material, I remove myself from it and reflect on it, and the system observes our behavior. In Pereda’s film, characters perform only a single cycle of any performance. Before they are about to enter the second cycle, the filmmaker cuts the scene. As such, two to three scenes in the film end with the same question: “Should we get back at it?” The film resumes streaming, I continue to watch, and we get back at it, even more aware of our “doing” of our assigned roles.
This gambit is forever interesting, and it never stops giving. It is existence as if on a perpetual cusp. Every time San attempts an answer, Rebhandl reminds her: “You need to unmute your microphone.” As Lola Arias observes as well: “You know, this is comedy that lasts a few seconds, when the person continues to speak but you cannot hear them.” It is comedy, of course, and a chance also to observe how beings come to form within a digital conference: the image resolves, comes into sharp focus, pixels align, the audio works, and, finally, “yes, we can hear you” – a reanimated monster with organs made out of bytes. This process of construction aligns perfectly with both Sunrise in My Mind and Fauna, where characters continuously escape the roles assigned to them by – a renewal of the contract with – frameworks of labour, profession, class, pop-culture, the cinema, and finally, the filmmakers themselves.
In a scene that plays on a mobile screen within Sunrise in My Mind, a director challenges his actress to express love but without touch. These are films impressed upon permeable membranes, marked by leakages, very porous. In a sudden rupture, the main characters of the short enter a scene where they lie next to each other, presumably in the aftermath of a lovemaking session, their hands interlocked – a gesture that exists almost as a response to the aforementioned suggestion: love, but of the body.
At any rate, she is away now, and this is not familiar – I don’t really know how to respond to this situation, and I think she feels this way too. I think it’s natural. The call got disconnected, so we agreed to call again. Meanwhile, and between the two calls, I send her a still from Pereda’s film with a message “an actress who looks like you” – this is after all an odd resemblance, yet no longer surprising on a night marked by seepage across realms. She picks up, and asks: “Should we get back at it?”
A video of the debate can be found here.