April 24, 2013

The Shape of the Archive

“Every rhythm is a sense of something.” —Octavio Paz

Filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot reuses photographs and bits of old film already set tightly inside the grammar of history. He stacks or lists the sequences of archival pictures into new rhythms and velocities. The films are inflected by the aging body of media, the familiar grain of film stock, or smudgy, blown-out color. Sense is common here, we all know the story.

The weightiest of pieces, almost mammalian, is Nijuman no borei (200000 Phantoms), thousands of stills of the Atomic Bomb Dome overlaid upon one another. There are children, then there are not, there are bicycles, gatherings, stock photos, a shot of architectural repair. While Hiroshima moves around it, the dome stays in the center of the frame, a synecdoche for historical tragedy. The music’s heartsick crooner wrenches the moment’s unimaginable emotion loose with maudlin piano and tragic lyric. This counterpoint keeps historical emotion at subjective range. It enlarges it, too: “the artifact can provoke the emergence of layered memories, and thus the senses contained within it,” says C. Nadia Seremetakis, and through the voice we feel emotion simply for the old photograph.

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I want to think about this work in terms of language, a sorted alphabetics of image. The first part of The Barbarians uses something like visual phasing to interrupt one photo of a group pose with another. A row of soldiers slides in over a group of smiling heads of state at ever increasing speeds. The formal similarities of the shots seem to suggest democratic equivalences — each citizen standing in his social role, erect and representative. As the photos begin to move faster over one another, the effect becomes frenetic, as if the equivalences are consuming the differences. Then the geometry of the screen space gets interrupted by a flash of a handkercheifed face, a face shouting, carrying a gun. The group shots cede finally into full-screen photographs of street protest and riot. First the social face, then its underside — the face who is not equivalent.

What effect does the picture have in protest, what does the riot picture do? Can a photograph of social action be more than the sign of action? I keep going back to something Fulvia Carnevale of the collective Claire Fountaine said in a recent lecture, “An object cannot be moral.” Conversely, writing is never not moral, for its concurrence with the law, its coincidence with the body. This paratactic work comes close. Says poet Martha Ronk, “I am not interested in single words set in white space, but joinery.” It’s what goes between the words that makes a language, more like a ribbon than a series of equivalences. Here, images are shaped in a series, but the interstices remain — small, silent spaces that one enters with one’s own sense. What appears in the joinery seems like common sense, a sensus communis. It is not new meaning Périot creates, the meanings in his material are set. Rather, new rhythms are shaped out of the too-muchness of the archive. They create resonances, and thus, the films become active in time.

In Even If She Had Been a Criminal, the grand music and accelerated clips of civic pageantry set up the spectacle of war. Conversely, tight angles let us linger on the information of the human face, which is the most powerful of images. Slowed for our examination: gleeful, youthful men. We watch them with nostalgia. Then the cropping disappears and lets us see a public humiliation, the capture of a French woman accused of sleeping with Nazi men. The same faces our eyes lingered on before now slap, grab, and humiliate a woman, or cheer in the background. It seems that this is what war means, actually. The cruelty of concepts shines through the human face in black-and-white.

Jean-Gabriel Périot recently showed nine films at ATA as part of his U.S. tour. Nijuman no borei (200000 Phantoms), The Barbarians, and Even If She Had Been a Criminal have screened widely and won numerous awards.

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