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The art of Randy Thom

 Sound designer (FW35)

And ethics of looking: Marine Hugonnier’s Ariana and Tacita Dean’s Boots

Maria Walsh
And ethics of looking: Marine Hugonnier’s Ariana and Tacita Dean’s Boots

This summer I encountered two artist’s films that prompted me to reflect on the ethics of looking. The two films were Marine Hugonnier’s Ariana, 2003, 16mm colour, which was shown at Chisenhale Gallery, London and Tacita Dean’s Boots, 2003, 16mm colour, 20 minutes, shown at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.1 Both films could be said to use a documentary mode of filmmaking animated by a semi-fictional narrative, which in both cases is propelled forward by a voiceover. However, for me, what stood out from the ’stories’ that overlay these films is how they engage in an ethics of looking. In contrasting these artist’s films in this way, I am perhaps doing a disservice to both films, but my aim in this short essay is to use the films as theoretical objects to revise some ideas from classical film theory that seem to have absconded to the gallery.

In terms of content, Ariana might seem to be a political film. The film is set in Afghanistan. It features the capital Kabul, which bears evidence of the invasion and collapse of Soviet Communism and, more recently, the fundamentalism of the Taliban; and the Pandjsher Valley, a site surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountain range that has protected the valley from invasion. The film is comprised of documentary reportage shots of bustling, Kabul street scenes and rolling pans of the lush countryside in the valley. There are also images of warfare that look like CNN coverage, shots of distant explosions and the sound of gunfire erupting in the night. All the images, including the more poetically motivated ones such as a close-up of a fish tank in a flat in Kabul, are overlaid with a female voiceover, a softly spoken French, that tells the ’story’ from the point of view of the director.

The ’story’ of the film is the story of its making. A film crew, consisting of a director of photography, an anthropologist, a geographer, a sound engineer and a local guide, attempt to investigate how the Pandjsher Valley’s geographic position has determined its history. They aim to film the valley from a 360 degree panoramic point of view. The authorities deny access to this advantage point. This obstacle to their goal incites the voiceover to reflect on the control and power associated with the panorama, in this case its geographic strategic value. As camera pans repetitively over the lush countryside, she muses on how the mastery of the panoramic view to survey and control territory is similar to the film apparatus itself.

The crew return to Kabul and over shots of bustling street scenes, the voiceover continues to reflect on the politics of the film apparatus in a manner that reminded me of Stephen Heath’s formulations of the tension between narrative continuity and avant-garde rupture in his Questions of Cinema (1981). For accuracy, I cite the Chisenhale’s press release as it repeats the sentiments of Ariana’s director: “As they shoot a ground level panorama they realise that the continuity of the shot is in opposition to the reality of the city. The seamless motion of the camera action tends to homogenise its subject”. Implicit in this citation and in the editing and voiceover in Ariana are a number of assumptions about the film image and the spectator, which, unwittingly perhaps, are derived from an avant-garde film aesthetics. Continuity of shot and/or narrative is thought of as suturing the spectator’s relation to the illusory seduction of the image and thereby mystifying the real. The task of an avant-garde aesthetic is to disrupt the spell of continuity and engender awareness in the process of representation, which, in turn, leads one to reflect on one’s own social reality. Part of this aesthetic is to undermine the supposed authority of the film apparatus. The final sequence of Ariana encapsulates these avant-garde sentiments, but also shows how they have become predictable filmic tropes, which invoke a politics whose very theoretical assumptions need to be questioned.