29 June 2013

Secondary Action

A curious something not worth filing away in the "hauntology" drawer, but definitely engaging a set of heavily retro-/throwback aesthetics and technology…

A couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but notice a flurry of hubbub coming from the coverage of the 55th Venice Biennale, particularly that surrounding a particular work – Mathias Poledna’s installation, entitled Imitation of Life. Poledna originally hails from Vienna, and – despite the fact that he's been apparently living and working in Los Angeles for many years now – was chosen by his home country to be their primary representative artist at the Biennale's Austrian national pavilion this time around.

Upon its debut, Poledna’s work immediately became one of the more gossiped-about items at the expo. A reviewer at Art Info offers a breezy description:

"At just over three minutes long, 'Imitation of Life' should feel like a slap in the face to the hulking structure in which it sits (both literally and figuratively). But the single animated scene, which reproduces to exacting detail the process used by film studios in the late 1930s and early 1940s, is a joy. It’s simple, light (at least on the surface), heartwarming even, and then it ends leaving one wishing for more.

Content-wise, a dog [donkey] in a sailor costume trots back and forth across the screen singing a tune by Arthur Freed from the ’30s. The hook, 'I got a feelin’ you’re foolin' ...foolin’ with me,' points at both the absurdity of the Disney-esque display — production on this was run by Tony Bancroft, whose animation credits include Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast among others — and the trompe l’oeil of the medium itself. Around 30 hand-drawn and colored sketches flick past the screen each second on their 35mm spool, which along with the full orchestra commissioned to record the score, made this a massive undertaking in hours of work alone."

The screening room for Poledna's short film is housed in a temporary extension to the pavilion, designed by the Kuehn Malvezzi architecture firm. The accompanying song, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Fooling,” was a widely popular and often-covered tune from the 1930s; attributed to a pair of noted songwriters who frequently worked with MGM Studios. For the project, Poledna had the song rerecorded, making a new version that closely adhered the style of the original. The artist also created a series of original drawings and sketches for the project, which he then had developed into the requisite series of hand-drawn cels by a crew of veteran animators.

None of which comes cheap these days; considering that certain old modes of production have become so rarefied, rapidly dwindling to a specialty that involves a shrinking pool of skills, expertise and know-how. Which is why the Poledna's in Austria had to (reportedly) summon together a generous sum to fund Imitation of Life. The money involved being part of what has fueled the baffled reception of the project. The other part being that all that funding only amounts to – by all appearances – a cartoon that runs roughly three minutes. Befuddlement ensues, with one critic finding it delightful while another one waxes incredulous. Must be some "conceptual" thing – something having to do with all that money being funneled into getting swallowed up by a few moment's worth of fluffy, gen-audiences escapist entertainment; and thus some ironic comment on the "culture industry" and all that it involves. Or something along those lines.

* * * *

Poledna’s had an interesting number of projects over the past fifteen years or so. Interesting, in that these projects reveal an evolution in the artist's working methods. First there’s the preference for analog technology – especially in his habit of eschewing video in favor of working with 16 and 35mm film. Secondly, there’s his fascination with pop culture and his choices of artifacts from the realm of entertainment, which he then uses to explore themes relating to the nature of artifice, escapism, and concept of “authenticity.” And thirdly, there’s his working methods, which involved deeper levels of cultural research with each successive project; the resulting work alluding to esoteric cultural/historical parallels or connections.

For instance, a few of his projects from recent years:

Actualité (2001): A rock band rehearsing – an altrock-ish outfit of two females and two males with the usual array of instruments, wrangling to find a suitable, attention-grabbing intro to a song. Let’s try this...no, maybe this way. Fumblings, concentration and wordless interplay, false starts, a hazy notion in search of form. The camera pans around, the quartet with its instruments and amps shot in close-to-mid range. The feeling of claustrophobia made even more pronounced by the backdrop of the blackness of an unlit expanse behind the musicians, pushing this figures forward to the viewer, their frustrated efforts confined to the focus of a spotlight. The film lasts some nearly 8 minutes, rerun in an endless loop. As one critic put it, the effect is like watching a souls consigned to purgatory, eternally condemned to repeat an unresolvable task.

Western Recording (2003): Chronicles the re-recording of a Harry Nilsson song, "City Life." Views of the studio as the vocalist and various musicians play their parts, taking cues and instructions from the producer, intercut with POV shots of the same actions as seen from the producer’s booth. Not sure what the significance of the Nilsson song might be, aside from possibly the ironic play of its title against the "Western" of the project’s title. That Western actually being the studio where the Poledna’s re-recording and filming took place, which was – it turns out – the same studio where (among other things) the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds. You know – right before Brian Wilson started getting a little too obsessed with taking control of his career, with studio-based wizardry and sound manipulation, soon disappearing down his own rabbit hole of manic perfectionism that characterized the Smile sessions.

Crystal Palace (2006): A slow meditative 3-camera study of the vegetation of a rainforest somewhere in the depths of Papua New Guinea, accompanied by an edited soundtrack of field recordings from the same location. Ultimately, it’s an exercise in armchair exoticism; or more like a rumination on the supposed “authoritative” framing and representation of the exotic other in the contemporary mediated landscape. Apparently the work was partly inspired by the fact that the 1951 Smithsonian Folkways LP, Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest in America. Which, while purporting to be field recordings taken from an exotic locale, some accounts have it, is widely rumored to be a faux-ethnographic fraud.

* * * *

From those prior examples of Poledna's work, one could conjecture about what Imitation of Life is has lurking in its inspirational substrata. The title is taken, obviously, from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama, but it’s more obviously a reference to Disney’s adoption of rotoscoping techniques for crafting animated sequences from live-action models.1.  It might also extend into the workings of Disney Studios – the divisions of labor along the production line – as the studio sought to better its competitors in the animation market by creating a product that was "state of the art" in its verisimilitude. That, plus more recent discoveries about how Disney & co would later recycle cels and sequences from prior productions as a cost-cutting measure.

But this German-language write-up at Texte zu Kunst points to something ominous lurking at the margins, something that most likely provides the historical subtext of Poledna’s Biennale piece. It also suggests that Poledna was inspired by the occasion, punning off of the locale of Venice as a site for international cultural festivals and events.

As some critics have cited, the style of Poledna’s piece indicates that he was aiming for that of a specific vintage; specifically a Disney production of the roughly late-1930 to early 1940s era. Surveying the Studios’ history, we find that the year of 1938 was a turnaround year for Disney Studios, that being the year that the Studio trotted out its first feature length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Up to that point, the Studio had been a workhorse of animated short titles – of Mickey Mousing and "Silly Symphonies." But in December of 1937, the studio unveiled its new ambitious production of Snow White to a select Hollywood audience. And the year of 1938 was a fairly big juncture for Disney in other respects, mainly in the way of important visitors. Early in the year, conductor Leonard Stokowsky arrived to begin conferring with the studio on its next hugely ambitious project, Fantasia.

In the summer of the 1938, Disney Studios would send Snow White to the Venice International Film Festival, where it would eventually claim Grand Biennale Art Trophy. The prize, however, was awarded amidst political controversy brewing at the Festival. Considering that the event was being hosted on the grounds of Mussolini’s Italy, there was by many accounts a strong fascist presence at the event that year. While the awards for best feature was given to a long-since forgotten Italian feature, Luciano Serra, Pilote – by some accounts, a fairly innocuous narrative film despite its military-related subject matter. The other prime award recipients – both from Germany – generated some dissent, on account of their overtly propagandistic nature. The first was Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia, which was – alongside Luciano Serra, Pilote – also award the Mussolini Cup for best feature film. The other German film was the pastoral melodrama Heimat, for which filmmaker Carl Froelich was given the trophy for Best Director. By some accounts, the prize given to Riefenstahl’s film prompted protests among some of those in attendance (e.g. the British and American camps) which it turn prompted the jurors to award a trophy to Disney’s animated feature by way of making amends.2

Some three months later, Leni Riefenstahl would travel to American shores on a publicity tour for Olympia backed by the German government. Her goal was to drum up interest in a distribution deal for Olympia. One of the earliest stops was Detroit, where she met with – surprise, surprise – Henry Ford. From there she set out for Hollywood, to the heart of the American film industry. If no one had bothered to roll out the welcome mat for her elsewhere in the U.S., then Hollywood proved a much tougher audience; mostly thanks to the Anti-Nazi League, who'd launched a protest campaign in advance of her visit. It hadn’t helped that Kristallnacht had taken place within days of Reifenstahl’s arrival on the East Coast; and as news of the pogrom circulated, she found that by the time she’d reached Hollywood, virtually nobody was willing to meet with her.

Or almost nobody. Apparently film producer and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer took time out to discuss the possibility of a distribution deal with her. And the big exception was Walt Disney, who may of may not have gotten the memo. Whatever the case, history has it that he took time out to greet her and take her on a guided tour of the Disney Studios for a couple of hours. Shortly after which, Riefenstahl returned to Germany, where she was promptly debriefed by Joseph Goebbels.

The last time, that I can recall, that an artist used the Venice Biennale to tackle that historical terrain was Hans Haacke's installation for the German pavilion exactly 20 years ago:

But Mathias Poledna's Imitation of Life is clearly much less overt, more trickily and ellusively nuanced. Each artist, in his own way, is working in that vein of the conceptualist subcategory of "institutional critique." Yet aside from punning off of the idea of a festival in Venice, Poledna’s project – like much of his prior work – is more outwardly-directed, its scope of reference encompassing a much broader realm of cultural production.3  Jasper Sharp, UK art historian and Biennale Commissioner and curator, suggests as much in this Biennale catalog, writes that Poledna’s project:
"...Weaves into its short narrative a multitude of convergent histories: of the avant-garde and popular culture, politics and propaganda, capitalism and collapse, and an artistic medium that has been part of our collective consciousness for almost a century."
As for myself, I find myself thinking of something Walter Benjamin wrote back in 1937, his observation that any given document or artifact of culture possesses a double life – the first being as testament to a history of achievement, the second as indication of the unacknowledged history of brutality that undergirds the first. And that it is therefore the task of the cultural historian to "brush history against the grain." Admittedly, these two histories might not necessarily align, but merely – as Sharp puts it – converge or intersect at some point or another. In this instance, one can’t help but follow the chain of associations; bearing in mind how the pinnacle of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when movie attendance was at its highest – coincided with the depths of the Great Depression. And of course, other events that were looming on the horizon – over in the field of one’s peripheral vision, if one were to take one's eyes off the screen.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.  Sirk having worked in the German film industry before fleeing the country and resuming his career in the U.S. in 1937.

2.  Riefenstahl,’s prior film, Triumph of the Will, had won the gold medal at the Venice Film Festival back in 1935. Froelich, on the other hand, had had a much longer and more distinguished career in German cinema; his studio being previously responsible for producing both the country’s first sound and color reels. But by 1933 he’d joined the Nazi Party, and would eventually be appointed to the official position as head of government’s Reichsfilmkammer. His 1938 feature Heimat is often cited as the epitome of a quaint subgenre of Nazi cinema, that of the bucolic “Heimat” film. For the uninitiated, it usually involved humble and very Volk-ish narratives set in the Germanic countryside. As such things go, it seems innocuous enough; far more likely to be dismissed as quaint, and hardly ideological. But given the idea of Heimat (loosely translated as ‘homeland’), its underlying theme did often intertwine with vaguely-related and much more problematic cultural concepts in Nazi ideology – particularly those Hitlerian notions of Vaterland, Lebensraum, ethos of Blut und Boden, and etcetera.

3.  By extension, another highly conceptualist aspect of Poledna’s work is its process-oriented character, which in is concentrated in the very material modes of cultural production. Case in point: A fair amount of the commentary surrounding Imitation of Life has focused on its high-productivist design; particularly the quantitative effort and the list of numbers involved in the thing – the number of drawings made and cels crafted, the dozens of Hollywood veterans employed, the 70-piece orchestra that helped record the song at the Warner Brothers scoring facility, and the amount spent by the Austrian backers to fund the project. Which, in turn, forms a sort of subtext or theme behind the project (as well as Poledna’s other previous works); that theme being the large sums of concerted labor and resources that go into the elaborate offerings of mass culture and entertainment. There’s also the matter of the degree of calculated contrivance and “constructed illusion” involved within such an industry, about which Tom Holert’s catalog essay for Poledna’s Western Recording, "Studio Time," makes a number of crucial points.

Additionally, it bears pointing out that in a lot of respects, Imitation of Life very much follows the model Poledna set with a work from just a few years ago -- 2011's A Village by the Sea.

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