On Cinema and Ulus Baker
Can Sarvan - Aras Özgün
Aras Özgün, born in 1970, graduated from Middle East Technical University (METU) Political Sciences Department. During his undergraduate education, he developed an interest in cinema and video, and started producing experimental and documentary videos. He met with Ulus Baker while pursuing his graduate degree in METU Sociology Department,. During these years, he became a research assistant in Audiovisual Systems Research Center, METU (METU-GISAM). He cofounded Körotomedya collective with Ulus Baker, and a few other colleagues in 1994. He went to New York to pursue another masters degree at New School University (NSU), Media Studies Department in 1998. He is now teaching graduate courses on media theory, digital media theory, multimedia production in NSU and CUNY (The City University of New York), and working on his Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology Department of The New School For Social Research. His current research interests include political economy of contemporary cultural and artistic production and etnographic filmmaking besides digital media theory and experimental media arts.
I think that, the common thing in Ulus Baker’s perspective on both philosophy and cinema is believing in the belief itself. By referring to J. L. Godard, he mentions, the politicization of cinema, and as a consequence, the only way for the emergence of belief, could be done by “dealing with matters which are not yet politicized ”. What do you think about the potential to raise such a belief in cinema as a filmmaker, although, at the same time, in Baker’s own words, cinema is the most characteristic ‘industrial design’ of our times which brings the “loss of gestures”, and precisely the medium through which subjective and objective melt into each other
Your question certainly calls for the discussion of “what is avantgarde?”. But, from another perspective, “believing in belief itself” is an important point which should not be dismissed as rhetoric, but rather should be taken as a philosophical break and discussed in depth. It is different to say “I believe” than saying “I know”, or totally different than saying “in my opinion”. “Believing” involves –or requires-- an active subject, implies “participation”. The believer “participates in” to the object of his/her belief, to the degree that the object of his belief exists only through such participation (as in the case of believing in God). As such, the object of belief is performatively embodied within his/her participation; believing drives the subject into action, while embodying its own object precisely through this action, with desire. “Believing” is a constitutive form of knowledge armed with desire. Therefore, doubt and belief should not be considered in contrast to each other, but rather as complimentary to each other --we can doubt about certain things as long as we believe in certain others.
If we take the notion of belief as a form of knowledge requiring participation and “engagement”, we can see that it is almost in contrast with the forms of knowledge established through modernity. “Believing” has been taught to us as the opposite of “reasoning”; “thinking” has been seen as an active of questioning by keeping oneself at a certain distance from the object/event, without participating to it and being indifferent to it. In modernity, the fact that thinking as such requires a certain “belief” in itself has been disregarded. The form of modern knowledge, which has been rooted in the Enlightenment Philosophy, aimed at placing the “knowing subject” in the center of the universe by seperating the shim/her from the event which s/he acquires the knowledge of. “The death of God” announced by Nietzsche, “the world picture” coined by Heidegger, all refer to this new form of cognition; with modernity the knowledge refers to a set of relations expressed within the distance between the subject and the object of knowledge. At this moment, the awareness of what goes on starts to mean, to look, watch and record what is going on from a certain distance. Through these recordings we can reassemble the representations of these events, and we can analyze them. Through these representations, we can investigate the life. The form of modern knowledge is quiet a specific form of relation in this sense. As Jonathan Beller, Gilles Deleuze, and others mentioned, cinema, on the one hand, constituted a perfect model of modern industrial production style (with the studio system already highly developed in the first half of 20th century, alon with the sophisticated mechanisms of production and distribution); and on the other hand, it presents us a brilliant model of this form of cognition since its birth. In this respect, we should consider not only the technics and technology Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge developed even before the birth of cinema for analyzing the moving images, but we should also consider the path of evolution documentary and etnographic film followed from Lumiere brothers to Flaherty and Gardner throughout the old 20th century.
That’s why, while discussing the cinema as “the mirror of reality”, we shouldn’t undermine what kind of a specific relationship it establishes with reality. Cinema, in this sense establishes a new ontology on the one hand, circulates the forms of representations it produces with an idea of realism through the narrative cliches masteres by the culture industry. Cinema engaged in producing realistic narratives by utilizing various techniques of realism within a production system modeled after industrial factory production, and at the same time, it cut off its relation with everyday reality by concealing such production process entirely –precisely on the same ontological ground which it helped to consolidate. That is to say, cinema paradoxically produces a properly “spectacle” on the one hand, and introduces this spectacle as “illusion of reality” (that the pscyhoanalitic theory associates with the “identification process”) on the other, and such paradox is related with the modern ontological construction.
So how can we evoke belief and doubt as such in cinema, how can we sustain perceiving and gathering the knowledge of life by participating to it at the same time through cinema? In short, how can we desist cinema fron being a “representation” system and make it a “participation” machine? How can we abandon cinema as an instrument of “spectacle” and “auditing”, and make it a cognitive apparatus? Ulus’s intellectual occupation in regards to cinema was mostly focused on this question. He produced lots of resources around this question, and attempted to relate the philosophical genealogy passing from Spinoza, Tarde and Bergson to Deleuze with the cinema of Vertov, Godard, Guney and others.
Since you mentioned Vertov, can you talk about your ideas on the political cinema of Dziga Vertov, to whom Baker often refered?
As a political form of cinema, Vertov’s filmmaking was not masturbating with the images of power, or simply a stupefying rhetoric like Riefenstahl’s. Riefenstahl was so ignorant about the expressive potentials of cinema that she couldn’t realize the simple difference between “the images of power” and the “power of the image”, and moreover, she was clueless enough to say that “she didn’t realize what was going on” when she was asked to explain the part she took in 3rd Reich. Whereas, when we look at Vertov, we not only recognize a very strong determination about what he was trying to do, but we also notice that his determination originated from a lengthy contemplation on what is to do with cinema. What we find as political in Vertov is not only the cinematographic expression he presents through the images, but a political theory of cinema he established. For Vertov, cinema is an instrument of cognition and it is political in that sense –it articulates to the political construction of life primarily as a perception machine.
We shouldn’t forget the fact that Vertov was filming and editing together with his brother and wife. After Soviet cinema consolidated as another form of industrial production, Vertov, Eisenstein and others were marginalized, and excluded from this system. That’s why, Vertov didn’t have any political questions about inner dynamics of film production; what is political was the expression itself (that is to mean the aesthetics of film), with the idea behind that being the articulation between the expression as such and the other political processes in life. He recognized that cinema had already started to develop as mass entertainment and such tendency would render the “relation with life” that he wanted establish impossible. However, he thought that this was a problem related with the aesthetic forms in popular circulation.. Looking from today, it is obviously would be much proper to relate the historical development of cinema as a form of mass entertainment with the development of industrial production and distribution models of Fordism.
However, when we arrive to Godard’s era, we notice a quite different cinema habitus. The emergence of New Wave in ’59 created a massive aesthetic break; Godard, Tavernier, Resnais and others did not just turn the formal conventions of mainstream cinema inside out, but what they told in a different way was another story. If mainstream cinema had been just an amalgamation of certain narrative forms and narration techniques, it probably wouldn’t have survived from New Wave’s storm. However, immediately after creating such a sharp break-off, these people actually found themselves surrounded by a gigantic industry, and moreover, they realized how this industry reproduces itself within the “social factory”, beyond the screen and the movie theatre. At this very moment, Godard took over Vertov’s legacy – through the “Group Dziga Vertov” he founded in mid ‘70’s and through the video and television works he produced together with Anne-Marie Mieville afterwards. What I would like to underline is that Godard’s connection to Vertov was not just a formal revival of his heritage; except a few “Group Dziga Vertov” works, Godard revived the political essence of Vertov’s filmmaking and experimented ahead to much richer and more competent forms with it.
For me, this is very interesting; in order to reach to the true form and liberating essence of cinema,Vertov had always tried to purify it from other artistic forms; he tried to achieve the unique expression of cinema through freeing it from theatre, literature, etc. His idea of political cinema was inherently constructed with this purification process. (Because, according to him, as long as cinema could be freed from the burden of these other aesthetic forms, it could relate to life directly; it could register “life as it is” through the “camera-eye” and derive an expression out of it through montage). “The Man with a Camera”, as a manifest/film is the most obvious statement of such effort. Whereas, when he took over the dream of Vertov, Godard left this purification effort entirely . On the contrary, he directly included every instrument and techniques of various artistic expression forms he found – literature, different styles of theatre, poetry, music, even directly philosophical texts, cartoons and and television. Although, Godard’s materials for “political cinema” was such extensive and diverging from his stylistic formulas, it was still loyal to Vertov’s essential idea --to cinema as a direct relation with life, as an apparatus of thinking has not been given up in Godard at all. The difference between them lies in the fact that, in Godard’s world, life can no longer be considered as seperate from these aesthetic segments accumulated on top of it throughout a century of mass media, this aesthetic forms themselves become embedded in everyday life – if Godard would be playing with Vertov’s motto, he would probably say, “life” is no more “as it is”.
In this sense, what Godard defines as “political cinema” is related to the practical production conditions of cinema. This is what he means by “not to make political films, but to make films in a politically”. That is to say, beyond what film expresses, the important thing is how it is made, what kind of social relations and political mechanisms it reproduces during its production.. “Not politicized yet” are the spheres of everyday life which we don’t recognize as political at the first sight. As Foucault tried to point out by coining the concept of biopolitics, such speheres in life (which are not directly addressed as political) such as school, family, communications, sexuality, etc. are actually the areas of social reproduction in which social subjectivities produced within. Subjectivation takes place within these areas through power relations and power apparatuses, in an entirely political way. Godard’s works after “Group Dziga Vertov”, especially “Numéro Deux” and the video/television works he later on produced with Anne-Marie Mieville, such as “Six fois deux/Sur and sous la communication” and “France/tour/detour/deux enfants”, focused on these areas. In these works, we cannot find an agitative political discourse in the way of “Le Gai Savoir”, but we find a more profound and effective political thought on everyday life. For Godard and Mieville, the production process itself in these films and videos itself is also a “political area”; oftentimes these films turn around and start to discuss their own political constructs, “Soft and Hard” (1996) is a prime example in this regard. I think this is a very important matter for people who work with video and electronic/digital images, like us. The forms of expression which were developed by the New Wave filmmakers as “alternatives to Hollywood language” have already became the standart visual rhetoric of MTV and the likes now. In a formal sense, Vertov’s idea of “The Man wih a Camera” and various techniques of cinema verité, are not so distant from what is called “embedded journalism” today. Then the “political” substance of the works we make should be considered in relation to their production --how they are made, what kind of subjectivities they produce during their production and circulation, and which political stuctures they articulate to. If we are dealing with arts, the political relations it weaves around the production of its object are as important the political expression it creates through its aesthetic layers. Otherwise, it all becomes sterilised; “political films” like Michael Moore’s works can be appreciated by millions, the most radical expressions can receive big praises in the art world, and none of these have any political effect in return.
Photography has developed as a form of art long before cinema. Ulus Baker refers to photography as “trace of reality” and “witness to life”. However he also mentions that together with the negative contribution of digital possibilities and the intervention of press/media, now photography is capable of deceiving and this situation carries the jeopardy of losing its characteristic of witnessing. On the other hand, he claims, utilizing the digital possibilities, of especially video works, does not carry the same risk for cinema; on the contrary, he thinks that the collage in montage would allow images be in cinema in their own reality. Although this seems as a paradox at first sight, when we consider photography as framing, and cinema as a series of montaged images, what Baker explains seems reasonable. How do you consider this analysis?
In terms of “genealogy”, photography and cinema are definitely not different from each other – to the degree that Deleuze, Bergson and others assert that cinema became possible at the moment photography was discovered. That is to say; the possibility of mechanically reproducing still images immediately calls for the reproduction of moving images in the same way. Besides, historically, we can see how short had been the transition of photography to cinema; Lumiere Brothers screened the first film almost immediately after Eastman developed the cellulose nitrate film base. Also, Jonathan Crary, Raymond Bellour and others assert that the technological acceleration which made photograhy and cinema possible, is the product of an inherent “representational logic”, a consitutive element of modern subjectivity, which we can trace back to 18th century and even before. In other words, a preceding collective desire made photography and cinema technologically possible, the transformation of representation regimes themselves necessitated these technologies. In “Film Before Film” (as well as some his other works about the same subject he seems to be obsessed with) Werner Nekes exposes the moving image technologies developed before the birth of cinema, and tells us the same thing.
If this is the case, as I tried to explain earlier, the actual expressive power of photograhy and cinema does not lie in their mimetic capacities (that is, their ability to display reality as it is). But it is hidden in the tension they can create between representation and reality exactly through such capacity. This is what we should understand from the notions of the “trace of reality”, “witness to life”: the trace of reality is a “trace” --not the reality itself, what witness tells is a story --not the life itself. Traces can mislead you, story can be a lie; but where we arrive accidentaly can be the place we wanted go to, a lie can make us understand a larger truth better. It is only possible through such relationship of tension for photography and cinema to accomodate affections, and therefore, to be a “form of art”.
For sure, what Ulus has recognized as a problem in the age of digital images was not that now photographs became deceptive; is from the very beginning, photography never showed the reality as it at all. What it did was to establish a new kind of relation with reality. On the contrary, the problem is the tendency for the digital images to be realistic, and their capacity to ‘surpass’ this tension. That is to say, computer graphics do not follow the “genealogy” of photographic images; they do not present a ghostly trace of their objects, they do not witness a moment that is already past. It is not “an ghostly shadow of a moment which has already past” as Barthes attributes to photograhy. Barthes called the camera as a “clock for seeing”. In that sense, computer image is a timeless image – or creates its own time. Therefore, we can consider that this type of image promises different potentials than the photographic images. But why is this new type of image, which has the potential to establish an entirely different relationship with reality than the photograhic images, simply attempt to achieve some sort of “realism” (which has never been a primary artistic device for photography and cinema anyways). This is not simply a question of aesthetics or technology; this is a question related with social conditions, it refers to a social context which should be called “medialogical”. Ulus has often problematized this context by calling it “society of opinions”; a social condition in which everybody has an “opinion” that is established through low-cost prefabricated signs about everything, but noone really has the knowledge of anything.
Ulus says “No image exists just by itself”. What seperates cinema from photography is the time passing between the two frames, the twentyfive of a second long interval that connects every two images. Cinema divides life into fragments, into frames, and shows these frames one after the other by attaching to each other again. It reestablishes blocks of time and space and space by connecting different ones together, one after another. The time between two frames is a moment of approximation; this interval is actually the duration for two images to connect with each other. Ulus was asserting cinema’s ability to relate two different images to each other as such as the real power of cinema. This is what Godard did with his famous “and”s – a blatant cartoonish “and” connects everything in sight: “here ‘and’ elsewhere”…
Video and electronic image did not just simply multiply such moments of approximation and points of connection infinitely, but also liberated them from the linear time, spread them across the space in all directions. This is a type of image that is emancipated from the spatial restrictions of the screen and the theatre, and linearity of the chronological time. For me this is the fundamental difference of digital images, and at the same their promise which is yet to be fulfilled --now images can form entirely different relations with life. Digital and electronic images actualize what cinema has always dreamed of.
Baker defines artistical activity as “human resistance”. He maintains that as a form of art “which has not yet actualized”, digital art does not aim to annihilate classic art. On the contrary, he says digital art will create “multiple resistance focuses”. Although video appears as to be the consequence of an effort to expand editing on TV, afterwards , especially in the hands of women like Ulrike Rosenbach, it became the instrument to say ‘I see’. He maintains that digital arts, first of all video, will introduce not a postmodern, but a modernist and revolutionary resistance against the perception of image established by Holywood. According to your own experiences, do you agree with Baker’s expactations?
I would propose to discuss this issue without referring to the terms like postmodernity and modernist resistance. In order to clarify the meaning of these terms, we should follow the debate started in the end of ‘80’s and the beginning of ‘90’s closely, and the look at the positions maintained within this debate. In the last years, everyone started to call anything they don’t appreciate as “postmodern”, and “modernism” simply became some sort of “virtue” in a world which has lost its dignity. I think, the works of Ulrike Rosenbach and the likes do not indicate the conservative modernism as advocated by Habermas in those debates, but a new form of “avantgarde” that Lyotard was pointing to.
Earlier, I mentioned “a promise which is yet to be fulfilled”. I suppose this promise is related with the inherent potential of digital media for breaking the representational system, and I think Ulus would agree with that.
In ‘70’s, Ulrike Rosenbach, Valie Export and others created an image which did not exist before. They created the image of the female body, their own female bodies by using video,. That is how they turned video into the apparatus to say “I see” – or rather, “this is how I see my own female body”. This was a serious attack against the hegemonic image regimes in which the female image consisted of only certain clichés, as well as the social institutions and the ideological structures nurturing these regimes. This was a revolt, not resistance… This revolt certainly gained its momentum by the ’68 conditions, and it organized its attack by intersecting and overlapping with other similar lines of revolts. Eventually it took 20 years for hegemonic social structures to create resistance apparatuses against such attack, to recover and re-structure itself. When we look at the the art institutions and the cultural production and circulation mechanisms, we can see how they were re-structured and reinforced to prevent such attacks since the beginning of 80’s. For example, the emergence and functional differentiation of “curatorship” as an institution in the field of contemporary arts should be considered in this context.
Whenever we start speaking about resistance, it means that things are not going so well, and we’re actuallh in deep shit. (It may actually be just like that at this moment, ,that is another issue). The function of ‘avantgarde’, its historical mission, is not resistance. We should not forget that this concept, which becomes a key term in the fields of art and politics in during modern times, was derived from the military term meaning vanguard forces of an army. ‘Avantgarde’ sneaks behind the front-lines, hits from the behind, and then escapes or fastly moves on; it never organizes its assault in the front-line, it never sets up trenches, foxholes and resistance positions. The artistic and political ‘avantgarde’ functions in a similar way, it invents the language of a new world by destroying the existing representation systems. It expresses which cannot be said, and it is always in search of the next expression. As Ulus often reminds by quoting Klee, avantgarde escapes to the future and “waits for the public who are yet to arrive”. During the postmodernism debate where he almost accused Habermas of idiocy, Lyotard points that ‘avantgarde’ constitutes the substantial “core” of art. (I think the same is also true for politics. The misery of left today is due to the loss of its ‘avantgarde’ quality. It is desperately attempting to set up resistance lines which could hold the large masses behind it; and in Turkey, like in many other places, it finds “nationalism” as a barricade as such which it could finally position itself on and gather people behind.)
If we attribute a resistance function to ‘avantgarde’, we are in trouble. Resistance should be established in the other moments of everyday life, inside the other social institutions. These institutions should be claimed as spaces of liberation and as such, they should be defended, by setting up by fortifying resistance positions. The layers of aesthetics and art, avantgarde’s course of action, of course, intersects and overlaps with these spaces and positions. But “resitance positions” and “lines of flight/escape” should not be confused – otherwise we cannot do anything but try resisting until we loose all our positions. We have to gain new positions, while maintaing the ones we already invented.
Today, if you make a random search on internet, on ‘youtube’, you can find and watch thousands of videos like Rosenbach’s works which were called “revolutionary” then. These videos are not even “art works” any more, they are just ordinary videos whose raison d’etre lie in the quality of being videos which “anyone could make” (This ordinariness itself can be the material of art, but that is another issue). Beyond being an easily available standard raw material, the body of the artist has already become the most banal exhibition object today. Identity politics discourses of ‘80’s, and other governmental and economic apparatuses of neo-liberalizm has already disciplined those immoral bodies Rosenbach and others discovered in ‘70’s. If we want to claim on the legacy of ‘avantgarde’, we have to invent new images and new methods like these people did before us, not continue doing what they’ve done. For sure, we have to learn what they did, and perhaps apply and repeat the same experiments in the learning process, but this is not the matter.
It is important to know where to look at, if we want to find the novelties of digital art; we cannot see the potentials of digital art when we look at digitally generated or altered photographs, because they are limited by the conventions of a representation system established for a previous form of art. Then, where do we search for the aesthetic form of digital technologies itself? Could we find it in the easy, cheap and plentiful production of experimental films like what Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman did with great efforts in 1920’s? Or, could we find it in producing ‘After Effects plug-ins’ which make it a snap to do genious works like the ones Zbigniew Ryczyński’s did by hacking video technology of ‘80’s? If what we are encounter is a grand-scale technologic transformation which has the potential to transform the production conditions of art and image completely, beyond developing new formal techniques, and these new production conditions do not necessitate the present public structures and institutions (which have been developed and institutionalized through modern art. Then, we should look towards different domains and different circulation networks to find the innovative core of digital art. In other words, if what we experience is a new kind of image establishing new relations with life, we cannot find its traces in galleries, museums, bienals, or exhibition halls, in the temples of an already dead cult.
Let’s look at the ontological grounds of digital image in a general frame,, which I mentioned earlier, and how it transforms the practice of art production, and then discuss the political effects within this context, or search for politics in this context.
I can think of two examples for the genuine forms of this new image type. The first one could also help us to theorize what I mean by “transforming production relations”. There is a group of people in New York, with whom I briefly had the chance work with in past years, who work in a format called “live video performance”. This format is based on live (and mostly improvized) composition and manipulation of video images through computer directly in the presence of an audience. This format should be considered as a novelty by itself since it is made possible through digital technologies. However, when we examine the production relations taking place in this form in depth, we can discern the details which would force us to reconsider fundamental concepts of creative activity and artistic production. For instance, these people don’t define the images they produce and present, and the performance itself, as the ultimate product of their creativity, or their artistic production. What they regard as their artistic production are “patch”es, as they call it, the algorithms which they produce to process, manipulate and assemble images and sounds, modules produced for the softwares they use. This is interesting, because this would mean the end “product”, the “art work” is no more the ultimate object of artistic activity. The artistic product, the object of creativity becomes a “never-lasting”, dynamic and transitional material that has the potential to articulate to consequent productions endlessly and produce different products. I noticed a very similar phenomenon while I was in interviewing a “breakcore” DJ in Berlin for my academic studies. When I asked to see his works, he showed me a number of acetate “sample” discs , which he considered as his work, more inmportantly than a few CDs he published. These ‘beats’ and sound ‘samples’, which never reach to the “consumer market” (at least in their way they are published), are used by other DJ’s to “spin” at the clubs or to record their own compositons. He was more proud about the popularity and reputation of his “sample” discs than his compositions being played on radio, or the circulation of his CDs. He was also using other DJ’s ‘sample’s to make his own compositions. The revolution of digital technologies in music is not the possibility of producing weird electronic sounds at a speed of 160 bpm (beats per minute); it is the concept of “sample” and the new logic of production it brings forward. A finished “song” is no more a “musical work”, every sound can be articulated to another, every piece can be re-produced, transform into another infinitely. It is precisely in this context, we can talk about images becoming plural within themselves and forming new collectives, beyond the multiple points of contact and multiple resistance focuses. What kinds of revolutionary horizons such new forms provide for the urgent political-economy related problems of artistic production under post-fordist capitalisst conditions --that is, how it pushes this mode of capitalist production into a crisis? This can be deduced from the present warfare around the lines of “copyright” and “intellectual property” issues, and from the “resistance positions” fortified by capitalism through “legality” in this front-line.
Another interesting example that comes to my mind about digital art/image is the case of “Machinima”, which are video works produced in a completely virtual environment by using the graphic engines of computer games. I think this is quite a new format, I didn’t work on that kind of stuff, but I know, in Turkey, Andreas Treske works on these. This form can allow us to theorize another aspect of digital image, as I mentioned earlier, that is the virtual character of digital image: it is no more a “trace” of an object or an event of the outside world, it is a construct by itself, generating its own references.
Certainly, it is possible to find other moments and examples which can be helpful to discover the clues of relations transformed by digital image and digital technologies. However, these examples I mentioned (and others which I suppose could be found) are not produced in the sphere of art institutions and circulated in the hegemonic artistic networks. They are circulated in in other spheres of everyday life within other kinds of social networks. Internet is the primary circulation and sharing platform for people who works on “Machinima” kind of productions (as well as for many other forms of work produced by digital technology). In other words, these new forms of production bypasses the art institutions which became hegemonic in the course of modernism – such as galleries, museums, cinema and exibiton halls, and other cultural temples like art schools. Wasn’t such liberation of art (from the hegemonic institutions and the ideological structures these institutions reproduced) already a primary concern for various “avantgarde” movements developed within modernity as a critique of it?
I don’t think that the examples I mentioned above are fully matured yet in terms of their aesthetic forms, and produced the necessar breaks, this is still debatable for me. But this is naturally going to happen, as the potential is already there. Then, the problem is, whether we will venture into collective experiments with these new aesthetic and technologic forms and explore such lines of flight, or we perpetually prepare for the barbarians behind resistance lines fortified by others.
According to Baker, ‘we watch cinema but we see video’. You might recall, he has an interesting analysis, ‘If a film cannot be told or narrated, then the film is real’. He considers video as an instrument for avoiding linguistic virtuality. When you think about his courses in METU-GISAM how did the students react to such quite new ideas?
The seminars in METU-GISAM and the videos we made during these seminars records now become the records of our collective state of mind during those times besides as well as being a quite important product of our work. At that moment, METU-GISAM was redefined for us albeit it was founded a few years earlier, due to strange ironies of life which I won’t go into details here. The center became somewhere we could actualize and develop our collective interests at. The technical skills we developed untill then, found new intellectual horizons. At the same time, strating working with Ulus found a new orientaton for his intellectual interests and accumulation of knowledge, and directed his intellectual production towards cinema and video. The matters we worked on, read and discuss about, and the innovations we discovered in the meanwhile was starting to shape our aesthetical and political orientations. I mean, we allready shared similar political tendencies, but together we found new perspectives for our existing desires.. Körotonomedya collective was founded in this period. When we look back, I guess, we all find the stuff we did unbelievably exciting and incredibly efficient and productive.in those days. For us this was an era of newness which lasted for a few years. On one hand we were discovering new theoretical perspectives (not only new for us, but new for Turkey as well as the rest of the world), on the other hand we were learning to work with digital technologies, and producing quite experimental works.
Ulus enjoyed what he was teaching, and taught with excitement. He also knew too well how to convey this joy and excitement. His style in his seminars was similar to his writings; he explained a concept by weaving around it in detail, he presented an image by associating it with other images. After long lectures, a number of tracks met with each other, ideas find new contexts, some lines appear and certain images begin to take shape in our minds. But the value of Ulus for his students and the people who followed his seminars, was not simply because of the substantial contents of the matters he taught, or how masterly he conveyed such heavy content. I believe that the quality of the socialization in the seminars and courses was quite important as well, and for most of us this socialization was educational and it shaped our orientations in life. These seminars were a communal platform beyond being “friendly” at the surface level. Ulus never asserted a power through his knowledge and position, even to very bad questions he responded very seriously, and explained as much as he could. If he had any “power” stemming from his knowledge, this was a constitutive power he shared with everyone around. People felt rather stronger than intimidated after such difficult and tiring seminars with such heavy content.
For “video as an important instrument against lingusitic virtuality”... First of all, we have to clarify what we understand from “language” and “virtuality”. Before we started to study with Ulus, we had been taught to think about cinema through a theoretical framework shaped by structuralist linguistics, semiology and psychoanalytic approaches. Semiology carried the inherent tendency of structuralism to reduce everything to linguistic processes, although sinema introduces a crisis and deadlock in this regard and made other approaches neccessary. It attempted to construct cinema and visual arts as linguistic processes, and to refer them as “signification processes” in the same way it treated to textuality. The theoretical framework of structuralist semiology, which we can call “linguistic”, has to exclude “virtuality” especially at the moments crosses and overlaps with psychoanalysis. Virtuality, as Deleuze mentions, refers to a potential state; it is not “hypothetical” or “unreal”, it indicates a “real” potential which is yet to be just not actualized. The flow of time, the corporeal embodiment of the “event” is the “occurance”, the “actualization” of something that is already virtually present. In this context, for Deleuze, virtuality is the core of reality, not the contrary. The tension between virtual and actual; that’s to say, a new potential founded every moment of time when another one is actualized, this provide us with the eternal movement of the world, this is the flow of time itself. It is not a coincidence that while Deleuze constructs such philosophical gesture, he ultimately circles cinema with virtuality and refine the idea cinema through virtuality, because philosophical gesture actually presents a very deep criticism of structuralism. In that case we cannot hold on to linguistic structures and codes to understand events, power relations and social situations. We can only grasp what goes on as continuous flows, as the planes on which these flows take place, and continuous transformations of layers and bodies formed by these flows. The practice of life is not only a “signification process”; signification takes place retrospectively, “about” the practice of life. A body is not a “subject” constructed only through linguistic processes, it is founded by the potential to produce and transmit various affections. Cinema is important for Deleuze beyond a ”signification process”, because it presents a virtual image, a type of image which can directly refer to the virtual. A cinematographic image as such is not the trace of past reality, following the time from behind; it is the intangible and untraceable reality, the event itself. It re-establishes its own time and re-actualizes itself in each time it is shown. Moving image can only be an instrument of cognition if it is related to virtuality in such way --and cinema had been the only medium capable of such relation until the emergence of electronic image. Thus, it can show us what has not yet been rendered to any linguistic code yet, what can not be thought, can not be uttered, cannot be expressed; and then we can derive the idea, the language, the meaning from what we see as such. This was completely peculiar to cinema; that is, to produce moving image mechanically, being capable of producing the image of the world free form the “languge” and “thought” which only presented apriori constructions. What Vertov had noticed at the beginning of was (although he didn’t define it that way), even in “documentary” form of cinema, it re-composes the image of the event it witnessed rather than representing it. The power of cinema is not to narrate, or to explain fully. On the contrary, the image it presents will always be somehow lacking certainity, everytime it is shown it will lead to different meanings, it will constantly re-construct the event, or “an” event over and over again.
As life itself (and its image) is a priori to its knowledge and signification, cinema (and other technologies of moving image) allows us to create a relation with life without the mediation of language. Liberating the cinema and images from the domination of “representations” is only possible with the idea of virtuality. In this regard, Deleuze’s theory of cinema is an answer to the question imposed by Walter Benjamin which haunted our thought through the modern times. (In fact, Deleuze’s theoretical approach is not composed as an open answer to Benjamin since we cannot find any referrence to Benjamin in any two volumes of cinema his books. Deleuze never mentions Benjamin’s name while he constructs his theoretical framework. But when we look at the origins of their discussions and the formulas they arrive at, it is obvious that Deleuze’s theory is quite an answer to Benjamin and the intellectual line he followed). Benjamin was asserting that cinema has effectively abolished the distance between the image and the viewer, and this was a problem; because for Benjamin contemplation takes place within this critical distance between body and image. For him, cinema is a shock to the brain, and it is capable of presents these shocks at a speed that it does not allow us to think, therefore it makes contemplation impossible. It is possible to considerwhat he suggests as the distance of “language”, the “critical distance” is actually the duration in which the mediation of language is established. Deleuze affirms Benjamin’s diagnosis, but he affirms it as the essential power of cinema; cinema doesn’t make contemplation impossible, but we can only think after such direct relation, after its shock. e can perceive the world through cinema, cinema is a machine producing perceptions. Contemplation follows such a direct perception, not prior to it.
We shoud consider electronic and digital images in such context. Besides, as Ulus, Maurizzio Lazzarato and others indicated, video and electronic images are much competent than cinema in relating to virtual for many reasons. So it is more proper to say: “video is an instrument for liberating virtuality from language.”
It wasn’t difficult for us to adopt these kind of ideas, especially when we were together with Ulus. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t only due to Ulus’ capacity of sharing his knowledge, there was a fundamental gap we always felt but could not fulfill between our practical works and the theoretical frameworks we learnt until then. And such ideas offered us new perspectives on these matters. We were actually in need of such ideas.
In ‘What is Opinion?’, while Ulus is telling his philosophical analysis on “opinion” to a fixed camera, we see him in a long shot sitting on a chair next to a TV monitor screening his close-ups at very same moment. Was it his idea to record it in this way? And how did you manage to make him talk that long without smoking?
“What is Opinion?” is made as the first part of a series of interview/lecture videos, it was recorded in METU-GISAM studios. The theme was the central axis of Ulus’s thesis. It was my idea to project his close-ups with a second camera onto a monitor next to him, but this wasn’t a preplanned detail, I thought of the idea of exposing the video image itself as an aesthetic element, and also make use of the physical space of the studio. I did the same thing in the editing, I tried to expose the visuality of electronic image itself by re-recording the close-ups screened on the monitor, and I used this shots to combine the passages from the interview. It wasn’t a problem for me at all to film Ulus, since when he feels comfortable he could talk at length fluently even without the need to repeat or take alternative shots. But, of course, we took many breaks for smoking, it took a few hours to complete the interview. In the end, the interview/lecture you watch is an edited video, not a continous shot.
He finished his PHD thesis in 7 years, and after the problems he had about the approval of his thesis, he said that he felt a strange sadness rather than joy when it was finished. Can you tell us about those times?
The writing of thesis gradually became a heavy experience for Ulus. There was no problem about the approval of his dissertation, the problem was about him finishing it, and this was not a matter of incompetence of course. In fact, Ulus had thousands of pages of written material on his thesis in ’98-’99. But he had some issues in his private life during those times, and these effect his work on the dissertation. For people like us, our intellectual and academic activities are not shaped strictly through particular disciplines of these fields, these activities are parts of our general engagement with life, in a general sense, another aspect of our social existence, social relations. So it is not quite possible to make distinctions such as private life, intellectual life, political life, etc. And I believe this is something positive and fruitful. However, in this case, the deeper traumas stemming from elsewhere can effect or destabilize other vital activities. The “sadness” Ulus mentioned when he finished his dissertaion was not about his thesis, he was sad about this whole period of his life. When he expressed this sadness, I’ve made a short film with some material I already had, a 5 minute film I called “Joy”, and send him as a present, inviting him to forget resentment. He said he enjoyed my present, but still, he couldn’t really recover from that big depression, which consequently turned into a slow suicide.
In his short story, “Ears not for Hearing”, he tells how he was affected by the mortar shell which fell on their house and did not explode during the Turkey’s intervention to Cyprus in 1974, when he was 14. Did he tell any other memories about Cyprus? Did he ever think about coming back to Cyprus?
If what you mean from “himself” in a general conversation is his “private” life, his personal past, his desires, dreams, etc, Ulus rarely talked about himself. Ulus’s mind did not work with such logic of “individuality” and “self”. That’s why the stories he told about his past in Cyprus and other places where he grew up were presented as bits and pieces of information, and they have always been told in the context ofother issues. He told about these events during our conversations, I didn’t know he wrote them as stories until after he died. He didn’t tell these to tell about himself, his stories were about something else. I’ve learned that he wrote these for a periodical publication attempt a few years ago, which was never materialized. What he narrated were bitter and tragic stories. But according to Ulus’ story, the reason why the mortar shell which fell on their house didn’t explode is because some leftist Greek soldiers, who were forced to fire by their fascist superior officers until Turkish army seized their position, fired the shells without fuses as result of human consciousness --and it is not hard to guess what had been their reward.
On the other hand, he was closely watching what was happening in Cyprus and he was constantly informing us about cyprus in our talks and through somet pieces he wrote. As we frequently chatted about the political situations in Cyprus, it is impossible not to notice how deeply he was concerned with Cyprus, if we look at another interview I recorded with him in the summer of 2003. I inquired him in detail about the political history of Cyprus for a project I started working on at that time (which was never materialized either). İn this interview he explains that ‘he had visited Cyprus in 1986 for the last time and he doesn’t plan to go back at all’. He points to the political issues gradually going worse and turning into deadlock, as the reason for his reluctance. He simply expresses that ‘he doesn’t want to go back to one of the few remaining divided cities that still exists in this world (which nobody wants to be aware of)’. In other words, what determines Ulus’s relation with Cyprus is not his lack of interest, but his disappointment and resentment. We didn't have the chance to finish the project which would include this interwiew, but I believe what he told there is quite valuable to understand the “Cyprus issue” (for an online version of this video interview see: HYPERLINK "http://radyo.korotonomedya.net" http://radyo.korotonomedya.net).
Although he was such a passionate thinker and intellectual who expressed many ideas about love, I think, he didn’t have a long-term relationship. Is this because he never met someone who could help him open up his ‘madness’, or was he never understood by whom he met, or perhaps, as he always mentioned that love is never something synchronous anyway, is it because of the possibility that one always falls in love when it is already over for the other?
Ulus was not a lonely person at all. I mean, beyond that place inside where we are always all alone, he had never been “just by himself” since I know him, and I know that he wasn’t alone before either. He always had friends around him, there were always people who shared his life. Besides his ever expanding social circle, even when people moved away for some other reasons works, they never ceased their contact with Ulus. For many people, Ulus became the occasion to find each other for long term friendships. He was beloved for everyone, he never had any hostility against anyone. I know that some of his close friends had been angry with him when he passed away, but when we gathered and poured out our grievances, as they admitted in sadness, it was because Ulus didn’t have the power to fulfil some expectations developed in such close relationships. I mean, Ulus never offended anyone knowingly and purposefully in his life, and nobody had any resentment towards him. He never conflicted with anyone, he already innovated plenty of ways to escape from the pressure of conflictual situations. He was at peace with everyone, he had no personal tensions, and he managed to do that without obeying anyone, accepting anyone’s domination on his life. He was quite unique in that sense.
We never thought Ulus was “mad”, on the contrary, he was the most sane persons I ever met. I mean, he had lots of problems like everyone, and the reasons for some of these problems were psychological as he was very well aware of; for example, his obsessions about his body, the depressions he avoid reflecting on others, his increasing weakness for alcohol. We were worried about these psychological problems since some time and were concerned the consequences which eventually lead to his death. However, having such problems is “normal”, and in that sense Ulus was “normal” for us. At the very least, there is is no doubt that he was more “sane” than the world he had to live in. If we consider the such personal sufferings of somebody who dedicated an enormous part of his intellectual activities to questions like “what is intellect capable of?, what is thinking?” as insanity, he would remind us the words of French poet Joe Bousquet himself; “my wounds existed before me, I was born to give them a body…”
He was very sensitive and he was full of love. He naturally had love affairs, and again naturally, some of these relations ended sadly, some continued on joyfully. But he was never alone, he never lost his mind. He embraced life with his mind and love, and he shared his mind and love with us. Ulus was someone who showed us how to live in dignity with affection and contemplation, in a world in which disaffection became the norm, and ignorance a virtue.