Past Imperfect by Katerina Gregos

Over the last couple of years Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ video-based work has consistently explored the relationship between reality and its representation, as well as the limits between fact and fiction, the authentic and the scripted, the staged and the improvised. While the artist’s early works were predominantly concerned with examining behavioral patterns and power relations in strictly controlled environments, his more recent work conjures forgotten histories to investigate how memory is shaped by mediated reality. In these works he examines the form as well as veracity of the moving image, pinpointing how history is reflected through contemporary frames of reference and subjective points of view.

Actors (2004), involved setting up an improvised, unscripted situation which fused performativity with spontaneity. For this work he chose a group of professional actors and filmed them in the re-constructed confines of a military dormitory. In this enclosed, claustrophobic and ultimately artificial microcosm the actors – who had not met one another before - were asked to improvise on what they imagined military life to be like. As the video unfolds, we observe the actors ‘get into’ their characters, we witness their identification with their adopted roles, but also their enactment of archetypical masculine behaviour and other gender stereotypes associated with the identities that are forged, by definition, in the army. Gradually we can see the emergence of the dominant personalities, the development of hierarchies, the consolidation of power relations, and the complex shifts that occur in group behaviour and psychology in this restrictive and highly regularised environment.

In this work, which is more of an experiment rather than a performance, Tsivopoulos’ presence as a director is minimal; his ‘direction’ consists of loosely conceptualising a situation and then allowing it to acquire a life of its own, rather than following a script and subsequently instructing the actors precisely what to do. In that sense, throughout the filming process, he uses the camera as a mirror, returning as ‘author’ after the shooting has occurred, in the editing process. In Actors, documentary strategy, the aesthetics of reality TV, and the conventions of theatre and performance merge to create a situation where the boundaries between fact and fiction remain almost constantly nebulous. Are the actors simply playing a role or also acting out their own private repressed fantasies as well?  Where does the role of the actor begin and the character of the real person end? How ‘authentic’ is outward appearance? How do individuals react when thrust into an alien environment dictated by group dynamics and based on rigid hierarchies? These are some of the questions that arise, and the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions as the work withholds clear-cut answers.

As in most of his early works here, too, Tsivopoulos is concerned with exploring the idea of a particular mental space, as well as with testing a situation, and experimenting with the idea of how to create a filmic image from chance, as opposed to devising a story with a pre-determined narrative that progresses towards resolution. Actors draws to a close in a matter-of-fact manner, with the actors ‘emerging’ from their roles and talking about their performances, respective characters and fictional relationships. Ultimately, the work is as much about mind games as it is about the roles one willingly adopts in life in order to project a preferred image of oneself to survive life’s varied challenges and circumstances.

In many ways the work bears affinity to Artur Zmijewski’s seminal video work Repetition (2005), a re-enactment of the famous 1971 Stanford Prison experiment conducted by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo whose aim was to study human behaviour in prison conditions. In this work, the Polish artist reflects on the latent aesthetics of violence, the psychological segregation that occurs in artificial situations, as well as the victimisation, and mental abuse that occurs therein. Like Zmijewski, Tsivopoulos’ work also explores how restrictive institutionalised settings and confining spatial parameters influence human behaviour, but whilst Zmijewski’s experiment tried to precisely simulate the prison space and its rule, Tsivopoulos’ experiment relinquishes total control, and allows for a two-way artistic interpretation, that of the artist’s as well as the actors involved. Actors can also be likened in its approach to works in video by the Irish artist Gerard Byrne, such as 1984 and Beyond (2005)which also features actors engaged in contrived performances and tests the distinctions between acting and non-acting, reality and theatre, though Byrne’s point of departure is an already pre-determined script, while Tsivopoulos’ point of departure is more impromptu and instinctive.

The artist’s recent works – from 2007 and 2008 - have shifted away from an interest in character acting, improvisation, and the conventions of theatre, and have become more consciously cinematic in their construction as well as increasingly preoccupied with examining the subjective nature and constructedness of the moving image. These works have also moved away from his erstwhile dry documentary aesthetic, and from spoken narrative and the reliance on the use of language in general; instead, the artist has opted for a suggestive – at times codified - narrative that is image rather than language based. Untitled (The Remake) (2007), a single channel video projection which focuses on historical events, their representation, and their place in individual and collective memory, signals the starting point of this new direction in the artist’s work. In this, Tsivopoulos shifts from the practice of instigating an improvised scenario, to that of re-staging, breaking with the literary plot that characterised his earlier work and focussing more on the creation of what Peter Weibel has called a ‘visual narrative’.(1) But rather than re-staging or re-enacting a specific historical event or occurrence – something that has become customary in a distinct segment of recent artistic practice – Tsivopoulos re-creates a scenario which is more generic in nature, one which recalls a certain period of time, and evokes a particular atmosphere from the past.

Untitled (The Remake) combines archival footage from the years of the 1967-1973 military dictatorship in Greece which depicts official festivities and parades staged by the Colonels (replete with the ‘obligatory’ nationalistic visual rhetoric harking back to Greece’s glorious past), with Tsivopoulos’ own video footage; the latter constitutes the core of the film. For this work, the artist re-constructed a television studio of the late 1960s, complete with all the original technical equipment that was used during this period; it was during this time that National Greek Television and Radio were also established. In the film, actors are cast in the role of two newscasters – one male, one female, dressed in the fashion of the day –  and a cameraman, whom we can see preparing for the daily bulletin. In the background, television monitors show international news footage of the day, and original black-and-white footage depicting the real newscasters from that time preparing for the broadcast that Tsivopoulos has painstakingly re-constructed. Apart from mirroring the act of representation and that represented, and exposing the technical processes involved in the re-construction of reality, what is particularly interesting in Untitled (The Remake) is the co-existence of different modalities of time, the constant interplay between reality and its re-construction, and finally the sense of temporal displacement that dictates the work’s ‘mood’. In that sense, Tsivopoulos’ work shares some of the same key concerns with that of the Canadian artist Stan Douglas, who has become known for creating complex, shifting time frames and elusive parallel levels of narration in his film and video works.

Untitled (The Remake) retrieves forgotten master narratives, reminding us of how television was used for propaganda purposes by the state (it still is, no doubt, only the methods have become much more subtle, and private enterprise has also entered the field), while highlighting the aesthetics and ultra-nationalist ideological clichés of the dictatorship era to question their meaning today. Untitled (The Remake) thus also invites us to reflect on the development of television media and the changes wrought in the field of broadcast news in the ensuing period, as well as their increasingly dominant role in the mediation of reality and the shaping of people’s consciousness. In addition, it pinpoints the rupture that occurs between an original televised image and its interpretation – embedded both in the artist’s work and the viewer’s mind – as well as reflecting on the idea of involuntary as well as mediated cultural memory. Art critic Adrian Searle has simply but effectively explained the effect images have on memory as well as how they become embedded in our conscious/subconscious: “Projected images have a peculiar capacity to reach into us. They may be insubstantial creatures of light and darkness, but that’s how they worm their way in. We replay memories as though they were our own home movies. And other people’s movies, and other people’s stories, become, by some circuitous route, our own. The events unfolding up on the screen may not have happened to us, but the movies did. And now movies are in us and TV is in us and our relationship to them is no longer simply as witnesses and viewers of once-novel media. They frame our dreams and, in part, our waking lives”. (2)

Untitled (In Plato’s Cave), made in 2008, is a two-screen video installation, which also revolves around an exploration of how media images are produced, and juxtaposes two almost identical episodes, one in the past (sometime in the early 1940s) and one in the present tense. The work consists of two chronologically distinct segments projected on separate screens opposite each other, in which the same actor plays the role of a war reporter then and now. In both screens we see the same character engaged in the editing, and finally the viewing of a film that consists of short fragments of war reportage. The first part of the film (which plays on one of the two screens) is shot in a reconstructed studio in Berlin, which was re-created after consulting photographs from the Geyer archives in the city (Geyer originally functioned as a cinema post production lab before being taken over by the German Propaganda Ministry during the war for obvious reasons). For the purposes of the film, the re-constructed studio was equipped with original equipment from the 1940's, borrowed from the Film Museum in Berlin, including an Arriflex 35, the first professional hand held 35mm camera - originally designed as a hand-held newsreel camera and used by war reporters - an apparatus which changed the nature of war journalism (3). The second part of the video, depicts the actor engaged in the same processes, the main difference being the contemporary office setting and the deployment of digital as opposed to analogue equipment, a development that has fundamentally changed the way reality is represented and understood. The meaning encoded in Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) largely rests on this symbolic opposition between the analogue and the digital, between film and video, the old world order and the new world order and our changed relationship to the images that surround us. The obsolete technology Tsivopoulos employs alludes to the project of modernity and its ultimate quest for progress, and with it the inevitable consumption, exhaustion and final obsolescence of everything that was once new and pioneering. Tsivopoulos himself works predominantly in digital video, a conscious choice that is very different from the practice of using film, as is the nature of the images it generates, “As psychosocial studies, video works pose questions of time, transitoriness and memory and in the play with narrative codes, form an antithesis to cinematic production…They shed light on the changed strategies of perception in our accelerated present day world where information is often quickly reeled off and absorbed using the fast forward button”.(4)

Like Untitled (The Remake), Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) also explores cultural referents and re-activates mediated memory, and again like Untitled (The Remake) it also constitutes what Vanessa Agnew has called a kind of “retrospective travel”.(5) Agnew uses this phrase in an article on the politics of re-enactment and re-staging, arguing that the renewed interest in history and in engaging with the past is part of an attempt to understand the present, a position with which this writer agrees. Re-enactment, she writes, “opens up the past as a realm of foreclosed possibilities and interrogates the conditions of those foreclosures. The object is not a historical account of the past “as it really was” but an opening to more fruitful interpretations. As a vehicle for historical inquiry, broad interpretative questions are the very ones that re-enactment must pose by inquiring into the ethics and politics of historical representation”. (6).

Untitled (The Remake) and Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) both juxtapose parallel fictions based on reality and in doing so manage to evoke that sense of uncertainty engendered by mediated as opposed to lived experience, something that the artist Richard Prince has aptly referred to as ‘counterfeit memory’ (7).  In that sense, the act of re-staging or re-creating in Tsivopoulos’ work functions less of a historiographical tool or a tool for anthropological enquiry as, for example, in Jeremy Deller’s re-staging of the Battle of Orgreave (2001), the most violent episode in the 1984-85 miner’s strike in Britain; nor does Tsivopoulos employ re-staging as a form of storytelling, as in Pierre Huyghe’s Third Memory (1999), a re-enactment of the robbery scene in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. In his version, Huyghe cast the real robber John Wojtowicz, who plays himself, to demonstrate how Wojtowicz’s memory was irrevocably altered by viewing the film in which Al Pacino played him. Tsivopoulos, on the other hand,  employs the practice of re-staging or re-construction more as a tool for interrogative possibilities. By comparison with the works mentioned above, Tsivopoulos’ own practice never resorts to this kind narrative specificity, instead the artist opts for a more generic sense of re-construction in order to pose questions about the changing nature – and implications – of the technology that mediates and broadcasts current affairs, and our relationship with the resulting images. Tsivopoulos is thus more interested in the processes and mechanisms through which history is mediated and constructed, rather than in de-stabilising given historical narratives or interpretations and proposing alternative versions. How can we actually know what happened or what it was like? What separates fact from fiction? What significance do historicised media images have today? How can one assess the credibility of these images? Where is truth to be found in our increasingly mediatised world and in the relativised versions of the past and history? Tsivopoulos’ re-visiting of history is thus less about probing the past as it is about posing such questions in order to try to understand the present through the prism of the past. His approach situates his work among that of a growing number of artists who are preoccupied with returning to history as a means of investigating the complex – and persisting – ties between past and present. As Adam Mendelsohn has suggested “interrogating history is itself the acknowledgement that much of what we know and who we are as people and societies is dependent on second-hand mediated accounts of the past”.(8) The practice of re-staging or re-constructing the past thus represents a critical strategy for re-considering history and ascribing new meanings for the present.

With these works two works Tsivopoulos continues the investigation into a form of video practice that was consolidated in the 1990s – namely that of analysing the narrative structures and aesthetics of TV and film. What both films share in common is their self-reflexive character. Apart from all the representational issues they raise they are both, the same time, films about film. The main thrust of the albeit elliptical narrative structure in each work revolves around references to the very apparatus that are used in their creation, exposing the processes behind the construction of moving images, and making visible a part of the skeleton of the film’s structure to decode the practice that belies the production of a moving image. It is hard not to be reminded of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with the Movie Camera, which also focused on the formal aspects of the film’s apparatus but was, more importantly, one of the first movies that demonstrated the possibilities of editing, intimated film’s ability to manipulate images and pointed to the reconstructed reality that is the moving image. But unlike Vertov’s socially engaged cameraman the reporters in Tsivopoulos’ works do not actively participate in everyday life, but remain at a distance and that is precisely what situates both works in the now of our present. Similarly, while both works reference politics, they are reluctant to adopt a political position, something that is also quite common in much contemporary art practice.

The allegory of Plato’s Cave, and it’s questioning of reality, is of course deliberately reflected in the artist’s choice of title for his newest work. And it is a fitting title, since all his oeuvre questions reality and its reflection through one of the most illusory of media – the moving image. In the 1970s Jean Louis Baudry employed the allegory of Plato’s Cave to offer insights that continue to be relevant today in relation to cinema and cinematography. He argued that cinema is in fact the realisation of the total simulacrum, a mechanism that entraps the viewer in an illusory subjectivity and ‘reality’ from which there is no escape: “Plato’s prisoner is a victim of an illusion of reality, that is, of precisely of what we know as a hallucination, if one is awake, as a dream, if asleep; he is the prey of an impression, of an impression of reality. […] Plato would imagine to resort to an apparatus that doesn’t merely evoke but precisely describes in its mode of operation the cinematographic apparatus and the spectator’s place in relation to it”.(9) In addition, Baudry also maintains that the cinematic arrangement – projector, darkened hall, screen - reproduces the mise-en-scène of Plato’s Cave. One could indeed say the same of video’s black box.

Spatially, Tsivopoulos’ works re-create this self-contained, hermetic space wherein the actors seem indeed trapped, the outside, ‘real’ world appears out of reach, and the events somehow seem to occur outside of time. Similarly, his characters are preoccupied not with reality, but with its representation. Baudry’s comments pre-date Jean Baudrillard’s writings on the ‘murder of the real’ and the ‘vanishing point of reality’ through incessant representation:  “In making reality, even the most violent, emerge to the visible, it makes real substance disappear. It is like the Myth of Euridice: when Orpheus turns around to look at her, she vanishes and returns to Hell. That is why, the more exponential the marketing of images is growing, the more fantastically grows the indifference towards the real word. Finally, the real world becomes a useless function, a collection of phantom shapes and ghost events. We are not far from the silhouettes on the walls of the cave of Plato”. (10) While one could argue against Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the dissolution of the real – for some people, reality is very real indeed, especially those who are the victims of disaster and violence that that the media subsequently appropriates – his point about the lost power of the image perfectly describes the apathy and lack of affect engendered by the inflation of images that surrounds us. “Everything must be seen, must be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this visibility”, he continues. “ Where everything is given to be seen, there is nothing left to be seen”. (11) Finally, images are killed by an overdose of meaning.

Tsivopoulos’ work seems to acknowledge and attempts to grapple with some of the problems outlined in Baudrillard’s text regarding the ‘Violence of Image’, some of the main points of which were outlined immediately above. It is precisely the diaphanous quality of the image, its total visibility that Tsivopoulos attempts to frustrate by exposing the processes of behind an image’s production, but at the same time offering very little to see in the way of what one would expect of war footage, and keeping a conscious distance from the use of spectacularised, violent images. Similarly, the original footage that is used in both films as passing or editing shots is kept deliberately toned down and is largely neutral.  One of the questions the artist seems to ask himself, then, is how to resist the ‘murder of the image’ which has been crushed by over-information, over-reference, hyper-visibility, and unconditional transparency (all Baudrillard’s terms). In a way, Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) can be read as echoing Baudrillard’s belief that in order for the image to re-claim its power it has to be put ‘in suspension of meaning’. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons that Tsivopoulos suppresses narrative content, and creates a more codified, predominantly imagistic space that resists the imposition of meaning. Acknowledging the difficulty of conveying substance and empathy Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) thus simply presents the methods and processes that go into the construction of an image, and highlights the discrepancies between past and present. Ultimately the artist seems to suggest to the viewer that the work should be read much in the same way that Susan Sontag described the purpose of photography “There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuitively – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.” (12).

In his text “The Allusive Eye: Illusion, Anti-Illusion, Allusion” Peter Weibel suggests that the tendency of video today has evolved both from the anti-illusion of early avant garde video and the illusionistic tendencies of the 1980s: “Precisely through the mixture of practices of narration and illusion, as we know them from the mass media of film and television, from psychodramas to talk shows, with the practices of anti-illusion and anti-narration, a new practice has [….] arisen which we could call “allusion”. The media generation of the 90s assumes that every viewer already has a library of visual experiences fed by the mass media [….] stored in his head. On this visual conditioning their work draws directly or indirectly. Through mere hints, explicit or symbolic, elliptical or concealed references are sufficient to charge the images with meaning and significance. The author can narrate but through the allusive techniques of not naming names, of indirect references or covered up identities, he can also rupture the narrative.”(13) Tsivopoulos’ recent works are rooted in this practice of nuance and allusion, a practice that deconstructs traditional notions of narrative, but exploits the effects of classical cinematographic illusion.

In that sense his work is close to many of his contemporaries, especially artists like Matthew Buckingham and Deimantas Narkevičius who also invite the viewers to consider history and its constructive methods, as well as evoke its proximity to the present. Tsivopoulos’ work also bears affinity to a lineage of films that reflect on a world changed by the media such as Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth (1999), Christophe Draeger’s Black September (2002), Katarzyna Kozyra’s Punishment and Crime (2002), Omer Fast’s Spielberg’s List (2003), or Aernout Mik’s Refraction (2005) and Citizens and Subjects (2007). All these artists eschew traditional narrative structures, and create complex, striking pictorial spaces redolent with allusion, association and double meaning. They also employ differing kinds of re-enactment, re-construction or re-staging, a practice that Nicholas Brown defines as an “open ended theoretical model that unsettles our relationships with cultural texts, embodied experiences and collective memories” (14).

Tsivopoulos’ work ultimately prompts the viewer to contemplate on the veracity of the moving image, to consider how historical events are recorded, edited, presented, remembered and perceived. He skillfully exploits the grammar of cinema to manipulate perception, creates plausible re-constructions of reality, only to expose them as false in order to question their credibility and emphasize their actual constructedness. At the same time, he heightens our awareness of the problems of representation in this predominantly mediatised age by pinpointing the difficulty of distilling ‘truth’ or locating ‘objectivity’ in images. Ultimately, he fabricates an immersive “anachronistic collage of cinematic alienation” (15) to demonstrate “how machines for seeing modify perception” (16) – to borrow a phrase from Paul Virilio -  as well as to call attention to the largely constructed and fragmentary nature of contemporary experience, and the dislocation of the subject in space and time.

Katerina Gregos is a curator and writer based in Brussels. She is currently the curator of Contour, in Mechelen, Belgium.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Weibel, Peter, “The Allusive Eye. Illusion, Anti-Illusion, Allusion” in Fast Forward: Media Art Sammlung edited by Ingvild Goetz and Stephan  Urbaschek, Hatje Cantz, 2003, p. 434

2. Searle, Adrian, “Twelve tubs of pop corn and a gallon of Coke, please”, The Guardian, Tuesday 5th March, 2002.

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/feature/0,,728606,00.html.

3. The launching of the Arriflex 35 took place in 1937 at the Leipzig Trade Fair in Germany. Originally designed as a hand-held newsreel camera, it was used in war reportage and, incidentally, was the type of camera that was employed in recording the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime. During the time of the war, the technology (cameras, film projectors, editing systems and techniques) developed rapidly as governments saw the potential for exercising propaganda through the use of news reels.

4. Himmelsbach, Sabine, “Visual Scenarios – from self-observation to media reflection on an increasingly fragmented society: Notes on the historical development of video” in Fast Forward: Media Art Sammlung edited by Ingvild Goetz and Stephan  Urbaschek, Hatje Cantz, 2003, p. 434

5. Agnew uses the term ‘retrospective travel’ in relation to how it is applied in William Dalrymple’s 1997 book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East. Agnew, Vanessa, ‘What is Re-Enactment’, Criticism, Summer http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2220/is_/ai_n15954407?tag=artBody;col12004.

6. Ibid

7. Mendelsohn, Adam “Be Here Now: The Retrieval of History Through Re-Enactment” in Art Monthly, October, 2006 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_6735/is_300/ai_n28410061/pg_5?tag=artBody;col1

8. Ibid

 9. Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema”, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen, New York, Columbia University Press, 1986, p.302.

10. Baudrillard, Jean “ The Violence of Image”, 2004. www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-violence-of-the-image.html

11. Ibid

12. Sontag, Susan “In Plato’s Cave”, On Photography, Picador, New York, 2001,

p. 23

13. Weibel, Peter, “The Allusive Eye. Illusion, Anti-Illusion, Allusion” in Fast Forward: Media Art Sammlung edited by Ingvild Goetz and Stephan  Urbaschek, Hatje Cantz, 2003, p. 434

14. Brown, Nicholas, “Reconstitutions/Re-enactments”, in C: International Contemporary Art, Summer 2008

15. A phrase employed by Steven Matijcio in a review of  Deimantas Narkevičius exhibition at the Vienna Secession, Canadian Art International, December 2007.

16. “Paul Virilio in conversation with Thomas Zummer”, in Iles, Chrissie Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2001, p. 73


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