A Picture Worth Thousands of Words by Jennifer Allen

I've been getting some curious letters in the post. They are from a friend who has peculiar taste in stationery. Instead of using paper, he writes on the back of fading black and white photographs. These are not heirlooms, dislodged from his family album, but finds he has collected from flea markets. Given their diminutive size, one would be hard-pressed to call them letters. The messages are more reminiscent of memoranda, quickly scrawled on a post-it note, if not SMS texts. "Call you soon." "Meet next week?" "Back from Istanbul." He always writes in pencil, as if pen would damage the photograph or unsettle its resting place in history. Yet pencil, however evanescent, tends to make his perfunctory greetings function as captions. The black and white image matches the grey writing – the fleeting snapshot, the evanescence of the pencil lead – as if the picture and the message came from the same time. I begin to wait for the phone call from the women laughing on a picnic blanket and wonder what has taken them so long. I look forward to meeting the man on the wide steps where he is standing, holding his hat to his chest. The family members sunning themselves on a beach finally return from their vacation in Istanbul. Although the photographs are only a writing support, they give the letters another history, another temporality. The instantaneity of the moment feels like right now and so very long ago. 

There's a similar fascination for archival images – and a similar clash of temporalities – in Stephanos Tsivopoulos oeuvre. His most recent work Untitled (In Plato's Cave), 2008, is a film that fuses archival footage with a contemporary shoot; black and white with living colour. The lone male character appears to be one of H.G. Wells's time travellers, although he is travelling through cinematic history, as both technician and viewer. It's the history of editing and watching filmed war coverage – a history that jumps from WWII to our present wars. In the first part, the man is dressed in a uniform-like khaki outfit and views Russian and German footage from the 1940s. The most striking reel is the first, which captures a flock of parachutists landing on snow-topped mountains. The floating men look more like danty dandelion seeds, carried by the wind; the black and white film underscores the blinding whiteness of the snow and the unlikelihood a bountiful harvest from this crop of bellicose seeds. The man cleans a camera lens, edits a strip of film and watches the results on a screen, which is actually a sheet draped carelessly on the wall; the scenes move across another white landscape of sleepy creases and folds. Like the footage, the tools – the camera, the tripod, the magazines, the editing table, the spotlights and the portable film projector – all date from the 1940s. After borrowing the equipment from Berlin's Filmmuseum, Tsivopoulos carefully reconstructed the studio of Geyer Berlin, a cinema post-production lab that was converted into the main lab used by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Indeed, the camera – an original Arriflex 35– was developed especially for war reportage and the ensuing propaganda films that would be screened in cinemas across the Third Reich. The man has been filmed in the living colour of the present, although he works with historical black and white film reels. Like the photograph letters, the character is immersed in two histories and temporalities: right now and so very long ago. 

In the second part, the very same man reappears, but his vintage khaki outfit has been replaced by more modern casual wear. Around his neck is wrapped an Intifada headscarf, which is both a global fashion accessory and a symbol of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Despite his wardrobe change, the man still labours alone inside a darkened film lab: viewing footage, cleaning a camera, editing, watching the results. Like his clothing, the war footage has gone through a metamorphosis. Black and white has blossomed into living colour; the WWII scenes have been replaced with scenes from the Iraq War. His equipment has magically metamorphosed into a computer, a portable television camera and sleek glowing monitors instead of a creased sheet. Editing involves a new type of handwork: touching the keyboard and the mouse instead of the film pellicle. These time travels have also had an impact on the way that war is documented. Instead capturing a flock of parachutists descend upon snowy peaks – or even desert storms – the camera moves through the cramped interior of what appears to be an abandoned home. The old panoramic view has been replaced by a more intimate, if not claustrophobic gaze. The camera is no longer a tool but rather an extension of the body, if not an eyeball. Instead of panning a scenic natural setting, the camera searches through the domestic space, scrutinizing the rooms like a detective, only to find a strange liquid stain on the floor and an American soldier in a corner. There's a persistant view through a window grate – perhaps for enemy fire – but there's only a taxi and a huddle of goats and civilians lingering on the street outside. There are other views – much further away and yet telescopically-detailed – which capture missiles and bullets hitting various architectural targets at Tikrit and Basra. Every time the minarets of a mosque are hit, the impact produces clouds of brick dust. Like small yet powerful storm fronts, these clouds erupt instantly and then slowly evaporate, taking pieces of history and hope with them. And, of course, human lives. If only right now could be so very long ago. 

Tsivopoulos's time travels produce some odd effects. As viewers, we watch a man who has been filmed watching films which have been made by still other sets of eyes and seen by many more. Tsivopoulos offers not only a history of filming, editing and screening war footage but also a history of looking at war through what other people have seen and how they have seen it: from the camera man to the editor to the spectators. This collective voyeurism spans across decades – from the 1940s to the present – yet the progressive linearity of time is blurred. While referring to extremely specific moments in history – like the Arriflex 35 – Tsivopoulos fuses so many historical references together that it's unclear when – and where – his film takes place. In WWII, in Irak, in the film lab or in front of our eyes? In these time travels, the trajectory is not a vector but rather a spiral, folding back on itself. To create this temporal spiral, Tsivopoulos combines the techniques of repetition and difference. For example, the first part and the second part are not only historical re-enactments of war film labs but also re-enactments of each other, precisely because the man performs the very same tasks we have just witnessed. The repetition of his gestures creates the impression of instant obsolescence. Despite the contemporaneity of the second part – every element belongs to our present (the colour, the film technology, the wardrobe, the war) – the sequel starts to look older than the black and white footage. Another example lies in the soundtrack, which does not change from the first to the second part; there is no audible historical shift since Tsivopoulos presents the war footage from WWII and Irak as silent movies. The soundtrack – an instrumental echoing melody – creates an impression of continuity along with the reappearance of the same actor and the repetition of his gestures. The echo manifests the temporality of a history that repeats itself, again and again. Of course, the technology, the fashions and the battlefields change from the first part to the second part. Yet these changes start to look like artificial ways of merely producing the effect of the passage of time. Like props that take up space but hold decades.

By embedding different temporalities within the same stubborn storyline, Tsivopoulos underscores the narrative power of the filmed image, from the WWII footage to the Iraq footage, from the Arriflex camera to the Intifada scarf. These filmed scenes not only document history but also can drive another story; they are not passive documents that obediently repeat the past but active players that can create an entirely different tale. In that spiral of time, the circular folds hold the seeds of new stories. Indeed, the two sets of war footage function almost like actors, who have the ability to produce another reality – at once linked to and distinct from what was actually captured on the pellicle. As actors, their costumes are fixed but their lines are made up by the spectators. Like the epistolary photographs, the black and white footage interacts with its immediate visual surroundings. It's no longer just a film about a strategic attack by parachutists near a contested territory in WWII; it seems to hold some secret that the man is trying to discover by editing the film. Perhaps he's looking for his father? A strategy for crossing the mountains? Or attacking them again? Even the footage from Irak, despite its contemporaneity, mixes with its surroundings. Perhaps the man is a journalist haunted by reporting in Irak? A human rights official looking for abuses? Or a Christian fanatic who likes to watch attacks on mosques? The editing process alone – fusing different images and times – produces endless narratives as each viewer tries to solve the puzzle of why these pieces have been put together. It's a puzzle looks the same; yet each person finds a new solution. 

Of course, the drive to create narrative through images is not surprising in our era of spectacles. Just over a century ago, film gave the image an unprecedented autonomy as a storyteller. The image alone can move a narrative forward, without the help of dialogue, whether written or spoken. When the murderer holds a gun to his victim, there is no need for him to say: "I am going to shoot you now." Footage of his finger pulling the trigger and his victim's traumatic expression are much more effective in getting the message across. Indeed, in the realm of film, language proves to be a hindrance. While eliminating language, film has radically compressed and condensed time. Through editing, a film can easily fit centuries into a mere ninety minutes (Tsivopoulos's work fits a good sixty years into ten minutes). Even the shortest events – for example, a man walking up a staircase – have been edited down to the briefest durations. We don't see the man walking up the stairs from the bottom to the top; we see him take the first step, only to be met by a woman opening a door upstairs to his knock. Through the prevalence of editing, the shortest scene – even the still photograph – is not a fragment but evokes an entire story. Ultimately, every image – filmed or photographed – is always already dislodged from its origins. A nomad with a visible past, the image is destined to tell its own narrative through other times and places.


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