Artist: Corinna Schnitt
Corinna Schnitts films show everyday places. They are about well-ordered, often middle class lifestyles, which take on an increasingly absurd or even uncanny quality as the plot of the film unfolds. The protagonists always seem somewhat out of place in their surroundings and are carefully revealed to us in their insecurity. Schnitt’s visual language alternates between documentary observation and subtle staging. The events taking place on the screen are never overtly evident as a construct but are latently revealed as such. Through camera shots characterized by a degree of slowness, she underscores the ordinary and the everyday, making familiar realities appear as fragile constructs.
The exhibition Living a Beautiful Life presents a dialogue of two of the artist’s films, which each examine possible realities – in this case possibly everyday life experience. These realities are reflected in the tiniest gestures, routines and structures, in the wishes and hopes of the protagonists. Over the course of the films reality is revealed as a system of internalized, clichéd models and ideas (Living a Beautiful Life) as well as a normative spatial order (Playground).
Living a Beautiful Life (2004), the title of a film and the exhibition, reflects a topos that runs throughout the work of Schnitt and serves as the overarching theme of the exhibition. It conveys the diffuse ideas, wishes, and hopes surrounding the notion of a “beautiful” life. Apparently based on actual interviews, the film Living a Beautiful Life deals with the ideal life of a successful couple, but over the course of the film the featured protagonists increasingly assume the distorted dimensions of figures representing standardized notions of happiness (attractiveness, success, and wealth). In turn, an actual playground serves as an analogy for social space in the film Playground. The playground represents a site that seems to provide a realm for free, non-directed activity, but ultimately due to its spatial structure and format as a site of normative behavior it is revealed as a regulator of physical activity.
Schnitt confronts the viewers of the video projection Playground with an almost life-sized playground. One sees a cemented area with a slide and jungle gym in front of a white wall. In the beginning of the film the playground only gradually emerges from the dark to become the “stage” for the unspectacular events that follow. One watches as wind-blown leaves blown pass through the image; a child briefly climbs the jungle gym but quickly “exits” the scene; a bird looking for food hops through the picture. During the fifteen-minute film a whole day passes before the viewer’s eyes. The passing of twelve hours is noticeable by the slow shift in the shadows cast by the trees—much like a sun clock. What at first glance seems to a simple time-lapse image actually is a montage based on a specific concept, in which various film speeds are used in the film. In the parts of the film without any particular action the image is sped up, and only the nervous flickering of the shadows cast by the trees differentiate the image from a still. The moment someone or something enters the scene—the “performances” of the child, leaves, and bird mentioned above—the film is slowed down to real time.
Schnitt adds a soundtrack of continuous bird chirping to the moving image, which at closer examination evidently proves to be form a coherent visual continuum. The sounds of the birds provide a temporal framing, which makes the film seem like a recording of an absolutely natural occurrence. Although confronted with a number of micro-scenes over a brief period, the viewer does not experience the visual staccato typical of the fast-forward image. In contrast, Schnitt manages to evoke a sense of boredom, although largely working with an accelerated film speed. This visual sequencing exaggerates and foregrounds the unspectacular nature of the scenario to the point of provocation, challenging viewers to become aware of their own periods and processes of perception.
The emptiness of the playground allows it to serve as a backdrop—a stage where the little action that does take place gains a narrative intensity. Schnitt also made one intervention at the filming location, a change that is barely noticeable and only subliminally perceptible in the film and: the playground is accentuated by a white wall that has been constructed in the background and filmicly makes the site into an image with an image. By “cropping” and framing the playground in this analogue manner she filmicly evokes a heightened realism that alternates between an idealized hyperreality and a matter-of-fact documentary recording.
The subject of observation is the inherent grammar of the site and its conventions. The institution of the playground is revealed as a site that mirrors social structures and ideas; behavior in space is learned, practiced, and affirmed—shaping young bodies. The playground thus functions as a place providing an experience of spatial order while simultaneously representing reigning notions about time, space, bodies, and behavior.
In both films in the exhibition Schnitt presents exaggerated and abstracted forms of the everyday, which are altered by barely noticeable structural interventions. Whereas Playground “merely” shows a children’s playground set apart from its surroundings, isolating and thus interrogating it in relation to its grammar and conventions, Living a Beautiful Life focuses on the portrayed lifestyles of the protagonists as a set of superlatives that spiral upward to the point of absurdity.
Living a Beautiful Life shows an attractive, middle-aged married couple. Both are successful, self-confident, and goal-oriented. Always shown separately, they speak directly into the camera while occupying different rooms in their Beverly Hills villa while describing their emphatically happy life. The man, for example, talks about his achievements as a fighter pilot while sitting in front of the fireplace as well as his intention of becoming a successful scientist after leaving the military. He talks about his beautiful wife and children with a heightened aura of self-confidence that is almost intolerable. Less direct and displaying more self-reflection, the woman tells about her happy life, her children, etc. However, her desires seem more level-headed and modest. Both describe their lives in the superlative, effectively eliminating the possibility of any further enhancement. Yet the authenticity conveyed by the language of the protagonists becomes increasingly implausible and artificial. In reality the statements of Schnitt’s figures stem from adolescents, whom Schnitt interviewed about their ideas of a happy life while she was on a fellowship in California.* The wishes and visions of the young people were obviously completely permeated by conventional and often consumerist models and principles.
The actors accordingly describe a life that represents the same wishes and ideals. They even surpass such notions of success by not only talking about what they have already achieved and own but also the no less modest goals that they still wish to attain. The viewer is confronted with a form of fictional happiness of a secondary order, with a similar kind of exaggerated reality and artificiality found in Playground, although applied to a site in this film. The figures function as a medium for reflecting a dense array of projections, and, like the site shown in Playground, they also serve as a mirror for social structures and conventions.
At the end of the film Schnitt adds a brief excerpt from the East German children’s film Der Katzenprinz (The Cat Prince) from 1978. The viewer is presented with a paradisial scenario. Naked babies and small children play with wild cat cubs in a natural setting—an image that, not unlike the previously shown interviews, suggests a state of absolute and almost “unbearable” happiness, an ideal scenario that ultimately becomes a distortion, referring viewers back to their own, much less perfect lives. Thus the film shifts to emphasize the viewers’ own projections, their desires and wishes as well as their underlying fuctions and grammar.
Schnitt creates a porous boundary between the documentary and the fictional in her films. Although the artist’s imagery is strictly documentary, the “reality” observed is revealed as a subtle construct that encompasses even the coding of the film. For the viewer it is difficult to take a clear position on their matter-of-fact, documentary-like fiction. However, the artist’s aim is not to steer or manipulate the perceptions of the viewer but to create a distance that provides room for reflection and evinces the filmic choreography as a means of constructing reality. Not merely the action of the film—whether interviews with two people and their descriptions of a perfect life or the playground as a site of conventionalization and physical activity—but also the form of representation is Schnitt’s actual “subject matter.” However, both from the aspect of narrative and content as well as that of imagery and media-based reflection Schnitt focuses on an inherent perceptual blindspot by consistently directing the attention of viewers back to their own processes of seeing. One observes oneself in the process of seeing, observing, and imagining. This reciprocity of the gaze, the alternation between perception and projection, provides a constant source of discordance in Schnitt’s films, which gives the viewer a latently unsettling feeling. The artist aims to achieve this very element of uncertainty, both as a means of examining an apparent sense of trust and ordinary social language and of enabling an overt reflection on the mechanisms of the filmic dispositive.
Translation: Laura Schleussner