Artist: Peter Tscherkassky
Peter Tscherkassky’s films never allow the eye to rest and incessantly challenge the viewer visually, ontologically. The constellation of films selected for and presented in the exhibition Coming Attractions share two notable similarities: Tscherkassky created the three films in the darkroom using his own specially developed contact copying process, and the artist works with found footage. Fragments of analog commercials and movie trailers serve as Tscherkassky’s source material for his structural re-compositions, which he meticulously and consistently pushes to absurdity semantically in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Tscherkassky’s aesthetic approach to film material is not simply deconstructive or anti-illusionistic—his works are defined by a radical, production-based, aesthetic thinking. He is interested in the possibilities of analog processing, i.e. working directly with the image material of films.
Up until 1989 Tscherkassky’s aesthetic practice was defined predominantly by Super 8 and 16 mm film. Both media were highly popular given their ease of use and availability. Apart from avant-garde film’s dictum of Nouveauté, these formats developed for private use allowed for a playful appropriation of the medium. Their roughness and graininess emphasized the materiality. “Super 8,” the artist says, “was the Pointillism, Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism
The 35 mm short film Manufraktur (1985), the oldest of three films presented in the constellation, represents a watershed moment—in retrospect, a turning point in the artist’s working method. Tscherkassky’s specially developed contact copying process is first used in Manufraktur. He copies film by placing existing footage (found footage films) on top of unexposed, new film, and exposing it. This allows Tscherkassky not only to superimpose various film layers on top of one another, but also to interfere with the transmission or copying process in a fundamental way. Here, for the first time, Tscherkassky abandons his use of self-shot footage, and relies instead exclusively on found, professional 35 mm footage. The diegesis of the imagery no longer results from the sequencing of actual and self-shot—ultimately edited together—scenes and cuts but solely from the montage, in the fusing together of “ready-made” film material of unknown authorship in the darkroom.
Manufraktur’s source material comes from two found-footage commercials dealing with the theme of movement, one in the form of driving (Semperit tires), the other in the form of walking (Ergee stockings). In addition, the artist incorporated during the contact copying process small format photos of moving hands that he shot himself. Although movement and acceleration are legible as explicit themes of the short film created in this manner, this does not apply on a visual semantic level. Instead, Tscherkassky attempts to call attention to the kinetic energy implicit in the film image itself by speeding up the images for the viewer, thus referencing the artificial nature of all cinematic motion playback. The dramatic composition of the cuts, the transitions, and
collisions within the images create—ultimately in the eye of the viewer—an imagery of
In addition to superimpositions, the contact copying method developed and first applied here made an entire range of analog interventions possible. Fade-ins and fade-outs, generated by inserting black frames, additive or subtractive superimpositions of film positives and negatives, which yield interference-like, contour-esque forms, as well as the layer-like insertions of various textures (e.g. real foliage in the chapter “Cubist Cinema 3” in the film Coming Attractions) constitute Tscherkassky’s filmic vocabulary since he developed this darkroom technique.
By using different light sources (lamps and laser pointers) and by varying and moving these projection sources by hand during contact copying makes an almost painterly process of transfer possible. The hand, the ability to work with the material manually, plays a central role. One could speak of a sped-up layered image whose aesthetic effect is less a result of simple superimposition than it is the manual rewriting of one film on top of another.
The 100-cm filmstrips, fifty frames—equal to two seconds of running film—created on the editing table form the temporal building blocks of Tscherkassky’s working method. Although the two-second clips created thusly are arranged in sequence, the way in which the film unfolds and its spatial diegetic development are not necessarily linear. The possibilities of multiple exposures allow for different film sequences (temporal layers) and visual spatial layers to be superimposed, intertwined, interfered with, or to almost even cancel one another out. With Tscherkassky, pictorial temporality and the fleeting duration of the moving filmic image encounter one another producing a collision of competing forms of temporality. Still, photographic, and moving / accelerated filmic imagery are not opposites but maintain a dialectical relationship. In terms of process, Tscherkassky’s work starts with the individual, still image or frame and leads to multiplicity, the continuum of images. The hinge between the various temporal states of the image is not just formed by the projector, which ultimately speeds the image up again, synthesizing it in the eye of the viewer, but the “human factor” as Tscherkassky calls it, instances of deviation and the aleatory in the manual process. Nevertheless, the designation “experimental” would completely miss the mark. Tscherkassky’s way of working involves, in spite of its radical production aesthetic and process-based approach, a variety of compositional, planning-like elements. The way he deals with the material is not controlled by its potential impact, but dictated by the element of process as well as the material’s unique dynamics.
In l'Arrivée (1998), Tscherkassky again makes use of the contact copying process. Here, the artist works with material from a movie trailer to Terence Young’s Mayerling from 1969. But he mirrors the train in Mayerling entering from the left in a citation of Lumière’s L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1895) in order to reformulate its semantics. The three-minute short film emerges out of the pure whiteness of the projection light. Dirt and scratches provide a lead-in to the sequence of events as the scenery materializes out of the “noise.” Out of the initially iconic “nothingness” a film image scenario of the most rudimentary dramatic “features” slowly begins to take form. Although extremely shaky and constantly corroding and disintegrating, the train arrives, collides with its own mirrored image in the film, until finally the person arriving at the station (Catherine Deneuve) gets off and, as expected dramatically, falls into the arms of a man (Omar Sharif), thereby abruptly satisfying the quickly constructed cinematic expectations. The white screen at the outset becomes a symbol for the expectations of the potential image-to-come, of the cinematic image itself. In its allusion to the early Lumière film, the arrival of the train functions as a metaphor for the expectations surrounding the new medium during the Lumière-era. From a meta-filmic perspective, however, Tscherkassky’s scenery can be interpreted as a critical metaphor for film’s present-day cultural status, in other words the end of the analogue film era, and thus as an ironic commentary on the mechanisms of cultural-industrial progress.
Coming Attractions (2010), the third and most elaborate film, which also provides the exhibition its title, undertakes—rich in film historical allusions—a focused juxtaposition of three different forms of the moving image ingrained with an exhibitionist element: early cinema, avant-garde film, and the format of commercials. Exhibitionism, the pleasure of showing yourself—meaning the individuals shown as well as the medium and its possibilities—was an inherent aspect of early cinema, it was only too happy to show what it was capable of. The audience was continually aware that something was recorded, that something was being shown. In no uncertain terms, it was also directly addressed, looked at, even spoken to. A complicity existed between observer and observed, a silent agreement of seeing and being seen. Only later, in the 1910s, this complicity gave way to the voyeuristic gaze that wanted to make the audience forget that the camera records and that film is ultimately a construct.
In the spirit of this initially exhibitionist mode of the gaze, the first shot in Coming Attractions shows the searching, probing, and simultaneously expectant look of a man—in actuality a short excerpt from a hairdryer commercial—so that the viewer is reminded of the act of looking from the very outset. Tscherkassky is, of course, therefore not just referring to communication through eye contact, the cinematic dispositif, and the spatial conditions of cinema. The film, however, not only begins self-reflexively vis-à-vis the fundamental constituents of seeing and filmic perception, but also film-historically by directing our attention to the beginnings of cinema that increasingly determined its subsequent course.
In the second shot, Tscherkassky focuses on the newest of the three film genres: commercials. Superimposed, interlocked, and interlaced takes of a lascivious looking actress in an original Auer wafers commercial confront the viewer. These are not the final, finished shots, but what are called rushes—quickly executed and examined recordings of amateur actors—in order to “capture” on camera a potentially spontaneous-looking expression of the woman from the multiplicity of images. Looking directly into the camera and flirting with the viewer and his seduction (ultimately for the advertised product) is the sole purpose of this obsessive-like sequence of takes. The repetition factor, the actor’s countless attempts to look directly into the eye of the camera as spontaneously as possible, gives the scenario an oppressive, absurdist tone. Immediacy and spontaneity not only become their opposites but they are pushed to absurdity.
In eleven total chapter sequences, whose titles make slightly altered references to film history and theory, Tscherkassky combines the three worlds of film imagery from early cinema, avant-garde film, and commercials into various constellations, bringing them into dialogue with one another. Thus, in chapter one (“Cubist Cinema 1”) the laborious repetition of a hair dyer model repeatedly peering into the camera with the same expression becomes the immediate response to the searching look of the man in the rearview mirror in the initial scene. In the fourth chapter, Tscherkassky transforms Fernand Leger's Ballet mécanique into a “Ballet monotonique.” The laundry woman walking up a staircase on the Seine in the original film is in Tscherkassky’s film replaced by the actor from a Tia Maria coffee liqueur advertising. The strong black and white contrasts of the stairs mutate allusively into bars. The Cubist-original’s celebration of the machine age is transformed into mechanization and depersonalization.
Tscherkassky also devotes a chapter to early cinema’s interest in uncontrolled processes such as the movements of plants, ocean waves, smoke, or crowds (“nature caught in the act”). Modeled after Rough Sea at Dover (1896), “Rough Sea at Nowhere” focuses on liquid being poured into an overflowing glass of soda. The repetition of adding more liquid and the overflowing glass in this soda cartridge commercial can be read as a suggestive metaphor. The final chapter juxtaposes a Pasolini actor (from Arabian Nights) with a tractor driver of highly dubious acting skills from an absurd Pfanni commercial. Both of these two entirely different forms of precariousness captured on film bring the viewer into the game as an embarrassed third party, making him cognizant of himself as an observer.
Without committing itself one way or the other, Tscherkassky’s filmic imagery alternates between being conceptual or material-based. Tscherkassky’s found-footage films indulge in the pleasure of materiality and the independent life of the images and are also marked by subtle film-historical references that coalesce into a compelling meta-film. Here, great cinema encounters in a matter-of-fact way the small, banal, and amateur. Tscherkassky forms structures of micro-narratives whose charm and awkwardness make up a substantial part of his work’s subtle irony. He questions the auratic nature of the movie image and the authority of the avant-garde and, at the same time, employs humorous means in pitting advertising against itself.
Conscious of the so-called “end” of analog film, Tscherkassky engages in an aesthetic, referential game where polemics are as foreign as nostalgia, but where an element of melancholy runs deep. For Tscherkassky, it is not about a simple appropriation or re-appropriation of the material, or an analysis of the cinematic apparatus, rather, his films are episodes of working with the memory of cinema: memories of its media, memories of the once future promises of the cinematic self.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith