Artist: Deborath Stratman
In the exhibition Hacked Circuit two films by American artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman focus on the auditive dimension of filmic experience, on hearing. Both in the miniature film The Magician’s House (2007)and in the short film Hacked Circuit, the immersive power of sound and music plays a defining role, fundamentally influencing what we see and infusing it with narrative. Whereas in The Magician’s House the spatially evocative effect of the audible characterizes the poetic and essayistic nature of the narrative, in Hacked Circuit the levels of the visible and the audible are contrasted and thereby subjected to a subtle but stringent deconstruction.
This focus on sound, its affective potential, and its significance within film are guided not only by Deborah Stratman’s longstanding work with sound design and her teaching activities in this field, but they can also be viewed before the backdrop of her sculptural practice and her development of sonic landscapes and sound interventions, in which she addresses the public and political dimensions of auditive space. She is primarily interested in the situations and conditions of everyday perception, and she focuses the viewer’s attention on auditive factors that shape perception—factors that circumvent immediate perception and are particularly suited for purposes of manipulation. The film Hacked Circuit can be considered an ode to the production of sounds, given that in the medium of film, sound, the three-dimensional aspect of tone, and music are only registered peripherally. The affective potential of sound, tone, and music goes largely unnoticed by the audience. In Hacked Circuit sound design not only forms the core “subject matter” of the filmic self-reflection, but it also represents a fundamental interrogation of perception, its blind spots, defining medial conditions, and subliminal processes.
The short film The Magician’s House begins with an auditory impression, before the first image appears. An arpeggio, a so-called “broken cord” from The Struggle of the Magicians composed by George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann around 1920, is the first, overtly nonvisual component of the film’s spatial diegesis. The subsequent first camera sequence shows an old, rural clapboard house, initially in a long shot and then slowly exploring traces of experience in alternating shots. Whispering voices accompany the initial sequence, giving the impression that one is hearing thoughts accompanying the film.
For Stratman, this miniature of a film is “one of those films that just shot itself, you could say.” The artist used almost all the material filmed during a single afternoon. The house, the home and working place of a filmmaker friend who was on his deathbed, is by no means portrayed in a documentary manner but as a place where the past and present merge. Stratman explores the house as a site of potential transformation—not only from the material into the mental and potentially filmic but also in reverse, from the metaphysical, atmospheric, and imaginary into the three-dimensional. In shots that recall still lifes, she allows the film itself to become—through images, sound, and noises—as a reflection on the filmmaker and his “alchemic” manner of working. At the same time, the intimate essay film serves as a quiet homage to the disappearing medium of analogue film.
In the third shot, in which the camera has now gotten closer to the house, the music abruptly recedes into the background and becomes spatially removed, allowing the sounds of a person moving through the house to come to the fore. The audible movements open up a third “space” beyond the pictorial space of the film or the imaginary space suggested by the music. The continuing sequence of shots reminiscent of still lifes begins to diverge and desynchronize from the sound, from the noises suggesting movement and work. Although the quietly intoned images continue to unfold, from this point onward the spatial matrix, that is the alternation of visible pictorial space and the evoked imaginary space, become successively more complex and more mentally challenging for the viewer. Stratman allows the “narrative thread” to unravel into vagueness, before we can identify any documentary or portrait-like characteristics of the home’s inhabitant, the “magician” of the film.
At the very latest, by the middle of The Magician’s House the staccato-like fades between fragmentary shots of a film projector make evident the self-referential nature of the short film, which carefully and probingly explores its own medium, conditions of possibility, and accompanying aesthetic “thinking” in a poetic and essayistic tone. The Magician’s House is ultimately dedicated to film itself and to a life with this medium. The persona of the filmmaker, for whom the figure of the magician forms an analogy, remains unclear. However, in a sculptural way his house bears testimony to a special connection between art and life. The impression made by the work, originally shot with 16-mm film, and the intentionally incomplete “portrait” of the house and its inhabitant has a retrospective and subtly melancholy quality. The film is a look back into the past, at something that is no longer what it was and will never return; it is also a probing and interrogation of empty spaces, whose impact is palpable, extending into the here and now. Stratman traces the interlacing of the film medium, filmic thought, and real space, while revealing the interdependence of internal, mental space and “external,” surrounding space. It is the lack of differentiation between these two spheres that makes Stratman’s film into a portrait of filmic thought. Real space and filmic space cannot be separated from one another, and the film moves seamlessly from one to the other, so that this miniature film of a simple wooden house leads into the not-so-simple question as to the relationship between the various ontological dimensions of film.
In Hacked Circuit, Deborah Stratman turns the hierarchy of filmic perception on its head in an overtly deconstructivist idiom. The idea of sight as the primary sense is called into question. In the film, consisting of a single, continuous steadicam pan, Stratman shows two sound engineers working on dubbing the final scene in The Conversation (1974)with Gene Hackman. Above and beyond the documentary-like visual continuum of Stratman’s film, the action of the feature film takes on an increasingly audible and evocative presence in the mind of the viewer. The actual projector of the film is not the a machine but the mental apparatus of the viewer.
Stratman also has Hacked Circuit begin with music. The andante of the piano piece from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation gives the action a calm, deliberate, yet unsettling atmosphere, and Stratman has the music played by David Shire segue into a flowing steadicam pan. The visual vocabulary of the camera’s movement through a dark, somewhat uncanny street alternates between that of documentary footage and a charged, narrative scene, whose atmosphere is largely defined by the music. The artificial, unnatural effect of the steadicam enables the viewer to become an approaching observer, who seems to be sneaking up on the scene; a simple take of an urban setting in the evening verges on becoming an almost threatening scene. Even a few seconds after introducing the reciprocal semantic effect of music and images, Stratman abruptly introduces working sounds from a shop, studio, or similar context as a third “track.” Although the viewer already has a sense that this is a visual and tonal construction, even unspectacular sounds (like unscrewing something or opening the door of a cupboard) are immediately associated with the oppressive nature of the scene that has already been established. It is almost as if the mental apparatus of the viewer has no choice but to interpret the heard sounds in relation to the music. Also the spatial acoustics of these sounds—in which listeners have the impression of being right next to the sound source—are not enough to break the narrative pull indebted to the highly immersive nature of the music.
As the camera leads into a single-story building, the mystery as to the sources of the noises seems to be lifted. Only at this point does the immersive effect of the sound begin to break down. Viewers are now guided through the studio of two sound technicians, who are shown at work, dubbing of the final scene of The Conversation, a paradigmatic film in the history of the medium—known as an exploration of acoustic surveillance. In this scene, the wiretapping specialist Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, has just learned that he himself is being surveilled and subsequently tears apart his entire apartment in a kind of showdown-like search for bugging devices.
At this point, for a brief period Stratman’s film seems purely documentary, a recording or report. Only the specific aesthetic of the steadicam pan, with its disembodied, hovering quality, seems to slightly contradict the documentary impression. The film now seems matter-of-fact and sometimes even banal. Also in terms of the spatial acoustics, the listener has arrived in the here and now of the actual working process. The dialogue between the sound technician and the person creating the noises are audible in the dry acoustics of the space; all emotionally evocative spatio-auditory effects, such as the initial echoing piano music (played with a lot of pedal), has given way to the real action and the prosaic recording thereof. This sequence in the film marks a shift, a break with the initially established narrative. The synchronicity between the sound and visuals are then subjected to subtle deconstruction. At close observation one notices that this synchronicity is intentional and artificial. The sounds turn out to be “reproductions” produced by the technicians in real time and in correspondence with the original feature film material, so that the viewer becomes a witness to a highly staged form of documentary authenticity.
After several minutes of straightforward documentation, the steadicam now retreats, backing out of the building with the sound studio. Once again, the viewer is confronted with images of mostly empty streets and alleyways at night, as in the beginning of the film. The reintroduction of the initial film music causes the previous, apparently authentic scene to be forgotten, and the viewer is again immersed in the visual images and sound from the beginning. Although viewers are now aware that they are being shown the manipulable state of their own perception, it is still hard to resist the narrative pull of such scenes. As Stratman states, “Even though we are critically aware of the mechanisms of manipulation, we have that Pavlovian response to sound. We can’t turn it off. We can’t not feel it.”
Stratman exposes viewers to an ongoing observation of their own perceptions, of hearing and seeing, without clarifying a “perceptual center” or a reliable or ordered relationship. This ultimately reveals that not the nature of the ontological category or origin of a perceptual impression is significant but how synthesizing perceptions process different kinds of sensory input and also how reflexive-analytical aspects of perception and affective resonance interact. Viewers become observers of their own mental apparatuses, their capacity and also “susceptibility” to immediate affect. In the case of increasing acoustic surveillance, this could lead to latent paranoia. At the same time, it reveals the importance of self-observation and self-reflection as important epistemological tools.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner