“A Meditation on Improvised Narrative ”
The flickering light shifts and flutters, loops over and under itself, and suddenly the rectangle is broken as an image slides off to the side, around the corner and up the wall to caress the ceiling before shrinking into a smaller version of itself. Behind the silently breathing bodies in the dark, a projectionist loads and unloads loops, while manipulating prisms and lenses before the flickering light cone that pours and drips through her fingers like water from a tap.
My interest in projector performance stems back to the mid90s when I first saw Godspeed You Black Emperor incorporate 16mm projections into one of their concerts in Moncton. Almost a decade later, I watched Alex MacKenzie perform Parallax x2 at the Western Front in Vancouver. Soon afterwards, I began performing with projectors and loops alongside Julie Saragosa and Ben Donoghue. After moving to the Netherlands, I saw an inspiring performance by Metamkine, a collective from Grenoble, France, during a residency at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where I also had the privilege to participate in a three-day workshop with them, in which we explored the complexities and subtleties of improvised image, sound, and machine.
Upon returning to Canada, I began co-organizing audio-visual jam sessions with Chris Spencer-Lowe in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. These sessions evolved into a collective called IRiSs Laboratories. Our collective performances generally last between one and four hours and involve multiple artists working with laptops, contact mics, film projectors, and prisms. Now, two years later, I continue to explore live cinema, both through continued work with the IRiSs collective and through other solo projects.
While a linear film may be present in my absence, a performance can only happen in my presence, and thus necessitating an immediate connection and interaction with the audience as I share the same space and breathe the same air. This shared moment in space bridges the gap that generally separates present spectators from absent filmmakers.
Through these performances, I strive to map a variety of spatiotemporal terrains: the awareness of geographic and architectural space; the inevitable cause-and-effect loop structure of daily life through improvisational narratives; the relationship between the body, the machine, and the spectator; and finally, the role of the projectionist as technician, scientist, mechanic, magician, and stunt driver.
For the most part, conventional commercial film necessitates an engagement with the cinematic machines (from camera to projector) in the production of linear narratives that follow Aristotelian story arcs. I have to wonder, though, if these conventional arced narratives are actually representative of our lived experience? Do we experience our lives in an organized flow from beginning to middle to end? Or do we experience a more cybernetic flow of multiple superimposed narratives at once, in the midst of ever-evolving closed signal loops? Every day, the sun rises and sets; our lives are a series of repeating loops, but within these loops, there are variations, as action leads to sensing, to comparison, and back to action again.
This is why I prefer to work with improvised narratives that use loop structures as the basic building blocks of a cybernetic cinematic language. Life seen as a series of loops has one day leading to the next to the next to the next one after that, always with slight variations. These variations are embodied in my work through optical manipulations of the image with prisms, lenses, and mirrors, one loop always leading to the next. If I see something that works I go from there and build on it; if something doesn’t work, then I act and adapt by either stopping it or changing it.
Despite my insistence on working with loops, I am not opposed to the concept of narrative. I am not one to discard narrative as an obsolete convention of a pre-modernist era. Nor am I one to discard the rejection-of-narrative as a pretense of outdated postmodern ideals. In my work, there is always a pre-scripted score or a skeletal structure, but nothing more; all of the fleshy bits are placed onto this skeleton in real time. Each performance is slightly different in that I begin with a basic temporal map of the piece that is definitive, but is not so specific as to dictate frame-by-frame action. The improvisational narratives that I create are still narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. But I like to think that they are more honest in that both the audience and I are not really sure when or how the performance will end. All we know is that, yes, it will end.
Meanwhile, the body of the operator is often hidden in conventional cinema, as if it is not relevant to the unfolding of the narrative. But the body cannot be irrelevant (nor can the machine). It is there and it is integral to the process. You may only notice the projectionist if they fuck up but that doesn’t mean that they are not present the rest of the time. So if the body is not irrelevant, how do we approach its inhabitation and its presentation during performances? Often in our film performances, my colleagues and I simply show up as we are, dressed in street clothes, with the idea that our bodies are irrelevant and the ‘art’ is in the images and the sound. And yet, throughout our performances, viewers continually turn their heads, to see what we are doing. Invariably, at least three quarters of the photo and video documentation of the performance are of our bodies working the projectors and the sound equipment. If so much attention is paid to our bodies, why not consider our bodies as much of a site of expression, contention, and intervention as our images and sounds? This is where I begin to think about costume.
Costume and fashion relate directly to a presentation of the body - the wearing of signs – no matter what you wear is a costume; choosing not to costume yourself is a costuming decision. When preparing for a performance, I have recently decided to consciously choose each item of clothing in such a way as to physically embody my conception of the projectionist performer as a scientist, mechanic, magician, and stunt driver in one. A black lab coat for the scientist who plays with time and light in space; an embroidered name-tag for the mechanic who works the machine with her hands; and a pair of motorcycle goggles for the stunt driver who pushes the creative potential of a machine that was originally designed to only go from point A to point B in an effort to show all of the unexpected and unplanned possibilities that might take place in between point A and point B.
While at once dismantling the traditional viewing modes of the cinematic black box, this form of expanded cinema does not dispense with the magic and illusion of cinema. On the contrary, it conjures up a different sort of illusion – one that is rooted in the hands of the performer rather than in the faces of the stars. This cybernetic approach to narrative is not a discarding of narrative but rather a reinvention of it several times over; and over, and over, and over again.
Amanda Dawn Christie, Ottawa, 2010.