Two white wooden boxes are on stage in front of filmed boxes, but the difference is imperceptible.

The image: "How have you been? Sit down, I’d like to ask you some questions."

Image: "Now I wrote these questions last night so that I won’t forget some of them. First of all, there is something that has been bothering me in your past and I am kind of anxious as to how it worked out. Have you been able to control those moments of petty jealousy about other people that sometimes interfered with your own development as a person?"

Covell: "I think, people are spending more time watching images today as compared to when you asked that question."

Image: "Has there been a noticeable shift in political ideology particularly in developing Third World countries. Has there been an ideological shift in the United States or has it remained static?"

Covell: Your/my/our daughter, Kim is very much involved in new technologies. She teaches in ... visual arts. You/me/we have a great granddaughter who is a dancer. Yes, it is hard to keep up with new technologies (laughs) as they are constantly updated…."

Image: "Did your mother and father pass on gently?

Covell: "I think you are in better shape than I. I don’t know where you got those shoes, I can’t remember them. And the landlord said (raising his voice to complete the answer over the image’s interruption, “And are you happy?”) he would not rent me the apartment if he had seen you!"

...to switch sides and...

...sit across from each other.

Image (looking at the clock): "The time is about ready to run out, I think. It has been good seeing you."



Both get up and shake hands.



They exit from their respective spaces.

In this essay, I would like to discuss a recent film/ performance, Mutual Conversations 1979-2005 (Mike Covell, 2005) that, in my view, gets to the heart of confronting the image with the real. The work transforms the two-dimensional space of the film screen into the three-dimensional space of theater by staging an encounter between the filmmaker and a life-sized projected filmed sequence of himself from twenty-five years ago, in which his projected image asks him questions, very much in the nature of a time capsule with letters written to oneself to be opened in the future. However, Covell’s encounter with time is staged in a public setting as opposed to the private reception of a diary. In fact, Covell cannot see himself meet his younger self because as a performer he is in the meeting. That perspective is available only to the audience, without whom, therefore, the performance would remain incomplete.

The stage is set. The clock in the image is set at 11 minutes to 12.00. The younger Covell's projected image walks in. He stops, faces the audience and says, “I would like you to meet a friend of mine.”

The filmmaker’s projected image asks questions that range from

  • personal queries about the path chosen by the filmmaker’s daughter and his parents’ passing away;
  • to media-related questions about the state of media technologies and their impact — if cinematic images have given way to holographic ones and if people’s lives continue to be dominated by media;
  • to whimsical ones, such as, if explanations about UFOs have been discovered; to political ones about shifts in ideology within the U.S. regarding the Third World;
  • and finally, to questions about the lessons learned in time — if he, the younger man, learns in the future to resolve his insecurities or petty jealousies about others’ work, what the older one thinks now about his younger self, and, ultimately, if he is happy.
Covell: "Most of that is gone. When you are working with commitment and with people who are inspired by things in the world you let go of — " The image cuts him off to ask the next question. "I was also thinking that during my time here there has been a huge increase in the amount of time people spend watching electronic images—i.e., they spend more time consuming images produced for them than the real world around them, spending as much as 20-30% of their waking day consuming these images. I have heard the statistic that some people spend 19 to 20,000 hours watching television by the time they are 19 years old whereas they have spent maybe 8 to 9000 hours on their entire education. Has that changed? ..."
Image (interrupting): "How has television, motion picture theater changed? Are they predominant forms of entertainment today? I am curious whether holography has improved to the point where, say if someone wanted to do a project like I am attempting to do now would have done it with a hologram instead of a two-dimensional surface with the combination of a three-dimensional object, such as what we are looking at right now? Has that become, what we call, a marketable item? Did video-disc become .. a highly marketable item?" Covell: "The video-discs that we got, when I was you, faded out. Holograms did not become a common-place item. Theaters have turned into multiplexes ..." 

The opening shot is that of a life-sized screen on which is projected the title, with two boxes on either end and one in the middle with a clock and microphone. The clock runs for 11 minutes, which is also the length of the film. The clock in the middle, serves as a reminder of the passing of time, both outside of the film and the film reel itself. In fact, the projected actor closes the meeting and the performance by pointing to the clock and the film’s running out of time. The performance ends when the two subjects leave the stage, which is now, as in the opening, occupied by the screen, the clock, and the seats the subjects have vacated.

1. Filmed title: Mutual Conversations 1979-2005. The man Mike Covell as he is now walks in.

2. The projected image of the younger Covell walks in. He stops, faces the audience and says, “I would like you to meet a friend of mine, I think…”

3. The image shakes hands with the older man: "How have you been? Sit down, I’d like to ask you some questions."

4. They both sit and talk. At one point, while Covell answers his question if UFO’s have been explained amidst laughter from the audience, his projected image remains unaware of the reaction he has evoked.

5. "The time is just about ready to run out, I think. It has been nice to see you."  They get up and shake hands and the younger waves goodbye.

6. "Bye." The Mike of today waves back. They leave, one exiting right, one left.

Covell: It has not remained static.  It has turned much more conservative.  There are people trying to change that but right now we are in the midst of a war — " (This time, when interrupted by his image Covell expresses irritation at not being able to continue with his answer about an issue that is clearly dear to him.) Image: "I am wondering whether my daughter/your daughter Kim, participated in that kind of scientific wave that was unfolding ... or more concerned with being domestic or more involved in the art forms rather than the hard sciences?"
Image (interrupts again loudly in comparison to Covell’s mild manner): "Has it ever been found out who and what UFOs are? Has there been any scientific explanation for who and what UFOs are?" (Amidst laughter from audience to which image remains oblivious) Covell answers: I wish, I/you had not asked that question. But, UFOs no longer get the kind of public attention that they did twenty five years ago. They still fascinate me. It’s okay. There were things that happened when I/we were young that I still don’t have an explanation for…."

The entire performance is somewhat surreal as the image and the real appear to merge together appearing in the darkened theater space as the projection of a ghostlike meeting in which the past and the present blend into each other. Both figures cast shadows on the screen and because of the light from the projector turn strangely into projected images. Moreover, the living figure is choreographed as a mirror image of his younger self. The mirroring effect is in the minimalist mise-en-scene  —  the two subjects sit facing each other on two exactly similar boxes which are placed on either side of the clock, they speak to each other and mirror each other’s actions, such as, shaking hands and crossing each other. Finally, the living one has to take his place in a scene that is pre-recorded, unchanging, and already set in time.

Covell: "Yes, Dad had Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  Our mother is still alive.  She is very active, ornery as always."

Image: "What do you think when you look at me?"
Covell: "...and am I happy? Every time you ask me that I am tempted to say, “Yes,” but I am careful because these are not happy times…" (At this point, the image gets up, Covell mirrors the movement and they change sides.) They meet in the center…

At the same time, the spell is constantly broken as life penetrates the image through the interaction between the black-and-white projected younger image and the older living person and the questions and answers, which clearly demarcate the past and the present, the image and the real. Covell’s answers, which are refreshingly honest and improvised, change across performances while the questions remain the same. Moreover, it is the live actor who completes the performance. At one performance, Covell was still fixing the audio when his screen image entered. When Covell took his place across from his image to participate in the performance, with just a moment’s delay, the irony of who was really in control was made doubly clear.

Moreover, we know that although the image appears to be in control that control is ceded to it by the living. For instance, it is a poignantly funny moment during the performance in which the screen image interrupts the living actor’s thoughtful ruminations about his daughter and granddaughter to ask a long-winded question, if the real nature or cause of UFOs has been found. This invariably invokes laughter from the audience because it immediately dates the image. But the laughter could also come from a release of tension because the UFO question acts as a break in the mesmerizing interrogation which had come to dwell on the passing on time implicit in the question about the filmmaker’s daughter’s future. The moment animates history so visibly. While those in the present, i.e., Covell and his audience, share the laughter, the image — unaware of the laughter his question has evoked — waits for the answer in just as matter-of-fact a manner as with the previous questions, head down preparing to ask the next question by reading it off of the paper he has brought to the interview.

The clock is the third subject in Mutual Conversations: the setting that brings the past and the future together in the present. The presence of the clock stops us from identifying closely with Covell, in the narrow way sometimes called for by autobiographical work. Rather, the clock leads us to consider the larger question posed by the work, i.e., the unity of the present with the past and the future. In the meeting between the two, it is the present which remains contingent or open to change. For instance, if the performance were to be done this year, Covell would have to change the year in the title, Mutual Conversations 1979-2005 to 2006 or 2007. Even more significantly, the film/ performance could not be complete with Covell. Even if the film part of the performance were to be projected after his death or inability to perform, it would serve as a reminder of his presence, for it is written into the work itself. Ultimately, the work speaks to the truth that our collective history has no final ending even if our individual lives are finite and mortal. It asks its audience, at a collective level, to confront mortality soberly, without exhilaration or terror, with each asking the question, how did I live in my particular time?

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Every photograph, Benjamin suggested, was a statement made for the future by the subjects who know that the photo would survive them.[12] [open notes in new window] In turn, the photograph reminds us of the contingency of our own present moment because while what we see is the photographed past, we see it from a time which for the subjects of the photograph is the future.[13] To think dialectically and historically is exactly this: to pull the present out from the past and the future and see it as a moment of action and examination. Kracauer made precisely this connection in his comment that history resembled photography because it was, among other things, “a means of alienation.”[14] Benjamin saw cinema as a further advancement over the still photo because it could show movement in time and space, making it possible to

“permeate real time, bring its image in our grasp, and isolate it in precise fragments which could be recombined."[15]

Both Kracauer and Benjamin were preoccupied by death and how the photographic and cinematic image allows us to speak, Eduardo Cadava suggests, about “our death before our death” announcing “our absence foreshadowing a time when all that will be left of us will be our image.”[16] Perhaps, this is the reason why Covell’s daughter, now about the same age as when Covell recorded the film, cried when she saw the film/ performance. In between the permanently unchanging image of her father in his youth and his changing older self in person lay the reminder that there will be a time when she will not have him, only his image.

Benjamin’s preoccupation with death should certainly not be startling — it could not be otherwise for a Jewish communist living under the Third Reich. Describing the impulse behind keeping a diary, Benjamin explained,

“From day to day, second to second, the self preserves itself, clinging to that instrument: time, the instrument that it was supposed to play.”[17]

In recognizing time as an instrument that the self was supposed to play, Benjamin spoke profoundly as a Marxist amidst the impending crisis of fascism. Accepting modernity’s secularization of time as linear and not driven by some preordained flow of fate or destiny he, along with Marx, placed in human hands the ability to act and change the force of history. In other words, he was claiming, loosely paraphrasing Marx, that we make history but not in circumstances of our making.[18]

Bertolt Brecht also had a fundamental concern to show this dialectical understanding of time — that between the objective time of the clock which moves forward relentlessly and subjective time which is open to human action and intervention. One of the goals of Brechtian experiments in epic theater was to put quotation marks around the notion “real.” But in retrospective contrast to postmodernists, Brecht's intent was not to challenge the existence of the real. Rather, he wanted to teach his audience to think about the real skeptically, subversively, and ironically so as to question fascist propaganda, which authoritatively presented itself as fact rather than interpretation. Consequently, Brecht advised his actors to freeze a moment in the following way:[19]

"So you should simply make the instant
Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from."

Theater for Brecht was a means to stop the flow of time so as to reflect on it, to see it with astonishment.

To show the coexistence of the past and the future in the present, as Covell does, is the exact opposite of the disunity proposed by fascism, whose mission is to eradicate history and rewrite time as an eternal present. In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell described the existential crisis of the individual in a totalitarian regime where history is constantly rewritten, photographic and print records relentlessly erased, and people disappeared without a trace.[20] In such a society of secrecy and surveillance the individual feels no control over the material world, cannot trust his/her memory. When one is living in isolation from others, the real world begins to appear to be a trick of the mind.

Mutual Conversations is a powerful work because it restores the power of the living over the image, the human over cinema. It performs the complicated relation between the cinema-image and the human presence coming out at the end of a century of cinema to claim ownership over the image. In doing so, it is both an expressive and theoretical enquiry into cinema and its relation to the real, into cinema’s preservation and erasure of the human presence, and ultimately into the enduring human quest to grasp reality through the image, to take it in one’s hands and transform it as a work of art. For me, the timeliness of this work can be best understood if contextualized in the history of cinema and capital over the last century. The work is at once both contemporary, in that it is part of recent arts practices which have combined film with the other arts, particularly performance, and primitive, in its form and effect. The entire film is Lumière-like — comprised of a single shot, with a static camera, and lasts the length of the film reel. And in its effect it brings back the magic of early cinema’s uncanny capture of the image of a person.

Mutual Conversations returns us to the beginning of the last century when cinematic time was jostling with the real time of theater. Virilio has shown that film movements of early cinema, including montage, narrative ellipses, surrealist and futuristic experiments, were all concerned with establishing the independence of cinematic time and thus served as training grounds in industrial warfare where reality could be changed as if in a movie. The same argument has been made in relation to video games as a training ground for a generation to be recruited to fight the technological wars of the 21st century, where the target appears as a line in vision. In returning cinematic time back to the real time of the clock, akin to the earliest Lumière actualities, Covell’s film/ performance goes back to the birth of cinema, when cinematic time still resembled the real time of theater. However, the return is not in the nature of a nostalgia trip or an aestheticized fetish of early film form but a means of estrangement. By bringing in an early moment from film history the work makes us look anew at what has since passed.

Covell’s live performance, without which the filmed one would be incomplete, restores the aura (as defined by Benjamin — unique existence in time and space) of the uniquely human aura offered by theatrical performance (not the cult of the star as market commodity). The cinema image, Benjamin claimed, separated the reflection of the actor and placed it before the public, the consumers in the market, as an endlessly repeatable, saleable commodity. Cinema responded to this shriveling of the aura of the actor by creating the cult of the star, the “phony spell of a commodity.”[21] Unlike film, which cans an actor’s performance for all times, Mutual Conversations unites the film image with the real to show at once both the autonomy of cinematic time and also its inability to stop the forward movement of real time. It shows us that the past is not “merely an imaginary back-projection of the present” —  Terry Eagleton’s elegant summary of postmodern thinking that reality is only discursive — but reminds us that "even if the past does not exist, its effects, most certainly, do.” (51) It is this interaction between theater and film, the non-sensory image and the sensory living person, the unchanging eternally youthful image and the aging human body that can teach us, gently in the manner of art, about the violence of contemplating ourselves, others, and our world as merely an image.

In war, the reduction of distance between the image and the real, between the generals in their war rooms and the destruction of life on the battlefield is brutal and irrevocable. While the generals can oversee the war from a distance, as Tommy Franks did the war in Iraq from Florida, its consequences are borne on the ground, and for all of the technological prowess of the U.S. in comparison with the Iraqis war cannot be won on the strength of technology alone.  While the weapons of stealth and surveillance can help against a conventional combatant they fail in front of guerilla tactics.

In the end, we are left with the clear-thinking grief of Michael Berg’s indictment whose son, Nicholas Berg, was beheaded in Iraq and that beheading was publicized worldwide on video:

"I am sure that the one who wielded the knife felt Nick’s breath on his hand and knew that he had a real human being there. I am sure that the others looked into my son’s eyes and got at least a glimmer of what the rest of the world sees. And I am sure that these murderers, for just a brief moment, did not like what they were doing."

"George Bush never looked into my son’s eyes. George Bush doesn’t know my son, and he is the worse for it. George Bush, though a father himself, cannot feel my pain, or that of my family, or of the world that grieves for Nick, because he is a policymaker, and he doesn’t have to bear the consequences of his acts. George Bush can see neither the heart of Nick nor that of the American people, let alone of the Iraqi people his policies are killing daily." [22]

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