by Seth Feldman
Dziga Vertov has always had trouble remaining an historical figure. Having died in 1954, he became a participant in: Soviet cultural politics of the Khrushchev era; the founding of cinéma vérité; the American experimental cinema; Godard’s Groupe Dziga Vertov; and, more recently, Lev Manovich’s illustration of the language of new media. The DVDs of his signature work, The Man With the Movie Camera, have contributed to a revival of Soviet Constructivist music as at least two different versions of a soundtrack have attempted to counterpoint the silent images. In a recent unpublished paper, Vlada Petric has suggested that there is a third, definitive, soundtrack waiting to be recorded. Perry Bard, for her Internet project, The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake (http://dziga.perrybard.net/) has commissioned yet another neo-constructivist score from the composer Steven Baun.
It is Perry Bard’s work that I would like to discuss as a demonstration of how and why Vertov continues to be so productive. My thesis is that Vertov’s writing and The Man With the Movie Camera in particular are less historical texts than they are generative forces or perhaps, more accurately, generative grammars for the pure language of cinema that Vertov envisioned.
Bard herself is a Canadian artist who spends much of her time in Britain and New York. Her work includes public art, installations and video. In 1999, she collaborated with the Bulgarian artist, Boyan Dobrav on a public art project entitled Pulse (http://perrybard.net/portfolio.html). In it, they re-shot six minutes of The Man With the Movie Camera to “create a visual essay where information age images of wiring and construction mingle with retro sounds of music boxes and industrial noise.” [open endnotes in new window] A “performative aspect” (a person with a movie camera) was shot in New York and superimposed over the Bulgarian footage. In the finished work, this was shown on one of two monitors, the second of which was a live feed from the street on which the footage was originally shot.
In 2006, Bard proposed The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake as a much expanded exercise in remaking Vertov’s film. Simply put, the idea was to design a website on which contributors could upload individual shots corresponding to those in Vertov’s original work. The site would also provide an opportunity to screen the remake in tandem with the original.
The idea was funded as a project for the BBC’s Bigger Screen Initiative, whose aim it is to place large digital screens in British town squares. This, in itself is an initiative worth noting in that it has attempted to reinvent television as a communal event. In so doing, it replaces (even if somewhat marginally) the industrial notion of television as a commodity to be owned by the individual within the larger project of owning—and thus commodifying—individuality. Collective television, as for instance practiced in villages in India, not only associates the medium with collectivity but also with the utilitarian purpose of serving that collective (in this case, as an educational and informational tool). Watching television this way exposes its social utility, lack thereof or potential for same.
The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake premiered (as 2008: Man With a Movie Camera) at the Urban Screens Festival in Manchester on October 11, 2007 and has since been shown in public spaces and galleries in Britain, Ireland, China, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States, including a four screen version in Seattle. Bard has also given workshops on how to contribute to the project. She has been told that the work was denied a prize at the Moscow International Film Festival because the jury could not decide whether or not they were watching a film.
In all of these instances, the acknowledgement of the democratizing power of communal viewing would not have surprised Vertov—just as the problems in Moscow would have seemed all too familiar. Communal viewing is part of Vertov’s cinema language—as indeed no cinema language could be complete without taking exhibition into account. This is true in a literal sense. The Kinopravda compilation reel that Jay Leyda produced for the Museum of Modern Art ends with a sequence taken from Kinopravda No. 9 that shows a portable generator and projector pulling into a public square, a sheet being thrown across overhead wires and a crowd gathering. There’s even a title card giving the contact information for ordering one of these open air screenings. The Man With the Movie Camera is framed with the audience watching The Man With the Movie Camera, just as Vertov’s next film Enthusiasm: Simfonia Donbassa, begins with a radio listener choosing to hear the soundtrack of the film, Enthusiasm. That soundtrack consists of the destruction of the soundtrack our listener rejected—church music—a process then visualized in the film’s first sequence.
Bard offers both the communal viewing experience and a similar counterpoint in her public screenings of The Man With the Movie Camera remake. The viewer sees two concurrent sets of images on a single screen: Vertov’s original film and the remake of it that has been constructed on the Internet. The viewer’s visual experience also includes a third set of images, i.e. comprised of a counterpoint between the first two. What we are watching then is the 1929 work, already a masterpiece of dialectical montage, in juxtaposition to a stream of images responding to it. The effect is a kind of second layer montage, somewhat akin to Roland Barthes’ second layer of semiotic meaning.
Now, were it that simple. For Bard’s remake also has its own generative grammar, corresponding to Vertov’s idea of cinema as a plan for producing cinema. For Vertov, this was a matter of industrial organization. He proposed to enlist the Soviet youth organization, the Komsomol, as scouts for armies of Kinoks who would make, edit, distribute and exhibit film in a continuous stream. Typically, Vertov sketched out his proposal on film, the film Kinoglaz. Typically as well, the film and the idea behind it were part of a far more ambitious project that was never completed.
Bard’s quotation of The Man With the Movie Camera then is also a quotation of Vertov’s definition of cinema as a plan for making cinema. It is more successful. Bard does have the benefit of the Internet, a tool that Vertov could only (and, who knows, did) dream of. The tools for the project were at her fingertips as well as in the hands of the prospective contributors. At last, to use Vertov’s hyperbole, the armies of Kinoks have been armed. Bard’s website gives them their targets, breaking down the original film into its 1,276 individual shots. Bard has created a fabulously useful online shot list cross-referenced by subject and scene—effectively underlining both Vertov’s and Manovich’s point about The Man With the Movie Camera being essentially modular. Even before the first contributor uploaded to it, Bard’s website provided a potent analytic tool for the discussion of Vertov’s original film.
The software that powers this project (written by John Weir—now open source) puts the process of uploading shots entirely in the hands of the contributor, making it, in digital parlance “crowdsourced.” Contributors choose the shots they are matching. Bard refrains from exercising any curatorial power over whether a given uploaded shot is appropriate, or whether it is placed correctly or not next to Vertov’s original. In cases where more than one image is submitted for each shot, the software displays the variants in a daily rotation. The result is a different film every day. (Although Bard has stated that before terminating the project she will do a director’s cut.).
In this way, the Internet has also made it possible for Bard to do something Vertov found quite difficult: to step back and let the process itself manufacture the work in question. Weir’s computer software, in the best constructivist sense, identifies the making of the work as the work. In this way, Weir is to Bard what Elizaveta Svilova, the editor we see in the original film, was to Vertov. Bard is left is something like the same position as Vertov when, in the opening credits of The Man With the Movie Camera, he identifies himself as the “author-supervisor” of the experiment.
Like Vertov’s original Kinoglaz plan, the website production-hub also provides its own distribution mechanism as both Vertov’s and Bard’s film cans be accessed 24/7 on the website. Bard assumes that someday the software will become obsolete and that she will wind the project down, though there are no immediate plans to do so. Until that time, The Man With the Movie Camera—Bard’s and Vertov’s—continues to grow on the website.
The result is that two of the three montages are in flux. The 1929 film is a sort of baseline or, at least, the invocation of a baseline for the project. On the other side of the screen are the multiple images that change day to day, the new images that arrive, the old ones that are not shown in any given iteration. And, of course, there is the third montage, the continually changing juxtaposition between the two sets of images.
Bard’s project makes visible the most ubiquitous outcome of exhibition, the way a work changes thanks to the way in which its audience responds. It does so in detail and on a second to second basis.
The nature of the website presentation of the work also makes possible continual access to both its entirety and its components—and of course, writing such as this article which points to both. That you are reading this in an online journal completes the process by greatly facilitating an interaction between the original and the criticism of it.
Thus, an invitation to a tentative morphology: The following is an attempt to categorize some of the ways contributors’ uploaded shots work in juxtaposition to Vertov’s original film. I would like to think that the morphology is organized around the more common uses of quotation/replication in postmodern aesthetics. In the context of Jump Cut’s own online construction and exhibition, it also provides an opportunity for another level of montage. To that end, I am including both links to the juxtaposed shots on Bard’s site and stills made from screen grabs of those juxtaposed shots.
1. Simple replication.
The ostensibly most straightforward though potentially most challenging class of uploads are those that simply attempt replication and, in so doing, inevitably extract difference. Examples include:
Scene 3, shot 44—a complicated exact replication of a chair swirling. Arseny Sergeyev of Yekaterinburg animates his chair to move in a circle in time to Vertov’s original theatre seat opening itself.
Scene 4, shot 71—a literal quote of a movie poster by Jutta Franzen (Germany)
Scene 20, shot 374—a literal recreation of the couple at the marriage bureau. The upload is signed by Zhang Tengwen of China in an untranslated ideogram.
2. Chronological juxtaposition—modern replacement for Vertov’s image:
This is an acknowledgement of the two temporal aspects of quotation: that the original is chronologically distanced from its replicant; and secondly that this chronological nature of quotation is being made apparent by an absence of that distantiation, i.e. that both are being seen simultaneously.
Scene 3, Shot 32—a modern replacement of a film reel with a mini-DV by Christoph Kolar of Vienna.
Scene 12, shot 254—a modern replacement of smokestacks with a wind farm by Craig Nugent of Dundee, Scotland.
Scene 14, shot 269—a modern replacement contrasting a woman putting a letter in a mailbox and email on computer screen by Larisa Bulatova of Yekaterinburg, Russia.
3. Quotation of movement:
The quotation of movement, in addition to being among the most popular forms of juxtaposition, also points to the kinetic nature of the medium that is, quite literally, Vertov’s signature (the word “Vertov” usually being translated as “spinning” or “whirling.”) In the larger context, this points to the use of quotation/replication as a means of drawing attention to the medium.
Scene 12, shot 242—Vertov’s cameraman climbing ladder juxtaposed to feet climbing stairs (Adrienne Marks of Kalamazoo, Michigan).
Scene 21, shot 401—Vertov’s streetcar movement by Vincentiu Garbacea of Bucharest.
Scene 53, shot 1197—Federico Passi of Melbourne provides a more precise quotation of Vertov’s streetcar movement.
Scene 13, shot 260—exact formal replication of cameraman walking through marketplace by Ryu Nakagawa of Tokyo.
Scene 13, shot 260—the same shot from camera p.o.v. by Linda Rosenthal Nathanson of Tel-Aviv.