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New Thoughts on Old Things

By Shumon Basar

1. Introduction

I've just begun Richard Brody's hefty Jean-Luc Godard biography. Early on in the first chapter, Brody reminds us of something the young 19 year old cineaste wrote in one of his first vituperations on film: "At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought."

In retrospect, this becomes a kind of manifesto of Godard's long, episodic and tumultuous output. His epic Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-98) perhaps reveals this relationship between thinking and film more explicitly than anything else. But it's also there from the start. The presence of philosopher Bruce Parain in Vivre sa Vie (1962) attests to Godard's desire to "try to film a thought in action". Cinema, Godard maintained, altered the way we thought in the 20th century, and in turn, the 20th century shaped how we thought about cinema.

I'm here to construct a 'tour' for the enjoyment - or bewilderment - of you, the future viewers and readers. As I do so, I'm thinking about thinking and what it means to think today, while I manoeuvre through the Luxonline site.

Some of you may have noticed that there has been a resurgence in storytelling and fiction in contemporary art, where both words and images are put into play. A generation of artists - many born in the early to late 70s - are evidence of new trajectories of thought powered by search engines like Google, and, especially, Google Images. Associations between things alike and unalike can be summoned up in an instant; our ignorance about a subject can be quashed by the press of a button. The depth and shallowness of the web increasingly mirrors our own knowledge databases.

That's what the internet is and what it does to us: we input something precise to look for and are thrown a promiscuous list or index or matrix of possible matches. Part of the impulse behind mechanization is that we create machines that do things on our behalf. The internet stores everything we think we might want to know on behalf of us. Search engines use inscrutable mathematics to bear the resemblance of qualitative associative thinking. In the 21st century, we have now outsourced not only our amnesia to search engines, but also in return, the visual manner in which search engines display information advances how it is we now think.

If, then, at the cinema "we do not think, we are thought", what are we when we are on Safari or Mozilla or Explorer? And, even further, what are we when we are watching film online, not in the shielded preserve of Siegfried Kracauer's darkened cinema, but in the continuum of the rest of the world around us?

Allow me invoke Godard once more, who in 1966 wrote, "Basically what I am doing is making the spectator share the arbitrary nature of my choices, and the quest for general rules that might justify a particular choice…I watch myself filming and you hear me thinking aloud."

So, with these notions in mind, I rummaged through Luxonline, driven by a desire to re-know what I already thought I knew which often leads to new things I don't know about. This is the aleatoric beauty of a digital archive: it bears the diagram of an imagination you can begin to possess. The result? New thoughts on old things.

2. I Love You

[1] Sarah Miles I Love You (1990)

Growing up in the north of England in the late 80s and early 90s as a frustrated and misunderstood teenager, BBC2's The Late Show was, for me, a series of treasured little broadcasts from an indiscernible place where artsy people took things very seriously. For a while, they showed specially commissioned one-minute long films, interspersed throughout the show, like neurological blips, or adverts with nothing to sell. Sarah Miles' I Love You was joyously and lovingly scorched into my memory from the moment the artist came on the screen. Erotically charged, she is a forlorn, doomed bunny-girl wandering the forest. I haven't seen this for about 18 years, until now, and the way Sarah Miles mouths the words 'I L-O-V-E Y-O-U' at the end reminds me why I've never forgotten her. And never will.

3. Family Odyssey

[2] Sarah Miles Family Odyssey (2002)

PJ Harvey was one of my poster-girls of the mid-90s. She started out as a Captain Beefheart inspired wailing banshee of a woman, with a furious ability to switch from noise to nothingness. Over the years, Harvey has transformed her image several times, mirroring her music, as it oscillates from pop to starker rock splutter. Here she is in Sarah Miles film, singing a version of the Three Degrees When Will I See You Again. In the background, two Japanese girls float across the West Country (home to both Miles and Harvey). The girls are vessels of homelessness and displacement. I like this invocation, from Julia Kristeva, which you'll see included in the notes to the film "We are all extraterrestrials suffering for want of home and love." We are Other. We are others. We do not exist without being thought by others.

5. Hoi Polloi

[4] Andrew Kotting Hoi Polloi (1990)

This was also part of the Late Show's 'One Minute TV', and it's interesting to see how Kotting, whom many will know for much longer, languorous films, dealt with micro-duration. There are some familiar themes from his feature films: the hidden epicness of Britain's landscapes; near mythic roles played by everyday people; quotidian time versus universal time. An old hoary voice contrasts with the newness of a baby, a hundred years separating them. Hoi Polloi's images flicker like sentimental freckles on the screen.

6. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen

[5] Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen Riddle of the Sphinx (1977)

Mulvey was, of course, one of Godard's most precise critics through the 'difficult' 70s, when he gave up feature film-making, and turned to TV. This classic film-essay by Mulvey and Wollen chimes with some of the prevalent intellectual themes of that time: gender, representation, and the politics of the image. The direct-address used in the film is part lecture theatre and part TV presenter. I admire it for its capacity to think through urgent concepts and of finding a form of thinking-film. It has lost none of its impact today.

7. Key

[6] Peter Gidal Key' (1968)

Many years back, I bought the catalogue from the 1979 Hayward Gallery exhibition Film as Form. It was my introduction to the trajectories of experimental, structuralist and materialist film, arcing back to pioneering work from the 20s and 30s. Peter Gidal's work - such as Key here - and those of his contemporaries alerted me to the 'itness' of film. That is, the anti-illusionism hidden under cinema's foundational illusionism. Key seems to me to be one of those experiments that, when seen together with others from its generation, reveal the very essential grammar of what film is in all its self-announced reality. The zoom out (made infamous in Michael Snow's Wavelength), utilised here, is a storyline that takes us from one form of abstraction to another that is a little less abstract (the image of a face). Gidal thinks about film and delivers this thinking in a form that, rightfully, is ineffable and vocalised by itself only.

8. Alone

[7] Steve Dwoskin Alone (1963)

There's something so undeniably transportative about this. Maybe it is the jittery black and white, or the setting (a double bed in a room); maybe it is the look of low level ennui by the female protagonist. Nothing much happens And this nothingness quietly surges, as the ominous soundtrack signifies something impending, something that might allow her to exit her boredom. The usual expectations of narrative (a beginning, middle and end) are thwarted. We watch her think, we watch her pick her nose, we imagine what she thinks while she is picking her nose. If this were a porn film, you know what would be the cure to this pervading sense of aloneness. As it is, we are left hanging, without denouement. We have to think the ending ourselves.

9. Desert Rose

[8] Cordelia Swann Desert Rose (1996)

"For part of my childhood, to recuperate from tuberculosis, I was taken to live in the idyllic mountains of northern Nevada, where the occasional nuclear cloud drifted north from the Test Site, sixty miles from the city of Las Vegas." So recalls Cordelia Swann. Her black and white tribute to Las Vegas' melancholic, radiated backdrop is beautiful for all that it does away with. All the close ups of shimmering flicking neon remind you of a Vegas from the 50s, before it went 'mega', and brash, and all Celine Dion. But there's also something else about the monochrome beyond nostalgia. The typical tourist back then would also come to witness the spectacular clouds of nuclear explosion taking place in the Nevada deserts. Cold War anxieties packaged as wholesome American mass-culture. War is the progenitor of global economies and technological developments that end up structuring the benign set design of our everyday lives. Desert Rose harks back to a more innocent - and simultaneously darker - time where the capacity of our mutual annihilation was both under and overestimated.

Shumon Basar is a co-founder of the London based curatorial/design group Newbetter, who, since 2002, have worked on a number of international exhibitions (such as Can Buildings Curate) and collaborations with artists, film-makers and urbanists. He is co-founder of the multi-disciplinary collective, sexymachinery, who make magazines, performances and exhibitions.

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