"With each project I find myself reimagining what cinema might be": An Interview with Zoe Beloff

"With each project I find myself reimagining what cinema might be": An Interview with Zoe Beloff

Jussi Parikka

Jussi Parikka interviews artist Zoe Beloff about her relationship to the emerging set of interdisciplinary theories and methodologies known as media archaeology. In way of response, Beloff discusses some past works, including: Lost (1995), Shadow Land (2000), Claire and Don in Slumberland (2002), Charming Augustine (2005), The Somnambulists (2008), and The Dream Films (2009).

Scottish born and New York placed artist Zoe Beloff is one of the leading names in “media archaeological art” that reimagines and creatively remixes narrative and technological elements and themes from new and old media into fresh assemblages. Beloff is internationally recognized for a range of her works, which have been exhibited at venues that include: the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Freud Dream Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, and the 2009 Athens Biennale. Her work has also been screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Beloff’s projects have been supported by several grants and fellowships, including, in 2003, the Guggenheim Fellowship. Her projects that work through cinematic and media-cultural ideas question the novelty of digital technologies and rethink histories of visual culture in non-linear ways.

This conversation between Zoe Beloff and media theorist Jussi Parikka took place in March 2011 and was planned to elaborate Beloff’s artistic methods, especially in relation to the theoretical discussions in media archaeology. Media archaeology is an emerging set of interdisciplinary theories and methodologies that address media history in new, often unconventional ways - both looking for elements of repetition as well as variation in the past. Media archaeology wants to understand new and emerging media cultures through the past. As such, media archaeology has been elaborated by scholars such as Erkki Huhtamo, Siegfried Zielinski, Thomas Elsaesser and Wolfgang Ernst, but likewise the work of visual culture and media writers such as Tom Gunning, Anne Friedberg, Lev Manovich, William Uricchio, Friedrich Kittler and for instance Jonathan Crary has been essential to the birth of this disciplinary – and artistic – field. In addition to theories, media archaeology is executed through concrete art works – such as Beloff’s.


Jussi Parikka: Your work has extensively dealt with 19th century pre-cinematic media cultures, but in a manner that does not deal with such technologies only as past, forgotten inventions, but as something resurrected. One could characterize your work through hybridity of old and new media. Would you consider yourself as a media archaeological artist, and could you tell us a bit more about your artistic approach to old media?

Zoe Beloff: Yes, I do consider myself a media archaeological artist, but I might put the word “artist” first; though, when I began my investigations in the mid-1990s, I had not heard the term media archaeology. From a theoretical perspective, I was most inspired by two books, Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer and the Wireless Imagination edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. These books, along with my interest in the birth of cinema and nineteenth century stereo photography, really inspired me to think about our relationship with media technology. It is this complex relationship between perception, mental imagery, and the apparatus that is the focus of my work.

Another key event for me in terms of my “media archaeological” interests was attending an evening at the American Museum of the Moving Image where collectors were demonstrating their primitive hand cranked projectors. These apparatuses are very different from modern projectors. Light spills out everywhere. They are jerky. The earliest ones don’t even have a mechanism for a take-up reel. I started to think about how an audience a hundred years ago experienced movies very differently than we do today. Even when we watch an early film, it is a very different experience to that of an audience member who experienced them first hand. For example projectionists in the early 1900s really performed the movies. They would vary speed of the films according to what they saw on the screen or they might project the same short film over and over as a loop till people got bored and they moved on to another one.

Through such examples and events, I began to realize that the apparatus is always a part of the storytelling process - part of the experience of understanding media - whether people are aware of it or not. I had the idea that, to conjure up the past, it was not enough just to work with historical imagery or archival footage; one must think also about projection apparatuses of an earlier era. Soon afterwards I created a short projection performance called Lost (1995). I worked with a stereoscopic slide projector, a toy hand cranked 16mm projector, and a hand cranked phonograph. I took 3D slides of very old and dusty stores in my neighborhood (since then they have all gone out of business) and projected fragments of 16mm film into them in such a way that ghostly figures from the past seemed to inhabit the shop windows. The film fragments came from Edison films, an Émile Cohl animation, and a primitive stag film. The whole performance with the 78rpm records skipping and the film moving forward and back, jumping in the gate was incredibly precarious. I imagined that somehow these dusty old shop windows might contain or reflect back the memories of those who had passed by over many decades. I thought that, by using this junk shop assortment of old apparatuses, I could suggest this fragile and virtual space of memory. I wanted to foreground the nineteenth century idea that machines of mechanical reproduction are really “time machines”: cinema - a time machine of movement - frame by frame awakening forgotten fantasies, stereo photography bringing about the artificial reconstruction of space, and the phonograph resurrecting the voices of the dead.

I was using a variety of media technologies from different eras, 1920s through the 1950s, that people had in their homes. In a way one could think of these apparatuses from different time periods as analogous to the imagery I was conjuring up - contained layers of time superimposed over each, memories from different eras.

But despite my interest in the apparatus and the technological as a component of media culture, it’s important to note that I’m - as I said - I’m an artist first and not a historian. So when thinking about what technology I want to use, I always start with the story and think about what might be the most expressive way to convey my ideas rather than trying to be literally accurate in a strictly historical sense. With each project, I find myself reimagining what cinema might be. For example, I discovered the book Shadow Land: or, Light from the Other Side - the autobiography of English spiritualist medium Elizabeth d’Esperance - at the same time I stumbled upon a 16mm 3D Bolex motion picture camera on Ebay. Even though the 3D Bolex was invented in the early 1950s, it seemed to me to be the perfect apparatus to make a film of her autobiography. I was particularly struck by the fact that she wrote the book in 1897 at the moment cinema was born. I started to think of the full body apparitions that she apparently conjured up during her séances as proto-cinematic figures. But there was one key difference: these phantom figures appeared to cross over into the space of the sitters and move among them. I wanted to find a visual equivalent to this breaking of the boundary between spectator and image. By projecting black and white 3D film I was able to give the impression of phantom figures crossing over into the space of the audience. Of course the nineteenth century was a very stereoscopic century; photographs were most commonly viewed in stereoscopic viewers, so a 3D camera seemed appropriate - even this camera, which was invented almost sixty years later.

When I made Shadow Land (2000) and Charming Augustine (2005), I wanted to find a way to de-familiarize cinema, to make the present day audience feel like they were seeing film for the first time. Because of the technology of the stereo Bolex projection lens, I have to use a silver screen, and the projector has to be in the space of the audience rather than in the projection booth. The image itself has a vertical aspect ratio, so viewers see a spectral black and white 3D image that is very different from the moving images we are used to. In a sense they do become like the scientists of the nineteenth century crowded around their experimental projection apparatus. Like the participants of a séance they know what they are seeing is an illusion, yet they perceive three-dimensional phantom figures anyway, such is the suspension of disbelief.

JP: In a way, you are then tactically short-circuiting components across different media-cultural epochs. In addition, your method has extended towards digital technologies and combined them with themes that address the 19th century. Does that work - routing of media cultural topics through the old - also work as a critique of the new, such as the digital?

ZB:Indeed, I have also worked with digital technology to conjure up the 19th century, which is, of course, absurdly anachronistic. Beyond began as a web serial in 1995. I used a webcam to create short movies in which I travelled into the past and explored the relationships between technology and the unconscious from the 1850s to the beginning of World War II. Here I very consciously wanted to use an early technology of our era, that is the tiny black and white webcam, to make connections between our entry into the realm of the digital and the birth of mechanical media in 19th century. I felt we could learn from the incredibly imaginative outpouring of ideas, ranging from the philosophical to the crazy and poetic, that came hand in hand with these inventions. At the same time, I wanted to show that, in many ways, what was being hyped by corporations as the latest thing in the digital domain was no more than a reworking of 19th century technologies, like the panorama or the zoetrope. So I also think of it as very much a critique of progress in the way that Walter Benjamin discussed.

Just because a technology is new I don’t think it is better; digital cameras aren’t, per se, better than glass plate photography. It is just a different kind of apparatus that does different things. At the same time, I don’t fetishize the past or historical objects. I am interested in creating some kind of dialog with the past to help us think through our relationship with media today.

JP: In various art projects, you have consistently engaged not only with resurrecting past media but also been aware of the problematic gender contexts of early media cultures. The female body itself has functioned as a “medium” in various meanings of the term: mediating between the immaterial and material regimes, as an index of the new mediatic worlds, as well as media in the sense of the excluded middle - the media that is not paid attention to despite its crucial role as the material basis for communication. Would you say that you are interested in such expansions of the notion of the medium, or what function does this idea of addressing human, female bodies as media serve?

ZB: In his novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon described a character as a “medium, an interface between worlds.” He meant the word as designating a spirit medium but also, in my opinion, in relationship to new technologies that were changing the nature of the world during the Second World War. I quoted this line in Beyond. I thought of myself as a medium between the world of illusion that the viewer experienced and the underworld of the computer that was in process of learning how to program.

My father was a parapsychologist, and so I was pretty familiar with the paranormal; although, much to his disappointment, I personally had no extrasensory talents. I wish I could take “thought photographs” but I can’t. At the same time, I do think of myself as an interface, in a sense, between past and present - real and imaginary.

Beyond included a number of episodes of séances in which apparitions appeared. Today there are a lot of media theorists who have been doing research in this area, but, at the time, I think Tom Gunning was the only person I could find who was writing about the relationship between early media and mediumship; the medium as a kind of camera or projector dispensing “images from her orifices.” As I have said, I am interested in exploring the relationship between desire, the unconscious, and the moving image. I was interested in spirit mediums as “thought projectors,” who created an environment where people believed they saw moving images around them. Such was the power of suggestion or the suspension of disbelief, which still holds us in its sway every time we see a movie. To me, this is just as valid a form of image making as a machine that literally projects an image.

I think that the history of technology often only considers the physical apparatus not the desires, or the social world, that lead to its creation. Charming Augustine addressed that very question. It is about a young woman whose performance of hysterical symptoms fascinated the medical profession of Paris in the 1870s. The doctors and the technical staff of the Salpêtrière worked very hard to document these performances through transcripts of what she said in states of delirium and through photographs of her hysterical attacks. I think that this desire to capture both image and sound led to the development not just of film, but of narrative cinema: melodrama. In this way I think of the technical development of sound cinema and the production of melodrama and as growing out of a collaboration between the women patients, the doctors, and the technologists like the photographers Paul Régnard and Albert Londe. Too often it is simply the technologists who go down in the history books not those who created the desire for the apparatus, the reason for its existence. In this sense Elizabeth d’Esperance and Augustine were also important to the invention of the moving image. It was women like them who opened up a space of desire, of possibility that the moving image apparatus could come into existence.

JP: What strikes me as interesting about your work (from The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A to The Somnambulists and too, of course, your recent interest in the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society) is the entwining of psychoanalytic themes with media/cinema.

Your way of addressing mediatic dream worlds seems to take place in this dual articulation between sciences of the mind and the popular media culture. Can we think of media, or even more specifically the cinematic, as one analytical, even archaeological, tool to investigate the mind and its aberrations?

ZB: I think you are asking if we can think of cinema as a psychoanalytic tool to investigate the unconscious, an interesting question.

Of course Freud himself had no interest in film. He turned away from the visual, and the image as a tool, to investigate the mind that had been used extensively in clinics such as the Salpêtrière, which he visited in the 1890s. Instead, he started to listen. The word and the narrative were important to Freud.(As an aside I’ve always liked the story that Charcot refused to give credence to the unconscious because it was invisible, and he couldn’t bear that there was something about a patient that you couldn’t see.) However, Freud’s fascination with narrative brings him back into the world of cinema from another perspective. And psychoanalysis has been a tool to analyze narrative cinema for quite a long time now, with Slavoj Žižek being perhaps its most visible proponent today.

From the early 1920s, at least, artists and theorists have been interested in the connection between cinema and the dream state, with both in reference to the viewing situation of the darkened theatre and to films themselves. Surrealist cinema and avant-garde filmmakers were interested in making films that were in some sense analogous to the dream. And after all Hollywood used to be known as the “Dream Factory.”

I too, think of moving images as a way to conjure up hallucinatory states. In The Somnambulists (2008), I was interested less in referencing cinema than creating a virtual theatre to convey the idea of a “theatre of the mind.” I created an installation with small virtual 3D figures moving around inside an actual miniature theatre made of wood. The psychologist Pierre Janet (on whose case histories the project is based) wrote about how his hysterical patients would go into a state of delirium where they would talk to people only they could see. They saw, before them, fantastic figures right there in the room. So virtual theatre seemed like an interesting way to embody their visions. Indeed, popular theatre with its stock of characters seemed to be the something that they unconsciously drew to embody their fears.

In my exhibition Dreamland: the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle 1926-1972 I do explore the idea of cinema as a psychoanalytical tool in a most literal fashion. Viewers are informed that the Society held an annual competition in which members were invited to re-enact their dreams on film and analyze them. I presented ten of these dream films, which illuminate the hopes, fears and fantasies of working people from the neighborhood ranging from immigrant Jews and Italians to young gay men exploring their sexuality in the 1960s. I imagined that they might have been inspired to make these films not only by the excitement around amateur movie making that began in the 1920s with the introduction of 16mm film but also by the Society’s very literal reading of passages from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams - specifically, where Freud discusses the idea that in dreams, wish fulfillment is often hard to discern because it is disguised by various procedures including the condensation and displacement of ideas and the dramatization of thoughts and desires in the form of “mental pictures.” Thus, when we dream we do not experience a wish as an abstract, intangible concept; instead, we find ourselves protagonists in a fully formed virtual world complete with characters we may or may not recognize from our waking life, caught up in strange and often suspenseful situations.

However, what I was really interested was not this very literal idea of creating re-enactments of one’s dreams on film; rather, it was the idea of actual home movies as psychoanalytic objects, very much the way Freud thought of jokes or slips of the tongue - as objects that reveal much more than their makers were consciously aware of. I created The Dream Films (2009) with home movies that I collected over many years; I just edited them and added the titles. I simply wanted to suggest that all home movies, in their immediacy and spontaneity, tell us someone about the filmmaker’s inner life, whether he or she was aware of it or not.

JP: A lot of the so called media archaeological art – including yours – has focused on the 19th century and early 20th century cultures and technological apparatuses, from the visual to the sonic (Edison machines for instance). But you are also interested in post-World War II themes. Could you elaborate a bit more about this interest in human motion and management, mental illness, and also labor?

ZB: The project I’m working on right now is an installation called The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff. It will include video, film, drawings and objects. It began with an invitation from curator Edwin Carels to make a work for the MuHKA Museum in Antwerp.

A collection of artifacts from the history of cinema called the Vrieling collection was donated to the museum a few years ago and Edwin has asked three artists to create work that incorporates and creates a dialog with aspects of the collection. I think perhaps he imagined I would work with magic lanterns and early cinema object, but instead I decided to confront what I think many would consider the least glamorous objects, the cameras and projectors that were used to create instructional films in the mid 20th century.

Central to my project are two film from 1950’s, Motion Studies Application and Folie à Deux both of which were part of a collection of 16mm films that were thrown out by Baurch College, a business College here in New York. I took 60 films, all the ones concerning workplace management and psychological disorders, and spent many happy hours screening all of them.

Though I don’t usually begin this way, I started work on the project in a more theoretical fashion by doing a lecture/screening with these films in conjunction with Milgram’s famous Obedience (1962). I talked about cinema and psychosocial control, but - rather, once again - I was thinking back to cinema’s origins in motion studies in the 1880s and 1890s. Marey was paid by the French government to figure out the most efficient method for soldiers to march, while his protégé, Albert Londe, analyzed the gait of hysterical patients. From the beginning, the productive body promoted by Taylorism was always shadowed by its double, the body riven by psychic breakdown. By mid-century, this was manifest in the instructional films that I found: Motion Studies Application, which was about how to work more efficiently on the assembly line, and Folie à Deux, which instructed the viewer how to recognize a particular mental disorder. Here the unproductive patients, confined to the asylum, understand with paranoid lucidity that the institution is everywhere, monitoring them always. I was interested in Milgram’s film as a conscious critique of these earlier industrial films, co-opting their form only to subvert them and reveal their ideological underpinnings.

I’m working on the installation now. It has taken a more poetic turn, and I hope will go deeper into the subject than I was able to do in a short lecture. I am not working with the Obedience in part because I don’t feel I have anything to add to it. Instead I created my own industrial film that I am putting into dialog with aspects of Motion Studies Application and Folie à Deux in a three-channel work. Now I am working on a series of drawings that are formally inspired by workplace posters. Again, as in all my projects, I am interested in our mental relation with the technologies of the moving image. Here I am drawing on the work of the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the pioneering “industrial engineers,” who believed that the worker could use the tools of cinema to change his work methods and so become more productive. Interestingly, at the same time the writing of Walter Benjamin, in a completely different way, argued that our relation with the technology of the moving image could change us and our perspective on the world. I think of them both as utopians. And I want to comment on these utopias by exploring the relationship between the body, the mind, and objects in movement.

JP: In this work-in-progress you mentioned finding and rescuing dozens of films from the business school collections. In general, the use of archives in artistic – and media archaeological – methods is an interesting theme. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

ZB: Using archives is a natural part of my practice. Occasionally, I use archives as any historian would, to look for specific historical images. For example, when working on The Somnambulists, I wanted to find films shot by doctors of their hysterical patients. However, in many ways I much prefer stumbling on films and being surprised by them. For ten years, from around 1992 to 2002, I went to the flea market every Sunday and bought every home movie that I could find. I had no idea what would be on the rolls of film. Eventually, many of them found their way into my projects, most particularly the Coney Island dream films.

Similarly, I just heard by chance that Baruch College was throwing out their 16mm films and I could get whatever I wanted as long as I showed up before noon with a cardboard box. These found films often push me in new directions, make me think in new ways.

JP: So its not just about using traditional archives and collections but “found footage” as well, to capture the element of randomness - surprise - as you mention?

ZB: I have strong feelings on the subject of found footage, but I’ll try and be brief.

When I work with film that I did not shoot myself, I think of myself as creating a dialog with the past. I don’t see these films as simply illustrations, the way they are used in TV documentaries. Nor do I want to just cut them up for some kind of cool montage effect. Instead, as I said, I want to create a dialog, to get under their skin, to reveal new aspects of the images that had perhaps remained hidden, to make them speak again but differently, to give them a new voice.

To this end, I prefer to work with films that are themselves abandoned, orphaned, or incomplete - home movies that have lost their families, and industrial films that are considered obsolete and relegated to the scrap heap. I don’t want to work with a film that was made by a director who had his or her own clear vision or voice. That is why I avoid, for example, Hollywood films. They are art too, not just “footage.” That is, in part, why I showed Milgram’s Obedience, but I did not cut it up or incorporate it into my own project. It is his work, not mine. I have done a number of projects - for example, the performance Claire and Don in Slumberland (2002) - where I begin the presentation with films that I did not make, but I show the works in their entirety. I just want to put them in conjunction with my own thinking, not ingest it or take credit for them.


Zoe Beloff’s web page: http://www.zoebeloff.com

Jussi Parikka’s web page and blog: http://jussiparikka.net