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The Lost Cemetery Of Images.a Conversation With Carlos Casas

 

The use of archive material is a tendency which has established itself in the last few years as a common practice in audiovisual contaminations. It is an ongoing search which paves the road to countless approaches to the work, as well as involving the individuality of the artist in the reprocessing of traces and memories in an imagination which is set on the present. With Cemetery (Archive Works), inaugurated on 28 October and ongoing until 14 January at the Marsèlleria in Milan, Carlos Casas steps onto this path at its edges, balancing between visual anthropology and rethinking images as a form of trans-cultural memory.

The work of Casas – filmmaker, video artist and sound experimenter – ranges from documentaries on the furthest reaches of the Earth (Aral, Fishing in an Invisible Sea; Hunters since the Beginning of Time; Solitude at the End of the World) to pure, exploratory research of sounds and images. This materializes in the experience of the Fieldworks and of the Archive Works – projects developed at the same time as the making of the films, which Casas uses to probe field research as he continues to mix different languages.


The Fieldworks come into being in 2001, during a journey to Tierra del Fuego
for the preparation of Solitude at the End of the World, as a series of free, anti-narrative notes in which the artist takes the time to plunge his gaze into the meaning of the place, of the landscape, without drawing on the need for the definition of a complete story. Abstract fragments with an essential grammar, in which the processed ambient sound goes over the hidden connection with the image and defines it (each acoustic episode is made up of live recorded short and medium AM/FM radio waves) .

For the Archive Works, on the other hand, the approach is shifted to the opposite front; the discovery of the geography occurs through preexisting film material. Here, too, we have a physical study of the places that Casas has chosen to document occurring through the examination of the modes of analysis with which these places have been represented, used and diegetically manipulated through classic and contemporary films. The Archive Works, created between 2002 and 2010, are dreamlike inspections, maps of shared imagination, memories of the visions which have shaped the author’s gaze, preliminary sketchbooks to study language and sound solutions for films which are coming to life from other films, where the visual material is toned through an ongoing iconographic re-absorption.

The search for an igniting image, where everything is born and which holds within the tensions and archetypal expressions of the vastness of the material being used, is a constant practice in the Archive Works. It fits in perfectly with the mode of production that Casas defines in a non dissimilar manner in his documentaries. This form of survival and trans-mnemonic reorganization extensively concerns a policy of authorial research, traceable especially where it is made least evident: All my films are an image hunt, a journey to envision again, a path to enlightenment, a quest for that first image that ignites imagination, that lives inside and wants to reach out again throughout the years – for all such images that are part of ourselves and combine to form our inner life. [1]


With Cemetery, a project still in progress presented at Netmage last January
and now at Marsèlleria in its most recent, previously undisclosed version (which includes a third part undergoing further development), we follow the journey to an elephant cemetery on the border between India and Nepal, on the trace of Maharajah Joodha Shumshere. The installation complex is shaped like the remote journal of a journey which is being continually defined, conceived as a monument to memory and structured through a variety of materials which enter into a dialogue with the architectural dimension of the exhibition space, cheating it of its limiting role and opening up a range of possibilities for enjoyment which is free from environmental constraints.

There is a direct link between personal writing and collective reading which, as its reference point, calls forth the perceptive and symptomal model of iconographic survival. [2]

This implies analyzing the evolution of the forms as a set of tension processes, features of evidence and features of the unthought-of, that which remains and returns from the iconographic form itself. This indication is not incidental; it defines the composition of the images of Elephant Journey and Elephant Cave, where the stratified use of fades traces a temporal mark constantly working on the reconstruction of the present.

 

Pia Bolognesi: Let’s start by talking about the structure of Cemetery. When visiting the exhibition at Marsèlleria, you can’t help but get the sense of a journey that the images undertake with the variety of supports and equipment you have used. How did this need to go beyond the two dimensions of a single projection come into being?


Carlos Casas:
Cemetery is the mise-en-scène of a search, a chance to see this “work in progress”. Actually, it is no different than putting the preparatory sketches for a painting on show, but what I wanted to try was to transform these Archive Works into something autonomous, with their own weight and independence from the final work, the film.

As for the collocation, for the showing of an archive work nothing is more interesting than a space with an adjustable, temporary arrangement; this grants the spectator a kind of perceptive flexibility and variable attention. I was especially interested in the idea of having a space articulated on more than one floor, where I could work on different kinds of attention and also through different ways of looking at things, through different visions.

I like the fact that there are four modes of attentions and spacial arrangements in the exhibition at Marsèlleria, each one with its own distinguishing feature: it’s nice to be able to think that Elephant Cave can be experienced in an enclosed space below ground level. I also believe it is important to look at the photographic montages in a lighter context, like the top floor where they are installed.

The sound work also refers to a space which is occupied only by photography; it was necessary to use light boxes to present and crystallize the Stupa [3] as the element which marks, also for me, a beginning and an end to the search.


Elephant Journey
, the film which is rear-projected on the central floor, is a kind of meditation born from the need to experience a set of concepts on time and Buddhism through film. The scene that you see in the film is used to exemplify and represent the idea of temporal variation and simultaneous merging of time physically, poetically and esthetically. How all this can be defined within an audiovisual space: this is what was of greatest interest to me.

 

Pia Bolognesi: A very strong feature of the Archive Works is actually the relationship between matter and space. In Cemetery, the ongoing transformation and relocation of images and sounds in a new architectural system is placed side by side with a reflection on the dimension of space belonging to the image itself. What are the questions you are trying to delve into, in the relationship between space and image?

Carlos Casas: The audiovisual experience has not changed much in little more than a century, ever since image in movement exists. The spacial value of the equipment has always been a concern for me; unfortunately I have not yet been able to conduct a complete analysis of this. However, I have to mention that my work is becoming more and more site specific, meaning that the films change organically according to where I present them. In my work, there is an ongoing linguistic research on this code that we have been using for such a long time, on the actual chances of re-elaborating it organically, so no change is too rootless. In some respects, in films I look for images that require a deeper kind of attention, a different kind of gaze; I am interested in ecstatic attention, the voyage that each of us may take within him- or herself when looking at images. I am extremely fascinated by the idea of windows, of openings to a dimension out of contingent space which leads to the creation of a mental state in the audiovisual experience.

Pia Bolognesi: Moving on from the archive as a spacial concept to the representation of the images you choose, I would like to linger over the importance of the digital treatment of film material. In Cemetery, the use of stratified fades completely alters the original iconographic meaning. How do you go about processing the supports and what is the preparatory process for this specific type of intervention?

Carlos Casas: That’s an interesting question, given that the film material I manipulate becomes almost sculptural material, until it almost becomes the search for that image that the vision has suggested to me. At the beginning, I needed the archive material to bring a sensation to life: in the first works I created, I reconverted classic Russian films shot in Chukotka (Siberia) into documentaries. By altering the film editing, it seemed that the images were different. I structured them in a new way, almost creating film collages, almost following the Cornell model of re-elaboration, except that I was using the same soundtrack as the film, re-assembled and re-edited. Gradually, this work on archives became more complex, especially when I began to experiment with the structure and with overlaps in order to understand how the film’s inner structure functioned.

I started doing what I call Folded Films, meaning that I physically folded the film in order to create a kind of image origami which allowed me to see the beginning and the end in one and the same moment. These experiments gave me ideas to understand how to represent slightly more complicated concepts. From here also came the need to explore how to materialize the trails and the traces of the image, trying at the same time to understand how to express a concept as complicated as death and also making the cognitive possibilities visible – specifically, seeing the elephants’ world. All these experiments linked to vision had to lead me to a linguistic solution to represent the second part of the film, the part in which the elephant is dead, the part that I call black. It is the central part of the film, one that I imagine as a kind of fresco in which a myriad of images will overlap.

 

Pia Bolognesi: With the changes of the Folded Films, the internal time in Elephant Cave opens up and expands into a locked loop, as if you were applying a process which is typical of sound to a visual structure. Is there a specific element which led you to search for this new temporality?

Carlos Casas: As I was working with the archive material, I began to use video editing tools to elaborate sound; in effect the final result for the image is derived from the sound processing and vice versa… and it became truly interesting, because I tried to experiment with audiovisual material as if it were one, inseparable. I have to say that it’s the first time I see a result which is this synesthetic. The incredible thing about working like this is that one can truly re-elaborate time, setting a series of moments in movement once again.

A procedure I use very often is looking at films at greatly reduced speed. This allows me to give a different meaning to temporality and thus also to the image. Everything becomes new, a bit like Douglas Gordon’s work for 24 Hour Psycho, where Hitchcock’s classic film is deconstructed. Here, I use the same technique to try and capture the instant, the moment I can describe as the magic inherent to the frame – like in Elephant Cave, which is a single instant of film, re-elaborated and re-edited until this suspended time is created. As far as Elephant Journey is concerned, the procedure was turned to the expression of the concept of time in the Buddhist vision, the idea of diffuse and simultaneous time in which present and future link and become one and only. Together, they multiply and expand into a never-ending return which is at the same time the present and the future.

Pia Bolognesi: Your film re-elaborations are very different than what we are used to seeing – I’m referring to the installations based on film material – because they take on an added element which we could call pictorial: it’s as if you were setting about working on each frame with India ink. In this respect, your films seem to belong more specifically to the tradition of experimental films rather than video art.

Carlos Casas: Yes, you’re right, these new experiments are tightly linked to the underground scene, but I have to say that also experimental cinema, or at least that part of it I can connect to, has a relationship to an almost mystical vision – we could call it a Hindu-Buddhist influence. The work of Brakhage, Belson etc has always been an ecstatic vision; to me, this film will be a meeting point between these cinematic traditions and the tradition of classic documentaries, together with the adventure films of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. There is also a further way of reading the work, linked also to my wanting to collaborate with Chris Watson, an artist working at the fringe of experimentation and classic field recordings, for the soundtrack of the central part of the film.

 

Pia Bolognesi: There is a strong debate going on about the “relativity” of digital support, especially as far as the feeling of uncertainty that the artist has about it. It’s interesting to put the idea of the image’s eternity, of the temporality that you have described for us as a never-ending return in your Archive Works, in relation to this question concerning the medium.

Carlos Casas: It’s true. I’m terrified by this concept of the fragility of digital work, this quality of being eternally frangible that the archive format has. If I think about there having been about ten different formats only in my lifetime, that some of them have disappeared without leaving a trace and that others have lasted only a few years, I can’t help but ask myself – how should we archive these films? Where and how is the best way to allow them to travel through time? It’s a bit like the figure of the Voyager traveling through space in formats that, by now, are almost obsolete for us: formats we have used to communicate with our neighbors in the universe, to whom we have reserved the task of being our witnesses, that forty years later have become obsolete… this is what truly terrifies me.

Pia Bolognesi: Talking about the Archive Works, the Fieldworks have often been referred to as projects which run parallel to the making of your films. I find this simultaneous practice very interesting, especially because it expresses the need to punctuate the expression of your imagination, which appears to be set in motion by an instinctive search, through different languages. What is the focal point from which this need for multivision expands?

Carlos Casas: It’s fascinating how the Fieldworks were born from the need that the film elaborations had to break out and how, again, the Archive Works themselves constitute an escape from these elaborations. Actually, these preparatory dimensions, these works, are pure process and experiment. They give me a freedom in my practice which helps me give my production rhythm.

I like the idea that these sketches, these notes, these experiments have lives which are sometimes more stable and powerful than the films. This is a feature of the way things are at the present, of people, of audiences; it gives greater value to that which is immediate, to the sketch rather than the finished painting.

I believe this is also the result of my wanting to put everything on the table, to open up the creation process and actually let the audience into the kitchen. I really enjoy this.

However, the Archive Works are also strongly linked to the search of the imagination, to the practice of searching that belongs to the object I’m chasing. They are a voyage of discovery in the DNA of ideas, concepts and revelations. Cemetery is at the root of these visions, right where they intertwine and find one another. Where they rebuild themselves. Myths are sculptural material, just like anything else. They are rebuilt, re-elaborated, always and again.

 

Pia Bolognesi: Cemetery is a travel journal that leads to the creation of a film. Do you think that a part of the project will flow into your new documentary or will it remain the beginning of an independent study?

Carlos Casas: These intuitions are already in the film, every development, every intuition that I have worked on, that I have enacted through these works, has given me inspiration, a vision for the film. I hope – actually, I am sure – that the film will be very strongly linked to these intuitions. Right now I am still very uncertain about the third part of the film. I am just slowly beginning to see it… but I know for sure that it will lead me to a further phase of research, that I hope to be able to develop early next year

Pia Bolognesi: Your works are structured like symbiotic organisms of sound and image. Referring to the audiovisual practice you experiment with you have used the description “Film and Mortar”. What does this mean, exactly?

Carlos Casas: It was a way to explain my idea of archive work; the film I use is like sculptural material for me, “brick and mortar”, construction material. So that I may mold something new.

Pia Bolognesi: For the sound structure of Cemetery, you were inspired by the research on the communication of elephants conducted by Katharine Boynton Payne, an instrumental figure in the research on animal bioacoustics. Did you use the ultrasound traces as an element for the project of Cemetery‘s soundtrack or is there actually some sound sampling that the human ear cannot pick up on?

Carlos Casas: That’s right, this kind of research began with Kathy Payne, the first scientist to discover how elephants communicate. The study of ultrasounds and elephant communication will take up a part of the project that I still have to develop. For this part of the research I am working with Ariel Guzik, an artist who has influenced me incredibly in the last years. He is a true genius, someone who on his own has developed a way to communicate with cetaceans. Guzik has created a device which allows interaction with dolphins and whales and produces sounds to which they respond. These tools are masterpieces for me; I truly wouldn’t know how to label them: art, science-fiction art, visionary art… his work has really allowed me to understand many things. I hope I will be able to find the grants to undertake a journey with him very soon, to come up with a kind of system that will capture infrasounds and vibrations. I still have to figure out how to go about reconstructing this system spatially and tonally and in what form I should set it out. The research I will begin in January will have its starting point right here… I’ll keep you updated!

 

 

Pia Bolognesi: The relationship between sound and visual surface is an expressive constant present also in Von Archives, the label you established with the artist Nico Vascellari…

Carlos Casas: Von archives tries to release visual and sound explorations; we want to give a chance to further research on image and on sound in the merging of these two practices. In this sense, Nico’s work as well as mine is always pushed by the desire to create this symbiosis. Even though what we present is offered as a collaboration, we are very interested in artists working in this direction.

Pia Bolognesi: 2010 has been a year full of commitments. You have taken the first part of Cemetery to Netmage, developed the collaboration with Phill Niblock for Avalanche (overture), presented at Sonar in Barcelona and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels; you have inaugurated the exhibition area at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan with a site specific exhibition and a live media event for the End trilogy, which has also been shown for the first time at the Cineteca Mexicana. What are you working on at the moment and what are your projects for the future?

Carlos Casas: Avalanche was presented in a new and adapted version at E/static, the gallery in Turin which represents me. We are presenting the film in two sessions, on 27 November and 4 December in this installation area that’s out of the traditional cinema circuit, during the Torino Film Festival. It’s a way for me to show the work in the context which best sets it off, without links to storytelling and with a structure which is different from the films we are used to seeing in cinemas… The spectator is sitting in the gallery and becomes an integral part of the space and the projection. People will be able to lie down, fall asleep; they will have the chance to let themselves be truly carried into the film through its images. It’s an intensely physical dimension and I want to underline it!

In early 2011 I will present Istanbul Chorus, a film about Istanbul, at GAM in Turin. I also have to bring the third part of the research for Cemetery to an end; then I will have to leave for central Asia to participate in the film my wife Saodat Ismailova will start shooting in Uzbekistan as her first work of fiction. In the second part of 2011 I will be in Pamir once more to shoot the new part of Avalanche, again in the same village. And I will finally visit Nepal for the first time to look for the location.

http://www.carloscasas.net

http://www.vonarchives.com

http://www.marselleria.com

http://www.estatic.it

Note:

[1] - Carlos Casas, Prologue, END, in corso di stampa.

[2] – Modello sintomale: simbolico, da leggersi come fortemente significativo. Georges Didi-Huberman, L’immagine insepolta. Aby Warburg, la memoria dei fantasmi e la storia dell’arte, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2006; pp. 28-30.

[3] – Monumento spirituale buddhista per la conservazione di reliquie.

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  • Pia Bolognesi Pia Bolognesi

    Pia Bolognesi is a freelance researcher in visual studies. She is PhD Candidate in History of Visual Arts at University of Pisa. She studied at the Universities of Florence and Bologna, where she specialized with [...]

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