At stake in this article is the very act of writing on expanded cinema. Provoked by Gene Youngblood's canonical offering of fluid state of media as it moved out of the exclusive domain of celluloid to a range of practices that include video, computer and so on, I look at practices in India that exhibit a similar movement out of the movie theatre. It is one matter to identify the practice of expanded cinema but it is quite a different matter, perhaps more challenging, to translate those practices intro a form that is attentive to the works. This article draws on Ayisha Abraham's Straight 8 (2005). How to approach a film, when to leave a video, and how to meander through a gallery space are some of the pathways adopted in this article, modes of exploration that return to the act of writing.
In Media Res. As suggested and if entertained, the black and white footage culminating Mangal Pandey (Mehta, 2005) draws associations and contrasts to objects elsewhere, echoes that resonate beyond the single channel film projection at a movie theatre and towards other sites of moving images. Associations between and among objects are freighted gestures as is evident from film programming to curating, in each instance such arrangements draw out features that are dormant, enlivened by adjacency and sequencing. Nowhere is the ingenuity of such endeavours more captivating than in John Baldessari's curatorial show at the Hirshhom, Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection, from July 2006 to September 2007. Baldessari's arrangement of objects requisitioned from the backrooms of the museum convey to the viewer the thrill of seeing uncommon links between objects, defying commonplace notions of periodization and style. As one wanders through the lower level of the Hirshhom Baldessari's wit is evident: Degas' sculptures of dancers are lined up in profile so as to move the three heads away from a frontal address to a sidelong gesture; the collection in the room seems to grip their attention rather than ours. Another stroke of waggishness obtains in the first room where against a large wall hangs Bruce Nauman's sinewy From Hand to Mouth (1967), a minimalist form in wax and cloth that draws sustenance from Joseph Beuys' rough-hewn slab of a sculpture Memory of My Youth in the Mountains (1977) whose own combination of wax, tallow and wood introduces a lightness not apparent on first glance. Propinquity draws Medardo Rosso's Child in the Soup Kitchen (1893/cast 1943-1944) closer to these two objects, suggesting an alternate offering of beeswax over plaster, its preciousness signalled by its glass encasing. Wax as the common material in all three sculptures offers Baldessari an alibi to emphasize proximity between these objects that may have otherwise inhabited different arrangements, more prosaic perhaps. Against this wall, through degrees of contiguity, Baldessari coaxes us to see the materiality and malleability of wax works in various iterations.
Inspired by Baldessari's arrangements of objects whose prior life in the museum's backrooms may have been instituted by other cataloguing rationales, I want to segue from the dosing film in Mangal Pandey to Ayisha Abraham's digital video Straight 8 (2005) whose date of production is a distracting coincidence since it's the deployment of found footage that offers the more credible ruse for my proposed relatedness. A different exercise in secessionism is in order for the object under consideration: a seventeen-minute film that was originally part of the installation Film Tales (January 2006) subsequently circulates separately through film festivals and forms part of a compilation on experimental films from India issued by LUX. In 'Deteriorating memories' an essay that doubles as an auxiliary Abraham adopts a polemical tone towards the practices of collection undertaken by the National Film Archives, Pune, particularly the predominance of 35mm and 16mm to the exclusion of other formats; amateur film-making is the casualty in a collection favouring finished works (2007). Coming up empty at the National Film Archives, her search for home movies leads Abraham straight to a film-maker in her neighbourhood, Bangalore Cantonment, the protagonist of Straight 8. Part of a group of amateur film-makers in Bangalore, and by Abraham's emphasis, Tom D'Aguir emerges as a central figure whose fascination with recording technologies breaks the routine endured at his day job at the Post and Telegraph Office.
But here too, the celluloid evidential was slim. In her interviews with Tom D'Aguiar undertaken between February 2001 and June 2002, Abraham recorded details of D'Aguiar's exploits as an intrepid film-maker, who spared neither the concerts at the Residency, family picnics at Cubbon Park, excursions with friends or official trips around the state; film-making zeal that exploited the scope of a Baldina Camera as the preferred gadget for amateurs between late 1940s and early 1950s. Claiming to have lost or misplaced most of his 8mm footage, D'Aguiar's assertion to this time of enchantment with his camera was a video of three films: Well Done Walter, Makee Inglis Lady and A Day in the Life of Tom. It appears that in 2000 besieged by a fit of preservation anxiety D'Aguir had shipped off a selection of the deteriorating footage to his son in London with the hope his most cherished and finished works would be salvaged in a format that would not face rapid deterioration or at least those were the claims video industry. Without access to his 8mm footage, Abraham's own project was then shaping up to be a documentary laden with oral interviews laced with hints of the apocryphal: film-makers using 8mm in Bangalore.
Chance, however, would revise this assumption upon D'Aguiar's death in October 2002. A random drive by his home brought a gift of cans of 8mm footage that lay among a pile of D'Aguiar's belongings, which the family had consigned as disposable but were the much-coveted hitherto untraceable footage. Watching these films in their analogue form was improvised from the beginning according to Abraham. A subvention in the form of small grants from Majilis and Sarai in the first phase of the research project helped procure a Super 8 camera, projector and a projection screen. Unlike the camera, which faces corrosion through rust in the tropical weather of South India, the projector seems a hardier instrument but according to Abraham 'replacing spare parts, bulbs, etc. is next to impossible'. Working within the constraints of these material conditions Abraham used the darkness of late night to project these films which were breaking apart into fragments often requiring regular splicing; additionally, projecting had to contend with worn down sprocket holes on the one hand, and on the other, the prospect of combustion, ignited by the heat of a projectorbulb. Through fits and starts, Abraham recorded all of the available 8mm footage, as projected images using a 1CCD digital camera set on a tripod. The recorded digital video images were edited on Final Cut Pro.
Although not projected as film for forty years, the footage offers proof of Tom D'Aguiar's film-making, stretching beyond family picnics and towards performances further afield; verging towards a consideration of the film-maker as the chronicler of Bangalore - Anglo-Indian and beyond - in a manner that befits Abraham's categorization of these practices, including her own decades later, as 'cinema of the neighborhood'. A project that started as an exploration of 8mm film-making practices at the National Film Archives transmutes into a meditation on preservation in Straight 8, a gesture borrowed from Tom D'Aguiar's own half-hearted attempts in this direction and that subsequently receives a fuller treatment in the hands of artist whose attention to medium specificity moves the project away from a 'cult of remembrance’ and installs these images with experimentation that exceeds extant categorization as home movies and amateur film-making.
As an exercise in assemblage, Straight 8 includes projected images of 8mm footage, VHS images, and digital recordings of interviews with Tom D'Augiar conducted between February 2001 and June 2002. Although mindful of various formats that recall cameraless film practices (Stan Brakhage and Lens Lye, more recently Jennifer West; Decasia (2002) and Lyrical Nitrate (1991), Abraham's Digital Video stands at some remove from such strategies in which the celluloid surfaces of film are embellished by painting, scratching and experimenting with processing liquids before being projected, or not. A different kind of embellishment, however, is underway in Abraham's work, or to restate specifically, digital coding of various formats transmutes materials in ways that deserve further attention.
As a self-declared short film as indicated in one of its closing titles, Straight 8, on closer scrutiny, unfolds in three distinct parts - unequally divided - that reveal distinct engagements with found footage that, in part, directs us to consider Abraham's musing that 'it tends to fall between genres ... the classic documentary, video art or experimentar’. Before the opening title, an overture in the form of a queue of images: a rightward pan of a shot of man walking on a dam wall; slow motion shots of a dog running in colour; luminous shots of film leaders; a couple of photographers shooting; shots of an infant twirling. These are images from Tom D'Augiar's collection, once deemed lost, that Straight 8 strings together with little adherence to sequencing embedded in the original cans and tapes. Rather, thematic randomness is outrun by purposeful attention to the deteriorating footage whose scratches and grain are made most legible, and without discrimination also on the leader, which too suffers loss. The fragility of these images overwhelms us as we hold on to the surviving film leader while witnessing emulsion-corroding images of a family gathering, and yet again, the arduous task of projecting crumbling film perforations couples with images of a twirling child slipping out of sprocket wheels. As the eye notices combusting emulsion on images, shadows on borders of images (due to poorly transferred tapes), and grains floating on leader and scan lines cutting frames, the ear is attuned to the soundtrack whose signification was heightened in the original gallery installation in which objects that included recording machines long in disuse and roundly obsolete, including a typewriter, provided substantiality.
Away from the graveyard aesthetics of the installation, when circulating through gallery spaces in a loop format or in film festivals as a single channel projection, the sound of celluloid squeaking through projector spools initiates the soundtrack of the digital video; as the camera pans across the dam again, the sound of film unspooling across an editing table or made taut by a projectionist is another sound effect. In either case we are steered into an audioscape in which sound effects of spooling and breaks in projection dominate, these sounds offer continuity to an arbitrary lining up of images and enliven a different time, the time of salvaging and preservation that Abraham commandeers in a space of a fictional projection room. The digital camera embalms these ephemeral images, which have already been marked by distress of incorrect transfers to video, and neglect exacerbated by tropical weather; in the process, digitization arrests further decomposition. Sidestepping laboratory processed transfers to digital this relay from 8mm to video to digital recordings of projections emphasizes Abraham's handcrafted technique, which serves as a reminder of the tactility of celluloid whether in a professionally insulated projection room or the open ambience of amateur screenings.
Zigzagging through different formats and platforms, Straight 8 falls in line with Yvonne Spielmann's acute reading of intermedial encounters in conceptual art practices as signaling a 'contradictory tension between violent rupture and conceptual fusion' as the hallmark of 'ongoing significance of expanded cinema' (2011). Spielmann's readings of works from both the United States and British concentrates on a heady moment from the 1960s and 1970s when artists generated their works through the intermedial relationship between film, video, and computer, exploiting the convergence of different media. Let us simply assume that Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Stan Vanderbeek, John Whitney, Jud Yalkut, are canonized enough that Ayisha Abraham would have surely encountered their works during her year of studio programme at the Whitney and by the sheer stint of being in America in the nineties; their aura inescapable. That Abraham experiments with digital photography during her New York years and undertakes experiment with the film format only after she returns to India highlights the impulse towards preservation in Straight 8, a strain that resonates more strongly with Carolyn Faber's experimental film-making practice who claims to Laura Kissel that experimentation often runs contradictory to her job as a film preservationist. But as in the case of the Faber, Abraham too can hardly sustain that impulse of nostalgia without being mesmerized by damaged film, broken perforations, and so on and she conveys that exhilaration by funneling these images through video and digital formats.
We have scarcely proceeded beyond the pre-credit sequences and we are already in the thick of a practice in which the retrieval and handling of 8mm home movies by a rank outsider strips them of familial sentiment while coating them instead with longing for disappearing formats. Abraham is no stranger to rummaging through family albums, her owndigital photography series '... she looks the other way' had her zooming into and enlarging aspects of her maternal grandmother's collection but, without the constraints of consanguinity Straight 8 displaces the work of remembering and mourning away from the family portrait onto matters of the material, 8mm or as the title suggests Straight 8.
A good place to approach Abraham's shuffle through Tom D'Aguiar's silent 8mm footage and video is get a grip on the pairing of image and sound in her sequencing of images. From shots of an infant in a perambulator in black and white, to family portrait complete with the dog in colour is the first attempt that provides a linear timetable at the register of images. On the soundtrack, we hear Tom D'Aguiar's autobiographical accounts of his initiation into photography, the 35mm Baldina acquired in Bangalore is a formative moment narrates his voice-over, but there is more to the sound design suggesting other temporalities. Sounds of the city with honking cars and speeding trains indicate a diegetic relationship with scenes of the family wrestling with the dog and eventually settling on an image, a strain of retroactive fiction is at work if we recall that these were once silent images. Another kind of amnesia regarding format is solicited from us in the speed of images that reveal freeze frames and slowing down as the family gathers in front of the camera; recalling slow motion shots of dog running in the pre-credit sequence. This series of images ends with the sound of projector spooling deteriorating leader.
Soundtrack of tapping beat reappears in a following set of images that competes with Tom D'Aguiar's voice-over narrative that is now more pointedly matched to the images, a simultaneity imposed retrospectively: shows at the Residency. Bordered by a shadow of poor transfers to video these images give way to different kind of experimentation with speed and on a different format: fast forward function on video. As Tom D'Aguiar narrates making of a spoof of spy genre, one of the completed works, Straight 8 switches to quoting it in its entirety, induding the title cards but on fast forward function that invites us to notice horizontal scan lines that show up routinely on video playback. D'Aguiar voice is mangled and soon peters off, leaving us to keep up with speeded up scan lines on images. If the darkened borders of the previous set of images of one act shows betrayed poor transfers to video, a rehabilitation of video's aesthetics, especially the scan lines registering speed, is delivered to us in stream of images under the name of Well Done, Walter! Again and again, Abraham will gather those sequences compiled by Tom D'Aguiar as completed works and subject them to the fast forward function. In The Picnic a colour film that is also inserted in its completeness in Straight 8 and which reveals D'Aguiar's ability to gauge movement and duration by playing with characters moving across landscape as well as timing a cut on a gag, Abraham turns it into a study in fast forward that moves to the rhythm of a fast tapping music. One cannot help wondering if the ennui of a researcher who has seen too many of these amateur films by self-styled film-makers has crept into Abraham's focus on fast forward scan lines, which after all do promise a quick run to the end in these well worn narratives coupled to the accompaniment of a soundtrack of the whirring tape!
Straight 8 matches and quotes the frame rates of stray images from D'Aguiar's oeuvre, images that had not been subjected to logics of fiction, or endowed as worthy of transfer to video: a short series of images before The Picnic and a longer stretch after it. These sequence shots demonstrate an amateur film-maker's growing familiarity with the camera that is steady when panning across a landscape of hills and shaky when trying to focus on a protagonist at a family outing, baby or mother. D'Aguiar seems to have travelled all over Bangalore and beyond with his camera recording children on bikes and tricycles, animals and birds at zoos, hockey and cricket matches, movement in a car and movement of vehicles on a city road. In an initial series following up on The Picnic Abraham assembles these shots as a backdrop to D'Aguiar's narration and her presence indicated through the phatic on the soundtrack, but this warm up exercise yields to amassing images and sounds so as to provide associations between the sequence shots, a sequencing that unravels to the beat of music. We have not lost D'Aguiar's voice-over but hear it as one of the strains on the soundtrack, fading in and out and acquiring a staccato tone that we did not discern earlier in the film. Matching movements as to detect match-on-action relations between shots suffuses the images with a kinetic energy that was waiting to be aroused: planes flying, truck rolling, fishing boats swerving, tiger turning to the camera's right handed pan, sticks clashing in a hockey match, and bats swung in cricket, animals in captivity in zoo cages and cobras unfurling to snake charmers, cutting from black and white to colour and the reverse and so on. While the slow motion shot of a girl running introduces an expansion of time, the sequence is partial to speed or rather it's the impression that editing and soundtrack enhance which is not exact, but only a suggestion. When the sequence ends with the freeze frame of two photographers shooting, an image that we saw in the pre-credit sequence, the music too slows down and through transition shots the film moves onto a vastly different subject that can only deem it as a distinct second part to the film.
The long wind up to the end of the first half recalls the pacing of images in Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958), especially the sequence built on found footage of sports events and military exercises whose virtuosity deserves a second act; an additional surprise for the viewer is the uncanny similarity of amateur footage across geographies that Abraham's film delivers to us and we get a chance to enjoy a synchronicity of execution and interest between hordes of anonymous film-makers in Conner's corpus and D'Aguiar in Bangalore. Infusing these stray shots with life and spotting associations between sequences, Abraham requisitions D'Aguiar's oeuvre to move beyond fiction and home movies, and to propel his amateur film-making with an avant-garde aesthetic that he did not know to don. While Abraham's keen sense of rhythm is apparent the project is no longer limited to rescuing 8mm footage from decomposition but to reinstate the handiwork of a film-maker whose style is most legible when an ideal editor decades later places them on a digital timeline with the proviso that the only permissible fiction is through graphic associations, and at times match on action editing.
That D'Aguiar's films would be subjected to restoration surfaces in thesecond part of the film; a stealth inclusion of black and white footage in the middle of an Interview with the 8mm filmmaker D'Aguiar who in an expansive gesture is extolling the virtues of recording technologies. This cutaway to black and white images is slight and has two takes that show us couples turning in and out of the light source, revealing an expressionist style of lighting. Apparently, these were originally 8mm footage that Abraham subjected to digitization and as it happened, when adding grey it lightened black and white codes so as to coax stunning noir images that aroused a sliver of a light source that was impossible to detect in analogue. Discarded by D'Aguiar who had limited access to trials with processing of underexposed celluloid, Abraham's experiments with the digital palette expands the possibilities of D'Aguiar film-making from an amateur's excursions into natural light most visible in the scores of outdoor scenes to experiments with aperture openings so as to cast light and shadow onto indoors.
There is a risk of technological determinism dressed up as utopian in this reading, but digital restoration haunts preservationists who know that photosensitive celluloid finds a wider berth with digital processing and there is more at play in the reading of the transfer of images from one format to another in the convergence of media: the spell of fiction. To convert this exercise in managing digital 'noise' - to evoke the parlance of a technician at a digital lab - into a discovery of an aesthete remains a valiant exercise in excess but perhaps its worth considering the full spectrum of optical technologies, including digital, as offering us what the eye cannot perceive; light shed across emulsion is a fiction that Abraham proposes in Straight 8.
Another figment from fiction also arrives in the second part, which harbours a few through various tropes of revelation: the voice-over. Coded in the sound design D'Aguiar's voice-over replays Michel Chion's formulation of this voice-over in feature films from an off-screen space as acousmetre (Chion [19821 1999). In the first half, D'Aguiar voice is accorded a temporal simultaneity alongside Abraham's film; his 8mm images are clearly consigned to a period highlighting his film-making pursuits with his band of photographers in the 1940s. Image and voice seal a co-presence when Abraham's camera swings across the living room to watch an aging D'Aguiar walk towards a cupboard to unpack stacks of family photographs for the camera. Quite unlike the deteriorating 8mm film that both film-makers try to rescue from oblivion, D'Aguiar's embodied presence on-screen betrays an aging process that is akin to celluloid's own trajectory: a slow demise. Digitization, restoration and archiving embalm, stall and transmute celluloid, a kind of bargain that D'Aguiar could not strike for himself so as to see a projection of Straight 8.
In this Digital Video that summons film, video, and digital technologies deploying them at times for their recording prowess and at other moments, attentive to their ontological differences it should be apparent to us that the strain of preservation that runs through Straight 8 traces carefully a similar effort in D'Aguiar's own attempts to convert his 8mm footage to halt deterioration, a mise en abyme effect that you cannot shake off however ad hoc the efforts in London turned out to be. In a turn of luck, D'Aguiar's sons hand Abraham a 'packet of films' that contain among them footage of the dancer Ram Copal. Assumed to be lost during Abraham's interviews, this footage opens the second part of the film accompanied by D'Aguiar's commentary on his work; Straight 8 conjoins the two, thus favouring fiction over the fact of posthumousness. Led by the commentary paired with music, the footage shows signs of decomposition - colours bleeding so as to produce a pinkish hue of Ram Gopal's dance - yet, we can see D'Aguiar's editing skill through the deployment of visual associations. Through stop action motion of a lotus blooming Ram Gopal's hand gestures provoke a metaphor; shots of moving fish and miniature elephant toys repeat that correspondence in the recording of dancer's choreography. A different kind of a film-maker emerges in this recording of dance, one whom we see stretching himself into areas of montage so as to play with rhetoric of figure and ground, a film-maker issuing metaphors through shots of flora and faunae.
A replay of Straight 8, however, suggests otherwise. D'Aguiar's proclivity for the sequence shot and match on action editing is evident in his completed films, but in the fragments rescued and restored by Abraham, a fascination with recording animal movement haunts the footage: monkeys, buffalo, pelican, dogs, tiger and so on. It must be said that these are not evocations of Muybridge's animal motion studies, which are rich with intervals between frames; rather D'Aguiar seems to record their movement qua movement, at times conceding associations that urge us to read them as metaphors. In contrast to the predominance of recording rituals of human actions that are meticulously orchestrated to subtract time or to record actualities, D'Aguiar's sequence shots of animals scattered across Straight 8 are single takes of movement, without deductions. In these shots whose beginning or end is unrehearsed, a form of contingency emerges that cannot hold still the family dog for a portrait; gauge the jump of a monkey, the speed of a crocodile's crawl or even time the pace of a tiger in a cage; these shots lift us from the humdrum of well recorded rituals, even film shoots. There is hint of a desire to pair these shots of animal movement with photography in the sequence of shots that begins with a band of photographers followed by shot of monkey, both film stock and landscape suggest contiguity. Whether this sequence from one shot to another was in D'Aguiar's stash of films or ordered in Abraham's digital timeline remains moot; a giddy mix up infects attribution and provenance relaying the intimacy of working with found footage. The sequencing itself suggests an association, however clumsy, an observational camera whose lens is turned on both photographers and monkeys, but the deteriorating footage allows us to extend metonymically the image of 8mm photographers as a vanishing tribe. The monkeys, however, have a provisional signification here that is more than we can accord to an array of shots of animals ranging from black and white to colour; images bear no formal relationship to each other so to suggest that D'Aguiar was an careful minder of animal movement, rather their ubiquitous presence bordering on the banal seems to postpone signification; these are empty signifiers.
In an utopian longing for fixing futures I want to conjure a scene where these images grab the attention of an archivist guarding extinction of species,both animals and photographers, but for now, they provide shape to contingency. Straight 8's own investment in D'Aguiar's indiscriminate images of animals is displaced on to its ending where after a title card from one the films pronounces 'The End', the DV continues to insert random colour images of a hill recorded through a pan and zoom as if to beckon the commencement of another beginning, a gesture that feeds the structure of a loop but signals a film that cannot end in a single channel projection; curse of eternal life on the digital or the potential for a second life.