Rene Magritte's classic painting states "This is not a pipe." With the inception of semiotics, fine artists from all over the world became obsessed with pointing out the difference between referring to an object in written or verbal language, versus one in three dimensional space, as in installation or sculpture, text about something in a painting, an object in a photograph, etc. What does a painting of a pipe have to do with a real pipe? There's a entire class at the San Francisco Art Institute entitled "Visual Translations" that deals with this topic. Martha Rosler brought the issue into video art with her Semiotics of the Kitchen in 1975. Here it is below for your reference, if at least for a minute:
This is not, however, a bankrupt line of reasoning, but rather a fascinating and even psychedelic discourse that has occupied me throughout my time in art academia, at least in cursory glance to the ideas of Jacques Derridas, but most recently I've become aware of the contributions that the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini has made to the world of semiotics, at least tangentially via film theory. Pasolini was always a semiotician who was almost thoroughly rebuked by other theorists, his contributions to the field being disregarded at the time of his writing, though in recent times he has had at least some acknowledgement for them outside the field of film theory. I'll priviledge you with a quote from his seminal text Heretical Empiricism:
"Let us consider: in a film a shot of a boy with black curly hair and black laughing eyes, a face covered with acne, a slightly swollen throat, like that of someone hyperthyroidal, and an amusing, festive expression which emanates from his entire being. Does this shot of a film perhaps refer to a social pact made of symbols, which cinema would be if defined by analogy to "langue" (written language)? Yes, it does refer to this social pact, but this social pact, not being symbolic, cannot be distinguished from reality."
This is a very controversial, if not somewhat ambiguous, statement of the nature of the signifier in cinema. If "a pipe" in written language refers to an actual pipe, what does, in cinema, a shot of a pipe refer to? This next quote, also from Heretical Empricism, further illustrates the issue, at least in cinematic terms:
"Let us consider a pure sequence shot: that is, the audiovisual reproduction, taken from a subjective point of view, of a fragment of the infinite succession of things and actions which I could potentially reproduce. Such a pure sequence shot would be constituted by an extraordinarily boring succession of insignificant things and actions. What happens to me and appears before me in five minutes of my life would become, when projected on a screen, something absolutely without interest, completely irrelevant. This does not occur in reality, because my body is living and those five minutes are five minutes of vital soliloquy by reality with itself."
Well, in the 1960s, Structuralist cinema took on just this boring task. While not necessarily sharing Pasolini's exact concerns, Structuralist filmmakers such as the Canadian Michael Snow set out to question the fundamentals of film language, atomizing it down into its components, such as the shot, the dolly, the zoom, etc. Michael Snow's Wavelength consists of a twenty minute zoom across a room into a postcard, of, well, waves (sea waves). During the filming, people enter and exit the room, seemingly unaware of the camera's presence. It is just as Pasolini describes... that a real experience could be reduced to a boring and meaningless cinematic experience. Such experiments did however consequently make viewers more aware of cinematic space versus real space, because they would inevitably get bored and start looking around the theater, looking at the other viewers faces to see how they were reacting to the work, and generally becoming very aware of how different this film was compared to, I don't know, being hypnotized by the Wizard of Oz or something. Here, check out Wavelength for just a minute to see what I mean:
Inevitably, as Pasolini states, we get to the "various conscious ceremonial acts; from the archaic magic ones to those established by the norms of good behavior of contemporary bourgeois culture. And finally, and always imperceptibly, reaching the various symbolic but not sign-dependent languages of humanity: the languages in which man, to express himself, uses his own body, his own form. Religious representations, mimes, dances, theatrical productions belong to THESE TYPES OF REPRESENTATIONAL, LIVING LANGUAGES. And so, too, cinema."
So, the "social pact" of the array of signifiers of a young italian boy's face is "not symbolic," and therefore "cannot be distinguished from reality." They are cinematic signs, not symbols, and therefore they cannot be distinguished from reality, and perhaps can be more real in their realtion to the real than the word "pipe." But, at the same time, cinema is one of the various "symbolic but not sign-dependent languages of humanity." So, which is it? Is it a network of visual signifiers or symbols? A symbol has a message, a history, a metonymic identity. A signifier has an object in reality. Pasolini makes both of these contentions in the same text, and not only that, but within two pages of eachother. His message is therefore ambiguous at best, but it does lead me to reflect on my own opinions. He contends that film has a special relationship to reality because cinema is like "writing on burning paper." You can describe a sequence of actions on a page, but once you decide to film that sequence of actions, you now have to consider that this sequence will now be rendered within time due to the nature of the medium. Written language is to a certain degree fixed, but the cinema can capture something as it unfolds in time. Pasolini therefore extends the notion of the written text to a cinematic text: the text of action, of behavior. This is not even meaningless if you are dealing with a still shot of a pipe, because it may appear to be still, and therefore timeless as in a photograph, but it is not. It is being filmed in the fourth dimension... as the recording of it is being projected, you may be fooled into thinking that nothing is happening, but there indeed is something happening, the pipe is existing in time. Does this have a priveledged relation to reality over, say, a painting of a pipe, or a photograph of one, or a written description of a pipe? All good questions. Clearly, the action of objects or bodies on the screen can exist as texts, as visual signifiers, as symbols. They can be all three at the same time, and more. It's really just a matter of conscious experience in relation to the medium. Pasolini himself in his film Mamma Roma experiments with these different modes. He restages the last supper in the first scene in a wedding feast, unfolds the symbolically Freudian dream of an Italian prostitute (its subject being her son and his father), and mocks up the said Prostitute's son's death visually in the mode of the crucifixion. The following film of mine deals with the "still" in relation to industrial environments, and it will be important for you to watch this, as it contextualizes the rest of this article. Try to watch the whole thing, will you? Chris Marker's Le Jetee, a narrative film made entirely of cinematic stills, was inspirational with respect to this work of mine. It's called The Circle to Vanish:
Why do I even bother with these ideas? Well, it's not a long story, with it's real life duration being about one year, while I've been immersed in my graduate level art studies. Last year I took a class called Style Wars that dealt with different theories of style in general. As a final project, I chose to deal with Industrial Music style. In searching for images for my presentation, I ran across such items as this:
Clearly, Goth and Industrial subculture has opted to appropriate the gas mask as a symbol. It has a rich history: gas warfare and the subsequent societal paranoia of being gassed. Pasolini himself tries to break down the components of cinematic laguage into its respective parts. Not just down to the shot, but down to the objects in a shot, just as one would break down a one sentence description of a real life situation into its component words and even syllables. Want to portray a teacher teaching a class? Obviously, you don't place a college professor in front of a firing range. Well, you could. It would be an unorthodox college course, but you could. Anyway, you put him in a lecture hall in front of a blackboard. The objects of the shot are its signifiers, and so too, symbols, and their network constitutes Pasolini's "social pact." A real life situation is described and given meaning. The social pact of a goth girl wearing a gas mask cashes in on the gas mask's social history as symbol and signifier. The social pact of the below picture elicits a different meaning:
Pretty trippy, huh? Dogs in gas masks, a soldier at ready in his. The gas mask in this shot is not just signifier, but it is history being made, and its placement within the matrix of the photograph constitutes a different world. You can place the object in different contexts and exploit its history, make it mean different things, and not just describe an objective situation. The punks did this with fashion in the 1970s. Safety pins were no longer used for sewing, and bondage gear was no longer used for sexual sadism. These things were worn in absurd relation. Bruce Conner did it with found footage, and the Surrealists did it with collage. Negativland would be and is proud.
So, anyway, in my work I usually set out to portray and poeticize abandoned, industrial, and post-apocalyptic environments, as you saw in the previous film. Last semester I was working on it, and I wanted to introduce into to it a unique symbology. A grouping of symbols in a symbolic situation that would serve to enhance the industrial qualities of the images that I was presenting on screen. Industrial in the sense that I was invoking the various themes laid out within say, this early Industrial Records image that really inspired me... the association of the body with an industrial environment, or in the case of the next film I'll show you, the body in relation to an environment symbolizing death:
For me, even if it is not apparent, death was in some way a thematic in The Circle to Vanish. So, industriality, the circularity of life and death, and the introduction of the "play" of symbols within the text of my film. Half asleep some months earlier, I thought to film a friend of mine hula-hooping in the Piedmont, Oakland graveyard wearing a gas mask. So, we shot the thing, and incidentally she decided to wear a school-girl outfit for it too. Well, the footage didn't fit with the film of mine that I just showed you. I showed the hula-hooping footage to one professor, who said it was campy and useless. Then months later, I showed it to another, and he said it was just flat out absurd. Still, I wanted to use it. A friend of mine had the idea to maybe de-campify it by cutting it together with more serious footage. Well, in my dedication to using the material, that's what I did. What is a gas mask's purpose? To protect a soldier or citizen from poison gas during warfare or the conditions of a war. So, working with found footage, I sought to ground or stabilize the image of the gas mask with found footage that explored its history as both symbol and signifier, and thus the history of gas warfare. After cutting the film together, I showed it to the second professor again. The effect was entirely different. He was moved by the hula-hooping, gas mask wearing school girl. The graveyard setting, made relevant by its relation to the death imbued footage of two world wars, ceased to be simply a cliche'd student filming location. The footage worked. So, Pasolini, gas masks, Magritte, et al. In the past few weeks, all of these seemingly unrelated things sort of came together for me. I was looking for a way to present yet another film and theoretical text on this blog, so here you have it. I apologize if it isn't phD quality, if I've misused and misquoted the theoreticians in the article, misunderstood their ideas, and if my logic is utterly illogical and if it is overwhelmed by holes. Well, I try, I really do. Feel free to contact me with your condemnations. Anyway, you want to see the film, right? It's entitled The Eternal Recurrence. I named it that after the philosophical concept of the same name introduced by Nietzsche. It was his own version of reincarnation in a sense. When we die, we become again, and we live the same life that we lived before, if not exactly the same. For him also, warfare has always had a forming relation on culture. I thought that war in general seems to have a circularity to it, and a certain absurdity. Hence, the hula-hoop. So, not to delay things any further, the film...
If you have any responses or ideas of your own to put forward, feel free to contact me on facebook, myspace, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers!