Gesture Projects: Michael Buckley
‘Gesture rather than image is the cinematic element’ – Giorgio Agamben
But just what is a gesture? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a significant movement of limb and body” or “use of such movements as expression of feeling or rhetorical device”.
Gestures offer a brief glimpse (almost like looking through a window) into an individual’s identity. Both conscious and unconscious gestures arrive, engage and depart. In the last few years I have tried to focus on these brief passages of time with my filmmaking.
In 2003, I received a fellowship from the Australia Council to research the use of gesture in different communities. Visual material for this project was initially gathered in India, Ireland and Australia. I was interested in how gestures are used within different cultural settings, in urban and rural environments across the three countries involved. The enormity of this task became apparent as I tried to figure out a framework to build a multi-screen work to cross reference the gestural material I had gathered.
In November-December, 2004, I exhibited Gesture – Arriving, Engaging, Departing, at the Charles Sturt University Gallery in Wagga Wagga. This was series of short film and interactive works projected on a number of screens in the gallery. This installation used multiple screens that in part echoed and highlighted gestural moments in a new context. I was able in some cases to repeat, loop, amplify and highlight gestural pre-movement, movement and post-movement. I included: footage from the Mumbai races, mostly of punters looking up to heaven (the TV screen); footage from a stag hunt in Devon, England, mostly drinking shots of hunters on horse back quaffing down sherry before the hunt; footage of children in Sligo, Ireland, performing the Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde in a class-room; lastly, various sequences of family and friends staring out at my video camera while standing in front of a black cloth.
With this material I aimed to explore how open-ended narrative readings can be engendered through moments of gestural placement of un-connected individuals in a multi-screen environment. I was interested in presenting a viewing process that involved minimal narrative constructs, rather than complex scenarios, with the deconstruction of narrative down to core elements (mostly using gestures). In a multi-screen environment, the viewer made connecting threads through their viewing choice of screens containing footage gathered from four countries. At random intersections, viewers may have seen earnest faces of Bombay gamblers, next to men in red coats on horseback drinking to keep warm on a winter morning in Devon.
There is some kind of ‘painterly’ attraction for me in viewing gestures in this random manner. I like to sequence various body parts and faces from individuals together in a choreographic stylized montage and see where it takes me. A number of questions arise out of this form of play. What do gestures mean out of context? Are they windows into a collective unconscious? A wide range of emotions can arise in response to a gestural montage, from compassion and empathy, through to envy and desire? It seems to be curiously personal and often different for each viewer (without the hook of an obvious narrative to link gestures together).
I have developed an obsession with gesture. Why do I enjoy watching movies on long-distance airplane flights without headphones on? Lately, I seem to concentrate more on facial and physical gestures rather than following the narrative in a film or TV show. This gestural obsession occurs mostly in a screen environment for me. There is some kind of act of witnessing and receiving that is going on. When I am out filming with a video camera, it becomes more like a microscope for me, in that it enlarges gestures and their meanings. This locked-in space is quite distinct from the way we view the real world through our floating eyeballs. A video camera seems to focus our attention in a heightened fashion that is often missed in the real world.
The Kinetic Microscope: New Methods for Gathering Kinetic Media.
1. Black Cloth
Through a simple screen innovation I developed in 2003 using a large black cloth behind a subject, I have primarily altered how I work with individuals on film shoots.
From an interview with Sue McCauley, 2007:
“It’s a whole production process which has developed in the last five years. Before that I was heavily involved in digital media, basically animation and stills and I hadn’t done any kind of live action footage for a while. I’ve got this whole new production process which has evolved out of Screens & Screams and Hairy Tales with a black cloth.
“It was developed because schoolrooms are so ugly to have as backdrops, they’re cluttered, they’re kind of like classic archetypes, which have bad memories for some people. You can just stick up a huge, black cloth in a classroom and it gets rid of the background. You have human beings, bodies in front of the black cloth using gestural mannerisms and then you can key them in with drawn images and it keys out the black cloth. It is an incredibly simply production process which works well.”
2. The Kinetic Microscope (The digital video camera)
There has also been a real shift in my production processes and way of creating work because of new technologies that have come into play with the personal computer. I have used digital video cameras since 1996. However editing of digital video footage was complicated, as you had to have access to high-end computers with graphics cards to edit full-screen videos.
In 2001, the Mac computers introduced ‘iMovie’ into all personal computers, which made the process of full screen digitizing of video footage into home computers possible. The other great technological leap was the introduction of DVD for outputting films from personal computers. No longer is it the domain of a skilled few in video production, using expensive equipment. Practitioners at home can now make multi-layered, complex video productions.
From an interview with Sue McCauley, 2007:
“In the past, film productions were involved in making a linear narrative, documentary or drama piece for a target, usually television. Because I’ve done a lot of interactive work and it’s a new way of constructing screen-based material which wasn’t around 10 years ago, it changes the whole process of making the stuff. With digital media coming in the mid ’90s, more specifically it really came in with video production since about 2001, when Mac’s really simplified [the process] using iMovie. The process of getting video footage in and out of the computer before, say, 2000 was quite difficult and you had to go to more expensive computers and labs to do it. You can do it all at home now, and it’s opened up new production processes. It’s changed the production process and people use a lot more collage, montage, stills, images, animations, and effects in their visual material than they used before 2000.
“… There was some stuff around always before then, but there’s a technical thing that’s shifted since the new millennium that’s made the production process different too. The digital video cameras have been in since ’96. I was one of the first people to use digital video cameras in these community situations, in low light situations. You didn’t need a big production team. You can get away with murder and still get reasonably good results. Whereas, pre-video, film would cost thousands and there was a whole, huge production process. There was a real need to follow industry processes. This has really shifted because of technical developments, so there’s simpler, cheaper ways to make stuff now. It’s not aimed at television. There are other ways to now make interesting community-based work or personal works, with kinetic practitioners developing new screening spaces for their work.”
3. Working in a New Creative-Team Environment
There has been a change in my working environment through a new definition of roles that has opened up new ways of developing and making material for media productions I work on. The film production process of the 20th century with a hierarchy of Producer, Director, etc. is no longer that useful or relevant for the way in which I work. I now tend to work as a member of a community team where participants have a hands-on involvement and creative input into the work produced.
From an interview with Sue McCauley, 2007:
“In film production it’s basically the director who was the creative person, who had the vision and steered the group of people who went out and filmed stuff. I always found it really unsatisfactory when I got Australian Film Commission grants and I was dealing with producers. They seemed to be a role that the funding body had to have, to give over $100,000. They wanted a producer to be the link person that made sure the production was going ahead and the director wasn’t going off the rails. I never saw them. As a director, I never felt producers were particularly useful…”
4. Spontaneity, Improvisation and Intuition
Through working in a new kind of team environment with groups such as stART on collective community based projects, I have been able to foreground my interests in gesture and its importance to screen-based work. This new working environment has loosened up approaches to issues of narrative and content collection.
From an interview with Sue McCauley, 2007:
“It’s a spontaneous sort of process that’s intuitive. I use that word because I know roughly what we’re going to get with the mechanics of videoing because I’ve done so much of it. We can work on the fly very quickly and adapt to situations. It involves no using lip-sync or as little lip-sync as possible. It’s the more playful, gestural mannerisms that are not mimicking, that I go for. Children use their bodies and their faces to develop spontaneous, delightful short video sequences… I’m interested in the filming process that evolves out of simple narrative constructs, rather than complex ones. It’s a deconstruction of narrative, of core elements that you can play with later on. I’m interested to try and be as spontaneous as possible with the talent in front of us, so that material’s not overworked. I have to respond in a spontaneous, intuitive way to deal with it. I try to invent an editing construct later on. When I am filming there’s constantly a dialogue in my head about, what am I doing with this material, what am I doing with this person in front of me? How can I present them in a positive manner and develop rich material with them. It’s not out of them, but with them.
“It’s a dual thing where they have to feel comfortable with me holding a camera. Usually there’s been a warming up process with kids, that gets them enthused, and there’s a natural energy and flow. I like to use those terms, energy and flow, because it involves spontaneity and creative sparks that results in really great performances from children. We’ve been successful with this because it’s not belabored and tied into kind of complex narrative, and in pre-production processes that lock you down in stuff and lacks spontaneity.
“… You need to have a an overview of what you want to get in filming situations, but you don’t want to totally plan and construct everything beforehand. It’s good to have this looseness with dealing in the immediate situation and we can actually pump out lots of material with two or three filming sessions now, with children in the various projects we’ve done because we have a team process that we have developed. It’s partly knowledge from the tasks we know. We know that we potentially can pull it off and make a successful project because of long experience together but there’s spontaneity in there.
“… Spontaneity and improvisation are fundamental to my current filmmaking practice. I’ve made works with adults now, people with intellectual disabilities, where I had no script or content to start with and made this great little film that evolved out of people’s experiences of being incarcerated. There’s something about being in the space in the present where the filmmaker and the person being filmed has an interaction. I knew these people for a long time, so I was able to get it. It’s about trust, first, and there’s an empathy between the camera operator and the performer that is fundamental. That’s improvisation and spontaneity.
“Intuition is seeing the space, the situation, the historical development of why we’re all there, what the purpose is, which sits underneath intuition. Actually, what intuition is related to, is the historical reading of the situation that you know is going to work but the reason is not really clear. You don’t kind of construct it formally. In your mind you don’t tick little boxes off to make an intuitive decision but, as a filmmaking practitioner, intuition is an important element in sizing up the moment, and the situation to get material. You constantly use intuition in filmmaking practices because you know before filming, and then editing, that these things will work. It’s not a psychic thing, definitely not psychic. Intuition is an unconscious thing that you develop over a long time. It’s gone into your unconscious and you just feel this is the right moment.
“I love the anarchy of the filming situation that produces surprising results which you couldn’t get if you tried to sit kids down carefully and, you know, spend a few weeks massaging something. It’s improvisation at its most spectacular… There’s this process going on where I’m filming and analyzing and going, wow, it’s astonishing. I’m looking for astonishing moments as the rich material to edit and put into the film. It definitely was an art workshop production. It really opened up my filmmaking eyes to tired old habits and standards of filmmaking I’d developed over 25 or 30 years. It was a refreshing way to be in the continual present, in the filmmaking process rather than pre-planning overtly all the time.”
5. Community Art Practitioner
What is the relationship between my personal creative practice as a filmmaker (experimental?) and my community-based practice? What are the linkages or leakages between the two, and how does one influence the other?
From an interview with Sue McCauley, 2007:
“I get real sparks of inspirational things and my media skills get enhanced continually by working in a community, collaborative environment. And I feel I participate and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I actually think it’s really hard to be a practicing artist, the older you get. You’ve got to have a lot of faith in yourself, which I haven’t got. But I have it in a community artist sense. You know, if I want to call myself a community artist, I definitely work really well in that environment.
“Community art influences my own practice. My practice has kind of devolved a bit over the last seven years, since the new millennium. Maybe it needs to be reignited. I still learn new skills. I learnt heaps of stuff from my community art practice over the last few years. It’s also because of the new technology changes, how you make and construct things and the speed of things. For instance, I’ve left interactive media, I’ve moved back into linear, time-based media, rather than interactive media. It constantly evolves and changes.”
Attempting to Define Gesture?
‘Untitled’, 2 mins, 2004
[flashvideo filename=http://pratilipi.in/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/buckley-gesture-projects.flv /]
Screen-based community media productions have traditionally relied upon storytelling and linear narrative structures to present an argument or to inform viewers about an issue through the documentary media form. However, new multimedia practices can offer alternative structures and conceptual frameworks for richer information and knowledge transfer.
My 2-minute, untitled film, shows a series of individuals that have been filmed out of context to each other. A connecting factor is the choreographic selection process I employ to link this seminal work together. Conscious and unconscious gestures, and how they can be read by a viewer, are the main focus. Heads turn, arms point, a head is scratched while someone yawns. Strange ‘narrative interpretations’ begin to develop for some patient viewers while watching this work.
I look for gestural moments that are unique, that are not wooden and stilted, that are alive. It’s a kind of animation of spirit. I’m continuing to analyze this space that erupts from a human being during gestural moments that are not premeditated. There’s something that comes out of human spontaneity that is really interesting to watch visually in the rectangular screen of a video camera that I try to and capture.
For me a video camera is a kind of kinetic microscope that highlights conscious and unconscious gestures in human beings in a unique way. However when tied to narrative conventions gesture seems to be sublimated into a screen narrative. Gesture is often an unrecognised part of screen communication, the underside of the relationship, ‘the poor cousin’ whose presence is ‘felt’ but not recognized. Why is this?
How much is gesture ‘taught’ and how much is gesture ‘innate’? Has our interest in human gestural screen images in both television and cinema, influenced how we react to situations with our own body language? My kinetic visual work tries to highlight the vitality of gesture, which adds identity and idiosyncratic expressions of the ‘moment’ to an individual’s screen presence. It has a major role to play in my screen communication.
I try to investigate the relationship between gestural mannerisms/movements and emotional states in a screen environment. How does gesture mediate communication between the perceived and the perceiver? In screen-based works, gesture is often the ‘glue’ or the ‘cement’ that defines the state of communication between subject and viewer. When combined with dialogue, it’s not what is being said, but how it is being said. Or rather, how speech comes out of an individual’s mouth!