Film and photography have always had a rich and significant relationship, which has been among film theorists’ main areas of interest. The two genres have remained important for each other throughout the years, both technically and artistically.
The aesthetic discussion of photography in relation to cinema is mainly dominated by the concept of time. When compared to film, photography is said to be stopping time and preserving fragments of the past. However, films are born and evolve out of photography. But unlike the cinematic “presence” of the moving image, the still photographic image refers to something recorded, which belongs to the past. As Roland Barthes suggested in his book Camera Lucida, cinema –because of its movement- loses its relationship to the temporality of the still photograph. This essay will concentrate on the notion of time in George Drivas’ films and more specifically in the artist’s coupling of photography and film, stillness and the moving image.
Relying on the aesthetics of the still image and often using freeze-frames, rather than continuous motion, George Drivas’s films are grounded in stillness and in most of his works he uses a technique of rhythmically alternating image sequences. He often uses photography as a film frame, as a fragment of a film sequence that supposedly exists, but that we never see. The individual frame, whose function in film is to combine with others at 24 frames per second to constitute movement, in Drivas’s work becomes autonomous and is transformed into a static film still. The sequence of frames creates a stop-motion effect that characterises Drivas’s early work. His films look as if they are in slow motion, while in his more recent works, camera movement is often used to supplement the stillness of the image.
Attempting a historical overview of the use of stillness and slowness in art and film, one might argue that in contrast to the first half of the twentieth century, when photography and film were shaped mainly by the modern idea of speed, after the Second World War slowness was considered avant-garde. As David Campany has pointed out, it could be seen as a kind of resistance to the ideologies of mainstream cinema and television in European and American culture. 1
Slowness came to characterize film and art in the post-war decades that followed; the Italian neorealist filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as Andrei Tarkowski, Ingmar Bergman, Bela Tarr, Wim Wenders and Theo Angelopoulos, among others, are known for experimenting with time and deceleration. In experimental filmmaking, Andy Warhol, Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage all incorporated the stillness of the photographic image into their artistic productions. This slowness can also be identified in contemporary video artists such as David Claerbout, Mark Lewis, Victor Burgin, Steve McQueen and Bill Viola, who have also dealt through their work with the notion of time. The Greek artist George Drivas can be seen as emerging from this tradition.
Looking at Drivas’s work, one could argue that the spectator is invited to slow down and make room for thought. As Laura Mulvey has put it, “by slowing down […] key moments and meanings become visible that could not have been perceived when hidden under the narrative flow and the movement of film.” 2
However, the power of Drivas’s work derives from a silence, a pause between the still frames, rather than from the photographic alternations that create the impression of movement. The spectator is witnessing a fragmentary experience of the photo sequence and is asked to complete the narrative. In the artist’s words: “The viewer is invited to fill in the missing frames of the film unfolding before their eyes. The use of this absence, the abstraction and ‘emptiness’ created by using a frame, rather than a constantly moving image, is precisely what provides the space and time required for the viewer to project their own thoughts on to the story unfolding before their eyes.” 3
In Drivas’s films presented at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, which were created between 2005 and 2014, we can see that his experimentation during this decade involves the still or moving and the narrative or non-narrative image and a quest for an abstract language as regards both content and form. His films could be set anytime and anywhere, in the future or the past, as they convey both a futuristic and a retro mood. Time and duration are unclear and even unimportant or irrelevant. His heroes are depersonalised characters; people without a past, a future, an identity and often a name. Architecture and architectural elements play a very prominent role, shaping his stylised frames. Building facades, staircases, corridors, high-rise buildings, lobbies, libraries, railway stations, museums, theatres, and other edifices all feature in his films. The images of the cold modernist buildings captured by his camera project an ambiance of melancholy and alienation, while the urban landscape sets the stage for the key themes addressed: existential quests, human relationships, lack of communication, feelings left unexpressed, sexual desires left unfulfilled. The sequence of photographic images in his early works combined with the electronic sonic textures enhances the rhythmic quality, while his black and white footage is most evocative.
In his film Closed Circuit (2005) – shot in New York – an unsolved criminal case is observed on CCTV, as the title suggests, while the two protagonists appear to be romantically involved. The small incidents that occur with their chance encounter during this short film sequence all happen under surveillance, while the ‘programmed’ characters of the film -as in most of Drivas’s works- seem to be under laboratory conditions. But the work remains occult, as we are not told what the relationship is between the love story and the alleged crime.
The works making up the Social Software trilogy that Drivas created between 2006 and 2009 bear many similarities to Closed Circuit, both stylistically and in the narrative form.
The trilogy deals with two different stories about two people and one story about a city.
The protagonists seem to be on a mission – to test a software program, or play a role-playing game. The few and nameless characters move through public places and buildings, giving the impression of being watched and their movements recorded. The camera is often placed behind walls, pillars and other architectural elements and we often see the heroes (or better, anti-heroes) through windows or blinds as if we are spying on them, even unintentionally.
The spectators watch the private stories from the outside as voyeurs, while the characters seem unaware of being under observation. Drivas uses the aesthetics of surveillance to comment on the Deleuzian society of control, but also to incorporate in his work the contemporary culture of watching and being watched.
In the first part of the trilogy, Beta Test (2006), filmed in Berlin, human encounters and emotions are controlled by a computer program. As Drivas notes, “Beta (B) is the second letter of the Greek alphabet. Beta Test is the story of a city. Beta is a pre-release, test version of software. Beta Test is about our future.
It is about surveillance, urbanity, communication and the sense of non-existence. Beta Test is a love story. It could happen to anyone.” 4
All Drivas’s films seem to be in beta – a process before a software program becomes available for sale. The characters seem not to exist in the real world: they are totally manipulated and follow the instructions given under control and observation. Moreover, the machines seem to be controlling the protagonists’ actions and the development of the story. A number of questions arise: who produces the software and who is the software? Who is watching and who is watched? To what extent do we control the machines we create and to what extent do they control us? As the story progresses, the characters acquire a will of their own and try to escape their predetermined course. There is no conclusive ending to the story.
Set on the outskirts of Berlin, in districts built in the 1960s and ’70s, Case Study (2007), the second part of the trilogy, reflects on the utopian modernist vision. Through the coolness of modernist architecture and the poetry of empty spaces, the characters reflect the uncertainty and struggle towards self- determination and communication within the contemporary urban centre. (The trilogy’s title, Social Software, refers to programs designed to help people communicate.) In the short third film, Development Plan (2009), we witness a narrative told by the architecture of the city of Berlin. Long and close shots of the city’s redevelopment plan are juxtaposed with the first two stories of the trilogy.
The city of Berlin was undoubtedly the source of inspiration of the trilogy. This is where the artist grew up, sharing his time with Athens. Much more than a simple home town, Berlin is the symbol of a divided Europe and of the effort of reunification. Drivas uses Berlin as a paradigm for the modern utopia and other sociopolitical visions of the globalized society. However, in his films, the characteristics of cities go beyond the boundaries of a particular society and a specific place and time. In the artist’s words, “The reality of those big cities […] inspired me to the extent that I chose to talk about those features that I consider to be almost universal.” 5
In a later work filmed in Greece, Empirical Data (2009), Drivas deals with the relationship between the main character and his hostile environment. The protagonist is an immigrant who tries to change, in an effort to become socially accepted and integrated into his new society. However, this change appears to be unauthorised by the system. Empirical Data is based on the personal experience of a Georgian actor (the protagonist) who immigrates to Greece; the spectator follows him from entering the country through to his integration into Greek society. Here, the artist is concerned with the issue of migration and integration of a foreign body into a new environment, a subject he will revisit in his new project Laboratory of Dilemmas (2017), representing Greece at the 57th Venice Biennale.
In all his early works described above, the plot is recounted with intertitles, using a scientific computer language to interpret the unfolding story. The intertitles provide a version of a narrative rather than an explanation of what we see, while sometimes they even disorientate. In Drivas’s works there is no one true story, no absolute truth. If we hide the intertitles we are faced with a different storytelling. The texts are like another film that evolves in parallel with the images. In fact, the story is implied rather than told.
As early as 2007, Drivas turned his attention back to the city and society of Athens, which inspired his work after the Berlin trilogy. Today, Athens in the midst of economic crisis is a special contemporary condition for reflection and commentary. However, as depicted in Drivas’s projects, Athens does not resemble the city that its inhabitants experience every day. It is a view of Athens through the artist’s cinematic lens; a city of modernist buildings, empty and silent. The streets are mute, devoid of people and stores, as if it were a utopian city without inhabitants present or past.
Drivas’s entire body of films concerns the management of a crisis, a mistake, a system error. The operational difficulties that we see in his Social Software trilogy turn into emergencies in his more recent works, while the notion of crisis begins to take tangible form in the guise of socio-political problems. “The system is on the verge of collapse. Your position has been eliminated,” says the narrator in Sequence Error (2011), who is tasked with laying off employees. In this film, set in a contemporary corporate environment on the occasion of a sudden system crisis, people are made redundant, deleted from the system as casually as if they were digital files. Here, as in all of Drivas’s films, the specified sequence of events meant to keep the system functioning smoothly seems to be upset. Moreover, the term ‘sequence error’ in computer science refers to an error that arises when the arrangement of items in a set does not follow some specified order. In this socio-political work addressing the crisis facing Greece today, the artist uses fragments from two famous speeches of the 20th century, delivered by Che Guevara in 1963 and George Marshall in 1947.
In Drivas’s earlier films, the plot is of secondary importance, and the events consist of brief episodes unfolding at a steady pace.
It is no coincidence that in his most recent work, seeking to emphasise plot and narrative, Drivas turns to the moving image. In Sequence Error the image acquires both motion and colour, and dialogue is first introduced. For the first time, Drivas moves away from a purely still image and a sequence of photographic snapshots as the basis of his works. While motion is now captured by the camera, his shots are nevertheless static and the moving image flirts with freeze-frames by introducing the temporality of stillness in motion. However, slowness remains a characteristic of his later works.
In Kepler (2014), the most recent work in the exhibition and filmed in Tbilisi, Georgia, the artist is looking for possible solutions at another moment of crisis. The film is about the environment and toxic hazard. Here, scientists seek solutions from the ‘Other’ on foreign planets. Kepler is the name of a newly discovered planet whose soil, atmosphere and size are similar to Earth’s and make it potentially habitable. It is also the name of a grandiose and controversial construction project taking place in the film. The artist has noted about this work: “Kepler is another planet or it is our planet, it is the past and the future, it is a hopeful prospect or our forthcoming disaster, it is the repetition of the same mistakes or an opportunity for us to become better. And this has nothing to do with Georgia but with the whole world.” 6
Whether it is New York, Berlin, Athens, or Tbilisi, Drivas presents a non-city, a non-place, a topos without memory – either personal or collective – a ‘cinematic heterotopia’, to borrow a term from Victor Burgin. Well-known buildings loaded with historical references seem to lose their identity and acquire new ones, becoming a setting for Drivas’ laboratory tales.
It is interesting to consider the notion of time in Drivas’s films in relation to Deleuzian film theories of time and movement. In his two books on cinema published in the ‘80s, which are very much philosophical works but are also concerded with film style, Gilles Deleuze applies Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time, change and movement to cinematic construction. He argues that classical cinema, the Hollywood film genre – what he calls the movement-image – is dependent on movement and action, while in the European modernist art film – what he calls the time-image – the characters find themselves in situations where they are unable to act and react directly. This is what Deleuze calls the collapse of the ‘sensor-motor image’. The image cut off from ‘sensory-motor links’ becomes ‘a pure optical and sound image’, which is a direct image of time, a time-image. According to Delueze, after the Second World War the time- image first made its appearance and brought the action image into crisis. Deleuze describes five characteristics of the new image, which found their first expression in Italian neorealism: “the dispersive situation, the deliberately weak links, the voyage form, the consciousness of clichés, [and] the condemnation of the plot”. 7 Many of these characteristics can be detected in Drivas’s works.
The consequences of the ‘non-rational’ links between the shots of the time-image are the disconnected spaces which begin to appear: “the any-space-whatevers”. In opposition to the movement-image, whose action most often takes place in a specific space and time, the ‘any-space-whatever’ is the place of the modern voyage and functions in the same way as the time-image, by placing the plot into crisis. Thus, the events of the films do not bring the narrative to a conclusion. This is the case with the open, non-specific endings of Drivas’s films. Rather than react according to the circumstances, the characters wander around the empty spaces and are confronted with events that hardly concern the people they happen to.
Drivas’s anti-heroes are unable to identify their position within the given situation, but they place themselves outside the central plot – if there is one. In most of his works, as we have seen, the plot as well as the character development are secondary, while the artist’s primary concern is to the surroundings and the architectural urban spaces he captures. Within the disconnected spaces of Drivas’s films where his depersonalized characters move, their journey becomes the narrative of deserted urban spaces, emphasizing solitude, uncertainty and anxiety like in Italian neorealist films. Moreover, alienation in Drivas’s films does not only take place in outdoor urban settings, but also indoors. The architectural elements that we described earlier can symbolize mute feelings; “walls in particular illustrate the ability (or inability) of [the] characters to relate to each other.” 8
In his films, the artist often makes use of images and settings rather than a potential dialogue, which refers to what Deleuze describes as the “pure optical and sound image”. Though Deleuze does not offer a single specific theory of time that can be applied to film analysis, his philosophical ideas can stimulate reflection on films and cinematic temporalities. Much of what Deleuze says in his books on film theory is based on a belief that cinema has changed the way we think and feel about time. Besides the new kind of image – the time-image – Deleuze speaks of a new kind of thought – the image of thought – which forces the spectator to think. With the appearance of the time-image, as with the still image, the spectator is made pensive. 9
Raymond Belour and Laura Mulvey have observed that it is stillness and slowness that offer room for reflection. Drivas’s films seem to open a dialogue with the so-called ‘delaying cinema’ Mulvey describes, to “allow space and time for associative thought, reflection on resonance and connotation […] and ultimately personal reverie”. 10
In such circumstances our relation to the image and cinematic time is released from the momentum of movement and action. Slowness and stillness in Drivas’s films can be seen as a vehicle to intensify our temporal and spatial experience.
1 David Campany, The Cinematic, Documents
of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel and MIT Press, London and Cambridge, 2007, p. 10.
2 Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, Stillness and
the Moving Image, Reaktion Books, London, 2006, pp. 146-147.
4 From the artist’s website: drivas.org
7 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: the movement-image, London, Athlone, 1986, p. 210
8 Mitchell Schwarzer in Mark Lamster (ed.), Architecture and Film, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, p. 205.
9 For a discussion of the concept of the ‘pensive spectator’ see Raymond Bellour’s essays “The Pensive Spectator” in David Campany (ed.), The Cinematic. Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel and The MIT Press, London, Cambridge, 2007, p.119-123 and “The Pensive Spectator” in Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion Books, London, 2006, p. 181-196.
10 Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion books, London, 2006, p. 147.
“Berlin is not only Berlin, it is also the symbol of the division of the world and what is more a ‘universal point’, the place where reflection on a unity that is simultaneously necessary and impossible happens in each person that lives there, and who, in living there, experiences it not only as a dwelling-place, but also as the absence of a dwelling-place.”1 Maurice Blanchot’s words from his essay “The Name Berlin” (1964), first published shortly after the Wall was built, may express the experience of the creator of works such as Betatest (2005-06) and Case Study (2007-08). Drawing attention to the author’s biography would be of no interest if this biography was not inextricably related to this city-symbol and everything it stands for. The united Berlin in the 1990s was the baptism by fire for all those, such as George Drivas, who lived in the city under the condition of division, or rather under the condition of a promise that this division was to end eventually. No reference is made to the small personal dramas of the people in this divided city –psychological idealisation is totally absent from Drivas’s filmic essays anyway– nor to the social and political examination of the consequences of this division, but rather to the semiotics of division itself, to contemplation of the unachievable unity, what according to Blanchot, “[…] calls into question the intellectual security and the possibilities for communication”.2[…]In the case of Drivas’s work, the repetition of patterns in the picture (the same building, interior or person seen often and from many different angles) and the use of static images only (to fend off the illusion of motion established by twenty-four frames per second due to the absence of moving images) creates in the viewer the impression of a narrative flow that freezes in the memory, referring us to an aesthetic that Thomas Y. Levin described as “recalibration of eventhood.”5 Drivas’s films resemble concentrated scenes originating from a surveillance camera’s or other tracking equipment’s image database – only nominally, of course, as they are perfectly structured and highly poetic photographic compositions. […] […]The image of each place functions merely as reference. Motorways, hotel rooms, airports and stores, the areas in which Drivas’s camera usually moves, bring to mind Marc Augé’s essay on an anthropology of supermodernity, which is defined by examples of non-places where the contraction of space, the acceleration of history and the elimination of differences anthropologically define their subject, man without memory, either historical or personal memory. According to Augé, in order to enter these non-places, which lack identity and history, we are “required to prove our innocence”.8 In the face of the self-referential, distanced, lonely, fragmentary non-places of supermodernity we must assume the same attitude as that of the characters in Drivas’s films, elegant angels without an identity, on which all trace of location and time is lost.
In this urban mapping of modern experience anonymous figures –as is often the case in Drivas’s films two persons unknown to each other– face each other and the places in which they move in fleeting encounters. How effective is this meeting? And thus how charged or indifferent, on an emotional or even existential level, is it?
Perhaps ultimately the erotic element, which is often implicit in many of Drivas’s films, refers to this constitutive condition of simultaneous presence and absence, which informs this relationship with the other? Characters especially in works such as Close Circuit (2005) seem to flirt with the idea of a promising erotic passion but to constantly wonder whether this is actually possible, remaining in a state of indeterminacy until literally disappearing at the end of the film, effectively corroborating their self-negation. Indeed, the viewer often
wonders if the film is a love or a detective story, and if it is ultimately the solution of a crime or a reception of erotic passion. Yet, unfortunately for us, the mysterious, implicit crime, if there is any, is the fact that we cannot know whether it was or was not about love![…]Blanchot conceptually captures in “The Name Berlin” the paradoxical reception of the other, of the foreign, the beyond, and defines it as a statutory condition of signification, which remains fragmented although this does not mean that it is partial. Perhaps the “strangeness” [étrangeté] to which Blanchot refers, conceived not only on psychological or sociological terms but rather as a philosophical discourse, as the discourse of the fragment, of small, subtle details in a fully organised and controlled whole, may be the reason why Drivas’s work is an exemplary commentary on the supermodern experience and of the investigations of contemporary art, beyond any claims to universal, equalitarian, totalitarian discourses.
1. Maurice Blanchot, “The name Berlin” (1961), in The Blanchot Reader, ed. Michael Holland, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995, p. 266.
5. Leighton 2008, p. 39.
8. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso, 1995, p. 102
The films of George Drivas initiate infinite allusions to memories and souvenirs, even if they don’t quote anything in an explicit way. His images have the power to evoke more than the plot, opening up possibilities for the spectators that extend far beyond the narrated events. Like a puzzle, where the single pieces are different but if connected to another form a whole picture, the following paragraphs have the purpose of presenting single bites of the whole atmosphere
given by the films.
The films concern single spots of a story; they are like frozen moments, cut out from a much longer process which started in an indistinct past and continues into an unknown future. The beginning is not clearly defined, and the same applies to the conclusion, in the sense of any explanation of the plot. The end often remains open, it is only alluded to, and all the questions which accompanied the narration are not completely clarified. Does the story continue in the mind of the spectator? Yes / maybe / maybe not.
Drivas proposes an end indeed, an apparent conclusion to the stories he tells and documents. But this end is not absolute and definitive. It is far more the entrance to a labyrinth, to a situation which could continue endlessly, in the same way it began and was narrated. The architectural details, the light, the movements could change and be different, but not the perpetual cycle of actions, identical to themselves every time, a labyrinth from which it is difficult to find an exit.
Happy End (2004) begins with an end: “After everything was over, they started all over again”, a happy beginning, which comes together with a situation which has already happened, in the past, closing and completing a perpetual loop.
The soundtracks underline the circularity of the images. They are noises, clatters, music which reiterates incessantly. In some cases they remind us of human voices, of the wind, of the bark of a dog (see: Off Duty, 2005). But the sounds just graze the images without having any relation to the objects shown: the level of the sounds moves independently by comparison to the level of the images, reinforcing the effect of trance produced by the pictures.
_WITHOUT A FACADE
The architecture of the films echoes the effect of a labyrinth. Architecture is not used to provide visual familiarity, it is not used as orientation, and it doesn’t help us to recognise what is up and what is down, or provide a physical order of the actions.
The buildings have no ground level, the framing doesn’t show architecture rooted on the ground, with a main entrance, a main façade, a street in front of it (see: Happy End, 2004). The possibility of orientation never exists. The images look towards the sky, they cut off lines, pieces of buildings, of windows, of roofs. It is impossible to become orientated, to understand buildings as three dimensional objects, to recognise the same house twice. Never do we see a reassuring picture which shows the entirety of an edifice. It is not a kind of calm, three-dimensional architecture.
Drivas picks in fact from the full three-dimensionality of a building only some secondary information, not really finalised to meticulously describe the architecture in its entirety.
The exclusively external spaces of Happy End contrast with those shown in Closed Circuit (2005) where all the actions occur in interior locations. Bob Miller’s hotel (see: Closed Circuit) is a panopticum, a prison of lines, openings, balconies, doors. Every detail is similar to the others. It is a protective shell, or a jail, a cave, an intestinal space. Like the underground of Jay Lee (see: Closed Circuit). The filmed architecture is always fragmentary, fragmentised. It is an intersection of lines, shadows, lights, crossing angles. There is no trace of a spatial continuity in the pictures. It is architecture without a body.
And the fragments, the pieces of architecture which are cut out from real buildings form new imaginary places. It is astonishing how the real space can turn so suddenly into something un-real. The architecture becomes oneiric material: looking at the films, the viewers enter a dreamlike space. This fundamental passage from real to surreal is reached by the use of details.
Small, meaningless details gain in fact great significance: the plot is often motionless, the viewers have the feeling that something has happened, or is still happening before their eyes, but nobody can understand it. We all have the sense of being right in the middle of a twisting cyclone, without having noticed the way and the moment at which we entered it.
To finally understand the story, to rationalise, to become conscious again, we –as external observers– cling to the smallest details, charging them with over-dimensional meanings. We need the details to feel protected, entering again a comprehensible situation. But in this way, an echo of significances is produced in addition to the ones proposed by the story, finalised to increase the entropy, the destabilisation, the curiosity, the sense of waiting.
Nevertheless, the architecture chosen as a subject / object / background for the actions contrasts with the story represented, even ironically. The stories are narrations without a defined spatial or temporal location, they have no connection with the city where they take place (East / West Berlin in Beta Test (2006) is maybe the only example of contact and interaction between plot and surroundings), they could happen everywhere, they could have already happened years ago, or be a future projection – remember the labyrinth. But the locations which Drivas chooses for his films don’t touch on the same concept: from one perspective they are filmed in pieces, disorienting the Cartesian sense of space. But on the other hand, they are places with a perfectly recognisable identity, they are Tempelhof airport, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the dome of the Reichstag, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Alexanderplatz (see: Beta Test, or Closed Circuit). And in Happy End it is possible to identify the Columbus Circle, or Times Square. They are architectural icons. And if compared with the dry plot of the stories, these places don’t have the same objectivity, they are not completely free of connotations. The spectator will recognise some pieces of buildings already seen in the past. Suddenly, in his memory, he will start to reconstruct connections relating the story back to the real world. The alienation produced by the series of lines and architectural surfaces is broken unexpectedly, if only for a brief second. Suddenly, there is a stronger relation between spectator and place.
AM I TOO LATE?
But although this sudden relation with the location of the films, an even stronger uncomfortable feeling emerges. Why is nobody there? The places which are full of persons, noise and movements in the memory, are empty, completely lacking in reassuring whispering and another human being passing by in Drivas’ creations. The effect is disconcerting: what has happened? Where is everybody? And the necessity to give an answer opens up new possibilities. New scenarios develop over the space of the film, widening the possible variables as if in a hall of mirrors, multiplying the probable answers to the questions posed by the narrated and documented stories. And the one who gives us information and who visually documents the stories – does he / she / it know the events (see: Beta Test, Case Study, 2007-2008, Closed Circuit)? Am I –as a spectator– aware of the fundamental actions which could make it possible to understand the whole story? Do I know them or not? Or am I simply too late, and so I have missed them? Why do I have a sense of anxiety? Maybe because I’m sure it must be something else, beyond the simple plot, which would permit me to understand the actions and the relations between them. And this “something else” must be really important.
To discover the not-shown information, the spectator tries to look for it behind the plot, to gain back a whole control over the story. As Drivas wrote about his works, it is the fact of concentrating on the not-shown, on elements which normally could be considered of secondary importance, which gives an additional value to the plot. In this way, minor information is charged with new meanings; it unexpectedly sets things in a new light and creates new significance.
From one point of view there is the story, the movements of the characters, the texts, and the documentation of the actions. On the other hand, there are the things unspoken, the pauses, the silences, the details. It is not only the plot which transmits data and feelings, but far more the space in-between. The spectator will reflect on this gap, and find new significance in it. The technique of photo-still speaks directly to the more abstract functions of the mind, stimulating series of connotations –remembrances, dreams, desires…– much deeper and touching, if compared to the prefabricated output coming from the pure story. It is necessary to pay attention to the emptiness, to concentrate on the personal interior world.
In Driva’s films the spectator has the usual role of a passive recipient of the stories. But the spectator is also reserved (or is obligated to) a strange, somehow displeasing role, that of the objectively active. Are we, as spectators, controlling an experiment? (Maybe we also planned it, but we cannot really remember.) The characters of the stories don’t feel as if they are under observation, they are distant, they believe they are alone. Spectators watch the stories from the outside as voyeurs: the observers register private scenes, maybe forbidden, surely not addressed to an open public.
The topic of the big eye which sees everything is maybe the most immediate connotation for the works by Drivas. The camera and photo settings also underline this aspect: the characters are filmed behind their back, they don’t have to notice our presence, the camera is hidden behind something (see: Closed Circuit, The Decision, 2007). It seems that the one who films, or documents, is spying on the characters, and wants to remain hidden from their view.
In Drivas’ last films (especially in The Decision, Closed Circuit and Case Study) there are clear protagonists, who populate the space (the Models, or Mr / Mrs. A or B). But contrary to the first films without defined protagonists, the general feeling is one of increasing emptiness and isolation: all the accidental persons who populated the scenes have completely disappeared, and there are no more unplanned passers-by that could give the picture a sort of truthfulness, a sense of safety. Now the one who watches or spies is the only “other”. Even if he probably doesn’t want to. Rebelling against the forced voyeurism which is imposed in our lives today? And to re-pose an old question – who observes and who is observed? In the present daily media control, do we become –as the ones who documented Drivas’ experiments– objects of observation ourselves?
What am I looking at?
The room where the projection takes place is a real room, and the space narrated by the film is also a real space. But the projection itself is no longer real; the bi-dimensionality of the screen is only a bridge to enter the three-dimensional narration behind it. But what happens if the film suddenly becomes a mirror? In the sense that the film is no longer a window to look through to other realities, but the reflected image of the subject who is looking at it? In the empty space of the unsaid, the un-shown, of the standby, I –as a spectator– can find myself 1:1. I become immersed in the film, and emerge again in my feelings / thoughts / ideas / fears. The projection (the screen) becomes a mirror, a utopian space which is at the same time very real to me. It is like Alice, who entered through the looking glass into a new world, and so through into the reflection of reality, which was real for her at the moment she was experiencing, but which was far away from any truth.
Considering this new point of view, who is actually real? Model # 1 and Model # 2 of Beta Test (who are addressed by the narrator with “it”, just like objects), or me, as a spectator? Who is the copy? The characters who act in Drivas’ films seem to be holograms, but inside their story they are perfectly real. And at the same time, they become a projection of the spectators who look at them, who see and recognise in the characters a reflected image of their own needs and fears. The models / characters are simultaneously real for their story, and a copy (or reflection), in the sense of actors in an unreal plot added by the external spectators, who reflect on them.
For Heraclitus everything flows, nothing stays still, and nobody reads a book twice in the same way. And Drivas’ films exemplify this concept: considering his works as a mirror, they reflect a different context every time; it is not the plot that is the important focus, but the pauses in-between. It is not the action or the conclusion, but the stasis, the thoughts which stay for a second before being substituted by other thoughts. And above all, what the real spectator sees, feels or remembers inside the pauses, by means of his reflection. The spectator finds a link with his private dreamlike world using the free-spaces which the film leaves open. We can speak of a spiral movement, which starts from the film, and afterwards generates uncontrolled phenomena in the mental space of every viewer.
Over the last two decades the documentary image has experienced dramatic developments. Moreover, numerous video artists have turned to what is called the docudrama, distancing themselves from the classic cinematographic experience. George Drivas evolves in this area, creating stories based on extant recorded images. It is interesting to note that he consciously chooses to sign the ‘documentation’ of his works, rather than appearing as the director. His videos are structured by a succession of moving stylized photographs, exploring spaces, urban life and human relationships. Unexpressed feelings, deficient communication, loneliness and failed love affairs are the basic subjects intimated by his works. The city, as a field of action, has an important and symbolic role to play, whilst the architecture of buildings appears constantly in all the works, commenting on the relation between urban architecture and the city’s inhabitants.
The leading figures in Drivas’ works have no names and do not address one another. The story is presented with sub-titles, the personages as A and B. The characters are always in motion in public spaces and give the impression of being under surveillance, their movements recorded, seeming to have undertaken some mission, suggesting that they are two programmed anonymous beings playing a game or trying out a programme. As the story unfolds, the protagonists appear to acquire a will of their own and attempt an escape from a pre-ordained course. The end, however, remains undefined and open.
Case Study is a part of the trilogy Social Software, wherein three different stories are treated, taking place in Berlin, between two people. In Case Study, Drivas has captured areas of Berlin’s environs, built up in the 60s and 70s, and expressing the modernistic utopian vision of a better society. Through the chill modernistic architecture and poetic empty spaces recorded by the artist, the heroes reflect an uncertainty, an attempt at self-definition, and a need for communication in a modern urban landscape. Social Software is, besides, the term used by a programme made to assist communication among people.
Globalization, our planet being increasingly interactive and borderless, is both a liberating and a tyrannical experience. It is a spectacular story of the human ability to gain freedom and to loose it at the same time. The work of George Drivas is a cinematic meditation on the contradictions and the paradoxes of globalization; a visual critique of its revolutionizing politics, its transformative economics, its pulverizing social impact and its apocalyptic aesthetics. Drivas exposes particularly the dark side of globalization and the new alienations that it creates, mostly that of space and time, but without denying its positive potentials and contributions to the human journey. As a genuine child of the globalization generation, he revels in its bright sides while rebelling against its darker ones. The backdrop is Athens, Berlin, New York and the language English. What else?
Globalization is changing drastically the space and speed and consequently the nature of human activity and interaction. Its spatial transformation is the most conspicuous. There is no longer only one way, through the well-defined territorial state, to experience the world. Its liberating potential is evident in the promise of de-territorialisation to enable people, both individually and collectively, to pursue their destiny without artificial constraints; ethnic, cultural, religious or other. It promises to liberate people from any early-life baggage and the often mono-dimensional and provincial confines of family, nation and any location where one grows up. It promises to get rid of all the seemingly arcane social and ideological constructs which humans developed from early days in order to respond to the loneliness and purposelessness of their existence, and which eventually, as the world started shrinking, often became obstacles rather than agents for security or happiness.
Globalization promises a world of unlimited opportunities, where free individuals operate in a neutral environment and on a single level-playing field unobstructed by the constraints of all sort of traditional borders, whether physical, mental or psychological. It promises a truly democratic and egalitarian world run by individuals and for individuals. Nations, religions, states and the pyramids of privileges they have built for themselves through the erection of various types of borders are on the defense. Traditional forms for achieving order are questioned. But are humans up to this challenge? And is this what they really want?
The spatial transformation of human relations brought about by globalization at the same time nurtures new alienations. De-contextualized humans and landscapes become cold and amorous units, individuality is ironically crushed under the weight of numbers with decreasing loyalties other than to themselves, and freedom proves once more elusive, blocked by myriad forms of digital surveillance and new dependencies. The absence of borders becomes a nightmare from where one can never wake up as there is nowhere to escape to.
The abstract heroes and landscapes of Drivas’s work, most compellingly in “Beta Test” and in “Case Study”, reveal the dark side of globalization; a re-conceptualization of humanity as a virtual mass of colorless and soulless individuals and as a grim digital re-incarnation of the early primitive man who found comfort in the confines of a cave fearing almost everything outside. “Safety is happiness” proclaims the narrator in “Happy End”. The irony is clear. Multiple virtual realities breed not necessarily more healthy interaction but also more alienation, hence, fear. Safety for whom and from what?
In most of Drivas’s movies, the heroes die, go missing, are never seen again, or never meet again “truly” and always without any consequence, like they never existed “truly”. Drivas captures the essence of the dark side of globalization: the philosophical reductionism of humans to simple biological units, without past or future. The machine, the ironic symbol of both economic liberation and social alienation of the industrial era, is replaced in the era of globalization by the electronic software. The dislocation may be different but the alienation experienced by the lack of stable ethnic, social, political and economic references remains haunting. And yet, there is no return to something that has changed for ever. Romantic escapism to an imaginary past is not possible. Even if globalization would roll back, the human journey can only move forward.
The second major transformation of globalization is time, or rather speed. It is the ever accelerating speed of human interaction that generates an enormous density of relations which overpower the traditional gatekeepers of the era of the nation-state and break the traditional barriers of the international state system. The threshold of density of human activity which is required to overwhelm the old world may be a moving target but the impact of the speed of human interaction is without doubt the strongest wind behind the sail of globalization. Yet, the seemingly ever accelerating speed of borderless human activity generates new alienations too. Individuals today are trapped in speeds they cannot always master. Drivas’s cinematic approach of still images, black and white colors and archetypal man and woman heroes is a wonderful metaphor for the human effort to keep pace with human activity without loosing the story of the human journey.
So what about the liberation of globalization? The challenges today are twofold. First, the perennial search for order, an essential condition for freedom, requires the peaceful management of change and of the ever-present competing values and interests among individuals and human societies. History teaches us that this can be done through some form of public authority, whether local, national, international or transnational. And a public authority which is both legitimate and effective. The former demands transparency and accountability, the latter that decision-making is taken at the level of the problems and challenges which are faced by the world today.
A major question today is what level of authority is appropriate for the era of globalization. And we need to think big. While the local and the national will not go away, and they must not go away because they are needed too, a new additional target may be needed, at least regarding the core of globalization. This could be the construction of both legitimate and effective mechanisms of global governance. Not a global government. But the necessary global structures of authority to address the contradictions and the paradoxes of globalization. Democracy, therefore, would also require processes that enable dislocated individuals to participate in the decision-making process that affect them. Global governance could be the answer to the inevitable alienations that emanate from the unprecedented transnational movement of peoples, capital, information and ideas that define our world today. But just one answer, not the whole answer.
The second challenge is to invent new and common narratives for humanity which can capture both the speed and the borderless nature of human activity and speak for both the opportunities and the challenges of globalization. Global governance is not only a matter of social and political engineering; of constructing new cold monsters, global institutions, structures and powers. It is also, and perhaps above all, the story of new ideas which are global where needed and local where appropriate. New bridges between the ever-present parochial and the elusive universal. A global narrative that can bring together the disparate readings of human history with the more universal visions and ambitions of the future. It is not about supplanting the national with the transnational. It is about making more space for the global and the transnational in the collective conscience of the humans around the world. It is about balancing thousands of years of human history with the ones to come. We need a common narrative that re-invents the “other” in a way that the reality of the blurring distinction between the “domestic” and the “foreign” acquires a story that is not “in between” but at the centre of the human story.
Drivas’s work is an observation, a comment, not a verdict. His latest work, the “Decision” emphasizes the critical junctures we are in by stressing the enormous difficulties we have when facing the future through a blind man’s wanderings around Athens. We are blind, no doubt. Humanity has always been blind facing the future. But we have a lot of clues. The work of Drivas is one piece among the billions and billions of pieces which make up what we are, giving clues and insights about who we are and how we experience ourselves and reality. “Speak responsibly then. Even if just a yes or no. The decision is yours”.
(From the catalogue “George Drivas / Uncinematic”, Monograph, Published by La Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (GNAM), Rome Italy, 2017)
“Certains artistes se sont emparés de l’image animée pour exposer un nouveau ‘matériau’: le temps”
“A house photographed and a house filmed do not look anything alike, because even though nothing happens, cinema still records the passing time”
Images of a moving object filmed above or below the threshold of 24-25 frames per second introduce a disturbance to human vision (the images appear accelerated if filmed at a lower rate and slowed if the frame rate is higher) 1.
A similar but less obvious destabilization that does not actually manifest as an effect but for that very reason seems even more apt to disturb our vision occurs when a steady camera records a subject that is basically static, as Andy Warhol showed so strikingly and symptomatically in Empire (1964).
These frame rate thresholds no longer apply when the object being filmed is a photo that fills the screen (its immobility is resistant to all stress), but the persistent presence of a fixed image within a film causes a particular kind of trouble because “without ceasing to advance its own rhythm, the film seems to freeze, to suspend itself, inspiring in the spectator a recoil from the image that goes hand in hand with a growing fascination,” as if in our vision the two kinds of time blend together “but without becoming confused.” 2
Remnants of this subversion subtly persist when we find ourselves viewing films made entirely from a sequence of photographic images, like George Drivas’s works 3, in which the photo – traditionally used to stop the flow of time – undergoes an invisible metamorphosis that turns it into a kind of paradoxical filmic “frame” sur place.
The “frame,” which in film is a ghost unit fated to dissolve in order to give life to movement, makes an untimely, grandstanding return: systematically denying the present continuous (the always now) that animates filming and stubbornly nodding to its own original motionlessness. The disappearance of all movement within the shot creates an imaginary still effect and although we spectators know, from the continuing electronic music or the appearance of short captions, that we are watching a film, our eyes and our mind are provoked every time by the fixedness. With its inescapable documentary role, the photograph, even when projected in a screening, does not duplicate time as cinema does but suspends it, shatters it, freezes it, and in so doing documents precisely its motionless passing. When this standstill occurs within a parade of static images, continuous but always different, our vision perceives a discontinuity and at the same time a sense of tactile proximity, producing a kind of reception that is no longer fluid and immediate but cratered and elliptical: the sequential arrangement of each photo suggests simultaneously the illusion of movement and its stoppage, giving life to a sort of Zenonian fantasy that silently leads the observer to dispel the stillness of each image to make up for those that are missing.
Through photography, Drivas therefore practices a form of spatialized narration, whose poses in rhythmic sequence evoke action without showing it. His “frames” sur place record, isolate and fragment, après coup, the actors’ change of position: temporal continuity is sacrificed to the partial yet concrete detail offered by the photograph, thanks to which movement is grasped through a dissection/suspension that wants to capture its expansion from the moment. This way, time manifests as a minimal disruption of space, while vision takes the form of a series of sections that align almost perfectly: their time dimension appears to reside precisely in that spatial “almost,” a dimension based on an incongruous, forgotten time, placed as it were between parentheses, sensed more for its effects than its duration; a time, devoid of pathos, that we can aptly describe as litotic.
Drivas’s work therefore appears to stem from an aesthetic of fragmentation, parallel and opposite to what we see in certain David Claerbout films such as Sections of a Happy Moment (2007) or The Quiet Shore (2011), where the unfurling and multiplication of an instant could potentially continue on to infinity with the constant change in point of view onto a single fragment of time, or in Barbara Probst’s Exposures, which deal with a similar motif from a more directly photographic, installational register. 4
However, and notwithstanding the profoundly different genesis of each of these works, while Claerbout or Probst tend to have us experience the interminable enchantment of the instant, Drivas makes us feel the motion of time through tableaux vivants of movement that put its own occurrence in parentheses, as in the famous and paradoxical instantaneous, discontinuous concept of movement in the Eleatic school which, not coincidentally, Philippe Dubois puts at the origin of both the photographic and the cinematic apparatus. 5
“If animating the image, seeing it move, was humankind’s dream, today perhaps we are witnessing the opposite movement: we want to see it stop, strike a pose go still, fluctuate between immobility and movement.” Serge Daney
“Cinema, by means of the possibility that is proper to it – of amalgamating the other arts, through takes and montage, without presenting them –cinema can, and must, organize the passage of the immobile. But cinema must also organize the immobility of a passage.” Alain Badiou
However motionless and flat a shot may be, it will never be the condensation of a single moment, but always the trace of a duration. Although the physical film itself is a collection of snapshots, the screening – and a movie does not exist unless it’s screened – cancels them all to the benefit of a single image in motion: yet the movement effect remains just that, an effect, the result of a physiological/intellectual perception of static images in sequence that produces the impression of movement through the sum of motionless instants.
Inverting Christian Metz’s adage by which the revolutionary aspect of cinema is “to inject the reality of motion into the unreality of the image,” works such as Closed Circuit, Case Study, and Beta Test – capable of staging an arrested dialectic between static and dynamic image – seem, on the contrary, to be injecting the reality of the photographic image into the unreality of motion; when screened, in fact, they show how wonderfully they have weakened (through the enchantment of the always now and the dynamization of the has been) the boundaries of “cinema” and “photography.” George Drivas’s works thus appear to refute the modernist bias that tended to strictly separate cinema and photography, without cancelling out their differences.
With a dual stratagem, the artist promotes the photograph to the ranks of (imaginary) “frame” by placing it in a series, however disjointed, and the (suspended) “frame” to the ranks of a photograph by evacuating from within it all movement. The resulting effect raises the prospect of an immobile, divided, fractured time that helps reconcile the two media: concealed in a sequence of motion, the photograph always appears to be on the point of moving, thanks to the montage, but the impression of motionlessness persists despite the dynamism of the filmic. Ultimately, we never find ourselves before either cinema-cinema or photography- photography but a sort of cold fusion of both. 6
Drivas’s works spotlight the “double bond” that connects yet separates the static and the moving image, film and photography; a paradoxical bond that, to use Jacques Derrida’s term, in the stricture also produces the effect of a simultaneous destricturation. The logic of this dual motion, an explicit theme of the works on display, suspends through its adamant undecidability any binary opposition, perceived as simple contrast, and prompts us to think of the unthought of a bond that maintains a relationship of ab-solutione.
We might also say that Drivas’s works transform a sort of self-limitation into a chance, paving the way for a concept of the filmic similar to what Roland Barthes describes in “The Third Meaning” – never mind in this case whether the vehicle of the image is digital or analog, since the video is used here in the same way as a camera. Explains Barthes, “…the filmic, very paradoxically, cannot be grasped in the film ‘in situation,’ ‘in movement,’ ‘in its natural state,’ but only in that major artifact, the still… The filmic is that in the film which cannot be described, the representation which cannot be represented,” and finally, “the ‘movement’ regarded as the essence of film is not animation, flux, mobility, ‘life’, copy, but simply the framework of a permutational unfolding” that requires “a theory of the still.” Only the still, which “throws off the constraint of filmic time,” offers us “the inside of the fragment.” 7
In this context, some remarks by George Drivas take on special significance: “Based on photo-stills, my films move forward and stop at the same time, tell a story and stop telling a story every time. They function as a whole, as an entire unit, when at the same time they are based on fragments, on small parts and details, focusing often on them and paying attention to everything else than an entire linear story fulfillment.”
“Each of my works is developing towards two directions: the linear, the narrative, the forward-moving storytelling on the one hand and the dreamlike, the paused, the no-matter-when- the-end-comes freeze of the photographed moment on the other.” For Drivas “It is all about creating a new sense of space vs. time, a new way of presenting and/or following a story by building a ‘fast slowness,’ similar to a dreamlike non-rhythm, a speed which is experienced almost hypnotically, so that time and duration become almost irrelevant.” 8
These remarks give us first-hand insight into the artist’s poetics, while simultaneously guiding us toward what Alain Badiou, in his Handbook of Inaesthetics, calls “the false movements of cinema.” Badiou 9 writes, “A film operates through what it withdraws from the visible. The image is first cut from the visible. Movement is held up, suspended, inverted, arrested. Cutting is more essential than presence – not only through the effect of editing, but already, from the start, both by framing and by the controlled purge of the visible.” 10
It is pointless, then, to think of the continuity and transparency of the sequence shot as redress for the montage; in both cases we are witnessing a construction and a withdrawal, in one case concerted and continuous and in the other case disjointed. Drivas’s syncopated infra-montage, with its resistance to the filmic illusion of real time, does nothing but show it with decisive, shall we say Brechtian emphasis. Bearing in mind that Badiou’s comments apply to film in general, we can deduce that the particular “films” of Drivas simply take to extremes and therefore make us conscious of what is proper to every film.
The saccadé rhythm of his works, caused by the more or less abrupt change of frame with every shot and the decision to place movement radically out of range, never tires of reminding us that we are watching a screening. Like Marey’s chronophotography, Drivas’s films show us immobility and motion simultaneously: they appear to move in a place where paused time offers us the has been in the future perfect without showing us the always now of its unfolding.
The fascination of his works lies not in their something more, but if we may, in their something less. Baudrillard writes, “in each image something must disappear…but this disappearance must be a challenge.” How apt a description for the motionless animations of George Drivas.
1 Acceleration can go as far as the animation technique called pixilation, in which live actors or objects are filmed frame by frame; this dates to the experiments of Normal McLaren. Deceleration can be used to such sophisticated effect as in the works of Alexandre Sukorov, Bill Viola and Douglas Gordon.
2 Raymond Bellour, “The pensive spectator,” in: in Between the Images, JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2011.
3 This applies in particular to Closed Circuit (2005), Beta Test (2005-06), and Case Study (2007).
4 For example in Exposure #56: N.Y.C., 428 Broome Street, 06.05.08, 1:42 pm., 2008, a ten-part work that takes up an entire space, thus constituting its own show
5 “Time as Zeno conceived it implies a chronology that does not accumulate, inscribe, totalize, or capitalize into a full, continuous memory; it is a memory opposite to the blow-by-blow, the instant, the oblivion; a time without precedent or posterity, a time of singularity in which every grip comes up empty, a time of beating time, an unmoored memory, of which I find photography…is a theoretical model. (And beyond the photo, even more so the film. Zeno, long before the rest, thought up the whole cinematic apparatus).” Ph. Dubois: L’atto fotografico, Urbino, Quattroventi, 1996, p. 154.
6 As Drivas will achieve for a few brief moments in subsequent works, where it is difficult to determine whether a gesture or a movement is obtained through the sum of consecutive photographic images or through the artificial deceleration of continuously filmed motion.
7 Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath, Fontana Press, London, 1977, pp. 61-67.
8 George Drivas in: L’evento immobile. Sfogliare il tempo, Casa Masaccio, San Giovanni Valdarno, 2011, pp. 56-59.
9 A. Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. A. Toscano, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2005, p. 78.
10 Here is a different translation of the same passage: a film operates through what it takes away; the image is mostly concealed. Movement is shackled, suspended, inverted, arrested. More essential than the presence is the cut, not only because of editing, but first and foremost because of the “mise-en-frame” and controlled filtering of the visible.