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Manon de Boer, ‘Attica’, 2008

In music, a cell is an isolated melody, a unit in a cyclical composition. In Attica, New York, a cell is six feet by nine feet and still bears the residuum of the 1971 prison riot that inspired American composer Frederick Rzewski to create ‘Coming Together’ and ‘Attica’, minimal compositions incorporating texts from two prison inmates. Both pieces feature in the film ‘Attica’, 2008, by Brussels based artist Manon de Boer.

Played by a quartet, the first taut movements of ‘Coming Together’ transition into ‘Attica’, each musical cell added to a sequence and then successively removed. De Boer’s camera, first trained on the musicians, pans to the right, where it begins a steady and tenebrous rotation through the room. The strangely sanguine melody rolls below the voice of the saxophonist intoning former inmate Richard X Clark’s answer to the question of how it felt to leave Attica behind him. Clark responds, ‘Attica is in front of me.’

The austerity and rich pathos of Clark’s response shares a great deal with Manon de Boer’s work, whose cyclic motifs, from cameras carried around a room to identical portraits carried out years apart, make determining what is in front of you far more complex than it may seem. De Boer’s primarily filmbased practice (she has also produced an artist book, a CD-ROM and an internet-based project) reflects on the memory and identity of those she captures and those she captivates. Her films feature artists, musicians, intellectuals and dancers, a circle of friends who regularly appear in her work as subjects and collaborators. Their repeat performances are a means by which de Boer responds to a temporality outside cinema; precisely by repeating the time inside of it. In the fi ve works discussed here, de Boer uses sound, movement and finally cinema itself to puncture cinematic illusion.

Manon de Boer, 'Attica', 2008
Manon de Boer, ‘Attica’, 2008

In ‘Two Times 4’33”’, 2008, exhibited at the Berlin Biennial (bb5), 2008, de Boer films pianist Jean-Luc Fafchamps performing John Cage’s mute composition before a live audience in a studio space in Brussels. The 35mm film is comprised of two takes. In the first, we watch as Fafchamps performs the silent work, whose stillness is inhabited by the atmospheric sounds of the studio. In the second, the camera pans steadily across the audience, travelling over each member as a lighthouse beam passes over a landscape, until finally coming to rest on a window through which trees thrash, soundlessly, in the wind. This second take is completely silent, save for Fafchamps’ punctual striking of a timer to mark the divisions between Cage’s three movements. In the rarefied quiet created by de Boer’s repetition, the bodiless pitch of a dark screening room comes to generate the ambient noise: spectators shifting in their seats, the whirr of the projector. The audience becomes the voices of the mute chorus in the film, while the bodily awareness that attends deep silence is transposed onto the on-screen spectators.

Effectively, one is watching the watchers, with the self-conscious spectatorship that pervades de Boer’s work. In the films ‘Laurien, March 1996—Laurien, September 2001—Laurien, October 2007, 1996-2007’, 1996-2007 and ‘Robert, June 1996—Robert, September 2007’, 1996-2007, we see two individuals deeply engaged in some activity taking place off-screen. Like Warhol’s ‘Blowjob’, 1964, the inscrutability of the act (in fact, reading and playing guitar respectively) is countered by the legibility of the portrait. As in ‘Blowjob’, the countenance in ‘Laurien’ and ‘Robert’ passes through states of absorption and abstraction; it is as though, in setting up a mirror to the viewer’s own vacillating attentions, de Boer’s films propose a new reflection of the spectator (as a reader) to replace Warhol’s (as a subject to be pleasured).

'Sylvia Kristel', 2003 
‘Sylvia Kristel, Paris’, 2003

De Boer’s affinities with 1960s/70s film and video[1], strategies of repetition, rupture and even boredom, temper the intimacy of her portraits. They foster the estrangement of film, what Luigi Pirandello dolefully described as ‘the body changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, and then vanishing into silence…’[2]. If this ethereality forms the basis for star power (as in another point of reference here, Warhol’s ‘Screentests’), de Boer resists the charisma of her subjects through repetition. Filmed eleven years apart, ‘Laurien’ and ‘Robert’s’ nearly identical extended shots puncture the instantaneity of that ‘mute image’. We see both individuals age; their screen presence is redoubled, and they manifest not just a reflection of the viewer in that instant but a refraction of themselves over time. The paradoxical ‘now in the past’ of the filmed image is disrupted by the evidence of human time, a continuous present impressing its impermanence on the ‘repeated’ film image. In their quiet manner, these films serve as a memento mori for the viewer for whom the duration of the film—exactly the length of a Super 8 reel—is time brought closer to death.

While ‘Laurien’ and ‘Robert’ produce a kindred time signature for film and reality, ‘Presto, Perfect Sound’, 2006, does the opposite. The 16mm film, a recording of a Bartók violin sonata as performed by the composer and violinist George van Dam, is a tour de force in montage. After filming the sonata numerous times, de Boer and van Dam pieced together ‘perfect sound’ by selecting the best passages among the recordings. The film was then edited to correspond to this patchwork soundtrack, the seamless recording belying an image full of ruptures and seizures. The film thus inverts what Walter Benjamin identified as the illusionary nature of film: the creation of a continuous reality, a continuous space, through editing. In ‘Presto’, editing instead discloses a discontinuity with the reality of the sound, visual evidence at odds with the film’s somatic force. To the amateur, it seems improbable that a composition so volatile and virtuosic, and a violinist’s emotion so perspicaciously filmed should be reproducible on one hand, and judged in terms of perfection on the other. As with ‘Laurien’ and ‘Robert’, one is aware of versions existing apart from the film, a series of events that preside in a time more like ours than like cinema’s.

'Presto, Perfect Sound', 2006 
‘Presto, Perfect Sound’, 2006

The time that is ours in ‘Two Times’, the second version of silence in which the live audience becomes Cage’s accidental chorus, recalls a statement made by the composer in 1990: ‘Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning round .’[3] The camera pan condenses what, for Benjamin, is the most radical and seductive element of film: its capacity to create ‘an aspect of reality which is entirely free of all equipment’.[4]

In film, the only place from which one can view a scene without the sight of equipment is exactly in line with the camera. With the pan, the camera hand becomes a magician’s hand, prestidigitating all the equipment to create, even without editing, an aspect of reality to replace our own. Yet it is during this coup of cinematic illusion that de Boer cuts the sound, and one reality, the lived one, transpierces the other.

The pan animates ‘Attica’ as well. Halfway through the film, the camera returns to the chamber orchestra, which appears, oddly enough, to have reversed order (the saxophonist now stands on the left where he once stood on the right, the electric guitarist now on his right where he was once on his left, and so on). The pan proceeds until arriving at a bleary border that severs the trumpetor; it is the edge, one recognises, of a mirror—resolving the minor riddle of the orchestra’s rearrangement while inducing far greater disorientation, for nowhere in the mirror does the camera appear. The equipment seems to have vanished at precisely the moment when the mechanisms of the film and its aspect of reality were set to coincide: a halfway point in the pan and Rzewski’s composition, midway through the film reel’s rotations. By disappointing our logical expectations of seeing a camera (and perhaps more so, our illogical expectations of seeing ourselves) in ‘Attica’s’ reflection, de Boer both consummates and reveals the illusion of a film. Namely, that film is just that, an illusion, and that ‘Attica’ is not around but very much in front of us.

Joanna Fiduccia is a writer based in Paris
Several Silences, group show, The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 26 April-7 June


[1] These resemblances furthermore evoke a deeper affinity to structuralist film’s project, as Rosalind Krauss described it: ‘producing the unity of [film’s] diversified support in a single, sustained experience in which the utter dependence of all these things [the celluloid, the projector, the screen, the audience…] would be revealed as a model of how the viewer is intentionally connected to his or her world.’ Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999, p 25.

[2] Luigi Pirandello, quoted in Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p 229.

[3] John Cage, ‘An Autobiographical Statement or From Where’M’Now’, delivered at Southern Methodist University on 17 April 1990, accessed on 7 April 2009

[4] Walter Benjamin, Op. cit. p 234.