An imaginary slightly detached.
Text was written by Vic Brooks for catalogue of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award in 2018.
Following the release of the first major Hollywood talkie The Jazz Singer in 1927, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers discussed the potentials and pitfalls of various methods used to synchronize sound and image. One such engineer describes how “the microphone could not be located conveniently on the set” in a scene in the movie where the father enters the frame to tell his son “stop!” This technological obstacle required another actor to yell the word from off-stage as the father silently moved his lips on camera. The resulting displacement of the voice from the visual perception of the mouth would, however, remain imperceptible to the audience watching the film. The spatial gap was closed by synchronization during post-production, a method still regularly used both for dubbing vocals and by Foley Artists to isolate and heighten individual sounds for dramatic effect, much like the ‘punching-in’ of a cinematic close-up for emphasis.
Much of Alžběta Bačíková’s work similarly seeks to heighten the tension between what we see, what we hear, and, subsequently, what we might believe. An opposite but comparable displacement is at the center of her new installation Setkání (Encounter), which amplifies our individual differences of perception, whether physical and/or psychological, through a process of deliberate de-synchronization. In the film, we follow a deaf actor and a blind actor through a series of five scripted scenarios in which they ‘perform’ their endeavor to communicate on their own terms, starting as strangers and ending as friends. However, although it is recognizably narrative in form, Setkání is not a straightforward work of movie fiction, as Bačíková quite literally separates the soundtrack from the video in Setkání’s presentation, reinscribing the operation of the spatial displacement of that off-camera yell from the set of The Jazz Singer. The audience thus experiences Setkání in two parts: first as a sound work (an imageless soundtrack experienced in a darkened room) and subsequently as a silent video installation, the light from the images accentuated by pale walls. The gallery, in essence, becomes a bisected cinema. This spatial, sonic, and visual displacement is more than a trick. Bačíková in essence deconstructs the physical apparatus that defines ‘cinema’ as we know it–projector, screen, loudspeakers, and audience sitting together within an auditorium in the dark–in order to disrupt the process of flattening that this naturalized understanding of perception engenders.
In one section of Setkání, a radio broadcast from the car stereo describes the importance of the shift to sync-sound that first became publicly visible with The Jazz Singer. This technological breakthrough taught audiences a wholly new cinematic language, different from what they had become used to in the first few decades of watching movies. If this in one way transformed a relation of sound and image, the process quickly naturalized a new representation of such synchronization onscreen, tying cinematic experience directly to a more quotidian experience of listening and watching simultaneously. Where previously the narrative momentum of films was carried by inter-titles, dramatic physical gestures by the actors, and live musical accompaniment, sound films normalized the experience of movies as entirely pre-recorded and mechanically reproducible as whole objects, moving them further away from the stage practice of vaudeville and theater. Nonetheless, in the midst of precise historical detail, Bačíková’s works are never enacted as straightforward documentary inquiry. Rather she delves into the slipperiness of communication and, more specifically, of the (mis)translations between forms of human communicability.
Setkání’s soundtrack opens with a sharp tone used by the visually impaired to recognize color. It is generated by a sensory substitution device (SSD) that measures the wavelength of light in order to interpret color, a sound also reminiscent of the bleep often inserted at the beginning of an audio edit so that the sound can be synchronized to the timecode of the image. We encounter the protagonists in a variety of locations, each uniquely ubiquitous sonic environments (a cafe, a car, etc.), as well as amongst other digital and analogue sounds of technological devises, such as the aforementioned SSD and the smart phone, which the blind protagonist has set to a level that speeds up the voiceover. The experience of listening to each sonic cue in sequence prior to the encounter with its visual counterpart has the potential to produce a psychoacoustic effect as we pre-stage the locations in our imaginations and based on our own experience, all of which immediately disappears, or is complicated, when we see the actual ones on screen.
Like the radio show that mediates The Jazz Singer’s soundtrack by playing the songs without the accompanying projection, in the actors’ first meeting, a smart-phone becomes the interlocutor in which words spoken and heard are translated into visual language typed or generated onscreen, and vice versa. As the sweeping gestures of the blind actor’s fingers on the touch screen become increasingly analogous to the visual-manual modality of the sign language used by the deaf protagonist, Bačíková’s video and audio recordings of these staged interactions capture and spatially dramatize the acute potential of technological tools–of recording, communication, and distribution–to assist with translation across these perceptual gaps and sonic and visual silences.
However, these visual and audio technologies also have the ability to produce the opposite effect. Rather than always serving as a tool of one-to-one communication and translation, they can transform our subjective ability to parse reality from fiction, reminding us that we don't or shouldn’t always believe what we see and hear onscreen. Uncertainty is generated not only by the performance of Bačíková’s subjects but her subsequent mediation of the recordings through montage and reframing. This ambiguity is foregrounded in a series moving image portraits made by Bačíková between 2016 and 2017 and which were subsequently re-edited and presented together as a synchronized three-channel installation for her 2017 exhibition Running Report. Together these moving image works—Hrdinové (Heroes), Korespondence (Correspondence), and Lékaři (Doctors)—produce an active interrogation of how three different men choose to construct and perform identity. Bačíková fabricates a slippery, unstable reality for the viewer by presenting these ‘documentary’ subjects in either juxtaposition with, or in allusion to, categories of popular genre film and fiction, like romance, thrillers, and procedurals, that have remained deeply tied to the ideological framing of gender for the past century.
Hrdinové centers on Eda, a Czech martial arts expert and obsessive fan of martial arts movies, while Korespondence focuses on male escort Oliver. In both, Bačíková takes a deliberately documentarian approach by inviting her subjects to be represented as themselves while she remains an ever-present interlocutor off-camera, deliberately entangling the plot lines of their real lives with those of their characters through scripted, visual, and sonic cues. The subsequent tension between the (woman) artist’s desire for a subject and the (male) protagonists’ desire to be framed by her camera delves into the multiplicity of pertinent questions that frame our cultural understanding of the documentary mode. In partially revealing the self-construction of her protagonists and her own reconstruction of them for the purposes of an artwork, Bačíková also foregrounds the fragile line between the director and the directed by testing the limits of believability inherent to the apparatus of the moving image.
Although it might be obvious to refer to Erving Goffman’s famous 1950s sociological study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life when discussing these artworks, in many ways Bačíková plays at the limits of what Goffman described as a “dramaturgy of everyday life” by collapsing the categories of quotidian social interaction with theatrical structures. It is apt, of course, that the Czech translation takes Goffman’s summary of the book “we all play-act” or “Všichni hrajeme divadlo” as its title. Gesturing towards the messy ‘truth’ of how we perform ourselves in order to project a certain image, the approach of the first two videos (whose social relations are clearly enacted through the interaction between subject and artist) is muddied by the third, Lékaři, that is structured around found-footage of an avid consumer of conspiracy theories, in turn presenting the evidence of his own perceived persecution. Originally shown on a series of monitors supported by a shelving system similar to the one visible alongside the onscreen elderly protagonist, the soft-montage effect that this array of screens produces alludes to both our experience of the internet’s multiplying windows as well as the image of surveillance rooms recurrently propagated by movies and television shows. In combination with this familiar visual framework, the intense, forensic delivery by the subject is juxtaposed with a video of Bačíková’s two musical collaborators producing the soundtrack for the artwork using the protagonist’s audio as source material. On first look, the carefully contrived ‘professional’ look of the ‘conspiracy theorist’ and his set reads first as fiction (perhaps designed by Bačíková), yet the soundtrack’s ‘making-of’ footage exposes that the moment of fictionalization actually lies in the composition of the artwork itself.
Bačíková certainly approaches the formal construction of her audio-visual works with rigorous precision. This is particularly reflected through framing and composition, not only of each shot or spatial sonic environment, but also in how the artworks (as a combination of technology and content) are mediated by what is around them, whether that be the architecture of an exhibition space or each other. In both Korespondence and Hrdinové she heightens narrative tension by capturing her subject— body, architecture, or material process—with tight and medium shots, isolating gestures and accentuating them though classic montage or the juxtaposition of multiple channels at once. Her methodology is further extended by the overlay of subtitles and surtitles that at times entangle voice and image, or by complicating the documentary style of ‘talking heads’ with the emotive power of rousing film-music. These formal strategies work to draw out the conventions (and accompanying affective structures) not only more visibly at work in film style and genres but also built into the calibration and design of technologies for the production of images and sounds. With these strategies, Bačíková reveals how we use technology to mask, erase, and reframe reality. Her work points to a construction of reality that is deeply and necessarily subjective, and highlights our often complacent perception that certain categories of media production, for example the documentary or the news, represent truth, while cinema represents fiction. Bačíková essentially collapses the categories of documentary and fiction by projecting all her subjects as those who act, whether the role is themselves or fictional character.
A recent video-portrait Bent Tiles (2017) goes even further with this and dissolves any obvious differentiation between reality and fiction for the viewer. Here Bačíková and her (other women artist) collaborators play with the construction of character that is collectively produced rather than an individual’s public performance of self. The work centers on a Czech ceramist who deliberately retreated from public view. In some ways the character stands in not only for those who have rejected the art world and its contradictions, but also for the numerous women artists who have been overlooked or forgotten. By presenting such a narrative within a biographical documentary framework, Bačíková takes aim also at the art market’s contradictory demand for the previously unknown, rediscovered, or missing older woman artist-genius. The two-channel video frames interviews with flawless shots of tiled architecture and ceramic material production in a deliberately cinematic style, resulting in a wry institutional critique that reveals the contradictions inherent in the very forum in which Bačíková’s own work is presented.
In this way, Bent Tiles attempts to ‘re-vocalize’ the position of women. But like The Jazz Singer, a film marked by its fraught relationship to identity, straightforward re-vocalization is not the only displacement inherent to the production of Bačíková’s artworks. Alongside its aforementioned sonic and visual displacement, The Jazz Singer also literalizes the voice of the ‘other,’ as Jewish performer Al Jolson infamously represents an African American singer by ‘blacking-up’ for the role. This complex and racist legacy of minstrel blackface performance that characterized much of Jolson’s work (and that popularized Black music with white audiences) may seem far from central to Bačíková’s inquiry. However, it is ultimately related, as both The Jazz Singer (accidentally) and Bačíková’s work (intentionally) reveals the implicit societal structures through which only some people are allowed to be heard and seen, insofar as they don’t align with the ‘universal' white and male subject.
By shattering the illusion of the neutrality or naturalization of standardized moving image technologies, Bačíková entangles the question of who is authorized to be represented with the question of how we represent ourselves. By just slightly displacing the threshold between projection and performance, between sound and image, and between reality and fiction, Bačíková’s installations produce a sensorial awareness that has the potential to open up that elusive space in which the viewer can construct a new reality from their encounter. She produces artworks that deliberately enact the same sort displacement that Roland Barthes described was necessary for cinematic critique (rather than full “cinematographic hypnosis”) in his essay Upon Leaving the Movie Theater: “I must be in the story… but I must also be elsewhere: an imaginary slightly detached.”