A moment, a place, a box, a reader
Duncan Speakman’s ‘short films for you’
for Timelab, 2012
(lees verder in het Nederlands)
(a sultry afternoon in the city)
His name is Duncan Speakman. I know him from the Subtle Mob during Almost Cinema. It is his answer to the Flash Mob. Those, we know from photos and movie clips on Facebook and YouTube: Internet spectacle. Subtle Mobs are less visible, more of an experience: environment spectacle. The motto is ‘Try to remain invisible’ and the purpose is to bring people together. Contrary to the Flash Mob the Subtle Mob does not work for a specific place, but rather for typical environments: a station, a shopping street, a square…
His new work, made during his residence at Timelab, brings five artists and one spectator together in as many typical environments. Here they are the ones who appear and disappear in an environment. Among them are a writer (Tom Abba), a photographer (Reinout Hiel), a sound artist (Els Viaene) and a choreographer (Yoko Ishiguro). And you, of course. Or, in this case, me. Today I am the one to which he wants to show his work.
We meet up in a bar near Central Station. The appointment is not without its share of drama. The bar has changed names. I am fifteen minutes late. He calls me on my home number, thinking it is my mobile. I come across him on the pavement in front of the bar and I can see the relief behind his sunglasses. By his arm there is a bag, with a box inside it. That box is the work. On it there is a title: short films for you. I accept the box and slightly aroused I drive home with it. On my way home a thunderstorm sets in and I take of my sunglasses.
(at home, by dusk, the door to the terrace is open after the thunderstorm)
So, a box. With film shorts. For me. I open it. Inside it there is no film, no video, no DVD, but rather a book, a headset and a pocket lens. The wire of the headset disappears into the book. On the side there is a play button and an MP3 player. The book itself is a box. Apart from an MP3 player, it also contains loose documents, an envelope with photos, and in the middle of the book there is a space for another booklet. I am thinking Russian dolls: a box inside a box, a book inside a book. I am reminded of that volume in my father’s library, which was pretty modest on the whole: the big one, to be carefully removed from its shelf, in which someone had cut a hole right through the pages for a bottle of brandy.
The book is a portable environment. More than a vehicle of tiny physical spaces, each story inside this book is also a reference to an environment, each one sets out with an instruction. The first one goes: “a slow walk in the early morning”. I put the book back, close the box and set the alarm at peep of day.
(an abandoned street, early morning)
I never, I repeat: never, travel without a book. That is why I prefer to go by train rather than by car. Reading in a car makes me nauseous. But a morning stroll with a book? That is new to me. The object of morning walks is getting a newspaper, or heading to the bakery. Not reading. Reading while walking, that’s for priests. They are to the only ones who can get away with that. That is because they already know the story. Reading, to them, is praying: the repetition of a ritual. By the way, in my native tongue – Dutch – reading is synonymous to praying.
But there I am, that morning, all forlorn out in the street, with a book, and I start reading. A couple of instructions are enough to embark on a new ritual. I put on the headset, start walking and push play. I walk slowly and allow the city some time to wake up. I hold on to the book as if it were a purse and make sure not a single piece of paper, not one card or envelope drops out. The soundtrack on my head and the image before my eyes merge into a new reality. I no longer move in space, but rather with space. The space is on my head. And as I take of the headset again ten minutes later, I step out of one reality back into the other.
(a bar in the morning, the sun is shining through the open window)
Liftoff. The ritual has been launched. This book is not merely an environment: it pulls you in. It is a medium: it puts you from one space into the other. It is a vehicle: without moving it moves you around. It has a religious aspect: with instructions for another reality. There is someone out there who has conceived and created all of this: especially for me. Discomfort makes way to a feeling of ease. I happily walk along, even though I do not move. I can see, even without watching. I can hear, without really having to listen.
I order coffee and look for a man. An old one, according to the book. I look at him and press play. The voice speaks English with a Flemish accent. It is the voice of a young man. Disorientation. Sound and image run parallel. One completes the other. They have a meaning. Someone has staged this, for me.
Time seems to be running backward: the old man and the young voice. I can hear other voices, younger even, and older ones. Sometimes they sound backward. I think of ‘The Exorcist’: the voice of the devil, turning her body inside out. The story mirrors: victim turns into murderer. Inside turns outside. Man becomes voice. Book becomes story. Documents from the book unfold, like devotional pictures in a bible: ghosts from the past. I move between the living and the dead. I hover between image and reality.
(a tramstop, in the afternoon)
Every book is a journey. It is a capsule offering a sense of security. Sometimes it gives meaning, at other times it points the way, and there are times when it opens the door into another reality. And stepping in is always as easy (or as hard) as stepping out. I can shudder at the most horrible adventures of Melville, Lovecraft or Poe, as much as I can long for them. I can allow myself to be protected or overwhelmed by a book. Reading puts things into perspective: no book is absolute; no book is sacred.
I hop on the tram and press play. The city slides by. I move without moving. The sound of the tram blends with the sound of the book. I open the envelope and I take out the photos. Images of the city mingle with the images in my hand. They superpose. All these places merge into a non-place. The city stiffens as I move. City turns into image, image turns into city. Even the sound seems to operate outside time, for a while.
As if it were a ship, the tram slides through space: the cosmos of the city. Spaces shift through one another. Nothing is absolute. Did someone come up with this? Or does it exist for no one but me?
(my street, at dusk)
As the lights go on inside the houses, I get ready for a short walk. I am out in the street, I look around, put on the headset and press play. A bus slides by. People stare at me. Dazzled, I stare back at them. Another world. I move on. The yellow light of the lanterns scatters out over the street. A film, a sheet, for the city.
(at the table, at home, evening)
This work has a lot, if not all, to do with telling stories and translating. One reality is turned into another. It does so by using words to tell, by translating into images, by converting into sounds. And as with any story, any translation, some things are blown up and others appear in miniature.
Deep in this book, in this box, there is a tinier booklet. I need the pocket lens to look at it. I put on the headset, take the booklet and press play.
I hear lost sounds, environmental sound: burning wood, running water, and rustling trees. Each of these sounds makes a transition, marks off a boundary. Limits of the audible, limits of the visible. The pocket lens makes it tangible.
Field recordings are the auditory equivalent of the snapshot. The images in the booklet are tantamount to field recordings. Field images. Lost images, environmental images. The pocket lens reveals the grid underneath the printed image. It sounds as the noise underneath sound. The pocket lens reveals details in recorded reality, but at the same time it reveals the technique used to represent it. That representation is a translation. So is the game between image and sound. One amplifies the other, clarifies the other. I can hear the details in the noise of the sound, as I look for details in the raster of the image. When I finish the book and the sound keeps going, I shut my eyes to see more clearly.
(in the sofa, at home, before bedtime)
Moving without moving. Does not that touch on the essence of cinema? Travelling without displacement. Is that what these short films mean to me? A miniature universe. Minimal means, maximum effect. A book. A scenario. A direction. A choreography.
Dancing on paper, writing with movement: that is the finale to this book. I need a partner. The book goes viral (as it has always been). It sets out beyond the solitary act of reading. Reading, that is what you do by yourself in order to be with others. A book, that is a pharmakon against solitude. This book has reached its destination. I ask my dancing partner to come sit beside me in the sofa; I give her an extra headset and press play.
The tips of our fingers dance along one another. They meet. My hand turns into her mountain. We stop and look at each other. Merrily we tiptoe along the pages into the cushions of the sofa.
There we are: dancing without dancing, standing without standing. I close the book, put it with the headset and the pocket lens back into the box, and I give it to her: “these short films are yours”, I tell her. Someone has thought this up, someone has made this, just for you.
(at night, in bed, alone)
The book does not let go. Each miniature, from my morning stroll up to my late dance, from the quantum gothic horror to my merry explorations, from the street to the bar to the non-place of the city: each moment, space, image and sound is interwoven. I shut my eyes and someone presses play. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terell stroll along the lanterns of my street. They sing a pop song: a miniature story. About mountains high and valleys deep, about waiting and longing. They are singing for me.