Leaping through time
On ‘The Wave’ by Sarah Vanagt and Katrien Vermeire
For dvd-edition ‘The Wave’, 2015
In ‘The Wave’ filmmaker Sarah Vanagt and photographer Katrien Vermeire follow the excavation of nine victims of the Franco regime at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Their technique combines their respective practices: time-lapse photography. This technique, as well as the video, is all about time. Several time shifts interact: time as it passes between the individual images, the period between the burial in 1939 and the excavation in 2011, and the transition of time during the actual excavation, which takes 21 days. The video is a collaboration between artists who like to push back the frontiers of their medium. Though there are definite references to their separate work, the cross-fertilisation between the two does result in fresh momentum.
Vanagt and Vermeire’s work is never quite as innocent as it might seem. It is often about children: in ‘Little Figures’ (Vanagt, 2003) three children comment on the images of two monarchs and a crusader, in ‘History Lesson’ (Vanagt, 2003) children learn about the genocide, in ‘Money Exchange’ (Vanagt, 2005) or in ‘Der Kreislauf’ (Vermeire, 2014) children become traders, and in ‘Boulevard d’Ypres / Ieperlaan’ (Vanagt, 2010) adult traders participate in a child fairy-tale world.
The latter is also the first collaboration between both artists. At the time their tasks were still clearly distinguished: Vanagt directed and Vermeire was behind the camera. For ‘The Wave’ they codirect. This means that the narrative (in the work of Vanagt) and visual elements (by Vermeire) will further reinforce each other. They cross-contaminate and intertwine.
‘The Wave’ is realised almost simultaneously with ‘Dust Breeding’, for which Vanagt works at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. This results in another contamination. She films the spaces where judges and defendants interact and she makes use of archive material about the moments of, before and surrounding the trial. This is where she develops her rubbing technique, colouring the surfaces of the tribunal. The technique may seem rather unwieldy – because of its inefficiency. It is rather naïve – which has to do with Vanagt’s stubborn persistence. The lightness of her technique, combined with the gravity of the facts – the genocide in ex-Yugoslavia – results in another innocence, which is not that innocent.
Not that innocent. Does that mean truly guilty? The question then is: who is guilty? Guilty of what? A tribunal such as the one in The Hague was installed to answer such questions. Vanagt and Vermeire, however, are no judges, they make films. Guilt – contrary to innocence – is too big of a word in this context. They are concerned with commitment, with ways to involve an audience in an image. Their work is about giving space to images for interpretation. It is about ways of making an image work.
The way of the image
The commitment of Vanagt and Vermeire takes what can and can’t be seen as a starting-point. The space in-between belongs to the spectator. Participation arises from what is available and what the spectator can make of it. When I meet the filmmakers to talk about what I have and haven’t seen, Sarah Vanagt tells me about the trip she made the day before. That day she presented ‘The Wave’ in Nijmegen to Dutch Spanish language students and in the evening she was a guest at the ULB, the French-speaking university in her hometown Brussels, for a discussion with a small group of film scientists about the same film.
The way she travels her film is interesting. It is part of the pedagogy of the work. The film does not simply supply (images, sounds, ideas), there is a demand as well (for input, a response). Sarah Vanagt talks about the questions the film raises for the audience. About what she explains, adds and contextualises with her audience. Also about interpreting – of course these are all actions performed at and during the Yugoslavia Tribunal: relating and translating, guessing, looking for loopholes, causing distractions, complicating. But the same thing happens in ‘Boulevard d’Ypres / Ieperlaan’, when Vanagt and Vermeire project images of the foreigners at the front in Ypres during World War I over images of today’s immigrants at the Boulevard d’Ypres. This added complexity is one of the main ingredients for a good game – the game that is so important to both Vanagt and Vermeire. A game that is not – as you might have guessed – that innocent.
In other words, their work deals with the life surrounding, preceding and following the image; with the imagination of the artist, the spectator and ultimately also the image itself: with how images work. It is about how an image becomes an act, beyond a mere object. But it is also about how images are turned into a space for exploration. That is the subject of ‘The Wave’: an environment – the site of the excavation – temporarily turning into a space for exploration, where history lessons are openly exchanged for the very first time.
The French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman – he is the one who quotes Sartre in ‘Images malgré tout’: “L’image est un acte et non une chose” – designates this with a term he borrowed from the German art historian Aby Warburg. The latter discussed the ‘Nachleben’ of images. Didi-Huberman translates this as ‘survivance’. This can be further translated (interpreted, explained, supplemented, expanded, complicated) as ‘survival’, ‘living through’ or ‘afterlife’. In order to achieve this Warburg develops an instrument of his own: a ‘Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, named after the Greek goddess of memory. His atlas helps him to look at art from an iconographic rather than a historic point-of-view. Similarly to these filmmakers, Warburg starts from the image and gives it a place in history. And in the same way as these filmmakers his technique consists in combining images until a story emerges. There is a cinematic term for this: montage. But there is another term in philosophy: dialectic. That is how Didi-Huberman (with Warburg) finds his way through his image. That’s the purpose of the atlas, the instrument you need to find your way.
Along that way the image becomes far more than an object: it is an act, capable of raising questions, bringing a story into life, animating objects, setting them in movement. There the montage of these photographed and filmed images becomes dialectic and beyond that – remember the trip of Sarah Vanagt to Nijmegen and the ULB – also didactic.
The lapse of time
Technique is a substantial element of this film in which Vanagt and Vermeire alternate filmed and photographed images. After one hundred years of cinema we are used to those filmed images. The strange elements in this film are the animated photos. There is a name for this technique: time-lapse photography. It is a laborious and yet quite simple technique – cinematic pioneer George Méliès already applied it in 1897: it is safe to say it is as old as cinema itself. The technique consists in visualising the lapse of time by interrupting it. This is achieved by taking images from a sequence. The sequence is shortened and that is how movement becomes visible. The illusion of movement is one of the fundamentals of cinema. The spectator supplements what takes place between the images. That is where imagination starts.
It is not the first time that Vanagt reinvents cinema. This apparent return to Méliès was preceded by a quest for her African Lumière brothers in ‘Silent Elections’ (Vanagt, 2007). Similarly to the Lumières she works on a cinematographic atlas in that film, by sending her operators (or, in this case: her cameras) out into the world. In her newest film (working title: ‘De Ontwaring’, 2014) she dissects a cow’s eye as a camera obscura. And by way of ‘The Wave’ spin-off Vanagt and Vermeire created a flipbook together: genuine pre-cinema. From the light of the Lumières it moves over illumination through a camera obscura or a flipbook, to the obscuring magic of Méliès. This magic animates: the stack of bones in ‘The Wave’ turns into a body, reclaiming its place in history. These animated images look back: they concern us.
The attention for technique shifts the narrative. Apart from a short discussion right at the start of the film, ‘The Wave’ is entirely non-spoken. Except for a short dedication to the nine victims in the grave at the very end of the film, the narrative is not pushed forward by text. Everything in this film is contained in the images. Or in-between: in the montage, the dialectic, as an invitation to look through the image. Layer by layer the surface of the image is scratched. In the same way as ‘Dust Breeding’, in which Vanagt records the depth of the surface. Only here – in this grave that actually came about in a bomb crater – the digging goes much deeper.
This film has two directors. This results in at least two positions. Vermeire descends into the grave. That is the most central place: with the archaeologists. She makes pictures of how the bodies appear during the digging. She does not photograph actions, nor hands or instruments: before each shot those disappear from the grave. Her attention goes out first and foremost to what lies buried (the history) and only then to the excavations (the topicality). In that way she photographs the lapse of time. The position of Vanagt is on top of the grave. She sides with the families. She talks, interviews, tracks the surrounding events. Her subject – the people, the hands, the actions, and judgement – is never shown on-screen.
In the time shifts between the photos the emotions hide: those of the archaeologists when they stumble on a skull; those of the family as they attend history; today’s history – the digging – and the history of 1939: the burial. That is when the strongest emotions arise: in the time passing between 1939 and today. Then ‘The Wave’ shows how the civil war is still alive in Spanish society today, through the daily confrontation with the assassins of the family members.
The separate viewpoints of the two artists – in and around the event, close by and from a distance – are also reflected in the film, in the alternation of filmed and photographed images. The photos close in on their subject matter: they show what is uncovered in the grave. The filmed images keep their distance: they show the landscape, the people, the surroundings, and the context. That contrast between photo and film results in a paradox. The moving film images show quiet moments – during which little or anything happens – whereas the photos record the actual movement.
Alice in Wonderland
I have to admit, it was an unguarded moment, and yet. During our discussion Sarah Vanagt compares the position of Katrien Vermeire to that of Alice in Wonderland. I have to admit – and so does Sarah Vanagt – it might seem out of place to compare Katrien Vermeire’s perspective in that mass grave to the fairy-tale world of Alice. And yet, there is truth in it. Vermeire is standing there, at the bottom of that pit, isolated from her surroundings. There, in that grave, she becomes part of that other reality, the reality of history. She reaches out through the screen, in the same way as Alice reaches out “through the looking glass”. She becomes part of the image, as does Alice when she passes to the other side of the mirror.
What is special about this place becomes even clearer when Katrien Vermeire talks about the landscape. The grave in the film divides the world around it. On the one hand: an idyllic, pastoral view of the hills. On the other: the poison of the quicksilver mines, apparent from the disruptive growth of the flora. Each environment is different. Foucault would refer to it as a heterotopia. Not a utopia: then it would be unattainable. But rather a heterotopia: a tangible, attainable and yet radically other space. It is not by chance that Foucault gives the example of the burial place, or the jail as examples of heterotopias: in the same way Jorge Semprun discusses life under Franco, he refers to a chain of villages as concentration camps – therefore as jails. The image – the camera of Vermeire, the mirror of Alice – is the in-between space linking all these other spaces, all those heterotopias. Like the crane in the film it is a dispositive, opening and closing spaces.
As a matter of fact, this opening and closing is one of the main characteristics of the heterotopia (and the mirror – Alice’s, but also the camera’s – ties it together: both unattainable utopia and tangible heterotopia). Heterotopias operate as a network. They are connected in a non-linear way. The corpses in this film are dug up in order to be reburied elsewhere. By moving them from one place to another, their place in history, their meaning, changes as well. In that sense this history changes from one heterotopia to the other. This might seem odd, but it is not that exceptional. Graveyards – as Foucault’s text teaches us – also change place in the course of history: from the inside of the church to the outside, and ultimately (fearing death as a disease) to the outskirts of the village.
That is how Vermeire experiences that grave. All this time she keeps standing there, next to those archaeologists, looking and waiting for the result of the conflict between those other spaces. All this time she keeps staring at the ground, along with the archaeologists. She relates how her horizon disappears. We recognize this disappearing horizon from her photographic work. It can be traced back to the way she reduces the horizon in her sea views (‘On Selecting Vibrations’, 2010), by not photographing them in a horizontal landscape format, but upright, in portrait. Naturally a sea view such as this is the archetype of a horizon. As it is tilted, the indefinite aspect of the horizon is given a face by the photographer. By reducing it, she brings it closer. And obviously a horizon is no longer a horizon when approaching.
It can also be recognized in ‘Godspeed’ (2010), the photo series of fireflies she realised in the US. Those fireflies, along with the trees, create a screen before the lens of the photographer. Compared to ‘The Wave’, we are confronted with an opposite perception of time. Instead of reducing time by leaving out images, she stretches it by opening the shutter of her camera, at times for up to forty-five minutes. Instead of a sequence of nine thousand images for a twenty-minute film, we are presented with a single image of forty-five minutes. Rather than juxtaposing a multitude of images, she superposes all those images into one. A still image animation makes way to stilled movement. No reduction, but rather stretching out: of time. As time is stretched out, one becomes part of the image, along with the photographer. This stretching – another paradox – causes densification, the horizon fades out more and more.
Right now Vermeire is working on a new film in which space (both the architecture and the environment: three peculiar and closely related homes on a hillside) and time (the sequence of generations in a human life) play a major part. And descent: of that hill. Or expansion: of a reality. There too is a reality opposite to our own (of the mirror, of the camera), a reality with a proper micro-ecological and -economic system.
Before the image
That is how ‘The Wave’ goes beyond mere illustration. Each image exists in its own right. And around it each viewer creates a reality of his own, that “Nachleben” of the images, arising from the event, the reality surrounding it, before and after the image. What the viewer projects onto the images is part of it as well. That is the moment when those afterimages (the images coming afterwards, in the “Nachleben”) turn into examples, the images that come before. This is the moment when what preceded, what was already known, the perpetual accumulation of knowledge, becomes part of the image. This is what Vanagt and Vermeire achieve in ‘The Wave’: they create an image to be interpreted by us, as emancipated viewers. You start from the material, the examples you carry around.
That is why this choice, of not showing the stories of the families and of the archaeologists, intensifies the image. These images are not meant to provide answers. In their complexity they do raise questions: they impose translation, guessing, deviating and simplify or complicate the matter at hand.
This also ties in with the apparent innocence: that joyfully disruptive perspective of Alice, continued in the children as tiny adults in ‘Der Kreislauf’ or in the films by Vanagt. This echoes ‘Kriegsfibel’, in which Bertolt Brecht explains war to children. These are no innocent, but confronting images. No magical, but evocative images. No fantastic, but fascinating images. This results in unexpected depth that makes this film very serious, more than any other by either Vanagt or Vermeire. It shows the mass grave as a crossroad in history, where many things come together.
Larry Sider created the soundtrack for ‘The Wave’. He has made several films with the British Quay brothers and therefore he has some experience with the other reality of animated film. He has particular knowledge about the other reality that can be created through sound: all this sound was superposed over the images during postproduction. It is part of the afterimage of the film. But here as well the afterimage turns into an example, an image that came before. This is because Sider uses the sounds of the actual excavations only sporadically. Most of his sounds were derived from sound databases, which are sample databases and therefore example databases. Those sounds – of humming flies, rubbing hands, falling sand, crickets and other animals – wrap a generic layer over the film: they add to the abstraction of the image. They take it further, beyond mere illustration.
It has been said before: technique is a substantial part of this film. This is because of the time-lapse photography, but also because of the way in which the sound becomes part of postproduction. It has to do with the combination of film and photography or, as Katrien Vermeire aptly puts it: the way in which film and photo dance around each other. We are already familiar with the magic of this choreography from ‘Godspeed’: in those images she (or the viewer: it is part of the “Nachleben” of the image) does not only incorporate a sense of movement, but also of sound. That sense of movement is also contained in the title of her most recent film: ‘Der Kreislauf’ (literally: the cycle, what returns as a movement or a chorus).
The choreographic movement is part of the title of this film: ‘The Wave’. It is a reference to the wave movement of the excavation, as demonstrated by the time-lapse technique. It returns in the wave of excavations all over Spain, during the last decade. It can be traced in the wave movement of the film, in which the grave opens and closes again. Not only is what remains of the victims reburied in an other grave. In the remaining pit a crane buries photos of and flowers for the victims. It is all part of that wave that keeps rummaging through history.
This history will keep coming back. Like fireflies it is not a light on the verge of disappearing, but on the verge of appearing. They flash by, like the photos in this film or like the flashlights in the filmed sequence towards the end: as if those lights were copying the time-lapse effect of the film. It is part of the fascism that still survives, long after the torches of the 1930s have been put out. Hence the choice for this excavation and reburial: revealing slightly, and then back to darkness. History survives (lives on, lives after) through these leaps in time.
 Georges Didi-Huberman. ‘Images malgré tout’. Minuit, 2003: 67
 Georges Didi-Huberman. ‘Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet. L’œil de l’histoire, 3’. Minuit, 2011. Originally published as : ‘Atlas. How to Carry the World on One’s Back ?’. Reina Sofia, 2011
 Michel Foucault. ‘Des espaces autres (conference au Cercle d’études architecturales, 14 mars 1967)’. In: ‘Dits et écrits’, Gallimard, 1984 (translations can be found on- and offline as: ‘Of Other Spaces’)
 Jorge Semprun in ‘Los caminos de la memoria’, the film by José-Luis Penafuerte, 2009
 The lesson of Jacques Rancière in ‘Le maître ignorant’ (Fayard, 1987; ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’): his master (the Frenchman Jacotot) teaches his students (the Flemish in Louvain) what he is incapable of himself (the language of the other) by example (a French and a Dutch version of ‘Télemaque’). It is the ambition of Bertolt Brecht in his ‘Kriegsfibel’: his montage of images and texts results in a new context, a new poetic effect, a warning, a new example. In: Georges Didi-Huberman. ‘Quand les images prennent position. L’œil de l’histoire, 1’, Minuit, 2009.