Interview by Dorothée Deyries-Henry, April 2017
Could you please introduce us to Parties visible et invisible d’un ensemble sous tension, the film that is included in Everyday Abstraction: Images at Work. Its origin, its title, how you conceived it…
Back in 2003 I was living in Canada. I decided to go to West Africa and I stayed in Togo for about 8 or 9 months. I was living in a town 100 km north from Lomé, the capital city. I was living in a house in the middle of the bush. There is a little text explaining this at the beginning of the film. The landscape you can see in the film is actually what I could see from my window. It was a bush landscape which means that you see a few trees and a little bit of vegetation, but it is pretty dry. In Togo if you go south towards the sea the third or the fourth of the country is a tropical forest but if you go up north you go towards the Sahara desert and it is very dry. So when I arrived there I had this idea of shooting this landscape in time lapse: I shot it during one day, about twelve hours from the first rays of light in the morning until the last one in the evening. That is about 7 minutes, or maybe 6 minutes. I have the whole day passing by with just the vibration of the wind on the trees, but the camera was not moving. And at the same time, since I was staying there for a bit, I decided to investigate again a technique I had experimented in the past and used in “Underground” in 2002, where I buried some film into the ground. I prepared some super8 and 16 mm films that were already developed but not exposed: some black films with all the layers of the emulsion on the film strip. If you take a pen and you scratch it, you get rid of some of the layers. If you scratch it very slightly you can see some green or some yellow appear but if you scratch it with more insistence it becomes transparent, you can see through the film strip. So I took some pieces here and there and I made holes in the garden or in the bush in front of my house and I buried them and put some wooden sticks to make sure I could find them again a few months later. From time to time I was unearthing the whole thing to check it out: “ok it is still totally black” or “the bacterial attack is starting now” or “it is not enough”, or “it is all white, it’s way too much”. So at the end of my trip I had some footage that was buried for a few weeks, some other for 1 or 2 months and some other for the whole stay.
With different results, because of the time of burial?
Exactly, time passing by creates a different result on the film strip. I also used different emulsions. So depending on the chemicals that are on the film it reacts differently. Some emulsions react very quickly, some were slower so I could leave them into the ground for a longer time. I just collected all this abstract material at the end. And the idea was to combine those two images together. That is what the title is talking about – visible and invisible parts – and it is also linked somehow, not directly but… to the writings of Merleau-Ponty.
Which ones exactly?
It’s called Le visible et l’invisible. And so I had to find a way to combine those elements together. I showed that footage in 2003 then I let it there for a while. When I came back to France a few years later, I started to work on it in 2006 or 2007, and the film was finished in 2009. I am working a lot with a machine that is called an optical printer. It was a machine that was used in the past instead of computers to make special effects… You can make a blow up from Super8 to 16mm. So, if you shoot in Super8 and you want to make a film in 16mm, you blow it up with the optical printer. You basically re-shoot your own film frame after frame. It is like a macro lens shooting on a Super8 film. You have a step by step model moving the films one after the other, doing “Yiiit” and then the Bolex doing “Puf” taking the shot. And then next frame, next shot, next frame, next shot…
So here again a combination in a way…
With the optical printer you can change formats but you can also slow down or speed up the film: for example taking one frame two times with the Bolex slows down the rhythm by two. You can also zoom on the image or put two images together, you have a lot of different combinations. But in my case I needed to combine the two sources of images. And what I did in the first place, before working with the optical printer, was to make a negative image of the footage with the landscape and the trees. Then, I took my abstract imagery and created a negative image: if the colors appeared on a black background, they would be replaced by their complementary colors and the black background by a white background.
So with those 4 sources of images I created a kind of score on my sketch book and I used two different techniques, which is very interesting in terms of cinema. When you expose a painting in a museum , for instance, you give some light to the painting so that you see the painting. If you turn the light off you are in the dark and you don’t see anything anymore. In a cinema it is different, you need to be in the dark to see your image, if the light is on you don’t see your image clearly. So I used those two techniques with the optical printer, called the bipack technique and the double exposure. Everybody knows double exposure, you basically expose one frame and you go back in the dark and you expose the same frame a second time to combine two images together. Bipack is the same thing except that you put two images together like a sandwich and then you shoot.
If there is a black part in one of them, the black part is going to block the light so even if you have some images on the second layer you are not going to see anything. With double exposure it is the other way around because if it is white one time it’s going to burn the film and it’s going to become transparent. So in one case the white is going to win and in the second case, the black is going to win.
So the whole film is based on the score that was written with those principles in mind. The idea was obviously, like the title says, to show things that are living together, existing at the same time in the same space but one is visible and the other one is invisible (the one that is in the ground).
You gave the same status to the 4 sources of image: the actual landscape, the buried image, which is within the earth, like a reversal of the same reality…
… Definitely! The buried image is a landscape too, but a landscape that you barely see. The whole thing is linked, with positive and negative parts, the line of the ground being the horizon line, like one side of the mirror and the other side of the mirror.
“When I started making films I was very attached to celluloid because I could feel like a painter (…), I could touch my material”
So the technique is what enables you to reveal what we can´t see, in an optical way, just with the eyes. If something is not visible, in a way it’s like if it doesn’t exist, and then the film reveals it and makes us aware of this reality.
Exactly, like a scientist who would use a microscope, for instance, to reveal a reality that exists but that our vision is not able to see. Another thing that is very important with the two images that I used is the relationship with time. In one case you have the time lapse technique where you can cheat with time, you are showing in two minutes something that in fact lasted twelve hours. The traces in the abstract images are traces of the action of time. It is only because it stayed in the ground for a long time that you can actually see something. (…) You also have all this bacteriological life going on into the ground that gives traces to the film (…).
These different techniques (filming, mixing…) allowed to have a more complete approach of this landscape you wanted to record?
Yes. In a way I think it is more real than if I had shot only the landscape itself, because I show much more than the landscape itself, the one that we can see with our eye vision. And also what is important to mention is that I couldn’t have done this film in video. I am really attached to the celluloid, in particular with this film because of the technique that I used (…) Celluloid has something tangible, that video or digital film does not have. When I buried the film into the ground I had to unroll the film, dig a hole, put it in the soil, put the soil back and then undig it, check it out. Sometimes when I left the filmstrip for too long inside the ground, the film was in pieces, I couldn’t make any use of it. Film is something fragile, something you can touch and something you get attached to, compared to making a film with digital video, that would have created very different results.
It is the materiality that enables the viewer to have an immersive experience in this landscape, I think. It is interesting and this combination is also a way of uniting abstraction and figuration. You did evoke American abstract painting, perhaps Pollock, in films like Overall or All over. Painting and materiality could be an entrance to Parties visible et invisible…
My background is very much linked to painting and abstract painting in general. I have never been a painter, I haven’t painted anything but I’ve been into abstract expressionism a lot. When I started making films I was very attached to celluloid because I could feel like a painter, in the sense I could touch my material, I had this physical contact with it. Which I don’t find in digital, obviously. I would miss that a lot…
Main illustration: from Parties visible et invisible d’un ensemble sous tension, Emmanuel Lefrant, 2009 / 16 mm / color / w. sound / 7' 00. Courtesy Light Cone.