first published in
A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue
- A Critical Reader
Spector Books,Leipzig, 2013.
keywords: reality / fiction, (re-)presentation, internationality, methodology, fascination, naivety
[Frankfurt am Main, October 4, 2012]
Susanne Gaensheimer with Mario Pfeifer
Susanne Gaensheimer is the Director of MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Germany and appointed Commissioner for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011 / 13.
Susanne Gaensheimer: Let’s begin with the question of how this film came about—a film with this scope and form, with this intensity about this precise place, the city (and region) of Bombay? Why this particular situation?
Mario Pfeifer: Well, my living and working in Bombay was the result of an invitation that had a very different aim in mind—to involve me in a collaboration with two Indian artists, to work together on their project, a 16 mm
film installation for the exhibition Being Singular Plural, Moving Images from India (2010) for the Guggenheim in Berlin and New York.
SG: Who was responsible for the invitation and which artists were involved?
MP: A Berlin based curator, who is friends with both artists and knew my work, made the initial suggestion for me to work with Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia and edit their 16 mm film. When the request came along, I didn’t have any specific plans for other projects as such and spontaneously accepted the invitation, for two months at the start. I was very impressed by the city while I was working with the artists in Bombay during this period. Before Ileft for India—the trip was organized at very short notice—I decided not to make any particular preparations or do any special background research, like reading books, watching films or looking at any other reference materials to generate information or get some prior knowledge of the subject. Instead, I was more interested in generating all my knowledge locally.
SG: So this was your first time in India?
MP: In India, yes, but I have travelled in South-East Asia on several occasions. I got to know the city, the region and the people during these two months; I sort of exposed myself to all these situations without much of a clue and that was the way I experienced things. Through the collaboration with the two artists, I also had a good network of information and contacts, wich in turn hooked me into very different parts of the city and put me in contact with very different people. One of those people was my cinematographer, Mukhul Kishore, whose apartment we swapped films in; he recommended literature on architecture and the urban history of Bombay. The window of his apartment had a wonderful view of the National Park, which later became one of the locations for my film. After I’d finished the project with the two artists I decided to stay in Bombay for a further three months to work on a personal project, to research a film project in fact.
SG: What form did this research take?
MP: At first it was an intuitive process and was initially really physical and sensual, as I was using public transport, taxis, regional trains and buses— I was travelling to all kinds of different places in the city and its periphery,
ultimately exploring these places on foot. All I had was a city map, which I used to determine the places I would visit. The map itself indicated various urban developments and served as a sort of reference tool if you like.
SG: And why did these specific places look interesting to you?
MP: Because of their geographic location or the cultural references embedded in them.
SG: Can you give me an example?
MP: Crawford Market—shown in the episode in which a woman visits a temple and later meets the male protagonists at a jewellery stand on the street. It is one of the older examples of public architecture, a maze of street markets and the central market halls in South Bombay. At the same time, this district is one of the most densely populated parts of Bombay, India, and possibly the world. There is tremendous religious diversity in this district. At the time I was also doing research on a minority of African descent, the Sidis, and actually met one of the few remaining families in this area, as well as their religious community. The architecture shows influences of British colonial power (like Crawford Market) but there are also numerous traditional and private temples, which are part of Indian architecture, mostly designed to accommodate the working class.
SG: What do you mean by private temples?
MP: Mostly Hindu places of worship built in residential houses and often cared for by the families living in the houses. These temples were established and funded by private, often wealthy, believers and function both privately
and publicly. They are also accessible at fixed opening times, something that I found really interesting, along with the immese throngs of people negotiating the extremely narrow streets, not to mention the sheer range of products on sale there. One of the reasons why I chose this temple was the building’s façade, where I discovered hexagrams, ornaments that looked very similar to the Star of David. Of course, I then made some false assumptions about how to identify these symbols. The family living in this house and looking after the temple was unable to give us any information. Other people, some of them professional tour guides whom we consulted, tended to agree with my supposition. In the end, I asked Shuddha Sengupta at a meeting in New Delhi and he told me about Mogul-style ornaments that do indeed have a similar shape to the Star of David but are designed differently and have a different symbolism and message. Perhaps this situation gives a good idea of my research principle, not to mention the subsequent decisions about locations—places I wanted to communicate
about in my project without actually explaining them but still providing sufficiently complex information in picture and sound. These locations are discussed in this publication. In the Crawford Market area it is possible to experience a very specific form of urban architecture that is still intact and functions in a complex way (approximately 1.5 million people live in a confined space in this district and the population density is approximately five times higher than in other districts). If you look at the neighbourhood’s environment, then you can learn how new architecture, apartment blocks and skyscrapers threaten this historic building stock, and with it certain life choices, the cultural and social conditions of communal, private and public life. In this sense, my research and subsequent film production was also a means to look at parts of this environment and preserve it for further discussion. By the way, I consider this essential quality of film—the possibility of investigating something visually over a limited period using a realistic means of observation, and so preserving processes and movements—to be one of the main reasons why I choose to work in this medium. Furthermore, the geographical term Navi Mumbai interested me—a satellite city on the mainland, which in its time was considered to be the most extensive planned city and thus represents probably the biggest failure of an urban planning concept at that time. For example, a number of large wholesalers moved into the region, together with huge gated communities, enormous agglomerations of self-contained residential centres (built on the American principle) that were created in the 1990s and have an autonomous infrastructure: supermarkets, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, etc. They are surrounded by countryside, huge complexes in totally monstrous, outsized buildings (the film John and Jane  by Ashim Alhuwalia describes this development in a very special and profound way, combining sci-fi stylistic devices with a documentary approach). One reason for the replanning of these suburbs is that, historically, Bombay grew from south to north, along the coast and the route of the regional railway. As a result of the rapid overpopulation of these rather limited urban spaces, the municipal authorities decided upon a northeasterly axis for the city’s expansion. Lines for an east-west rail connection are being built. To the northeast, for example, several regional train and motorway flyovers have been built since the 1970s over the Bombay Creek—these appear in one of my episodes. In addition to the Central Business Districts (CBD) in Navi Mumbai, spacious and inexpensive residential centres have been constructed, in the hope of getting inhabitants from the overpopulated city to move to these localities and occupy homes that tend to follow a Western model rather than taking local housing styles into account.
SG: Were these areas designed and implemented by Indian architects?
MP: This was one question I repeatedly asked when I was there and just as often got the same response to … most of the buildings are planned and constructed by developers, whereas architects follow the guidelines laid down for them and function as professionals in a technical, purely executive capacity. They also have very limited impact upon the architectural design of this kind of public space. The outcome of this political and economic approach is obvious. Two rare exceptions to this rule are Uttam Jain and Charles Corea, who managed to realize a number of public buildings, including the Kanchenjunga Apartments. However, there were also reasons for my researching public places in particular. I often noticed blocks of ice on bicycles and mopeds being transported across the city in the midday sun. This observation prompted the question as to where and how those somewhat ephemeral materials are produced, which of course interested me, due to their abstract, formalistic nature and socio-economic function. So I visited several ice factories in very different parts of the city, all of which were located within the fishing communities in the city, and only employ workers from the local villages, often slums. These places reveal some of the historical origins of Bombay, as the Koli fisherman community is one of the oldest in the city’s history. In the film episode you can see this from the inscriptions on the walls naming Koli deities (they are described in the second chapter of this book). Another, more contemporary, locality is the eye clinic. While I was moving around in the city, I kept coming across advertisements in public places or on public transport promoting LASIK laser treatment. Most of these ads had a more Western or Southeast Asian look, but clearly addressed a regional clientele in Bombay. Then my assistants and I visited several eye clinics and talked to ophthalmologists, who pointed out that one reason for young, unmarried women to avoid wearing contact lenses or glasses when their eyesight is impaired (and this is something that also acts as a motivation for their families) might be to obtain a higher dowry in the event of a possible marriage. I was really interested by the implications of this, culturally speaking, because this rather traditional idea is communicated through a decidedly contemporary advertising message, in which ideals of beauty are also conveyed, as can be seen in a shot from the episode in the clinic.
SG: What are the precise symptoms treated by this method?
MP: It is used to correct various forms of defective eyesight… Another place that caught my interest was the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the northern part of the city. The Khaneri Caves are situated here, hewn out of the rocks by Buddhist monks about 3,000 years ago and used as a training and meditation centre. So you can gather from this that these places are among the oldest settlements in the city. This park is better known nowadays as a place where young couples can be romantic away from the public gaze, whereas in other places they might run the risk of being attacked publicly. This reutilization of what is today an anthropological site caught my interest, especially as many Bollywood film productions with “romantic themes” have been shot in this park. SG: Why did you choose what looks to be a contrived narrative in this episode? All the other episodes seem at first sight to have a documentary nature, whereas a story is being told here: a couple—a female and a male protagonist appear in the film in different situations and in different places—visit a park together, their behaviour decidedly personal and romantic. The scene ends with a kind of symbolic, albeit somewhat hidden, proposal of marriage. This episode is thus different from all the others in its explicit narrative structure. MP: A large part of the film does indeed have a documentary feel, but this begs the question of what “documentary” actually means or is—not to mention the promise that goes along with it. Personally, I am talking more about a documentary approach. So in each episode there are elements that are controlled or have been suggested, which in turn relate to situations that have already been experienced. In the case of the episode at the National Park, both protagonists appear together (for the first time) and act in a fictional, but nonetheless plausible, situation. In reality, these two characters hadn’t met before and got to know one another as people during the film production. And this reality, which came about via my project, is investigated in this episode in order to simulate or recreate the kind of scene you get in the context of a classic Bollywood script, like the ones frequently produced in these places. SG: But was there a romance during the production? MP: Well, as is usually the way, there was indeed some romance in the air during this production …
SG: … between the two of them?
MP: … even if it had a different ending in their case.
SG: That’s an interleaving of different levels of narration and structure, of the real and the fictional …
MP: … which is to do with thinking about where a so-called reality begins and where it seems to end. In this sense a film is something very real—for the many people involved it simply means a lot of work and the labour that is invested is real; at the same time it may depict something fictional or invented. Neither of my protagonists were (or have become) actors nor had they ever appeared in front of a film camera before. Rather, they were residents of the city and took four days off work to collaborate on the film, so this experience is real to them. You could say they also conducted themselves very naturally and authentically in the situation—a situation they understood and accepted as genuine and real for themselves, just as it was for me. In one scene, I asked both protagonists to say, “I love you”, which, to my amazement, presented both of them more or less with an emotional challenge. It gives a pretty good idea, perhaps, of how the two of them understood their work on the project, as an extremely personal contribution and one where the filmmaking process evokes emotions in an immediate way and at the same time influences and shapes them as individuals in the course of the film’s genesis—and the same was true for me, of course. Personally I think less about the conventional distinctions between documentary and fictional images and much more about their message and construction, as I believe that both strategies are very interesting methods of knowledge production and that images generally convey only part of a truth or authenticity. However, I find it more interesting to involve the viewer in these questions, to create possibilities of understanding, and also at the same time to destabilize these readings and experiences. Because this may put viewers in a better position to adopt an attitude relative to what they are seeing. I am fundamentally interested in responses based on ambiguous interpretations. This is true for both documentary and fictional sequences, no matter if it’s me producing them or some other author(s).
SG: Maybe we could talk again about why you chose an episodic structure for this project, this film. As you describe it, you ended up in Bombay more or less by chance, experiencing the environment there as a guest or an outsider. So how did you develop and ultimately realize the film?
MP: Yes, I sort of found myself again in what was effectively a very complex environment, left to my own devices. This was followed by attempts to find my way in this environment, to interpret it as best I could with the means available to me at the time. This situation gave rise to the question of what one can interpret and understand per se and under what conditions. I am convinced that you understand something from the outset, irrespective of whether you speak the language or are able to read it or understand the actual context. In my case, the immediate experience initially had to do with a formal investigation: paying attention to materials, objects, typography, architecture, sound … essential experiences. On a secondary level, I worked with two research assistants, who both live and work in Bombay. I discussed and analysed these formal observations and experiences with them and relied on their knowledge and networks. Many of my proposed topics, places and situations presented difficulties for them, too, which they duly reflected on through conversations, research and bouncing off other sources. During this process, interesting information about these formal considerations crystallized; this often became the substance of several different readings and forms of interpretation in the episodes I ultimately selected, most of which were characterized not by one single idea but by many. Since my research took place in many different locations and situations, each with their own context, the idea of episodes came up—autonomous films, approaches and contexts that could be experienced individually but also together. A fundamental idea that I was trying to communicate with this strategy was that material represented is not to be seen as complete but instead shows only an aspect, part of a larger context that I saw myself as being unable to capture. And I also don’t believe that it would be possible or worthwhile. One would need to expose oneself to these situations to understand their complexity and all their repercussions—a film (or installation) cannot replace such an experience at all. Having myself experienced many films and moving-image based installations as a viewer, I also thought it would be liberating to offer an audience a choice of how many of these episodes they want or need to watch in an exhibition space, by separating them both within the project and spatially in the context of an exhibition comprised of several autonomous projections. Having chosen locations, objects, actions and actors, and a notebook containing the planned shooting schedule and locations, I then put a film crew together, in conjunction with my assistant and my cameraman, a team made up of professionals who had supervised documentary, advertising or feature film productions. A key figure here was my production manager, who secured access to public places and sites—which meant keeping the police away from the shooting locations—without it costing us a fortune in bribes. Ultimately, our team consisted of up to twenty-five people, a relatively small team, as I was told in Bombay, but one I was initially somewhat sceptical of, as I had never worked with so many people any time before and prefer a smaller group of collaborators. The fact that I wanted to shoot each scene only once was something of a challenge for my crew. It meant that from the outset I was not interested in whether what happened on camera was perfect or not, seeing it rather as something real in the moment of filming. There were also economic constraints which I made use of conceptually, as a result, I achieved a very interesting ratio of realism to representation. I had steadfastly rejected suggestions for me to shoot this project on video or 16 mm, on the one hand because of these constraints and, on the other, because the materiality and colour depth of 35 mm were important formal criteria for this work and its overall conception.
SG: Could you transfer this same approach to another place in a non-Western country or does it have something specific to do with this place, this city?
MP: In my case, this project has to do exclusively with this place. It certainly has something to do with me as well and with my immediate situation there, with my level of knowledge at that time. I wouldn’t translate this exact approach to a different place in any case, because I developed and applied this approach based on the situation I found myself in. So it has something to do with the time and place it was made and less perhaps with the geopolitical circumstances in general, although the complex and dynamic situation in Bombay of course led me to express myself in just the way I did. It remains to be seen whether I would work again in a similar way if I found myself in a similar situation and a similar place. But I think I’m more interested in responding to my immediate environment and developing an approach or strategy that grows out of that environment and work situation, more than I am in following a principle—and no two places I have so far visited seem all that similar, especially if one spends more time in a situation and experiences the more subtle aspects of it.
SG: What would you say is so special about this place? Would you say it holds for Bombay in general or just for the locations in your film? What is it about this place that suggested this approach, this examination
of your perceptions as an outsider, as you say?
MP: First of all, I should say that, from a cultural point of view, it was a relatively difficult situation for me to produce a film in a city like Bombay. On the one hand, this has to do the fact that I found myself in what may have been a rather privileged situation and had the opportunity to work there; on the other hand, it raises the question of who exactly a cultural production of this kind could be useful for. Another question relates to what one can actually represent anyway and, once again, for whom? I was aware that it is pretty well impossible to represent Bombay as a city and it was not really my intention to do so. I knew that it would certainly be extremely difficult too! I saw myself rather as simply being in a position to discuss certain aspects, excerpts as it were from an environment or particular situation. Besides, the name of the city appears neither in the title of the work nor in the film, so one can surmise that it is not intended as a representation of a city, but about specific situations in an urban environment and its specific culture. In terms of content I wanted to be very accurate in how I formulated these studies, or representations. I also wanted to articulate them in as open a way as possible, since the complexity of the situation depicted would otherwise be more severely limited by me, and because the situation was alien to me up to that point—and to some extent still is—which, in turn, is tied up with the cultural history of these places and the region. Each of these places and situations contains great potential for different interpretations. At the same time, each place points to formal qualities that interested me, be it a block of ice or the poster advertising perfect vision, the golden sandalwood powder that is applied to the scalp after shaving the head, the clapping of hermaphrodites or shelters built by migrant workers using local plastic bags. The formal considerations point to a variety of sociopolitical circumstances and conditions, which can be interpreted according to the degree of knowledge on the part of the viewer, and yet all of them are equally interesting in my opinion. What interested me in these places is the complex relationship between the formal quality, which the camera brings into focus, and the sociopolitical, cultural, religious and urban information that is expressed. We have formulated some of the information in this publication in the descriptions of the episodes, even though we run the risk that these episodes will now define this information—they allow many more interpretations than can be reproduced here. By the same token, the subtitles are deliberately descriptive in most episodes and not word for word translations. The different languages and dialects are not mentioned, for example, but are identifiable to a section of the audience, while for someone like me they can only be experienced formally, as sound. These gestures of understanding were very important for me, the idea that, in some circumstances, a formal experience is initially fascinating and also that, in this kind of environment, you can’t get beyond this experience without considerable effort. In this sense, I could imagine that this project tempts people to experience a similar place in a similar manner and, where necessary, to go to some length to question these observations in terms of content. In this regard, my project is different from a conventional documentary that tries to explain exotic environments and situations—and I mistrust these explanations inasmuch as they raise the question of why one needs to explain something that is an everyday experience and totally comprehensible for the person involved. I wanted—and I did this from a relatively early stage with my working title A Formal Film—to make a clear statement about what I could actually achieve, namely a formal consideration of a complex situation. SG: An analysis of your take on something alien to you and the significance you saw for yourself through your own personal process. MP: Yes, an awareness of the formal considerations as determined by the immediate context of this form. The ice factory episode is perhaps a concrete example here: to begin with I had never seen a block of ice as big as this and I was really taken with its formal structure and consistency. At the same time, a block of ice like this has a whole bunch of ordinary functions, such as being a temporary refrigerator for locals or used in the preparation of sugarcane juice in mobile street cafes. The production of this ephemeral material and its specific shape and dimensions led me to the shift workers, where I saw the working conditions in a fishing village, inside a slum. The interior design and wall inscriptions of such a facility were, of course, quite intriguing, the colour of the walls, the arrangement of light, the sounds … The things I experienced in these places and situations can be difficult to articulate but this film project gets very close to them, especially because it offers an experience and, on principle, foregoes any form of explanation. I prefer to leave any explaining to those who receive this project and those who we invited to contribute to this publication. So it is again a piece of collaborative knowledge production derived from issues my film project suggests— and hopefully it goes even further than that.
SG: So, on the basis of formal considerations, you decided to get closer to these places. You also wanted to avoid making interpretations or speculating and projecting your feelings. This was your reason for creating the formal structure of nine episodes as a first step. In the next step, during the presentation, you separate the episodes from one another by constantly rearranging the number of screens and the order of the episodes shown in these projections, even if all the episodes are always on show in the exhibition space—a flexible, high-definition video installation. You take apart any interrelationships that might emerge within these episodes when you put them in a museum / exhibition space. The episodes are presented in a different order or can be seen detached from the overall context. By using this formal approach, did you succeed in introducing a moment or level of abstraction that prevented you from giving into pure fascination (which was there, of course)?
MP: Of course, this fascination was there (and is certainly evident in the film). Nevertheless, I still looked for a means to counter this situation. This certainly has to do with my attitude and training as an artist and the fact that I am more sceptical about a representation as such, especially if it derives from fascination. In our cultural history there are plenty of problems in terms of representation when it comes to conveying something exotic, so I was well aware of this whole aspect of the project and yet still wanted to suggest a different approach as to how to deal artistically with such a situation. A fundamental idea here was to think about how I might design a project in which I assume that a viewer from the immediate context of my film, from Bombay, will think about and interpret the work. Would the film in itself be perceived as alien, exotic, an outsider work or something like that? Or not? My deciding for the episodic structure has mainly to do with the fact that I wanted to communicate the idea of incompleteness, that my film project doesn’t undertake a general representation of an urban system; instead a number of autonomous, short films that refer to larger a system are presented in context. My episodes are—from a particular point of view— exclusively concerned with excerpts of everyday situations in different parts of the city and yet they still tell us something about the region and culture per se, which cannot, however, be represented in its overall complexity. This distinguishes my way of thinking and my project, for example, from Louis Malle’s L’Inde Fantôme (1968) and the cultural and critical developments that historically separate these two projects and approaches. The project’s title also reflects that somehow. I was aware early on that I didn’t want to suggest a linear shape and viewpoint for a presentation in the exhibition space, because at the content level there were no persuasive reasons for doing so. Generally, I think that—in a different way from a movie theatre— the exhibition space has a great potential for presenting moving images and gives an audience a variety of options for engaging and participating, and also reflecting on the environment and viewing conditions. Unlike conventional documentaries and feature films, I don’t propose a predetermined order with my installation: there is no beginning or end to the installation.
SG: But there’s still a prologue and an epilogue …
MP: … which I don’t exactly specify. Instead I leave it to the viewer to make these assignments. This project has also been presented at film festivals, at the London International Documentary Film Festival and at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. In both cases I came up with a linear arrangement for the screenings but this is only intended for a film presentation in suitably equipped premises and in its specific cultural / film context. SG: What do the prologue and epilogue stand for in your project? MP: Both establish a theatrical structure, arguing that what we are looking at is, to some extent, a staged scenario from the way it is preset, from its concept and discourse. This might come into collision with some episodes that contain what seem like documentary images. Other episodes include action, which certainly contains narrative moments that gesture towards a certain temporal continuity in the storyline (and production) of the film. The headshaving scene definitely points to such a continuity, as we don’t see the protagonists with any other hairstyle. The idea of giving an order or arrangement to the episodes, prologue and epilogue, and thus determining a possible reading of the story, is not what I intended. I’m more interested in different ways of combining the strands and associations between the episodes. I think of each episode initially as a complex unit, which can, depending on interpretation, be combined with other episodes—the construction of a narrative sequence is very individual and depends on a whole load of different conditions affecting the viewer. Also how much they watch and for how long, and how they actually think and feel about what they see.
SG: So you are effectively placing the viewer back in your original situation, because you initially experienced these things without knowing the overall context—more for tactical or strategic reasons.
MP: Yes, more for formal reasons. During my travels over the past few years, I was always very interested in visiting places and developing projects, using information and experiences available to me there, in as unbiased a way as possible. Presenting the viewer with the most open, but nonetheless specific, situations possible and dealing with concrete issues definitely corresponds to my personal experience there. At the same time, I think the episodic structure conveys the idea that this only treats selected, representative excerpts of a larger, complex aesthetic and social situation. SG: Allow me another question about fascination: did this formal structure prevent you from giving in to this fascination? What happened there? MP: A sense of fascination is certainly noticeable in the film. This is reflected on the film’s surface, the image and sound. The decision to work with 35 mm film stock with this colour spectrum bolsters the feeling of fascination I had for the materials, places and action depicted. It was important for me not to work exclusively on this level of pure fascination but to treat other themes discursively behind this formal level. I am interested in social, urban, cultural and religious issues just as much as the formal qualities of the objects and places that are actually represented in this aesthetic and act as signifiers. The combination of these two approaches and interests, and a certain fascination for the two are, as I see it, inseparable components. I still consider both to be stylistic devices that ask questions of one another and reflect my on-the-ground situation and sense of place.
SG: Have you ever screened this film in Bombay?
MP: Once—at a talk I gave at an artist residency, while I was doing research for this book together with Markus Weisbeck. The fifty guests who I presented the clips to entered into an animated discussion—which I was delighted about because there were obvious similarities to my research, which took in a whole variety of opinions about all sorts of things, be it the different languages and dialects, the way they are intertwined with one another in the film, at which points in the episodes this or that language appears or how words, which at times consist of several languages, are used and the cultural implications they then have. The aesthetic and conceptual strategies visible in the episodes prompted the viewers to pose more questions and it seemed to me that a local audience can also be both fascinated and ignorant about social topics in places they aren’t familiar with. I saw that certain visual experiences were articulated in a similar way to my experience, say, in Frankfurt, yet with a stronger sense of place and context. The installation will be presented in 2013 at KHOJ, a non-profit exhibition and research centre in New Delhi, and then in an exhibition space in Bombay.
SG: Did you actually show this work to anyone in Bombay not involved in the movie production before the first presentation of the installation?
MP: Yes, I showed the project to some people I know in Bombay. Dev Benegal, an Indian filmmaker I was getting friendly with at the time, gave me some very good advice and also expressed a certain amount of confidence and enthusiasm about how this project might be received in Bombay. I had a lot of constructive support while I was editing the film in Berlin, which was very important for me and gave me some essential input, as I wasn’t exactly sure how this material would be received by people outside the project or, indeed, how a response to images and sounds like this would be articulated.
SG: What reaction did you get to the episodes from the people who came to your presentation, who may have felt that such an environment was nothing out of the ordinary? The way you represented things cinematically,
with technically advanced means creating complex and impressive images … we invariably find it all incredibly beautiful but to the ordinary people there it all seems totally normal. Did the question ever arise as to why you filmed it?
MP: I was really amazed because almost none of the people who saw the film knew what the inside of a local ice factory looked like and only a few of them could identify the inscriptions. The question as to why I shot in that
precise spot was less important than what I had experienced there. But I still think that there is a local sense of beauty inherent in this or that episode, which is perhaps due to the very specific manner in which the sound and image were conceived and realized in the film. This can give the audience quite a number of different ways to experience the film visually, for example, the somewhat lingering travelling shots moving 360° around the
camera’s own axis.
SG: Have you presented or would you present, for example, the ice factory episode to the workers there? How would they react and what would they see in this film?
MP: I would love to, and indeed plan to. This would need to happen in an exhibition context, otherwise it ends up presenting the film with its formal qualities in a completely different medium, and it does not necessarily represent my ideas and would give the viewers a rather limited experience. The way in which the installation is formulated in a specific architectural context is an important part of this work for me and how it is communicated. In the second part of our publication, which will appear at the exhibitions in Bombay and New Delhi, I will be able to report on the reaction of these workers, as well as other workers who take part in the film. SG: Because of the fact that the film has to be finished before you present it, you are also facing a dilemma in that you were never able, for example, to reflect the reactions and perceptions of the people you filmed in your work. This is obviously a dilemma which one has to face as an artist. It is certainly also part of this work. MP: This dilemma is always there in my opinion—in all of my previous film projects, be it Krumping performers in Berlin, actors in Frankfurt or a factory owner in California, I think this problem crops up again and again whenever you pictorially represent, and thereby also abstract, what others consider to be their reality.
SG: Precisely—it doesn’t matter whether it’s a different reality within our social context, so to speak, or a different culture.
MP: Yes, I think one can say that …
SG: The conceptual cinematic method recurs in all your other work, in one way or another way. In this work, however, the object or situation you are looking at is situated in a different cultural space and is therefore
potentially more complex. However, your way of operating seems unchanged by this context.
MP: My strategic approach, my thinking, of course, is initially based on my identity. Nevertheless, I would argue that my thinking is affected and altered by my approach and the involvement I have with an object, subject or situation, especially in a cultural setting of the kind I found myself in, where you would otherwise cut yourself off from some possible resources. On the other hand, those conceptual ideas also gave me sufficient confidence and
independence to implement the project in this way. They also provide information about my cultural identity. If I look at some earlier cinematic projects, I think they are all different in their own way, because they were realized in different cultural environments, specific situations and with different participants, who all have an important impact on how a project finds its shape and argument. Nevertheless, there are a number of formal and conceptual
ideas I have been following for a long time and which are combined in A Formal Film. There is a rigour within these works which can be traced back to my conceptual approach.
SG: Yes, the film doesn’t (just) show the motif or subject but you as well. How do you treat such a situation as an artist? And would you say that something has changed in terms of your approach since your experience in Bombay? Can you draw a seminal conclusion from this experience for your future work?
MP: This is a rather complex question, which I have actually asked myself many times since the completion of this project, and in any case I find this situation very interesting. How does one proceed from this point on and wouldn’t this be a moment, after a project of this nature, to express quite different artistic ideas in a variety of different ways?
SG: Have you gone as far as you can go with your method in this project?
MP: It has more to do with my idea that I have actually learned enormously from this and previous projects and that a certain amount of knowledge has been generated by this process, which enriches me and, at the same time, gives me a fresh take on my future ideas and strategies. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t necessarily make any more films but it doesn’t do any harm to thoroughly question how one can explore a different topic using other approaches. I see my role as a cultural producer here, in not just following a potentially successful strategy but thinking fundamentally about how to approach an issue. And that could be the bottom line, although it sounds a little pragmatic. On the other hand, after this kind of intense and complex project, there’s also the question of what it does to you. Well, a certain scepticism has prompted me here to not try to repeat a project like this in any form anywhere else. Thanks to this publication project, I have been able to occupy myself for another two years with this film installation, something I personally find important for a number of reasons—you can reconsider certain experiences in parallel and can also question them so as to arrive at other solutions for other issues. I have been concentrating on new projects this year that have taken me to completely different localities. On the one hand, to New York, where I have been working together with research assistants on a publishing project that basically deals with a project for a revolution in New York. Another project is happening in the Western Sahara, on Moroccan territory. Over a period of several months now I have spent several weeks with a nomadic family in the Sahara and have proposed a conversation piece, discussions between me and the inhabitants of the region on fundamental issues. First, I filmed this project with an iPhone 4S for the simple reason that I couldn’t see myself in a position to set up a 35 mm production, which would have had no justification and economic basis in this region. However, iPhone images are no less interesting or of inferior quality, because they communicate something different, have a distinct aesthetic and may work quite well with the experiences and situations I was exposed to there.
SG: What aspect of your methodology has raised questions for you about whether you want to continue working in this form or change something?
MP: In principle, I think I am rather sceptical, for example, about working exclusively in parts of the world I don’t know but at the same time, of course, I am really interested in spending longer periods of time in unfamiliar places. This aspect of going abroad to be productive is one rather concrete issue. For the time being I am pretty well exclusively preoccupied with the New York project, which I’ve been working on for some time now. But then again, I am equally motivated to travel to the Sahara to continue my project. Perhaps these poles—the process of questioning one’s identity between and with these places and their inhabitants—have the power to preoccupy one for a considerable time. The questions they pose may ultimately be the same ones that my work poses for me on a personal level and which there are really no definitive answers to but ultimately only the experiences one gathers and that exert a future influence.
SG: We take our cultural engagement for granted—the way the art world is organized today—and in the way we act we are strongly imprinted by globalization: we are constantly working in countries which are exotic or alien to us. We are also constantly working with artists whose cultural background is totally foreign to us and we are incredibly open and incredibly interested to see and do this. But we will always hit a wall at some point. We have to rid ourselves of our European perspective and perhaps, in a manner of speaking, the only thing we can achieve is to accept that “the other” exists and that we might only be able to see it in a blinkered way. But there are artists who succeed in providing access to the other view, for example, the pictures by Santu Mofokeng, who is the only black South African photographer of his generation—all the other photographs you see have been taken by white photographers, like David Goldblatt—that’s why his photographs are different and are accessible to me in a different way. And this experience was so precious for me and is certainly a topic that preoccupies me to the extent that I ask myself how we deal with this ever-increasing networking and interweaving, all of which is doubtless wonderful and incredibly rewarding but which we still remain so endlessly naïve about. Maybe you just have to accept it, because that’s the way it is.
MP: One of the experiences I take from this project, precisely for the reasons you describe, is the need to proceed sensitively with such a project and the resulting emotions.
SG: To be aware …
MP: For me, it meant that the projects that would follow wouldn’t simply involve the reapplication of this tried and tested strategy. In this kind of practice I would personally be highly critical of serially applying artistic strategies to a discourse like this involving these experiences. At the moment I’m more interested in working within a cultural system that is closer to me. Or, in the case of the Sahara project, to involve myself more visibly as an interlocutor and to make the strangeness visible, as articulated by the people surrounding me—the fact that other people confront me with my background just as I confront them with theirs. I consider it something very special that my work permits me to engage so closely with people, to encounter them in any situation with total freedom and on an equal footing, regardless of where I’m working. I am equally interested in the problems that lie in a practice of this nature and the myriad ways they manifest themselves. Presenting A Formal Film in India, for example, and communicating it the way we did in Europe confronts us with certain difficulties, which in turn provide us with very good information about the situation regarding exhibition spaces and the options for presenting the film in the region. This reflects the conditions for both recipients and producers. Of course, one could make the installation available as a video on You- Tube, but this would mean forfeiting essential elements of the work at the same time. By the way, the film, and a trailer, is available on YouTube and Vimeo, although it by no means represents the project in the way I feel it should be communicated. I am planning to set up a temporary open-air cinema in Conversation Piece [Western Sahara] for the family I lived and worked with—the cinema will be there for a short period in the vicinity of their tents—to show them the videos produced on site and if possible, to see their critical interaction as part of the project. One can certainly regard this as a consequence of my experience with A Formal Film or perhaps more as a necessary measure in this very personal interaction with farmworkers in the Sahara. I am convinced that artworks can influence people’s thinking, either as individuals or as groups, and I deal with my own work in the same way, trying to learn from situations, projects and outcomes, and seeking too to expose myself to a possible critique of these projects. The most interesting aspect here for me is, however, the people who are actively and directly participating in such a collaboration. The decision to continue my involvement with the project by means of this publication, two years after completion of the actual work, together with other thinkers, cultural producers, artists, anthropologists and architects— and to engage them in the film as a kind of nudge towards addressing the issues of this cityscape and the information inscribed in it, as well as its representation … this perhaps best describes my interest in having a sustained involvement with these experiences and the formulation of an artistic project, as well as in providing space for other opinions and expertise.
SG: It seems like a continuation of the research, not just about the place itself but about the entire project.
MP: Yes, it is also a kind of autonomous production within my project, as both the designer in Bombay and the authors of this publication take the installation and the film as a starting point for their interpretations, interests and expertise. Not unlike my collaboration with research assistants, actors, cinematographers, production managers, etc., the publication itself is based on the same preconditions and has similar goals, although it uses textual collaboration and knowledge production. And obviously we kept the episodic structure in the book, as well as local production materials that communicate a great deal of subtle information, all based on research that took place about two years after my initial research for the film.
SG: This aspect of post-production, not the cinematic but the theoretical follow-up, may be just the tool you need to deal with the fascination and naivety you mentioned, to move a step forward.
MP: And I would say that, in my form of conversation or in a publication, the work of art forms the basis … I use it as a platform for suggesting this conversation—perhaps even eliciting it through the work itself—in order,
as you put it, to move a step forward.