While randomly browsing YouTube videos I came across a few scenes that attracted my attention. The video screen was divided in two. On the left hand side was black and white footage of a film camera moving in front of a brick wall. The footage was created using stop motion and the scene was contrasted with close-up images of a woman smiling in a movie theatre. On the right hand side were colour images of a moving film camera in front of a brick wall, and on top of a roof filming an urban landscape with skyscrapers in a slowly moving travelling shot. It seemed familiar to me and yet something was different. I had the feeling of having seen these scenes before but in a different way and context. What I saw was a scene from Perry Bard’s participatory video project Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake.1 And yes, indeed the film is a remake of Dziga Vertov’s thought-provoking The Man with a Movie Camera released in 1929. There’s nothing new about remakes. They go back as long as movie history itself. The essential newness regarding Bard’s project has to do with digital culture. It has to do with production methods, screening habits as well as content and style. Bard’s project is an example of how digital culture can transform and recreate the film as medium.
Two characteristics come to mind when considering the production and distribution of Bard’s project as opposed to Vertov’s film: openness and the participatory element based on the crowdsourcing method. If we first look at the mode of production, Vertov’s film can be said to have a rather traditional documentary setup involving a small film crew. Vertov is the artist behind the film. Even though he calls the film an experiment, he is branded as the auteur of the film. Bard’s project is very different considering the mode of production and the idea of the artist behind the work. On the project’s website Vertov’s film is broken down into small pieces and the user can browse a shot list crossreferenced by subject and scene. The user can then choose which scene(s) he/she wants to recreate and afterwards use the online form to upload. The software is open source and the entire process of uploading shots and images is in the hands of the individual creator. Perry Bard does not execute any curatorial power over whether or not an uploaded piece can be considered appropriate or whether it is placed correctly in regards to the original shot. The software itself archives, sequences and streams the submissions as a film. As people can upload the same shot more than once and create shots that have already been created by others, infinite versions of the film are possible. If we extend the thinking around the participatory element with Tatiana Bazzichelli’s work on networking practices, we get a deeper understanding of the new form of artist concept. Bazzichelli connects the art of networking and collaborative art practices to the punk concept: “Punk culture refers to the idea of the death of art in order to open up creative possibilities for everyone. Anyone can play, as long as there is the desire to do it.”2
According to Manovich: «a database cinema should represent the world as a list of items»
This idea of openness and do-it-yourself has according to Bazzichelli become even more relevant with the birth of social networks and Web 2.0. In Bard’s project the fact that footage can overrule and replace each other on a daily basis connects with Bazzichelli’s thoughts on decentralized and autonomous participation. The art of networking does not necessarily mean the death of the artist, though in some cases the artist is multiple or perhaps a hidden identity (in projects such as Wu Ming Writing Collective and the Luther Blissett Project). In Bard’s project we know that the creator of the idea itself is Perry Bard. When the production and distribution modes are open, she can easily collect footage to complete her idea. People around the world can be said to work for her for free even though they probably do not consider this to be work in the capitalist sense. People are happy to become involved in an art project. However, the name of Perry Bard is still the primary name connected with the project.
everybody can invent grammar, words and syntax and begin to speak
Considering the form and the narrative of the two films and especially the juxtaposed images that occur when watching the two films on split screen, Bard’s participatory project fulfils some of Vertov’s visions and at the same time can be said to be in line with Lev Manovich’s ideas about a database cinema.3 Vertov was no fan of fiction films. He considered them a kind of “opium of the masses” with their manipulative content and dreamlike scenes. Why portray a false substitute for life when you can film real life? In his effort to capture reality as precisely and honestly as possible Vertov would use many film techniques such as micro-cinematography, reversed movement, multiple exposures and he did not regard these techniques as tricks but rather as the pure nature of the Kino-Eye. Vertov was thus in search of a new language of cinema and a new way to consider narrative. Plot and story meant little to him. Vertov’s fascination was with fragments, the kaleidoscopic and the collecting of glimpses of life. Manovich argues that an alternative path to traditional film making in our digital age could be a cinema based on the notion of the database. For Manovich, the database idea is more than computer based logic. It is a whole new way of thinking about cultural form; a way of thinking that can be incorporated into art forms such as cinema. According to Manovich, a database cinema should represent the world as a list of items and refuse to order this list. In traditional narrative cinema we see the creation of a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items. Manovich states that Vertov’s film illustrates a more multi- layered cinema than traditional narrative cinema.
The multiple layers are also a dominant characteristic of Bard’s participatory project. At work is the text itself and the metatext involving the remaking of Vertov’s footage. Another and even more interesting layer is the new kind of temporality and spatial understanding that occurs when we consider the ever changing remaking. We know that the scene we see at a given point in time will eventually be replaced by a different re-made scene, and we know that the scene we are watching has not always been a part of the movie but has appeared in a specific moment in time and will also disappear again. What we see is indeed a glimpse of life, a glimpse that might be gone tomorrow. Manovich speaks of the loop as a new narrative engine, but in Bard’s case it might be more accurate to use the spiral as an illustrative figure of the narrative structuring. The spiral of images is forever moving and the current film version on display can jump back and forth in this spiral. The kaleidoscopic in Vertov’s vision is, in Bard’s project, distinct in the bits and pieces from around the world. Stylistically it points in all directions with the many uses of different equipment ranging from film cameras to mobile phone cameras. Gone is the ‘one screen’ logic. We are aware of the multiple layers just as we are familiar with the multiple windows of any given operating system.
The endlessness is a significant trait and is made possible by the participatory element. Thus speaking, Bard’s project can be seen as a step on the way towards introducing the poetics, aesthetics and ethics of a database oriented cinema. Just like Vertov, Bard is on the search for a new language, but in Bard’s project this search becomes even more profound because everybody can invent grammar, words and syntax and begin to speak.
Cinema is breaking through traditional boundaries and the formal institutions of cinema cannot cope with the pace of the storm. An example of this is provided by Bard’s project, which was denied a prize at the Moscow Film Festival because the jury could not decide whether or not they were watching an actual film: evidence that Perry Bard’s project is just the beginning of a transformation and that we do not yet possess an adequate vocabulary to talk about, interpret and evaluate works such as Bard’s.
2 Bazzichelli, Tatiana (2009) “The Art of Networking. Networking practices in grassroots communities”. Paper for the Oekonux Conference, Manchester UK, March 27th-29th, 2009. 3 Manovich, Lev (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.