TANGIBLE TERRITORY

Inviting the Body into the Experience of Moving Image

PhD by Practice, Royal College of Art, 2012

The full thesis can be downloaded HERE.

Abstract

Summary

This thesis identifies approaches to film-making which stimulate a relationship of active involvement between the cinematic image and the viewer through the evocation of tactility and embodied memory, thus inviting the viewer’s whole body into the experiencing of the moving image. I do this specifically by defining and exploring, in theory and practice, the concept of tangible territory, which, I propose, emerges from the encounter between the viewer’s embodied self and the moving image work.

After working with Softimage 3D animation software in the late 1990s, as a maker I found the absence of physical contact with the computer-generated object frustrating. The inaccessibility of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to touch also leads to an absence of embodied memory in a CG object. Touch (human or otherwise) helps to imprint time both metaphorically and literally (i.e. through marks and scratches), while also charging objects with “strenuous human emotion”, an idea explored by the Czech film-maker Jan Švankmajer in his work. I further believe that the absence of embodied memory and emotion is also passed on to the viewer.

While computer-generated imagery (CGI) functions as a particularly clear example of this problem, because it involves virtual, or “untouched” reality (Švankmajer, 2011), moving image itself, as an audio-visual medium, faces some of the same challenges, because it lacks the capacity to employ touch directly, both in the filming process and in the subsequent experiencing of it. At the same time certain film-makers, among them Švankmajer and Andrei Tarkovsky, do succeed in evoking some of these touch-induced qualities (a sense of embodied memory, the emotional charge of particular locations) purely through the medium of the moving image.

By investigating specific films, using some of the existing theories of haptic cinema and haptic visuality as a critical framework, and through the verification/exploration of these propositions in my practice, I identify the approaches required for tactile, embodied, emotive expression in the medium of the moving image. I do this by defining and utilising what I call “tangible territory”, a cinematic space that evokes tactility, through which the body of the viewer is engaged in the experience of the moving image (if only in a mediated way). Rather than perceiving this as a prioritization of haptic visuality over optical visuality, I see this as a way of restoring balance in our understanding of the two, while also drawing attention to the need for the multi-sensory involvement of the audience in the experience of the cinematic art form.

Core research questions:

  1. What are the unique qualities of the sense of touch, and how can these be communicated through the expressive vocabulary of the medium of the moving image?
  2. How can touch, and more precisely haptic visuality, be consciously employed by a film-maker as the bridging device between the fully embodied, living experience stored in the viewer’s subjective, sensual memory and the experience of watching a film, which by definition cannot offer a direct immersion of the body?
  3. What is the role, and what are the defining features, of tangible territory, a concept I devised to hold the various elements of my research in a unified form, in inviting the body into the experience of the moving image?

 

My research generates original insights, in both theory and practice, into the evocation of tactile impressions by visual (and also audio) means. Through creating the concept of what I call tangible territory and the subsequent practical utilization of this concept in my film-making practice I attempt to ‘ground’ the viewer, deepening her experience and understanding of the perceived moving image, inviting her entire body to participate in the cinematic encounter.

Methodology

1. Cinematographic Theory by the pioneering academics Laura U Marks (Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media) and Jennifer M Barker (The Tactile Eye), as well as Giuliana Bruno (Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film), and close analysis of films (e.g. Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure) informs my understanding of the tactile in cinema. I establish a framework for ‘tangible territory’, my own concept being derived from both cinematography (particularly from theories of haptic visuality and mimesis, as well as the haptic space of cinema) as well as the Surrealist term “morphologie mentale”. This approach focuses on the effects of particular uses of the camera as a tool (e.g. zooms, pans, tracking, pulling, pushing, focus, depth of field, point of view, choice of lenses etc.), as well the effect of editing, mise en scène and sound (mentioned only briefly, for reasons explained in my introduction). My study of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space stands as the basis of another valuable line of enquiry, concerned with evoking embodied memory in film through the choice of specific locations and objects as well as emphasising the role of surface. This is particularly relevant to CGI artists, because of the lack of embodied memory in their medium.

2. Interdisciplinary Workshops and Collaborative Projects

I have developed practical approaches to the exploration of the tactile and its relationship to visual imagery, sound, and memory through tactile drawing workshops, encouraging participants to explore connections between memory, scale and visual/tactile modes of perception. My workshops are also based on visits to controlled environments (e.g. the Hamburg exhibition Dialogue in the Dark). Outcomes include drawings, texts and photographs. Through the tactile arts peer group Art in Touch, which I set up in 2009, I encourage dialogues across disciplines in the form of screenings, group exhibitions and seminars which involve close collaborations with other artists, as well as with writers, philosophers and scientists.

3. Film-making – My own practice is a form of research, self-reflectively exploring tactile aspects of the audio-visual, not only in my studio work which results in short films, but also in making these available to the public for constructive response through gallery installations and screenings.

Research Outcomes

These consist of a series of short films testing my findings concerned with haptic visuality, embodied memory and the nature of tangible territory. I was further interested in the way the films are presented: what happens when a film becomes part of a gallery installation, allowing for an immersive experience. The written thesis provides a critical context and its own rigorous conceptual vocabulary, which, by engaging with the tactile possibilities of the moving image, could be helpful to film-makers who are concerned to heighten this quality in their work, with a particular relevance to animators working in CGI, whose tactile involvement with their subject is severely limited.

Dissemination

As an ongoing commitment to the dissemination of my work I participate in a range of conferences. To date these have included the NSU Winter Symposium Strategies for Embodiment, in Aarhus, Denmark, in February 2011; the Conference on Practice-Based Research in Art and Design, at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Germany, in December 2011 (I have also been asked by the Bauhaus- Universität conference committee to contribute an article on my research to their publication It’s a Method! – Practice-based Research (March 2012)); and New Perspectives on Animation, at Kings College, London, March 2012. I also participated in a collaborative installation of my work at the conference SENSORY WORLDS: Environment, Value and the Multi-Sensory, held at Edinburgh University in December 2011. I organized and curated one of the Light & Shadow Salons, to explore my research subject in a new context while inviting various artists and speakers to explore the language of matter, touch and memory. I am a member of the CREAM research group at the University of Westminster, as well as the Animation Postgraduate Research Group, set up by the animation writer Paul Ward. During the four years of my PhD study I participated in eight group shows and held two solo shows, all of which were directly connected to my research.