Chloé Galibert-Laîné is a researcher and filmmaker interested in contemporary online filmmaking that can be studied in a broader ethnographic scope as social and mediatic practices, which she calls “Netnographic Cinema”. As a filmmaker, Galibert-Laîné herself often works within the format of audiovisual essay, problematising and appropriating different online media content and thus playing an active role in her field of study. One of her most recent films, Forensickness (2020), was screened at the latest online edition of the 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. Following the festival, we met online to discuss this film and her artistic and researching approaches.
An essay could be understood as a thought experiment with no settled output, exercise of hypothesis on a complex topic, a way to think with and via images, détournement of existent narratives, defamiliarisation of familiar images. Different audiovisual art forms as film essay, video essay, digital video essay, performative lecture and lately desktop film seem to share common ground in the essayistic approach. What is the crucial element or procedure to your mind that makes a film or video or performance become an essay?
There seem to be as many definitions of the essay as practitioners and thinkers interested in it. As far as my own practice is concerned, I don’t really feel the need to draw clear boundaries to separate essay from fiction and documentary, because my films contain fictional as well as documentary elements. I understand the essayistic mode to be primarily concerned with walking the spectator through a thought process. It is, therefore, about telling a story. But the story isn’t so much that of a character whose actions we would follow, but that of a narrator whom we accompany as she tries to understand something – following her moments of doubts, questions and epiphanies. There is a commonly shared perception – especially among film students – that the essay film is, by definition, an opaque, abstract genre, preoccupied mainly with producing theory. But I believe the essay film can also be generous in its address, and accessible to a wide audience! You can be formally experimental and express complex ideas, with simple words and open-access filmmaking tools – or at least this is what I aim for.
That’s a nice open definition. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve noticed a very intense interest in those interrogative forms in the audiovisual field. I mean the above-mentioned AV essay or performative lecture crossing different disciplines started to be a very pertinent artistic tool of expression that also allowed the artist to enter different institutions (conferences, museums, archives, etc.). In the past, the film/video essay was linked, among other things, to a militant cinema (let’s cite one of the most prominent makers Chris Marker or the recently defunct Fernando Pino Solanas and his colleague Octavio Getino). Seen from the present, it looks like there was a zeitgeist, a common problematic that gave reason to such methods of expression. Do you think today there is some common ground that requires similar (but always developing) methods? Or, if I put it as directly as I can, why now this interest in these creative forms?
Several researchers – notably Nora Alter in her book The Essay Film After Fact and Fiction – have suggested that the recent passion for essayistic forms should be understood in the context of what is often called our “post-truth” age – we produce and promote artistic forms that are fragmentary, partial, subjective, out of a lack of faith in the (political, mediatic, scientific, etc.) institutions that used to serve as stable standards for assessing what is real. At least in the art world, there seems to be a growing concern about who is entitled to making her voice heard publicly, and with what means and resources: whoever claims to produce an “objective” statement about any subject exposes herself to being summoned to “situate” her viewpoint (to use the vocabulary of Donna Haraway). I’m often taken aback when I watch older essay or documentary films that were produced during the golden age of militant cinema; in retrospect, the filmmakers from that era seem much more comfortable producing assertions formulating clear opinions than we are today. This reminds me of one of my favourite essay films in recent years, The Image you Missed (2018) by Donal Foreman. In a sequence, he reflects on a film that was directed by his father, himself a militant filmmaker who documented the conflict in Northern Ireland. He watches an excerpt from his father’s film, and comments on the sense of certainty that is reflected in his father’s voice – he says that himself, documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement some 40 years later or so, could never produce an analysis of the political situation in such secure, assertive terms. There’s something fascinating about the gentle way in which he performs this confrontation between his own views, and that of the generation that came before him. I think it encapsulates something of the change of the zeitgeist that you described in your question.
In your (latest*) video essay Forensickness, you undertake an experiment of investigation on the phenomenon of crowd detective work within the realm of online forums that is provoked by your spectator experience (Watching the Detectives, 2017, Chris Kennedy). However, it is, above all, a re-enactment in which you expose yourself, tangible by your gentle voice, as a protagonist. Your vulnerability and readiness to reflect on a development of your experiment and different context of the phenomenon are the strongest means by which you address the spectator intellectually and emotionally. With your own capacity for empathy shown already in your previous work Watching the Pain of Others (2018), you provoke empathy in your spectator. Can you talk about this process a bit?
These two video essays were produced in the context of my doctoral thesis, which focuses on “netnographic cinema”. Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives and Penny Lane’s The Pain of Others are two films that I study in my thesis, but I also felt compelled to respond to them in an audiovisual form. I thought this would help me understand how they were created. I also wanted to carve out a space, within my own research, for the expression of my subjective responses to these films – what you call my vulnerability – which isn’t traditionally welcome in scholarly publications. I’ve always been more interested in reflecting on spectatorial experiences than in examining the structure of the films themselves. For this reason, I was drawn to producing a critical account of my experiences watching these two films, in the hope that it would encourage my viewers to reflect, in turn, on their own spectatorial mechanisms. I’ve realised that speaking in the first person, being open about not only my thoughts, but also about my affects, my fears and desires – as long as they relate to the images that I am studying – is often received as an invitation for viewers to perform the same introspective work at their end. Eventually, I aim to produce the conditions for a collective examination of how we respond to images in general and online media in particular. And I find that displaying vulnerability and empathy helps, in that it avoids reinforcing the unnecessary distances between the people who produce and consume these media (what Trinh T. Minh-ha called the dangerous distinction that traditional documentary creates between the people “out there” and the people “in here”), and promotes more generous ways of understanding each other.
*The lastest film of Chloé Galibert-Laîné is A very long exposure time (2020).
That’s an interesting strategy for building on a “weak” point of scholarly research, which, as you say, discredits the vulnerable subject (there are, of course, some special categories that allow some more phenomenological forms contrasting with the exact and transparent scientific discourse, but they are regarded as minor or special, not as a common scientific practice), and to link up your academic research with your artistic practice. This is a very intriguing context for me as someone who watches your films.
The binomial structure of “we”/”in here” and “them”/”out there” was also one of the traditional premises of anthropological or rather ethnographical research, which has recently been attenuated as locals started to study locals. But it founded the entire culture of exoticism (“our” current historical cultural heritage), which now started to be a burden…
I find the reference to anthropological research and ethnographic cinema to be most useful when it comes to understanding the growing genre of experimental films that document different online “communities” by re-editing media produced by members of these communities. This is why I use the term “netnographic” to refer to these films in my PhD – I don’t argue that these films should be understood as works of scientific anthropology, but I think there’s something about the motivation behind their production, and about the appropriation gesture that’s at their core, that relates to certain older ethnographic practices. And the dimension of exoticism is also very present in certain cases. Dominic Gagnon’s netnographic film Of the North (2015) was accused of exoticising the Inuit community; and in many other films that don’t depict online communities that would primarily be defined by ethnicity, there seems to be an attraction for the “weird” corners of the internet, which can also be understood as a form of exoticisation. This isn’t to say that these films are intrinsically problematic – I understand my own films to be netnographic as well, hence at risk of being accused of the same flaws. But referring back to the literature written about the history of ethnographic cinema does provide very handy tools for reflecting on the political, ethical and cultural stakes of these contemporary cinematic practices.
Another thing that came to my mind while watching your films also connected with the supremacy of white (Western) males was your voiceover. As I already mentioned, your voice is very gentle; it doesn’t assume (any or a unique) authority of narration. And with its contrasting softness, it reminded me of the traditional, wise male voiceovers by a very self-confident, omniscient narrator that created a settled, irrefutable discourse. In some documentaries, a female voice mostly appeared to ask naive questions to reaffirm the strong position of male narrator.
Yes, I guess I’m lucky that my gender (and my young age, which you can also hear) automatically prevents me from sounding like an authority figure! Though, of course, the self-doubting quality of my voice, as well as its fragility, is something that I construct consciously. Many essay films have female voiceovers, but these tend to be very monochord, as if the woman performing the text had no affects or any emotional connection to the words she’s speaking. I’m trying to work in the opposite direction. But it’s difficult, especially as I’m not a professional actress. For Forensickness, I tried for many hours to record a voice that would really convey complex emotions, so that the text being spoken wouldn’t have to be so explicit about what the narrator is experiencing. But I couldn’t do it, so I ended up writing up the emotional evolution of the narrator (who gets more and more immersed in her research, to the extent that she ends up losing sight of the difference between reasonable and absurd connections and hypotheses) in the text, but the voice remains quiet and comfortably paced throughout the film. Eventually, I realised that this creates a disconnect that I found interesting.
The desktop film deals with a very interesting dispositif. The desktop is a kind of interface that is both invisible and scenic. In a desktop film, the desktop of the filmmaker often represents an intimate, even authentic, set. But once this interface is shown, it becomes rather a theatrical space or maybe an actor (espace-sujet) because it’s predominantly a variable set that can work with different grades of exposure (Barthes’s interpretation of Racine space). I’ve heard that you also have experience as a theatre director. Does this experience influence your conception of a desktop?
I never thought of it in these terms, but it makes a lot of sense. I do think a lot about performance and theatricality in my films, which are themes I explored in my earlier work in theatre, but I agree that the metaphor of the stage also provides a useful tool to reflect on the specificity of the desktop, understood at once as a 2D image, an interactive interface, and a multi-layered technological dispositif. In theatre, there is a paradoxical sense that a scene can be at once absolutely private (what’s being discussed is secret) and undeniably public (as a spectator, you can never ignore the physical presence of other spectators around you). This dynamic of the private-made-public, which I think relates to what you call the “different grades of exposure”, is an essential component of the desktop film, at least in my own practice. There’s an intense intimacy in the act of revealing one’s own screen (even when I have carefully chosen the icons that I display on my desktop), which cannot but contrast with the public address of the film narration. This is even more important to take into consideration when the films are screened in public on a big screen. Besides, there’s a liveness to the experience of watching a desktop film – many viewers have told me they felt like they were glancing at my screen over my shoulder as I conducted my research – that might be best understood with a reference to the experience of attending a live performance, while the cinematic or the photographic image tends to always be perceived as belonging to the past (which is also something Barthes commented on).
Sharing the desktop as an act of intimacy can provoke an intense complicity between you (the author) and the spectator because he is familiar with this interface; he too he can navigate through. But the change of scale, as you say, when showing your film in cinema reveals its spectacularity. It has pre-existent aesthetic categories (wallpaper, icons, etc.), and besides the intimate side, the shared desktop comprises the potentiality or desire to be seen (read) by others to transmit a message. So it’s a kind of invitation that spectators happily accept with the feeling of looking over your shoulder, of being included. I think this inclusive characteristic is a very strong approach in your films. Would you call this also a strategy of empathy?
I think it relates to what I was trying to say earlier, in response to your question about the definition of the essay film. “Inclusiveness” is a fantastic quality to aim for. I always try to keep the viewers as close to me as possible, because the last thing that I want is to be perceived as an expert figure whose authority shouldn’t be questioned. Conversely, the ideal is that each viewer should feel entitled to disagree or contradict my hypotheses. So yes, I think you could call this form of empathy design “strategic”, in the sense that it’s meant to help viewers process my thoughts on their own terms. But this also evolves during the films. Both Watching the Pain of Others and Forensickness are constructed so that, at first, you should trust my voice to guide you through images and ideas, and then comes a moment (it seems to come earlier or later for different viewers) when you start questioning whether I’m as reliable a narrator as I pretend. This relates to the fact that both films deal with the processes, apparatus and institutional implications of knowledge production: in WtPoO, medical knowledge, and in Forensickness, legal knowledge. By progressively displacing the reliability of my own voice, I hope to equip each viewer with the tools to be critical of the ways my own film produces knowledge.
To your mind, does the video-essay or a desktop film that can be distributed online on the most popular domains with practically no restrictions constitute the most appropriate form to study online audiovisual behaviour with all its specifics of narrativisation, fictionalisation, aesthetics and discourses (popular digital court, the unlimited availability of knowledge, etc.)?
I believe different formats and different distribution strategies allow for the production of specific insights about online behaviours, and they should all be encouraged simultaneously. I do think that it makes sense that my films, which are produced from and centre on the online environment, should be returned back to that environment; it’s also part of my ethos as a researcher that I think knowledge should be accessible to all. But not all projects can or should be distributed in that way. Another project of mine called Bottled Songs (2016-continued), co-authored with Kevin B. Lee, isn’t publicly available online, despite the fact that it’s also desktop-based. We opted for a different distribution strategy because it deals with very sensitive material (the online propaganda of the terrorist organisation Islamic State), and we’re trying to be as responsible as possible in the way we contribute to the visibility of such images.
The attitude of returning back, in a sense, fulfils Vilém Flusser’s fantasy about the dialogical nature of video tape (he’s talking about analogue video) that can be reedited after being seen by spectators who can modify it, by the same means as him (or more precisely his collaborator, in this case Fred Forest). He imagined it as a continuous dialogue with a number of interlocutors. You explored the dialogical principle in collaboration with your colleague Kevin B. Lee, who you mentioned just now. Did you, or both of you, enter into a dialogue with your audience (online or in some performative piece)?
We presented an installation at the True/False Film Festival in the US last March, where we not only presented our videos on several monitors, but we also installed an analogue writing station within the exhibition space. The whole project has an epistolary format – it’s based on the correspondence between Kevin and myself – so we offered this writing station as a space where the visitors could take some time, reflect on their experience with our work, and finally formulate their response in the form of a letter addressed to us (or anyone else). We tried to transpose this dispositif in the context of online screenings by setting up an email address where viewers can send us their responses. It hasn’t happened yet that anyone would respond in the form of a desktop video (like in Flusser’s fantasy you mention), but that would be fantastic!
In your artistic practice, or the part that a spectator can see, you use a very common, accessible set of media and tools (commercial softwares, platforms, etc.). Is this decision rooted in their accessibility, or does it have more conceptual intentions and form part of your research?
As with many artists working with DIY techniques, it’s both. I was first drawn to desktop filmmaking techniques because it was so cheap and easy to use, but retrospectively I also invest it as a more conscious and theoretical decision. I think it’s consistent with my desire to be reflexive about my own research processes, that I should also be transparent about the tools I use. I try to use tools that are accessible to anyone in the audience who would like to pick up my research where I left it and respond to me in their own singular manner.
COVER PIC Festival International du Film Indépendant de Bordeaux