The digital video Division Movement to Vungtau, made by Benjamin Crotty in collaboration with Bertrand Dezoteux, is currently on view at VI, VII in Oslo. We met up for a quick coffee with Crotty to hear more about his first solo exhibition in a gallery setting.
By Nina Strand
Nina Strand: As Sara R. Yazdani writes in her critic pick for Artforum: The seven projected vignettes each give a short glimpse into the life of war as seen through the lens of a 16-mm camera: military vehicles camouflaged in the Vietnamese jungle, silent moments of reading letters from home, swimming in rivers. Something, however, confuses the analogue and historical surfaces of the film: Virtual fruits appear on the screen, rupturing the reality of the original. How has it been to do this work?
Benjamin Crotty: The video is a collaboration I made with Bertrand Dezoteux. We came up with a project several years ago that we got some financing for but were never actually able finish. It involved adapting a series of news stories from the British tabloid The Daily Mail as fiction shorts, replacing some of the real characters with CGI ones. So Division Movement to Vungtau picks up on the main formal device of that work – the mixing of a “documentary” style film shoot with CGI animated characters, in this case CGI fruit. In Division Movement to Vungtau however, we obviously didn’t generate the documentary-style images ourselves. We sourced them from the U.S. National Archives, where there is quite a collection of silent 16mm films shot by amateur cameramen/soldiers during the Vietnam War. The films we used were shot in 1966 to 1968 but the footage was never edited or really used for anything, as far as we could tell. In the raw footage, the shots are generally long while we have shortened them, basing our rhythm on the cartoon vignette model.
NS: How much material did you have?
BC: About ten minutes on each reel because that’s how long they are. We scanned five or six reels, and the final edit is four minutes.
NS: It is such a gift, these archives. How did you develop an interest in these films?
BC: My little brother used to work at the US National Archives; he was in charge of social media there. Funny job. Anyway, he was supposed to post weird things he found in the archives on Facebook to pique people’s curiosity essentially. So, that worked on me and I got interested in the archives. What surprised me the most is that maybe 70 percent of the moving-image documents are from the army. I originally had a very complicated idea of a feature film project about a Forrest Gump-like character moving through time in these archives. I mean, not like Forrest Gump in character, but just the idea of this figure who keeps popping up in history. Kind of a mix of Waldo (from Where’s Waldo) and Zelig.
NS: Will we see that project another time?
BC: I only have a limited number of ideas, so it’s possible.
NS: I love the trick of closing in and out. You give us time to reflect and clear our thoughts for the next story. I’m very concerned on how we show video and film in galleries these days. What are your thoughts, what is the best way you think?
BC: On a purely technical level, it’s hard to argue with the black box cinema with comfortable seats and Dolby surround sound - this set up is undeniably good. But of course there are arguments for not showing in a cinema set-up. Just to cite the first example that pops into my head, there are the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva. They show some of their work with just a projector on the wall, as with Alien Theory at Le Plateau in 2011, a gorgeous show. The projections can be quite small, for example, and just this size difference already makes it a much more intimate and delicate experience for the viewer.
NS: I agree, they were at Kunstnernes Hus too, it was such a great show. As long as the artist get to choose I’m happy. Although I do love the black box and the focused viewing.
BC: I showed Liberdade, that I made together with Gabriel Abrantes, in the group show Reset at Fondation d'entreprise Ricard in 2010. The curator of the show Christophe Kihm came up with the idea of showing it at 7 pm every day. Since it was a group show, during they day there were just rows of chairs facing a naked wall, then at 7pm they turned off the lights in the exhibition space for the viewing, and people could sit and watch it. It worked well. It was a longer narrative film, so that model made sense. And it still had a presence with these empty chairs during the day that I liked.
NS: Let us talk about your next projects?
BC: Right now I’m working on two main fiction projects, one is an episodic adaptation of a short story by a New York-based author named Joshua Cohen. It is a kind of story within a story within a story thing, picaresque and comedic. And then I’m working on another fiction film project based in Texas that I co-wrote with James N. Kienitz Wilkins. The budget is pretty big for that, so I’ll probably be waiting a while. It’s romantic and dramatic, that one.
NS: And finally, our issues of 2016 look at the flexible image, how we look at the image today. And in your case, how do we look at the moving image?
BC: It is a bit of a cliché to say that things are moving faster and faster but its true that images are generated and consumed super fast nowadays. But then, it can almost reach this period where it flips to being very slow. I remember this summer, watching TV when I was in the waiting room at this hospital in Colorado, and literally I was watching Donald Trump move from point A to point B, non-stop, for hours. Underneath the appearance of something immediate and fast-paced, what I was being shown was actually molasses slow. Nothing was actually happening beyond the documentation of movement. It was a bit like this in Gravity to me. Behind the spectacle of Cuaron’s virtuouso mise en scène, very little actually happens in the movie compared to, say, a Shakespeare play. Sandra Bullock basically opens a door and presses a button. I was really fascinated when I was in Norway to hear about these TV-programs that show the Hurtigruten boat moving along in the sea: 20 episodes of a boat moving. And apparently this show was a big success and has generated spin-offs where you can watch a train. So, things seem to be going faster, but this could be just a surface illusion and what is actually going on might be slowing down.