Friday, April 18, 2008

COMPLICATED SPACES—The Evening Class Interview With Heinz Emigholz, Pt. One

As I detailed in my previous entry on the PFA program "Architecture As Autobiography", German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz accompanied several of his films to Berkeley. My thanks to Shelley Diekman and Kathy Geritz for negotiating some one-on-one time with Emigholz and for inviting me to have dinner with him later that evening. He's kind, charming, his eyes light up with mirth, and he's about as brilliant as they come.

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Michael Guillén: It's my understanding that Schindler's Houses is the twelfth installment in your ongoing project "Photography and Beyond", which you initiated in the early '80s?

Heinz Emigholz: The first film was done in 1984 followed by a long pause because, in effect, I didn't realize this was the first film in the series until I started back up in 2001. There is a subgroup called "Architecture As Autobiography"; but, the whole series "Photography and Beyond" includes other films as well; films about writing and drawing.

Guillén: Much like Rudolph Schindler's interlocking architecture, your own creative ventures seem intricately interlocked. Can you give me something of an artist's mission statement about what exactly you're striving for with "Photography and Beyond"? And how the subgroups fit into the overall structure of the project?

Emigholz: "Photography and Beyond" involves the product of human design that are already structured and then I come along with my camera and do something further with it. It means that you have to read your retina. The "beyond" is your brain that reads your retina activities. You have to have a certain attitude about your vision and how you look, how you gaze, and how you actually read what enters your mind through the eyes. This sounds a little bit banal, but the film photography is the main point of what I'm trying to say. I want to activate certain work or activity in the mind of the onlooker. This is what it's all about. The "beyond" is not a heaven or anything; it means I'm interested in the processes that take place behind the retina in reading the information that enters the brain through the retina.

Guillén: It sounds like you're trying to strip away interpretive information to gain more direct access to what you're seeing?

Emigholz: In a way, too, it's a form of concentration. When your mind is active while looking at something, it's a concentrated act. It's not an unconscious act. Well, in a way, it will always stay unconscious activity; but, a lot of consciousness is brought to it because the act of reading is a conscious act.

Guillén: So the "Photography and Beyond" project includes not only the architectural films but other photographic and cinematic documents?

Emigholz: Yes. Plus, up to now there are seven or eight films about architecture. "Photography and Beyond" Part Eleven, for example, is a collection of 60 short films about recent modern architecture in Austria by living architects that—assembled together—run five and a half hours.

Guillén: So the subgroup "Architecture As Autobiography" is something of a historical reclamation project? Clearly you're using the oeuvre of these auteur architects to reveal how they have told us about themselves through their constructions; but, are you not also layering in your own biography?

Emigholz: In a way. When you spend so much time on a project, as I have for the last 10-15 years, it becomes a part of your own autobiography. The way I see things and objects and situations may be inductive of how I see and how I think; but, mainly I would think it's about the work of the architects. I show you their work in a chronological order so it can make sense for you when you combine all these houses and buildings, all the material I offer. The language of architects is architecture. You have to read their language and—though they do not write—they build their autobiography.

Guillén: I ask the question because you not only situate the architecture in chronological order to reveal an architect's creative evolution; but, you likewise inform your audiences of when you have photographed the structures. There's an informational counterpoint going on; two chronological currents.

Emigholz. I don't want to be ideological with this work. While I choose the architects who I wish to film, and while that might already be a point, and though there might be many architects whose work I don't include even if I think their work is wonderful, there are three obvious facts that I can tell you before you look at a sequence: 1) the name of the building; 2) the date it was built; and 3) the day I was there to film it. On the day you watch the film, you can then make a connection between the three dates and create a triangulation of time. In all these films I put the days of my work in there because, in a certain way, they turn into documentaries about the years I shot them. There's so much material in the houses and around the houses that tell a story about the particular time I shot the film. I found it necessary not to approach or present the buildings in a kind of timeless fashion, as if to say this is the ideal state they're in and they should stay like this, or this is how they should look, or anything like that. I just say, "This is how they look" and how they looked on that particular day. This is very important to me because I don't like certain ways of photographing architecture, where artificial light is used to dramatize the structure or certain lenses are used to try to present an idealized state of the building. That's exactly what I do not want to do. Buildings are surrounded by society and surrounded by time and procedures in time. Maybe the Schindler buildings weren't built to last forever. They might have been built to last for only a certain while and then to fall apart. You see the efforts now that people take to keep them up, to conserve them, and those efforts at conservation are, likewise, a sign of the times.

Guillén: As someone who favors aesthetics of ephemerality, that's one of the aspects I most enjoyed about Schindler's Houses: how you captured the variant states of repair or disrepair of the buildings. Some are looking quite stately and glamorous up on the hillside while others are water-stained and pockmarked, looking somewhat worse for wear. Some of the interiors are quite chic while others are a bit lived in and threadbare. I enjoy applying aesthetics of ephemerality to architecture. The erosive and gradual shift into delapidation fascinates me as a testament of the weathering of time. And, as you say, reconstructive efforts to thwart that onslaught are equally fascinating. There's a certain chance to it all, why some buildings survive and others don't.

My training is in Maya studies and that's possibly the only realm I've applied a concerted focus on architecture. There the aesthetics of ephemerality have reduced structures to ruins, which in turn entertain a certain popularity and provide a certain allure for tourists. Your comment about the triangulation of time recalls me to an architectural device the Maya frequently used in ornamenting their doorway lintels with hieroglyphic carvings. Frequently, especially in the Usumacinta basin, their structures were long, horizontal, with three doorways. The carved lintels above each doorway depicted a sequential moment in a ritual act, much like a comic book strip, but epigraphy has revealed that the ritual sequence was not historically bound to any one period or any one individual. In fact, the Maya seemed more concerned with stressing the aspect of time rather than the tense of time. History is not something for them that has happened. History is something that constantly happens. And that's an observed truth you notice each time you look at these architectural artworks. I associate that with what you're saying.

Emigholz: They had a completely different conception of time.

Guillén: The vigor of the sound design in your films is what drew me—as the onlooker—into the present and into the presence of these structures. Not only was I having an intellectual experience about them, but I was having a sensate experience through the soundscapes. Can you speak about the insinuated continuity of space past the frame and how you use your audio design to likewise insinuate that continuance and to create a sense of immediacy?

Emigholz: Yes. It's not synchronous sound. That would not have made sense because all of the shots are just five to ten seconds. What we did was we recorded the sounds around the houses from different angles and perspectives. Then we created a sequence of the sounds which we designed with these recordings. All the sounds we recorded for any given building were used to create a soundscape for that building. Each building has a very special surrounding soundscape. I must say it was quite an elaborate process.

Guillén: Would you consider your architectural films experimental documentaries?

Emigholz: I would say they are hardcore documentaries because I have found a very simple form—though it's complex at the same time—of documenting the work of these architects. What's "experimental" about it when you show all the buildings of one person and put them in a certain order? When I came to this solution, I was shocked that this type of film hadn't been made before. It's not so much "experimental" as it is artistic research.

Guillén: As an aside, I attended the Schindler's Houses screening with a friend of mine, a photographer and experimental filmmaker, who I thought was going to really appreciate your films. Instead, we got into a heated debate after the film walking to BART. He didn't like what you were doing at all. He said you were in serious need of a bubble level.

Emigholz: [Chuckles.] That always happens. I'm used to that. I take it easy.

Guillén: Can we talk a little bit about how your films trigger that contention? What are the qualities of so-called formal architectural photography that you consciously work against in your films?

Emigholz: It's not so much about going against as it is going for something else. I'm very positive about what I want to read. When you walk around a building and you look at it, your head and your mind is always changing positions. I'll lean my head to the right side, I'll lean to the left, I'll look up, I'll look down. This kind of activity is rarely represented in film or, if so, like in Hollywood movies, canted angles are used to express a demented mind. They let you know the guy is ripe for the nut house. This is already a linguistic device inside of filmmaking; but, I'm not interested in these kind of languages. I'm interested in how I react to certain spaces. My head is not screwed to my vertebrae at 90° or 180° angles. It's totally loose on my vertebrae and I want to use that kind of freedom in my photography. It's banal to spend too much time proving there's a horizon or gravity. Everybody knows that. Nothing can fall out of the picture. [Laughs.]

When you look at a certain gaze that I project into space, photography is very much about taking something in. I project a certain gaze into space and you, the viewer, has to read that. You have to work on it to get that complicated space right or to read it in comparison to the other images I present. It's really true that—when you work in a kind of film language—if you always have these 90° or 180° angles right, then you work within limited possibilities to connect images and to edit them together. There are certain rules of editing that I can avoid by doing two completely different framings. A lot more angles are possible and there are a lot more possibilities to connect images. That sounds a little too "insider"; but, it has the effect that I can construct images that are as complex as reality.

Let's say I want to combine that lamp there [Emigholz gestures to a light fixture towards the corner of the room] with this point here [Emigholz references the corner of the desk] and this [Emigholz points to the floor]. What I would have to do is step 10 meters away to get all three points straight on in one frame. But what I could do is angle the camera like so and I will capture these three points in the image. This is what it's about. I try to connect entities inside of an architectural situation that might not usually be connected. I do this to create the space. I have to do this. It has nothing to do with being "against" anything. This 90° photography—where everything is filmed straight on—is a singular case; it's just one possibility of all the possibilities. Sometimes I use it. I'm not on a mission "against" that. It's just not up to the level of what I want to achieve.

Guillén: In his Cinema Scope essay on Schindler's Houses, Mark Peranson describes how your camera placement "dissect[s] the space along straight lines through an oft-canted frame." And Doug Cummings—who has written so insightfully and thoroughly about your work at his site Film Journey—highlights how these canted images juxtaposed against each other induce a playful feeling of motion in the body.

Emigholz: A lot of rhythms in space are possible. Lines overlap each other and create a certain sensation when you look at them. Of course, I'm not looking only for lines that juxtapose or counterpoint each other, as you've mentioned. With film as a surface art, I have to deal with a lot of surfaces within one frame. Then there are colors. There is not only positive space, but negative space. There's space between volumes. With photography it's just the same whether I have a piece of sky or piece of stone. Both take a certain amount of space on my plane, you know? Everything three-dimensional becomes two-dimensional on the plane of my image. I compose these planes. That's my way of working and I'm having fun doing it. But I'm not having fun doing it the other way where I try to get it all straight. To get it straight means you have to heavily distort the image and—for a lot of architectural photographers—it's their business to do that.

Guillén: One of my favorite quotes is from Austrian architect Hundertwasser who says the straight line is godless.

Emigholz: [Laughs.] Well, I wouldn't mix it up with religion. Anyway, it's just one case out of many possible solutions; it's just one solution.

Guillén: Your training wasn't in architecture?

Emigholz: No, I'm an amateur like you. I just love complicated spaces. I love to work with complicated spaces in film so I started as a cinematographer for my own films. This is what I love to do: to create somatic events and spaces in frames and planes in images.

Guillén: I thoroughly enjoyed your Cinema Scope essay on King Vidor's film The Fountainhead. Yours is a wry and unique perspective on film and I encourage you to write more essays. You mentioned earlier about how skewered angles indicate mental instability and that would be a fascinating subject right there.

Emigholz: I'm actually working on another essay that might appear in a future issue of Cinema Scope. That previous essay and the one I'm working on are both part of a book I'm writing. The book is in German and it's kind of a very strange diary about one day in Los Angeles. I've continued that diary and it's about films and events and architecture and so on.

Guillén: Though you weren't trained in architecture, can you recall if there was a first building that was an aesthetic arrest for you and got you all intrigued in architecture and in playing with complicated spaces? Where did that impulse come from?

Emigholz: I started with films that analyzed filmic movement. These were pixillation films with landscape. I started in the '70s with that. To analyze the filmic pan, the rotation. It sounds very abstract but it was a kind of music for me in the sense that I composed them for single frames. That was a program I did for a couple of years. I did five or six films that way. At the same time I was actively studying Rodchenko and Russian modern photography in the '10s and '20s. There were some German photographers too who went into that field where they actually brought a Constructivistic view into the world; a kind of cubist consciousness about what you could do with an object in space, with representing it in space. The first film where I used this camera was in 1975 after all these musical, strongly composed films. I started to use a handheld camera again. I actually did real-time shots, not just animated time, so I shot 24 frames and I projected 24 frames. That happened in San Diego in 1975 when I did that again and that was for me a revelation to go into space photography—let's call it that—and continue working there. From then on, I've done this.

Guillén: One of my first influences when I was a young man was an architect, Jay Pace, who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. He taught me that architects were truly poets of space. Working with space is a certain form of material poetry. That's what I commend you for. I feel you have poetically accessed these complicated spaces. I liked a term you brought up in one of your interviews where you talked about "feeling with the eyes." There's a synaesthetic quality to your work. I like when you talk about its musicality. You're melding art approaches through the medium of film.

Emigholz: I've given a lot of thought to the so-called language of film and the logic of film. There are certain semiotic approaches that move in that field and make up a language or logic of filmic imagery; but, I wouldn't use these words. I would always talk about the poetics of film, the poetics of surfaces, of bringing them together or showing them in space. It's very clear when you look at my films that they're not sensational. I say I'm going to show you 40 buildings and then I show you 40 buildings. [Laughs.] I don't do more but I do it in a certain way. I don't dramatize it. If you go into it and meditate about it, there might be an outcome for you because you can think about the work of that person and what that person experimented with, how they came up to solutions, and so on. I would say that to do a film—it sounds almost boring when you tell someone what I do with film; it sounds like, "Okay, wow, really? 40 buildings."—but, of course, you know that in every single image there can be such an event taking place or a different kind of order of events. For example, there might be something in the air. There might be a little wind or something. Poetry, too, deals with these kinds of sensations. It's not about a car chase. I've never read a poem about a car chase. Maybe there is one, I don't know. [Laughs.]

Guillén: You've used the term "meditative"—as several writers have responding to your work—and I won't disagree with the term; however, I prefer the term "contemplative" in its true etymological sense of being "within the temple." In your case, within the structure, or within your somatic experience of the structure if—indeed, as they say—the body is a temple. I guess when I think of "meditative", I imagine some outcome, or some concern for outcome (perhaps attachment to or detachment from). With "contemplative" I envision more an observation of space wherein things do happen. The themes that came across to me in the sequence of 40 buildings were actually multivalent and deep: themes about context, time, the aesthetics of ephemerality, how space is defined.

Emigholz: The thing is that everyone is living within a house and, thus, these are familiar observations. You might be living in a house unconsciously but, even then, you can relate.

This interview continues here.

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