Friday, March 7, 2014

DAKOTA, I lived among girls

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
This week’s post is brought to you firstly by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, a Seoul-based producer of a substantial collection of text-based poetry-films translated into a number of languages, comprised of the duo Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge (and brought to my attention by the lovely Lara Glenum). The films on their site consist of the same basic elements: black and white Flash-animated text and music. The animation is not terribly advanced or extreme (the letters are not, for example, dancing off the page, or morphing into landscapes), the tall, bold, sans-serif (Monaco font) words simply appear and transition in time with the music—for the most part. In some of the films, the words might flash to grey, black, or white, or the text might appear in red or other colors, or inside of a box outline, but typically the principals  remain the same: technically nothing terribly advanced appears to be happening in these films; they don’t appear to require a great deal of skill. And yet, they are undeniably dynamic, gripping—their overall aesthetic is completely identifiable; however easily a similar video might be produced, it would unavoidably bear the trademark of YHCHI.

Chang and Voge are of course aware of the relative technical straightforwardness of their achievement, as pointed out in the conversational video “FIRST WORKSHOP EVER” (apparently an instructional video intended specifically for a class of students at Brown in 2008) they seem to challenge the perception that art must be “difficult” or labor-intensive, and stress the point that art (its process, the making of art) should be enjoyed. One might be tempted, as I am, to recall the fact that poetry primarily exists today in, technically, one of the most straightforward formats imaginable: ink on paper. Their work seems to hearken back to the truth that lies before us: the truth of the written word, the power of the word as image. So, why Flash? It would seem that the simplest answer is that it makes use of a new medium, brings the written word like an offering before the throne of the internet. The use of Flash in their videos also helps to determine the unique aesthetic of YHCHI’s work.  It also, as I have said, brings the text to life, makes it dynamic, in a sense “new.” It creates a sense of urgency to the work.

Usually you can’t pause a Flash film (you can never pause YHCHI’s films). You can’t rewind one either. If you’re unable to remain rapt enough in the text to not miss anything for the 4-8 minutes that the videos normally take, your only option is to rewatch the entire video. The strategy here, I suppose, is not to coerce the viewer into rewatching the text over and over (although, certainly I wouldn’t exclude that desire on the filmmakers’ parts). The benefit, I suspect, is the sense of urgency that is created out of the elusivity of the text: the words literally flash before your eyes—there one moment, gone the next—and as much as any text amounts to a narrative of any kind, or to a cohesive “whole,” each of its parts is essential. The tone of the musical score, of course, in conjunction with the speed and rhythm of the animation itself, primarily determine the intensity with which any of their films is watched, and yet, they all, despite these two factors (of music and rhythm) possess the same “ephemeral” quality—ephemeral, and yet, as in “Dakota” in particular, an ephemerality approached with the force of Thor’s hammer—not at all delicate, rather, somehow, in the “heaviness” (“Heavy Industries”) of its type, the matter-of-factness of its black-and-white, the simple largeness of the letters on the screen, definite, static. These films seem at once to introduce and undermind their quality of impermanence.

The “stories” or poems of the films seem to be primarily anecdotal in nature.  Despite being obviously highly choreographed, they seem (sort of like the “text” in Roggenbuck’s films) off-the-cuff, almost unrehearsed, or, as I said before, conversational. They are disseminated impersonal (as they say in their video/“interview” “THE ART OF SLEEP”) to a “ready-made” internet audience, and  yet, in their tone, feel extremely intimate—perhaps, at least in part, due to their collaborative nature. One could imagine, for example, the “text” existing initially in the form of a recorded dialogue between Chang and Voge, and then being transcribed into hypertext. However, as I argue is the case with Roggenbuck’s videos, the “spontanaity” of its tone does not, of course, detract from the artistic quality or merit of the content. In fact, as we see, YHCHI’s films, out of all the contemporary poetry-films I’ve looked at so far on this blog, have received the “highest” critical acclaim, having been shown, for example, in the TATE Modern. In their video “CREDITS” they seem to provide a list that attributes the scores of their various other works to the rightful musicians, but the text is original—in the case of “DAKOTA,” they'vesaid, based on Ezra Pound’s Cantos I and II. But, they also stated, (and this seems to be, for the duo, a particularly relevant point in the context of their apparently very complicated relationship to art) this relationship to a primary text is not essential in appreciating the work.

I lived among girls
Keith Newton

Another poetry-film I want to look at features the poem “I lived amongst girls” by Keith Newton and the song “I Wanna Know Girls” by Portastatic. It was recommended to me by Max Greestreet, who said of it the following: “I don’t mean by ‘placed onto’ that a video existed first, because the person who made this video got the poem from Keith and then shot footage and built it around the song, as a commission job for Merge Records (maybe they reissued a Portastatic record or the company was celebrating an anniversary or something — I was told the story of how this happened, but I’ve forgotten the details.”
This video-poem interests me because, like works of YHCHI above, it did not, it sounds like, necessarily set out to make itself into a poetry-film—it presents itself, probably, to most viewers, as a music video—and yet, I think we can rightly call it one. Two things strike me as being particularly lovely about this video: 1. the attention to space in the film, and 2. the overlap between the lyrics of the song and the words of the poem and how these two separate “texts” interact with one another.
By attention to space, I mean simply the way the film seems to have considered and accounted for, either during some stage or at all stages in its production, the problem of the space of the poem vs. the that of the images. The shot of the airline runway, while being appropriate to the content of the poem (its theme of “leaving” and “returning”), but also works to cut the screen horizontally and provide a sort of “empty” background, in which the poem can reside.  
My second point you get a feeling of by looking at the titles of the two works (the poem and the song): their similarities are obvious and their differences slight. We might say that the poem does some of the work of storytelling that lyrics usually don’t. People do not always agree, although I would argue, that song lyrics are not the same as the words of a poem (in most cases)—that poems and songs do different work. Where a poem relies completely upon itself for all the weight of the emotional pull, lyrics have the instrumental sound to rely upon. In the case of this video, in a way, the music (central to so many of the poetry-films we’ve looked at so far, in setting a tone for poetry works) seems to “carry” both the lyrics and the poem, with the lyrics and the music echoing and reinforcing the words and emotional force of the poem. It’s a balance that could easily have become a kind of unintelligible cacophony, but that instead presents two “texts” at the same time that are so dissimilar in such subtle and compatible ways that they seem to work together. (Another trick is in providing visual backdrops that are interesting without distracting from that interplay.) To demonstrate some of the force that a poem must elicit textually, notice how, while the song goes about its business of being a song (leading into a guitar solo) the poem marches on with lines providing a kind of emotional conclusion to the the deeper, more personal account it has constructed:
There are revolutions among us,
but no names for what’s been overturned.
After the familiar rooms are ransacked,
even the girls look at one another like strangers,
as if they were strangers who we lived among.
How will you know who anyone is
among those blurred figures on the stairs,
vanishing like thieves in the daylight.  

Here, coincidentally, is the blog post of another poet talking about this video.
And, curiously, another one. (This one reports that Phil Morrison made the video.)

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