Linda Lai / From “Essay Film” to “Video Essay” 1 : Challenging classifications 從「散文電影」到「錄像文章」。破格,融合。

Linda Lai / From “Essay Film” to “Video Essay” 1 : Challenging classifications 從「散文電影」到「錄像文章」。破格,融合。

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 31 Oct 2020

Invoking the term “video essay,” Floating Projects advances into a new experiment – to generate a new virtual community through sharing thoughts and sentiments as short videos, a tactical move in our milieu of media convergence. The video essay competition is an experimental action about naming and renaming, and how to survive contemporary society in which personal articulation is more often shut off and short-circuited than encouraged, wherever we are.

**Feature image: chronophotography by Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904): Cheval blanc monté (white horse riding), 1886, locomotion du cheval, expérience 4, Chronophotographie sur plaque fixe, négatif, 2 January 1886. Attribute: Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

***first uploaded 25 October, updated 3 November 2020

RELATED EVENT POST 相關活動消息 [] D-Normal/V-Essay on-line platform []

****每段落的中文引子只為重點精意,並非完整翻譯。The Chinese paragraph under each sub-head is just a summary capture of the session, and not complete translation.


Generic classification in moving image can be looked at in two contrastive ways. As we have been conditioned to believe so, it is for convenient “product differentiation” that calls quick and unambiguous attention from potential consumers, which is basic to all marketing activities. To conscientious artists and historians, classification is the object of critique and revolt as it tends to simplify and erase differences and richness of what lies in between genres. Naming comes after practice. The video essay questions generic norms and handy classification.



Undoing conventions, maximized communication 解除成規的束縛,溝通推向最佳最大化

唯物辯證的歷史觀驅使我對每一個過去的點的理解作出橫向的想像,以致衡量某些嶄新冒現的人間活動如何繼承過去。或許,如米歇福柯的歷史論所說,嶄新冒現的可以是與過去的斷然的決裂 (rupture),又或是值得深究的某種斷層 (faultline)。以電影的出現以至被命名來說,我問了很多假設性的問題:「早期電影」(1895-1905) 是個怎樣的「結點」?潛在的爆發力有那些可能性?這個由科技的好奇觸發,綻放出可模可塑的認知世界的新法度,呼應著那時代眾多對時間空間的新想像,引來了新的感知經驗的商業市場化,把窺視、記述、展示、一鏡到底玩魔術、特技等等都自由無拘的包攬,進行搞作和創作。卻是從那時起活動影像變得規範重重?在商業主導,片廠制度朝向成熟劃一標準化的過程中,我們失去了甚麼?失去了那些原創性、可能性?那一些隨電影的成形而來的初念、渴求被抑壓下去?這可說是個媒體考古的問題,也帶著米歇福柯的考古系譜的「重回現場」的衝動。歷史的想像讓我問了很多「如果 … … 若不」。這是實驗的思維;這也是《平地數碼》錄像文章雜誌的原動力。憋開歷史的包袱,解開類型的枷鎖,我們可以重新想像多種語態,修辭多樣化,多元論述的錄像書寫嗎?媒體工具俯拾皆是層出不窮,今天誰都可以創作。就叫這抗拒單一命名的東西「錄像文章」吧。

“Video Essay” in this article, and particularly in an upcoming project, D-Normal/V-Essay 《平地數碼》, [1] is what we call an experimental action. [2] It harks back onto those early days of cinema (roughly 1895-1905), a genre-free environment that was full of impulses, also healthy uncertainties, to connect with existing mediums of the time — photography, theatre, paintings, novels, optical toys for middle class children, visual and audio devices to enhance scientific investigation, print journalism and so on — as well as to differentiate cinema from them. Early Cinema (1895-1905) was a “cinema of attraction” (Gunning) [3] – presenting to and addressing spectators directly with an eclectic assemblage: familiar folk tales told visually, magic transformed into visual spectacles, constructed and animated fantastic presentation of imaginary worlds, peep shows and erotic vignettes, vaudeville show numbers reproduced in front of the movie camera, episodes of everyday activity in an outdoor setting, fascination with the glamour of the modern city (especially lights in the evening in urban areas), moral drama with didactic intentions, pure motion spectacles, or trick films “showing off” the then novel technology of film and projection. It was not until 1905-1907 that the trajectory of cinema showed a shifting attention to telling rather than showing for attraction alone.

Though mainly single-shot, later single-reel, films from less than a minute to 10 minutes or more, Early Cinema works already revealed narrative thinking, showing attention to minute evolvement and visual disclosure and closure, that is, deliberate attempts to organize screen time. In single-shot films, our attention is drawn to intra-frame organization, thus also what can be described as “internal montage” from a micro narrative perspective. Early Cinema practices also showed a secondary-level narrative practice: in order to ensure the spectator’s return to sustain business, an early-day exhibitor also played the “curator” and “editor,” who had to innovatively string together disparate single-shot films in a specific order to form a desirable program. In terms of visual aesthetics, by mid-1900s, the emphasis on showing (to shock) over telling gradually saw more fluid combination of showing and telling, highlighting causality in different event-moments, leading to “refreshed” modes of tale-telling as much as journaling with an anthropological interest. This took narrative methods to a new level of experimentation. However, soon into the late 1910s, the emergence of the studio system standardized narrative among other production practices, and the term “narrative” was by and large appropriated and narrowed down to mean Hollywood’s specific approved modes of storytelling.


Narrative, the core of video essays: the mobilization of expressive mediums’ material resources step by step towards a defined end 錄像文章的核心是敘述:動用現有的表述媒體的資源,一步一步慢慢說,朝著明確的方向。

「錄像文章」的核心是「敘述」。這並不能簡化為講故事,也並不是紀錄片的相反。「敘述」的精意是不同的元素或碎片經過排列排序後,出現了新的、本來不存在的(碎片之間的)關係 – 因果、步步展露、賦比興、對偶對衝、重複而變奏、三段論、正反合、點滴雕琢、層層疊疊、歧路花園 …。排序佈陣的過程就是「敘事性」,也就是創作心思的所在。「敘事性」直指我們的「思路」;「思路」就是沿路說沿路走,無須依靠類型。

“Narrative” is the basic concept at the core of a video essay. As we look around, many concrete practices without naming suggest a new habitus of media convergence that forces us to lose definitions of moving image narratives that are derived strictly from mainstream story-telling alone. Once we shed the narrow usage of equating narrative with fiction (which is a confusion circulated even within the film circle), we also want to abolish the split between fiction and documentary (not to be confused with falsehood versus truth), descriptions and argumentation, pedagogy and affective expression, confession and exposé, demonstration and reportage, and many more unnecessary splits, which erase innovations vibrant in the in-between zones. Narrative could be stripped of genre-specific and contextual characteristics, and its common denominator remains: the stringing together of fragments of expressions to articulate, that is, by inserting causal relations through thoughtful ordering, and that applies to any artistic mediums or the combination of different mediums into a single instance of articulation (i.e., a single work). [4][5]

“Narrative” involves the mobilization of expressive mediums’ material resources, and the step-to-step movement matters. (Lai, 473) The process that takes ideas to an end point could be more important than the end point (the conclusion) itself. Borrowing from theorist in phenomenological historiography, Blum, (2006: 4), narrative could be thought of as a “thought path.” The final value, “7,” for example, could be the result of very different arithmatical operations: “3 + 4 = 7” is not the same as “32 – 2 = 7”; the “journey” (process) is different, the thought movements (formulation of problem-solving) differs. (473-474)

Narrative by definition is a form of persuasion and reasoning. Narrative has a nickname or close relative called discourse, promising possibilities of change (i.e. discursive practices) or a problematic one called ideology.

Thought paths in sight-and-sound works are temporal. Thought paths could also be imagined as spatialized temporal entities such as the notion of narrative as a labyrinth, as is the case of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984) and Raul Ruiz’s The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978) or his Genealogies of a Crime (1997).


Critical Narrativity: enunciative impulses of events of articulation 批判的敘述性:發聲的衝動,接合的行事


To invoke the term “video essay” here and now is to refresh the concept of “narrative” to respond to on-going realities, to acknowledge as much as problematize our concrete transmedia practices. I am also here to argue for the relevance of concepts of narrativity in understanding contemporary society. Rather than falling back onto a position of medium specificity, a forceful argument advanced by experimental artists for a long time, I pay attention to the convergent transmedia performance pervading our daily communication activities. We can now think of “thought paths” as a free interplay of utterances using a diverse range of media resources.

As contemporary practices indicate, narrative should play a role in illumining how in one single utterance we deploy a combined use of creative media, highlighting communicative efficacy. Rather than defining narrative as a textual body, I think of narrativity 敘述性, narrative events 敘述的行事, each also an “event of articulation” 接合的行事, an event of enunciation 發聲/闡明, of varied rhetorical effects. Each narrative event is an assemblage of media fragments working together.

Video essays highlight discursive strategies, and subsequently foreground “individual subject’s agency at the performative level … of artistic articulation.” (Lai, 464) … Video diaries are “pictures of mind (the overall impact of a video work) as much as the documentation of a mind writing itself (the narrative process of each work.” (471-472)  This is an especially helpful way to appreciate works by non-experts not trained in proper film/video production. Video diaries and video essays in general give us “glimpses of attentiveness to the world by stretching our range of perceptual experience and cognitive activities.” (473)


Video Essay — an episteme 錄像文章 — 此時此地的知識領域的佔據

說明白一點,這文章的意圖是把表述提升到(影聲文)特定範疇的知識論 (episteme) 的高度,也無懼於「想的太多」這樣的批評。我希望策問同時處理一些更基本的問題:(廣義的)語言和媒體活動到底如何在我們不經意之下模塑了我們的認知,又生產了怎樣的特定的「知識」格局?若問這問題的不是受眾而是論述發聲者的自問又如何?是時候,我們好奇的、以善用資源的善意,佔據多些表述的位置,既聽且說,因為,周遭輕便的便宜的媒體資源都是我們的;在隨手可用之際,就該趕快用。

Not only should we challenge the unnecessary split of showing versus telling, we should also proactively explore the interplay between the present continuous tense of speech and image description, and the discursive dimension of sequential ordering and textual description. We should tap the video essay’s potential in temporal multiplicity: real-time looking supported by retrospective reflective speeches without losing the showing power of sight-and-sound. Taking a broad view, moving image practice is society’s mnemonic machine. In advocating the video essay as we describe it here, we are critically responding to our convention-driven visual culture that massively simplify and unify the way we remember our past, thus tempering our individual sentiments. The only reasonable way to respond is to participate, instead of giving up our rights altogether to those who habitually and economically own the tools and forces of production.

Obviously, the video essay, as discussed so far, contests itself as an episteme and it is no exaggeration. Knowledge, as truths and discourses, is born of and defines a particular epoch, which Michel Foucault calls épistémè, whether expressed in a theory, a discourse, or silently invested in a practice. To Foucault, it is possible to have multiple competing epistemes co-existing within an epoch. (Foucault 1966:183) He defines “the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within.” (Foucault 1980: 197) The video essay could be understood as a way to participate in discursive practices – and the video essay is that feasible form afforded by everyday technology. The late Bernard Stiegler would probably accept the video essay as a kind of “pharmakon” – a poisoned or poisonous drug that kills which is also what could be turned into a cure, thinking about how acting out must start with the technology that shapes our consciousness and the way we remember the past collectively. The video essay is where our counteraction against the moving image as mnemotechnics run by marketing principles takes off. (Stiegler 2009)

The names of the video essay are multiple and up for our re-invention. Video diaries. Video letters. Know-how demonstration. Reportage. A visually grounded argument. Video poems. Expressive writing. … In the next article, I shall go back to the “Essay Film” to glean the variety of innovative acts attempted.



/… to be continued in “From Essay Film to Video Essay (2): an expanded history of presentation immediacy and causal efficacy 從「電影散文」到「錄像文章」(2):表達的即時性與因果功效的追求

/… to be continued in “From Essay Film to Video Essay (3): between fact and fiction, an on-line magazine awaiting your treasures 《平地數碼》。平地素馬?

/… Go to D-Normal/V-Essay on-line platform: http://d-normal-v-essay.floatingprojectscollective.net/




[1] D-Normal/V-Essay (DnVe), a 3-round video essay competition, is fully funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council through its “Arts Go Digital” initiative, October 2020 to June 2021. DnVe was a project I initiated in collaboration with the Floating Projects Collective. The first-round open call for submission will be launched early November 2020. The publishing of outstanding works will be in the form of an on-line video magazine, on 31 December 2020, 31 March 2021, and 30 June 2021.

[2] “Experimental action” is a preferred term here to “experimental film/video.” Drawing from the discussions of the Fluxus, Lettrist International and the Situationist International, “experimental action” upholds art not as a singular product, but a series of activities that are necessarily intermedia and cross-disciplinary, and which transforms social relations and relations of production.

[3] According to Tom Gunning, the cinema of attraction (COA) is first “a cinema that bases itself on the quality that Leger celebrated: its ability to show something,” as opposed to mainstream feature-length fiction film’s conventions to encourage voyeuristic diegetic absorption. COA in this sense is “an exhibitionist cinema,” which describes a unique way cinema inscribes its spectator through the actors’ “recurring look at the camera,”(Gunning, 5) a contact that soon disappeared in mainstream fiction film.

[4] See this author Linda Lai’s essay, which describes three basic common denominators that qualify something as narrative (Lai, 473):

  1. the arrangement of components in a specific sequential/procedural order that
  2. inserts/invents new relations (cause-and-effect, flows and gaps), which
  3. amount to the formation of an argument, the arrival at a picture of reality or a state of moods.

[5] The late Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation (接合、發聲) brings together three different dimensions of his work: “it is central to the work of cultural politics, to the work of hegemony (霸權) and to his practice of embodied pedagogy,” as scholar John Clarke summarises (2015, abstract). To Clarke, Hall’s “approach to pedagogy entails the art of listening combined with the practice of theorising in the service of expanding who belongs to the public.” The concept of “articulation” could be traced back to Italian Marxist theorist-activist Antonio Gramsci (author of  Letters from Prison, 1947) in his discussion of “superstructure” (上層建築),  by which cultural forms and practices are not determined by socio-economic structures, but rather they relate to them. (Wikipedia: Articulation (sociology)). Articulation in Gramsci’s understanding, then, is closely connected with “hegemony,” which refers to the “asymmetrical interdependence of political-economic-cultural relations between … and among social classes within a nation. …But hegemony is more than social power itself; it is a method for gaining and maintaining power.” (Lull, 33)



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