Linda Lai / From “Essay Film” to  “Video Essay” 2: an expanded history of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy 從「散文電影」到「錄像文章」二:表達的即時性與因果功效的追求

Linda Lai / From “Essay Film” to “Video Essay” 2: an expanded history of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy 從「散文電影」到「錄像文章」二:表達的即時性與因果功效的追求

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 01 Nov 2020

The video essay is an expanding category, from the “film essay” named in the 1960s, generally considered non-fiction, to possible renewal of late 19th-C traveling lecture events which embraces pedagogic as much as fun purposes. Video essay is a form of “direct action” for the here and now, a critical response to the crisis of moving image as mnemontechnics (memory machines) that undermines our agency. 據點的《平地數碼》(2020年11月只2021年6月)志在翻開「散文電影」的系譜溯源,通過延伸的想像,擴大今時今日「錄像文章」的可用性以至成為如何活在當下的據點,對知識的守護和創造採取直接行動。請留意11月5日錄像文章比賽的正式發佈。

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

***updated 9 November 2020


“A video essay is a piece of video content that, much like a written essay, advances an argument. Video essays take advantage of the structure and language of film to advance their arguments.”  就像文章一樣,錄像文章的內容是為了推進某個論據,而且憑活動影像的的語言和結構所賦予的去達到這目標。(Wikipedia)


Essay film as non-fiction, the expanding documentary 想起電影文章:想起重尋紀錄片的寶庫

「散文電影」多被論述為美國60-70年代實驗電影創作人 Jonas Mekes 的日記電影而定型。可是,「散文電影」未命名之先,早在眾聲喧鬧的(已被確認的)紀錄片範疇得到花枝招展的嘗試。獵奇、好奇、焦點論述、擺明車馬、素描彩繪、聲影的凝視、個人主體出發、提問、詰問、竊語…,都在相較地少些商業盈利包袱的情況下得到了舒展延伸的寶貴空間。上世紀60-70年代紀錄片多次成為社會運動的一部份,又或成為改變的前奏。在現今的數碼科技時代,強調互動參與的「膨脹式」紀錄片早已在發展中,錄像文章不再是「散文電影」那樣的獨立的行事,而是創作、論述、直接行動的策略性的一元。

An essay film, from which video essay evolve, is non-fiction, but it is far more the infotainment that most people assume documentary is. In fact, the rich histories of documentary cinema provide us with varied examples of film essay. The table of content of Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film (1993; 2nd ed. rev.) offers a handy outline showing the scope of rhetorical skills involved in documentary films he had studied: “glimpse of wonders” to recall experimenters in Early Cinema days, their pre-genre prophetic vision of trying out the recording power of the new medium; “images at work,” to think of a documenter as explorer, reporter and painter; “sound and fury” to remove the illusion of a pair of absolute objective eyes, highlighting the productiveness of an unconcealed point of view, thus the image-maker as advocate, bugler and prosecutor; “clouded lens” to affirm furthermore the importance of subjective vision, conceiving the legitimacy of a documentary maker as poet, chronicler and promoter; “sharp focus” highlighting the camera eye’s proactive contribution to knowledge production as an observer, catalyst and guerrilla; and “movement” implying that documentary films could be understood as an integral part of a social milieu, either in entitling themselves to an on-going movement, or inciting one, through the exchange of ideas on urgent issues.

Whereas Barnouw gives us a full spectrum of the image-maker/speaker’s voices in multiplicity, which I find useful for the context of “D-Normal/V-Essay,” Bill Nichols (2001) compares documentary’s rhetorical mode with writing genres with added attention to the place of the subjects being “written” about. In his widely-read text book on non-fiction, Introduction to Documentary, Nichols proposes a conceptual scheme of six documentary methods: poetic documentary, expository documentary, observational documentary, participatory documentary, reflexive documentary, and performative documentary. Here, I want to acknowledge the ethical dimension of practice that Nichols introduces, which I find pertinent to the “D-Normal/V-Essay” initiative.

Participatory documentary reminds us of the complex processes leading to the final edits of a moving image work. Who has contributed to the knowledge we are building? How is the subjectivity of the participants preserved and respected? Are the participants only a contributor of information, or simply a source of data? Have the participants’ agency been enhanced at work? Is the participation process leading to the (potential) change in terms of activating social contracts or re-producing social relations? Jean Luc Godard’s Le Gai Savoir (Joy of Learning, 1969) and La Chinoise (1967) both stage participation as drama. But what about actual participation? The emphasis on participation takes us to the reflexive mode of documentary which, in my extended interpretation, foregrounds a materialist view of moving image practices whereby how a work is made is also the essential content of the work; and in the case of cinema, the presence and operation of the camera is an event of intimate thing-human co-agency as the technical dimension is decision rather than supportive in the generation of knowledge. A work that honours participation and reflexivity is likely to be a work that is performative, asserting a work as an open work always (Eco), ready to welcome its next potential iterations, without closing off the cycles of re-reading and re-writing since the emphasis to sustain an open conversation to fan off authoritarian views or final conclusive interpretation. I cannot help thinking about Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) as a shrewd example that combines participation, reflexivity and performativity.

As for “D-Normal/V-Essay” (Dn/Ve) we desire the event to assemble participants of a free, flexible mind set. We do not have a clear plan what is best except that we want to be amazed and shocked. Dn/Ve then is a participatory project in which participants would shape the project and augment the video essay for today. As video essays of a 30-minute maximum length arrive, they command a next level of meta-narrative work — how to assemble, string essays together and to ensure a broad range of voices and rhetorical positions are covered.


Intermediality: towards open experimentation… who can write a video essay? 互媒跨界不是流行術語,而是實驗行動的必須的起步:張開論述權

為甚麼只有電影工業專業訓練資格的人才可用電影媒體發表?。。事件、表演、處境、即興的紀錄作為藝術行動。互媒實驗產生了新的藝術形態 – 實時的,也是轉瞬即逝的行為藝術、即興、媒體表演、處境等等。

Although the avant-garde has a “tradition” of its own constructed with the help of historians, many artists have argued against its ownership. Rather than advocating a specific style or a range of aesthetic practices, they prefer to think of avant-garde actions to be renewed as a certain habitus of practices grows stagnant and loses vitality. In other words, experimental actions must go on and be innovated from time to time, which is the opposite of conforming to a tradition, mainstream or avant-garde. Experimental actions are not initiated by film critics or historians; they are the result of makers’ felt needs to change as their conscience speaks, and as they feel their “fieldwork” starts losing touch with the institution, which contains their creative impulses and undermines their everyday experience as a social subject. Often, they find that their experiments fall into the crevices of classification, or existing paradigms fail to describe and illumine their creative activities.

Finding themselves in the crevices between categories was how the group inciting the Parisian Lettrist Cinema saw the works they made and more:

“… These works were nevertheless unjustifiably neglected because they could not readily be seen as fitting within the province of any single medium or discipline.” (Uroskie, 22)

The Parisian Lettrists had no prior experience in filmmaking and yet they would not shy away to feel they are not entitled. They believe in interdisciplinary practice, against an elitist, expert-oriented view of creative media. Their democratic view supports that (new) media of the time should belong to everyone – to be a spectator as well as a maker. They were bold enough in making efforts to articulate a vision of intermedia assemblage by juxtaposing “the spatial and the temporal, the textual and the imagistic.” (Uroskie, 21) Uroskie continues to characterize the Parisian Lettrists via the practice of the movement’s leader Isidore Isou, laying down what I could adapt to be a defence for the essay film/video essay:

“Against this synthetic vision, Isou argued for the independence of multiple textual and discursive levels, moving in and out of synthesis and generating a multiplicity or disruption within the heart of the work itself.
“Reversing the traditional privileging of images over words, this cinema would incorporate long passages of spoken literary and philosophical text into the space of the theatrical presentation, allowing cinematic spectators to become readers and listeners in addition to viewers.” (Uroskie, 26)

Curious readers want to take a look at Maurice Lemaître’s The Cinematic Situation: Has the Film Begun?  (1951) The Lettrist movement later on evolved into the Situationists International (the S.I.) in the 1970s. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the title for both a written manifesto and an essay film, was a critique of society infatuated with excess visuality, in the form of found footage work for diversion (detournament).

Tracking back to the Fluxus in the 1960s-1970s, which innovated contemporary art with happenings, performances and events, the need to preserve the ambience of art of impermanent nature incited film as documentation. Documentation to the Fluxus is “both process and systems” through gathering members’ documents to turn them into films and other mediums. Jessica Santoner wrote:

“Documenting was not simply a means of sharing ephemeral acts or inviting collaboration, but was essential to the subtle politics of the group’s work. As performance of the network, documentation in Fluxus conveyed the group’s shared values of heterogeneity and resistance to normalizing Cold War era bureaucracies.”

Indeed, my curiosity with the Fluxus did not find satisfaction until the first comprehensive documentation of the “9 Evenings” was out on DVD in 2007, as a result of 30 something years of research, produced by Billy Klüver — Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score as one of the “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering.” (1966) Artfilms described the raw material that comprises the work:

“Archival material has been assembled into ten films, each of which reconstructs the artist’s original work and uses interviews with the artists, engineers and performers to illuminate the artistic, technical and historical aspects of the work. Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg is the first film to be released in a series that will bring to life a historic moment in contemporary art history.”

Open Score (October 1966, Robert Rauschenberg), a tennis match that is also an engineering sound performance, preserved documents as sight-and-sound

The well know 9 evenings, a significant instance of deep collaboration between artists and engineers, featured various Fluxus members.


A 10m45s extract from documentation set of Open Score, 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, 1966

A contemporary group (fluxus), referencing the Fluxus of the 1960s, defend image-sound synchronization, unlike Lettrist and other experimental cinema. In defence of documentation, they demand “access to the performer’s mind, to the whole human instrument,” stating that “obscurantism is dangerous” and performers must show their screens, to the general effect that “it is not necessary to know how to play guitar in order to appreciate watching a guitar performance,” “living coding is not about tools” and that “algorithms are thoughts.” “Live coding may be accompanied by an impressive display of manual dexterity and the glorification of the typing interface. (Fluxus manual 0.16, p. 174)


Essay film: an open chronology, a revisable genealogy 電影文章的系譜是開放的,年表時序紀可以重寫再寫

「錄像文章」直接呈現、展示(見早期電影,也是活動影像的特性)而同時宏觀(如事件)及微觀(影響操作的本身意志時間構成的意識)的陳述(即敘述的最低定義),二者不能分割。言外之源頭又或擱置定論,都是錄像文章的創作決定。往後回顧,「錄像文章」結合了文學(包括戲劇)的各種分類。從實踐來看,現今的媒體平台看來也把我們安置於「表達的即時性」與「因果關係」的快速認證。 如何於兩極之間創出更多層次的表述?「電影散文」有時叫「日記電影」,有時又叫「旅遊日誌」,來到摩登社會又出現了以故事加宣傳廣告形式出現的「政府向市民的公告」(public services announcements) 。

From an archaeological perspective, French historian and theorist of Early Cinema and pre-cinema activities, Gaudreault. noted a combination of narration and monstration in moving image practices before standardization. “Narration” refers to the rhetorical character in scriptural narratives which highlights the illocutionary origin, i.e. who is actually speaking outside the text(聖經裡的敘事法強調言外之源頭). This stands in contrast with monstration in theatre whereby speech and action occurring within the space of performance present themselves directly (直接展示). More accurately, theatrical practice is a combination of monstration (on-going action and spatial practice) and narration (actors speaking as someone inside and outside the on-going drama) whereas speech is both narrational and monstrational. (更準確的說,劇場的敘事法是「展述」法,既直接展現,也概括陳述)

Moving image excels in showing things; the video essay’s narrative body shows as much as tell, on different discursive levels, each with a unique mode of attentiveness and way to inscribe the reader-spectator.

Essay film is a unique form of experimental cinema that affirms film content as both referential and materialist: referential, as the content points to certain lived real life experience and affective response out there in actuality and the creative transportation of that experience being a main purpose of the work; materialist, since the raw material that makes the referential content (found sound and images, celluloid, projection, electronic signals, digital noise and pixels) and the process of how the work is made also form the main body and explicit content of the work.

A quick glance at the domain of the essay film fins many emerging family members — monstration films (Early Cinema and its non-cinematic precedents), self-filming, home movies, video diaries, mobile journalism and the list is growing. Historically, the term “essay film” became a more defined category in association with the diary film and journal film of Jonas Mekas, American avant-garde artist, an immigrant from Lithuania to the US, who founded the Anthology Film Archive in Manhattan which played a key role in connecting experimental filmmakers and showcasing their works. In France, highly acclaimed works include Chris Marker, such as Sans Soleil (1983), and the later works of Agnes Varda, such as The Gleaners and I (2000). One also remembers Belgium filmmaker Chantel Akerman’s Letters from Home (1977), Histoires d’Amérique (1989), and No Home Movie (2015), all of them border on documentary, diary and auto-ethnography. Audiences of Asian origins remember Hanoi-born Amercian scholar-artist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s polemic, argumentative visual “attraction” in Reassemblage (1982), later elaborated in Naked Spaces (1985) on postcolonial identification, Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989). critically playing with actual and staged interviews, Shoot for the Contents (1991), pondering on questions of power by alluding to a Chinese guessing game, and so on. To add to the list, Kierostami’s Close-up (1990), a docu-fiction, which has the rhetorical structure of an essay. And here is my personal favourite that often falls outside mainstream cinema – Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and Murder (1996), which combines direct lecture, fictional re-enactment, fantasy, found footage, statistical presentation and press clips to problematize elliptical medical knowledge on breast cancer and the suppressed reality of lesbian love. As for video essays of a philosophical nature, there is the 17-minute long Wittgenstein Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp, or How Not to Do Philosophy (2020, dir. Amit Dutta) based on an essay by Steven B. Gerrard of the same title, and Bill Morrison’s 2-hour long Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016, USA), which writes alongside unearthed footage from the almost forgotten Canadian Dawson City, also a microcosm of a much bigger world. Godard’s more recent films, such as Goodbye to Language (2014), are film essays about film and media itself, following a Brechtian method he had developed back in the 1960s.

Artforum – Jonas Mekas talks about Movie Journals (see also the April 2017 issue of Artforum)

https://www.artforum.com/video/jonas-mekas-talks-about-movie-journal-67576  (7m54s)


Source: https://www.indiewire.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/IMG_2150.jpg?resize=1536,1152 IndieWire, 23 January 2019.

Stan Brakhage – On Film – home in Colorado, 1960s (15m15s)

Chris Marker: Sans Soleil (1983): Sans Soleil is an influential documentary film essay by Chris Marker, whose broad reaching practice evolves into a specific documentary narrative method driven by personal insights. To play whole movie in segments:



According to Timothy Corrigan (2011), essayistic modes can be any of the combination of the following:
* portraying expression: essay film as Interview
* to be elsewhere: Cinematic Excursions as Essayistic Travel; un cinéma ailleurs, privileging text over image
* essayistic diaries (cinematic velocities of public life)
* of the currency of events: essay film as editorial
* about refractive cinema: when films interrogate films (art about art, film about film)


What can video essay do in our technological milieu? 科技數碼數據時代:錄像文章可還有甚麼關注?


Travelling lectures, or “iterant lectures,” organized in lyceums, were common during the 1800s.

“Science was a fascinating topic to 19th century Americans, as it represented both progress and intellectual growth.  As a result, members of all levels of society hungered for scientific knowledge.  The public lecture thus emerged as a central facet of 19th century science and education.  Educated individuals and swindlers alike could make a living as itinerant lecturers, and middle- and upper- class audiences paid well to see enjoyable and instructive performances.” (Digital Museum)

The Lyceum movement for scientific demonstration in the 19th century embraced at once educational  and entertainment values for audience across the United States; it fed in particular the appetite of the middle and upper classes for new scientific knowledge, since the latest advancements and discoveries in fields such as electricity and pneumatics were also full of entrepreneurial potentials. Philosophical toys and instruments were popular — they were optical devices to extend the art of seeing. (Wade) A special sensation was with demonstration of electricity. Surviving sketches and drawings suggest a fascination with on-site sight and sound, yearning and anticipating for a new technology just around the corner but not yet there — cinema. In retrospect, we know the desire to demonstrate was taken up by 35mm slide projection in the 1950s, a long awaited perfection since the 17th century magic lantern by Christiaan Huygens. Slide projection was occasional home entertainment, and gradually a major supportive pedagogic routines in schools which still required verbal expose, then educational TV popularized in the 1980s (in Hong Kong).

Lecture of Mr. Nikola Tesla before the Society of Physics and the International Society of Electricians in February, 1892 | Source: http://mediacartographies.blogspot.hk/2010/09/imaginary-media-on-chapter-2-of-book.html

What can video essay do in our datafied society and a technological milieu which functions largely by “short-circuiting” loops of production, leading to homogenization and black-boxing effects in knowledge generation? The video essay cannot solve high-level problems of power control effectuated by big technology, but it is a small starting point for the everyday person. In Stiegler’s terms, one immediate action would be how to turn short-circuits of cognito-perceptual experience into longer circuits. Itinerant lectures now travels freely without the person in the virtual world. What would we like to hear and see without being there? What about de-blackboxing technology and pushing related knowledge into the domain of general knowledge?

Voluntary affiliation with KOLs is one thing, and often about not being left outside communities, but our dependence of such affiliation must be backed up by continuous practice to articulate. Articulation needs practice – it is not just about rhetorical skills, but about our attentiveness, and about training ourselves to make connections between points. No matter what, the video essay, with its narrative potentials for articulation, is a starting point for us to form arguments by mobilizing all the media resources available to us. The (revival of the) video essay in contemporary society is something we cannot afford to let go. The world was once split into that of the audience-spectator and that of the makers/creators, but not anymore. While media resources are still widely available to us, we want to readily speak and articulate.



“Presentational immediacy” and “Causal efficacy” used in the title of this essay are terms in Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical discussion on perceptual experiences, discussed in Steven Shaviro’s writings (see citation below) especially in his book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (2012, MIT Press).


artfilms. “Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg”: https://www.artfilms.com.au/item/open-score-by-robert-rauschenberg

Barnouw, Erik 1974/1983/1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film (2nd revisited edition, 1993 Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

Brakhage/Mekas. 2000. “A Conversation between Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas” a substantive version:  http://www.logosjournal.com/brakhage_mekas.htm (An abridged version was published in the Vogue Magazine.)

Corrigan, Timothy 2011.  The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford University Press.

Digital Museum “Showing Off: Scientific Lecturing in the 19th Century” http://dh.dickinson.edu/digitalmuseum/exhibit-artifact/making-the-invisible-visible/showing-scientific-lecturing-19th-century

Eco, Umberto 2006. “The Poetics of the Open Work”; Participation, ed. Claire Bishop.  London Whitechapel and MIT Press. 18-38.

(fluxus). Fluxus Manual 0.16 http://www.pawfal.org/fluxus/files/fluxus-documentation.pdf

(fluxus). main website: http://www.pawfal.org/fluxus/projects-using-fluxus/

Gaudreault, Andre 1987. “Narration and Monstration in the Cinema.” Journal of Film and Video v39 n2 spring. 29-36.

Nichols, Bill 2001. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Santone, Jessica 2016. “Documentation as Group Activity: Performing the Fluxus Network”; Journal of Visual Resources 32:3-4 (Documentation as Art Practices in the 1960s. 263-281

Shaviro, Steven 2014. “Whitehead on Causality and Perception”; The Pinocchio Theory, 6 December. https://www.artforum.com/video/jonas-mekas-talks-about-movie-journal-67576

Stiegler, Bernard 2009. “Pharmacology of the Proletariat.” For New Critique of Political Economy. London: Polity. 14-44.

Wade, Nicholas J. 2004. “Philosophical instruments and toys: optical devices extending the art of seeing”; Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, March, 13:1. 102-24. doi: 10.1080/09647040490885538


/ …continuing from: From “Essay Film” to “Video Essay” (1) : Challenging classifications 從「散文電影」到「錄像文章」。破格,融合。

/… to be continued in “From Essay Film to Video Essay (3): video essays as a minor literature《平地數碼》。平地素馬?

/Related Event post: http://floatingprojectscollective.net/events/d-normalv-essay-on-line-video-magazine/

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


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