Shows: Ann-Sofi Siden
The term ‘documentary’ suggests everything that is not artifice, so it can seem a salutary quality in an art context committed to self-reflexivity and self-reference. This might explain the current prevalence of documentary film as an object for artists to exploit and deconstruct, in works in which neutrally functional form becomes both critical target and content provider. Ann-Sofi Siden’s five-channel video installation, Curtain Callers (Entracte) (2011) is typical. An elaborate filmic collage, it draws on a wealth of footage shot at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden over the course of several months, showing every aspect of a theatrical pre-production, from seamstresses preparing costumes to actors practising their lines.
Siden has edited her footage into a panorama that streams from right to left across five large monitors, so it seems we are viewing multiple facets of theatrical preparation in a single, all-encompassing pan. The spectrum of simultaneous activity resists cohering into real-time sequence. Towards the end of the half-hour film, there is a limited sense of resolution. A musical piece (or, perhaps, a rehearsal of it) is performed by a choir distributed throughout the otherwise empty seating area – the places an audience would normally occupy. This choral work, and its theatrical manifestation, was devised by the American composer Jonathan Bepler, who is responsible for the film’s intricately woven surround-sound ‘score’, and is named as Siden’s co-collaborator. Does documentary here cede to the artifice of performance, or should we see this passage as a documentary of a performance, even one staged especially for Siden’s camera?
The film’s editing creates a fictive space out of a string of miscellaneous fragments connected only by the umbrella of their location. A sequence showing a performer practising scales gives way to footage of a cleaner vacuuming between seats. The abrupt recession from a dressing table in the foreground to the cavernous reaches of the theatre corresponds to a vertical cut between two streams of film, rendering the seam perspectivally functional. Similarly, Bepler’s superimposition of audio tracks creates a dramatic melée, by turns explosive and cacophonous, which conveys the suspense leading up to a performance. And yet, Siden and Bepler’s consummate editing of their raw material is not an end in itself. It is asked to assume a self-reflexive remit. The awkward transformation of the chaotic labour of pre-production into an act of intricately structured theatre (apparently several plays were being prepared during the period of filming) metaphorically comprehends the sublimation of contingent documentary film into an artificial form and an artistic context that awkwardly accommodates it. For Siden, documentary representation, however effectively achieved, is not enough; she can only countenance the facility and labour of her own act of reportage if it is justified by a result that functions as a critique of the form she is deploying. In effect, she is conforming to current art fashion, which accepts empirical representation only as fodder for self-reflexive critique, or as a backdrop to an act of cultural reference. Otherwise, it is seen as vulnerably naive and undigested.
The difficulty with this metaphorical pretext is that it tends to treat the richly varied human activity the film witnesses as being of insufficient interest without its assuming an emblematic role. As soon as specifics have to double as signs for the art process they furnish, it begins to seem that they may as well ultimately be replaced by them. This demand might explain the sense the installation leaves one with of having been shown a great deal without having the opportunity to properly perceive it. Documentary information is cast as not quite belonging within an art context, and therefore forced to resolve itself as a ‘foreign’ sign for the objectivity that art usually precludes. Siden structurally embodies this incompatibility by refusing her documentary material its narrative fulfilment. The curtain never rises, and the choir’s performance is restricted to the territory that the audience, rather than the players, usually occupy. Instead of a performative culmination we are left with another self-reflexive image – audience perceiving audience – with Bepler’s choir taking our place as performative surrogates.
Notably, none of the performers appear to register the camera that witnesses them. This would be expected of fictional drama, but less so of documentary, in which the filmmaker will often declare an observing role in the proceedings. That we watch actors whose job it is to perform for a viewer, makes the invisibility of Siden’s camera a dramatic element, playing up to the differing assumptions we bring to fiction and reportage, and making us question whether what appears to be documentary is not, if fact, staged. In one passage, a young woman in a formal black dress – probably an actor – stands in the wings, poised between a sense of her utter obliviousness to the camera, and the possibility that she is striking a pose. This is not merely documentary footage, but a rhetorical version of it, which doubles as a metaphor for the form’s omniscience. It is the inverse of Heisenberg’s dictum that the observer of an experiment always impacts what he or she observes. Siden’s camera is the symbolically non-interfering observer, so markedly objective that the performers it views are not only unconscious of its presence; they renounce the ingrained habit of performing. The camera’s invisibility becomes a theatrical element, a set of inverted commas placed around the footage it provides, subverting its documentary claims.Mark Prince