Notes written in preparation for ‘Creative meeting’ session (Nov. 2017). I chose John Bresland’s ‘On the Origin of the Video Essay’ (2010).
https://blackbird.vcu.edu/v9n1/gallery/ve-bresland_j/ve-origin_print.shtml Blackbird an online journal of literature and the arts, Spring 2010 Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 1-3. All other quotes in this text are from this article unless otherwise specified.
‘A visual essay can be a group of pictures depicting or exploring a topic without any text or it can be a combination of visuals or images plus text. [https://penandthepad.com/write-visual-essay-7899354.html]. As research oriented artists we strive to understand beyond simple definitions through creative exploration. Reading John Bresland’s account of the Video Essay can enrich this simple definition. John Bresland (2010) writes:
‘The essayist pushes toward some insight or some truth. That insight, that truth, tends to be hard won, if at all, for the essay tends to ask more than it answers. That asking—whether inscribed in ancient mud, printed on paper, or streamed thirty frames per second—is central to the essay, is the essay.’
Implicit in this quote are three issues. First, how to understand the idea that the essay tends to ask more than it answers? Second, in what ways does the essayist push toward some insight or some truth? And third, what are the connections between format and content in a visual essay?
I would like to explore these and other related questions through conversation and making. Bresland traces the origins of the essay from the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (c. AD 46 – AD 120), to the Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–1017/1025), to the French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) who named ‘the act of exploring the limits of what we know. He called these works Essais. Attempts. Trials.’
Looking at the etymology of the word ‘attempt’ reveals several meanings.
Attempt : 1. ‘to make an effort at; try; undertake; seek’; 2. ‘to attack; move against in a hostile manner’; 3. ‘to tempt’. Earlier origins reveal further connections to the words ‘test’ and ‘tamper with’. [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/attempt]. Furthermore, the word ‘tempt’ etymologically connects with ‘draw or entice to evil or sin, lure (someone) from God’s law; be alluring or seductive.’ [https://www.etymonline.com/word/tempt].
Armed with these etymological roots one may think of an essay as a dissensual activity that requires experiments, courage and spirit. Writing an essay, according to Bresland, is seeking to reveal something, to bring an idea or a truth into the light of consciousness. In order to do so one needs to touch and disturb one’s own deepest and most hidden wordless feelings, assumptions and thoughts. Continuing his historical review, Bresland writes: ‘These early works of nonfiction were meditations, lists, biographies, diary entries, advice.’ In other words, essay historically took many different forms.
Bresland writes: ‘That the image resists the precision of language is indeed a complication for the essayist.’ This sentence reveals a tension between word and image. On the one hand, words are stable concepts, i.e., the word ‘table’ communicates the object table. When words are used in poetry or in artworks this stability is disturbed as they acquire other status, such as metaphor, allegory or simile. However, words in their everyday use anchor meanings. In that sense, the verbal language is a closed system. On the other hand, images affect us on the level of our bodies through the sense of vision. As Bresland writes: ‘Images and sound are visceral stimuli’. Images, therefore, create a link between body and intellect. In a simplistic way it can be said that while the intellect, our conscious thinking, is controlled, the body is materiality which tend to defy cultural and social system and order. As Karen Barad writes: ‘Materiality itself is always already a desiring dynamism, a reiterative reconfiguring, energized and energizing, enlivened and enlivening.’ [Barad, K. “Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers”, Interview with Karen Barad in “Meeting Utrecht Halfway” June 6, 2009 the 7th European Feminist Research Conference, hosted by the Graduate Gender Programme of Utrecht University]. Matter is changeable, flowing, multiplying. Indeed, if it can be described as a system, it is a very open one. It is in this way, that the image resists the precision of language. The openness of the image is contrasted with the closeness of the word.
Bresland compares this image – text complicated relationship to the way ‘pianos complicate singing.’ He writes:
‘That is to say, another skill is called for but the payoff can be sublime. … Promiscuity of the image isn’t a weakness of the essay-film. It’s a feature. A volatile one, sure. And it’s changing the way we write, changing our conception of what writing means.’
Among our assumptions, Bresland writes, is that ‘Film is collaborative; the essay is not.’ This assumption is true to the time it was written (Lopate 1991), however, today with social media and digital technology this assumption is challenged. Returning to the discussion of image and word, it can be said that while words fix meaning, an image stimulates a dialogical process which involves association, memory, and the senses. In that way, it opens up a creative, collaborative space. Constructing a visual essay allows to collaborate not only with associations, memory and the senses, but also with tools and materials. The invitation to construct a visual essay as part of a creative meeting gives CAS an opportunity to add another ingredient to this collaborative process, which is other fellow artists. The action of constructing a visual essay is, both, collaborative and performative.
Chris Marker’s film-essay Sans Soleil (1982) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K8j3MU9dw4
Agnes Varda’s video essay The Beaches of Agnes (2008)
Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955)