Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Memo from the Future: The Trans-Temporal Work of Kirk Tougas

A frame from Kirk Tougas' The Framing of Perception (1973). The monolith-like altar of ultra-consumption ironically reveals that we ourselves are the ones actually being consumed by a seemingly benevolent Moloch.  Image: Tougas.

This article first appeared in the Spanish film magazine Found Footage, March 2020.
“The assertion for an art released from images, not simply from old representation but from the new tension between naked presence and the writing of history on things; released at the same time from the tension between the operations of art and social forms of resemblance and recognition. An art entirely separate from the social commerce of imagery.”  – Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2003).

“When is appropriation appropriate?” – Kirk Tougas, 2019.
Every film is a tattoo etched on the surface of time, some more so than others. Certain filmmakers, however, eschew entirely the tradition of distracting the audience from awareness of the fact that they are watching and are customarily invited to submit to a wilful disappearance into a real or life-like story. These consummate others instead tend to invite the audience to relish and savour the viewing experience as a sequence of electric paintings, which may or may not contain a program beyond the temporary tattoo incised onto the dream space they occupy while in a theatre. Some of them, such as Kirk Tougas, go even further: they implore the viewer to actively engage in watching their own watching.

Kirk Tougas is among the assembly of cinematic otherness I will be curating into my next film program for Cinemathèque, Brilliant Darkness: The Optical Language of Film/Behind the Mirror: The Cinematic Uncanny, and it is his contribution to the radical reconfiguration of film imagery being considered in this essay that I want to clearly contextualize as a dramatic recapitulation of the basic tenets of movie-making with which we are all familiar. I will thus be suggesting that he is an advocate of active viewing.

The use of either found or appropriated footage and its dialectical transformation into a new motif/meaning is an aesthetic tradition which has been on the ascent ever since modernists first began experimenting with that most modernist of mediums, the cinema. Among the most strenuous of those experimenters would have to be a figure such as the too-little-known Len Lye, a New Zealand avant-garde legend whose 1937 masterpiece Trade Tattoo set the gold standard for recycling images and transmuting meaning. Clearly, he would be in good company: Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Wallace Berman, and eventually Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol, all began mining the 20th-century image-archive for raw material to fuel their own singular visions.

Certainly Tougas, a Vancouver-based filmmaker, historian, critic and founder of its Cinemathèque, is also among good company with respect to this aesthetic strategy. Prominent and remarkable found/appropriated footage cinema works that can be considered cousins to Tougas’ own Letters from Vancouver (1973-2019) are, among others, Bardo Follies (George Landow, 1967); several films by David Rimmer such as Landscape (1969) and Fracture (1973); (Parenthesis) by Morgan Fisher (2003) and perhaps most notably for me, The Evil Surprise by François Miron (1994).

But few have approached and analyzed the image archive itself with the aplomb and clarity of Tougas across a diverse range of pieces and most emphatically in his recently remastered and restored two-part 1973 film Letters from Vancouver. Tougas (b. 1949), with over 250 productions to his credit, is one of Canada's foremost documentary filmmakers. Specializing in cultural, social and political themes, he has worked with independent producers, broadcasters, including the National Film Board, and has shot on locations throughout the world. These productions have received over 75 international festival prizes, including Berlin, New York and Chicago, as well as an International Emmy award and, in Canada, thirteen Genie and Gemini awards or nominations.

In addition to documentaries however, Tougas is also well-known as a visual artist using film as a self-critical medium within which to explore the edges of perception, the function of the art object, and the commodification of our consciousness itself. These are the works that I would dub anti-documentary, as they involve both fabrication and fabula. Among these are Return to Departure (1986) and Artifact (2018), which question the nature of reality in a world controlled by numbers and algorithms and explores, via the archaeology of identity, whether we will even have a future history at all. Rather than using the term “experimental film,” he prefers the notion of experiential cinema, which more precisely captures his own intentions.

Therefore he also has among his “locations” for shooting new futurist works the extant library of every other film ever made in the past. In fact, the past is the secret path he uses to address the future. Letters from Vancouver consists of two distinct portions which can be viewed separately or in sequence: The Politics of Perception (1973, 16 mm, 33 minutes) and The Framing of Perception (1973, 16mm, 33 minutes). Both of them are exemplary indications of how far afield from entertainment a visual artist can travel while still maintaining a mesmerizing hold on the viewer as he continually asks highly pertinent questions about what, or who, forms our consumption assumptions.

His tongue-in-cheek question, “When is appropriation appropriate?,” is, of course, somewhat rhetorical in nature, since his captivating work demonstrates how such a well-intentioned study of our image addictions can answer itself visually rather than verbally. My principal take on Letters from Vancouver, in fact, is that it is a prime example of non-verbal cinema at its finest and most psychologically incisive. As such, he concentrates on what I would identify as the optical language of cinema embedded in time. In this new visually-focused narrative, a story can be told to our eyes without our ears’ or minds’ ever being immediately approached at all.

I would suggest that there is an austere form of cinematic archetype, deriving from the origins of the silent moving image itself as a visual artifact, which can be observed most delicately in its handling by several filmmakers (or to be more accurate: cinema artists) who have chosen to deploy oblique aesthetic strategies of painting with light in their works. The main narrative of these cinema artists is duration itself, the raw material, or paint, within with which their ‘stories’ unfold primarily as visual artifacts. Key to their strategy, however, is to recognize ‘time’ as a series of malleable instants and shaped intervals rather than as a continuous thread.

Among them I would include works by several of the artists I have referenced, and especially emphasize Tougas’ uniquely trans-temporal work Letters from Vancouver. Taking a practical approach to non-verbal cinema, Tougas embraces the tentative subliminal over the fully frontal. Appropriation is thus most appropriate when it is creatively utilized by an astute artist in order to aesthetically critique the political or social implications of whatever the image or idea at hand might be: from socio-political controls to advertising, fashion and entertainment tropes being deconstructed via drastic recycling. A Tougas non-linear ‘plot’ is thus also essentially archetypal as well as archival: it is a future relic.

In Letters from Vancouver, which, while first composed during 1973, the same year he officially launched Vancouver’s Cinemathèque, was only recently fully and painstakingly restored digitally in 2019, he undertook what I consider to be not a revisiting of an earlier work but a reassessment of the artist’s intentions in light of forty-six years of new technological, social and political interim developments. Its inherent subject and theme, however, remains the same and is still just as salient: what is the underlying message of the many images we are assaulted with on a daily basis in multiple formats and styles devoted to persuading us of something?

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is another subtle rhetorical question, in light of shared explorations into the image archive conducted by fellow theorists as diverse as the German culture critic Walter Benjamin, the Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan and the great French philosopher of images, Jacques Rancière. Indeed, it is my contention that Kirk Tougas has achieved precisely what Rancière referred to as “an art entirely separate from the social commerce of imagery.”  He deftly mines the curious interregnum between storytelling and artifact.

* * *

In Part One of Letters From Vancouver, The Politics of Perception, Tougas takes us deep into the realm of persuasion and mood manipulation, a domain of images otherwise known as promotion. The product being sold is, of course, our own perception, and subsequently, all of our conceptions. Once again, his approach, somewhat Socratically, is to ask questions leading to more questions. “Why representation?” he asks, for instance, in mock-innocence as he approaches the actual subject of re-representation “Almost fifty years now, and the 16mm prints that can still make it through the projector are sadly faded and colour-shifted, a vague memory of the original experience. While a purist might simply let the films dissolve into entropy, I’ve chosen to revive the work, perhaps for another fifty years.”  Thus he himself accidentally almost explains my title here, Memo from the Future.

Yet I also suspect that he is the one who is the purist, simply because by restoring his 1973 16mm film digitally in 2019, he is actually practicing the art of negentropy: reverse entropy, things assuming greater order, structure and function, through a lessening of the amount of energy dispersal in a system (the film). I applaud his refusal to accept entropy and his choice to make an ultimate aesthetic gesture with Letters from Vancouver by virtually denying the passage of time itself. In effect, the underlying narrative of The Politics of Perception is entropy itself, and especially its embrace as an aesthetic strategy.

By working and re-working a piece of art over the course of forty-six years, I believe he is also engaging in the production of a trans-temporal production, one which is not only nourished by duration in its original fabrication but also replenished by Gaston Bachelard’s crucial notion of durée as a dialectical process lodged in reverie. Tougas characterizes his focus in the following manner:
From cave drawings, to Plato’s shadows. To the melding of photo-chemistry, optics and the maltese-cross movement, humans are always projecting. Cinématographe, ‘motion writing’, is a mechanical transport that projects an artificial sun through a sequence of celluloid shadows, and into shadows we project meaning using a medium on the precarious edge of entropy. In the movies, curiously, there is no motion in the projected still frames, all movement is the viewer’s illusion. Mechanically produced, reproduced, distributed, exhibited and consumed. What meaning and illusions, in these images, words, sounds and rhythms, methodical as a machine? What to make of mechanized cultural productions?
Here he is echoing the basic premise question of Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” sometimes translated as “In the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” He is also, to me, quietly declaring that Letters from Vancouver is actually, and literally, a work of time travel. Tougas further examines this quixotic realm of image-making with machinery (the mechanical bride, in McLuhan’s words) through his interrogation of the relationships between light and darkness, which are at the very heart of all cinema projects.

 “Cinema” he declares, “is messaging with light and shadow, figure and ground. Light, onto which we project significance, now transports our information. Perception, shaped by our experiences, our interpretations, our illusions. Frames of drama and comedy. Journalism and documentary, propaganda and advertising, all combined daily and edited, reproduced for mass consumption. What is the message?” Another rhetorical question, except for McLuhan, of course, who maintained that the medium already was its own message.

Which, once again, suggests that to me, and especially in his second portion, The Framing of Perception, with its multiple arcs of consumer goods and consensus ideas, that we already are (or else have become) the very product that we’re actually consuming. One theorist of the magic of found and appropriated footage in particular extolled the virtues also shared by this Tougas ethos. William Wees, in his 1993 book Recycled Images, The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (Anthology Film Archives, New York) also took a much earlier but quite parallel path with Jacques Rancière in terms of the blind date between art and politics that cannot be avoided if one is to adequately contribute to the discourse of the last and current centuries. Wees surveyed the field in a comprehensive manner, exploring the found domain of the montage, compilation, collage and appropriation in the works of Craig Baldwin, Abigail Child, Bruce Connor, David Rimmer, Keith Sanborn, Chick Strand and Leslie Thornton. This remarkable assemblage of image manipulators is compellingly examined in a way I can highly recommend to readers who will also enjoy a uniquely trans-temporal work such as Letters from Vancouver.

As Wees expressed it concisely, “I have been arguing that the recycled images of found footage films have more in common than simply their origins in footage that was found by the filmmaker. Whatever the filmmaker may do to them – including nothing more than reproducing them exactly as he or she found them – recycled images call attention to themselves as images, as products of the image-producing industries of film and television, and therefore as pieces of the vast and intricate mosaic of information, entertainment and persuasion that constitute the media-saturated environment of modern or postmodern life.”

Commercial film poster for the 1972 assassin movie used as the found source material for Politics of Perception by Tougas in 1973. (Image: MGM Studios)

When Tougas, for instance, recycled into perpetuity the promo trailer for a Charles Bronson thriller film The Mechanic (1972), for Part One of Letters from Vancouver, The Politics of Perception, while also engaging in a precise surgical decay and entropic declamation of its ‘message’, all the way into optical oblivion, he is exercising precisely the kind of heightened attention that Wees was referencing in his own prescient study:
By reminding us that we are seeing images produced and disseminated by the media, found footage films open the door to a critical examination of the methods and motives underlying the media’s use of images. To open the door is one thing; to go through it and confront the media on their own ground – the manipulation of images – is another thing, and the filmmakers most likely to take this further step are those who draw most heavily on the resources of montage. I therefore propose to distinguish between three kinds of found footage montage: compilation, collage and appropriation.
Wees was indeed himself familiar with Letters from Vancouver (in its original constituent formats of Politics of Perception and Framing of Perception) from twenty years before he published his study, as he included it in his index of artists and works. Wees also approached his subject with a perspicacity that has uncanny resonance with what I’ve absorbed from Tougas’ own optical language. The strategies Wees outlined, some of which overlap, are three methodologies operating within the same conceptual grid, within which collage might have the greatest potential to criticize, challenge and possibly subvert the power of images produced by and distributed through the corporate media.

The Politics of Perception opens with the flickering analog countdown (from 10 to 1) that we associate with old-school film stock, thus instantly situating it in a nostalgic as well as a futuristic format. Film as a physical medium barely exists anymore, but that countdown is still something that causes a psychic interval of nostalgic anticipation, a shudder of the shutter.     After the countdown, an intertitle declares the ostensible interrogation which the filmmaker is undertaking: “The prime connection between individuals within our society is the relationship of production, distribution and consumption. This is the governing relationship. Our life environment is an information environment.” This statement was just beginning to be true in 1973 (three years after McLuhan’s least known but most important book, From Cliché to Archetype, but an incredible thirty years before Ranciere’s) but today it is shockingly so.

A question appears on screen: “How do you consume?,” followed by a secondary title: “An experience.” The concept is deceptively simple (repetition some thirty-three times of a B-movie promo trailer for The Mechanic) yet this basic clichéd communication we are all so familiar with only begins to assume its full impact as it builds into an avalanche of super-saturated colors rendered utterly abstract in content, except for the promo soundtrack. “His name is Bishop. Bishop is a mechanic, as methodical as a machine, as precise as a computer. Bishop specializes in bodywork. When he fixes someone, they never work again.”

The main “character” is an assassin, but it is the film’s promo trailer that is being poetically assassinated as the first thirty minutes of Politics of Perception unfolds in a mesmerizing fashion. It ends with approximately three minutes of “pure” optical information, in other words stripped of narrative context. The film is shockingly Rancièrean in both its psychology and visual tone, especially considering the spooky fact that three decades would elapse before Rancière arrived on the scene to talk about the politics of aesthetics, the future of the image and also his notion of the emancipated spectator. Yet the trans-temporal auteur Tougas was already waiting for him.

Opening frame, The Politics of Perception (1973).  (Image: Kirk Tougas)
Roughly the halfway point of Politics of Perception, with Bishop entropic. (Image: Kirk Tougas)

* * *

It is, however, in the second segment, The Framing of Perception, that collage is employed to a higher degree than the montage tools of what I can call his ‘Bronson epic retelling’. For instance, a multiplicity of sources is employed, as opposed to a meditation on a single message being allowed to atrophy before our eyes, and this waterfall of images, some political, some commercial, all aesthetic, some even anaesthetic, achieves a splendid kind of apotheosis or crescendo.

That growing tidal wave of images is the chief signifying element within which Tougas asks us to question the nature of our addiction to images per se and our fetishistic appetite for the objects and services which they so often designate or signify. Once again, we are brought face to face to face, with the Janus-like nature of media consumption, until, if we are persistent, we become suddenly aware that our own mediated consciousness is the actual product we are being ‘sold’. It also helps us to swallow this mythology, as Roland Barthes so poetically explored in his structuralist works, if we believe that the new and improved consciousness we are being sold actually is new and improved. But naturally it isn’t, and in fact it’s practically an archaic medieval mode which has been dressed up in fancy new tech-clothes.

My main observation here, as it relates to Kirk Tougas, especially in The Framing of Perception, is that he has successfully navigated not only the vagaries of these three key cinematic methodologies, compilation, collage and appropriation, but he has also managed to deploy them seamlessly and simultaneously in his work, while also still developing an unconscious narrative which presses at the membranes of each individual methodology. It’s a narrative frame which has only deepened in the forty-six years since first embarking on his epic assembling/dissembling project.

Perhaps it’s the romantic or mystic in me that makes me believe that Tougas, when he first produced both segments, was not, in fact, making them for an audience living in 1973 at all. Some intuition, maybe based on everything that has occurred culturally and politically since that historical period, makes me believe (or want to believe) that actually he was making his film for an audience living in 2020. After all, the vertiginous and perpetual supply of images in the service of selling a variety of myths, including the myth that they were not in fact selling a myth, did not begin to pick up full steam until the internet age. That era was still twenty some years away when he made Letters From Vancouver, and it was still some thirty years plus away from the domain of instantaneous and perpetual myth making inherent in the so-called Social Media. Indeed, not long afterward would arrive both The Matrix and The Borg.

In advance of two major tech formats that would multiply the image to infinity, as well as reduce any way of telling what was real and what was simulacrum, Tougas was telling us that the image was already a virus, spreading like a wildfire beyond our control. We, of course, merely embraced the conceptual contagion with open arms, and even worse, with open minds, naively believing that the coming supra-technology was not only harmless but actually benevolent. Despite warning about the semiology of control from as far back as Saussure, through Benjamin, through McLuhan, and consistently through Rancière, we failed to notice that the central premise of what I often call the Iconosphere is not that it wants to take care of us but rather that it wants to recast us in its own image, to prepare us, in a way, for totally subordination to its central mandate: eternal recursion. “Resistance is futile.”

The legs of an actress from an episode of The Avengers opens The Framing of Perception. (Image: Kirk Tougas)

In The Future of the Image, Rancière was adamant about our illusions of freedom in a way that echoes the motifs of manipulation that Tougas painstakingly examined in both Politics of and The Framing of Perception. They were and are what I’m calling his Memo from the Future. Rancière has a cryptic passage in The Future of the Image which touches on what I’m getting at in my appreciation for the work of Tougas. He titled one section “The End of Images Is Behind Us” and announced:
What might then properly be called the fate of the image is the fate of this logical, paradoxical intertwining between operations of art, the modes of circulation of imagery, the critical discourse that refers the operations of the one and the forms of the other to their hidden truth.

It is this intertwining of art and non-art, of art, commodities and discourse, which contemporary mediology seeks to efface. Semiology as critical thinking about images. The critique of images, as illustrated in exemplary fashion by the Barthes of Mythologies, was a mode of discourse that tracked the messages of commodities and power hidden in the innocence of media and advertising or in the pretension of artistic autonomy. This discourse was itself at the heart of an ambiguous mechanism.
This “hidden truth” of the relationship between the operations of art and the modes of its circulation and endless reproducibility is precisely at the heart of the Tougas enterprise in his 1973 film(s), which are themselves a critique of the image from within its own supposedly safe sanctuary. Tougas was already telling, or warning, us that commodities and power are concealed cleverly in the supposed innocence of media and advertising and the nearly infernal distribution system which ‘shares’ them.

His film is precisely ‘about’ that very ambiguous mechanism, since he was also already telling us that the image system doesn’t really share its icons with us, it only shares them with itself, through us solely as mediated beings. In Rancière’s follow-up to The Future of the Image, called The Emancipated Spectator, he was seeking some sort of liberation from the tyranny of the undetected image virus, the very virus that Tougas was surgically probing in his film. Tougas did this not via autopsy but rather through vivisection, since he was examining the annals of its transmission from inside its living body, i.e, his film and the appropriated footage he was romancing into fresh meanings.

In the academic journal Radical Philosophy, the editors identified what Rancière was giving us: “Above all, a figure of the spectator whose capacities to sense and think are greater than we have been prepared to conceive.” For Rancière, then, the emancipation sought after begins by asking what we mean by political art or the art of politics, via a militant critique of the consumption of images and commodities. In another very tangible sense, I suspect that these films of Tougas also explore the essence of the nature of The Spectacle, as outlined so effectively and early on by Guy Debord: “The spectacle is the reign of vision, and vision is exteriority – that is, self dispossession. The malady of spectating man can best be summed up in a brief formula: ‘the more he contemplates, the less he lives.’” This is at the heart of the films of Tougas: he wants to take us inside our own exteriority, as he does in the first segment by mesmerizing us with a cyclic sequence of recursive Bronson trailers which decompose before our very eyes, and in the second segment by stunning us on a kind of Nantucket Sleigh Ride of images inside images during an apparent search for the lost Moby Dick of all images.

Indeed, we eventually do find the great mythical white whale of the infinite recursive image and product, but by then it’s far too late, for we are already inside the belly of the beast, living oh-so-comfortably surrounded by all our flickering digital equipment. The contemplation of our machine mirror image is a contemplation of appearance separated from truth, it is that very contemplation denounced by Debord and Rancière, and indeed by Tougas, especially in his current ruminations on the nature of virtual reality trends. It is the spectacle of the suffering produced by that separation. “Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle” was how Debord described it. Rancière described it thus: “What human beings contemplate is the spectacle of the activity they have been robbed of; it is their own essence become alien, turned against them, organizing a collective world whose reality is that of dispossession.” This is not science fiction we’re facing; this is merely the world in which we live, without fully recognizing it.

The forty-six-year-old films of Kirk Tougas under discussion here were subsequently fine tuned last year, in light of more recent technological platforms. I continue to suspect that he made these films for an emancipated spectator of the future, who might even be yet to be born.

* * *

The inventor of montage, the great Soviet film artist Sergei Eisenstein, once implored his readers and viewers, “Now, why should the cinema follow the forms of theatre and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts and ideas to arise from the combination of two separate concrete objects?” Indeed, through his creation of the concept of the montage, the sequence of cellular images accumulating into an embodied meaning, he showed that there also exists a syntax of imagery and even a general semantics governing the entire science of signs. This is precisely the technique of juxtaposing found footage or appropriated imagery, “the combination of two separate concrete objects,” that is favoured by cinema artists such as Tougas, one of those who takes Eisenstein at his word.

Of course, Tougas does practice an exotic brand of radical montage: the alchemy of individual frames eliciting emotional responses. After all, in Politics, he first shows us the same sequence thirty three times, with glacial changes in the palette of each recursion, while in Framing he shows us images from perhaps thirty-three different found source materials, sequenced in a surreal parade of unconscious storytelling.

In a haunting mirror image of the lively opening legs frame, the figures of dead war victims provide an echo of lifeless limbs strewn on a landscape of ruin. (Image: Kirk Tougas)

In The Framing the viewer is plunged into a vertiginous yet carefully controlled deluge of found imagery seemingly culled and appropriated from the collective unconscious of the image archive at the centre of our lives as consumers of information. It ‘opens’ with the same analog numerical countdown which again suspends us in a kind of anticipation field, and rapidly states “The Message,” which appears to be found material appropriated from an Advertising Council of Canada film promoting Canadian culture: it is time for us to stand together and to understand together.

But what are we to understand? Thus begins a dizzying descent into a kind of maelstrom of fabricated pop-culture images drawn from either network television or popular movies. We are suddenly serenaded by the popular Canadian songstress Anne Murray but while being lulled into the warmth of her assertion that the time has come to stand together, we are disrupted by the rapid inserting of footage from the historical archive of perhaps the darkest time in human history: piles of corpses instantly identifiable as those of victims from the Holocaust. A voice tells us, “The future is in our hands. But not all the fingers of a hand are born equal,” as individual frames are literally and loosely strewn across the visual landscape of the film, including frequent ‘product placement’ shots of popular consumer goods, such as Coca-Cola bottles. This second segment of Letters is itself further subdivided into a second self-referential portion called “The Medium.”

And it is here, after being faced with an old analog video camera aimed at us, that that the true content of The Framing of Perception begins anew, in a manner not unlike the repeated and recycled trailer for The Mechanic, but this time more in keeping with Brion Gysin’s infamous “dream machine,” a device which allowed the user to enter into a technically induced trance state through the repeated flicker of a circular disc rotating through cylindrical background vessel.

This alarming incursion occurs at roughly the halfway mark, or fifteen minutes into the framing saga, and is eventually reversed by the flickering spotlight, almost strobe-like in its intensity, with a black disc in the throbbing center surrounded by an ever-accelerating white border. By this stage we fully realize the booming and speeding up tones of Maurice Ravel’s iconic 1928 symphonic poem “Bolero” is pulling us into a frenzy of flickers that truly mimics the early identifier for cinema as literal flicks. When the crescendo arrives, we are left perched high above a dark void-like space, after having experienced a kind of Ferris-wheel dream (or nightmare, depending on the viewer) crashing into itself. That crashing and enfolding experience celebrates a certain inherent cognitive dissonance, the mash-up technique of aligning advertising and entertainment images given an equal weight with documentary image-content from an actual horror story: the Second World War. Cognitive dissonance may, in fact, be the secret plot of the Tougas narrative.

Indeed, one of the aspects of his cunning film work which makes it so archetypal for me is its skillful demonstration of the relationship between cinema and fine art history and a celebration of what John Rhodes called “cinema’s hybrid and intermedial status, making a case for cinema as an inherently intermedial art.” As a prime example of this status, I would cite my immediate stylistic recognition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch echoed in Tougas, most notably the exotically montage-like feeling of his 1500 masterwork The Garden of Earthly Delights, as well as Visions of the Hereafter, with their shockingly modernistic frames aligned in film-like sequential strips.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch (1500). (Image: Prado Museum, Madrid)
 Visons of the Hereafter, Bosch (1500). (Image: Prado Museum, Madrid)

Some fascinating research into the place of art in film as shared realms  was conducted by Brigitte Peucker in her recent book Aesthetic Spaces, in which she demonstrated how films provide valuable zones for aesthetic experimentation and analysis as a result of cinema’s openness to other media in ways that has always allowed it to expand its own boundaries. When painterly or theatrical conventions are appropriated by the medium of film, the dissonant effects produced may open it up to intermedial reflections which tell us a great deal about cinema itself.

The fateful manipulation of footage by Tougas is yet another example of this humble but intense credo: chance is the fool’s name for fate. His Bosch super-nova of a film is also something of a personification of the text he used to outline the program we have just passed through, but not, however, in any customary programmatic manner: “I saw the light: sun, light, darkness, shadow, from time immemorial all weighted with significance and wonder. What mastery over nature, over others. To grasp the sun, control light itself, know its speed, its heat, its colour, its radiation, its nature. Is this not the power of the gods?”

The question is, of course, another rhetorical one, since we have been deposited back on terra firma, but only after having been left in completely empty and utter darkness. Yet this has not been a disorienting of the senses, it is rather more of a reorienting of them. We are left alone in the crowd around us, intensely aware that we have just watched a film about watching films, a veritable and virtual hymn to our technological prowess at storytelling. It’s a homo-faber skill which stretches from the flickering shadows of fire crackling on a cave wall, and evolves all the way up to the realm of a Stanley Kubrick film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or to the torrent of images unleashed by Godard or Greenaway.

For some inexplicable reason, I was left with one salient thought after witnessing Letters from Vancouver several times, and after alternating between its two distinct but interlaced segments. This salient notion almost feels like a residue from the golden age of cinema itself. When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed while receiving honours at the American Film Institute in 1979, he was impossibly asked, “What was the secret of making movies?” That’s what the adoring crowd wanted to know. His response, in a typically laconic Hitchcockian phrase, was that it’s all about the empty white rectangle: "I have no interest in pictures that I call photographs of people talking. I have that empty white rectangle to fill with a succession of images, one following the other. That is really what makes a film."

Composite image of ‘The Medium,’ the flickering final segment from The Framing of Perception. (Image: Kirk Tougas)

Kirk Tougas has reminded us of something significant with his Letters From Vancouver. A couple of things, really.  Firstly, how vulnerable we are to emotional controls invading our desires as consumers of information, how we have been virtually colonized by the machines we invented to serve us. Secondly, through his judicious use of appropriated footage, he has reminded us of the infinite mutability of the image archive itself, of how similar it is to a museum of our dreams, and how easily seduced we are by that empty white rectangle begging to be filled. Even if it is usually only filled with an evocation of impermanence.

In the case of the Perception segment of Letters, of course, Tougas also, ironically, leaves us with an empty black rectangle, but it is nonetheless the same empty void, one that no spectator, emancipated or otherwise, can ever actually fill. Thus he moves inexorably along his chosen path, sculpting in time and light as an archaeologist of perception, while also engaging in a historical retrospect, prospect and futurespect, all conducted in the crowded carnival of readymade imagery that surrounds us, outside and inside.

Provocative and innovative cinema artists such as Tougas, it seems to me, want us to look through their films even more than at them. We need to read them as we would a found literary text or an archival object. This is because seeing is not always believing. Sometimes, seeing is simply seeing.

Letters from Vancouver by Kirk Tougas is available in DCP, digital files and DVD. Representation: LightCone, Paris and

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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