Issue 2/2018 - originalcopy

“Retrograde Remediation”

Cross-Media Translations in Contemporary Film-Related Art

Gabriele Jutz

In his prose poem Ixion (1926) Belgrade Surrealist Monny de Boully [Abb. 1] draws a detailed diagram of a fantastic machine, namely an air-carriage, powered by “sexually starved eagles”. The heroine of the book describes in detail how this contraption functions:

It is flown by eagles, who are at first kept inside their cages. In the big front cage, are a male and a female eagle. In the middle cage, above the cabin, is a female. In the last cage, there is a male again. If I decide to fly, I step inside the cabin, open the cages, and here’s what happens: the male and the female in the front cage are sexually satisfied, but they are hungry; they both fly toward the platform to which some fresh meat is attached. However, they cannot reach the meat because they are chained to the cabin. Wanting to free themselves by force, they lift the entire apparatus off ground with the power of their wings. Something similar happens with the other pair of eagles. They are well fed, yet they crave sex. When I open their cages, the female rushes out fleeing the male […]. The male cannot catch up with the female for his chain is too short. This is how the four eagles lift the carriage into the clouds.1

Boully’s fantasy, materialized in a diagram/drawing of a chariot driven by desire serves Pavle Levi as one example to illustrate his concept of “cinema by other means”.2 This term focuses on ways in which aspects of a more recent medium, in this case film, are assimilated by an older and non-cinematic medium, such as still photography, drawing, writing, sculpture, or performance. As Levi explains, he is not interested in artworks made under the influence of, or referring to, the cinema but “in a fairly exact set of structural relations inspired by the workings of the film apparatus itself”.3 Expanding on Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s oft-quoted concept of “remediation”,4 referring to the formal logic by which older media (such as film) are integrated into newer ones (such as television), Levi aptly calls this rematerialization of cinema into materials other than cinema’s original constituents “retrograde remediation”.5 Boully’s diagram from “Ixion” is perfectly suited indeed to fit this particular version of remediation. Instead of looking for the old in the new (as Bolter and Grusin do), Boully seeks the new in the old. As Levi points out, Boully’s hand-drawn sketch does not just refer to cinema in a general manner, it is related to it in structural terms. Just like the film apparatus itself, it claims to be a techno-libidinal machine, set in motion by desire, and thus subsumes the idea of cinema.

The “new” in the “old”

Unlike Levi’s “Cinema by Other Means”, which uses examples from both the historical and the post-war avant-garde, my article will pose the question of what the translation of cinema into “older”, non-cinematic media means in our contemporary media constellation where cross-media processes have become standard fare. Retrograde remediation has gained new relevance in the digital age and covers a wide range of artistic practices and techniques. A particularly striking example is Slide Movie (2007) by the Austrian artist Gebhard Sengmüller. Slide Movie is an installation in which a film projector is replaced by a slide projector. Sengmüller declares the piece to be in the spirit of “fictive media archeology”, and its aim is “to invent things that might have existed earlier but didn’t, because they hadn’t been invented then”.6 For Slide Movie the artist cut a 35 mm filmstrip into its single frames and fixed them into slide frames. Then he aligned 24 slide projectors, each of them capable of holding eighty slides, pointed them at the screen, and ran them at a rate of 24 frames per second. [Abb. 2] In comparison to conventional standards, the quality of the film projection achieved by such an elaborate and time-consuming procedure is quite poor. From a utilitarian perspective, this hybrid machine is totally impractical. However, from an artistic standpoint, Sengmüller’s “invention”, which invests the slide projector with the power to project moving images, is far from being inconvenient. By integrating the functions of a “newer” mechanical apparatus—the film projector—into those of an older one, reminiscent of nineteenth-century magic lantern slideshows, Slide Movie is unambiguously cinematic—though it is not cinema. But it does—unambiguously—demonstrate that medium specificity must be located elsewhere than in the material base of the cinematic apparatus.
As Levi’s examples of retrograde remediation make clear, the notion of the “film apparatus” goes far beyond the mechanical parts of the machine and includes its flexible and changeable components, in particular the filmstrip, as well as “a number of filmic techniques and devices”.7 While Sengmüller’s “Slide Movie” challenges the standard apparatus by tinkering with the hardware, the following two examples, British artist Fiona Banner’s Apocalypse Now (1997) and Russian artist Vadim Zakharov’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927) in One Drawing (Version 2) (2016), executed in writing and drawing respectively, take their point of departure from a specific film and its viewing experience.

Banner’s Apocalypse Now, a cross-media translation of Francis Ford Coppola’s eponymous 1979 Vietnam epic, consists of a hand-scribbled single block of text documenting what the artist witnessed while watching the movie. [Abb. 3] [Abb. 4] Its colossal visual expanse of 274 × 650 cm [21.8 × 8.25 ft] achieves a level of monumentality that stands in contrast to the small size of Banner’s handwriting. The minuscule pencil strokes, wavering between different hues of graphite gray, and the closeness of the lines result in a dense texture of words, difficult to decipher. Banner tells the story of Apocalypse Now in the present, constantly trying to keep up with the quickly changing moving images, while an insistent “then” marks the action’s inevitable progress: “Mike leaves off with one arm and turns round to wave at the chopper. It’s coming down, closer and closer, so black. Then you see the three of them on the bridge, from inside the cockpit they look tiny. Then you see the chopper from the side, not black anymore, but matte green.” Due to the very fact of the handwriting, Banner’s retelling of the movie becomes highly intimate and personal. At the same time, her use of observational and descriptive language lacking any sort of emotional empathy runs contrary to the conventional role of handwriting in contemporary art:8 What she wants to achieve is not self-expression, let alone inwardness, but a detached and thorough documentation of the film’s narrative.

Banner’s Apocalypse Now is related to Coppola’s film on various structural levels. Her choice of a large-scale format, for example, echoes the monumental scale of the American filmmaker’s visual epic. Moreover, the proportional relationship between width and height in Banner’s canvas is 2.37:1, which comes fairly close to the film’s aspect ratio of 2.39:1 in its 35 mm CinemaScope version. Furthermore, Banner’s transcription of the fleeting images in the present tense refers back to the “now” in the film’s title, thus rendering the word’s semantic dimension via a specific verbal tense, while maintaining it throughout the entire text as well. Finally, linear translation—row after row of text—parallels the straightforward succession of scenes in Coppola’s “absurdly linear narrative of ‘go up the river, find Kurtz’”.9 Banner’s retrograde remediation not only finds means to translate the scale, format, semantics, and temporal structure of a specific movie into the medium of writing, it also deals with a more general aspect shared by all films, namely their reproducibility. Erika Balsom distinguishes between two forms of reproducibility, a referential one and a circulatory one: The former concerns film’s capacity to transcribe physical reality, the profilmic event; the latter has to do “with the way the image may be copied and copied and copied, transforming [it] into something multiple that is primed for circulation”.10 Finally, in opposition to digital transcoding, which is able to provide potentially innumerable copies, Banner’s handwritten translation foregrounds the limits of circulatory reproducibility.

Film as a technology deeply engaged in storage and, conversely, its loss comes to the fore in Vadim Zakharov’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927) in One Drawing (Version 2). Zakharov is not only an artist and editor but also an archivist, collector, and documenter of Moscow conceptual art. The urge to preserve and perpetuate also inspired his series Film in One Drawing (2014–2016), which resulted in handwritten “transcripts” of 70 movies from the silent era, among them Hans Richter’s Dadaist Ghosts Before Breakfast. [Abb. 5] While the film is being projected from behind him, Zakharov stands before a sheet of black paper, which also serves as the screen. With pastels he tries to capture the outlines of the passing images directly from the projection surface / surface of inscription. At the end the paper is covered with a dense tangle of superimposed lines bearing no visual similarity whatsoever with Richter’s film. As Annette Gilbert has remarked in an unpublished paper,11 due to the speed of the film’s projection and the relative slowness of the human hand, this form of live recording is particularly inappropriate for film notation. Gilbert quotes Zakharov who himself freely admits that almost nothing of what makes a movie, be it action, mise-en-scène, or camerawork, survives his transcriptional endeavors.

Zakharov’s archival fervor is not satisfied by just transcribing a film and exhibiting the results. He also turns the act of drawing itself, which occasionally takes place in public, into an autonomous performance recorded on video and distributed on DVD under the title Action Film Drawing. The DVD, which includes Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927) in One Drawing (Version 2) consists of three parts: a non-stop action drawing of Richter’s six-minute film, executed in 13:07 minutes (presumably by looping the film); a drawing of the film’s title (2:45 minutes); and a drawing of the number “four”, which figures in the title sequence (40 seconds). As Gilbert observes, when dealing with letters or numbers, Zakharov seeks to maintain the respective font style of his source material. In order to give an idea of the hasty pace under which his transcriptions are produced, the artist presents the video recording of his drawing performances in fast motion. In addition to the drawings on paper, the live-performances, and the DVD, Zakharov also makes the drawings available in printed form.

In terms of its fidelity to its source, Zakharov’s unremitting attempts to translate Richter’s film are doomed to fail, reminding us that in each translator lies a dormant traitor. But it is exactly this aspect of Zakharov’s work that provides us with useful insights into the condition of cinema’s being, including its inherent reproducibility. As mentioned, reproduction plays a double role in the ontology of the moving image. While referential reproducibility refers to the medium’s ability to represent reality, circulatory reproducibility is founded on an economy of the multiple.12 Zakharov’s gesture of tracing shadows follows the logic of the work of the cinematic apparatus, in particular its capturing of reality (referential reproducibility). But Zakharov’s work—as well as those of Banner and Sengmüller—also touches upon the larger and more topical question of film’s circulatory reproducibility, in particular its continuous transition from one format to another.

Why retrograde remediation now?

As film scholar and archivist Giovanna Fossati declares, “transition is the most appropriate and productive term to define the process that film is undergoing at the moment”.13 Although it is true that media transition is ubiquitous in our contemporary “convergence culture”,14 one has to keep in mind that it seems to know one temporal direction only, that is, from “older” media into “newer” ones. Digital media’s potential to transcode all traditional media to data-based binary code makes one easily overlook the fact that digitization is only one way of conceiving of cross-media translation. Hence, retrograde remediation, the presence of the “new” in the “old”, provides a useful critique of such technological determinism. By calling into question the temporal connections between media, retrograde remediation challenges the supposed unilinear direction of translational processes.

Moreover, conceiving the relationship between cinema and contemporary art under the sign of "retrograde remediation" provides reasonable grounds to reassess the notion of medium specificity. As the examples offered demonstrate, the concept of cinema can be separated from its material realization (cinema as we know it). Indebted to the workings of the film apparatus but evoked through other and older means such as slide projection, writing, or drawing, medium specificity is no longer located in the material substrate of the apparatus but is instead derived from a set of structural analogies. Even more importantly, these works deliberately attest to a pronounced technical inadequacy between cinema and the means put in place by these other arts. Sengmüller’s Slide Movie results in a deplorably poor image; Banner’s “Apocalypse Now fails to tell the “whole” story of Coppola’s film; and Zakharov’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927) in One Drawing (Version 2) is far from a properly legible transcript of Richter’s film. Nevertheless, it is precisely because these artworks miss their object and “fail” (however productively) that they are able to quicken our awareness of cinema, what it has been, what it is, and what it might be. Far from being a limited case, or even an exception, retrograde remediation is indeed the rule in that it sheds light on contemporary media transition at large by drastically exposing the discrepancies inherent to all media processes of translation, namely, their inadequacy to fully incorporate all of the many qualities and aspects of another medium. Thus, Sengmüller, Banner, and Zakharov’s radical cross-media translations are tremendously precious at the contemporary moment as they function as a corrective to our present media culture as it converges under the sign of the digital.



[1] Monny de Boully quoted by Pavle Levi, Cinema by Other Means (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.
[2] Levi, Cinema by Other Means.
[3] Pavle Levi, “Cinema by Other Means,” October 131 (Winter 2010): 51–68, here 56.
[4] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 1999.
[5] Levi, Cinema by Other Means, (2012), 42.
[6] Dominik Landwehr, “Fictive Media Archeology. Interview with Gebhard Sengmüller,” in Artists as Inventors – Inventors as Artists, eds. Dieter Daniels and Barbara U. Schmidt (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2008), 130–141, here 132.
[7] Levi, Cinema by Other Means, (2010), 64.
[8] Susanne Titz, “Outside and Inside,” in Banner (Dundee, Frankfurt/Main, Aachen: Dundee Contemporary Arts, Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, und Revolver – Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2002), 115–117, here 117.
[9] David Barrett, “Close Up. Fiona Banner profiled by David Barrett,” Art Monthly 194 (1996), (accessed on Jan. 20, 2018).
[10] Erika Balsom, After Uniqueness. A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 5.
[11] Annette Gilbert, Quickpieces. Zu den Filmmitschriften des Künstler-Archivars Vadim Zakharov, in Schreiben als Ereignis. Künste und Kulturen der Schrift, eds. Jutta Müller-Tamm et al (Paderborn: Fink, in press).
[12] Balsom, After Uniqueness, 5 and 20.
[13] Giovanna Fossati, From Grain to Pixel. The Archival Life of Film in Transition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 20.
[14] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture. Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).