With Humor and Subtlety

The Video Works of Anne-Julie Raccoursier

by Kathleen Bühler

“An analysis of the simple surface manifestations of an epoch can contribute more to determining its place in the historical process than judgements of the epoch about itself.”

Siegfried Kracauer

“Non-Stop Fun” (2008) is the name of a video triptych by Anne-Julie Raccoursier dated 2008 which shows huge masses of people in motion. Three pictorial fields projected in larger-than-life format each presents an excerpt of a mass of people at different places. On the left, in profile, is a view of spectators during a sports event; the people are waving their arms over and back as happens at big gatherings when a wave is spontaneously imitated in synchronised arm movements. The video image in the middle shows a team dressed in white hopping on white gym balls, a mass choreography in the framework of a gymnastics tournament, while on the right there is a frontal view of a group flying little flags at a gymnastics championships. In all the shots, the camera closes in so closely to the human bodies that it is impossible to gain any visual distance for a spatial analysis or overview. Instead, the image reveals fragments of a larger whole by blending the individuals into an ornamental form that is carrying out simultaneous movement patterns. The overall impression made by this three-part projection is hypnotic. The swell of human bodies recalls a repeating mercurial-type pattern. Despite the documentary quality of the images, the impression given is of abstract red zones flanking a whitish-green centre field.

The presentation form of the triptych, typical of sacred and later also abstract paintings, heightens the impression of a moving painting and it is no coincidence that, in the context of sport as a substitute religion, it cites that form and its sacred connotations. Yet it is not the parallels between religious and sporting rites that are foregrounded in this monumental work, it is a fascination with the mass, its cumulative power as a lively all-over, which in the middle field is hopping around harmlessly whereas at the side it is latently hysterical. Anne-Julie Raccoursier has captured the people on the left just before they are about to do something. This constant uncertainty as to which direction the mass movement might actually take is a decisive factor in the tension created. Here we sense a slight unease on the part of the artist fostered by the historical awareness of the unpredictability of the mob.

Ambivalent Compressions

By opting for such a telling title, Anne-Julie Raccoursier determines the direction in which the film material is to be read, although its interpretation ultimately changes and becomes ironically fractured while it is being watched. On the one hand, “Non-Stop Fun” is provided by the sports event broadcast on TV channels around the clock, all showing similar images and thus ensuring entertainment at any time. On the other hand, the title also refers to the temporal structure of the installation, the endless loop of short sequences – which only take between two and four minutes – as a lasting moment of great joy. Through this endless loop, both what is presented and the audience’s attention are kept “prisoner” in an inescapable noose. On closer inspection, the initially invoked fun turns out to be a narrow receptacle in which the short sequences are eternally repeated.

The ambivalence rendered possible by different interpretations gives rise to a fundamental doubt about the anticipated “fun”. In the loop, which mercilessly underscores the monotonous aspect of the repetition, the hopping gymnasts and the flag-flying spectators seem altogether infantile. If one takes Siegfried Kracauer’s thesis of 1927, quoted at the beginning, seriously, then the simple choreography of the sports spectators reflects social circumstances: “The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system.”

Although this statement was expressed against a different historical backdrop in 1927, and although there are only vague hints of a primitive similarity between the movements in Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s video work, this evaluation certainly suits the masses of workers in the new globalised “empires”

that are to be found in sports stadiums. For in the 1920s, like today, the capitalist production process eliminated everything that might have got in its way, and therefore the capitalist system, which is indifferent to variations in shape, itself leads to the “obliteration of national characteristics and to the fabrication of masses of workers who can be uniformly employed and used throughout the world”.

Even during their leisure time.

Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s approach is clearly visible in “Non-Stop Fun”. Her video aesthetic is characterised by precise camera work operating between footage filmed by chance and planned settings. Her video films, which are usually only a few minutes long and often have no soundtrack, present different aspects of one theme. Furthermore, the artist meticulously analyses her frames in search of the needle in the haystack, and selects certain ones which she then re-edits and re-contextualises in an extremely precise montage. This video-film-maker compiles a new, aesthetic line of argument with image material that is condensed into brief moments. A practised rhetorician, she isolates visually dense moments which she then re-orders so as to enable a persuasive interpretation of the fragments of reality which she repeats in the loop for the purposes of plausibility. The documentary film seems like a cleverly composed aesthetic video montage that stands for a thesis and reveals a second, social or cultural reality under the surface reality. The theme of staging or mise-en-scène in particular – be it in architecture or in more short-lived performances – is one that has preoccupied the artist in recent years.

Male Preserves

The video film “Whirligig” (2007) is evidence of this. It shows the motorised French presidential guard discovered by chance training at a parking lot on the French Riviera. In this minutes-long unedited presentation, sixteen guards in helmets and on motorcycles go through the motions in a kind of choreography. The presidential protectors seem like part of a whole and not like individuals. Reduced to the concrete synchronised completion of symmetrical geometrical figures, their performance degenerates into pure decoration and a demonstration of power, which in its proximity to a funfair attraction becomes a bit of a laugh. Like the wind-propelled toys called whirligigs in the United States, the officers also seem like mere toy figures blown about the square by the mild summer breeze and of no further use, apart from their entertainment value and the symbolic reference to their possible function. The artist is fascinated by this uselessness, this abundance of creative prodigality and merely symbolic significance, which really ought to have no place in today’s thoroughly rationalised world. Anne-Julie Raccoursier spots such prodigality to a particular degree in those areas associated with males, such as sport, the military, or also among the participants in an Air Guitar Contest in Finland, in the video film “Noodling” (2006).

In that compilation, the artist shows six young men in various guises, and in devotional ecstasy, imitating their idols: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison and Angus Young are resurrected before their inner eye! These young men are totally immersed in their re-enactment of great moments in rock history: outstretched tongue, rolling eyes, torso as tense as a guitar string, hair flying wild. Disconnected due to the video film’s lack of sound, decelerated to slow motion and filmed close up, a strange and also moving spectacle unfolds before our eyes presenting the apotheosis of male virility, the rock star as a mute pose. These filmed moments of the utmost exertion are surprising, on the one hand, because of the amazing wealth of detail visible in the faces and gestures of the imitators. On the other hand, they also give the impression that the aspiration to masculinity involved here drives the young men to such exhaustion so that it can only be maintained as a theatrical performance, and not as a seriously intended position. Once again, the artist causes the staging of a male-connoted spectacle to implode. At the same time however, she links into Dan Graham’s history of the development of rock ’n’ roll, adding another chapter, as it were. In “Rock My Religion” (1982-84, colour, b/w, sound, 55 mins) the American concept artist intertwined the rites of the Shaker religion and the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll in a provocative parallel montage, thus demonstrating the spiritual roots of rock music and its search for salvation from commerce. Anne-Julie Raccoursier shows the quasi-religious rapture of her air guitarists, which does not allow itself to be commercialised in any way, but rather exists only in these fleeting unproductive and musically jejune moments. She thereby proves that for today’s generation of rock music aspirants all that remains is to imitate already well-known patterns.

Strategies of the Video Essay

This approach places Anne-Julie Raccoursier in one of the most fascinating fields of contemporary video work. Developing a visual argumentation is part of the task of the video essay, which has been one of the most lively artistic fields since the 1990s and is being talked about in various debates on documentary strategies in photography and film making.

Video essays are filmic treatises which are characterised by an open experimental form. Their most exciting feature is their indecisive status between document and fiction. Like literary essays, their distinguishing feature is a brief expansive and yet indefinitive thought movement. The film-essay does without a central theme and instead constructs a mesh of associative compressions. For this reason, montage is the linchpin of the filmic essay. All its levels are reserved both for narrative and for reflection on what is narrated. The mode of depiction prompts this reflection. The methods and techniques of the video essay are many and varied, although, as Ursula Biemann writes, it mainly strives not to depict reality, but to present its complexity.

Which is why, as a genre, it is situated between documentary video and video art. This breadth is also visible in Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s video work: while “Whirligig” or also “Grace-Notes” (2005) are to be seen as documentary videos, “Crazy Horse” (2009) and “Non-Stop Fun” are video installations which confront the viewers life-size.

Normally, video essays are oriented around the classical documentary film in length and form, for example, with interviews and commentaries. Anne-Julie Raccoursier’s aperçus however, thrive on the power of reflective scrutiny. This is evident in the two current works “Chain Steam” (2011) and “Rose Pink” (2010), which concentrate on brief observations. “Chain Steam” shows a city in the sunlight in winter, its smoke plumes flickering like flames in the backlight, while “Rose Pink” presents people at a amusement park in a gigantic robot arm, being slowly turned to and fro as if couched in the hand of a giant.

Anne-Julie Raccoursier concentrates on just a few images in which an insight crystallises, avoids dolly shots and links the individual observations through balanced editing. In doing so, she either places several scenes one after another, or one beside the other for comparison purposes, as in “Noodling” and “Non-Stop Fun”, or else she repeatedly approaches the same situation from different angles, as in “Grace-Notes” and “Effaroucheur” (2005). The artist does without a spoken commentary, relying completely on the force of the montage. Only in individual cases, as in “Effaroucheur” or “Grace-Notes”, does she add a soundtrack to the images to underscore her intention. “Grace-Notes”

is a striking example of how the artist adopts a critical attitude without a spoken commentary. The 2005 video film is one of the few exceptions in which she uses sound: accompanying music, which she composed herself, is intertwined with the surrounding noises – rattling sewing machines – and its monotonous melody enables a subtle interpretation of what is shown. The images are of seamstresses producing national flags as piece-work in an American factory in Pennsylvania. Their uniform actions at their dull working places are accompanied by rhythmic high-revving engine sounds and the melancholic plucking of an electronic guitar. In the wake of the 11 September 2001, American flags are the most important proof of patriotism and this latter is being produced before our very eyes at the press of a button. The female workers are totally immersed in their monotonous task. Their clothes and outward appearances suggest none too privileged living conditions and lead one to reflect on today’s American way of life, which no longer promises a career that takes you from rags to riches, but more often than not ends in a sweat shop. At the same time, observation of this situation also spurs thoughts about the fabrication of national belonging and our self understanding as a citizen. The ethnic and cultural differences between the women are levelled by the symbol of the national flag, and by the undemanding task in a totally rationalised working process.

Reflection Spaces

Just as Raccoursier’s ambiguous work titles tap into conceptual spaces, so too the observations which make up her video films spur reflection on everyday life. In some works, her observations are transformed into video installations that enable us to encounter the filmic space as an actual space of reflection. “Crazy Horse”, for example, consists of two large-as-life projections of racing horses in the process of being subjected to therapy. Both horses are filmed frontally and from a slightly low angle, as if they were actually there in front of us as they march their kilometres on the treadmill or are warmed up under the sun lamp. The unusual arrangement of the horses in these clinical surroundings and the all-too-human procedures of their therapy are reminiscent of fitness studios and beauty treatments, and their absurdity makes the viewer smile. The ambivalent title again collapses out expectations and conjures up further associations that revolve around the long-legged dancers from the famous Parisian cabaret on the one hand, or around the proud Sioux chief of the same name who led the North American Indians into one of the last battles against the White Man at the Little Big Horn. In this way, the intellectual terrain opened up by the artist links failure, freedom, top performance in society today and the relationship between freedom, consumerism and work. What is also raised is the issue of the questionability of medical services, which not only find the same deficits among animals as among people, but also treats them the same. This only apparently places the horses on the same level as people. Above all, it robs the animals of their original meaningful living environment, an environment that was still valid at the time of the Indian chief, when horses may have been killed in battle, but were certainly not treated for burn-out.

Political Aesthetic

Even in minimalist form – for example, when in “Crazy Horse” only two video films are projected on different walls – the installation unfolds its potential as an art genre that, according to Juliane Rebentisch, invites us in a particular way to reflect on perception and in doing so achieve a change of awareness that, as the case may be, might lead to “political action”.

“Crazy Horse” in particular confronts the viewer and his or her freedom of movement in the exhibition space with the entrapment of the horses, literally through being tethered, and symbolically through their marking time and their function as a substitute for man. The political aspect is generated through this situation being fanned out. It is not just a matter to extracting a political meaning and moral importance from the theme. It is not about giving the viewer a bad conscience, but about opening a possibility for a change of consciousness by creating a reflective distance to the familiar. The video artist’s eye for the unusual situation of the horses throws light on our attitude to pets and indicates parallels to our own situation. Her distanced gaze at the spectacle of the presidial guards points to the hidden and perhaps also illusionary geometry of power. And the empathetic, almost caring gaze of the media artist exposes the masturbatory spectacle of the air guitarists as a recycling of media clichés in their search for artistic self-expression. The above-mentioned subtly used alienation leads to the fictionalisation of the real, which French philosopher Jacques Rancière felt was indispensable for thinking about reality.

Subsequent to the critique of the intuitions in the 1970s, and inspired by the shimmering vitality of the video essay, Anne-Julie Raccoursier ultimately formulates socio-critical views which are not subject to the usual instructive rhetoric of classical documentary film work, but which with intelligence, subtlety and humour, use features of contemporary practice to develop a new kind of political aesthetic. This political aesthetic consists of awakening in the audience a sense for social stagings. This sense is spurred by a specific sensuality and an experience which differs from other forms of experience. As a result of the new visibility that Raccoursier gives the phenomenon she observes, connections are revealed and insightful ascriptions of meaning made possible. In a much more fundamental sense, this denotes a political attitude, for “before politics is the exercise of power or a power struggle, it is the division of a specific space of ‘common matters’. Politics is the conflict surrounding the question of which objects belong to that space and which do not.”

By depicting new objects and new connections, Anne-Julie Raccoursier again puts forward the space of ‘common matters’ for discussion.

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