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June 2009

Cultural Farming and Montage

By: Holland Wilde

Video Research Examples:

Folk Video

Red Meat

Oh You Know Why

Neural Editing

It is my personal and professional history that aroused my reinvestment in montage.  Indeed, notions like assemblage, collage, metaphor, poesis, trompe l'oeil, juxtaposition, pastiche, bricolage, and collision -- which, of course, were second-nature to my theatrical-and-television design careers -- are simply various forms of montage.  And all are fundamental methods of visual textualization.

But it is a reinvigoration of early Soviet montage, which provides technical method to Cultural Farming’s methodological and theoretical scaffolds.  Oft forgotten with today’s commonplace quick-editing is how Sergei Eisenstein (1942, 1949) and Dziga Vertov (Michelson 1984) radicalized their montage approach.  In his chapter from the book The Montage Principle  (Antoine-Dunne & Quigley 2004) Arthur McCullough writes:

“For both Eisenstein and Benjamin these shocks or attractions would eventually come, via the cinematic technique of montage, to reverberate in the connections through film technique between producers and audiences” (p:46).

However, where Vertov's work grew more towards a realistic and documentary 'direct cinema' style, Eisenstein's approach grew artistically and politically charged (Antoine-Dunne & Quigley 2004):

“Although Eisenstein incorporated Vertov's productive aim he shifted things from Vertov's emphasis on documentary reality towards his own cinema of attractions.  Content, for Eisenstein, meant a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience, and organized in relation to principles which would lead to the desired reaction in correct proportion.  His significant departure was in constructing an active medium, which mixed Vertov's unstaged recording of film facts with staged materials, stylization of shot composition, and mise-en-scene as a conscious remaking of reality - altogether a much more purposeful, artistic, intention.  It came partly from collage, which John Heartfield and George Grosz in turn derived from Cubism.  The more intense aesthetic was needed to break down a stimulus shield that people developed to anaesthetize themselves against the barrage of perceptual assaults of the modern city.  This squared with Brecht, and with Benjamin's philosophical outlook (as conveyed in The Author as Producer).  In this way Eisenstein, Brecht, and Benjamin foresaw a revolutionary use of communications technology such that montage could be used to open things out to explicitly political purposes” (p:51).

Where montage extends beyond mere expressive editing, its relevance lays within the explosion of new meaning created between and amongst intentional collisions; this is something more than simple juxtaposition.  And within Cultural Farming these explosions are thoroughly more formidable than mere quick-editing, surrealism or bricolage alone.  Indeed, Russian montage collisions implore viewers to actively participate liminally, politically, reciprocally, making an excellent tool-method for critically examining TV news production and presentation -- exactly at the intersections of interpretation.  In Eisenstein Rediscovered (Christie & Taylor 1993:167), Franco Cassetti is quoted:

“In Eisenstein we find a constant urge to operate in the interstices of different sciences, between linguistics and anthropology, between psychology and aesthetics, between the history of art and biology.  This impulse might suggest a mistrust of procedures of analysis but, on the contrary, it takes advantage of the relative weakness of various paradigms to make the research more effective - and to obtain better results…. The role of the scientist and scholar, wise man and pragmatist, are superimposed and merged: each appears just when the others seem to be asserting themselves.”

Thus, the importance of montage arises not (primarily) out of accidental or everyday cultural action; rather it derives its power and import from intentional (visual/anthropological/creative) practice.  As such these experimental methods, as with Cultural Farming, both challenge and champion these intersections of interpretation with bold, dialectical, alternative, marginalized viewpoints.  Indeed, Denzin's (2003) 'experimental moment' in ethnography challenges the entire ethnographic practice, exemplifying what Marcus and Fischer (1986) call defamiliarization by cross-cultural juxtaposition; and James Clifford (1988:133), in turn states, “The ethnographer, like the surrealist, is licensed to shock”.

And it should be remembered, where “licences to shock” are often dismissed as aggressive, improper, nonsensical means of scholarship, Donald Theall, emeritus scholar of both James Joyce and Marshall McLuhan, reminds us in his book Beyond the Word (1999) that:

“A digression into John Dewey's pragmatic discussion of the relation between the arts and the processes of human communication will assist in understanding why nonsense provides such a powerful model of human communication.  In Democracy and Education Dewey unqualifiedly called out the close resemblance between communication and art.  He says, “The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated.  To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another, and then reforming that in such a way so someone else can appreciate the meaning.  'All communication is like art.'  And Dewey goes on to say that,  'Nonsense, which forces the exploratory intelligence to work with gaps created by grammar, logic, and mathematics produces a strong desire to derive intelligibility from a still broader range of sensory interplay with other gaps and surfaces.  Communication is the process of creating participation.  Part of the miracle is that it achieves this, even though it is not the function or intent of art.  It is just a natural consequence of the artistic activity'” (p:45).

Montage, even in terms of a fictional, poetic synaesthesia, can then be seen to directly apply to Cultural Farming when considering ethnographic forms of writing as a provocation of TV news and journalism production/presentation.  Theall continues:

“Synaesthesia was first recognized as a poetic device about the same time as the abstract discussions of gesture in traditional rhetoric occurred.  Increasingly, these provided filmmakers, dramatists, and synthesizers of new genres - such as the Dadaists - with a further basis for an integrated poetic practice, whether in light, sound, movement, speech, writing, celluloid, pigment, assembled objects… or any combination of thereof.  These arts bequeathed to modernism, and its aftermath, a capacity for dealing with the new world of cultural production - that is, mass-produced objects, entertainment, and information.  From these perspectives, the arena of everyday life again began to shape the mind of the poet and artist (p:18-19). …(These) poetic works are bridges between gaps of understanding; they provide models of communicating in a self-questioning manner.  The experimental nature of these poetic works involves playing with the surface of sense, with the multiplicity of meaning and polysemy of language and machine, and exploiting the thrust towards a transversality of textuality” (xvi).

Not coincidentally, Cultural Farming’s brand of polysemic collection and montage is done in exactly the same way Walter Benjamin proposed to construct his Arcades Project – that is, entirely of bricolage bits and pieces of everyday cultural debris – or “rag-pickings” --as he called them.  Benjamin collected mountains of quotations and pasted them into his unique palimpsest, which revealed his enormous range of interests and his genius for distilling associations.  Even Theodor Adorno commented that the Arcades Project appeared to be an attempt at surreal, historical writing. 

But then, Benjamin’s work was informed by the early Surrealists and particularly by Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre with its pledge to distanciation, where any idea of ‘naturalness’ is defamiliarized and rendered available for political critique and practice.  The form of Benjamin’s Arcades Project was to develop the highest degree of citing without quotation marks.  It was intended to eliminate overt commentary.  Meanings were meant to emerge solely through the shocking juxtaposition of material, which of course is the essence of montage.  Benjamin’s aim was not merely for philosophy to catch up with surrealism, rather for philosophy to become surrealistic.  Indeed, Benjamin’s appropriation of everyday life radicalized Surrealist montage into assemblages of perception. 

However, as Benjamin fully understood architecturally with his Arcades Project, and as I am discovering with my work in Cultural Farming, it is not the mere collection of cultural bits that matters, however important that may be.  Rather, it is in their placement, ordering, juxtaposition and collision where cultural critique comes to fore.  So, as I started to combine groupings of my video-clips, I began to experiment with new forms of didactic, dialogic, and dialectical commentary that reciprocated with television, to make new kinds of TV.  And it was only then, that I began to see that I could also mix Soviet formalist film theory, with visual-anthropologic-ethnographic film-theory, in order to reflexively build important, easy-to-make, critical media mash-ups.

And so, Cultural Farming’s brand of critical montage is also constructed to re-challenge “truth” in ways that subvert, yet again, taken-for-granted ways of thinking, and “realities” not necessarily of our own making.  It implies that by thinking about and acting upon our world we are able to reassess both our subjective interpretations and our objective conditions.  And so, critical montage is not just criticism.  Nor is it completely interchangeable with the later-theories of the Frankfurt School, which are primarily explanations of capitalist-society.

Critical montage is conventional montage - with political purpose. 

Critical montage, then, does not reject the cannons of science; instead it challenges its central metaphors and the ways they see and symbolize objects of study.  And so, the question for critical media ethnographers is not whether one can begin researching with montage - value-free - without distorting the research process.  Rather, in our postmodern world of “armchair” radicals, the larger question becomes whether projects like Cultural Farming can still gain purchase within so-called worn-out, banal objects of study like television.  Well, I say yes and we better do it soon.

Television research, particularly within non-fictional journalistic production needs radical revitalization.  Montage can help; and one need-look no further than the early-days of Soviet-film for inspiration.   Sergei Eisenstein along with  his filmmaker associates like Vertov, Kuleshov and Pudovkin took for granted that avant-garde artists worked for political ends.  And even while Eisenstein’s notions of intellectual montage were often attacked by the State as formalistic and incomprehensible to ordinary viewers, he worked continuously toward one end:  That theory would arise from tangible creative work.  This is Cultural Farming’s premise as well.

A century later, Eisenstein's insistence that cinema must be politically progressive and must steer the audience in a useful direction resounds with a new sense of clarity and purpose today.  Indeed, Eisenstein purposefully uses montage to invigorate clichéd metaphors through contextual-associations that spurn cold didacticism, going well beyond one-for-one comparisons.  Even more drastically, Eisenstein views the spectator as putting up a material resistance that must be overcome by violence:  The audience, he thought, must be attacked.  Indeed, he sees montage like a farm tractor for plowing the spectator’s psyche.  Why else would Eisenstein famously state, “It is not Cine-Eye that we need but instead a Cine-Fist.”

And so unlike Vertov, Eisenstein suggests that the principle of montage goes beyond techniques of redactive editing.  And where Kuleshov considers montage to be primarily a storytelling device, Eisenstein sees no reason for it to be bound by plot-requirements.  “Montage is a beautiful word,” writes Eisenstein,  “One does not create a work, one constructs-it with finished parts, like a machine…“

Reminiscent of Cultural Farming, this form of “plotless cinema” is a tool for engaging the audience in activities that yield-the-concept into a product.   And this is achieved very simply, in three stages:  Perception of an event triggers some motor activity, which yields emotion; which in turn, launches a process of thought.  Thus, Eisenstein’s method is an essential kind of designer pragmatism – that is, whatever works is admissible.  But it also assumes that the artist will creatively rework whatever is taken from the past.  Borrowed material is to be subordinated to the immanent demands of form and intended effect.   And for Cultural Farming, the effect is “transgressive montage as provocation to non-fictional TV/media production”. 

One can begin to see then how Eisenstein’s montage employed as Soviet propaganda resembles not only the agitprop of Dada, the Futurists and Surrealism, but also modern media production techniques.  However, there are significant nuances between them and for Cultural Farming.  To Eisenstein the Surrealists simply want to expose subconscious emotions, whereas he sought to use emotions like tools to provoke specific reactions.  Cultural Farming by contrast employs montage almost in reverse -- not simply for culture-jamming --  but rather for exposing media’s manipulative devices, to help render them opaque, as purposeful media emancipation by exploiting new civic-forms of negotiable disambiguation.

And so, while the stark realities of implementing montage as a hammer within Soviet Russia is probably beyond our comprehension today, Eisenstein’s theories of intellectual and dialectical montage spring to life again when employed inside certain frameworks of critical ethnography.

Indeed, it was George Marcus who wrote in 1986:

“A strong and distinctive practice of cultural critique by anthropologists should combine the empiricism of American documentary with the theoretical vision-and-vitality of the Frankfurt School in its early period along-with the playfulness and daring of the juxtapositions of French Surrealism.“

Too bad I’m not an anthropologist.