Tuesday, 22 April 2014


...and the past is not merely preserved but alive, growing, changing, in the future: ...' from Future anterior

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat

Whitechapel Gallery

16th April to 22nd June


'Should we start with the death in Paris, on 29 July 2012, at the age of 91? Or with the birth, on the same day in 1921 in Ulan Bator (or Belleville, or Neuillysur- Seine, depending on who you ask)? We could start, perhaps, with the names, like a proper obituary or a wanted poster: Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, alias Sandor Krasna, alias Hayao Yamaneko, alias Kosinski, alias Guillaume-en-Egypte, alias Sergei Murasaki, alias Chris Marker. We can make an educated guess as to the source of this last and most famous of his akas: for his collaboration with Alain Resnais on the short documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) his credit is given (in English) as ‘Chris and Magic Marker’ – that most democratic of public writing tools, invented under the name a few years before, capable of writing on virtually any surface, perfect for making posters. (A single stroke of the Magic Marker carries us from 1956 to Parisian graffiti he photographed in 1968, and M. Chat’s street art in The Case of the Grinning Cat of 2002.) Under his nom de Second Life, Sergei Murasaki, he discussed the mark of Marker in 2008: ‘I chose a pseudonym, Chris Marker, pronounceable in most languages, because I was very intent on travelling.’ Marker, then, like Kodak – chosen with movement, many languages, and the world in mind.'

'Marker also spread this access, indirectly, by example – by demonstrating how much could be done with how little. He worked with minimal budgets, begged or borrowed materials, chance opportunities, sweepings of the cutting-room floor. La Jetée’s still images were made with a consumergrade Pentax camera, and the one moment of motion (the piercing, perfect moment when she opens her eyes to gaze directly into the camera) was filmed with an Arriflex borrowed for an hour and returned. Sans-soleil was shot on silent 16 mm – no need to synch sound – and recorded on a cassette player. The most sophisticated part, the incredible footage processed by the Spectron video synthesizer, was, again, a matter of borrowing for a few days. The cinétracts, brief silent film-pamphlets, ‘simple and cheap’ in Godard’s words, and perfect for distribution and screening in the rapid flux of political action, could be spun up from still images and phrases scribbled with markers. Grin without a Cat began with assembling all the footage discarded from militant films in pursuit of clear, tight agitprop. His late short video Stopover in Dubai is the most minimal effective gesture: it’s the film produced by the Dubai State Security service, of found CCTV footage tracking the assassins on their way to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his hotel room. All Marker has done is change the soundtrack, adding the first three movements of Henryk Górecki’s ‘String Quartet No. 3’: the dark adagio as the team assembles, drifting in and out of shopping centres; the profound gloom of the second movement, as the circle inexorably closes and the doomed man goes to his hotel room under the watchful eye of the surveillance group; and the escalating frenzy of the allegro as the work is done and the killers scatter.

His advocacy for tools and access included thoughtful technological adoption and engagement. He saw, at once joking but not (as in so much of his work), the legacy of Dziga Vertov in DV cameras, and explored the texture, thrift and secrecy of video, the aleatoric space of CD-ROM, the raucous public bazaar of YouTube, and the production of cryptic and quiet websites. (Many of his films are available on YouTube, including the entirety of Grin; some recent films and his CD-ROM can be found at http:// gorgomancy.net.) Films like Sans-soleil, Letter from Siberia and Sunday in Beijing feel like a one-person network culture well before the fact – not proto- but post-Internet, a highly refined form of thinking and sensibility for a world rich in data, mediation and connection. ‘He claims’, ‘he’ being Hayao Yamaneko as quoted by Sandor Krasna (both men being Marker), ‘that electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory and imagination’; that ‘video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence.’ He took up new technologies, however, always with an eye to what could be done by oneself, to keeping a certain independence. He held the notion of ‘naive informatics’, being a Douanier Rousseau of new media, a ‘Sunday programmer’, to avoid being instrumentalized by the presets and branding agendas of software companies.'

text Finn Brunton Radical Philosophy

Radical Philosophy articles by Finn Brunton