image: shaft of light 1,2, man in doorway
In the cinema, when a shot ends, the director uses one word to close the door. She says “cut.” A cut separates two shots, or else it brings them together. It’s the first tool for building the world of the screen.
A cut is also part of economics. It signals loss, it means having less. In the latest crisis of capitalism, we use the word “cut” to talk about governments reducing spending or else business removing workers.
How do these two kinds of cuts work? Do they affect artificial or natural bodies, corpses or corporations? What can we learn from the cinema that might help us deal with the effects of cutting in our economies?
Cuts in Economic Discourse
Our financial system is often described as if it were a body. In the language of austerity and debt, our belts will have to be tightened, We have to cut out the fat. The economy needs to get lean and fit.
Nietzsche wrote that the tradition of cutting the body is linked to the idea of being a subject, a citizen. To be a citizen means being in debt, and to feel the guilt attached to that debt. Both debt and guilt are written into the body in the form of cuts. Nietzsche mentions a whole range of methods used to enforce debt, memory, and guilt: there is human sacrifice as well as mutilations. He writes with great enthusiasm detailing a full catalog of torture, pointing out with delight that Germans are especially creative when it comes to the design of cuts into the body: the practice of quartering (cutting the body into four parts), cutting off pieces of flesh from the breast, cutting off strips of skin.
The clearest connection between debt and cutting the body is expressed in Roman law. The so-called Twelve Tables state that the body of a debtor can be divided between creditors. If you owe money to someone, they are allowed to cut off part of your body as payment.
The body is cut in order to produce memory, guilt, debt and citizenship. But the body is also a metaphor, and the struggle over this metaphor is also a struggle for power. In feudal times the collective fantasy was that the king had two bodies: his physical body and the body politic. But slowly the body politic drifted away from the throne, it became an edit that brought together new groups and formations, the corporation for instance.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault studied monasteries, the small rooms that monks lived in, their clockwork schedules and regular supervision. In the 18th century, the monastery modelled new kinds of control, marking the transition away from royal rulers who cut the body in order to produce obedence and subjectivity. Now a new kind of cut was created for a newly mobile and urban population: places of confinement. The debtor’s prison, the asylum, the factory, and later, the cinema. These were secular versions of monastic cells in which the modern individual was recreated as a citizen, embracing the cuts between the individual and collective action.
Bodies in Postproduction
While cuts have moved center stage whenever we talk about economics, cutting or editing is also a traditional tool of cinema.
title: expert watching
Editing is often described as a shift in time, providing flashbacks for instance, but cinema also cuts up bodies by reframing them, keeping only what is necessary for the story.
Let’s return to cinema’s first close-up. When he was told to move the camera closer to the actor, Billy Bitzer replied, “But I can’t do that. I’ll cut off his legs.” The early cinema always showed the whole body, it had not yet learned to cut us into useful pieces.
image: early cinema
As you can see from these early examples, there is no central focus. There is no hero to follow. Instead, our attentions are invited to wander from face to face, as if the frame was a place of democracy where each of us would produce our own map.
Producers were convinced that cutting the body would be like filming in a butcher shop. For five years the cinema had no editing at all. Why did they make this change?
image: Great Train Robbery
The first film that was edited was 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. It dealt with questions of private property, theft, the frontier, colonial expansion and other common themes of Westerns. To underline its arguments about money, power and the law, it introduced cross cutting, moving the action back and forth from one location to another.
image: Henry Ford car factory
1903 was also the year that Henry Ford opened his first car factory. He imagined his new invention not simply as a showroom item, but as a body of scraps, cut up and divided. Each part of the car would be assigned to a different worker. As employee-machines performed a single task again and again, the cut up body of the car became the cut up body of the worker.
image: depression 19th century photographs
There were five major depressions in America in the 19th century, each bringing years of hunger and homelessness, along with the rise of community organizations and protest. How to relieve the pressure of what must never be called a class war?
image: twixtor movie theatre
Perhaps the cinema could be a way to deal with these economic cuts.
image: Houdini-crowds sim (cinema seated crowd), stadium simulation, ‘crowd simulation stuff’ live scene crowd matte, then crowds in Houdini
The cinema would undertake the organization of bodies, the choreography of new crowds in the city. And it promised a new and delicious kind of loneliness, a loneliness that could felt only by being in public.
image: Ford factory or showrooms
The cinema would take as its model the Ford factory. It would adopt Ford’s understanding of the body, and model it for its audience, until everyone became so used to watching a body carved into pieces, that no one would even notice.
image: Modern Times – Chaplin
Here is Charlie Chaplin’s contribution. Of course he’s not in a real factory, it’s a set built just the way he wanted it.
title: He’s crazy.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that when he gets caught up in the assembly line, the machine he modelled is based on the motion picture camera. The path his body follows is the path film follows inside a camera.
In one picture: The factory, the cinema, the camera. In other words: a new body was being born. Chaplin called it “Modern Times.”
image: guillotine splicer
A new machine was invented to cut film. The guillotine splicer. With one stroke, unwanted bodies could be cut out of the assembly line of film frames, even as new stars were busy being born.
image: fx breakdown of bank robbery, opening of new film theatres
Advances in the art of film cutting often told stories about money. In just a few years, editing became central to the project of cinema. No film would be made without cutting. And from its barroom beginnings, film turned into a paradise of downtown real estate with custom-built architectures owned by the ruling class. These theatre palaces would project a new form to carry its mythologies: the feature film.
image: birth of a nation
Here is the first feature film, studied for decades in classrooms around the world. It shows blacks terrorizing whites in the American south, until the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue.
title: Ku Klux sympathizers victims of the black mobs.
Jesus appears to bless the triumph of White supremacy as the film ends. The cut is between sex and violence, man and woman, black and white.
And now the modern maids on parade.
Ford’s broken apart machine bodies could be recut and recombined to produce new structures. In 1927 Siegfried Kracauer wrote an essay called “The Mass Ornament.” The mass decoration. It’s about a group of dancers named the Tiller Girls. At the beginning of the century they were popular because of their invention of what was called “precision dance” in which female bodies moved in unison. Kracauer compares the Tiller Girls on stage to the assembly line. Once the body was cut apart, it could be brought back together again in a new way.
image: Busby Berkely with Contempt soundtrack
image: human pixel North Korea
Do you see my feet in the mirror?
Do you think they’re beautiful?
Do you like my ankles?
Do you also like my knees?
I really like your knees.
And my thighs?
Your thighs too.
Do you see my behind in the mirror?
In the industrial dance of the Tiller Girls, Kracauer saw a new body being born, freed from the burdens of race and class, free even of memory, guilt, and debt. His hope was that these new combinations would produce bodies that were no longer subjects, attached to the old masters. He felt that what had been cut out was an old identity, attached to guilt and debt bondage. Here was a body that said yes to its artificial composition, opening itself up to inorganic flows of matter and energy.
He was writing at a moment when wheelbarrows of money were needed to pay for a loaf of bread. But his views were not widely shared. Instead, a hyperinflation of metaphors attached itself to bodies, which were now described in terms of national identity and racial purity, projects realized with maximum violence. Bodies were cut, exploded, and violated—and their scattered remains are the ground we walk on today.
image: Disney Studios, Fantasia
Here is Susan Sontag, in her 1981 essay Fascinating Fascism.
Fascist aesthetics are preoccupied with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort. They celebrate two seemingly opposite states: egomania and servitude.
title: Breaking down the barriers
title: A Huge Paradigm Shift
title: A Dynamic Network
title: Of Productive People
The relationship of master and slave takes a new form: people are gathered and turned into objects, multiplied and turning around an all-powerful centre. Movement is choreographed into rigid patterns displaying a unified body politic, as if the state was composed of a single body.
image: Ford camera in office and film processing machines, Metropolis, assembly line, divers
In 1913 Ford began making movies. They were widely seen and distributed in the silent era. He began with time-motion studies of his own workers in the factory, looking for ways the body could be more efficient. Capitalism required more than workers. It was about organizing time, bodies, and attention. Ford’s offer of $5 per day was intended to stop both unions and government intervention. In order to qualify, behaviour even outside the factory would be monitored. Ford remarked, “We want to make men in this factory as well as automobiles.”
image: night flames, Ford factory
Time would be sped up, and cut into useful parts, and the body would follow.
image: digital crowds
Cinema was the cultural form of the assembly line, the art of industrial time. Like the factory, it was an architecture of confinement that would assemble workers and direct attention, cutting up time and bodies together.
image: scooter slow motion
Ford’s new bodies made large corporations possible and mass markets around the world, while cinema aimed at young, working class and immigrant audiences, dissolved class struggles into dreams of freedom and the individual.
Henry Ford’s assembly line and films were put on display at large public fairs, but none larger than the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.
Three famous men met at the Palace of Machinery. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank. Ford showed his friends a complete auto assembly plant.
It was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The canal ran between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allowing a speedy circulation of American products across Latin America and new world markets, and directly contributed to the emergence of the US as the world’s dominant economic power. Industries like automobiles and film benefited from sped up circulation of raw materials and capital.
title: 500 deaths for every mile.
From this moment, American film became a global industry.
image: 1919 behind the scenes of film production, vfx
The cinema used to be cut in two parts: the production of shooting, and the postproduction of editing, mixing and printing. But today, many movies are created in postproduction.
title: production/ post production
The impact of postproduction goes beyond the world of movies.
title: Employees of Blundell’s Paint Works, Hull, North England April 1901
image: uk workers leaving factory, farocki – workers leaving
In 1901 it was still possible to leave the factory, a temporary marvel that needed to be recorded and preserved forever.
title: Workers Leaving the Factory
Yelahanka, Bangalore, 2012
Today, the factory leaves with each worker when we reach for our most intimate techno-organ: the mobile phone.
Telephone are like our bosses, an object worthy of more attention, granted more importance, than many of our closest friends.
Telephones produce texts and data to feed the most wealthy corporations of the internet. The phone reminds us that looking is working. In this place of post-production, to look is to work.
image: digital crowds, homeless sepia faces, tunnels, doorway
image: kids and scrap metal, migrant workers picking fruit, sweat shops, scrap metal heaps, Vertov man with camera, editor
Along with the loss of the idea of production is the loss of figure of the heroic male worker, replaced by kids living off scraps from distant factories.
The hero worker is replaced by social media stars that reproduce themselves via digital exhibitionism. By invisible women who keep the world going. In the age of reproduction, Vertov’s famous man with the movie camera has given way to a woman at an editing table, baby on her lap, a 24-hour shift ahead of her.
The Angel of History
Where could we go to look for a space of reproduction?
image: Paul Klee painting, Tropical Islands park clips
Here is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, New Angel. It has been inflated and printed on a giant balloon inside the “Tropical Islands,” a dream world close to Berlin.
This building used to be a factory making zeppelins. After the Berlin wall fell, the state imagined that this sleepy East German town could be economically shocked back to life. When those attempts failed, a Malaysian investor turned the factory into an exotic spa, with replicas of rainforests, Jacuzzi copies of Mayan sacrificial pits, as well as Photoshopped, infinity-horizon wallpapers. This is a cut-and-paste landscape, featuring a jumble of family friendly bubble architectures.
image: underwater shots by Kylian Castells
title: age of reproduction
How does this place show us the tensions in the age of reproduction? The building started as a factory, a place of production, and now offers itself as a space of postproduction. Here there is no final cut but an always morphing experience with blurred transitions between different exotic fantasies. The space is not produced but reproduced.
image: klee painting, mina as angel
Let’s return to Klee’s work. His friend Walter Benjamin wrote about it this way:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus, New Angel, shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we experience a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreck upon wreck and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it’s caught in his wings with such force that the angel can no longer close them. The storm pushes him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of garbage in front of him grows higher. This storm is what we call progress.
image: queer rural gathering, waves, forest, architect’s empty house, forest, man made of soil and plants
Today, the angel of history is no longer driven by the winds of progress. The future has been replaced by the promise of a temporary upward mobility. The horizon is a loop. The angel has become a drone, a divine eye that brings together animal, human and machine.
image: leaf falls into water, water flow, snowy landscape drone shots
image: landscape close-ups, Mina angel, clockwork mechanism, family gathering night
What is the angel of history looking at now? What could we edit into her gaze? Who are we, its spectators, and what new forms will our bodies take?
title: Natalie Bookchin
I’m going to discuss recent work in which I’ve been using YouTube as a resource for photographic and filmic documents.
My work involves ordering and organizing the material to see what collective narratives and meanings emerge.
title: organizing the material
image: YouTube dancers
In 2009, Natalie Bookchin made a bold suggestion. She answered the Tiller Girl essay with a video installation that I can’t show you here. By recombining videos of lonely teenagers dancing in their bedrooms, the artist updates precision dance, and brings it into our time. Instead of body parts cut by the stroke of the conveyor belt, these lonely bodies are self cut-ups, moving together on a digital dance floor. Postproduced by social media.
On the one hand, these are the ripped and cut bodies the economy wants to see—isolated in their homes, producing themselves as subjects worried by mortgages and the perpetual guilt of not being young or beautiful enough. Though it’s equally important that their moves are so fine, because energy and grace cannot ever be cut.
image: digital bodies, shadow walker, city establishing shots, man raises head, abstract crowd, digital arms, digital bodies
The reinvention of the body, and the reinvention of the author. Bookchin’s project was uploaded to YouTube, where parts of the music were removed because of the mother corp’s copyright concerns, and replaced with the sound of laptap keys. Collective postproduction generates not only composite bodies but composite movies. Not the death of the author, but a reimagining, a new dream of collective creation.
image: factory night, watchman, flares, buildings as screens, tattoo, shadow
And we have a new tool: screens that touch and speak. We are a multitude, a network. If a part of the body is cut, we can add a substitute on another screen. We can recompose a new body to include the parts that were cut out, the thousand kinds of gender for instance or the insect and animal worlds. Our bodies constantly challenge the way we’re named because identity is always on the move.
image: man runs in fiery landscape
Maybe we don’t have bodies yet.
image: hallway, walker, birds, watery silhouettes, fabric woman, sparkle trans, queer portraits
Perhaps insisting that “humanity” is the only species that has rights might be the cause of our current crisis.
image: queer portraits, kisses, projection booth Cinema Paradiso
How could postproduction be done differently? How can we live with our cuts? Let’s take a look at the cut and censored bodies in Cinema Paradiso.
In this scene, a man watches a reel cut together from the shots that a projectionist had to censor from fiction films. The result is a movie made of kisses that were too provocative to be shown in public, maybe because they threaten ideas of family, race and nation that are supported by sexual restrictions.
title: family race nation
A kiss is a wager, a territory of risk, the idea of reproduction condensed into a fleeting moment.
Let’s think of reproduction as this kiss, which moves across cuts, from shot to shot, from frame to frame, linking and juxtaposing. It moves by way of editing, exquisitely flipping around the idea of the cut, redistributing desire, creating bodies joined by movement, love and pain. Perhaps we could call it: the kiss of resistance.
image: Ontario Place night, Jorge and cloud, Mike in shadows
Let us do something, while we have the chance. It’s not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all humankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears. But at this place, at this moment of time, all humankind is us. Let us make the most of it.
title: Genius artist-writer Hito Steyerl let me steal her words for this movie.
title: Susan Sontag and Paul B Preciado also contributed.
title: Atlantic Resorts, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, Busby Berkeley, Natalie Bookchin, Marco Brambilla, Charlie Chaplin, Roger Deakins, Walt Disney, Haroun Farocki, Henry Ford, Alexandra Gelis, DW Griffiths, Gordon Hempton, Alena Koroleva, Paul Klee, London Queer FAshion Show, Jorge Lozano, Luke Korzun Martin, Karen Pearlman, Edwin S. Porte, Leni Riefenstahl, Giuseppe Tornatore, Dziga Vertov