Monday, October 21, 2019

Sarah Minor: Towards Another Video Essay

Today I have been considering the “hot dog” button on my microwave. I find this button engaging because my microwave is the first I have ever owned and, as the button makes obvious, I don’t actually know how to make the machine function through a combination of other buttons (level, time, temperature), which seem overly complex, and also because I am a vegetarian. 

The “hot dog” button interests me further as a new addition to microwaves because it signals a particular relationship between a machine like the microwave (well-fitted for preparing hot dogs) and a food object like hot dog (long predated by the sausage) which predated this heating machine. Each night as the inner magnetron radiates water for my tea I stare and wonder: Which technology (wave or dog) first predicted this button? The special row with "hot dog" also includes buttons like “baby food” and “oatmeal” which, in another life, might be a comforting way to orient myself.

Somewhat akin to the “hot dog” button is the “AUX” button on my car stereo, which works only in the presence of a cable—auxiliary, extra—attached to a third device that the car radio was made to never need. I think it’s true that the auto did not predict the smart phone, but I’d wager that the smart phone was ambitious enough to imagine itself as the self-driving car, and that the "aux" function now imagines a deep integration of the paper map that the car stereo never dreamed. 

By describing buttons I mean to address the relationship between two other very different technologies—the moving picture image and the textual essay, which combine to make the "video essay." It seems to me that traditional essays and those who make them mostly believe that an essay functions best without a moving image anywhere nearby—a good essay, many say, stands in for every image, the best essays stand alone. This phrase stand alone is something I've described before, and which I think deserves reconsideration, especially in light of Joyelle McSweeney's theory of "disabled texts." What follows is a different way to think.

Today the video essay is not much written about, probably because it is not much made. The genre first gained visibility in literary circles thanks to John Bresland, who pioneered both the making of and the critical writing about the "video essay" or what I might like to start to calling “literary video" instead. Bresland traces the history of the video essay back to what he calls “the film essay,” and further, back to the literary version: a “meditation on truth and memory.”

Like the “hot dog” button, the “video essay” is a thing predated by one word it contains. Yet I find that most examples of video essays treat the moving image as an auxiliary function, and that their designs feel clunkier for it. At TriQuarterly Review where I serve as video editor, we see a lot of submissions that blend the two technologies, for example, by pairing a voiceover with a camera pointed out a car window. Here, it feels like the term is literalized: Video essay = video + essay, except here it's the video that feels like it's playing through the metaphoric AUX cable, as a kind of background track. In this example, both video and essay could be called “meditative," but the effect they create together seems duplicated, not multiplied.

Recently I've noticed that the term “video essay" means something different in the field of Film Studies, which includes video analyses like this one about the way visual humor functions in movies by Edgar Wright. Here, “video essay” is perhaps at its most meta--a curation of moving images that help us study the way moving images are cut, shaped, and arranged for different effects. Similarly, in Composition and Rhetoric classrooms the term “video essay” means a traditional academic essay that uses moving image to highlight examples that scaffold a thesis, as in this version of a rhetorical analysis through "Teach Argument." Like in the film studies video essay, video clips in an academic video essay are present so they can illustrate an analysis. Video here is present simply because it is more efficient than a voiceover at describing video content.

Last spring at AWP I found myself at a strange video screening, sitting beside another writer and laughing so hard that no sound came out of my mouth, which felt like a new experience in the face of literary video. This was at a showing of cinepoems curated by the Cadence Video Poetry Festival, where I had served as one of three judges. The Cadence Festival has run for three years at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum under the direction of Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Cadence introduced me to a community of folks who avidly make and watch footage that acts like a poem (and often, like an essay). Most interesting to me, as a judge, were the various categories for entries, which divided submissions into 1. "Adaptations/Ekphrasis" 2. "Collaboration" and 3. "Video by Poets." These, I think, signal some new and exciting thinking around the pairing of text with video (already an interdisciplinary venture) according to a variety of techniques for wielding two mediums at once.

Many of the videos I saw at Cadence seemed adventurous and successful because of their willingness to use video as more than a background. This seemed, at least in part, related to the community's link to the Film Forum, and the ready acceptance of "film" as a medium that has its own ways of telling stories and making meaning without words. Among the many ways forward I see for the video essay, this seems one clear path: literary videos that borrow from the ways other fields use moving image as a form of language.

This week Youtube users will famously watch 7 billion hours of footage and in my house, “reading” will take place whenever someone lays a book open beside a smart phone. If we were betting I might wager that moving images predict the ways we’ll prefer to consume essays, at least some of the time. Though here I'm thinking of style, rather than the basic presence of other media. Because at TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, I’d like to see video essays that think of video less like an accessory and more like language sharing the same crowded button, I’d like to point towards some examples of video essay that are doing things differently.

Video Essay as Video Art: The field of visual art does not have “video essays” exactly, but examples of early video art were often the result of artists playing around with new moving image technologies like the green screen, and repurposing them as a means of revealing (predicting?) their potential for frightening and humorous results. A contemporary example from this lineage is Annelyse Gelman’s “The Center,” which uses text-to voice and face swap software for essayistic purposes. Another video art adjacent example might be “Ozark Crows,” a winner at Cadence.

Video Essay as Document: Creative Nonfiction has long held hands with journalism, but where archival material meets literary craft, the contemporary essay seems to me much closer with the field of docupoetics. Video has long been a form of "document," and video essays like Emma Sheinbaum’s “It’s You” draw on video source material that writers might at first think of as quotidian. But Sheinbaum's piece, once framed with an essay, reveals a curation of home footage that poses clear, essayistic questions about a generation that grows up being video recorded. The piece is also a meditation on the medium itself. It shows us how home video can function like a memory implanted.

Video Essay as Translation: Literary video is, I'd wager, the only genre a writer can use to communicate in three modes at once (text, image, sound). A favorite video project that seems familiar with the power of simultaneous media is "The Wounds of Christ" by Anais Duplan. Perhaps similarly, in “Defiled Prophesies,” Raj Chakrapani takes advantage of video's inherent layers to consider the process of literary “translation” and to gesture at the places where text translations fail. Throughout this video, a series of closed captions translate the audio track at a slant. Among other images, Chakrapani also translates the text as an image of fabric with light playing across it to offer what "a poem or book translated by a largely white literary space cannot provide."

Video Essay as “hermit crab” form: For an essayist venturing into video territory and who is less interested in learning new technologies, the screen grab function on any computer can allow you to “record” processes that behave like a "found" or "hermit crab" form. Kelly Slivka’s “Ars Poetica” might serve as a rare document of what writing poems was like in the early digital age, but the result also uses moving image to capture the various lives and “meanings” a poem inhabits on its way to a final version. 

Video Essay as Film Essay: A favorite video essay I’ve encountered recently might be an example you’d like to debate about (must a literary video include text?). “The Problem That Has No Name” by Hannah Bonner is wordless (unless you count its title, a reference from The Feminine Mystique, which I do) and made of entirely found material. I admire the project for the haunting way Bonner carefully sequences short clips from the horror genre she addresses (v. essays?). The result, I think, leaves an audience reconsidering what such films were originally "about" or are newly "about" for contemporary viewers. This project pairs the curatorial mode of the film studies "video essay" in a manner that feels deeply literary for the way it offers the viewer nearly all subtextBonner calls the project a “collage,” and so we might think of this piece as the video equivalent of a "lyric essay," because the microwave button is too small for "lyric film essay" to fit (Literary editors with digital platforms: publish this work!). 

Sarah Minor curates the Visual Essay series here at Essay Daily. She is the author of Slim Confessions (Noemi Press 2021) a collection of essays from Rescue Press (2020), and The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated (Essay Press 2016). She co-directs the Cleveland Drafts Literary Festival and teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

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