Machine Space

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021

Stephen Connolly: Image, Edit, Sound
Film: Machine Space
Length: 24.22 minutes
Year: 2017

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Abstract

The film Machine Space is the outcome of a practice-as-research project; a spatial exploration, on film, of the city of Detroit. The film animated the space of part of the metropolis by vehicular movement. Its journey drew on the historical palimpsest of maps, charts and aerial images that trace the spaces of the city, a reading of social relationships as material form. On the soundtrack, Detroiters narrate how they negotiate their cityscape as contested urban terrain. Entitled Machine Space, the film registers the experience of this city as in motion yet freighted with jeopardy; and reads the city as an urban assemblage of people, material and space. It was shown at Sightlines 2019, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia.

Research Context

The ‘Spatial Cinema’ is a filmmaking practice that researches articulations of spatial narrative in cinema. Developed over the last decade, this practice has migrated to a practice-as-research paradigm, exploring the intersections between the spatial thought of Henri Lefebvre – the social construction of space – and the possibilities offered by cinema for the articulation of spatial relationships (Lefebvre 1991). The ‘spatial’ is framed as a social and material resource rather than a landscape or an aesthetic treatment of space. As a resource, space is contested and a subject of social conflict (Deutsche 1996). A spatial emphasis does not displace the temporality so important to moving image – time is a fundamental property in the animation of space and cityscapes in film (Bruno 2007). The conjunction of moving image and spatial theory is distinctive in a spatial cinema practice. Amongst the filmmakers who have influenced this practice are the artists Chantal Akerman, her D’Est (1995) marking a watershed for the encounter of the camera and the cityscape; and James Benning, cartographer of the material infrastructures of California (Akerman 1995, Benning 2001).

Research Question & Realisation

This practice-as-research film explored the visual portrayal of Detroit as a racialised space. The focus therefore was on a city as a network of relationships; as materialised in the existential experience of space in the downtown; and in the financial arrangements that undergird the spaces of settlement in the suburbs. An implied fluidity of the spaces of the inner city, bridging the corporate downtown and the devastated African American neighbourhoods nearby, is rendered using mutable, digitally native, aerial images.

These three treatments of the spaces of the city map the trinity of spatial representation advanced by Lefebvre given the proposition that the social construction of space is shared in visual forms (Lefebvre 1991). The film is, in a highly developed form, an illustration of this urban theorist’s approach to space; a much-discussed but little realised theorisation of how people negotiate their environments.

Contribution

The poetics of the film revolve around its form; a hybrid narrative realised as a parallel montage of three repertoires of visual storytelling. The layering in the visual treatment of the cityscape, images, and the backlighting of the family playing a board game, hold back from the full delineation of the image. The choices of mobile image-making in the film respond to the spaces of the city as a palimpsest of cartographic representations, and habitual spatial navigation by public infrastructures that condition the experience of this city. A blend of voiceover and sync sound narrate a rich, media conscious approach to representation.

The contribution of the film is an application of ‘free indirect discourse’ in moving image, as developed by Deleuze from the intuition of PasoliniThe ‘vision’ of the camera lies on an axis between perception-image and camera-consciousness.’ This practice of ‘making the camera felt’ aims to address the contested spaces of the city of Detroit; by the indexing of socio-political issues in the visualisation of this landscape (Deleuze 1986, 74).

 

References

Akerman, Chantal. 1995. D’Est. DVD. Icarus Films.

Benning, James. 2012. The California Trilogy. DVD. Österreichisches Filmmuseum Vienna.

Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1986Cinema I: The Movement-Image. London: The Athlone Press. 

Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Cinema I: The Movement-Image. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. 2004. A Thousand Plateaus. A&C Black.

Deutsche, Rosalyn. 1996. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. First English language edition. Oxford: Wiley -Blackwell.

Scott, Emily Eliza, and Kirsten J. Swenson. 2015. Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Stephen Connolly’s film Machine Space embraces the practice of ‘Spatial Cinema’, an approach which Connolly contextualises through reference to Lefebvre (1991), among others, which allows him to explore ‘the visual portrayal of Detroit as a racialised space’. Having first viewed the film in the lead up to the Sightlines 2019 conference, I re-watched it multiple times as part of the process of undertaking this peer review; also re-examining the research statement between viewings. The multiple viewings and readings of the statement allowed me to appreciate the blend of theory and practice that the film exhibits.

I find the film visually fascinating. The notions of spatiality and of the ‘city as a network of relationships’ are embraced through the key approaches utilised by Connolly. We see the reflections in the car windows as the vehicle drives through the city, rendering the city as an ever-evolving, if unforgiving, space. The manipulated aerial shots allow us to imagine how the relationships that exist in this urban landscape might be different. The scene of the family playing The Game of Life reminds us of the social and economic layers of the city. The stark contrast between these different scenes – particularly between the constant movement of the car, the images we see in and around it, and coupled with the stillness of the shots of the family, offers a juxtaposition that speaks to the ideas to do with space that Connolly writes about in his statement. Observing the overhead shots of The Game of Life money alongside the shifting aerial shots of Detroit and layered reflections in and around the car, one begins to see the white family represented in the film as potentially having some sort of control over the city. The film highlights not just the spatiality of the cityscape or the socioeconomic structures that exist within it, but also the way in which such a space is represented through filmic methods.

In discussing this film at its screening at the Sightlines conference, there emerged a question around the notable absence of any African-American people in the visuals. I recall Dr Connolly pointing to the authority that the voiceover holds, the indeterminate nature of the race of the narrator, as well as the notion of ‘white complicity’ and how he has a role to play as a filmmaker in relation to the city and to the film. I think this is a fascinating aspect of this film and I wonder if Dr Connolly might address this directly in any revisions to the statement or in a separate written response to the peer reviews.

The research statement contextualises the research inherent in the film. It explicates the film as the outcome of the research enquiry, underscoring the significance and contribution of the film as one that not only explores Detroit as a racialised space but one that also exists in relation to this space. I note that the film was awarded the 2018 BAFTSS First Prize Practice as Research Award in Moving Image, and I also believe it is an excellent example of filmmaking as research.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

As outlined by Stephen Connolly in his detailed research statement, Machine Space is a spatial exploration of the city of Detroit in the US. As the film begins, the sound and image of a train grinding overhead breaks the silence, the visual superimposed over a first-person perspective from within a car as the occupant traverses the city. A brief reflection of eyes in a rear vision mirror serves well to situate the viewer as protagonist in this narrative. This vision is juxtaposed against a family at home playing a board game titled The Game of Life, a game of chance whereby players navigate a series of imposed financial and social constraints as they drive a ‘car’ token along the game’s winding road. Conolly reinforces the idea of the city as a machine, a system that not only shapes navigation through its streets, but also defines financial, social, and racial hierarchies.

When I first read the research statement, my first thoughts were of the Jacques Tati films Mon Oncle (1958) and PlayTime (1967) and their playful critique of modernist cities and the structures they impose upon their occupants and workers. What Connolly presents is arguably a much darker vision of the modern city, a machine that that imposes a geography that imposes a machine logic that requires its inhabitants to bend to the system, rather than the system accommodate the needs of its inhabitants. The city is a tool for segregation.

At 24 minutes in duration, this essay film is a fascinating insight into the ways that cities may impose constraints and dictate our experience of urban spaces. Most valuable here are the voiceovers that provide context regarding the Detroit experience, it is through this authentic storytelling that we are able to glimpse much-needed insight into the ways that urban systems impose social structures. I feel that this film would benefit from further representation of these marginalised voices.

Connolly presents the city as a collage of paths and structures that impose rules for living and engagement. As the filmmaker takes us through, under, and over the city, we are presented with multiple ways to read the city. The ebb and flow of movement arguably a distraction from the socio-economic/political realities embedded within the urbanscape. The city may be understood as a system to be navigated, but this navigation extends beyond modes of transportation, for the city is also a game, and the rules are arguably not the same for all players, some players are arguably rendered invisible.

After the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007-2009, Detroit experienced a decline in population, its abandoned buildings eye candy for the media. But is this really a city in decline, or did the GFC merely highlight an inequity inherent in the organising principles and procedures that had shaped the city? Connolly’s essay film poses more questions than it answers but plays an important role in advancing discussion about the places that we call home.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

Thanks to the peer reviewers for raising issues of representation of African Americans and the notion of ‘complicity’ in Machine Space. To address these issues will mean diving into the poetics of the work, a topic at a tangent to the article. This work is concerned with the spatial constraints of a US city, and how this can be represented. To this filmmaker, it was important that these concerns informed the visual rendering of the film.

If I may, I’d like to pull back from my comments on the voiceover. Its cadences clearly identify the narrator of the film as an African American. This is the voice of Marsha Music, a writer, poet, and native of the city. She was filmed, yet her voiceover was assembled as an unfolding commentary rather than written beforehand. Her perspective and narration, as a central thread in the work, helps an audience make sense of the spaces seen. As a visual image, speaking from her apartment, however, her image would intervene in the spatial economy of the film. Showing the interview would take an audience to her home, and away from a central spatial dialectic of the film between suburban home as refuge and financial instrument and the city as the locus of these relationships. Hence the decision to keep her contribution to voiceover. Her presence remains powerful and determining in the film.

The family playing the game in the home in the suburbs are backlit by the picture window behind them, showing a garden landscape. This silhouette rendering was inspired by the work of visual artist Kara Walker. Her tableaux of figures performing acts of violence and defilement use this archaic visual form to evoke the antebellum era in the US. Her figures must be read as figuratively and representationally white even though they are literally and materially black. In Machine Space, the family game is performed by whites as a socially encoded script, one that historically has excluded blacks from property ownership in the US; they are visually black in this representation. This referencing of Walker’s work is an acknowledgement of the lineage of these practices of the game, from the antebellum period to today. Although this is not identified, the actors present are close family relations of the filmmaker. Far from exempt, the maker is arguably complicit with this social scripting. Comments from whites at a Visible Evidence conference screening in 2019 (Los Angeles) suggested this strategy is effective; they found this work very challenging on these grounds.

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