In 2017 the Essay Film Festival hosted a lecture-performance by acclaimed essay film-maker Kevin B Lee at ICA. Below is an interview we conducted prior to the event.
Can you tell us what led you to start creating video essays?
I made my first video essays in 2007, as part of a blog project covering a list of the 1000 greatest movies of all time. As I wrote about each title on the list, I began wanting to engage more intimately with the films by working directly with their footage, and creating video essays allowed me to realize this more direct engagement. It also became a way to engage with other members of the online film community. In collaborating with other critics on video essays, I’d absorb their ways of looking at films and adapt their insights into an audiovisual form. It was a very enriching process, not unlike a self-designed series of video essay tutorials on film analysis with the best possible thinkers involved.
Why do you think there has been such a rise in the construction of digital video essays over the last few years?
The rise of this form marks an age where it is as easy to communicate with images and sounds as it is with written text. I started making video essays at a time when technological advances in digital and social media combined to afford one the ease to a) access films in digital form; b) edit the footage to create a new work; c) upload the work for others to view. This process has only become easier and more intuitive for subsequent generations through personal mobile technology and ever more sophisticated forms of social media. Now it is as natural to express oneself through images or short videos as it is to write text. The video essay thus becomes an important method to reflect upon and develop this everyday mode of personal expression through the audiovisual.
What is it about the form of the video essay which makes it a useful tool to provide commentary on our current political situation?
Since the video essay is such a widely embraced form for discussion of popular culture, it affords an opportunity to direct this collective attention to larger social and political issues that inform our culture. I can point to my own development to illustrate this shift of attention. My first video essays were relatively innocent expressions of cinephilia meant to explore my love of films. This celebratory mode holds true for the vast majority of video essays produced today. At the same time, the video essay is also a tool for self-education. My video essays were auto-didactic creations largely driven by a simple question: what is the most interesting thing I can learn by engaging with a given film? When I started, I was most interested in learning how films function through narrative, cinematography and staging. But as I probed further into these ostensibly apolitical aesthetic questions, I began to encounter deeper factors informing my interests.
For instance, I once evaluated Oscar-nominated lead performances based on how much time each actor or actress spent on screen to see if there was a correlation between screen time and impact of the performance on the viewer. What I inadvertently discovered was that Oscar-nominated lead actors have twice as much screen time on average than their actress counterparts. This raised larger questions about gender disparity in Hollywood and mainstream film as reflected on screen.
As these social and political concerns continued to surface in my investigations of films, I began to seek more conscientious modes of filmmaking. The BFI’s 2013 series on essay films provided many such works. Through reflecting on that series, I concluded that the essayistic mode is at its most potent when it expresses discontent with everything that’s conventional, complacent and conformist in contemporary media and society. The screen becomes not just a cinematic canvas, but a space to dissect and diagnose the ideological forces working through it and their subsequent effects on the viewer.
Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group talks about how media and technology are a 21st century version of the dark arts that cast a black magic spell on us. Video essays can take us outside of these spells and allow us to see through them, and possibly help come up with counter-spells.
Can you expand on how you see the video essay as an activist gesture?
I think one crucial element of the essayistic mode is how it positions us outside the space of the screen to see how that space operates. In doing so, it redirects our attention back to the material world, to physical spaces, to the forces that govern and shape them, and to our own possibilities to act amidst these forces. We are no longer just eyes glued to a screen; we become minds and bodies reacquainted with our reality.
This rearrangement of our relationship between screens and reality is crucial to realizing the potential of the video essay as a mode of activist expression. The rise of video essays proposes a new wave of democratization of the audiovisual, where everyone can articulate themselves and mobilize others through their self-made media. Key to the realization of this possibility is developing a collective mindset that can engage this mode in a manner worthy of our best aspirations, both for our screen culture and our social realities.
Does the ease of access to the video essay reduce the authenticity of them as artworks?
I don’t think ease of access reduces the authentic artistic properties of an outstanding video essay any more than it would a great work of cinema, television or other creative media. Still, it’s worth looking at how our present historical condition affects the relationship between authenticity and art, which was already problematized in past generations by Walter Benjamin and John Berger, and is further complicated today by digital hyper-accessibility.
Most video essays are produced under the logic of accessibility, a democratic media context of free appropriation of found materials for personal expression. Here a work’s authenticity is defined more by the singularity of the maker’s critical insights or creative vision rather than the work itself as an irreproducible material artifact. The free circulation of the work becomes a key indicator of the work’s “authentic” value.
Alternately, there are works I could reasonably label “video essays” that operate under a completely different logic, existing fully within the confines of the art world: Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue come to mind. These works, as they are presently experienced, situate their authenticity in the specific spatial and temporal experience of the gallery. In such instances one could just as well replace the term “authenticity” with “scarcity value.”
Both these modes have their respective roles in contributing to our understanding of art, as to where and how we might find it today. Investigating their respective authenticities may lead us to ask what we want out of authenticity at this point in history.