Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, 2019)

Over the past six years, Philipp Fleischmann has quietly forged one of the most unique projects in contemporary cinema. Beginning with his 2013 film Main Hall, the Austrian filmmaker has taken as his primary subject institutional spaces of a certain cultural-historical significance. But rather than merely record or reflect on these spaces—which have thus far ranged from Vienna’s Secession Building (Main Hall, 2013) to a theater at the Austrian Filmmuseum modeled after Peter Kubelka’s Invisible Cinema (The Invisible Cinema 3, 2018)—Fleischmann instead utilizes his films as ideological tools to mediate and comment on the finer points of each institution’s art-historical legacy. His highly unique process, in which the light and spatial coordinates of a given location are inscribed on strips of 35mm film through the direct exposure of hand-built, site-specific cameras, turns the cinematic apparatus itself into a kind of critical-conceptual conduit.

Fleichmann’s new film, Austrian Pavilion, takes these ideas to their most ambitious and visually expressive heights yet. Filmed at the eponymous national pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice, the four-minute short registers architect Josef Hoffman’s unique indoor-outdoor floor plan via three flat, threshold-straddling cameras and a 25-foot tall arch able to capture a near 360 degree view of the space through the manual exposure of an equivalent length strip of 35mm film placed parallel to the structure’s curvature. The result is a sort of vertically suspended survey of the pavilion and its surroundings that takes in a wide swath of the space’s blank walls, windowed ceilings, outdoor foliage, and variegated light sources, accomplished through what appears to the naked eye to be a series of continuous, upwardly curving camera tilts. Like many art institutions, the Austrian Pavilion has a sketchy and contradictory history as it relates to film exhibition, making Fleischmann’s latest both a spatiotemporal intervention and an implicit statement about the value this 125-year-old institution places on cinema.

Shortly after Austrian Pavilion’s premiere in the Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fleischmann and I spoke about building his own cameras, negotiating the physical and cultural dimensions of institutional spaces, the politics of light, and cinema’s uneasy standing within the art world.

Camera sculpture for Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, 2019)

You often utilize specially built, site-specific cameras in your films. Can you tell me a little about your background with regard to the technical and analog components of cinema? When did you first come upon the idea of building cameras for your films, and how has that process developed in relation to your interest in both the spatial and cultural aspects of institutional spaces?

The first camera I ever built was actually for my very first analog film. The idea was less to modify an existing apparatus than to construct a new camera entirely from scratch, though it took some years to arrive at the necessity of leaving the industrial camera apparatus behind. Having had an analog filmstrip in my own hands for the very first time was probably the key moment. By that time, I had already watched and read extensively about the films by Austrian filmmakers, especially the structuralists Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, and Peter Tscherkassky. I was truly fascinated by what I encountered cinematically. Their films made me see and think in a way that was entirely new to me. What these different filmmakers may have in common is a practice that works specifically around the single-frame. I was eager to finally encounter this essential unit of filmmaking myself. Although when I finally had a blank filmstrip in my hands, I looked at it and wondered, “Where are those frames everybody is talking about?”

This simple observation was the starting point of my ongoing engagement with the relationship of the filmstrip to the camera apparatus. Of course, it’s only the industrial camera apparatus that fragments the filmstrip into frames! These cameras have a clear conception how reality should be transmitted and represented. I wanted to get rid of the single frame, because they are a core element of the representational operations and political organizations that I do not agree with. That’s why I want my filmstrips not to carry any frames at all.

Practically speaking, my first impulse was to make concrete use of the physical means of my working material. I felt I had to pull out that strip from its spool and put it in a physical relation to its surrounding during the process of recording. Cinematographie (2009), my first film work, is pretty much about these concerns, though what it depicted was a rather abstract space: a forest in black and white. My second film, Main Hall, started to connect my concerns about the filmic camera to the politics of exhibition spaces, initiating a series that produced five films dealing Austrian art institutions, which I may have recently finished with Austrian Pavilion.

Film strip from Cinematographie (2009)

Can you describe what your films were like before switching to analog, and how they relate, if at all, to the work you’re doing now? I don’t believe I’ve seen any of those.

Oh, for better! My first attempts in filmmaking were narrative shorts, trying to be very much in line of what was out there in the late ’90s and early ’00s in Austria. Think Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, or Barbara Albert, stylistically. We are talking about my adolescent years here. Needless to say that went absolutely nowhere. I didn’t really switch from digital to analog. It feels more like things started for me as an artist thanks to my encounter with experimental film and working with the material itself. There are some single-channel videos and multi-channel video installations that I did after my first analog work—though the method there is quite different and more connected to the idea of reenactment and being visually as close as possible to an existing source in order to achieve a dialogue, or maybe even an intervention. I re-staged set-ups of MTV interviews, for example, or I re-shot an entire production of a teen horror film. In both cases I am interested in the concept of stardom, talent, gender, and authenticity in pop culture. Thematically one might see a connection to my analog films, for example an investigation into a predominant force that influences and navigates our thinking and behavior. But I’ve mainly focused on my analog practice over these last years. Not only because it’s a quite time-consuming process to do them—one of my films can easily occupy me for one to two years—but also because I feel a strong urge that there’s something to do, something to discover.

I realize every film is probably different, but can you describe the process as you conceptualize each film around these various spaces and institutions and what it is about this approach that is so time consuming: Is it the construction of the cameras, the shoot itself, the post-production? 

It’s definitely not the post-production, because there hardly is any. Once the filmstrips are exposed on site, they are simply developed and the positive prints are sliced together according to a pre-existing score. Most of my artistic and organizational work happens prior to the shooting. Once a specific institution triggers my interest, I start to look more closely into its architectural being and its existing exhibition history. It usually starts with a very simple question: Is there something I feel the medium of film would need to add to an existing discussion? A lot of times I realize quite quickly that there is some sort of absence of the medium of film when it comes to the artistic and theoretical discussions about site-specific art. Why is that? And why not be doing something now? My artistic material, analog film, is capable of spatiotemporal gazing. So my focus is to address the content matter through the politics of the filmic gaze and its representational aspects. Which point of view tells me something about the site that I haven’t seen yet? Which camera form or sculptural object do I want to create to formulate my own stance upon the inscribed politics of a certain space?

Once I conceptualize what I would like to do, I start working on the creation of the new apparatus and, at the same time, on how to access the site. Both technical and organizational work takes a little time, especially with my latest film. All of the five films made between 2013 and 2019 were done without an institutional invitation or commission, which also means that I produce and finance the work independently. And I need to convince the institutions to let me do my films in the first place and, eventually, to find a good moment to sneak in between their programs for a few days to finally shoot. But don’t get me wrong, not being officially invited is a conscious act. In my mind, this has the potential “to be sand, not oil,” to quote Amos Vogel.

Technically speaking, everything is very simple. My sculptural cameras are basically black boxes in various shapes. They can be loaded with an analog filmstrip which can be exposed to light. But nothing is really moving while I shoot my films. The filmstrip isn’t transported frame by frame. As I want each camera object to be the subject of the gazing, the whole length of the filmstrip is exposed to light at once. This cinematic thinking is probably closer to, say, the Chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey than the camera work of the Lumière Brothers.

Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, 2019)

Regarding Austrian Pavilion, then, what was it about this space at the Venice Biennale that you felt cinema could add something to? And architecturally, what was it about the building’s design that interested you? To my mind there’s something vaguely political or ideological about the spaces you chose—in this case an 85-year-old national pavilion housed within a 125-year-old art institution.

You are totally right. I’m interested in exhibition spaces that are an ideological statement themselves. This series of films is somehow drawn to architectural beings that carry a strong imperative of how art should be exhibited and socially experienced. For example, Joseph Maria Olbrich’s main exhibition hall of 1898 at the Vienna Secession (subject of Main Hall) which introduced the concept of the White Cube—or its modernist pendant in the field of cinema: the Invisible Cinema by Peter Kubelka from 1970 (subject of The Invisible Cinema 3). I’m fascinated by the fact that these spaces are still with us today, after so many years, and continue to play a crucial role in the field of contemporary art and film.

Same with the Austrian Pavilion from 1934 at the Venice Biennale, a space that dates back to 1895. While the pavilion itself might not be the strongest architectural imperative, the architect Josef Hoffmann worked with the idea of exact symmetry and created rectangular, somehow hierarchical volumes, mainly thinking of presenting painting and sculpture. But what’s truly fascinating is how the pavilion works as a light sculpture itself and how it connects interior and exterior beautifully. This made me think a lot about how architecture not only creates space, but how it can also be seen as a machine that directs, navigates, and shapes light—a little bit like a film camera. This relationship is something I want to explore with and throughout my films: forming light as a conscious political act. In Austrian Pavilion, I work with the technique of masking for the first time, in order to be able to shape and make more precise my own “surface of interaction,” i.e. the analog filmstrip.

As far as what I feel cinema could add to the art biennale: First, I would argue that it’s about claiming space and discourse. In 85 years of exhibitions at the pavilion, celluloid film has only been presented twice, in 2009 and 2013 by the artists Dorit Margreiter and Mathias Poledna. Not enough in my personal point of view, especially taking into account how the social and artistic importance of post-war Austrian film avant-garde is missing completely in our national pavilion’s history. Here, of course, is where we come to the point that all of this is part of a history of national representation, a general and problematic concept specific to the Venice Biennale. Plus, it tells us a lot about the specific state we’re in. To give a recent example: after countless solo presentations of men over the years at the Austrian Pavilion, it apparently needed to be the year 2019 to finally present a solo exhibition by a woman, the artist Renate Bertlmann. This shamefully speaks for itself. In this regard, my medium-specific concern may seem marginal. But still, I feel like the artistic potential of film and cinema are almost not considered at all regarding the Austrian Pavilion.

Film strip from Austrian Pavilion (Philipp Fleischmann, 2019)

Can you explain for those that might be unaware what the ideological ramifications are of shooting at the Vienna Secession and in a theater modeled after Kubelka’s Invisible Cinema, and how these spaces relate to cinema’s standing within the art world?

The main exhibition hall of the Vienna Secession is supposed to be the first White Cube in art history. It introduces a concept that is today still somehow the template of how to present and perceive art in the best possible way. White walls, plain grey-ish floors, rectangular architecture and soft lighting coming directly from above. To access the main hall, one needs to climb a staircase from the street to enter the building, arriving at the vestibule—a kind of waiting room that is meant to provide the opportunity to “clean oneself” from everyday social life and functions as a sort of preparation before entering the exhibition space, finally diving into a state of pure art-contemplation, without any distraction. In the main hall, there are no windows to the outside world. It’s a space that has been thought to be neutral, a neutral environment to only focus on the encounter with art—a radical shift towards modernity. This idea of neutrality, in combination with the Olbrich’s spatial organization that evokes sacral architecture, has been the object of critical examination by quite a number of artists, exhibitions, and by the institution itself. This existing history of site-specificity is the starting point of Main Hall. This is another major example of art exhibitions’ history where the medium of film is missing.

So while the concept of Peter Kubleka’s Invisible Cinema can be seen as the modernist counterpart within cinema, with its pure and strict focus on the screen and the auditorium space that claims to disappear, to be neutral, to be invisible, the history of institutional critique is an entirely different one: site-specificity and criticism of the dispositif don’t play an important and prominent role. That’s why I actually like the idea of showing my film The Invisible Cinema 3 on site at the Austrian Filmmuseum, in contrast to Main Hall, which I would never show at the Secession. This work becomes way stronger being displaced from its original site, by activating the potential of the cinema space. Generally speaking, I like to use the set-up of a cinema space to project the analog films in this series. It creates, I hope, a certain distance in time and space that allows viewers to think more about the cultural significances of the depicted spaces. It should address something that we might have internalized. A silent cinema projection is one of my favorite moments to reflect upon things in general.

Film strip from Main Hall (2013)

How do you go about conceptualizing your cameras and their designs as it relates to these specific spaces? As I understand it, Main Hall utilized 19 individual cameras, while the primary one used for Austrian Pavilion is made in the shape of a rather large arch. What dictates these various configurations and specifications?

The structural form and shape of the cameras vary, according to what I believe is accurate for the site. One thing that all the cameras have in common is that they correspond directly to the architecture in terms of scale, as the filmstrip is used as a unit of measure. For Main Hall, 19 cameras were built to let the architecture gaze at itself. The white wall has been a surface for a lot of artists to express their concerns about the complexity of the White Cube; artistic gestures and criticism hit that wall a lot, so to speak. Filmicly speaking, I didn’t want to address the wall nor look at it. So I let the walls gaze. The architecture shall look upon itself and ask, where exactly is that White Cube space and what exactly defines it.

Austrian Pavilion works differently. As I mentioned, in that case I am especially interested in the politics of light. Here, the cameras are not used to let the architecture gaze, but instead to try to capture the navigation of light. The cameras are straight forms, placed right on the floor, facing upwards to receive light, following the pavilion’s navigation of interior and exterior space. I use masks on the filmstrip to shape light on my behalf—they are visible on the screen once the cameras enter the pavilion, shaping, covering, directing, closing, and opening. Another camera is alternately placed in the two main exhibition spaces, this time rising as a sculptural object, from the ground up to the ceiling. It has the shape of an arch, mirroring the pavilion’s architecture. I want to capture spatial shades of light. It’s the most complex camera built for my projects so far, created together with artist Bert Löschner. I don’t expect all this to be transmitted to the viewer during the projection, it goes without saying, but I hope what one is visually experiencing could give a feeling (or at least an abstract notion) of what the actual site really is.

Does this correspondence between the architecture and the camera’s design dictate the length of the finished films? And I’m curious in general about your thoughts on how the viewer might receive or comprehend such fleeting inscriptions of space and light: Do you worry something might be lost on the viewer?

Exactly. The length of the film strips inside the camera devices dictates the duration of the projected film. That’s why some films last only 30 seconds, others a little bit over 5 minutes. It all depends on the scale of the architecture and where I place my devices. What we experience on the screen is a kind of cinematic time that lies within the depicted spaces.

I guess my artistic approach is a rather conceptual one. I try to explore visuality according to different parameters. I believe that these films carry information and, to a certain extent, a specific knowledge that films done with a traditional camera just can’t record. I prefer to think something is gained: a specific cinematic experience as well as a specific conceptual thinking about the medium of film. Not every aspect of the projected film has to convey itself immediately. It’s a journey, also for myself. That’s why I keep on doing this work. I’m curious for more.

Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and undistributed films, and is co-director of the Locarno in Los Angeles film festival.