A Response to Jessica McGoff’s “Text vs. Context: Understanding the Video Essay Landscape”

By Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López.

The following response was offered to 4:3 magazine, which replied that it was not keen to “play host to a back and forth on video essays”. In the interests of open debate, we publish it here.

Jessica McGoff’s essay for 4:3 (http://fourthreefilm.com/2017/02/text-vs-context-understanding-the-video-essay-landscape/) asserts that we can see, in recent commentaries by “both film critics and scholars … a failure to keep up with the video essay’s rapidly changing landscape”. She ascribes this, primarily, to these commentaries “lacking institutional context, resorting instead to auteurist modes of analysis”. One of these commentaries is our piece in the Sydney Review of Books, “Writing in Images and Sounds” (http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/writing-in-images-and-sounds/). As both our essay and hers are designed to stir debate and reflection, we offer here some notes in response to “Text vs. Context”.

We have a number of doubts about the way McGoff formulates the present problem of critique in this field, and her suggested solution for it. In our view, text versus context is, in so many ways, a false opposition.

First, a relatively minor point of disagreement: auteurism. McGoff’s argument depends on an odd caricature of auteur/director studies at its most romantic, and most detached from the social, material realities of collaborative production – lord knows, there is no shortage of examples since the early 1950s that could be wheeled in to demonstrate this extremity of the discourse. But we should look at such a practice at its worthiest height, not its abysmal depth. There is no really decent auteurist analysis (in any medium) that overlooks the often rapidly changing institutional situations through which passed Fritz Lang or Chantal Akerman or Orson Welles or … and that both limited and informed or enabled what they made. What McGoff rightly targets as the excessive “autonomy” of the auteur in the mythic form of this discourse should not detain us for long. But there is also a contradiction or discrepancy in her argument here. It’s OK to practice auteurism in the content of audiovisual essays – like making a piece on Andrea Arnold – but it’s not OK to be auteurist about audiovisual essays and their makers? This doesn’t add up.

Second, and more to the crux of things. “It is not the formal particulars of video essays that need categorising now, but rather the platforms on which they are published”. We say a little more below about why we are suspicious of such a framing of ‘what-needs-to-be-done-now-versus-what-is-so-five-minutes-ago’ arguments in cultural debate, so prevalent in universities and in the art world. Are we really all that done with categorising – and, more to the point, deeply analysing – the “formal particulars” of audiovisual essays? We would suggest that this task is ongoing, never over and out (just like every other serious, worthwhile task in cinema/media studies). Be that as it may, let’s turn to the core of McGoff’s positive proposal: that we should look at “institutional” factors – especially, in the Internet age, “platforms”. The slippage of terminology is already here, we feel, revealing: is a platform an institution, exactly? We think not.

Institution is a loaded word with a heavy history in cultural/critical theory. It most often signals a long-established, sedimented set of practices – say, like those of Time magazine, or the Académie française – that function, very often, as rules, constraints, commands. But is the Fandor website, for example, best described as an institution? (Judging by the rapidity with which, throughout 2016, it kept changing the guidelines for its audiovisual contributors, we doubt it.) Is Senses of Cinema, or Cléo, or [in]Transition, or Sight and Sound? We would rather talk, in a looser and more supple way, of specific contexts or situations – when that matter is interesting or relevant, which is not always necessarily the case.

Especially when it comes to the digital landscape of the last 15 years of so, there is a great deal of ambiguity as to how, precisely, we would draw the borderlines that define and characterise institutions. It seems to us that there is a phase of making or production, and then a moment of exhibition/distribution/publication. These can collapse together closely, but more often are quite distinct. Tag Gallagher, for instance, makes his video essays pretty much by and for himself (and has done so since the VHS days), without any seeming institutional constraint or standard anywhere in sight. When it comes to their dissemination – on a DVD, say – there may be a process of negotiation (and hence alteration of the work) that transpires … but not always, by any means. In our ongoing series for de Filmkrant magazine in Holland, we electronically deliver an audiovisual piece once a month: there are no pre-set parameters or constraints of any kind, and what we make is what appears online. We could well say, that in these cases and many others (such as Mark Rappaport’s work), auteurism indeed wins the day – because these practitioner-artists are pretty much making exactly what they like to make, and some platforms (literary magazines, art websites, etc) are able to accommodate that arrangement.

Publication situations can introduce (as we’ve suggested) negotiations of all kinds – some simple and straightforward, others more fraught. But is this a surprising new revelation? Publication of almost every kind of writing involves negotiation of formats, ‘house styles’, deadlines and the pressure of ‘currency’, etc – just as it can also involve graver matters of censorship, editorialising, massive alteration, and so on. What’s new about any of this in the audiovisual sphere? In the digital age, some micro-constraints (such as word length, or video length) have relaxed to the point of disappearing entirely (not always a good thing!). When it comes to sites such as Fandor or MUBI, other factors do come into play: for the latter, for example, we have been asked to select our filmic ‘targets’ from the company’s streaming catalogue, and time our completions to their release schedule. Again, nothing terribly revelatory there – it’s how print magazines like Film Comment have always functioned. When we were asked by Kino Lorber for re-use of our Les Amants du Pont-neuf audiovisual essay, we gained something in the remix (a much better quality digital file) and lost something: a Chaplin clip we loved, but that the company did not have the rights to include. Like Leonard Cohen said: the dove is never free … not entirely, at any rate. Absolute artistic freedom – hallmark of the most naïve auteurism – is, in most cases, a myth. We assumed rather than spelt out, in our Sydney Review piece, that practitioners are dealing with this or that necessity, this or that constraint. Most of us in the real world do – we make choices, and then face their consequences, well or badly.

McGoff says of our Sydney Review piece that, with “no mention of the particular context of each video’s production and publication, the reader is to assume that they share a common institutional framework” and, even more seriously, that we imply or posit a “uniform path” for audiovisual work. That would indeed be, as she states, “artistically and discursively limiting”. But we assume and imply nothing of the sort. Sometimes – as the physical URL link itself makes pretty clear – we are discussing an artist’s work that the artist has placed on their own Vimeo channel, as in the case of Margarida Leitão. Did her Gestos do realismo arise from any particular “institutional context”? That information is not evident. Moreoever, what can be gained, what more would we (or anybody) add to the analysis of her work, by surrounding it with such a context? Such ascriptions would often be specious, and they momentarily become so in McGoff’s own text, when she divides up the examples we used between “commissioned pieces, produced for Fandor Keyframe under a set of regulations and with the aim of social media publication” and “others … produced in a scholarly context”. We chafe at the ‘scholarly’ tag – we personally get it a lot, but in fact we are freelance critics, nowhere near any university employment. But let’s take, for instance, our friend Catherine Grant: if she prepares a video for a university conference keynote presentation, I guess we can safely say it is part of an academic institution or scholarly context. But when she hears of the death of a beloved actor and spontaneously makes a videographic homage, what institution is at play there – if any? Isn’t she something, in this case, more like … a practicing film critic? And film critics can be validly considered auteurs, too.

McGoff claims that our article, by critically identifying certain “regressive tendencies” (such as an excess of ‘psychologism’), thereby holds all work in the field to a “uniform path”. Her claim is itself illogical. We deliberately picked examples of very different kinds of work, across several different contexts. Can they be compared? Of course they can. If we said, for instance, that there is a political or social tendency evident in people’s behaviour on the street, in recent government legislation, and on a popular TV program, we would be precisely picking out what is similar (and therefore comparable) across three utterly different “institutions”. Likewise if we speculated on the state of film criticism by comparing a piece on Roger Ebert’s website, a newspaper review, and a scholarly journal article. It is one thing to assert, as McGoff rightly and optimistically does, that the audiovisual essay “form itself is ever dividing along different lines, different audiences and different possibilities”, thus offering a “multitude of potentialities”. But that does not mean it is impossible to compare, evaluate and criticise tendencies in the field. Problems of sensibility, of theoretical models (explicit or implicit in a work), of the strength and pertinence of analyses offered, can be identified and discussed – whether it’s a 2-minute wonder for Fandor, or a 20-minute video for an academic event, or anything, anywhere, in-between.

The tug-of-war between spokespersons for the opposed camps of text and context can seem eternal. Ultimately, however, it’s just a sideshow. We have always believed that proper attention to material texts (in any medium) necessarily throws light on all manner of contexts – and vice versa. It’s not a contest, or a choice to be made. McGoff suggests that “criticism and analysis of video essays needs now to go beyond positioning essayists as auteurs”. But the only thing we need to “go beyond” is the temptation to issue “go beyond” pronouncements.

© Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López, March 2017