CYQ is a guest-blogger series where Chicago-based filmmakers, artists, curators, & cultural outlets produce idiosyncratic “lists”. This installment by Andrew Mausert-Mooney and Kera MacKenzie of ACRE TV explores the concept of liveness in film.
Our collaborative work began with a shared interest in the grammar of cinema, and grew to include an interest in liveness, which we’ve expressed and explored through various installations, videos, live broadcast performances, and the founding of ACRE TV, an artist-made live streaming tele-vision network. Throughout this post we’re going to point to examples of artworks that are touchstones for us, and by which we’re still challenged. We’ll try to explain what strikes us and how it relates to our collaborative practice, and whenever possible will share links so that you can enjoy them yourselves.
An impetus for starting ACRE TV was a desire to create an ongoing video feed — something that was always in-the midst, without a beginning or end. We took a drive from Chicago to Death Valley, California in 2012 and were enchanted by a number of low band FM stations that would slowly come into clarity on our car radio, and likewise dissolve as we drove out of the broadcast range. Knowing nothing about the context of these sounds, it was easy for us to imagine these haunting transmissions lasting forever, as a strange, whole, simultaneous world.
5 Year Drive-By, Douglas Gordon
Douglas Gordon’s 5 Year Drive-By is a piece that continues to hook into our imaginations. Initially realized as a proposal and never fully physically realized (a seven-week version was installed in Utah’s Monument Valley in 1995 and once again in Twenty Nine Palms, California in 2015), 5 Year Drive-By is a time-warped remake of John Ford’s 1956 classic western film, The Searchers, stretched from its normal two-hour length to five years, the amount of time that passes in the diegesis of the film. 5 Year Drive-By was to be projected on a drive-in movie screen in the middle of an isolated southwestern American landscape.
Neither of us got to see an installation of the piece, but the idea of a geologically-slow moving image of John Wayne (each second of the original movie would last 6.46 hours in real time, according to the initial proposal) morphing out there, somewhere, annihilates and literalises one of the most ubiquitous tricks in cinema: the compression of time. Part of the thrill of imagining the Douglas Gordon piece is the way in which cinematic time becomes equivalent with the time our bodies feel as we go through days, months, weeks and years. Where most movie experiences can be talked about outside of time — you can “see” a movie like you can “see” a snapshot — 5 Year Drive-By could only be endured alongside. “Enduring alongside” might be a decent description of liveness… It’s clear that to be “live” has something to do with the body in time.
In his proposal, Gordon explains his relationship to the The Searchers, which he first remembered seeing when he was six or seven. Initially, he didn’t understand how people could enjoy a movie that had such a simple plot:
“I […] remember asking my father how a film could be made which seemed to be about nothing. He tried to explain to me that the film was not at all about nothing; it was about searching and waiting, and waiting and searching and hoping when all hope has gone and how this was a very important thing in life. I suppose I must have had to accept this, at least for a few years, as I didn’t have the faculty (cynicism) to disagree with him.”
It wasn’t until he was older that the searching became meaningful:
“Now I realise what I thought to be the problem; and it’s quite simply a question of time. How can one film, which lasts only 2 hours, possibly convey the tear, the desperation, the heartache, the real ‘searching and waiting and hoping’ that my father had tried to explain to me when I was younger?”
ACRE TV, a continuous stream, will stretch into its third year this coming February.
Harry Coyle: NBC Game of the Week, Rick Reed
The centerpiece of our last installation, havoc and tumbled, was an edited audio interview with a longtime television broadcast technical director, explaining and performing the calls that a director might make behind the scenes of a live broadcast. For us, these calls, “3,2,1…” and “Standby one… Take one”, are political, because they are meant to orient a group of people for action around a single moment. Drew remembers his civics teacher in eighth grade defining politics as “the multi-voiced negotiation of scarcity,” and what is more scarce than a moment in time?
This amazing YouTube video was archived by Rick Reed, who in 1982 produced a pre-game segment for NBC’s Game of the Week featuring director Harry Coyle. He describes the situation on his website:
“Our camera was in the truck when the power went out. It is the top of the ninth inning of a shoot out between Milwaukee and Boston at Fenway Park. This twelve minute raw segment contains the PL [private lines] of director Harry Coyle and producer Michael Weisman. After power is restored, the truck only has one camera and nothing else.”
One of the startling things to notice, even before the power goes out, is how noisy, crowded, race-ed and gendered the space is in the broadcast truck. (There’s a dude sitting on the floor! Imagine how that truck must smell at the end of a long game.) Watching a sports game, or a live news show, or any other live television broadcast can have a sleek and neutral feel to it. The idea of the broadcast of a baseball game having subjectivity, besides the announcers, is sometimes hard to imagine.
This illusion of objectivity is created by people like Harry Coyle, who, as the YouTube description says, directed 36 World Series games over his career. One interesting cinematic trope that Coyle utilizes is parallel editing, alternating between scenes that happen simultaneously in different locations, famously established in Birth of a Nation and utilized in The Silence of the Lambs. For an example, watch the sequence that happens between 0:26 and 0:50.
Shot 1. Medium Shot of the batter (Camera 1)
Coyle is not simply following the ball. He is building tension by cutting between scenes that are happening all over the field. In Shot 1, we get to see the details of the batter’s face as he prepares to swing. In Shot 2, we see the distance between the runner, the base, and the first basemen, a different, but related scene to Shot 1. The viewer keeps the information from both shots in their mind at the same time, building the drama of the game. One especially illustrative example of a parallel edit is between Shot 5 and Shot 6. Coyle cuts away from the ball, shown in Shot 5, even before the outfielder fields it, so that he can show Shot 6 of the baserunner (helpfully established in Shot 1) who is now rounding third. Will the fielder get to the ball soon enough to throw the runner out?
Often when a parallel edit occurs in cinema, viewers don’t necessarily believe that the second shot is happening exactly 1/24th of a second (the duration of 1 frame) after the first. Unless there’s a countdown, bomb, or clock uniting the two spaces, it’s enough for us to believe the two shots are occurring at the same general time. In live broadcast, the metronome of “liveness” feels more prominent, and more precise. In both cases, parallel editing creates the illusion that the viewer is seeing ALL of the action simultaneously, even the details that one couldn’t see with the naked eye, if attending the game in-person. Through editing, a viewer detaches from the knowledge of the limitations of their body, and believes they have experienced something more fully true.
Another insight from this video that occurs before the power outage is the incredible behind-the-scenes coordination it takes to pull off a sequence like this. The calm but rapid fire calls and cuts speak to an incredible ability of the group, and especially Coyle, to communicate and juggle many perspectives other than their own at the same time. It also speaks to the ease and familiarity they must have with the tropes of the genre.
When the power goes out and Coyle is limited to only one camera, suddenly the broadcast gets rooted into a fixed perspective, albeit one with the power of optical zoom. As fun as it is to watch and listen to Coyle direct the mute Mario and watch Mario’s steady-handed response, you can see why a single camera broadcast wouldn’t catch on. In sports, and other live political broadcasts, we want the fantasy of seeing it all.
Videograms of a Revolution, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică
Constructed from recordings of state television news broadcasts and amateur footage from the streets of Bucharest, and captured during the ten days of the 1989 Romanian Revolution, Videograms of a Revolution explores the role the tele-visual medium has in constructing a political transformation. The first key moment of interruption, and a signal of the beginning of the revolt, occurs during President Nicolae Ceausescu’s live televised speech. Via state television, Ceausescu speaks to a large crowd from a balcony, in an attempt to regain his authority. He says, “First let me send my sincere revolutionary wishes to those of you participating in this great demonstration and to all the inhabitants of the city. I wish you success in all your fields of activity.” A shot of the crowd is shown holding signs, clapping, and cheering as director Harun Farocki points out, through narration, “Television transmits live.”
The view returns to Ceausescu, who continues, “I also wish to thank the initiators and organizers of this great demonstration in Bucharest, considering it as a…” A rumble is heard off screen, Ceausescu pauses, the camera shakes, and voices can be heard saying “Who is shooting? Someone is shooting.” Ceausescu raises his hand to regain calm, there is static in the image, and the television goes off the air with only a red slide reading “Live Broadcast” remaining.
The loss of the signal says more about a change in political power than any image could. Amateur footage depicting subsequent events, after the TV signal was lost, makes clear that, as media theorist Thomas Keenan describes, “the revolution took place within the space of the image as well as within the public square … the damage was the fact of the interruption itself, the disruption or the breakdown in communicative authority…. The pan to the sky, and the red card, however much they concealed, nonetheless left something to be seen and heard.”  People watching at home quickly took to the streets.
In 1989 Romania, the state-run television had become analogous to the state itself. The liveness created a potential energy, which, when the transmission failed, was a catalyst for political change. From a contemporary American lens, it’s hard to imagine a single form of media holding the same power. In a landscape of millions of concurrent, daily broadcasts, unsurveyed moments become so rare that public experience may feel pre-meditated. Simply being in a public space, one assumes a performative role in relationship to media.
As film theorist Mary Ann Doane writes “The temporal dimension of television … would seem to be that of an insistent ‘present-ness’ — a ‘This-is-going-on’ rather than a ‘That-has-been’, a celebration of the instantaneous … [it] deals not with the weight of the dead past but with the potential trauma and explosiveness of the present. And the ultimate drama of the instantaneous — catastrophe — constitutes the very limit of its discourse.”  The power of liveness is underlined by a potential chaos of experience.
Paradise Institute, 2001, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
Performance scholar Philip Auslander points out, “The idea of liveness is a moving target, a historically contingent concept whose meaning changes over time and is keyed to technological development…. Liveness describes a historical, rather than an ontological, condition.”  Our work has pushed us to further consider the moment of audience reception of any art, whether the context and negotiations between media and viewer creates the same “liveness” as a breaking newscast. How is the act of watching, even recorded media, a live event itself?
Paradise Institute, an installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, puts the cinematic experience on view. The installation consists of a plywood structure with two doors, a dimly lit interior with two rows of red velvet-covered seats and headphones for each seat — a balcony which looks over a miniature movie theatre, created using hyper-perspective. When seated, the film on the small screen begins as it would in an ordinary theater. However, here the soundtrack includes coughing, laughing, shushing, a cell phone ringing, and someone asking for popcorn.
Cardiff and Miller create a moment for the viewer in which the filmic past and the lived present are indecipherable. Sitting a while in Paradise Institute, the recorded and unmediated sensations blur, calling into question whether all viewing isn’t a live experience.
We hope you enjoy these four works as much as we do. For us, they point to formal components that create and complicate liveness, including the relationship of bodies to time, editing as the compression of time and space, the moment that many subjectivities constitute a public, and interplay between the viewer’s mind and the artwork.
1. Thomas Keenan, “Pan To The Sky If Anything Unexpected Occurs.” in Transmission Interrupted, ed. Suzanne Cotter and Gilane Tawadros, exh. cat. (Oxford: Modern Art Oxford, 2009), 2–5.
Authors: Kera MacKenzie and Andrew Mausert-Mooney are interdisciplinary artists working primarily in film, video, and installation. They maintain individual and collaborative practices and together founded ACRE TV, an artist-made live streaming tele-vision network for which they were awarded a 2014 Propeller Fund Grant. Together they have created many live performance broadcasts (MUCK MUCK \/ MONICA PANZARINO, Inside Voices Hollow Objects LIVE, Notes for a Vivisection); videos (Abductive Object I-V, Local Ads from Faraway Places, In a Perfect Fever) and installations (Studio Audience: Weather Patterns, havoc and tumbled). Find out more about them: www.keramackenzie.com and vimeo.com/amm.