TRACES OF LIGHT: AN INTERVIEW WITH THEIRRY KUNTZEL

I requested this article through interlibrary loan, and the PDF they sent me was almost impossible to read, so I retyped the whole thing for posterity. I thought I would post it here. From ARTLINK, Volume 10 No 4 Summer 1990-91, p. 60-61


“The slide from film to video may perhaps one day be compared to the move away from the alexandrine and toward free verse poetry- out of this there emerged a reflection of the literary fate of language, and the same is happening today for the image”.
–Raymond Bellour

Bellour’s words were written nine years ago. Today they resonate with tremendous force. Anyone who has been aware of the recent renaissance in the electronic arts, particularly video, will appreciate Bellour’s prophetic voice. Video has been, during the last two decades, expanding at a phenomenal rate in Europe and America. Locally video has been developing with a similar sense of experimental excitement-but only more recently-say during the last decade. Today our local funding and educational institutions are prepared to support the new dynamic forms and styles of electronic image-making

Bellour’s words are more prophetic when we consider that they were written in reference to one of video’s truly poetic and inventive originators, Thierry Kuntzel. Kuntzel’s videography has been criminally overlooked by Anglo-American commentators till today. Unless I am mistaken, aside from Bellour’s excellent essay, I can’t think of one article that has been written in English on this important voyager of electronic image-making.

You may ask why is Kuntzel’s art so central to today’s electronic arts? Why do his entrancing wordless tapes with their fluid dream-like abstractions of perception and hallucination, appearance and disappearance, remembering and forgetting and the impossibility of, to use Bellour’s helpful expression, “representing the unrepresentable” matter? Briefly put, Kuntzel’s extremely precise and delicately orchestrated videos constitute, in my mind, one of the most relentlessly inventive and sublime oeuvres of the artform today. This is not the place to spell out why I think this is so. Let us say that the following brief interview (perhaps the first in English?) should be seen as a useful introductory point of entry into his revolutionary thinking about images and what lies between them.

What interests me about Kuntzel’s work is his uncompromising search to find a singularly expressive and mobile form of electronic writing. His contemplative minimalist videos represent in their introspective authorial fluidity a “video-stylo” writing (to borrow Alexandre Astrud’s term of ‘camera-stylo’) in that they are concerned with the aesthetic and epistemological exploration of “the time time takes to pass” (Kuntzel). Primarily his videos manifest an exquisitely delicate unfolding of colour, time, form and light that denote a highly suggestive (almost painterly) calligraphy searching for new ideas and forms illustrating Kuntzel’s precarious quest to ‘make light visible’. In other words, what we are witnessing here is the creation of video as ‘fiction-reflection’ (Bellour), video as writing, video as a necessary reply to the artist’s previous significant work in film theory. Kuntzel’s videography can be read as a path-blazing aesthetic and theoretical adventure that was initiated by and went beyond his research interests in the filmic apparatus, the idea of ‘another film’ lurking inside the classical film text.

Sitting in Kuntzel’s apartment during the interview, it slowly dawned on me that his early videos were shot inside his apartment. The fireplace was familiar, the faded pastel colours of his apartment walls became familiar as well. Kuntzel’s profoundly thoughtful and subtle videos were and are forged in a creative complex solitude. A solitude that relates to his pressing imperative to find new ways of articulating the invisible. There is almost a Wittgensteinian quality to his luminous art. Bellour refers correctly to an amalgam of Freud and Mallarme in Kuntzel’s work. It is precisely this fecund combination of experimental interests that lies at the heart of Kuntzel’s fragile penetrating thirst to make videos that speak of the birth of the image.

JOHN CONOMOS: So when did you start making video, in the mid-seventies, or late seventies?

THIERRY KUNTZEL: I started in seventy nine.

And what led you to go into video, what was your motivation?

I don’t know, I was involved in theory for a long time – film theory, the theory of cinema, but I didn’t want to work within the film field because I was trying to find something beyond the film. It was always my problem with theory, to find something within the film, or beyond the film, or –

What an absence? Something not in the film?

Yes, or something not visible which was working underneath. So it was my problem with theory for a long time and I didn’t want to work in film, with film, because I didn’t know, it wasn’t he material I wanted. And I had suddenly the possibility to work with video. A studio was available and I told the people I was working on a project (it wasn’t true), ‘I have a project and I will give it to you tomorrow.’ And I did. And it was very linked to theory at this time. This was INA.

So you met Robert Cahen then, in 1979-80? Was he at INA then?

Oh, I think I met him before.

So your first video was theory based?

Yes, the first thing I made was Nostos I (1979).

Your first video!

Yes, it was the first. And I wanted to work on something, I suppose, which wasn’t thought of in cinema, it was a sort of repetition. For me, it was linked to repetitive music, for example, with elements coming back. It was very linked to video because you can repeat very simply in video, you can repeat the same and the same. And change it a little bit, a little bit. And so I worked on this idea which was a theoretical idea in the very beginning. It was something working in films, in all films, even Hollywood films, but in Hollywood films it wouldn’t be shown as such because you need narrative. But it was working nevertheless. And so I wanted to do it without narrative or with a certain kind of narrative, a very special narrative, playing precisely on this return – on this strong memory. And so I worked on that. Plus in video besides repetition what was interesting for me was the ability to explore the representation of space and the in between. That is to show traces, as such.

Like smoke, like vapour. And this was one of the principles that guided your early video work?

Yes, yes, it was very linked. I don’t know – yes, the idea in the very beginning was the psychic apparatus linked to Freud and traces and repetition of traces and the link from one trace to another one – because you could recognise or not recognise – that was this idea. But at the same time it was linked to painting and in my idea at this time it was very – and I didn’t change in fact – it was very linked to painting, for examples, to the last Matisse, papier de coupe. But papier de coupe in time and – you know – in time, with changes. And so video was something that could do that. It was the only way to do that.

So would you say video as an expressive medium allows you to do this kind of research into repetition, memory, the dialectics between disappearance and appearance, that video has the spatial and temporal properties, to allow you to think in those terms? What about cinema, do you think in the cinema you can do that kind of research of images and sound?

It is – I love cinema but what I tried to find in cinema was a different film underneath all the time. And I love a lot of – even Hollywood films – but it was always something -.

That impulse for underneath, for finding some reality underneath, is it applicable to video the same? If you look at video now, do you still have the impulse to go underneath the video to find another video within video?

No, because video – what is wonderful with video is you can use the part of the image you want. A part flatness or not flatness, an impression of depth or not, it’s completely elastic and you don’t have that in film. Because you have an image or it’s a very long process of – a very, very long process and that’s one of the reasons I love experimental independent films, American or Canadian, like Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, all these people. I’ve worked a lot on these films. But I thought it was too long, too difficult and not appropriate. That’s the point. I can say that now, but I was sure when I discovered video, I was sure it was exactly the point I wanted to be in.

And did other people in the late seventies have similar enthusiasm as film theorists? Who went to video? Were you (ever) the only one who moved from French film theory to video? Or did other people follow?

No, I think I was the only one.

Now, with video when you say it’s elastic and it gives you the opportunity to explore so many different images and sounds, what about installation video, does that give you other opportunities that you don’t find in video tape? New opportunities to research philosophical ideas or?

I think I’m more and more becoming involved with installations because that’s precisely the space which is completely new, has little to do with sculpture, painting, and film. It’s completely different and I’m sure that there’s something involving the viewer in a very disturbing position of not knowing the elements around him and that’s something I tried to welcome for a long time. That is, one day even if you work on repetition and process and very difficult things to recognise or not to recognise, there is an entry, a path. So even if it’s not simple at all to recognise it, you can go through and when you have the different elements in space, for example, in the last installation I’ve made, you can’t see the two elements of the installation at the same time. But you know they are completely related and they happen at the same time. And so, what is important in the installation is the images – it does not matter, they can be beautiful, and I hope they are beautiful, but the problem is the subject inside the viewer in the installation.

And do you think video installations give artists a new opportunity to present new kinds of knowledge? You talk about the artist as the spectator who is enveloped by all these disparate images and sounds. In cinema, it’s all linear, linear causality, in installation it’s omni-directional, it’s everywhere, it’s a new kind of audio-visual synaesthesia. It’s a new kind of knowledge. To you as an artist is this an important opportunity?

That is. That’s what I say. For me in a certain way even if I think the image must be beautiful, interesting – but this is not the problem. For example, in my last installation, there are two images you can’t see at the same time but you know they are absolutely related, there is a point in the installation – a focus – which is the viewer. And the viewer is the only receptor, that is, in a certain way the images are absent. He sees one, he sees the other and he does the work and the work is inside him. And I think it’s very much related to problems, for examples, of conceptual art but in a very different way.

Is Cubist Painting the only videotape where you have collaborated with someone else (ie Philippe Grandrieux)?

Yes. It was made for TV, it was commissioned and it was a challenge for me because I didn’t want to work for TV, but I told myself, maybe you can do something for TV in a very different way. And so it’s almost silent.

Are most of your videos silent?

Yes. Most of them.

Why is that?

Because – no, I don’t want to conceptualise. No, it’s very linked to a sort of secret, – the ability and inability to verbalise things. It’s very linked to melancholic perception.

The impossibility to verbalise, but the possibility to visualise…

Yes… but it’s very different. That is, there is no absolute meaning for the viewer.

It’s like it disappears in smoke.

But, I don’t think know how to say that. Because it’s – for me, I think all the time I’m shooting, I’m thinking of a project. I’m shooting, I think of sound and I have a lot of sounds and music and at the end there is nothing. I love this idea because that’s my own perception, that’s my perception of the world.

Sure, I understand.I saw your videos and I think of German cinema, I think of Murnau…

Yes, yes. I love this cinema. I’m very linked to the beginning of cinema.

But I see Murnau, the iris, the patina, the images that come and flow in and out all the time – beautiful majesty, silent majesty in your images. The difficulty of speaking the invisible…

That’s the point. That’s the point. How could I – after that – I told you, all the time I have – I think there is a meaning which is not obvious but the feeling – I don’t know how to say it – but if I would put sound on it, music, words, it would be very – poof!

Dead?

Yes. So I don’t have the feeling, it’s without words. It’s very linked to literature or –

Or to dialogue?

Yes. Absolutely, but I don’t want to make it

Heavy?

Heavy. That’s all


1. Raymond Bellour, “Thierry Kuntzel and the Return of Writing,” Camera Obscura, No 11 Fall 1983, p. 30
2. INA (L’INSTITUT NATIONAL DE LA COMMUNICATION AUDIVISUELLE) has been since 1975 France’s foremost archival/research and production sentre concerned with experimental film, tv and video art.
3. Robert Cahen (like Thierry Kuntzel) is one of France’s most prominent videomakers and is in need of critical recognition beyond the boundaries of his country.

(Thanks to Christine Van Assche and Jean-Paul Fargier for their kind assistance in arranging the interview which took place last January. Thanks, also, to Martha Ansara and David Haines for additional help)

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