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Themesicon: navigation pathArt and Cinematographyicon: navigation pathBroodthaers
Eric de Bruyn

The thought is almost as old as the medium itself: ‹cinema resembles a kind of writing.› With sardonic relish, Marcel Broodthaers would often visit this analogy during his short-lived career. In an undated manuscript called «Projet pour un texte,» for instance, we find the following comment: «I am cruelly torn between something immobile that has already been written and the comic movement that animates 24 images per second.» [1] . And the tragicomic effect of such a camera-stylo is registered in an eponymous film of 1969. Broodthaers is filmed in his garden while absorbed in the process of writing a text. However, the text is never completed because the rain that constantly pours down on him washes the ink off the page: «La Pluie (Projet pour un texte),» (1969). For Broodthaers, cinema functioned as a curious device of simultaneous inscription and erasure. It formed an invention of a technological age that was both stillborn and still remained to be born. We are asked to consider cinema as project, therefore, and not as a projection. «At the origin of my intentions there was this idea of cinema that dispenses with the notion of movement,» the artist wrote in 1967 [2] . This resistanceto the directional force of film was geared to his refusal of a cinema of narrative absorption. The diegetic universe of classical cinema, with its projective unity of word and image, offers the spectator a vision of spatial totality. And Broodthaers always eyed such a perceptual «conquest of space«with great suspicion. The spatialized logic of classical cinema, after all, mimics the universal structure of the commodity—a structure that Broodthaers advises undergirds the cultural field as a whole. «If we are concerned with reification, then Art is a particular representation of the phenomenon –a form of tautology.» [3]

Broodthaers frequently observed how a process of instrumentalization has come to pervade the cultural sphere. In 1967, he could still propose, partially in jest, that we consider «film stock as a place for storing ideas –a rather special kind of can.» [4] But by 1969 he must lament the progressive reduction of film to the transmission of an idea: «Thus in certain kinds of conceptual art, the film is often a banal intermediary in which the idea plays the main role of subject.» [5] Art thus assumes the status of publicity. Unless, that is,

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Cover des Ausstellungskatalogs Marcel Broodthaers. Cinéma (Broodthaers, Marcel), 1968

the acknowledgement of art’s current status as a documentary of received ideas might form a method to regain critical ground. [6]

Hence Broodthaers’ cinema was not simply one of arrested motion; it remained wrapped in the contradiction between a static image and a moving image. His cinema presents a text that is in the process of being written and has already been written: a text that, in animating the present, is immediately inscribed as past. The velocity of such cinematic writing, it appears, can never escape the gravitational force of historicity. However, in order to appreciate the curious temporality of this cinematographic method, we will need to draw the contours of its space of public performance. I propose to address this task in relation to a specific theater of film exhibition that was designed by Broodthaers. I am referring to the «Section Cinéma» that forms the seventh installment of his well-known museum fiction called the «Musée d’art Moderne, Départment des Aigles.» A project which ran for four years from 1968 to 1972 and saw twelve different editions before being dissolved at Documenta 5. The «Section Cinéma» was located in a cellar atBurgplatz 12 in Düsseldorf from January 1971 to October 1972 (see the invitation card to «Section Cinéma»). [7] In a figurative sense, this subterranean space functioned as both a foundational and an archaeological site, which continuously wavered between a state of construction and dismantlement. In a more literal sense, the «Section Cinéma» fulfilled the combined function of storage facility, meeting place, production studio, film theater, and exhibition gallery.

1. «Section Cinéma»—The Silent Gesture of the Artist

Allow me to enter the first piece of evidence. Here is the masked artist enveloped in a swirl of smoke while he holds up a copy of a book for all to see. (Joaquin Romero Frias, Marcel Broodthaers holding Sadoul’s «L’Invention du cinéma»). The tome is entitled «L’Invention du cinema» (1832–1897) and it forms the first volume of George Sadoul’s classical «Histoire générale du cinema» that was published in 1948. This book finds its place as «figure 1» in the cinema section of the museum.

However, let me pause a moment before I pull the frame further back to reveal more of this museum

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decor. [8] At this juncture it is important to note the connection that this masked self-portrait makes between cinema, or rather early cinema, and an enunciative mode of direct address. In this fashion, the silent gesture of the artist introduces a model of performativity that shall recur throughout the following discussion. Having stated this opening thesis, I can imagine two immediate questions concerning my approach. The first is of a more factual nature. After all, one might interject, Sadoul’s narrative in «L’Invention du cinema» ends in 1897 with the birth of cinema proper. The book, therefore, is not concerned with the history of early or primitive cinema. However, I will maintain that Broodthaers’ true topic is formed by the non-synchronous relation between the two founding moments of cinema’s technical invention and its industrial-commercial (re- )invention. I shall demonstrate how the stoical figure of early cinema functioned for the artist as a form of counter-memory to the progressive homogenization of the public sphere under the «vigilant eyes of the industrial mamas and papas«. [9]

The second question might well concern my use ofthe term performativity. This linguistic category has gained widespread currency in recent discussions of contemporary art and, in particular, in the field of performance studies. For our purpose, however, we need not engage the full historical and theoretical range of this complex debate. It shall suffice at present to define the performative as a statement that carries no significance beyond its actual time and place of utterance. The performative, in other words, designates a mode of direct address that highlights its own conditions of enunciation. A performative utterance exhibits its own act of speech, as it were, and is therefore opposed to the usual suppression of the author’s voice in historical narration. On the other hand, by exposing the contingency of its position of speech, the performative statement is denied any transcendent authority. This fact was once celebrated during the sixties as the death of the Author, but it remains to be seen whether Broodthaers paid more than lip service to such a revolutionary liberation of language.

The hand of the masked artist thrusts the book forward into our view. Broodthaers, we might say, is

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made present through this gesture but he does not assume an affirmative presence in the process. Nothing is declared except the act itself or, at the very least, the exact content of this act remains undetermined. The book-object appears to be offered as evidence in the court of history, yet no final judgment is passed. What this proposition ultimately ‹figures› is a pure gesture of citation. The speech act is exhibited as «fig. 1«: one figure selected from a possible range of ready-made statements. However, «fig. 1«does not provide the key to break the code. Broodthaers does not invite us to engage in an hermeneutical activity of source interpretation. «Fig. 1» offers no stable referent—e.g. Sadoul’s historical thesis or signified—but becomes mobilized by Broodthaers’ gesture as an empty sign within a discursive network of exchange. In sum, the gesture might be called strategic although we have not established the exact operative terrain of this tactic. The writer has only the power «to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.» [10] As Roland Barthes insisted, the performative act is fundamentally a writerly act. The writer’s hand performs a puregesture of inscription that is divorced of any voice. Indeed, on closer inspection, we see that Broodthaers’ index finger is blackened as if stained by the ink of a pen. As if, but not in truth, because Broodthaers has clearly altered the image after the fact. Once more we are reminded of the performative nature of writing that «can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original» [11] : a gesture, moreover, that we experience as being simultaneously comical and tragic in kind. [12]

Broodthaers’ cinema certainly resembles the intertextual nature of an écriture as theorized by Barthes. His films range across the genres of narrative, documentary and experimental film without, finally, fitting into any single category and individual films are often submitted to a process of re-combination and recycling. Yet, Barthes’ model of performativity can be taken only so far in the artists’ case. As we shall see the artist does not embrace the more utopian aspect of an écriture, which knows no other time than that of enunciation, a time, moreover, where every text is eternally written here and now. The theatrical gesture of Broodthaers, to the contrary, is not cut off from

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Section Cinéma (Broodthaers, Marcel), 1971

the past but feints a return to what might be called the primal scene of cinema. This historical dimension of Broodthaers’ cinema should never be lost from sight.

2. The Pipe – Magritte und Foucault

If I now continue to widen our frame of vision, we can see arranged against a white-washed wall a set of twelve objects, among which a pipe, a smoke bomb, a clock, a calendar, a mirror, a winder, and a mask such as the one worn by Broodthaers in the photograph. (Photomontage by Joaquin Romero Frias of the «Section Cinéma»). An inscription, such as fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 12, etc., accompanies each of these objects. A chest contained a second set of twelve objects, including Sadoul’s book. And, finally, against an adjacent wall stood a toy piano beneath a framed sign carried the bilingual title of this artifice, namely «Musée- Museum«.

The majority of these objects starred as props in Broodthaers’ previous films such as the series of short silent movies based upon René Magritte’s painting «Ceci n’est pas une pipe.»The first in the series was «La Pipe (Magritte)» («Ceci ne serait pas une pipe,» 1969–71). The film was shot with a stationary camera that registered all the possible combinations of an empty white wall, a pipe, a clock, and billowing smoke. To this original footage, Broodthaers later added the engraved captions Figure I, Figure II, or Figures, according to a now familiar system. On the level of the individual film, i.e. «La Pipe,» Broodthaers obsessively, if not perversely, mimics a capitalist logic of serial reproduction: an identical thing repeated over and over again until all movement blurs into the same. That which changes in the film is the captions. They substitute for the lived experience of the object, similar to the fashion slogans of publicity, but without offering the same comforting illusion of content. The instrumental language of advertising that once was cited by Magritte at one remove has now swallowed his painting whole, or so it seems. «Matter has gone up in smoke,» Broodthaers declared in 1971, and «the object is spoken, written, or filmed

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language». [13] Sometimes the pipe is, in fact, obscured by the rising smoke, but in less literal terms the material object can be said to recede behind the captioned image of a phantom pipe. The pipe, as Broodthaers says, is represented as filmed language. However, things do not end here.

One might conjecture that the materiality of the static pipe is still registered by the spectator, albeit indirectly in the discontinuous stammer of the filmstrip with its many abrupt cuts. Furthermore, we might ask, what is the intrinsic role of this pipe? In watching the film, we appear to attend the rushes of an improbable film—a film without intrinsic organization or direction. In addition to this internal dispersion of figures, Broodthaers set an external process of multiplication in motion. The footage of La Pipe, namely, was itself submitted to an incessant operation of recombination that produced numerous variants such as «Ceci ne serait pas une pipe,» or «La Pipe (Gestalt, Abbildung, Figur, Bild).» This method of serialization was pushed to the point that it becomes impossible to always determine what constitutes a unique or finished work.

The frontality of the image in «La Pipe,» which is intermittently underscored by the engraved captions, is typical of Broodthaers’ early films. But despite this inscription of a silent voice, the speaker himself remains absent. Indeed whose speech is figured here? What mode of communication is being performed?

In the catalogue to the 1972 «Section des Figures» of Broodthaers’ museum we encounter the following instruction: «Read the text of Michel Foucault’s This is not a pipe». (Catalogue page of «Section des Figures») Let us, for the moment, take this advice of Broodthaers to heart, although a degree of caution will certainly prove warranted in the end. Following the artist’s lead, we must come to the conclusion that Broodthaers’ strange method of filming by numbers strives to linger on the threshold of symbolic speech. The object is given a figurative assignment within a language system, which, however, remains without a definitive, spatial organization. They show up, as it were, without any subject being there to claim them, to delegate them to their proper place.

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Broodthaers figures are thus activated as «burrowing words«which, as Foucault claims, dig their treacherous tunnels beneath the seemingly smooth surface of Magritte’s pictures. As the former argued, the Belgian painter «secretly mines a space he seems to maintain in the old arrangement.» [14] And his choice of words is remarkably close to that of Broodthaers who once remarked that «Magritte aimed at the development of a poetic language to undermine that upon which we depend.» [15] Yet the affirmative realm of language that was targeted by Broodthaers was not that of everyday speech, as it was for Magritte. Broodthaers was more concerned with the pervasive babble of publicity, which had come to saturate all spheres of life in late capitalism. «Is there any other explanation«, he asks, «than the context of a world devoted to advertisements, overproduction, and horoscopes?» [16] . Magritte, he confesses, was to disagree with him and considered the younger artist too much of a sociologist.

Where Broodthaers and Magritte do agree, however, is in showing up the false authority of a mode of affirmative speech that was personified in Foucault’stext by the figure of the teacher. To paraphrase the latter, the teacher sets out to show how everything is solidly anchored within a pedagogic space. Hence a film ‹shows› an image that ‹shows› the form of a pipe; a caption inscribed by the zealous instructor ‹shows› that the pipe is really what is meant. Yet scarcely has he stated, «This is a pipe,» before he must correct himself and stutter, «This is not a pipe, but an image of a pipe,» «This is not a pipe but a figure saying this is not a pipe,» etc., etc. The baffled master must then lower his extended pointer and turn towards the class in order to face the uproarious students.

But what happens next?

3. The Simulacrum

The story takes a quite familiar turn. The figure of the simulacrum was the counter-measure that post-structuralism adopted to destroy the false hegemony of the pedagogical or masterful discourse of Foucault’s instructor. Not the figure of resemblance, that is, which only serves the needs of representation, but similitude as structured by a logic of pure repetition. The similar provides an opening onto a

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series of differences, of contiguities and displacements; that is, a series without closure. In short, the utopian imagination is refigured as an endless play of signs, a text that is eternally written here and now. But as always the utopian imagination remains nourished by its own historical context. Famously Foucault’s essay ended on the wistful note: «A day will come when, by means of similitude relayed indefinitely along the length of a series, the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity. Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell.» [17]

Can this simulacral series provide an alternative to the dissemblance of modern art? Can the simulacrum form an antidote to that phantasm, which as Broodthaers has observed, «flickers along the peripeties of our history like a shadow play?» [18] Is the fiction of art’s autonomy simply to be dissolved in the here and now of similitude? Surely such a conclusion does not rhyme with the enunciative condition of Broodthaers’ cinema, which, as I have stated before, is doubly inscribed within both the present and the past. At first sight, the «Section Cinéma» appears to support exactly such a reading. It appears to insist on the simulacral character of the display objects. As the artist stated in an interview, the submission of these objects to an identical numbering system undoes their proper identity. They become, that is«interchangeable elements on the stage of a theatre.» And, as a result, «their detiny is ruined.» [19]

However the ensemble of objects bears a double assignment. First of all, there exist two sets of objects. One is scattered across the architectural space, including a chair and a ceiling light. The other is contained within a coffer like the assortment of toys in a child’s play chest. Furthermore, the numerical series has received a double articulation. Broodthaers offers not only the alternative of fig. 1 versus fig. 2, but also the possibility of their symbolical combination, as in the fig. 1 & 2 of the film winder or the fig. 12 of the clock. In other words, the purely equivalent status of these numbered ready-mades does not rule out their assimilation within a specific ideological or narrative order of language. According to the artist the objects are susceptible to assuming a «moral«role within the spatial continuum of any diegetic universe whether projected by the social apparatus of the museum or the cinema. «If we are to believe what the inscription says«, Broodthaers considers, «then the object takes on an illustrative character referring to a kind of novel about society». [20] However, this moral figure does not spell the end of our series.

Despite the vacillation of these objects between the space of similitude and that of representation, between a differential and a moral value, Broodthaers

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claims that a further value remains in evidence. The objects retain an obstinate presence, which resists their complete sublation within either the spatialized domain of affirmative speech or the dematerialized realm of the simulacral. Progress, movement, all this comic animation, momentarily falters when confronted with the materiality of an «already written«trace; with, that is, a «readable texture«of wood, glass, metal, and fabric. This texture, Broodthaers maintains, avoids the leveling process of technological reproduction. «I would never have obtained this kind of complexity», Broodthaers concludes, «with technological objects, whose singleness condemns the mind of monomania: minimal art, robot, computer». [21] But, even now, the series is not complete.

4. «Silence«

At the opening of the «Section Cinéma,» Broodthaers announced that he would withdraw the exhibited objects and place them on sale. The ensemble of objects, he contended, could not achieve a permanent place in a museum that leads, after all, a fictional existence. After being sold to theMönchengladbach Museum, the only clues referring to the once present objects were the painted abbreviations «fig.» on the wall. To which a further word was added: «Silence.» A word that in the absence of any enunciative markers seems to oscillate between the imperative—«Silence!»—the descriptive «Here reigns silence». A word, therefore, that wavers between a performative and an affirmative mode of speech.

Let me suggest how we might locate the historical significance of this simple, yet enigmatic word ‹silence›. And where else to start than one last time with Foucault? «All that is needed«, he writes, is that «a figure resemble an object… and that alone is enough for there to slip into the pure play of the painting a statement –obvious, banal, repeated a thousand times yet almost silent. (It is like an infinite murmur –haunting, enclosing the silence of the figures, investing it, mastering it, extricating the silence from itself, and finally reversing it within the domain of things that can be named.)» [22] Modernism, like the hushed space of the museum itself, was a silent art, but could nonetheless not stop the reifying process of

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naming to which Foucault alludes. Contemporary art, as Broodthaers would counter, has reversed the tactic of modernism. It is no longer silent but is overrun by a rhetoric that transforms it into a mere advertisement for a fashionable theory («Rhétorique,» 1971). All that commentaries on art will reflect, therefore, are the results of a shift in economy. Which leads the artist to the somber conclusion that it is doubtful whether such commentaries can be considered political. [23]

Yet, we might also take the word ‹silence,› defined as it is as the absence of sound, in its most obvious sense, namely as a reference to the sound stage of cinema. And, by extension, as a reference to the technological history of cinema itself; that is, not only as a reference to the off-screen silence that reigns in narrative cinema, but also to the very absence of sound in silent movies. Indeed, language was only to slowly penetrate the distinctly nonnarrative realm of silent movies, and with this permeation of early film by narration came a homogenization of its space concurrent with the rise of the major commercial studios.

This diversity at the beginning of cinema did notjust concern a differential specificity of the medium, as Rosalind Krauss has recently suggested. She has noted the correspondence between the look of early film and that of Broodthaers’ films with their «uneven exposures spliced together and their flickering gait«. [24] However, this comparison can be taken a step further. The heterogeneity of early cinema on the formal level was mirrored in the composite character of its public sphere. A claim that, I suggest, holds for Broodthaers’ cinema as well. The performative gesture of Broodthaers, therefore, extends across the spectacular backdrop of a mediatized society and it is there, against the homogenized background of publicity, that we can begin to read its most critical significance.

This thesis will have to await future development, but not without a brief indication of how one might proceed. To this end, Tom Gunning’s celebrated notion of a «cinema of attractions» will prove helpful. [25]

5. The Museum of Attractions

The cinema of attractions refers to a pre-classical

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period of film that lasted to circa 1907. Gunning opposes this phrase to the more common one of primitive film since he argues that early film established a specific mode of spectatorship that is repressed, and not simply superseded, by the narrative film genre of Hollywood. He contrasts, for instance, the frequent use of a mode of direct address in early cinema to the absorptive structure of classical cinema. «Theatrical display,» in Gunning’s summary of early film experience, «dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe.» [26] Thus early cinema offered a popular attraction in the tradition of the vaudeville or burlesque—a filmic event that was orchestrated by the live presence of a cinema showman.

It has often been stated that Broodthaers assumed the outmoded roles of the collector and amateur. To these types we might add the historical figure of the cinema showman. The function of this performer was to adapt the film program to the changing circumstances of architectural setting and social events and to elicit an active engagement of theaudience. Likewise, Broodthaers’ exhibition practice was characterized by its endless reshuffling of content, its shifting relation to the institutional context, and its theatrical mode of presentation. The «Section Cinéma» can be described, in other words, as a mise-en-scène of the composite public sphere of early cinema; it re-enacted the primal conflict between a performative and reproductive mode of cinema that predated the final rise of the studio system and its industrial organization of the public sphere. This mise-en-scène, however, functioned only as a theater of memory for it could not reverse the erosion of social experience already underway.

To back up my claim, I might end by referring to the film program that Broodthaers screened in the «Section Cinéma.» This program achieved a deliberate alternation and confusion between different cinematic genres. First of all, a quasi-documentary about the founding of the Musée d’Art Moderne called «Une discussion inaugurale» (1968), which follows a meandering trajectory, that comes to no conclusion. Secondly, a combination travelogue and historical fiction called «Un Voyage à

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Waterloo (Napoléon 1769-1969),» which stars Broodthaers sporting a false nose. And, thirdly, a group of found films which were re-edited and re-arranged by Broodthaers, such as «Charlie Chaplin als Filmstar,» and various news reels and commercials. The films were projected by the artist onto a white screen on which the abbreviations fig. 12, fig. 2, fig. 1, fig. A. had been stenciled. («Belga Vox –Mode-20th Century Fox»). What Broodthaers’ cinematic project demonstrates, in sum, is a process of continuous disorganization. Yet, by this very means, «Section Cinéma» provides a faint glimmer of an alternative public sphere; it indicates a social horizon of experience that can only enter representation in a fragmented form. «Section Cinéma» thus commemorates an unrealized, utopian potential of modern technology. A potential, furthermore, that is seized only in the fleeting moment of an arrested image. I have attempted to show where this interpretation of Broodthaers’ project overlaps with arguments that have been advanced elsewhere. However, in the face of current events, I am lead to conceive of Broodthaers’ project in the following, more particular fashion. If the gesture enacted bySection Cinéma can be thought to have a redemptive potential than it was by countering a museum of attractions to the imminent reality of the museum as spectacle.

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