From Film to Video...

Pierre Hébert

I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity offered by Vithèque highlighting my recent work in its Top Choices section by thinking a little about the question of “film” and “video”—an important historical question in the evolution of audiovisual media and a personal question that forms part of my own biography.

I left the National film Board of Canada in December 1999 after nearly thirty-five years of service, a score of short films and a feature film. It was a new millennium and a new direction for my career, among other reasons because of my conscious abandonment of 35mm film and my willing plunge into digital video. Did I thus suddenly cease to be a filmmaker? That depends on the meaning one ascribes to the words film and filmmaker. In the first place, it didn’t seem to me like such a big break in continuity. When all was said and done and alongside the change in equipment, certain things continued on as before: Final Cut Pro took over from the optical printer and the Steenbeck and I continued my animation performances, swapping my device for engraving on the film stock on stage for a Max Jitter patcher, but basically my inspiration seems to me to have remained the same. I simply had a freer hand by virtue of the disappearance of the NFB’s institutional constraints, which in the end weren’t all that constraining. But this free hand went further than I thought it would.

The passage of a few years has enabled me to see the importance of this mutation. I must admit that a new body of work has gradually taken shape in my oeuvre, one fairly distinct from everything that came before it, essentially made up of my NFB films. For the past twelve years I have been creating exclusively in video things I persist in calling “films”, just as I continue to call myself a “filmmaker”. These films are distributed by an artist-run centre whose history has been tied up from the start with the history of video, a sphere which for a long time was completely alien to me. Video appeared just a few years after I began my filmmaking career. And, coming out of the great period of cinephilia in the 1960s, I quickly understood that video radically defined itself as being “against cinema”. Especially given the fact that there was a profound technical incompatibility between analogue video and animation, even though video’s apparent movement was still created by the succession of distinct images.

If I understand correctly, the appearance of digital video was as dramatic for video as it was for film, threatening its disappearance. Especially as the champions of digital technology have often tended to obscure the past and proclaim the appearance of a “new art”, just as the champions of film and video had done before them: the seventh art, the eighth art, the ninth art, etc.—how far will we take this outmoded idea from another era? We should, however, start to see the pattern and understand that all these practices operate within an imperturbable technological evolution which cares little for the boundaries between art forms. In the present-day context, I believe there are artistic heritages to preserve on the one hand and, on the other, a technological opening to be grasped.

Personally, I feel duty-bound to work towards unpadlocking the cinematic tradition of which I am an heir and which appears to me to be so self-satisfied in its ivory tower. I also feel the duty to understand what for a long time I didn’t know about video and to help the many-sided tradition of moving images take its place in the digital sphere, which is seriously threatened with amnesia. A new idea of the “film camera” seems to me to be necessary, one that is not confined to technological specificities. Digital culture has great need of this, but it also opens the possibility and need for this retrospective appropriation to take place. It has the strength to transfigure earlier technological mutations of the moving image.

What I like about the digital, and what I will never miss about “classical cinema”, are not the hyperbolic technical shows of force, which open the door to a new kind of grandiloquence which I find completely kitsch and profoundly detestable. What pleases me, and which I hope my works recently made available on Vithèque demonstrate, is, more modestly, the extreme fluidity it makes possible. The speed, the possibility of covering large aesthetic territories quickly, of going very quickly and freely, without stopping, in work we can still describe as “films” and in performances and installations—and in any other kind of work—as if it was a single space. And, conversely, to be able also to linger temporarily in uncertain postures, experiencing them and letting oneself be carried along again on an infinitely malleable flow. I have had this goal ever since I became a “filmmaker”, without completely having the means to bring it about.

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