Text by Kito Nedo
The first sequences of Daniel Laufer’s film Train of Thought (2014/2015) invoke ordi- nary or at least formerly familiar things: a chair, a stack of books, a table, the crackle of a rotating record player, the pattern of an oriental rug. These scenes suggest that little more is needed to embark on an imaginary journey when trusting in one’s own powers of observation and imagination: “An expedition into the near at hand.” The film thus takes up the narrative figure of a trip through a room which, in turn, goes back to the essay “A Journey Around My Room” written at the end of the 18th century by a French officer with literary ambitions, Xavier de Maistre (1763–1852). When de Maistre was placed under house arrest for 42 days in Turin, he began investigating his immediate surroundings like an explorer and taking minutes in the form of a travel- ogue. Furthermore, Laufer’s film starts with a take through a mirror and repeatedly returns to the mirror motif. At issue, then, is “how” the narration is conducted. In his famous study Film as Art (1932), Rudolf Arnheim describes a number of different techniques, including mirror images as particularly useful filmic effects to undermine the spectator’s belief in cinema as a means to represent reality. The role of these ana- logue effects has changed with cinema’s shift to the digital realm. They have become historical. The gaze into the mirror no longer appears necessarily directed forward and it no longer unsettles viewers. So, the question is perhaps: How to keep on narrating?
Only a few shots later, the camera wanders outdoors and captures the wheelwork of a slowly rolling train. A female voice-over says: “The sound of a train of thought.” The movement described here, which all roaming characters in the film seem to share, has no endpoint, no final destination. It is an ongoing rotation around certain scenes. The spaces of an apparently abandoned city palace in Paris are traversed with cautious curiosity, paintings are studied, texts are read. Language, images, and sounds are con- nected and create a floating, timeless atmosphere that seems only faintly linked to the present. The almost reverent mood is emphasized by the music (by Volker Zander and Markus Hinz). The film obsessed with motion resists the figure of pausing in an almost tangible way. Daniel Laufer produces his films with very few or no professional actresses and actors, instead preferring people from his circle of friends and acquain- tances. The deliberate absence or maybe also emptiness of the film characters provokes an aggressive counter-reaction by professional players that in the end contradicts the role intended by the author.1
According to the American film scholar James Monaco, the “recording arts,” such as film or photography, once comprised an “entirely new mode of discourse, parallel
to those already in existence.”2 The art of film as a successful medium embraced all the “older” arts (such as painting, music, the novel, the stage play, or architecture) and forced them to redefine themselves. “ [T]he technological media were clearly seen to surpass painting and drawing in one admittedly limited but nevertheless vital respect: they could record images of the world directly.”3 The replication of the environment underwent radical changes and subsequently enabled new forms of both abstraction and realism. Today, of course, after the digital revolution, computer-generated film competes with the other arts in these areas as well. What is even more: It can be abstract and highly realistic at the same time.
However, the triumph of film and video installations in exhibitions over the past three or four decades also shows that art “in the sense of a reflecting and analytical process”4 has meanwhile appropriated the means of cinematography. This entails that film, too, has long become part of the grand narrative of art. Its former status as a “recording art” has been fundamentally called into question in the age of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The old attempt to poise art and cinema against each other makes even less sense. Instead, art responds to the visual-cultural complex of cinema and sets itself in relation to it in a critical, affirmative, and—quite evidently since awhile— already nostalgic manner. This relation is also addressed by Daniel Laufer’s hybrid working method that encompasses writing, filming, painting, performance, and instal- lation. Like a media archaeologist, he excavates the relations of production of the vari- ous disciplines in his practice.
As applied arts, text, drawing, and painting have a long tradition in film productions, which is today continued by, among others things, digital graphics and image process- ing. Storyboards that used to be composed on paper are increasingly being drawn and written on the computer. When faced with complicated or fantastical scenes, directors in the 20th century fell back on the painterly skills of so-called “matte painting artists,” nowadays, of course, “digital matte painting artists.” Artists at the time painted entire artificial sceneries with oil on acrylic glass panels that were then visually blended with a real camera scene. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, in the GDR spy thriller Torn Curtain from the mid-1960s, had Albert Whitlock paint in detail and from several perspectives the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) in East Berlin, through which Paul Newman fled.5 Whitlock was the head of the matte department of
the Universal Studios in Hollywood and collaborated in many Hitchcock movies. Norman O. Dawn, who applied this trick technique in his 1907 film Missions of California, is regarded as the inventor of the matte painting technique that was used through to the end of the 1980s. Up until the 1970s, matte painting was considered an invisible art, not only because it appeared invisible in films, but also because the big studios guarded the responsible departments and the specialist knowledge developed there as a valuable secret.
In her book on the return of illusionistic aesthetics in the contemporary arts, the Berlin-based film scholar Gertrud Koch points out that concepts such as illusion or deception belong to the core of cinematography itself: “The fact that the filmic moving image is created only in the technical projection of individual frames, that it is an optical illusion in the brain of the spectator, has been evidenced by the concept of illusion (in French) and “Täuschung” (deception, in German) following the illusion techniques of Renaissance painting.”6
Laufer alludes to these illusionistic qualities of both film and painting, when in
Train of Thought, for example, he uses the gaze to paintings as a kind of dramaturgical hinge to progress from one scene to the next. It functions as an image and a bridge. “Painting can take on different forms in the overall group of works.”7 As a former sce- nic painter for theaters, he is familiar with the possible usages of the painted picture beyond visual art from his own practice. Every form of viewing is an experience to be made with the body. The monochrome color surfaces which are edited into the film Colour Memory (2017) and meant to produce afterimages in the minds of the specta- tors, appear as a perception physiological experiment.
Laufer counters the concept of painting oriented toward an endpoint with the idea of a film that basically allows endless testing and scrapping, or the possibility of alter- native edits. “The process of completion appears expansible in film.”8 To this mode
of production, Laufer adds the switching back and forth between the different disci- plines. The artist casts the painted picture into the film, where it becomes one image among many. The filmed image is extracted from the film and becomes a painted frame. Parts of the film are occasionally filmed in the exhibition, where the same film is later screened. Various forms of viewing and producing thus come together. While the film runs over a period of time, one can approach and then withdraw from a painting or installation in different ways.
Laufer is interested precisely in the boundaries and intersections of film, text, installa- tion, and painting; in the experimental pushing together of method, production, and aesthetic peculiarities. For example, where the documentary turns poetic through reduction, where pencil on paper anticipates the tracking shot in real space, or where certain lens flares serve as analogue artifacts and signs of an absent camera to demon- strate the apparently long lost affinity to film, at least on an aesthetic level. Ironically, in the field of computer games or in advertising, lens flares are used to achieve the opposite effect. They were originally regarded as undesired image flaws, but later became a stylistic device, and are now used in digital productions so excessively that they have become an indication that no camera was involved.9 The production, distri- bution, and consumption of these kinds of images have greatly diverged from each other. The more the “how” and the “what” have grown apart, the more consciously Laufer paints lens flares as aesthetic clichés in his pictures. They belong to the group of works titled Colour Memory (2017) that the viewer can read as a storyboard con- necting the individual works.
Like in a cascade, painted, written, and filmed sequences seem to infinitely collapse into each other in a poetic way. The film appears as a preliminary study for painting that, in turn, follows the aesthetic style of a storyboard. The pictures and media forms permeate each other. The self-contained film system is broken apart and tripped up in favor of a fragmented, open, and concise narrative style that empowers the viewers to take up the individual narrative strands themselves.
1 Conversation with the artist, September 2017.
2 James Monaco, How to Read a Film, New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 38.
4 Clemens Krümmel / Susanne Leeb, “Vorwort. Was will die Kunst vom Film?” in: Texte zur Kunst, September 2001, Vol. 11, Issue 43, p. 5.
5 Fade in: Int. Art Gallery – Day Exhibition Guide, The Swiss Institute New York, 03/03–05/08/2016; https://www.swissinstitute.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/FADE-IN-Expanded-Checklist.compressed.pdf, p.5, accessed on 09/10/2017.
6 Gertrud Koch, Die Wiederkehr der Illusion, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2016, p. 57.
7 Conversation with the artist, September 2017.
8 Conversation with the artist, September 2017.
9 Cf. Heidi Enzian („blib“), Peak Lens Flare – vom Fehler zum Must-Have, Slashcam News, online, https://www.slashcam.de/news/single/Peak-Lens-Flare----vom-Fehler-zum-Must-Have-12768.html, (accessed 5/10/2017).