I and I / 12 to 12
On Saturday 18th June 2005 the home of Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen, or the Copenhagen Free University, opened to a mass audience for twelve hours. That is, the cinema space at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, was open from midday until midnight, receiving a durational live broadcast from the University - organised with friend and co-worker Emma Hedditch - that is based in the home of Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen. What unfolded was a major work that shifted “reality” into performance, sliding between spontaneous action and speech and rehearsed actions, scripted speech, between visible and off-screen decision-making: mundane and beautiful, an essay on television delivered through the aesthetic of cinema.
So reads the entry under “SLEEP”, three-quarters of the way through CFU’s ABZ - the closest thing they have to a manifesto. It is an oft-quoted statement in any description of their project, but is used invariably minus its critical section heading. That the self-consciousness of such a definitive paragraph be modified by association with its seemingly opposite state of mind is precisely the point.
The ABZ is a strictly non-alphabetical, a-systematic collection of texts that outlines a field of activity and enacts a methodology. That is, it is a blueprint for a way of working which to be understood requires an engagement with the very practices it attempts to describe. “UNHAPPY CONSCIOUSNESS” is explicated by the sentence “A motor running in the background”; “CONTESTATION” equals “Strike and disappear”; an entry under “MESS” is specific, like the news, about the Danish elections on Tuesday 20th November 2001 which saw a government supported by the far-right come to power. Other entries list organisations with which CFU have a literal or symbolic allegiance (Black Mountain College, London Anti-University...), or promote the work of affiliates (www.andiwilldo.net) while still others are disarmingly first-person (“We are both sitting at the table, with our hands under our legs, waiting for the food to arrive. I am not sure if I should speak...”). The ABZ becomes, through the act of reading, information and poetry, didactic and performative. Its message is found as much in the actual and metaphorical spaces between its words as it is in any attempt to summarise (rewrite) it into something that reads like a cohesive argument or defines a position. And this too is precisely the point.
What constitutes this “immediate evacuation”? In part it is a particular combination of occupation and escape, where opposition is configured not as destruction but as revelation, the occupation of a form conducted to make its organisational and operational principles apparent.
During the live broadcast, the auditorium at Whitechapel became the site of multiplying occupations; the University itself occupied by its organisers and collaborators, under a peculiar self-determined house arrest, the auditorium occupied by the projected durational event. Television and cinema occupied each other, the former read through the codes of the latter by the wide-screen format of the projected image, the carefully constructed camera positions foregrounding formal composition as a key function, the immediacy of the live represented by the cinematic image to effect a continuous mental flickering, a constant reminder that the “everyday” being witnessed was in fact both a construction and a live event in which the viewer as receiver became complicit, or occupied, in other words, by the request to spend some time with people.
At 4pm London time we (CFU and the audience in the gallery) watched together two videos – an extract from Yvonne Rainer’s film Lives of Performers (1972) and Dan Graham’s video Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) – on a screen erected in the University. The tops of the University inhabitants’ heads were just visible on the screen in the auditorium, a beguiling mimicry of Graham stood in front of a mirror in the presence of an audience who he then described from their reflections through a series of instructions that inverted authority. When the camera in the video piece moved it served as a jolt of recognition that the camera relaying this image projected in Copenhagen was not moving, that no-one from the CFU was in Graham’s audience but also that no-one in the auditorium was in the audience in Copenhagen even though we were sharing the act of looking. The double mediation of a projected image displaying a projected image, like a double negative, cut through geographical distance.
In Rainer’s film extract, discursive texts were being spoken about acting, about modes of speech, correlating to the intimate stylisation into which those in the University had situated themselves, exposing the formal acknowledgement of being simultaneously personal and conscious. Both videos were exemplars and an interview between Rainer and the writer Scott MacDonald published in A Critical Cinema 2 (1992) that I re-read after the event provides a telling exchange. Attempting to locate the “personal” in Rainer’s work, MacDonald notes the difference between her films and those of a self-mythologizing avant-garde typified by the work of Stan Brakhage. Brakhage proceeds by extending his eye to the lens of camera, by filming the marks of his own hand on a strip of film. Rainer describes her non-“visual” filmmaking perversely as playing a form such as melodrama back on itself to the extent that it exposes the form’s defining tenets such as narrative and identification, making what they signify (emotion) explicit by their absence – a practice Rainer describes as an expression of “the emotional life lived at an extreme of desperation and conflict”, or, even, an evacuation through occupation.
The last entry in CFU’s ABZ reads, finally:
This “power that refuses to become government” is dependent on ellipses. Precisely those ellipses effected by the act of reading what, by that process, precipitates itself into being a counter-manifesto. Not to replace a social system with its inevitable double but to construct an alternative through the instigation of shared experience. To approach the whisper from a stack of speakers with something other than its explanation.