Director Beny Wagner and Sasha Litvintseva on „A Demonstration“ and the short form / interview

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1985, Beny Wagner works as an artist, filmmaker and writer. His work has been presented at a number of international festivals, exhibitions and conferences, including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Archaeologies of Media and Technology Research Group at Winchester School of Art, Southampton University and is a lecturer at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

Sasha Litvintseva who also directed A Demonstration was born in Murmansk, Russia in 1989. Her work as an artist, filmmaker and researcher has been presented at numerous film festivals and in solo and group exhibitions around the world. Her film Asbestos screened in the 2017 Forum. She holds a PhD in media, communications and cultural studies from Goldsmiths, University of London, and lectures in film theory and practice at Queen Mary University of London.

What was your starting point for A Demonstration?

One of the first sparks for the film came on a trip to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. We were looking at paintings from the Renaissance and early modern period and started talking about how the paintings depicted nature. We had the sense that people lived in terrible fear of their surroundings. We decided we wanted to make something that described that fear of the unknown in the concept of nature. Shortly after that trip to the museum we found out about the existence of taxonomies of monsters at the heart of early modern European science. Once we started learning more about the context we understood monsters less as distinct things and more as manifestations of a way of organizing nature. We wanted to contemplate the dynamics of that system of organization through the film. This was a system in which truths about the natural world were determined on the basis of visual analogy, something that film has a very interesting relationship with. The word monster comes from the Latin ‘monstrare’ which means to reveal, show, demonstrate (hence our title, A Demonstration). Monsters were initially considered to be omens through which god sent people signs on how to act. In this sense, the monstrous is in many ways about seeing and about the terms according to which we see. Rather than describe this theme from a historical distance, we wanted to try to access a different way of viewing and comprehending the world, one in which monsters are not only real but are an active part of scientific inquiry, where the composition of organic matter is still completely unknown and where natural elements present an existential threat.

Do you have a favourite moment in the film? Which one and why this one?

It’s hard to pick a favorite. The film is kind of built as an arrangement of moments so each section has its own life. That said, maybe we would choose the section that is simply one long shot (the longest in the film at about 3 minutes) of a cloud, slightly sped up to emphasize movement, with an intense atmospheric sound composition. Most of the film is pretty fast paced and there are hundreds of cuts in it. This shot comes around two thirds into the film and does two different things. On the one hand it provides a breath of air, a calmer moment to contemplate what’s been happening, and on the other hand somehow in its emptiness it manages to be saturated with emotion and meaning. One of the things we were so interested in and were trying to capture, was the ways in which early European science arranged its knowledge of the world through visual analogy. For 16th century naturalists, the human body was compared to a tree trunk and the skin to the bark. From today’s perspective it’s easy to ridicule this way of finding truth or view it as naive. But outside of current scientific disciplines, this desire to connect the world through visual association is somehow intrinsic to the way the human mind works. For us, the simplicity of the cloud changing shape and our compulsion to find recognizable shapes in it creates this primal connection between different ways of perceiving the world.

What do you like about the short form?

The more we learn about film and film history the more we understand moving image as an extension of the nervous system. Because the medium is so deeply interwoven with our bodies, the formal tools and conventions aren’t arbitrary, they have literally grown out of our bodies over time. Certain narrative conventions are the product of industries or propaganda, like the classic three act structure, but many conventions emerged because of what the body can or can’t handle. In the short form it’s possible to play with those conventions and potentially reinterpret them or expand them more than in any other form because of the physiological limits involved in longer films or other formats.

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