Herb Shellenberger

{{{ FACE & MASK}}} {{{ MASK & FACE}}}
April 22–26, 2020
European Media Art Festival
Osnabrück, Germany

Note: EMAF 2020 was canceled due to Covid-19. Nevertheless, the research, programming and writing I accomplished with the EMAF team—and Katrin Mundt in particular—over the previous six months was extremely impactful to me and I'd like to represent it here. Thanks to EMAF for their support of my work.

Adam 2, Jan Lenica, 1970, West Germany, 64'
Afri-Cola (23 commercials), Charles Wilp, 1968–78, Germany, 10'
Arcok (Faces), Dóra Keresztes, 1999, Hungary, 3'
Asparagus, Suzan Pitt, 1979, US, 20'
The Assignation, Curtis Harrington, 1953, US/Italy, 8'
Communicating Vessels, Annie MacDonell & Maïder Fortuné, 2020, France/Canada, 35'
Culture Capture: Terminal Adddition, The New Red Order, 2019, US, 7'
Danny, Aaron Zeghers & Lewis Bennett, 2019, Canada, 50'
Face Value, Johan van der Keuken, 1991, Netherlands, 120'
The Fallen, Steve Reinke, 2008, US, 3'
Focii, Jeanette Iljon, 1975, UK, 6'
Glass Face, Gary Beydler, 1975, US, 3'
Kugelkopf (Ball Head), Mara Mattuschka, 1985, Austria, 6'
The Laughing Alligator, Juan Downey, 1979, US/Venezuela, 27'
Live the Life You Love, Sid Iandovka & Anya Tsyrlina, 2020, US/Switzerland, 5'
The Mask, Johan van der Keuken, 1989, France/Netherlands, 53'
Multiple SIDosis, Sid Laverents, 1970, US, 9'
Oumoun, Fairuz Ghammam, 2017, Tunisia/Belgium, 14'
Removed, Naomi Uman, 1999, US/Mexico, 7'
Le sculpteur express (The Express Sculptor), Segundo de Chomón, 1907, France,
Selfportrait, Maria Lassnig, 1971, US/Austria, 5'
thank you, belit sağ, 2010, Netherlands, 2'

I was ecstatic to receive an invitation from Katrin Mundt last autumn to work with European Media Art Festival as guest curator of the 2020 festival’s Theme series. EMAF’s introduction to the topic of First Person Plural informed my thinking and led me to explore ways that my series could reflect off of this topic from a different angle. I was thinking about subjectivity and objectivity, anonymity and identification. Somehow this led me to masks. And from there it was just a short distance to what lies behind the mask.

I was originally going to write about Hans Belting’s art historical tome Face & Mask: A Double History (2017), I was going to write about AI facial recognition, about Nam June Paik’s video sculpture masks. I don’t want to write about Covid. I can’t help but feel haunted by a virus that enters through one’s eyes, nose and mouth, the now worldwide ubiquity of face masks (previously only widespread in Asia) and the pained selfies of healthcare workers, their faces bruised from wearing PPE for eight or more hours, pleading with everyone to stay home. Using face and mask to build an investigation of a wide swath of film and moving image-making has come to collide with a global catastrophe and I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed in my own associations with the topic.

All that said, the selection of films which I’ve pulled together for the now-aborted Theme series was meant to be variously fun, celebratory, contemplative, provocative, sexy and mysterious, and I hope the spirit of it can penetrate through the current conditions. Because bringing together films made between 1907 and 2020 to look at the beauty of human faces, the wonder and mystery that can be facilitated with captivating masks, the energy and emotion that can be conveyed through either, this is enough to keep me loving humanity, to feel saved by cinema and nourished by expression. I don’t say this lightly. I’ve sat at this computer for many days now, stultified and unable to type or think. But looking yet again at the astounding and surprising creations that filmmakers across time, geography and forms of creation have materialised out of thin air, this is enough to make me remember the world will still turn tomorrow and I want to be there when that happens.

My aim with this series is to investigate subjectivity, collectivity and anonymity through the visual devices of faces and masks. Is the outsized face that confronts us on the cinema screen a type of mask in itself? And instead of simply concealing one’s face, could a mask accentuate feelings and impulses not transmittable through a human countenance? With these questions and considerations, I’d like to express that face and mask are not a binary. Their properties cannot be reduced and one is not the opposite of the other. Indeed, this selection of works was chosen on the basis that filmmakers and artists have problematised these two subjects both alone and in relation to each other, finding new ways to express the properties attributable to both in certain situations. At times, these explorations are made explicit within the films, whereas in other cases they are implicit, and I might be reading works through a frame that their makers never explicitly intended. But in all cases, I’ve found that each film in this series works to establish and/or break conventions of cinematic identification and representation, often in quite unexpected ways.

The series is bookended with two works by Johan van der Keuken, a Dutch artist whose documentary photography began his lifelong preoccupation with people’s faces. After he received a camera from his grandfather, he began photographing his friends and peers in the Amsterdam street in the early 1950s. Encouraged by his mentor and fellow countryman Ed van der Elsken, a 17-year old van der Keuken collected these photographs in the book Wij zijn 17 (We Are 17), published in 1955. “It belied the positive, active image of youngsters cultivated in the post-war reconstruction period.”

Van der Keuken’s photography progressed into a large and accomplished body of work in documentary filmmaking. While his works explore many salient themes—art and artmaking, economics, geopolitics and globalization, borders and migration, travel, disability and representation—the crux of his filmmaking is always placed squarely on documentary and docufictional portraiture, specifically manifested through his magnetic attraction to the human face. Face Value (1991) and The Mask (1989) are two examples among many that exemplify this attraction, and within these two works many of the contradictions between “face” and “mask” are constructed quite elegantly through image and montage.

The other twenty films in the series each bring up individual ideas, strategies and concerns in dealing with faces and masks, but they can be grouped in several larger clusters. A number of the works deal with these subjects through the lens of politics (embodied politics and political bodies) and identity. For instance, one element of The New Red Order’s Culture Capture: Terminal Adddition (2019) worth examining is the masks that NRO members wear while 3D scanning and mapping sculptures and objects. These gross-out drip masks transform their heads into what look like toxic slime creatures. Masks have been employed by those carrying out direct action throughout history as a way of concealing one’s identity while performing illegal actions. Seeing them utilised as their wearers are performing digital intelligence scraping, one can’t help but make the association that today masks also importantly protect their wearers from artificial intelligence facial recognition.

Films like Danny (Aaron Zeghers & Lewis Bennett, 2019) and Oumoun (Fairuz Ghammam, 2017) utilise frontal portraiture (or self-portraiture) to convey their subject’s emotional authenticity. Conversely, belit sağ’s 2013 video thank you is a parasitical work composed from outtakes of a humanitarian funding campaign, critiquing the wholly manufactured authenticity of the Indonesian speaker’s appeal as emotionally genuine. Jeanette Iljon’s Focii (1975) and Annie MacDonell & Maïder Fortuné’s Communicating Vessels (2020) both center on the friction between the self and the double, and in an uncannily similar way show how that friction can unravel into something completely unfamiliar and alien. Juan Downey and Steve Reinke’s featured works also think through the positioning between self and other, albeit from within sociological and ethnographic frameworks.

Drawn animation exposes one dichotomy in the traditional conception of face and mask, that of face as natural, organic and living, and mask as synthetic, material and inanimate. If both need to be drawn, nothing is natural and all is invented. The protagonist of Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (1979) wears a mask through most of the film, at one point lifting it up and exposing a blank, featureless face underneath. The characters of Jan Lenica’s Adam 2 (1970) are cut-out figures with litte variation in facial expression. Maria Lassnig’s Selfportrait (1971) emphasises the malleability of one’s visage and argues that one can “veil or reveal” emotions through it. Films by Lassnig’s student Mara Mattuschka (Kugelkopf, 1985) and Gary Beydler (Glass Face, 1975) apply animated techniques and principles to live-action photography, engaging in gory and playful mutilation of the face respectively, while Removed (Naomi Uman, 1999) sites this mutilation onto the base of celluloid film, obliterating the bodies of the women within its frames.

The final group of works could be grouped under a theme of pleasure, playfulness or sensuality. Charles Wilp’s Afri-Cola commercials are kinky and provocative artistic-commercial creations that foreground the faces of actors gorging excessively on cola, licking their lips, fogging glass with deep breaths and full-out pouring glugs of syrupy liquid into their wide-open mouths. Live the Life You Love (Sid Iandovka & Anya Tsyrlina, 2020) depicts ecstatic movement not only of its figures engaged in mesmeric dance but also in the dancing pixels, blurs and digital artefacts of its upscaled resolution. Segundo de Chomón’s Le sculpteur express (The Express Sculptor) (1907) documents sculptor Lee Yost rapidly building up caricatures of faces made from clay, morphing, shifting and slapping them into place in front of the camera in ways that animators would later construct from on high through drawing. Finally, Multiple SIDosis (Sid Laverents, 1970) is pure sweetness, the poetry of the everyman and the triumph of the slob. An amateur filmmaker composes and records his silly symphony with more pep, pizazz and precision than most avant-garde film masters, his remarkably unremarkable face presented in manifold images and configurations.

I’ll end with remarking that it’s a strange sensation to be writing an essay for a film series that is not happening. I’m grateful to Katrin and EMAF for completing the painstaking work of gaining permissions, sourcing prints (16mm, 35mm, digital and so on), working with me on live subtitling for some films and in general being open and amenable to my suggestions and selections. A film screening or series is always speculative. The best part for the programmer is to sit down in the cinema and see the films exhibited properly, letting their cohesion and juxtaposition collide in unexpected ways. That itch will remain unscratched for now, but hopefully not forever.