participant observation

Another video piece by me!  This one was made for an observational assignment for my nonfiction class; we were charged with the task of ‘observing a place or process’, and my observation was of both the rehearsal process and unique rehearsal space of my a cappella group, the Carleton Knightingales.  I am including my artist statement as an explanation of the theory behind the practice, but I would watch the video first, and then read on.  (Although if you choose to read my statement first, no one will know…it’s really up to the extent to which you will allow me as an artist to control your experience of meaning…)

a watch of gales in a chapel

artist statement

Although we were given the directive to capture a place or a process, I feel that my observations in a watch of gales ended up falling somewhere in the liminal space between the two – at once an observation of the process of a Knightingales a cappella rehearsal, and an observation of the rehearsal space itself in Dacie Moses house.

Unlike my previous video, I started out with much more of a theoretical concept for this piece, rather than simply beginning to experiment with the camera and discover in those very experimental forays the actual content of the piece.  I knew I wanted to document in a fairly subjective way, because the subject of my observation is too close to my self to even consider being objective about, and I wanted to communicate my sense of my cappella group.  I had also just read a lot of Balasz (preceded by Eisenstein), as well as history of the early abstract films by Fischinger, Eggeling, and company at the time when I was outlining my concepts, so I thinking quite a lot about abstraction, the close-up, the physiognomy, the idea of using music as an organizing principle for the moving image, and ‘harmonics’ of ‘lines’ in editing.  While I don’t think that the piece is a completely direct reflection of this theory and history, I have (like many artists, I think) taken the elements of it that appeal to me in a poetic and philosophical way and tried to let them take a practical form.

Wanting to abstract the rehearsal as a means of capturing my subjective experience of it, I began with the definition of abstraction from one of my readings, “the separation of qualities, aspects, or generalizations from particular instances” and decided to literally separate the audio from the video by deliberate making it non-sync, and even recording it on different days.  I then further separated the audio into five different “lines” based on conversational content, an idea that draws very loosely from Eisenstein’s later theories of harmonic, musical editing.  These five lines I have titled the “self-reflexive,” “business discussion,” “actual rehearsing/learning,” “gossip,” and “general chatter/laughter” tracks, which I layer over one another in an attempt to mimic the form of a cappella, but in the form of spoken harmonies.  The goal was an interweaving of chaos and occasional moments of clear statements.

The visual abstraction relies on the Balasz-derived ‘poetic potential of the close-up’ and synecdochic qualities of focusing on hands, feet, only parts of faces, cellphones, watches, and bracelets.  I filmed hand-held, attempting to make everything from my point-of-view, and preserved this subjectivity by simply editing the image based on what appealed to me aesthetically, creating a sort of loving subject gaze that hopefully captures my strong feel for the harmonic (and dissonant) social community of my group and my close attention (in literal, abstracting close ups) to the unique features of the members.

The fact that most of the audio is not what one might expect to hear in a piece on an a cappella rehearsal is very key to how I wish to represent the group – as one where the social harmonies are as important as the vocal ones, but where ironically we often end up spending more time talking than singing, although the video does finally emerge from the chatter and poetic close-ups into actual singing and two intercut self-reflexive, visually ‘quiet’ shots that want to point at the deep personal significance and actual beauty (and productivity in rehearsal!) that exists in this rather whirlwind environment.  My goal was to insert myself into the piece, to give way to the desire to actually hear singing, to create a sense of the collective echoing into the individual.

To speak, then, a little, to the title, which has some sort of arcane significance that I find kind of clever and worth noting, as it may be another aspect (like the conceptual constraints on the audio) that escapes the ‘uninitiated’ viewer.  The title, a watch of gales in a chapel, has several puns and allusions at work – my group is called The Knightingales, so we call ourselves the ‘gales’ for short; the birds nightingales come in groups called a ‘watch’ (like the equivalent of a ‘murder’ of ravens) but the piece itself was, as an observation, very much about watching; the etymological root of ‘a cappella’ comes from ‘in a chapel’, but the space where we rehearse and the ritual and music that is associated with it takes on a sacred meaning for me personally, and also functions rather like a communal confessional, a religious practice and place of sorts, in the totally secular living room of a cookie house where eleven girls meet and gossip and sing three nights a week.


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