What Do the Stars Tell Us About the Future of Cinema?
Johann Lurf & Alexander Horwath
Alexander Horwath: Over the last two years, you have accompanied your first feature length film ★ [pronounced “Starfilm”] half way around the world, from the Viennale to Sundance to film festivals in Korea and Japan – where you are right now as we are writing to each other. However, the film is constantly expanding; as a collection of cinematic images spanning 120 years of film history that show outer space (and only that), it is decidedly incomplete and “mutates” accordingly. You have also remained true to space in other artistic projects and in your role as a fellow of the JUNGE AKADEMIE in 2019. Can you briefly explain this intense thematic focus or deduce where it comes from?
Johann Lurf: My interest in space has to do with the limits of the imaginable and the limits of what can be depicted. Astronomical processes are the basis of our reality but seem very abstract because of how distant they are – our senses can only perceive these processes to a limited extent. We use different tools and media to overcome the distance and make these dimensions visible. These media allow a deeper insight, but are always adapted to our perceptual apparatus and have their own specific characteristics, which shape this insight.
Johann Lurf ★ (2017) Trailer
JL: I was invited to visit the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, where a stereoscopic 3D dome projection simulates space according to the current state of scientific knowledge, which was an impressive experience. An essential part of such experiences is the technology used. Every design decision is also a take; that must not be forgotten. Had another team carried out this simulation, it would look different. We fill the space, so to speak, to the stars with our ideas and desires, because we can’t do anything different. Therefore, it is possible to draw conclusions about the production conditions, the historical context and the people behind the production from such abstract representations as the starry sky throughout the history of film. I find this very exciting, especially when several representations of the same thing are examined side by side to identify methods and trends.
AH: It seems that your own reaction to this – to the historicity and relativity of the imaging techniques and the resulting perception of the world – is not just to ascertain and artistically record it, but also to integrate it into your own mode of work. Can one say that ★ is not a pure work of film, but rather a whole process that you also continue to work on using other media and presentation or exhibition forms? Where is the journey currently taking you and will the next thing you do be to build an avant-garde observatory on a Pacific island?
JL: I am currently trying to stick to more compact forms! During the long research process for the film, I also became interested in other aspects relating to the stars in film history. The film itself takes a specific approach to the subject, other methods make further conclusions and experiences possible. So I designed a series of collages, which I have been working on with Laura Wagner since 2017. I call it Earth Series. These works are about the reverse shot to the starry sky: the cinematic view of our Earth from space. A certain amount of information can be derived, for example the region the film comes from, depending on which side of the Earth is shown – or if a greater catastrophe is approaching, like a hurricane. The cinematic form is not as suited to comparing these film stills as a direct comparison of images in the form of collages, where several images can be placed side by side, making it possible to examine them without temporal constraints. Some takes are only seen for a fraction of a second in a film. If you remove them from their temporal context, the options for examining and comparing them are extended. At the moment, I am working on a book about the film ★, in which I apply image comparison methods and examine the image categories that accompany the image of the starry sky in films in greater detail.
AH: Let’s stick with comparison for a little while – and working with different media. You have a great interest in 3D technologies and the 70 mm film format. You participated in the wonderful international Vertical Cinema project, where new works were created for a vertical screen and projection. You are committed to ensuring that analogue film techniques continue to be used: from recording to printing to presentation. In addition to this, you can look back on a long career as a sought-after projectionist, as someone who screens analogue films, who knows how to handle the most delicate formats. In your oeuvre, analogue and digital moving images are represented equally. What is the current relationship between the two media for you – after about ten years, in which mainstream, everyday cinema and film festivals as well as hegemonic discourse on film have more or less sought the complete replacement of one medium with the other?
JL: I am interested in many forms and properties of the medium of film, and I see many opportunities to work with photo-chemical film and expand its language and presentation capabilities. I even think that today the conditions are very good for shooting on film. The material and the cameras are readily available, and it is possible to scan in the best quality. In the summer of 2019, I was part of the jury of the New Horizons Festival in Wrocław: seven out of ten of the films that ran in the competition had been shot on analogue film – that surprised me! However, all of the films were shown digitally. Then I spoke to one of the filmmakers, who had not even remotely considered making a film print of his film. So there is an awareness of the medium as an image carrier, but this stops suddenly when it comes to projection. It is a pity, because film projection means 24 different image carriers per second; with video we always see the same raster of a chip and a correspondingly flatter, more sterile image.
I am quite interested in digital innovations, such as laser projection for example, where the dark areas can be displayed much better than with conventional video projection. But my heart beats but for the analogue image, the depth it provides, the organic, incomprehensible, yes, the magic in the projection. In the future, I would like to continue to work with the medium of film, it is incredibly versatile – vertical, horizontal, no matter.
AH: Do you think that this future – which I also believe in – will be defined more by the traditions and historical consciousness of avant-garde cinema culture or by those of the visual arts? Until recently, I would have assumed that the latter was the case, but the art business and art market are – despite the many young artists who are determined to work with analogue film – perhaps too conformist, at least in their “predominant” zones. And as I am just coming from the Basque Country, from a seminar where young Spanish film curators demonstrated an amazing enthusiasm for cinema culture and tremendous knowledge in this area, I now imagine it might be the other way around. This question must also play a certain role in how you position yourself as an artist …
JL: Attempting to see into the future is, of course, always a big gamble. I think, however, that the future of the medium of film and the place that is the cinema need numerous strategies and supports. Avant-garde cinema culture and the visual arts, like archives and festivals, are both repositories and conveyors of knowledge, so that each generation does not have to start from scratch. The film industry has a much shorter memory and, seen as such, the advertising industry has the shortest memory of all. Nevertheless, these commercial film structures play an important role as both continue to shoot on film, keeping the production of film material going and laboratories running. So complex photo-chemical knowledge is retained at the laboratories; a major factor which, unfortunately, is no longer the norm.
Gustav Deutsch, who sadly passed away recently, wrote at the end of one of his beautiful trailers that “Tradition is to pass on the flame, not worship the ashes”, which, among other things, I understand to mean that that enthusiasm and knowledge must be shared. Awakening the interest of younger generations is the ultimate goal.¹
I do not find it necessary to position myself at all, because my fascination with film, art and cinema means that proximity to several areas is already a given and does not exclude proximity to other areas either – and this is something that should always remain fluid.
¹Alexander Horwath, Dark Rooms, Speaking Objects, More than Film: Gustav Deutsch as a Museum Maker, published online, 6.11.2019.
*1982 in Vienna, lives in Vienna
Johann Lurf studied fine arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He is known as an experimental filmmaker who cannot easily be subsumed under one style or category. His works examine various modes of vision and motion, but his more formally-oriented films are always accompanied by strong narratives that, however subtly, examine society, codes, norms, perception, and the history and development of cinema itself. Dabbling in short and feature-length films, analogue and digital, found-footage and his own shots, Johann Lurf has created a wide variety of cinematic works, many of which have been featured at film festivals and cultural institutions, notably the Sundance Film Festival, the Anthology Film Archives, Austrian Cultural Forum New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.More about Johann Lurf
*1964 in Vienna
Alexander Horwath is a writer and curator. 1985–1991 film critic and editor. 1992–1997 Director of the Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival. 1997–2001 essays for Die Zeit, Trafic, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Meteor and Film Comment, film festival consultant, curator of film series and exhibitions. 2002–2017 Director of the Austrian Film Museum. 2007 curator of the film programme for Documenta 12. Publications as (co-)author / editor: Der Siebente Kontinent. Michael Haneke und seine Filme (1991), The Last Great American Picture Show. New Hollywood 1967–1976 (1995; extended English edition 2003), Avantgardefilm. Österreich. 1950 bis heute (1995), Peter Tscherkassky (2005), Josef von Sternberg. The Case of Lena Smith (2007), Film Curatorship – Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008), Das sichtbare Kino (2014), Ruth Beckermann (2016). Gold Medal of Honour for Services to the Province of Vienna (2018). Since 2018 teacher of history at the Vienna Film Academy; member of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna; Member of the Artistic Committee, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna; texts on Utopie Film (perlentaucher.de) and on Guy Debord (cargo-film.de).