Les États généraux du film documentaire 2011 The Cabinet of Amateur

The Cabinet of Amateur

"For the painter puts his painting in the painting and the collector seated in his cabinet sees on the back wall, in the axis of his view, the painting which represents him in the process of looking at his collection of paintings, and all the paintings once again reproduced, and so on, with no loss of detail in the first, second, third reflections until there is nothing more on the canvas than an infinite number of tiny brush strokes..." (Le Cabinet d’amateur, Georges Perec)

For some years, I have taken pleasure in describing my computer as a cabinet of amateurs, of curiosities, representative of the current cultural renaissance. During this workshop, we will bring together our curiosities to continue to question the digital revolution under way, and to examine more particularly the practice of amateurs who dispose today of highly effective tools of digital creation – as can be seen in any sales catalogue!

Just a reminder that a Cabinet of Curiosities is a room, a place where objects from collections are displayed or stored in drawers. Appearing at the Renaissance, these ancestors of the museum disappeared in the 19th century. They could store works of art, scientific instruments, samples from nature, specimens (plants, stuffed animals) from faraway lands, in short a hodgepodge of items which provided the fertile soil from which modern science grew.

A computer function – which my culture is too limited to name – allows me to display all the pages of my internet links on the screen at once, creating a vertigo of images resembling those old paintings representing amateurs in front of their art collections. All the memory of the world is accessible – available at the touch of a finger – when you look carefully in the interstices of the digital web of our search engines. You just have to click on the mouse to surf from one reference to another, finding, often by chance, a nugget of knowledge.
The computer is the modern cabinet of amateurs. But about what modernity are we talking?

We are in an age of convergence in the information society: technical progress has made obsolete devices and tools invented not so long ago (photos, discs, paper, video cassettes) made immaterial by digitisation and reduced to a simple quantity of information on a digital file itself transmitted by digital communication techniques. Convergence is concretely visible in the merger of distinct machines. Television moves into the telephone which has itself become a fax machine, etc. This technical fusion leads to a convergence of professions where frontiers separating skills are ever more blurred and endlessly pushed back. Automation's much publicised ease of manipulation leads the consumer to carry out more and more tasks for free which used to be part of the service provided. We are obliged today to "press 1" while listening to the authoritarian voice instructions which have replaced the now-unemployed operator, preventing all negotiation, all deviation.

In August 2010, with Alexander Brachet and Clarisse Herrenschimdt, we talked about the mental upheaval produced by digitisation. The philologist resumed the theoretical bases of her discovery to sketch a portrait of this violent transformation and stress our natural blindness to this novelty. In practice, we were looking out for new products: web documentaries. Once again, we observed a convergence of skills. It was photographers, journalists and news cameramen – living through the upheaval of their profession – who first produced the web documentary. Documentary filmmakers were not so quick to respond. By essence? Through respect of linear construction? By opposition to the genre? Or the refusal of a production process where graphics plays a preponderant role? Competition is tough, and in our free-market societies, the money which ends up in the pockets of shareholders does not finance creation. Each one grabs – in order to survive – the field of action of the other. Web documentary by osmosis allows other sensibilities to express themselves. The documentary form of narrative that we defend is losing ground, because the cultural battle was lost elsewhere, and a long time ago.

The amateurs who use digital tools often have no other reference than dominant culture. They adopt it naturally because its forms are present everywhere and dominate. "Why didn't you put in music and commentary, asked a spectator, you ruined your film!" "Why didn't you trust me, I responded. You cannot believe what you know without effort!” The success of dominant ideology, have we forgotten, is to appear evident, natural, unquestionable. There are a thousand alternatives, and yet they make us believe that only one is possible, like we used to believe in Santa Claus.

Orson Welles called himself an amateur who only directed films out of love. Jean Renoir became a filmmaker through love, in order to film his actress-wife. These two cinema giants throw light on the pathway leading to our concerns. We must question the frontier of amateur practice.
André Breton wrote in 1949: "What justifies above all the intervention of a writer seems to me that he bears a responsibility which he cannot ignore without totally disqualifying himself: he is the guardian of vocabulary. It is up to him to see that the meaning of words does not become corrupt, to pitilessly denounce those whose aim is to falsify, to struggle vigorously against that monstrous abuse of trust distilled in the propaganda published by certain sectors of the press."

Shall we filmmakers, be the guardians of a certain idea of cinematic syntax in the face of some of the images we see on Dailymotion, Youtube or, in another register, Vimeo? At a time when the image is disappearing beneath the weight of imaging, is the game already over? And if we are to be defenders of vocabulary, it is obviously and only by our productions, whether they be listed or not in the algorithms of Google.
"Don't complain about the media; become the media" proclaims the chart of Indymedia, another way of formulating the question. Seizing power over words and images is also an issue of major democratic importance, isn't it? This is magnificently what the amateurs are doing. Because nothing is simple.

For Christian Salmon, our workshop meets up with the question raised in 1969 by Michel Foucault: "What is an author? The name of the author is not established in any civil register, nor is it located in the fiction of the work, it is to be found in the rupture that establishes a certain set of discourse and its singular mode of being. […] The function author is thus characteristic of a mode of existence, circulation and functioning of certain types of discourse within a society."
And the circulation of ideas, forms, images on the web, has it not gone beyond a threshold which drowns our singularity, or the singularity of young lunatic poets? All these questions are not new, but are raised differently from the moment we take full measure of the digital revolution and its impact on the circulation of images.

Let us take another small, simple and meaningful example. When a group of firemen in the suburbs of Lyon produced an audiovisual invitation to citizens for their July 14th ball, they created a collective work that generated such a large audience on the Internet that it became visible in the major media. The number of clicks functions like a ratings agency. "Click 1” or “I like” on Facebook. A poke and then off again. Google's counting systems, incompatible with the art of complexity, creates commotion. And the mass media speak of us artists, authors and the firemen's ball all in the same way. It is not surprising we are concerned of being stripped of our vanity? Yet these firemen, amateur filmmakers and unlikely dancers, are sincere and are liked by their viewers because of the pleasure and coherence of their project – the necessity to communicate, seduce, assume a social role and once more fit into the cliché they acknowledge, to exist finally, individually in their performance. The Invitation to a Dance allows them to use all the representative codes which correspond to a culture wrongly dubbed popular – popular culture is not that which is viewed by the people but which is born of the people. Camera movements – so pretentious, vain and artificial on TF1 – are nonetheless transformed into an enlightened pastiche by the fire fighters.
The life-saving crane rolled out from the fire station's garage advantageously stands in for the sophisticated crane hired by an equipment rental agency; the flashing lights of the fire engines replace the glass ball in the centre of the dance hall.

The example is simple. The electronic insurrection of the Arabs is a more serious, newsworthy reference.

In his book Démocratie Internet, Dominique Cardon introduced all the theoretical questions put into practice in 2011 around January 14th, by the Tunisian revolution, born of the sparks transmitted by Twitter and Facebook. Has the influence of social networks and virtual links been finally demonstrated in reality? Was Internet really the fuse which lit the fire? Did it contribute to structuring the movement? If this is not the entire subject of our encounters, it is nonetheless a serious prod for reflection.
Each individual can speak up, transmit ideas and images. A phrase — "Get out!" — has become exportable, the title of a book — Time for outrage! — the name of an organisation. A song has been the link connecting the struggle of the Syrian people. The clip has replaced the leaflet. The particularity of an amateur practice has become a collective brand, in a complex movement that is not easy to describe. How can we view these freshly immediate images? What do they tell us? How are they refashioned? How can we enquire to understand the logical connections of a phenomenon which surprised us all?

Our debate will constantly be based on a research for objects, images that we will analyse by surfing the web.

The sociologist Patrice Flichy, author of the book Sacre de l’amateur, at the origin of this discussion, will lead us, statistics and studies in hand, to look more closely at these amateurs. He will speak of the democratisation of skills. The nobodies have conquered the Internet. It would seem that a critical threshold has been passed. The unimaginable number multiplies initiatives and reduces the effectiveness of control. He will discuss, for example, a study on the use of Twitter in the first hours of the Tunisian revolution. Christian Salmon, writer and researcher, will intervene to help us understand how new technologies of information and communication, established within the framework of free-market economics, are infused with an obligation of “performance”. This means that individuals must be flexible, adaptable, must themselves become experimenters, in other words “strategists”, that is to say capable of making intensive use of their skills and their emotions with the aim of giving the best possible image of themselves on the new media scene.

We will see that the amateur is obviously competent, an expert on her or his life and that maybe, that old utopia of creation by all is today technically within our reach.

Pierre-Oscar Levy

Friday, 25, morning and afternoon: Les Pratiques amateurs, with Patrice Flichy.

Saturday, 26, morning and afternoon: Pratiques amateurs et démocratie, avec Christian Salmon et François Suchel.

Coordination : Pierre-Oscar Levy

Guests : Patrice Flichy, Christian Salmon, François Suchel.