This video essay is a rumination on observation as a condition of criticality. The phrase ‘thinking visually’ is usually a mandate for filmmakers, a phrase designed to help them unshackle their thinking from a supposedly over-analytical perspective. I’m using the phrase here in a different way—not to separate looking from analytical thinking, but rather to powerfully connect the two. Indeed, to offer looking as an important component of thinking and, even, visual thinking as a mandate for media scholarship. This video essay ponders and enacts these issues through a consideration of observation as a particularly potent mode of looking-thinking.
Working from the rich traditions of feminist film theory and reception theory, the video ponders both the specificity and ambiguity of images and considers how looking continues to be an essential condition for critical thought. In the essay, I argue that observation isn't only a visual phenomenon, but a somatic one as well-- embedded within the situations of both production and reception; observing and being observed. Observation is a spatialized and temporalized activity, embedded within systems of power, but also systems of sociality.
The specific focus of this broader discussion is the ongoing importance of looking at, or with, non-human animals. So, the video essay yokes media studies to animal studies, and attempts to make connections across these two related disciplines. The essay is thus in conversation with scholarship that seeks to extend the arts and humanities, to dispute human exceptionalism as a founding premise of our intellectual inquiries and/or methodologies. It offers observation as a way to renew our awareness of being of the world, a world that is already and always more than human.
The video essay itself is made up from a variety of media sources that look at non-human animals. Utilizing both appropriated and self-generated sound and image materials, the video arranges them in a way that balances verbal address with observation. It pairs the succinct economy of the semantic to the expansive space of the visual and the durational.
Irene Gustafson is Associate Professor the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Film and Digital Media department. She teaches both production and critical studies courses, including courses in gender/sexuality studies, non-fiction theory and practice, and essayistic modes of production. Her film/video work has screened nationally and internationally and her writing has appeared in Camera Obscura, The Journal of Visual Culture, The Moving Image and others.