Creator's Statement

"Emoticons" is a short video experiment based on six basic emotions. One day, after I gave a lecture on cinema, the brain, and contemporary media culture, two filmmakers asked me if I had ever made a film myself. On my negative answer, they offered their technical assistance and proposed I should make a short personal film related to the topic of my lecture. After observing, reflecting, and writing about the ways in which cinema has literally moved the camera into both the minds of characters and spectators (a process that was already part of cinematography from its beginnings and that has developed in interesting ways over the last three decades), I thought that it was fair enough to take up this challenge and discover unknown territories. In The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Contemporary Screen Culture (Stanford University Press, 2012), I depart from the observation that cinema gives us increasingly intense direct access to character’s brain worlds, suggesting that our audio-visual images co-evolve in resonance with the knowledge we have of principles of the brain and with a philosophical understanding of the complex entanglements between bodies, brains, and world. Inspired by Deleuze’s claim that ‘the brain is the screen,’ I propose that after the movement-image and the time-image, we have entered the phase of the neuro-image that has a particular connection to digital screen culture.

"Emoticons" is a short video-essay that could be considered as a personal and experimental footnote to the theoretical observations in The Neuro-Image. The video departs from a common principle in affective neuroscience that facial expressions relate to basic emotions that are at the core of more complex feelings. These basic emotions operate as simple guidelines for evoking a memory or an association with each affective mood. Besides events from episodic (autobiographical) memory, they all include a reference to film or another audio-visual traces. Consciousness has become cinematographic consciousness. This project was originally conceived as a mini-installation consisting of two video-channels: one video shot and projected in a 360⁰ pan, expressing events inside a brain space; the other video of a talking head projected on a dummy, pronouncing thoughts associated with each basic emotion. With great thanks to filmmakers Igor Kramer and Pepijn Schroeijers to suggest transforming some theory into practice and to help create a ‘neuro-image’ of my brain.

Through a mash-up of film clips, newly created scenes and punctuating still images Patricia Pisters’ ‘emoticons’ offers a provocative and compelling audio-visual aperitif to her written work on neuro-images. If one has knowledge of her work then it is possible to see this video as providing “a philosophical understanding of the complex entanglements between bodies, brains and world” (citation from the podcast of Pisters’ 2014 NECS keynote). However, the richness of imagery and economy and inventiveness of form mean that even those viewers who do not know Pisters’ work can benefit from ‘emoticons’.

Pisters’ video contributes interesting new contours to the debates already emerging at [In]Transition – as such it certainly deserves to be published. First, its mash-up of three different kinds of images pushes discussions of the illustrative and poetic import of video essays into other directions. For it combines punctuating still images of Pisters’ face – the emoticons of the title – with sometimes evasive voice-over and film quotes that range from the transparent – the sadistic images of Salo to illustrate disgust – to the opaque – the elliptical tracking shots from Brazil or Fischinger’s abstractions, which blend with newly created scenes. This wavering between the seemingly evident and the more obscure aptly challenges the viewer, as one would expect of a video essay designed as a teaching tool. More importantly, it is in keeping with the notion of entanglements cited above, as we cannot easily extricate different kinds of audio-visual experiences: the remembered, intuited, imagined, screened, seen, sensed and/or felt.

The second contribution that ‘emoticons’ makes to the realm of video essays (admittedly in my limited knowledge of the area) is to expand the field of images from which such works draw. It suggests that images from films are part of a wider realm of image culture that include music videos and television and, Pisters’ own contention, our perceived, sensed and imagined audio-visual experiences. This contribution has great potential for further scholarly exploration. For it takes the introspection that we might associate with cinephilia (‘this film moment has obsessed me’) to a different, more extroverted level. It reminds me of Adrian Martin’s assertion in his contribution to [In]Transition that obsession has two modes: the inward and the outward. In Pisters’ video the door between these two modes is opened as remembered film moments inspire ‘complex feelings’ which are projected outwards, toward the viewer, who is invited to indulge in his/her own reminiscence; hence: bodies, brain, world. It is with these ideas that the visual form of the essay triumphs over a written form. For to write about this image culture is immediately to separate out its parts, whereas Pisters’ video is able to evoke their enmeshed nature through the overlapping of sounds, the layering of images and the accumulation of sensations.

How to review a video-based ‘neuro-image’ of the author’s brain? When presented with images evoking the inside of another’s head, to an extent I have to take them on trust – the best person to evaluate them is the author herself. So, what external criteria can I use to review this video essay?

Well, if I treat it as an academic work, I’m a little unsatisfied by the rapidity with which it jumps between ideas. I feel the author’s reflections and memories sometimes passed by too fast, each section feeling like a single utterance. But that’s missing the point – the video essay is an open form, in which authors are free to communicate ideas as obliquely or briefly as they wish.

If I evaluate it as a piece of video art, aesthetic critieria come into play: I appreciate the approach, but balk at the amateurish ‘emoticon’ title cards and some of the low quality film clips. But that’s also missing the point – the video essays need not be beautiful; what makes it such a powerful tool is that it's accessible to those not trained in film-making.

So, unable to approach this work using either the conventions of the academic peer review or those of art criticism, all I can do is summarise how I responded when I watched it. I took great pleasure in the intermingling of personal and cinematic memory. I felt I learnt something from it, albeit imprecisely. I enjoyed the high quality studio footage, though it made some of the other material look a bit shoddy by comparison. I intuited that there were two unreconciled visual logics at play in it (derived, as the rationale clarifies, from the video’s two-screen origin); most of all, I loved the constant horizontal motion of certain sections, but became frustrated when it stopped – for example, during a film clip or whenever a title appeared. Could the endless pan have been extended across the entire video?

The video does not need to be amended – it is what it is. But I would love to see another draft – in particular, with a bit more finesse applied to how the different visual elements combine to form a whole. It could be a beautiful work (and not just visually); as it is, it’s not – quite.