Tricolour: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Posted on: 30 Oct 2013

Richard Bowers talks about his upcoming Experimentica performance, Tricolour: The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The idea for this work came from two places – one, a conversation with friends about starting an informal film club inclusive to people with sight loss; two, an idea to make 'national' flags from (visual) noise of different 'colours': anti-flags or un-flags.

Regarding the former I considered the idea that a film's script is a kind of narrative that would make the film more accessible to people with sight loss. This, in some respects, is how audio-description works. Granted, there may be descriptions of space and form that would be elusive to congenitally blind persons, but the vast majority of blind and partially-sighted people are not blind from birth and would understand accounts of the spatial domain as a sighted person would. However, this is a digression, because it was a point of departure, not a goal, for the work.

With regard to the latter, this trivial idea of using stripes of noise – of the sort we, at one time, would wake up to and see on television at night – became simplified, if that's possible, to slowly changing bands of colour creating a calm backdrop against which one could immerse oneself in the sounds.

As is the way with these things – for me at least – the work evolves and takes a different shape to the original conception. I'm not a conceptual artist – I take delight in the process of making and shape the work according to the emerging possibilities of the materials I use. This, to me, is rather like painting or sculpting – it is not an art of pure ideas, but of experiment and discovery. My original plan to be performing a straight reading through the script of a silent film has been supplanted with a narration that is obscured through shredding of the recordings: in this way, the meaning is now held at a distance – perhaps a metaphor for the distance the visual world is held at from people with sight loss. However, a new ingredient in the work means that, with unintentional irony, the script will be exposed more-or-less explicitly – but only to sighted people. This (as I said, I'm not a conceptual artist) was not an intended outcome and was certainly not a deliberate act of exclusion. However, because a work, for me, emerges from making and experimenting, with all the happy accidents that occur in that place, all I can do is reflect on that outcome as an interesting irony.

At the time of writing (two weeks from performance) I am truly worried. I experience moments where I'm hit with a powerful euphoria at something that has come my way (an idea, a strategy, or something material, perhaps) and moments of depression, despair and doubt when the whole thing seems futile or ludicrous. I'm actually glad it's like that for me, because 'that which does not kill us, makes us stronger'. I'm convinced my art practice is a kind of delayed adolescence – a way of developing my confidence and abilities in a safe environment.

However, this doesn't diminish my concern at the work's current stage of development. Writing this text is a displacement activity for an hour or so which ought to be spent doing some leg work on unfinished parts of the piece. It doesn't hurt to reflect and evaluate, but the prospect of filling nine hours of Experimentica time on my own is both daunting and haunting and should be my main focus of effort right now. I would expect the audience to come and go at leisure – I'll be rather trapped within the work, it seems: unless I come up with a new strategy, of course.

The title, Tricolour, is, of course, a reference to the common arrangement for many nations' flags: vertical; horizontal; sometimes embellished with insignia or devices. The work's slowly evolving version of a tricolour prompts an 'all-nations' reading, but I'm not seeking a global integration such as one might detect in Stockhausen's 'Hymnen'. I'm not exhorting nationhood in my flags – only, perhaps, a post-Nation State boundary-less Utopia. Yes, that could be a reading – the gradual transitions of colour dissolve the boundaries of nationality. But these images are as much related to landscape and seascape as to signs for liberty, brotherhood and equality – the colours move between near-imperceptible (as with the title sequence from Visconti's 'Death in Venice') and garish or often muted to pastel or creamy shades – a creaminess as found in Dreyer's film, in fact.

And the 'tri' in Tricolour offers a structural trope - an ostinato, perhaps. Three hours times three. Three sound worlds. Three shades times three colours. Three modalities: sound, vision, word. Each hour subdivided into three periods of activity.

And The Passion of Joan of Arc? Dreyer's film is familiar to everyone who is seriously interested in cinema, even if they've never seen it. That is to say, the image of Joan's face – specifically, actress Falconetti's - constitutes the single memorable image from the film and is frequently reproduced in books on film. From a single image, they've got the gist of it. This is a kind of cinematic minimalism: the shorthand for the film in total is Joan's gaze, head tilted, eyes animated with tears, smiling nervously, or apprehensive, or alight with expectation or devotion. It could be taken as a sign for cinematic art itself: a flag for the Seventh Art would have her face – avoiding the camera – against the creamy grey of Rudolph Maté's castle walls.

This minimalism has coloured the present work. It has meant that the film need not be shown, because this single sign for the film – Joan's face - is held in the, possibly collective, memory uncorrupted by extraneous details: the priests and judges, the soldiers, the instruments of torture, the histrionics. It seemed to me possible to perform a reduction that de-dramatises the story to take it out of the temporal domain (it is an extraordinarily difficult film to remember as a sequence of events in any case, despite being filmed in chronological order). Hence the duration: three times three hours. It should be longer.

Concerning 'The Velvet Lantern'. This title is an unintended glue for a number of works that have derived its materials from the cinema in one way or another. The first took essentially unpopulated segments of films to create a backdrop for performance. This then took the form of a video/audio version without performers. The second work, Ceremony, made use of donated 35mm film stock of the Oscar ceremonies from 1940 and made a stab at associating the Academy Awards with the rituals of a religious cult.

Then we come to Tricolour. The pictures are rejected, the script shredded: I shall now bathe in the suffused light of the sky and waters across which Aschenbach drifts towards his own passion, waymarked with humiliation and death.

I would like to Chapter and its staff, and gratefully acknowledge the support of the Cardiff School of Psychology for the use of their recording facilities.

Richard Bowers

October 2013 | | @SoundofAircraft

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