MÉLANIE VAN DER HOORN,

in „SPOTS IN SHOTS – NARRATING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT IN SHORT FILMS“

 

 

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Luc-Carolin Ziemann,

Portrait for shortfilm.de

 

Lina Sieckmann and Miriam Gossing have known each other since their youth, having both grown up in the same small town and studied at The Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM). Still, it took years until they became a team in terms of their artistic endeavours. The first occasion to work together, alongside studying under the tutelage of Matthias Müller and Phil Collins arose during a film seminar given by Sophie Maintigneux, who had only just been appointed to the KHM.

Having both worked individually in the art field previous to that, the French cinematographer taught Gossing and Sieckmann how to use a 16mm camera. The result is SONNTAG, BÜSCHERHÖFCHEN 2 (2014), the first in a series of outstanding work that Miriam Gossing and Lina Sieckmann have jointly realised since then.

In tranquil sequence shots, the short film hones in on the eponymous small town in the Bergisches Land region. A rural idyll, wintery atmosphere, mist-shrouded hills and closed shutters. The camera explores the interior of a detached family home equipped with elaborate, clearly handmade fittings and furnishings that are wholly dedicated to the purpose of relaxation, wellness and recreation. The gym with its whirlpool, the home cinema and house bar are all equipped with various technical ingenuities and exotic interiors. While the home’s inhabitants occasionally come into view, SONNTAG, BÜSCHERHÖFCHEN 2 is clearly not a portrait of the people, but the space. Indeed, owing to their well-conceived dramaturgical arrangement Sieckmann and Gossing even manage to show the inhabitants in their actual living environment without ever “presenting” them. And although the film’s first shots might seem like photographs, it soon becomes clear that film is the explicit medium here and that sounds actually lead the viewer throughout the film and its rooms subtly and profoundly.

Not only does the film mark the beginning of the artistic collaboration between Lina Sieckmann and Miriam Gossing it is also their first cooperation with longstanding camera operator Christian Kochmann and sound artist Tim Gorinski, who were also studying at the Cologne academy at that time. They continue to work together on their projects until today.

DESERT MIRACLES © Miriam Gossing, Lina Sieckmann

One year later DESERT MIRACLES (2015) was created with an almost identical team. In the US state of Nevada, known as a kind of Mecca of “express weddings”, Sieckmann/Gossing visit a variety of wedding chapels and stage their commercialized architecture of desire in a conceivably sober fashion. They also work with sequence shots once again, where very little seems to happen visually. The filmed locations, entirely lacking in churchly grandeur – but making up for it with an excessive amount of decoration and accessories, appear to us as exceedingly zealous manifestations of love and partnership. By again focussing on the overwhelming ambience it becomes almost physically tangible how room furnishings dictate a certain sense of life.

However unlike SONNTAG, BÜSCHERHÖFCHEN 2, in this film Sieckmann and Gossing add a layer of text that connotes the filmed environments anew. A female voice reads a letter to a beloved person that remains unknown and ponders the many facets and hurdles in love and relationships. The letter is – in contrast to the locations – not entirely “authentic”, but rather a collage with documental character. The artists compiled it from fragments of texts by anonymous authors who wrote on the subject of marriage and partnership on internet forums. The questions and doubt expressed therein counter the set-like interiors of the wedding chapels in a disillusioning way. It’s a cinematic stalk through the iconisation of the term “love” that has been veritably turned into architecture.

Sieckmann und Gossing deliberately take an observation from reality as the starting point for their collaborative projects. Each of their works begins with an exploration of that which is visible: an action, an atmosphere, or frequently a place. They usually begin work on a film with a concrete architectural setting and a shooting sequence previously determined in photographs.

Before and during principal filming, various strands of the possible story are further explored and material is collected until a large amount of interview fragments, found texts, archive and reference material is ultimately left to confront a comparatively small amount of exposed footage. The shooting ratio often stands at 1:4, which is quite low. They both make sure to shoot with great economy and consideration. Each frame ought to be able to stand on its own, and the sequence of shots is intended to produce a homogenous effect with little visual interruption. The viewer is thereby subjected to a dense atmospheric pull that causes the subtle irritations of the voice over text to stand out all the more disconcertingly.

The small amount of material used opens the editing process to an experimental approach, in order to accomplish maximum precision. Even coincidences and the supposedly casual, things that are impossible to express in words beforehand yet frequently constitute the essence of the film, become gradually revealed.

“The film results from a dialogue of meticulously crafted plans and wholly unintentional coincidences. We aim for a sensing and negotiation of possibilities, insofar as they can be pursued. It’s important to us that we never lose this dialectic approach in our work.”

Both are convinced that “reality” is anyhow inseparable from fiction and that the encounterable is usually far more inscrutable, wondrous and interesting than anything one could possible dream up.

Their conscious orientation towards the documental does not by any means preclude them from challenging societal reality in highly diverse ways and processing it with creative strategies.

This is exemplified by their graduation film, which was conferred with numerous awards including the German Short Film Award in gold and a nomination for the Preis der Nationalgalerie für Filmkunst. OCEAN HILL DRIVE (2016) is like a condensed psychological thriller about fears and projections in US-American suburbia.

OCEAN HILL DRIVE © Miriam Gossing, Lina Sieckmann

Each individual frame of the film is imprinted with a flicker. If one initially believes them to be visual interference, it soon becomes apparent that the flickering varies in intensity and visibility. Nevertheless, it still characterizes the film with its seemingly monotonous visual rhythm and recalls the structural film experiments of Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad. As it happens, there is an actual town near Boston that is subjected to the constant flicker effect produced by an enormous wind turbine that throws its shadow across the land. Indeed, there are people who claim to suffer from it psychologically and find it difficult to live in such an environment.

Even so, in the interviews Gossing and Sieckmann hold with the inhabitants of that outer borough it is not only the flickering and its effects on the psyche they address, but rather the general stories of their lives, their fears, longings and shattered life plans.

The artists ultimately assemble the film’s narrative by using fragments of these talks, weaving the varying reports of the inhabitants into a single spurious speaker.

Here too they work with tableau-like views of empty rooms that only become charged with menace through the narration. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the creeping cumulative anxiety of horror movies. Moreover, the effect of the flickering infiltrates every frame with a nervous pulse of light and shade. The magnetic power of its pull can only be resisted with great difficulty.

By means of documental images, the compiled narrative and a hypnotic soundtrack, in this film Gossing and Sieckmann create a fictitious whole in which the boundaries of reality, recollection and fiction become blurred. OCEAN HILL DRIVE was not only shown at festivals but also appeared in an art context at various institutions such as Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin. Most of Lina Sieckmann’s und Miriam Gossing’s films work well in both the exhibition space and the cinema.

They consider themselves artists who predominantly work with film, but whose work can manifest itself in other forms and as a result should not necessarily be bound to the cinema space. Their body of work includes photographs, books and installations among others.

Since 2012 they have been running the project space SCHALTEN UND WALTEN in Cologne, where they hold screenings, readings and queer performance nights with a particular focus on experimental film and critical discourse.

In order to produce independent films, they both founded the filmmakers’ collective of the same name, SCHALTEN UND WALTEN in cooperation with other colleagues. Working with other artists is something they see as being a particularly enriching process, resulting as it does in the inclusion of diverse interests and approaches.

“A diffused unease in the present and working together collaboratively has radicalised us. For us, collaboration doesn’t mean holding on to the lowest common denominator, but rather challenging one another, looking more closely, questioning and not taking oneself too seriously. We consider humour essential. Those who work alone are not required to question their artistic decisions during the process. While that might seem liberating it also involves the risk that one can get too comfortable in one’s  own way of thinking. When we work together we are forced to enter into dialogue and subject our own ideas to negotiation. Although that might be strenuous, it usually ensures that one’s own approaches become manifold and extended.”

After graduating from the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Lina Sieckmann and Miriam Gossing decided to undertake guest studies under the tutelage of Rita McBride at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 2016 -2017.

During this time they created ONE HOUR REAL (2016), a short film once again shot on 16mm that deals with the phenomenon of so-called “real life escape” games. In a setting reminiscent of a computer game, teammates are required to solve tasks within a certain time period in order to escape the impending “Game Over”.

ONE HOUR REAL © Miriam Gossing, Lina Sieckmann

Gossing and Siekmann make use of footage from multiple surveillance cameras to clarify the course of the game and create a further medial layer to interact with the various realities. In order for a “real life escape game” to work, it is vital that the approaching peril seems real without seriously threatening the player’s composure. The appeal therefore lies in generating sufficient time pressure in order for the participants to “forget” the artifice entirely. The sets recall ‘80s horror movies, and internalised cinematic clichés drive the plot and all of a sudden, the grainy surveillance camera images of the scene seem less realistic than any action film.

Generally speaking, in terms of suspense and thrills, the game can hardly compete with the “illusion machine” of film.

Miriam Gossing and Lina Siekmann are currently working on two further film projects that are at different stages of completion.

The pair wish to make a longer film consisting of three parts under the working title FREETIME MERMAID (WT), supported by the Wim Wenders Stiftung. FREETIME MERMAID (WT) addresses the phenomenon of how women all over the world, for all kinds of different reasons, depict themselves as mermaids and thereby – consciously or not – embark on an exploration of identity, enactment, sexuality, power and gender ratios.

The second work in progress also deals with the sea. In SOUVENIR (WT), the two artists carry out research on a ferry that provides mini-cruises between Great Britain and the European mainland, where themes such as longing, colonialism, love and loss are reflected in the hyperreal atmosphere of the touristy ferry / freight ship.

SOUVENIR (WT) is expected to be finished in 2018, while FREETIME MERMAID (WT) is still in the research phase. And while FREETIME MERMAID (WT) promises to be longer than 30 minutes, the short form remains Miriam Gossing’s and Lina Sieckmann’s preferred format.

“The short film allows us to be uncompromising in form and content. We consider that to be essential. Still, we don’t really think in categories of duration. And if cinema ever welcomes experimental approaches again, we could certainly entertain the idea of making a feature film.”

 

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Phillip Fernandes do Brito,

„The Unknown Lover“ (Desert Miracles),
Catalogue New Talents Biennale 2016

 

We are immersed in an intimate mood while watching the curvilear forms fade into each other like the subdued vibration of an abstract painting, which the fine granulation of the 16mm film empowers. The pastel colors of the forms build up from white via rosé and fuchsia to a saturated red when a female voice suddenly begins a monologue. From offstage, she addresses her letter to an anonymous partner with the phrase “My dear lover”. The intimate softness of her voice floats above the wedding bouquets of silk flowers, which in their artificiality emerge as rentable props in American wedding chapels, when suddenly the double-doors open onto a hall. The constant fresh colors of the lifeless flowers—whose bouquets were held by countless women and enriched by just as many expectations—take their place in a staged scenario of ever alternating architectural designs: a serial pattern whose tableaus the camera portrays within a fixed framework so as to capture the aura of the axial-composed interiors with seating accommodation. You find everything here: from pink foliage, pompous halls, up to the neon-lit diners or slot machines from the 50s.

Though the chapels thus resemble their location in the desert state of Nevada as composites from different styles and periods, they are nonetheless empty of people. They remain quietly awaiting their deployment by those for whom they have been designed. Like the optically centered corridors, the young woman’s hesitating voice fills the uninhabited rooms, describing her fears, expectations and dreams, a recitation that seems to lead her ever deeper into imagining the fulfilled life she longs for. Her expressed desire is actually a collective one, since her fictional monologue—not initially revealed to the viewer—is based on anonymous blogs pieced together from Internet wedding forums. Nothing stands above the accumulated wish to be completely and truly loved.

Similar to the presumably pure and “genuine” wish that with the question “Will you marry me?” seeks to find its fulfillment, the chapels’ artificial scenarios culminate in an emblematic wish fulfillment. Its symbolic reflection is manifest in an alluringly illuminated Tiffany window, whose central image consists of a surreally perfect rose. With this hypnotic effect, it draws the viewer into the ritually economized staffage of the rooms’ stagings, whose originally religious symbols have been replaced by an iconography of the amplified value society places on love. References in the text likewise enlarge on the recurring Hollywood narrative of romantic couples, whose wishful fancy is presented within certain scenarios and thus participates in the pictorial production of this collective idea.

In this respect Desert Miracles zeroes in on its own analytical vocabulary that does not fix its gaze on love’s décor, but squarely on love itself. With their histrionic staging, the suggestive power of the settings unmasks itself in static takes in such a way that gives the last take a hyper- or unreal look via its refractive reverse-angle, all of which offers a view onto the dream city, Las Vegas, above the approaching Cadillac of the King.

Philipp Fernandes do Brito