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Enactive Cinema – Simulatorium Eisensteinense

by Pia Tikka
University of Art and Design, Helsinki, Finland, 2008
338 pp., with DVD. Paper, $US 50 / €38
ISBN: 978-951-558-272-0.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


Early cinematographic pioneers established the principles of story telling based on the chemistry and mechanics of the day: the replacement of a single photographic image by another, following sequentially on a physical strip of nitrate film. Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker was foremost during the 1920s and 30s in researching the theory and practice of the many ways in which this could be applied to kinema narrative. In this exhaustive book Pia Tikka surveys, in great detail, the literature of Eisenstein’s era, before extrapolating upon Eisenstein’s ideas and the possibilities of a motion picture system based not on sequential ordering of the image but on its random production within the affordances of the digital environment.

The book, a lengthy and complete research thesis, is an extraordinary overview of writing produced by artists, philosophers, scientists and others over the last 200 years, exploring, enquiring and investigating human consciousness and our meshing with moving images. As such it is an invaluable compendium of sources for further pursuit by researchers and scholars as there is much that is only outlined, in spite of the depth to which the work probes; the author moves inexorably onwards making, arguing for and asserting connections between the galaxy of contributors assembled and the principle protagonist, Eisenstein.
Readers not familiar with Eisenstein’s films might wonder why he pursued so much obscure research as recounted here and whether it informed the making of his films, or simply gave the recent legions of scholars who study his films and writings much to speculate upon when attempting to connect his theory and practice. Did Eisenstein pursue these various research because, post pluralist Lenin, he was channeled into making films politically acceptable to the Party? Or did he need to keep his (dangerously) active mind busy with private study projects whilst carefully seeking out the wider international community of questioning minds? Or did he just like people, and as a trusted Party member was able to travel to find them? These are the kind of questions about the social context Tikka leaves to Eisenstein’s many biographers.

Her aptly named “treatment”, moves between recent scientific knowledge of the dynamics of mind, and cultural discourse established in earlier times; contemporary Continental philosophies do not feature much here. The emphasis is on research-based practice, (as proposed by Eisenstein to Soviet filmmakers in 1935), rather than the more fashionable practice-based research, (practice in advance of findings and conclusions). Having defined the domains in which the literature search will occur – consciousness, emotion theories, cognitive science and neuroscience – her exhaustive searches bring together a plethora of minds from which potentially useful evidence is mined and discussed. Carefully organized into some 50 sections, whilst the analysis is dense the summaries are short; such is the exhaustiveness of the quest, the trusting reader postpones questions about final outcomes.

Has the history lesson, on Eisenstein’s notebooks and those of other mostly Russian thinkers at the turn of the 19th Century, helped us understand better where we are at the moment? Put another way, had not the late 20th Century technologists emerged with the microprocessor and its manifestations, could it be that Eisenstein’s writings and those of his contemporaries will have remained simply as historical texts to be picked over by cinephiles, psychologists and philosophers, rather than as here, being subjected to piercing analysis by a cybernaut intent on shaking up the many intellectual fixtures dominating the contemporary scene?
The later sections - only a matter of 30 pages from the total 338 - describe the practice that flowed from the research and how this was useful to the author. As a homage to the Master, the Simulatorium clearly embeds her workspace, referring to the work of art accompanying the book on DVD as ‘…the practical outcome of the mental simulation process in which it was created.’
As if this considerable intellectual undertaking was not sufficient as a PhD thesis, Tikka embarks on an equally complex motion picture production. The outcome is in two formats: a 26-minute short film, ‘Obsession’, the dramatic enactment of incidents in a laundromat, that conclude with a rape scene followed shortly after by a birth scene; and a 7-minute documentary showing the same material transposed as a four-screen ‘enactive cinema’ installation at Kiasma, the major gallery of contemporary art in Helsinki, Finland. The ‘simulatorium’ system design monitors heart rate, skin resistance and other data from five viewing chairs in the space; individual responses matched through prepared ontology’s and rule-based algorithms are mapped to track ‘emotional participation’.  The sequence of images and sound experienced are thus joined in the production of the Eisensteinien notion of ‘an emotion track’ for each ‘psychophysiological’ spectator.
In a conclusion the author postpones ‘ongoing technological elaborations’ to a future thesis. There is no reporting on the evaluation of the extremely lengthy, complex and presumably expensive investigations thus far attained, in particular the experiences of each of the audience members who experienced the installation version of the high quality sounds and image. This seems a wasted opportunity for informed development of the precept rather than the implications that follow based on summarization of the principles elaborated earlier. This would seem to be a shortcoming of a research-based approach that leads with theory, without giving sufficient cognisance to practice and empirical investigation.

Not surprisingly the references are thorough and form a valuable resource. Throughout the book, on most pages, we encounter Rorschach ink blots, shapes in abstraction identified in the early days of neuro-scientific enquiry as appealing to the “dynamics of the organic mind”, reminding the reader page by page that at the core of this book is the search for a better understanding of “the embodied dynamics of the authoring process” shared between artist and audience. Other sections are marked with delightful  ‘squiggles’, graffiti-like tags, gathered from the margins and the pages of the Master’s notebooks, reinforcing the connections Tikka doggedly searches for, between research and art-making at either end of the 20th Century.

Last Updated 1 June, 2010

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