Copyright ©2015 (Rui Calçada Bastos) All Rights Reserved
On the Passage of a Few Things and People Through a Brief Moment in Time
The point is to understand what has been done
and all that remains to be done,
not to add more ruins to the old world
of spectacles and memories.
Guy Debord (1)
Movement I (Drift)
Moments of calm, of contemplation, or even of pause are rare in the film work of Rui Calçada Bastos. The protagonists of his films find themselves in constant motion: on the train, in the car or walking through nonspecific urban landscapes and equally featureless nature. The camera captures the environment in fragmented snippets and denies the viewer a long shot that might serve as orientation. Calçada Bastos avoids recognizable, significant locations. His cities are interchangeable and serve merely as a backdrop for the restlessness of the protagonists. They move through transient, intermediate locations without specific weight or localized identity – public transport, railway stations, bridges – non-lieux, as described by Marc Augé (2). At the center of the films is movement, as such.
The combination of movement and a fragmented perception of the environment take a particularly striking form in The Mirror Suitcase Man (2004). The protagonist of this black and white film is less the eponymous Suitcase Man himself, but rather his entirely mirrored suitcase, which is captured by the camera in close-ups, and in turn presents the surrounding locations as reflections. The actual Suitcase Man appears as little more than the hand holding the case. As a person and participant in the film, he is essentially incidental. His journey through urban space also arises only in the imagination of the viewer. In long, point-of-view shots, which blend into another by fading to white, he stands almost motionless while the camera focuses on the slightly swaying suitcase, which reflects the surroundings as pedestrians, cars and trams pass across the mirrored surface. Only in the introductory and the final scenes of the film do we actually see the Suitcase Man in motion. At the beginning, he enters the scene and picks up the suitcase as it stands in a flowery meadow. At the end, on a country lane outside of the city, he hands the mirrored object over to a new carrier who continues the journey. Interestingly, Calçada Bastos has not chosen an urban setting as the background for these scenes, but begins and ends the film in a natural, almost idyllic environment. The scenes in between show fragments of train stations, subways, empty squares and dreary, cheerless parks. (3)
The film condenses consecutive shots from the most varied of neighborhoods into an atmospheric journey, a dérive through the urban landscape. Wandering and roving is a central motif in Calçada Bastos’ films. His protagonists drift through urban space; their paths do not lead to any destination, but are the actual plot in themselves. Guy Debord defines dérive as a "mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances." (4)
The reference to situationist terminology makes perfect sense here, because even the basic concept of the film – the alienated view of the city via the fragmentary reflections of the mirrored suitcase – resembles a psychogeographical experiment: "Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery." (5)
A similar, experimentally distanced approach to a city can be found in Calçada Bastos’ video installation Soundscape or Attempt to Reproduce the Soundscape of the Day Before (2007). The film shows a man who drags an oversized saucepan behind him while walking through a city. His path leads through deserted alleys, past abandoned building sites and undefined open spaces, across bridges and quays, always accompanied by the rattling sound of the heavy, metal pot. The perception of the city is altered not visually but audibly. Once again, the camera work is limited to the most non-specific perspectives, without any striking street of houses coming into view. The basic performative concept of the film is again reminiscent of a psychogeographical experiment. The saucepan becomes an instrument not only in a musical sense: it also acts as a tool of alienation and forces the protagonist to perceive the city in a new, unfamiliar way on his journey.
While the case itself is actually the protagonist in Mirror Suitcase Man, in Soundscape the saucepan remains a prop. The viewer’s attention is directed at the young man pulling the bulky saucepan behind him quickly but without haste, eliciting sometimes a dry sound, sometimes reverberating throughout the walls of the various buildings. His laconic attitude lends the story an element of absurd comedy that clearly sets it apart from the melancholia Mirror Suitcase Man. Calçada Bastos underscores the motif of wandering with the involvement of the film in an installation context. Soundscape plays on a small monitor mounted on a trolley, along with speakers and a DVD player. The deliberately careless fixing of the outdated equipment brings to mind the rummage goods of a travelling hawker or the belongings of a homeless person, provisionally stowed on a handcart.
Movement II (Self)
The artist himself appears as actor in both Mirror Suitcase Man and Soundscape, as he does in the majority of his films. In addition, the two cities where the films have been made are closely linked to Calçada Bastos’ biography. Mirror Suitcase Man originated in Berlin, where the artist is living since 10 years. (6) Soundscape was shot in the former Portuguese colony of Macao, where the artist resided for 10 years as a young man. The doubled role of director and actor is not uncommon in the film world, but there it has no significant impact on the reception of the films. In the context of video art, however, the role of the artist as actor takes on an essentially performative character. In Calçada Bastos’ films the performative aspect is closely linked to a self-reflexive level.
The starting point for his self-referential films, and simultaneously the starting point of his film work in general, is the two-channel video installation Ten Years Looking Forward To See You (1989-99). The installation consists of opposing projections on which, in exchange, people are seen looking head-on at the camera. There is no common narrative or temporal context shared between the scenes. The recordings show people from different countries, cultures and classes. The start of this long production period coincides with Calçada Bastos' purchase of his first camera; the end corresponds with his return from Macao. “After 10 years of living in Macao, when I returned to Portugal, I wanted to use the material filmed during those 10 years. So I thought that the only thing in common in all those videotapes (…) was people looking at me. I edited the moments when people that know me look at me and people who didn’t know me were looking at me. One can see a subtle difference in the complicity among the different gazes (…). This way it is a piece with a certain rhythm determined by the time the people take while looking at me. In a way it is a sort of self-portrait, through the way the others look at me.” (7) With Ten Years Looking Forward To See You, at the very beginning of his film œuvre, the artist achieves a radical reinterpretation of the self-portrait genre, in which the author only indirectly enters into the picture through the eyes of his cinematic objects and is thus reflected in his role as a filmmaker. Similarly implicit here is the subject of restless wandering. The film sequences resulting from the most different places combine into a travelogue, a distillation of all the artist’s travels, whether near or far, over the 10-year development period.
The video performance Pausa, which Calçada Bastos realized in 1995 during his study of art in Lisbon, can be read as a complement to this first major work. At the ends of a long stretched platform made out of wooden pallets two monitors are placed, the screens facing each other. One monitor shows the face of the artist with his eyes closed; the other shows his feet. In between, the artist himself lies in a sleeping bag, his face turned to the monitor with the feet, and his feet facing the monitor showing the face. The performative aspect remains external to the film part of the installation, making this early piece singular among Calçada Bastos’ work. But even here the motif of roving around is broached. The provisional sleeping arrangement reflects not least the living situation of the artist himself, and his travels back and forth between Macao and Portugal.
The artist’s next appearance as an actor is in Quadrifoglio (2001/02), an episodic film, which differs considerably from his previous work through its cinematic references and narrative structure. The film consists of four short, surreal-melancholy sketches within which entire film plots seem to be compressed. "I like the idea of building an ‘excerpt of a movie’ almost as if you would watch just a part of a film, not knowing what is before and what will be there after, presenting just a bit of it," (8) explains Calçada Bastos his strategy of narrative compression. In the black and white scenes the protagonist moves between the inner and outer world, identity and doubling, self and non-self. Right in the very first part, Personally Like Everyone Else, he steps out of himself and his apparitional doppelganger beholds the other self with irritated astonishment. Through this brief moment of cinematic doubling, of stepping outside oneself, Calçada Bastos manages to create a striking image of self-reflection which fails to establish identity: Je est un autre.
A very poetic implementation of self-reflection and the dissolution of boundaries in the medium of film can be found in Last Evidence of the Drowning of the One Left with Thoughts of Dissolution and Gloom (2005). The shadow of the artist standing on the shore appears on a gently moving surface of water, as if the sun has suddenly broken through the clouds, its light bringing shadows to manifestation. The shadow slowly dissolves in the water and is overlaid with digitally generated sunlight reflections, behind which the water also ultimately disappears. After the construction of the self through the eyes of others in Ten Years Looking Forward to See You and its somnambulistic doubling in Quadrifoglio, here the already shadowy notion of self ultimately dissolves.
While Last Evidence follows on from Quadrifoglio in terms of content and continues the poetic and surreal narrative, Calçada Bastos enters new formal territory with this work. For the first time he replaces the classic 4:3 format with an elongated 16:9 projection, but turns it from the conventional horizontal position into a vertical one, so that the silhouette on the water appears gigantically magnified. The short arc of suspense from the empty water surface, to the appearance of the shadow, through to its dissolution, is backed by an electronic sound composition, which amplifies the effect of the images, but also adds an additional, autonomous level to the film. Similarly somnambulistic sounds had already accompanied Quadrifoglio and Mirror Suitcase Man, though these did not originate from the artist himself. With Last Evidence he now also takes over the sound editing of his films.
The experimental approach to the medium of film that is characteristic to the work of Calçada Bastos from the beginning is also apparent in Studio Contents from the same year. Once again it deals with the artist’s self-reflection, though the focus is no longer on the existential questions of self and identity, but the physical fragility of artistic existence. Prior to moving out of his first studio in Berlin, Calçada Bastos made a comprehensive list of all the things found in the room. The film incorporates the list in the form of a superimposed typography. "On the screen I overlaid each object (or I should say each word which refers to each object) in an obsessive inventory of possessions. This was a metaphor for somebody who is trying to store things in a box, one over the other till it gets so full that one can only know the object’s identity through the describing voice that goes together with the video. Through this overlaying and combination of sound and image I tried to recreate a mental space transportable and resistant to time.”
(9)Studio Contents relates to the photo series All I Had, initiated in 2002, where before leaving his studio the artist documented his humble possessions with a photo. It ties in with the early video performance Pausa, which for the first time addressed his vagabond-like existence. Studio Contents addresses the instability, restlessness and material uncertainty of the artist’s nomadic existence with an almost bureaucratic sobriety. This laconic, matter of fact inventory displays moments of self-deprecating humor as "one empty pack of Luckies", "a mirror suitcase" and "one unopened letter from my ex-girlfriend" are listed arbitrarily. Calçada Bastos is not interested in the nomadic aspect of his life in an existential sense, but rather as a part of the production conditions under which his work is created. Whenever he addresses this nomadic quality in his films and video installations, he is reflecting on his role as an artist, or the conditions of artistic production. The presentation of Soundscape on a trolley refers to the nature of the work as a mobile product, which migrates from art fair to Biennale to museum collection. The differentiation between the nomadic, vagabond-like and the drifting, the dérive is essential to the understanding of Calçada Bastos' film œuvre. "The condition of the nomad is just a condition; being a nomad is not the subject itself. What happens is that I work when I travel, but I do not work about travelling. A video for a photograph is an exception, very much connected with that kind of Jim Jarmusch cinema (…) it is the idea of movement that is more important, I think" . (10)
The laconic attitude of Studio Contents, taking the place of the surreal-poetic mood of earlier films, remains decisive for the films to follow. Calçada Bastos' view of the world through the camera becomes more distant and direct, recalling the documentary aesthetic of Ten Years Looking Forward to See You. With Self-portrait while Thinking (2007) he makes a reference to his early, indirect self-portrait. This time he aims the camera upon himself straightforwardly. He films himself during concentrated thought, showing the camera his nervous tic, which is manifested by squinting, frowning and raising his eyebrows. The disarming effect of these facial expressions works in direct contrast to the clinical camera position. This is underscored by a series of 15 drawn self-portraits that accompany the film.
Movement III (Sound)
Like in Ten Years Looking Forward to See You Calçada Bastos abandons any sound in Self-portrait. “The absence of sound in Self-portrait while Thinking is for me of an extreme importance, as you focus only on the action on screen (the nervous tic).” (11) The two films are not merely silent, but the specific use of silence can rather be interpreted as negative sound, as a radical version of the carefully composed soundscapes that characterizes all films by the artist.
Calçada Bastos works with sound in the broadest sense. . His palette ranges from pure silence in the self-portraits, to the electronic compositions of Last Evidence, to the unmixed recordings of Soundscape, to the use of white noise in All That Glitters (2010). Alone the title Soundscape or Attempt to reproduce the soundscape of the day before shows the importance of the sound for the film, which also gave the decisive impetus for its creation (12). Here the artist uses the rhythmic and musical clatter of the saucepan as it was recorded during filming, without further editing. For all the diversity of sonic styles, a close relationship between sound and movement can always be found in the films. The sounds of traffic, trains, planes or steps are usually supplemented by electronically generated sounds. An electronic gong is heard at the beginning of Few Steps (2010), and is subsequently repeated several times. Its reverberation rings over the background noise of vehicle traffic and the sound of footsteps on the asphalt, which forms a third sound level and supports the references to classic gangster films, yet it also has a musical-rhythmic function.
If You‘re Going Through Hell, Keep Going (2011) also operates with multiple sound levels. The film shows an endless stream of cars on a four-lane highway as they move through the night, sometimes fast, sometimes stagnant. The camera is mounted in a car, capturing the overtaking and overtaken vehicles in the light of their headlamps from the side window. The drivers are visible only dimly in the darkness. The traffic noise itself is pushed into the background, while a dark melodic fragment plays in a continuous loop. Voices are heard in the foreground, their statements occurring without any common context. They function like the voices of the drivers as they talk to themselves in the passing cars, and seem to relate to their situations: "I'm a young man in a car about myself", "This guy is just a businessman, going somewhere" Other phrases, in contrast, are disturbing or even threatening. "They not gonna get into your car", "This nation, this country, is founded on violence", "I'd like to see the whole city burned down". The viewer can hardly help feeling that the highway is populated by psychopaths. (13)
With If You‘re Going Through Hell, Keep Going Calçada Bastos makes a link to the films of his surreal and poetic phase, but turns the theme of urban drift toward the abyss, removing its playful character. This return to the surreal can already be recognized in Events - Life in a Bush of Ghosts (2008). Here, too, he is concerned with the urban movement, but not focused on transportation or people moving through the city landscape, but on the ghostly character of the objects that populate the streets. He films garage doors that close without visible intervention, bollards that emerge from the ground, hidden entrances to the urban underground, which open as if by magic, flares casting peculiar light on the nightly facades and pavements: an urban drift of the material world. The story is not constructed as in previous films. Rather, the artist works with an almost documentary approach. "I look at cities as big studios - where one just can work with the different material provided." (14) Yet Calçada Bastos never loses his eye for the strange and unfathomable, and his camera makes visible the unreal and the surreal of urban movements.
(1) Guy Debord, voice-over soundtrack of Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (1959), translated by Ken Knabb. I used the online version: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/passage.htm (accessed February 1, 2013).
(2) “Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relation that individuals have with this spaces”. Marc Augé: Non-places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London-New York 1995), p. 94
(3) The dichotomy between urban landscape and nature is a recurring theme in Calçada Bastos' films. Quadriofoglio (2001/02) already sets scenes between urban situations - elevators and apartments – and a rural area. The principle is particularly evident in the two-channel installation Walkabout (2006), with one screen showing a walk through the city, on the other showing a walk in the open countryside..
(4) Guy Debord, »Definitions«, Internationale Situationniste #1 (Paris, June 1958), trans. by Ken Knabb. I used the online version: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/definitions.html (accessed February 1, 2013).
(5) Guy Debord, »Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography«, Les Lèvres Nues #6 (Paris, September 1955), trans. by Ken Knabb. I used the online version: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/geography.html (accessed February 1, 2013).
(6) In 2003 Rui Calçada Bastos received a scholarship for Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. After the one-year scholarship, he remained in the city. Calçada Bastos makes a hidden reference to his early days in Berlin Kreuzberg in Mirror Suitcase Man: the Künstlerhaus can be seen for a few seconds at the end of a road.
(7) Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, December 29, 2012
(8) Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, February 18, 2013
(9) Rui Calçada Bastos, »On Studio Contents (2005)«, http://www.ruicalcadabastos.com/index.php/video/studio-contents--2005/ (accessed February 20, 2013).
(10) Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, February 18, 2013. The work, Calçada Bastos here refers to, is A video for a photograph / A photograph for a video (2006).
(11) Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, February 18, 2013
(12) “There are cases where the sound triggered the piece as it happened on Soundscape or Attempt to Reproduce the Sound of the Day Before.” Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, February 18, 2013.
The film was made in collaboration with the author Patrick Findeis, who Calçada Bastos had met during a scholarship at the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Findeis compiled the text for the sound track from quotations from notorious serial killers.
(13) Rui Calçada Bastos, email to the author, February 18, 2013.
Markus Richter in As far as i can See / Rui Calcada Bastos.