A Completely Different Idea, Elsewhere

Chris Dercon


"We need not investigate whether an idea is true or correct. What we should do, is seek a completely different idea, elsewhere, an idea that belongs to a different realm. Thus, something may happen between these two, something that belongs to neither. Such an idea is hard to find. One stumbels across it by chance, or someone else presents the idea." Gilles Deleuze (1)



Film As A Way Of Thinking


I first met Jan De Cock when he was working as an assistant cameraman. The assistant cameraman assists the cameraman. It is his or her job to maintain focus during shots, adjusting the lens manually if necessary. Thanks to his father, Paul De Cock, one of Belgium’s best cameramen, Jan knows about the camera like he knows about the back of his hand, and he is familiar with the medium film and its possibilities  from his early childhood. But Jan De Cock is also possessed by the history of film, from the earliest optical devices that allowed the suggestion of movement and the first photographer of movement, Eadweard Muybridge, to the innovative approach of film-makers like Dziga Vertov and Jean-Luc Godard, who became known for their experimental editing. But he is also familiar with the theories of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who in works like L’image mouvement (1983) and  L'image-Temps (1985) enquires into the mutation of the moving film image throughout the history of film. For the history of film is, of course, not merely the history of film technique: it is also the history of a way of thinking.


Early in the twentieth century e.g. the art of film was instrumental in reformulating the theory of the dramatic action on the stage. In the same way contemporary art takes advantage of the theory of film and vice versa. A lot of visual artists also use film and more and more true-blue film-makers project their work in art environments, such as film and video installations. In the wake of these developments theorists of film or society like Alain Badiou, Edwin Carels, Hubert Damisch, Gilles Deleuze and Dominique Paini have come to consider the cinema as a way of thinking. In their works these do not necessarily depart from the special place film has in the history of the arts, i.e. as an art that can link other forms of art. What seems to interest them above all, is the question philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch formulated in L'Origine de la Perspective (1987): "Indien er een geschiedenis is, waarvan is het dan een geschiedenis?" (2) In his essays about film (which are equally well historically documented like those of Damisch) film theorist Edwin Carels states time and again: "Het gaat er niet om je af te vragen  "wat is cinema?", maar "waar is cinema?". En wat is het belangrijkste, de beelden (van de cinema) of een manier van kijken?" (3)


Such observations have significant implications not only for the theory of film, but for other disciplines as well. And Jan De Cock is well aware of that fact. Referring to his sculptural installations and photographic representations, he often uses “the language of film”. Relating to his work he uses terms like “sequences”, “panorama’s”, or even “travellings”. He refers to the three-dimensional effect of the “camera obscura”, the sequential principle of the “montage sec” and the psychological effects of the action “on screen” and “off screen”, for that which remains outside our visual field intrigues our imagination more than anything else. He enjoys likening his professional skills to those necessary for being “technically in control” of a film (as the technique of film demands that all is “in control”). But the analogy Jan De Cock and other artists see between film and art can best be illustrated with the concept of “filmic time”, a concept that is most useful to approach the artist’s work.


In Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889) the philosopher Henri Bergson rejects what he views as the spatialized notion of time that is employed by physics and proposes the existence of a continuous stream of time – time as it is perceived by our consciousness. Bergson therefore separates the notions of “time” and “duration”. In doing so, Bergson had actually grasped the essence of film, even before the art existed, argues Gilles Deleuze. Indeed, as we watch a film every second 24 images disappear, yet we continue to remember them in our brain. The opposing notions of “time” and “duration” and many concepts derived of these, will forever influence our ideas about film. Particularly interesting e.g. is the use of still images – film images! – that are not ... static. In the meantime we are familiar with countless examples, both in films for the public at large and in specialized films.


At first sight it seems paradoxical to use moving images to represent motionlessness. But the idea – and its effect on the viewer – becomes quite acceptable, if, like the philosopher Alain Badiou, w consider film to be a form of art that abuses, disrupts or subverts other art forms. (4) Often creative minds who are not involved in film relate that they have had a “filmic idea”. We are, however, much less inclined to say that we have an idea for a painting or a piece of music. But precisely because of the particular characteristics of the medium film, we can “organize an idea in a filmic way” – we can’t organize ideas like paintings or music. That actually means that we convert something that is still into something that moves. In that process something that was motionless has disappeared, but thanks to the movement we are capable of remembering it! Was it not Marcel Proust who claimed that we are only capable of remembering because we are capable of forgetting.


For that reason some theorists are predisposed to refer to film as an “impure, adulterated medium”. In fact, that phrase only refers to the “impurity of the (filmic) idea”. Jan De Cock’s ideas, too, about film are “impure”; they are, for that matter, merely “ideas”. When De Cock claims that he is a visual artist who works with a “filmic idea”, that does of course not imply that he makes films. What he actually means is: I have an idea that is like a film. It is therefore quite justified to say that the motionless images De Cock creates remind us of the principles of the “image-time” of modern films, about which Gilles Deleuze wrote: "De beweging is ondergeschikt gemaakt aan het "image-temps", de omkering bewerkstelligt dat de tijd niet meer de beweging volgt, maar dat de beweging de "perspektief" van de tijd is" .(5)


Jan De Cock’s installations look something like an archipelago of blocks of images. The sea, the earth, emptiness and fullness: all of these are part of the topological organization we refer to as an archipelago. An archipelago consists of sequences, interspaces and breaks that are part of the same whole. Gilles Deleuze, too, employs the image of the archipelago in L'image-temps when he discusses the – extremely motionless – films by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet: "De afwezigheid van een echte aansluiting (van de ene scene naar de andere) is niets anders dan  de overgang van het ene naar het andere die zich op de meest verschillende manieren voordoet". Once more we encounter the term “transition”, as if film consists of nothing else. What intrigues us most in de Cock’s “archipelagos”, are precisely the transitions. They are there, and then they are not. Maybe they only exist and continue to exist in our memory.


In Straub and Huillet’s films, e.g. The Dead of Empedocles en Cezanne (which it was my pleasure to “exhibit in Witte de With in Rotterdam in 1991), the medium film calls on literature, poetry, the theatre, opera and the visual arts, though the result is not really a Gesamtkunstwerk, i.e. all media remain distinguishable. What these films are about, is film. Using other disciplines, the medium film is discussed. An example illustrates the point. The action in Straub and Huillet’s films is often situated in and around sites from antiquity. Film theorist Dominique Paini has pointed out that instead of referring to a mise en scène, we could just as well refer to a mise en site. (6) Straub and Huillet visit the sites without causing the slightest damage to that which still exists. Long, almost motionless shots, panoramic views or “travellings” therefore perfectly highlight the time of the site. The same approach Jan De Cock uses when he visits and photographs museums, derelict buildings or distant countries. He calls these photographs Temp Mort, i.e. a break or disused time. The interspaces in the installations – which are literally and figuratively intervals – could be referred to with the same phrase. The time of a site is different from the time the eye observes: it is time invisible, the time of our memory, the time of history.


De Cock likes to muse over the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. It is his ideal, favourite museum. His fascination is quite understandable. The museum is the only archeological museum in the world in which original fragments of buildings have been used to construct 1:1 models. Inside there are no extra ornaments or decorations on the walls. Only outside there is a reference to the Pergamum altar. The museum is both a mise en scène and a mise en site.  The museum is almost a double, in the same way that De Cock’s installations are. It is furthermore a sort of “inside out”, like the three-dimensional interventions of the artist. But De Cock’s work goes even further. Sometimes his work takes the entire place of a site. The site thus becomes a sort of exterior, the edge of an image, something that can be assessed, yet remains invisible. In situ – in its original state – suddenly becomes ex situ – once there was the original state.


And then something strange happens. The visitor who strolls about, taking his or her time to look at De Cock’s work, starts to notice that time slows down. The work of art in the museum, at the site, seems to offer resistance to the speeding along of ... time. The works of art demand that we pay attention to the specific time of the place. They are motionless, but indeed, they are not static. We are confronted with a new interpretation of  Gilles Deleuze’s claim that  "De beweging is ondergeschikt gemaakt aan het "image-temps": the inversion now causes time to follow no longer the movement, but the movement is the “perspective of time”. For Jan De Cock, film is a way of looking at things, a way of thinking how to produce visual art.




Perspective As A Form of Address.


What about De Cock’s photographic representations? De Cock makes his photographs with a technical camera on a tripod. Usually the camera is operated by a camera-operator. Like a film director, the artist instructs the operator and the characters. Habitually, the characters have some 2 or 3 seconds to move about – the exposure time of the film. This allows to register the characters’ movements. De Cock uses a flashlight, which lights the scene as if it were a flat surface. Every detail is equally sharp. As he uses a wide-angle lens on the camera from a high viewpoint, the image is always somehow distorted. The edges of the image are bent. The overall effect is a perspectival widening. The transparent photographs have the same size as a small painting. Because De Cock places them on a light box, the perspectival effect is even enhanced.


Art historian Jurgis Baltrusaitis refers to the acceleration and slowing down of images and associates these with perspective in his book Anamorphic Art (1977). Slower and faster perspectives distort nature. Applying Baltrusaitis’s analysis to the work of the popular Dutch artist M.C. Escher, we could conclude that Escher uses an accelerated perspective. Jan De Cock often refers to the perspectives and geometrical patterns in M.C. Escher’s work. Though De Cock’s perspectives are not as “fast” as those of Escher, we notice a similar illusory effect. That is precisely what makes his photographs fascinating: they are infinitely much more than mere registrations of memories of a work. In his installations, too, the artist introduces distortions and patterns that suggest three-dimensionality and dynamism. The effect is enhanced by the use of specific wooden surfaces (with visible fibre structures of covered with glossy varnish) and the alternating use of colour. De Cock’s photographs are therefore completely different from Daniel Buren’s  “photographic souvenirs”, Thomas Demand’s  animated photographs or Thomas Struth’s museum portraits. De Cock’s photographs are perspectival constructions that are part of the game the artist plays with time.


In the fifteenth century artists in Florence employed a very accurate technique to depict geometrical perspective. Filippo Brunelleschi’s biographers mention townscapes that have been painted with the aid of a mirror. That is actually no surprise: artists at the time had a lively interest in ancient texts about optics. The first artist to go beyond geometrical abstraction with regard to perspective, was Leonardo da Vinci. Today technologies such as photography, film and video overwhelm us with perspectival constructions. In L'origine de la perspective Hubert Damisch investigates how this extremely important aspect of Western art has been manipulated in order to capture the attention of the public.


Damisch (who Gilles Deleuze referred to as one of the most fascinating thinkers about art) was invited in 1997 by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam to make an exhibition in the shape of a chessboard: Moves, Playing Chess and Cards with the Museum. (7) On a large chessboard were exhibited famous paintings, sculptures and other objects (including masterworks from the collection Boijmans), black on white and white on black, as if it were chessmen. "Als een spel waarvan de bezoeker de regels moest ontdekken en als een stelling die hij uitvoerig kon bestuderen.", Damisch wrote in the accompanying catalogue. The work Jan De Cock exhibited in 2002 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent at once reminded me of this exhibition.


Hubert Damisch is convinced that we can only do justice to works of art by considering them a way of thinking. In L'origine de la perspective Damisch is actually not really interested in tracing the historical origin of perspective. Its meaning, he believes, is not significant with respect to the history of art. According to Damisch, it is his intention to think further than e.g. Jurgis Baltrusaitis . Damisch considers the structure of perspective similar to that of a speech act. Except that there is not the usual situation of dialogue. There is a certain subjectivity that results from feeling “addressed” by the symbolic structure. The relationship between this symbolic structure and the subjectivity is realized through the perspective. The subject observes his “origin” reflected in the system of representation. The public depends on the perspectival construction to experience the illusion that his subjectivity forms a whole. That, in Damisch’s view, accounts for the appeal of perspective. (8) We should therefore not be surprised, he continues, that Surrealism caused a sudden interest in perspective. The poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau e.g. compared Giorgio Di Chirico metaphysical paintings with the Città Ideale, the famous fifteenth-century perspectival painting in the Italian city of Urbino (a work that has similarities to Italian paintings from the same epoch that are now on view in museums in Baltimore and Berlin). While for Cocteau the Città Ideale had the effect of a “staring eye”, Damisch considers the work the “address” par excellence.


De Cock’s photographs, too, seem to stare at us. De Cock does not register an image, he does not depict his installations. In his photographs, he creates a symbolic order. He thus relates to worlds (e.g. a museum room) that should be newly constructed, seen with new eyes. De Cock’s work is about ideals: the ideal city, the ideal museum, the ideal site. And the public feels “addressed” by these precise geometrical games.



What Is The Sense of It All?


  Explaining his ideas, Hubert Damisch often resorts to the poet Paul Valéry. For Valéry, poetry had everything to do with (an almost geometrical) precision. This point of view resulted in the essay Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci (1895), a wonderful analysis of the themes of the self and the power of the intellect. With Damisch and Valéry my quest for “a completely different idea, elsewhere” and my attempt to introduce you to the work of Jan De Cock end. Damisch concludes his Moves with an appeal:  "Paul Valery legde een verband tussen het idee van geschiedenis en dat van geometrie (politiek was volgens hem een louter mechanische zaak). Hij meende dat het woord "geschiedenis" zelf pas zin kreeg met betrekking to de ruimte waarin de figuren verschijnen die de mens als die van zijn lotsbestemming herkent en waarvan de autobiografische dimensie of het autobiografische moment een integraal onderdeel  vormt ( hetgeen in Lacaniaanse termen, eerder noodzaakt tot het gebruik van het woord topologie in plaats van geometrie, aangezien hier het subject ter discussie staat, of dat nu in zijn productieve of consumptieve vorm is)....We zouden evengoed kunnen vragen wat de zin is van wat veel eigentijdse, al dan niet "abstracte" kunstenaars hebben gedaan met schaak- of dambordvormen, diagrammen en rechthoekige rasters,  om nog maar te zwijgen van het in een uitgesproken schilderkundige context opnemen van andersoortige objecten of het direct op de grond neer zetten van min of meer regelmatige blokken. Ja wat is de zin, wat is het streven , wat is de bedoeling van dit alles?  Behalve zo dicht mogelijk tot de vraag te komen die tegenwoordig alleen nog in de kunst wordt gesteld, namelijk hoe we de kracht en geldigheid kunnen bewijzen van quasi-divinatorische vormen of -meer terzake - van vormen die teruggaan op dezelfde gegevens,  configuraties,  instrumenten en  processen  die ooit kenmerkend waren voor het divinatorisch denken en voor de oude rituelen? De betekenis van wat men in het westen "geschiedenis" noemt beperkt zich niet tot de gangbare manieren waarop het woord wordt gebruikt ,maar uit zich in alle paktijken, voortbrengselen, prestaties en spelletjes die halsstarrig steeds opnieuw die vraag stellen. Individuen en maatschappijen  kunnen alleen als zodanig kunnen voortbestaan als die vraag wordt open gehouden. Dat geldt voor elke context, de reele en imaginaire musea incluis. De tijd is voorbij dat we ons tevreden kunnen stellen met het model waardoor het museum zich nog te vaak laten dicteren: dat van een groot verhaal dat tot een serie beelden wordt gereduceerd en dat alleen betekenis heeft als het pretendeert encyclopedisch te zijn en tot aan de uiterste grenzen van de wereld te reiken. Hetgeen trouwens  voldoende is om de hele ambitie te ondermijnen. Het is tijd om bescheidener, maar ook veeleisender te worden en profijt te trekken van de grenzen die eigen zijn aan het instituut, om systematisch in de marge ervan te werken, waardoor iets kan ontstaan dat, hoewel het aan geen enkel vooropgezet plan beantwoordt, des te beter de nieuwe en ogenschijnlijk  kronkelige, doodlopende en   onvoorspelbare wegen kan laten zien waarlangs datgene wat "geschiedenis" wordt genoemd zich tegenwoordig ontwikkelt. Zo'n voorstel, zo'n scenario heeft alleen zin als het in de meest rigoreuze termen is geformuleerd: in die van een geometrie - of we moeten we zeggen van een topologie ? -  die we nog moeten bedenken" (9)


Chris Dercon, summer 2003


For the final realization of this text, I owe a lot to a long-lasting, unique cooperation with Hubert Damisch and Ernst Van Alphen in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam), to a conversation with Jan De Cock in the café Keizerskroon in Tervuren (27 July 2003) and to the library of Rudy Luyters in La Dalle (Limerle).

My thanks also to Dominique Paini and Leon Krempel for their useful advice. Jan De Cock assisted me for the documentary Still/A Novel, which I made for VPRO Television in 1996.





  • (1)  Gilles Deleuze en Claire Parnet, Dialogen, Kok Agora 1991 (ook officieel in het engels)
  • (2) Hubert Damisch, L'origine de la perspective,  Flammarion, Paris 1987 (noot voor de vertaler: ook uitgegeven in het Engels bij MIT Press)
  • (3) Edwin Carels, The Cinema and Its Afterimage - Projection and Hindsight in Still/A Novel, Witte de With Cahiers no 5, Richter Verlag, Dusseldorf 1996.
  • (4)Alain Badiou, Petit manuel d'inesthetique, Seuil .....(to check/komt nog)
  • (5) Gilles Deleuze, L'image-temps, Les editions de minuit, Paris 1985 (ook officieel in het engels...)
  • (6) Dominique Paini, Le temps exposé, le cinema de la salle au musée, Cahiers du Cinema/essais, 2002.
  • (7) Hubert Damisch, Moves, schaken en kaarten met het museum, met een essay van Ernst van Alphen, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1997 (LET OP tweetalige publikatie: dus reeds in het engels vertaald!) (noot voor...het laatste citaat noot 9  is in het originele  Frans ook verschenen bij Yves Gevaert editeur: Hubert Damisch L'amour m'expose...ik vind inderdaad deze Nederlandse vertaling ietsje te houterig...)
  • (8) Idem
  • (9) Idem