POHJOLA, OR EULOGIES OF EXCESS
Ilppo Pohjola’s audiovisual works are, while distinctive, also symptomatic of their time – an era of tensions and uneasiness toward “accepted truths” about audiovisuality. While the Hollywood assembly-line keeps on delivering feature films that beyond their flashy, special effect -studded surfaces differ little (at least when it comes to their modes of story-telling and narrative structures) from those made in the 1920s, an unprecedented expansion of audiovisual media has taken place during the past few decades. Feature films and traditional television programmes now have to fight for visibility within a chaotic field that also includes video and computer games, music videos, interactive multimedia DVDs, digital animation, motion graphics, theme park “movie rides”, giant screen spectacles, “micromovies” on the mobile phone and PDA screens, architectural media facades in super-urban focal points like Tokyo’s Shibuya or New York’s Times Square, and, last but not least, a wide variety of audiovisual works by contemporary artists.
While the media industry keeps concocting new formulas and product lines to surpass the reign of the feature film (it is said that video games have already achieved this), conscientious creators face a dilemma: how to embrace the abundance of images and sounds without compromising the integrity of one’s vision? How to be part of the great orgy of audiovisuality without losing one’s self-respect in the process? These questions don’t seem to bother everyone. There are generations of talented and hungry film-school graduates eager to establish themselves within the labyrinths of the industry. For many, a steady income and the pleasure of seeing one’s name listed in the fast-scrolling credits of the latest blockbuster as part of the special effects team is the dream come true. For others, making a mark as a game developer or a product designer for music videos may the goal. New forms and genres appear, often through hybridization with existing ones, yet the audiovisual culture is, more than ever, an industrial enterprise. Even the audience’s infatuation with images and sounds – the domain of “naïve” and “spontaneous” reactions – has been turned into a pre-calculated “scientific” product.
Images and sounds have become an immersive environment, a flickering mosaic we consume and interact with daily. Yet, we rarely question its premises, or feel tempted to peek at its reverse (whether the “reverse of media” exists is a tricky neo-ontological issue). Perhaps we have become too restless, no patience left. There are, however, still those, for whom the very “nature” of the audiovisual environment provides a challenge. Instead of being content with carving a niche for oneself within its confines, these people both utilize, question and expand its forms, developing strategies for being simultaneously insiders and outsiders. Creators like Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze match this definition, moving between music videos, feature films, ads and more experimental products, lauded both by the industry, the independent film culture and the art world. This seemingly paradoxical strategy may be the only alternative left after the postmodern erasure of difference. Instead of trying to annihilate pleasure and to establish an external vantage point beyond the sphere of commercial-bourgeois audiovisuality (as the ”structural / material filmmakers” of the 60s and 70s attempted to do), one embraces the plentiful offerings of the postmodern “archive”. Accepting their multiplicity and heterogeneity is part of the creative effort to provide them with a(nother) voice. One can also perform tricks of displacement by shifting images and sounds to unexpected sites, or by multiplying their channels of distribution.
The figure of Peter Greenaway is emblematic in this respect. Not only has Greenaway, who has often been proclaiming the death of traditional cinema, challenged the supremacy of the classical linear film narrative by resorting to numerical systems and non-linear clusters of images, sounds and texts as organizing principles in his films; he has also expanded the traditional definition of audiovisuality by planting moving images in uncommon places and changing their manifestations. A case in point, his recent project The Tulse Luper Suitcases exists as a film trilogy, a set of DVDs, a television series, a website, books and location-based art installations; all interconnected as elements of an evolving postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk. The story unfolding on a screen has been replaced by an archival logic that has been distributed in multiple sites, some virtual, some real; some temporary, some more permanent.
As different as his profile is, Ilppo Pohjola’s ambitions have some affinities with Greenaway’s. Even their backgrounds are not entirely dissimilar, embracing different forms of expression. While Greenaway originally trained as a painter, Pohjola studied photography, graphic design and filmmaking, all of which have featured prominently in his work, sometimes separately, but frequently woven together in varying combinations. Pohjola’s mastery of multiple means of expression has led to the development of a dense and insistent visual idiom, which, while highly controlled, at times feels almost neo-Wagnerian in its exuberance. Finally, although they belong to different generations, Greenaway and Pohjola share the same cultural environment; a great transition in media culture they relentlessly observe, comment on and rearrange.
A graduate from the ‘school’ of high postmodernism of the 1980s, Pohjola both embraces the fluid opulence of its forms and restlessly tries out varying positions, staying, nevertheless, within its confines. His strategy could be characterized as “critical postmodernism”. The last thing he wants to do is to sell himself to the prevailing audiovisual “world order”, but he equally eschews clear-cut polar oppositions, typical of high modernism. There is an incredient of restlessness in all his work, manifesting itself as an urge to move on; to take the building apart, and reconstruct it in an altered form on different terrain. Past achievements provide (gas?) “stations” along an open-ended trajectory, which traverses not only various genres and forms of expression, but also different contexts for moving images. Then, what can be said about the stations passed so far? Some of Pohjola’s earliest work was for television, which he evidently tried to explode from within. Although the commissions – particularly Taiteen laita (The Edge of Art) – may have been educational, Pohjola’s powerful images and rapid-fire editing shook the TV documentary format on its foundations like a virtual earthquake. Typically, to accompany these works Pohjola designed publications that extended their dynamic montages into the realm of print media.
Pohjola’s international breakthrough as a filmmaker, Daddy and the Muscle Academy (1992), was relatively subdued and “conventional” in its expression compared with the TV works, in spite of its “shocking” subject matter. This powerful documentary on Tom of Finland (1920-1991), the reclusive cult artist famous for his images celebrating gay sexuality, was an experimental portrait film, the first (and only) one about its subject. It relied a great deal on traditional talking heads, although accentuated with a rich variety of illustrative material and staged in a highly stylized and dramatic manner. Pohjola obviously felt that his usual audiovisual fireworks was not needed this time, and the choice was certainly right. The result was rich and controlled, subtle and loud, which contributed to its success on the international festival circuit.
Pohjola’s next film, P(l)ain Truth (1993), was also a documentary of a kind, although here the subject matter (a transsexual’s painful psycho-physiological transformation from female to male) was treated in a poetic and metaphorical manner, taking further distance from traditional documentary aesthetics. Partly staged with actors, and presented as a layered collage of superimposed graphics and images (like Pohjola’s idiosyncratic book designs set in motion), punctuated by series of striking, often deliberately shocking visual metaphors, the film purported to transport the spectator inside the protagonist’s head, approaching the topic from an experiential, rather than a factual point of view. The result was an impressive cinematic poem; it provided an able demonstration of Pohjola’s evolving postmodern poetics. Yet, even though it consisted of multiple layers of visual material dynamically edited together, the content remained relatively unambiguous and easy to decode. Some of the visual metaphors verged on the banal, probably intentionally; there is no reason to doubt Pohjola’s “archival” sophistication.
After an interval of five years (during which he worked on a feature film project which remains unfinished), Pohjola introduced Asphalto – An Aria for 13 Demolition Derby Cars & Gas Stations (1998), perhaps his most enigmatic and complex creation to date. The film contains several strands of material: staged footage of demolition derbies, supposedly taking place at thirteen gas stations along national Route 4 that runs across Finland from south to north; fashion models posing on a catwalk, dressed in vinyl retro-kitsch outfits with gas company logos; old travel film; hints at the complexity of the male – female relationship; urban poetry by the L.A. -based writer Harry Gamboa Jr.; aerial mappings; calculations of time and distances. Although dealing with power, motors and speed as metaphors for problems in the female-male relationship, the sphere of potential readings has been left remarkably open. In which sense does the demolition derby, a ritual enactment of aggression, reflect gender trouble? The gender roles are far from clear-cut: there is the aggressive female driver, endlessly swearing “Asphalt up your ass”, but also the seductive models, caricature-like impersonations of masculine desire; the males are mostly passive, lost, or anonymous forces behind the steering wheels. How are Gamboa’s urban verses supposed to relate to the Finnish semi-rural context? What role do the mappings and the calculations play? These are no easy questions for the casual spectator to answer.
While including elements that hint at narrative, Pohjola has concocted a form that radically precludes its supremacy. He has chosen a deliberately repetitive structure “justified” by a (pseudo-) conceptual grid of points and vectors and “distanced” by absurd incongruences (the demolition derby matches, supposedly staged thirteen times in different locations in Finland, all seem to come from the same shooting session in an indoor location, etc.). Although Pohjola’s strategy may have found its inspiration from conceptualism and structural / material film, as Martti Lahti has suggested, his use of these references should be assessed in the context of postmodernism, as playful metatexts without definite aesthetic or political agendas behind them. Indeed, Pohjola may have aimed at creating a truly “open work” (Umberto Eco) resisting easy interpretations and classifications. Rather than precluding certain readings, it welcomes them all, using the work as a meaning-generator, a kind of “non-differential engine”. Although dense layered montages had been an integral part of Pohjola’s works from his early TV programs to his graphically exuberant book designs (including Sähköiset Unet, 1993, a book/video combination about music videos, written by Antti Alanen), in complexity Asphalto went further. Pohjola cut the remaining ties to the type of audiovisual thinking that assumes a pre-defined correspondence between images, sounds and their meanings.
Pohjola had arrived at the limits of linearity: as a structural choice the cyclical repetition of various elements, although justified, seemed to suggest other potential modes of construction. The next project, Routemaster – Theatre of the Motor (2000), speeded even further away from traditional filmic expression. Taking his interest in the culture of speed and cars to a new extreme, Routemaster suppressed all narrative references, including the presence of humans (significantly replaced by found footage of cadavers serving as crash-test dummies), focusing on the hypnotic repetition, transformation and disintegration of the images themselves. In Asphalto the depiction of speed had remained relatively traditional, in spite of the repetition and visual trickery. What we see in Routemaster is a progressively abstracted mosaic of grainy images with racing cars in motion. The original footage was shot by Pohjola on 8mm film, then transferred to 35mm and digitized for editing. In a sense it exlores the extremes of filmic expression from the graininess of home movies to the exquisite definition of large wide-screen projections. It is a meta-movie for an audiovisual era that struggles to re-define itself.
In Routemaster the repetition and constant metamorphosis of the footage has become the organizing principle of the entire work, absorbed in fierce but precisely rhythmic editing and a powerfully engulfing soundtrack. Classics of experimental film, particularly the notorious mental-structural works of Paul Sharits (using flicker, color, fast rhythmic repetition and the materiality of film stock to deliberately “terrorize” the viewer), may come to mind, yet Pohjola’s work is not primarily “historicist”. Although it is highly informed about the past, it looks towards the future – to audiovisual futures it is helping to envision.
Although it formally refers to the glory days of huge cinemascope projections, Routemaster is not exclusively meant for the cinema screen. It is an amorphic work that can assume changing identities and manifest itself in different spatial configurations. Indeed, it has also been shown in an art gallery in New York as an installation, profiting from the recent trend in the art world of presenting artists’ films and videos as gallery works. For this purpose it was projected on special screens made of reflective material used on traffic signs. Pohjola has also organized a live-concert, having well-known experimental musicians create a soundtrack to the visuals in real-time. The documentation of this event, shot simultaneously by several cameras in a way reminiscent of television broadcasts, provided the material for an interactive DVD, which allows the user to re-mix the concert with the remote controller. From cinema screens, art galleries and concert halls, Routemaster has arrived to the privacy of the home as well. The tools on manipulation no longer belonged merely to Pohjola or participating musicians; they were handed over to the private viewer. Whether s/he was experiencing the same Routemaster, or something quite different, is a question for future media theorists to tackle. It is the logic and meaning of mixing and re-mixing, as well as that of spatial and institutional de/relocations, which is at stake.
By constantly re-defining and re-orienting his art, Pohjola has in little over a decade advanced far from traditional linear narratives for the cinema screen. However, seeing his career as a neatly progressing linear trajectory might be a mistake. Indeed, a peek at Pohjola’s less well known works, including him earlyaudiovisual works, as well as his graphic designs, reveals that many of the basic incredients have been present in his oeuvre almost from the beginning. It is the changing configurations that matter. Although it may sound like an anticlimax and a crowning banality to end this essay with, it could be stated that Pohjola has been constructing his own Gesamtkunstwerk all along. Of course, as Wagner, and before him Goethe, already found out, this is ultimately an impossible goal, doomed to fail. It is the glorious fragments of the constructs built and left along the roadside that matter.