Book chapter: Expanded documentary, On “Cherry Blossoms”, Kutlug Ataman and Eija-Liisa Ahtila —  2016

TitelUnfolding spectatorship
AuthorAn van. Dienderen
EditorsStalpaert Christel, Pewny Katharina, and David Depestel
Published byAcademia Press (ginkgo-label), S:PAM


In this chapter I first compare the notion of the viewer as I encountered her and him in my work, both in the multimedia project Scattering of the Fragile Cherry Blossoms, when she takes up a participatory position, as in my single-screen documentaries where she is a prefigured viewer. Afterwards, I will broaden the scope by discussing the position of the viewer in what we could call instances of expanded documentary. In the tradition of expanded cinema (Youngblood 1970) documentary filmmakers are currently augmenting the medial possibilities beyond the classical single screen tradition. Their presentation mode shifts from a cinema space to an exhibition space. Especially a ‘new’ position of the viewer seems to be explored through such expanded instances. Kutlug Ataman and Eija-Liisa Ahtila are two important artists who investigate the implications of expanded documentaries for the spectator in different ways. By looking into the position of the viewer as exemplified in their work, I wish to explore the more performative and embodied aspects of a visual arts spectatorship. As Mieke Bal argues, the ‘primary task of exhibitions is to encourage visitors to stop, suspend action, let affect invade us and then quietly in temporary respite, think’ (Bal 2011). In embodied spectatorship, meaning is being created in a physical sense (in time and in space) so as to escape ‘the urgent passage of linear time, or what Barthes referred to as the ‘continuous voracity’ of the filmic image’ (Catherine Fowler 2004).

Scattering of the Fragile Cherry Blossoms

Two years ago, I was in Tokyo in a teenage fashion area called Harajuku. Youngsters were parading in challenging outfits: mixtures of Britpunk with samurai clothing and disco high heels. I entered a store, which seemed to be a perfect replica of a San Francisco hippy shop, with rainbow colors, peace signs and Navajo art. Going through the incense varieties I suddenly bumped into a wardrobe filled with SS uniforms, covered with Nazi-symbols, gas helmets and swastika signs. In our Western experience the two sides of the room represent two opposite ideologies, but not for these youngsters. What to think of these contrasts within one shop? Is this an act of resistance? If so: how is the Japanese youngster’s resistance different from what I know of so-called ‘Western’ subcultures? A longer list of similar questions crossed my mind, crystallizing into two critical questions: How can I, as an anthropologist and visual artist, take a look at my own process of looking at these paradoxical ideological constellations? And how can I, through a work of art, simultaneously question the viewer’s perspective as well? These questions form the basis of a multimedia project that I have called Scattering of the fragile cherry blossoms in which I create pictures, films and an installation that explore the notions of exoticism, resistance and decay in Japanese subculture. During a short-term residence in Tokyo, a Japanese anthropologist assisted me in these explorations. We did “fieldwork”, as anthropologists would label it: we spent several days talking to teenagers, being there, hanging around, and asked them for feedback. During the interviews I asked the Japanese youngsters what their favorite piece of clothing was, and ask them to point at it (Figure 1). I took pictures of these short moments of participation. It was a way of asking to share their personal thoughts with me. The process generated a feedback loop that short-circuited preconceived notions about Japanese culture and identities. I hoped that the pictures thus conceived break away from stereotypical or exoticizing images that are circulating in the ‘West’ about Japanese teenagers.

A first public presentation of this project took place in 2009 when TimeFestival Ghent asked me to contribute to their artists’ book, in which I created book pages with the pictures I had taken. A couple of weeks later I was invited for an arts festival in Haarlem entitled: ‘When Guests Become Host’. Five art projects departed from the position of the author as a guest or a stranger to the city. I distributed the postcards based on the teenagers’ pictures of Harajuku. By means of a questionnaire (in English and Japanese) on the back of the postcards, I asked for feedback from the people of Haarlem. In a small box, people could dispose their cards in bars, at hairdressers, a comic store and a sushi&tea shop. We asked the managers of these places to invite their customers to fill in the cards. The cards were deliberately sort of fragile and ‘out of place’ in the midst of all the commercial flyers that are being distributed. The box was also very small and feeble: it would fall apart if the manager would not take care of it. In this sense it was a caretaking participation that I asked from the shop managers. The boxes were picked up a couple of weeks later. The postcards were presented at Nieuwe Vide, an arts center in Haarlem together with the T:me book and images of the teenagers in Harajuku (figure 4).

I received 120 postcards. A selection of quotes reads as follows: ‘Nothing about this nonsense: organize yourself, love all and smash down capitalism’  – ‘Religious feelings’ – ‘It looks like the head is flying in the air, which is awesome’ – ‘Deury Liselotte, Puttestraat 32, 3080 Tervuren’ – (Translated from JAPANESE) ‘Impermanence is represented by the colors that appear during a firework’ – ‘She is cosplaying Ruhi from the J-rock band the gazette’ – ‘Her stripes are from the singer from the gazette who draws this because he is uncertain of his neckline’.  Most of the people indicated that the girl colors her neck out of ‘resistance’; followed by ‘esthetics of death’, and ‘Japanese fascination with disaster’.

These replies are in congruence with the western anthropological literature that I had found on the subject. As a visual artist, however, it was not my intention of performing a reliable qualitative research. On the contrary, I wanted to play with the form of the questionnaire so as to draw the attention to a fascinating practice of self-fashioning in Japanese subculture, where Japanese girls choose clothing in order to create ambivalent identities. In the book Japan’s Changing Generations  (2004) the authors claim that there is no obvious anti-establishment movement among young Japanese, and that there is no organized attempt to create a better society: these young people seem to protest without actually taking any concrete actions for a better life involved. The Japanese sociologist Satoshi Kotani observes that Japanese young people are in fact in a miserable situation. There is no guarantee of a decent job, even with a university degree. There is no prospect for Japan getting out of its long economic stagnation since the 90s (Kotani 2004). Kotani confirms that under such circumstances it would be logical that young people would revolt. But in Japan they don’t. Young people don’t even stage demonstrations to protest their miserable prospects. They are strikingly ‘passive’. Their ‘passive’ resistance, however, consists of publicly demonstrating their inconvenient personalities and the ambivalent imagoes they produce. This ‘passive’ resistance has a collective nature: of the 26.4 million people in Japan between 15 and 34 years old, there is a significant group of young people who represent a collective refusal to follow the establishment of their parents (Gordon Mathews and Bruce White 2004, 8). I argue that these ambivalent imagoes call for a specific spectatorship of negotiation, a topic that I will elaborate further on in this text.

From prefigured to negotiating viewer in expanded documentaries

The public intervention with the postcards in Scattering of the fragile cherry blossoms in Haarlem, Rotterdam and Antwerp provided further insight of how to evoke – as a visual artist – an ambivalent position for the spectator in order to call attention for the mechanism of how ‘we’ look at ‘them’, and henceforth to perform the process of looking in my subsequent art projects. The ongoing project of Scattering of the fragile cherry blossoms aims to foreground the process of looking and the production of spectatorship. During this postcard project it is the viewer who co-creates and co-produces the work. The viewer becomes the co-author of the work of art. This is quite a different position than the one that I envisaged when making single screen documentaries. For those films I regarded the ‘viewer’ as prefigured within the interaction between ‘the other’, ‘the subject’ and ‘me, the author’. The ‘viewer’ is active during the interaction between the ‘author’ and the ‘other’ in the recording and editing aspects; yet not in a ‘real’ way; s/he is prefigured in the minds not only of the ‘author’ but also of the ‘other’ and hence projected onto preconceived notions of interaction between ‘author’ and ‘viewer’ (van. Dienderen 2008). The relation between ‘author’ and ‘other’ is connected to a ‘viewer’ via the promise of a relationship with a wider audience, with spectators that can be situated locally and globally. The ‘viewer’ is most often unknown; s/he interacts not only with the ‘author’ through the documentary, but also with a mediated reconstruction of the ‘other’.

In her book Desperately Seeking the Audience, the Dutch-Javanese cultural scientist Ien Ang argues that “the television audience is not the innocent reflection of a given reality but is rather a “discursive construct” providing specific advantages to the institutions that define it” (Ang 1991: 35). Ang located the audience within the production process (Dornfeld 1998: 13). As such, the ‘viewer’ is prefigured within the interaction between ‘other’ and ‘author’. This relation is therefore intertwined with specific intentions, wishes, and desires, goals and purposes, which can be transformed in a specific body language and bodily interaction. Moreover, this physical enactment might be influenced by what people see on television, what stars do, what professors do, what terrorists do. Or quite the opposite, interviewees might need to perform as ‘authentic’, or as ‘real’ as possible, thereby obliged to ‘forget’ the crew and the technical apparatus. Or as ethnographic filmmaker and writer David MacDougall observes: “The filmmaker’s acts of looking are encoded in the film in much the same way as the subject’s physical presence. This is fundamentally different from a written work, which is a textual reflection upon prior experience” (MacDougall 1998: 261).

The American documentary filmmaker and scholar Barry Dornfeld has presented a pioneering study in which he presented a full-scale ethnography of a PBS documentary production for which he worked both as a researcher for the series and as an anthropologist. In his research he calls for  a radical rethinking of the divide between production and reception. To invite the spectator to cocreate and co-produce Scattering of the fragile cherry blossoms  aligns with his perspective. Dornfeld’s particular perspective on the production unit resulted in a seven-hour educational documentary series on childhood for American public television. It reveals the complex negotiations through which a documentary is constructed. According to media anthropologist Faye Ginsburg, Dornfeld “demonstrates Ang’s argument (1991, 1996) that in mass media, audiences not only are empirically “out there” but also are prefigured in nearly every dimension of the production process, as public television workers bring certain assumptions about the particular class fraction of “the American public” that they imagine (and hope) will watch their work” (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002: 17-18).

The rethinking of the separation between production and reception by Dornfeld is inspired by Bourdieu’s notion of the field of cultural production as “the system of objective relations between these agents or institutions and as the site of the struggles for the monopoly of the power to consecrate, in which the value of works of art and belief in that value are continuously generated,” and as “the locus of the accumulated social energy which the agents and institutions help to reproduce through the struggles in which they try to appropriate it and into which they put what they have acquired from it in previous struggles” (Bourdieu 1986: 138). Bourdieu’s work on cultural production has built on the metaphor of “the field of production”. According to Dornfeld, seeing production as a “cultural field” challenges theoretical limitations present in other approaches to production – from either the ideal-viewer driven perspectives in some film and television theory, the organization-dominated work in the sociology of production or the production-of-culture approach, and from the ideology-driven theories of materialistic/critical approaches. By re-articulating production as a cultural field Dornfeld attempts to locate simultaneously and in relation to each other the perspectives and interests of producers, production staff, PBS administrators, viewers, and the myriad institutions with which they interact (Dornfeld 1998: Footnote 11 chapter one p. 198).

One way out of the production-as-culture approach has been suggested by visual anthropologist Eric Michaels in a study of the use of television in Aboriginal communities. He proposes “a model of the intrinsic structures of the TV medium as a negotiation of texts between producers, technology and audiences, a model which intends to identify some significant features of the social organization of meanings involved in this signifying activity” (Michaels 1991: 305). In Michaels’ sense, television production is a form of cultural mediation based on negotiations between powerful social agents that shape texts, presented in the contexts of a hybrid public culture (Dornfeld 1998: 19). As Ginsburg remarks: “ethnographies of cultural production open up the “massness” of media to interrogation. They reveal how structures of power and notions of audience shape the actions of professionals as they traffic in the representations of culture” (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002: 18). My ongoing project of presenting postcards with questionnaires precisely aimed at negotiating texts by the different spectators in a hybrid (cultural and public) field and not within the limit(ation)s of a closed cinema space. The project of Scattering of the fragile Cherry Blossoms  for that matter investigates the position of the viewer in a way similar to instances of expanded documentaries. In the tradition of expanded cinema (Youngblood 1970) documentary filmmakers are augmenting the medial possibilities beyond the classical single screen tradition, especially expanding the notion of their relation to viewers. Kutlug Ataman and Eija-Liisa Ahtila are two important artists who explore these dimensions in different ways. In the remainder of this chapter, I investigate the more performative and embodied aspects of spectatorship in their work, which is part of a visual arts context, before turning back to ‘my’ perspective on the spectator in the ongoing project of Scattering of the fragile Cherry Blossoms .

Although the term ‘expanded cinema’ was coined by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek, it has its origins in early twentieth century avant-garde filmmaking: ‘Expanded Cinema identifies a film and video practice which activates the live context of watching, transforming cinema’s historical and cultural “architectures of reception” into sites of cinematic experience that are heterogeneous, performative and non-determined’, according to a recent symposium at the Tate Gallery2 . Duncan White (2011) states that expanded cinema is characterized by a live and participatory form, often presented or accompanied by the filmmaker, so that a tension can be experienced between what is planned and what is contingent, indeterminacy and chance, with an emphasis on the ephemeral and the incomplete. White claims that the viewer’s response is an integral part of the structure of the work, so that the work is situated in-between image production and reception, and henceforth to critique the model of production and consumption of mainstream cinema (White 2011: 229).

There is a long tradition of such artists like Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Stan Brackhage and Jonas Mekas who consider the viewer’s response as an integral part of their work of art. Their form of cinema (and video) experiments with a variety of formats and performances not only to evoke a radically different experience on behalf of the spectator, but also to alter the relation between life and art so as to heighten a new form of consciousness. As Youngblood put it: ‘When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness. Expanded cinema does not mean computer films, video phosphors, atomic light, or spherical projections. Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes’ (Youngblood 1970: 41). Steven McIntyre relays the phenomena of expanded cinema also to the cinema-body performances by Carolee Schneeman, the presence of Fluxus and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable3 : ‘the term “expanded cinema” seems to me not easily distinguishable from the wider social project of the ‘60s counterculture to radically alter individual and social consciousness’ (McIntyre 2008)4 .

White sees a connection between the (avant-garde) film tradition with contemporary new media and video artists in that there is ‘an emphasis on the ephemeral in contrast to permanence and durability; an unfixing of the image; a sense of incompletion and an engagement with the uncertain locatedness associated with moving-image reproduction or what has come to be known as “cinema”’ (White 2011: 231). Film scholar Laura Marks adds that since some decades now ‘the translation of embodied experience into disembodied experience has sped up’ (Marks 2011: 285).

It appears that instances of expanded cinema explore how embodied experience both of the maker and the viewer can be created. White contends: ‘Whether sophisticated or basic in approach, it is the complex relationships of technology, how they impact directly on the structures of consciousness and its environments that are explored in the alternating forms of expanded cinema’ (White 2011).

I would like to add another characteristic of expanded documentary. In the tradition of expanded cinematic projects, formal strategies are explicitly explored to enhance the documentary gesture of the filmmaker. I consider Linda Williams’ call for negotiating truth claims and strategies in this respect the hallmark of the contemporary expanded documentary tradition: ‘Truth is not “guaranteed” and cannot be transparently reflected by a mirror with a memory; yet some kinds of partial and contingent truths are nevertheless the always receding goal of the documentary tradition. Instead of careening between idealistic faith in documentary truth and cynical recourse to fiction, we do better to define documentary not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths’ (Williams 2005, 65).

I furthermore would like to stress the importance of reflecting on the process of production when relating to the (contemporary expanded) documentary tradition. In my opinion, it is the (ethically charged) relation between filmmaker and subject through a mediated process (with its historical particularities and political-ideological connotations) which is in touch with the viewer, which can ultimately help to distinguish between the non-fiction and fiction tradition (van. Dienderen 2008). When relating to a ‘real’ person, a documentary filmmaker necessarily enters the ethical domain because the image created of this person will have an impact on the ‘real’ life of this person. The expectations of the audience are constructed in such a way that viewers relate a documentary image to his personal life, yet a fiction image to the actor’s professional life. I contend by referring to Bruzzi’s approach as she refers to the process of the (documentary) encounter as well: ‘Documentaries are inevitably the result of the intrusion of the filmmaker onto the situation begin filmed, they are performative because they acknowledge the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film and propose, as the underpinning truth, the truth that emerges through the encounter between filmmakers, subjects and spectators’ (Bruzzi 2006, 11).

The ‘expanded version’ of this perspective of documentary is not only pointing at the performativity of the encounter but also of the viewer, who is a participant in a spatial or interactive presentation. To explore the concept of expanded documentary I would now like to compare the position of the viewer and the use of formal (documentary) strategies in the work of Kutlug Ataman and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, before returning to my project Scattering of the fragile Cherry Blossoms .



2  Expanded Cinema, Activating the Space of Reception, 17,18 and 19 April 2009.


Exploding Plastic Inevitable  was a series of multimedia events organized by Andy Warhol (1966 and 1967) with musical performances by The Velvet underground and Nico, screenings of Warhol’s films and performances by members of the factory


For an overview of possible influences and relations between Expanded cinema and other phenomena see the Expanded Cinema Map…/expanded_cinema_map_es.pdf