Generational Filming. Experimental and participatory research on video diary

25.9.2008 Pekka Kantonen

My research material stems from two extensive projects I have carried out in the past two decades with my wife, Lea Kantonen. The first, entitled Tent, consists of community art projects carried out primarily with indigenous populations and minority groups in Mexico, Estonia and Lapland. The second is a video diary project that is primarily about our
family. We have been keeping a daily video record of our life since March 1990. In spring 2008, we had accumulated a total of more than a thousand hours of video and about two hundred hours of sound recordings. The artistic and research practice realised in these projects is a collaborative effort, with no attempt to ascribe individual authorship to any aspects of the project.

A video diary is generally considered to consist of personal, daily, chronological entries in which the diarist describes his or her own life. Although I do not deny these aspects in my own case, in my
research I try to shift the focus away from the autobiographical frame, with its emphasis on authenticity and honesty, towards epistemological
issues connected to the documentary approach. My research interest could be distilled into the following questions: What happens when an event is
recorded (on film, video, etc.) and the recording is subsequently viewed? What are the truths, meanings and interpretations that emerge in the process of filming, editing, viewing and discussing a video diary?

My research method is conversation. Both the research material and the research itself are the result of a dialogic process. The research material is inseparable from the process of its reflection, with
everyday life, documentation and recording of events, art and research all forming parts of a holistic process. In practice, most of the ideas in the research arise from, or acquire a verbally explicated form, in everyday conversations, most of which have been recorded on videotape and therefore comprise part of the research corpus. My term for the
method of recording and processing the material is generational filming.


In the first phase, when we look for ideas for an art project, our most important tools are dreaming and Sunday walks with the video camera. Ideas, artwork concepts, plans, or even complete artworks appear
sometimes in dreams. The dreaming can intervene in any phase of the creative process by offering practical solutions or suppressed interpretations. Dreams can be revelations that we have not been conscious of in our daily life. But they can also present solutions, omens, and warnings to the problems we are dealing with.

“I dreamt one night of an art exhibition that was being held in an old industrial complex. A tent and its surrounding campsite had been built on a patch of sand in a corner of the building. Behind the tent were three photographs which showed the tent in three different settings. In two of the pictures there were people, in one only traces of people. Around the tent were several different types of documentation that
showed a western family living in three aboriginal cultures.

Upon awakening, I remembered the photographs – their design, their landscapes – precisely. I had seen the model for the tent in my dream that very day when reading one of Richard Scarry’s children’s books to
our son. In the book, a turban-clad mouse sat in front of a nomad’s tent. The tent was an Arabic-style ‘black tent’. At the time, we were expecting our second child and I had many strange dreams. When I told Pekka about this one, he immediately said, “Let’s build the tent!” (The Tent, a book of travels 7, 1999)

Shared Anthropology

I produce research data and “research text”, both alone and in co-operation with other people. My method of filming and screening the footage can be compared with the working practices of the French
ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch. In my own practice, I develop his ideas further. My practice does not derive from his work, however, as I learned about his work after had already started on my research project.

Rouch’s term for his scientific work is “shared anthropology”. In shared anthropology, the practicing ethnographer stays for several long periods
in the field, so that the people of community begin to consider him part of the community. In Rouch’s method, his filming gradually becomes part of the social life of the community, and he shares the results of the filming with the community. Rouch calls his filming practice “participatory cinema”: he is involved in the events he is filming. This act of filming becomes a “cine trance”, when cameraman is taken over by the events. Then the filming is no longer a conscious activity, it is the unconscious powers that are guiding his actions.

When I co-operate with young people of different cultures or with my own family, it is essential to share all the phases of the process with the others. The process is not only one of harmonious sharing; the common inspiration can also alternate with anxiety, frustration, or even conflicts.

Dialogical Use of the Artistic Material

I situate our art practice inside the framework of dialogical art. By this, I mean that all the phases of the artistic process – from the inspiration to the sharing of results – are influenced by the dialogue
or worked through the dialogue. Conversation is the method of my doctoral research.

The emphasis on the dialogue has radical epistemological repercussions. Usually, artists claim the right to define the primary meaning and structure of their artwork. In the dialogical process of creating an artwork and defining its meaning, this claim is much weaker. Our intention is to deliberately weaken our own authority. Also, our
intention is to weaken the authority or status of the artistic material.

With this notion, I mean that both the meaning of artistic material and its value as artistic material are in the flux.

One unedited documentary video shot, without any manipulation of zooming or moving the camera, is taken as a documentation of that event. If that
shot is connected by editing to other shots, its meaning can change. The structure created by editing will reveal other meanings. The context creates interpretations.

My hypothesis is that no documentary shot conveys more than the obvious actions happening in front of the camera. If we see someone jump in a shot, there is no real reason to doubt that it would have happened in front of the camera. All the more complicated or abstract meanings have a truth value that is of a degree (less than 100 %). By using dialogical methods, I’m trying to demonstrate how these interpretations of the content of a shot are in constant transformation. All the representations of reality are constantly forming and reforming their
meanings. My interest is to see, and demonstrate, how meanings and interpretations are developing and changing.

The dialogical approach can appear on various levels. To create new meanings and interpretations of the shots, I show them to different audiences, and I film the spectators’ comments. These are included with
the first shot shown, and all of them are shown to new audiences. These experiences may become topics of our Sunday walks, which may be edited with the previous shots.

This layered way of processing artistic material seems to lead to some confusion. Something that was a simple “documentary” shot becomes ambiguous. Is the method creating its own confusion or is it revealing
the layered and many-sided nature of these representations?

Sunday Walks

The Sunday walk is the form of activity that we frequently use for processing artistic ideas. The idea of this paper was also developed during one of them. Gradually, it has become a working practice with its own rules. Its origin is the conventional recreational activity of walking in the woods without any purpose. Its non-instrumental character is paradoxically the basis of the Sunday walk as a working practice.

We go for a Sunday walk with a video camera, and, depending on the season, with a bucket for berries or mushrooms. The discussion of artistic interest is filmed. The camera is not only for documenting our
conversations, but also for triggering or encouraging us to talk. The Sunday walk has its own taboos. It is forbidden to mention anything that is connected to timetables, deadlines, definite plans, money or anything that triggers the ordinary chain of thoughts that connects us with the weekly routine of earning money, gaining artistic prestige or accomplishing our social duties. The Sunday walk is a place for ideas to float without necessarily having to be accomplished. Freedom of thought is based on strict rules. Sometimes our conversation deviates to
concrete plans, and the mood of free thought is spoiled, and may not be recovered during that walk.

Walking in nature is a quintessential way of gaining ideas. Fresh air and slow movement offer enough oxygen for the brain to wander. The right company feeds ideas. The presence of the video camera has a double effect on the walk. Making a representation of the intimate moment; the private is put on stage. By staging the private event, the camera heightens the flow of time. The ordinary time is transformed to video time.

Excerpt of a Sunday Walk, June 3rd, 2007

I have read about the sequence films of ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall. In the 1950s, Marshall was a member of a team filming Bushmen in southern Africa. He was interested in looking for a different way of
filming that would catch the intimacy of daily relations and ordinary life better than full-length ethnographic films. He called the genre ”sequences”. In the mid-50s, this type of films became possible because of the portable synchronous sound recording systems. In his sequence, like The Meat Fight or A Curing Ceremony (both filmed in 1957-58), he shows one precise event without wider contextualization.

I’m starting to think about how to apply this concept to our video diary material. My example is a scene where Lea and I are scolding our son and his friend. During our Sunday walk I lecture to Lea about the sequence film.

P: I am fascinated with the thought that I would refrain from making artistic and many-sided video works for the artistic part of my research. The research motive would be the prime purpose of the videos.

L: Research? I think they are pictures first, like moving pictures in a wizard’s family-album. They are pictures about a family situation, for example the picture where you are straining with the chainsaw and Ukko is carrying boards. There is the father, the son, and their relationship. They are separated and together, both involved in a kind of construction work that does not need any background information, with a rhythm and movement proper for their corresponding ages. It is all there as in a family-album picture.

P: A sequence film to narrate only one thing, not many.

L: I see, the scolding video as a sequence film.

P: But when the commenting scenes are added, it is no longer a sequence. It is gaining other expectations.

L: It is discursive: the knowledge is mainly in the discussions. Of course there is some knowledge in our positioning related to space and each other. But the main thing is the talking, compared with, for example, the transfer-of-knowledge videos, the ones in which you are with Tyyni on a swing or rolling the logs with Ukko, which are conveying non-discursive knowledge. I am fascinated with your non-discursiveness. I am afraid that you are getting too much overwhelmed with narration.

P: There is no fear of that.

L: Sequence film is also a picture, figured by framing and inclusion. Its not un-artistic, I mean you cannot escape the art.

P: Now you are misunderstanding.

L: That’s good.

P: First of all, the sequence film is not leading to narration. On the contrary, it is the thematic film which is leading to narration, because you cannot define the theme if you don’t start adding levels to the obvious action that is taking place in front of the camera. Sequence film is striving to demonstrate as clearly as possible the action that is framed as an action. If it has ethnographic purposes, it does not have these artistic levels, or at least it is not striving to add more levels to the factual….

L: …you are speaking of ethnographic film now.

P: Yes, but this is not the solution that I am looking for. Instead I want to find another solution: What is an artistic sequence film? Is it a conceptual contradiction? I don’t think so, because I am trying to crystallize that the art, in this meaning that I am trying to demonstrate, is bringing a level connected to the activity of filming and not to the action filmed. The main point of my research is really concentrated on filming. If I start to be a real puritan in this respect, I only concentrate on the most essential, I don’t start constructing additional…

L: …what is the most essential?

P: It is constructed by every sequence itself. It is not necessarily demonstrating how porridge is cooked in this family, but it can also demonstrate, let’s see, how to demonstrate a 360-degree space.

L: Then it has two levels: how to cook the porridge and how to demonstrate space.

The Sunday walk was developed gradually as a tool for artistic work. I had made various type of filming where I filmed myself and my surroundings with a handheld camera. The image is floating between me,
other people and the environment. It has been a particularly effective way to show my involvement in our everyday activities. Also, I have often filmed myself walking in different surroundings when I have been abroad. My head is strongly delineated against the background, as if I do not belong in the same picture.

In the spring of 2006, we were preparing an installation for a group show. We decided to use the exhibition space for living and working with
our video material while the show was on. The idea of Studio Kitchen was to include all the phases of the artistic process inside the installation. For this reason, we started to film the moments when we were planning the project. For the installation we edited the filmed conversations that prepared us to build the artwork.

The experience of documenting our free-floating conversations was so fruitful and encouraging that we decided to develop it as a conscious artistic practice. Filming while thinking and talking is a craft that has to be learnt. And through practice you become better at any skill. Technical problems of focusing, framing and exposure are common to all
filmmakers. More difficult is learning to keep the inner process of the mind floating and free while filming. To put myself in the frame, when walking, talking, thinking, and filming, demands a certain divided and alert concentration. I have to balance my attention. I frame the picture without watching the screen. I discuss and have eye-contact with the
person through the camera screen.

The Sunday walk as an artistic practice functions in different phases of the artistic process. As a life experience, it is a structured way of creating and processing artistic ideas. As a filming experience, it is a structured way of producing artistic material. These two categories of experience have different criteria, but the criteria are also intertwined.

The Sunday walk as a life experience is evaluated immediately by the significance of the ideas expressed during the walk and by the effect on
your body and mind. The artistic material is evaluated only after it has been watched as a representation of the Sunday walk. In the process of writing my doctoral work, the transcriptions of these freely floating discussions of Sunday walks have become an essential part of the research text.