Now I See is a 35 mm colour film depicting a live performance by an Icelandic rock band. The film begins with darkness, from which a man’s face appears accompanied by guitar music. Subsequent shots show fragments of the performing musicians, with the camera intermittently zooming in on individual limbs and peripheral details. The majority of the filmed performance is lit by bright strobe lights. As the work is designed to be shown in a dark room, the flashing strobes illuminate the gallery space as well as the events on screen. Around a minute into the performance a white balloon dog is seen falling to the floor. Viewers then see a close-up of the balloon moving across the floor by the force of the sound. Later in the film, with the band still playing, their rock song is replaced by atmospheric electronic music, which contrasts sharply with shots of the vocalist singing forcefully into his microphone. The camera subsequently shifts back to the balloon as it floats upward along a wall and stays still in the air for some time before floating back to the ground. At this point the rock music resumes and the band ends its song chaotically, with two members falling down and finishing the piece lying on the stage. Then the lead singer, still lying on his back, sings a solo rendition of the chorus from the eighteenth-century Christian hymn Amazing Grace. Finally, the film cuts to black and ends just before the lead singer utters the last two words of the hymn: ‘I see’.
This film was made by the Albanian artist Anri Sala in 2004. It was the first 35 mm colour film that Sala made and was commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago and shot in an experimental art space called Klink and Bank in Reykjavík, Iceland. In 2006 Sala explained his reasons for using 35 mm film and the way that he recorded the film:
the choice to use 35 mm goes together with other choices and decisions for that film. There is a concert in the film, but I don’t want it to sound just like any concert. Since there were many instruments and four guys moving around, we recorded sound in about sixteen channels simultaneously with as many microphones. I worked with someone who used to record concerts, asking him to place the microphone unusually. Normally there is a known position for the microphone to record the guitarist playing. But we put it at a different distance from the guitar to change its experience. It’s the same for almost all the other instruments. Consequently the experience wasn’t exactly like a concert recording. It’s also the same with the choice of 35 mm film. If filming pop music makes it a video clip, I wanted it to look more like theater sound wise and film image wise. So I brought in the idea of using 35 mm film.
(Quoted in Sylvie Lin, ‘Interview with Anri Sala’, 2006, http://sylvielin.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/interview-with-anri-sala/, accessed 14 March 2014.)
At the time he was commissioned Sala knew that he wanted to make a work about dual identity, but like many of the artist’s films, Now I See was not created according to a preconceived plan. Instead the final work was the result of decisions made over the course of its creation. Sala discovered the musicians while searching for a band that had two separate musical identities; in this case two of the members of the rock group The Funerals also play electronica with the band Trabant. In Now I See, these disparate identities are brought together through the superimposition of Trabant’s electronica onto The Funerals’ performance. The artist has explained that he was
looking for a band that would be able to perform two different kinds of music, a visually expressive one, which I call ‘music for the eyes’ and which they would perform as an activity in the film, and a more sedate one based on low frequency sounds, which would eventually hijack their momentum during the performance and become the score of the film.
(Quoted in Anri Sala 2006, p.20.)
The film addresses a number of themes and strategies that also feature prominently in other works by Sala. These include the contrast between what is seen and what is heard; the disjunction between authenticity and fantasy, in this case embodied in the fantastical form of the balloon dog; the construction of an immersive environment for the viewer; and the ‘making strange’ of everyday reality through subtle manipulations, including having performers switch instruments and roles within the same film, and setting up microphones such that sound is recorded from unexpected places in the room.
The title of the film is taken from the final words of the hymn Amazing Grace, a song that invokes light and clarity of vision as metaphors for truth and the achievement of religious salvation. In Now I See, the strobe light oscillates between light and darkness, enabling vision and then abruptly taking it away. A similar effect is achieved through sound; the viewer hears the electronic music but cannot see its source, while the band can be seen performing but the sound it generates cannot be heard. Through these techniques, along with the ways in which the film was shot and edited, the work draws attention to the different effects and associations produced by visual and aural perception.
Now I See is one of a number of works by Sala that involve musicians performing in highly unusual, stage-managed situations. Another example is his film Long Sorrow 2005 in which the jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc plays while hanging in mid-air outside the top floor of a tall building in Berlin. Sala has also produced other works that reflect on the relationship between sound and image, beyond the context of musical performance. His film Intervista 1998 is based on his discovery of a 16 mm film reel containing images, but no sound, of his mother making a speech as a leader of the Communist Youth Alliance in Albania, and his subsequent attempts to discover what she had said in this film.
Anri Sala: Now I See, exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 2004.
Mark Godfrey, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Liam Gillick and others, Anri Sala, London 2006, pp.20–1, 83–4, 104–9.
Cyril Béghin, ‘Philippe Parenno and Anri Sala: A Matter of Synchronization’, Mousse, no.37, February 2013, http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=952, accessed 14 March 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.