Summer Reading Series #2 Seeing Eye to Eye

Still from Eye I Aye (2007) Martin Rumsby

Martin Rumsby’s Eye I Aye (2007) appears a straightforward, almost naive film. A camera is zoomed into a flat image of a community bench in front of a shop, with cars and some pedestrians passing by. It could be any suburban street. At times the de-facto main characters Dida and Erana or their surrogates are seated there, both are of mixed race from Māori and Pākehā parents and the soundtrack frames their ‘history’. This meditation is interrupted by the weather, with sheets of raindrops caught by the camera’s autofocus, patterning the window, wiping out the outside scene. Later Rumsby also inserts his body and face between the camera and window, his eyes in shot re-securing the camera’s position. This technical tampering registers as unsettling and suspicious.

Sometimes the passers-by do not walk out of frame, but are dematerialized, faded out, turned into ghosts. There is one moment where an Erana surrogate sits down on the ritual bench next to a ‘stranger’ who gets up and walks away unconvincingly, conveying, in the most basic terms, how a sense of place and belonging is instituted. The film ends with a “Cinéma Vérité” shot with the cameraman out of hiding positioned in front of the bench, with Rumsby introducing himself to the couple. The camera comes eye to eye with its prey. On the voice-over Rumsby notes that after this encounter he went home had something to eat, listened to the radio and fell asleep.

Where to place Martin Rumsby’s Eye I Aye in the history of Experimental Film? Rumsby himself sees a trace in there of Canadian David Rimmer’s Real Italian Pizza (1971) and Canadian Pacific (1974). Real Italian Pizza captures the street life and changing weather outside Rimmer’s fourth floor New York loft, and the sparser, more meditative Canadian Pacific frames the railway yard traffic from Rimmer’s Vancouver studio. These are more formal 16mm films to Rumsby’s mobile video work, captured at the edge of empire more than three decades later, after the digital revolution has metamorphosed our sense of place and colonized public space.

Where Rimmer shoots on high from his home base, Rumsby shoots more from the street. Rumsby’s mobility was forged through an 80s and 90s derive across North America, and its experimental film hotspots. With his itinerant Invisible Cinema, Rumsby picked up films and filmmakers along the way, including Rimmer’s, showing this work on the run, giving such marginal work a mobility now provided by internet access to Youtube and Vimeo.

The naming of this film offers its own conundrum or vortex of meanings. Phonetically it sounds like that informal American exclamation “ay-ay-ay”, itself appropriated from Mexican Spanish, performing that sense of overwhelming dismay, a preset for the homeless street level activity we will witness. Further, the “Eye” suggests a pre-occupation with perceptual processes often the focus of experimental film, the “I” flags the personal and “Aye” perhaps intimates the social, the political, a compliant following of orders. Perhaps there is an ode to Brakhage in this naming, who was always so inventive with language in his writing. The title’s repetitive phonetic structure also reminds me of its use as a social calling card by Arf Arf, the Australian Sound Poetry and Experimental Film Group and Philip Brophy’s tsk tsk tsk, vehicle for his moving image and live theatrical collaborations through the 1970s and 80s.

I can understand why Rumsby is attracted to Dida and Erana as subjects. In Landscapism (2007) they censor Rumsby’s Kino Eye by innocently covering their own eyes, rather than putting their hand on the lens. There is a simple performative open-ness there. Like with the blurred head-shot of victims and criminals in television news reports, denial is engagingly and reflexively made visible by such gestures. For Eye I Aye Rumsby had organised a time to record Dida and Erana but they presumably self censored by not turning up. He ended up filming others who had taken up their position on the bench. At some point cyphers become interchangeable and absences are quickly filled on the street. Rumsby filmed incognito from the window of a nearby building, a private training business for Maori unemployed youth, where he was allowed to film quietly at the back of a classroom. That surveillance spot was only a block and half away from the building where Rumsby had worked as a security officer for 18 months at night and where he had been able to serially witness the nightly street life and drug trafficking along that same strip of road. I remember joining him there one night, during one of my rare trips through Auckland, when I also remember buying his copy of Rimmer’s Canadian Pacific and a few of Brakhage’s films, artifacts, if you like, from his Invisible Cinema days. After Martin had packed up, Dida and Erana appeared and he filmed them for the last shot.

The soundtrack voice-overs of Eye I Aye themselves function like short diary entries. These almost ethnographic reports reveal the narrator as some-one who has some knowledge of the homeless lives observed, a perspective spanning decades of Manurewa’s suburban history. There is a hierarchy there. Rumsby’s quoting of Celine, the surveying of this industrial-suburban domain and the notes on the weather remind me of a cultured English aristocrat surveying the comings and goings of his estate. How close is it to the kind of surveillance report the Stasi or ASIO Secret Police would make of those citizens whose views diverged from the mainstream? There is certainly not much difference between Rumsby’s images and those ASIO Surveillance films from the 50s, 60s and 70s that Hayden Keenan uncovered from the archives for his Persons of Interest documentary series. Some of these ASIO surveillance films can be viewed online (see Smart Street Films, 2014). 

Rumsby’s surveillance metamorphoses Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon into mobile form. He demonstrates how this can be done. Making visible the invisible is an important skill for any police state, as is making other things disappear. There are numerous examples of how the artist has been mobilized in the re-gentrification of the inner city, for example. A film like The Mission (1986), for example, demonstrates how the church was used in South America to soften up the population for colonisation through military conquest.

Yet there is also an empathy there. The rain cries for the death of a local homeless man in a nearby parking lot. Martin has lived on the street. His Chicago films Dots (2003) - initiated by a street meeting with African American drug addict Dots - and Brown Barbeque (2002) filming a rare encounter with Dots’ family are observational Cinéma vérité moments shot from the hip, mobilizing Rumsby’s ethnographic training. Though shot before Eye I Aye, these works successfully explore the kind of intimacy promised by the final shot of Eye I Aye.

Why the difference between Chicago and Manurewa? Perhaps it is that in Chicago, Rumsby is also an outsider. He speaks with difference. In Manurewa he is implicitly marked by the history of the place. Like his cypher-like subjects he has been hard-wired into its denials and invisibilities over a long period time. This duration is the equal of his long engagement with experimental film, nationally and internationally as artist, organizer, curator, viewer and witness. Both lines map a precarious and outsider existence.

Perhaps it is the inexorable boredom of suburbia’s repetitions that is being communicated through Manurewa’s absences, and there is also the Māori and Pākehā race relations underneath it all. Certainly Rumsby intimates a bottom up perspective on this issue compared to Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015), a spectacle viewed recently at the Auckland Art Gallery. Rumsby travels the low road in his employment of technology. Although Reihana’s technically impressive ‘exotic’ work promises the cache of International Art gallery exhibition, Rumsby’s observations are played out daily on every city street corner around the world. When Rumsby’s voice-over respectfully talks of Dida and Erana’s lives as ‘a life of straightforward being’, there is a trace of that view of the essential good of the ‘noble savage’, but here refurbished for post-industrial use.

I ask again; where to place Eye I Aye in the history of Experimental Film? Apart from Rimmer, Paul Winkler’s Isolated (1967) comes to mind. As a New Australian himself, in his first film Winkler filmed indigenous Australians on Sydney’s city streets, wondering why these original Australians were doing so badly. Later he made the empowering Dark (1974), a trance film that honed in on their dis-enfranchised status. But it has been a revisiting of Serbian experimental cinema from the 60s, from Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia that some unexpected affinities come into focus, particularly Mihovil Pansini’s Zahod (Toilet) (1964), Tomislav Gotovac’s Circle (1964) and Želimir Žilnik’s Black Film (1971).

In Zahod the camera captures the worker at a public restroom going through his rituals, unawares he is being filmed from a position above the action. The film suggests that even the most random of actions are programmed by one’s position in society. In Circle the camera pans in widening circles slowly across a cityscape, a trajectory scripted more from a predetermined plan than by the action it collects, predicting the concerns taken up by that Structuralist film formulated by P. Adams Sitney, Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice. In Black Film Žilnik crosses the technological line into personal space. He invites a number of homeless people to live in his home, despite his wife’s concern. The film does not resolve the politics that has led to this intervention but Žilnik included a proclamation at the end of the film: “the film is about the position of filmmakers and intellectuals, who although they pretend that they are changing the society and helping people, are actually not doing anything but making films.” (Gurshtein, 2014)

For Pansini “every form, every experiment is permitted and welcomed in the foreseen new society, free from bureaucratic statism and social constrictions. Antifilm is the “act of discovery and research; it is an integral part of life”; it means liberation from myths, authority, rules, laws, and terror. (1) Yet today we have a surveillance machine producing a City Symphony in real time. This security network records every street corner of any international metropolis to the state authority’s benefit. Every intimate gesture is caught in cold analytic detail. A security workforce trained with perceptual strategies gleaned from the language of formalist film is now required to unpack these hundreds of hours of visual record, and face recognition software now promises to make redundant even this minimalist human intervention. Eye I Aye stands at the fulcrum of this shift in technology from open to closed system.

- Dirk de Bruyn

(1) Quoted in Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković (eds), Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia. 1918-1991, MIT Press, Boston, 2003, p. 479.