Excavations in Film, Fragments Lost in the Ether and Being At ‘Home’ in the World

The Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group held a seminar on 19 January 2015, led by Patti Gaal-Holmes, with the title ‘Excavations in Film, Fragments Lost in the Ether and Being At ‘Home’ in the World’. This article provides notes drawn from the seminar and commentaries from the participants, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco, Yvonne Jones, Yonat Nitzan-Green, Jane Bennett, Cheng-Chu Weng, Bevis Fenner, Xiaoyang Xi.

Seminar Reading:

  • 2 page extract from Michael Jackson’s At Home in the World (2000)
  • Short essay ‘Building Houses’ by Vilém Flusser

Additional Reading:

  • Patti Gaal-Holmes, ‘(Re)calling ‘Home’: An Artist’s Negotiation and (Re)negotiation between Memory, Geography, History and Language’ in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture, Intellect, 2012, Vol 3 Issue 2, pp. 210-212.

Patti Gaal-Holmes: The idea with this seminar was not to offer a didactic explanation for the set texts but rather to lay out some materials for conversations to evolve….which they indeed did with valuable contributions from all: many thanks! Three essays provided fuel for discussions and a context for concluding with an illustrated talk about my work-in-progress film project, Liliesleaf Farm: Mayibuye; provoking further discussions.

After a brief introduction we looked more closely at Heidegger’s ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ essay with a number of valuable digressions, thoughts and counter-thoughts [my brief notes for ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ attached]. My preoccupations with the notion of ‘home’ have centered on attempting to ascertain what ‘home’ means from a cross-cultural/geographical and multi-lingual perspective (I am half-German, half-Hungarian, born in South Africa, a Belgian national and reside in the UK). Are familiarities/affiliations with being ‘at home in the world’ related to land and landscape, as Michael Jackson’s research with the Walpiri Aboriginal tribe in his book At Home in the World reveals? Or is ‘home’ very much fixed in a Western construct of ‘bricks and mortar’ as the site/building as Heidegger discusses in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’. For both (J and H) the notion of kin/kinship and belonging seemed to be central. At one point some interesting discussions on Heidegger’s religious position (Catholic) were brought to the table – and the evident biblical influences in this text – and further onto the church as a ‘house of God’ therefore requiring such large proportions, with steeple to sky (the divinities mentioned in H’s essay). On my way home after the seminar I had the ‘good fortune’ of just missing my train and having to wait an hour … so took a walk to Winchester Cathedral with these thoughts in mind: about scale and man and God and a building for thinking and being in … not the ‘cosy’ protectiveness of a human space for dwelling in … a different kind of thinking … collective communion/communication? But cold and vast too…I was much more observant of the huge doors and windows and the sky of the ceiling.

The issue of ‘walls’ came up too: with inside and outside walls offering protection from enemies without and enclosure within; although in Flusser’s ‘Building Houses’ essay he says that our modern homes are full of perforations – like Swiss cheese – with the outside world continually penetrating through the wires and conduits of technology. So discussions moved on to the necessary ‘space’ of silence required to just ‘be’, particularly for the distillation of ideas/noise into (art/written) works. Flusser writes of the need for habit/the habitual to make sense of the noise of experience. Discussion followed on to the invaluable connection which technology brings but equally (I think) sometimes a disconnected ‘unreal’ connection; and also these continued conduits making it difficult to escape from the ‘noise’ of the outside world. Bevis discussed his project where he has invited strangers into his home, opening up some thoughts on privacy, space, etc.

Discussions on the material differences of what home meant from Western perspectives (Heidegger/Flusser) to Jackson’s understanding of home from an Aboriginal perspective [as an experiential anthropologist acquired through living with the Walpiri tribe in Australia] in communion with land and markers in the landscape (rocks, trees, rivers, etc). Heidegger writes of the bridge (the structure not as dwelling place) which provides connecting markers in the landscape, making me think of Western necessity to forge these marks more ‘concretely’, whereas these are already exist as imagined by the Walpiri as connecting markers.

We moved on to my work-in-progress film/photography project, Liliesleaf Farm Mayibuye, with the rich contributions from the seminar providing further contextual basis for discussion. And in mind for this project I thought of John R. Stilgoe’s question in his Introduction to Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (1958), framing this project: ‘how accurately must one hear in order to hear the geometry of echoes in an old, peculiarly experienced house?’ Liliesleaf, the farm of the title, has particular historical significance, as it was the headquarters of the military wing of the African National Congress (South Africa) in the early 1960s (and is now a key museum forming part of heritage history of the ‘liberation struggle’). A police raid on the farm took place in 1963, with the notorious Rivonia Trial (1964) resulting in the lifetime imprisonment of anti-apartheid activists like Nelson Mandela. Ideas for the project originated with the discovery of 8mm film footage and photographs of my immigrant family at Liliesleaf as this was our home in the late 1960s.

I showed a few slides related to this project and a 3 minute dual-screen film in which I had refilmed the 8mm ‘home-movie’ footage onto 16mm through a laborious – but very valuable ‘slow’ process for thinking – on an Optical printer. The film was hand-processed, digitised and edited. Experimentation with the materiality and content of film and photography lies at the heart of the Liliesleaf Farm: Mayibuye project. The idea is to bring intersecting histories to the fore, opening up a space for reflection on the house, Liliesleaf Farm, as a palimpsest layered by the spectres of history. The film reflects on the lived experiences intersecting in a given space and time and explores, as friend and cultural historian/critic, Saër Maty Bâ, succinctly put it: ‘it seems to me that the ‘Liliesleaf Farm’ project is also a crucial undertaking in the sense that it does not so much explore why we are part of histories but, instead, how we have come to enter those histories and how that mode of entry might enrich the surface and depth of what it means to be human’. I have yet to explore all these possibilities within the project.

The film is intended as a montage of interconnected image and sound, opening up spaces for poetic engagement rather than being a didactic, linear narrative attempting to present a plot. In this way it also poses questions about ‘home’ as a (contested) site where events unfold, where individuals unfold these events and where these individuals, allegedly free of affiliations to nationhood, inadvertently find themselves caught within the residue of turbulent historical moments.

I much appreciated the feedback received on the film, as questions on the use of soundtrack (the film is currently silent), issues of narcissism in working with autobiographical material and the ‘problem of nostalgia’ are foremost in mind with this project.


Chen-Chu Weng: It is surprising that the idea of home able to extend to values of issues. The term of skin, “I live in my house as I live inside my skin” from Jackson, remind me a film call “The Skin I Live In”. This does not refer to Jackson’s words, I think Jackson’s term of skin may able to explain as the experiences of space. How the body experience the space. I remember whilst I was a little girl, I love to play hide- and- seek at my parents’ house. My body seems already familiar and memories the space, and then a few years before we moved to the new house, the star is much bigger than the old house. I feel odd while I climbed the stairs.

The other interesting term for me is original term of ‘home’ comes from the form of munition, which is quite violent, in Chinese word of home is a house live with pigs. Due to pig is part of property in Chinese ancient culture.

I think the text of Building Dwelling Thinking is able to connect writing Merleau-Ponty’s chapter “Space” in “Phenomenology of Perception”, for instance Heidegger said “The axiomatic proposition and founding representation is cogito sum, I think, I am, ich denke, ich bin. Bin, like the English be, stems from the Indo-Germanic bheu, as does the Latin fui (I have been) and the Greek phuō (I come to light, grow, engender), But these words also give rise to the German word bauen, to build” (PP344-345).

In the similar way Merleau-Ponty said:

The true cogito is not the intimate communing of though with the thought of that thought: they meet only on passing through the world. The consciousness of the world is not based on self-consciousness: they are strictly contemporary. There is a world for me because I am not unaware of myself; and I am not concealed from myself because I have a world. This pre-reflective cogito(1945:345)

I do feel reading the essay and the references is able to help me understand Merleau-Ponty’s theory. Thanks you, Patti!! And thank you, all the members in HIGR, Bevis and Xia I had a good day.

By the way, in the earlier the seminar, I mention the inside and outside of outline, the book name On Not Being Able to Paint by Marion Milner. Although this may refer to subject of painting more than the other subject, it may worth to extend to the topics we discourse, like refuge and out of the refuge, home and homeless, language and outside of language.

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco: I find it interesting thinking about the role of memory in connection to one’s understanding of a place. I used to think that the sense of place was stronger if it only exists in memory. ‘Nostalgia’ plays a big part in it too. You can long for something more if you can’t or don’t have it any longer.

I have been questioning in my own mind about the definition of ‘home’ and sense of belonging, more so since coming back to Winchester.  Where does geographical ‘place’ and brick and mortar ‘house/home’ sit in relation to how I try to make sense of who and where I am now? Where is the role of memory as I try to define my connection with Winchester?

Social anthropologist Tim Ingold makes an interesting differentiation between ‘interaction’ and ‘correspondence’, which somehow resonated with me. According to Ingold, ‘interaction’ is ‘detemporalising, cutting across the path of movement and becoming’. Where as correspondence is where ‘lines wrap around one another’ or simply ‘joining along’. To correspond to the world, as Ingold notes, ‘is not to describe it, or to represent it, but to answer to it…it is to mix the movement of one’s own sentinent awareness with the flows and currents of animate life’.

I reflect on your film shown during the presentation and wonder whether it was this element of  ‘correspondence’ you had with you father through the making of the film, looking through the view finder as your father did, seeing thought his eyes, together with the tactile experience of the slow, hand-process of putting together the film that enabled you to connect with your past, the memories and histories of the place and the house in a far more poignant way than merely remembering or shifting through memory. This, I feel, resulted in a film that was powerful and beautiful without the dangers of ‘nostalgia’ coating personal memory with sugar dust. It was beautiful and I look forward to seeing the finished product.

Jane Bennett: Thank you very much for introducing us to Heidegger and shedding some light on a dense piece of writing.  To introduce the Jackson piece as a counter-view was inspirational;  it really highlighted how embedded in western thinking the other definition of “home” is, with its focus on buildings and fixed boundaries/walls.  I think we merely touched on what “home” actually meant to each of us, but sufficient to indicate that, with the varied life experiences in even our small group, a wide range of differing meaning – perhaps more to discuss here?

Thank you too for sharing with us your work-in-progress – it is such an interesting subject.  The two films bounced off each other, raising questions about how and if such different lived scenarios leave their trace upon the bricks and mortar of the building, or hang in the air within, so to speak.  (We questioned whether the confusion about black/white skin that arose from the use of negative film was intentional?)  However, what I found most moving was that you were looking where your father looked when you edited the family film.  This must have been such a moving experience for you, to have this tangible and material link to your father.  To be in the place that he was visually – to look where he looked.  And this lead me to wonder whether this sense of material connection could be extended to the building itself, that has now gone on to have a different life and remains and endures, despite our transitory human histories.  It is the building that the is site of these experiences.

Perhaps the latter part of the Heidegger document that we didn’t reach that refers to “location” and “space” leads to some answers.

Yonat Nitzan-Green: I would like to create a link between Patti’s presentation and Gaston Bachelard’s thoughts about home and material imagination. What follow are some notes. This text needs to be further developed.

Patti writes: ‘The meaning of ‘home’ is considered in relation to space/place and time as the fragmentary transmutations occurring periodically enable a sense of momentary personal cohesion.’

Transmutation – transformation; scientific word describing a real change in material.

I ask: what the meaning of ‘fragmentary transmutations’?

Gaston Bachelard makes a distinction between ‘formal imagination’ and ‘material imagination’. Both are present in nature and in human consciousness. In nature, formal imagination manifests in a form of beauty in flowers for example. In our mind, formal imagination, according to Bachelard, likes ‘novelty, picturesqueness, variety and unexpectedness’ (Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. xiii.). On the other hand, the material imagination ‘aims at producing that which, in being, is both primitive and eternal. … the material imagination is attracted by the elements of permanency present in things’ (ibid).

The itinerant (traveler)/migrant’s position is between places as she/he moves from place to place. S/he is mobile and in direct contrast with elements of permanency.

I wonder what nourishes the itinerant’s imagination. Is it the formal imagination as one encounters new things in one’s daily experience or is being between places and fragmented actually stimulates a thirst to be in touch with elements of permanence fundamental to the material imagination (hence Patti’s interest in both the nomadic perception and the ‘brick and mortar’ perception)?

How does being between places stimulate the imagination and memory?

S/he negotiates her/his sense of ‘self’ through memory/reminiscence between geographical place/s: the geographical place ‘where home is located’ now, and other place/s (significant place/s) that she/he remembers from his/her past.

How does this negotiation as an artist take place? Considering body memory, re-enactment – as Patti, while filming, found herself looking from the same point as her father did – and material imagination.

In thinking about memory and the imagination the following may be helpful.

Bachelard writes: ‘Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams’. (GB, The Poetics of Space, p. 6). Bachelard writes about ‘a community of memory and image’, a ‘solidarity of memory and imagination’. (There, pp. 5-6).

Patti opens up two different perceptions of home and dwelling. First, is the anthropologist Michael Jackson research of nomadic Aboriginal Australian. According to this perception, home is the land, including markings such as a large stone, a tree or a well, that signify places with enhanced importance. Home has no connection to a building. Second, is a western perception of home, discussed profoundly by Martin Heidegger in his essay (as above). In this perception, home and dwelling are connected with building and thinking.

I would like to suggest Bachelard’s meditation of home (mostly in his book, The Poetics of Space, but in other writings too) as a ‘bridge’ between the two perceptions mentioned above, as it includes building, thinking and day-dreaming. It may also be interesting to read about the Australian aborigines and their relationship with dreaming.

It is not the place to elaborate. However, I would like to briefly discuss a few points to do with language.

Heidegger dedicates a large section in his essay to language and meaning, where he expose old connections in language between building, dwelling, neighbor, preserving, nurturing and soil. It led me to look at my own language – Hebrew – and find similar and other connections as follow.

The words ‘schuna’ (neighborhood), ‘shikun’ (building), and ‘shachen’ (neighbor) שכונה, שיכון, שכן share the same root as ‘to dwell’. These words have a connection with a word from the Jewish world: ‘schina’ שכינה which is another word for God, or the Divine Presence and also share the same root as ‘to dwell’. It conveys the idea that God is here, amongst people and things, rather than a distant God in the blue palace of sky.

The Hebrew words ‘building’, ‘to build’, ‘builder’ and ‘built’ are close to the words ‘stone’ and ‘understanding’.

ו’אבן’. ‘בנה’, ‘לבנות’, ‘בניין’, ‘בנאי’ ‘הבנה’

The words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ also close to the word ‘to build’ and ‘home’.

‘בית’ – ‘בת’ ‘בנה’ – ‘בן’

In examining home and dwelling, we find a material connection: building, constructing and stone; and a cultural connection: to understand.

Heidegger opened a door to look at language which stimulated my imagination and thought. But it is Bachelard who suggests that dwelling is connected with building and daydreaming: ‘the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.’ (GB, The Poetics of Space, p. 5).

Patti proposes to revisit a specific building in a specific place which has a specific history, both personal and political, in order to excavate ‘in film, fragments lost in the ether and being at ‘home’ in the world’. On the one hand there is a sense of loss, as the idea of excavating ‘fragments lost in the ether’ suggests. On the other hand, there is a sense of hope in the possibility of ‘being at ‘home’ in the world’.

I am curious about Patti’s thoughts, as a film maker, regarding materiality.

Is film-making a way to daydream?

Is reading, writing and making a film a way of ‘being at ‘home’ in the world’?

Patti asks ‘where the residues of memory might remain?’ and ‘what might reside within the bricks and mortar of this house…?’ She wonders about the accuracy of hearing the past. In Bachelard’s words, ‘the geometry of echoes in an old, peculiarly experienced house’. ‘Bachelard writes of hearing by imagination…’ (John R. Stilgoe’s introduction in Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. ix). [My emphasis].

Patti writes: ‘As a very young child I lived in the house of the title, learning to crawl and walk… Reflecting back and without any recollections of living there…’.

I wonder about the actions of crawling and learning to walk chosen by her. What about eating, playing and learning to talk? I also wonder about ‘body memory’.

How are film, film making and body (the artist’ body) relate? If the question is asked about a residue of memory within the ‘bricks and mortar’, would Bachelard’s term, material imagination, be applicable? How is material being translated in the medium of film? How does material imagination sustain Patti’s imagery?

Bevis Fenner: The seminar opened up some very interesting ideas about the relationship between making and dwelling. On the one hand, the idea that we have to build in order to dwell and on the other, the possibility that dwelling and sense of place has more to do with memory and social relations. For me, the two things are not mutually exclusive as our interactions with both objects and landscape seem to provide us with a kind of ontological authenticity – an embodied and experiential connectedness with the world via the path of narrative and memory. Human Geographer David Crouch argues that it is only through ‘embodiment’ that we can begin to enact the ‘primal social practices of shared space, that [can] be imbued with mythologies and images of ownership’ (Crouch, 1998: 168). In other words, in embodying spaces we generate our own mythologies through visual and experiential memories of place; and this, in turn, produces representational spaces as we revisit spaces and rejuvenate them with our own narratives.

The interesting thing about Patti’s film piece is that it allows for an emergent connectedness by enabling the conjunction a kind of personal-universal consciousness with historical narrative; it creates a feeling of being there and draws a presence out of narratives of absence. Yet, it does this without embodiment, which suggests we might be connecting through the imagination and a kind of embodied vision – through Patti’s father’s eyes. But where is the ‘bricks and mortar’ materiality in this mode of dwelling? There seems to me some attempt to keep the indexical materiality of the image in the use of Super 8 footage – connecting directly to the moment the footage was recorded – but does this alone account for the object’s capacity to activate our mind-traveling? John Berger suggests that the camera substitutes the ontological function of memory, which is to preserve ‘an event from being covered and therefore hidden by the events that come after it’ (Berger, 2013: 51). He also makes an interesting distinction between what he terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ photography. He argues that the public photograph has a generic quality, which objectifies people’s lives, describing how a ‘public photograph’ shouts ‘look’, at a moment which has been ripped from context and from its temporal connectedness with the lives of those involved. In contrast, he also seems to imply that the ‘private photograph’ is a kind of material base for the preservation of the moment (of dwelling, of Being) – drawing a line of ‘continuity which is parallel to the continuity from which the photograph was originally taken (Berger, 2013: 52)’. In other words, he’s suggesting that the private photograph has a kind of meta life – inscribing or mapping a line from what Husserl terms ‘primal-impressional’ consciousness to our mode of preservation or ‘protection’. This mode is material in the case of the photograph or of landscape, however Berger seems to imply that the materiality is simply an aide d’mémoire. Yet, as Patti pointed out, her work is not merely autobiographical or nostalgic. If her work is personal, then this manifests as a personal connected to the historical – it is not her memories that are being preserved by the work but the interconnectedness of her memory with place, and as a means, not of preserving but of drawing out and protecting the essence of dwelling, which for Heidegger is the basic character of Being’ (Heidegger, 1978b: 254). All this seems quite confusing. A paradox appears as: how can we have dwelling without materiality, memory without indexicality, being without Being? It would seem, however, that all these elements are present in Patti’s piece but not in a causal or linear kind of way. There seems to be a simultaneity in which being emerges as an inchoate substance; as a residue of synchronic traces, from both the material and from non-linear historical and dramatic human narrative. In other words, the work characterises an altogether more complex and subtle art of memory. Berger expands:

There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches. A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic (Berger, 2013: 55).

Xiao-yang Li: I believe it was during a discussion over the ‘dwelling in human space’ I mentioned ‘experiencing of one’s own silence’. This comes from something I’ve been reading – Agamben’s new book, in which he talked about the ancient Eleusinian rite that’s often associated with the idea of the ‘unspeakable’. According to thus one could gain ‘supreme philosophical wisdom’ by fully experiencing the power of God and one is not allowed to put this mythical vision into words – that is the silence itself. I think it is a ‘silence’ in a very metaphorical sense, it doesn’t mean ‘without sound’. It perhaps indicate that experiences come as higher than words, the instinctual(or the contemplation) comes higher than the didactic…. and so this is the mystery itself…

In terms of the idea of ‘home’ – in a cross-regional multi-lingual aspect/generation – I personally believe it is the place where one finds one’s own mind at peace, where one finds ease and contentment in everything one does.

I once met a Neapolitan who is so proud of Napoli and would remember every lofty old tree in the centre of every town square – in a way similar to how we’d remember an old friend affectionately. So the cutting down of one of these oldest trees would hurt him so much that he’d call it less of a home now…The trees are not mere ‘trees’ anymore for him, they must have served a metaphorical/psychological function for defining a ‘home’ for him, so is every other little element associated to the place, every persona every bit of history – Caravaggio might have rested under the tree and Giordano Bruno might have drunk the water from the square before his shadowy wandering…a collective ideaology will be necessary, in part I believe this is why Athens thrived, because in comparison to our contemporary cities (even the smallest ones) Athens those day was small with a even smaller population – but these people shared a strong ideaology perhaps similar to what the Neapolitan had felt about his city – but on a much smaller concentrated scale and with a very active political life, upon all this greatest thinkers and statesmen emerged…