Q: Having in mind your prolific career one has to notice that you have used moving image in multiple different formats. Would you comment on how your use of video changed during the years?
A: I originally studied cinematography, before I switched to fine arts, where this experience definitely informed the way I approached thinking about arts (through scripts, characters, plot twists, and dramaturgy in general). At first, my works were dealing with the meta qualities of the medium and then increasingly with time it started feeling a bit like a return to forms closer to independent film-making. I’m interested in the blurry division between what we are mostly able to call a (short) film, an art video, or an animation. The presence of moving image has been growing in our pockets and streets and I believe this can be inspiring for the structures of editing a narrative story as well as in relation to how we deal with the noise it creates. For example how a calm moving image feels more calming to me than the actual stillness of a painting or a photograph etc.
Q: A few moving image works of yours may be also interpreted as cinematic environments or even cinematic paintings as very minimal changes are taking place there in the sense of a narrative. You talk about calmness behind them – would you expand on it? Is calmness or meditativeness important for your practice in general?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s a trait through my work. However, it comes from something I believe can be traced variably through my projects in the themes of solitude, isolation, or distance. It’s definitely very present in my short film Slides, or even much earlier in things like running through the Gotthard Road Tunnel in 2013 (Gotthard, 2013), or documenting myself while watching things on YouTube for ten months (Watching Martin Kohout, 2010-2011). But it’s only recently, and of course assisted by the current pandemic fueled discussions about these themes, that I realised how it has often been part of my work.
Q: I had this feeling when looking at your work that it is a different screen than the cinematic one and that it may also be interpreted as a screen of a smartphone, as if it could also be touched and scrolled (for example, Frogless video). Do you think the possibilities of touchscreen somehow influenced the cinematic aesthetics?
A: Definitely yes. And then we need to specify where we even start with this reflection. The touchscreen as we speak about it now is a part of mobile smart devices and that is an experience that has greatly changed both the amount and the forms of what it nowadays means to speak of moving image. When I was preparing Slides I kept thinking of how scrolling image feeds or, even more so, watching Instagram stories made us used to a dramatic structure where we watch a seemingly random ‘slideshow’ of moments on a linear timeline. Every block of content is a new jump cut to a totally different space. Yet a large portion of these moments share certain aspirations, many are highlights, most are trying to show something unique, all went through the filter of the platform that distributes them.
Or, what I find fascinating, is how we got used to cliffhangers in our hands. You can hardly ever close the feed and not wonder what would have been in the next block. Patricia Lockwood renamed the internet to the portal in her latest novel (Nobody Is Talking Bout This, 2021) and I feel like it’s a really fitting nickname for it.
But back to my work and the relation to screens or smart phones. Mortals like us have been givena platform to become stars in their own right with chosen identity and stories. And this I believe shifted how we relate to the narratives that cross from the screen to our life and self. In Slides, the main characters have a very routine life and since they live in different timezones, they can rarely have a dialog and instead send each other monologue audio messages. However, because their daily experiences are so repetitive, they make up a lot of stuff to have new stories to share with each other and maintain their relationship. In these stories, they are the directors of fiction for an audience of two.
It’s a good point to relate this to the Frogless video. I have to admit that at the end, it’s almost impossible and confusing, to separate how much of it is inspired by the touch of a touchscreen, screens simulating views out of windows, or various other situations where a threshold between the screen and the surrounding world is somehow underlined in a way that makes it physically perceived by the viewer. I mean those examples where the screen feels more like a crop from reality, rather than a camera framing of it.
Q: The history of cinema is showing us that screens were and are more active than passive agencies and now you’re stating that screens become not just active projections but also “real” performing objects that are activated by touching not just watching them. I’d like to extend this thought further. We already live in this so-called age when surveillance capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff) meets the state of surveillance (think China), meaning that we are living in this situation of our movements being recorded, filmed, sensored, etc 24/7. My question is – what do you think about the idea that we already are immersed in a certain live picture?
A: I think where you are pointing to is a space where we can talk about screens again more like the surface that mediates data that is being collected both willingly and without awareness of it. And there are so many things in that space that make me curious. Like how in so many cases we even enjoy checking on the visualised data about us we keep providing. Or how the distribution, into which we tend to plug that data, is already part of the way we conceptualise whatever means we employ for the collecting. Is how we can’t separate hardware and software apart in such an ecosystem perhaps a vital part of what drives the live picture you speak of?
For example, when we take a photo with a smartphone, it’s as if the apps, these photos will travel to, were an integral part of the mechanical construction of the tool. They reshape the scenes around us (making them more photogenic). They contribute to the design of lenses and displays (how well and what predominantly they should represent). And they kind of blend with the sensor and storage in the way we think of them.
But to return to the screens alone. One of the qualities of a vertical screen I like is how at this moment I still associate it with a crop from a greater picture instead of the idea of a horizontal screen as an encompassing overview or a space for the gaze to get a larger picture and sit back. Cinema has historically developed towards panoramic formats in relation to the human sight and a certain form of immersion that might appear passive. Most of the vertical imagery I think of nowadays comes from smart devices (and scrolling websites) which were optimised for the interaction of a human hand and sight and are tools for scrolling, searching, reaching out etc. as something we perceive as active and kind of without an end horizon. In my recent videos, the vertical format is used as a window into a space mostly hidden by the wall that bears the window and protects the viewer from the wild outdoors. It doesn’t give a full picture, but it calls you to come closer and perhaps open it.
Martin Kohout is a Berlin-based, Czech-born visual artist and publisher. He holds a MA from the Städelschule, Frankfurt, and a BA from the Film Academy FAMU, Prague. Kohout is represented by both Exile, Vienna, and Polansky Gallery, Prague. He mostly works in the medium of video, film, installation, and objects made of various materials from pottery to fabrics. He has presented in solo and group shows in Berlin, London, Brussels, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Tokyo, Beijing, New York, and more. In 2011 Kohout established TLTRPreß, a publishing house for selected authors and a space to present the breadth of his own research efforts in the form of edited collections such as Sleep Cures Sleepiness (2014) and Linear Manual (2012). Kohout is the recipient of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2017, a prize in recognition and support of young Czech artists. Kohout is teaching at Prague’s AAAD arts academy, co-running the Studio of Photography together with Aleksandra Vajd.
The screening Quiet Attachments is curated by Springs.Video (Valentinas Klimašauskas) and organised together with EXILE TV, Vienna.