Artist-researchers Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee have been instrumental to the development of the contemporary online video-essay, pioneering the form of the desktop documentary through both their individual video projects and their collaborative work. They combine text, images, and gestures recorded from within their computer screens overlaid with verbal or textual narration, using this form to analyse or criticise a particular form of media in real-time, creatively dissecting it in front of the viewer to demonstrate how it functions.
In their work, they focus on deconstructing popular forms of media, attempting to convey their experience of an encounter with a specific media object and place it within the wider position it occupies within the world at large. In Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s recent “desktop diaries”, Watching The Pain of Others (2019) and Forensickness (2020), she enters into a direct dialogue with the work of other filmmakers, talking through her experience of watching Penny Lane’s The Pain of Others (2018) and Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2019) respectively, showing how both films affected her as a viewer. In Kevin B. Lee’s most well-known film Transformers: The Premake (2014), he examines pre-production materials and on-set footage for the then-upcoming blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). Which he then uses to attempt to assemble a version of the film from this mass of materials available freely online. In doing so, he looks to explore shifting relationships between the creators and consumers of mass-media entertainment, showing what has been enabled by the internet's free access to production materials and software.
Together they have made several short critical essays, including Reading // Binging // Benning (2018) (in which they attempted to analyse a James Benning film they hadn’t yet seen), and Re-Enacting the Future (2019) (which explored the role of reenactment as used in cinema history as both propaganda and entertainment). Their latest collaboration, Bottled Songs(2017-), is an ongoing media project that consists of a series of episodic video letters. To date, four chapters have been made, and a feature film is currently in the development process of. Bottled Songs I-4 is a series of desktop-based video letters in which the two artists discuss and present their research into contemporary extremist media, working through various aspects of the ISIS-produced propaganda they are encountering and attempting to decode. In the project’s first chapter, The Observer (2020), Galibert-Laîné assesses how a video featuring an ISIS prisoner was shared around the internet, looking at the motivations that lie behind the circulation of such distressing materials. The second, Looking Into the Flames (2020) sees Lee chop up and re-edit ISIS’s first feature film production, examining what its exposed cinematic components reveal. In the third chapter, My Crush Was a Superstar (2017), Galibert-Laîné tracks a young member of ISIS through his appearances in news items and on social media, looking for the person behind the online presence. In The Spokesman (2018), Lee investigates the mediatic traces of a prominent British broadcaster and journalist who was kidnapped and then forced to appear in ISIS’s productions, analysing his performances as a captive screen presence and as a free one.
Across the project’s four chapters, Lee and Galibert-Laîné use the desktop documentary format to visualise their findings, showing not just the analytical processes that are involved in the research, but also the affective dimensions that are at play with online terrorist propaganda: how this contentious, calculating form of media works upon them as viewers and as critics. As they explain in the following conversation, these video essays are not intended to be conclusive, but instead work from the original meaning of “essay”, meaning “to try” or “to attempt”, using what they call the “desktop epistolary” format to visualise their developing processes of thought in real time. In this interview, they discuss those processes and their limitations, as well as some of the strategies they employed to deal with this most difficult of material and contend with its meanings.
It's not about finding the meaning or the truth, but about finding different ways to integrate these objects that we are looking at into our own understanding of the world, which itself is evolving as the world is.
What was the origin of Bottled Songs? Where did the idea for the project come from and how did it arrive at the form it is now in?
Kevin B Lee: I had been working with Chloé before this on shorter video essays for an online publication, and we started talking about what kind of longer-term project we could engage in together.
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: Yeah, we started our correspondence in 2014 or 2015. At that time I was writing a master thesis in sociology on film memories. I would do interviews with spectators of various backgrounds to understand how we remember film scenes. This was around the time of the 2015 Paris attacks, in February and then in November. Like many French people, these two events made me question the work I was doing and how relevant or important it was in the light of this changing political landscape.
Kevin and I had already been having conversations about video essays and this practice of editing existing images as a way of studying them. I had this increasing interest in working on contemporary images that could help me process the terrorist attacks that had happened in France, and I was working in collaboration with several researchers who were doing image-analysis about media produced by terrorist organisations in the Middle East, such as Dork Zabunyan and Cécile Boëx. As I was telling Kevin about this research, I guess this theme entered our ongoing conversations and we started wondering if something interesting could be done if we applied the videographic techniques that we had been developing to research older movies to more contemporary online images. This is how the correspondence about extremist media started between the two of us, and this correspondence has remained at the centre of the project.
When did you arrive at the epistolary format that you employed? How far into the process did you realise that was the way you needed to process these things?
Chloé: That came quite early in the project because for the majority of the time that we've been working on this project we've been working from different countries. I think in the first months that we had decided to tackle this research project together, we would send longer and longer emails to one another as we dived deeper into our research objects.
There was one time that I was strangely excited about what I had discovered. You know when you’re down the rabbit hole and you need someone to understand why you had to go that far? I was writing this really long email to Kevin which required me to try to convey my thoughts, but to also share links to things I had seen in lectures and videos I had watched. This meant I had to send time codes for the videos, and a list of 30 or 40 links that he was supposed to watch. At that point, I realised I might as well just make a video to tell him what I researched. That led to the production of the first chapter that we made: a twelve-minute video called My Crush was a Superstar. Thatwas an actual letter that I sent to Kevin privately. It was not originally meant to be a public piece. It was really just the most efficient way that I had to communicate information to Kevin, not just about what I had found out, but also about the thoughts and feelings that this research had triggered in me.
When Kevin received that letter, I guess he was like: “this is a film, this is a filmic form.” It took a few months for me to accept that this could be a film. As it was written as a letter to someone with whom I felt comfortable and safe, I was able to show myself in a way that was much more vulnerable than the type of language and posture that I would have adopted had it been a public address. When we watched this video letter back, we decided that this sense of intimacy and vulnerability was precisely what we needed to continue the conversation we had started. Instead of this being a step towards another type of discourse based on displaying expertise and objectivity, we wanted to retain this mode of subjective, questioning engagement with one another and with the audience. This hopefully leaves space for the viewer to also exert their own subjectivity and think intimately about the media objects we are discussing.
How much construction was involved in creating each subsequent chapter? How much of what appears in them came from your original emails and research processes?
Chloé: That very much depends on which video we're talking about. My Crush was a Superstar is basically the original email. I had to remake it because the screen recordings I had originally made were at a really low resolution, but the content is the same as my original letter.
Kevin: It took you one day to make it, right?
Chloé: Yeah, exactly. It was made in one day.
Kevin: Whereas the subsequent chapters took much longer. There was this incredible spontaneousness and naturalness to that first chapter, and I think we have been trying to build on that model. We put a lot of thought into designing something that can really make use of this desktop epistolary form, so as to make it as cinematic as possible, while also unpacking all of the different observations, interpretations, and implications of the material. Before producing them, we thought these things through to the point of exhaustion. Now we're trying to get back to that original sense of momentum and freeness of thought.
This actually gets into something I want to talk about. I don't know what associations you have with the essayistic form in terms of what value or cinematic experience it's supposed to provide, but there are definitely some big name filmmakers who are attached to that form—like [Chris] Marker or [Jean-Luc] Godard or [Harun] Farocki. You might have the perception of it being the brainiest type of cinema you can imagine, which can be a bit daunting and intimidating. But if you go back to the original etymology of “essay”, it means “to attempt”, or “to try”.
I think My Crush was a Superstar totally embodies this, as it has a real sense of propulsion and freedom, of unfiltered expression, that I have since realised is so vital to this form instead of overcomplicating or over-analyzing it. I think there's a very interesting relationship between the intellectual and cerebral processes of thought, and this affective dimension, which is about desire. My Crush was a Superstar merges this intellectual energy with a kind of free-moving desire, this impulse to want to know something. That became a driving principle for the project: working out how these two modes of thinking and feeling can harmonise.
When you've written about these films, you have called them “strategies for making sense of online terroristic media”, which perhaps speaks to what you have just been saying. Could you talk more about your intentions for the project as a sense-making device?
Chloé: I think this has a lot to do with the fact that this is a project nurtured by research. We both identify as researchers, but I think it was very important for us from the beginning to question this notion of expertise. Just because we are making a film about something, it does not mean we claim to be experts about this topic. At the beginning especially, we knew little about the topics that we were investigating, so we wanted to find ways for us to express our findings and our feelings. I believe that it is as valuable to share the process that takes you from “not knowing anything” to “trying to know something”, as it is to share the results of that research process.
Two things are important to a process of “making sense of”, as you quoted. The first thing is to be aware that it is a process that takes time, and one where you are going to meet obstacles, or even dead ends. We've designed the project to be sort of a diary in some sense, a research diary split between our two voices that is about the desire to understand and the techniques and tools of understanding, which vary depending on who we are, where we are, and the entire infrastructures of knowledge that each of us have access to.
The second element is the suggestion that there are different ways of making sense. It's not about finding the meaning or the truth, but about finding different ways to integrate these objects that we are looking at into our own understanding of the world, which itself is evolving as the world is. This is the reason why we're making the work as a dialogue, and keeping our individual voices in it, because the point was never to agree or to find the common denominator between our different perspectives.
Were there points when you didn't feel equipped to make this project or process the videos you were encountering, either in terms of expertise or perspective, or on a purely emotional or psychological level? What barriers did you face and how did you overcome them?
Chloé: I think every point of the work was about acknowledging our limitations and appreciating the resources that we have and why we have the privilege of using them. I think that the work is also educational in that way. That is a word that has a lot of different meanings, and we never wanted the work to be didactic, but there is something in our intention that's about sharing the resources, techniques, or strategies that are available for engaging with the media.
Kevin: I think it's important to acknowledge that what we didn't come to this as experts in jihadism, in Islamic extremism—it was the videos themselves that were affecting us; we were trying to understand them primarily in terms of mediated terror. As a film critic, I pay a lot of attention to how moving images work and the kind of effects that they produce. I thought that I could apply that towards understanding this particular media independent of—and even separated from—the specific cultural or ideological contexts that it is invested in it. I thought I could just look at it in terms of pure form. That approach might have its merits to a certain extent, but at some point you have to face the fact that this is media that comes from a specific context that does affect and inform particular peoples and cultures, and, if you have an understanding of that, then this makes for a much richer and more informed way of looking at it.
First we were meeting with the media itself, but I think it's not a coincidence that two of the videos we've made so far involve specific individuals that had somehow struck or connected with us. Our desire to make sense of these individuals' mediatic expressions through these videos was a kind of wanting to reach out and make a connection. It was almost like we were being drawn through the screen to be able to access what is on the other side, and I think that's where this project is taking us—towards making real contact with others through the screen to see how their realities have been affected by this media. This will involve a greater degree of interactions, exchanges, interviews and encounters with a greater set of individuals connected to these media.
In these films, as you say, there are people that you may want to contact, but can’t for various reasons. Would you have made contact with them if you could? Or is it important that there is that sort of unbreachable, protective distance built into the project?
Chloé: No, we've never thought of distance as something that was necessary or important to preserve. Speaking for myself, I was scared. The first encounters that we had were actually people reaching out to us after having heard of the project or seen excerpts. At first that was unsettling for us, because I think we were still in the process of understanding where we stood, and where we wanted to stand, in relation to these media. That took a really long time, and I think it is still ongoing as we engage in more conversations with different people who have developed an intimate relation to these media: viewers from different backgrounds, but also researchers, educators, artists. Besides, the meaning of the media is itself evolving. It is like the earth’s tectonic plates or the desert, a landscape that is constantly changing. It used to be news material, visible everywhere; but now these images belong to history, and the process of them becoming archived raises new and important questions. Our positioning in relation to them also has to evolve.
So I don't think this distance was ever something that we wanted to defend. It's more like something that was there originally, because at first it seemed like we were very far from our topics or subjects, geographically, culturally, socially. Then we realized that the stories we were drawn to weren't as distant to us as it could seem: for instance my two chapters tell stories that have more to do with the current situation in France than in the Middle East.
How do you critically contend with your distance from the content of the media that is at the centre of this project, particularly as Westerners? How are you thinking through the ethics of this, and how are you actively confronting this in the project itself?
Chloé: As two Western researchers operating within an online vantage point, we are aware of the systemic privilege that enables our perspectives to be considered in the first place. We also acknowledge that our engagement with these images by definition maintains their problematic visibility, especially when they show victims of violence whose consent to appear in our film was never negotiated. But we feel that, in an online environment increasingly designed to polarize, it's important to extend ourselves in order to establish stronger bonds of understanding with others. Our strategy to address these questions has been to raise them explicitly within our work – not just as a way to prove that we are aware of them, but also to create a context for having these conversations publicly. In the feature, it will not just be our two voices; we want to invite other voices—if they wish—to enter our dialogue.
How did you ensure that your treatment of the terrorist videos you included was sensitive and not exploitative, fetishizing, or distressing? How did you navigate choosing what to include and omit, how to alter or edit the videos, and how to contextualise them for a viewer who was not familiar with them or their original intended purposes? How did you contend with what was at stake by the decision to include the images (and individuals featured in these images) that are seen in the terrorist videos you are responding to, and what do you feel occurs when these videos are converted from that original propagandistic context into a new context: ‘art’?
Chloé: That's an important and difficult question, and one that we've been considering since the first day of the project. I've been trying to address it not only in this specific project but also in a PhD thesis I'm currently writing, in which I try to discuss precisely this question of exoticization of vernacular online media when it is recontextualized as “cinema”. A lot has been written about the political and ethical stakes of artistic practices that rely on decontextualization and appropriation—notably in relation to Indigenous art, or with the French tradition of “art brut”—and the overwhelming availability of online media certainly calls for an update of these theories. I am less interested in drawing conceptual borders for what I'd argue is and isn't appropriate—who am I to set such standards?—and more interested in observing the different creative strategies that we're all trying to invent to circumvent these ideological dynamics of appropriation, and deconstruct and criticize their inner mechanisms from within our films. Appropriation or remix is a huge part of internet culture, we can't just ban it entirely as inappropriate; it's a matter of finding critical ways to engage with such practices.
In the case of Bottled Songs, the existing chapters testify to where we stood with regards to these questions when we made each video. The feature film we're working on now follows different standards, because as we discussed earlier, our understanding of the purpose of our work has evolved, and so has the social and cultural meaning of the media that we are commenting upon. Of course, we're hoping that most spectators will find our work respectful rather than exploitative or distressing, but we also have grown to appreciate that every person has their own sensibility and boundaries. So what we really hope for is that our work becomes an occasion for people from different backgrounds to enter in a dialogue with us and with one another about these questions—even if this means that we receive criticism for our creative choices.
Kevin: As Chloé says, the development of one’s ethical relationship to material such as this is a dynamic process that is shaped by an ongoing series of encounters that one has with different audiences and respondents. Even when I think I am acting responsibly, a different set of eyes will argue otherwise. In Looking Into the Flames I attempted various strategies to analyze a notorious ISIS video without having to actually “watch” it as a normal spectator would, in order to spare both myself and my audience of the potential trauma of seeing the video. I tried reducing the video material into a data set: a shot-by-shot catalogue of formal techniques and contents. It was inspired by the machine viewing technologies employed by surveillance and data mining operations.
But a couple of attentive viewers called me out on an earlier moment in which I express my anxiety about this video inhabiting my desktop, and the screen slowly zooms in on the video file inside one of my desktop folders. Someone compared it to the infamous tracking shot in Kapo (1960) that [Jacques] Rivette wrote about in one of the most stunning accounts of an exploitationist impulse—the lust for “art”, as your question implies—lurking behind a seemingly ethical work of cinema. I stand chastened by that criticism, and it leaves me wondering how much more strong thinking and writing is still to come on desktop cinema, at a level akin to Rivette and the other Cahiers du cinema critics of the 1950s. The form would surely benefit from it. Jan Distelmeyer in Germany and Shane Denson in the US have produced some great writing already. Otherwise for the most part we encounter such discourse in live conversations around our work.
To loop back a bit, could you talk more about how you cultivated intimacy in the project?
Chloé: I don't recall us deciding that intimacy should be a theme or an element of our method, but it was present from the beginning. Bottled Songs started as a project about terrorism, and so we wanted to talk about terror, an affect which is difficult to grasp outside of the affective realm. This is not to say that you cannot build a theory of terror, which has been done and is important work, but for us, it was really about how these videos work on us, how they impose an emotive form of spectatorship that paralyses our intellectual abilities through shock. Having our research take on an intimate quality was important for us because of the nature of what we were trying to understand.
In terms of why we decided to be protagonists of our work and speak in the first person, I think this has to do with the notion of identity and privilege, as discussed before. It was important for us to acknowledge where we were seeing from, and everything that informs the nature of our gaze.
Kevin: When you think about intimacy, you think about an affective state, right, a desire? But I cannot help but link it to knowledge. It's not an eros of bodies, it’s an eros of mind, of intellect. A lot of what is seen in Bottled Songs is self-intimacy: we are trying to get to the bottom of what we think about these media, and then relate what we have figured out to someone else. Video essays and essay films take us deep into the limits of what we can cognitively make sense of. It can be a little exhausting seeing somebody’s mind at work. This is something I find incredibly valuable and distinctive about them. I get to literally see someone's mind at work: how their thought processes operate audio-visually. In terms of what I watch, I don't want something that's already predetermined and dispensing information to you. That’s not what an essay is. An essay is following a line of thought; it’s a journey of the mind.
This project has involved putting ourselves at the limits of our own cognitive abilities in order to make sense of this media, so it definitely involves a lot of vulnerability in some ways: seeing someone being mentally taxed, almost in a kind of intellectual or cerebral distress at moments. I think that does make for difficult experiences for viewers at times. We showed two chapters of Bottled Songs in a cinema in Helsinki last year. Watching them back to back, we could tell the audience was a bit overwhelmed by the performance of our efforts to make sense of it. I think they were more affected by that than the actual subject matter.
If you were to perform as more confident and assertive narrators, do you think viewers would be less tired by it?
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. If you want to call these experimental films, this would be one dimension of the experiment. There are some experimental filmmakers who are against narration or voiceover, and we are narrating here, but what's tricky in our case is that we are performing that narrative function but in a way that's destabilising. We are not necessarily getting any closer to answers than where we started from, and I think that actually becomes frustrating for certain audiences who are perhaps expecting to learn a lot about ISIS by watching our films. There is a lot that we uncovered along the way, but it's not conclusive. The project is as much about presenting these case studies of the effects of these types of media on spectators who are trying to figure them out. I think that's a very open-ended thing for sure.
Related to your point about the frustrations of viewers, I wanted to ask about your decisions surrounding how much to intervene with the desktop and to make that intervention visible in various ways. Chloé’s chapters seem to have less obvious manipulations, whereas Kevin's parts draw attention to the interventions through zooms or other gestures. The more you intervene or make visible your interventions, the more it makes me aware that I can’t interact with the desktop myself. Could you talk about the presentation of the mechanics of the desktop in Bottled Songs?
Chloé: It's interesting feedback for us to hear this as we have been having an ongoing conversation about our different approaches to desktop filmmaking, but it also makes me think back to the question of intimacy that you were raising before, because there is a specific intimacy that is related to the form of the desktop film. For me to show you my desktop is a gesture of disclosure: as a viewer, you will have the feeling that you're seeing a lot of information about who I am, just based on the icons that I have on my desktop.
And your choice of wallpaper?
Chloé: Exactly. Secondly, some viewers will see this on a big screen in the movie theatre, but most, especially now, will see it on their computer. A number of viewers have told us they have had this sort of uncanny response to the film where they felt like their computer was being possessed. It creates an almost physical feeling that if you're seeing my desktop, it means you're looking over my shoulder or sitting on my lap. This sort of fictional or virtual intimacy allows for a very specific form of identification and empathy that you don't necessarily feel if you're just seeing a film that is made of original footage that the filmmaker captured on the field somewhere. I think the desktop has a specificity that makes you feel like it's happening to you. That you’re conducting the research. This leads me back to what you were saying about your awareness of how passive you had to be in front of those interfaces. I tend to give a lot of importance to active documentation of imprints on the digital landscape because this is something that is changing so fast. Desktop documentaries can serve as archives for the online environment in 2020, which is not going to be accessible in one, two, or twenty years from now.
Kevin: Yeah, I think that poses a very interesting juxtaposition because Chloé is more interested in preservation of online environments, interfaces, and experiences at a particular moment in time, but I would describe myself as interested in the cinematic experience and where it's heading. Desktop documentary poses a very specific example of that, as you can make a movie just on your desktop screen. This is what informs those cinematic or pseudo-cinematic gestures such as zooming and cutting that you see in my chapters, but this also informs the subjects I've found myself drawn to. This British photojournalist, John Cantlie, was this self-actualised media professional who had his agency hijacked and instrumentalized by the Islamic State, becoming their spokesperson. The ISIS propaganda film also shows these same dreams of self-actualisation through cinema and media that speak to me and my own kind of ongoing, long-frustrated impulse to make films which eventually found its way into making video essays and getting back to the idea of using lo-fi resources to conjure something cinematic. Now I am investigating all the implications of that proposition: you can make your own movies, but who are you and what are you making these movies for? My investigation is about the future of cinema and what kind of cinema is possible or can be made under these circumstances.
Is each chapter your own then, or is it not that simple? Do you make your parts separately?
Chloé: In our process so far, we've had very intense dialogues but they were happening mostly backstage and the films really are monologues addressed to one another. We are working for the feature towards bringing the dialogue in front of the screen, rather than behind it. We really want each video to be an actual answer to what comes before it. We also really want to do something that we haven't really been doing so far, which is to also investigate the same objects together. This would be a way to exemplify what we were talking about earlier, about having different perspectives and not trying to resolve those differences, but to bring these differences of interpretation to differing conclusions.
Lastly then, are you going to leave the desktop at any point? And how much further can this format be pushed or deconstructed or expanded than you have in your experiment so far?
Chloé: Well, those are two different questions. I think this genre just emerged and we've already been seeing quite a lot of different takes on it, from desktop documentaries that really try to preserve the integrity of the interface, to fiction films made on the desktop that have completely different objectives in terms of creating narrative tension. Of course, you also have a longer history of video art and experimental videos being made using elements from the desktop and deconstructing it in creative, abstract, visual ways. I think this is the beginning, and I guess that Kevin would agree. There are so many ways to approach the desktop, and I'm sure new practitioners will bring new approaches to the form.
As far as our project is concerned, we do want to leave the desktop more than ever now that we have to spend our entire day looking at it. I think we're suffering from desktop exhaustion and another form of exhaustion that we haven't mentioned so far, which is the exhaustion of the online interface. It is ironic because we've effectively been making films in lockdown for a number of years now, and now that everybody has to do that, we really wish we could just go onto the street with a camera. It is still the plan for the feature to be more of a hybrid between desktop film and filmed imagery, but we’ll see what is possible.
Kevin: You know, we'll see. I think it goes back to this idea of the desire for dialogues. Just as we want to have dialogues with other people besides ourselves, I think this direction is also a way of staging a dialogue between the online space and the offline space so that the two really kind of inform each other, and counteract or juxtapose each other. Desktop filmmaking is definitely becoming this surprisingly normalised form of media production. There was a week-long student workshop at the school where I teach, and a large number of desktop based videos were produced. It just sort of organically became this kind of tactical solution for how to deal with the pragmatic limitations of film production in this day and age. Video essays and desktop documentaries are kind of like the mode of 2020, and it just happens that we're doing both.