Video installation, dvd loop, 7'10”, 2003

"Audience in films.
In "Play", the onscreen action can only be seen reflected in the facial expressions and gestures of the audience. In sequences of analogous reactions, individual behavior condenses into collective behavior. The event is transferred from the stage to the hall; audience members become the actors in an unpredictable drama.
With their montage of found footage images, Müller and Girardet build a captivating, dramatic bridge to the audience. It contains condensed suspense with highs, lows, hesitations, peaks, tension and humour; it's all a bit uncanny, since the imagination can read fathoms deep into the faces."
Anke Groenewold, Neue Westfälische, Bielefeld, 2003

“Play (Christoph Girardet/Matthias Müller, 2003) is about our attitude as an audience member. Yet in this assemblage of found footage, we, the audience, become the object of the gaze – and therefore our attitude becomes uncanny as well, for it is split into two positions. We continue to share the camera's view, floating invisibly and silently with it through the space, while from time to time it picks out an individual figure from the crowd and then returns it to the aggregate, so that it can comprehend the entire auditorium. However, we are also mirrored in the emotional gestures of the audience we see via the camera, which Girardet / Müller have rhythmically recombined to shape a narrative that spans anticipation, happiness, fear, horror, shock and unlimited excitement. These emotions can be read in faces and physical attitudes, but they also implicitly illuminate our feelings. We recognise ourselves in these gestures but also feel as if we have been caught watching the things we experience in the darkened theatre or cinema. At first a man claps all by himself, then the crowd gathered in the room joins in. Next, lone figures or couples happily abandon themselves to the spectacle on the stage. They pause, look around and – as if awakened from a daydream – they once again begin to applaud, with special enthusiasm this time. The excitement of the crowd grows; audience members stand up and shout "Bravo!" at the actors. Forgetting the border of silence that separates the auditorium from the stage, they themselves now stand in the spotlight.
Comparable to the invisible, threatening agents in Home Stories that transform the homes of the heroines into uncanny places, we imagine the stars of the spectacle, who awaken excitement and horror in us, in the blind spot of the screen that Pascal Bonitzer calls the off-screen space. Despite their powerful presence, they also remain invisible in Play. Then it is quiet. They audience has calmed down again, waits in anticipation for the next scene, has a sense that the pleasure is about to increase. Couples look at each other meaningfully, as if they want to make certain that they are actually experiencing the performance together. However, Girardet / Müller's editing strongly suggests a tragic outcome.
For Stanley Cavell, the relationship between audience and actor is fundamentally characterised by an imbalance. Although we are not in the presence of the actors but safely hidden from them in the dark, they are totally present for us. Tragedies make this circumstance clearer, showing us that we are responsible for the pain and embarrassment of others – not because we have caused them to suffer, but because we, the audience, have witnessed it. The moral reason behind visiting the theatre is to acknowledge our share of the responsibility. Play is precisely about this acknowledgement, which foils the voyeuristic pleasure. Accordingly, the sequence featuring the calls of "Bravo!" is the first breach, as the voices of individual members of the audience force themselves into the presence of the actors onstage. They do not want to be invisible; they want to be acknowledged by the actors so that they can convey their excitement directly to them. However, the crucial peripeteia begins in the moment when a shady male figure looks at us directly through his opera glasses. In becoming the object of another audience member's gaze, we also become accomplices. Girardet/Müller extend this ominous pact with another shot in which several opera glasses are simultaneously directed at the camera and thus through inference at us. Suddenly we find ourselves in the blind spot, where the reason for all of the audience's excitement exists.
The usual system of observation has been interrupted. We are reflected in the gazes of others, with whom we identify at the same time. In staging the vanishing point of voyeuristic pleasure, Girardet/Müller also introduce a thematic transition. Things become quiet; an oppressive waiting begins, emphasised by the way the shots are slowed down in the extreme. Once again, the camera travels, closing in on individual members of the audience, who look around worriedly, searching for a way to avoid the approaching catastrophe. The crowd becomes restive. They no longer gaze in awe at the stage, but excitedly speak to each other, stand up and leave the auditorium. A few remain in their seats. In the close-ups, we see emotional gestures, sad resignation. Some figures hesitantly leave the almost empty auditorium. They have recognised their share of the responsibility, but cannot bear it and consequently want to flee this place, where their secure position as onlooker has been shaken by the unexpected interruption of the performance.
One single man is left alone in the empty space: Alastair Sim, the father of Jane Wyman in Stage Fright. Cautiously, almost furtively, he approaches the edge of the stage and begins to clap emphatically. The sound of his devotion to an invisible actress echoes touchingly throughout the room. He consciously faces her, gives up his distance to the stage, thus demonstrating that he shares both responsibility and suffering. Yet an uncanny moment remains: we cannot exactly see if he is applauding only the onstage figure lingering in the blind spot of the frame – or us, those who have remained behind with him. The ghostly magic of the film characters is also retained, for Play forces us to stay in the auditorium, to place ourselves in an impossible location – in that off-screen space, which the figures on the stage have taken over. As if in a dream, we share the image's vanishing point from this moment on with those who excite us, who put us in a state of ecstasy, who shake us up, confuse us and, especially, enchant us. The stars and the characters they play have a power to attract, which seems even more powerful when they are absent. Precisely because they have disappeared from the frame of the image, these phantoms of the cinema are particularly persistent in haunting those of us who get involved with the Girardet/Müller cinephile promise. We cannot withstand them. We can only abandon ourselves to them.”
Elisabeth Bronfen: “I Am Haunted, But I Can‘t See By What. Matthias Müllers Unheimliches Hollywood”. In: “Matthias Müller – Album”, Frankfurt/M. 2004

We both belong to the first generation that had a media-based education. It was especially television that left the clearest mark on our imagery. At fine art school, we then studied film as an artistic means for personal expression, beyond it's mass-media forms. It was also a critical investigation into the media's supply of images, a subversive intervention into its system of signs and it rules. It was at that time that we first became rather interested in the history of found footage, with the work of artists like Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner, and Raphael Montañez Ortiz. We learned that appropriation is a cultural technique that is always influenced by highly subjective factors, specific interests, and personal needs as well as the individual predilections of the artists working in the media-related field. We made an efford not only to take the material we were appropriating seriously, but also to consider it in relationship to ourselves so as to highlight trivial aspects and stereotypes. In this, we chose to refer to industrial cinema, which has the power to bewitch its worldwide audience through its forms of representation and standarized signs and emblems. However, our personal conditions of production are worlds away from the industry standards whose products we borrow.
Christoph Girardet / Matthias Müller

© 2021 Curtas Vila do Conde