Artistic Research in Filmmaking

My art-based research is always related to films, either in the traditional sense of film study or of filmmaking, which both involve field investigation, and cross over into different disciplines and methods such as writings, video art, and essay films. The main drive for me in carrying out my art-based research in Asia and Africa is the fact that I have been based in Asia for more than twenty years, along with my curiosity for different people, other places, and how it all affects the world we live in. 

One aspect I am interested in relates to Guy Debord’s notion of 'the society of the spectacle' (1977), and his description of how this regulates the collective economy of desire circulating in the public and the private domains, in the cultural logic of modernity. Urban spaces manifest such a tendency and aptly present the mundane life people choose in living together. I make imagery that deals with the inner traffic between the global and the local, and I believe, it is a suitable medium for epitomizing the spectacle. This subtext of the global cultural logic is an alternative voice, in which the form of cinema meets the content—the musical, documentary, special effect, subculture, or performative all act together becoming a narrative per se. The image itself can be considered a by-product of the capitalist economy and as such a commodity affecting the perception of the world, and so can the film itself. How are these images constructed and perceived? How and what kind of reality is created? Under what circumstances can films be used in resistance to epidemic modernity and economic globalization? How can the subaltern be subversive? What are the secret economies of cultures and its people in the contemporary world through distribution of images in the mass media and the global culture industry? How do individuals in their biospheres react and survive? Finally, can film itself be of political significance in demanding emancipation from an aesthetic regime? These are the questions that I attempt to address in my art-based research.

One of the greatest inspirations I draw from is the oeuvre of Tsai Ming-Liang, a Malaysian born film director living in Taiwan. The publication Subversive Realities: The Films of Tsai Ming-Liang (Raidel 2011) resulting from my doctoral dissertation, gives an interpretation and analysis of the socio-aesthetic realms, which trigger his signature narratives—long shoots, fragmental sequences, natural lighting, and endless urban ruins. He employs certain stylistic characteristics to create a sense of authenticity by filming outside in the streets instead of in a studio and by casting non-professional actors. The long shot he employs referencing Bergson’s conception of 'duration' (Bergson 2008) constructs a meaningful event, and evokes the temporality of collective history. The slow and calm camera shot draws the subconscious mind into alienated landscapes triggered by political and social changes. What interests and fascinates me most in his approach is the intersection of the fictional and the real, and how he succeeds in enriching the virtuality of life beyond simple realism and in stylizing it into a cinematic rhetoric. Tsai’s films are a reflection on his life experience as a migrant from Malaysia in the social reality in Taiwan—capable of speaking from the post-colonial position of the sinophone.2 Tsai’s work is marked by ‘temporal dysphoria’, which ‘underlines the enduring effects of the former, strongly hierarchized relations between centre and periphery; west and non-west; and, arguably, between European film and its others.’ (Martin 2003)3 In the dialogue of Taiwanese presence and European modernity the time lag marks the birth of a new cinema, which uses its own culture as a vehicle to reinvestigate European modernity. Tsai creates his own world of Subversive Realities (Raidel 2011), creating boundaries for common sense and bourgeois living, through role-play, theatrical performances, and slapstick. His response towards European modernity unfolds in the realities from the margins of the society to organize a new spatialization. Under the premise of global mechanism and local culture, Tsai’s realities are subversive in carrying these subtexts as the allegorical effect surfacing from the dark, which can be more radically real than reality itself. In my writings on Tsai’s work, I mainly focus on the impact of biopolitics on film narrative, and I concentrate my attention on reading the virtuality of image production and individual memory. In Tsai’s films the past continually reconfigures itself as a loss of the origin. The missing, or a loss, the absence, and the void can be considered leitmotifs in the meta-cinematic context, such as a missing skywalk in Taipei, a missed encounter of two lovers, the missing son, or the father who was always absent. Tsai’s Chinese cultural motif appears not as the authentic tradition, but as a blurred concept transported through popular cultures such as cinema, literature, and music. The legacy of China, as much as the ancestral homeland is loaded with historical significance, and altered,  and reshaped through the perception of cinema. Sinophone cinema, as a form of collective visual memory, plays a crucial role in the constitution of the mystified China by surfacing a fictional past, which in turn stages a world of its own. It renders the past in moving images and infiltrates it with imaginary content. As if Tsai had already witnessed cinema culture in its vanishing, he created the imagery on the verge of disappearance, which can be read as symptomatic for the end of cinema. In this sense, Tsai is able to present the filmic text of self-reflexivity where the narrative is what essentially composes the form of the meta-cinema in finding an inner monologue from within the film structure, as if he were asking the viewers ‘What are you watching?’ and ‘What is cinema?’. Tsai’s films demand a politico-cultural account other than the purely aesthetic one, which is to say, a point of view of the contemporary world in which we live, always connected, translated, and perpetually transformed, epitomizing itself in the form of cinema.

Another influence is the cinema of Jia Zhangke, as I was shooting for this research mostly in Chongqing. His film Still Life (2006) was shot during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in that region. Shot in the demolished town Fengjie, Still Life (2006) follows a couple that has lost each other’s traces through the social and urban transformation. What is significant for both Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-Liang is that the protagonists in their films are wanderers, always moving and searching for people, places, or just themselves within society. What fascinates me is that by looking at them wandering, we are able to grasp the reality depicted around them. These enrichments of the fictional with the reality is for me more real than a documentary film could ever be. Both filmmakers agree that there is no clear line between documentary and fiction; the reality depicted is an artistic reality; it is not literal (Zhangke 2015: 170).

The performers are as I am, (re)searchers, wandering to look at the present phenomena, such as the transformations of the urban, the destruction of the past, or the ghost city, and with the character walking around, we can witness what surrounds them. This walking and wandering gives the film a sense of reality, although it is done within staged settings.

The sound functions as an additional subtext to the visual. The sound effect from the image transports meaning, defines political circumstance, and initiates subjective memory as a counterpart to the official history. As in Jia’s film there is the soundscape to ‘amplify meanings’ in the recurring image (Lovatt 2012). The sounds of an approaching train, of sledgehammers knocking down buildings, or of loudspeakers in the city or on the boat create a subtext, introducing the socio-political frame in which the plot takes place, such as the demolition of towns to give way to the Three Gorges Dam. Pop songs, ringtones, and public announcements all trigger memories of other times. This reverberation of sounds, songs, and melodies can be found across the works of directors from the sinophone world. Sounds, images, references, and performative acts are all what I call the reflexive ethnographical documents of my personal experiences and knowledge of living and working in Asia.

Parallel to my writings on the interpretation of Tsai’s work, my art-based research resulted in two films. The first one, Subverses–China in Mozambique (2011), displays the Chinese worker from within and outside the global context, referring to the colonial inheritance, which reaches a new climax with economic involvement from China. Taking the voice of a Chinese worker in Africa as voice-over commentary, the film is intercepted with performances of local slam poetry, which indicate not only the presence of subcultures in flux around the world, but serves also as the film’s footnotes, referring to the African oral tradition where history can be presented and thus told. The working conditions are stratified by socio-economic relations, which are symbolized by the difference of colours and cultures. In the wave of globalization the process of eliminating and reconstructing boundaries triggers mutual conflicts and struggles for power between local and foreign cultures, misplacing modernity and resulting in disorienting time and space. Subverses–China in Mozambique details ethnic conflicts under the ever-present and uneven phenomenon of globalization. In this film, the mix-and-match of staged and straight shooting scenes, acting and acting out are calculated and crafted in the hope of bringing to the fore the self-reflexive nature of my research, which cannot be presented otherwise.


In the wave of globalization the process of eliminating and reconstructing boundaries triggers mutual conflicts and struggles for power between local and foreign cultures, misplacing modernity and resulting in disorienting time and space.

My second film, Double Happiness (2014), which I compiled over a three-year research phase, is focused on the economy of cultural simulation in the global context. The film is about the copy of a small and idyllic Austrian village by the name of ‘Hallstatt’, to explore China’s rapid urbanization. Chinese cities are built on a non-site where histories and memories can be easily forgotten and thus rewritten. The film is in between the real and the fake created through visual imagery and commentary, interviews and songs. Interviews were conducted with scholars and architects in China. Several shooting locations include Huizhou, where the copy of the Austrian village is located, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Ordos in Mongolia, where a mega ghost city was built without potential inhabitants. It is a journey from a fancy Disneyland called ‘Austria’ in the south of China to an empty megacity in the north of China to demonstrate the mechanism of China’s urbanization and its possible future. Many scholars interviewed for my film ascribed this phenomenon as Shanzhai (山寨), the term denoting the culture of copying, the concept of which is to learn from others by copying. Through my investigations I found out that copying is not just about taking a shortcut, but that there is an entire culture which uses images to fantasize about the world, the life, and the now for a better 'Weltanschauung' as the logic of the spectacle. The Austrian village in China was planned as a luxury real estate project, boosting a mirage of an old European culture. But in less than a year the copy-town turned into the backdrop for wedding photography and a film studio for Korean soap operas. The town became a perfect background on which to project the imagined vision of a life somewhere else. The wedding pictures are not a document, but a fiction. This fictionalized reality can be taken even further and applied to city concepts and architectural planning. China’s Hallstatt is a residential area turned into a modern theme park, an ultra-utopia of no man’s zone. Writing on Orientalism, Edward Said  described the uneven relationship between West and East and the imaginary image imposed on the East (Said 1978). In a more contemporary approach and under the current effects of globalization, I want to reconceptualize the imaginary content, seen less from a colonial perspective and rather as the influence of media and image production itself on an urbanism of the digital age, in which the digital image reproduction, effects of tourism, and fictionalized content of mass media all contribute to the imaginary realm today. The West manifests itself in a mediated mirror image. The cinematic images, and image culture as such, have infiltrated the global world and are spreading from theme parks to the real estate market and living conditions. The theme park is much like a model itself replacing the real, or even making it obsolete.

Reality Itself Becomes Cinematic

Again, I experiment with the original, faked and staged in response to the world in its image production. The film is shot in the fashion of a docu-musical referring to The Sound of Music (1965), the Hollywood production of a non-existent Austrian culture, which gained touristic hype in Salzburg. The origin is no longer determined by tradition or culture, but rather by playing a role or playing with images derived from visual footage archives, gathered from mass media and revealing a collective fantasy. This meta-political dimension can only be disclosed in a reflexive narrative mode that syncs the diegesis and the mimesis, crossing between the genre of documentary and fiction. The performative act is crucial to re-enacting scenes, which I have previously observed. I achieve a blur of fiction and real from which new perspectives, thoughts, and knowledge depart. The re-enactment and the performative act are re-compositions of the old into a new vision, to catch the fleeting moments frozen in stills. In the work, the in-between dimension woven by the urban and architecture, pop culture, theory, politics, social change, and image production is presented intertextually. The fictional work turns into the domain of the documentary, and the documentary becomes fictionalized to highlight the impossibility in the real, especially because of the nature of the media itself as the economy of collective desire. No longer is the matter either real or fictional, but instead to do with the virtuality of the biosphere in seeing the epistemology of the image production, the perception, and its effects on the capitalist globe. The interplay of theory, art, critical observation, documentary filmmaking, and performance is the only way to display such dynamics on and off the screen.

Double Happiness is art-based research not about the immoral aspect of the copy, but the power of the copy, which becomes our cultural tour de force, and in turn, damages the real, just as the iconoclasts did in the past. We can even claim that the Hallstatt in China is as illusory as, or as real as, the original one, which is full of touristic consumerism and cultural fantasy from Asia, and the meeting of both in ‘the double happiness’ is by no means the true romance of the global culture.

Double Happiness Booklet and DVD

Subverses-China in Mozambique (2011)

Photoshooting/Double Happiness, video sequence, 2014

A Pile of Ghosts (2021)