Haunted by last season’s video letters­­

amateur films performing spectrality

by Lisa Stuckey


Visually, amateur films feature repetitions, replications, transferences, idealisations, or even repressions if desire is categorised as negative. Affirmatively, desire means enrichment (Braidotti 2011).i The muteness of 8mm and Super 8 intensifies the impression that these films function as a live stream, in the sense of a stream of images of life or living images such as tableaux vivants, always in rehearsal. Although, obviously, editing is done by the camera and certain scenes or situations are omitted, there is a strong process of filtering. What are the dynamics of this stream? In amateur films there is a pronounced dynamic of the conscious and unconscious in a combination of unconscious perception and conscious remembering. A polar structure appears to be typical to home movies, as well as the linking of moving objects within the image and the image as a moving one itself. Even though traces of complex components such as self-transformation may be found and there were some amateurs with aesthetic standards, they in general seem to lack media-reflexivity. The question is not merely how the images vacillate between documentation and fiction, but rather how the enacted reality positions the filmic practice as an agentiality of co-becoming of image and (family) system. It is almost as though there was no family without the image, no perception of the family without the use of an apparatus.


Remarkably, since the 1970s the line between archival material (originating from an institutional actor) and found footage has become porous, for archives are imagined no longer as clearly demarcated but as regulatory forces that inform our perception of what we deem true and worth knowing.ii Scientific interest in amateur films is increasing, especially from film archives, which feel responsible for preserving this filmic material as historical documents of everyday culture. Issues under focus are the constructions of identity within the system of the middle-class family, or the axis of the gaze. The reception today situates the unconscious historically. 


For me, the motivation to engage with this material is also a genealogical one: I also work with the medium of video, and deal with a collection of amateur films (auto)biographically. I am interested less in analysing the unconscious motivation of the people that appear in the film than in the unconscious on the cinematic surfaceiii or skin itself. This unconscious indicates porous social-historical, cultural-psychological, and materially embedded layers. Amateur films are not just representations, but living archives within the family institution. They perform a we as different generations gather, repeatedly watching them, creating dynamic places to encounter. The context of these amateur films was never the cinema but the private room, the living room. Maybe even just the knowledge of the existence of these films contributes to organising the family as a system; or, to haunting them.


Does amateur film speak an everyday language or a sublime psychoanalytic language? I value the concept of amateurism as empowering, recognising an emergency of amateurish practices due to a decline of genre-specificity beginning in the 1980s. My practice can be considered as one of an amateur analyst. I learned from my own analytic sessions as an analysand and though the discourse-driven influences of an art academy. Here, points of reference may be Sigmund Freud’s concept of Laienanalyse.iv (German for an analysis undertaken through an ordinary person) or Juli Carson’s idea of the artist as analyst.v 


After the production I sent a WeTranfer link to the four siblings. Before the video spread through my family, they gave me feedback, further analysing, confessing, and making me believe that approaching the amateur-film archive actually functioned as a systematic (re)arrangement.


In media ecologies, where recycling and reappropriation, such as thinking with images about images (including a reflection of their distribution, production, and reception) are favoured over media revolutions, the spectral is le revenant in Derrida’s sense,vi a ‘ghostly “re-apparition”’. With Four Siblings, I tried to look through the spectres eyes – the found images – as though there was no looking at. ‘The ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events.’vii Thus, telling unauthorised stories – a definition that’s exposed to change – is, to quote Avery Gordon,viii ‘to write ghost stories’.

i ‘Nomadic thought rejects the psychoanalytic idea of repression and the negative definition of desire as lack inherited from Hegelian dialectics. It borrows instead from Spinoza a positive notion of desire as an ontological force of becoming’ (Braidotti 2011: 2).

ii See Elsaesser (2016: 139).

iii In his text on the unconscious at the filmic surface, Binotto makes a plea for understanding the unconscious not as topically subordinate to the consciousness but rather as constantly swashing into it. Thus past and repressed, conscious and unconscious are in the film as the psyche is always simultaneously present without spatial separation (see Binotto 2014: 182).

iv See Freud (1976: 225).

v See Carson (2007: 112).

vi See Derrida and Stiegler (2013: 38).

vii Weinstock (2004: 5).

viii Gordon (1997: 17).

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C.: When I think about our childhood there are two different models.

One model is America, where I have the impression of an absolutely intact family, as one would imagine, father and mother, four children, for me a healthy unit.

The other model is Austria, where grandmother came to the fore, granny L.

I have done a family constellation with figures with a psychologist, who said, Now arrange your closest relatives.

There were we kids, mother and father, but dad was a bit further back, and in front of him – granny.* 

* What appears in this self-reflexive statement
   is an enigmatic image of the grandmother,
   my great-grandmother, and her
   spectral (non-)absence
   that amounts to her haunting the family.