A conversation about artistic research with South African filmmaker Jyoti Mistry

Jyoti Mistry © Heinrich Voelkel

How did you, as a filmmaker, first come into contact with artistic research?

Jyoti Mistry (JM): Artistic research questions canonised knowledges and suggests an open-endedness to enquiry that is politically significant. In its potentiality, artistic research is strategically necessary towards advancing decolonial propositions of knowledge. In principle, by exposing how knowledge is constructed through power relations, artistic forms can be used to develop a critique from within the practice itself. It offers a valuable way to explore ideas and advance the artistic practice from within. In this case, I am interested in how film practices can be developed outside of the conventions that exist in film as well as in expanding film language through research.

Working from a southern perspective (being located in South Africa), I was drawn to the counter-epistemic strategies that embody one of the inceptual propositions of artistic research.

In a publication entitled Places to Play (2017)1, I describe the connections between artistic research and decolonial strategies. In both, propositions and methods facilitate epistemic disobedience, experimentation, and counter-institutionalised artistic forms that advance knowledge; this remains an important ethos for me as a practitioner-researcher.

It is a problem that artistic research has become a “discipline” at some institutions, a fact that seems counter-intuitive to the very important conceptual ethos that initially informed its description. It is necessary to consider artistic research as an approach that is relevant for working across disciplines and facilitates interdisciplinary methods and research.

How can filmmaking, as you practice it, contribute to the creation of new forms of knowledge production?

JM: I work with film practice as a mode of enquiry rather than with film’s singularity as a storytelling medium. Throughout the history of cinema, a significant number of practitioners have explored the materiality of the medium and its relation to the expression of ideas and have experimented with form as central to knowledge. An important contemporary shift, I think, is about the reflexivity in exposing how institutional contexts have shaped epistemologies. In the work that I am currently experimenting with in my practice, I am increasingly interested in the experiential and how it revitalises our consideration of violence or oppression, for example. Knowledge, in this case as it relates to my practice, has less to do with explaining (understanding) and more to do with exposing the delimits of not-understanding. This in itself is a counter-strategy to the certainty of knowledge which has been the cornerstone of Western epistemologies.

What does working with archival film material mean to you?

JM: In the act of mining the archive, the relationships between “official” histories, elided histories, experiences, and memories are given renewed interpretations and meanings. The material in the archive can thus shift from being illustrative (films as documents) to having new meanings from the vantage point that is being explored, for example from the position of the colonised, the oppressed, women, or marginal individuals. In that sense, working with filmic archival material is a necessary political act of reclaiming certain images and positions that would otherwise not be visible—by exposing what has been elided and organizing the material in ways that produce reinvigorated meanings of experiences.

How do you use historical material, and how much research is involved with its use in the context of modern film technique(s)?

JM: The archival provenance is important during the research phase; working with the archive catalogue, the metadata, and the index. These elements are vital because they contextualise the historical and socio-political connections in the material. A lot of content has not been digitised, so it requires the patience to look through material on film flat-beds and to work with the archivists directly to find the images one is looking for. It is interesting that celluloid remains a very resilient material in terms of the manipulability of the footage while having an organic and “softer” look than digital images with their harder edges. The celluloid’s imperfections are what makes it resilient.

Do you believe that your way of connecting filmmaking and artistic research is also a form of political activism?

JM: I am drawn to the ethos of artistic research as a political and aesthetic proposition. I am reluctant, perhaps, to think of my work as political activism. The politics of knowledge production and artistic research as a form of epistemic disobedience is more productive for me as a practitioner-researcher. Arguably, in this context, if activism is thought about as transformative gestures or activity that opposes the status quo, then how artistic research exists inside institutions may be considered a form of activism against ossified research frameworks (though that is fast changing as well). To expand: I recognise, perhaps, that in your question, artistic research as political activism might have to do with how and where artistic research is located within institutions and with the fraught political issues that have resulted in debates on how to validate “art as research” and its relation to broader mechanisms of support and funding within higher education.

The political aspects of artistic research that interest me have to do with how to take space for those aesthetic forms and epistemic propositions that include cultural and geo-historical references that have otherwise been erased or elided. So, for example: How do experiences of marginality become visible and inclusive? How to recognise Southern theories or knowledge paradigms that come from “else-where” (i.e., are non-Western)? And how can discursive practices be developed?

In your latest film, “Cause of Death”, you address the vulnerability of women, especially of colonised women. Do you also view yourself as a feminist filmmaker?

JM: “Cause of Death” works with the inherent contradictions of lived experiences of women and their roles in socio-political and economic structures; the dichotomy of being both revered and reviled is always simultaneous. The colonial sections of the archival material have two dimensions: the documentation of the colony for the purposes of advancing the economic agenda of colonialism and the quotidian lives of the coloniser in the colony. There are numerous ethnographic images as well. When I use the term ethnographic, I am referring to all of the images that document cultures, peoples and practices (and in this case, women’s roles in them) that traverse disparate geographies (Asia, Africa, Europe). This is what made this project interesting for me—the emergent patterns from different contexts where I wanted to make connections to the past with contemporary structures of violence against women.

I welcome the place of seeing myself as a feminist filmmaker amongst the strong (even if not long) tradition of filmmakers who are feminists, who strive to make the experiences of women visible.

  1. https://www.ahk.nl/fileadmin/download/ahk/Lectoraten/AIR/ISSUU_places_to_play_ZICHT.pdf
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