Lights on! – Kazimierz Bendkowski: Centre

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© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

At first Kazimierz Bendkowski’s 1973 work Centre (Centrum) seems to offer a straightforward reading. With flickering images of neon signs and traffic lights melting into abstract surfaces Bendkowski takes the viewer on a dreamlike trip into a teeming metropolis: to Warsaw in the seventies. However viewers revisiting the film may form a more layered impression.

Despite the growing number of studies focusing on Polish experimental cinema and video art, there is not much written about Bendkowski’s film. Nevertheless its complexity has been occasionally recognized by the different contexts of screening programs it has been selected for. In a selection of the main representatives of Polish abstract film curated by members of the Filmoteka Muzeum project (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw) it was played alongside Josef Robakowski’s Test (1971) and Andrzej Pawlowski’s Cinéforms (1957). In 2014 as a part of an unprecedented screening program in National Gallery of Art in Washington introducing experimental cinema in Eastern Europe, it was screened together with Ljubomir Šimunić’s Pression (1970-75), Thomas Werner’s Hello, Berlin! (1987) and Igor Toholj’s Death of Metalosaurus (1989). The program was called City Scene / Country Scene and gathered films focusing on the places where they were made. More relevant is the footnote to Joanna Raczynska’s introduction of the film that – referring to David Crowley’s theory – points out a less self-evident aspect of the film, namely its reference to the changing attitudes towards consumerism in the East.[1] Lukasz Ronduda confirmed and further developed this idea when he attached Bendkowski‘s Centre to a series of films (Zdzisław Sosnowski, Teresa Tyszkiewicz: Permanent Position, 1978; Na’talia LL: Consumption Art, 1973; Zygmunt Rytka: Fiat 126 p, 1975) that “examine the effects of a socialist-consumerist experiment through sensuous fantasies of desire and excess.“[2]

These three programs confirm that there is much more to look for in Bendkowski’s film than its surface would suggest. In this short text – instead of focusing on one single aspect of the film – I would like to give a brief overview of a few different thoughts the film triggered in me.

Structure – image and sound

Alongside several famous Polish artists like Pawel Kwiek, Józef Robakowski, Ryszard Wasko and Wojciech Bruszewski, Bendkowski belonged to the founding members of the Film Form Workshop (Warsztat Formy Filmowej), an undoubtedly influential filmmaking collective formed in 1970 as a section of the Scientific Society at the State Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź. Members of the Workshop were not only disappointed with the educational system but with the entire institution of cinematography. Their aim was to came up with different approaches to completely eliminate elements taken from literature, theatre and narrative film, therefore analytical and conceptual tendencies were a priority in their projects.[3] One of the main issues their films raised was the relationship between image and sound. Just like Bruszewski and Wasko, Bendkowski was extremely interested in the discovery of this relation. In his early films (all made in 1973) he came up with different methods for the combination of the two. (An Area, Circle, Point)

Centre, which is also dated 1973, belongs to the same series of experimentation but with a strong turn from figuration towards abstraction. While, for example in An Area Bendkowski plays with and exploits the viewer’s inner need to construct some sort of narrative, Centre firmly denies this kind of association between image and story line. First we see more or less identifiable images of Warsaw’s nightlife: silhouettes of cars and buildings, neon signs, traffic lights which later transform into a colorful abstract blend. The speed of the transformation is rather gentle and subtle. Bendkowski starts with a familiar image of a modern city: with cars passing by and with a building showing the sign CENTRUM in the background. He keeps this angle for over 10 seconds before breaking up the image with a sudden move, by multiplying and pushing forward the CENTRUM sign. Right after this “detour” he lets the viewer rest for a bit as he brings back the first image once more. But the restoration of the original order is just temporary. From there on the kinks become more frequent and pervasive. The comforting cityscape crashes and a fragmented version of the original structure takes over. Bendkowski thematically dismantles all the main reference points and drives the viewer into a state of complete rootlessness. However the transformation is not entirely linear. Bendkowski divides the film into segments in which he pursues the shift of different city scenes. The climax comes shortly  before the fourth minute when Bendkowski leaves all previous references behind and has flickering abstract images fully take over. The parade of abstract surfaces goes on for about a minute after which Bendkowski abruptly switches right back to the starting image.

The sound is constructed from audio recordings at the places where the images were shot: engines starting, breaks screaming, door bells buzzing, sirens crying or inaudible chattering. In Centre the rhythm of the images changing parallels the intensity of the sound. Bendkowski does not tend to use the origin of a sound and the sound together but he makes sure that sound and image do not contradict each other. When the editing gets more energetic, so does the sound. When unrecognizable abstract forms take over, the origins of the elements of the sound track also become unidentifiable. Image and sound support each other throughout the film.

I must agree with Kluszczynski and Ronduda’s summaries of Centre namely their emphasis on its complex, rationally constructed structure of internal relations.[4]

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

City symphony?

Moving from the more obvious references to ambiguous ones, I should start with placing Bendkowski’s work in the catalogue of avant-garde film genres. In a certain sense Bendkowski’s Centre could be interpreted as a modern reference to a trend defined by Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) and Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) when it depicts a city by rejecting traditional forms of documentary film. These films were considered among the main representatives of a “specifically avant-garde genre”[5] called city symphony. Even though the definition of the term is unclear, it has a few distinct features. City symphonies suppress narrative and plot elements and assert rhythmic and associative montage as formal devices. Some of them use a dawn to dusk structuring strategy in the search for a pure film form, others use different structuring principles like a fictional thunderstorm in Joris Ivens’ Regen (1929). The composition of the city symphony (as the name implies) resemble a musical composition through rhythmic montage that demands precise calculation of duration. As Alexander Graf explains: “the makers of city symphonies looked to the mathematical abstraction of musical aesthetics in their efforts to establish a film language intrinsic to the medium in the city symphonies.”[6] Bendkowski’s film is a modern variant of this formula using its main focus on a specific structural principle to connect with the original city symphonies across fifty years of avant-garde film.

The story of / behind the neon

In Centre Bendkowski pictures Warsaw in the seventies. But by picking neon lights as a core of its structure he recalls a much broader story of the unfortunate Polish capital. The rapid spread of luminous light bulbs and neon lights in 1930’s Warsaw was the result of the devastation the city had to endure over the previous decades. Since the previously adorned handmade signs were all destroyed in the wars the regulations of the city’s magistrate were more tolerant of neon lighting as shop advertisements than, for example in Berlin. Most of these inter-war lights were destroyed in the Second World War and in the late 40s and early 50s several kinds of them were banned as they were considered antagonistic to the communist system.[7] Following the death of Stalin and the arrival of the thaw many of the pre-war designs began the reappear as signs of political relief.  The late 50s were declared a time of neonization, and Warsaw transformed into the European capital of neon lights. In the following decades the city that for many years was “submerged in darkness”[8] developed its unique façade which makes it unmistakable in Europe even today.

Besides a few stills in Centre Bendkowski manages to hide almost every detail of Warsaw that would give away the exact period of the recordings. Although the blurry images of cars could narrow down the possible interval to 20 years (or much more for car experts) the presentation of the city is constructed to give almost complete dominance to neon signs. But as we learned these signs could work as clear identifications to specific periods in Warsaw’s history. For those who are familiar with the designs and the history of neon signs Bendkowski’s film offers a completely new reading Investigating the origins of just one sign and its role in the film demonstrates the value of this perspective. The P.K.O. sign – to which Raczynska refers to as “tell-tale”[9] without getting into details – stands for Powszechna Kasa Oszczędności (Public Savings Fund). P.K.O. is known as Poland’s largest and oldest bank which was founded in 1919 and still operates. Its original sign (K.K.O.) is one of the few neon signs in Warsaw that survived the Second World War. It was 1952 when the sign was re-purposed as P.K.O.[10] According to these information the utilization of the sign could be a metaphor for Poland’s ability to survive or could be a tool to blur the exact period of the recording of the images. Focusing on the year though when the old sign was replaced by the new one, the association could lead to a more slippery path. 1952 was the year of the July Constitution in Poland, the starting point of the period called the Polish People’s Republic (aka Poland under communist control) that lasted till 1989.

At this point it needs to be emphasized that I am not aware of any evidence that would that these connections are deliberate. Moreover in her previously mentioned footnote Raczynska referred to Centre as a “deeply apolitical film”[11] – though without further explanation. But as writing about an experimental film should only be done with a playful analytical attitude, I should not stop here.

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

Repressing / expressing the individual

During the Communist regime Eastern European artists were living “under the permanent pressure of ‘cultural policies’, whose sole, sometimes explicitly stated purpose was instrumentalization of culture, or its de facto elimination.”[12] The expression of subjectivity, “the inner experience of the individual” was considered unwanted or even reactionary by the Official Cultural Policy. For most artists at the time practicing modern art was a way to defend individualism against the “state imposed collectivism”[13] Members of the Film Work Shop shared a common approach to art but were also known of their aim to develop unique features in their artworks. Everyone was encouraged to develop their own language, to experiment with different media and to find the best way to express a topic of his own choosing.

During his time at the Workshop Bendkowski was mainly occupied with unconventional ways to combine image and sound and made several films utilizing the everyday life of Warsaw. Replika for example is a time-lapse recording of a children’s playground shot from a single angle, showing events of the place from dusk till down. Centre is a results of the same personal interest but has a completely different tone. In Centre he projects a rather alarming aspect of the city. The darkness and rush of the film devour the individual with immense power. In Centre Bendkowski refuses to show a human face. The city is occupied by machines: cars, trembling traffic lights, flickering neon signs. Even when he shows people, he shows them in larger groups hiding their faces as they melt into a blurred mush. He applies the same method to the sound. We hear motors, sirens, brakes, honks mixed together into an unearthly, mystical, eerie tone that Bendkowski uses in several of his other films. People’s voices are only represented by a short insert of inaudiably echoing chatter and laughter that is interrupted by another peculiar noise which reminds me of a malfunction of electric equipment.

Centre could be read as a film picturing a city without a single individual in it.  In the dark the mechanical prevails, even the fast forwarded movements of the groups of people seem automatic. By the peak of the film every autonomous form dissolves into a mix of pulsating abstract surfaces. In the dark where two enigmatic signs dominate the night (CENTRUM and P.K.O.) and serve as reference points, projections of machines surrounding us  push the viewer as individual into a hypnotic dream. Suddenly the viewer is pulled out of the dream and forced to face the same image he saw the very beginning of the film. The sudden change ending the abstract climax urges him to redefine his view of more familiar surroundings, and to understand the power of the elements in his environment.

Abstraction – The common language

During the communist regime abstract art had a special role in the Eastern European countries. Even though there were differences between the receptions by the Official Culture Politics in each country, abstract art was generally not welcomed by the socialist leadership. Abstraction as a form of artistic expression, a sort of common language was a way to establish contact with the contemporary art world in a region which was aggressively isolated from it. As Piotrowski explains: “with universal culture [they]hoped to provide a remedy for the party control imposed by the regimes of the soviet block.”[14] In Poland however the situation was different, as at some point the Polish regime decided to “embrace Modernist art in its effort to define its political identity on the international arena.”[15]

Bendkowski’s abstraction utilizes the combination of machine aesthetics with dynamic components yet cannot really be seen as a definite representative of the early constructivist films. Its sensual colors, fluid compositions, signify the characteristics of a more playful wave of non-objective art in film. It seems to draw inspiration from the traditions of both geometric and lyrical abstraction styles. The sequence at the climax of the film, a flow of unidentifiable surfaces and sparkling patches of color, refers to the the practice and philosophy of the informal. On the other hand, the use of industrial designs and the display of pure geometric forms suggest a more reductive and more disciplined strain of abstraction.

At this point it is imperative to recall the general composition of Centre. At the end of the film Bendkowski uses the same image as in the very beginning: a more conventional shot of a street in Warsaw with the CENTRUM sign in the upper right section of the image. This figurative sequence works as a frame in the film, marking the beginning and the end of the dissolution of the standard imagery. This particular construction inspires yet another reading of the film. It could represent the situation of Eastern European artists who try to overcome the boundaries of the official art meaning in the case of Poland the need to distinguish pure Modernist art from politically charged artforms exploited by the authorities. Here the experimentation, meaning the process of objects disintegrating into abstract images, is in a way trapped between frames. But as the tools (images, sounds) of the experimentation are constituted of the frame itself, the work already manages to overcome its own boundaries. In other words: it does indeed trick the system.

In relation to abstraction there is another viewpoint that can be considered, namely the question of specifically Polish abstraction. As the form of abstraction is considered a universal language in art the question might seem self-contradictory. Nevertheless it is known that in the 60s painters in Eastern Europe experimented with ways to combine abstraction with national artistic forms. In Hungary for example Ilona Keserü and István Nádler pursued the integration of national motifs into abstract imagery.[16]  It did not mean the incorporation of known figures but rather the use of colorit and “the musicality of forms” that recall a specific style of Hungarian folk art. In the case of Centre the source that – as its history suggests –  could be considered specifically Polish is the design of the neon signs Bendkowski utilizes.

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

© Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

The socialist-consumerist experience

Such an analytic angle was already put forth by three experts, Gurshtein and Raczynska, the curators of the previously mentioned screening program in Washington, and Ronduda, who considered Bendkowski’s film a unique expression of the socialist-consumerist experiment. According to Gurshtein however, Ronduda (and Michał Woliński) failed explain in detail why they placed Centre among films that more directly reflect on the “vision of socialist consumerism” aiming to “lure and bribe” the public in the economic context of Poland in the 70s. To grasp the connection Raczynska turns to Crowley’s theory that focused on the symbolic meaning of the neon signs appearing in the film. According to Crowley:

“The changing appearance of the city was a product of the party’s promises to improve standards of living in the face of a storm of criticism following Stalin’s death. The modish sensibility had its foremost architectural expression in the wave of cafes and bars which were newly opened or refurnished in the second half of the 1950s. Whereas abstract art on the walls and neon on the facades of these leisure sites were clear signs of a new attitude toward the satisfaction of previously suppressed appetites, much of this modernization was ‘surface-deep’ in a literal sense.”[17]

As Raczynska and Gurshtein tend towards the idea of accepting Bendkowski’s film more as a purely formal experiment rather than a “statement about city life in socialist Poland”, Crowley’s theory remains a suggestion in a footnote.[18] For Crowley these signs and plate glass windows projected the image of the West and started to occupy the socialist city. But as the history of neon signs suggest, in the case of Warsaw this particular way of advertisement may have a much more complex connotation. This is particularly relevant given the emphasis Bendkowski placed on the P.K.O. sign which has got little to do with the idealism of the West.

Conclusion

This text contains contradictory ideas about the film it considers. Then again, none of these interpretations were meant to serve as the only true reading of Bendkowski’s film. Rather they showcase the wealth of interpretations a five minute film can offer. Bendkowski’s Centre is an exemplary piece of work. For me it stands as a solid reminder of what film as an art form was meant to be. Instead of transmitting one clear agenda, it triggers a wide spectrum of thoughts, emotions and above all: questions.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wach

 

View film online at Filmoteka Muzeum


[1] Raczynska, Joanna and Gurshtein, Ksenya (2014) “City Scene / Country Scene – introduction”. National Gallery of Arts in Washington.
[2] Ronduda, Łukasz: Satisfaction: Consumption Art in Poland, 1973-1979 – Introduction.
[3] Kluszczynsi, Ryszard W. () The Mechanical Imagination – Creativity of Machines: Film Foem Workshop 1970-1977.
[4] Kluszczynski, Ryszard W. (2007) “The Mechanical Imagination – Creativity of Machines: Film Form Workshop 1970-1977” In: Ronduda, Łukasz and Zeyfang, Florian (2007) 1,2,3… Avant-Gardes: Film/Art between Experiment and Archive. Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary Art, and Berlin/New York: Sternberg.
[5] Sitney, P. Adams ed. (1978) The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. New York: Anthology Film Archives
[6] Graf, Alexander (2007) “Paris – Berlin – Moscow: On the Montage Aesthetic inthe City Symphony Films of the 1920s”, in. Graf, Alexander and Scheunemann, Dietrich eds. (2007) Avant-garde Film. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, p. 81.
[7] Sural, Agnieszka (2014) “A History of Warsaw’s Neons”, culture.pl
original source: Zieliński, Jarosław and Tarwack, Izabella (2010) Neony. Ulotny ornament warszawskiej nocy,Warsawa: Fundacja Hereditas
[8] Ibid.
[9] Raczynska, 2014
[10] Sural, 2014.
[11] Raczynska, 2014
[12] Piotrowski, Piotr (2009) In the Shaow of Yalta. The Avant-garde in Eastern Europe. London: Reaktion Books, p. 80.
[13] Piotrowski, 2009, p. 132.
[14] Piotrowski, 2009, p. 134.
[15] Piotrowski, 2009, p. 71.
[16] Forgács, Éva (2002) “A kultúra senkiföldjén. Avantgárd a magyar kultúrában” in. Knoll, Hans ed (2002) Második nyilvánosság. XX. századi magyar művészet. Budapest: Enciklopédia Kiadó, p. 55.
[17] Crowley, David (2010) “Paris or Moscow?: Warsaw Architects and the Image of the Modern City in the 1950s,” in Péteri, György ed. (2010) Imagining the West in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, p. 124.
[18] A deeper analysis was also impossible because of the limitations genre. (introduction)


 

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