Essay Tom Morton, 03/2006
It’s a simple story, a love story, although like all love stories it has its vexations, its movements sideways and back.
Federico Lamas’ Roger (2004) begins with the words ‘That which drives us inspires and breaks our astonishment,’ scrawled in a spidery hand on a sheet of lined paper that looks like it’s been torn from a diary, or a notebook kept by a bedside to record a dream on waking. This paper (dotted with a constellation of hearts and asterisks, as though love were something that exists in an infinity of footnotes) inhabits the whole screen, and is seemingly fixed to it with beige masking tape, in what might be an allusion to the way in which a movie editor cuts and pastes together frames of a film. Following a set of credits, again written in a spidery handwriting on stained and doodle-sprigged notepaper, we see the words ‘She leaves (catch the baby),’ which then give way to footage of a man and a woman engaged in an argument. We cannot hear what they are arguing about (Lamas’ jangling score sees to that), but the words ‘look at me,’ written again on a swatch of tape that seems to hold the film together, suggest a history of misunderstanding, of muttered recriminations and averted eyes. We all know these moments, when love begins to sour, to transform itself from something that filled the universe into something that feels like a cosmic void, and we all know what happens next.
The man (his red t-shirt blushing angrily) takes the woman by the shoulder, his passion edging ever closer to aggression; his gesture, for all that it is designed to draw her closer, propelling her from his orbit. The words ‘She leaves’ appear on a piece of masking tape, and she runs away, the camera tracking her movements from frame to frame, as though her bruised love is exerting a planet-sized gravitational pull on the narrative. Finally she stops to take out something from her handbag (a lipstick? a phone?) and we realise that despite the apparent distance she’s travelled from her lover, the whole of her trip has taken place against the same backdrop—a dirty wall on which appears a moon-like, circular form. We begin to think about cartoons, and the way in which they repeat, say, the same five seconds or so of desert backdrop in a scrolling scene to save money on animators’ fees. We begin to think about the concept of travelling without moving, and what this might tell us about love.
Suddenly, the camera begins to speed to the right, back towards the woman’s lover. The words ‘She exxxcites me’ appear (their triple ‘x’ perhaps signalling erotic intent), and, having made some silent decision, he runs towards her, the repeated backdrop pulsing behind him. He runs so fast and so hopelessly, however, that exhaustion overtakes him, and he collapses to the ground. A black dog wanders into the shot, sniffs him, and sensing the scent of heartbreak on his skin, runs off in pursuit of the woman, hoping, Lamas hints, to reunite them like an emissary of Venus, or an avatar of second chances. (It is worth remarking, here, that black dogs are symbols of depression, and that we might also read this running canine as an embodiment of a sadness that has startled itself into action). The dog reaches the woman, and the ambiguous words ‘one of them says something’ flash up, and he runs back towards the man. This time, however, shafts of light illuminate the repeated backdrop, as though diving grace, or a supernatural expression of feminine forgiveness, is blessing the world and all it contains. The dog reaches the man, he rises, and the words ‘Tries it again. Let’s go’ appear, followed by the man’s exit stage right—the opposite direction from which the dog has come. The film ends, and we’re left not knowing whether the couple were ever reconciled, whether their canine go-between has worked it’s doggy, amorous magic. Something, however, tells me that it has. The man’s exit will take him in a new direction, away from the repeated backdrop, with its suggestions of circular arguments—surely this is the road to making up? However, the man’s exit is also an exit from the film, and thus an exit from the narrative conventions of movie romances, in which lovers fall apart, and are then brought back together again by some deus ex machina, or some divinely ordained movement of the planets. That Lamas leaves the couple’s possible reconciliation hanging in the balance is the real achievement of this work. The artist asks us ‘do you believe in movies?’ and it’s this belief (or its lack) that determines how this story ends in the afterlife of our imaginations. As the masking tape-spotted frames of Roger suggest, we—the viewers—are the true editors of any story. We may cut and paste, and rework the world to our will.
Interview Teté Martinho, 03/2006
Your first artistic actions, in your own words, consisted of using a High-8 camera to record the “Neorealism” that your family and friends had to offer. When you started out, was cinema your basic reference? What were you acquainted with back then, and which were your major influences?
Yes, the movies were my reference point. I knew that my responsibility with the camera went beyond merely recording stuff and then forgetting about it. The fact that my camera was fully manual was important then, because I had to adjust it all the time; I had to make decisions. All I remember until I was fifteen are science fiction and adventure movies, the ones which appealed to me the most. Jurassic Park had just opened and that was key to me, a turning point. I mention the film quite often in debates: technically speaking it was state of the art then, and that is important to me. The movie did not appeal to all tastes, though.
You often try to tell a story with few, if any, words, and that gave off a moment of irony when you made up a language in Bienvenida a mi Mundo. To what do you attribute this shunning away from words, and what does that provide you with?
I've always felt that it's important to seek my own identity, my own kind of poetry as an author, and I have always sought something formal, visual. I like to make my characters' intentions clear through their gestures and facial expressions. When writing the script to Bienvenida a mi Mundo, I went for universality. I wanted the subtitles and spoken words to have some sort of logic, as in an actual idiom. And I used lots of puns; I enjoy that sort of irony. Since the text did not make any sense, for me there was no need to be concerned with it. As a director, I focused on the actions, the intentions.
The act of interfering with and modifying video frames is a distinctive feature in your work, from Camitas (1999) to Roger (2005). What need of yours does it meet and what results does it yield?
Interfering with the frames is what really entertains me. I believe it has something to do with creating structures that are more faithful to my actual thinking. Frame superimposition provides the viewer with a notion of the work as a whole. You are simply viewing a fragment of the film, but as you watch it and interpret it, you are also thinking about the images that came before, and contemplating the ones that are yet to come. For me, messing around with frames is like playing a mind puzzle, by disclosing more than a single thing at once. That is how I see it. I'll usually have a graphic idea or a visual idea, and then I think about its possibilities for communication.
You have said that you seek new things to surprise the viewers who have become passive due to the image overload to which we are subjected. As far as your video and image experience goes, what are those “new” things? What is it that surprises viewers?
Tough question. My work is an attempt to answer it. It has to do with taking people by surprise, and also with the resources that you use. It has to do with posing problems, all the while taking those resources into account: how would I do this or that? I consider it essential to pay attention to what is being produced to avoid repetition, to avoid being cliché. This is why I love festival and debates, and the reason I think it's so important for artists to be able to show their work continuously, wherever it may be. Thus, we can all update our notion of “new,” based on work by other artists. You might intend to communicate whatever, but you can never redo something that has already been done. I think it's even valid to do something that draws attention just because it's different. Some make profound discoveries, and some simply make something new like, say, a combination of colors. The excitement we feel when we see something new, when we are taken by surprise, is an important thing to create. That alone guarantees the faithfulness of the viewer, let's put it that way; the viewer, on the other hand, will put in his time, only to see where it will lead.
How can one create something new in a genre as commercial as music videos? Do you shun away from certain procedures?
The first important aspect of music videos is that they pose a problem to you; they are a starting point. It's not like starting from scratch. You are interpreting, responding, reacting. Music, when it's truly interesting, is a great stimulus. A music video can be commercially oriented, or it can be your personal response to something. I have been in both situations. If a project leaves no room for you to propose anything, expose yourself, and take risks, then it makes no sense. It is a waste of time. I find music videos interesting as long as I can leave my fingerprints on them.
You have talked about “doubting the technique.” What do you mean by that?
Doubting the technique means using your tools to the maximum, discovering all you can do with them. There are millions of right ways to do things. One can be creative using a minimum amount of tools. You don't need to be a technical virtuoso. It is most likely that you'll find a way to do what you want within your own limitations. But you must be aware of what your tools are capable of. And you must come up with your own methods. In a documentary film on the history of cinema, Martin Scorsese said something wise. For him, being talented is not some innate thing, it's not about being a genius. It's just being able to do well that which you can do well. That is why it is interesting that creation has its limitations. Those limitations force us to resolve our ideas, to have ideas based on the problem at hand. The solutions people come up with are very unique. I am interested in seeking that uniqueness.
How did the script for Roger come about, and how did you get to the video's scenic representation?
The script for Roger came from its scenic representation. That was the sequence of events. Then, I asked myself what story that specific resource would allow me to tell. The initial idea was going from one frame to another, as if zooming out in classic cinema fashion, and going where the characters go when they leave the picture-I mean, the characters, not the actors. The question was how to create that feel without tying fifty cameras together (although it would have been extremely interesting), because I could not do that. I wanted to solve the problem and accomplish that idea; I wanted to make that video. So I came up with the idea of a visual loop, which has exactly the same meaning as a musical loop.
What's the role of music in your work? What's the difference between creating images based on a song-within the limited structure of a music video-and creating them live, while a band or a DJ is performing?
A music video is a limited work, it gives dimension to a song and interprets it. It is another work of art, the song's multisensorial version. It is more planned out and preproduced. Actually, in live image presentations I try to do the same. I have predefined plans, though they are open to change. The goal is to have a finished concept, but I leave certain structures open, so that I can feel comfortable during the live action. Sometimes I just have fun, I improvise and experiment. What I do is I keep visual ideas in store. Small modular structures that I interpret live. It's like making chords, like including additional keys to a piano keyboard. When working with bands, I try to approach things from a concert point of view, as in a live music video. I have more predefined stuff.
What are your current projects?
I have many ideas, but they must fit into the windows of free time that my “subsistence work” allows for, and the tiredness that it produces. I work as an advertising art director and designer, and sometimes I feel creatively consumed by that work, even though I don't want to. I feel like getting into a long project, a work that will last long, a complete work. I don't know whether it will be a narrative film. But I am interested in long formats, in having enough time to expose ideas, and that requires a certain type of screening, such as a dark room that one can enter, a screen that one can dive into. It might also be something in the mold of a show. I must make my decision. I have got some music videos under way as well, involving Argentine artists who are interesting to me because of what they do musically, and also because of the freedom they give me to create whatever I want to.
Comment biography Teté Martinho, 03/2006
The determination to take electronic media to the edge of technical capacity-in order to realize instigating visual ideas and move indifferent viewers-is the trademark of the art of Federico Lamas from Argentina (Buenos Aires, 1979). Involving cinema, theater, graphic arts, and the pop/electronic realm, his work stems from peculiar arrangements of scenic and narrative elements, aimed at inverting expectations and giving a feel of discovery. With stated intention, the quest for the new ranges from narrative structure to visual appearance, from directing to soundtrack, from concept to reality. Altering frames' shape and limits-be it screen or stage setting-is a recurring practice, as is giving up words in favor of the eloquence of silence and image.
Graphic artist, designer, and musician, Lamas represents the generation that adopted digital media as a vehicle for a creative process that does not separate music from image, drawing from text, idea from language. Or, in Lamas' own words, a type of medium that “allows full, independent control of the overall realization.” The need to master tools and technical resources-not for the sake of virtuosity, but in order to escape the “thousand right ways of doing things,” finding a unique way of producing the forecast result-came along with his first camera, a Hi8, in 1994. The camera's manual controls led him to make crucial decisions in his first shots, inspired by the “neorealism of friends and relatives.”
In addition to cinema, which is his primary reference source, Lamas studied the theories of dramatic performance at the Buenos Aires Theater School, under the direction of Raúl Serrano, from 1995 to 2000. During the course, he met up with musicians and designers Pablo De Caro, Pablo Malourie, Nazareno Gil, and Maximiliano García, of the band Mataplantas, then called Barbara Feldon, and started a partnership that would unfold into an ongoing partnership involving image management, album covers, website, posters, and projections during live shows. Three years after that first meeting, when Lamas was already studying Audiovisual Design at Buenos Aires University, he directed the band's first music video, Navidad y Año Nuevo, thus making his debut in a genre that later would often call for his talents as producer, designer, and art director.
The video is a “fake live recording,” somewhat photographic, unpretentious for an author whose first short film, Camitas (1999), was based on Bioy Casares. Inaugurating Lamas' research with the physical limits of the frame, the film is set in the outskirts of Buenos Aires and is sort of “retro and neorealist.” Whether pretentious or not, Lamas uses the elements at hand to put together aesthetic creations with uncanny ability-from his very first works.
The short film Bienvenida a mi Mundo (2001) takes him one step further along the same road. The narrative structure, which uses a cut and an inversion to tell the story of a love triangle, is at once ingenious (due to its impact) and ironic (for it calls more attention to itself than the trivial story actually deserves). The conversations in an invented language, the oval frame, and the color filtering all help create a delightfully new and unknown location-genre, without using any reference points (despite paying tribute to the cinema of David Lynch). In addition to his production ability, Lamas' film reflects his subtle humor and his talents as stage designer and visual artist.
The formula reached state-of-the-art status with Roger (2005), for which Lamas won the Contemporary Investigations Award at the 15th Videobrasil. The film is fueled by the urgency to make a visual insight come true: the infinite setting. This concept is attained through a particular technical solution (the looping) and determines the plot: a couple fights and then breaks up against a setting. As the action unfolds, at once fast (as in comic books and cartoons) and painful, the camera pulls back to expose the limits of fiction-and of the setting-and the adhesive tape that holds together the different backgrounds, which pass by just like time, bringing wounds and precariousness to mind. A delicate amalgamation of a wide array of languages, a hybrid of silent movie and visual arts, Roger provides the overused theme of romantic love with a freshness that defies logic.
The video was screened and awarded in Europe, inaugurating a period of feverish pace for Lamas. The extremely short film Mucho (2005), which is a joke of sorts, features a fast narrative that has no use for words, explores the eloquence of silence, and leads the viewer to a surprising end. In Hawaii, a music video for Mataplantas, Lamas developed simulated 3D images, which he uses in order to create a dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere. During the same period, Lamas did Dame Pasión for the band Juana La Loca and Miss Sentimiento de Otoño for singer Sebastián Volco, music videos for artists whose music appeals to him and who allow him “freedom to do whatever I want.”
In that same year, Lamas created visual modules that he projects live during shows of the band Mataplantas, as he has been doing since 2004 at the Hey! Rave parties, promoted by DJs Pablo Font, Nicolas Zunino, Pablo De Caro, and Diego Chamorro. The party vibe also inspired Hey! (Despierto/dormido), a sequence shot that follows a young man for ninety minutes as he roams the streets of Argentina's capital city-as subtitles faithfully and poetically translate the continuous flow of his thoughts, making references to the truncated language of chats and instant messaging software. Shot with a hand-held camera, the film flirts with the direct narrative of cinema and with a format Lamas is increasingly attracted to: the feature film. Lamas' time and energy are divided between his projects, such as projections, videos, and music videos, and the advertising business, in which he works as art director.
The artist's website has seven works available for download (the links can be found inside a balloon that comes out of the head of his self-portrait while sleeping), in addition to the dates for Lamas' upcoming live projections with the band Mataplantas, and appearances in the Hey! parties, plus his biography, résumé, and the latest news.
The website of the band Mataplantas, from Argentina, is a comprehensive sample of Lamas' graphic talent. Designed by the artist, who is responsible for the band's visual identity, the site features posters, album covers, and videos.
Recording of the Roger exhibition season in a film cycle at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, September 2005.