The Unstable Object

Daniel Eisenberg

2011 | 01:08:21 | Germany / Turkey / United States | English | Color | Stereo | 16:9 | HD video

Collection: Single Titles

Tags: Blu-ray, Consumer culture, Documentary, History, Labor, Technology

What do a luxury automobile, a cymbal, and a wall clock all have in common? What are the diverse attachments and experiences produced by those who make these things and those who consume them? What exchanges take place through the object itself—sensually, esthetically, abstractly? We often forget that most of the things we use are made by the labor of others, often in distant places, living dramatically different, diverse lives. What do these objects mean to them? How does their labor, their aspirations, their sense of alienation or satisfaction connect to ours?

In the fall of 2008, as the world economic order began to implode, people began to question their relationships to the most fundamental aspects of daily life—to work and labor, to value and necessity, to the minimal requirements for sustenance, satisfaction, and happiness. Nobody was sure what things were worth, or whether their own self-defined states of happiness and security were still obtainable. Long before then, a subtle sequence of transitions and exchanges took place over the course of decades, taking the sources of labor and resources further and further apart from the sites of consumption. Yet global culture has yet to produce something essentially necessary for this moment: a consciousness of the subtle and deep connections that a global economy produces between individuals, all over the world.

The Unstable Object is an experimental essay about contemporary models of production. It’s a film that examines “things” and “objects” precisely at the moment when our understanding of material culture is at its most unstable. Since its very beginning, cinema has been closely linked with the images and sounds of mass production. From the important films of the Westinghouse and Ford factories in the 1910s and 1920s, to the poetic work of Joris Ivens and Dziga Vertov in visually describing the promise of technology for redemption of the masses, cinema has defined the image of the factory and the worker. This film extends that history into our contemporary moment.

It is the world of the senses that’s evoked in our desire for objects and things. I am interested in the ways that “things” transmit and elicit sensations of all kinds, both for the producer and the consumer. The object becomes an intermediary, a medium for the transmission of sensation from the one who makes, to the one who takes. It’s an uncanny, unintelligible communication between people, far away and detached from one another. Many of these complex relations are made perceptible in the visual world of the factory. It is in seeing and hearing things as they are made that we begin to understand the web of associations.

I began this project by filming in one of the most “advanced” factory environments in Germany. The VW Phaeton factory in Dresden, “Die Gläserne Manufaktur,” is one of the most high concept factories in the world. It embraces the idea of “manufacture as cultural spectacle,” and the associated idea of the “individualized” mass-produced object. The cultural experience of watching one’s own car being produced by specialists is primary here. Many of these themes are extensions of already developed concepts in the automotive industry, but are articulated in ways quite unique to this factory. Shot in high definition video, with long views and deep spaces, the factory becomes a “tour-de-force” of architecture and technology. In the car factory, visuality and visibility are two of the primary products, as the factory itself is a site where customers come to watch their cars being hand-made. This slowing down of the manufacturing process produces value and scarcity, through the unnecessary but highly valued touch of the human hand. The sequence is marked by long-takes and wide compositions, in keeping with the emphasis on architecture and light.

In contrast to this highly estheticized image of production, I produced a sequence in a factory of blind workers in Chicago, where the visual dimension of production is virtually non-existent. Chicago Lighthouse Industries produces wall clocks for all federal government offices, an object that can neither be seen nor used by the workers who are producing them. What other senses are compensating for the lack of the visual? How do the workers maintain their own sense of accomplishment, pride, and precision? What different issues concerning the use of tools and space are present? In the clock factory, what’s visible is completely unimportant; instead the complete dependence on the tactile is evident. Close-ups of faces, hands, and factory spaces are central to this sequence, making more tactile the entire field of the image. Unlike the car factory, where workers remain silent and focused on their work, in the clock factory conversation is ubiquitous, as this workspace is an essential social space for the workers.

The third sequence of the film is shot in a cymbal factory just outside Istanbul, in Habiblar. Istanbul is the place where the modern cymbal was invented and refined. The most sought after cymbals by musicians are being made just outside Istanbul today, exactly as they were 400 years ago, cast and hammered by hand in small factories. From the primitive smelters to the hammering room, the intensity of this environment cannot be adequately described. It is the world of sound and light that are absolutely heightened in this environment, and relayed to the musician in the countless hours spent making a single cymbal. In the deafening hammering room at Bosphorus Cymbals, each cymbal is pounded by hand until it is uniquely and properly voiced. The cymbal returns that sound and light to the musician and as well to the listener over and over again throughout its lifetime.

-- Daniel Eisenberg

Note: This title is intended by the artist to be viewed in High Definition. While DVD format is available to enable accessibility, VDB recommends presentation on Blu-ray or HD digital file.

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Prizes + Awards

Georges de Beauregard International Prize, FID Marseille, 2011


FID Marseille / Marseille International Film Festival

Exhibitions + Festivals

New York Film Festival, Views from the Avant-Garde, 2011

Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA, 2011

Arsenal, Berlin, 2012