Gaston Roberge 75

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 AMNov (Cinema, Friends, Media, Slice Of Life)

No film enthusiast and media academician in India needs to be told about Gaston Roberge. Yes, he is the one with his book CHITRA BANI opened the doors of film appreciation for many film enthusiasts in India.

That was in the year 1974. Prior to that he had, along with Satyajit Ray, started an institute in the same name CHITRABANI in thea year 1974. He was also a faculty in the St. Xaviers Institute, Kolkata and a visiting faculty at the Film and Television Institute of India and Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute.

His books include Mass Communication and Man (1974), Mediation, The Action Of Media In Society (1978),  Films For An Ecology Of Mind (1978), Esienstien’s Ivan The Terrible, An Analysis (1980), Another Cinema For Another Society (1985), The Subject Of Cinema (1990), The Ways Of Film Studies (1992), Communication Cinema Development (1998), Cyberbani(2005), Satyajit Ray (2007) and Media Dancer, Who Sets The Tune? (2009) His book The Empires is all set to be published.

There is more to this great man. But this small piece of information is more than enough for us to imagine how huge a canvas Sir is. There is a reason to remember him and speak about him today. Today Sir turned 75. Wishing him a happy birthday i would like to share this essay written by Sir which is titled THE MEDIASPHERE AND THE IMAGE MAKER with you all. I dont know how else to celebrate the birthday of a man of words, thoughts and ideas than to spread his writings which capsulates his thoughts and ideas.

The mediasphere and the image maker

Gaston Roberge

Any filmmaker addressing a group of professional photographers would certainly feel tempted to discuss the similarities and differences between the art of film-making and that of still photography. What I propose to discuss, however, has little to do with such questions. I wish to discuss our common task as image makers. We often say, very wrongly, that we take pictures. In fact, we do not take pictures, we make them, whether mobile or still, we make pictures, we make images. By creating the image which surrounds us, we contribute to building up the environment of our society, what I have called mediasphere.

The phrase mediasphere is used here by the analogy to a series of terms which all refer to man’s environment, like biosphere (the zone around the earth where life is possible), atmosphere (the mass of gases, chiefly air, around the earth) [add to these, stratosphere (the layer of atmosphere, about seven miles from the earth in which there are little temperature changes); ionosphere (part of earth’s atmosphere 25 to 250 miles away from the earth. The word biosphere was coined by Suess. The noosphere is the “terrestrial zone of thinking substance” (Theilhard de Chardin: THE FUTURE OF MAN, pp.163 ff)]. Mediasphere simply means the network of communication media which surrounds the earth. Thanks to that communication network men and women throughout the world can relate to each other. This they do through exchanging word-messages and image-messages. Today the entire planet is bathing in a flux of words and images. That is why some specialists speak of logosphere (sphere of words) and iconosphere (sphere of icons or images) meaning that today man is immersed in words and images as in atmosphere. The media of communication are the physical channels of planetary communication. They have become an extension of our nervous systems, or better still, they are in the process of becoming a sort of nervous system for the whole of man and woman kind. Willy-nilly, through this network, the human family is growing more united. We will have therefore to find ways to live at peace. In the human body the two eyes usually work happily together, and so the two hands and the two feet. All the members of the body contribute to the welfare of the whole body, and this is made possible thanks to the nervous system. Now, with the development of the means of communication, humankind is building up a nervous system that calls for the conscious unification of the human family.

In the earlier times, our great, great, great grandfathers lived in the middle of fields or in the forest. The images and sounds which contribute to their personal and mental life were immediately available in their environment, and in most cases, were not man made. They may have been a totem, images of some deities, houses or temples, but sight and sound came to these people mostly from their ‘natural’ environment. On the basis of this natural sensorial information, our ancestors endeavored to understand their personal and social relationship with the environment. They evolved two modes of thinking and of expressing themselves: science, to formulate the laws of the environment and art, to enter into communion with the environment, to modify and enhance it to an extent. It is possible that in earlier times science and art were one and the same activity. Today they have developed into two specialized branches, much to their respective impoverishment. Hopefully, they will be re-united. New technologies, especially in the sciences of communication and cybernetics will usher in the time when once again the artist and the scientist will have to be one and the same person.

Be this as it may, art and science now have distinctive roles. The arts are means of expression. They are a language, but infinitely more complex than ordinary verbal language, which in turn is much more specific than the arts. Verbal language is rich in signification; the language of art is rich in meaning. Signification is defined for once and for all. Meaning calls for interpretation. On the other hand, sciences have created channels capable of conveying the verbal or art messages to distant places, to countless persons. We now have techniques to create images and to convey them to millions of people. It is estimated that half of humankind could see the first astronauts landing on the moon. They could hear Armstrong saying: “A small step for a man, a giant step for a mankind” never before in its 2 million years of history had mankind been so united in one experience. Thus, the possibility of communicating among ourselves has grown to an extent that could not have been imagined even a few decades ago. Take, for instance, your great great grandfathers. How many kilometers could they travel in a lifetime under normal circumstances? Perhaps hardly one millionth of the world’s circumference. Some of you have been around the world. You travel thousands and 1000 s of kilometers in yr. you travel greater distances in a month than your great fathers in their whole lives. Astronauts now travel millions of kilometers in week. The possibility of physical transport, of moving personally form one place to another, is matched by an equal ease to convey messages, whether visual or aural, from one side of the planet to the other, and even from one planet to another.

It is in this context of greater ease in communication that we, image-makers, do our work. Some questions naturally arise: do our images enrich the environment? Do they contribute to the expansion of human awareness, to the enhancement of perception? Do they call for a greater activity of the mind? Even at a physical level, do they make demands on the organism, helping the brain grow more sensitive? Or, are our images redundant and repetitious? Do they make us all dull and dumb? These questions evidently arise in the fields of cinema, of advertising, and of still photography.

A second set of questions relate to the values our images promote. Are our images haphazardly born out of our technical gadgets or are they pregnant with meaning and signification? Do they contribute to some form of communion, as essential requirement for the survival of the human family, or do they emphasise artificial oppositions between castes, sexes, human groups? Those necessary but logical distinctions are only too easily emphasised and transformed into ontological but unnecessary oppositions.

Let us now answer too hurriedly the question raised above. But, for a moment, let us pause and reflect on our personal experience, not as image makers, but as image consumers. There is no way of computing accurately the ‘amount’ of images we absorb in one day, and still less, the effect these images have on us. Yet, since the images around us are an important part of our environment, like the air we constantly breathe, it is worth making an effort to become aware of the presence- if not yet of the exact role- of the images in our lives.

You start the day by reading through the newspaper, thus absorbing a few dozen visual messages which you rapidly classify, select or reject. Then, on your way to work or college you literally circulate amongst a jungle of ads. Psychologists say it takes 1/10 sec. to ‘read’ and ad. How many do you read while going to your office college? Dozens, surely. Your mind is immersed in a mixture of messages. You absorb these as innocently and candidly as you inhale countless micro-organisms in breathing. These messages are not inactive: they excite your pet desires, pamper your need for affection, soothe your anxieties; they structure your mind, they set an order of values. In a word, the visual environment re-creates you in its own image. And, what to say of the mud-bath you take at Rupees 2 to 5 when you see a movie? You think the images are on the screen? Wrong. The images are in you. This is the magic of the film: it appears on a screen but lives in the spectator’s mind, like a parasite feeding on the soul of the spectator.

Man, the image maker, constantly image-in(es), takes in images. Indeed, man is fleeting image; he is the screen on which the image of the world flickers endlessly.

There is a vital relationship between man and his environment through the image medium. Let us now revert to our initial point: the image maker.

In the mediasphere the artist-scientist image maker is an ecologist, because he deals directly with mans environment. He thus plays several roles all at once according to his individual talent: he is a psycho-therapist, a teacher, a priest.

In order to appreciate fully the role of a image maker it will help to first get rid of the prejudice according to which there is an inherent, necessary, opposition between man and his environment, and therefore between natural images and cultural (i.e. man made) images. The images we make use are natural as those of nature, because we ourselves are parts of nature. Of course, there is a distinction between man and his environment. But the distinction need not become an opposition. Unfortunately there is ample evidence that we create an enmity between nature and us. We thought for centuries that we could dispose of nature, that it had infinite resources. We have now grown up to the timely awareness that to dispose of the environment means to catastrophe. I shall illustrate this by an example in a moment. What I wish to emphasise now is that (a) we need not ‘regret’ romantically the so-called natural surroundings of the apes and (b) we may trust power to create images conducive to the psychic and moral life of the human community.

I said I would illustrate by an example the relationship of man with his environment. Say you have a species of birds feeding on a species of insects. The more insects the more bird will eat, the stronger the bird will become, the more the bird will develop. At the same time the bird will become a specialist, it will become very skilful at catching this particular type of insect. This situation is that of so-called ‘positive feed back’, where the more this, the more that. In the end the bird is likely to eliminate the insect on which it feeds unless there is a negative feedback that prevents the bird to develop too much. But if the positive feedback is left to play uncontrolled then the bird will annihilate the species of insect and the bird will find that since it has developed and specialized to such a great degree in hunting that type of insect, by destroying its own environment, viz. the insect, the bird will indirectly destroy itself and disappear.

This situation has developed in our society. Thanks to the progress of technology, we have succeeded in preserving our population which has resulted in a marked increase in population. The more population we have, the more technology we develop, and the more technology, the more the population and so on…..this is a chain of positive feedback which is bound to destroy us through destroying the environment, because we cannot dispose of it indefinitely. We will be left in a desert before long unless we somehow grow wiser. The relationship between our environment and us is such that there is no survival for us out of, or independent from, our environment. And we, as image makers, are ecologists, creators of environment. I hope these few thoughts do not sound too abstract or too far fetched and that they can help to develop a sense of responsibility and a sense of pride for the role which still photographers and film-makers play in our society.

Courtesy: FILM MISCELLANY 1 (Dec 1976)

A Publication of the Film and Television Institute of India.

27 May 2009

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