To displace a selection of objects from the context in which they were originally found in order to analyse their relations in new and di!erent environments is a process of translation, from the practice of filmmaking to that of making a book. Over the course of the months between autumn 2017 and winter 2019, during long workdays shared with Assaf Gruber, my attention was often drawn to certain furnishings in his Berlin studio apartment. The objects that caught my eye included an ashtray with ghostly features on the kitchen table, colourful resin balls on a plate placed next to the film editing monitor in the living room, and a 1970s magazine, resting against a respirator mask below the glass surface of the coffee table. I found myself entranced by these objects, as if I had seen them somewhere before. To some extent this was true, for I had previously seen these objects in my friend’s films. It seemed that I was unconsciously attracted to the film props that Assaf had intentionally dispersed throughout his apartment. If he noticed my reaction, he never asked me about it.
The title The Storyseller might resonate with the well known practice of storytelling. Yet unlike the act of telling a story over and over, beginning to end, the idea of ‘selling stories’ situates the narrator in a moment in time in which the chain of events is never fully completed. If the figure of the storyteller organises a series of events following the principles of narratology and rhetoric, while working on the narrative strategy of this publication, Assaf Gruber and I imagined a figure we call the ‘story seller’. Often an alter-ego of the artist himself, the storyseller meets his audience via a conversation, set up to create the conditions for the (filmic) story. This storyseller does perform some of the rhetorical elements characteristic of storytelling, in order to draw listeners into the films’ narratives. In a series of encounters, the artist barters, or trades, the ideas behind his films with conversation partners including actors, film producers, historians, museum workers, and eyewitnesses. With its focus on the verbal exchanges that precede and so anticipate the performance of the telling of the story – the moment when the films are screened – this publication represents both the documentation of a process and the ‘making of’ a new artistic work – a book.
The Storyseller highlights how each of Gruber’s scripts and scenarios are constructed through multi-layered research, of which only a small part can be found here. At the same time, it retains some of the rhetorical elements that are characteristic of storytelling, used to persuade the listener to engage with the films’ narratives.
Almost all of the book’s chapters feature conversations that take place during preparation for the shoots. These conversations are juxtaposed with excerpts from the film scripts. Identifying which elements crossed the boundary between documentary and fiction, between interview and script, became the focus of our research for the publication. While working on the chapters that correspond to a series of short films, The Anonymity of the Night, we noticed that the interest was not in the mutation of objects per se – be they props, sentences, personal memories, or historical facts – but rather in the way that the ‘objects in transit’ prove how reality and fiction are only constructed as separate, ideologically.
The process of at once constructing and deconstructing each character’s ideology is also a significant part of the pursuit of both the film works and this publication. In Story of a Scared State, The Conspicuous Parts, and Inside Guillaume, a work-in-progress, the dialogues between many characters focus on the ethical and aesthetic ambiguities contained in an art object. A sculpture, a stuffed animal, or a contemporary art installation, respectively, serve as the semiotic Other to the speaking subjects.
The films play with the function of the art object in relation to the subjects who view it. The division between text and image underscores the speaking subjects’ confrontation with the muteness of the object. The question ‘What is the status of the artwork?’ is caught in the moment when the very system of values that legitimises art requires ideological maintenance for the artwork’s institutional preservation. The impossibility of this preservation seems to be the preliminary ideological failure that initiates feelings of doubt for the characters and their sexual, national, and cultural identities. This position of instability, or doubt, is pursued throughout the films and the book.
In Story of a Scared State, the restoration of the monument of a renowned Polish national hero activates a chain of misrepresentations of the identities and beliefs of the film’s characters. Two years after the production, Gruber returned to Warsaw to converse with Kim Lee, one of the play’s protagonists. The conversation between them traverses Lee’s life story and accounts of his drag queen performances in Warsaw.
The Conspicuous Parts depicts a selection of corals in an artificial environment and considers how ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are categories that have ceased to have any dialectical meaning. In the book, the interview with Jacqueline Winkler, a young taxidermist at the Museum für Naturkunde, assesses, from her perspective, the bridge between life and death exemplified in a crafted body.
The plot of Inside Guillaume, a film yet to be realised, features two youngsters who break into the private house of the artist Guillaume Bijl to commit a robbery. They then find themselves trapped in their own pursuit of art. In the interview accompanying the film-inprogress, it is Gruber who visits Bijl’s house. Their conversation revolves around the idea of turning the artist’s home into a location for a new film work.
By proposing a parallel between the interview and the original script, on the same page, each chapter becomes a conversation piece that precisely corresponds neither to the process of making nor to the realised final work, but rather renders these two dimensions – in progress and in fine – into a new, printed form.
To find an object outside of its original context, in the location where we are supposed to encounter it, is to come upon a displacement with the potential to reveal something well beyond mere medium specificity: the film can be understood as an object, or as a book, or the book can be understood as ersatz cinema. As for those props that I couldn’t stop looking at in Assaf’s apartment, I realised they were fictional objects interrupting the real time of our conversations. I might have realised sooner that he might have intended to carefully suggest something to me in their placement, such as the sensitivity required to work on a film, or how our private sphere is only ever private to the extent that it is also a fictional construction.