Found Theology and Found-Footage Film

In collaboration with Christians in the Visual Arts, The Curator is publishing previews of scholarly papers from the 2015 CIVA conference “Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church” to be held at Calvin College on June 11-14. This paper comes from the Theology and Visual Arts Track.

One thing artists and theologians have in common is that they both stand in relation to a tradition. Just as one cannot be an artist without standing in some relation to “an art history,” however broadly or narrowly such a term is conceived, so too the task of the Christian theologian is impossible without reckoning with what has been passed down (tradere) through the ages.[1] Theology and art alike must constantly mediate between the past and the present, between the pre-existing and the genuinely new.

Ben Quash’s recent book Found Theology takes as a central metaphor for Christian theology the “art of the found” associated with twentieth-century artists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Quash vividly describes the primary task of theology as “relati[ng] the given to the found.”[2] This expresses well the creative vocation shared by theologians and artists. Whether a theologian, artist, or both, tradition with all its complexity, profundity and even difficulty, is the “given” for all creative work. It is inevitable, as Quash writes, that “whenever one meets some found thing, one meets in it in the light of a tradition of thought and practice.”[3] But like artists, theologians must also be open to the new – as Quash describes it, to diverse and surprising “findings” as they appear in culture and history – even if they reconfigure certain ways of understanding the “given.” The French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, drawing a similar parallel between art and theology, argued for an understanding of tradition not as a force which stifles creativity, but as a force of renewal and something being constantly ‘re-newed’ itself in the process:

Tradition conceived as the handing down of set formulas and the enforced and servile imitation of models learned in the classroom would lead to sterility; even if there were an abundant output of works of art, they would be stillborn. […] The aim of this lesson is [rather] to receive the vitality of their inspiration and to continue their creative work in its original spirit, which thus, in a new generation, is born again with the freedom, the youthfulness and the promise that it originally possessed.

As Quash and Congar point out in varying ways, tradition ought to nourish rather than stifle Christian theology, and so its appropriation should take the form of creative use of its resources in order to engage the present anew. Tradition can only be “born again” when we are willing to embrace both the given and the found – to appropriate tradition with both reverence and a certain artistic irreverence, splicing together the old and the new in order to “find” our place in the unfolding story. Artists and theologians can both model this paradoxical stance, and perhaps learn from each other along the way.

Artistic Appropriation: The Clock

If film is a “time-based medium,” perhaps Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock is cinema in its purest form. The Clock is, simply put, a twenty-four hour long montage of “found” film clips in which a clock or timepiece can be found somewhere in the frame, or where the passage of time is referred to or implied in some significant way. Displayed in a gallery as an installation, it aims to be an immersive experience. The footage comes from hundreds of different classic films, from Gary Cooper famously waiting for the outlaw train in High Noon to Peter Fonda checking his watch in Easy Rider to the iconic shot of silent film star Harold Lloyd hanging off of a giant city clock in Safety Last!, assembled together into a sprawling “metafilm.” Perhaps most ingeniously, however, the film also functions as a real clock – for the diegetic clocks on screen are arranged so as to coincide with “real time,” such that 3:30 on screen is 3:30 for the gallery viewer, midnight is midnight, and so on. The work, which debuted at London’s White Cube in 2010 and has since been widely exhibited, has been called one of the most important works of twenty-first century art as well as “the defining monument of the remix age.” In 2011 it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. The piece has been described as hypnotic and mesmerizing – viewers go in ready to spend only a few minutes but are entranced for hours by the overwhelming torrent of visual data and the whirlwind tour through Western cinema.

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010).

The Clock is a formidable achievement of “found footage film,” a genre of experimental cinema pioneered by artists like Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner.[4] The term “found footage” belies its decidedly analog origin – “feet” of film physically “found” and repurposed by a generation of filmmakers – a short list would include Conner, Arthur Lipsett, Martin Arnold, and Craig Baldwin – who raided the “cinematic dustbins” to create subversive experimental films.[5] Taking, finding, and stealing film wherever they could find it – outtakes, commercials, home movies, instructional films, obscure B-movies – visionary films such as Conner’s seminal A Movie (1956) or Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) wove together completely disparate visual sources into new, often bizarre narratives.

Similar to Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe in the contemporary landscape of video art, Marclay’s work belongs to a new tradition of digital appropriation or “postproduction,”[6] which has moved away from the ephemeral, obscure source material favored by the earlier generation to recycling and remixing the canonical visual texts of Hollywood itself.[7] Postproduction art is embedded in what Nicolas Bourriaud calls a “culture of use,” or what is more popularly known as “sampling” – a digital, open-source mode of appropriation characteristic of “hip-hop, mashups, supercuts, and memes, each oscillating fluidly between modes of production and consumption.”[8] Alfred Hitchcock seemed to be a favorite source for found-footage artists in the 1990s: Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) stretched the original film out to a 24-hour period, while Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s The Phoenix Tapes (1999) edited together visual motifs and recurring patterns from across the filmography of the great auteur, making Hitchcock’s familiar stylistic tropes and obsessions even stranger. We can also think of Gus van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), maligned at the time but now thought of as a unique cinematic experiment –  which itself has subsequently been spliced together with Hitchcock’s original film by none other than Steven Soderbergh (“Psychos,” web video, 2014). Marclay belongs to the “illustrious tradition” of appropriation art in its new, endlessly recombinant digital/viral format.

As in other video works such as Video Quartet (2002), as well as an array of sculptural works and audio experiments, Marclay’s use of appropriated materials stems from an ongoing interest in collage and performance. Yet The Clock goes a step beyond these projects as well as Gordon and Müller’s works in its sheer, Internet-like data overload. In the language of the Internet meme, The Clock is the more mature older cousin of the “supercut,” where one aspect of a film or television series is “obsessively” collected and edited together. It is Marclay’s virtuosic skill as a collagist and editor, however, which allows him to transcend the banal and indexical – merely stitching together 24 hours of essentially unrelated footage, which often on the Internet leads to a tiresome “database” aesthetic rather than a narrative one – to create out of this shapeless mass of fragments a coherent and compelling whole, with moments of humor, suspense, and even various levels of (meta)narrative continuity.[9]

Video editing is about placing images side by side so as to create meaning as they follow one another in temporal succession. As viewers, we construct narratives and patterns based on visual and aural continuity; the juxtaposition of two images causes us to reflect on their relationship. Borrowing from Fredric Jameson, we can call this a process of “re-narrativization.”  Rather than a linear narrative, however, Marclay accomplishes his transmutation of found footage into new meanings by structuring each shot in relation to temporality itself. His use of montage thus serves to remind us of cinema’s intrinsic relationship to time. In the darkened space of the movie theater, the passage of time seems to slow down and speed up based on the pace of the editing. In watching a “normal” Hollywood film, we are carried along with this without even thinking about it. The ellipsis of time, what is left out between cuts, disappears for us and as trained cinemagoers we instinctively ignore it.

In Marclay’s collage, on the other hand, we as viewers are constantly being reminded of the relationship of cinematic time to “real time,” and the invisible mechanism of editing is constantly making itself apparent. Moreover, the “foundness” of the footage – its origin in a film other than the one we are currently watching – asserts an undeniable presence. Collage involves the viewer in an active process of meaning-making. To watch The Clock is to simultaneously experience the passage of time both onscreen and in our own bodies; to recall the original source of the material (what movie is that from?); and to understand the clip in its new semiotic context. As Quash writes, “there are ways in which an object’s (or an event’s) quality of ‘foundness’ can continue to cling instructively to it even when it is incorporated, canonized, and revisited.”[10] Consider the complexity of seeing a clip from Orson Welles’ The Stranger (the scene where he is thrown off a clock tower) in Marclay’s collage. Our attention all at once directed to 1) the dramatic clip itself; 2) the film it was taken from; 3) our cultural associations with Welles, i.e. the “paratexts” which accompany our viewing of any film in which he appears; 4) the shots this shot is now playing alongside; and 5) the shot’s implicit relationship to time and clocks. Film viewing becomes an incredibly complex, intertextual, self-reflexive enterprise – yet accustomed to the complex cognitive process of movie-watching and the digital polysemy of the Internet, we do it without thinking. The visible edits become once again “seamless” as we are immersed in the film.

Jeremy Begbie has pointed out the way in which much of the meaningfulness of music comes from “the interplay between its temporal processes and a vast range of temporal processes which shape our lives in the world” – everyday phenomena like breathing, waiting, the cycle of day and night.[11] The Clock reminds us that film functions in a similar way, bridging between our bodily experience of time and the perfect, mediated time of the silver screen. Appropriation thus becomes not only the creative activity of the artist, but of the viewer. Not only does The Clock position itself so as to re-create a cinematic experience, it investigates cinematic experience itself in terms of time and temporality. The “real time” connection between what is happening on screen and the passage of time both disrupts and reconstitutes our experience of the world through the “time-based” medium of cinema.

Theological Appropriation

What The Clock does for theology is alert us to a way of being-in-the-world where the given and the found collide. This serves as a clue to the meaning of the term appropriation in both art and theology, which simply means “making one’s own.” The postproduction artist takes or recycles footage in order to synthesize it into his own unique creative vision. Yet the viewer also “appropriates” the experience in a constant, multidirectional act of interpretation – a self-reflexivity where one sees oneself both in relation to these films and their cultural meaning and to the present passage of time. In found-footage work, to digitize a phrase from Shakespeare, visual material is “untimely ripped.” It is taken out of one sequence and placed in another. Yet in the hands of an artist, a decontextualized, recycled shot can become extremely “timely” – the diachronic unfolding of shots in sequence situates us in relation to time and yields new histories and patterns of meaning.

Theology, I suggest, must similarly effect a kind of creative re-editing of tradition. Like a video editor, the theologian has at her disposal a vast array of materials, ready to be revisited and re-presented with an eye to both past and future time. Appropriation, in the theological sense, becomes a “making one’s own” of tradition not in the mode of a dead traditionalism but of artistic and pneumatic inspiration. A “found theology” investigates both theology and culture – in the mode or medium of time – for signs of new life, and integrates these findings into the living tradition of the church. In this vein, Quash’s “found theology” sets a new direction for conversations between theology and art, eschewing a “shallow” approach in favor of one that is genuinely interdisciplinary and open to new possibilities.

Theological Aesthetics as Bricolage

What can theology learn about tradition, creativity, and “foundness” from found-footage filmmaking and remix culture, and from Marclay’s The Clock in particular? One of Quash’s key theological precursors is the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the figure most closely allied with the term “theological aesthetics.” Balthasar’s seven-volume aesthetics are most often cited in terms of their retrieval of Beauty both within and outside of the Christian tradition. Yet another way to look at Balthasar’s voluminous theology is precisely as a complex work of art itself. This then begs the question of what kind of art it is. We may discover that Balthasar is in a certain sense a theological bricoleur, creatively putting together disparate elements – ancient and modern, sacred and secular, mystical and practical, theological, philosophical, artistic – into a new, organic whole.

Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and dramatics are daringly original, yet they gain their strength precisely from their non-systematic, integrative method – a theological project well-suited to its “artistic” subject matter. One striking example is the way Balthasar appropriates a range of thinkers as representatives of “lay” and “clerical” styles in volumes II and III of The Glory of the Lord: from the tradition of Christian theology he draws on Irenaeus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm and Bonaventure, but on the other hand he “finds” ample theological insight in the poetic and mystical works of Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hamann, Soloviev, Hopkins, and Peguy. Throughout his work, he draws equally on German philosophers, French novelists, playwrights like Shakespeare and Calderon, painters (Georges Rouault seems to be a favorite), composers, poets from Sappho to Rilke, and mystics ranging from Eckhart to his own close friend Adrienne von Speyr. The heterogeneity of his theological sources is thus much like the eclecticism of the found-footage artist – he casts his net widely, but in the end he is able to weave his “findings” into a coherent and compelling whole.

His project is best seen as a work of creative and transformative appropriation and synthesis. Balthasar’s synthetic theological aesthetics is less like a Duchampian readymade and more like Dante’s Divine Comedy, integrating classical, Christian, and philosophical motifs into a new creative shape coalescing around the revealed supreme “form” of Christ. Thus Balthasar yields, in Ben Quash’s aesthetic terminology, theology “that is found and not simply made” – much like a certain (non-Duchampian) type of found art, which responds to both the found and the given with creativity and resourcefulness.[13] Moreover, Balthasar’s constant theme is openness and receptivity, a theological orientation readily available to the world and to God in order to experience both anew. Appropriation, in a Balthasarian model, is a matter of experiencing the form of Christ as mediated by the tradition – in short, it is an aesthetic, not just intellectual, process. Balthasar’s approach to tradition is consistent with the kind of “found” theological method espoused by Quash and modeled artistically by Marclay. Like each of the voluminous number of clips (re)assembled by Marclay, each piece of Balthasar’s ressourcement of tradition bears the marks of its own “foundness.” It points us all at once in a multiplicity of allusive and evocative directions – a theological aesthetics, not just a systematics. Yet it also presents itself with a startling newness, as in Congar’s model of tradition. Theology as dead traditionalism or propositionalism is precluded – rather, tradition, creativity, and appropriation exist in a dynamic interpretive relationship.

In found theology and art, tradition and creativity go hand in hand, and appropriative art of the kind evident in Marclay’s The Clock as well as Balthasar’s theo-aesthetics can help us explore this dynamic. In found-footage filmmaking, film clips are, as Shakespeare penned in Macbeth, “untimely ripped” from their narrative contexts and given new life, edited together in surprising, unusual, and often subversive ways.[14] But as the narrative context of this quote from the Scottish play reminds us, and as is evident from Congar’s metaphor, this is the way new artworks – and new theologies – are born.



[1] Jerrold Levinson, for example, argues that the “intentional orientation” of the artist to position a work of art in relation to “an art history” – from the great works of the Western canon to the more local scenario of “any prior art activity” – is what makes it art. For Levinson, a work that has been “seriously intended for regarding-as-a-work-of-art” is art because it is positioned to be regarded in the same specific ways that “preexisting or prior artworks are or were correctly regarded.” Jerrold Levinson, Music, Art and Metaphysics: essays in philosophical aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 44.

[2] Ben Quash, Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014), xiv.

[3] Quash, Found Theology, 17.

[4] A sign of the times in terms of the analog-to-digital trajectory of found footage work is Jen Proctor’s recent digital, shot-by-shot “remake” of Bruce Conner’s famous film A Movie. See Scott MacDonald, “Remaking a found-footage film in a digital age: an interview with Jennifer Proctor,” Millennium Film Journal 57 (April 2013): 84-91.

[5] Scott MacKenzie, “Flowers in the dustbin: termite cinema and detritus cinema,” CineAction 47:1 (1998): 24-29.

[6] The canonical text here is Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).

[7] Margot Bouman, “On Sampled Time and Intermedial Space: Postproduction, Video Installation and Christian Marclay’s The Clock,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 3:1 (2014): 5-6. For more on the changing nature of appropriative video in the digital age see the documentary film RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2009, dir. Brett Gaylor).

[8] Bouman, 4.

[9] The longer one watches, the more The Clock reveals itself as a metafilm in which our attention is concurrently and reflexively pulled into the action on the screen and thrust back out onto our own experience of viewing.” Julie Levinson, “Time and Time Again: Temporality, Narrativity, and Spectatorship in Christian Marclay’s The Clock,Cinema Journal 54:3 (Spring 2015).

[10] Quash, Found Theology, 6.

[11] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 13

[12] I realize that the terms bricoleur and bricolage may sound hopelessly postmodern, connoting mere pastiche instead of a deeper level of appropriation. In the original sense the word simply means making something out of what is available.

[13] Quash, Found Theology, 4-7.

[14] Macbeth Act 5, Scene 8. The context here is, of course, childbirth – an apt metaphor for the artistic process.