UNSEEN VOICES: Caroline Martel WITH JIM SUPANICKby Jim Supanick
The Montreal-based filmmaker and media artist Caroline Martel belongs to a vital artistic and critical tradition within Canada that actively engages with the history of technology and communications, a lineage that includes Marshall McLuhan, Hugh Kenner, and Glenn Gould. Her new installation, Industry/Cinema, is currently on view at the Museum of the Moving Image through August 12; the exhibition also included a screening of her 2004 film the Phantom of the Operator.
In her films and installations, as well as in her work for radio and the web, Martel traces the upgrade and afterlife of new media, and revives a sense of wonder at how technology changes lives and remaps consciousness. Her new feature-length documentary, Wavemakers, traces the invention and development of the Ondes Martenot, an under-recognized link within the history of electronic music. Martel was kind enough to discuss her past and recent work via Skype.
Jim Supanick (Rail):Let’s begin with a little bit about your background as a filmmaker, and the work you did prior tothe Phantom of the Operator.
Caroline Martel: I studied at Concordia University, in the communications department, and started my B.A. in 1992, so, like 20 years ago now. There was a big fetishization of cinema and the auteur-driven. Film was always something that I liked, but I never went into this cinephilic mode, and to me, making any kind of project was like, “What’s my intervention?” I feel like I have a bit of a pragmatic approach somehow, and this is why I identify myself as a documentary filmmaker first and foremost. I don’t fetishize film as such, if I can say so.
Rail: The Phantom of the Operator may strike some viewers as taking a unique approach because of the fact that it uses industrial films exclusively as its visual material. What was behind your decision to follow that constraint? And who were your inspirations, particularly in terms of film?
Martel: In fact, what I was really trying to do first is to make a film about the history of the telephone operators, and there were no real images of the operators, so I had to quote some fiction films with operators in them, that often depicted popular representations. You would see, in some of those fiction films, operators eavesdropping and being flirted with, and all those real practices of being an operator. These were realistic depictions, but in fiction films, so of course there was the whole copyright thing. It was not really an option.
Then I came across some representations of operators in those industrial films, and it seemed to me that those films were so fascinating and so rich that, yeah, I should just find more of them, and the more I went with them, the more I felt that maybe I could not really represent the real history of the operators, but maybe I could present something else, which became what the film is, a construction of the figure of operators through management, and cinema being a tool of management somehow, through a kind of public relations, inside and outside the company. The Bell System was a pioneer in public relations.
I really did so much research. I started this project at the end of my bachelor’s degree, then my professors felt there was so much to dig that I should start my M.A. I took some classes in which I could try to explore all kinds of films that were reusing other films, like archival-based filmmaking, recycling, and appropriation. I don’t find that Phantom is a found footage film—that’s something that can be debated, but it’s a kind of archival-based film that I like to think is somehow a documentary—I like to think of documentary as a really wide form of filmmaking.
Rail: How do you view the distinction between “found footage” and “archival” films?
Martel: I think “archival” is more generic; found footage has a history, and the drive of “found footage” films is more artistic, more as if they’re part of art history.
Rail: For me, “found footage” involves a certain serendipity, an openness to material that might inspire ideas you didn’t already have, whereas “archival films” seem driven by a more purposeful or directed pursuit of the material.
Martel: Yeah—very open, but purposeful, because let me tell you, to find these films, you really have to do a lot of research. And I think “found footage” has a collage element in it which I love. I was on a panel with the German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger and she came up with this term, “highly researched and finally found footage.”
I watched the films on VHS—there were other films on the same VHS that I picked for one title, and I would watch all the films on that one, then I would come across films that I never would have found with that keyword. You do research, and you use not the glove, but the mitten. You find more stuff in the mess—you have to leave it to chance somehow in the creative process. I don’t know what “found footage” is nowadays—there’s so much stuff on the internet. It’s a practice that’s not just limited to films found on the floor of editing suites.
Rail: I’ll make an embarrassing admission: though I immediately sensed something odd about the title, it wasn’t until later that I recognized the obvious play on words. The Phantom of the Opera and your film deal with the theme of the Unseen Voice, what Michel Chion (and others) have called the acousmatique.
Martel: Yeah, Michel Chion—I did an interview with him ages ago about the jukebox. It was for a festival in 1998. I think the idea of the Unseen Voice permeates all of my work. I care about allowing the Unseen Voice to be seen, and to be heard—this is kind of a documentary ideal, or ethic, to give voice to people who would not have the voice otherwise. And so it’s not just people, it’s subjects.
In the case of the operator, since she cannot be seen, she can be fantasized, she can be this image in the minds of people. Her femininity as a motherly figure, as a sexy figure, so that was something she would bring to the job, wanted or not—and that was never really paid for.
Rail: Your narrator is a very interesting construction, another Unseen Voice in a film devoted to an important manifestation of that notion. There’s something almost Whitmanesque at times—“I am the ghost of invisible women workers....” Can you talk about your conception of the narrator, which I think is a very important part of the film’s success?
Martel: She is this synthesized voice, all mixed down, embodying all the lost souls of the operators in the galaxy, you know? Stuck in the networks, and I hope she haunts us. She’s proud, because she’s been hurt. She’s a bit of a lost soul, right? I think that we want to be sure that we don’t take the easy route that some films do. We want to make sure we’re letting the images and sound drive the show—that’s an important concern. I think writing a voiceover takes more of you. Personally, you put yourself more on the line—I’m sure you’ve experienced that. There is also the risk to be self-indulgent—to me, that’s something I try to avoid at all costs. It’s hard to be self-effacing when you have a voiceover, because some people will want to take it at face value, as something that represents you and what you think, what you want them to think, and I’d rather avoid that. I had a filmmaker tell me, “If you’re writing a voiceover, avoid at all costs reading the voiceovers of Chris Marker—it’s so fucking well-written! It’s going to make it impossible to do your own thing. I really love his work, but I think he’s somehow a writer who makes films, you know?
Rail: Phantom is very much a film about labor. Aside from your previous film Hold the Line, where does this interest come from? Do you have a background in labor, or does your fascination originate elsewhere?
Martel: I never thought about this, but it really bears the imprint, and is a really great example of how we will create systems to organize ourselves. I say “we,” but of course it is people who have the power. It really betrays our vision of the human condition, what’s essential in life. So I love to see how systems are created.
There is also an important influence, a woman scientist who is also a philosopher, her name is Ursula Franklin. She gave a series of lectures called the Massey Lectures. She’s unfortunately not very well known, but she is very accessible. Her whole point is that technology is not gear; technology is embodying all these frames of mind. I read this book again last January, and I was shocked to see how Phantom was an application of this book somehow, this book that I had read fifteen years ago. I sent the film to her this past March, because I thought, “Oh, it’s a tribute to her work, and I have to thank her.” I think if I had not come across her work, I’m not sure I would’ve made this film.
Rail:There’s a moment near the beginning of the film where the narrator describes how originally men—apprentice technicians—worked the early switchboards, in her words, “with no sense of service.” Should we think of the operator then as an early modern embodiment of what we refer to today as affective labor?
Martel: They really made a difference in the telephone being accepted. At first it was rejected—people didn’t really understand how it would be useful—businessmen especially. They saw it as a toy. By having women smooth things over—and also technically, there were so many bugs that you needed a human being to facilitate it—that’s where they made a tremendous difference: they were more patient. Hearing the voice of a young woman was something—wow—something sexy, something that would help the businessmen be patient. The young [male] apprentice technicians would be connecting the calls, and would tell customers, “Well, if you’re not happy, come and plug your phone call yourself.” The telephone was going to fail as an accepted technology—it could’ve become a dead media if women had not been hired and come to the rescue. Also, the technicians—the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—were just starting to unionize, so the company felt that if they were going to grow, it would not be so great to have this unionized labor. So why not go for girls?
Rail:Another labor question: your focus rests primarily on telephone operators, but you also refer to and include images of women in manufacturing jobs. How significant is the difference between so-called blue-and pink-collared workers in the larger scheme of things? Or do you think that what they share is really more important?
Martel: I think the Bell System was very keen on having the latest trends of labor management. It was one of the first corporations to have industrial psychologists hired to plan on advertising that was geared toward young women in high school to convince them that they should become operators. All those reasons: you could find a husband more easily, he will know you were an operator and that’s deemed valuable, and of course they would meet men on the line. This whole gendered aspect was really important. An idea that Eric Breitbart shared with me was that workers often become essentialized to the hand—in the case of the operator, the voice was doing the job. That was why the operators were called “The Voice With the Smile.” Even the “human computers”—the women during the Second World War—many were mathematicians. We also felt that they were an important part of female labor feeding the system, so we included them with the other female workers in the film.
Rail:At one point, we see footage of switchboard operators on roller skates. Aside from the comedy of it, I’m left wondering, were roller skates really put to common use, or was this more for the benefit of the camera?
Martel: Oh yes! This lasted about four years, and it was serious. I know that they did it in Toronto. This footage comes from a Fox Movietone newsreel. But operators had all kinds of accidents, and it became messy, so they stopped using it. But the whole point was for long distance calls: since the calls were done through relays, they had to bring a piece of paper and a phone number to call—it was one of the first technologies to increase the speed of calls.
Rail: Industry/Cinema, your current installation at the Museum of the Moving Image continues with the use of industrial films, but then adds another equally important component of commercial cinema alongside it. Can you say a bit about the installation’s sound—namely, its interactive component? I know that in an earlier instance it had a somewhat different form.
Martel: I like to say that everything is viewer-determined—that’s why I make open work, so they can determine it more. Some don’t like to do that. At first we wanted to put these film excerpts next to each other without editing it too much, and yet again, I insist on the whole documentary approach, I didn’t want to make or create the connections, I wanted to reveal the connections. So, what could we do with sound, with the two soundtracks? The earlier idea was to have people in the space, wear headphones, and on one side they would hear one soundtrack—a bit like eavesdropping—and moving over on to other side, they would hear the other soundtrack. But the wireless technology was very, very noisy—it was not an option. So I said, “Let’s be hard-wired, have headphones, and we made electronic boxes with two push-buttons that lit up when you choose one soundtrack over the other, inviting people in an obvious way to interfere with the soundtracks.” It’s interactive, but very low-tech.
Rail: In a way it’s an extension of the switchboard idea.
Martel: You’re right—Wendell [Walker], the installation coordinator, and I both felt it would be really neat to have the headphones coming down from the ceiling. I have a little bit of a sound fetish—I like this idea that you pick up your headphones like fruit in a tree.
Rail:Please tell us about your current project about the Ondes Martenot.
Martel: The Ondes Martenot is also an unseen voice—that’s why I made the film, so that people realize they’ve all heard this instrument, but never really heard about it or seen it. When I was working on Phantom, I went to Suzanne Binet-Audet because she played the Ondes Martenot and I was curious about it. And then when she would tell stories I thought, wow, there’s a lot of stuff there, maybe it would be cool to dig in further. And also, when I was showing Phantom all around, I had so many questions about the soundtrack, I was always explaining it. So I thought why not make a film so they can experience it themselves?
About the Author
JIM SUPANICK is a videomaker and writer based in Brooklyn. Other essays of his can be accessed at As a Chimney Draws, supanickblog.blogspot.com.