Beny Wagner and Sasha Litvintseva are fascinated by perception’s role in shaping history. Their last film, A Demonstration (2020), used the bifurcated Latin root monstrare (which is at the root of both the words demonstrate and monster) to consider the multiple registers of monstrosity that haunt the visual archives of Early Modern natural sciences. When Wagner and Litvintseva set out to make Constant (2021), they turned their focus to metrology, setting out to chronicle the political history of the metre. During an early meeting at the National Physics Laboratory in England, the pair’s request to film metrology artefacts was met by a tangle of bureaucratic disorganisation and institutional sequestration. This moment reshaped their film, which became not only about how systems of measurement co-constitute the material world, but also about how the history of measurement is necessarily a story about access, the liberal promise of democratisation, and the role played by quantification in dispossession. I caught Constant during its debut at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and set up a Zoom call with the filmmakers in early February to discuss their compelling and ambitious project.

Madeleine Collier: Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to me; I really loved the film. You’ve been working together since your 2019 film Bilateria, is that correct?

Beny Wagner: Yeah, that was the first, but it wasn’t so linear in that way. Because we had already started working on this other film, A Demonstration, and we have also been working together on lectures and texts since 2017.

MC: How did you meet originally?

Sasha Litvintseva: At Rotterdam! 

MC: At Rotterdam? Oh, that’s very fitting. At the festival?

SL: Yeah, at the festival; we were both there with our separate works five years ago. That’s where we met, which is why it’s extra sad that it was cancelled.

MC: You’ll just have to keep making great films that will bring you back to Rotterdam so that you can properly come full circle. 

SL: Okay, you twisted our arms! [Laughs]

MC: In this film, you take us on this journey from the enclosure of lands in the 1600s through the Enlightenment and the subsequent extension of the metric system around the globe. I was left with a lot of questions about how this history has continued through the 18th century and 19th centuries up through today. I was wondering how you’ve been thinking about the rest of that history, including how measurement standards continue to shape everyday life.

SL: One of the interesting things about the metric system is that it actually took a really long time to take hold, in practice. Even in France, it took like 100 years for people to agree to use it, because people were like, I divide things by 12 in the market, what are you talking about? And then it was only in the early- to mid-20th century that other places started picking it up. One of the first places was the Soviet Union because, for quite similar reasons as France had, they wanted to upend everything and come up with their own kinds of structures. They adopted this seemingly egalitarian thing that already existed. But for us today, we have this given that it just exists, even though it was not only so hard to make and to calculate, but it also took 200 years for people to actually start using it in this pervasive way that we experience.

BW: Once it did actually get implemented at the beginning of the 20th century, soon after, in the ‘60s or ‘70s, the standards completely dematerialised. The artefacts like the original platinum metre and the platinum kilo still exist, but they’ve recalculated those based on atomic measurements. So now the standard isn’t contained in those objects, but it’s contained in maths, basically in calculations. There’s maybe less than half a century that these artefacts were in play and broadly applicable, so it’s kind of a strange thing to realise how short-lived they’ve been, and yet how universal.


SL: For people our age, we’ve been brought up to accept it as just part of the fabric of reality, whereas it’s a completely constructed thing. That highlights how so many other things that we take for granted were things that someone also came up with and could have been otherwise. Everything is contingent and constantly evolving according to all kinds of random historical circumstances. Another thing that’s not explicitly in the film, but that was interesting to us, is how the dematerialisation of measurement in the ‘70s happens almost at the exact same time as the moving away from the gold standard. That revolutionised capitalism, and has all kinds of ramifications in the world today, when financialisation just makes money out of thin air. Things are not bound to material objects. And that’s definitely a really direct kind of link.

BW: You have this idea of market democracy being introduced, where true democracy comes from spending habits, which show you what’s actually going on and how people are represented. There are remarkable parallels between different economic conditions and kinds of measurements.

MC: There’s something that I’m picking up in what you’re saying, and also from the film, about the concept of abstraction as something which simultaneously (and ironically) brings the promise of democratisation. I was wondering if you have more thoughts about that.

BW: In order to understand what’s at stake, I think you have to go really far back and to understand that the history of measurement is closely linked to divine judgement and moral judgement. We have these depictions across various different cultures of justice as blindfolded. When we measure the metre by the speed of light today, we’re not thinking about moral justice. But that’s not accidental; especially over the course of the last two centuries, a distance has been created very deliberately between science and the various concerns that are encapsulated in philosophy and religion. Science becomes this thing with seeming neutrality.

SL: But there is a paradox there as well. Both with the metric revolution and with the dematerialisation of that system in the 20th century, there was this idea that introducing ever more technical precision would necessarily be more democratic, because it would be objective to a higher degree. And truly those scientists that we met at the institution were explicitly saying, oh, it’s all fine now. It’s totally democratic, don’t worry about it, everyone can make a metre! Then, on the other hand, the more scientific and technical that it gets, the more it aims to distance itself practically and conceptually from these ideas of scales as related to justice, etc. So it’s always pulling in two directions. And in every one of those three key moments that we looked at in the film, the motivations were pulling in those two directions at the same time.

BW: You also see a history of the relationship of measurements to the body. We don’t make that exactly explicit, but it carries throughout. One of the questions we had at the beginning was, okay, everyone knows we used to have an ell, and a foot, and a digit, and now we don’t. Now, we measure atoms. I think one of the big themes that guided us in the type of topics we picked up on was how the threshold between the body and its surroundings changes over time, and has certain historical dimensions. What happens when you take the body as the point of departure and then you remove the body? In our three episodes, you have, first, measurement moving away from the body, then moving to the globe, and then moving away from the globe and going into the molecular structure of matter. 

SL: And even earlier, in the early modern period as well, it moves away from being a measurement based on how labour and material conditions come together in this specific kind of rooted space to an abstract measure of space.

BW: It’s ecological, in a way. Initially measurement is an ecological relationship.

SL: Right, exactly. So, what are the inevitable kinds of violences of ignoring everything but mathematics?

BW: The body becomes seen as contaminated and distorted, as infusing subjectivity into something that should be objective. But that’s an ideal that’s never fulfilled and that creates ever-increasing levels of… I’m tempted to say violence, but it’s complicated. The reason that we’re able to understand what an ecosystem is or to understand in very complex ways how our microbiome is connected to the planet is measurement.

SL: At the same time, if we hadn’t gotten so good at the practical applications of scientific advances, we wouldn’t have ecosystem collapse.

MC: In the film you do a beautiful job of elaborating this process of how imposing a system of measure is also something that orders the world according to its perceptual framework of origin.

SL: Exactly. I think this is something that we were already thinking about in our previous film, A Demonstration, which looks at a kind of peripheral national history as a perceptual paradigm, not just a scientific or conceptual one. And here, also, it’s not just that you have to now measure your apples in kilos rather than in units or dozens. It’s about the ability to accommodate thinking abstractly about material things as a day-to-day person. It completely revolutionises the way that you perceive your environment. Once you’re able to conceptually accommodate that, you’re also able to accommodate the type of stuff that is happening in terms of industrial progress, and all that comes with that.

A Demonstration

BW: Yeah, that’s such a good point. A couple of times when we talked to someone that struggled to understand why we were making a film about measurement, they would click with the idea that we still use the imperial system. There’s a kind of real estate, I think, a very intuitive realisation, that measurement has a direct relationship to power. But there is very little access to the type of observation you’re making, which is that this isn’t just about two competing powers, this is about the limits of the possible and the limits of the imaginable in the world. At a certain point, out of curiosity, I remember searching ‘opposition to the metre in the UK.’ And we landed on the EDL [English Defence League], Brexit, these kinds of things.

SL: Because of course, it’s about opposition to Europe, basically. It’s synonymous with that.

MC: Did you find other instances of decolonial uprisings against the metre in former colonies?

SL: Actually, a lot of former British and French colonies took up the metre only after becoming dependent nations; they didn’t have it before. And it’s in the same kind of style, I would speculate, as the Soviet Union, which, when becoming a sovereign nation, chose to take up this system.

BW: I’m sure there are some resistance stories, but it’s essentially a tool of communication. In the 1950s and ‘60s, as nations were becoming independent, saying no to the metre would be like saying no to the internet in 2010 or 2000. It would completely prohibit you from entering trade relations. I mean, mostly what we’re talking about is like, can a container be shipped somewhere, and when it arrives in that place, will there be the infrastructure to receive it? All of these things depend on having the metric system as the common language on a material level.

SL: Because after a certain point, the question of who invented it and what they were on about – no one even knows that. You might not even know that it came from France, because at a certain point, either arbitrarily or through enforcement, it becomes the thing that everyone’s doing. Even in the places where it originated, after a certain time, no one knows or cares about the history of it; it just becomes the given.

MC: On the topic of abstraction and dematerialisation, I was really struck by the animation style that you use in the film. It gives a sort of pointillistic, semi-transparent, three-dimensional effect, and it feels like it has some relation to CAD modelling. I was wondering how you arrived at the decision to use animation, and how you think about animation in relation to the kinds of abstraction that’s taken up in the film.

SL: All of those sequences are made through photogrammetry, which is produced as a point cloud of a still, three dimensional environment. In a way it’s similar to LIDAR, but whereas LIDAR sends light beams to gather information about distances, photogrammetry is made up from hundreds of photographs. These photographs are taken of an open area, object, or person from every possible angle, and then a specific program is able to calculate the three dimensional form from that. We wanted to use photogrammetry, a technology that’s intended for measurement, as a way to make cinematic images. We were very much thinking about the relationship between calculation and abstraction on the one hand and material realities on the other, and how those two things intersect.

BW: Photogrammetry is the visualisation, in a sense, or is a byproduct of, computation and machine language. It’s kind of like what the machines spit out for the human to orient themselves with in order to not get overwhelmed. It works at a level of complexity that’s not on the human scale. The question is, how do we visualise the things that we’re interested in? Well, we’ll use this tool that’s actually a measurement tool to create these spaces. One of the things that we were really interested in but that doesn’t get fully developed in the film were these stories that recounted various superstitious beliefs among farmers in the early modern and modern periods. There was this persistent theme among quite different superstitions that had to do with a fear of measurement. There was this idea that measurement would stop some kind of organic growth. For example, if you measured your harvest precisely, you’d have a failed harvest the next season. Or if you measured the cloth that you would use to make a shirt for a child under the age of six, the child would stop growing. These are all from Eastern Europe, because the research we were doing involved archives and folktales from Eastern Europe. But I think this is probably a prevalent theme in general. 

SL: Or like if you measured medicine when you put it out for someone, it wouldn’t heal them. And on and on. It was always some kind of thing about how something would be compromised, but also frozen, if it were measured.

BW: One of the reasons behind this is that in this period farmers, who were mostly illiterate, had an intuitive relationship to measurement. And that intuitive relationship was still linked to divine justice. So it’s like, God has measured things out and it’s not for us to intervene in the way that He measures. But then, these ideas are coming from a period where land is being enclosed, and it’s being enclosed using measurement systems. Suddenly, this plot of land that someone has been farming for generations, that they know in certain kinds of terms that have been passed down, now means something completely different. Their relationship, their customs in relation to the land, don’t count anymore. We were thinking about how Fredric Jameson has this famous quote: conspiracy theories are the poor man’s cognitive dissonance. We started thinking about these superstitions as a kind of cognitive dissonance and as a way of articulating what it means for this system to come and dispossess you. Because it’s not just dispossessing you of your material things; it’s a dispossession of your world. And if you believe in the old farm, you’re backwards; there are very powerful forces that demean systems and worldviews that don’t fit into the central narrative.

SL: These are worldviews that resist what the science is saying, as we’re finding now, which, of course, can be frustrating. Especially, for example, in relation to COVID, people seem to be going completely the other way. But, again, it’s because they’re struggling to accommodate the competing aspects of their reality.

BW: The issue isn’t, is science real or not? The issue is, do we allow for a multiplicity of worlds; do we allow for, value, respect, and nourish the complexity of experience and of multiple overlapping realities at work? Scientists don’t only live in the world of science. In terms of those superstitions, we had these fragments that weren’t fully fleshed-out stories, and we wanted to create an amalgamation of them. The spiral scene in the film does that; it’s not telling any one story. I think it’s also worth talking about how the photogrammetry technology was used there, which is really interesting. It’s used a lot in architecture, where people will make really millimetre-precise models, and then bring that into a CAD system or a 3D software. And the reason it’s useful in architecture is because architecture isn’t moving. So what it requires is for whatever it’s capturing to be perfectly still. We wanted to capture a cornfield, which even in the best conditions can’t be still. The guy who did the photogrammetry for us as a favour was really bewildered that we wanted it. Because of that, he captured this ruin that was on the cornfield, but we didn’t want the ruin! He couldn’t handle scanning this field because it seemed just so stupid to him [laughs].

SL: It was very intentional of him to do this thing, but part of it, we realised after we saw the material, is that there’s this really complex relationship between stillness and movement in the way that we’re using this technology. Obviously, the 3D model itself is still and then we create movement cinematically by moving through it. That was our intention and how we approached it; that’s how we thought you would have a relationship to these superstitions about being frozen by measurement. But then there was this issue of things themselves moving in, while this still, three-dimensional image was being created. It was being created in time. And as time passes, organic things move. So even though the image is still, it captures, in its kind of pointillistic imprecision, the traits of things moving, which we only fully comprehended when we were working with it. That seemed like, somehow, the perfect outcome of what we are trying to get at. 


MC: I was also interested in the way that you are engaging metaphor. In Constant, you talk about the relationship between measurement and metaphor as things that bridge gaps and that travel across space. I was wondering how metaphor acts as a throughline across your projects, and why you’re particularly interested in it.

SL: Ask Beny, he’s the metaphor expert! 

BW: I don’t know if I’m a metaphor expert, but I am a big, long-term connoisseur –

MC:  – of a good metaphor?

SL: He’s interested in what metaphors are about in a meta way, but conversationally he also always has the right metaphor.

BW: Okay, so there are good metaphors and bad metaphors; there are also metaphors that are used to obscure realities and other metaphors that are used to reveal them. For example, to call the Internet a cloud is a metaphor that is used very self-reflexively and very intentionally to obscure a system that is entangled in power and cooptions, etc. 

SL: And highly, highly material.

BW: Highly material. But then you can also reclaim agency through metaphor. What’s that famous structuralist saying? It’s a ‘language speaks you’ kind of thing, which I think is a really dangerous and closing-in way of thinking about what language is. Of course, there’s an aspect in which language ‘speaks you.’ But there are also many ways in which that idea can be broken in really important ways. I think metaphor is one of the ways that language can be bent and can do things that it’s not intended to do. I think that there are ways of using metaphor that can really expand the realm of the possible, because metaphors have an interesting relationship to rationality and irrationality. There’s a possibility of irrationality in a metaphor that expands the realm of what’s possible.

SL: Metaphor in its most necessary sense comes in when there are no other words to describe something. You reach for something else that can allude contextually to the thing that you’re talking about. If there are no words to describe it, that means that it could be something that wasn’t in the realm of the thinkable previously. In making the metaphor, you’re creating something thinkable and passing that on. That’s the best kind of metaphor.

MC: This week I also read, by chance, Bruno Latour’s article, “Visualisation and Cognition.”1 He talks in that article about how the word metaphor comes from the Greek root metaphero, which implies both something that can change and something that can travel. It resonated with my viewing of your film, because you introduce this concept of something that can travel across the world, maybe carried by Empire, extend a particular realm of perception, and fix it there. 

SL: It’s interesting, that line in the film that you’re referring to, which explicitly compares measurement to metaphor, was one of the things that we puzzled over whether to keep in for a really long time. It was one of the last remaining poetic, analytical interventions in what was mostly narration. In the end, we decided to keep it because it seemed like that thought was really necessary to trigger.

MC: I was definitely struck by it.

BW: We’ve been having a longer conversation about didacticism in film and how important it is, even though for various reasons, it’s not the first thing that occurs to us. Each of our projects is a process of learning for ourselves, and so we’re inevitably drawn to greater nuance than what we started with. There’s always a certain point where it feels kind of counterintuitive to have something that didactic. But then those tend to be the things that people respond to really strongly in the films. There’s also this scene in A Demonstration where there’s just a long crossfade between a library and a forest. We had the thought, this is just too silly. But that’s always the thing that people respond to in that film. 

SL: What we found so interesting was just realising that didacticism isn’t necessarily about a voiceover; a choice of a cup can be didactic. A voiceover can be not didactic at all. What we also found specifically with that shot in A Demonstration was that people really responded to it, but that they responded to it in really different ways. The thing that we thought was obvious about it was just one reading of it. Because it was so clearly saying something, people responded to it, but what they thought it was saying was so different. So actually, you can’t even be didactic, because everyone’s just bringing their own agenda to everything that they see.

BW: There’s always a dialectic between the viewer and the screen. There’s always 50% of the conversation not happening in the film – at the very least.

MC: But this film is also so funny! I was wondering how you thought about bringing in humour either as a theoretical tool for thinking through these objects or for communicating your thoughts about them.

BW: The meeting that we had [at the National Physics Laboratory] that catalysed everything was so serious, but it was also so absurd and ridiculous. The things that you are pointing to, that are probably the most humorous, are things that we didn’t make up. There’s another interesting thing. For example, the PR person in real life was a woman and when, in real life, the older male scientist turned to her and referred to her as the Thought Police, it was extremely bizarre and surreal. We’re in this meeting as outsiders to the institution asking for access, and there’s no agreement between the people here who are responsible, and they don’t even know what each other is doing. For us, that was as much a thing to observe and include in the history of measurement as the hard science. The fact that the standards used to be kept in the Parthenon and there were armed guards around them, and here, you go to this place, and they’re telling you, it’s totally democratic, we’ve finally found a kind of system that corrects all the previous wrongs. So that in itself just became the focal point. But then we had to make these decisions, because we didn’t want to reproduce…

SL: …the real misogyny of the situation. Because when you reproduce it, that’s on you actually. Also, the thing with the caveman animation really happened. And the part where they calmly explain how you need an atomic clock and all manner of things to make a metre – which is totally chill! All of that really happened; at the very end we actually had to work quite hard on fictionalising some of it to give everyone more benefit of the doubt and put the onus on the vacuum of authority in that situation. But yeah, humour. We love things that are funny [laughs]. And we are also very serious at the same time. So it’s always a challenge. In particular, we really puzzled over this text. It was like, how can we have a consistent enough tone that’s able to recount a humorous story that really happened to us, and is able to recount factual information about the French Revolution, and is able to make quite unambiguous political claims, and poetic, metaphorical reflections? 

BW: It was quite a challenging thing. There was a moment where it was like, why did we do this? It was a long, extended moment, like a couple of months, because we didn’t really understand what it was going to be like. Then we realised once we had the material that we had made this film that somehow is like, Harun Farocki meets Derek Jarman meets a ‘90s music video. Something really weird. There are these things that really have no business together.

SL: Yeah, things that usually don’t intersect. And we were like, it’s cool. It would be funny to make them intersect. It’s great that some kind of levity and humour comes through the other end.

BW: I think it has something to do with this idea, no matter how untrue it is, that information can’t be a music video, a comedy can’t be like a diagram. We have these ways of understanding what something is supposed to be. Neither of us are trained as filmmakers. We both come from an art background; we both engage with a really broad range of things and have really broad interests. We just express that in what we do. We’re really influenced by music videos; I really think the things that are most exciting to me in moving image culture come from music videos. 

SL: In fashion videos and music videos, you’re just trying to create a vibe that’s attractive and sells the product or whatever; in the case of music videos, it sells you wanting to watch it again. That’s it really. But they’re not beholden to meaning and narratives. It’s exciting to see what people do with the medium when they’re not beholden to anything other than making it cool. Then we can see how that can translate to actually trying to communicate a complex idea that you don’t have words for.

 MC: I’m obsessed with that idea of vibe cinema, or like, the aesthetic category of vibe moving image [laughs]. That’s great. Okay, so you were clearly thinking with a lot of different texts, both visual and more theoretical. You cite a few in the credits as well. If you were to arrange a materials list for people who wanted to engage more with these ideas or are curious about where you were drawing out some of these themes, what would you recommend?

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway

Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception

Pasi Väliaho, Mapping The Moving Image

Sylvia Wynter, On Being Human As Praxis

Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life

Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques

Lisa Cartwright, Screening The Body


MC: As a last question, I was wondering what’s next for both of you. Will you be taking up these themes in later works?

SL: We’re just starting the very early stages of the next film together, which is becoming the third in a kind of trilogy with A Demonstration and Constant

BW: We’re interested in research in genetics and metabolic sciences that show that there’s genetic material from things that humans consume that stays in the body sometimes for years afterwards and potentially affects the person’s greater genome. There are certain natural hierarchies, if you think about it, that are based on the idea that the thing that you eat turns into you, and that it loses all of its identity in the process. It turns into matter that has no identity anymore. But the idea from this research is that there are actually many other identities coexisting on a genetic level. Basically, the film takes this idea of the lack of integrity of the cell as a premise to cast quite a broad net, historically, over the issue of consumption.

SL: We are thinking both from the point of view of the material relationship of an organism to an environment (how the environment is going to pass through it), but also the relationship of two bodies somehow merging or consuming one another in a variety of literal and metaphorical ways. We’re looking at a really broad range of literature – as in literally literature from many, many centuries – 

BW: Augustine to Dante to Marx.

SL: We’re finding those moments where this issue is explored, but always with very different stakes. We’re going to work with that, but also work with contemporary science and see how they can meet.

BW: It’s going to be much looser than Constant and much more open ended. It’s not going to tell a clear narrative in the same way that Constant does. My theory is that we always take the thing that felt the worst about the film that we just finished and make the opposite. We solve the problems in one film with the next one. And hopefully, we just keep making problems.


  1. Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” Knowledge and Society – Studies in the Sociology of Cultures Past and Present, Volume 6 (1986): pp. 1-40.