Saturday, 23 February 2008
Willie Doherty, Ghost Story, 2007, Courtesy of the artist and Matt’s Gallery
Replays, selected video works 1994-2007, Matt’s Gallery 23 January-16th March 2008.
A camera moves down the centre of a country lane. Its movement is inexorable throughout the film. Other locations – a movement through trees or open ground – turn out to be to one side of the lane to which the camera soon returns. It moves through the dark and damp gloom of an underpass by a motorway, the back alleys of terraced houses – but even here, when we approach a corner, we find we have returned to the lane. The camera doesn’t just record the world, it seems to move in it as a collaborator in its creation – moving out into a car park, for instance, to make space for the car that soon moves dream-like into its frame.
Ghost Story was screened at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square as part of an Artprojx event on January 31st and is also the centrepiece of Willie Doherty’s Matt’s Gallery retrospective. Throughout Ghost Story the camera is accompanied by a grain and breath filled voice over by Stephen Rea suggesting conversation, stream of consciousness and the traditional stoyteller’s more formal register. It is this last mode from which the text itself formally derides – a richly illusive, poetical ghost story in which the atrocities perpetuated in a landscape come to suffuse and acquire the presence of wraiths within it. One of the challenges of Doherty’s film is how such strong material can be positioned and worked into a state of uncertainty: through as well as against its own conviction.
One way Doherty does this is by the formal and structural rigour of his film-making. In conversation with Tim Marlow at the Prince Charles cinema Doherty denied he was motivated by formalist concerns. However, it is interesting that the majority of his films highlight some formal process of film making that, taken out of context, might be found, for example, in Ernie Gehr or Michael Snow. In Passage (2006) the formal device is a re-working of the conventions of the shot-response shot. Over a two-minute loop, the film cuts back and forth rapidly between two men walking through waste ground at night, again accompanied by the sound of motorway traffic. At one moment in the film the two men pass each other, each turning to try and catch a glimpse of the other. The formal procedure of shot- response shot creates an inevitable encounter which, however, is ultimately unable to contain the men’s insistent motivations for their night walks.
In Ghost Story the consequences of the camera movement are twofold. It offers distancing from the landscape itself, preventing its static contemplation as scene or setting by highlighting its own reality. But it is also not really the movement of a camera that is foregrounded at all, rather a quality of movement and perception that relates to but is also disturbingly different from the way any human perception might relate to the lane, either through walking or driving. For all its insistence, the camera’s movement creates an openness about what is seen – positing it as an entwined realm of physical landscape, memory, consciousness, dream, and story; able to both fulfil and also step back from the particular demands of each.
This openness is one way of reading the pervasive presence of autobiography in Doherty’s work. Having read and heard interviews with the artist I can identify the lanes in Ghost Story as one of the networks of country lanes on the borders of Northern Ireland and the Republic; understand the text and the shots of back alleys as related to Doherty’s own childhood witnessing of Bloody Sunday. I also see the open car at dusk with its unidentified driver, the figure in the underpass, the film’s insistence and momentum, as depictions of the particular psychological state of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Nor is Doherty’s work ever separable from this situation. But devices such as moving cameras, 360º pans, and use of shot-response shot are ways of creating a distance from that experience; testing the degrees of its pervasiveness, affirming its presence whilst also wondering what kinds of presence are possible apart from it. This strategy is the artist filmmaker’s response to Bloody Sunday’s history of atrocity, denial, and, latterly, public enquiry.
Although the show at Matt’s Gallery was a retrospective the gallery made the decision to only show one film each week alongside Ghost Story, perhaps feeling that a loop of six or seven pieces in the second gallery would remove the intensity of focus and concentration these films demonstrate. In Non-Specific Threat (2004), the camera maintains a continual 360º pan around the enthralling presence of a shaven headed man. As in Ghost Story Doherty uses an actor – Kenneth Branagh – to provide a voice over. Again the text is read in a way that balances between public and private, responding to a scene and co-creating it. But although Branagh’s delivery unifies the elements of the text, the text is also more inconsistent than Rea’s wraith filled narrative, its content continually testing both its own attribution to any single point of view and its relationship to the figure in the image. Similarly, the camera’s 360º movement does not have the insistence and momentum of Ghost Story. In the shifting configurations of figure and often uncertain background, it is often difficult to perceive what and whether movement is taking place.
Longer and more complexly structured than films such as Passage and Non-Specific Threat, Ghost Story does feel like a summation of long standing concerns as they are expressed in numerous motifs throughout Doherty’s work: incessant movement or the rumble of motorway traffic, for example. Here such motifs combine to acquire a collective momentum, functioning coherently within the film’s microcosm. Whilst it is possible to see Ghost Story as a testing of a word against image, landscape against its inscription in a particular cause, the film is ultimately a testament to its own persuasive manipulativeness, pulling us and, one feels, the film maker himself, into the hegemony of its own concerns.
Only at two points in the film is the momentum of the camera interrupted. The eye of a young girl in close up is almost an ideogram for this compelling film as well, of course, as being a literal source of the seeing and being seen that leads us once again into insistent movement along a haunted and haunting country lane.
Monday, 18 February 2008
Installation view of Roman SIGNER, Old Shatterhand, 2007. Hauser & Wirth London, 25 January – 15 March 2008
Video 1'20'' min © Hauser & Wirth Zürich London Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London
Hauser and Wirth London, 25th January- 15th March 2008.
A model helicopter is balanced on a pine shelf floating down a river. As it approaches a small dam, the helicopter lifts into the air as the shelf plunges over the edge. The shelf repositions itself in the calm water beyond the dam whereupon the radio controlled helicopter carefully lands on the shelf.
Helikopter auf Brett (Helicopter on Shelf) (1998) is one of three videos on the balcony of the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Picadilly, where Roman Signer’s new London show is taking place. Having described this piece and others in the exhibition to various friends, it is Helikopter that most effectively exists as an oral story. In Wasser (Water) (2002) an air filled inflatable balloon is placed at the bottom of a small dam, the water causing it to rotate the opposite way to the plunging river. Schlauch (Hose) (2006), meanwhile, begins when water is set free to turn a mill, which, inside the mill house, slowly twists a rope to the point where a bucket is pulled over, spilling water onto the floor. For all three pieces the filming style is deliberately low-key, documenting, but Signer is watchful for moments where a shift can be made that maintains objectivity and exponentially increases impact. At the end of Wasser, for example, there is a sudden cut to inside the balloon.
These videos root the show in Signer’s on going practice of experiment and event. But the show is designed to have a more immediate impact. Entering the gallery from the bustle of Picadilly, the ground floor is littered with conventional black office chairs. A foot or so in from the edge of the wall is a thick line of red masking tape. Inside the tape, a small lawn mower powers its way around, crashing into chairs and changing direction, reaching the raised bump of the red tape and turning back. It’s a puzzling piece to encounter if you’re not expecting it, particularly given the inhibitions of gallery etiquette. The red tape, which turns back the lawnmower, also suggests it should not be crossed by spectators. Perhaps it is not safe or not allowed to enter the lawnmower’s territory? I took a middle path – crossing the line but not quite confident enough to stride across the centre of the room. Signer’s title – Stuhle (Chairs) (2007) – show his focus, prioritising consequence over agency.
Like many Signer pieces Stuhle’s effectiveness is in its combination of genuine relationships between objects, and its entropic absurdity. It reveals the impersonal to have a powerful psychological force. At times I feel such pieces can narrow to comments on the particular absurdities of artistic doing, but they also consistently open up to a broader frame of reference with their genuine sense of pleasure and exploration, their honesty about the human condition. The most insistent note is that anything emerging from a genuine relationship between two or more things is not just worthy of attention but to be prompted and encouraged. Indeed, the obsessive aspects of Signer’s practice suggest such prompting to be an ethical imperative.
Hauser and Wirth’s eccentric former bank of a building, wonderfully unlike a white cube, itself contributes to the works absurd tone as Signer’s pieces measure themselves against and out of a certain bourgeois decorum. A winding staircase leads into the basement, where Flasche (2007) comprises a half filled wine bottle propelled in a circle by a fan - a gesture that seems to offer a very human, improvisatory and low budget version of perpetual motion. Also in the basement – and one has to see more than one show here to realise the huge empty safe is not part of the installation – is Old Shatterhand (2007). A man in a shooting range attaches a motorised rubber belt around his waist which causes him to shake and vibrate as he fires and misses at a tin can on a shelf. Again Signer ends the film with a sudden cut in to the tin surrounded by bullet holes. The close up accentuates his interest in the activity, proffering the image as evidence and documentation of a process and its outcome, not of a failure to hit the target.
As an accompaniment to the exhibition Hauser and Wirth screened Signers Koffer (1995) in the BAFTA cinema next door. Peter Liechti’s film followed Signer as he carried out his experiments and performances on a journey through the Swiss Alps, Poland, Stromboli and Iceland. It showed the works in the exhibition as part of an ongoing practice. Curiously, not only were all the experiments linked by their attention to relationships between objects, but Signer often remained fascinated in the same objects and/or repeated an experiment in a different location. A piece that the first time around was funny often seemed embarrassing and disturbing when repeated. I sensed Signer felt this too, wanting to keep his work within the emotional demands and drains of such a vulnerable yet potent space; constantly using repetition to push a particular object or relationship beyond novelty.
Take the helicopter. The beginning of Signers Koffer has Signer working on a computer animation of a helicopter. The film cuts to show him in a room surrounded by numerous model helicopters, whilst the film soon shows us a “helicopter performance” where a radio controlled helicopter lingers fascinated and menacingly around the outside of a boarded up building, before flying into the wall and smashing itself to pieces with its curiosity. Perhaps, in Helikopter auf Brett, Signer finds, in the river and the shelf, a foil for the macabre energy of the radio controlled helicopter. It momentarily finds for itself and us a peculiar, poignant, and powerfully pointless peace on the way towards ideas for yet more model helicopter experiments.
Sunday, 17 February 2008
Catherine Yass, Lock, 2006. Two simultaneous projections of 16mm film transferred to HD-MPEG digital files, with sound9 Mins 44 Secs
Lock, Alison Jacques Gallery, 16th January- 23rd February 2008.
It is appropriate that Catherine Yass’ new film and exhibition at the Alison Jacques gallery should coincide with the London release of Jia Zhangke’s new film Still Life. For all their differences both are responses to the Three Gorges Dam project in China’s Yangtze River. Both are informed by its material presence and its totemic power; its connection both to China’s history and its future. Both combine a focus on the reality of the Three Gorges Dam with a palpable sense of its mystery and unknowability; symbolisations of change and progress with a sense of stillness, myopia and ending reaching towards apocalypse.
These thematic connections are realised in each filmmaker's work by radically different aesthetic strategies, related to their very different locations as artists. Zhangke returns again and again to shots of the Yangtze river valley where new skyscraper cities rise above a crumbling, already or soon to be demolished underworld, where humans struggle to survive, the films central characters searching for husbands and wives. Lock focuses entirely on the deep sea canal through the dam, never revealing the valley beyond, showing people only as tiny shapes moving around the holds on empty barges, emerging from the lock into a blurry, mist covered riverscape. Such emphasis on form and style also depicts the dam like a classic piece of modernist architecture, highlighting both the dam's multiple cultural legacies and Yass’ own position: seeking to engage with the phenomena of modern China whilst remaining within her own cultural familiarities.
Lock comprises two wall to ceiling projections facing each other across the darkened gallery. A bench is placed for viewers to watch the film from the side, looking from screen to screen for the 9’44” duration. Both films depict a ship's passage through the canal, although once this is established the emphasis is more on the sense and atmosphere of the canal than on maintaining a causal narrative chain. Shots are long, static, and fade to black. When there is movement – water rising in the lock, for example – it can be almost imperceptible or happening in a void, as when boats move out into mist, allowing no sense of direction or progress. Huge lock gates open on one screen and close on another: the film and us caught in a claustrophobic loop where leaving the dam is only another reinscription of its pervasive power. On the right screen the prow of a ship is always at the bottom of the picture, rooting the camera in the movement of a boat. There is no such anchoring on the left screen, movement being derived from the camera/ film maker's eye, suggesting the film is witness to psychological and theoretical as well as physical unfoldings.
Whilst images and movements are slow, sound is constant, appearing to be a mixture of signals, dam operational announcements, and low drones and hums, which may be amplifications of the lock itself but acquire a haunting electroacoustic quality. It draws attention to the lock – and the gallery space within which the sound moves – as literal and metaphorical resonating chambers in which meanings are both amplified and confused. It is sound which is fluid and moving, and to which we must turn in our attempts at sense making, in contrast to the huge static, concrete forms of the damn. It is through this quality of resonating that Yass begins to find political and social meaning emerging out of her strict limitations of location and subject.
It would be a commonplace, like the galleries own notes, to say that the human figures seen moving about the barges provide a sense of scale. Instead, what Lock reveals about the dam is how it has superseded notions of scale and relationship. The film shows nothing beyond the dam through which we can determine its scale. The environment itself has lost its bearings, and the only way of indicating enormity of scale is for the artist themselves to make the projection fill the whole wall in the gallery. Human presence is almost inconceivable in the film, a sense emphasised rather than contradicted by the small, moving squares of orange safety jackets or the human voices fused with machines on the soundtrack.
The sheer size of the projection creates grainy, indistinct images which are a formal equivalent to the enveloping mist. An alternative strategy is attempted in the shows other component: four photos presented in light boxes. In one we do see the wider valley: its sides stripped bare and the location for a series of huge banners proclaiming For the good of the people. In another the landscape is only viewable through the gaps between more government placards, as if attempts to depict landscape and the landscape themselves are being reduced to prescriptive one-dimensional announcements and propagandistic gestures. Like the wall-sized projections, the light boxes are the artist’s own attempt to provide mass and volume to an essentially unknowable experience, but one doomed to paradox through the uniformity and artificiality of its even light.
As Yass and Zhangke both chronicle, the Three Gorges Dam is a totemic symbol of China’s development; a site where numerous arguments and controversies are literally and symbolically acted out. It is a bold and rewarding strategy to act that out, as Yass does, solely within the forms of the lock canal itself, and it is in viewing her film alongside Still Life that we realise how successful and specific Yass has been.
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Bearing, 2007Single-channel HD video with audio35 minutes
Courtesy of the artist and Parasol unit
Copyright Darren Almond, 2007
Fire Under Snow, Parasol Unit, 18 Jan – 30 Mar 2008 and Moons of the Iapetus Ocean, White Cube Hoxton Square, 18 Jan – 23 Feb 2008
Two concurrent exhibitions offer a chance to view a range of Darren Almond’s recent work, across film, photography and installation. Combining night photographs of Britain with film and photo work from travels to Siberia, Indonesia, Tibet and China, its sum is a mini- retrospective of an artist whose work derives from a fruitful intertwining of conceptual and documentary concerns.
As a well structured entry into one artist’s precocupations the Parasol Unit exhibition is the place to begin. In the first room Tide (2008) consists of a wall of six hundred digital clocks marking real time. Minutes seem a long time when you stand there waiting for six hundred clocks to change and such a work evokes both static and momentum, similarity and difference, the inevitable and the impossible. On the facing wall are two texts, on metal panels that might be long elongated licence plates or the name plates on train engines. They read, respectively “ONLY SOUND NEEDS ECHO AND DREADS ITS LACK” and “A GLANCE IS ACCUSTOMED TO NO GLANCE BACK.” Given the Buddhist chanting coming from the next room, these seem a meeting of koan and Jenny Holzer (although actually, I learn later, they are extracts from the poetry of Joseph Brodsky): statements designed to instruct, forceful but seeming to settle into pedagogical paradox.
The texts and clocks are a useful preparation to the three screen installation In The Between (2006). The exhibition notes tell us In The Between was filmed on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, and shots from the train were juxtaposed with shots of Tibetan Buddhist monks filmed in the Samyey monastery in Lhasa. The journey from China to Tibet finds its form in the three screens which both separate and connect; the train a metaphor for China’s invasion of Tibet in 1951. But all this is unclear from the images themselves. The power of In The Between derives instead from how such structural and historical engagements actually become hugely uncertain when articulated visually, as do the most basic facts of geographical location. The most striking visual orchestration in In The Between is of a landscape shot from a moving train, that moves across all three screens. What is foregrounded is less any local detail than the shifting horizon line and the registering of degrees of vagueness. Similarly the monks' chanting on the central screen is a grounding within a cultural context, but one oddly familiar in an era of global Buddhism. Almond’s particular perspective on globalisation emerges in this piece, where the distance or proximity of his film's subjects from the London audience for this exhibition is hugely uncertain.
The single screen Bearing (2007), documenting magnesium miners in Indonesia, developed these issues in a more concentrated fashion. At first it seemed to possess many tropes of classic documentary: going off to an exotic elsewhere to bring back its report of an environment both beautiful and horrific, with a faith that “seeing” would lead to some response to such injustices. Although all these elements are activated by the film, Almond allows none of them to unfold according to the logic generic convention might lead us to expect. Like In The Between the sense of space and constantly shifting horizons prevent a sense of the exotic as either near or far. The opening shots of the sulfur mine are replaced, for the majority of the film, by a close up of a man’s face, replacing the presentation of landscape with an intense physiognomy, maintained for the time it takes him to carry his load of magnesium over a mountain. This inscrutability dominates over shock, outrage, or any other response. Although the man coughs, the film is not able to make any point about health conditions for workers in the mine. Such is the level of visual uncertainty created by this long close up of the man’s face that someone walking in and out of the gallery might have difficulty even ascertaining if he is walking, on a lift, or riding a donkey; let alone being able to spot what work he is carrying out.
Downstairs a photo of dead trees in Siberia prompted all my suspicions about the beautiful and polluted landscape being aestheticised into a form of ecological pornography. The room of photographs upstairs showed how Almond avoided this through variation and multiplicity. Now the photographs were large, arranged in triptychs, sometimes in black and white. A log would run from picture to picture through the triptych; other times separate images were nonetheless held together by the tautness of their visual arrangement. The images formal beauty seemed connected to the unambiguity concerning their destruction and it is maybe this meeting point that attracted Almond; although with a lack of contextual information such photographs are always vulnerable to being viewed and sold for purely aesthetic purposes. Almond chooses to provide no background information within the body of the exhibition itself, choosing to keep his detailed contextual statements for catalogues and magazine pieces, such as his explanations of this work in a short article in the February 2008 issue of Art Review:
I began to discover the history of Norilsk, which was once the largest of the gulags… I think you need to have a physical engagement with a landscape in order to understand its political aspect. I was photographing the bridge in temperatures of minus-46 degrees centigrade… The people who were constructing the railway were wearing cotton sacks and cardboard shoes, so it’s unbelievable the amount of torture they endured. I do believe that the landscape can hold a kind of memory. I’ll never forget sheltering from the wind, feeling that all these railway workers, prisoners, sheltered there too. The landscape is pretty extraordinary. The trees in the forest have been killed by the amount of toxins that has since been pumped into the atmosphere. Today Norilsk’s nickel industry produces more sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere – more acid rain – than North America, including Canada, so people die there 15 years below the national average. It’s owned by Norilsk Nickel, and it’s a totally closed, private city. (28)
Night + Fog (Norilsk) (5), 2007Bromide print, B&W, mounted on Kapamount119.3 x 149 cm (47 x 58 ¾ inch)Courtesy of the artist/ Gallerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Jay Jopling, White Cube, London/ Matthew Marks Gallery, New YorkCopyright Darren Almond, 2007
After the richness of the Parasol Unit exhibition, I was disappointed by what felt like the over balanced conceptualism at the White Cube Hoxton Square. Walking into the downstairs space one encounters a room of large, seductive photographs of Romantic landscapes. It is the gallery notes that identify these as part of Almond’s ongoing Fullmoon series (1998- ), in which landscapes are photographed at night using moonlight and an extremely long exposure. As a way of revealing one’s native landscape, after the global travels elsewhere in these two exhibitions, this is a brilliant conceit – its depiction of a people-less Britain particularly haunting. But I’m not convinced the resulting images do “make strange” in the way that seems intended - apart from the fog, that is. Due to exposure times, running water becomes fog, whilst fog, of course, also connotes over-exposure. Such a tangle – on semantic, visual, and conceptual levels – is where I found these images most resonant. Elsewhere, the power of Romantic landscapes and modes of representation dominated over Almond's more contemporary interventions.
Upstairs at the White Cube the peace flags that appeared in In the Between are also found in four large scale photos from a new series entitled Infinite Betweens (2007). With its depiction of the mounds of peace flags, and, elsewhere, creation of a similar visual layering through superimposition, it is an appropriate epilogue to the way both these hugely thought-provoking exhibitions find formal means for responding to various forms of social and ecological entanglement. That Almond’s recent work should fill the spaces of, and require walking between, two galleries that most vividly embody the transformations and ambiguities of artist led redevelopment of inner city buildings seems particularly apt, although Almond’s methodology would highlight the uncertainty and unknowability surrounding such a process of the “inbetween.”
Monday, 11 February 2008
With six programmes over four days, to packed houses at Tate Modern, the ICO’s Essentials programme was a huge success. Tate Modern's film curator, Stuart Comer, responded excitedly to the large audiences by giving rapturous introductions to the six curators and by urging audiences to get out and see more of the artists' film and video currently on show in London. His enthusiasm reflected the dual aim of the programme as a whole: to provide some sense of history of artists film and video - and some sense of a structure through which that history could be organised – and to provide some seriously enjoyable selections of film that could appeal both to aficionados and to the causal audience drawn in from the busy galleries.
The programme began on Friday night with the George Clark curated “Dreams.” Clark, who was also the programmes overall organiser, followed a model that was also adopted by the other curators: one or two classic films from the early twentieth century – in this case Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – alongside a range of lesser known work, mostly from the 60’s and 70’s. This highlighted the weekends historical sense. It also belied claims in the introductions for a lack of cannon to avant-garde film, as the genealogies and categories on display would have been familiar to readers of standard histories, such as A.L.Rees’ A History of Experimental Film and Video. Like all the sessions I experienced a re-viewing of films seen before, alongside some exhilarating new discoveries: in this case the psychedelic colouring and vegetable based delirium of Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (1979). It was great to be in an audience large enough to have a collective response, gasping audibly, for example, at the eyeball slitting in Un Chien Andalou.
Saturday’s sessions began with the Michelle Cotton curated “Modernity.” This session sought a continuity and a flow between formal and political concerns, from the welding of abstract colours and the GPO in Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937), which began the session, to the morphing of fashions and clothes from the 70’s to the 90’s in Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), with which it concluded. Cotton’s session perhaps outlined one way in which histories of film and video are rewritten and prevented from ossifying. Somewhere in this session there was a conventional history of film and video that begins with Leger and Murphy’s Ballet Mechanique (1924) before progressing through various generations of New American and structuralist cinema. But the programmes selection of films showed such histories were transformed by different film makers in a range of contexts and generations. So we saw Charles and Ray Eames studying the soap suds washing a schoolyard in Blacktop (1952); Mary Ellen Bute’s grandiose combinations of music and colour, intended to open for Hollywood Features, in Escape (1937) and Ferdinand Kriwet’s Apollovision (1969), a stunning study of the Apollo 11 spaceflight, made by combining newspaper, radio and TV materials of the flight itself and its cultural aftermath.
Saturday concluded with the Ian White curated “Expressions.” Downplaying another rapturous introduction, White observed that as a gay man he was often introduced, as here, as coming from a Queer Theory background but, he joked, he didn’t mind as it felt good. His selections did, indeed, raise issues of gender in a sustained way not evident before in the festival but, suggestively, also foregrounded the role of the individual: both the individual film maker working alone, and notions of individuality within a socially orientated perspective.
White boldly chose to start his session with Germaine Dulac’s 33 minute L’Invitation au Voyage (1927), in which a commitment to the portrayal of a woman’s life is powerfully intertwined with Dulac's exploration of the potentialities of cinema. Thereafter selections ranged from 1969 to 1979, each film finding a distinctive aesthetic for its largely overt political expressions. Often these forms were themselves combined and/or played with – as in Martha Rosler’s hilarious combination of stand up, demonstration, lecture and sit-com in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), or the re-working of the TV interview in Neil Bartlett and Stuart Marshall’s Pedagogue (1988). Both provoked much laughter, in contrast to Lis Rhodes Light Reading (1979), which soon had the man next to me shifting and complaining. I’d not seen the film before and am left now with a sense of its intensity, grace and seriousness; of a confident, authoritative narration over a black screen; flows of letters and light revealing utterance to be still generative. Powerful and elliptical, Rhodes’ film will never generate the immediate audience response of Semiotics of the Kitchen. For an event like Essentials this raised the difficult curatorial question of how to balance films that can function as jokes with those eluding accessibility at a single viewing.
The screening of Pedagogue linked to Sunday’s Protest session, curated by Otolith Group members Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Eshun introduced the session by stressing the importance of context, noting that many in the audience had watched Pedagogue unaware of its initial context as a response to Clause 28. Otolith’s own selection of films similarly sought an expansion of the expressions of engagement. As Eshun and Sagar themselves put it in their programme notes:
What is our image of a protest movement? Is it pictures of confrontations and marches? Is it the reflection upon the forms that a protest movement might take? Or is it the invention of what the critic Hito Steyerl calls political linkages? What Steyerl calls the new relations or articulations between individual elements? Thinking about protest in terms of articulation invites us to think through the potentials of montage, the theories and practices of the edit, the cut, the interval, the splice, the connection. In thinking about film and politics together, artists film, however defined, often appears to be excessive, surplus to the proper calculation of what gets to be formulated as the political.
One way of reading the selected films was as an exploration of varieties of tone, and how in any one piece its excess is a product of this combination of tones. Santiago Alvarez, head of the short film section of Cuba’s state funded ICAIC, made 79 Primavera (1969) at the invitation of the communist government of North Vietnam as a tribute to Ho Chi Minh. If a long sequence of newsreel footage of marching soldiers where the film itself is destroyed on screen is a fusion of experimental film technique and political statement, then elsewhere these two prerogatives are less balanced. Despite a constantly powerful musical counterpoint the film had a uniformity of tone which aligns with rather than problematises propaganda. Viewed at this historical distance for its artistic strategies the film highlights the political ambiguity of any formal solution.
This ambiguity informs the contrasting austerity of means in Straub and Huillet’s Introduction to Arnold Shoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Score (1973). Here a letter by Brecht connecting economics and fascism, and Kandinsky’s letter to Shoenberg refusing a Bauhaus position because of his refusal to be regarded as an “exceptional Jew, ” are read aloud by Straub and Huillet in locations including the balcony of their own flat and a recording studio. The debates of Brecht and Kandinsky are thus threaded through Straub and Huillet’s own work, home and historical period, leaving an element of uncertainty and hypothesis in the relationship they construct.
This session was the one that perhaps most obviously problematised notions of a history of film and video, as it presented a model of shifting contexts and modes of production in response to social developments, without allowing political positions to cluster around certain aesthetic viewpoint. Despite Eshun’s concern about loss of context it was interesting how much of the political punch of Pedagogue, say, remained without the context. I had the opposite problem with Henri Storck’s Histoire du Soldat (1932), which, even with Ehsun’s introduction, became a flow of images in which I found it impossible to orientate myself and distinguish positions. Less than a call for a more sharply delineated film making, this highlighted the difficulties for political film interacting with the vagaries of any individual viewing and viewer. Another time I suspect I might respond very differently.
It was somewhat appropriate, then, that Sunday should conclude with James Harding’s selection of films around the theme of Play. Here we again began on a kind of avant-garde ur-ground with Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). Thereafter, playfulness was something enacted between systems of representation: John Smith’s combining of visual images with a voice-over text from Herbert H.Clark’s Word Associations and Linguistic Theory in Associations (1975); George Kuchar’s celebration and mocking of Hollywood’s Golden Age amongst the New York Underground in Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966). Martin Arnold's Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) was a delicious manipulation of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the Andy Hardy series of musical comedies, exaggerating and isolating movements and moments of speech to transform found material into an intensely dark and very funny oedipal drama.
Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness (1963) highlighted some of the possible tensions in avant-garde play. When I saw this film before I loved its declarations of freedom and expressivity, but this time around I found myself cussing its puerile narrow-mindedness and ridiculous self obsession. I think that tension is consciously there – certainly it’s key to a figure such as Jack Smith. It is also why this session could conclude most exuberantly with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Sacrifical Mutilation and Death in Modern Art (1999), which performs the Smith-like act of decrustifying, of abolishing the moldy accumulating around the avant-garde, while affirming a love of trash and degradation. Balloon paint bombs with drawn on faces representing Warhol, Van Gogh, Pollock and Richard Serra’s assistant meet their bloody ends to a grungy metal-noise soundtrack.
After which, on Monday, we rose from death into the everlasting attractions of pop. At least, that was my expectation but Tanya Leighton’s POP session had other ideas. It began with William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1957), an innocent feeling document of the world created by the night time lights of Time Square. It concluded with Pipilotti Rists I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986), in which a pop sensibility seemed to have reached a point of both constituting ones identity yet also attaining a space of critique. In between clustered eight films from between 1967 and 1972, including Ron Nameths Velvet Underground: Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966), Peter Roehr’s Film Montage I (1965-68), which loops sections of ads and footage of architectural spaces for a number of repetitions preannounced by intertitles, and Derek Boshier’s Link (1970), which pursued a rather obvious associative chain of global imagery from domes to breasts to pyramids.
Leighton’s programme notes suggested a framework of “Pop cinema” was the most elusive of categories, although also one whose elements had suffused many areas of film making, including French New Wave, Antonioni and Italian neo-realism. I had expected this session to be the most revelatory and instead I left feeling it to be the most dated, perhaps because of its own ambiguity regarding the phenomenon it chronicled and also, perhaps, its efficacy for the present was most confused and uncertain. What did emerge was unease and unknowability – the faces blurred in the blasts of colour in Exploding Plastic Inevitable; uncertain relationships of pop music and factory labour in Thom Anderson and Malcolm Brodwick’s Short Line Long Line (1966-67). Perhaps the session missed the larger historical frame of the other programmes. Rist’s film got its power partly by making that link for itself and engaging with Freudian ideas of female hysteria.
What was exciting about the Essentials festival was partly the audience. It suggested such film-making is potentially and actually public, and that it has an audience who have gone to enjoy themselves. The difference to many of the sparsely attended Tate Modern screenings I have attended was palpable, energising the hosts and giving many films a vital, current immediacy. What was less clear was whether any new strategies for understanding artists' film and video histories had been outlined, as behind the thematics the selections often followed a familiar blueprint. Artists film and video does have an established history now, contrary to some of the weekends bolder claims. What this weekend did at its best was to transform and expand the contents and chronologies of existing categories.
The name is doubly derivative. MORE MILK YVETTE is a rarely screened Andy Warhol film of 1966 which, when I saw it last year in the TOTAL WARHOL season at the BFI, struck me as the great film of cinema history. Mario Montez’s repeated intonations of the line “More Milk Yvette” are rivalled in cinema only by the scene elsewhere in the film where ‘she’ and her co-star eat a hamburger in unison.
The phrase BROKEN SCREEN is derived from Doug Aitken’s book of interviews of that title, whose range of interviewees is a marker for the range and quality of engagement I hope will characterise this project.
Submissions of reviews, articles, interviews and proposals are welcome and should be sent to the editor, David Berridge, at email@example.com