Multimedia anthropology: an interdisciplinary art genre

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© Raffaella Fryer-Moreira and Erick Marques Polidoro – still from 360 video Thick Forest of the South showing monoculture replacing forest in Brazil

The Anthropocene is an ecological buzzword with a polemical edge referring to the geological era of serious human despoilment of the earth. Academics hotly contest whether this began 15,000 years ago with rudimentary monoculture economies or at anytime up to the 1960s with mass consumption economies. I’m not convinced it really matters. What does matter is convincing the climate change deniers that global warming is not a liberal conspiracy.

The few remaining non-industrial cultures all have an embedded sense of stewardship of their natural habitat so they cannot be held responsible. An environmental historian, Jason Moore, in the grand tradition of inventing a neologism to achieve academic longevity, suggests we should rename this era the Capitalocene.  In his view, the environmental crisis is a result of the unequal accumulation of capital with its attendant power imbalance and that a different global socio-economic order is our only salvation. It might mean reducing the living standards of the richer countries or limiting the growth in living standards of the poorer countries or a bit of both.  I would love it if we could all return to the type of utopian small scale economies so vividly imagined in Marge Piercy’s 1976  novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, but I suspect that this would only be possible with a much reduced world population. 

I have been an unwavering advocate of interdisciplinary study since the 1970’s when I had to fight to be allowed to study a combination of humanities and science A levels. I had to move sixth form to study Maths, Biology and Eng. Lit and eventually combined biological and social science in Human Sciences at uni). It was with huge anticipation therefore that I visited UCL’s Multimedia Anthropology Lab exhibition Speculative Immersion last Friday. The research group’s aim is to develop innovative approaches to anthropology through the use of multi media technologies. Many of the works are joint projects involving artists and anthropologists investigating the loss of cultural diversity and/or environmental degradation. Ten interdisciplinary projects were on show, many at an “experimental” stage, including olfactory art, photomontage, VR animations and interactive audio art.

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Still image from VR animation Pascal’s Garden (2019) courtesy of the artists Pascal Sender and Maya Hope Chaldecott

Two moving image works appealed to me. A short 360 degree VR animation, Pascal’s Garden is a cheerfully impressionistic and colourful reimagination of a lush surburban garden with occasional sombre flashes. In the headset the vertical span covered is sufficient to give you vertigo before you plunge down below the surface of a garden pond. The palette and mood remind me of Hockney’s iPad landscapes. I had an interesting exchange with one of its creators, the RA student Pascal Sender, on the potential and limitations of VR /AR art. He apologised for its low resolution but I thought that this was an apt way to represent environmental dissolution and degradation.  The work was created in a single afternoon taking turns on the VR software with his collaborator, the digital anthropologist and XR producer Maya Hope Chaldecott. 

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Video still from Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2017)  Image credit: Hermione Spriggs

Hermione Spriggs is an artist-researcher and curator of the project, Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi), consisting of five artists/collectives and five anthropologists exploring the dramatic rise and fall of the Mongolian mineral industry and its impact on the indigenous culture. Her punchy and concise video, Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2018) produced in collaboration with Alice Armstrong and Curtis Tamm is a fascinating showcase for the Mongolian rapper Big Gee whose lyrics link the loss of traditional values with the environmental degradation of his native land. He emphasises that the solution lies with his fellow Mongolians joining him in resisting the demands of globalisation. Mongolia was until recently a non-monetary culture in balance with nature so Big Gee’s activism can tap into this ethos. “You cannot eat money”  he raps resonating with the cry of the dead primitive gift economies bulldozed by capitalism. The “power of the gift” in such economies has much to teach us. If we could recover the fundamental human value of pro-social reciprocity and scotch the idea that inequality is “natural” we might have a chance of saving the planet.

The fusion of multimedia art with social anthroplogy, a discipline that offers the most profound insights into the human condition, is an interdisciplinary genre with huge potential. Given this blogsite’s mission, its development will be avidly covered. 

Sam Austen: the real horror story

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© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

Eyes featured prominently in the films of the four artists I saw today: a Syrian boy whose eyes had seen too much (Erkan Özgen), an evil eye belonging to a capriciously tyrannical and omniscient shapeshifter (William Kentridge) and the dead eyes of computer animated females (Kate Cooper). But it was Sam Austen’s poetic exploration of the relationship  between the eye and consciousness that gave me the most profound aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The others will get due consideration in a future post.

Sam Austen’s enjoyably eerie video installation, Real Mirror (2017), at the RA Schools two years ago demonstrated a distinctive combination of imagination and technical ingenuity so I am chuffed, but not surprised, to see growing recognition for his work since then. A group show at LG London gallery, curated under the ambiguous title, Out of Eye, features his latest film, an intense 11 minute meditation on the eye’s slippery, multifaceted metaphorical power, touching on its relationship with love, desire, death, the mind and memory.

Its title, Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, spelt out in a script suggestive of a horror film poses the question: is this the horror of trying to excise an image we would rather not have seen? A devastating scene directly outside the gallery was still freshly minted on my mind’s eye: a group of a dozen junkies living on the street with their drug paraphenalia spread out around them on the pavement.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The apparent physicality of our visual memory has encouraged much material imagery  such as branding, burning, etching and tracing to describe the process, but this is an analogy that misses out the non-material complexities of repression. The film  constantly references the mysterious physicality of vision by describing images as material objects as if located in a topology of the mind. I have no quibble with this as visual memories must be encoded by our brain neurons in some way. Austen’s caption “Images travel out from the eye” evokes the Greek theory of vision accepted until the seventeeth century which assumed that the eye emitted rays to capture images of the “real world”. The idea that we are receivers rather than emitters of light gives a completely different concept of the mind’s role in perception and paved the way for the Freudian take on imagery. For me this is summed up beautifully by another of Austen’s powerful coinages: “the cauldron of glances”, a vivid evocation of the mayhem inherent in the storing, sorting and retrieving of snippets of memory from the conscious and unconscious mind. 

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Austen’s text appears pinned to the screen in the form of pithy slogans crudely painted on fragile banners. The language is not the heavy pseudo-mystical style which seems to attract (and trip up) so many artists; it is snappy and vivid, expressing ideas that although enigmatic are capable of poetic decoding. We are drawn in immediately at the start as the text suggests that the film is addressing a loved and/or desired  person who is the subject of the artist’s gaze and anxious thoughts. “What are you carrying in there? Mountains, Sea, Death? All Dark Now. ” This personalises the narrative giving added poignancy. 

Sam Austen
© Sam Austen – installation view of Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The film has carefully controlled pace and structure building to a ferocious climax, the electronic whine and growl of the soundtrack matching the accelerating rotation of a plaster “eyeball”  its pitted surface reminding me of the white fatty covering of the cow’s eyes I would source from the abbatoir to dissect for GCSE biology classes. The black “pupil” is evoked by a static blurred dot in the centre of the screen while the eyeball whirls in the background like a lonely hyperactive planet, just one example of the value of his trademark use of physical casting, celluloid film and superimposition.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018.
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

A stunning sequence which introduces a blast of colour for the first time right at the end of the film sets up the kind of visual ambiguity made famous by the face/vase illusion illustrated below. We are either inside the eye looking out or outside looking in at the back of the retina with our interpretation constantly switching, the background matrix of red dots either representing the retinal cells or the visual field.  Yet again we are forced into acceptance of an uncanny truth: the “real world”  is only a physical construction in the brain’s  visual cortex. Perhaps this is the real horror story.

face vase ilusion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

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Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

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Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infimtum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

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Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

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© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.

 

 

 

Christian Marclay’s appreciation of asphalt

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Christian Marclay- installation view of Subtitled (2019) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000), featuring a wailing, distintegrating guitar towed behind a truck and Video Quartet (2002) where the fragments of sounds from selected movie clips are transformed into a musical composition both hold standout places in my top moving image artworks of all time. I had a blast at his awe-inspiring White Cube Bermondsey show in March 2015 which featured his hypercharged, onomatopeic animation, Surround Sounds (2014), projected onto four walls of one of their largest galleries. As this was before mialondonblog was launched I have yet to write about his work so I am delighted to rectify this omission, having just been blown away by his latest exhibition.

Some commentators emphasise the chance element in Marclay’s work but the end result is far from random and the patterns he constructs are totally engaging. His starting point is often to amass a potentially overwhelming volume of source material  but he seems to revel in the obsessive attention to detail required to render it down into a finely tuned architectural structure.  Despite (or maybe because of) the intensity of his working practice he is an artist who has his eye constantly fixed on how his work might impact on the viewer and his own presence is always veiled behind the images he is manipulating so meticulously. 

Close-ups of the asphalt road surface have been a longstanding interest for me whenever they crop up in art and in life. Waiting to cross the road I often look down at the litter strewn gutter where abstract urban art sits waiting to be appreciated. Painted road markings add to the melancholy air of the scene and their deterioration somehow reflects the transitory nature of our physical environment and indeed our own lives in the face of nature’s implacable momentum. The LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT warnings by the kerbside are barely registered by pedestrians yet they are crucial to avoid jaywalking into a passing vehicle.

At White Cube Mason’s Yard, Marclay’s hypnotic animation,  Look (2016-19), prompts us to look beyond these surface marks to the stories they can tell. Thousands of photographs of these painted road signs presented in a rapid fire avalanche create an entrancing thrill ride of banality. The OO’s become interrogatory eyes that dilate and constrict and eventually suffer ignominous decay from maintainance oversights by austerity-blitzed councils. The variable quality of the roadpainters’ craft and how they have been superceded by clunky stencils presents a similar story of cost-cutting and deskilling. 

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Christian Marclay.  Installation view of Look (2016-19) courtesy of White Cube Gallery

In Marclay’s most celebrated work, The Clock (2000), years of hard labour mining the movie archives yielded thousands of clips documenting the passing of time through its 24 hour cycle. In Subtitled (2019) we get another type of movie archive sampling. Strips of up to a fifth of the frame height, sometimes showing subtitles, are stacked in a 22 layered 10 metre high column. The relationship between the layers can be decoded either through the text or the images as we have no sound to distract us. After acclimatising to the frustration of the fragmented nature of the experience, you are drawn into the intelligent thought processes underlying the editing decisions. Humour and drama fight for precedence. At times aesthetic considerations prevail to produce sumptous and dizzying effects. Marclay’s artistic vision is so distinctive – a dedicated master of the moving image. 

 

Bill Viola: escape from global turmoil?

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© Bill Viola Studio. Still from Five Angels of the Millenium (2001) courtesy of he artist

Peace and exhilaration have often been my visceral responses to Bill Viola’s meditative and sensuous video installations. But his recent show at the RA, while conferring a certain classic status to his work, only foregrounds the distance that video art has travelled in the thirty years since his emergence as one of its pioneers. Viola stands for an insistence on the value of a traditional spiritual aesthetic over contemporary political relevance which accounts for the RA pairing his videos with works by Michaelangelo in their recent exhibition. Nevertheless it is perhaps indicative of the lip service being paid to video art that not a single book on the genre is available in their bookshop!

Looking back over 25 years of viewing his work, my one abiding niggle is his quasi-religious mysticism but it is precisely this quality that has led to his affirmation by the art establishment, first by the National Gallery and now the RA. The scale, ambition and technical sophistication of Viola’s work is unquestionable but the cloying portentousness can sometimes weigh it down. (I  do not say pretention as this would imply bad faith and I feel that Viola is entirely genuine.) Although humour or at least irony is not essential to an MI artwork it is invaluable in cutting through the po-faced seriousness.  The Reflecting Pool (1976) is the one work here that can raise a smile. Viola’s playful edit creates an intriguing  account of a man jumping into a mysterious pool in a leafy glade his presence manipulated out leaving us to follow the traces of his actions in the water’s rippled surface.  It reminded me of the joy of the early special effects in the silent film era.

Viola discarded this low tech approach as his value soared in the 1990s and he gained the resources to create more spectacular installations. When I first viewed his stunning five screen installation Five Angels of the Millennium in the confined space of the Anthony d’Offay gallery in 2001 I stayed there for a least two hours. I was entranced by its meditative quality and felt that I was tapping into something very profound. Expectation, rebirth, escape and hope is conveyed by the gradual coalesing of the visual effects of slowed down underwater turbulence as a body hits a large pool of water. These images were so unexpected that they could hold your attention for extended periods. Each screen had a simple narrative of the long wait for the climax of the figure’s appearance in the water. A sense of resolution is a valued balm in times of crisis but it can also deflect us from confronting the inherent confusion and absurdity of life.

Adrian Searle in the Guardian was a little unfair to describe Viola’s work as “empty spectacle”. It is not his theatricality but the voyeurism, seen particularly in his Nantes Triptiych, which intrudes on his mother’s death throes, that I find most off-putting. Escapism is an important function of art but perhaps in times of global turmoil it seems a cowardly route for the artist to take. So therefore I salute the current wave of  MI artists who are bravely confronting the grim reality of our lives in the new millenium.

Olivia Hernaïz and Ruth Waters: takedown of the caring corporates

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© Ruth Waters -still from film Emotion over Raisin (2019) 

There is an apocalyptic aura emanating from late capitalism. As a descriptive term it simply defines the transformation of capitalism in the modern era. Perhaps more depressingly it implies that corporate culture, as framed by Marx, has adapted to survive into a post modern world despite the threat of implosion from its inherent absurdities. Marx did not predict that Thatcher-Blairism would dissolve the public/private sector divide. He would be horrified that social media now has the potential to transform us all into entrepreneurs, desperate to promote ourselves as brands. He would perhaps not be surprised by the emergence of the gig economy, led by missionary enterprises like Uber masquerading as liberators while tethering its freelancers to a precarious treadmill.  

This infiltration of capitalist values into the interpersonal realm was foreseen by French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in the 1960s and this trend has accelerated as our lives have migrated to the internet. To remedy these injustices we have mostly rejected collective insurrection in favour of alternative routes to salvation including individualised “self-care”. At Koppel Project Hive’s exhibition All About You,  two MI artworks from Ruth Waters and Olivia Hernaiz are refreshingly direct and timely reminders of the way that the interpersonal values have been hijacked by our newborn capitalist masters. These artists consider how “care” has entered the corporate lexicon either through stress relieving programmes for their employees (Waters) or through romanticising their relationship with consumers (Hernaiz).    

Ruth Waters is her usual incisive self, gently mocking the mindfulness industry through a subtle and cleverly crafted film that alternates between the anodyne spiel of the trainer and the vividly realised thoughts of the participants as they fail to “live in the moment.” As so often in these types of session they have to follow bizarre instructions, in this case requiring them to relate in various ways to a raisin they have been handed. The impact of the film is ramped up by its rather spooky immersive installation. You sit in a semi-circle of padded office chairs with other carefully chosen props (a vase of flowers on an office cabinet, a functional wall clock) mirroring the film’s setting in the kind of hermetically sealed training room that I mercifully no longer have to experience since my escape from the corporate life.  After enduring such sessions someone tends to vent with the well-worn cliché:

“Well… that’s an hour/an afternoon/ a day of my life that I am never going to get back”

This sense of time spooling away pervades the film. A steady tick-tock marks time on the film’s soundtrack. Death is slyly referenced though a participant’s thoughts that the passing of her cat would at least give her “something to post on instagram”. The vase of flowers seems an anomaly. In this setting it might indicate the mindfulness of sensory focussing. But it also reeks of decay and loss. I’m left with the uneasy sense that mindfulness is an inadequate antidote offered by corporate culture to anaesthetise us, a post-Marxist version of “opium of the people”. Waters’ film is spiced liberally with her signature dry humour – even the title Emotion over Raisin seems to play on the Romantic poets’ valuing of Emotion over Reason, an idea also at the heart of mindfulness culture.

In her video installation All About You (2017) Olivia Hernaïz has allowed corporate advertising culture enough rope to hang itself with only minimal intervention from herself. As the major banks close local branches and move online they have become more impersonal yet with unconscious irony their slogans continue to convey the opposite by evoking a personal caring relationship of mutual respect. The Bank of America’s “Think  what we can do for you” sounds like it is a branch of social work. They might as well be promoting the lie: “It’s you we care about, not your money”.

Hernaiz has composed a romantic swoon of a song with a charming violin and piano accompaniment and deeply ironic lyrics patched together from the taglines of international banks. My favourite is “The more we know about you, the more we can give you”  which seems like a good summary of late capitalism and a frank admission that exploitation of your personal data is integral to their business model. Her video slide show of the banks’ logos and taglines is projected onto the gallery ceiling as we lounge back in the care of a fluffy beanbag. We feel like willing suckers in this sentimental, romantic quest for a financial saviour. Amusing, hard-hitting and thought-provoking take on the insidious nature of personalised marketing strategies.

The exhibition continues until 3 May 2019 at the The Koppel Project Hive at 26 Holborn Viaduct.

The strangled shriek

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© Aimee Neat – still from 104 Million (2018) courtesy of the artist

Immolation, self harm, masochism: these are all behaviours that have been ascribed to Brexit. One Brexit supporter declared:

“I don’t think we’ll be poorer out, but if you told me my family would have to eat grass, I’d still have voted to leave.”

Why are we all so hell-bent on self-destruction? Are we all screaming inside but trying to hold it together so what emerges is a strangled shriek?

As you enter Ballpark Collective’s inaugural show that strangled shriek intermittently pierces the air. It is emanating from Aimee Neat’s looped 4 minute video 104 million (referencing Justin Bieber’s instagram followers). Is the shriek coming from a besotted Belieber or is it from Bieber himself, strangled by his meteoric ascension. Perhaps its origin doesn’t really matter as he is just an avatar for the feted YouTube influencer that any one of them or us can become. But do we really  crave that poisoned chalice?

So many seem to crash and burn after their  time in the sun. The desperate hunt for likes and followers eventually consumes their identity leaving an exhausted, burnt out shell. Neat gives an alarmingly accurate Cindy Shermanesque recreation of the Bieber shell in a succession of subtly different static poses complete with a goofy cat face baseball cap and hoodie. This outfit comically undermines the James Dean scowl and we cannot help wondering if Bieber is fated to be yet another celebrity Icarus. His pursed lips trademark is telling us something – maybe he rejects smiling as a signifier of falsity? The manufactured inscrutability must be hiding something – disdain or despair maybe?  Or do we just project those emotions to protect us from our own repressed shrieks of envy? Fellow Goldsmiths alumna Ruth Waters has pastiched the facial tropes of female Youtube influencers in an equally hilarious video, Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again,  viewable at https://vimeo.com/255754921. It is no coincidence this video climaxes in suppressed shrieks of giggling.

Ruth Waters Outtakes and Bloopers
Ruth Waters -still from video Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again courtesy of the artist

Physical immolation features in two of the other videos on show and we start asking- why do we beat ourselves up? Why are we heading for a self harming Brexit? Why do artists debase and immolate themselves? Is gender relevant?  From Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic and Mona Hatoum to Marianna Simnett, displaying, cutting, probing, contorting, injecting, even asphyxiating the female body have become performance art tropes so it is interesting to see the male take on this.  In Max Leach’s Flesh and Glass, a murky and unsettling 8 minute video with an intense and spooky binaural soundtrack, we see a Hatoumesque sequence of bodily penetration filling the screen with saturated pinky red tissue but with few clues as to what we are viewing. The remaining footage hints it might form part of a macho initiation cult that demands lonely, late-night vigils in vulnerable motors and bloody, self-harming rituals involving blunt pencils. For men, is immolation and masochism a validation of their masculinity?

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Max Leach – still from looped video Flesh and Glass courtesy of the artist

In Sarah Lewis’s Death by Blonde a female body appears trapped and cocooned inside a giant nest woven from straw-like blonde hair. With only her splayed thighs visible her sexual vulnerability is heightened by the superimposition of a clip from Lewis’s family video archive showing a child jumping on a trampoline.  The much debated controversial lyric from Paul Simon’s Graceland – “the girl  from New York City who called herself the human trampoline” – comes to mind. Blonde and yellow tones appear throughout so the film glows with sensuous warmth. But the double-edged impact of the stereotype is highlighted by the home movie footage of blonde female children who are bashful and confused as well as cheerful and bouncy.

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Sarah Lewis – Installation view of looped video Death by Blonde (2018) courtesy of the artist

Susanne Dietz’s What’s Yours is Mine provides some kind of resolution to the disturbing images in the rest of the show. Her 13 minute film investigates the conflict of self-doubt with self-love through the fictional biographical fragments of a woman who is in constant conversation with her alter-ego. She is not afraid to ask difficult questions. What happens when, not only God is dead, but the hippies and disco as well?  How to feel better? How to be in the World? What to do about an ex-lover’s name tattooed on her neck? Images of  beauty (blue sky seen from a train), comfort (pillows being plumped) and contentment (sleeping  babies)  give some hope. But hope is fragile and temporary. The babies are wax candles that slowly melt from the flame, the sky is fleeting and lacerated by powerlines, the pillows remain unslept on. The carefully edited ambient electronic soundtrack is alternately soothing and alarming.  The  film is gripping, concise, sometimes lighthearted and never portentous which is a triumph considering the weightiness of the questions it tackles. 

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Susanne Dietz -Installation view of looped video What’s Yours is Mine (2018) courtesy of the artist

Sun Park’s two short gem-like videos loop on tiny screens.  Looking up will only make you fall distorts a common trope of video art, the shopping mall, by shooting into reflective architectural surfaces. The camera is always moving and the shimmering, crazed, fragmented effect is original and disorienting. It is viewable at https://vimeo.com/manage/329739672/general

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Sun Park – still from  video installation Looking up will only make you fall (2019) courtesy of the artist

Sympathetic Magic is a playful comment on the trick photo beloved of tourists where the human figure appears to interact with a famous landmark. Here a finger appears to ping the Shard which resonates like a tuning fork before rotating by a quarter turn.  If only the global financial institutions  it houses were so easy to control! Viewable at https://vimeo.com/329739541

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Sun Park- still from Sympathetic magic (2019) courtesy of the artist

Reality Sandwiches showcases the work of a group of moving image artists who graduated from Goldsmiths University in 2018 and is a model for the effective installation of several video artworks in a relatively confined space, in this case a disused warehouse in Bermondsey funded by the art organisation, SET Alscot Road. Remarkably, there is no sound leakage between the works with each granted sufficient territory to own. The electronic soundtrack from Dietz’s speakers creates a suitably ambiguous aural atmosphere in the gallery.

Like all worthwhile exhibitions this generated much thought. I now have a deeper sense of the psychological processes that underlie Brexit. If we are living in a failed world does that mean we are failures? If hipster London has turned its back, our failed lives will not improve whatever we do. If this means we are fundamentally worthless we deserve to be beaten up. But we prefer to immolate ourselves rather give the opportunity to someone else. Anger against ourselves is often turned outwards to the inchoate Other but in reality we are punishing our own failure to fulfil our uniquely human, conscious prosociality. All these contradictory emotions fighting for expression leave the body politic no choice but to emit a strangled shriek.  

 

Children vs. Brexit: sweet lessons from 1973

 

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Still from film Sweet Feast (2018) courtesy of Ulla von Brandenburg and Whitechapel Gallery

Can the next generation pick up the pieces of our broken world and work together to repair it? There are grounds for optimism with the disappearance of the Brexit majority as the predominantly anti-European elderly demographic shuffle off this mortal coil. Their replacement by optimistic and idealistic young voters could mean an inexorable growth in pro-Europe sentiment, assuming that a corrosive nationalism is not a default mechanism that comes with living through the inevitable instabilties of adulthood. This could not be better represented than in Ulla von Brandenburg’s Sweet Feast currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the end of the month.

The centrepiece of  this magnificent installation is her moving and hilarious film  featuring children from a local primary school  who reenact the bizarre events  inspired by the exhibition held at the Whitechapel in January 1973.  Its purpose was to celebrate the diversity of the confectionary cultures of the European countries we were about to join hands with by displaying a vast collection of exotic sweets on nationally badged stands. There was a party atmosphere heralding our new future in the Common Market and a jumbled message from the Whitechapel Gallery PR led to a rumour that on the exhibition’s closing day all sweets would be given away to local children. Five hundred of them turned up and stormed the exhibits in a frenzy of sugar intoxication.  

Extensive press coverage from the archives including a cutting headlined EXHIBITION EATEN AS KIDS RUN AMOK is reproduced in the evocative broadsheet newspaper issued to gallery visitors. The prevailing positive attitudes to our new partners are revealed in all the coverage with one exception. Redolent with Farage and Rees-Mogg bigotry is a condescending and bitter article printed in the January 1973 edition of Arts Review. It is worth going just to get hold of this!

DNA, faces, race and Michael Jackson

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Installation view of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong film component of Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst courtesy of readsreads.info

David Blandy’s and Larry Achiampong’s most recent moving image artwork, Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst, Adam Rutherford’s exposition on the confusion caused by DNA ancestry analysis at the same venue, Edith Wharton’s 1905 best-selling novel exposing the darker side of fashionable New York society, The House of Mirth and Anna Washburn’s dissection of the ongoing US political crisis in her play Shipwrecked at the Almeida Theatre, have stirred up a heady brew of thoughts about race which this post will attempt to boil down.

In The House of Mirth, Wharton attributes a Jewish character’s attraction to the beautiful heroine Lily Bart to “that mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness that characterises his race”. But she also uses “race” when refering to the stereotyped behaviour of both women and the “lower classes” suggesting that in the early 20th Century the term is a catch-all for any group that is thought to possess an inherent or innate character. Even today the conflation of race with nationality, ethnicity, genetic variability and/or religion  demonstrates that it remains a powerful metaphor for human difference that clearly has an attraction for us. Unless we can separate out these conflicting categories, race will continue to be misused in political discourse and lead the human species into all manner of dangerous dead-ends.

Inexpensive DNA tests have now become immensely popular allowing individuals to tease out the different “races”  hidden in their genetic ancestry.  Although the results are based on scientifically invalid assumptions about human evolution and racial identity, they seem to provide a personal narrative for some people who then try to integrate it into their existing identity. The reason the ethnic breakdown is invalid is because it takes no account of the massive migratory movements around the world that are a distinguishing feature of our species and that make us all mongrels. As Rutherford explained in his Arts Catalyst presentation it means nothing to say you are 20% German when we cannot define what the German gene pool looks like. Genes flow with little regard for arbitrary human borders. The striking visual counterpoint to this in Genetic Automata is a screen displaying a world map animation digitally representing the current global flow of migrants to and from the UK.

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Installation view of Genetic Automata-showing monitor of migration animation map

Another screen presents Youtube footage from a promotional gimmick dreamed up by the internet travel company, monmodo, who filmed selected consumers responding to the ethnic breakdown of their DNA test results. Muted and slightly slowed down, the facial expressions are our only clue: shock, surprise, incredulity, scepticism and delight compete for dominance as long-held assumptions about their identity are thrown into the air.  I remember a similar sequence on a TV documentary that showed a rabid English nationalist seriously discombobulated by his discovery of unsuspected Turkish and Romany ancestors.

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Installation view of Genetic Automata- monitor showing still taken from Youtube clip of reactions to DNA ancestry results

When I put it to Rutherford that alt-right racists faced with DNA evidence of their own diverse origins might change their rigid perception of race, he countered with a nostrum of Voltaire’s paraphrased as: “Rational argument cannot challenge the beliefs of a man whose believes them to be founded on rational argument”. He says the phrase “If you were offered a solution of 80% water and 20% cyanide would you drink it?” is the standard response of the racist community to DNA results demonstrating a mixed racial origin. Rutherford’s response is probably not that far from the truth but as an ex-teacher I cannot help feeling that minds can be opened if we get them early enough. Pessimists would argue that the insidious influence of media and popular culture is more powerful than education.

Michael Jackson’s demise was partly attributable to the crushing of his personal identity between the forces of an avaricious music industry and the adulation of his fans. His legacy as a case study in celebrity disintegration is bound up with the blurring of his own racial identity through skin whiteners, depigmentation due to vitiligo and cosmetic surgery to de-Africanise his face.  Massive irony then that this image is reinforced by John Landis’s  groundbreaking music video for “Black or White”, shown muted as part of the Genetic Automata installation, released 30 years ago and accruing 270M Youtube views. It can be read either as an appeal for universal love or a whitewash of US post-colonial colour-blindness or a cynical globally targeted marketing  stunt. For me it comes into the category of a hugely sentimental clarion call that one is suckered into unwillingly. Yet again we focus on the diversity of  human faces. They lip-synch the song morphing between races and genders, foreshadowing the current epidemic of body image enhancement that Instagram and apps like Facetune are promoting. Perhaps body fascism needs to be located in the wider historical context of the growth of racism, anti-semitism and authoritarian politics. The Third Reich was not the only society that idolised the “body beautiful”. In Wharton’s Gilded Age New York the elevated purchasing power of female beauty was symptomatic of a deeper social malaise.

An update of the digitally manipulated face features prominently in the 12 minute film included in the installation. An array of faces do not morph but stand alone as fully realised idiosyncratic personalities with indeterminate racial origin. Unlike the Landis version we get no clear codification of racial archetypes and we left pondering where they might have come from. Close ups of human skin and feathers from Darwin’s stuffed finches reinforce the feeling that our perceptions are always literally superficial.

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Fisayo Akinade -publicity still for Anna Washburn’s Shipwrecked  © Almeida Theatre

The complexities of racial stereotyping are neatly highlighted by one of the characters in the play Shipwrecked, played movingly by the brilliant Fisayo Akinade. He is a young African orphaned in Kenya and adopted by evangelical Christians and Trump supporters living in redneck country. His main complaint is that his blackness is used by his classmates to place him in the indigenous African-American category whose heritage of slavery and civil rights abuse he does not share. “But I’m African, it is not the same!”

In one sense the human face could be a route out of our current mess. The universality of human non-verbal facial expressions means that we can look beyond the surface when interacting with each other, connecting to a common ancestry and consciousness. Once the glamour of online interaction starts to pall, perhaps we will realise that face to face communication and direct eye contact has evolved to bring the human species together rather than to divide it.