Erika Beckman and Luke Fowler: political art 30 years apart

The Inoperative Community is an exhibition of film and video at Raven Row Gallery in Spitalfields (Weds-Sunday 11.00-19.00 until 14th February).

I spent three hours at this exhibition and saw a lot of stimulating stuff. Here are my thoughts on a couple of films that are worth seeing.  Made 30 years apart they are political in the sense that they tackle the power imbalances in the artists’s home culture.

Ericka Beckman – You The Better

This 32 minute, highly accessible and engrossing film made in 1983 combines sly humour with political consciousness. I’d not come across Beckman before so maybe she is not the enthusiastic political game player that art self-promotion usually requires and which she rails against in this film. She uses popart primary colours and snappy dialogue to gently satirise the capitalist game of life which all US citizens are urged to compete in. We see a series of live action cartoonish vignettes based around images of scoring points or placing bets. Six basketball players anchor the film but they are playing in a black box rather than a conventional court. They seem to be co-operating as they pass around the ball in repetitive routines with urgency and rhythm but there is increasing desperation when they appear to be achieving very little. At one point a bad tempered spat between the baseball players breaks out highlighting that team spirit is really a sham in the drive for individual success. The punchy sloganistic commentary is set to a catchy a cappella sound track in a style which I can only describe as a doo-wop/rap crossover. It reinforces the sense of chirpy alienation that stops this work from being a didactic anti capitalist rant.

A thematic recurring image is the Monopoly-styled house silhouette. These red and green boxes seem to symbolise the blind onward advance of property accumulation and the consequent panic that the players exhibit in their frantic game-playing. The opening sequence of house multiplication and destruction is reminiscent of the cult hit song “Little Boxes” of the 1960s which had a similar message. Another very striking image is what appears to be a tower of sharp-edged spinning rotors like a stack of mis-sized CDs which evokes a dangerous roulette wheel. At the back of  the viewing room a large lightbox with the same silhouette flashes red, green or amber as if to interject on the film’s frantic commentary.

Luke Fowler – Depositions

I have always been fond of Luke’s work but not only because his sister Megan was a valued colleague when I worked in post 16 education. Like me, he has a fascination with R.D Laing, the 1960’s cult figure, who tried to bring an existentialist approach to psychiatry and who was the subject of his Turner prize nominated film in 2012. (This clever and moving work should have won.)

He has an unparalleled skill in identifying archive documentary film clips and commentary, juxtaposing them to generate profound questions. He is a ruthless editor and there is no flab in his compositions. In Depositions he focuses on the threat to traveller and Gaelic culture in the Scottish Highlands. He has a telling sequence where a Scottish traveller affirms the value of folklore and superstition. She describes a Halloween game to predict compatibility of future marriages by watching two nuts as they heat near the fireside. Then a scientist confidently intones that it will not be long before the gene for manic-depression is found. Meanwhile a beautiful milky image of laboratory solutions swirling like clouds in a test tube is screened. Will the rise of the genetic model of mental illness solve our problems? Or would  the intuitive approach of folk wisdom be more helpful?

This film is filled with much to chew on and has been generously uploaded to Youtube. This is a less obviously political film than Beckman’s. It is saying something quite subtle about the replacement of a traditional world view with a scientific one. In the 1980s perhaps art could make its political points more directly than today.