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.

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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.