This the way the world ends…or not

David Blandy – installation view of The End of the World, 2017

David Blandy returns to his musings on apocalyptic endings in his latest works now showing at Seventeen Gallery until 16 December and generates intriguing questions about our interactions with the emergent online universe. Will our online identity replace our IRL one? Will the line between human consciousness and the digital world become increasingly blurred? As usual with Blandy, the works manage to be both gripping and meditative while dramatising the competing rational and emotional approaches to tackling the “big problems”.

In his surround screen work, The End of the World (2017), pictured above, we feel we are on the observation platform of an interplanetary spaceship as the Earth, Moon and Saturn rotate beneath us. But these are not re-runs of Kubrick’s 2001. Blandy’s animations are slightly skewed stylised versions which ramp up their aesthetic impact. The earth’s human activity on the dark side is picked out by light zones emitted from its urbanised regions. The unseen Sun  makes its presence felt by illuminating surfaces with a ghostly glow.  As the commentary  morphs from lecture to poetry we get a sense of  our rational selves grappling with the emotional ramifications of our own demise. Personal deaths are not referred to but we get a rundown of the solar system’s history and its inevitable dissolution in the Sun’s supernova meltdown. This is followed by an abrupt change in tone as  our narrator relays a tale of social annihilation resulting from the shutdown of a longstanding online role-playing gaming community. On termination day its avatars gather together to share their grief  before they are consigned to the digital hereafter. This is the converse of the dilemma in Ruth Waters’ equally thought-provoking video Redsky66  (accessible through her website, where her interviewee is haunted by his immortal digital existence.

David Blandy- installation view of HD Lifestyle, 2017

On first sight, HD Lifestyle, 2017, is an installation inspired by mobile phone shops but on closer inspection its display case is more like a science museum exhibit tracing the development of screen technology from the early “dimphones” to the current day. The early Nokias have blank screens while the video plays across the more advanced technology to mark the moving image Rubicon that we have crossed. Over visuals of crystals and animated desolate landscapes, Blandy’s commentary draws a neat parallel between human and environmental sacrifice. Technological “innovation”  requires vast areas of landscape to be sacrificed in the poorest regions of the world to placate our consumer anxiety for the latest, hippest Apple product. The Ancient Greek ritual of casting out an individual scapegoat at year’s end to restore social and agricultural equilibrium was an earlier incarnation of this tendency to concentrate our atavistic and inchoate fears onto narrow target populations.  The concept of “sacrifice zones” is a fertile one.

Also included is The Archive, 2017 a video and VR examination of one 94 year old woman’s vast personal collection of newspaper cuttings that have taken over her house, provoking speculation on the definition of  accumulated knowledge as the digital record supplants print.

You come away from this show filled with thoughts of how far our online existence will change human nature. All DB’s signature strengths are on show: the astute thinking on contemporary issues, the hypnotic quality of his carefully choreographed visuals, music and narration, the unsettling undertow this creates and the humane emotional engagement with the content incorporating little touches of humour confirms for me his appeal as one of my favourite MI artists.

Blandy and the Brexit apocalypse

Still from How to make a short video about Extinction (2014) courtesy of David Blandy

The disturbing hum of duplicity is the subliminal sound track of our lives. When politicians play games with our destinies while claiming to be our protectors and assert that saving the world entails the threat to destroy it in a nuclear holocaust, we feel like spectators trapped in poker game with no cards to play. When a politician fights for a cause he does not believe in and then runs away from the consequences we are left with an uneasy feeling that we live in a world of artifice. With the Brexit vote leaving us with a bitter sense of the end of the world as we know it,  David Blandy’s 2014 video  How to make a Short  Video about Extinction could not be more current. But like all profound artworks it has universal significance much wider than the political. It reminds us of the dishonesty we are all prone to in our social media world.

There are truly shocking moments of realisation in this video. The seemingly off-the-cuff conversational tone that opens the video is revealed as carefully scripted. We feel cheated, like Dorothy discovering the Wizard of  Oz is a little old man or the UK electorate realising that Brexit is not the nirvana that Boris promised. We reflect that political and media images that appear authentic are craftily confected. And then we have to sadly admit that it is our collusion with these representations that  preserves this deception.

Thinking about this I realised that a deeper layer of irony is being exposed. Maybe the “script” we see in the video is in fact a transcript of Blandy’s improvised chat. This sense of disequilibrium, our lack of traction on reality and the feeling of “wheels within wheels” is what many of us are experiencing in the current national crisis.

After the introductory tutorial there is a hilarious and telling moment when Blandy switches from his relaxed teacherly voice to the portentous tones of the documentary narrator as the apocalyptic video he has constructed begins. The experience of finding digital images of the apocalypse so pleasurable is not so shocking. Art has often relied on this rubbernecking tendency. Bosch always painted the damned being tortured in hell with more relish than the saved floating heavenwards. We seem to have an atavistic need to have our fears represented. At present the fear of the unknown, the fear of foreigners and the fear of  death all seem to be conflated. I’m reminded of Hamlet’s description of death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” and Farage’s notorious Brexit poster referencing an apocalyptic vision of being drowned in a river of migrants.

The text  is derived  entirely from TED talks.  The standard apocalyptic threats – asteroids, plagues and global warning – are illustrated with glorious found footage from Youtube animations. Then we get a more outlandish possibility. Could a global depression epidemic be the cause of our extinction…what a depressing thought.

The sequel to this video, Tutorial: how to make a short video about ideas has just been screened as part of the Random Acts series on Channel 4. As if to rescue us from our anxieties about our impending doom, Blandy now explores an intriguing form of digital immortality where the artist and his audience can form connections long after their physical demise. He also links the artist/audience connection with Bertolt Brecht’s  idea of breaching the “fourth wall” of the theatre’s stage. John Smith cites him as having a crucial influence on his films (see my earlier blogpost). If the audience is directly addressed by the performer they are confronted with the artificial nature of the artistic experience and so their engagement with the ideas it presents is more complex and thought through.

Two thoughts were illuminated by these video. Firstly, let’s forget about originality because that is just a mirage in the digital world. Anyway the Greeks probably got there first. There are so many great ideas and images already out there.  The artist’s craft is to select, edit and juxtapose them in a way that gives us something new to reflect on. Secondly, and more important, given that we are living under a a dark cloud of doom and division, let’s focus on  forming authentic connections with each another.

Karikis and Thornton valuing the child’s voice

Copyright Mikhail Karikis. Still from video Children of Unquiet (2015), courtesy of the artist

When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of purity and authority.  “What does he do, Mr. Godot?” asks Vladimir and the Boy, Godot’s messenger, replies “He does nothing, Sir”. We believe him and the simple clarity of Becket’s modernist world view strikes our hearts more profoundly than if the words had come from an adult.

Two artists’ films  I saw this week exploit this response by placing children in post-apocalyptic landscapes. The burden of our adult fears and hopes seems to weigh on their shoulders.

Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, Children of Unquiet 

Asserting a philosophical debate through visual language can often be a success. But I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise through their own written text. So often it can end up as an incoherent mess  – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written expression is as skilled. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected quotes of the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and allowed his cast of children to voice them. He filmed them against the backdrop of the remnants of a derelict village that housed the now redundant workers of the recently fully automated geothermal power station in Tuscany close to the town in which they are growing up. This gives the film a rich brew of political, aural and visual ingredients. The artist’s website has a trailer.

Putting Negri’s aphorisms on “biopolitical science” into the mouths of children gives them added resonance and poignancy. The essence of the quotes is the contrast of wasps and bees. Bees are social insects in a symbiotic relationship with flowers in the biological economy. Orchids attract solitary wasps without giving them anything thus undermining the overall productivity of the system. Bees are the good guys. This has direct lessons for the de-industrialised community of Lardarello which is the film’s location. It is recovering from the automation and subsequent mass redundancies at the geothermal power generation plant.  The children’s bright mono-colour outfits and melodious chanting evoke the flowers and insect life in Negri’s utopia, bringing new life and hope to the abandoned worker’s village.

This film is part of a more wide ranging installation that is based on Lardarello’s story of decline which includes a board game that revolves around the forces that led to the geothermal plant’s closure. I hope the kids learnt something about global capitalism from playing it!

Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery

Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding

This work has been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up in many different incarnations over the past three decades. It seems to have been initially inspired by her young protagonists’ love of the limelight that was evoked by the whirring cine camera when they first met her.

Shot in black and white video and 16mm, memorable landscapes form a bleak backdrop to the action:  a sunset, a beach, a roaring river, a storm all emanate a tired, bleached, beauty. In colour these images would be too sentimental but here their stark symbolic load presses home: the world is a threatening place. Moving through these environments with a sense of unfettered, but sometime anxious, recklessness are two children, a girl and her younger brother. These siblings sing, dance, fight and role-play. There is no overarching narrative tension but nevertheless the 95 minutes are engrossing. A clear episodic structure presents bite-sized visual treats with frequent changes of atmosphere and location. The images are often filtered through an interesting repertoire of mainly “old school” special effects. There is one short burst of colour digital animation highlighting the destructive power of warfare – a toppling cityscape (Hiroshima?) and clinical missile strikes (Iraq?) reflecting the pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through. It is as if their childhood analogue adventures are punctured by the digital realities of a cruel adult world.

At specific points the adult world intervenes in an unsettling way. It was fascinating to see again the astonishing sequence of the lunar module docking with the Apollo mother ship against the background of the Moon’s surface overlaid by a Bible-basher preaching hell-fire. Perhaps the most poignant and bizarre sequence occurs when Peggy and Fred sing from memory. Fred sings a rousing country gospel song while in whispered tones Peggy gives a spooky, downbeat rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

Children are our future and should be granted a voice so it is compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.