Imran Perretta instils empathy into the counter-terrorism debate

Adolescents love destroying things. Is this because they sense (but cannot acknowledge) that their own fragile bodies will inevitably succumb to mortality? Let’s get a damaging blow in first, maybe it will protect us from the same fate. Magical thinking. Or maybe it is a sign to their elders to move out of the way? We are the next generation conjuring the shape of the new dispensation from the wreck of your corrupted world. Or maybe turning the destructive urge on oneself is to take the fear of death into their own hands.

Imran Perretta was thirteen when a group of man-children audaciously and ingeniously brought down the Twin Towers ending their own lives along with a multitude of others. Shortly afterwards an inspired English teacher introduced Perretta and his fellow classmates to a similar scenario in a Graham Greene short story set in East London in the immediate post-war period. The Destructors describes how a gang of adolescent boys systematically fillet the supporting structures from the inside of the one remaining house in a bombed out terrace (supposedly designed by Wren according to the only middle class boy in the gang – an intellectual bluff?) With the help of a towrope and an unsuspecting lorry driver they engineer the collapse of the entire building. No one is hurt but the elderly householder, “Old Misery”, is made homeless.

The parallel that most impressed Perretta was not the destructive act itself but the fact that these actions created a negative group stereotype with wider destructive consequences. As his adolescence progressed he would suffer from the association of his brownness with terrorism. He lucidly explains this dissociation: “my coming of age was coming to know that my body was perceived as a weapon and because of this it would never wholly belong to me.”

Perretta’s latest two-channel film installation, the destructors (2019) first shown at Spike Island, Bristol and now at Chisenhale until 5 April and at BALTIC, Gateshead from 14 March, is more than an artwork, it is a valuable educational resource. The politicians responsible for counter-terrorist strategy need to hear Perretta’s carefully considered expression of the “brown anomie” caused by categorising all members of a group as suspects of a “pre-crime”, simply because of their skin colour. The visual and verbal language of this film powerfully instils an empathy for these young men. As Perretta boldly puts it “the public imaginary has long been haunted by the spectre of the suicide bomber and the idea that lurking within a body like mine is an amoral sociopath waiting to self-destruct.”

Filmed in a spartan, run-down community facility, The Shadwell Centre, we hear his text narrated by four young British-Bangladeshi Muslims like himself. “I forgive you for the bombs…” and “Just what is it you believe?” resonate as typical passive-aggressive comments from their white neighbours that they are expected to answer. The film’s opening explores the visceral impact of this projected sense of collective guilt, transmitted like the smoke that we see seeping into the building. This image of the “bankrupt ideology” as a toxin that has to be “metabolised” in the body is one of many linking feelings, physiology and beliefs and gives Perretta’s film such devastating power.

In my years in teaching, I often encountered the dangerous cocktail of despair, guilt and anger that overwhelms those teetering on the brink of adulthood. This film gives voice to these feelings from a Muslim perspective but also raises hope for resolution. We hear a story of a mother recognising the potential hardening of her vulnerable son and talking him down, encouraging him to retain his sensitivity. The unstated corollary is that sensitivity is required from the authorities. In the closing frames we glimpse an action from a well worn trust exercise; one of the young men crosses his arms across his chest and tips back on his heels. Will someone be ready to catch his fall? Like much of the framing of the shots in this film this is hidden from the viewer. In this way Perretta reminds us that our view of these young men is partial and fragmented as the government’s surveillance operations are similarly distorted.

As seen in his earlier work, 15 days (2018), reviewed in an earlier post, his poetic vision here is matched by an articulacy which grants added insight into the plight of his subjects. He has mastered the technology of seamlessly integrating CGI animation with live action and the production of a soundtrack that reels the viewer in. His opening of a sudden whipcrack is a shock but we gradually discern that this is the start of a thighslapping percussive group piece by his four narrators.

This artwork, although autobiographical, has a much wider political significance and it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. The evidence that the present counter terrorism strategies are fostering irrational fears and divisive stereotypes is mounting and Perretta’s film is essential testimony for understanding the implications of this failure and moving the debate towards more fruitful ground.

The fear of strangers is sometimes described as a natural survival instinct. But we need to guard against the tendency to link this fear with skin colour or with contamination. Any perceived threat to life whether it is bombs or viruses can create paranoia. Travelling the tube in recent days reminds me of the period following the 7/7 London bombings. The heightened sense of vigilance is palpable. But this time no one is immune from suspicion. Anyone, regardless of race, might be a Covid-19 carrier.

Facemask worn by London tube traveller. Copyright cityam

Still images from the destructors (2019) copyright Imran Perretta, film produced by Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island, Bristol, and commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery; Spike Island; the Whitworth, The University of Manchester; and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Installation views- Photo credit; Andy Keate

Hetain Patel: making sense of the weird in the 2019 Jarman Award

Still from HD video The Jump (2016). Copyright Hetain Patel , courtesy of the artist

I am chuffed to see that three of the nominated artists for the Jarman Award 2019 have already been highlighted for praise in previous mialondonblog posts, accessible through the tags Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman and Mikhail Karikis below. The other three MI artists are new to me so I was delighted to make the final day of screening at the Whitechapel to see what had impressed the selection panel.

Hetain Patel’s admirably concise film, The Jump (2016) is funny, gripping and unsettling. It is weird yet ultimately satisfying because its elements are few but highly concentrated. We seem to be in a homely sitting room faced with a group of relatives arranged in rows just before the shutter clicks. It is the classic pose of the Victorian photographic portrait. The range of facial expressions among this varied bunch is immediately captivating. We can see that some are uneasy about the experience while others are delighted. I fancy I would be in the former category, wishing I was somewhere else. If only I possessed a superpower to teleport me out of there! Is this what the artist is thinking?

We are observing a slo-mo film, not a still. The initial giveaway is the toddler fidgeting in his mother’s lap. Over the next six minutes we gradually pan left to reveal a lean crouching figure in a Spiderman outfit whose anonymity, unlike the others, is guaranteed by his spidermask. (Shouldn’t it be the toddler in costume?) His prolonged graceful, athletic leap in front of the group is met with interest but not shock. As a Hollywood style climax our comic book hero might be expected to shoot out through the window but instead comes to rest on the carpet.

I really rated this film. Some may be asking, why did he win? Not so obviously political or as personal as others on the shortlist, it has the advantage of a brave restriction of imagery which expands the options for our own responses and interpretations. The simplicity of the surreal image of an ur-Spiderman interrupting a family photo-session gives room for the art to penetrate our unconscious. Like all superhero representations, it triggers atavistic impulses of disguise, flight, escape and invincibility. But within the claustrophobic domestic setting we have to cope with a figure that is either a dangerous interloper or a madcap member of the group itself. Is he hoping to break out of the group to assert his individuality or to swoop in to help them? Patel’s film make so much sense of the tensions of family and group dynamics that we are all prone to.

Mikhail Karikis. Still from HD video, No Ordinary Protest (2018) courtesy of the artist

The Mikhail Karikis film, No Ordinary Protest (2018) highlights the place of children in the environmental debate and his signature collaborative method allows his subjects to control the form of the film. Hearing these seven year olds cogent views and seeing them transform their fears into a colourful and chilling masked mime is a real treat. Giving a voice to the unheard without patronising them is both an artistic and interpersonal skill which Karikis applies with great subtlety.

The two other nominated artists are represented by films that are packed with weird and striking images but whose significance seemed hazy. Both are inspired by other artworks, the ballet Giselle (Cecile.B. Evans) and a Gertrude Stein play (Beatrice Gibson). These had less resonance for me than Spiderman (a polite way of saying I have nil knowledge of either of the source artworks!) so that partly explains why they failed to connect in the same way.

Neither had a clear narrative which some excuse by describing them as dream-like. This seems to me to be a misnomer as dreams are not really that fragmentary; one image seems to morph with pretzel logic into the next. Dream symbolism is highly personal so its use in art seals meanings behind an impenetrable screen (unless like Freud you have the arrogance to attempt to interpret them for the patient). However, Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)  had some memorable features including a torch singer accompanied by a haunting accordion. Why we saw so much of a poodle in an open-top car being dishevelled by the slipstream, I am still trying to fathom.

The Jarman Award has a great track record for talent spotting although I do not always agree with their decisions. However I cannot quibble with their choice of Hetain Patel as this year’s winner.

Species survival in an era of conflict: Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta

15days_(still)_Imran Perretta, 2018_Courtesy of JerwoodFVU Awards_05_preview
Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Over the past five years the annual Jerwood/FVU Awards have been a sensitive weathervane for assessing the prevailing currents in moving image art and for demonstrating the new approaches and concerns of the next generation of MI artists (when supported with generous funding!) The £20,000 award allows the fortunate artist the time and resources to generate complex and carefully crafted films often involving extensive research and the coordination of a diverse team.  In the last few years it has launched the careers of some of my favourite artists including Alice May Williams and Marianna Simnett. This year the quality is as high as ever with stunning films from Imran Perretta and Maeve Brennan. They have chosen universal, politically charged themes and integrated the expertise and personal accounts of a wide range of sources while paying homage to specific communities. The judicious use of dramatic archive inserts (Brennan) and mixing live footage with CGI (Perreta) are highly effective and indicative of MI art’s current strengths.

Responding to the set theme of Unintended Consequences, the two artists have illuminated a more profound question: how to respond to the struggles that threaten our species survival – the  conflicts within the human environment in Perretta’s 15 Days, and our perilous relationship with the natural environment in Brennan’s Listening in the Dark. Perretta’s film highlights the challenge that mass migration poses to the tired notion of the nation state, now past its sell-by date and in need of radical rethinking. If we cannot fix this, national rivalries will bring us all down. Through an investigation of the impact of wind turbines on bats, Brennan’s film scrutinises technological progress and the need to restructure the way we perceive our relationship with our fragile ecology.  If we cannot listen to our planet’s distress it may finish us off even sooner.

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Still from Listening in the Dark.Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Both films exemplify the merits of collaboration with experts from other fields so the credit listings are revealing. As noted in previous blogposts on the Jerwood/FVU Award this can lead to an unsatisfying incoherence but this is not the case in these works.  In Brennan’s film even the ten species of bats she features are name checked in the closing credits (their magnified chirrups are a key element of the sound design which is always a strength of her films). The input of bat researchers and geologists has been carefully marshalled and her decision to hand over the narration to the scientist,  J. David Pye, the pioneering inventor of the ultrasonic bat detector is in keeping with her Jeremy Delleresque modus operandi. His measured and committed tone of voice conveys a lifelong dedication to the scientific community and enhances the film’s modest integrity.

Brennan explores the blowback effects that all technological advances generate. Although averting climate change, renewable energy structures have their own deleterious impacts here symbolised in the destruction of wildlife by wind turbines. The chirrups of bats against the sonorous roar of the wind turbines point to the power of technology to overwhelm delicate ecosystems. Bat lungs explode when flying downstream of the rotor blades yet the concrete bases of offshore wind farms form artifical reefs which provide novel food sources for seal populations, neatly encapsulating the double-edged nature of scientific advance. Many MI art landscape tropes appear including caves, windfarms and rocky shorelines but they are all given a fresh treatment that draws us in to the film’s elegiac atmosphere.

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Still from 15 days. Courtesy of Jerwood / FVU Awards 2018

Perretta has mixed Italian / Bangladeshi heritage and his global perspective has fuelled his anger over the failings  of nation states as they desperately attempt to shore up their relevance. He relies on the combined insights gleaned from his encounters with migrants and refugees and gives a writing credit to “15 days”. This is the self-styled moniker of one his sources who has lived in the makeshift encampment in the woods on the outskirts of Calais following the bulldozing of the notorious “Jungle” camp in 2017. The writer and actor Elham Ehsas, himself an Afghan asylum seeker who I saw on stage in the inspirational play The Jungle at the Young Vic, has also had a key input. His personal experience is embodied in the poetic text and the emotional intensity of his narration in his native Pashto. It includes many stark and memorable images refering to the sense of  burial and dissolution into the soil as a metaphor for the weight of white oppression. As the Calais migrants complained, the term “Jungle” had, in crude Daily Mail fashion, reduced them to the level of animals.

The most significant innovation is the way the CGI foreground, like the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy, acts as a both as a framing device and a commentary on the live action footage.  The tent suffers unseen physical insults, with accompanying sound effects,  gradually deflating until it is flattened by the film’s end, a poignant proxy more powerful than the actual violent scenes that might have been used.

For the first time in the last four years of the Awards I cannot choose between the two. I was engrossed by both of them and their insights into the problems we face gave me much to chew on. I have often wondered, if we are facing an apocalypse, will it be conflict with each other or conflict with our natural environment that will finish us? Lets hope that our species soon realises the imperative to reconcile our differences and unite against the environmental catastrophe that threatens all of us.

Next year’s Jerwood Award theme is Going, Gone to mark the divorce from our European partners. So more sombre reflection then.