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.
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