Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

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Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

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Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infimtum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: has narrative gone?

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Installation view of For the First Baby born in Space courtesy of Jerwood/FVU

Since its launch six years ago, the Jerwood/FVU Award has highlighted many talented emerging artists of whom I unashamedly single out Alice May Williams selected in 2016, whose riviting film, Dream City was an intelligent fusion of  text, image and music with a symphonic, three movement structure (slow, fast,slow) .

This year’s award winning films on the theme of Going, Gone produce some memorable moments but the overarching sense of a narrative structure is (perhaps intentionally) missing. They have both opted for videos playing on a continuous loop which is a tricky structure to get right. Any narrative that emerges will be non-linear. A circular narrative with no start or finish point means you can dip in and out.  The images you experience will be ordered but it’s up to you to impose a structure (or not, if that is your choice). The danger is that the film loses coherence and it provides an series of unrelated images that are left unresolved. The potential benefit is that the viewer is engaged to fill in the gaps and make some sense of what they are seeing.

For The First Baby Born in Space (2019)  is a two channel observational documentary of Whitby teenagers devised by the artist-duo, Webb-Ellis. For them it is a “political” act of the artist to resist offering a meaning to their work, a view I thoroughly endorse. An artist who insists that the meaning imposed by others on their work has less validity than their own has really missed the point of art. Looking at art makes us more aware of the delicate process of constructing meaning that we are all engaged in. Our unconscious is devoted to filtering the booming, buzzing confusion of our environment. An artwork is however a pre-filtered sample of the world. Simply by choosing what to present to the viewer the potential meanings we can construct have been narrowed down considerably. The knowledge that the work was commissioned in response to a set theme will also direct our response. This year’s theme references Brexit but also alerts us to alternative meanings about boundaries and transitions filtered through our own cognitive and affective biases.  

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© Webb-Ellis – still from the film For the First Baby born in Space (2019) courtesy of  the artists

Teenagers are interesting subjects for documentary film-makers because of their wobbly, reticent perch on the threshold of adulthood.  Images of the funfair, beach, sea, bonfires, music, dance, flirtation all shout “our last teenage summer” as they bid farewell to childhood. The most striking images for me were the nightmarish, gaudy reflection of the funfair lights in the waves at night and a dying fish flopping around next to the flowered, flip-flopped foot of the girl angler who hooked it. Death is ever present in this film as teenagers often drift towards it with an attitude of nihlistic bravado. “I’d rather die than be a failure” is one boy’s comment. Given the rise in young male suicides this is either tasteless or requiring immediate intervention. A sense of fragmentation pervades this gentle, non-judgmental  film in which its many subjects are glimpsed so briefly, their narratives so sketchily portrayed that they seem to float untethered from the everyday concerns of living. The source of this fragmentation remains obscured and unexamined so ultimately the artists have achieved their aim of leaving space for our reflections. 

Something has gone. It might be the creative confidence of the artist reluctant to present a definitive line or narrative. It might be absence of development and structure as required elements of post-modern artforms. It might be the rejection of objective truth and the acceptance of subjectivity as the only reality. Whatever has gone, there is a clear alibi available : “iyou find this work incoherent …well that’s intentional… it’s not a sign of our inability to create a coherent narrative. Remember we live in the post-modern era where narratives dissolve into nothingness”  

The other selected artist, Richard Whitby, also uses a looped narrative in his film The Lost Ones but in this case it confers a claustrophobic and absurd atmosphere ideally suited to this satire on citizenship and its control by officers of the state which will be the subject of my next blogpost.

 

 

 

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

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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.

 

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: a lesson in crafted MI art

Borrowed Time at Jerwood Space until 24th April.

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Courtesy of Alice May Williams

These annual award shows are an excellent opportunity to see cutting edge MIA work by emerging artists. In 2015 Marianna Simnett was an impressive newcomer (see the post 28 March 2016) and this year I was similarly excited by Alice May Williams’ short film inspired by the history of Battersea – Dream City – More, Better, Sooner. This film is a gentle polemic (if that is not an oxymoron) as it subtly but persistently prods at the ridiculous inconsistencies that we are bombarded with as the developers try to convince us that we are living the urban dream.

I was initially struck by the careful craft she employs in ensuring that text and images are tightly interlocked in pursuit of her overarching theme. MI artists tend to use existing texts which too often have only tangential relevance. But in this work she has honed a commentary where each word or phrase has a visual counterpart. This makes it a very charged and thought-provoking experience. Her intent is clear from the start where an archive shot of the smoke spewing from the four giant chimneys of Battersea power station is juxtaposed with the narrator recalling a mindfulness class where breathing exercises instil a sense of calm. The simple relationship to our bodies that mindfulness assumes is undermined by the complexities of our anxious interactions with a polluted environment that we cannot divorce ourselves from. The platitudes of the mindfulness movement are deservedly exposed. Our bodies are at the mercy of the environment or as the narrator puts it – she “feels the ground growing soft beneath our feet”

Throughout the film the themes of control, the environment and the body are linked together to create a dense tapestry of interwoven ideas like a visual poem. There is a clear parallel between the decay of the  body ” going southwards” and the dereliction of the built environment. We spot a man frantically perfecting his body on a  gym machine. Is he inspired by the developers billboard slogan “An Icon for Icons” ?

The film is beautifully paced and structured like a mini symphony with three movements: an introductory  meditative slow movement, followed by a faster middle movement where the images and words tumble out to give a compressed history of Battersea. There is even a recapitulation of images and ideas in the slow final movement which reinforces the  film’s message.

This work displays so many of the qualities that I admire in a good MI artwork: the subtle use of personal and political anecdotes including a comment that stripping public services is like lopping a limb off, a haunting but unobtrusive electronic sound accompaniment and little flashes of dry humour (a digital animation of Battersea Power Station transplants Chelsea’s football ground into the centre of it!).  I sat through this film three times and would still like to go back to extract more of its subtlety.

I have to disagree with the Time Out art critic who rated this film as less rewarding than the other nominee Karen Kramer’s The Eye that Articulates Belongs on Land which is shot in Japan’s tsunami wrecked coastal regions. Kramer’s work is portentously languorous in comparison to the urgency of Williams’ densely packed film. Kramer’s intention is more opaque than Williams’. Kramer has included some zany animation and a commentary in Japanese that verges on the mystical but these are laboured effects which suggest a desire to please rather than a drive to communicate. An extended continuous take of the detritus in a wrecked home indulges the film-maker’s desire to reveal the beauty of disorder without really conveying anything more insightful. The most interesting element of the film was the idea in the text that the land and sea are in a lender/ debtor relationship.

To emphasise the peril of living in a dangerous environment, Kramer employs the trope of a wild animal (a fox) wandering through an urban landscape. The French artist Pierre Huyghe has previously explored this aspect of the nature/civilisation binary in a Japanese setting to much greater  effect. In last year’s exhibition at  Hauser and Wirth his film Human Mask stealthily tracked through a tsunami ravaged town culminating in the survellance of a monkey in a deserted cafe as it uncannily impersonates a waitress. In his film Celebration Park the image of a young deer as it wanders tentatively through an empty house on a newly built upmarket estate was moving in a way that Kramer’s fox was not.

The density and richness of the Williams work is for me the reason I would rate it more highly. If you prefer a more elliptical and mystical approach then the Kramer would no doubt get your vote. Both are well worth seeing to get a feel for the way MI art is developing at the moment.

 

Marianna Simnett’s Visceral Art

Valves Collapse

Seventeen Gallery until 20th February,  2016
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Image courtesy of Marianna Simnett and Comar

Varicose veins are not an obviously fertile subject for a video artist but in Blue Roses Marianna Simnett creates a richly poetic and gripping narrative  that leaves you with an enhanced sense of the emotional complexities a patient endures as they are exposed to technologically advanced medical interventions. For me she is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in video art the last few years. There is an intelligence, honesty and authenticity to her work that is totally engaging. She understands the need for making every second count  so we get an intense visual and aural  encounter in each of the three videos she has  exhibited so far. She shares with  Damien Hirst a fascination with what lies underneath the skin but tempers this with an exploration of the symbolic significance of particular body parts.

Simnett’s last film, Blood, first screened at the 2015 Jerwood/FVU Award show took a medical operation on a teenager’s nose and somehow blended it with interviews with an anomalous gender-fluid “sworn virgin” in the Albanian mountains so that the two stories illuminated each other. We got a moving insight into the physical and psychological frailty of the teenager trying to navigate the uncertainties  of adapting to adulthood.

In Blue Roses Simnett again finds a productive juxtaposition with two parallel narratives – we see her seriously varicosed veins (the blue roses of the title) initially from the outside. We are witness to her helplessness. She must be suspended upside down to stop the blood pooling in her legs. She submits to an invasive procedure as a  laser optical fibre needle is inserted through the vein to reach the collapsed valve. We get a dramatically staged reconstruction of the blockage being blown apart. This is a lurid masterpiece of scuzzy “old school” special effects which comments wittily on the high tech medicine she is representing. A real life surgeon  exposes himself to mild self satire by giving the standard soothing but duplicitous reassurances that “this will not hurt”. As in Blood, the physical vulnerability of the patient is a metaphor for the psychological fears of invasion and helplessness. Will we eventually lose our identity to the medical processes that are needed to fix us?  The unmistakable sense that medical technology is threatening to remove our autonomy is all pervasive in this film.

In the parallel narrative  cyborg cockroaches (see image above) are being constructed by computer scientists. We see them like excited gamers controlling their movements remotely through microchips wired to their nervous systems. But this is no game. The scientists are real researchers acting out predetermined roles set for them by Simnett to press home her vision.

The  three films she has made were re-edited for a live performance accompanied by some ethereal singers at the Serpentine last summer and can be viewed at vimeo.com/138891726. This  is  a stunning performance piece and I look  forward to getting to see her next one.