These annual awards are always a good indicator of the direction of moving image art. As the two winners have to work to the same theme, this year it was “Neither One Thing or Another”, the contrast is often illuminating. Narrative is a bit unfashionable but here its value seemed incontestable. The two films are currently touring the country, having opened at the Jerwood Space.
Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, 2017
This was a gripping 40 minutes. Set in a version of Singapore in 2065, the visual world is straight out of videogames and as we recline in luxurious gaming style padded chairs we are transported in graceful swoops through a glossily rendered futureworld of natural landscapes, exotic cityscapes and cavernous interiors. The structured narrative is given chapter headings and the text is delivered in Chinese Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles so we get a clear map of Lek’s ideas even when they are at their wackiest.
We are required to accept that artificial intelligence will develop a human level of consciousness and free will which places this scenario firmly in the sci-fi realm. Following Helen Knowles’ recent thorough investigation of this issue in Superdebthunterbot for some this may be a bit of a stretch but let’s suspend our disbelief. Lek achieves the seemingly impossible goal of eliciting our empathy for a form of artificial intelligence, embodied in an orbiting surveillance satellite, the Geomancer of the title. He anthropomorphises the satellite giving it solar panel “arms” and a goldfish bowl “head”. It also helps that the narration is largely from Geomancers first “person” perspective and so we are able to identify with his/her/its problems. Lek posits that advanced AI would have to cope with the boredom of access to total knowledge and if they were inclined to create art as an escape from this information overload they would be frustrated by the art establishment’s resistance to granting AI art the same status as human art. The debate on the “artistic creativity” of computers has been controversial since the 1960’s and by reviving it at a time when AI is becoming more pervasive, Lek is asking the same kind of pressing questions against a vividly realised and convincing futuristic backdrop.
Patrick Hough, And If In A Thousand Years, 2017
This has less appeal. It is less structured and has too many disparate ideas arriving scattergun without an engaging narrative. Hough’s initial inspiration is the bizarre 2014 archaeological dig in the South California desert which disinterred the remnants of the 21 full size plaster sphinxes built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments that were left to be covered by the windblown dunes. This story could be neatly encapsulated in a 2 minute clip but extending it to a 20 minute video artwork requires some crafting. As in Lek’ s Geomancer we are asked to identify with an invented character, in this case the resurrected sphinx. Its portentous narration delivered through philosophising artspeak aims for poetic profoundity but only manages to be vaguely mystical. Real poets can do so much better. Quality text is crucial in this style of video art so when it is irritatingly obtuse it can mar your enjoyment as happened in last year’s FVU award-winning film by Karen Kramer. In the second half of the film LiDAR technology transforms the world into a moving pointillist artwork. Fun to watch but not really adding significantly to the work’s ideas. Coordinating the huge number of people involved in making the film (30+) may have resulted in the lack of artistic focus?
No plain live action footage in either of these films. Expect more of this in the coming year. Digital rules O.K.