Children’s role in video art

When a child appears in an artwork we grant them privileged status. Their words seem surrounded by an aura of honesty, 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 reflex response by placing children in post apocalyptic landscapes and asking them to carry the burden of our adult fears and hopes.

Mikhail Karikis at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery – Children of Unquiet 

I am usually disappointed when artists attempt to philosophise in their artwork through their own written text  (Philosophising through visual language is fine.) So often it can end up as an incoherent mess when they try to verbalise complex abstract ideas – after all if an artist has a talent in visual expression is is unlikely that their written language is equally compelling. I was therefore relieved and intrigued that Karikis had selected apposite passages from 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 workers 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.

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 derelict 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 it!

Leslie Thornton at Raven Row Gallery- Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding

This work  as been developing over Thornton’s entire artistic career and has cropped up in 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  ensures that we get bite-sized visual treats with a 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 showing the destructive power of warfare – a toppling cityscape (Hiroshima?) and clinical missile strikes (Iraq?)  reflect the all pervasive white noise of conflict that Peggy and Fred have lived through.

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 the sound of a hell-fire preacher reading from the Bible. 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 quite compelling when the artist puts them at the centre of their work as Karikis and Thornton have done.

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