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Installing politics through art.

By Rod Stoneman.

Ethics seem very distant for most discussion of Irish art which has been depoliticised, like much contemporary art internationally. In returning any kind of ethical debate to the domain of the visual arts we can usefully examine multi-screen films – film and audio-visual installations which have extended and replenished notions  of fine art.

Tracing its origins to expanded cinema and video art in the 1970s, moving-image installation is now ubiquitous in public museums and private galleries. This is at a time when experimental art has all but disappeared from public-service television. For example Channel 4 in the 1980s and 1990s showcased a range of visually-based work in series like ‘Dazzling Image’, ‘Midnight Underground’, ‘Ghost in the Machine’. In the two decades since, as television channels have proliferated, choice has actually narrowed. Moving-image installations are visible in diverse art environments from gallery spaces to site-specific work in urban or industrial pop-ups. Multi-screen configurations are not easily arranged in cinemas or viably watched on television sets, let alone computers. The small portable digital screens may issue a blizzard of information and imagery every day, but their size and scale is not a viable format for most multi-screen films.

The combination of images cuts across linear montage and introduces a synchronised horizontal dynamic that changes the linear and vertical succession of a standard film or video screen. At its best the configuration of simultaneous imagery on multiple screens offers an opportunity to glimpse a dimension of the world anew. The wider interaction of sounds and images in some recent examples has unexpected resonance as a naïve invocation of politics.

Pretty in Pink

Richard Mosse’s multi-screen work ‘The Enclave’ was Ireland’s entry to the Venice Biennale in 2013 and won the £30,000 Deutsche Borse photography prize in May this year. It uses discarded infrared film to re-colour the Democratic Republic of the Cong, particularly its relentless civil war. The way the scenes are coloured on several screens metaphorically colours the country, its villages, landscapes and inhabitants in a way which startles, but also exoticises, aesthetises and perhaps even anaesthetises,  our sense of the distant world it depicts.

It is a detached representation of disturbing content without context. It conjures the pitiless Congolese human conflict but without depth of political or historical analysis, or understanding. Consonant with most mainstream media coverage this installation offers a visually spectacular rendition of ‘ the dark continent’ – in which ‘Africans are killing one another again’. The absence of articulation is marked, there is no space for direct speech, explanation or understanding from those who inhabit that reality. Mosse’s piece unintentionally evokes questions about the basis of involvement and degree of participation by protagonists in the way they are represented.

This is in contrast to a recent short film by Dearbhla Glynn, ‘The Value of Women in The Congo’, that inhabits a different place outside the art world: it is used for advocacy and shown in the context of human rights and the operations of NGOs. It is an uncompromising, clear-headed and disturbing examination of the effects of the sexual violence perpetrated with impunity against women and girls in war-torn Eastern Congo. The film explores the experience of the victims as well as of the perpetrators who have inflicted  their pervasive, cruel and appalling crimes – footsoldiers, warlords and high-ranking commandants alike. Like Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’ (which recreates the atrocities of CIA-supported 1960s death-squads in Indonesia) and Eyal Silvan’s ‘The Specialist’ (which uses footage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem) the banality of evil is exposed but, unlike those documentary films, it is drawn from the present day. Walsh’s short film assembles an arresting and brutal version of how war ravages the land and its people, leaving few victors – least of all women, whose value is often annihilated. Through interviews that talk of their experiences, the film puts together the beginning of an account of the continuing calamity with and through those involved.

Richard Mosse’s work brings a forgotten and distant carnage into white-walled galleries in a continent which can be said to already be at risk of ‘compassion fatigue’. Understanding its context and effects is not a question of the artist’s intentions, but rather of the implicit way that the work is received and interpreted by the particular audiences that encounter it in the gallery. ‘The Value of Women in the Congo’ films the same civil war but studiously within the documentary genre. The meaning and effects generated for those that come across the installation are inevitably influenced by its art context. There was a debate several decades ago which connected some of these same issues with a set of paintings, parachuting politics into the gallery. Gerhard Richter’s 1988 15 painting series, collectively entitled ‘October 18, 1977’, depicted four members of the Red Army Faction in black-and-white newspaper and police photos. Contrasting readings of the paintings and attitudes towards the RAF from the hagiographic to the condemnatory fought it out in the art space. Richter refused to be drawn towards resolving the contrary interpretations. The implications of these strategies are clear: while Richter and Mosse both introduce overtly political issues into an art context there is no discourse, visual or verbal, to contest the assumptions perpetuated by the dominant media that surround these images outside the white walls of a gallery. The doxa of common sense has already established that an urban guerrilla group is run by psychopathic terrorists and that in darkest Africa gruesome carnage comes as no surprise. There is a lack of argumentation that could intercept unconscious assumptions and engage the images productively. Such contention would set specific defined meanings in motion to bring contradiction to the fore.

A distant antecedent in literature would be Joseph Conrad’s classic ‘Heart of Darkness’ (written in 1898 and based on Conrad’s own journey to the Congo in 1890). It is an extraordinary and resonant short novel, and was redeployed in 1979 as the underlying narrative of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’. In 1975 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe launched an unrestrained attack on the book arguing that it was the work of a “bloody racist” and epitomises an “imperialist aesthetic”, carrying a colonial perspective. After furious debate in the circles of English literature, Palestinian writer Edward Said offered a nuanced critique of the novella in his book ‘Culture and Imperialism’ (1993). He examined how Conrad implicitly contrasts Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo with British colonial attitudes, but could only imagine the world carved into one or another Western sphere of domination. In ‘Orientalism’ (1978) Said had outlined the systematic distinction between Orient and Occident that functions as a mode of colonialist control. As Marx suggested in ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), the peasantry cannot represent themselves and therefore they must be represented by others. The natives are excluded from discourse, from agency, they just enter ‘Heart of Darkness’ to utter the dénouement: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”.

Classroom Lessons 

‘The Cuban School’ is a two-screen projection by John Gerrard which was first exhibited in Madrid in 2011 and has been reprised in several spaces since, including the Galway Arts Festival in 2013. To make the original piece, a group of European digital technicians was transported to Cuba at considerable cost to capture and reconstitute tracking shots around the run-down buildings, using gaming software. The mesmerising trajectory of the moving camera circling the buildings creates a striking sense of surface and space, but stops short of any insight into the implications of its history. The information from the artists’ statement displayed on an adjacent gallery wall indicates that Gerrard feels that his deployment of state of the art technology leads to an installation which “marks the melancholic demise of a political vision”.

But what would the alternatives to the politics of this pessimistic representation be? Could the “melancholic demise” be intercepted or even arrested with work on the refurbishment of the school? Could digital technology play a role in contemporary Cuban education? Would a bucket of paint help? Would it be impossible to bring some resources to bear on the possibilities of the school, to offer to teach there or contribute to culture?

In the Cuban Film School in Havana there is a plaque in the entrance inscribed with Argentinean film-maker Fernando Birri’s graceful formulation: “So that the place of utopia, which by definition has no place, has a place…”.  Whatever the vicissitudes of Cuban history this aspiration is not dismissible with premature and cynical melancholy suggesting an irreversible failure that is alleged to have already occurred. Ex-CIA agent Philip Agee, planning a visit to Galway, emailed me from Havana recently about what he saw as a large-scale and deep-set transformation at work on the continent: “It’s a wave of change unthinkable only ten years ago, and I see no way the United States can stop it”.

Gerrard’s school asserts the defeat of Cuban political ambitions at a time when in specific and diverse ways many countries in Latin America are challenging neo-liberalism and moving towards versions of more independent egalitarian societies. They are leading the questioning of the Western economic system which has failed. The social motor of transformation pressing for change is not the calcified tradition of received socialist dogma, but the continuing perceived disparities of material conditions. Emancipatory forces persist and metamorphose in a landscape of change and won’t be disdained so tritely.

Dialogue leading to Enlightenment?

John Akomfrah’s three-screen piece Unfinished Conversation  was exhibited in the Tate Britain in early 2014. It wends a complex route through the life and thought of Stuart Hall: exquisite fragments of Miles Davis’ trumpet and various interviews sketch the provenance of his thought and work evolving over several epochs of political change in Britain.  Recordings of race riots run alongside home-movie footage of his childhood in St Lucia and the English countryside, of his family, marriage, beach holidays with his children. Together it places a public intellectual in relation to the usually unseen dimension of his personal life. The screens cascade patterns of adjacent meanings across the white walls, a reflection in progress. The piece uses the shifts of meaning between multiple images and sounds to generate new perception, interplaying the biography and ideas of that original thinker who died in 2013 – indeed leaving a sens of a conversation unfinished. Its play with the very material of a life questions the extent to which reality resists being understood or appropriated by conceptual thought. The gallery piece is an interesting contrast with ‘The Stuart Hall Project’, a 95-minute single-screen film that Akomfrah made on the same subject, which has a much greater sense of linear progression through historical moments and periods. Unlike with the Mosse and Gerrard installations the use of verbal discourse in ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ enables sets of visual imagery to work through broader themes and explore the coming of multiculturalism to Britain, and the fortunes of the New Left.

Finite spaces 

Emerging from Malcolm Le Grice’s work as a leading experimental film-maker from the 1960s at the London Film-makers’ Co-op, FINITI (2011) uses six screens to fill a very wide space with unaccompanied visual imagery. It was shown at the Tate Modern in London and in Derry and Galway in September 2013. FINITI is a wide-ranging and ambitious piece which moves between imagery of the domestic and media depictions of the personal, poetic and political. Although some sections seem to touch on food, sex and war and it includes fragmentary glimpses of pictures from a non-specific contemporary war, it is more abstract and detached than concrete, recalling that potential for the “saturation of magnificent signs bathing in their absence of explanation” that film can offer, according to the Portuguese film-maker, Manuel de Oliviera.

Le Grice’s six-screen piece is performed with a specific starting and end point rather than as a loop which the gallery viewer encounters at an arbitrary stage and watches through until recurrence. The effects of linear narrative are weakened where there is no start or end. I remember the period in Italy which continued in the 1980s where newspapers did not publish the start times of feature films – spectators would arrive at cinemas in Rome when it suited them and leave when they recognised the point in the film where they had commenced their viewing. The stasis of Italy’s water-treading coalition politics of that era could be seen as analogous.

Malcolm Le Grice’s work has its provenance in 16mm expanded cinema projections and performances in the 1960s, but has moved seamlessly to digital. As a more abstract film it does not raise the same contentious questions as representational work which depends on specific references and subject matter. His signifiers float in a looser way around and above the problems inherent in representing specific human conflicts because they are open and universalising.

The Art Gallery as a One-way Street

A challenge to photographic verisimilitude is articulated in the oft-quoted Brecht/Benjamin question: “What use is an exterior view of the factory if I cannot see what is going on inside the building in terms of relationships, wages, labour, international investments – a photograph says nothing about the factory itself”. This is not to suggest that the photograph distorts or lies in a simple way, but that its verisimilitude is selective and insufficient.

If one is to offer a cultural and therefore a political connection to the global South within the refined spaces of contemporary European galleries it must be more than a gesture or alibi; it is an actual engagement with another reality that brings ethical responsibilities and engages with the politics of representation. Contact with the places euphemistically labelled the ‘developing world’ should lead to self-examination in ‘the overdeveloped world’, and conduce to scrutiny of the perilous situation to which Western societies have brought the Earth as a whole. In the long term an economic system predicated on growth and accumulation cannot continue on a planet of limited resources. Some aspects of the ‘underdeveloped’ may in fact be relevant to societies that are ‘overdeveloped’ and which will need to retract. For these clear historical and political reasons it is not surprising that some of the most dynamic new film and image production comes from the cultures of the South – where making cinema is both more difficult and more urgent.  The difficulty of distribution and exhibition is that the globalised image flows move in one direction and the opportunities to view visual meaning-making from Africa, Asia or Latin America are extremely rare in our part of the planet.

Multi-screen formats are open-ended and often abstract, but those that touch on the political and the urgent will inevitably open contention and contradiction. They may amount to decoration and distraction or they may aim to open understanding as well as aesthetic pleasure in refined spaces unused to direct politics. Julian Stallabrass writes in ‘Memories of Fire’ (2013) of the dominant view that art works are “themselves delicate and particular emanations of a unique sensibility, best set down tenderly and at a distance from contamination by other works or interference by extraneous thoughts [in contrast with…] exhibitions which set out to be about something, and to have something definite to say”.

Autonomous art circulates in the sophisticated space of the gallery but the re-introduction of politics in the context of a general lack of ethical terms in contemporary art is overdue. This may be part of a process of self-critical reasoning whereby culture seeks to reinvent itself. It can suggest a semiotic richness which connects a political focus with new and pleasurable demands for viewers: the potential of multi-screen work is to explore new forms of pictorial thinking – ways of seeing the world anew and afresh. •

Professor Rod Stoneman is the Director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His most recent book ‘Educating Filmmakers’, with Duncan Petrie, will be published next month.