ART OF SUMMER
I’m just back from the Lucca Film Festival, where two of my films, Under and Removal, were screened on October 4th, and where I was privileged to encounter an astonishing number of fascinating people (and films). I’ll be writing a detailed article on the whole experience, but in this post I wanted to look back over the various cultural events I’ve attended over the past several months—which have, from May through to September, been an incredible, extended and culturally packed summer for me—and of which Lucca was the fittingly superlative finale (I’m now into my final year of my degree at the National Film School in Dublin, so I’ll have to try to limit my cultural intake while I get stuck into my thesis and various film projects.) These are all events I would have liked to have written about in more detail at the time, had I had the time—but at this stage it will have to suffice to briefly assess their significance.
First of all, back in Berlin, there were a few important curated events that don’t fit into the my ongoing series of Berlin posts—although the four events would perhaps make an interesting series by themselves, since each, despite their differences, create a sense of movement that is more perceived than acted; that is to say, movements that inhabit and compose the world rather than movements, like work and play, that man brings into the world.
At the ever-reliable Arsenal Kino, “HARDfilms: pixels and celluloid”, a seven-part series of short film programmes curated by Maria Morata, presented an amazing selection of classic and contemporary experimental cinema, many of which are simply impossible to see outside of occasional big-city screenings like this. Arranged into thematic groups, Morato’s series attempted to illustrate the ways in which avant-garde cinema aesthetically and theoretically anticipated and developed many of the elements and principles that digital and media-based artists work with today. I only caught the third and fourth instalment, so I can’t say whether the overall chain of Morata’s curatorial argument holds together, but either way the invention of some of these films is so inspired, one can see the webs of their influence extending far beyond an anticipation of digital media. A few stand-outs from the programmes I saw and in case they ever come your way: Récreation (1957, Robert Breer), T.O.U.C.H.I.N.G. (1968, Paul Sharits), Piéce Touchée (1989, Martin Arnold), Schewacheter (1957-58, Peter Kubelka) – pictured above, Autoportrait et le monde (1997, Johanna Vaude) and of course Stan Brakhage, who’s Black Ice (1964) was screened. These third and fourth programmes in the series ( “sampling: breaking time” and “sampling: writing movement”) focused mainly on filmmakers using film as a structure of single frames (eg Sharits) or as a graphic surface (eg Vaude and Brakhage), rather than as a temporal continuity in the tradition of figurative cinema.
In the same week in early June, the independent record label naivsuper presented an evening of experimental electronic music across town at the Electronic Church, a small gallery space who’s only sign is a tiny felt-tip scrawl on an advertisement adjacent to its front entrance. The lineup of four acts—Stephane Leonard, Marcel Türkowsky, Ludovic Fresse and a duo called Chronic—each created distinct soundscapes that were as exterior to conventional musical structures as Morata’s film programmes were from the temporal patterns of mainstream cinema. This took different shapes: Leonard’s laptop-induced sounds were broad and oceanic, sounds you float in, that fill up the space and slow down everything in it. Türkowsky’s were more manual and etched: by manipulating everyday sounds with the rewind/fastforward buttons on old walkmans and building these sounds together with a loop machine, he weaved different velocities of sound together into a kind of mosaic found-audio orchestra. Fresse was more concrete again, albeit to an absurd degree: against a pre-recorded electronic track, a host of household objects were gradually exhausted of their acoustic possibilities, building to the indescribable sound created when you let a vacuum cleaner play a clarinet. The final act, Croniq, used a live saxophone player and another laptop-ist, and took things back to a more general oceanic vibe, though lifted by the added emotional and melodic drive of the live instrument.
As Berlin cinemas go, the Kino Krokodil, a charming backstreet single-screener in Prenzlauerberg, deserves special mention. For the whole of my three weeks in Berlin, this cinema was regularly repeating a special programme of Russian cinema, including (every day at 7.30) Alexander Sokurov’s hour-long Russian Elegy. The day I finally made it to the cinema, I was a half-hour late, but found the cinema empty, and one guy outside reading the newspaper. When I asked about the movie, I realised he was both the ticket-seller and projectionist, and he kindly proceeded to give me a private 35mm screening of the film….
Russian Elegy isn’t the first of Sokurov’s “elegy” films I’ve seen, but it does seem to be one of his most deepest and, unfortunately most off the radar. Beginning with an old man’s death (depicted only by his hand and the hand of his loved one), the film consists mostly of dreamy but palpable landscapes, with a large central section consisting of photos taken at the turn of the century by Maxim Dmitriev. Each photo is given ample time on screen before a detail of the photo is emphasised in close-up. As Alexandra Tuchinskaya has written, Russian Elegy is a film “without stitches or knots”, and the overall effect of these disparate images is a remarkably organic sense of wholeness, in which an old man’s breathing, the pulsing life of a damp landscape, and the dynamic energy of old photographs become exhalations of the same breath, circulations of the same blood. The film’s ease in synthesising natural and historical phenemonenon somewhat recalls Tarkovsky’s Mirror (to whom Sokurov is sometimes too readily grouped in with by critics)—but the distinction is that here, Sokurov seems less concerned with personal and cultural memory and more interested in the creation of a flow of energy beyond, or maybe beneath, those things.
In all three of these artistic events, the common effect was that rather than presenting an act (musical or cinematic) within an already-established framework or set of laws, an original and enveloping world of movement was created, with its own laws. It’s really not hyperbole to say that each effectively creates a new imaginative space in which, potentially, new kinds of actions and thoughts can take place.
From Berlin, my travels took me to London, where questions of space, both imaginative and physical seemed central to most of the art I encountered. The degree shows of Chelsea College of Art and Design, one of London’s foremost art schools, seem to be a pretty good gauge of the present and immediate future of British fine art—and the overwhelming impression I got from the work on show is that, whether due to fashion, educational trends or simply natural progression, contemporary artists are obsessed with context and completely bored with content. In other words, most of the works shown here are much more interested in creating an environment for you to be in than giving you something to look at—as if the possibilities of invention within the confines of a canvas or art-object have been so exhausted that the only area of creation left to explore is the exhibition space itself, and our relation to it. While certainly this is fertile ground for artistic exploration, it’s still just one of many grounds, and the unanimity of this shift in focus seems to have left a lot of artists floundering, with many 2D artists struggling to extract some environmental impact out of their work beyond just paint on a canvas, and many 3D artists just taking the piss with purposeless environmental ideas (the giant woodshed in which there was nothing but a neon sign reading “Lumen” deserves special mention in this regard). And, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, one wonders if or where the idea of personal expression can exist in these limited terms—a question another London exhibition brought into focus for me.
Further along the South Bank, the Hayward Gallery was showcasing the work of one of the acclaimed masters of environmental art: Antony Gormley. Gormley’s work is all about creating a space for the spectator to navigate, and his sculptures tend to be less sculpted objects of contemplation than means of sculpting the space in which you walk, in fact almost a way of sculpting the way you walk within it—that contorted figure hanging from the ceiling is there less to be looked at than to make you look up. The centrepiece of the Hayward exhibition was Gormley’s new work, “Blind Light” (pictured above), a brightly lit glass room of white fog so dense you can barely see the end of your hand, in which your only points of orientation are your fellow museum-goers. If one accepts this environmental focus as a normative principle in contemporary art, then “Blind Light” is probably a masterpiece; a brilliantly simple combination of solid conceptualisation and accessible and engaging physicality—but it’s also thoroughly impersonal, more the product of an architectural engineer than a creative artist. And I wonder if, as open as this fine art world may seem (”anything” can be used to design an environment), it isn’t actually a very limiting restriction for new artists and, from an expressive point of view, a pretty castrating one.
Anyway, the real reason I was in London was for the National Film Theatre’s two retrospectives, of Roberto Rossellini and John Cassavetes. The cinema of these two geniuses creates new kinds of spaces too—especially when you see almost half a dozen of their films within a few days. I caught five of Rossellini’s late historical made-for-TV works (Blaise Pascal , Cartesius , Augustine of Hippo , Acts of the Apostles  and Italy: Year One ): an incredible and fascinatingly difficult series of works that manage to be both plodding and thrilling, expositional and disorientating all at the same time. One finds one never knowing quite where one is in these films despite characters constantly explaining their positions. This isn’t to denigrate the films, however, because they do put you inside of a historical and intellectual space with extraordinary directness and efficacy, making physically palpable the profound claustrophobia of Descartes’ philosophical life in Cartesius, or the totally pervasive (and from a modern perspective thoroughly alien) atmosphere of belief and possibility among Christ’s followers in Acts of the Apostles. Their difficulty is undeniably part of what makes them work.
However, after living in those spaces almost continuously for a few days, it was like a gust of fresh air kicking back with Cassavetes’s Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1997), films who’s spaces are open, performative, theatrical and present-tense—and, I think, more so than many films, fundamentally different experiences when you see them in the cinema.
Finally in London, my Talent Campus friend, Taiwanese actor/director Chen Chia-Kuei, took me to see the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan at Sadler’s Wells. Their show, Wild Cursive, the final part of a trilogy of “cursive” works, was kind of like a flip side to this whole environmental-art thing. Choreographer Lin Hwai-Min takes an art that is one of the most space-based by nature, and treats it like a flat surface. Using the principles of calligoraphy as his basis, Lin’s dancer’s become graphic material fluidly “written” across the stage. While the contemporary art world may be aghast at such blatant “regressive” practice, it was stunning to watch.
3. DARKLIGHT & GALWAY
The day after I returned from London, I was straight into more films, thanks to the Darklight Symposium, a sort of mini-festival now occuring inbetween the Darklight Festival’s main programme every other year. I’d never really engaged with Darklight before the symposium, mainly due to the impression that they were focused exclusively on digital media to an unproductive degree—but this weekend boasted a very impressive lineup that was not at all restricted to digitial content. Most impressive was the focus on older Irish cinema: three of our most important First Wave filmmakers—Joe Comerford, Pat Murphy and Vivienne Dick—had films showing over the weekend.
I missed Murphy’s and Comerford’s films (as well as the wide range of workshops and panel discussions that took place), but caught the three-film mini-retrospective of Dick’s work curated by Maeve Connolly. While a longer programme would have been desirable, the three chosen films—(1978), Visibility Moderate (1981) and Skinny Little Man Attacks Daddy (1994)—were actually excellent choices, forming a cogent trilogy that showed the progression of Dick’s work from her beginnings in the New York “No Wave” scene through to her return to Ireland and transition to working on video. Guérilliére Talks is one of the great avant-garde portrait films, a series of seven unedited Super 8 rolls each documenting a different woman. Visibility Moderate is an insane tour-de-force trek through the eccentricity and hysteria of 1980s rural Ireland, using audio clips from Irish ads and weather forecasts to painfully funny effect. Skinny Little Man Attacks Daddy, the only of her video works shown, is a more subdued and formal work, owing both to the shift in medium and a more directly personal focus, focusing on her relationship with her family. The work was also accompanied by an excerpt from Fergus Daly’s landmark documentary, Experimental Conversations (2006) in which Dick features (and which, as far as I know, Maximilian le Cain has been the only one to write at length about).
The other highlight of the symposium was the double bill screening of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967, pictured above) and Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). The films, curated by Esperanza Collado, were paired together as seminal examples of structuralist/materialist cinema and, like Morata’s programme, were positioned as relevant precedents to new media art practices. I’ll be forced to grapple with Snow’s work in words when I get around to my Lucca report, so I think I’ll save my thoughts on Wavelength till then. As for Zorns Lemma, it (kind of literally) speaks for itself, and if you can’t wait for a print to come your way, you can watch it online here. With regards to both, Collado said it best in her introduction: before you watch them, “forget everything” you thought cinema was supposed to be.
The accomplishments of Darklight may have delayed me from feeling the usual disappointment with Irish culture that comes when returning from somewhere as imaginatively rich as Berlin—but the Galway Film Fleadh made sure it kicked in eventually. I’ve attended the Fleadh for some six years now, and while they have showcased and played host to some some excellent directors over the years (Kiarostami, Roeg, Sokurov being the three I remember most fondly), their programming seems to be getting increasingly bland. While not yet at the mediocre level of the Dublin—sorry, Jameson—Film Festival (which just takes a range of new films, charges 10 euro and screens them in the same multiplex where many of them will end up playing on general release anyway), its programme this year was completely absent of the kind of curatorial imagination that made Darklight, or most of the events I attended in Berlin, so exciting.
The festival is, however, the industry one in Irish terms, and is always fascinating (if not exactly pleasant) as a litmus test in that sense. The three big things getting talked about this year: the astonishing and growing success of Once (2006, pictured above) in the States, the astonishing quality of Lenny Abrahamson’s new film Garage (2007), and, to a lesser extent, the astonishing amount of Irish films in the programme that weren’t bankrolled by the Irish Film Board.
A large portion of this year’s “Real Deal” seminar on film financing was dedicated to trying to work out what made Once work, and while lots of interesting points were made (one panellist’s concept of marketability—how easy a film is to market—and playability—how well a film plays to an audience—as the two primary, and often contradictory, factors in selling films was very smart, if a little scary), the consensus seemed to be, essentially, hard work + luck = Once; hard work + bad luck = everything else. It also doesn’t hurt that, like everybody’s favourite Irish short film, Once is also a very exact and hard-to-contrive mix of sincerity and familiarity, edginess and safety that seems to be the secret recipe for indie cinema success.
As for Garage, if it lacks that same balance, it’s no worse for it. Probably the first really mature Irish entry into the “cinema of small things” (in the sense I used the phrase when I wrote about Tom Noonan’s work), Abrahamson’s direction, O’Halloran’s script and Pat Shortt’s surprisingly understated performance manage to squeeze all the comedy and all the drama needed out of the tiniest things: a simple phrase, the way Shortt makes a sandwich or fixes a pipe or the way a thought flickers across his face. In these stakes, Abrahamson may not be a Tati or Noonan—at least not yet—but in the context of Irish cinema this is still something remarkable. Its depiction of rural Ireland as disconnected, emotionally stifling and expressively inert is all the more damning for not being remotely didactic or rhetorical, but merely the implicit effect of the accumulation of details.
As for all these new IFB-independent Irish features, they were mostly bunched into a one-day program entitled “Wild Cards”, which, I confess, I completely missed. So, whether this is our Mumblecore (Wafflecore?) or just more entries in the well-documented Irish tradition of country lads making action movies in their dad’s field, is still up for discussion. Judging from the brochure synopses, and the tandem piece on these guys in Film Ireland, I think it could go either way.
4. HAVE U MET NOSTI? AND OTHER EVENTS
HAVE YOU MET NOSTI?
Back in Dublin and also in July, “Have U Met Nosti?” was a rich and unusual five-day performance art festival organised by Sascha Perfect and the Balkan Irish Arts Forum and focusing on new works (mostly) from the Balkan countries, with works ranging from cabaret to modern dance to more conceptually driven performance art. Overall, the programme was refreshingly uninterested in culturally specific novelties (unlike the Multicultural-with-a-capital-M celebration that is our Festival of World Cultures)—focusing instead on smart, passionate dance and performance, as innovative and theoretically engaged as you’d find anywhere. The standouts for me were Reality Show (Dejan Garbos, Serbia),Ouch Couch (Iskra Sukarova, Macedonia) and The Auction(Katerina Mojzisova, Slovakia).
It’s hard not to make Reality Show sound like the ultimate performance art cliche, and in its basic concept—two women make out and take all their clothes off while reading a theoretical text on the media-saturated, post-modern body—it….sort of is. But the mixture of flesh and theory is actually strangely effective—seriously—and Garbos’ central argument that even if a body is “naked”, perceptually it’s still wrapped in layer upon layer of cultural, intellectual and sexual prejudice and distortion, manages to be made equally forcefully through the text and the various acts of the performers (although, I’ll concede, squirting lotion on the ground so that one woman could spin the other around in it was a bit much).
Taking place across the creaky floorboards of the Back Loft in the Liberties (where the festival’s final performances and closing party took place), Ouch Couch was a sharp and witty power-play duet in the dance-as-relationship tradition, using an inflatable couch as the pivot of the dancers’ (Sukarova and Darija Andovska) passive-agressive exchanges. The performance took place in the round, with the audience sitting against the wall, at times perilously close to the action; one little girl watching actually tried to reach out and touch the dancers when they came near her, probably the best expression of the power of this kind of intimate off-stage dance theatre than anything I could put into words here.
Mojzisova’s The Auction was a very funny attempt to economically quantify and commercially redeem dance: the choreographer and dancer performed short excerpts from her own work and then put them up for auction. But at the same time this wasn’t really a joke: the highest bidder really did have to fork over cash for possession of the dance (unfortunately no-one went for the final piece she performed, which she opened bidding for at 30,000 euro.)
The closing party and consequent drinking session was also pretty culturally edifying (most important lesson learnt: Macedonian moonshine is lethal). The Bubble has an episode on “Have U Met Nosti?” that you can watch here, and in which myself and the legendary Benjy Gogan randomly feature at the end.
AND OTHER EVENTS
So what else? There was Mary Dempsey’s What Happened, an audio installation that took place in Meeting House Square in August. There’s not much to say about this intriguing work that Fergus Daly hasn’t already said very eloquently, so I’ll just direct you to his essay on the piece.
There was Electric Picnic, which I caught the final day of: a so-so lineup, overall, apart from the rock-and-roll event that was Iggy Pop’s headlining gig (really more of an interactive performance experiment than a concert), but so rich and innovative in terms of all the extra-musical spectacles and spaces on offer, that it’s still the best camping festival in the country.
Oh, and I almost forgot: probably the most significant dance event in Ireland of the year was Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s production of This Dancing Life, a joyous and celebratory four-hour show by New York choreographer Sara Rudner. It’s also the first dance I’ve ever really had the chance to study in detail, as I was hired by Irish Modern Dance Theatre to film the show, and I’m currently turning that twelve hours of footage (we had three cameras filming) into a two-DVD, four-hour version of the show. Once that’s completed, I may return to write more about it, perhaps with the illustration of clips….
There was the Fringe Festival, one of Dublin’s biggest and best cultural events, which deserves (and will eventually receive) a post of its own.
And…yeah, I think that was about it.
In other words: it was a good summer.