How artists visualize political reality through the artifice of fiction
Omer Fast’s three-part video installation Nostalgia (2009) begins modestly, with what appears to be documentary footage of a white man in a wood, wearing camouflage gear and setting a trap built out of a stick and string. The scene plays on a small flat screen, attached to the outside wall of the installation, and is accompanied by a voice-over recounting instructions for building a trap. Over the course of the installation, the work’s screens grow larger and multiply, and the ostensible reality of this initial footage is pulled apart.
In the second part of Nostalgia, an interview between an African asylum seeker and a white filmmaker (possibly representing Fast, as played by an actor) runs on two facing screens, with the audience sandwiched in the middle of the exchange. The atmosphere between the two men – the approximate dimensions of the room on screen re-created in the physical space of the gallery – is tense, awkward. The politics of race and power constantly threaten to erupt, as the filmmaker character considers employing the asylum seeker for a project about Africa. Gradually, snippets of dialogue from the documentary footage playing outside the gallery appear in the interview footage, until we hear the asylum seeker recounting instructions for setting a trap – the first part’s voice-over now categorized as pilfered and artificially grafted onto the documentary image, whose authenticity is thus called into question.
The third part of Nostalgia leaps wholeheartedly into the world of fiction. An extended piece of speculative invention, this final section is lushly shot in 16mm and adopts a 1970s palette. It also has its foundation in the complex world of racial politics established in the first two parts, imagining an inverted world in which white refugees attempt to illegally enter a democratic African nation whose borders are tightly patrolled, by way of a series of underground tunnels.
In this gradual slide from documentary into fiction over three parts, the work’s fictional apparatuses are elaborated and rendered visible. As a whole, Nostalgia most obviously owes a debt to various genres of film, from documentary to science fiction. However, the feeling I had, the first time I saw Nostalgia, was that Omer Fast was evidently one of the best fiction writers working today.
In 2010, David Shields published his book Reality Hunger, which was rapidly embraced as a call to action aimed at fiction writers in particular. In large part a collation of quotations from diverse sources – novelists and critics, with a handful of artists and filmmakers thrown in – the short book argues that the present moment is marked by a powerful longing for the real. Shields identifies ‘reality hunger’ in artistic production across mediums and genres, from reality television to films such as Borat (2006): ‘An artistic moment, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional.'
In his manifesto – which offers self-described guidelines for authorship – Shields posits reality as an open-source network of sorts, from which the frisson of ‘the real’ can be endlessly pilfered. The problem is that Shields is largely describing a reality effect, a set of signifiers that are instantly recognizable – in the way that a hand-held camera denotes authenticity, or graininess indicates the ‘unprocessed’ and ‘unfiltered’. Reality itself, on the other hand, is an unstable and contingent field, as likely to be contaminated by fiction as the other way around.
The work of artists such as Fast suggests an alternative approach, an almost perfect inversion of Shields’s manifesto. Rather than injecting reality into fiction, fiction can be used to perceive the contours of what we describe as reality, to rearticulate the frame through which we perceive the terrain of fact.
The deployment of fiction against the landscape of reality is particularly potent in relation to politics – a realm that is curiously and problematically absent from Reality Hunger – and forms the basis for several artists working in film and video today, including Eric Baudelaire, Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Roee Rosen and Hito Steyerl. Here, fiction in its most recognizable forms allows artists to explore the structure of political fictions. Steyerl’s November (2004), for example, combines the language of home video and news footage with B-movies to tell the story of Steyerl’s long-time friend, Andrea Wolf, who joined the Kurdish liberation movement, and was killed in 1998. The work moves backward and forward in time, cutting between a home video featuring Steyerl and Wolf as teenagers, martial-arts movies and documentary – fragments that are tied together with a voice-over drawn from the artist’s own memories of Wolf. Steyerl’s work – in which she often features – is a good example of how the exploitation of a certain reality effect (in this case, documentary footage and personal recollection of a close friend who has since died) is cut with self-conscious fictional devices. The contingent nature of what we experience as reality, particularly in the political realm, is made visible through the openly declared artifice of fiction.
What is common to these artists is the notion that reality – particularly difficult realities, of political and personal trauma – can sometimes only be accessed through fiction. Perhaps the most salient recent example of this is Joshua Oppenheimer’s feature-length documentary The Act of Killing (2012). The film focuses on members of the Indonesian death squads that killed more than a million civilians following the military coup in 1965. The accounts of these men – who have never been prosecuted for their crimes – are augmented by staged scenes utilizing various film genres, from musicals to Westerns. The men conceive, write and star in the scenarios and, in this way, the documentary tells the story of their crimes.
Like Fast’s Nostalgia, Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s Polly II (2006) frames present-day politics of capital and gentrification through the structure of science fiction. Set in a future London, the film creates a flood zone located in the ruins of east London. In staging this world on screen, Kirschner and Panos employ deliberately shoddy post-production techniques: the flood water imperfectly dropped into the image, the flames of a fire incorrectly scaled, the special effects falling apart at the seams.
The result is a moving image that feels like collage. It could be categorized as the intrusion of reality – the edit suite apparent in every image breaks up the fiction of the narrative. But it feels less like a manifestation of ‘reality’ and more like the intrusion of what is termed the Lacanian ‘Real’ – an eruption into the apparently smooth and consistent surface of our world, a traumatic reminder of the contingent nature of our reality. In Polly II, it’s not that reality interrupts a fiction, it’s rather that we see reality lose its texture altogether.
Fast’s post-production technique – specifically his editing – similarly effects a traumatic intrusion of the Real. His two-channel video installation Godville (2005) takes as its primary source material interviews with ‘interpreters’ working at the living-history museum of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. From these interviews, Fast selects individual words and phrases, carving out his own text from a pre-existing block of language. The result is twofold. On one side of a suspended screen, the composite voice-over that Fast has edited together accompanies footage shot around the town of Williamsburg. The effect is seamless, notwithstanding the disjunction between the content of the voice-over and the accompanying images. On the other side, the radically edited footage of the interviews – the original images that accompany the composite audio – is screened.
Among other things, Fast plays with the markers of documentary, interview and testimony. But what’s most striking is the unnatural quality of the edited interview footage. The bodies of the interview subjects twitch and leap on the screen according to the rapid and irregular cuts; the camera remains fixed on a body in extremis. The interpreters are recorded in locker rooms as they prepare for work. They put on their costumes, colonial-period dresses and suits, but are placed against the backdrop of a modern-day interior. That’s an inclusion of a reality that breaks the fiction of the re-enactment. But in the spasm-ridden figures of his edited subjects, Fast pushes that rupture further, into a dimension of the Real instead of mere reality, into the uncanny rather than the authentic. That’s what makes the work so compelling. Fast, or indeed Kirschner and Panos, aren’t exposing the material fictions of their work out of any hunger for ‘reality’ – in too many cases a simple byword for authenticity of personal experience (hence Shields’s interest in confessional narrative). Rather, they’re drawing out a stranger and more compelling dimension that lies concealed in fiction. That element constantly threatens to expose itself, and is finally what gives fiction – from the cinematic or literary to the broader realm of narration and invention – its tension. ‘Reality’, as such, is merely a stop on the way.
First published in Issue 156