In Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors (1954), a rag-tag group of children lay waste to the last house standing at a World War II bomb site. The house, which sticks out of the rubbled landscape ‘like a jagged tooth’, belongs to a retired builder nicknamed ‘Old Misery’ who shuffles in and out of doors and offers the children Smarties. One weekend, while the home is empty, the children break in and methodically dismantle every element of the building, from its doors to its walls.
Imran Perretta’s new work adopts Greene’s title and refracts his story through two interrelated prisms: the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ and the British government’s austerity measures put in place following the financial crisis of 2008. Filmed at a community centre in the Tower Hamlets area of east London and built around three spoken testimonies, the destructors (2019) shows the artist grappling with his own experiences as a male of Bangladeshi heritage living through 9/11 and its aftermath, a period during which widespread paranoia radically extended the state’s power over non-white bodies. While Greene’s The Destructors tells a relatively straightforward story of childhood cruelty, anomie and Catholic theodicy, Perretta ties the particular destruction wrought by British policy to a pernicious act of biopolitical creativity, documenting the formation, disciplining and deformation of Muslim subjects by the state, and playing ironically with Greene’s observation that ‘destruction … is a form of creation’.
Perretta has told me that his work usually begins with writing. The destructors is driven by the force of its three testimonies (effectively three poems, composed by Perretta), that situate the work within a confessional lineage indebted to Augustine, Greene’s monumental Catholic inspiration. But the soundtrack plays an equally vital role, opening up different modes of experience throughout the film. In the opening sequence, a rhythmic composition resounds with the poetics of destruction in Greene’s story, where the children create ‘a clickety-clack, a bang bang bang, a scraping, a creaking, a sudden painful crack’. In Perretta’s version, scratchy clapping builds to a syncopated crescendo, then ends abruptly with the title fluttering across the screen, white on black, evoking a national flag or – more ambiguously – the iconography of Islamic State. A few seconds before the climax, the percussion falls out of step with the moving image, creating a dissonance between narrative (the accelerating tempo and syncopation) and visual representation (fixed hands clapping), that induces a feeling of inward distance, as we might experience after a traumatic event or taking LSD. The splitting of selfhood is a recurring feature of the destructors – from the large double screen, which forces viewers to rotate their eyes from one side to another in order to catch the witnesses’ small shuffles and involuntary bodily movements, to Perretta’s Fanonian commentary on the doubling effect of racism, embedded in the apparatus of state surveillance: ‘and all I can think / is / what he must be / seeing of me / a twoness / two-headed / two-hearted / see it say it sort it’.
As Perretta has pointed out in an interview, it is ‘impossible to visually render a migrant or refugee without the weight of prejudice on their shoulders’. His earlier film 15 days (2018) circumvents this problem by featuring a collapsing tent in the foreground of the frame, which becomes, in Perretta’s words, ‘a proxy for the body, for this skin and these bones’. The destructors captures the actors facing away from the camera or cropped out of the frame, just beyond recognition, while footage of the community centre’s gradual destruction stands in for the witnesses’ wounded subjectivity. Water and black smoke seep through cracks and spread through the building: a multi-layered metaphor for the destructive impact of austerity on social welfare and for the contamination of selfhood by the racist gaze. ‘As I inhale’, says the first witness when confronted by a bigot and waiting, hopelessly, for a sharp answer to bounce back, ‘it’s like / there’s / this toxicity / seeping in / through the gaps / in my teeth / a / silence / insidious / caustic / thick / blistering / the inside / of my lip’. But we already know he will not be able to respond – within such a powerful structure of violence, we do not get to choose our complicities.
Greene’s The Destructors is the story of a world taken apart, disassembled, turned into a pile of objects. When former ringleader ‘Blackie’ asks Trevor, whose idea it is to destroy the house, whether he hates Old Misery, Trevor replies: ‘All this hate and love … it’s soft, it’s hooey. There’s only things, Blackie’. The objectification of worlds and bodies also runs through Perretta’s complex new work. But whereas Greene’s world is unforgiving, hard and male, Perretta’s world ultimately opens up to the redemptive power of mothers, who are singularly able to restore faith – however brittle – in life, wholeness and the future: ‘and as I strained / with every fiber / to / become / she would / hold our whole / so delicately … world-making / a beloved imaginary / in which we / could both / believe.’
Imran Perretta’s film, the destructors (2019), is on view at Spike Island, Bristol, until 8 December 2019. In 2020, it will tour to Chisenhale Gallery, London, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, and The Whitworth, Manchester.
Main image: Imran Perretta, the destructors, 2019, production still. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Lenka Rayn H.