The slogan of the Biennale of Moving Images 2018, ‘The Sound of Screens Imploding’, isn’t merely a catchphrase, but a unifying concept reverberating through an array of film and gallery spaces. Billed as an ‘immersive exhibition’, last year’s edition – the third overseen by Andrea Bellini, director of the host venue, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève – has expanded its remit accordingly, commissioning and enlisting films, music and performances as well as a series of individual audio-visual environments. Co-curated by Tate Modern’s Andrea Lissoni, this unique exhibition features 20 original projects that reimagine the aesthetic capacities of the screen and interrogate the moving image as a repository of ideas and information.
As a result, sound and space play a prominent role, particularly in the work of Elysia Crampton, a Native American artist of Bolivian descent who identifies as Aymara. With Orcorara (Three Identical Stars) (all works 2018), Crampton situates her audience within an ominous electroacoustic environment inspired by the writings of the 17th-century indigenous Peruvian historian Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamayhua. Lit by dramatic floor lights, the installation’s ethnohistorical conceit and absence of projected visuals dovetail with Crampton’s interest in the erasure of indigenous histories. Likewise, Lawrence Abu Hamdan finds a conducive setting for his investigation of sensory evidence, Walled Unwalled, which links narratives taken from legal cases revolving around information that was gathered through walls. Shot in a former GDR state radio station in Berlin, the video is configured for surround sound and projected in a room adorned only with speakers, allowing viewers to move freely through the space as the intricate soundtrack takes shape from all sides.
The simplicity with which these two pieces embody and articulate their themes stands in contrast to the installations that strain under their own concepts. Meriem Bennani’s Party on the CAPS imagines a dystopic future in which a remote Atlantic island has become an internment camp for refugees. Following a prologue featuring a talking crocodile who presents an overview of the island’s development, a trio of additional screens play ‘found’ footage of its inhabitants alongside large-scale sonar readings of the surrounding seascape. Part kitschy guided tour, part speculative ethnography, the work never quite coheres, despite its surface pleasures. Similarly overextended is No History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 5, from Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic, which attempts to collapse the boundary between screen and spectator entirely. But with three lengthy videos playing between two darkened rooms filled with dirt, rocks, sticks, neon lights and stuffed rabbits, the already busy onscreen mix of drone footage, dance routines and intimate confessionals suggests that there may be less here than meets the eye.
The best of the works commissioned for the cinema approach the screen as an object of inquiry. Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS, presented as both a mid-length feature and a two-channel loop, examines the biases of the media by highlighting what nightly news broadcasts ignore – namely, images of everyday black life, culture and community in the US. Infectious and empowering, with much of the imagery sourced from online networks, BLKNWS reinforces the sociopolitical import of our modern screen culture. Eduardo Williams allows chance to dictate the scope and trajectory of his latest short, Parsi. Shot in Mozambique, Williams combines footage captured by locals on a GoPro 360 camera with the words of Mariano Blatt, whose poem ‘No es’ (It isn’t) lends a sense of sustained focus to the otherwise weightless montage. Walking, running and rollerblading across the dusty Southern African terrain, the de facto cinematographers chart a disorienting course from village to sea, eventually launching the camera into the water in symbolic rebuke to the rules of image-making.
James N. Kienitz Wilkins has built a career on interrogating the practical and philosophical dimensions of the medium, and his latest film, This Action Lies, is a striking and discursive distillation of his many concerns. A belated companion to the earlier Indefinite Pitch (2016), This Action Lies is a similarly circuitous first-person rumination on image-making and consumption. With typical loquaciousness, Kienitz Wilkins’s voiceover explores the contradictions of language and looking, the negotiation of art and commerce and the anxieties of first-time fatherhood. Shooting in 16mm, he trains his lens on a single object: a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee.
Within the frame, however, a dramatic universe takes shape, with each cut summoning a change in light and texture, until a montage accompanied by an excerpt from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722/42) brings things to a fevered pitch. Absurdly referential in ways that few filmmakers dare tread (the biennial’s curators are mentioned by name), This Action Lies is something more than a movie: it’s a portrait of the artist as a young man in the age of branded content and, as such, a productive example of what filmmaking might resemble as image culture continues to be co-opted. If this is the sound of screens imploding, then this film, like the best of the biennial, doesn’t simply survey the wreckage, but offers a way forward.
The Biennale of Moving Images runs at Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève until 3 February 2018.
Main image: Bahar Noorizadeh, After Scarcity, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Centre d'art Contemporain, Genève
Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and undistributed films, and is co-director of the Locarno in Los Angeles film festival.
First published in Issue 201