This review of Plastik Film Fesival in Dublin, Ireland, was published in Art Monthly issue 407, June 2017
Ken Jacobs Perfect Film (1986)
The sedentary nature of digesting days of artists’ moving-image works makes the title of ‘festival’ read like an oxymoron. Could anything be less festive than the communal anonymity of a darkened cinema and the passive, disembodied spectatorship it supposedly (at least for Christian Metz and Peter Gidal) induces? In the wrong curatorial hands the answer is often a mind numbing ‘no’. Luckily, the three co-directors of Plastik, Ireland’s only festival of artists’ moving image, were too canny to turn in a joyless and austere endurance test. By producing a roster of unabashedly visceral films, Jenny Brady, Sibyl Montague and Daniel Fitzpatrick went straight for the spectator’s jugular. Theirs was a programme that taxed the retina, compelled the body and stimulated the mind.
In the biennial’s second iteration since its inauguration in 2015, activities for Plastik were split across Temple Bar Gallery and the Irish Film Institute’s (IFI) lush black-box and proscenium cinemas. Ceding some of the festival’s curatorial duties, the trio invited American film preservationist and curator Mark Toscano, and artists James Richards (representing Wales at the 2017 Venice Biennale), Yuri Pattison and Sasha Litvintseva to select works to be screened. Festival-goers moved between both venues to take in a varied programme that at times carried the stamp of each artist/curator’s sensibilities or offered an indication of unexpected aesthetic influences.
Richards opened the three-day programme with a selection of films by Bruce Conner and recent collaborator Leslie Thornton. Between works by the aforementioned pair was American filmmaker Ken Jacob’s extraordinary Perfect Film, 1986. Apparently the result of a newsreel Jacob’s found in the street and reprinted, Perfect Film features a series of on-the-spot interviews conducted with witnesses to the assassination of Malcolm X minutes after the fact. In an occurrence of pure serendipity, one African-American man in the crowd turns out to be a professional reporter on his day off. His account of the event is lucid, journalistically detailed and delivered with an odd mix of subdued nervousness and slightly affected professionalism. ‘Gene, I believe you were the only press man in the auditorium when Malcolm X was shot,’ prompts the reporter. As his testimony unfolds, the visible temporal specificity of the gathered crowd (bygone faces, gestures, clothes, accents) brings social history vividly into the present. While much attention is currently focused on revisiting the African-American civil rights movement and its better-known public figures (for example the James Baldwin biopic I Am Not Your Negro), there is no substitute for representing a slice of reality, in all its complexity, than the spontaneous chaos of a multicultural street scene.
Screened later in the afternoon, Litvintseva’s gripping collection provided the second big hit of the festival. The common thread linking each of the works was a commitment to exploring ecological themes, broadly registered as a consideration for the environment, but it was the formal and structural innovations in each that prompted a physiological engagement with what took place on screen. Julia Jaschnow and Stefanie Schroeder’s 2015 work Dunkel Deutschland (Dark Germany) is a roaming journey from an East German film factory to the interior of a wellness centre’s immersive bath as kitsch clamshell. Sarah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efran’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 2015, a composite of video clips found online of tourist visits to Walter Benjamin’s memorial, contains a startling moving-image representation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting of the same name. Benjamin’s monument, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, is a dark, steel sculpture installed on the cliffs of the small village of Portbou, Spain. Steps within the monument descend to the sea. In Brutman and Efran’s work, footage of different visitors’ walks down the steps are intercut at a rate that accelerates until its jerky multi-resolution composite feels like a visually overwhelming and utterly arresting animation of Duchamp’s multivector, futurist kineticism. Livintseva’s own darkly absorbing film Asbestos, 2016, made in collaboration with Graeme Arnfield, followed. In it, a similitude between extraction of the toxic substance (asbestos) from natural sites and from contaminated walls is suggested in the juxtaposition of footage of both procedures. These scenes are intercut with shots of the Canadian mining town Asbestos, named after the material the extraction of which was once its source of prosperity.
In the post-screening Q&As Livinsteva described Asbestos as part of her PhD research into devising ‘a visual strategy for the anthropocene’, a no-doubt intellectually productive and intriguing pursuit in itself, but any actual repercussions or initiatives beyond that abstract territory were left unrevealed. The work’s air of toxic paranoia and the grim deindustrialised irony of a down-at-heel town named after a substance that played a key role in its present plight (emotive resources the artist also mines in order to extract the uncanny) seemed to be presented for their own affective sake, their own ability to disconcert the viewer. Perhaps that is enough. But amid talk of geological filmmaking, the Anthropocene and the environment, the absence of even a passing reference to climate change or to the human fallout of natural resource extraction felt like a glaring socio-political oversight excused by academicism and conceptual rigour. To put it another way, while both artists’ moving-image work and the political territory of activism can function separately, the possibility of bringing them together (even if only in post-screening talks or interpretative texts) would surely be a powerful union benefiting both, especially when it is a work as bleakly impactful as Asbestos.
More questions were raised by LA-based Ann Hirsch’s performance piece The Rest of My Life (my fantasies, my choice), 2017. Billed in the festival programme as a work set to delve ‘into the predicament of her recent marriage, a growing addiction to pornography, and an endearing bitterness for sex positive feminism’, the work began as a pitch-perfect stand-up comedy routine on marriage performed by Hirsch and ended with the artist dancing naked to Marilyn Manson’s ‘Rock is Dead’. Comprising several short and possibly unrelated scenes, it was the middle segment of Hirsch’s work that felt the most unnecessary and dumbly shocking. A segment of rough pornography was played in which a submissive woman had her vulva spanked by a belt, her legs held back towards her head in order to expose her vagina, and her anus penetrated by a glass instrument, action during which Hirsch sung Lynard Skynard’s ‘Freebird’ in a quivering infantile falsetto. ‘That was obviously a negative comment on the objectification of women,’ said an audience member as we stood outside post performance. But was the comment a good one? The male ‘performer’ in the video was James Deen, a porn actor with mainstream ambitions and a man whom, it has been widely reported, several women have accused of brutal on-screen rape. In effect the audience members were made complicit in the possible abuse of another woman by watching it unfold on screen. Was this a challenging deconstruction of the male gaze, objectification or sex positivism? Or was it an obvious provocation, an attempt to provoke discomfort? It played like a confused and largely ineffective mixture of both.
The third and final day brought the last of Plastik’s star turns in the shape of an intoxicatingly smart trilogy of films by New York-based filmmaker James Kienitz Wilkins. The ‘Andre’ trilogy featured deftly put together narrative-driven films, built around noiresque monologues recounting the exploits of a shadowy figure named Andre, a kind of petty criminal/confidence man with a penchant for digital technology and a belief in the transcendental metaphysics of high-definition video. Wilkins is definitely one to watch, and the clever constructions his trilogy effortlessly performed were still on my mind during the festival’s last run of films.
Plastik closed with Bruce Connor’s Crossroads, 1976. As I watched 36 minutes of Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, massive explosions unfolding in slow motion across a huge cinema screen, the question of artists’ culpability arose. What exactly is being aimed at in this long meditation on mushroom clouds unfurling in the Pacific? One reading is that it is pitched as an awesome reminder that the human race has the capability to destroy itself, or rather certain members of the human race do. Watch past two minutes and the impact of a warning from history dissipates and is replaced by detachment, which then gives way to numbness. What responsibility does Connor have to those who suffered the fallout of these nuclear tests? Does he bear some responsibility for turning these tests into an aesthetic event, a kind of nuclear, techno-sublimity? The devastating effects of Bikini Atoll continue to harm communities who live near the site, and the threat of nuclear war remains a clear and present danger – a situation covered in John Pilger’s recent film The Coming War on China, 2017 – but Connor’s film and that reality are worlds apart. Of course the film was made decades ago, but could the duty of linkage now fall to whoever screens it?
Overall, Plastik’s second outing was a success, but by so cogently achieving its goal of viscerally affecting audiences the festival foregrounded a lack of direction for that affect beyond its immediate emotional or physiological impact – a disconnection between the politics of moving image and the politics orienting much social, cultural and environmental activity in the world. In other words, seated audiences were suitably compelled, but once they left the cinema, what exactly where they compelled to do? Addressing that question, and possibly taking a hand in orchestrating or facilitating that potential subsequent action, could be a fitting challenge to meet in the biennial’s next instalment.