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TIFF Wavelengths 2019, Program One: Double Iambs

SaF05

It grows more difficult with each passing edition to assent to the standard line that the Wavelengths program is a small clearing for artistic purity amidst a shrill, militaristically corporate environment. This has nothing to do with Andréa Picard’s curation—as deft and illuminating this year as any in the decade I’ve attended the Toronto International Film Festival—and everything to do with ongoing shifts in the social and institutional situations of artists interested in making work whose form is other than that of the commercial narrative feature. Shifts within the institutional priorities of the festival itself have required that Picard take on responsibility for programming a growing number of films which are indeed destined for a theatrical release, but are nonetheless too “difficult” by some rubric to fit into another phylum of TIFF’s frankly baffling taxonomy; later in the festival I will have reports on several of these longer films. But I began here with a report on the first of the four shorts programs which remain the core of Wavelengths, and which once again argue for it as the nearest thing we’re likely to find at the moment to a definitive synopsis of the year’s most sophisticated and accomplished experimental moving image work. 

Picard’s decision to begin with Philipp Fleischmann’s Austrian Pavilion sets what is, to my mind, the resonant frequency of this year’s offerings: the commercial art world’s subsumption of fields of filmic activity it had long ignored, and the various strategies employed in response to this increasingly dense center of gravity. These are hardly new concerns. The need to find sustainable ways to pay for such films—to say nothing of paying the rent with them—has been a bugbear of artist-filmmakers as long as they have existed (Erika Balsom’s After Uniqueness thoroughly charts the history of these attempts). And yet, in terms of both their content and their museum- and biennial-funded origins, the implications of art capital on film art haunt this year’s selection.  

Austrian Pavilion, as has become typical of Fleischmann’s films, registers the space of its title through a site-specific camera, built to diffuse his artistic subjectivity away from the lyrical view to an atmospheric openness. Here, this diffusion is accomplished by means of a sculptural camera rhyming the arches through which one enters Josef Hoffman’s pavilion, built in 1934 as his nation’s home within the Giardini della Biennale in Venice. That is, the camera itself is a large hollow arch, its parabolic length running perhaps 25 feet (I am basing this off of photographs) and its images taken by opening it manually to expose up to the equivalent length of 35mm film housed inside it. This general strategy is, if I have understood the process of their creation correctly, consistent across Fleischmann’s moving-image work to date, and it leads to a unique time-space relationship in projection. 

By simultaneously exposing the entirety of a given length of film which has been positioned along this arch, Fleischmann creates images of spooky movement. Austrian Pavilion appears to wander through these empty grounds during the pavilion’s offseason, taking in chiefly bare walls, windows and trees as the light flickers between the warmer natural light afforded by the space’s open design and the deep, cool blue of exhibition lighting. And yet, the duration which a tracking shot demands exists only through the immaculate performance of the projector: the film is a series of contiguous snapshots which exceed the typical one-to-one relationship of snapshot to single frame. (The duration produced by a fully loaded “take” by my rough reckoning would be 16 seconds, or exactly the length of the image of a clear blue sky which opens the film.) As the projector reinscribes the basic unit of the frame, the film begins to “move” through the instant of each exposure, taking in the view of its surroundings from minimally distinct positions along the camera’s arch. I found the experience of watching this false movement akin to being rolled along on a gurney, catching obscure glimpses of equivalent visual weight or emphasis; the sense of disorientated and damaged vision related to illness seems to me thematically apt, the valorization of indifference conceives the ideal subject of much classical aesthetics as all but dead. Others I’ve spoken with have found the sensation to be primarily of vertical movement, a constant rising, a floating off. In any case, Fleischmann has made a work which smuggles the stable remoteness from duration one finds in the painting and sculpture the pavilion was built to display into the active flux of film time, a move which demands that one consider where exactly it is that the value of art resides. 

Picard arranged this program as a pair of iambs, with Fleischmann’s four minutes followed by Charlotte Prodger’s forty-minute SaF05, which premiered and remains on view at the Venice Biennale, one of a number of such institutional articulations occurring across this year’s presentations. The harmony between these two formally disparate works continues to Prodger’s own concern with diffusing her subjectivity, though she achieves this through a series of puckish doublings and diversions, rather than through a decisive formal-procedural gesture. Having seen only this video and Bridgit, for which Prodger won this year’s Turner Prize, it is plain that she is among the foremost practitioners of a post-lyrical style derived from the poetics which emerged in unique but related forms on both American coasts in the 1970s, work which radically expanded the intricate dance of public and private first elaborated by the New York poets a generation before. 

SaF05 is the formal identifier of a lioness living in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of several who, for reasons apparently related to age-driven increases in testosterone, has grown a mane and begun to perform various social actions associated with male lions, such as aggressive vocalization and pissing to mark her territory. This information is not present anywhere within the film. I imagine that it must have been offered via wall text in Venice—unless Prodger simply expects the whole of her audience to be regular readers of New Scientist—an inevitable reminder than even single-channel works may experience a kind of shedding of critical material in the process of transitioning from gallery to theater. 

While this knowledge deepens the work, it remains fecund in its absence. Following an opening movement of camera trap footage of the titular lioness, Prodger works through a series of loosely defined chapters. We see images of limestone ground as Prodger walks across it; speeding tracking shots through both a flat sub-Saharan landscape and the snowy Scottish Highlands; a parody of an exotic sunset, ginned up at home with nothing but a lamp; and a pair of massive termite mounds seen from the extreme perspective of a drone. Against all of this, we hear Prodger recount personal anecdotes, which range from her own brief infatuation with the Calvinist church to a number of stories regarding her friends and lovers, all of whom are labeled with their own punning variations of the lioness’ tag—BaF89, GaF96, etc.—which recall directly the archly coded public-private communication one finds across the poets of the New Narrative.  The written word appears occasionally as well in the form of quick on-screen titles, all rich with implication, much of which is left to hum in the background: one reading “SUBS,” for example, literally names its setting, alludes toward possible sexual tastes and finally leads to a sequence in which Prodger ruminates on submarines, the image gone a blank white. 

Image and sound remain productively disjunct across the video, in the sense that they maintain a minimum of what Eisenstein worried over as “inertia” by refusing to highlight the logic of their associations. A few examples will suffice, I hope, for an activity which is present in the video at every moment. This logic is occasionally banal: the white screen which runs throughout the discourse on submarines balances Prodger’s description of their matte black finish (gently nudging us to consider who or what this video is reflecting) and gives form to the void of information she notes the submariners exist in throughout their deployments. But there are more baroque poetic structures here as well. Against the four-minute tracking shot through the sub-Saharan expanse, Prodger’s voiceover recites bone-dry scientific data regarding the activities of SaF05, seemingly based on the same footage from the camera trap which opens the video. After a period of silence, her voice returns, “GaF93 was training to be a radiographer…” The chasm between these two trains of thought is bridged effortlessly by the matched designations, and she goes on to briefly describe a pair of sexual encounters with the subject as the tracking shot continues. “I looked down at the dark triangle of her pubic hair for the first time, and thought what I was seeing was her underwear, then realized her underwear wasn’t on anymore.” As the car approaches a turn in the road, so too does her thought turn suddenly: “For a split second, I saw my mother’s dark triangle, then it switched back to hers again.” There is no further interrogation of this; the shot goes on to its end with only the sound of rushing air. 

Finally, there is the matter of the video’s two remarkable drone sequences, one of which, arriving early in the film, rises, while the other, in its final shot, descends. The scale of the arid steppe seen in both is hard to pin down, while their concern for composition is beyond any drone footage I have encountered outside of Basma Alsharif’s Ouroboros: the first stops rising at precisely the point where the frame’s vertical edges are held perfectly taut by a pair trees, an effect straight out of Poussin. As the first shot rises, Prodger gives direction on the soundtrack, “And then just start very slowly moving upward.” This reflexive sense of being privy to production is thrown into confusion, suddenly given the savor of John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum with its comic attempt at imposing direction on the world, by the appearance of a second Prodger on the soundtrack, the texture of the recording slightly different, “Me and BaF89 are cleaners…” These two tracks continue to appear without regard for one another, brief instructions mingling with stories of decadent young romance, of being very aware of one’s mouth while tripping on acid. As one Prodger says, “Still in its pocket, I put one hand between her legs,” the other, the composition reaching its point of perfection, interjects, “Hold it.” The imbrication of form and memory is, briefly, absolute. 

The second iamb began with Mike Gibisser’s Slow Volumes, created, like Austrian Pavilion, using a homemade camera. Though in contrast to Fleischmann’s elaborate sculptural creation, Gibisser’s is rather more modest: a slit-scan camera which, if Google is to be believed, could be built for considerably less than the cost of a ticket to last night’s screening. Gibisser spoke onstage of his desire to reverse the camera’s standard operation, whereby it fragments time (i.e., into N number of discrete units) in order to maintain the illusion of continuous space, so as to achieve the opposite effect, abstracting space to achieve the illusion of continuous time. Whether one agrees with this or not as an accurate picture of the matter at hand, or whether this inversion is anything other than formalism—I’ll confess I could only hear Hollis Frampton murmuring in the back of my head that time is but directional stress obtaining between palpable stuff—the result is nevertheless satisfying as an unexpected midpoint between the diary film and the post-painterly abstraction of someone like Bridget Riley, or, less far afield, certain of the recent videos of Ernie Gehr, with whom it shares as well a delight in the rudimentary mechanics of film: the visual pulse inscribed by the camera’s apparatus enters into a delightfully rhythm with the soft patter of the projector’s shutter. Using his heightened control over the “volume” of the image, the extent to which recognizable figures fill out or remain as abstract graphic events, Gibisser orchestrates a series of pans, both curved and straight, in indoor and outdoor spaces. Like all of what I have seen of Gibisser’s work to date, this is a resolutely modest film, which I suspect would play much better outside of the din of a festival context. To make such work when there exists no other space in which a five-minute film, shot and shown on 35mm, could be exhibited is, in its quiet and moving way, an argument about the politics of light.

Pedro Neves Marques’ The Bite, debuting in a single-channel version following its premiere last year as a multi-screen installation at the Perez Art Museum Miami, concluded the evening. Though I find the film overly reminiscent of Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s The Unity of All Things in its visual textures, pacing and particular mix of an antiseptic research space and the mess of the “natural world,” its allegorical structure is nonetheless finely wrought while, fittingly, refusing to settle down into a single reading. The story follows the parallel tracks of a research unit working to combat an unnamed plague borne by mosquitos and a pair of femmes living on the bank of a river somewhere in São Paulo, the protective netting proudly and defiantly knotted above their bed. There is no real conflict, no narrative arc exactly to speak of: Marques, filming in a real laboratory working on the eradication of Zika, is content to move languidly between images of technicians going about their tasks (played by actors, though the lab’s scientists are heard discussing their work in the terms of war at points on the soundtrack) and languid scenes of this couple going about their bohemian days. Cinematographer Marta Simões captures jungle and lab in Super 16mm which is by turns appropriately lush and harsh.

These two tracks meet when a brief nude bath in the river—again, in defiance of the apparently deadly threat—confirms that one of the femmes is trans (we later see their HRT patch). The distance between the anti-plague eugenics in the lab and the malleability of gender such hacking affords at home is the field on which The Bite’s allegorical energies are set to play. Though both Marques and a number of the film’s commentators so far have spoken of its allegory, or potential for such, primarily in terms of creeping fascism (it was shot last summer, in the month’s before Bolsanaro’s election), this seems to me to sand its most intriguing edges down. For as the tracks meet literally—one of the lab technicians, a cisgender man, is topped in the riverside hut—the image of the world here seems not so much one of the anxiety of impending repression as the giddy, reckless, violent sense of potential most forcefully expressed in the work of Paul B. Preciado. The scientists are destroying mosquitos to save humanity, the femmes are destroying gender.

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