BY Erika Balsom in Opinion | 01 OCT 18

The 2018 Turner Prize Asks: Do We Share a World?

This year’s exhibition recruits the powers of documentary to reflect on what draws us together and holds us apart

BY Erika Balsom in Opinion | 01 OCT 18

We share a warming planet, but do we share a world? I would like to say yes, but present circumstances lead elsewhere. In the face of the assault on facts, the increasing prevalence of siloed thinking and the rise of right-wing populism, it is difficult not to feel that what Hannah Arendt called the common world is today in ruins. For Arendt, the common world is not a given but something that must be built; worldmaking is an act we undertake together, as a matter of public life. Where can the urgent work of creating a shared reality happen today? The 2018 Turner Prize exhibition suggests that it might well be within the spaces of art, with its four nominees offering largely compelling, but sometimes troubling, responses to our contemporary predicament.

Coverage in the mainstream press has unsurprisingly focused on the fact that the exhibition includes no painting or sculpture. Yet what is most remarkable about this year’s nominees is not simply that all four use the moving image. Video, after all, has long asserted a significant presence on the shortlist. It is, rather, that all four use the moving image to engage with actuality and do so without creating the installation environments favoured by many previous nominees, whether Kutluğ Ataman, Laure Prouvost or Jane and Louise Wilson. In mostly emptied rooms, frontal projections recruit the powers of documentary, proposing that if art is no longer to be understood as the domain of technique or beauty, originality or genius, it can perhaps be this: a public forum for building the common world and reflecting on the struggle of doing so, a place for exploring what draws us together and what holds us apart.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, film still. Courtesy: documenta 14, Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Jameel, Locus Athens, Hellinikon AE, and Experimenter

In his feature-length triptych Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), Naeem Mohaiemen directly confronts the question of political community and continues the investigation of Bangladeshi history begun in his superb trilogy, And the Young Man Was (2012–15). Mohaieman marshals essayistic strategies to map the history of the Non-Aligned Movement, tracing how its dream of anti-imperialist, Third-Worldist solidarity disintegrated in the 1970s amidst changing geopolitical circumstances and the rise of a new, transnational Islamic bloc. Infused with melancholy for a future that never came to pass, Mohaiemen’s latitudinal inquiry traverses decades and continents, gradually accumulating material with which to wage what one interviewee describes as ‘a war against forgetting’. Whereas Mohaiemen’s second contribution to the exhibition, Tripoli Cancelled (2017) adopts a fictional mise-en-scène in the claustrophobic setting of the shuttered Ellinikon airport in Athens, the more successful Two Meetings works at a global scale, forging transversal connections that foreground the difficulty of narrating world-historical change while pushing forward in this crucial task nonetheless.

Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017, installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy: the artist, Chisenhale Gallery, London and Create; photograph: Andy Keate.

Luke Willis Thompson shows three silent films on an imposing 35mm looper, two of which – Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) and autoportrait (2017) – evoke
Andy Warhol’s screen tests to capture black subjects whose lives have been shaped by police violence. The heated controversy around these works has focused on the artist’s identity: what right does a New Zealander of white European and Fijian ancestry have to engage with this material, to profit from black suffering? There are, however, other ways of putting pressure on the artist’s decisions, found within the works themselves, in their misguided apprehension of the previously existing images they depend upon. autoportrait – a depiction of Diamond Reynolds, who in July 2016 livestreamed the police killing of her partner Philando Castile on Facebook – possesses two such points of reference. First, there is the format of the screen test. Immobilizing and objectifying, it is no template for filmic empathy. Reynolds is literally dispossessed of her voice, as Thompson mimics Warhol, an artist preoccupied with surfaces and commodities. Second, autoportrait implies that precious 35mm film is required to rescue Reynolds from the degradation and exploitation of digital image circulation, forgetting that online platforms have equally served to galvanize activism – and that Reynolds herself is one of their canniest users. She may have participated in the making of the film, but she does not need Thompson to restore her dignity. The artist speaks of producing a ‘sister image’ to the image of death, as if the latter existed alone. In fact, it already has siblings, cousins, parents, and children, a whole family of networked images moving through the world with power and ambivalence, far from the facile gesture of autoportrait.

_Human (2018) is a study of Donald Rodney’s skin sculpture My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother (1997), beautifully photographed in close-up. Here, Thompson seems to respond to the identitarian criticisms levelled against his previous work by asserting a bond with the late black British artist through their shared genetic predisposition to illness. Rodney died from sickle-cell anaemia; _Human was edited according to a score based on the sequences of the HTT_HUMAN gene, which Thompson carries, making him susceptible to Huntington’s disease. Yet with a title invoking a common vulnerability located at the level of biology, Thompson once again risks a careless take on his point of reference. The epidermal reality of Rodney’s sculpture and the central importance his work accords to black British experience are here overwritten by the myth of post-racial belonging in the family of humanity – a myth that has consistently served to reinforce white privilege by occluding the structural racism that differentially exposes black lives to, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, ‘skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment’.

Forensic Architecture, The Long Duration of a Split Second, 2015-ongoing, video, aerial images, text, installation view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: the artists and Tate Britain, London; photograph: Tate Photography

More rigorous and responsible in their engagement with violence and injustice is the rightfully celebrated research agency Forensic Architecture. The work of this multidisciplinary group is a powerful rebuttal to the many who claim that the advent of digitization throws into crisis the testimonial powers of the image, as well as to those who suggest that a sophisticated approach to the question of truth today necessitates a detour through artifice. Their collective practice reimagines the use of evidence at a time when it is dearly needed, turning to diverse techniques – from re-enactments to data analysis, from interviews to photographic compositing – to engage in what they call ‘counter-forensics’, wresting the monopoly on truth from the state.

At Tate Britain, the group’s presentation comprises two projects related to the destruction of Bedouin settlements by Israeli forces. One seeks to demonstrate the Bedouin continuity of presence in Al-Araqib by comparing aerial images from World War II with those taken in the present by cameras strapped to kites – a form of counter-surveillance necessary since the level of resolution of publically available satellite imagery is, conveniently for Israel, too low to produce a detailed rendering of the terrain. The other traces the case of Yacoub Abu al-Qi’an, a Bedouin Palestinian who was shot by Israeli police in 2017 during the demolition of his village. While Israeli forces attempted to justify al-Qi’an’s death by claiming that he had instigated a terror attack, Forensic Architecture’s investigation proved that police fired at al-Qi’an’s car before it accelerated towards them.

The al-Qi’an case is presented as a large, curved projection and an audiovisual timeline entitled The Long Duration of a Split Second (2018). The display exemplifies the salient features of Forensic Architecture’s practice: there is collaboration between multiple agencies; the dynamic assembly of materials to advocate for a recognition of the truth; the circulation of this research across the gallery, the internet, and courts of law; and demonstrable real-world impact. Some will ask, but is it art? It’s the wrong question. Rather than police the boundaries of a rarefied cultural sphere, it is more pressing to consider why Forensic Architecture has asserted the spaces of art as an important site for their practice and how, in so doing, they make a proposal concerning what those spaces can be, mean, and do. In their hands, the gallery is transformed into an aesthetic forum for the negotiation of emergency claims, functioning as a space of collective inquiry and adjudication in an age of pervasive privatization and misinformation.

A measure of Forensic Architecture’s popularity surely resides in the group’s ability to finally resolve what some see as the great problem of ‘political art’, namely, that it has no effect beyond the gallery walls. The agency’s juridical outcomes are commendable, indeed, but it by no means follows that discernible social impact should be construed as a necessary criterion of value for contemporary art. Nor should there be an assumption that art can only be meaningful or relevant by taking violent world events as subject matter. The exhibition edges toward suggesting this, but in the practice of its fourth nominee, Charlotte Prodger, it offers a different understanding of art’s political purchase, one that is quieter and more oblique, but no less incisive.

Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London 

In her 33-minute video BRIDGIT (2016), Prodger articulates an approach to personal filmmaking that is as intelligent as it is moving, using an iPhone camera to tackle problems of autobiography and authenticity in ways that today’s legions of personal essayists and selfie obsessives would do well to learn from. There is no narcissism here, no recourse to a simple and stable notion of identity, no retreat into a subjectivism that abandons life lived in common. Instead, through a tremendous formal sophistication, Prodger generously initiates the viewer into an economy of attention and meaning that pushes beyond our everyday habits. Through fragmentary episodes and multiple voices, the contours of a life gradually come into view: raves in Aberdeenshire, standing stones in Scotland, an unnamed medical operation, lovers, books, e-mails, friends.

Where Mohaiemen and Forensic Architecture prioritize the delivery of information, and Thompson makes a conceptual gesture, Prodger works with the durational textures of the moving image, extending and reinvigorating a longstanding tradition of low-budget, intimate filmmaking – a mode of production now often overshadowed as many artists embrace large crews and high production values. She manipulates sound and image to forge a diaristic poetics deeply grounded in the materiality of bodies and landscapes, the affinities of friendship and the quotidian moments of queer life. When the self is everywhere for sale, quantified and optimized for productivity, Prodger proposes another way of conceiving of what it is to be an ‘I’ in the world, confronting otherness within and without. Of all the artists in this absorbing exhibition, she is the one who offers the greatest challenge – and the greatest reward.

‘The Turner Prize 2018’ is on view at the Tate Britain, London, UK, until 6 January 2019.

Main image: Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017, three-channel installation, installation view, Hessisches. Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 14. Courtesy: documenta 14, Sharjah Art Foundation, Ford Foundation/Just Films; photograph: Michael Nast 

Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College London, UK, and the author of TEN SKIES (Fireflies Press, 2021).