At the entrance to Contour’s main exhibition space in Mechelen’s Court of Busleyden sits a monitor looping Harun Farocki’s How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990). Featuring a series of instructional films dispensing advice on everything from CPR to striptease dancing and crossing the street, it’s an appropriately absurdo-bureaucratic start to Contour: 6th Biennial of Moving Image, which this year is themed ‘Leisure, Discipline and Punishment’. The biennial includes more than 20 original commissions and works by 26 artists, who were asked to respond to some of Mechelen’s civic institutions – its football stadium, one of the city’s many churches, and its prison – and their symbolic functions.
In the 23 years since Farocki produced this critique of the supposed freedoms of the Western (capitalist) individual, however, techniques for convincing the masses how we ought to behave have developed. The last remaining civic-minded patriarchs dishing out advice with stiff, emotionless authority have been replaced by a diffused power that seems more sincere, down-to-earth, at times even fun, in constant dialogue with its mass audience through opinion polling and slick perception management. The instructional film has become the inspirational video.
These emotional climate changes and technological advancements in mediating psychological states are shown in a work installed directly after Farocki’s: Liz Magic Laser’s 2011 video Flight documents a performance in New York’s Times Square in which actors re-create psychologically charged movie scenes taking place on staircases, such as the massacre in Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the bell tower scene in Vertigo (1958). The action unfolds in front of an amused and frightened audience sitting on a stepped stage; the actors passionately argue while running and fighting among the viewers. This behavioural feedback between images from mass media and spectatorship also occurs in Laser’s Prison Score (2012). Commissioned by Contour, the work is a collaboration with choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez in which dancers melodramatically re-create key scenes of hysteria from prison films, recorded inside Mechelen prison (which is off-limits to most biennial visitors, apart from during a short series of performances by Pablo Pijnappel and Giles Bailey).
Josef Dabernig also dramatizes spectator-image rhetorics, but with a softer touch. In Wista (1996), two lone men sit in an empty sports arena in Poland. Both move their heads to-and-fro in time with an invisible football match in front of them. The soundtrack blares the noises of a roaring crowd, referees’ whistles and announcements recorded from Italian football games. Paul Hendrikse’s The Twelfth Man (2013) goes further into the relationship between how sport is performed by both its players and spectators (the title refers to the influence that fans can have on a game). Hendrikse invited KV Mechelen fans into a recording booth to record a score he composed using a repertoire of sounds – claps, whistles, cheers, jeers – all collated while observing the local team’s matches.
The grand gothic Church of Our Lady-Across-the-Dyle provides the morally disciplinary structure of Contour, with several works that focus on more violent moving-image storytelling: Corrections (2013), a new film by Keren Cytter, continues her fascination with narrative structure, murder and hammy dramaturgy; Alejandro Cesarco’s slideshow The Reader (2011) combines Raymond Chandler-type detective stories with the voice of artist Lawrence Weiner; and Edgardo Aragón Diaz’s Family Effects (2007–09) has a group of children perform a set of stories, structured around the Stations of the Cross, about his family’s experiences with crime and drug trafficking in Mexico. Dabernig’s Excursus On Fitness (2010) is installed on a stage at the church’s central crossing. Featuring a cast of some of the artist’s not-so-fit-looking friends alongside his very pregnant daughter doing light stretches and exercises, the video monitor and its stand approximate a crucifix, but here for a new discipline and its temple: our bodies. Puns like this run rich throughout Contour.
The biennial’s theme – inspired by Michel Foucault, but with a screwball prefix – hints toward the humorous approach of Contour’s curator, Jacob Fabricius. There’s more going on here than just a concern with the contemporary state of Belgian civic institutions. At the heart of the biennial is a playful idea of what a moving image itself might be, and in that spirit it includes a significant amount of still images and literature: Søren Andreasen’s series of posters and linocuts installed across the biennial; David Shrigley’s alternately light-hearted and sinister ‘rules’ for each institution scrawled on posters; a short story set in Mechelen prison commissioned from Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl; plus an edition of Fabricius’s ongoing Old News project, in which Sven Augustijnen edited a selection of reports from two-years-worth of the International Herald Tribune, publishing an issue for the biennial.
A week after visiting Contour, a small temporary tattoo sticker dropped out of my bag. Featuring three small heads reproduced from etchings by Mechelen artist Gustaaf De Bruyne (1914–81), the pictures were found by Fabricius in a local antique shop. It’s possibly the smallest work in the biennial, but it’s a seductive example of how we play with images, how they mark us and move us, and how we take them with us, whether we know it or not.