When Walter Benjamin characterized the imprint of history onto nature as ‘numismatic’, he perhaps implied a further coinage: the speculative gaze of the collector (of histories as of coins). Nightlife (2015), the central piece of Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition Where Nature Runs Riot, is driven by that same collector’s impulse. Gaillard’s 3D film – included here among some limp sculptural and wall-based works – is an impossibly lush tribute to high-definition colour, slow-motion capture and three-dimensional projection. Neither conventional narrative nor documentary, the historical-associative form of the roughly fourteen minute film presents an aestheticized condensation of the artist’s research, rather than its explication.
The film’s four passages are linked by a web of relations, beginning with a cast of August Rodin’s The Thinker (1880) in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art. This Cleveland Thinker was damaged in 1970 by a bomb detonated by the radical left-wing group Weather Underground. The violent resistance of that detonation, in turn, is embodied in the film by the Hollywood juniper, a species of tree exogenous to California which here, in Los Angeles, whips itself animatedly against various infrastructural borders such as cement walls and chain fences. The leafy tendrils of the juniper, meanwhile, mirror the smoke that, in the third section of the film, spirals from a fireworks display above Berlin’s Nazi-built Olympiastadion, which is where the black American track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympic Games, and also where the Nazi government bestowed Owens with the German oak tree that now stands outside the high school where he trained – which, like The Thinker, is in Cleveland, Ohio.
The four thematic anchors of the film – The Thinker, the Hollywood Juniper, the fireworks display above Olympiastadion, Jesse Owens’s oak tree – owe their significance to a politics of signification. The Cleveland Thinker was, in its destruction, rendered a symbol of American elitist hypocrisy by the Weather Underground during the Vietnam War, while the German oak’s multiple valences run from the early origins of German nationalism, through the Third Reich’s corruption of that symbolism, to the victorious irony of the black American runner who swept the Nazi Olympics. The trees in the film, lit with sickly-sweet coloured strobes, seem to signify at once relocation, entrapment and revolt, while the fireworks display over the Olympiastadion, which is itself only glimpsed a few times, reads as a clever refusal of the logic of Ruinenwert championed by Nazi architect Albert Speer. The attention that Gaillard pays to his subjects produces a tension between, on the one hand, the loaded historicity of his reference points and, on the other, the achingly seductive cinematography of the 3D film. Nightlife, in its presentation of this group of subjects, brings each subject out of its historical intricacies by placing it within a kind of luxury catalogue of trivia.
The film’s soundtrack is an entrancing dub mix of Alton Ellis’s Black Man’s Word (1969) and its later, modified version entitled Black Man’s Pride (1971). The hook of the song is looped; the words ‘I was born a loser’ repeat throughout, blending in and out with the (less audible) latter version’s lyrics, in which ‘loser’ is replaced by ‘winner’. (The lyrics that originally follow are ‘I was born a loser / because I’m a black man’.) Partly stripped of its subject matter – the transatlantic slave trade – Ellis’ song is put to work as a pathos-laden connective tissue for the video’s other subjects. The looping of Ellis’ hook, with the song’s content cut away, adds a disconcerting layer to the film – can the arrival of slaves in the United States be justly compared to the introduction of Asian trees to Hollywood? Does the ‘riot’ of those trees refer to the past year’s protests against police violence in the United States, partly catalysed by the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann? Or to the 1966 Hough riots in that same city? For a film that begins and ends in Cleveland – and whose various gestures indicate an (imprecise) attention to the history of racism in the United States – it does an excellent job of obfuscating the specificity and significance of both to further Gaillard’s program.
The last seconds of Nightlife, however, suggest a shift: as the camera circles Jesse Owens’ oak, it is lit from above by the spectre of law enforcement in the form of a roving searchlight. In the final frame, the light swings from tree to wall to windows of a high school, suggesting, perhaps, both a shift from collected and connected trivia to the present, and to the paradigm of total policing – not the NSA’s, but the kind instead reserved for specific demographics (Cleveland is a majority black city).
With this punctuation, Gaillard’s film of association – as crass and suspicious as some of its premises are – perhaps rescues itself from the vacuity of a grouping of historically glinting objects whose significance gets locked (or lost) in the very act of collection.