BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 14 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 157

The Film Essay

The 55th Venice Biennale

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 14 SEP 13

Massimiliano Gioni’s ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ may be contestable on the grounds of its combination of historical choices and ‘outsider’ leanings, yet one strand involves recent video essays using desktop production to tackle connections between technology and big philosophical questions. And big here means big: things like creation and visibility. The principal lesson of Postmodernism was that the grand narratives of the Enlightenment and Progress are over, and you might expect protagonists of what has been described as post-Internet art – which implies that online dabbling, per se, is anything but en­lightening or progressive – to abide by that. But the works of Camille Henrot, Mark Leckey and Hito Steyerl reveal the tension between the banality of means and the questions they ask to be surprisingly resourceful.

There’s a great deal of chutzpah involved. For example, Leckey’s proposal for a touring exhibition themed around ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (on display at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, UK, until 20 October) deals with the question of how the digital animation of objects affects our lives in good, and often bad, ways – from dog-sculptures-as-loudspeakers to silly smartphone apps. For Venice, Leckey’s idea has morphed into a kind of honey-I-shrunk-the-exhibition. Using 2d pop-up displays and a ted presentation-style trailer, he’s created a work that embodies the theme of the exhibition project itself, i.e. dumbness and things. 

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Another example of chutzpah is to prescriptively title a work, as Steyerl does with How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational. MOV File (2013), and then to follow it literally. Steyerl plays with didacticism to hilarious effect in the form of a mock instruction clip about how to avoid being seen in an age of digital surveillance. Her proposals include becoming smaller than the pixels of high resolution satellite surveil­lance (protagonists with boxes on their heads), or vanishing in virtual shopping malls using green-screen effects, Burka-style.

Henrot – who was awarded the Silver Lion for promising young artist – pulled off the feat of creating a 13-minute micro-budget video entitled Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired, 2013). Its focus is no less than a short history of nearly everything. The video opens to a soundtrack of slow breathing accompanied by a shot of a MacBook screen, almost blank save for its generic galaxy wallpaper, and a film file icon bearing the video’s title. In principle, this is the classic establishing shot of avant-garde film since Dziga Vertov – here are the means of production! – only this time it involves not film stock, projector or camera but an ordinary computer. Windows pop up, a simple drum beat sets in and, as the breathing turns into a hiphop-style spoken word (delivered by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, a New York-based member of the band Dragons of Zynth), what unfolds is a mindboggling collage of creation myths and speculations, from the Central African deity Bumba to current Big Bang and quantum theories, from Creationism to Darwinian evolution. Henrot’s point is to explore how these concepts compete and intertwine in an age of radical online simultaneity or, more specifically, what happens if this stream of creation-consciousness is combined with seemingly intuitive choices of imagery layered on top of one another like cluttered files. These include shots of taxidermied birds in the archive of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., multicoloured marbles pushed across a board by quick hands or soap bubbles on a model’s smooth skin. What happens is that the Last Poets-style urgency of gaining a political voice collides head-on with the deadpan, mute, Christopher Williams-esque conceptual reframing of scientific and commercial imagery.

It’s also the case – despite the difference in tone – with Leckey and Steyerl. Seen together, the works of all three artists touch on the central political challenges and aesthetic needs of our time – vis-à-vis corporate power and gadgetry, state power and surveillance, creativity and ideology – in broad but apposite strokes.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.