The Otolith Group Trace Ideological Formations and Breakdowns

An exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, celebrates the collective’s pioneering approach to the video essay

C
BY Chris Hayes in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 25 JUL 22

The crowd assembled on the lawn of the Irish Museum of Modern Art erupts into applause when The Otolith Group’s co-founder Anjalika Sagar pokes fun at outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had only a few hours ago reluctantly announced his resignation. It seems apt that ‘Xenogenesis’, a survey show full of stories about power and resistance, would coincide with the fall of a political leader.

Founded in London by Sagar and Kodwo Eshun in 2002, The Otolith Group’s project traces moments of ideological formation and breakdown. Their work, primarily in film, draws connections at different scales – from the formal inventions of marginalized avant-garde figures (The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017) to material cultures of anti-colonial independence movements (In the Year of the Quiet Sun, 2013) and fantasies of control on a planetary level (Sovereign Sisters, 2014). 

The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group, ‘Xenogenesis’, installation view, IMMA, 2022. Courtesy: the artists and IMMA, Dublin; photographer: Ros Kavanagh

The Otolith Group’s collaborative practice engages many histories, including the legacy of the radical Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the Black Audio Film Collective, and peers of Sagar and Eshun, including the late theorist Mark Fisher. In the gallery, larger-than-life photographs of American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler (Patti Perret, 1984), queer African American avant-garde composer Julius Eastman (Roberto Masotti, 1979) and Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore (Jatin Sen c.1930) are further manifestations of this referencing of other voices and stories.      

While stylistically diverse, many works engage with the logic of filmmaking. For example, in The Third Part of the Third Measure, performers Dante Micheaux and Elaine Mitchener deliver speeches derived from a statement Eastman issued in 1980, before a concert at Northwestern University in Evanston, in response to the titles of his compositions being censored by the venue for containing re-claimed racial slurs. The Otolith Group restages this historical moment to consider its contemporary resonances, replicating Eastman’s interest in looping within the film’s edit. 

The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group, ‘Xenogenesis’, installation view, IMMA, 2022. Courtesy: the artists and IMMA, Dublin; photographer: Ros Kavanagh

Elsewhere, Anathema (2011) and From Left to Night (2015) critique capitalist structures as demonstrated through screen-based media, destabilizing ideological norms through an inventive visual vocabulary. For example, Anathema depicts liquid crystals present in touchscreens as magical entities to satirize advertising tropes. The Otolith Group articulates its thinking through such slippages in aesthetic logic and conceptual concerns – a refreshing alternative to the often-didactic use of voice-over in video essays which all-too-frequently relies on a hierarchical relationship between text and image.

The politics of image-making animates many of Eshun and Sagar’s concerns. In Sovereign Sisters, a monument to the Universal Postal Union – the inter-governmental organization dedicated to the standardization of the postal system since 1874 – is reimagined as an eerie digital animation. In his original 1909 granite and bronze statue located in Bern, René de Saint-Marceaux stereotypically employs female figures to represent abstract ideals of free exchange and communication across national borders. The Otolith Group transforms this into a point cloud digital model, rendering a tribute to an early form of speculatory globalization as a provocation. Critics who bemoan Eshun and Sagar’s conceptual density miss how the often-subtle shifts under the skins of their films both enliven and affirm their revolutionary subjects, a commitment to the political potency of complex ideas and challenging forms.

The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group, ‘Xenogenesis’, installation view, IMMA, 2022. Courtesy: the artists and IMMA, Dublin; photographer: Ros Kavanagh

In an effort to defy institutional conventions, the artists in the opening talk described ‘Xenogenesis’ as a ‘cross section’ rather than a retrospective, suggesting that the presented works are in conversation rather than a conclusion. Uniting a key selection of films produced between 2011 and 2018, ‘Xenogenesis’ underscores Eshun and Sagar’s pivotal role in debates around speculative futures and the film essay as a form over the past 20 years – an assuredly polyphonic response to the crisis of the political imaginary.

The Otolith Group‘s ‘Xenogenesis’ is at IMMA, Dublin until 12 February 2023 

Main image: The Otolith Group, ‘Xenogenesis’, installation view, IMMA, 2022. Courtesy: the artists and IMMA, Dublin; photographer: Ros Kavanagh

Chris Hayes is a writer based between Ireland and the UK with an interest in contemporary art and politics.

SHARE THIS