Phil Collins’ exhibition at the British Film Institute Gallery was the final show in an impressive series of contemporary moving-image installations (established in 2007, the space has now closed due to funding cuts). In this setting, his two short films – Marxism Today (prologue) and Use! Value! Exchange! (both 2010) – were nothing less than political, albeit in a lyrical and subtly textured sense. Both works dangerously court the romantic (with a wistful soundtrack by Stereolab) while avoiding contemporary art’s fixation on the readymade protest march.
Marxism Today was first shown at the 6th Berlin Biennial last year, in the thoughtful company of video works by Mark Boulos, Minerva Cuevas, Avi Mograbi and others. The British artist’s work, filmed in Berlin and Leipzig, was remarkably context-specific by comparison: Marxism Today cautiously probes the contemporary lives of a group of people once instrumental in the cohesion of the German Democratic Republic, whose steady disappearance from the city’s Eastern districts has left a rich site of production for young international artists more or less aware of this history. Collins himself lives and works in Berlin, which problematizes the film’s subjectivity as much as it clarifies its situation in the present.
Both Marxism Today and Use! Value! Exchange! skip the expected Ostalgie, instead forming emotional chapters in what might be understood as a Bildungsroman for what remains of socialism – in this case, the version espoused by the former German Democratic Republic. If Slavoj Žižek lambasted the ‘lite’ representation of state oppression in Florian Henckel’s widely acclaimed film The Lives of Others (2006), Collins’ comparatively quiet works on pre- and post-reunification East Germany contain an ambiguous mixture of archival footage, recollection, adolescent optimism and lived disenchantment that doesn’t require physical violence for tragic effect.
In Marxism Today, Collins gives his compelling female protagonists – Petra Mgoza-Zeckay, Andrea Ferber and Marianne Klotz – the scope to share what they have learned since the dissolution of the society for which they were schoolteachers of Marxism-Leninism. In between Mgoza-Zeckay’s fantastical story of her partner’s suicide in the early days of 1989, Ferber’s second thoughts as to her pragmatic amenability to free-market consumerism and Klotz’s handwritten notes on Marxist economics for students training to be bakers, a dreamy black and white film reel shows neatly-coiffed teenagers in roll-neck jumpers attempting to prove the exploitation of workers in the West with chalkboard diagrams. A lecturer goads: ‘We are going to use rationality to track down the truth!’ This and other choice vintage scenes certainly make the irony of pedagogical theory and practice explicit – yet the era when rigorous education (ideological or otherwise) was a state priority is too quickly slipping away under capitalism’s prolonged decay. What has been learned?
For Use! Value! Exchange! Collins invited Ferber to teach a class on Marx’s Das Kapital (1867). An almost direct documentation of her seminar, the work reinforces Ferber’s role as a captivating educator in what is a rather dry premise for film. Collins relieves the visual frame with subtle cuts that mimic the action of staring idly out of the classroom window, beyond which a sculpture of Marx is removed by crane and construction crew, presumably for conservation purposes, from the grounds of the Marx-Engels-Forum in central Berlin. At the BFI, in place of traditional seating Collins installed wooden desks salvaged from an East Berlin school. What might be construed as overly didactic carries a certain sensitivity through anachronism; too modestly-sized to have held university students, the worn wooden benches recall an era outgrown. At the close of the film Ferber allows responses from the students. As the picture fades, the squeaky sound of marker pen on whiteboard indicates that the questions raised are in fact directed towards us: ‘Where will we be in fifty years … or where should we be?’
Posing a self-reflexive question rather than any proscription, the concerns of Collins’ work also broach the current crisis of higher education in the UK, as well as the BFI’s status as an organization for the preservation and distribution of cultural and educational films, leaving unanswered what remaining value systems might still be dismantled. If victims of history are blind, these films present the viewer with a rich and powerful picture.