in Profiles | 06 MAY 00
Featured in
Issue 52

Rat Race

Aernout Mik

in Profiles | 06 MAY 00

In My American Uncle (1980) Alain Resnais wove a gripping narrative fiction through the exploration of scientific theories concerning the nervous system and the behaviour of individuals in society. By way of introducing the four lead characters, a deliberately didactic prologue depicts their childhood milieu through a series of quickly changing still photographs, reminiscent of a slide show, while a voice-over describes some of their early formative experiences. Professor Henri Laborit, (introduced as one of the film's 'fictive' characters) then takes up his role as a narrator, setting out the parameters of his research and its main principles. That the three protagonists of the story are presented as the subjects of a live laboratory experiment does not prevent the viewer from empathising with them. As the plot unravels, the complexity of their personalities is unveiled, and you become witness to their ambitions, seemingly erratic decisions and self-inflicted suffering. But as you are absorbed into the narrative and begin to feel for its protagonists, the more frequent become Professor Laborit's intrusive scientific explanations. His measured tone is heard first as a voice-over, but gradually the comparisons between human beings and animals placed in similar situations of stress are illustrated with shots of animals in nature and laboratory mice in cages. These narrative interruptions become increasingly frequent and rapid; the sharp edits occasionally bring the two worlds into collision – as when certain scenes are re-played using rats rather than actors. This creates a sense of expectancy: you are caught between an impression of spontaneity versus the inexorability of the brain's defence mechanism. The result is a kaleidoscope of human behaviour unrolling before your eyes; a feeling of vertiginous, almost physical, ineluctable throbbing. It resembles in some ways the narrow view of humanity you experience when working in a box office, or serving behind the counter in a fast-food restaurant: the customers that appear before you repeat, all day long, the same movements – glancing at the menu, hesitating, ordering and fumbling with change.

Progressing through an exhibition of Aernout Mik initially awakens a similar feeling of mechanical repetition, a throbbing such as that induced by the earthquake simulation in one of his videos, which depicts two figures lying on the floor and undergoing a severe shaking that transforms them into disarticulated puppets. This one pulsating image contaminates the perception of all other works, to the point that the arrayed figures falling, fighting, stepping on one another, laughing and crying look like little more than vignettes intended to illustrate Laborit's behavioural explanations. But they do so in a more immediate way than in Resnais' film: one quality of Mik's video loops is that they avoid narrative, concealing any beginning or end, and exposing only the raw images of bodies in action or motion. The images lay bare the mechanisms of human reaction, showing that each stimuli triggers one type of behaviour: inhibition creates aggression – as in a series of figures tearing and smashing the contents of a room – just as the fight or flight response arises in response to danger.

Mik's scenes are carefully staged. As his absent-looking figures repeatedly enact the automated gestures of everyday life, they are closely framed and shot frontally to make the images as legible as possible, an effect reminiscent of aeroplane safety instruction videos. His actors are ordinary people of all ages and ethnic origin; while not classless, they are all members of a middle class as shapeless as the clothes they wear. Yet all this effort towards pseudo-scientific neutrality and the negation of aestheticism ends up having the opposite effect. There is something suffocatingly human in these people-in-the-street, who look so statistically average yet mirror each of us. These human archetypes evolve in banal settings that exude the boredom and stuffiness of the worst sitcoms – Formica kitchens and interior decorative schemes in which grey and beige dominate. Beyond the confines of the screen, the site-specific architecture Mik constructs to house his projected films envelop you in their flesh-toned surfaces. These maze-like structures, with their pale but obsessive colour range, and the large-scale images integrated within them, transform the videos into sculptural forms that have a visibly conditioning power. The environment and the loop structure of the video pieces, which encourage you to move amongst them, make you aware of your movements, progression through the space, and of other viewers. But this encouragement to believe in the veracity of the whole thing is broken down by the absence of sound: the silent viewer can see only a silenced actor, as if the talking, fighting, spitting and crying that goes on in these animated vignettes had somehow managed to find a way of escaping Mik's suffocating realism. This silence creates a gap between the otherwise explicit scenes, giving them an absurd quality. The characters never seem to be totally engaged in what they are doing: they molest one another unconvincingly, cry crocodile tears, and dance around, but without any sense of excitement or fun, let alone rhythm. The silence gradually twists your perception, making the initial behaviourist reception of the work appear to be a somewhat intrusive and inappropriate misreading. Each of the video scenes carefully works out its own codes and patterns of behaviour, yet outside the self-defined formal vocabulary of figures, settings and enclosing sculptural environments, Mik has no lesson to teach. It is specifically the lack of a recognisable stylistic quality which creates the open-endedness of these works. They convey a feeling of empathy, which they simultaneously negate, in a silent, continuous flow of subdued images that awaken the vaguely voyeuristic attraction of watching human beings struggling incoherently amidst a viscous environment. Replayed endlessly, these movements suggest a never-ending present tense, a morbid past or the memory of an instant gone, like a discrete, interiorised pulse – analogous to Roland Barthes' idea of the 'punctum' – while Mik's flesh-coloured maze draws you into the meanderings of your own mind.