Survey: On Screen
What have you been watching? 26 artists and writers respond to the last two decades
What have you been watching? 26 artists and writers respond to the last two decades
After 1989, a sense of optimism could be felt across Central Europe, an indeterminate hope for things to change for the better. How? Somehow! The recent historical shifts had invalidated cold war binarism as a paradigm for interpreting the present: West versus East? Centre versus Periphery? New York versus the rest of the world? Forget it! This could be Europe (whatever that means)! Let’s talk! What ensued was the shitstorm of turbo-capitalism, oligarch-rule and neo-nationalism-cum-religious consolidation. But these forces of reification should be denied their triumph. So, to all optimists who sensed that critical moment of historic potentiality, I confirm: it was there. Let’s keep it coming.
Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze based in Berlin.
The Simpsons (1989–)
Why do we find The Simpsons funny? Is it because its interrogation of American identity offers us an intuitive understanding of unspoken (and unspeakable) issues? Is it because it exploits the lack of verisimilitude that animation affords to convey trenchant irony in an innocuous manner? Or is it the way in which Homer acts as a vehicle for endless intertextual reference, exemplifying a radical Postmodern multiplicity, an extreme rejection of boundary, stability, historicity and any concept of a cohesive self? I’m not too sure. But it’s probably the second thing.
George Pendle is a writer based in New York.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990–) I distinctly remember watching the first episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 when I was in seventh grade, with my best friend Melanie on the other end of the phone. We watched with much anticipation because the show was rumoured to be based on our own high school (the daughter of the show’s creator, Aaron Spelling, attended our school, and played Donna). Though none of the characters talked, dressed or behaved in a way that remotely resembled anyone we knew (most notably, they never did homework), we were hooked. Today Beverly Hills, 90210 seems like a transition between the relatively harmless John Hughes movies about teen social and class divisions, and a more sinister spawn: the scripted ‘reality’ shows about LA teens like Laguna Beach (2004–6)and The Hills (2006–10).
Christy Lange is associate editor of frieze.
Safe (1995) Todd Haynes’s 1991 film Poison was the opening salvo for the New Queer Cinema, a polymorphous cinematic assault expressing ongoing rage about homophobia and the AIDS crisis a decade after the onslaught of the disease. His subsequent feature, Safe, shifted the frontline away from the urban gay community and situated it deep within the heart of suburban America. The creeping, numbing, devastating unease generated by the virus finds a powerful echo in the ‘environmental illness’ that plagues California housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore). Carol unravels in the face of invisible toxins that seem to contaminate every pastel surface of her dutiful life. Haynes now seems like a canny prophet, who anticipated a decade defined by 9/11, faceless enemies and fiscal collapse.
Stuart Comer is Curator: Film at Tate Modern and is based in London.
L!VE TV (1995–9) The rise of pay-to-view television in the 1990s saw the number of British television channels surge from just four to dozens. L!VE TV was the offspring of a marriage-in-hell between former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and Janet Street-Porter. The result: surreal, titillating and – on occasion – possibly even ‘art’. Exactly contemporaneous with my heady undergraduate years, it’s hard to establish retrospectively how much was real and how much hallucinated. Topless Darts and News Bunny have taken their place in the national consciousness. But did L!VE TV really make a former Oompa Loompa present Britain’s Bounciest Weather on a trampoline, forced by necessity to bounce higher and higher as weather conditions across the country travelled north? Canary Wharf, a soap opera in which viewers were ‘never more than five minutes away from a snog’, was set in the company’s own offices. In the final episode an alien presence vaporized the tower block – rather like the fate of L!VE TV itself, which went off air on 31 October 1999. Yet despite few viewers and considerable financial loss, the channel’s assault on old-school public service values was immensely influential, moving Britain another notch towards a culture of perpetual irreverence.
Jonty Claypole is an arts television programme-maker based in London.
Lost Highway (1997)
One of David Lynch’s most substantial achievements, this neo-noir is split into two parts, both of which circle around a basic deadlock: in the first, Fred (Bill Pullman) murders his sexually indifferent wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) in a fit of jealous rage; in the second, Pete (Balthazar Getty) embarks on a passionate affair with Alice (also played by Arquette). The young Pete is the alter-ego of the aging Fred, this second narrative his elaborate fantasy. Lost Highway’s most daring moments are in the transitions between the two worlds, shifts that are triggered by moments of catastrophic sexual failure, the screen virtually burning with agony. As one of the characters observes, ‘This is some spooky shit we got here.’
Katie Kitamura is a writer based in New York.
Brass Eye (1997/2001)
'If someone offers you CAKE, they might call it "Ponce on the Heath", or "Hattie Jacques Pretentious Cheese Wog" [...] One girl was so sick she threw up her own pelvis.' Bernard Manning warns the public about the 'made-up drug' CAKE, Brass Eye, episode two, 'Drugs'. Chris Morris’s Brass Eye – the six-part TV series and the subsequent ‘Paedophile Special’ – book-ended my academic art education. I received an MA in Sculpture. The department I had studied in partially echoed the old sculptural ideology of ‘truth to materials’. Brass Eye appeared to demonstrate that truth can itself be a material and that the manufacture of the truth is a physical process… Direct Carving: Everything Chris Morris creates is a perfectly calibrated response to a given form. In his post-Brass Eye work – Jam / Blue Jam – the talk-radio form is hollowed out and populated with very precisely edited, pseudo-documentary recordings of fictional characters discharging their ids; from the banally disconsolate to the twisted and psychotic, via the surreal. At the centre of Brass Eye and Jam / Blue Jam is Morris’s digestion and reconstitution of a given form as a way to address that form’s internal problems. He is able to excavate these formats’ content, replace their innards with brilliant absurdist fiction and set them loose, completely exposed yet dementedly, terrifyingly functional. Each form’s capacity for mis-use and abuse is fully played out. The implication of Morris’s approach is that the problems he is addressing are not just ideological but systematic, inherent, structural. Even 15 years after Brass Eye most mainstream satirical commentary – John Stewart, Bremner, Bird & Fortune et al. – is not enabled to take on ‘the format’. Looking back, Brass Eye and Jam appear more in the line of Surrealist and Situationist ambition to subvert the mediating structures that surround us and reformat them from the inside out.
Nathaniel Mellors is an artist based in London.
The Gleaners and I (2000) In Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, artist Louis Pons declares that ‘the aim of art is to tidy up one’s internal and external worlds’. Varda, who in her youth made formally astonishing, politically committed films, has more recently been crafting intricate, humanist documentaries on mini-DV and HD, technologies that have been celebrated as tools to pick at culture’s seams. The Gleaners and I is a compelling portrait of contemporary salvagers, from travellers to anarchists to junk-transforming outsider artists to, finally, Varda herself. Do her films do a good job of tidying up? Free from the need to establish her place within the nouvelle vague, and perhaps even from conventional vanity, in one scene Varda marvels at how her chestnut-dyed hair has grown out to reveal a perfect margin of white roots. Playfully perching on the edge of things, unromantic yet totally curious, her films reveal what we’d rather ignore, and then fit these moments – like the parts of a mosaic – into a startling whole.
Daria Martin is an artist based in London.
The Beaver Trilogy (2000)
The process is elegant: film an event and then recreate it, film the re-creation and then re-create it again, filming the second re-creation, etc. That’s basically what Trent Harris did for The Beaver Trilogy, a film I like to think of as the Utahan Last Year at Marienbad (albeit one starring an Olivia Newton-John impersonator). Trilogy’s Ur-film, the first of the three shorts, is a documentary shot by Harris in 1979 about Richard LaVon Griffiths (a.k.a. Groovin’ Gary, a.k.a. Olivia Newton-Don). The second, videotaped in 1981, is a re-creation of the first film, starring a then-unknown Sean Penn. And the third is yet another re-creation of the first, in the form of a 1985 feature film starring Crispin Glover. The three films, released together in 2000, add up to a rare cinematic gift: effortless and unpretentious and charged with obsessive necessity.
John Menick is an artist and writer based in New York.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–) Literature had its Gustave Flaubert who professed a desire to write a book about nothing, art its Marcel Duchamp with his principle of aesthetic indifference, and television its Larry David. Curb Your Enthusiasm radicalized Seinfeld’s enormously successful formula, providing a leaner and meaner version of a comedy about nothing: exit the affable Jerry and the canned laughter, add improvisation, cheap camera work, and ‘fuck you’s to spare. But what’s all the hubbub about ‘nothing’? David is enthused by one thing: codifying all the unwritten laws of society, the implicit rules of politeness and civility that make living in common possible. Ice-cream sampling etiquette, preferred nighttime locomotion (tiptoeing), dry-cleaning pick-ups, the proper rate of hors d’oeuvres consumption – these are the burning questions that inspire the show’s absurdist morality of the everyday.
Aaron Schuster is a writer based in Brussels.
The Rise of Reality TV
Reality TV, with its infectious gratification and often-disciplinarian drive, became, over the last two decades, the space in which the signifiers of class, gender and an indefatigable sociability were routinely enacted in the broadcast schedule. It redefined and enforced the nature of fame for our age, and turned on its head existing notions about the production, consumption and analysis of images. Intriguingly, it was the British and the Dutch who excelled in developing entertainment formats that were exported and adapted worldwide, ferociously replacing previous appetites for mediated encounters with what passed as the Real. During an era in which the extension of ongoing illegal military exploits faded into the background, ballroom dancing competitions, improbably, occupied news headlines. With voting anecdotally outstripping that of general elections, and an ability to mobilize an affective dementia in programmes which changed little year after year, reality TV in Britain also prioritized the vernacular, the regional and a complex desire to reify class in a never-ending, semi-scripted elaboration of the suppressed hysteria of life under New Labour.
Phil Collins is an artist based in Berlin.
A few years ago I visited a friend in Chicago who worked as a distributor of artists’ films. My plane from New York arrived late in the day so we ended up talking and drinking until the early hours. When it got to about two o’clock my friend told me that she needed to go to bed as she had brought some newly-submitted artists’ tapes back from work that day and had promised to view them at home early the following morning. I got up at about nine and entered my friend’s living room to find that she was already immersed in her work, transfixed by the image on her television screen. It wasn’t hard to see why she was so absorbed. ‘The special effects are amazing,’ I exclaimed as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. My friend started to make strange sounds that were halfway between laughing and screaming. When she finally managed to speak it took her about 15 minutes to convince me that we were watching live TV.
John Smith is an artist based in London.
The Office (2001–3)
The turn of the millennium seemed to be a moment when – out of sheer boredom – the British public swung the camera round to face itself. Everything was either a documentary or the classist, quasi-anthropological ethnographies heralded by Big Brother in 2000. Reality was everywhere – especially on the screen you looked at to distract yourself from it. Into all of this dropped a comedy that stripped its design cues back to that of a kitchen-sink documentary: the perfunctory title, the miserable tracking shot of a business park in Slough, the overweight man in a billowing shirt with slicked-back hair. We catch him halfway through a conversation but the first things we hear from his goatee-fringed mouth is: ‘I don’t give shitty jobs.’ Watching that first episode late one night on BBC2 in 2001, I remember thinking, ‘Is this real?’ And being struck by how absurd that question sounded.
Paul Teasdale is editorial assistant at frieze and is based in London.
West of the Tracks (2003)
Over the last 20 years, what has been unfolding in China has been a breathtakingly accelerated version of the Industrial Revolution, a violent and violating shift from state socialism to a uniquely calculated embrace of free-market economics. In the process, the country has become a factory of stories, its directors – among them Zhao Liang, Jia Zhangke and Huang Weikai – chroniclers of extraordinarily piercing, ambitious narratives. For me, the key work to have emerged from this outstanding generation of directors is Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, it chronicles the slow death of the once-thriving Tie Xi industrial district in the country’s northeast, and the resulting transformations in the lives of its cast-off workers. Over nine hours long, it’s a towering epic – about migration, memory, deracination – whose scope and intensity make it not only an unfathomably revealing X-ray of modernity, but a peerless monument to human endurance.
Sukhdev Sandhu is writer based in New York and London.
The Wire (2002–8)
In the overcrowded television genre of crime drama, The Wire was exceptional. With its long narrative arcs and dense plotlines, it was a gripping cop show and socio-political commentary rolled into one. Created by writer and former police reporter David Simon, the six-season series is set in Baltimore. Using, in turn, the drug trade, the docks, local government, the schools and Baltimore’s newspapers as lenses through which to look at the city’s problems, The Wire paints a bleak picture of moral ambivalence and institutional dysfunction. Writing on the fall-out from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, Mark Fisher described the systemic rot at the heart of the British political–media complex as a ‘web of corruption whose byzantine murkiness resembles something out of The Wire’. Such was the ambitious scope of the series, anatomizing social problems by locating everyone from the lowest drug dealers up to the highest lawmakers in sophisticated networks of cause and effect.
Dan Fox is senior editor of frieze based in New York.
Katamari Damacy (2004)
The release of Katamari Damacy for PlayStation 2 silently marked a culturally significant moment, revolutionizing our fixed understandings and the potential directions and applications of video-game consoles. What was immediately significant about the gameplay was its simplicity: with only four controls – forwards, backwards, left and right – the player rolls a highly adhesive ball around a series of magical worlds, collecting objects (ranging from drawing pins to people to mountains) to increase its size. The first game on general release not to have any real objective or contest in its gameplay, opting instead for perfectly thought-out aesthetics, the experience becomes more like a form of meditation than a quest. Katamari potentially has no time limit or real ending – it is just there to be played. Sharing many principles on which Japanese culture and Shinto are founded, it’s hardly surprising that some of the five Katamari sequels weren’t released in Britain, being deemed too quirky for the market.
Ryan Gander is an artist based in Suffolk.
Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)
It took me almost a week to watch Evolution of a Filipino Family by Lav Diaz. This is an 11-hour film about exactly what the title suggests, which is somehow meant to be seen like a film – in one go. But I had received it on screener DVDs, so I ended up watching it like a television series – with an eagerness to get back to it, but interrupted by the distractions of daily life. In what has become a seminal piece of postcolonial art, Diaz tells the story of his nation under the Marcos regime. But the film’s importance is in its mediality: it needed video technology to make projects like this possible, in which the national epic is reconceived in terms of proximity to soap opera as well as to the (non-r)evolutionary pace of the everyday.
Bert Rebhandl is a critic based in Berlin.
Grizzly Man (2005)
In Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell’s version of the Alaskan wild is not so much the wilderness as a better kind of zoo, populated with friendly foxes and bears like oversized Labradors. Treadwell films this perfect world of his imagination, devoid of people and filled with creatures in need of his protection from invisible threats. Herzog uses these tapes to takes us to this wild petting zoo of one man’s mind, structured through and for the camera that Treadwell brought along for his sub-arctic summer adventures. His camera, tapes and a watch extracted from a bear’s belly are pretty much all that remain after his death, when the fourth wall between the theatrical space of Treadwell’s video diary and the real world of his animal protagonists is brutally pulled down.
Lisa Oppenheim is an artist based in New York.
The Australian comedian, actor and writer Chris Lilley is brilliant, funny and frightening. He inhabits multiple characters in his mockumentaries – We Can Be Heroes (2005), Summer Heights High (2007) and most recently Angry Boys (2011) – with near psychotic levels of authenticity. His comedy is deadpan and observational; his approach is to expose the nuances of smugness, racism, futility and pathos with such weird, savage verisimilitude that laughter is usually tempered with varying degrees of horror. In his most recent series, which has been widely criticized in Australia for, I suspect, its level of satirical accuracy, Lilley plays, in turns, a manipulative Japanese mother, a champion surfer, a guard at a juvenile detention facility and her grandchildren (one of whom is deaf) and an American rapper. You don’t need to be Australian to recognize Lilley’s target, which, in a nutshell, is the sheer stupidity that lies at the heart of everyday cruelty. He knows that one of the best ways of disempowering something is to laugh at it.
Jennifer Higgie is co-editor of frieze and is based in London.
Mad Men (2007–)
Nation of Ulysses. The Make-Up. Design Within Reach. Surface magazine. Williamsburg. Obsessive-compulsive attention to a lost period’s details. Incubate these things in English-speaking cultures for 10 to 20 years and you’ll find Mad Men growing in your Petri dish and art galleries colonized by The Strokes. The past reissued in contemporary colourways for ‘creative’ youth. What began as teenage temporal defection through thrift-store clothing has evolved into an Internet-driven historical disorder. The 2000s: the retro decade. A tastemaker focus group full of MP3 collectors and Nike Dunks. Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men lets lifestyle time-travel loose on cable television’s mass audience. For the future-fearing babies of the baby boomers, the music, design and conflicts of the ’60s are a comforting blanket. Peeking out from under the white sheets: the American superpower with its mid-century modern cape on. Feeling nostalgic for what Don Draper had in his wallet?
Josh Kline is an artist and curator based in New York.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
Tim Hetherington, who died in mortar attacks while reporting in Libya on 20 April this year, was a talented photojournalist and filmmaker, who is best known – together with Sebastian Junger – for Restrepo. Watching this feature-length documentary, and seeing the risks that were taken in its production, it’s difficult for any of us to imagine that this smart and robust Englishman is gone. We met Tim a week after he won the World Press Photo Award in 2007 for a Vanity Fair-commissioned series he had made in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – the same place that Restrepo was filmed. He told us a curious story: the magazine was running a feature about the valley in the same issue as a story on the remastering of Apocalypse Now (1979). In a strange twist, the images for the two stories got switched. Someone noticed the mistake just before going to print, but the mix-up alerts us to the uncomfortable truth about such images: we’re told we are watching a documentary, yet it speaks to us in the language of fiction. Perhaps Hetherington was too successful in his aim to be both physically and emotionally embedded with the US troops; the empathy and admiration that the filmmakers have for their subjects is unmistakable. But this empathy also provokes a nagging anxiety: images of people dying are impossible to argue with, yet we must argue with them. In the war of images that has pervaded the media since 9/11, the spectacular Restrepo presents us once again with this impossible task.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are artists based in London.
Royce at the Goods and Things (2009) My favourite video of the last 20 years is on YouTube. Posted in 2009, the artists behind it are Felicia Ballos, Biba Bell and Jimmy Leary, and as they say on their webpage: ‘While in residence at the 555 Gallery in Detroit, MGM made a new dance called “Royce”. During this time, MGM was living in an apartment across the street from a thrift store called Goods and Things, where Scott the owner invited them to perform.’ I have to say, dance has been eclipsing pure celluloid for me the past few years. It’s as though all the elements of film get ripped apart in their pure form, with the added excitement of live theatre. Things can fall apart, and then fall back together again – and all the framing and storytelling of cinema still are there – just in a much more organic way.
Amy Granat is an artist based in New York.
District 9 (2009)
South African films have tended to be overblown exercises in psychological bloodletting. Singular men, and occasionally women, are made to account, in often fraught, emblematic settings, for the totality of a divided and violent history. Neill Blomkamp’s unexpected sci-fi hit was in many ways no different. Released shortly after the anti-immigrant pogroms of 2008, the film explicitly references both this xenophobic violence and the forced removal of non-white residents from ‘slums’ during apartheid (District Six was an inner-city ghetto in Cape Town). Tellingly, it also reiterates another stereotype of the country’s white-owned cinema: the baddies are still black. Beating Beyoncé in its reference to Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nigerian minstrels with their hyenas and snakes, the criminal gang that trades pet food for alien weaponry is led by a man nicknamed Obasanjo – the same name as a former Nigerian president. The film was banned in Nigeria. Despite its obvious flaws, District 9 heralded a new and comic vision for telling tired old stories. Who would have ever dreamed that the lowly Parktown prawn, a cockroach vilified by Johannesburg residents, would evolve, walk on two legs and talk freedom?
Sean O’Toole is a writer based in Cape Town.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
America’s sleep-deprived workers are too busy earning negative-income to worry about history. They neither know nor care how many times Adolf Hitler visited Paris. Americans understand through their feelings and through their guts. Deep down, we want to live in the present. November 2008’s election reminded the world that America still aches to make it new. The Republicans and the nightly news anchors, unfortunately, already make it new every night. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino ran away with the GOP tool-kit and transformed historical revisionism into a critical medium. It feels good to see a Jewish girl and her black boyfriend kill the Führer in 1944. Maybe it would also feel good to see George W. Bush drunk in a gutter, suffering from liver failure in the year 2000. Change we can believe in.
Josh Kline is an artist and curator based in New York.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
There is something apolitical in the psychoanalytic thesis that the origin of dysfunction and mental suffering is to be found in the individual rather than in society. In this respect, the new, so-called ‘European’ period of Woody Allen constitutes a novel shift: his neurotic sensibility no longer focuses on a single maladapted character, but is distributed across a larger ensemble of individuals. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is particularly successful in resolving this move from an anxiety-ridden central hero (previously played by Allen himself) to a whole cast of characters who are better-adapted yet still equally neurotic. Pursuing a social critique rather than a psychoanalytic diagnosis, he captures a moral climate of ambition without conviction in which the protagonists are constrained to adopt standardized social roles. Allen invents here an original kind of morose comedy: in its dissection of the ideological imperative of success in careers and relationships, it is as if the secondary characters in his early films, no longer subordinated to Allen’s comic presence, have passed to the foreground, their flatness and one-sidedness becoming the rich material for a dry, un-jokey comedy of generalized alienation.
Pierre Bismuth is an artist based in Brussels.
The most important development in cinema post-1991 is the emergence of digital encodings like the mpeg format (1993–) and the subsequent dissemination of cinematic work into excellent online platforms like UbuWeb or Karagarga. The same period marks the degradation of 16mm film from a proud medium of independent filmmaking into an art collectors’ relic, capitalizing on readymade nostalgia, and spawning convoluted and dysfunctional installations including rattling film projectors screening jpegs copied onto film stock. Currently, the use of 16mm is a way to avoid the present while producing convenient collectable ‘objects’. But what are today’s uprisings filmed on? A Bolex or cell phones?
Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker and writer.