Art of the Real 728x90 Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

Festivals: dOCUMENTA (13), or, The Longest Presence

By Olaf Möller on September 19, 2012

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Nanni Balestrini and Giacomo Verde’s video Tristanoil has a running time of 2,400 hours—a full 100 days—which is also the customary duration of documenta. But of these 2,400 hours, only 1,000 are open to the public. It is therefore impossible to see even half of Tristanoil, even if you focused your dOCUMENTA (13) experience on just this one work. But who looks at the screen when the premises are closed? Does the video really run on? Who might get a glimpse of these randomly re-assembled sequences of television footage about the looming economical and ecological apocalypse, in the wee hours of the night? What does the behemoth care?

Tristanoil

Tristanoil

Tristanoil was but one of several works on show at dOCUMENTA (13) that dealt in excess—even if the video looked almost humble up there in the empty old bar of Kassel's Hauptbahnhof, the town's former terminus which now sees but local train traffic. Audiovisual artworks by the likes of William Kentridge or Clemens von Wedemeyer are the only contact with the farther world the slightly run-down place makes these days.

In the world of fine arts, documenta is one of the two or three main events—it's Cannes or Venice, sans competition, a massive exhibition based on one curator's vision. documenta also commissions works tailored to specific editions, not only the sites but also its key ideas, notions, principles, what have you. Some of those remain forever with Kassel, other make their way into the world.

During the last two decades, documenta has also turned into a must for many a cinephile with a somewhat broader view of the art, as moving images are taking up an ever greater share of the event, whether as multi-image installations or single-channel works (i.e., films as we know them). Actually, there's so much cinema (in the broadest sense) around by now that some visitors in the Hauptbahnhof could be heard moaning, "Doesn't anybody care about painting and sculpture anymore?" Yes, many do, and some of the finest works exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13) have nothing at all to do with film, but it is indeed remarkable how much “cinema” there is in Kassel, not only in the sense of works getting projected but also as a point of reference or historical phenomenon in other art works. One example was The Disobedient (aka The Revolutionaries), Sanja Iveković’s menagerie of stuffed toy donkeys representing 20th- and 21st-century victims of political violence, two filmmakers gone too young, Raymundo Gleyzer and Juliano Mer-Khamis. There were also quite a few artists presenting works in Kassel who are known for their films but in this case preferred to do something else, such as Matias Faldbakken and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Let's mention here that there is also a film program in the traditional sense, but this seems so secondary to those responsible for dOCUMENTA (13) that they didn't even include it in the main catalogue. There, one only finds a general text about the selection's curatorial main lines, plus a few names. The complete program can be found in the dOCUMENTA (13) schedule, and is far from remarkable—even if most of the works shown are worthies made by the likes of Anand Patwardhan, Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, or Raya Martin, and even if documenta was able to secure some choice international or even world premieres, like Athiná Rachél Tsangári's short The Capsule.

Alongside Iveković one could have also mentioned Francis Alÿs who's showing a serious of small-scale paintings whose key motive is a color test. But that's only Kassel: the video that belongs to the project, REEL – UNREEL, is part of the shows dOCUMENTA (13) stages in Kabul (although, according to the schedule, this short gets shown twice or thrice in Kassel as well). So, yes, dOCUMENTA (13) doesn't take place only in Kassel but also in several other cities far, far away. Nothing new here—so did earlier editions of documenta.

Still, it adds to the general feeling of facing an event impossible to master—remember, Tristanoil, one single work, is so vast that it fills out the whole documenta, in a manner of speaking. dOCUMENTA (13) is something one can get a grip on by reading the catalogues—i.e., find out about the selection's connective tissue, the ideas at play and work etc.—but it's nothing one can experience in its entirety. Art-world pros usually stay for about a week, but even they claim that it was simply too much, in good parts due to the problem of running times. Tamara Henderson's Sloshed Ballot & Anonymous Loan might be over after a mere four minutes, but it already takes 40 minutes to watch Omer Fast's Continuity, an hour and a half for the first two installments of Wael Shawky's marionette-animation series Cabaret Crusades, The Horror Show File and The Path to Cairo, several hours for all the loops and shorts on display in the room devoted to Erkki Kurenniemi's archive/life—you get the idea. And what can one say about Tristanoil if one hasn't spent at least two hours with it, that is, 1/1200th of its entirety?

Sloshed Ballot Tamara Henderson

Sloshed Ballot & Anonymous Loan

Although it's open to debate whether Tristanoil was ever meant to be seen as a whole, as the work it was inspired by, Balestrini's Tristano (1966), is not so much a novel as a process that occasionally produces books. Per Balestrini, Tristano is a multiple novel—not a book one can buy but the sum total of all the different versions of a text that the project can produce, which number exactly 109,027,350,432,000. When Tristano was first published in 1966, it proved technically too demanding to realize the work the way Balestrini had conceived it, as a text that would differ from copy to copy. In 2007, a new printing process finally made it possible to do just that. Now, no two Tristano copies are alike; each Tristano is even given a number. Tristano consists of 10 chapters, each composed of 30 paragraphs; for each copy, 20 paragraphs are randomly exchanged until every possible exchange is made. To achieve this, an algorithm was written, and that, in a certain sense, was the only thing actually written for this novel. The text itself was composed using already existing materials from various sources: household appliance instructions, trash novels, nonfiction studies, certifiable literary classics (such as morsels of early Robbe-Grillet), etc.

Tristanoil works in the same manner: a mass of primarily TV footage—scenes from soap operas, the news, commercials—are shuffled according to an algorithm, and each resulting Tristanoil gets a number. The main difference is that for Tristano, the final number of copies didn’t matter; for Tristanoil, the running time did. Sitting there in the remains of an old and cozy bar, staring at this tidal wave of images known all too well, and its variations, you soon sense that it wouldn’t matter if there really were 2,400 hours of different footage, as it all simply looks and sounds the same. The experience at times feels as if you’re drowning in an ocean-size miasma and, at others, as if you could finally learn to stop worrying and love neoliberalism. Maybe watching one Tristanoil is enough; it’s like reading a single copy of Tristano—call it the espresso version. Maybe, as with Tristano, two or three variations deepen the experience—call that the bender version. Maybe it might be a good idea to force some unsuspecting visitors to take in a full documenta day of Tristanoil. Balestrini, one of the central figures of the Gruppo 63, as well as of Potere Operaio, might find that conceptually worthy of some thought.

Muster (Rushes)

Muster (Rushes)

Clemens von Wedemeyer’s three-channel HD-film installation, Muster (Rushes) was another politically loaded work that, like Tristanoil, was made for dOCUMENTA (13). Like most of von Wedemeyer’s works, it’s an essay on the limits of historical reconstruction. This time, he looks at the painful past of the former Benedictine monastery Breitenau, which in the past century-and-a-half has been used as a prison, a forced labor turned concentration camp, a girls’ reformatory, and finally an open psychiatric clinic—a lot of violence even for Germany. Muster (Rushes) consists of three half-hour films. One shows the liberation of Breitenau by American troops at the end of World War II, during the Battle of Kassel; another follows the shooting of a film inspired by the late Eberhard Itzenplitz’s 1970 TV movie Bambule: Fürsorge–Sorge für wen?; the third a group of students with their teacher on a school outing to Breitenau in the early 1990s. The films are discreetly interconnected: one of the liberators bears some resemblance to the teacher, and the students are shown watching a film that looks like the original Bambule. The three films are visually synched with another—when for example a soldier enters Breitenau’s church, the pupils can be seen in the same space. Muster (Rushes) was projected onto a triangular construction set in the middle of the room, which means that at best one could see two of the films at the same time, while the third remains hidden. To paraphrase Robert Frost: Germany is hard to see.

It’s rather remarkable that von Wedemeyer chose to represent the Bonn Republic through Bambule. Fürsorge–Sorge für wen?, which was a cause célèbre back then. Bambule was based upon a screenplay by Ulrike Meinhof, who’d researched the brutalization of reformatory girls in Breitenau and elsewhere. Meinhof’s original idea was to shoot the film using (former?) inmates of such facilities as actors, to which Itzenplitz objected by saying that there’s a very important difference between life and cinema. (Von Wedemeyer has made Meinhof’s wish come true, for in his version of the story, the Bambule cast consists of reformatory girls.) By the time Itzenplitz’s Bambule. Fürsorge–Sorge für wen? was completed, Meinhof had gone underground with the Red Army Faction. The film’s broadcast was canceled due to her involvement in Andreas Baader’s escape from prison, little more than a week earlier. For decades the film was only known through the script, made available by a left-wing publishing house. Only in 1994 was Bambule. Fürsorge–Sorge für wen? finally shown on FRG television. Three Germanys are on view in Muster (Rushes): one at its end (Nazi Germany), one pretty much in the middle of its existence (the Bonn Republic), and one right at its beginning (the Berlin Republic). Is there a discernible pattern? (The German part of the title also means “pattern.”)

Another politically charged installation was Amar Kanwar’s The Sovereign Forest. For more than a decade now, Kanwar has been chronicling the fights of several organizations in the Indian state of Oṛiśā against the mining industry and others. The struggle dates back to the 1950s; since then, farmer and fishermen have been regularly and violently driven off their land. The battle is not only about resources, which is what the industries want to exploit—it’s also about the way people can live. Some of Kanwar’s varied videos in support of the peasants’ struggle are straightforward documents of their clashes with the police and the army, while others are of a more informative, NGO-friendly nature. The Sovereign Forest is an attempt to bring the whole project into one room with a form befitting the subject. The installation space is dark but not pitch black. On the walls one finds tiny cups, 266 in all, each holding a few grains of a different sort of rice cultivated in Oṛiśā. Posters, pamphlets, and pictures document the struggle, as well as videos by Kanwar, which are projected down from the ceiling onto books made from banana leaves.

Scene of the Crime

Scene of the Crime

In a separate space, Kanwar’s The Scene of Crime is on view. This 2011 work visits about a dozen places in Oṛiśā shortly before their industrial extinction. Life seems ancient there, with fisherman heading out for the catch in small dinghies, farmers working their fields manually, and people meeting under huge trees in the evening. Everything appears in distinctive greens, shot in slight slow motion; the general rhythm resembles the steady roll of small wave. The text set into the images tells a story that, while complex, at first suggests nature whispering about the struggles she has seen. The harmony is interrupted just once, violently, when Kanwar shows some very pixely footage of a clash between the peasants and the law, and blood flows.

Most Electrified Town in Finland

The Most Electrified Town in Finland

Kanwar created his work as an act of applied solidarity. Mika Taanila, in contrast, had to wrestle with the energy industry to let him use his own footage for The Most Electrified Town in Finland. This three-channel video installation is made from materials Taanila originally shot for Laitos, a feature-length documentary about the construction of the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant (OL3) in Eurajoki, part of a larger complex. Back in the early 2000s, the OL3 made headlines all over the world as the first such plant built in the Western world post Čhernobyl, and the most powerful of its kind. Originally, the OL3 was scheduled to be ready by 2009. Work started in 2004 and ran into problems in 2005; as of now, OL3 is still under construction, and it probably won’t open before 2014.

The problem for Taanila is that TVO, the energy company building OL3, had a stipulation in its contract with Kinotar that Laitos could be screened publicly only after OL3 was running. Unlike its subject, Laitos could easily be finished now. All of which causes a lot of trouble for Kinotar and everybody else involved. Unfortunately nobody in Helsinki’s inner and outer circles of power seems to care. It’s also due to this contract that nobody in The Most Electrified Town in Finland talks. People at TVO worried about nearly every utterance, which left only an electronic soundscape. But there are images sometimes too weird to be true.

Taanila works once again on his favorite theme: the utter weirdness of tomorrows long past their sell-by dates. For most people, the entire culture of atomic energy, with its symbols and distinctive shapes, is by now history. Yesterday’s bright future looks now like doomsday, with Fukushima replacing Chernobyl as its writing on the wall. Yet here we are now in a small rural town where the atomic power plants are made to look like the local wooden houses, all painted in that special red; between these houses lies probably the brightest Christmas decoration on Earth. Eurajoki vue par Mika Taanila is a podland—a place where everything fits a little too perfectly. Taanila reinforces this impression by deploying his three images in a manner recalling Abel Gance’s work with Polyvision (another future that didn’t make it). Everything is about rhythm and symmetries, albeit in a fashion that’s decidedly less showy than that of the old master.

It’s easy to get lost in The Most Electrified Town in Finland. You could stay with it for two or three turns, as if in a trance induced by its ordinary outrageousness. Taanila’s work is an elegy for a 20th century that will stay with the planet for hundreds of thousands of years in the form of nuclear waste.

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