Festivals: Migrating Forms
The Migrating Forms festival of film and video is a cinephilic matchmaker, joining the hands of art-gallery devotees and repertory cinema denizens in moving-image harmony. Whether it’s gallery installations or genre entries, shorts or features, programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry try to give everything equal pride of place. This year’s edition features work by 30 artists from 12 countries, ranging from Rachel Rose’s microscopic ruminations on mortality to Cory Arcangel’s deep browse through the Subway sandwich chain’s bizarre online empire, while also finding room for the scrappy postapocalyptic sci-fi of Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan.
Sitting Feeding Sleeping
The simple act of moving video art from the gallery to the big screen can focus attention. And the finely detailed work of Rachel Rose, who will present an evening of her work on December 11, rewards a closer look. The three films on the program invent something like an archaeology of mortality. Sitting Feeding Sleeping (13) was Rose’s response to a bout of creative paralysis, what she described to Mousse magazine as “deathfulness: being alive, but feeling dead.” She traveled to a cryogenics lab, a zoo, and a robotic perception lab, all places of mediated living or lifelike simulacra. As she speaks about cryonics and Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) in a lifeless auto-tuned voiceover, she associatively edits together images from all three sites, with graphical intrusions from her Adobe Premiere software.
Palisades in Palisades
An even more spectacular smash-up of organic-artificial-technological occurs in Palisades in Palisades (14), a kind of molecular history of the New Jersey park. Her camera zooms into a Revolutionary War-era painting of the park, pushing closer until it blurs out of focus, then dissolving into the pores of a woman’s skin and then again into a map of the park. Then we see the woman herself sitting in a wooded area, her eyelids fluttering, the soundtrack a heavy industrial hum with orchestral strings floating above. Everything is layered and connected, as the wrinkles of her clothing become the folds of George Washington’s pants in a portrait made during battles fought on the same location. Her body is part of a continuum of Palisades Park, her flesh and fabrics channeling and mingling with the flesh of the past. Rose’s most recent work, A Minute Ago, continues these layered investigations, this time taking a freak hail storm on a summertime Russian beach and merging it with Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, everything breaking down into precipitation-sized pixels.
Cory Arcangel’s Freshbuzz (www.subway.com) is a prankish guided tour of the secret byways of the chain’s content-overloaded website and social media accounts. Arcangel is teasingly methodical, clicking on every single sandwich variation, which reveals a short video of plasticine meats. The same camera move is repeated in all, and becomes a kind of corporate incantation—starting in extreme close-up, then arcing backward as if overwhelmed by the deliciousness on display. It’s worth waiting for when he delves into the “nutritional” videos hosted by the improbably named “JJ Virgin,” who cheerfully relates how Subway sandwiches can help cure depression.
The Midnight After
There is no calming the unfortunate souls who board the minibus in Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After. Chan is a cult figure in Hong Kong cinema, a chronicler of the handover-to-China malaise, most famously in 1997’s Made in Hong Kong, a howl of discontent shot with nonprofessionals on leftover film stock. The Midnight After returns to similar thematic ground with its story: following a plague, the population of Hong Kong literally disappears, as if the Chinese takeover has rendered its population invisible. It’s a Twilight Zone scenario adapted from a popular web serial written by message board writer known as “Pizza.”
Lam Suet (a jolly axiom of Johnnie To films) is a bus driver shuttling a ragtag group of passengers to Tai Po, including a pompadoured Simon Yam (gleefully dirtying his debonair image). As they drive through a tunnel, the rest of humanity disappears: Tai Po is a ghost town, and their phone calls go unanswered. A mysterious disease then begins picking off the bus riders one by one. The initiating event is left unexplained, borrowing from free-floating anxieties like the SARS virus, but it’s ultimately a parable of disappearance. As the characters wander through the emptied-out city, The Midnight After becomes a mournful eulogy for the city that was, and, Chan intimates, will be no more.
The Airstrip – Decampment of Modernism, Part III
Heinz Emigholz’s The Airstrip – Decampment of Modernism, Part III is another urban journey colored by loss, though this time in a rigorous documentary form. It is the 21st installment of his Photography and beyond series, in which the filmmaker attempts to “look at architectural spaces that . . . have been sorely neglected by ‘architectural history,’” as well as how they function and feel in the communities they serve. In The Airstrip, he focuses on modernist structures, capturing them in a series of comprehensive long takes and taking in the surrounding neighborhoods and the populations that course through them. The instigating factor is Emigholz’s obsession with the Northern Mariana Islands, launching pad for the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The film opens with an epigraph about “The time between the bomb’s release and its explosion”—neither the future nor the past, but a suspended state of absolute nothingness. Emigholz travels through Europe to Latin America to the Marianas, and ends in Germany, at Berlin’s neo-baroque Neptune Fountain, erected in 1891. Its frolicking prewar nymphs stare across the street at the Rotes Rathaus (the “Red City Hall”), a former residence of Joseph Goebbels.
The world imagined in Jeremy Shaw’s Quickeners is a dream of what never was. Enchanted with footage of West Virginia revivalist snake handlers (taken from the 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People), Shaw decided to layer an invented sci-fi narrative atop it. The story takes place in a future world of “quantum humans” who live as hive minds linked through neural networks. Some people suffer from “human atavism syndrome” and resurrect ancient rituals of prayer and dance, claiming it helps them to “transcend” the neural web. Shaw’s fiction taps the primal power of this 40-year-old religious gathering, building to a psychedelic shudder.
Here's to the Future!
For more chilled-out group activities, look out for Gina Telaroli’s Here’s to the Future!, which captures the camaraderie that emerges during a movie shoot (full disclosure: I am friendly acquaintances with Telaroli and others in the film). A group of pals get together to film a scene from Michael Curtiz’s 1934 film The Cabin in the Cotton that features class tension and a seduction. The same scene is blocked and shot over and over, with different actors cycling in and out of roles, each personality imbuing the scene with a different vibe. It plays as menacing or blackly comic, resigned or filled with rage. Jacques Rivette once proposed that every film is a documentary of its own making, a tenet which Telaroli embraces and pushes to its extreme limit, encouraging the crew and actors to bring their own cameras to the set. The resulting movie is a patchwork of HD, cell phone, and webcam images, as egalitarian with its pixels as it is with its crew members.
That open-minded attitude is representative of the Migrating Forms festival at large, which gathers an eclectic group of image-makers who come from vastly different backgrounds and exhibition spaces to see how their ideas ping off of each other and the screen. Each program demands new ways of seeing, the series a constantly shifting perceptual challenge.
Migrating Forms runs December 10 to 18 at BAMcinématek.