A Film Is A Statement

1. We must make political films.

2. We must make films politically.

32. To carry out 2 is to dare to know where one is, and where one has come from, to know one's place in the process of production in order then to change it.

The opening performance of Arika's recent weekend of film was by the Museum of Non-Participation and is probably best described as being immersed in a physical documentary. It noted simultaneously the audience’s active position and that audience's sort of belated insufficiency as actor. That is to say, the audience is never quite there. The work was arranged throughout a large studio space with numerous screens onto which separate images (both moving and still) were projected while the artists performed a pre-prepared text that alotted them each "parts" which they read in turn.

If it is true to say that the space of the work and the space of the audience were collapsed, with the latter contributing through its movement around the room, choosing which simultaneous projection to focus on, walking on the same level as the artists who mingled in and out of audience members while reading, then it is also true that through this very device an amplification of film's relation to distance was effected. At a basic level film shows you something, and by implication the thing being shown remains to some degree outside of, distinct from, oneself. Here, this distance was strangely augmented by pushing the audience toward a greater blend with the work. In so-doing, the work amplified an existing tension: a screen's manifestation of separation. This contradiction is present in the word "screen" itself: it is something onto which something can be projected and thus shown, but it can also screen off something, making it unable to be seen. The work manifested this tension even as images poured over and beyond the screens, and as different images projected on different screens at the same time, requiring an audience selection of priorities. In its attempts to disrupt that singular experience of one person watching one screen, it recalled it even more.

Space is clearly important. Is critical thought best served through immersion or through a clear demarcation of thinker and that-which-is-to-be-thought-about? In a way the work turned on this question, mentally pacing it out, embodying an ambivalent answer. At one point, the artists noted the discombobulating experience of watching a lawyers protest against Musharaf in Pakistan in 2007 from the white space of a contemporary art gallery. As a metaphor for the spatial dynamic the work itself was acting out, it was a simplified one. The work’s effectiveness came from its very complication – and making-extreme-of – that inside/outside binary.

Sound is equally important. That which came from the various projections and the artists' reading was akin to that of a documentary (the projections slightly quieter than the voices "over the top"), but a moment where the street sounds of a Pakistani protest triumphed over the shuffling of audience feet and murmur marked a point of intense immersion. It resembled a piece by Chris DeLaurenti, performed at Instal in November 2010, N30: Live at the WTO, which turned the pitchblack gigantic space of Glasgow's Tramway 1 into a simultaneously aural memorial and re-enactment of the World Trade Organization protests of 1999. It was beautiful, angering and above all deeply moving.

So far I've focused on the audience watching. In “The Tracking Shot in Kapo,” Serge Daney describes Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour as ‘“things” that have watched me more than I have seen them.’ A text pointed to by Arika as a point of departure for the weekend, in this context it asks: What are the variations of non-participation? We can not participate in an oppressive society. Either by sheer refusal or by active participation in oppositional organization. We can not participate in the struggles of resistance (of the forming of oppositional organization). Either because of doubts and fears, or by compromise, by the complications that make binaries problems in the first place. Daney’s switch gives it another meaning: accusative, it demands a reason for one’s actions, for participation or non-participation. It is a demand for active thought.

What is true about the Museum of Non-Participation is that the audience participates in its work. But what is that work? It seems to be the manifestation of an argument (like the film Argument, shown on Saturday): complications and complexity exist (in the pouring, the multiplicity, the simultaneity of images), but binaries (choice) will continue to exist. How does one remain faithful to both of those realities?

But I haven't put this quite right. It aligns the inescapable boundary the screen creates with the choice of one-or-the-other. It aligns the inescapable complexity of the world with an overflowing of images. The problem is this: that boundary stops action, whereas the choice of one-or-the-other creates action: one chooses and one follows that choice. With the boundary one never has to choose because one is always stuck this side of it. What would be better to say would be that somehow the immersion – through the overflowing of images, the simultaneity of them – demands a choice. Perhaps the immersive tendencies of this Museum are a way of dragging one in off the fence, and the abrupt meeting with the screen a metaphor for the accusative demand. Through immersion one is being dragged into the struggle (one of art, of politics, and art-and-politics) and one's position then has to be defended, thought about.

Lutz Becker's film Kino Beleske (Film Notes), screened immediately after The Museum of Non-Participation, was a document of the Student's Cultural Centre in Belgrade in 1975. Throughout, various members speak pieces to camera which reminded me a lot of La Chinoise, which surely figured somewhere in the weekend's thinking if not Becker's. At one point a Serbian student appears wearing sunglasses covered in tin foil, echoing Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud's nationalist glasses in Godard's 1967 film.

During these pieces to camera one hears the cars, horns, wind on the streets outside which continued being streets as the artists spoke. It seemed to me that the effect of this - desired or otherwise - was to dramatize the same question of the position of critique that the Museum of Non-Participation did. (What does it mean to participate? What is one participating in? Is non-participation a form of participation in another activity? Is there such a thing as not doing anything?) What was the relation of these students now speaking to camera and those streets we can hear? Watching the film over thirty years later, the students' relation is more that to contemporary art (especially given the appearance of artists that would go on to make big names for themselves) than their immediate surroundings. There is a risk that those streets get lost in a dialogue that focuses on career patterns or the amused comment of a friend seeing a younger incarnation of a newer acquaintance. The film's soundtrack kept that risk from being trampled, and forced one to consider one's position in relation to the film, the film's in relation to the audience, the situation of us watching it to the film's history, to art and political history, to ongoing narratives. 

Chto Delat?'s songspiels understood position as movement. In “What Does It Mean To Make Films Politically?” one of the group’s members, Dimitry Vilensky, writes: “political cinema is a multi-layered composition that combines emotional effects and total intellectual analysis. Paradoxically, we must learn to touch the viewer’s heart without entertaining him.” Needless to say, the entertainment evoked here is the particularly seductive kind of Hollywood and mass culture.

In a phone-call to the audience before the screening, though, Dimitry talked about wanting the work to be entertaining. What could he have meant? I think he meant it to be mobile: their films are available on their website and Dimitry talked about them being screened in different countries and contexts. Certainly the form - though recognizably Brechtian, with a particular history - is not too far removed from certain popular entertainments. The closest thing in a British context might be music hall, except with the politics evacuated and replaced with a certain type of cynical bawdiness. (As I began writing this, in fact, I noticed a review of a new musical called Big Society).

Discussions of avant-garde artistic practice are understandably wary of terms like "entertainment" and "popularity", but I do think it is an important question to ask. How does avant-garde art understand its relation to mass culture? Godard's "What Is To Be Done?" is useful here. To make political films or to make films politically represent two understandings of this relation. Godard is explicit about this: one represents a certain - yet limited - step forward; the second represents a deeper commitment.

This isn't about co-option but ambush. Surprisingly enough, given assumptions of the historical avant-garde's contemporary uselessness, the form of the songspiel Chto Delat? use creates a new twist on artistic history: it inaugurates a direct link between contemporary art and its antecedents that is a link of continuation and development (a positive tradition) rather than nostalgia-tinged analyses.

Yet there is also something less direct about this mobility, and it points to an interesting idea: that often politcally active art achieves results by circuitous routes, by accident rather than as a direct answer to the question What Is To Be Done? In this alternative understanding of effect, art can use surprise (ambush) as a tactic, but only really if it is unaware of doing so. We wait years for revolution and then numerous ones pop up in countries we'd never have expected (although perhaps we weren't looking closely enough).

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I am writing a PhD at the University of Glasgow entitled "The Poetics of Time in Contemporary Literature". My writing has been published in Type Review, Dancehall, Puffin Review and TheState. I review books for Gutter and The List. I am also an editor and reviewer at the Glasgow Review of Books.

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