Monthly Archives: February 2013

Postcard from the Berlinale

This piece on Forum expanded appeared on the frieze blog:

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, “The Last Judgement” (2013), installation view at Forum Expanded

Now in its eighth year, Forum Expanded is to Forum – the self-consciously avant-garde and experimental strand of Berlin’s annual film festival, the Berlinale – what expanded cinema is to cinema tout court. The programme of Forum Expanded goes resolutely beyond the traditional viewing formats and single screen projections of a standard length and size; shows video, installation and performance-based works alongside film; eschews classical approaches to narrative in favour of fragmented forms; and, though by no means confined to artists’ films, tends to privilege an artistic way of handling a given topic and organizing material. As far as location goes, Forum Expanded ventures beyond the confines of the purpose-built cinema complex of the Berlinale in Potsdamer Platz to explore alternative, and rather more inspiring, screening venues dotted around the city.

A former crematorium is an unlikely exhibition venue at the best of times but even more so in the dead of winter. (‘A crematorium, how tropical,’ an acquaintance of mine jokingly remarked.) So it was not without some misgivings that I made my way towards the dreary-sounding ‘silent green Kulturquartier’ in Berlin’s graffiti-ridden Wedding district for the opening of the Forum Expanded group exhibition ‘Waves vs. Particles’. My scepticism proved largely unfounded. Colourful lights projected onto the façade of the imposing, squat building looming large at the end of a wooded alley turned the crematorium with its central octagonal structure into a magic lantern of sorts.

James T. Hong, ‘Apologies’ (2012), film still

Unlike in previous years, this year’s edition of Forum Expanded dispensed with an overall theme, opting instead for a thematic group exhibition. Drawn from quantum mechanics, which is predicated on wave-particle duality, the title was an interesting choice – one that applied to most, if not all, of the works on view. The one obvious misfit in this respect was James T. Hong’s single-channel video installation called Apologies (all works 2012), a variation on the theme of official state contrition for past misdeeds. The work was inserted between two thematically interconnected, three-channel video installations, Spirits Closing Their Eyes by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, and Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Life of Particles. Both focus on Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant that ensued; in the former, three video screens of equal size were placed horizontally, whereas in the latter – formally the more remarkable of the two pieces – the arrangement was vertical and the middle screen, much narrower than the other two, was mostly used for subtitles.

Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘The Life of Particles’ (2012), installation view

Experiencing these video works with their talk of nuclear annihilation, atomic radiation and animist spirituality on the premises of what used to be a crematorium was not without consequence. The Life of Particles, projected at the end of a room neatly lined with alcoves that once housed funerary urns, made for particularly unsettling viewing given its context. In Spirits Still, a haunting multi-channel video installation that was the most imaginative response to the space by far, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel used select frames from Leviathan, their award-winning, immersive documentary about deep-sea fishing made in collaboration with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. If you spent long enough with the images projected onto straight or curved walls and nestled in some of the alcoves, you began making out skull-like shapes, gaping eyes and mouths, beastly snouts, distended as if through anamorphosis, more or less focused, captured on film yet invisible to the eye at the ordinary speed of projection.

More harrowing still, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s The Last Judgement, excerpted from Leviathan’s final sequence, took over the mourning chapel of the crematorium, filling it with moving images of seagulls and many ghostly creatures of the air and sea, according to Castaing-Taylor at least (they eluded me in this instance). Screened on the ceiling, the second video installation in a four-part project experimenting with different formats and speeds of projection of the same documentary, which could be seen as a feature film in a standard cinema set-up elsewhere at the Berlinale, was meant to be viewed lying down on cushions strewn over the floor, better to observe and immerse oneself in the birds’ spiralling upward (or downward?) motion. A low, thrumming sound of wind, rumbling water and digital distortion accompanied the video footage, played at the lowest frequencies.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, ‘La Javanaise’ (2012), film still

White noise of varying intensity is built into the very fabric of Canadian artist Joshua Bonnetta’s Strange Lines and Distances, which visually and aurally connects the two sites of Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless transmission at the start of the 20th century. The twinned images of St John’s, Newfoundland and Poldhn, Cornwall, facing each other across the central octagonal space and echoing each other’s composition, were fitted to the same soundtrack. The same was true of another two-channel video installation included in ‘Waves vs. Particles’ (though at best tenuously linked to the exhibition’s theme): Dutch filmmaker Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s documentary La Javanaise, in which two different videos that cannot be viewed simultaneously, in contrast to Bonnetta’s films, share the same soundtrack, including dialogue.

Helio Oiticica, ‘Block-Experiments in Cosmococa’ (1973), installation view at Forum Expanded

Among the other highlights in the Forum Expanded strand, two of the rarely shown Block-Experiments in Cosmococa, devised by Hélio Oiticica in the early 1970s in collaboration with other artists and filmmakers, held pride of place. Distressingly, I missed the projection at the Liquidrom, which was on for one night only, from 10pm to 2am. Prolonging the liquid theme of the group show, it called on the audience to don swimsuits and experience the slide-show environment from inside the pool. The other experiment in quasi-cinema – a term coined by Oiticica and the Brazilian artist-filmmaker Neville d’Almeida for their ‘suprasensory’ multimedia installations – seemed fairly tame in comparison. An homage to the 1973 Rolling Stones album ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, CC6 Coke Head’s Soup (1973) involved photographs of Mick Jagger’s face on a newspaper cover, liberally dusted with cocaine, projected on all sides of a mattressed room at the Hamburger Bahnhof to a soundtrack from said album.

Oiticica is also the subject of an engaging biopic by his nephew Cesar Oiticica Filho, which premiered at this edition of the Forum and won the Caligari Film Prize. The documentary’s colour-steeped aesthetic and camp sensibility are indebted to Jack Smith, whom Hélio Oiticica acknowledged as an influence on the cocaine slide-show projections that conjure up New York’s underground scene of the early 1970s. Smith’s influence also makes itself felt in Richard Foreman’s collage of overexposed portraits and tableaux-like scenes from what feels like theatre rehearsals in Once Every Day. The first feature film made by the illustrious founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in over 30 years is more akin to experimental theatre and photography than to cinema.

The New York-based director wasn’t able to make it to the premiere, due to snowstorms, but Babette Mangolte, who photographed two of Foreman’s plays and shot his last films, Out of the Body Travel (1976) and Strong Medicine (1978), was present at the discussion that followed. (Her own short documentary, Edward Krasinki’s Studio, suffused with wintry light and beautifully shot with a handheld camera, premiered the previous day, also as part of Forum Expanded.) Foreman was in attendance virtually, via Skype, and he appeared dumbfounded that so many people had walked out during the screening. But that’s the Berlinale for you: the audience tends to be refreshingly vocal in its likes and dislikes.

Berlinale Forum 2013

This report appeared on the Sight & Sound blog:

727 Days Without Karamo

Justifiably billed as “the most daring section of the Berlinale”, the Forum certainly doesn’t eschew standard narrative fare and for the most part stays well within the bounds of cinematic convention. Yet even if you’re not narratively inclined, this is still the place to be. Some of the quirkiest offerings both in this strand and in its younger offshoot Forum Expanded, now in its eighth year, melded documentary and fiction, art and cinema, in a genuine attempt at forging new cinematic forms.

A case in point: Anja Salomonowitz’s The 727 Days Without Karamo. A documentary looking at the impact of Austrian immigration laws on the lives of couples of mixed race and nationality, forced to live apart or stay together for fear that one partner would otherwise be deported, this might have made for grim viewing. Salomonowitz lightens things up using Bernhard Fleischmann’s upbeat music and copious amounts of the colour yellow, which (in the absence of a narrative arc) acts as a quasi-formal device, linking together discrete interviews staged in real homes or workplaces. This yellow-mania comes in all shades and is applied to all manner of objects, from bridesmaids’ dresses to bicycles, wallpaper, wellington boots, towels in a salon or soup in a chef’s kitchen.

Hélio Oiticica

Pulsating rhythm and colour also informs Hélio Oiticica, a fast-paced documentary charting the personal and intellectual trajectory of one of Brazil’s most prominent twentieth-century artists, which won the Forum’s Caligari Film Prize. Made by his nephew Cesar Oiticica Filho, and reminiscent of Jack Smith’s drug-fuelled aesthetic, the film uses found footage from an impressive range of sources to construct its riveting collage of sounds and images, toned in Oiticica’s customary palette of warm yellows, oranges and reds. Oiticaca Filho has managed to tap recordings of his uncle, too, such that – unusually for a biopic – we hear the artist, who died in 1980, narrate much of his own story. (He comes across as charismatic, if somewhat conceited.)

Shirley – Visions of Reality

A different but likewse visually alluring experiment comes from another Austrian writer-director, Gustav Deutsch. Shirley – Visions of Reality unfolds in a series of animated tableaux based on 13 iconic paintings by Edward Hopper. The loose, contrived plot (each episode is set on August 28/29 of the year in which a given canvas had been painted) centres on the eponymous Shirley, a fictional actress who successively embodies various female figures in Hopper’s paintings, and who remains opaque, undeveloped and unaging, even though the film spans three decades of her life. But that’s not really the point. What makes the film fascinating to watch is the unreal, painterly quality of the moving images themselves.

Mamas

Made up of ten short films, Isabella Rossellini’s 21-minute-long Mammas is a worthy successor to her Green Pornos, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2008, and their sequel Seduce Me. Having acted out for us the sexual proclivities of various creatures, Rossellini now turns her comic talents to motherhood, exploring specifically the maternal instinct (or lack of it) of toads, spiders, hamsters and the like.

If anything, Mammas is more tightly edited, punchier and – thanks to the haute-couture costumes Rossellini sports in her different animal guises – more glamorous than its predecessors. And not unlike Deutsch’s film, each episode is introduced by a brief musical interlude – followed by a black-and-white photograph of a little girl (Rossellini herself) riding a pony led by her mother (Ingrid Bergman). At Mammas’ premiere, shortly after being awarded the Berlinale Camera, Rossellini told the audience that her inspiration for the films lay in her finding animal behaviour “hysterically funny”, yet seldom seeing it portrayed as such.

Frog Spider Hand Horse House

Humour in the depiction of animals is also a feature of Shelly Silver’s Frog Spider Hand Horse House, 49 minutes long and shown in a double bill with Mammas. As the title suggests, the film opts for a disjointed mode of narration, alternating disconcerting close-ups of animals (at one point we see only a horse’s twitching ears, which seem more expressive in the absence of eyes) with images of group activities such as outdoor Tai Chi classes or school singing lessons. Certain motifs – a man loudly playing the piano, a frog-shaped kite floating in the sky – contribute to create a broody, fairytale atmosphere.

Stemple Pass

If Rossellini’s films are short and sweet (though the humour in them, as Shelly Silver pointed out at a talk, comes from a dark place), James Benning’s Stemple Pass explores duration. Consisting of four quasi-static, half-hour shots of the same lush California mountain valley across the seasons, devoid of human presence save for a small log cabin in the bottom right-hand corner, it gives plenty of time to observe the changing quality of light as spring turns to autumn and winter to summer (in that order), and to grow attuned to valley sounds.

The silence gives way for roughly half of the time to the anti-technological diaries and interview excerpts of ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski, read out by Benning in voice-over as if emanating from the cabin, a faithful replica of Kaczynski’s own at Stemple Pass in Montana. (The artist built it as a counterpart to an earlier replica of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin.) As with all these films, there is a formal elegance to Stemple Pass that harks back to early cinema yet feels new.