06 Apr 2016

Collectivism Part 2

this is an extract from a larger text about the three part Collectivism programme as a whole. To read the text on the first chapter in the programme please click here

In aemi’s second collectivism programme, comprising a wide-ranging selection of works all produced in the last decade, the collective materialises in a different form, re-situating the current limits and capacity of cinema as a political apparatus. The programme opens with Mountain Fire Personnel (2015) a film by Alex Tyson (b.1985), an American artist based in Los Angeles who works with video, film and sound. Mountain Fire Personnel, which screened on Vdrome last year accompanied by an interview led by Herb Shellenberger (see http://www.vdrome.org/tyson.html), is an experimental documentary describing the impacts of a 2013 wildfire in the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California. While tackling very different subjects there is, in one respect at least, a conspicuous similarity in the approaches taken by Tyson and Negro. Although Mountain Fire Personnel includes Tyson’s own footage of California State Prisoners working alongside firemen around an Aerial Tramway station in Palm Springs, a good portion of the film is made up of material from numerous on-line and media sources- GoPro sequences from firefighters and paramedics, radio reports, satellite imagery, extracts from a tourist DVD and a great deal of amateur documentation shot and narrated by a medley of local citizens, a kind of crowd-sourced collectivism that has been adopted as a technique of sorts by artists engaged with the moving-image. While the footage Tyson acquires is not familiar to audiences in the way that the ten films that Negro uses are, it is striking that in amassing this material, he too is devising his own collective, a collective his film both absorbs and is absorbed within.

The idea of an event or a catastrophe generating a sense of community is compounded by the method Tyson employs in making the film – it builds up a multidimensional portrait of the event as it affects a much wider range of people and places than Tyson could have covered in working with his own footage exclusively. As he describes: ‘My footage was narrow in that it was only one snapshot of a particular area and timeframe. The other media helped illustrate the scale of the fire, which was huge (27,531 acres / 11,141 ha). All these different sources enabled me to organize the film chronologically and spatially beyond my own direct experience, and to construct something that appears linear with elements that are not. The found media was also more journalistic in nature compared to mine, which was strictly observational. So my editing approach became democratic. It felt like I was putting together a compilation of sorts—like one of those supercuts you come across while surfing YouTube.’1

Tyson’s gathering of material to convey the magnitude of the fire acknowledges a useful tension between what can be achieved by a larger entity and the individual. Another important aspect of Mountain Fire Personnel that resonates here is Tyson’s own personal experience while making the film. He describes how he happened to arrive at the Aerial Tramway with a group of TV journalists and, being mistaken for one of them, is able to travel by cable car to the mountain station where firemen and State Prisoners have set up a makeshift camp while battling the fire. Long after the journalists leaves, Tyson stays on, befriending a couple of the prison guards, eating with them and filming this large group roaming the smoke-filled landscape and living together in close quarters. These sequences depict an enforced collective, a tight-knit group, out in the wild but under constant surveillance. They also capture Tyson’s more precarious position within this group, a position we can see from the lingering stares in the direction of the camera. The camera’s gaze is returned and we are viewed at least with curiosity if not suspicion.

Captivity is also at the centre of Iowa-based filmmaker Kelly Gallagher’s experimental cut-out animation Pen Up The Pigs (2014) in which she draws out connections between the history of slavery in America and present-day institutionalised racism and mass incarceration. Gallagher is interested in, as she describes, ‘exploring, or détourning ideas of feminine imagery and then subverting them with intense militancy’. Her films feature flowers, gunshots and glitter in equal exuberant abundance.2 A surprising formal structure is discernible through Pen Up The Pigs, firstly in the way the film is divided into three acts but also in its use of sections from Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin but this only serves to amp up the politics on display, politics that are explored through quotes and speeches given by pivotal figures from the Black Liberation Movement including Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton and George Jackson.

In Africa I (2010), a silent black and white 11-minute film from filmmaker Shinkan Tamaki, we shift gears, moving from the explicitly political to the more perceptual and abstract. Here Tamaki, a member of the Japanese [+] collective – alongside Rei Hayama whose film Inaudible Footsteps (2015) follows on directly afterwards – seeks to ‘lead the audience’s perception to change naturally and sometimes drastically.’3 Shot on 16mm, Africa I is a study of movement made up of a four-second, irregularly edited loop of a slowly walking elephant. Focussing in entirely on the animal’s richly textured skin, the slow motion gradually becomes hypnotic in effect and the subject is transformed from the material to the epic. In Inaudible Footsteps, Rei Hayama considers the idea of aimlessness en masse by evoking the energy and urgency of a drove of horses on the run in short, analogous passages that, in every instance, resist both narrative and resolution.

The concept of a persistently elusive ending also pervades in Ana Vaz’ Sacris Pulso (2008), the closing work in the second programme. Against the soundtrack of a menacing pulse that echoes the footsteps in Hayama’s film, finality is always out of reach: empty, tenebrous passageways curve from left to right without leading us anywhere and the figure of an elegantly dressed woman is filmed from below never quite making it to the top of the set of steps she is climbing. As in Inaudible Footsteps, linearity is supplanted by something more cyclical and borrowing a diverse range of material, including extracts from the film Brasiliários (1985) and super 8mm home movie footage, Vaz, as Oana Chivoiu points out, ‘invites us to think about the relative and fragile boundaries between the personal and the collective, the private and the public, and ultimately the self and the other.’4 In dream-like passages of whispered prayer, amongst talk of a ‘landscape of insomnia’, Vaz considers the significance and peril of a deeply receptive collective memory.

  1. Tyson, Alex in conversation with Herb Schellenberger, Vdrome, 2015, http://www.vdrome.org/tyson.html
  2. Gallagher, Kelly in conversation with Kelsey Velez, Incite!, published Dec 18th, 2015, http://www.incite-online.net/gallagher.html
  3. Tamaki, Shinkan, http://shinkantamaki.net/about/
  4. Chivoiu, Oana, Toward an Aesthetic of Displacement in Ana Vaz’ Sacris Pulso, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 68, September 2013, http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/toward-an-aesthetic-of-displacement-in-ana-vazs-sacris-pulso/


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