Terrains of Uncertainty
02.15.2013, 8:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

alysstill from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011

Two boys. Each spinning a film reel through the streets of Kabul. One reel red, the other blue. Constant rolling.

A thirty-something woman on stage. Inside a Brooklyn warehouse. She’s just returned from a three-week boat trip to the Arctic and she wants to sing a song to you about what she saw, what she learned, what’s coming. And about what is never coming back.

As the speed and scale of change on our planet continue to increase, artists continue to dislocate themselves and site their work where change can be seen more clearly. They seem compelled to act as harbingers. Perhaps they are sensing a narrowing window of time when   acts of creative making in response can be joyful, playful, or contemplative–before they must turn urgently reactive (or reactionary).

As recent headlines beamed news of a meteor exploding over Russia reportedly injuring hundreds, an asteroid on near collision course with the Earth, Beijing air quality running amok, and the arrival of the largest blizzard in a century, we visited several galleries and theaters in New York, where we steadied our senses and experienced some of the works that are addressing the “right now.”   Two standout highlights: Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel at David Zwirner and Cynthia Hopkins’ This Clement World at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

alys-reel-unreel-06still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011

From the second row of This Clement World, we were drawn in to Hopkins’ depth of commitment to the complex issue of climate change. Her multi-media approach employed edited footage (both film and digital video), folk singing, a back-up band + vocals, drag and science. All of this was created in response to a three-week, 2010 expedition to the Arctic, as a part of the Cape Farewell project. It’s obvious she took the journey seriously as an opportunity to challenge her established approaches to her autobiographically-inflected work.  She succeeded. In just over 70 minutes, Hopkins translated her personal experiences into something an audience of strangers could enjoy as creative process.

clementstill from This Clement World, Cynthia Hopkins, 2013

Twenty-one other artists, scientists and activists (plus the voyage’s Captain Ted) accompanied Hopkins on the 100-year-old schooner named the Noorderlicht. The performance included curated transcripts of interviews Hopkins conducted with her travel companions to illustrate reasons they also felt compelled to visit this melting landscape.

At times, the production accounted details of Hopkins’ personal  journey, told through asides (at one point she wonders out loud if our species’ addiction to fossil fuels might parallel her own previous addictions to drugs and alcohol). Yet, the tale she spins seeks relevance to everyone inhabiting Earth right now. It’s a rare New York theater experience to have climate science statistics become part of the performance, or to be told by a bright-eyed young woman that the “age of innocence” is over.

Hopkins also told her audience that it’s an opportunity to be alive today, within this window of “clemency” that is fast transforming. She’s right. We are lucky to be alive during this sweet, short (anomalous, actually) span of clement planetary weather (both geologic and meteorologic).  She’s also right about the speed at which it’s changing.

Cynthia001_alexmarks1Cynthia Hopkins during a rehearsal of This Clement World at Ballroom Marfa, polaroid image (c) Alex Marks

Cynthia’s message was direct and focused.  Imaginary characters from the past and future delivered warnings about planetary realities that many of us already know. Heavy doses of activism + art often run the risk of losing potential audiences before they have the chance to experience what challenges them most. When the message is so direct, we miss the chance to experience something we think is so familiar to us in new or surprising ways.  Or, we risk feeling that what we already know is simply being confirmed, when, actually, it’s a different story or way of being with these realities that we most urgently need. As with many activist messages delivered to audiences who haven’t directly experienced the situation in question, it’s often hard to hold on to a sense of urgency, and once home, it’s easy to feel at a loss for what “to do” in the face of something so big and far away.

Just down the block from St. Ann’s, at Smack Mellon, Janet Biggs’ installation, Somewhere Beyond Nowhere, also presents a response to a boat trip to the Arctic in 2010. Seeing it in juxtaposition to This Clement World, we were struck by how Biggs’ Arctic felt unmarked by any sense of change registered at either personal or planetary levels.

Francis Alÿs’ Reel – Unreel, commissioned for dOCUMENTA (13), recently closed at David Zwirner gallery.  But the video piece, which is the core of the endeavor, is free to watch on the artist’s website.  Seen during the same week that we attended This Clement World, we experienced Reel–Unreel as leaving “the state of things” infinitely more unfinished than This Clement World, while at the same time sharing some of the sensibilities that were the heart  of Hopkins’ performance.

Two boys. Two film reels. One reel red, the other blue. The streets of Kabul. Not far into the video we realize the reels are connected by a single strip of continuously moving film. One reel unwinds, the other winds. The ancient city looks incredibly resilient, yet crumbling. It’s ambiguous, like most everything in the film:  is what we see falling apart, or is it, in fact, endlessly enduring? Is it war, material, or time that will abide here?  No answers are offered.

Helicopters cut through distant, dusty skies. The film reels roll on. At times, crowds of children join in what has quickly become an enchanted and remarkably focused game of chase. Daily life in Kabul becomes the backdrop: donkeys, goats, vehicles, children, marketplaces, crowded streets. Adults cast quick glances towards the movement, but largely ignore the reels whirling past. Through bustling markets, across red carpets, down dirt roads, through traffic-jams, and past crumbling buildings, the serpentine filmstrip slithers, notably resilient. Though the reels falter, spin out of control, tip and bang down stone steps, over and over the game is picked up again. The two boys are bound in loose, but constant, relation throughout the “game” by the literal materiality of the strip of film that runs between them, and by frame of the film that we are watching. The soundtrack to the work is the hollow sound of metal bumping over pebbled dirt, often accompanied by rhythms of breathing, traffic, helicopters, voices, radio, animals.

alys-reel-unreel-041still from Reel- Unreel, Francis Alÿs, 2011

After what feels like an immense distance has been traversed by the boys and the reels, a small debris fire on the roadside burns the filmstrip in two. The red reel gains speed, then soars off of a nearby cliff. Game over. One of the boys re-spools what remains onto the blue reel.

In 2001, the Taliban created an enormous fire on the outskirts of Kabul by burning thousands of films from the Afghan Film Archive. The films were thought to be original negatives, but in fact, they were copies. It is said that the conflagration lasted fifteen days. With this bit of history folded into the video’s closing titles, the free movement of the filmstrip across Kabul, and the watching of Reel–Unreel itself, become all the more poignant

Paying attention to change, being there for the change, enacting new gestures of movement and perhaps meaning in response to it, and going to its edges: these are fast becoming potent practices for conveying senses of the change we are facing planet-wide.  In Reel–Unreel, movement itself speaks in ways that cross and reconfigure polarized issues. It can also assist us in loosening our tight grips that attempt to “capture” the “Reality” of our situation.

Navigating the beautiful and highly charged landscapes of Kabul or the Arctic (and countless other places), contemporary artists find themselves located within shifting terrains of uncertainty.  The realization that there is no “outside” perspective that allows a full picture or complete understanding results in works that can be endlessly challenging–and potentially more pleasurable. We already have been swept up into the movement that is massive planetary change.  This movement is fast becoming the daily reality of life, and it is quickly becoming more and more like “home.” Inhabiting the movement, we become invested by losing bits of ourselves to the unfolding change, and what we cannot know of it. From within the movement, we realize that the activist question of “what do we do next or in response?” gives way under the fact that we are already doing, responding, and arriving at the next.  Reel–Unreel gestures toward other ways to inhabit and make from within the movement, while on the way.

1 Comment so far
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Hello and good morning,Quick question: Is it possible for FOP to post a job opening announcement (geoarchaeologist)?Best and thank you.Mike

Michael McFaul Principal Geoarchaeologist LaRamie Soils Service 307-742-4185 (o) 307-760-0088 (c)

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2013 13:25:12 +0000 To:

Comment by Michael McFaul

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