Archival Dissonance

Living Document/Naked Reality: Towards an Archival Cinema
Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, 2012

Archival Dissonance

Introduction:

If this exhibition begins with a movement often misunderstood as a cinema “of the Third World,” it is because its precepts and suppositions resonate within artistic practice at this point in time. Living Document / Naked Reality: Towards an Archival Cinema—a title gleaned from Solanas and Gettino’s text “Towards a Third Cinema”—explores this resonance through the work of six international artists: Thom Andersen (b. 1943 Chicago; lives Los Angeles), Yto Barrada (b. 1971 Paris; lives Tangier), Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen (b. 1979 Montreal; lives New York), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (b. 1977 French Guiana; lives Paris), Maha Maamoun (b. 1972 California; lives Cairo), and Alexandra Navratil (b. 1978 Zurich; lives Amsterdam). The works presented—which include video, found object, and slide installation as well as traditional “black box” cinema and performance—comprehend both critique of and nostalgia for the film technologies and utopias of this previous era. While they don’t all explicitly take Third Cinema as subject or formal orientation, each work explores a thread from Solanas and Gettino’s foundational argument in a distinct way. Taken as a whole, this group exhibition investigates cinema’s complex political, formal, and ideological history from the 1910s to the 1960s.

Why is this group of six artists—most of whom were born in the 1970s, just after the period addressed—intent on exploring the transformative moment of the late 1960s through the cinematic archive? Perhaps it is because, as Tacita Dean’s 2011 Unilever Series commission in the Tate Modern’s cavernous turbine hall attests, the chemical art of analog filmmaking is dying. An eleven-minute silent film shot on 35 mm., Dean’s cathedral-like installation stands over thirteen meters tall and is flanked by sprockets, giving it the appearance of a vast reel of film. A swan song to a disappearing process, this work, simply titled Film, monumentalizes both the century-long legacy of cinematic technique as well as its submersion beneath the hegemony of the digital. (In an editorial published earlier that year in Britain’s liberal newspaper The Guardian, Dean decries the decision made by the last traditional film laboratory in the U.K. to stop printing 16 mm.) Faced with the impending impossibility of working with traditional film stock, younger generations of artists embrace an art form whose last breaths correspond with their coming of age. Their approach is not technical reverence, but a critical inquiry into the ideological structures inherent in the production and use of such material. With its early democratization of filmmaking, the late 1960s are a pivotal moment for such archaeological exploration. While the technical process of film is disappearing, and its materials have become increasingly rare, the ideas expressed by Third Cinema filmmakers and theorists have proved remarkably prescient. We can see this particularly in relation to the image and social media-heavy revolutions of 2011. Type “Egypt Tahrir Square” into Google and you’re prompted with the words “protest” and “live”: a bizarre testament to the confluence of today’s democratic upheavals with the desire to somehow capture the revolution as moving image and the desire to watch it (the vast audience Solanas and Gettino imagined crowding into factories for surreptitious viewings now sits, entranced, before the computer). While perhaps an overstatement spurred by Western media, the prevalent belief is that widely accessible and producible imaging technologies like Youtube and Vimeo were essential for the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. Occupy Wall Street similarly began with an image. Inspired by the so-called Arab Spring, Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz, co-founders of the Canadian activist magazine Adbusters, created a poster for their July issue that featured a barefoot ballerina posed gracefully atop the financial district’s infamous bull. Riot gear and smoke was behind her, below was the newly coined twitter hashtag #OccupyWallStreet. Moving images caught by mobile phones further spurred the movement forward as videos of a police officer nonchalantly spraying seated University of California Davis students with pepper spray and of feminist theorist Judith Butler’s Zuccotti Park oratorical went viral. Caught in this juncture between the end of film and the beginning of a mass movement of moving image production and distribution, Third Cinema resurfaces as prophet. The works in this exhibition—presented in the chronological order of their subject matter—explore this strange, archival, dissonance.

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