Flaherty Will Get You Everywhere

Leo Goldsmith at the 60th Flaherty Film Seminar

Hito Steyerl,  How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

NOW IN ITS SIXTIETH YEAR, the Flaherty Film Seminar is an annual occupation of the Colgate University campus that gathers around 170 filmmakers, scholars, critics, programmers, artists, and cinephiles in an unlikely, weeklong cohabitation devoted to an exploration of nonfiction filmmaking. Not quite so free-wheeling as a film festival nor quite so focused as an academic conference, the seminar is named for Robert Flaherty, whose own place and stature within the institution of documentary has ebbed and flowed just as documentary practice itself has migrated among different media: from cinema (independent, experimental, and commercial) to television, contemporary art, interactive media, and beyond.

This year’s programmers, the artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy, marked this trend in their opening remarks, addressing the increasing incorporation of documentary practice into the art world following Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 and Manifesta 5 in 2004, directed by Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma. Fittingly, two alumni of these events, Johan Grimonprez and Hito Steyerl, initiated the week’s programming with two complementary works: Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), and Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010). Both works concern hijacking as a trope of midcentury terrorism and political action, and both draw upon similar compulsions, scavenging in the audiovisual junkyard. Grimonprez named his film for the archival process he engaged in when making the film, dialing into history via metadata and keywords, and Steyerl—appearing, appropriately enough, as a Skyped-in image—noted that their films arose on either side of a historical shift in the circulation, even inescapability, of moving images.

With this inescapability in mind, Monroy and Stracke laid out a particular set of concern about the contexts and forms of the moving image, emphasizing in their programming hybrid, essayistic, and collectively made work, including forty films and a half-dozen installations. One persistent theme during the week was the notion of the image as an object to be shaped, collected, and curated by the archivist/artist. Duncan Campbell’s latest film, It for Others, continues his project of collaging archival media, reenactment, and poetic narration, but is still more discursive, polemical, and off-kilter than his earlier work. Departing from Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s 1953 film Statues Also Die, which critiques an imperialism of objects formed around the European market for African statuary, Campbell’s film constructs a theory of value around the use of images, their extraction, reuse, and recirculation. The Marker and Resnais film, Campbell noted, functions like an artifact in his own film, suggesting the many roles that found or appropriated footage takes on in contemporary cinema: as property, commodity, raw material, or waste product.

Of course, no engagement with found or appropriated media would be complete without addressing the intensification, and even standardization, that digital media and the Internet have afforded in recent years, and here again, Steyerl offered characteristically insightful work. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (also on view through August 15 at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York) conflates the imagistic and the human in provocative and playful ways. Here, humanity appears as either a pixel or a nonperson in an architectural rendering, each struggling for recognition. But Steyerl’s work also revels in this anonymization of subjecthood, and the artist herself appears modeling the gestures of digitalization by performing grandiose swipes, pinches, and double-taps, as if operating (or inhabiting) a giant invisible iPad.

If Steyerl’s works are winning mostly in their exuberant play of ideas, Jesse McLean’s works are still more convincing in their rigorous composition and canny balance of irony and sincerity. The Invisible World matches the commodity fetishism of hoarder videos with the artist’s own compilation of science films and Hollywood spectaculars. Both cosmic and colloquial in scope, the work earns its apocalyptic ending through a quiet engagement of the senses. Similarly, in Just Like Us, McLean uses deadpan subtitling to relate the memoir of a former Hollywood body double against images of parking lots and big-box stores. But here again, the once empty posteverything world is mined for surprising emotional resonance, and the insertion of an erotic interlude from Top Gun serves as one part kitsch object and two parts affective release.

The image doubling suggested by McLean’s video was just one instance of many hauntings and correspondences in the program. In one discussion, featured artist Karen Mirza spoke of exorcizing the “ectoplasm of neoliberalism,” but there were more salutary forms of possession, too. Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998), in which she attempts a shot-for-shot remake of the German director’s The Inexhaustible Fire, is a peculiar kind of channeling, once again bringing home the Vietnam War, the manufacture of napalm, and the deep and extensive modes of involvement of a country’s citizens in the atrocities its governments commit.

Cao Guimarães, The Soul of the Bone, 2004, color, sound, 74 minutes.

Flaherty’s ghost, too, is always present at the seminar—often in discussions about representational politics and the ethics of othering—but actually very little in this year’s edition could be described as traditionally anthropological. The closest came in Cao Guimarães’s The Soul of the Bone, which begins reassuringly as a deadpan vérité portrait of Dominguinhos, a seventy-two-year-old cave-dwelling hermit, then veers into psychedelic ethnography, with the old man, wizard-like, summoning a ring of fire and strumming an eerie Jandek-like dirge on a detuned guitar. Situated in a program alongside Patiño’s In Landscape’s Movement, an HD upgrade of Caspar David Friedrich, Guimarães’s film inspired conversations about images of Man in Nature, but there’s something more anthropocenic about Guimarães’s dense, fragmented images, which find Dominguinhos collecting rainwater in Coke bottles, using the ends of plastic bottles as finger-bowls, and expounding visions to gawking tourists arriving by bus.

Still more works effected a certain polyphony by means of collaboration, splintered perspectives, and hybrid authorships. All of Eric Baudelaire’s films serve as correspondences—often literal ones—between the filmmaker and his collaborators, giving his work a wayward epistolary form. In Letters to Max, a new work previewed here in a presentation with brief excerpts, Baudelaire engages in a sustained correspondence with the ambassador of Abkhazia, a country on the Black Sea that, without official statehood, effectively does not exist. Three of the featured artists were explicit partnerships, such as Brad Butler and Karen Mirza of the organization Their project The Museum of Non-Participation suggests a degree of institutional critique in their work, but also a desire to engage beyond such circuits, forming new networks and ley lines from Karachi to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir to Bethnal Green. With its dizzying mixture of textures and media—film and video, performance, writing, and curation—their work seems more the result of their participatory practice than of a particular formal program. Indeed, Deep State, a collaboration among Mirza, Butler, the writer China Miéville, and many others—a history of revolutionary struggle from Occupy into the distant future—is formally and tonally all over the place, but the obvious collective fever in which the film was made seems more its point than its crazed hybrid construction.

By contrast, the works of Raqs Media Collective (here represented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, but also including Monica Narula and Jeebesh Bagchi) suggest a more coherent aesthetic program—for better or worse. The Capital of Accumulation, an oblique, unstable diptych compiling Rosa Luxembourg’s missing body, talking animals, and a forensic analysis of global capital, suggests a consistent compositional logic at work: the structure of accumulation itself as an organizing principle, often overwhelming and exhausting the viewer with logorrheic overload. If this proved frustrating for the Flaherty audience, there was perhaps a lesson about accumulation nonetheless: Saturation is a process of accumulation whereby nothing ultimately is retained.

The work of the collaborative studio CAMP, represented here by Shaina Anand, seems by comparison to strive for a much tidier organizational logic. Rather than modeling accumulation, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf opts for seriality and the structural logic of the supply chain, mapping images sourced from the cellphones and Bluetooth networks of sailors and traders navigating the “free trade zone” from India to Dubai to Somalia and back. In all their work, CAMP’s response to the ubiquity of images seems first to be concerned with their origin and circulation beyond the commodities market. In The Neighbor Before the House (2009–12), eight evicted Palestinian families in various neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem/Al-Quds are given access to CCTV cameras so that they can spy on the Jewish settlers currently occupying their homes. The result is, perhaps inevitably, an unnerving exploration of issues of surveillance, control, and the position of the camera, but there’s something comforting about the film, too: As kids yell orders to “zoom in!” and family members fill in details of local history, the project becomes a kind of joyous collective imagemaking.

The sixtieth Flaherty Film Seminar ran June 14–20, 2014, at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.