In Rare Form

Nick Pinkerton on the 5th Migrating Forms Festival at BAMcinématek

Ed Atkins, Even Pricks, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes.

LOOK, UP IN THE AIR! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… What, exactly? This much we do know: Migrating Forms, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the New York Underground Film Festival, is now in its fifth installment—and its first at BAMcinématek, having up until now called Anthology Film Archives home.

Programmed by co-directors Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, this year’s Migrating Forms slate combines a selection of new work by experimental media artists with choice retrospectives. In previous years the revivals have put a spotlight on such varied figures as Jean-Pierre Gorin, Georges Perec, Glauber Rocha, and Chuck Jones; this time around, there are programs dedicated to the choreographer Merce Cunningham and Hong Kong action filmmaker Johnnie To (Drug Wars).

To Cunningham and To’s names we must add that of Anne Charlotte Robertson, a Boston-area Super 8 diarist who died in 2012, and who has three restored works playing. With her lank, unkempt brown hair, hunted glare, aggrieved manner, and ever-present cigarette and coffee cup, Robertson cuts a striking figure in her 1986 Apologies, facing down the camera and pelting the viewer with frantic, pleading atonements. If Robertson seems harried to the point of being ill, well, that’s because she is, as her “Five Year Diary” project (1981–1997) attests. Migrating Forms will play two “Diary” entries, A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital (1982) and Emily Died (1994). In both, Robertson, who was frequently in and out of mental institutions, relates the travails of her psychosis with a kind of beseeching humor. Breakdown is soundtracked by two simultaneous narrations, one which plays like Robertson’s surreptitiously-recorded sessions with an analyst, the other her own cool analysis, after the fact, of the effects of encroaching madness. Feverish filming is one symptom: “This is called mania, everything has significance,” Robertson says of her obsessive self-documentation, including a delusional crush on Dr. Who and a passion for filming her groceries. In Emily Died, forty-five-year-old Robertson’s usual woes regarding weight and medication are tangled up with her response to the death of a three-year-old niece and subsequent mourning. (Robertson’s rhapsodic, flower-bedecked eulogy may mark her as some strange heir to the tradition of New England transcendentalism.) The artist never surrenders the idea of a Prince Charming on the horizon—“My true love would want to see me someday,” she says in Breakdown, “This is for him”—but it’s the rest of us that she did a favor by sharing these unguarded, nervy confessionals.

It may seem like the figures that I’ve mentioned thus far have little to do with one another, but this is precisely the polymorphously perverse logic of Migrating Forms’s programming—it’s not that one of these things does not fit in here, but that everything does fit in here. (The fest doesn’t even adhere to a regular annual schedule—previous editions have run in May.) Above and beyond the feature film slate, what really distinguishes Migrating Forms is its role as a showcase for short-format films: It’s a place to catch up on films like Utskor: Either/ Or, the latest from Spanish-born, CalArts-trained Laida Lertxundi, whose work I became familiar with after seeing her 2010 Cry When It Happens at the third Migrating Forms. In Utskor, Lertxundi leaves behind the Californian landscapes of her first five shorts to shoot on the northern archipelagos of Norway, combining one of the best eyes for landscape working today with her usual flagrant, jarring interruptions of non-diegetic 1960s rock and soul, here tied together by the recurring lyrical plaint “It’s so hard.”

Ryan Trecartin, CENTER JENNY, 2013.

In addition to programs of work relating to single artists (Cunningham, Xavier Cha, Ryan Trecartin), there are five individual programs composed of a diverse array of international shorts. The abovementioned names need no introduction—of Trecartin’s quartet of new works, the same shown at the Venice Biennale, I saw only the fifty-minute Center Jenny, set in a sinister post-human present-future whose gender-ambiguous inhabitants have developed a nostalgia for sorority hazing culture. The cacophony of catty backbiting by a tribe of jabbering Day-Glo savages, hemmed in on all sides by a buzzing swarm of cameramen, would take some space to unpack here, and purportedly relies on the accompanying works for full comprehension, so I’ll concentrate instead on some less-heralded names.

As is implicit in a festival name which suggests flux, Migrating Forms provides a significant platform for new media art. Juan Gris Dream House and Popova-Lissitztky Office Complex are perfect examples, two computer-generated pieces from Canadian Jon Rafman’s Brand New Paint Job project, both applying abstract canvas patterns to virtual spaces. Ian Cheng, another CGI artist and a refugee to the art world from George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, provides a motion capture riff on the classic Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon in bbrraattss, a glitchy, maladroit choreography of bodies disharmoniously flopping about, a further complication of Cheng’s 2012 music video for the Liars, with each figure now strapped to a cumbersome doppelganger.

Most captivating of all in this department are two works by British-born Ed Atkins: Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, which appeared at his MoMA PS1 show in the spring, and the new Even Pricks, which played at the recent Performa 13. An eight-minute parade of CG animations in HD, Even Pricks’s principal “characters,” stranded against solid color backgrounds in compositions where illusory depth-of-field is revealed through focus shifts, are a talking ape and an extended arm with opposable thumb extended, seen pointed up, down, corkscrewing around, inflating, deflating, rammed into an open eye, and dipped into the navel of a nude man’s torso. The screen is emblazoned with interstitial mottos ranging from obscure (“ALMOST ALWAYS THERE’S A THING TO GRIP”) to apocalyptic (“DESTROY YOUR LIFE”), rendered in a style that approximates the text on teaser spots for trash reality and cop shows. All of this is set to a beat that sounds like the persistent slapping of flesh against flesh, pierced by occasional orchestral swells or an unmistakable snatch of “Hotel California.” Paired with the refraining image of the center crumbling out of a conjugal bed, sinkhole-like, and Atkins’s surprisingly lyrical fragmented prose—“punitive hollow-point hen carcass, forcibly thrown up on a tide of dirty blonde and ditched faith”—Even Pricks conveys an ineffable sense of loss.

Ian Cheng, bbrraattss, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes.

Also well accounted for at this year’s Migrating Forms are what I’ll call archivist-cinephile-scavenger films. Mount Song is the latest non-narrative short by Shambhavi Kaul, born in India and raised in the cinema—her father, Mani Kaul, was a prominent participant in the Indian New Wave. Appearing to take place on an abandoned planet of pillow shots from fantasy/science-fiction/ghost-story films, Mount Song is a grim arrangement of smoke-and-fog-wreathed, wind-whipped widescreen vistas, mostly studio-bound inventions seen in artificial night and lurid theatrical gel colors, all devoid of human presence, and poached from unidentified films. (Japanese? Chinese? Indian? All of the above?) El Adios Largos, as prankish as Mount Song is foreboding, is a very funny comic riff on the idea of restoring work to its “original” state, by Anthology Curator of Collections Andrew Lampert. Predicated on the film-ahistorical fiction that Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a lost film, El Adios Largos imagines how the beginning of the movie might look had it been rediscovered in a “16-mm, black-and-white, cropped, Spanish-language dubbed print,” then clumsily colorized. Gina Telaroli’s Amuse-gueule #1: Digital Destinies musses up the Little Bohemia lodge shootout from Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies into abstraction by playing it as a series of overlapping scrims, in which the percussive gunfire sounds have violent visual correlatives.

This approach literalizes the words that open Benjamin Tiven’s A Third Version of the Imaginary: “Behind each image is another. And behind that one, another.” As a man wanders the archives of Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, a Swahili voice-over muses on the idea of magnetic videotape as a haunted, palimpsest format, as well as on the particular relationship between the Swahili language and the word “image,” described as a “foreigner’s concept”: “There is no naturally occurring word for just image… In Swahili, an image cannot exist without its medium.” Gabriel Abrantes’s Birds also refers to the postcolonial legacy, though with a particular irreverence and willingness to skewer the filmmaker’s own pretense. A hand-painted truck passing through the countryside in Jacmel, Haiti advertises “little Gabriel Abrantes’ ” staging of Aristophanes’s Birds in original Attic Greek. An historical parallel is obviously meant in performing this tale of usurpers from the abode of men attempting to enter the kingdom of birds, but this seems likely to be lost on the indigenous teenagers we meet, who worship Robert Pattinson in Twilight, while a native participant grumblingly objects on soundly theoretical grounds.

No medium and thus no manner of images are overlooked in this program, and the works come from points scattered across six continents. Looking at the disparate coordinates which make up Migrating Forms, where can we finally locate it? Best just to settle at saying that it’s the most consistently rewarding, consistently baffling, and above all consistently inconsistent festival that New York City has got.

The fifth Migrating Forms runs through December 17th at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York.