TRYING TO DEFINE the parameters of the Migrating Forms festival, I’m tempted to say that, more than any other New York fest, it imagines what cinema will look like when and if it wholly leaves behind the twentieth-century definition of “cinema.” Making such a statement, however, would ignore some essential things about MF, now in its sixth year and its second at BAMcinématek, like the importance of film history to the fest, which has established a tradition of important retrospectives—for Jean-Pierre Gorin, Glauber Rocha, and Anne Charlotte Robertson previously, and of William Greaves (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Still a Brother, The Fight) and Rolf Forsberg this year.
So whatever Migrating Forms is exactly is hard to put a finger on, but it isn’t boring—the same might be said for the baffling work of Gabriel Abrantes. Abrantes’s thirty-two-minute Ennui, Ennui, here in one of the four dedicated shorts programs of eighteen programs overall, imagines global politics in terms of dysfunctional parent-child pairs—a husky Afghan teenager reluctantly cast as a warlord by his overbearing mother; the princess he’s meant to kidnap and her touchy-feely father; a French Libraries Without Borders volunteer and her brittle diplomat mother (Edith Scob); and Barack Obama and his “daughter,” a military drone named Hellfire Destroyer #503027. I was recently dumbstruck by Taprobana, Abrantes’s “biopic” of the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, and Ennui, Ennui is another unapologetically high-polish long short full of gross-out gags appropriate to a direct-to-DVD American Pie sequel, disarmingly tender and stunningly bratty.
Not all of Migrating Forms’ political content is so irreverent—The Irish Tapes (1974), for example, has the blunt force impact of its iconic image, a bloodied Belfast woman blinded for life by a British rubber bullet. Originally shown as a twelve-monitor installation, The Irish Tapes is the result of John Reilly and Stefan Moore’s visits to Ulster between 1971 and 1973 with a then state-of-the-art Sony Portapak video camera, the texture of its black-and-white half-inch tape adding a particular ghostly quality to footage of an IRA training camp, a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, and Catholic mothers visiting their sons in detention. Presumably because of a shared focus on prison culture, The Irish Tapes plays on the same night, Sunday December 14, as Field Visits for Chelsea Manning, an essayistic travelogue in which director Lance Wakeling narrates his visits to the periphery of the various detention centers where Army whistleblower Manning was held in Kuwait; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Meade, Maryland. Wakeling’s original drive-by footage from off-ramp America is interspersed with transcripts from Manning’s hearings, Google Maps cartography, and anecdotes referring to the history and present (inextricable, as ever) of the surrounding areas.
Wakeling gives us some indication how to interpret his findings in an early reference to “mosaic theory,” defined thusly: “disparate items of information which individually have no utility to their possessor can take on added significance when combined with other items of information.” A more compelling expression of this idea—likewise concerned with the presence of the past within the present—can be found in The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III by Heinz Emigholz, who has been making films since the early 1970s. (In the company of the artists presenting new work here, this makes him downright venerable—Abrantes was born in 1984, and Wakeling is only a few years older.) Beginning with sculptor Reinhold Begas’s 1901 Prometheus, read as an allegory for the self-image of Germany under Wilhelm II, then shuttling to Rome’s Pantheon, Emigholz traces the interleaving histories of modernist architecture and twentieth-century political catastrophe, photographing buildings by Viktor Sulčič, Eladio Dieste, and Luis Barragán, while pursuing a wending route from Normandy to South America to Saipan, where Fat Man and Little Boy were loaded for delivery to the Empire of Japan. All the while, Emigholz elaborates and frustrates the elusive connection between what one US veteran, quoted in on-screen text, describes as “that indescribable cleanliness which one feels with bombs away” and a new cleanliness of design.
If it’s not the bomb, then it’s the Internet that will bring us together. I did not have the opportunity to preview Mario Pfeifer’s Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear, though the title encapsulates the rapture/horror at the imminent singularity evident in many of the works here. Wakeling, unable to purchase an analog map in a gas station, muses on the “transition of physical markers to digital coordinates,” while Jacob Ciocci’s The Urgency begins with the words “DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THEIR LIVES WRECKED BY COMPUTERS, THE INTERNET, OR SOCIAL MEDIA.” If Ciocci is actually convinced that we’re locked in a digital dance of death, he seems to find the beat quite catchy—the video is an apoplectic montage of YouTube nuggets, message board–trawling finds, and shopworn memes, set to a mash-up sound track by Ciocci’s band, Extreme Animals. Cory Arcangel has generally gravitated toward an unapologetic gee-whiz tech-utopian line, and I can detect no satirical intent in his Freshbuzz (www.subway.com), a sixty-minute screenshot in which Arcangel wields his cursor like a torch to explore the catacombs of the Subway restaurant website (and ancillary brand tie-ins on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.), without yielding significantly more interesting results than a viewer could get spending an hour of his own time. A more abrasive approach appears in the refrain image of Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze—a washing machine spinning itself into overdrive self-destruction, evoking center-will-not-hold entropy—which is broken up with “verses” of passed-out-at-party pics, crushing fetish videos, and moshing Juggalos. Speaking to this publication before a solo exhibition of his work at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis earlier this year, Rafman called Mainsqueeze “beautiful and ironic, or postironic,” that irony evident perhaps in his counterpoising of the hoary clichés of the Tumblr-puke aesthetic (ca. 2012 “seapunk” dolphins, Grimes) with certain staples of Renaissance painting.
Rafman is Montreal-based, and Mainsqueeze plays as part of a program of Canadian work, alongside Jeremy Shaw’s Quickeners, which also, after a fashion, addresses what Web 2.0 hath wrought, but with a quite original sci-fi vintage tack. Quickeners sets its scene in a future where so-called Quantum Humans are all connected to a network called the Hive and have attained a sort of rational enlightenment. It is designed to appear as a documentary on an atavistic outbreak of illogical religious ecstasy in Area 23, “a deserted and derelict region once known in the late age of human civilization as the Americas,” per the public school–accent voice of an English narrator. This is imagined through repurposing footage from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary on a snake-handling Pentecostal church in West Virginia, Holy Ghost People, cutting the dialogue into an indistinguishable garble that sounds like hillbilly patois, while providing subtitles that tell his original story.
I like Shaw’s film, which reconfirms prejudices about intractable American religiosity while seeming to celebrate it, although it fits within a certain tendency in contemporary art which deems only the most extreme varieties of religious experience as suitable for consideration. An interesting contrast is provided by a sidebar devoted to the work of eighty-nine-year-old Rolf Forsberg, a son of Chicago best known for the sponsored, or “industrial,” films that he made for various Christian organizations. The program is the same four-film selection that played the UCLA Film & Television Archive last year on the occasion of Forsberg’s Parable being selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Commissioned by the Protestant Council of the City of New York for the Protestant and Orthodox Center at the 1964 World’s Fair, the silent-save-for-music Parable tells the story of Christ through the misadventures of a sort-of Pierrot clown in a traveling circus. Forsberg is drawn to such high-concept premises: His Ark (1970), set in a thoroughly despoiled post–environmental apocalypse future, follows one man who has made it his life’s mission to re-create the before-the-fall world in a pond in a controlled greenhouse environment—a modern Noah, in a kind of Walden Terrarium. Before arriving at a genuinely paining climax, Ark offers a design for living in the physical world once all of humanity has been raptured into the cloud-life.
“Migrating Forms” is curated by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry and runs Wednesday, December 10–Thursday, December 18 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.