That Obscure Object of Desire

Nick Pinkerton on the 7th Migrating Forms Festival

Frances Stark, [THIS IS NOT EXACTLY A CAT VIDEO] w/ David Bowie’s “Star Man”, etc., 2007, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 9 seconds.

THE AMORPHOUS MIGRATING FORMS FESTIVAL is regular in nothing, not even in calendar placement—its seventh installment arrives a year and some change after the last, which fell in December of 2014. Closest in spirit to the programming at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Light Industry, Migrating Forms may be said to cater to the slim Venn diagram overlap between the new-media-hip Rhizome crowd and the old-school Film Comment cinephile.

Reflected in the title of the fest, which emerged from the ashes of the former New York Underground Film Festival, is an ambition to adapt the idea of a festival to a culture of moving-image-based work that is in flux as it has never been since the days of The Jazz Singer. During a recent year-in-wrap podcast, my colleague Amy Taubin suggested that we might stop listing features and expand to “lens-based work,” a response, I suppose, to the difficulty in finding a distinctive definition of “cinema” as viewing formats become increasingly confused. As film history is frequently experienced on a laptop, BAMcinématek offers a theatrical platform to material that, in many cases, might seem more at home on Google Chrome—for example, last year’s Freshbuzz (, a real-time screenshot recording of Cory Arcangel exploring the various drop-down menus and subterranean caverns of the Subway website.

This time around we have, on opening night, a block of work by Frances Stark, including her Osservate, leggete con me, which since 2012 has toured various institutions, including Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, as a three-channel installation. BAM will play the piece, which renders the chat logs of Stark’s cybersex encounters with various (mostly European) men as white calligraphic text on a black backdrop over a loop of the “catalogue aria” from Don Giovanni, as a single half-hour projection. (The Los Angeles–based Stark will be present to discuss her work.) The following day brings a prime-time screening of the German artist Britta Thie’s Transatlantics, a serialized portrait of life among the German-Anglo-American artist community in Berlin working the gallery and kunsthalle circuit, saved from the rather routine serial-TV machinations of Dunham & Co.—name-checked in the blurb—by a penchant for disconcerting, digressive, free-associative video effects, many of them incorporating antique home video, and up-the-nose oddball camerawork. Thie herself stars and delivers the rhapsodic monologues, while the ensemble cast includes Internet rap-rock phenom Juiceboxxx and model Lily McMenamy, very funny as the awful, backbiting director of a local gallery.

In keeping with the inherent elasticity of Migrating Forms, the fest has been arranged somewhat differently this year. Pick-and-mix short blocks are gone, and each program is dedicated to a single artist or group—for example that of eight-person collective GCC, whose work focuses on nation building in the Persian Gulf. The four single-channel pieces were unavailable to screen at the time of press, though I can venture to say they are in keeping with the unusually politically oriented nature of much of this year’s programming, which includes a screening of the epic festival favorite Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) and a tribute to the late cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler. (BAM will screen a 35-mm print of Wexler’s 1964 The Bus and 1969 Medium Cool, as well as his 1974 document of a trip to North Vietnam with Jane Fonda, seen throughout exercising her smug listening face in Introduction to the Enemy.)

Ed Atkins, Happy Christmas!!, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 23 seconds.

Working off of Vimeo screeners and the like, it’s difficult to say how the change in arranging programs might affect the actual screenings in a theatrical context. In the case of the work of Brooklyn-based James N. Kienitz Wilkins, I found myself coming around from brow-furrowed hostility to a grudging curiosity and even pleasure as I made my way through four of his shorts all in a row, particularly struck by those which create elaborate backstories for junky found- and stock-footage images, expounded in affectless voice-overs written in deliberately off-key takes on vernaculars like hard-boiled gumshoe (TESTER) and pop-culture junkie delinquent (B-ROLL with Andre [2015]). In fact, I went through something of the same process of recoil-and-response when I encountered Wilkins’s Public Hearing (2012), a re-creation of a town meeting in Allegheny, New York, held over the possible expansion of a Walmart, done in a variety of mismatched performance registers that seems deliberately irksome. It takes some adjusting to Wilkins’s involuted sense of humor—say, the running-joke references to Panera Bread—but putting in the time, I’m halfway convinced that he’s managed to encapsulate something ineffable about the modern world.

I was, at any rate, thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up with more work by the UK artist Ed Atkins, whose name I first encountered at the 2013 iteration of Migrating Forms. The grayscale Happy Christmas!! (2015) may stand as a typical Atkins work: A dark-haired man, revealed after a moment of scrutiny to be a high-definition motion-capture creation, faces the viewer over the shoulder of another man with short blond hair, whom he holds in a motionless embrace. Without explanation the date “June 7” is emblazoned on the dark-haired man’s forehead, and a tag reading “2015” extends from the head of the blond man. In the foreground, half of the silhouetted head of another man, a silent witness, is visible. As the image zooms in and out slightly, the dark-haired man, with an expression that appears pained, rattles off a series of seemingly unconnected dates, as though just savoring the sound of them: “August the sixth in the year 2032…Christmas, 1905…Every Sunday in 1951…Midweek.” I’m not sure how Atkins arrives at the remote, morose locations that he does, but there’s a vague sense of implacable rue and even sorrow lurking behind his avatar-monologists and his carefully constructed sound collages of creaks, shuffles, and attenuated snatches of melody. (It should be said, also, that his arcane “Squinting through a prism of tears” audiovisual poetry, with its Ballardian bouquets of language, is impossible to imagine coming from any other time than Right Now.) After watching one of his shorts you may have a sense of being touched in an obscure spot that you did not know existed—and it is for such sensations that the willfully esoteric Migrating Forms is to be treasured.

Migrating Forms, curated by Nelli Killian and Kevin McGarry, runs Friday, March 4, through Thursday, March 10, at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.