PRINT November 2018



Still from Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives, 2017, 16 mm, color, silent, 36 minutes.

THE MENTION OF REDDIT most likely conjures the thought of “Ask Me Anything” interviews, or perhaps the alt-right sewers of /r/The_Donald or /r/TheRedPill. In Chris Kennedy’s silent 16-mm film Watching the Detectives (2017), the website figures as something else: a place to witness the ways in which truth claims are made and unmade across distance, in real time, often with little grounding in fact.

Kennedy begins with a tweet—“Ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people”—before cutting to footage of the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured some 260 others on April 15, 2013. That tweet, from the account @J_tsar, was written by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Kyrgyzstani American who carried out the attack with his brother, Tamerlan, citing Islamist beliefs. The remainder of the film’s thirty-six minutes consists of reformatted excerpts of Reddit and 4chan posts made in the attack’s immediate aftermath, extracted from the flow of digital communication and re-presented with observational blankness. The liveliness of film grain looks curious set against the flatness of digital images, serving as a visual reminder of how thoroughly this material has been abstracted from the temporal and material specificities of its original context. Across Kennedy’s carefully sequenced stills, the Reddit “detectives” examine photographs, crudely annotate them to identify suspects, engage in racial profiling, make false accusations, and argue and joke about the progress of their investigation. As the film unfolds, a feeling usually experienced like a dull ache—the feeling that unauthenticated truth claims increasingly achieve consensus and that social-media communities are prime movers in the recirculation of falsehoods—takes on an alarming, piercing concreteness. This film is a horror film.

The found-footage tradition of experimental filmmaking is closely aligned with disjunctive montage and with operations of Debordian detournement that see original meanings subverted through reuse. Moving-image artists’ engagements with digital culture have equally tended to foreground the cut-and-paste recombination of heterogeneous materials, yet these experiments often take shape as a mimetic exacerbation of online existence, whether in the blocky, overlapping frames-within-frames of Ryan Trecartin and Camille Henrot or the diaphanous superimpositions of Rachel Rose. Watching the Detectives in some sense reflects both tendencies and yet follows the conventions of neither. In place of montage, Kennedy opts for a form that resembles a slideshow, a patient compilation punctuated by pauses of darkness; rather than hyperbolizing the visual and affective character of digital culture, he culls fragments from the flood of data, ordering them in the interest of a calm legibility that is elusive online.

By “watching” the Reddit users, Kennedy trades the participatory imperative of the internet for a distanced practice of documentation, committing ephemeral utterances to the archival stability of photochemical film and making them available for collective consideration. (“Collective,” because the existence of the work on 16 mm assures its near-total confinement to public exhibition.) In this regard, his actions differ considerably from the atomized interactivity and feedback that characterize amateur sleuthing. Yet there is also a mirroring at play. Kennedy watches watchers; that is, he examines the activity of individuals who are themselves engaged in acts of looking and discernment. There are photographs of crowds, of backpacks; photographs with captions and drawings appended; photographs depicting racialized subjects deemed terrorists without cause. Watching the Detectives is, among other things, a film that explores how we make sense of—and how we make meaning from—massive populations of images of actuality. Kennedy asks how we stare down data dumps and build narratives out of the captured contingency of photographs, while doing so himself in the construction of his film.

In other words, Kennedy and his detectives play the same game, but according to different rules. All are in search of truth, but instead of recklessly clamoring for certainty, Kennedy assiduously lays bare the behavior of a system, mapping the imperfect mechanisms via which communities create consensus around a shared reality. As Eyal Weizman has said, drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, building a common world constitutes our most urgent political task today. But as Watching the Detectives shows, the task is one that is easily corrupted. In offering users the ability to up- and downvote posts, a feature clearly displayed in Kennedy’s film, Reddit submits truth to the plebiscite, facts be damned—a chilling metonym for today’s wider populist formations. Against the fetish for blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction that has marked so many artists’ work with documentary in recent years, and against the denigration of evidence, Watching the Detectives insists on the necessity of making truth claims—and underlines the difficulty of doing so.

Erika Balsom is the author of After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017) and a senior lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London.