TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2022

TODAY, IN A HUNDRED YEARS

LAST SEPTEMBER, six Palestinian militants escaped from Gilboa Prison, a maximum-security facility off Route 71 in northern Israel. Five were from Islamic Jihad; the sixth was from Fatah. All had passed through a tunnel scraped for months with plates and spoons so the men could drop through a bathroom floor to crawl more than seventy feet through the dark. Just beyond Gilboa’s walls—and in shocking view of a prison watchtower—the fugitives sprang from a hole in the dirt before melting into the night.

It was a humiliation. Shin Bet agents fanned out into the countryside and raked through the Occupied Territories, while in Gaza, freshly ravaged by the latest round of Israeli shelling, revelers passed out sweets at stoplights and streets were choked with celebrations. But perhaps the most vigorous response—the most pointed, impassioned support—came from Jenin camp in the West Bank. The sole Fatah prisoner, Zakaria Zubeidi, was an icon of the city’s insurgency. Jailed for the first time at fourteen for throwing stones in the first Intifada, in the second he led the paramilitary al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. By then, his mother and brother had both been killed by Israeli soldiers. Though Zubeidi gave up his weapons in 2007 for the “cultural resistance” of Jenin’s new Freedom Theatre, his face—pocked and blackened from the blast of a mishandled bomb—had been seared into the mind of the camp. And in the days after Gilboa it was this face, stamped on posters, that once more roamed the streets of Jenin.

The Otolith Group, O Horizon, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Zubeidi appears four times in Nervus Rerum, a 2008 film by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, founders of the London-based collective the Otolith Group. First from behind and blurrily close, watching old Arafat speeches on TV; then from a medium to a long shot, in a graveyard, gesticulating at a monument to martyrs; then posing with martyrs’ photographs; and then, at the very end, playing cards. Each scene constructs a link between war and the world of pictures, as Zubeidi wields or flips them, seeks to explicate or inspect them: the fighter, gripped by symbols. That Zubeidi was by that point himself a kind of ideological symbol—vilified in the Israeli press, heroized by much of the camp—both is and is not the point. He doesn’t dominate Nervus Rerum. Nor does the woman filmed by the window, the man padding through a kitchen, or the children toting toy guns as they scamper past the camp’s graffiti. Though shot entirely in Jenin just after the second intifada, the film refuses the spectacularized tasks of conventional documentary and declines the virtuous pleasures of edification or instruction. The takes are long but not quite sensuous. The film is structured not by narrative but by the paratactic prowling of the camera as it floats down narrow alleys, circling and sidling up to various denizens of Jenin, the camp’s sprawling, byzantine matrix traced by the cruise of the Steadicam’s gaze. And none of the subjects speak; or rather, we can’t hear them. The only speech is heard in a voice-over, in which Sagar reads from Fernando Pessoa and Jean Genet.

Why start here? No stylistic signature rules the Otolith Group’s practice. As is clear from “Xenogenesis,” an exhibition of works made between 2011 and 2018 (the show was inaugurated at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, before traveling to the Sharjah Art Foundation and opens July 7 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin), each piece takes the shape and dimensions that fit a given theoretical problem, so it isn’t clear which might rightfully stand as “representative.” And given the group’s extravagant heterogeneity—film, curation, installation, text, each executed with the same devotion and sophistication, none made subordinate, accessory, or ornamental—why open a discussion with a film made fourteen years ago?

“Pessimism” doesn’t quite describe the Otolith Group’s philosophical posture, if only because the word presumes both certainty and closure.

First: Nervus Rerum lays out in miniature the questions that shoot through the collective’s corpus. Militancy and colonization, as well as the legacies and brittle limits of various modernisms and avant-gardes—these themes have been recapitulated since the group’s founding in 2002. Quotation is also central. Not as snickering poststructuralist cheek but as a way to build formal friction and confect a specific conceptual syntax. And the Gilboa prison break last year—while marking the persistence of both the “conflict” and Palestinian dispossession—pries this film back open, as Zubeidi returns to the iconicity the work tries subtly to displace.

But paramount is the question of tone. The shape, the pacing, and the metallic affective surface of the film are the most revealing, albeit delicately, of the collective’s preoccupations. This West Bank is not the exploding “global hot spot” emblazoned across the nightly news. It’s a kind of lunar landscape, a place of shivering unreality and suspended animation. An alien place. Otherworldly, out of joint, lost in the flow of time—yet the paradoxical result of a specific historical hideousness. Third-world militants of the 1960s and ’70s saw Palestine as among the more explicit illustrations of the system they sought to smash, just as today the occupation looks like a symptom of a broader malaise of the Global South. After the ironies of postcolonial nationalism, the dashing of socialist dreams, and the planetary genuflection to the shimmering image of the commodity, much of life in the neocolony is some variation on what unspools in Nervus Rerum: state terror, forced enclosure, the surveilled stasis of the slum.

*

The term “city” does not convey the impact of these environments. They were crucibles. Psychological field labs for testing new ways of being human. For seeing what would happen when the human species was subjected to acute pressures. Stress loads enough to turn carbon into diamond.

THESE LINES are not about Palestine, but about Mumbai. They, too, are read in voice-over, this time in Otolith II, from 2007—just a year before Nervus Rerum and the middle installment of the trilogy that properly launched the collective’s practice in 2003. It was the year of the Iraq invasion: a moment of political failure so absolute as to seem unreal (the first film opens with footage of marches against the war), which is perhaps why the entire trilogy is also a work of science fiction. The otolith is a delicate calcium carbonate microcrystal embedded in the inner ear. It helps vertebrates move and balance and allows them to sense tilt. But these structures have been deformed in babies born on the International Space Station, as we learn from the text that scrolls at the start of the film: a report put out by the “Institute of ExoAnthropology” one hundred years in the future, in 2103.

The fact of physical difference prompts a delirious revision of the very concept of the human—and that human itself has lost its sense of rootedness, of earthly place. The first may be a figure for race; the second, for the nation. Sci-fi makes those fictions look both strange and crisply vivid. It’s a kind of popular avant-garde, inflicting a literal alienation on political and aesthetic reality. Black music and Afrofuturism, cannily slotted into a broader, third-world cosmology, tower over the Otolith Group’s body of work: So “Xenogenesis” greets its visitors with big black-and-white portraits, of Julius Eastman and Octavia Butler, respectively. The word xenogenesis comes from the latter’s trio of novels, as the epigraph to the catalogue makes clear:

“Is it alive?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

She had beaten it, kicked it, clawed it, tried to bite it. It had been smooth, tough, impenetrable, but slightly giving like the bed and table. It had felt like plastic, cool beneath her hands.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Flesh. More like mine than yours. Different from mine, too, though. It’s . . . the ship.”

“Smooth, tough, impenetrable,” “slightly giving,” and at last “like plastic”: The descriptions of this sci-fi flesh might also serve for cinema itself, a voluptuous play of light that can appear at once absolute and manipulable as it distends space and time. Virtually everything the Otolith Group produces invokes or recombines the components of the essay film. Invented by Chris Marker and christened by André Bazin, the form derives potency from the power that text can wield over the image—subverting or embroidering it, language scraping the skin of the picture or sliding over it like a lens. Nervus Rerum is a variation on the form, though the deployment of Pessoa and Genet introduces the element of collage—not unlike People to Be Resembling, in which fragments from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925) are recited over pictures of the jazz icons Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, and Naná Vasconcelos.

Even a silent work like Sovereign Sisters, 2014, manages to summon an essayistic sensibility. A massive screen depicts a ghostly rendering of a rotating monument commissioned by a Swiss postal union: a great white goddess wrapping the globe in her embrace. But the triumphalist solidity is ironized, quite literally liquidated, as the statue is reflected in a pool of water placed at the base of the screen. Eshun and Sagar are not just practitioners but faithful advocates of the essay film: Their programming and exhibitions of work by Marker and Harun Farocki, as well as—monumentally—the retrospective of Black Audio Film Collective, accompanied by a thick, authoritative catalogue, bespeak a commitment to probing the possibilities of a genre whose attitude toward the cinematic image is angular and askance. An art of suspension, dislocation.

Militancy and colonization, as well as the legacies and brittle limits of various modernisms and avant-gardes—these themes have been recapitulated since the group’s founding in 2002.

Of nonalignment, you could say. In the Year of the Quiet Sun, 2013, explores the idiosyncratic but significant practice of issuing commemorative stamps in postcolonial states, the imagery on the traveling pieces of paper here recast as the staging ground for political contestation and transition. Coups and revolutions force a shift in how the nation-state is pictured; history—the blistering heroism of the national project—is inscribed on the ephemeral, circulating slips.

The situation, from the perspective of left politics and the masses of the dark-skinned poor, is bleak. The Otolith Group’s work issues from a pained clarity on this point. But “pessimism” doesn’t quite describe the collective’s philosophical posture, if only because the word presumes both certainty and closure. O Horizon, 2018, a feature-length documentary, immerses itself in Santiniketan, an ashram founded in 1863, which in the early half of the twentieth century was the home base for the writer, composer, teacher, and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore. The film is slow and vivid. It delights in its own visuality and the play of colors. And it seems that the unembarrassed loveliness of the images—the vigorous pleasure it takes in the sway of dancers, the streaking of sunlight—has something to do with the enveloping force of the totalizing vision of Tagore. A drone camera soars over the trees; the picture enfolds the holy site. Tagore wanted Santiniketan to be a place of spiritual replenishment as well as of innovations in agronomy. Now it’s part of the struggle against environmental degradation inflicted by corporations and permitted by feckless states. And, once again, the collective rephrases the component parts of the cinematic essay. As a woman’s voice recites at the very start of the film,

Today, in a hundred years

Who are you sitting, reading this poem of mine

Filled with curiosity

Today, in a hundred years?

The poem is Tagore’s, from 1896. But it’s also an act of will, of literary time travel, rhyming vividly with the ExoAnthropologists of the year 2103. The words have the audacity to picture an earthly future. The Otolith Group proceeds with full knowledge that this is the world that holds both the refugee camp and the ashram, people forced from their family’s territory or living on poisoned soil, as captured by the creep of Steadicam or the soaring, all-seeing drone. But an anticapitalist politics popped from the socket of pessimism will have to plunge into the geological, microbial, perceptual, and somatic, the many delirious layers of what Marxists mean by the word “totality.” A world catastrophically reenchanted when seen at a seething angle, torn open and fully alienated, re-centered and displaced, alive to the epistemological possibility of an alternative. The next world, the third world, a world worth the effort to save. A world slashed by perpetual crisis: the sensorium of the South.

 

Last fall, all six of the Gilboa fugitives were captured within two weeks of their escape. Their lawyers spoke to the press about the torture inflicted on the prisoners, how they were beaten, starved, interrogated naked. But they also sent a message about what it had felt like to be free: new socks. The taste of cactus.

“Xenogenesis” travels to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, July 7, 2022–February 12, 2023.

Tobi Haslett is a writer living in New York.