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Luke Fowler, Tenement Films (3 Minute Wonders), 2009, stills from a suite of four color films in 16 mm, each 3 minutes. Clockwise from top left: Helen; David; Anna; Lester.

Luke Fowler, Tenement Films (3 Minute Wonders), 2009, stills from a suite of four color films in 16 mm, each 3 minutes. Clockwise from top left: Helen; David; Anna; Lester.

Luke Fowler

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Luke Fowler, Tenement Films (3 Minute Wonders), 2009, stills from a suite of four color films in 16 mm, each 3 minutes. Clockwise from top left: Helen; David; Anna; Lester.

TENEMENT FILMS (3 MINUTE WONDERS), 2009, the opening presentation of Luke Fowler’s solo show at the Serpentine Gallery, comprises four 16-mm shorts, screened here one to a wall. Each work records the apartment of one of the artist’s neighbors. Helen is a flurry of erratic shots, quick cuts, and multiple exposures. In the relatively static conclusion to David, the camera points outside: David’s possessions ultimately tell us less about him, Fowler implies, than this open window, this view of Glasgow’s pedestrians, its streets. In the moodily lit Anna, a young woman is glimpsed in reflection, followed by Fowler himself, hidden by a camera: A relationship is suggested between artist and subject. The sound tracks of these works, composed by different collaborators, vary greatly. A composition pairing cello and sine wave accompanies Lester. Anna contains “field recordings” of the minute reverberations of objects we don’t ordinarily hear.

As is amply evident in these and other films on view in the exhibition, Fowler stages formal structure overtly. His camera is consistently unstable, his sound pliable and layered. In an interview with Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer, Fowler describes how as a teenager he and a friend ran out of blank tapes for recording music, so they enlisted an echo machine to record tracks onto tapes that had been used (perhaps not coincidentally) by Fowler’s mother. Her speech was now a “texture,” a found object, to be combined with other sounds, other layers of meaning. Fowler and his friend had intuitively stumbled on the technique of collage, the estrangement of an originary term through its conjunction with a second. Fowler’s films have been described as metadocumentaries, films that question their own veracity, the very possibility that the “truth” of an event or of any history can be represented, or even known—a tendency of filmmaking associated with Harun Farocki, Pierre Huyghe, and the Atlas Group, among others.

Staging the seemingly modest Tenement Films up front at the Serpentine, the exhibition’s curators—Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Sophie O’Brien—allowed for a less conventional understanding of Fowler’s practice. Each of these works is about someone. Image and sound combine and vary, evoking different personalities and temperaments. Fowler, typically described as a documentarian, is in fact a portraitist, and like any serious practitioner of that genre, he asks what it is to represent another, what a portrait is. And in this respect, his practice transcends the epistemological concerns of the metadocumentary. His concern is less the problematics of knowing than a set of existential questions concerning individual agency. His portraits ask: What, under a given set of historical circumstances, can a person achieve? What are the costs of disenchantment versus those of doing nothing?

Like Brecht’s Galileo, the subjects of Fowler’s major works are compelled to challenge the status quo. His films are less “documentaries” than morality tales of outsiders who come up against a hegemonic order and fail, dazzlingly. What You See Is Where You’re At, 2001, is an homage to the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whose rejection of Cuckoo’s Nest therapeutic techniques (straitjackets, electroshock therapy, etc.) led to the establishment of an alternative community for the mentally ill at Kingsley Hall in East London in 1965. Cornelius Cardew is the focus of Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, 2006. A founder of the Scratch Orchestra, a consortium of musicians and nonmusicians that rejected classical and twelve-tone notation and technique in favor of do-it-yourself methods, exchanging the concert hall for the train station and town hall, Cardew wreaked havoc on the British avant-garde music scene during the 1960s and early ’70s; arriving at a Maoist stance, the insistence that music, too, must serve revolutionary aims, he eventually repudiated even the anarchistic forms of self-expression of the Scratch Orchestra (not to mention the vanguard musical explorations of Stockhausen and John Cage, the godfather of aleatory technique) as “bourgeois.” The orchestra split into factions and fell apart. Cardew died several years later. Fowler’s reconstruction of the composer’s progress from Cage disciple to cultural revolutionary is fascinating. Archival footage is interspersed with interviews of Scratch alums, now in later middle age. Their voices and mouths are at times out of sync. In these slippages of sound and image, an ambivalent Cardew emerges.

To make portraits of figures like Laing and Cardew is to insist that individuals need not accept the status quo. Fowler’s intent is political. Retrieving obscure histories of the counterculture, like so many younger artists, he encourages us to imagine alternative models of being. His most sustained works, like Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, refuse to take sides. Textual and photo documentation, testimonials, and original film footage are collaged into a nuanced portrait. Yet the impulse of Fowler’s endeavor is deeply romantic. The full attention of his portraiture is reserved for those charismatic figures, always male, who fight the authorities against all odds. (Bogman Palmjaguar, a schizophrenic who has devoted his life to protecting the peatlands of northern Scotland, is the subject of another film.) The male outsider, that stock figure of modernism and Hollywood cinema, is the recurring motif of Fowler’s art. The youthful romanticism of this vision is its appeal—and its limitation.

James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.