Yvonne Rainer, Hand Movie, 1966, 8-mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent, 8 minutes. From the 4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Yvonne Rainer, Hand Movie, 1966, 8-mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent, 8 minutes. From the 4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

the 4th Ural Industrial Biennial

Yvonne Rainer, Hand Movie, 1966, 8-mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent, 8 minutes. From the 4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

One of the more resilient myths of cinema history holds that at a screening of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1896 film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), the fifty-second reel of a locomotive engine pulling into the station incited a stampede out of the theater by audience members unfamiliar with moving images. This legend provided the point of departure for curator João Ribas’s exhibition “New Literacy,” the main project of the Fourth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art. In surveying the semiotic stumbles and surges enabled by new forms of communication, Ribas suggested that the most salient advances might be the ones designed to escape notice altogether.

Set within the gargantuan factories of the Sverdlovsk region––the cradle of the Soviet industrialization project––the Ural Biennial kept issues of production and labor close to its core. For its fourth edition, based in a defunct toolmaking factory in the center of Yekaterinburg, among other sites in the region, commissioner and artistic director Alisa Prudnikova tasked Ribas with exploring “literacy,” a concept he chose to interpret as the ability to “read” text, image, and movement. Guided by three overlapping themes—“The Persistent Word,” “The Image as Witness,” and “Capitalist Choreographies”—the resulting exhibition unfolded not as an inventory of artistic engagements with the latest gadgets, nor as a series of forecasts or fantasies of augmented iFutures, but rather as a study of the minor psychological shifts and traumas of linguistic transformation against the backdrop of what Ribas terms the “fourth industrial revolution” (following those of steam, electricity, and communication/information technologies). This latest revolution centers on coding—not only in terms of digital interfaces, but also that of the human genome, which can now potentially be edited or appropriated as information storage. Navigating the changes effected by this revolution, Ribas argues, is intuitive, much like using a smartphone, which one can do without necessarily reading the manual.

In placing this auto-updating digital literacy into a broader evolution of communication technology, Ribas forwent traditional chronological narratives. The exhibition opened with one of the three versions of Louis Lumière’s La sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), 1895, which fixes on workers streaming from the family’s factory. Perhaps due to the emphatically quotidian nature of its subject matter, the carefully staged scene has often been mistaken for documentary. Countering this challenge to the “authenticity” of the image-as-witness was footage culled from Soviet film director Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Kinopoezd (Ciné-train), 1932–34. The project revived the agit_-_trains from the early 1920s, converting a carriage into a mobile film factory, capable of directly recording and relaying working conditions across the Soviet Union. For this exhibition, a large, freestanding metal frame offered two monitors, mounted in opposite corners. The screen in the top-left corner projected Medvedkin’s reels, while the second, tucked into the bottom-right corner, looped a selection of works by Groupe Medvedkine (1967–71), the French film collective fronted by Chris Marker, who took up the Soviet director’s tactics to document rising labor issues in France. Ribas confronted these reports from historical front lines with more whimsical riffs on contemporary working conditions from Mika Rottenberg (Minus Yiwu, 2017) and Pilvi Takala (The Trainee, 2008).

These cross-generational conceptual contaminations lent “New Literacy” its fluency and fluidity. On the third floor, samples of Otto Neurath’s 1930s-era attempt to create an entirely pictographic language––the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or isotype—were coupled with the wall-spanning installation RainCarNation, 2017, by Babi Badalov, a Paris-based Azerbaijani artist whose work hinges on linguistic elisions and strategic miscommunication. Broadcasting over this interchange was Kurt Schwitters’s epic sound poem Ursonate, 1932, an exactingly structured imitation of language that taps into the intuitive aspect of Ribas’s fourth revolution: Instead of the shock of the new, what we experience is a prefab familiarity with fresh technology. We don’t leap away from the screen; we swipe and scroll it, responding instinctively until our gestures calibrate to those required by the machine (an observation elaborated upon in Julien Prévieux’s video, What Shall We Do Next?, 2014). Ribas’s elegant juxtapositions felt just as natural. Drawing on multiple kinds of reading, the exhibition revealed literacy itself as an ever-evolving project.

Kate Sutton