The Otolith Group, Anathema, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 37 minutes.

The Otolith Group, Anathema, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 37 minutes.

The Otolith Group

Van Abbemuseum

The watchful eyes of the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and the composer Julius Eastman looked over the entrance area for the Otolith Group’s exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum. With the larger-than-life images of the show’s two patron saints nearly covering entire walls, it would have been easy to miss the flat glass vitrine on a pedestal containing ten otoliths (tiny calcareous bones found in the inner ear) that had each been taken from a whiting (a cod-like fish). Although the members of the group, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, expressly shied away from billing their exhibition as a survey or a retrospective, their inclusion of the collective’s namesake (a loan from Rotterdam’s Natural History Museum) invited reflections on what holds their multifaceted, shape-shifting work together. The otolith’s location in the inner ear may suggest an emphasis on critical listening (especially given how central music is to several of the duo’s works), but the organ’s primary significance is its function with respect to detecting and adapting to gravity and acceleration: In the age of algorithmic surveillance—or, in Mark Fisher’s words, “communicative capitalist sorcery”—the Otolith Group’s works attempt to take stock of different gravitational pulls from an embodied point of view. Regaining one’s balance is possible only through the accumulation of carefully choreographed micro movements—not unlike those of the small crystals in the otolithic membrane of one’s inner ear—including archival, documentary, and poetic gestures.

Curated by Annie Fletcher, “Xenogenesis” had a deceptively simple layout: With just a couple of exceptions, each work was given its own room in a U-shaped succession of galleries. Within this context, the opening gambit sought to disorient viewers already familiar with the group’s research-heavy work, much influenced by subaltern studies: Against the visual glossolalia of constant information bombardment, Anathema, 2011, imagined the view from the other side of a screen with visual effects inspired by experiments for LCD technologies. The highly abstract, non-narrative collage of moving-image and sonic sequences—among them audio recordings of TV presenters spewing unintelligible monologues and mysterious clips in which the black rectangle of a flat-screen television moves through various cityscapes—manifests the artists’ interest in “confus[ing] or confound[ing] the racial presumptions that circulate when one is moving in the world as an artist of color.” The point is not to swim against the tide of pre-established systems, but to use unprecedented visions to incite paradigm shifts. This became more evident in Medium Earth, 2013, which offers an ethnography of Southern Californian fault lines. Toward the end of its forty-one-minute run time, a poetic four-minute voice-over written from the fault lines’ perspective plays over panning shots of a mostly rocky, barren landscape. Together, the words and images provide a novel take on proximities and the connectedness of far-flung geographies.

The last work of the show, The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, achieves an electrifying seamlessness between form and content without rendering the two interchangeable. In the two-channel video installation, two pairs of pianists play Eastman’s 1979 composition Evil Nigger. This performance of a work by the queer African American Minimalist pioneer is bookended by individual reenactments by two actors, male and female, of a 1980 speech Eastman made at Northwestern University in Illinois. Here, Eastman explains his musical concept and clarifies the motivation behind his use of a racial slur, as well as that of the term guerrilla, in some of his titles. The shift in attitude and rhetorical emphasis between the two actors’ vastly different deliveries of the same speech—restrained and hesitant in the first versus fiery and outspoken in the second—echoes Eastman’s notion of “organic music,” whereby scores reiterate previously conveyed information with the composer adding to or transforming it. Somewhere in the work’s relentless repetition, its soaring congestion of pedal-held notes, the ghostly reflections of the pianists on their instruments’ polished surfaces, and the two actors facing each other on side-by-side screens without seeing one another, Eastman’s demand for militancy is renewed, and so is his call for nuance.