Emily Wardill, Night for Day, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes.

Emily Wardill, Night for Day, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes.

Emily Wardill

Whether a story has a happy ending, Orson Welles famously noted, depends on where you stop telling it. Isabel do Carmo, the Portuguese antifascist activist whose voice structures the narrative of Emily Wardill’s Night for Day, 2020, spent four years in jail, not during the years of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime but after the 1974 Carnation Revolution in which it was overthrown. Though the paradox of her being a dissident jailed by the parliamentary democracy she helped usher in is not addressed in Wardill’s video, I could not help but see it as the unifying thread that runs through the artist’s reflection on the entanglements of personal biography and collective history.

Part documentary, part speculative fiction, Night for Day—one of two works in Wardill’s exhibition “Soft Spot”—builds on interviews with Carmo. She details her life underground and the often overlooked role women played in the antifascist resistance, which intensified as the regime began to flail during the years of the colonial wars (1961 to 1974). She speaks of arrests and torture, and of how the women would, even under fake identities, develop real friendships. But Wardill knows there is no such thing as a true story—all stories are fictive, whatever their subject matter. The artist fictionalizes the transition from fascism to liberal democracy as a generational shift, narrated in a text overlay as a mother-son relationship. Carmo is given the role of the mother, against the background of a family home—in fact, architect António Teixeira Guerra’s family home, built in 1974, the year of the revolution. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the river Tagus, it features ample windows and open floor plan that exude midcentury-modern sophistication: an infrastructural utopia, strikingly different from the derelict and damp courtyards in which most Portuguese lived.

In sharp contrast with Carmo’s belief in political mobilization and militancy, her market-besotted “sons” Alexander Bridi and Djelal Osman cite Star Trek as an optimal depiction of utopia in a lengthy conversation about the joys of expat life. Only technology, they argue, can beget a perfect world. It is easy to mock their jargon, in which “incentives” are what undergirds human psychology, and their manager speak, which masks a lack of political literacy, but the way they are presented is not unkind. Rather, the video invites viewers to ponder how they, like much of Silicon Valley, actively and smugly undermine the social formations that sustain the lifeworld they hold dear by misrecognizing the political project they aspire to (utopian socialism) in the brotopia of a space-frontier fantasy.

The transition from dialectical materialism (epitomized by Carmo) to the feedback model implemented by behaviorism and IT (epitomized by Bridi and Osman) is, in Night for Day, allegorized via nondiegetic inserts, in which different optical technologies struggle, and fail, to capture an image that only coheres as a Google Earth geospatial data set, leading to the breakdown of their mode of presentation. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes, “The globe is on our computers. No one lives there.”

A second movie, I gave my love a cherry that had no stone, 2016, is set in the twilit foyer of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, built in 1969, in the same period as the Teixeira Guerra house. A male dancer engages in exaggerated, slapstick-style physical movements, lurching and wobbling. He is accompanied by a ghostly white shirt, hovering midair. His eyes pop, as in a cartoon; his protean body is stretched and strained to the limits of physical integrity. While Night for Day invokes the May ’68 slogan “Under the paving stones, the beach!” the lone dancer in I gave my love a cherry fails to shake the brick-and-mortar institution. Here, however, architecture remains unshaken, leaving Wardill’s exhibition to oscillate between comedy and tragedy. Whereas in tragedy the characters––like Bridi and Osman––tend to misrecognize a breakdown as a breakthrough and think they have choices when in fact they have none, in comedy the choices are real and material; we just keep making the wrong ones.