A standalone group exhibition, curated to complement the films selected for Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum section, the similarly independent Forum Expanded is an alternative to the festival’s own most alternative and risk taking cinema, a deviation from the daily Cinestar-CinemaxX back-forth feedback loop through the Potsdamer Platz thoroughfare, taking you 5 kilometers north to Kulturquartier. A crematorium built at the turn of the 20th century and in operation until the beginning of the 21st, Kulturquartier still stands adjacent to a cemetery, though instead of a columbarium, is now home to the Harun Farocki Institut, the archives of Arsenal, and, for the month of February, Forum Expanded’s “ANTIKINO: The Siren’s Echo Chamber.”
There, fourteen individual works are installed side-by-side, not within four-wall black boxes but in open plan, gathered to coalesce and collect together around this theme—under title and subtitle—before freely diverging again into counterpoints, solitary, and singular work to be endlessly compared and contrasted, internally and externally.
As immersive or expanded cinema, one item to note is obvious but still not to be overlooked: that the way a viewer might make their way through the exhibition is very variable, individual, and indirect, and the subjective experience of moving within its space may inform one’s reception of the work in question. With a map provided at its beginning, and separate works separately numbered, the curation of the exhibition suggests a chronology to opt-in and adhere to in viewing these films.
Though elsewhere this is optional, there is a non-negotiable point of entry at “ANTIKINO,” and no circumventing its first exhibited work: Monira Al Qadiri’s Diver. An aerial perspective shot of synchronized swimmers, Diver loops in continuous playback, suspended overhead at the exhibition’s entrance. Engaging with the film (or simply entering the exhibition) necessitates a descent down the venue’s ramp and towards Diver’s screen, an evident invitation to somehow submerge beyond its frame and into its formlessness. Into a matrix in which everything exists in solution, this immersive movement is, in its own small way, a fitting beginning, a subversion of the convention or construct of the proscenium.
After announcing the exhibition’s most regular motif, the formal infidelities continue in Diana Vidrascu’s Le silence des sirènes, a 24-minute conceptual film that both gives the exhibition its subtitle, and, unlike many of the exhibition’s others, is found in an almost sound-proof and separate screening room. Inspired from a short story by Franz Kafka—itself a rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey—Le silence des sirènes begins with its protagonist, Celine, a literary translator and model, in a state of hypnosis, a therapy that takes her, and the viewer, to the inside of this one woman’s inner life.
Le silence des sirènes. Diana Vidrascu
As Celine’s conjured and imagined images then surface out of her stream of consciousness and manifest materially, Vidrascu’s slippery film impressionistically sequences each from different planes of reality, different layers of diegesis, contentiously crisscrossing from one to the other. Split between Celine’s current home in Paris and birthplace in Martinique, what would at first seem to be the film’s schema of self-fulfilling prophecy is then problematized, its extradiegetic images become unfixed and in flux, those previously being registered as ‘unreal’ repeat and reappear appropriated in the film’s precarious primary narrative. Framed text-within-the-text gradually becomes text as Celine arrives at Martinique, disturbing footage of a forest is cut short by something foreseen, the calming sound and image of a serene ocean.
With a propulsive sound design—an escalating auditory ascent reminiscent of a Shepard tone—the film has Celine make her crossing of the Atlantic, lured by sirens more Kafkaesque than Homeric, sirens who lure and lull their victims not with song but with silence. Though the film’s narrative has its chronological end in Martinique, it is at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou where this conception of silence is elucidated. As announced nonchalantly by a museum curator, the potentially fatal effects of an acoustically-dead room’s “complete oppressive silence” can change a person’s perception of time and space, all of which offers an interesting inverse interpretation of the exhibition’s mythological theme—an echo chamber not of deafening sound but rather, a nightmarish space in which all noise is nullified.
On Construction of Griffith’ Films © Harun Farocki
This unmooring is undone by Harun Farocki’s Zur Bauweise des Films bei Griffith (2006), exhibited here in two channels that theorize how interior space is split and enclosed in techniques of cinematography and editing. Borrowing its own silent form from the films of D.W. Griffith—1911’s The Lonedale Operator and 1916’s Intolerance—Farocki dismantles these formal components, isolating close-ups from shot/reverse-shots to highlight the creation of cinematographic continuity in montage.
Each shot showing a closed space, and each space then split into sub-spaces, Farocki uses this structural metaphor to convey images as lexia, echo chambers juxtaposed here and reconciled in the viewer’s own ocular leaps from one channel to the other.
Transformation Scenario © Clemens von Wedemeyer
Elsewhere in the exhibition is a film evocative of Farocki’s films on digital image-making technology. Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Transformation Scenario is presented as a dialogue between two simulated voices, both informatively running through how certain film blockbusters—pulling illustrative examples from I, Robot, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and The Dark Knight Rises—have forgone the apparent high risk involved in hiring background actors. Instead, computer generated facsimile images are multiplied to appear as a mass of people, to simulate the group social behavior of these programmed crowds—sophisticating echo chambers!—that, in the years since their first use, has developed to a degree where the actions of these social agents in the simulacra need not be randomized but rather realistically taken from publicly available real-time data.
With this kind of determinant data-modeling, “extras” become “believable” characters and simulated intelligence is scaled up to artificial intelligence.
Can’t You See Them? – Repeat. © Clarissa Thieme
A similar kind of film-as-forensics is then found in Clarissa Thieme’s Can't You See Them? – Repeat., a striking projection which represents and simulates, in more than one way, the human body’s panicked response to trauma. Transfiguring the upset shake of a handheld camera into data, and mimicking the motion of the cameraperson’s distressed person, Thieme’s piece simulates a moment to be recalled, relived, and played back repeatedly in projection.
At times this simulation includes the viewer, quite literally immersing them in the light of its adjacent camera, live, primed, and programmed to move its projected frame around its surrounding exhibition space. As its screen sporadically displays the resultant footage, in this complementary way the work as well replicates the instant in which it was produced.
The Fine Thread of Deviation © Evan Calder Williams, Anne Low
Likewise, Evan Calder Williams and Anne Low’s The Fine Thread of Deviation is exhibited in an unconventional fashion—nodding as well to the reverberations of an echo chamber—its film projecting on to its own main subject matter: a silk cloth canvas that hangs unsteadily, not taut but still sadly sagging in the center of the exhibition space. On the subject of textile production and industry, the work comprehensively covers everything from labor leader Elizabeth Flynn to the 19th-century strike of the Paterson weavers, while still finding time to play with sound, image, and the sounds of its images.
In spite of its delivery through headphones, the audio of William and Low’s film still finds itself in the aural vicinity of Heike Baranowsky’s Wosa (Coyote’s Burden Basket), a two-screen installation nearby, that nonetheless virtually drowns everything in its surrounding area in the whir of its 35mm projector. Projecting 2931 frames of daylight, from sunrise to sunset, across nine minutes, the unconfined conformation of the exhibition finds a meaningful resonance between these two works, between the simultaneous repetitive sound of this film’s loom—the work of which is replicated visually and aurally in 1fps flicker—and Baranowsky’s film’s 24 fps analogue projector.
Though film’s installation within the exhibition points to these parallel technological developments—weaving and binary coding—and together even resemble playful premonition of the rise of digital projection. In spite of this, the subject matter of Williams and Lows’s film remains less playful and more explicitly polemical. highlighting the poor, perhaps inhuman working conditions that resulted from automation.
While The Fine Thread of Deviation materially produces a textile flag—red with all of its associations and connotations: blood, murder, anarchy—it is the ubiquitous American flag which gets its own continuous close-up in James Benning’s glory, the exhibition’s lengthiest and maybe most curiously installed work. Certainly a recognizable version or variation on the contemplative landscape film for which Benning is best known, glory is the title given to what it not only represents or depicts but the object it simply is. As its official summary states, glory is “two hours of surveillance footage of a U.S. flag recorded on the late afternoon of 13 September 2018, twelve hours before Hurricane Florence ripped through North Carolina.”
glory © James Benning
A digital camera aimed outward to an antagonized Atlantic ocean for 120 minutes, one might expect glory to be a different kind of immersive experience. Indeed, if the film were screened with sound, or in a more conventional black box screening room, it certainly would be.
Instead, at “ANTIKINO,” one encounters glory in the more neutral non-space of the exhibition’s hallway and—as well as being incredibly easy to miss—Benning’s film becomes difficult to separate from the work in its immediate surroundings. Specifically, it is that of Monira Al Qadiri’s Diver at the exhibition’s aforementioned entry—again, a four-minute film heard while watching glory not once but up to 30 times, repeatedly, looped, and always out of context, sounding celebratory, even joyous, and not at all appropriate as accompaniment to this material.
With no chairs provided, glory’s viewer might stand or sit on the floor, sometimes shifting to see the film between the silhouettes of the individuals who constantly enter and exit, the people who, on entrance, may look either to their left, towards the screen, or to their right, towards you. Staring at these visitors as arrive and walk on by seems to be an instinct unavoidable. These conditions, this viewing scenario—whether intended or not—cannot but inform the viewer’s casual or close viewing of Benning’s film. An ekphrastic reading would focus on the immediate (political) symbolism of the tableau at hand, the American flag’s motion in the film’s foreground, and the movement of waves in its background. Over the course of the film’s two-hour duration, though, one’s mind inevitably begins (or—who is to say—is completely encouraged) to wander.
With Benning’s waves a texture constant and cyclical, it is the very, very gradual destruction of the flag that makes his film run linear, patiently watching the flag’s slow, slow deterioration over time becoming glory’s lone measurable and material, tangible thing. Less and less intact, and more and more in tatters, its decomposition incrementally intensifies, the flag’s three bottommost stripes forming a separate strip, which then becomes tangled around itself.
In zooming out from a sustained focus on the film’s flag—its enter—and attempting to greet the film’s full image, as a whole, there then seems a visual effect produced either through genuine optical phenomenon, or boredom: a vibration in the projection of the film’s frame. Regardless, this moment of silly self-consciousness becomes a convenient time to refocus, to not just consider the film’s frame but as well, to perhaps spare a thought for everything that was left outside of it: the widespread devastation caused by a hurricane that killed 53 people.
The film still enduring what remains of its 120- minute running time, and maintaining a spellbinding pull inward, it is, for the viewer, and for better or worse, difficult to spend too long contending with the human impact of this (perhaps human-caused) hurricane, information the film seems happy to leave outside its frame as far-flung context. Instead, a viewer’s next impulsive port of call could be one common to anyone with a dangerous dependence on conventional narrative storytelling: wondering how exactly glory is going to end. Surely, you think, it must end in decisive, definitive destruction. This logic then leads to scrutinizing the source of Benning’s material and, no longer concerned just for the resilience of the United States flag, but also concerning for the camera. As a black box of its own, this turn miraculously hands the viewer a full feast of questions to keep them occupied: which might be destroyed first, the flag or the camera? was this footage recorded to a hard disk drive or was it streamed and stored to the cloud? how did any of this end in the hands of James Benning?
glory, of course, ends. The viewer exhales, and kicks, and rises, and exits.