Curiosity Won't Kill Cats.
Brian Drolet and I started a conversation when we meet at Media Impact festival in Moscow in november 2015. We have kept on talking about the ongoing ‘war’ between social democracy and the uprising of rightwing ideologies and the roll of soft power. And in relation to the premier of the commissioned installation Magic of Seven we had a open conversation with the audience in Bergen.
Brian Drolet is the Executive Director of Deep Dish TV, a non-profit New York based media organization that curates series of video documentaries. And they were so nice to give me footage for my 7 channel video installation Magic of Seven.
Deep Dish TV have for over 30 years been a laboratory for new, democratic and empowering ways to make and distribute video. It is a hub linking thousands of artists, independent videographers, programmers and social activists. With humor, passion, creative flair and very low budgets, Deep Dish TV artists and producers have developed provocative video series exploring issues that profoundly impact our lives.
In the last 12 years Deep Dish TV has focused primarily on the curating, producing and distributing documentaries on the Middle East (Iraq and Palestine) and racism in the United States. From their perspective, the reason for this focus is clear: These are two themes central to the reality of the U.S. and to some extent our strife ridden planet today.
- Video Trailer: Shocking and Awful – a grassroots response to war and occupation.
- Video Trailer: An American Nightmare - Black Labor and Liberation
In this work they have attempted NOT to just list outrages, crimes against humanity, acts of brutality, injustice piled on injustice. We have attempted to do 2 things:
- To ask the WHY question, why are things the way they are?
- To explore what we can do to change things? What are the elements of hope in the trajectory of the human species, which often seems to be on a mission of self-annihilation? How are people responding in ways that counter seemingly compulsive destructiveness? How are people attempting to provide some vision of a different way – “create opportunities to think different.”
The Why Questions:
As children we have no restraints on asking why. That unbounded curiosity about how things work way too often gets dulled, diminished, deleted. Maybe the questions are too big or the answers too disturbing. Sometimes kids’ logic is a bit faulty. But “grown ups” often swallow the logic of explanation run out in the media, by politicians, priests etc. (Maybe the tooth fairy story.) Why did the U.S. invade Iraq? Why is racism such a virulent force in the U.S. 150+ years after the formal end of chattel slavery? Maybe look at why Europeans find it hard to see their own causal relationship to the flood of refugees now at their door. What are the roots of patriarchy? What is the nourishment that still feeds it? Or maybe ask, what’s the relationship between Norway’s industrialization in the mid-late 19th century and slaves picking cotton in the U.S.? (Maybe reference the Netflix series Occupied)
What To Do Questions:
“When we look out, we look into the past, the farther we look, the more deeply into the past we see. At the center is the present. Alas there is no direction in which we can look to see the future — except perhaps into our own hearts and dreams. All we know is right now… When Albert Einstein married space and time in his theory of relativity back in 1905, he taught us that our eyes are time machines. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light, the cosmic speed limit, and so all information comes to us, to the present, from the past. (Reference Patricio Guzman’s film Nostalgia for the Light Maybe a brief clip.)
It is really only the imagination of the artist that can look into the future. Whether the scientific artistry of the genetic biologist who sees our immune system producing certain molecules and takes an informed guess as to why and projects a path to some medicine. Or the visual artists or writers or musicians who conjure possible futures. Imagination, those visions at their most provocative and engaging wrestle with the “Why” questions. Otherwise only deceptive fantasy is created. But the time machine of our eyes, looking back at what has unfolded to create the present moment, isn’t really a machine. It’s our collective human intelligence and consciousness.
This is why I think artists are guides to possible futures. (Refernce Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.) They can both reveal and project. In either case they can create the opportunity for reflection.
This is also why I think the distinction between “politics” and art is misunderstood and often distorted. The artist is not “a heavenly horse floating free.” I love the quote by the poet Adrienne Rich in her preface to the collected poems of my friend June Jordan: “Jordan too the world as her field and theme and passion. She studied it, argued with it, went forth to meet it in every way she kenw.’
Reality based imagination does not always create hopeful visions. (Reference Goya Fight with Cudgels and Vereshchagin VV 14:27:46). How could it. Robert Oppenheim, who oversaw the development of the U.S. atomic bomb said the first test in 1945 brought to his mind the words of the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Yet really good art, really great art does not depress. It might serve as a warning or draw out the ridiculousness, even the brutality of our class and gender and tribal behaviors. It also enables us to appreciate, even celebrate our deeper humanity and potential and contemplate different ways of understanding.
This is why I think that the piece that Gitte has created, a kind of Sankofa, (Reference African Burial Ground in NYC and “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten," ) and is a kind of “tropic” - (Reference: A tropism (from Greek τρόπος, tropos, "a turning") is a biological phenomenon, indicating growth or turning movement of a biological organism, usually a plant, in response to an environmental / external stimulus.)
In our work on the U.S. and European wars on the people of the Middle East, Deep Dish TV filmmakers and artists have tried to pay close attention to and amplify the voices of women in the midst of what is essential male made carnage. The Women of Iraq program in Shocking and Awful, Iraqi Women Speak Out, and Where Should The Birds Fly – the stories of two young Palestinian women from Gaza. It is crucial that Gitte has set our collective eyes on the past through these women from 7 continents and given us this opportunity to think differently through the 7 Norwegian women whose chants and voices we hear.
I got this very nice e-mail from Brian after he and his wife Barbara return to New York and I would like to share it the you:
Dear Gitte and Frans,
Thank you so much for your generous hospitality…and the invitation to come to Bergen. We had a wonderful two weeks (thanks to Barbara's planning) and especially enjoyed our time with you in Bergen. It was also so nice to meet your friends and collaborators, especially those we were able spend time with, Malin, Rita, Hilde. (Although not a time of upheaval in the political sense, I do think it qualifies for us as what Franz described in his talk as "actual time." Malin is an extraordinary curator. The exhibits she has mounted over the last decade, individually and collectively, illustrate the exploring power of artists and represent an unfortunately rare awareness of our global connectedness. I was really excited by the whole scene at 3.14 Gallery.
And the magic of 7! I've been thinking about your work a lot since returning to the belly of the beast. And describing the installation to many friends and colleagues. Some further thoughts.
- 12 or 13 years ago I was on the Film and New Media grants panel of the New York State Council for the Arts. It was period when artists and filmmakers were beginning to experiment with video as an art form. Of course Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and a few others had been at this for a while. At the time it seemed to me that most of the projects we reviewed were mainly repurposing narrative or documentary forms. But it was also clear that as people three or four generations into television, we had been trained to consume moving images in a certain way. When looking at the work of video artists on screens both the viewer and artists are challenged to break with old ways. The artist had to find ways to create insight, emotion and unfamiliarity on extremely familiar devices, and the viewer had to somehow break the habit of being the consumers of simple story telling with moving images where little thought is evoked, though sometimes passions are stirred. Given these difficult challenges, I think Magic of 7 succeeded in both form and content. Maybe "succeed" isn't the right word. In the couple days we had there I observed that people both absorbed and pondered the images multiple times. I was in that circle of screens 5 or 6 times and that repletion continues to conjure reflections and etched many of those images into memories that still stir emotion. In our era of ephemerality, perhaps the "carry home" permanence and impact of the work is the measure.
- I've been thinking about what engaged me and wondering what it stirred up in others. The Magic of 7 was both beautiful and provocative. Both qualities are contradictory. There was a formal beauty to the images, but in the juxtaposition there was the danger of the "aestheticization of the violence". In mathematics there is a "proof from beauty" which some describe as results that establish connections between two areas [of mathematics] that at first sight appear to be unrelated and expressing this insight with a certain elegance or simplicity. But, I asked myself, were the connections and the simplicity of the juxtapositions too didactic? Does the work make an argument and suggest answers or provoke questions? I recently watched a talk by Josh Begley, Setting Targets Around a Circle https://vimeo.com/176869833. Begely is a visual data artist who works with electronic media and visualization. He quotes the American novelist Toni Morrison. "Literature has always been a place to go for me because it's indeterminate and it's provocative and it could be beautiful." Bagely continues, "It seems to me that our best artists, our best intellectuals work at their craft without having all the answers. They work at the craft by asking questions that they don't have the answers to. It's not "this is what I believe" Morrison says, "because that would not be a book. It would be a tract." A book is "this is maybe what I believe, but suppose I'm wrong. What could it be? Or, I don't know what it is, but I'm interested in finding out what it might mean to me as well as the other people."
Barbara and I agreed that The Magic of 7 demands repeated viewings to absorb the images and reflect on their meaning. We also agreed on the essential role of the White Moose. When I asked her what she took away from the piece she said "violence vs serenity." The question that keeps haunting me is the contrast between the power of the violence and the apparent vulnerability of the women around the lake. And the women in the kitchens? Those images, in context, raised many questions about our world: nurturing, work without compensation, gender roles, the many kitchens and women blown apart by the very sophisticated weapons of war paraded in the following segments. What can we do? Coming at it from different life experiences and political involvements. I think that is the question The Magic of 7 provoked both of us to think about: the contrast between now and possible futures. For me, as I've thought about your work over the past few weeks the phrase What Is To Be Done? keeps materializing. Of course that was the title of Lenin's famous 1902 essay. But story has it that he was deeply influenced by the 1863 novel by Nikolai Chernechevskey by the same title, which he allegedly read 5 times in the preceding year. I read the novel sitting around a lake many summers ago, It is a story of a woman's liberation. A story of hope and disappointment and hope again. A kind of utopian socialist dream. The thing is, it is not very clear at all "what is to be done." Or as the young women at our talk kept asking "what should I do?
The Magic of 7 contains beautiful images, horrific images, disturbing juxtapositions, and it poses many more questions than it answers. In fact, I don't think it answers any questions. But as the Moose says, It does give us some clarifying provocations on where we might begin...how to begin thinking differently.
You created a significant work of art that is both beautiful and provocative.
All the best