The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Migrating Forms festival is the perfect antidote to Armory Week—a space where experimental film and video, the kind of work that requires lots of mental and physical time to consume, and the kind that often isn’t on offer at market-driven art fairs, is front and center. This year, in the festival’s seventh edition, Migrating Forms groups most of its showings into single-artist screenings, and the result is an altogether more cohesive festival than in the past. Here’s a look at some of the festival’s most notable offerings.
About half of the work in this festival is geared around the Internet and new technology, which makes sense—that seems to be all over the art world at the moment. Fittingly, Migrating Forms opens this year with a showcase for Frances Stark, who’s recently been positioned as a forerunner to much of the art about the Internet made today. Stark remains better known to Californian audiences than New York ones, perhaps because of her videos’ preference for a distinctly West Coast sense of humor. There’s no doubt about it: videos like Osservate, leggete con me (2012), in which Stark presents just the text from her sexual misadventures on Chatroulette over classical music, are very funny. These works get at the different social codes that exist in our online and physical worlds. Can you imagine a total stranger saying, “love u in all your ways” IRL? Certainly not, but that’s hardly a revelation—Stark’s work is ha-ha hilarious, but it’s not particularly deep. It all gets summed up when one Italian user realizes that he’s going to end up in Stark’s work. “This is working! for me! hah!” she writes to him, defending herself. He types back, “fucking artists.”
Britta Thie’s Translantics makes a similar statement about intimacy on the Internet, this time with a younger audience in mind. Originally commissioned as a web series for the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Translantics loosely follows a group of young German women as they go clubbing and attend art openings. (Thie, a German model-turned-artist, plays BB, who, sure enough, is a model and artist.) Like an uncritical version of Girls, or like a toned-down version of Ryan Trecartin, Translantics lamely defends Internet-obsessed milliennials who don’t know how to relate to one another. I’m thinking, in particular, of a sequence when BB and a friend discuss the Photoshopped pictures from Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein underwear shoot. As they talk, the two images of Bieber—the original and the fake, with the enlarged bulge—get superimposed over an image of a German city. The problem here is not that Thie tries to mount a thesis about digital pictures affecting how people interact with daily life, but rather that she does little to build on that idea.
Leave it to Ed Atkins, then, to move Stark and Thie’s ideas in a more cerebral direction. The British video artist’s early videos—heavy on Hollis Frampton allusions, light on content—aren’t as good as his later ones, like Even Pricks (2013) and Material Witness OR a Liquid Cop (2012), which push Atkins’s interest in online intimacy to an extreme. Once Atkins gets into his groove, his videos become almost entirely populated with uncannily real computer-generated men and appropriated pictures and sounds. They feature images that get seared into your memory before you even realize—a talking CG chimp, a man with a green-screen sock over his head, the back of a man’s head with Ace of Base’s “The Sign” playing in the background. Characterized by choppy sound edits and poetic voiceovers, Atkins’s videos are sad, uncomfortable, and highly rewarding statements about what the Internet has done to our emotions. If meaning in these videos is elusive, that’s intentional—things are hard to understand in Atkins’s work because we can barely see eye-to-eye anymore, thanks to our obsession with HD images and digital screens.
GCC, an eight-artist collective formed in the VIP lounge of Art Dubai in 2013, then picks up where Atkins leaves off, with a series of incisive videos about how the Gulf Region has been transformed by an influx of money, and how the Internet and digital images have influenced that. For their Migrating Forms program, which may just be the best thing in this festival, GCC intersperses their own wryly satirical videos with appropriated footage from conference live-streams and television. As the collective introduces borrowed images from 360p videos of Gulf culture, stock photography, and screens within screens, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, and what’s satire and what’s genuine, in the Gulf Region. The equation seems to be that places like Dubai and sleek technology are one in the same—expensive, deceptive, and very much a creation of cultural elite.
Basma Alsharif takes her cues from Jean-Luc Godard and Chantal Akerman for a group of sharp films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The young Lebanese artist works in a highly stylized, very formal manner, and in that way, her work even feels delightfully old school, like a throwback to ’60s New Wave filmmaking. Her best works are the ones that continually play with the possibilities of film itself by superimposing text, playing tricks with the camera, and creating jarring cuts. They’re strangely playful, given their dark, sometimes angry, sometimes mournful nature. HOME MOVIES GAZA, for example, begins with a long take that turns out to be in reverse, though viewers don’t realize this for a few minutes. It’s an appropriate way of portraying the condition of many Palestinians—a life effectively played backward, turned upside down by a war that affects everything and everyone.
Several works in this festival deal with conflicts in the Middle East, but none are as effective as Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), a five-and-a-half-hour documentary that focuses on the director’s family in the months before and after Iraq got tangled in yet another war with America, in 2002. It never completely justifies its length, but even in its lesser moments, Homeland is a gripping vérité-style study of what happens when the political becomes personal. Grand political developments are glimpsed only through TV screens; the focus is Fahdel’s family and how it responds to something bigger than them. Fahdel is particularly adept at finding high-impact metaphors in the everyday—a bee getting stuck in mud and dying, for example—as proof that there is nothing in life that goes untouched when war begins.
Migrating Forms this year features three films by Haskell Wexler, the award-winning cinematographer who shot movies like In the Heat of the Night, and who died a few months ago. Only one—his 1974 documentary Intro to the Enemy—was supplied for critics, but it’s one of the festival’s must-see offerings. (It’s curated as a double feature with his 1964 film The Bus.) In the film, Wexler, Jane Fonda, and the activist Tom Hayden travel to war-ridden Vietnam. Their findings: Vietnamese people mean no harm. They’re human, and Wexler doesn’t spare us the details to prove that—Fonda asks one girl to recount a bombing, and as she does so, Wexler zooms into her hand as she threads her fingers through her ponytail as a kind of nervous tic. In doing so, the girl becomes more than just a talking head. What makes Intro to the Enemy special is not just that it’s rare (it may be a while before it screens in New York again), but that it goes about making its antiwar point without being overly pushy or suggestive. Wexler takes a big statement (that we, the Americans, are the true monsters here), reins it in, and brings it down to earth, which, after all, is what any good work of art does with lofty ideas.