Most of the footage in the new film by Eve Sussman and her collaborators, the Rufus Corporation, is in color, but its wintry locations are so bleak that the occasional switch to black and white barely registers. Not that whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir lacks visual appeal. A moody, lush, retro-futuristic elegy named for Malevich’s famous painting, it was shot mostly in Kazakhstan, with additional material filmed in Russia and Dubai. The second half of the title describes how the work unfolds: the roughly 3,000 clips it contains—around 30 hours of footage—are computer-sorted according to an algorithm that ensures the piece will not play the same way twice; roughly four hours of voiceover are similarly shuffled. At the gallery, where several rows of old theater seats were installed, the piece ran continuously for the duration of the show.
Nonetheless, there is a plot of sorts. A beleaguered-looking man named Holz finds himself in an industrial zone of other-worldly desolation, working for the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company-the original name, Sussman explained in a recent Bomb magazine interview, of the Halliburton corporation. The economy in the zone is controlled, language is rationed and logic does not obtain. Holz talks on the phone with an off-screen woman who sounds like a Cold War apparatchik and engages him in conversation worthy of Beckett. (While most of the sound is shuffled, the audio is synchronized during conversations.) “Have you tried contacting the State Department?” she responds to an inquiry from Holz. “Which State Department?” he replies. Similarly, when a despondent teen implores, “Can you get me a visa?” the answer is “A visa to where?” Much of the dialogue is in Russian, and subtitled; the murmured English is often helpfully subtitled, too, although the questions lead nowhere, and failure of communication is a given.
Despite its evocation of a vanished Soviet era, whiteonwhite is set in the present. Sussman explains in the Bomb interview that its industrial sites were chosen to suggest the 1970s but remain in use, their analog equipment still creakily functioning. Equally lost in time is a deserted amusement park featuring a dimly illuminated, small-scale Eiffel Tower. It is shown at dusk, its rides stilled. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, which similarly tracks the relics of a vanished futuristic society, is one clear point of reference. Sussman has visited this territory before; white-onwhite includes shots, also seen in her last New York show, of the office once used by pioneering cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, which is preserved just as it was the day he died, in 1968.
Whiteonwhite is the third in a trilogy of films based on canonical paintings, following 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) and The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007). These previous works elaborate the richly complicated dramas suggested by Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, respectively. White-onwhite instead breathes life (of sorts) into an image and a set of principles that are resolutely abstract, producing a gorgeous, hypnotic montage of blasted utopianism.
Photo: Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation: whiteon-white:algorithmicnoir, film; at Cristin Tierney.