BFAMF 18: The Politically Childish and Why it Should Be Allowed to Matter

Think about: ‘’the least important thing,’’ and especially what these four words conjure up. For me, they resemble a group of islands, and from a distance they seem to belong together. However, as you visit each and every one of them, they start to drift in different directions.

Lucy Clout, who stayed in Berwick-upon-Tweed for six full months prior to the 14th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, mentioned ‘’the politically childish’’ during a seminar she gave on the first morning. A combination of words that retrospectively changed my perception of her work, the festival, and its programming. The year before, she was invited to become the next Berwick Moving Image Artist in Residence, with the possibility to live and work there, and the opportunity to exhibit new work afterwards. This bespeaks a great belief in her artistic and political abilities. In this text I explore why it is not a given that an artist like her has been awarded this opportunity.

Throughout the seminar, the tone of her speech moved from left to right, as if it had to perform a balancing act. She herself mentioned that she had not been away much during her residency, and this seminar indeed seemed to act as some sort of awakening which she wielded in order to relearn how to speak. Language, and the dichotomy between what we decide to streamline, and what not, seems to be awfully neglected — but not in Clout’s work. Her relationship to this is of a poignant nature; and the politically childish seems to be the catalyst of it. I believe it is never a coincidence that some subjects are not given any attention, while others are fed and raised until they are pigheadedly indisputable. So what constitutes the politically mature? Who determines it and what kind of interests are behind it?

In the attention she paid to her sentences during the lecture, she tried to undermine her own advancement towards professionalization, something that the societal body starts to bestow on everyone as soon as they begin to think and talk in a certain manner that slightly fits the role of professionalized co-worker. Clout attempts to keep this process from developing by keeping the doubts she had when she began. It is a matter of keeping doubts alive, particularly in the face of the most controlled contexts. Do not confuse her refusal to speak perfectly with the very different parameters set and explored through amateurism; she is endangering the reception of her work too much for that. The atmosphere that I felt after the seminar, in which she also showed an earlier work, was very unstable; it is precisely her engagement with this position that makes her something other than an amateur, but also keeps her from becoming a professional. That would look and feel more like this:

 

 

The older work she showed, The Extra’s Ever-Moving Lips, is the best possible contrast to the image/constellation above – static, though connected by black dots. As with any image produced with Paint, this film shows that any openly unstable way of speaking is made possible through the many associations and links we establish as we speak. This is not different from perfectly articulated speech, only the latter is very good in streamlining itself – somewhat as if it needed to prepare itself for a business meeting. Hiding and cloaking personal failures or attitudes, acting as if everything could reach the 100% perfection mark. The film is a complex response to how hegemonic television culture represses the richness of language, often covering it up with the pretense of “clarity.“ Clout explores a quasi-insignificant detail from a quasi-insignificant scene and works it through: She enlists a lip-reader to enlighten her about what is actually being said and recruits a contemporary soap star to recite the lines. In her reworkings she shatters the dominant concept of “absolute mastery as ultimate aim“ and exposes it as one big phantasma.

I like how Shama Khanna puts it in an email conversation between herself and Clout: ‘’Thinking about the other way we use words – as throw-away sounds like ‘yeah’ and ‘um’ – you realize their function is gestural, almost like ‘pre-speech’, rather than trying to persuade or reproduce desire. In your film I felt aware of this even when something was being explained – the way the lip-reader repeated the phrase ‘dead-end-road’ resounded with me quite musically for example. As algorithmic language increasingly tries to pre-empt our desires it seems necessary (to me at least) to be able to distinguish between the two. The way you bring memory into the equation seems quite un-computer-like in this sense – when forgetfulness is one way of dealing with the mass of information we’re so close to all the time.’’

The algorithmic language, I would like to add, resembles the dangerous kind of fluency in which the parrhesiastic risks can no longer be taken.

After this experience, I could not help looking for other films that further explore the collision between the politically childish and the politically mature. Films that seek to stretch our abilities to categorize more widely and freely, because we seem to do it anyhow. Heather Phillipson’s Of Violence, which can be seen below, was projected in one of the nine locations scattered throughout Berwick and left an overwhelming impression on me: Phillipson positions her dog, ‘’an involuntary participant in human impositions,’’ as an influencing factor of the everyday, as a prism through which everything from the emotional to the physical, linguistic and political can be rendered. What makes “the pet“ interesting is that it is at once domesticable and absolutely unknowable. What she does so well is the approximation of an impossibility, demonstrating how any experiment at communication is better than none. However, to go against my own words, both Clout and Phillipson seem to argue against that: It is something much more, and the ‘’better than none’’ argument is merely a reductive way of saying that one still prefers the Major Themes (versus the minor ones). Such conflicts and disagreements about the issue of attention are very important, and the politically mature seems very content with how it is installed in our everyday, habitualized lives.

But how can we grade and measure something if its thoughts and feelings cannot be externalized? As one of the characters points out in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, in which the spectator is also forced to accept a permanent state of ‘’deficient’’ or incomplete receptiveness: ‘’What you have is inside.’’ Making use of that aesthetic strategy, it suggests that this inaccessibility is something akin to a gift from life, changing our relation to the unattainable.

What all of these films have in common, and re-present freshly, is what we generally perceive as strange intensities. That is not because we lack the registers to receive them, but rather because the usual propagators of the Major Themes, who help supervise the existing standards, continue to place the same subjects on display. Especially in cinema, the dark and the existential are still features that make such films most eligible for artistic canonization. It’s a well-established regime that influences how young filmers develop themselves. The politically mature is in a sense safer, because its importance can always be justified: One simply points to the existing idea of history and that’s that. 

The politically childish, on the other hand, has a more difficult task: It cannot justify itself as easily because in many important historicizations of the past the parameters were still focused on the mature and masculine, like a muscled body. Not on what is tiny, or minuscule. This becomes particularly complex when certain events or contexts have only been witnessed and documented by a handful of scholars. That a meshed context like Berwick should bring these issues to the fore is no coincidence. Cinema is understandably obsessed with aligning itself with art history in order “to prove its worth,“ and therefore wants to showcase that it can pass on many of the themes that were also expressed in what is now deemed classical. This is a movement that the bigger body of cinema cannot resist since it consists of masses of human beings, who are not in the position to resist the weight of history. It is due to this that these two women and one very femme-like man have been very courageous in their artistic output.

Chelsea Girls von Andy Warhol

Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol

Of Violence by Heather Phillipson

One of the other highlights was an integral projection, if that can be said about this film, of Ula Stöckl and Edgar Reitz’s Geschichten vom Kübelkind, a filmic search that also loves to ignore its own boundaries. The whole package, comprising of 22 chapters of varying lengths, was made to be shown in a pub, where the audience watches and determines the order of the film together: The first person to mention the upcoming chapter also helps determine the overall experience; the projectionist will play the reel as he is told. Imagine: randomly walking into a bar, you drink a beer, yell the title of the next sequence, and leave again. A filmic body that gets recomposed every time and has, like its main character, no desire to know itself or its full form. In 1971, this was the ultimate outcry against the funding structures and a chance for a new kind of film to resist its fleshed-out form. Negating consummation, but demanding surprise.

After my visit to Berwick, I realized that their programmers are aware of this shift, and that their decision to use the politically childish as one of its main pillars is a move in which they recognize the possible consequences of neglecting such intensities. In these difficult times, it seems especially useful to refuse the idea of the incomprehensible altogether, since the notion of the full and whole product is an illusion that only puts the fittest and the most sophisticated above everything and everyone else. Which the majority of us cannot afford to be.

Geschichten vom Kübelkind by Ula Stöckl and Edgar Reitz

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