59th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival Art Monthly #367, June 2013

Into a structure which supports a relatively conventional international competition, the august yet still fleet Oberhausen International Short Film Festival incorporates expansive, invitational thematic programmes and monographic screenings, supported by discursive events. It was as moderator of one such session, intended to unpack curator Shama Khanna’s theme ‘Flatness: Cinema After the Internet’, that I attended.

Ambitious and provocative, the theme set out in eight programmes – five curated by Khanna and three by invited guests Ed Atkins, Anthea Hamilton and Oliver Laric – to interrogate the proposition that the shift from the mass spectacle of cinema to the networked but solipsistic mode of engagement engendered by the internet as an embodiment of the immateriality of late capitalism, has served to compress and abrade human experience.

Khanna wisely avoided simple binaries, preferring instead to establish a dialogic space in which ‘flatness’ could simultaneously indicate hegemonic control – the determinism of late capitalism – and yet represent a stage upon which such a hegemony might be troubled in its native language; a phenomenon both causative and reactive. Drawing on the anti-spectacular, Artaud-inflected asceticism of Robert Bresson’s films as historical precedent, the programmes circled the political and technological parameters of a post-Web 2.0 world but pursued the compressed emotional gamut and objectified, pragmatic aesthetics which characterise it, according to the parameters of the theme’s enquiry, on their own terms too.

In her recent collection of essays The Wretched of the Screen, (Reviews AM365) artist and theorist Hito Steyerl argues that the ‘flattening out of visual culture’ positions images within a ‘general informational turn’ – that is, out of context, incorporeal, without territory. It is this process of dematerialisation which, though once employed as a strategy by the conceptual artists of the 1960s to avoid commodification, is now precisely the means by which images are assimilated, imploding meaning and neutralising unorthodox ideology. And these assimilative strategies extend to history itself, as Mark Fisher has pointed out in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Reviews AM333): the hegemonic power of capitalism is predicated on owning all histories that precede it. This is certainly a message borne out by Oliver Laric’s programme ‘Hybridize or Disappear’, which consisted of films culled from the internet, including Chris Marker’s eviscerating narrative assembled from CCTV of the Mossad-sponsored murder of Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, Stopover in Dubai, 2011. The programme’s apotheosis was the most recent, from 2012, of Laric’s ‘Versions’ series, which uses historical revisionism as a cipher for the paradox of infinite undoability yet cyclical ‘versioning’ which underpins digital technology: the essence of an amnesiac order based on the sterilisation-and-recuperation of culture.

The series’ eponymous programme, ‘Flatness’, invoked polar equivalencies with Karl Holmqvist’s I’m With You in Rockland, 2005, a quietly perspicacious, text-based work which collapsed popular and high culture with a poiesis which waxed uncomprehending and insensible, then wearied and desensitised. The homogenisation implied here is only possible via a process of extreme atomisation, a spectre actualised in the work of the PR executives in Harun Farocki’s film Ein Neues Produkt, 2012, featured in the programme ‘Animated Human’, shown planning new office spaces based on the hot-desking principle which offers individual space while eliminating personal space –and with it any sense of heterogeneity.

As several of the works in ‘Flatness: Cinema After the Internet’ described, the aesthetics of ‘flatness’, which coalesce around the foreshortened, limited, compromised and compressed, speak of the technologies – and in turn, inevitably, the technocracies – which create them. Steyerl ties the immateriality of labour under late capitalism to moving image post-production, both literally and metaphorically, asserting that the logic of ‘post’ now applies equally well to all labour: denatured, dematerialised, extra-curricular, voluntary-obligatory; based around the illusion of choice and a similarly illusory autonomy.

While they centred on a timely subject, though, the thematic film programmes were in places patchy and failed in particular to fold a sense of the political into the theme. Where work was featured that dealt explicitly with the polis, such as John Smith’s Dirty Pictures, 2007, and Phil Collins’ how to make a refugee, 1999, it was awkwardly groundless, its charge neutralised upon contact with drier, purely formal or theoretical works. Where context should have been of paramount importance, it was precisely context which was often missing. As a propositional exercise, it may not have mattered that the programmes themselves sometimes skirted that which they set out to investigate, since they formed but part of a larger structure which intended a discursive periphery to complement the films. As it was, however, the discussion sessions after each screening felt insubstantial and failed to generate a deeper understanding of the theme.

At points the theme was overwrought; in its desire to engage with theory, it was in danger of becoming pedagogical and of proving its own hypothesis rather than attempting to refute it. It was ‘Antecedents’, curated by Anthea Hamilton, which at once offered the most robust interrogation of the theme’s premise and proposed a route around the enervating ‘flatness’ itself. Foregrounding the body as both represented object – caught in the screen space – and subject with agency, the programme disinterred the possibility of the dynamic, dichotomous and polarised, replacing flatness with an undulating terrain.

In many of the works, the body complicates, subverts or transcends the screen space, from the formal elegance of Pablo Bronstein’s Constantinople Kaleidoscope to Jordan Wolfson’s Animation Masks, both works 2012, to the refusal, and transgression of the screen as limit in Shuji Terayama’s Issun Bosi O Kijutsu Sura Kokoromi, 1977. The sense of the affirmation of the body presented by these and other works, including a newly commissioned performance by Hamilton, Venice (The Kabuki Version), 2013, articulated what perhaps was lacking elsewhere in the festival: the ability to act, and the realisation that that ability is grounded in nothing so material as our status as bodies-in-space; that our very corporeality is alone enough to negate entropy.

Consequently, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival endures, and enjoys a lasting relevance, as a collection of bodies in space; of interactions and chance encounters, not transactions; its very time-in-spaceness, too, a refutation of the always-on and unfinishable. It maintains a structure which allows for the existence of the aleatory and indefinite, which, despite its occasionally problematic method, ‘Flatness: Cinema After the Internet’ delivered; a set of programmes both frustrated by and, to an extent, enlivened by its refusal to assent to a monocular perspective.