Artists’ Film International (Whitechapel Gallery) Art Monthly #356, May 2012

The current iteration of Artists’ Film International explores, via five films, themes of displacement, migration, transience and loss. At the same time, the works crystallise some current threads in artists’ moving image practice: the documentary and the ‘social turn’; the abiding importance of the performative; and a rekindled interest in language. Indeed, a wider sense of self-reflexivity permeates the programme, with thematic and structural concerns overlapping and apprising one another.

Works by Alejandro Cesarco and Gianluca & Massimiliano de Serio problematise language – specifically, text and the textual – by addressing its simultaneous sense of agency and impotence, curse and cure: the means by which experience is explained and understood, yet codified and fenced. Acknowledging this, the films’ theme of displacement is pursued by a formal disjuncture, a slippage, which, using as method the structures it seeks to interrogate as subject – namely language, memory and history – addresses the politics of representation and, arguably, implicates itself in the processes of mediation and re-contextualisation.

The spectre of history hangs heavy over the twin brothers Gianluca & Massimiliano de Serio’s Stanze, or Rooms, 2010, an elegantly composed and intelligent series of monologues which compact Italy’s modern history with the contemporary plight of Somali refugees. Spoken by actors in formal, remonstrative Somali verse distilled from workshops with the refugees themselves, the film is situated in the coldly resonant spaces of a building on Via Asti in Turin, itself a shifting, duplicitous zone, home to the refugees as a reception centre yet less than a century earlier to the Italian Gestapo, and built in the 19th century as Italy colonised Somalia. Gradually inflected in the words of the refugees, the building’s history is made manifest and, in turn, summons that of the country itself until Fascism and the colonial expansion of the ‘rush for Africa’ inhabit the same space as the Somalis – sorrow returned, renewed; histories colliding, rooms full of words.

Exploring the ‘other’ as alien and double, Stanze casts the duplicity of governments then and now alongside the status of the Somali refugees – colonised and embattled at the hand of Europeans yet stateless and unwelcome in Europe – and their stories, activated by others, sung by strangers. ‘I began to wonder / I began to wonder / I began to wonder’, a woman incants, doubt creeping as Europe too fails her people. ‘A man who has not travelled does not have eyes,’ runs a Somali proverb, and these are travellers’ tales but wrought from journeys through darkness: ‘The sea is a black slate … I have seen beyond death.’ And the building on Via Asti, crudely repurposed, stands as cipher for history itself, mute in the face of tragedy yet complicit in its creation, avowedly progressive yet witness to nothing but recurrence; the stanze of the barracks on Via Asti haunting the stanzas of the refugees’ poems.

The work circles song and the sung, invoking the strong oral traditions of Somali culture. As a mnemonic device, song collates and codifies memories yet remains open, yielding to interpretation and responsive to context and need, in a process of constant becoming. Sung and spoken, this is a catalogue of sorrow, loss and poverty; a lament, a litany. But through intoning the tale, the protagonists become it, live it, assert it as real. Language here is power, too, but power for the disenfranchised, agency for the dispossessed; power as voice, not text. Unwritten, it is unfixed, fluid, alive, and maintains the passage between personal and collective memory, history and happenstance – and ultimately thought and action: a radical, osmotic relationship.

Uruguayan-born, New York-based Alejandro Cesarco’s two works Zeide Isaac, 2009, and Everness, 2008, stalk territory which overlaps that of Stanze, unpicking memory and authorship and challenging notions of the universality of experience. In Zeide Isaac, the artist’s grandfather talks about his experience of the concentration camps in the Holocaust — or rather, talks about his talking about his experience, asserting that it is language which defocuses and neutralises in the face of the inexplicable and unimaginable, unable to summon silence, to describe lacunae. ‘It tends’, the old man says, ‘towards simplification.’ But also once fixed, written, the document becomes memory; the camps become metonymic, symbolic. Documentation delaminates memory, flattens it, forces it to conform to a unilinear, unequivocal past. Personal and collective memory, in this sense, are incompatible under the reductive mantle of history: ‘The proper tense of remembering is the present.’

In much the same way that Stanze’s outwardly simple structure masks a series of interwoven conspiracies, complicities and betrayals, so too does Cesarco’s film, when it emerges that even the account he offers has itself been mediated by another: his grandson, who has extrapolated the text from a discussion with the older man. Once again, the oral and the textual, the possible and the literal collapse in on each other.

Though dissimilar in form, Everness, too, looks at a rupture between the imagined and actualised, and text and the metatextual, drawing on James Joyce’s 1914 short story The Dead to provide a rumination on permanence, regret and our inability to transcend ourselves – looking from youth to the ruins of the future.

Alongside the de Serio’s and Cesarco’s works, Aleksandar Jestrovic Jamesdin’s two films seem awkwardly insubstantial. Playing on themes of cultural tourism and its attendant civic architecture, in Gypsy Style, 2009, the filmmaker swims his way through public fountains across Europe in the manner of Roma children in Belgrade. As a gesture it is neither entirely playful nor meaningful or subversive enough, though; likewise Last Tango, 2011. This raises the question of selection, and while the curation is reasonably taut, the invitational premise of the screening series, wherein cultural institutions in other countries submit artists for consideration, can wrest odd juxtapositions.

Inevitably, the form of artists’ film as anthropological or sociopolitical enquiry suggests as many problems as it offers solutions, yet this is the nature of experiment, and its purpose is more to open a discursive space as to propose concrete resolutions. But in ‘othering’ the message, or alternatively of normalising or assimilating the narrative of the ‘other’ into a western discourse, it becomes more precarious. It might be tempting, then, to accuse the de Serios of ‘othering’ the refugees yet further and submerging their stories still deeper in the sea of history – of assimilating them to a western narrative, however much that narrative may be driven by false virtues of guilt and pity – and of rendering them less, not more visible via a process which aestheticises and dramatises their plight as an instrument for a structural artistic conceit. But the artists’ sure-footedness and command in negotiating the hermeticism of the histories they stalk ensures that this does not happen. Rather, Stanze reads as a radical attempt to obfuscate and defuse the march of history and Zeide Isaac as a warning about tablets of stone. The artists implicate and short-circuit their own histories, conflating past and present, and, crucially, in doing so maintain an open border in which the written is unravelled and the spoken remains fluid.