Experimenta 2018 Art Monthly #421, November 2018

A programme strand within London Film Festival dedicated to artists’ moving image, Experimenta, a lonely noun in a sea of imperatives (LOVE! DARE! LAUGH!, the festival’s programme strands exhort) has for some time existed as a phantom limb; a stubborn barnacle on the granite rump of red-carpet galas and champagne breakfasts that define the capital’s major film event.

A distinct thread this year unravelled from the politics of the image and image-making, with two highlights both moored to South America. The anonymous Mexican collective Los Ingravidos’ The Sun Quartet, 2017, read like an angry, insurgent Stan Brakhage, poesis somehow co-existing with politics—and often within the same frame. Circling the 2014 mass kidnapping by police of 43 students from Iguala, the four movements shun documentary approaches to unfold instead on an emotional register. A lengthy cadenza, the film’s final movement is structured around poet David Huerta’s Ayotzinapa, 2014, written to commemorate the disappearance, its invocation ‘We bite the shadow / and in the shadow / the dead appear’ read and re-read in Spanish, French, Scots and other languages, summoning a sea of voices. Polyphonic, multivalent and complex, the onslaught of image and sound becomes a conscious opposition to the disappearances; a powerful confirmation of the will to endure.

Via the convergent histories of the Argentinian military junta terror of the 1970s and the performative actions of artist Oscar Masotta, Segunda Vez, 2018, attests to the dynamics of spectatorship. Spanish artist Dora García’s magnificent long-form project conjures a portmanteau of situations which share a sense of threat and complicity, asserting an equivalence between the power of dictator and spectator. The eponymous final section is based on a short story by Julio Cortázar which, like The Sun Quartet, deals with political disappearance yet refracts it through a lens both absurdist and menacing, not unlike the best of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ novellas. Beyond its political charge, there is something disquieting yet oddly apposite about a marginal moving image stalking invisibility itself.

Elsewhere in the programme, Bouchra Khalili’s Twenty Two Hours takes up where her Documenta project The Tempest Society left off: a sober, measured, elegant and persistent chronicle, in this case, of the secret meeting of Jean Genet and Black Panther Bobby Seale in 1970. Together with Morgan Quaintance’s superb Another Decade, with which it was paired, the film proposes an dynamic relationship to the past; one in which histories act not merely as mute witnesses to acts done but urge for action in the present.

Strong new work by Sebastian Buerkner and Duncan Marquiss bookended the group programme ‘We Would be Lost Without You,’ the former presenting Aykan, 2018, a shimmering, sinister and quite astonishing treatise on perception. In a 3D quite unlike the ubiquitous multiplex experience, anchored to a booming, rolling soundtrack, it presented a lurching journey around an unfamiliar city, its poles of perception flipping between alienation and elation, intoxication and illness, the waking dream of a drunken Messiah.

Marquiss’ Collision Index, 2017, probed a spectral, inky depth where objects humdrum and exotic shared a screen-space both familiar and uncanny. The film’s sum is as obscurantist as its parts, drawn from the collection of the McManus Museum in Dundee: happily so, as the looseness of touch with which Marquiss approaches the task makes room for speculative and ludic object-affinities which a more linear archive would miss.

Cladach, 2018, by fellow Glasgow-based artist Margaret Salmon, harbours an unassuming fidelity and generosity for its subject, the Scottish coastal town of Ullapool. Elevated by its singularly quixotic, unorthodox perspective, it is the film’s sense of participation which ultimately sets it apart. Its genesis as a commissioned portrait of a place would suggest a tightrope dance between the twin chasms of saccharine or class-bound whimsy, yet Salmon’s determined yet gentle encounter with the people of a place ensures this is never entertained: instead it is a coming-together; a taking of hands. When, towards the end of the film, her camera enters the water of Loch Broom, it is with a sense of abandon and flighty resolve, as if it hadn’t planned to do so until now. It is also a release for the image, dissolved into the gentle pastels of sea kale and shingle, surrendering to the muted plashing of the shoreline.

That this work and others at Experimenta should exist only in relational terms to the studio features and ‘A’ list guests of the wider festival seems not only obtuse but self-defeating—for the festival itself. The paradox of artists’ moving image practice in the context of the cinema is that it is marked simultaneously by its alterity and its very central importance to both history and future of cinema themselves. Yet peripheral concerns needn’t occupy peripheral positions. How might Experimenta become the centre, or rather, find its own axis; claim an independent orbit?

Volume doesn’t make the centre stronger; size doesn’t render the peripheral unimportant.At stake is a relativism: exist only and always in the shadow of centrist practices, of the mainstream, and be condemned to a flimsy, comparative relationship, or work to absolute priorities and describe an inner logic which chooses its own terms. Even within the bounds of Experimenta itself, a certain doublethink holds sway. Rachel Maclean’s banal satire Make Me Up, 2018, for instance, while tackling a timely and necessary subject – the subjugation and infantilisation of women and feminist discourse – was literal to a point, and in every way in the shadow of weirder, freer work which mines similar seams, notably Jennet Thomas’ School of Change, 2012. Its inclusion seemed at odds with the curatorial care exercised elsewhere.

There is a difference between understanding marginal activities and understanding the importance of maintaining them. It is clear the festival doesn’t fully know the considerable value Experimenta represents, and it seems to dangle by a thread. Were it given space to breathe, cut loose on terms of its choosing and in a manner suited to its collegiate approach, its parent festival would enjoy the validation that association with the wider visual arts, not to mention the concomitant structural benefits, would bring.