Notes on Berwick: “Why this passion for pictures, why this passion for darkness?”
Berwick-upon-Tweed is a visual heaven. Nestled down the railway from Edinburgh on the coast of Northumbria, this border town has changed allegiances between Scotland and England many times. When travelling by train you already get a taste of the stunning scenery through the window. Seemingly never-ending beaches come into view and the grass is saturated by the morning dew. Upon arrival, a walk on top of the Tudor-built town walls gets you into the groove. You can enjoy the landscape that inspired L.S. Lowry’s recreational painting sabbaticals. When going for a midmorning dip in the sea at the local beach of Spittal, you can admire the majestic chimney throning the side of the shore, whose red brick structure reflects the glimmer of the orange sun. On the way back to town via the lighthouse you smell the fermented odor of the sea algae that are swept against the walls of the pier. There are also birdwatchers with telescopic lenses spotting rare birds or the occasional dolphin passing by. Churches, alleyways, ancient cobbled streets and the Victorian Royal Border Bridge, dramatically arching over the River Tweed, allow you to view the rowers pulling their ways through the water. Everything is so picturesque that you often find yourself stopping to take it all in.
Kira Muratovas The Long Farewell. Courtesy the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre.
Walking around town is especially beneficial to make your way around the manifold of spaces used for the Exhibitions program of the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. From the works displayed here, Fireworks (Archives) (2014) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul stands out in particular. I had previously seen the film as part of a group exhibition in an abandoned high-rise in Rotterdam, but the seven-minute film is exhibited here at the Bankhill Ice House, which is ever more effective. To reach the screening space you walk up a tunnel on a slight incline and the climate changes immediately: The temperature drops and through the cool and damp air and a pair of curtains you enter a pitch-black space. The crackling sound of fireworks welcomes you while images of flickering light make flashes of animal sculptures appear on the massive screen set against the rock wall. Dogs, skeletons, and other creatures cut in stone are animated, reminiscing the revolt against oppression, of ghosts and dreams that serve as memory of a destructed land. In between real-life humans sit and spend their evening there and the scene ultimately expands into the spectator’s space.
Another transgressive experience is Camera Trap (2019) by Chris Chong Chan Fui, shown in the New Tower, a part of Berwick’s fortifications. A comparative piece, it examines Eadweard Muybridge’s images, as an animal and landscape photographer, in conversation with modern animal camera traps in the rainforest in Borneo. The film plays with ghosts of past and present via a time lapse and double-layered image of black and white shots of the creatures in the dark. The animals get closer and seem to be watching us as we are watching them, which opens a conversation about time and presence, presentation and reality.
These films are part of the festival’s “Animistic Apparatus,” a research project exploring the affinity between animism and artists’ moving image practices. Its highlight is George Clark’s exhibition around his film Double Ghosts (2019), retracing the steps of Raúl Ruiz’s unfinished project La comédie des ombres by travelling to its locations in Taiwan and Chile. The original film was conceived as a Taoist adaptation of the work of Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist, metatheatrical play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Structured around a conversation between Ruiz’s widow (the filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento) and Clark, he speculates on the creative process and how the project could have evolved, reflecting on the discussion itself in divergent cultural contexts. Ruiz’s writings and items, used to inspire the research project, are displayed on the exhibition wall of the Gymnasium, a former military recreation facility. The multifunctional site comes into play again when Clark teams up with female performance duo lololol (Sheryl Cheung and Xia Lin) to measure the energy of the space using an analog optical sound printer and microphones to transmit the droning sounds of a flowing current. The visitors are given a paper sheet with scales, a mix of characters of elements and lines serving as legend for the participatory analysis. I found myself drawing rather anxious lines when configuring the history of the place. All the results of the scales are later included in an audiovisual performance, in which its artists deem to find a choreographic archaeology of considering site specific lost histories through rituals.
Moving to a more traditional theater space, Aura Satz’s lecture performance in the main venue (Maltings Henry Travers) presents excerpts of her film Preemptive Listening (Part 1: The Fork in the Road) (2018). Her research on sonic obedience and disobedience focuses on reactions to alarms and signals as learned conditions. She posits that we live in a hyper-vigilant state of constant threat while listening for survival, “almost unnoticed beyond the sweaty palms and heightened pulse rate of an overactive sympathetic nervous system.”1 Due to the numbness induced by the sonic overflow, a siren is often heard as somebody else’s catastrophe. This communal fatigue towards public sounds triggers a move towards the neoliberal privatized space, expressed by public text message alert systems that offer a replacement for the archaic sound of sirens. Thus, Satz argues, as alarms and the concept of emergency are shifting, the ways in which we deal with emergencies needs to be rethought as well. By giving examples from her 16mm film (shown as an expanded sound installation in the festival), she speculates on how the reimagining of signals could rewire the perception of an emergency. Using a range of instruments (a cello, bells and a trumpet) as well as objects like cracking bamboo, the composed soundtrack seeks to find a new grammar of alertness.
Another surprising find in the festival was the program “Lionel Soukaz: Militant Desire.” Together with his collaborator Guy Hocquenghem, Soukaz’s essayistic series Race D'Ep: The Homosexual Century (1979) examines gay liberation as not being confined to the 20th century but rather as being concurrent with a rise in consciousness wrought by the birth of photography. Its fourth part, Royal Opera, shown here at BFMAF, takes place in a gay bar and in the streets of Paris. The Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts” plays while men cruise for company and the protagonist chats over a cigarette with another man. The couple wander off into the streets while the voiceover mixes their thoughts into a reflection on gay life and sexuality. This is followed by IXE (1980), the fast-paced double-image-layered counter piece to the former, originally made to be screened on four screens at once. Rapid editing and abrasive guitar sounds pump into this concert of war, sex, religion and drugs. Formulated as a stern critique of the censorship of his former films, Soukaz sets images of survival, repression, erections, heroin needles sticking out of arms and exhausted bodies against famous political and religious personalities. IXE is a visual “fuck you” to the authorities that leaves one charged and breathless.
Rounding out this year’s program, the “Filmmaker in Focus” section dedicated to Soviet-Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova is its essential chess piece. In this seven-part retrospective of digital representations of her work, Muratova’s dramas reminisce about the extravagant absurdism of Fellini and Pasolini’s free and indirect play and later expand into realism and hyperrealism. By marrying elements of painting, sculpture, theatre, poetry and performance together and using her own company of actors alongside non-actors for most of her films, she created her unique cinematic handwriting.
In Brief Encounters (1967), a love triangle unfolds between Muratova’s mainstay actor Nina Ruslanova (in her first role) and singer-songwriter and poet Vladimir Vysotsky. Here she uses flashbacks and the dialogue’s breathless back-and-forth to display the melancholy of a life of rural boredom, of people who cannot break out of their surroundings. What initially seems to be a convoluted quick-fire of senseless words is essential to the feeling of Muratova’s scenarios in which simple sets break narrative conventions and a fantasy of language nourishes the story’s dynamic. This strategy culminates in The Asthenic Syndrome (1990), which is filmed in two parts: the first part is in black and white with a woman in mourning rage after burying her husband and the second in color with a school teacher who randomly falls asleep at the most inappropriate times and consequently gets himself admitted to a mental institution. There he discovers that insanity is no different than the “normal world.” While the first installment unnerves, the second is a reflection on divisions, on the bleak optimism of a Soviet nation in a mode of never-ending depression and self-destruction, paralysed by the censorship and authoritarianism in which language is not effective as a form of communication anymore.
Finally, in The Long Farewell (1971) a mother is hopelessly devoted to her son following her divorce as she simultaneously attempts to come to terms with her new life and to reconcile the loneliness she is now facing. A slide projector in their home encompasses both perspectives: it is first used by the son on his bedroom wall when longing to escape, and is later appropriated by his mother to delve into the nostalgia of her lost child. When the lamp accidentally sets the images alight, he suddenly appears and poses an arresting question, also fitting coda to the festival, “Why this passion for pictures, why this passion for darkness?” Walking out of the cinema back into Berwick’s late night atmosphere, the after-images of the previously seen seem to reverberate against the backdrop of the town wall, like a giant philosopher’s stone. As you eventually catch the yellow moon, its light glistening on the sea, surrounded by deep darkness, you arrive at your inner visual catharsis.
- Robert Barry: Song To The Siren: Pop Culture & The Warning Klaxon. In: https://thequietus.com/articles/13649-song-to-the-siren