The Cult of Speed

SPEED 2 at Malmö Konsthall highlights our lack of genuine filmic communication.

Leslie Thornton, Cut From Liquid to Snake, 2018.

“There was a feeling of acceleration,” remarked 2014 Turner Prize nominee James Richards of his initial meeting with renowned experimental filmmaker Leslie Thornton in 2016, “we were so instantly excited.” Just so, SPEED 2 was occasioned by the artists’ joint residency at CERN, the particle physics lab in Geneva that houses the Large Hadron Collider, a machine that the late theorist Paul Virilio referred to as a both a racetrack and a camera obscura: “the perfect symbol of a postmodern return to illuminism, of the cult of light speed.”

Interestingly, Virilio’s ‘dromological’ thinking seems in many ways to subtend this exhibition – curated by Fatima Hellberg, the Swedish artistic director of Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart, where a previous installment was shown last autumn – from its blockbuster-like title and preoccupations with nuclear war to anxieties surrounding scientific and technological advancement deprived of any meaningful critical conscience.

James Richards, Phrasing, 2018. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.

Chronologically speaking, SPEED 2 begins in a black box featuring Richards’s and Thornton’s film Crossing (2016), their first collaborative effort, a loose homage to American artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976). Whereas Conner’s film is composed from archival footage of a 1946 nuclear test in Bikini Atoll, Crossing combines surplus material from the artists’ respective archives, including concert footage, digitally processed images of naked men eating fruit, and rather dreary sequences shot through the windshields of cars. The film’s ‘crosssings’ mostly seem to take place in the same key: that of foreboding. And while some of the visuals, such as close shots of pythons and alligators, are indeed mesmerising, the general impression is little more than a sum of parts.

More compelling than this collision of artistic sensibilities is the way that the artists’ dialogue opens onto broader questions which are less invested in cinema’s relationship to narrative, representation, and indexicality, than in ideas surrounding memory, storage, and transmission. Take Sheep Machine Redux (2019), a video installation on six monitors by Thornton and Richards, with an accompanying wall text by poet Vi Khi Nao. Here, pastoral scenes of alpine sheep grazing on a mountainside are fragmented using a digital kaleidoscope effect. Cable cars pass overhead, while the poet responds at one-second intervals. “Time devours time in its own reflection,” writes Nao at the 1:57 mark, “Almost. Almost.”

Similar ideas are taken up by works included in The Divine Drudgery, a show-within-the-show curated by Richards with exhibition designer Matt Fitts. Here, a depiction of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima painted by Thornton’s father, Jens – an engineer for the Manhattan project – is installed close to over 3000 minutely annotated polaroids by Horst Ademeit (1937–2010), a man whose daily photographic practice sought, among other things, to systematically document the harmful effects of radiation on his body. Elsewhere, a selection of Conner’s remarkable inkblot drawings hangs beside an archive of dozens of binders containing esoteric notes, drawings, and diagrams by the quasi-mystical recluse, Adelhyd van Bender (1950–2014).

Jens Thornton, Untitled (Hiroshima bomb), 1957. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.

Not only do these attempts – grounded as much in sacred geometry as gestalt psychology and physics – to represent the unrepresentable evoke forms of pattern recognition associated with the compiling and processing of digital images, but they also point toward an expanded cinematic field independent of the visible and representable. In this sense, the ubiquitous x-rays of everyday objects in Richards’s Phrasing (2018), a slick video mural that commands the konsthall’s far side, read like illustrations of, to return to Virilio, “the aesthetics of disappearance.” Or, put differently, the aeshetics of the search (engine). This looping six-minute sequence of heavily stylised and somewhat macabre black-and-white collages of clocks, skeletons, medieval woodcuts, and perhaps most unnervingly, a portrait of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, suggests unseen presences and hidden grammars just as cheaply as its title puns on unconscious verbal slips and unintended sexual innuendo.

And yet, for all its emphasis on digital technologies, this rather paranoid sense of concealment and revelation feels steadfastly modern. Especially in a show premised, at least in part, on contemporary conditions of acceleration and non-human vision. Not to mention that SPEED 2’s central conceit isn’t all that far removed from Sergei Eisenstein’s preferred analogy for cinematic montage: the internal combustion engine. Indeed, such “illuminist” beliefs in the photographic image as a prosthetic enhancement precipitated some of the earliest developments in photography and cinema, like Henry Fox Talbot’s botanical photograms, and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographic experiments in capturing locomotion. Or, on a slightly different register, Victorian-era spirit photography.

Like much lens-based work, such perspectives were premised on both the scientific neutrality of the technical apparatus and a set of universal assumptions surrounding human vision. Which is to say, a universal (i.e. European, white, male) subject of visual perception whose lingering presence behind the luminous screens and HD projections in SPEED 2 passes largely without comment. 

James Richards, Phrasing, 2018. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.

All this conspicuous absence is brought into view in a chilling passage from Thornton’s twenty-seven-minute film Cut From Liquid to Snake (2018), where an audio recording of an American woman giving an eyewitness account of the Hiroshima bombing’s aftermath is juxtaposed with binocular video of a tar pit at La Brea in Los Angeles. As she describes the Japanese who, although they showed no visible signs of injury, were still dying, the woman’s delivery is uninflected and matter-of-fact. This while viscous black surfaces roil and bubble; one might even say they mushroom. Thornton’s virtuosity as a filmmaker is on full display here, much as in the film’s other sections, all of which are organised around a different female voice. Of the works featured in the main exhibition, this by far has the most to offer.

But if it’s difficult to get behind the specific claims made in SPEED 2, this is perhaps because, oscillating between fear and reverence, the exhibition is a blur of ambivalence – a fact that’s more or less in-line with its stated concerns: “specific psychic and temporal states… between an ordering impulse and the relinquishing of control.” As important this may be to forming a critique of our techno-utopian present, this show nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity. Particularly in a culture so strongly orientated by a mediatised gaze, but lacking a grammar adequate to its proliferating images. That is to say, in the words of media-theorist Wolfgang Ernst, of “the competence of genuine filmic communication.”

Leslie Thornton, James Richards & Vi Khi Nao, Sheep Machine Redux, 2019. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.