Homeric Escape

The Berlin film festival’s experimental extension seeks to renegotiate the relationship between moving images and life.

Akram Zaatari, The Script (still), 2018.

Few film festivals are as geographically scattered as Berlin’s, which took place in different part of the city earlier this month. And the selection of films, installations, and objects in the exhibition Antikino (The Siren’s Echo Chamber), which is part of the parallel section Forum Expanded, is as diverse and heterogeneous as the festival itself.

Forum Expanded has traditionally been the more experimental branch of the festival, with habitual investigations of the relationship between film, history, and the moving image in the gallery space. Antikino, however, seems to have moved towards a point where the difference between film and the distracted viewing that often frames most exhibitions of moving images, isn’t problematised and hardly appears to be a question of interest anymore. The legacy of expanded cinema, structuralist film, or the Situationists’ détournement that has been part of Forum Expanded from its inception in 2006 doesn’t seem to hold the same validity or critical potential today. Antikino is not a descriptive term under which the curators Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, Anselm Franke, Maha Maamoun, and Ulrich Ziemons have selected works characterised by antagonism, transgressions, or other provocations.

Antikino is more about, as Franke writes, a “reflexive negation,” in which the gaze is directed towards the historically “changing relationship between life/subjectivity and the moving image.” The subtitle, The Siren’s Echo Chamber evokes the lure and desire to leave the echo chamber of art. This is accentuated in Akram Zaatari’s The Script (2018), where life encroaches in the guise of two boys playing, disturbing the daily prayer of their Muslim father.

Geopolitics of the sea

In previous years, the Forum Expanded exhibition has been held in the Akademie der Künste, but this year it was installed in the newly renovated, 1600-square-metre Betonhalle in Wedding, a former crematory that is now a part of Silent Green Kulturquartier. Coming down the slanted entrance, one is enveloped by the sound of Monira Al Qadiri’s video installation Diver (2018). The installation takes the form of a large aquarium, and we see swimmers performing movements which mimetically refer to pearl divers. It is a piece that is animated by its colour scheme, evocative of pearls or oil, and it demonstrates that emphasising fluidity, and its close links to a thoroughly choreographed and aestheticized capitalism, can be one way of escaping the echo chamber.

Clemens von Wedemeyer, Transformation Scenario, 2018.

The sirens of the subtitle are, of course, also a reference to the Odyssey, in which these creatures lure sailors into the abyss through beautiful singing, and James Benning’s glory (2018), a two-hour shot of an American flag gradually ripping apart in rough sea weather – a reminder of our debility in the face of natural forces, but in its muteness also analogous to the imploding silence of the sirens. A more explicit reference to the Homeric narrative can be found in Diana Vidrascu’s Le Silence des Sirènes (2019) –  filmed on 16 mm – in which she revisits Franz Kafka’s eponymous short story. The film charts a young woman’s movements between Paris and Martinique in search of an identity. Somewhere between displacement and homecoming, it is a comment on an existence conditioned by the reverberations of migration and colonial history. Vidrascu’s film is shown in a separate theatre in order to avoid sounds bleeding in from other works, a well-known dilemma when exhibiting moving images.

A history of colonial violence reoccurs in Billy Woodberry’s Story from Africa (2018), a detailed exposé of a photographic archive from 1907 that shows the Portuguese occupation of the territory in southern Angola belonging to the Cuamato people. By zooming in, creating sequential montages, and dwelling on details, Woodberry succeeds in accentuating the violence inscribed in the images’ indexicality in a way that is both intricate and powerful.

Monira Al Qadiri, Diver (still), 2018.

Hermeneutic limbo

The curators have chosen to show Harun Farocki’s Zur Bauweise des Films bei Griffith (2006), which was part of the first Forum Expanded. In it, two monitors are placed beside each other – an investigation of image and counterimage as a tool for critical analysis – and its inclusion here is both interesting and ambiguous, as it can be seen as a model and a standard for the investigative work on moving images with which Forum Expanded once started. This creates echoes of a critical and analytical labour that several of the works in Antikino seem oblivious to. To see Farocki’s installation here inevitably means becoming aware that something has been lost, a realisation that weakens the overall impression of the exhibition.

There is an urgency to Antikino’s ambition to find ways out of the restraining biopolitics that control most image flows, and ultimately our lives, today. But the result is too heterogeneous and fragmented. The constructive montage fails to appear, and several of the works are simply not strong enough. A general tendency is that the artists are less concerned with formal experiments, and more with expressions linked to manual labour and gestures. Or, as Clemens von Wedemeyer shows in Transformation Scenario (2018), how simulations from films and videogames today constitute important components in how we navigate life. But by focusing on exit as a point of reference and discursive horizon, the exhibition leaves viewers in a kind of hermeneutic limbo. Shouldn’t it actually be the other way around? Isn’t it by focusing on the exhibition as a specific form of knowledge and emphasising the echo as a potentially vital force – a reflexive surface for finding new constellations and gathering a critical mass – that this presentation could’ve emerged as a unifying effort?

Installation view with Monira Al Qadiri’s Diver (2018).