Today, digital media is a complementary field of the visual art sector acting as a tool of artistic expression that offers a great opportunity for experimentation between formal quality and content. A general tendency to underestimate the possibilities of fiction can be found within the area of video art, due to its association with commercial pettiness and popular taste, in favour of gallery-based non-humanistic and documentary film. An art practice that draws from cinema and TV can be incredibly fertile in the context of post-modern art, born along with capitalism and a constant connection with mass culture. A great example of this partnership is the work of two contemporary video artists, Anja Kirschner and David Panos, who favour the discourse and style of mass media production. In order to understand how such appropriation fits in a post-modern discourse and how it can maintain its superceding role as art, I am going to analize their practice and those elements which I believe peculiar along with examples from their second film, The trail of the spider (2008). The appropriation of spectacle-culture narrative strategies in competition with popular culture is the first topic I want to investigate, followed by the use of montage intended as a tool of political relevance and lastly, how the pastiche of historical references recurring in their practice can actively engage in a social discourse within the capitalistic system.
The trail of the spider is a Western movie which depicts elements of racial suppression and frontier conquest set in East London's 2012 Olympic landfill. The basic motifs underlined in the narrative are the progressive gentrification of modern capitalist society, mass struggle and the concept of 'other'. The movie is stylistically a pastiche of spaghetti western and Indianer Filme, pro-communist western film shoots in 60's East Germany, with scenes of contemporary London and wild landscape alternating with a technique of montage. The re-appropriation of the language of cinema in a non-documentary style address contemporary social issues and parodies its role as a mass media method of control and subjection. Mainstream movies are able to open the door to fantastic and utopian scenarios away from the banality of everyday life, which allow mythic association to arise and new outcomes to be created in a manner accessible and comprehensible to the masses themselves; thus achieving a broader audience and resonance. In a 2009 interview, Kirschner refers to fiction, allegory, and satire as the 'most useful and sophisticated tools for political expression'. The trail of the spider is a film strongly related to the authors involvement in political and social activism in Hackney, with most of the actor being friends and fellow activist themselves. 'The man with no name', existential black anty-hero, is impersonated by the activist Floyd. The idiosyncratic re-enactment is obvious from the beginning with a dramatic view over the Olympic build site presented as a borderline, the movie's eccentricity is exasperated by the amateur presentation of old western cliché and manners. Such representation of cultural stereotype risk to end in sterile parody and mocking, but the attentive research that transpire and the humour created by such association, shows a consciousness of the authors in the narrative structure of video and its ambiguities in constructing identities by trivialising life.
“ ...Entertainment cinema has been concerned more with the spectacle than with reality. Or rather it has been concerned to play between the two,to make the real spectacular and the spectacle plausible...the state of the cinematic spectator,with the judging function of the ego temporarily suspended...” ( Ellis 1982 pp. 50-51)
The film deals within a reality where people's self is mediated through mass media culture, this emphasized by the choice of screening the movie at a public cinema in Hackney, rather than in a gallery. According to the 'Suture theory' spectator tends to be captured by the cinema phantasmagoria, its perception confused and amalgamated with representation (Baudry in Leighton 2008 p.30), lost within the imaginary counter universe just created. This spectator identification is exalted in The trail of the spider by Kischner and Panos's choice of using amateur actor to represent the daily struggle against eviction and loss of community identity; this is not so different from the battle they were already engaged in real life, in a parody of mainstream capitalistic films and society undergoing in a real contemporary 'frontier', mystified through the use of the epic discourse of historical fiction. In a world where true originality might no longer be possible Kirschner and Panos are able to unfold a critical narrative which is intellectually engaging and at the same time entertaining and comprehensible to the public; which is addressed and suits its own purpose of creating a social awareness within a broader audience,in a space which is itself a metaphor of collective dialogue and mediation between fantasy and reality.
In 2009 Kirshner stated her desire to 'assert the harsh reality of often suppressed historical facts ...creating social tableaux rather than individual case study'. The collision between past and present, real historical fact and fiction shows creates meanings by association which are extrapolated through pattern of montage,for the viewer to comprehend. Drawing direct inspiration from Brecht epic theatre, the narration seeming unity is disrupt between the time of the story and the time of its telling, emphasising each scene as bearer of meaning over the happening, with the subject matter extrapolated in the ordering of those elements. For example The introduction of 19th century paintings within the narrative flow of the film comment on the mannerism and cliché with which the west is portrayed and exhaust its association with the contemporary world.
'...We shall take care not to describe one particular, historical form of novel of a particular epoch as realistic...our concept of realism must be wide and political...'
Brectht 1938 in art and theory p501
With the meanings extrapolated by association of images the result is that the essence of the narrative, born from this relationship, is abstract, no matter how realistic the depiction can be (Andrè Bazin pp 23-40) and intelligible by the spectator. What helps the viewer to critically comprehend history is the ability of suggesting what is not visible, concentrating on social action over individual case, in a context superceding the limits of narration. Kirschner and Panos movies are instilled of such evocative moment where a whole social context can be read,for example every action of the The man with no name tells a story, from the rage for oppression that black people have been victim throughout history to the need of East London black community to hold on its roots against gentrification, as well as a fight on behold of all of those people evicted from their land by cowboys during the Far West frontier expansion and by interest-driven property developer in the suburb conquest of 21st century. '...The truth can be suppressed in many ways and must be expressed in many ways...' said Brecht in 1938 ( art and theory p. 501), calling for an art in support of the masses and comprehensible to the masses, and in Kirschner and Panos appropriation of formal technique can be found that same concern of unveiling past and present in a way that engage with the spectator awareness and leads to a new and critical outlook over society .
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