Terrestrial Futures

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still from “Journey to Orion” part of Terrestrial Futures program, 16 June 2012- ICA London

The first student forum film night, Terrestrial Futures was screened on 16 June 2012 in the ICA’s Cinema 2.  The program was organized by Seth Pimlott, Jane Scarth, and Rodney Uhler.

Exploring the wider implications of television in art and culture, Terrestrial Futures looks back at how artists, filmmakers, and writers used and questioned television. They have been interested in what has been the dominant and collective cultural form – as an artistic device and a political force. A response to the ICA exhibition Remote Control, the program is a snapshot of how politics, science-fiction and art worked with TV. Journey to Orion explores a fictional outer space where media-technologies are used for more sinister ends. The film by Ian Breakwell, One, shows us the ways in which artists began to engage with the issues of television, the broadcasting of mass events, and their removal from everyday life. Death Valley Days is a re-working of news spliced and mis-matched, subverting the images of political leaders.

DEATH VALLEY DAYS
Gorilla Tapes (1984)

UK, 1984, 20 minutes
Colour, Sound, Video

The writer J.G.Ballard said of Ronald Reagan,‘How could a man so intellectiually third rate, an empty stage set of a personality across which moved cartoon figures, dragon ladies and demons of the evil empire ever have become President of the worlds most powerful nation? Was the image everything now?’ This film was an attempt to explore what politics as a branch of advertising, entertainment and even romance, might mean.

Death Valley days (1984) was the first pro-duction of the British artists Jon Dovey, Gavin Hodge, and Tim Morrison working together under the name Gorilla Tapes. The film uses television news and interview footage of Ronald Reagan(and sequences lifted from his B Movie west-ern of the same title, Death Valley Days) and Margaret Thatcher. Taking advantage of a time when television news in Britain reached between twelve and twenty million people, and images of these two leaders were ubiquitous, Gorilla Tapes re-contextualized familiar images. The film edits this material to highlight and play with the personal and political relationship between the twoleaders. The piece was produced during a particularly divisive time in politics; the Cold War was still running, and Reagan had just launched Star Wars, a missile defense system that seemed like a confusion between reality and a half remembered B movie from his youth.

The film seems conventionally hostile to the two leaders in what is now a slightly cliched way, with a kind of bolshy pop politics that feels typical of the moment it was made. But at the time it was radical, and its wit was original – the techniques it helped to invent in analogue video, with a real political purpose, foreshadowed and has now become the model for anybody playing with content online.

However the film represents a response to J.G. Ballards’ understanding that television produce politicians who confused their position withentertainment and spectactle. His idea – which finds a kind of expression in this film – was that politicians seduced the public, involving the audience/voters in their private fantasies. As a consequence, he said, politicians , ‘could hardly complain if we involve them in ours’.

ONE
Ian Breakwell (1971)

15 mins black and white video
Performance. Original 16mm film made in 1971 with Mike Leggett and digitally reconstructed in 2003

On a day when every television shop displayed the broadcast of the Apollo 17 Moon mission, the downstairs window of the Angela Flowers Gallery screened CCTV footage of a performance by Mike Leggett that was taking place upstairs. It was the galleries first anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than to subvert the legitimacy of a space mission. As an endurance piece the performance itself uses the act of digging to trivialize the geological experiments of the astronauts whilst commenting on the current socio-economic climate of unemployment. Ian Breakwell’s film, which both documents and narrates the event, draws out a meditation on the significance of historic events and the effects of our viewing of them.

The banality of the every day activity – digging – when undertaken on the moon has special significance because we are viewing it. We see it and thus believe it because it is recorded and acknowledged. The repetition further enforces the notion that the two digging events happening simultaneously have a pertinent link. In the wider context of Terrestrial Futures, One shows us the ways in which Leggett and Breakwell have tuned in to the significance of widespread cultural images and and potential subversions of CCTV which was only beginning to be introduced in a big way during the early 1970’s.

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still from “Journey to Orion” part of Terrestrial Futures

JOURNEY TO ORION
Solveig Nordlund, (1987)

Solveig Nordlund’s Journey to Orion is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s short story Thirteen to Centarus, but also a unique piece of short cinema itself. In terms of an adaptation it tells the basic skeleton of Centarus, a curious young boybegins to question and thus disrupt the life he knows on board a spacecraft. Nordlund has only changed names and other small details, but the biggest difference is in the omissions. Nordlund is wise to keep the story simple as Ballard’s Centarus is a particularly loaded short story. Where Ballard forgoes heavy atmospheric description typical of science-fiction he adds psychological weight reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick or Stanley Kubrick. Throughout the story we follow the on board controller as he becomes increasingly aware of one of his pupil’s, Adam, (Abel in Centarus) unique curiosity. As the story progresses we understand the dangers and implications of Adam’s curiosity, but the controller comes to discover new aspects of the mission as well, which alters his perception of the journey. Despite an unusual and complex situation the questions it raises are grand and universal: How do we react when presented with the reality of our existence? What dangers and freedoms does knowledge present? Neither Nordlund nor Ballard attempts answers to these questions but simply raising
them makes for an engaging experience.

Now living and working in Portugal, Swedish born Nordlund has always found particular inspiration in Ballard. She interviewed him for Swedish television and directed a feature-length adaptation of Low Flying Aircraft in 2002. Journey to Orion, filmed in 1987 on a ferryboat between Stockholm and Helsinki, is a moody, atmospheric adaptation that despite omitting certain story elements from Centarus, adds a level of creepiness and mystery. There is no on camera dialogue, instead the story is driven by the Controller’s narration and a few added lines for Abel. The visual element is also strong; the industrial set is frequently awash in large fields of color as if Mark Rothko was the consulting production designer. We’re given hints of other life on board the ship (an aimless old man, some nude sunbathing girls, Adam’s female friend Eve) but the driving personal story is of the Controller and Adam. The Controller’s obsessive observation of Adam gives an eery Death in Venice tone; a game of hide-and-seek between an older man and a cherubic boy. Yet the chase here is not guided by sexual underpinnings; it is driven by the commitment to the upholding of innocence and construction of reality. Still the relationship seems uneasy and we question the Controller’s motives. A powerful tool (and visual device) for the Controller is the CCTV on board the ship. It allows the Controller to observe all areas and also provides mini canvases for Nordlund to present
addition frames. There is a particularly captivating sequence in which we see a lone monitor recording Adam as he swims leisurely. In the film we are often looking at another monitor, an effective visual device that provides a compliment to some of the ideas behind Terrestrial Futures. The power of television both as an artistic device but as a mode of surveillance and control. It’s progression has seen dramatic changes both in its technological and mechanical self, but also in regards to both the content and delivery of content. Nordlund and Ballard present theoretical visions of the future but as we reflect on what has been written in the past and what awaits us in the future it seems inevitable that some of the best science-fiction will become, simply, reality.

The student forum would like to thank Solveig Nordlund, LUX, and Debbie Herring for their assistance with Terrestrial Futures.

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