Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall
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Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall

Antoni Muntadas, Video is Television?, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?” 

We need cinema right now, because we need a moment. And not just any moment: We have been in the streets, with candles and signs, and sometimes tear gas and broken glass. We have been in public, sizing each other up and/or just trying to blend in, weaponizing our small talk and surveilling each other’s tantrums. We have been in the feeds with our index fingers like inchworms infinitely scrolling and clicking, and clicking, and sharing, peripatetic, our tabs proliferating in the windows. We have been on either side of the protest lines, screaming and brandishing conflicting signs. Now we need a moment in the dark to be alone together, in a different kind of covenant, with a different kind of discourse. In a way, we are all alone in the dark together already.

I need a moment. I have whiplash from the breaking news cracking across my timelines, and I can’t tell if I’m being served or summoned by the algorithms. I’m really starting to feel differently about the arc of history and I know it’s not just me, baby. I’m coming down with a bad case of that time warp feeling. Things seem like they are moving very, very quickly, but we’re hurtling towards an inevitability, rather than a possibility. These are times characterized by bombardment—of opinions, emotions, narratives, calls to action, commodities—within greater systems of control that operate in various states of visibility. This demanding abundance grating against the creeping, camouflaged austerity is the white noise whine that we have had to learn to live with.

Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, 2004. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

I turned to the archive with a mind to find works that might whine back, in the key of my own emotional maelstrom. I have been curating film and video for the better part of the last decade—programming film festivals and touring with screenings—but I have never made selections from a repository like the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection at the Walker Art Center. I approached the archive as I would an oracle, looking for new ways to look at my own reality. I came away with an array of movies that echo my processing of this post-truth, casually brutal, winkingly authoritarian, rapidly accelerating present tension. At first, I framed my selections in hauntological terms:

Each of these movies is a ghost that haunts our contemporary condition. As a collection, they zigzag across the decades and conjure the morass, the cacophony, the nihilism, the absurdity, the dissonance, and the violence that we have internalized. That we have normalized. The howl of the wind is the growl of an engine is the groan of orgasm is the moan of anguish. The gaze refracts back. The body is a political act. The ghosts are screaming through the screen. Can you hear them?

But then I started thinking about the energy I felt moving through the works, the charge I was trying to harness, the breath behind that screaming. It was pain. Ghosts can be seen as pure pain made manifest. The body may rot away, but suffering is what anchors a spirit to the material world. This playlist is about fitting the suffering of the now into the continuum of cinema, with movies that act as the medium between the now and the then as well as between ourselves and others.

Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising, 1964. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

So if these works are challenging, discomforting, or destabilizing, it is because I am discomforted and destabilized. We all should be. Comfort gets us nowhere anymore, and by the way, there is just as much comfort to be found in outrage as there is in pleasure.

Tony Oursler, Grand Mal, 1981. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are absurd, it’s because reason has no place in our new resonance-based economies of attention, so why shouldn’t we just push through the low-level tragedy of irony and into the glorious, discordant realm of the absurd? Absurdity is the alchemy that transforms anguish into resistance. It’s the epiphany that when meaning can no longer be made, it must be un-made.

Leslie Thornton, Strange Space, 1992. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are vulnerable almost to the point of confrontation, it’s because so many vulnerabilities have been reified and revealed. The zeitgeist openly mocks open vulnerability, lumping it in with its dismissal of “special snowflakes,” “safe spaces,” and “political correctness.” That bullying impulse has now ascended to the highest echelons of power, so it’s a considerable act of courage to turn the other cheek or roll over to show off a soft underbelly in the face of it.

Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn, The Deadman, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are profane, like Kenneth Anger’s flashy fashy fashionable fetishizing of toxic masculinity or Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s stripped-down, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of a Bataille text (complete with unsimulated sex), it’s because I think it’s time to Make Cultural Gatekeepers Disgusted Again. Turnabout is fair play. The grants aren’t going to be coming through anymore anyway and besides, the more threatened they feel by unrepentant, revolting resistance, and the more they debate and try to legislate the perceived obscenity and blasphemy in art, the less time they have to otherwise destroy the world. Artists can and should push their envelopes into public art spaces with their abject, unapologetic, indecorous best, because in order to keep freedom of expression for all and not just for some, we need to keep putting it to the test.

In the cinema, there is no clickbait. There are no think pieces; there is no comments section. The discourse is not at your itchy, angry fingertips here in the dark, away from the targeted ads (and the target audience) and the endless superlative listicles and the weirdly distributed network of everyone you know, and the deluge of their banalities and their extremes. It’s a space to feel your subjectivity again, unhooked from the monetizable response industrial complex. It’s a space to let media mediate, between you and your core, without the roar of commentary. It’s a space to process individual and collective pain, so that when the lights come back on, it has transformed for us.

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