5000 feet is the best

5,000 Feet is the Best by Omer Fast

After the moan of my previous post, I want to tell you about another film that I saw yesterday that worked brilliantly in a gallery screening setting. 5,000 Feet is the Best‘ by Omer Fast is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London. The film is based upon interviews with an unmanned drone operator. Parts of it are extracts from an interview with the operator spoken in (or as if it’s in) his own voice. This is combined with images of the blurred out face of the operator (?) or aerial views of landscapes including Las Vegas (the glitzy hotel/casino part) and suburban residential areas. He speaks about his experiences including how clear one’s vision is of the area over which the drone is flying and about dealing with the fact of killing people, including the innocent. Interspersed with this ‘real’ interview there are staged scenes of a man in a hotel being interviewed. His interviewer sits there like a therapist, a journalist, or perhaps the artist filmmaker. The man being interviewed is acting as the ex-drone operator and also here is asked about his experiences but rather than answering the question directly he tells anecdotes.

One of the really clever things about Fast’s film is that this section loops but changes each time it does so. After the interviewee has told an anecdote something always interrupts the conversation (a phone ringing, or he needs to go for a cigarette). He leaves the room and when he returns the sequence begins again with the same questions. Each time the loop recurs (there are 4 loops if I remember rightly) the anecdote he tells is different. Sometimes it seems to relate more directly to the experience of war/being a drone operator and sometimes seems a bit more tangential. The anecdotes play with expectations of geography, race and the idea of being distanced from something or of playing a role.

I thought it was a great film in many ways and also really fantastic because the looping structure means you can walk into it from any point, start watching and it makes sense. Fast used the same strategy in the only other film by him that I have seen; ‘Continuity’ where a scenario involving a German family, whose son had been killed in Afganistan,  is also repeated and altered effectively conveying the trauma experienced by the family in a series of weird and disturbing scenarios.

Nasan Tur, Berlin Says

I should say that I don’t expect all films to loop and I do enjoy sitting through screenings of artists’ films, but I think it is about finding the exhibition format that is right for each work. This morning I watched a series of films at Whitechapel Gallery; ‘Artists Film International’ which included work of varying lengths but shown in an auditorium so you could happily sit through the whole screening of 75mins. The work here was really interesting too although I would have preferred to see Nasan Tur’s video ‘Berlin Says’ as a gallery installation. The video shows a man spraying slogans over each other onto a wall until the wall becomes obliterated by the words. To make the work easily watchable from start to finish, it included cross dissolves so you don’t get to watch it all in real time. I would have preferred it to be in real time in a gallery context where you could watch as much as you wanted and return to it repeatedly whilst looking around an exhibition. I guess it is possible that it does exist and has been shown in such a format too and that the version I watched has simply been edited for show reel type screenings.

Word. Sound. Power.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen Still from Arise 2013

It’s a bit of a bug bear of mine when long films are exhibited in gallery settings; films designed to be watched from start to end. I find it especially annoying when the screening times are not stated but even when they are, long-from films in galleries are irritating. Yesterday I went to see the exhibition ‘Word. Sound. Power.’ at Tate Modern and several exhibited works were long. I didn’t take a note of the durations, but from memory there were 5 works ranging between 20 mins and 1 hour each.

For all I know these works might be really good, but I will probably never find out. Not only were they long, they were largely exhibited on monitors with just a couple of seats and headphones. I felt obliged to move on anyway by all the other visitors hanging around waiting to get their bums on the limited seating.

I ended up feeling unfulfilled, as if I hadn’t properly seen the exhibition. This is a real shame, and it’s a shame that I am writing about this situation rather than about the artwork. So, to talk briefly about the artwork – and this is a thought which is provisional, that I’m not totally resolved about – I felt that the exhibition was a strange mix of works that considered the more formal and physical/material aspects of language and works which alternatively focused on specific language forms (poetry, hip hop) as creative formats that can identify or unite particular communities of users and/or be used as a means of resistance.

Caroline Bergvall Crop 2010 © Steve Shrimpton 2010

In the first camp was work by Caroline Bergvall; ‘Voice’ and ‘Crop’ used word play to evoke the physical and audio qualities of speech. The longer films tended to fall into the latter camp with, for example, ‘Arise’ by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Lasen focusing on young men in New Delhi who were finding meaning in their lives and potentially challenging their social and class position through getting involved in dance and rap. I can’t do this film justice because I watched hardly any of it but it seems there was a different formal language at play in this and the other longer documentary style films as compared to the more installation based works. Were it not for Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘The Whole Truth’ and ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ the exhibition would have seemed strangely split down the middle. Abu Hamdan’s works were by far my favourite pieces in the exhibition.

Conflicted Phonemes by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

‘Conflicted Phonemes’ used a large wall diagram to depict the scale and geography of migration both within and from Somalia since 1972 (when somali became an official language with a writing system). Alongside this were forms/A4 print outs detailing the cases of individual Somali asylum seekers in the UK who had their claims for asylum rejected due to accent analysis suggesting they did not come from south Somalia as claimed. The work showed how situations of war and famine have led to multiple regional influences on people’s speech. Abu Hamdan’s other work ‘The Whole Truth’ included a video of a line graph – its red line indicating various degrees of truth or lie – that was viewed in mirror, so you also watched yourself watching it. The soundtrack was made up of interviews with people including (according to the exhibition guide) software developers, anthropologists and entrepreneurs of the biometric industry talking about voice based lie detectors. I also noticed some audio taken from UK news programmes about such software being used by benefits agencies. Both works successfully explored how the audible and material aspects of voice have social and political ramifications.