Criticism by Mary Billyou.
Recently, from November 2014–January 2015, Microscope Gallery opened its big new space in Bushwick to the daring Kissing Point, a multi-screen installation by filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh. The gallery’s remarkable expansion hails a resurgent and changing cinematic culture as currently seen in New York. Upon entering the darkened space I was immediately engaged by the sound resonating within, emanating from two prominent pieces by Ahwesh: the large double projection of Kissing Point (2014) and a teetering stack of five small monitors, Lessons of War (2014). Once my eyes adjusted to the low light, I later found a flashlight near the far wall, and with it illuminated three “mail art” pieces entitled Souvenirs (2014). Perched near these had been a pedestal with a smart phone resting on top: Smart Phone (2014).
The exhibit’s eponymous film, Kissing Point, opens with two panoramas of a work site at night. The camera’s curious monocular vision is underscored by spotlights shining from behind each lens: here is a singular vision, doubled. Brooding sound pervades the environment, suggesting alternately large-scale construction and a machine-gun range. Strangely, the soft inside of a forearm periodically appears, as if inviting the viewer into the interstitial space.
Shot over a period of several years with collaborator Nida Sinnokrot, the films’ leveling horizon suggests Hollywood road movies and their restless riders. Describing a maze-like world of circumnavigation with no center, the viewer becomes a self-aware reader of signs of exclusion. Indeed, the disorienting experience of “being-out-of-place” is countered by Kissing Point’s connotation of the ancient gesture of kissing the ground. Kissing Point is about “getting low,” and of multiple, plural, unrepresented experiences.
Sinnokrot’s cinematography skillfully guides us through a series of anonymous, nearly vacant spaces, revealing, seemingly as if by its absence, a surprising reality: two adjacent, sovereign territories which are so close as to make their boundary lines into points. Ambiguous, these non-sites suggest intimacy and pleasure. In this duality, a permeability exists in which the ideology of control backfires. To comprehend this phenomenon, the two-dimensionality of a map is inadequate. A spatial framework is required to register the complexities: here, inherited hierarchical social relations co-exist with horizontal relations based on sharing and equality.
National boundaries are not naturally occurring phenomenon. They map official agreements between governments. In reality, stepping over a boundary is easy. If they seem arbitrary today, its because they’re usually handed down from earlier colonial determinations, sometimes designed from above, with the help of a royal air force. Boundaries can be distinct physical and material entities like mountains, rivers, or walls. They can also be ideological, have unique languages, cultures, and religions. Even if a nation is wedged between two others, each has absolute belief in themselves as being correct, right, and pure. Yet even these belief systems can be porous and shifting.
Further inexorable horizontal movement in Kissing Point leads us through more nighttime landscapes and interiors largely unpopulated. Façades of voided buildings are juxtaposed with billboards selling glamorous interiors, adorned with docile children and families. The actual figures who do appear in this no-man’s land seem strange and temporary: a headless man, a woman walking through an empty disco, shrouded women and squatting men. There is a marketplace, where towering gowned mannequins loom, Timberland logos distract, and surly shoe salesmen ply their trade. The film ends with twinned forward movement racing through two tunnels. Another iteration of one-way vision.
In this wasteland, the tunnels impress. Produced by highly trained engineers, they are part of a sophisticated infrastructure that indicates a large budgetary line. They reinforce the “good life” of a model community. Leading to and from Biddu, a small Arab village, the tunnels segregate and isolate, revealing what’s left behind. They are integral to the gradual process of the inhabitants’ forced removal, making way for entirely new residential cities.
In the 1976 experimental documentary Ici et Ailleurs, Godard and Miéville used the words “here” and “elsewhere” to indicate “Paris” and “Palestine.” Through re-presenting televised images of war, the filmmakers investigated psychological alienation and collective apathy in modern European society. An uncertain and dangerous “elsewhere” was delivered “here” to safe and familiar living room screens. A binary division, “here/elsewhere” indicates ideology at work. Neat and tidy, its function cleans up messy remainders. Still, the opposition reveals a certain proximity.
Ideologies, internalized as behavior, become sedimented into custom. Social patterns in turn solidify into architecture, under the conceit that they will last forever. Mirroring the self-defensive drive behind American country clubs and gated communities, Israeli settlements are borne out of a collective withdrawal into regionalism. These “shining cities on a hill” are stages for neocolonialist imaginaries. Both destroy the land, making way for swimming pools and military bases. Isolated and melancholic, the people living within these community walls are hostile to those who are branded as different. Expansionist in mindset, this particular cloud kingdom favors armored bulldozers with gun turrets.
In recent years, through a combination of consensus and cultural imperialism, Israeli settlements have accelerated, arriving on the tops of hills like soldiers. Its condescending,smooth administrative language is kinder and gentler but still suffocating. “Settlement” sounds more equitable than “colony.” The terms “developing country,” “mobility assurance,” and “militarized policing,” are lawyer-speak for those who can pay out. The tourist trade ignores political distinctions, creating simulated biblical experiences for clientele who adhere to “nothing in particular.” “Here,” degradation is still passed among the élite like a currency.
Witnessing variations on a theme, itinerant intellectuals, gastabeiters, and multilingual functionaries continue regular rotations to and from the metropoles of “here/elsewhere.” For these migrant workers, contingency and precarity have become a form of life, especially when “flexibility,” efficiency, and the ability to sell oneself are the keys to success. Screens have multiplied as well, into office cubicles, elevators, taxis, and onto handheld devices, advancing the prompts for those without hope.
Scarce in Kissing Point, the human figure is everywhere in Lessons of War. Symmetrical and generic, the stiff figures are animated, recalling online avatars and automatons. In this variation,the figures can be gray, as if primed but not yet shelf-ready. This figurative aesthetic seems artless, but it is highly manipulative. The idealized bodies suffer, and they also provide the ultimate sacrifice: they fall from inhuman heights, explode in targeted cars, and are buried alive under collapsed buildings. The statue-like figures are effectively disempowered objects. As viewers we pity them from a higher position, sometimes directly above, from the air.
The figures’ contexts are often sketchy: an algorithmic grid and possibly the outlines of a simple architectural space, like a shelter. The near-perpetual daytime of these scenes contain certain details that have sharp and brilliant color: a red polygon indicates three-dimensional space; a green splash references thrown corrosive acid. A bed sheet with repeating heart motif sets the mood for a female in a melancholic passion. The only scene with a dissolve, she flies with a drone in her frozen hands. Emotions are tempered by remote control, satellites, targeted bombings, and total abstraction of landscape into basic geometric shapes. The data is not lost in the abbreviation; our imagination fills in the blanks of this surreal world.
Mediated revolution, via newspapers, television sets or personal devices, either brings us closer to understanding conflict or further alienate us from it. Lessons of War is a compilation of five chronological narratives of the recent wars on Gaza. Remarkable for the sudden totality that sync points make, Ahwesh directs us to two significant moments, both involving the stakes of documenting reality under repressive regimes. As if a touchstone, Ahwesh reminds us of the killing of journalists in Gaza on November 20, 2012. Indicating a deep disregard for freedom of speech, under these paranoid circumstances, only a unitary vision is acceptable. If journalists are not free to document and report facts, how can resistance occur, much less be imagined?
Witnessing is no longer just a spiritual affirmation; it is now an active, personal one-to-one split-second communication from someone familiar and maybe even loved. In Lessons… Ahwesh affirms the small gesture of the digital snapshot, knowing that as it gains weight and meaning, it shapes a wider perspective critical of rationalized, institutional violence. Social media propels in-depth journalistic analysis, which in turn motivates readerships. Around the world, from Ferguson to Israel itself, the virtual street of the internet has supported protests in the real street.
In Souvenirs, Ahwesh presents her own perception as memento. Souvenirs mark time and its passing with an object of eccentric, personal expression. Unlike typical picture postcards of Arabs on camels, these souvenirs are bulky, unopened packages tightly wrapped in tape. These three objects are in an endless loop to and from the artist, sent through the mail from Palestine to New York. The mail is a common and traditional means of civil communication; three of ten packages survived the trip. Ahwesh’s gesture of good faith only reveals more silences: why were seven packages halted? What over-zealous official closely observed his state’s self-protective policy? Like this unseen customs officer, we must trust the description: “rocks, newspapers, detritus.”
Once upon a time, David threw a rock and killed a giant. Today, newspapers are like rocks: artifacts of an earlier time when citizens read, dreaming of their nationhood in public. Souvenirs are mnemonic devices: will we forget newspapers in the future? Like the journalist who sailed his shoe at a U.S. President during a press conference in Baghdad, language itself can fly like a bird. Newspapers create citizen readers aware of larger audiences living parallel lives, in synchrony. Detritus is an emblem of mortality: detritus is the remainder. It floats in the water at the end of the final section of Lessons of War. Detritus is dirt. Dirt is dust on an aristocrat’s coattails.
An empty sign, there is no message to Smart Phone: it is a video of an exploding Smart Phone shown on a Smart Phone. A rhetorical piece, like Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe, it is about the frame, revealed by its negation. A frame is a set of rules, codes and conventions. It is also a container, a habit, and a support structure. It has boundaries and is a boundary. It is a limit that suggests limitlessness. Smart Phone, like Souvenirs and Lessons of War, shows how elements of communication can be used and abused.
Like the apocalyptic vision of punk rock, Smart Phone suggests an outmoded and exhausted future. It explodes rather than implodes, from the inside out. Similar to a film frame burning in the gate of a cinema projector, the structure of the spectacle becomes yawningly apparent. Reality suddenly asserts itself to the dismay of the enthralled. Sold to the “creative class,” smart phones track and abstract individuals into statistics and locales, furthering financial speculation. Seemingly harmless, close enough to sleep with, what happens when the romance suddenly threatens sorrow, pain, and isolation?
Walking through the gallery, a “poor cinema” becomes apparent, placing traditional high-art considerations of composition and beauty of the image in the same space with abject boxed detritus. A pocket-sized explosion, Smart Phone acts as an exclamation point at the closing credits of the exhibit Kissing Point. An alternative critical space within experimental film culture, Microscope Gallery provides a much-needed organized site for support, recognition and engagement for a community of artists who are not easy to categorize. Here, the movie within the viewer’s head, audience, and reception are the orientation over authorial intention. In the dim twilight of an ample and indifferent gallery, the viewer idles, curious and available. Presenting an objective transference of reality, the documentary image allows for contemplation of the limitations of human vision; and Kissing Point is emphatic, directing us to see, slowly, as if in a dream. If perception includes consciousness, then Biddu is in an enormous collective blind spot.
Mary Billyou is a filmmaker based in New York City.