Saturday, October 20, 2012

Deep State (2012)

Last night VIVO curator Amy Kazymerchyk screened Deep State (2012), a 45 minute video by the Museum of Non-Particpation (Brad Butler and Karen Mirza) that takes its title from the Turkish words derin devlet, which refer to closed-circuit, state-within-a state hidden assemblies where, faced with public dissent (for example), decisions concerning the deployment of police (using water cannons, water-boarding) are enacted. Rather than attempt a representation of this neo-liberal wheelhouse we are instead given its compositional analogue in the form of the structure of the video.

Like any film or video aware of the "structural" history of its medium, Deep State is comprised of recurrent streams. The most central concerns footage of protesting civilians and "peace-keeping" police (conflict images, not "protest images," as the videomakers refer to them), while the most notable features a woman of African descent performing a series of body and speech acts against a white background (are these performative gestures based on her readings of/experiences with protests?). A second figure (the constructed meta-subject) appears in front of the video as it is screened against a surface and, at the same time, absorbing that subject through its re-taping. In addition we are shown what is now a culture-jamming cliche (a burning TV set); a semi-silhouetted figure seated at a writer's desk, thinking aloud (the ghost of Michel Foucault? the video's scriptwriter China Mieville?); a dictator (an Hispanic-first American president?); and, about halfway through the piece, an astronaut ("riotnaut") who travels through space and time, only to find that nowhere, including the moon, are we free from protest (conflict).

As with many "new media" projects that come to us from the departments of Communication and Anthropology (Mirza's PhD is in the former, Butler's in the latter), the specific social and historical contexts in which civilians and police clash are elided, leaving us with what at times feels like a synchronic aestheticization of protest -- for protest's sake. Yes, we see London bobbies (striking miners?), just as we see Islamic shop signs (Arab Spring?), but to montage these conflicts in order to both identify and define globalization only strengthens that system's ability to further compress our social reality, impose a universal onto a particular, which I find just as oppressive as the weight of unseen capital and its increased concentration, as facilitated by these covert "deep state" structures. Of more interest to me is not the ebb and flow clash of protesters and police (both of which contain state workers) but of the ostensibly democratic internal conflicts revealed to us through more recent protest models such as Occupy, where hand signals are used to convey approval/disapproval within the group. Another expression of conflict, one that the videomaker's have embraced through their theorization of the "non", concerns the Occupy movement's non-expository engagement with the corporate media, their refusal to be sound-bitten, encased within those criminally reductive narratives its news agencies are so quick to deploy.

At the end of the screening Kazymerchyk invited the videomakers to the front of the room. However, rather than make themselves available for questions, first, they wanted to speak to what they were doing in their video, a gesture that was quickly challenged by an audience member who wanted to know why the camera POV was from the "police perspective," a question that was not adequately addressed. A second question by politically-specific, dialectically-inclined videomaker Craig Berggold asked the videomakers what they thought an "image of change" might look like (in contrast to a "protest image"). This question was also not adequately addressed. Instead the videomakers took us to the outer reaches of intention, until one of them (I forget who) suggested that the "meta-subject" and "the woman of African descent" allowed the film its "love story", a suggestion so absurd, so unearned (the film is devoid of eros) that I had no choice but to leave -- in protest.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Michael,

    To be fair Karen and Brad thoughtfully engaged the queries and concerns of many people for over an hour. I say this for a few reasons. First, I completely understand your disappointment in the artists not adequately addressing the question of what "images of change" may look like, or one person's observation that the POV appeared to be taken from a police perspective. In fact, the line that Berggold was drawing from in the video was: "images of protest are not yet images of change"– which is true, they aren't. But how can they be?

    I want to point out that the silhouetted figure is Lutz Becker, a German filmmaker, painter and curator who works with Russian Constructivism, conceptual rupture, and Marxism in 20th Century art and culture. He appears in dialogue with a disembodied Rahila Gupta from the South Hall Black Sisters Collective in London. The structure of this scene references Jean Luc Godard's "To Alter an Image", in which he contemplates the question "how to give an image of change?"

    Brad and Karen confessed that their practice has a slow metabolic rate, and so did the conversation. Later on we returned to the conceit that the film is set in the future–2084, and posited whether the POV has been reframed temporally as The Future? There were queries about the temporal and spatial relationship of the events and artist's participation in them. Indeed geographic specificity correlates with the artist's personal, political and professional commitments to London, Cairo, Northern Ireland and Istanbul. The work wasn't globally totalizing or compressing. It specifically relates to Brad and Karen's personal network of relationships and experiences, from which the material was directly drawn. Deep State exists within the frame of the Museum of Non Participation, which is a critical unfolding of archives, image banks and contestations of seeing and non seeing. Images circulate through the Museum's many forms: performance, publication, film and lecture, and are in a constant state of rupture and reconfiguration. Questions were also asked about patterns in the formal structure and pacing of the montage. Parallels were offered to Lefebvre's spatialization and rhythm analysis and Artavazd Pelechian's "poetic" montage.

    I particularly like your reflection on the compositional analogue of video to the concept of deep state. I think this is important. A significant premise of the Museum is addressing the condition that our understanding of the global, the material and the political in time and space, is through images, and so semiotics and syntax are incredibly important. I myself have always been perplexed by the image of the burning TV and the opening shots of sponsors logos and film festival award declarations that position the narrative as a popular mainstream film. I too am curious what these tropes offer, which I feel (though referencing film and video) are not affective as reflexive streams.

    This is how Deep State can be accessed, not just by viewing the images as aliases for the material events or "conflicts" they represent, but by viewing the material of the images themselves. Deep State's saturation of cinematic and political referents and quotations sets up a dialectic between images, bodies and politics, that is one important element of the Museum of Non Participation.

    I wish you had performed your protest, not through leaving, but through staying and offering up your disappointment to the conversation's becoming.