by Jonathan Ali
In a time of self-isolation, the concept of crowds is troublesome at best. Yet in addition to their problematic potential, crowds possess other, liberatory possibilities. The films in That Was The Week That Was not only reflect on the collective power of people to create a present that was once a future, but also the obliteration of all other futures that every present represents.
Using an assemblage of illustrated images, Yeonu Ju explores mass gatherings in her tripartite work A Crowd. The first part, Belief, considers crowds gathered at concerts and sporting events. In Crossroads, people teem the city streets. Finally, Dinosaur presents us with the eventuality of humanity en masse: image upon image of waste. The pixelated images go in and out of focus, their unsettling instability echoing the inherent fickleness of crowds themselves.
Salma Shamel’s Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad is a wry lamentation of a future not grasped. In the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution a government committee was set up to compile an archive of the revolution’s events, only to be dissolved following a coup. Through a parade of the committee’s ephemera of CD-ROMs, certificates and contracts, Those That Tremble mourns what could have been, to a soundscape of mass distress.
In The Reversal, Jennifer Boles similarly engages the archive – and also foregoes making new images in favour of repurposing existing ones. Photographs of the reversal of the Chicago River at the turn of the nineteenth century unfurl to an appropriately machine-like rhythm. The result is a haunting, black-and-white evocation of the efforts of anonymous men whose collective labour – and, often, lives – went into this capital-driven reorganisation of nature.
And so to the (zombie) apocalypse. In Zombies, Baloji lassoes several of his own songs together in an extended music video whose intoxicating action slides from Kinshasa’s traffic-choked streets to its nightclubs to its hair salons. Millennials with faces illuminated by their smartphones, performing tribal characters, and dictators in blood-splattered bespoke suits converge in this dazzling Afro-digital dystopia. The apocalypse never looked so chic, nor sounded so funky.
Yeonu Ju – 14’17 – South Korea
THOSE THAT TREMBLE AS IF THEY WERE MAD
Salma Shamel – 10’36 – Egypt
Jennifer Boles – 14’17 – USA
Baloji – 14’50 – Democratic Republic of Congo
Yeonu Ju, A Crowd
The film features images of deliberate gatherings at concerts and sports events, and then there are involuntary gatherings of people at crossroads and on streets. But then the film shifts, to images of waste – as if this is the cost of humans getting together… There’s a real ambivalence.
A Crowd considers a certain flow, as well as people, physically gathering. As if people are interested in something or enthusiastic about it. When we look closely at what we think we know well, it can look completely different from what we knew. Also, there are things that are overlooked. This film applied this as a methodology. It consists of thousands of images scanned by cutting photos printed on A4 sheets of OHP film. In addition, each film can be connected individually and as one. In this context, you can also find ambivalence.
And the sound by Yeji Gu is a consistent wall of noise, which suggests something machine-like, non-human…
Sound is either directly connected to the image or not. It consists of sounds in the air, ground, and underground. Indeed, the sounds of a rocket launch, urban noise, factory machinery, excavators, drills, etcetera were sampled. The sound was designed with the same methodology as to how images were constructed, except in ‘Belief’, the first part of A Crowd. The reason why the sound persists in ‘Belief’ is to indicate that people gathered are focus on something. The sounds of the second and third parts of the film were designed with parts of the original sound source being cut into frames and then overlapped and repeated. This methodology seems to have further enhanced the interrelationship between image and sound.
Salma Shamel, Those That Tremble As If They Were Mad
There’s a tension inherent in this exploration, between who gets to tell a story, or archive an event, and who doesn’t – the distance between failure and possibility, to quote the film. What kind of rules did you set yourself to maintain control the material?
In fact, I did not set any kind of external rules. For this project and the one which followed, I sort of set my refuge in Fredric Jameson’s words, ‘history is what hurts.’ True, I was following the narrative of this governmental committee, of which I interviewed two members, but what was more exciting for me was the challenge to capture what it would mean to be hurt by history. If an archival practice is, in essence, about control, then how is it possible to bring it onscreen as uncertain and fragile? Having said that, perhaps if I detour and re-answer your question, I would say the only restriction was the number of film cartridges I had on me. I think I had four or five.
The film prompts a fascinating question around technology, the parallels in language we use to describe data storage and historical events – the idea for instance that a CD-ROM archiving a history not only has memory, but that it is read-only…
I strangely don’t have much to say here, perhaps because this CD-ROM moment actually came out by total coincidence. I think realising parallels between things often comes out as a coincidence, and I shy away from theorising coincidences.
Jennifer Boles, The Reversal
This film documents a major civil engineering project, the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900. It’s a document of human achievement – labour, skill, design – but there is also much loss depicted here: pain and injury, death and sacrifice. As the film is the result of a deliberate selection process, I wonder if you could say a bit about this interplay.
The film speaks both to the contradictions inherent in the actual history of the river’s reversal and to the key tensions between the sacred ideals of progress, freedom, and exceptionalism and the realities of violence that course through American identity and history. For me, the reverse engineering of the river, and the river itself, is at once a local story, a microcosm of national history, and an allegory for the contradictions of capitalism and its bifurcation of humans and nonhuman nature. It seeks to ask the question looming over us, precisely right now: what will make us change? When will the metaphorical train stop and account for the destruction left in its wake?
The reversal happened in the context of the Gilded Age at the turn of the nineteenth century, a period that is remarkably like our own in its rapidity and breadth of change. It was a truly dystopian world with utopian aspirations that transformed the country and shaped our present to a large degree, for better and for worse. The newly established Chicago Sanitary District was just as corrupt, if not more so, as everyone else with power in the city. After continuous failures of massive public works projects based on theories of dilution to stem the tide of water-borne illnesses, the city decided to go massive and build a 28-mile long canal to reverse a river that long served as the city’s public toilet and send the shit somewhere else.
While the most common story is that this was inevitable, the only way to save the city, this was one of many proposals put forward at a time in which the science of dilution was already discredited. It was the less expensive option over more ‘impractical’ holistic approaches and they also wanted a shipping lane connecting Chicago to the West. Public works projects were easy for corrupt officials to exploit. They chose the most invasive proposal that involved rupturing a continental divide, contaminating water downstream, flooding farmlands and disrupting ecosystems that stretched through the Illinois and Mississippi Valleys down to the Gulf of Mexico, where today there exists a massive dead zone made of algae blooms caused by sewage and agricultural runoff.
And the reversal opened the doors to invasive species that have gutted the Illinois River and that threaten the Great Lakes. Today, the city continues to build more tunnels, plants, and reservoirs, and while the quality of the river has improved with new treatment plants and a deep tunnel system, it is precarious. I row in the Chicago River – which is how this project started – and every time it rains just a small amount, raw sewage and runoff contaminate the river and sometimes even the lake. With increased flooding, this will only get worse. But still, most people don’t see or know anything about our hard-working river and its centrality to our everyday lives.
But as I said before, the film is only partly about this history. I do believe that if people have a better grasp on the history of the things that they take for granted, like where their shit goes and how interleaved the river is with the city and with ecosystems thousands of miles from us, that it marks a micro step in changing our perceptions about a crisis that is rooted in ideas about history and nature that are deeply ingrained in our psyche. The title of the film has a double meaning in that sense. From the vantage point of the present pandemic, which is revealing the interconnectedness of the planet and vulnerability of everyone while making us aware that we are living history, there is hope if we take it. That is why the film has little context and why sound, the most immersive of the senses, is central to the experience. I don’t want viewers to focus too much on what is happening specifically, but to stop fighting that desire to look and let the course of history and its contingencies wash over them, in all its pain and beauty.
The clarity and quality of these glass-plate images is amazing. Each photograph tempts one to press pause, or to linger, like in a stills exhibition – but the film presses on, as if to assert its cinematic right to tell this history with movement, momentum, an unstoppable sweep.
The film is definitely an exercise in endurance. It’s both too slow to be a film and too fast to satisfy the photographic gaze. It is both a primitive form of filmmaking and a ‘modernisation’ of an archive. I think it makes it hard for people to know how to respond because it goes against how they are trained to watch a film, interpret an archive, or look at images. On the one hand, the consistent frame rate of 15 frames per second is intended to create movement with the images, many of which are panoramic and already convey a sense of movement and precise alignment that conveys cinema. The detail in each of these wide-angle glass negatives also imparts movement, which is something I learned from being so immersed in it. You can look at the photo a million times – which I did! – and see something new each time.
But I also had to always think about the photos in relation to each other. If there was a remarkable image that didn’t invite movement either within or sequentially, I had to leave it out. And I was never able to view the edits I made in real time because the files were so large so I had to imagine movement by working image by image, correcting them in photoshop, and aligning them in the most tedious of ways. It was a really slow and intricate process. In addition, we built the sound design from scratch, using field recordings taken with contact and stereo mics along and in the river, the treatment plants, on trains and boats and along the streets and bridges and mixed those with archival recordings from the turn of the century. So I was often editing the images silently or the sound without the images, and that process was also very slow but illuminating in so many ways, especially when my sound designer, Suli Stuelpnagel, took over and we began to work off each other.
The editing process contrasts very much with the way that I bombard you with speed in the film itself, and that tension is part of its politics. Viewers want to look and understand, interpret what they see, consume the image as Sontag’s ‘slice of time’ and impart meaning. I want to create awareness of that simultaneous desire to consume and extract and to slow down. The photos were originally intended to document the prideful accomplishments of the Sanitary District but later, after the canal was finished, they were taken to protect the city from the many lawsuits that followed the reversal, especially those initiated by farmers downstream.
Like the construction projects, the images were complicit in the extractive process and were never meant to be consumed as art, even if they are very much shaped by the conventions of landscape photography in the earlier decades. As Sontag says, with time, images lose their ‘emotional charge’ and become art solely because they are of the past. With these images especially, we can’t help but marvel at them – and we should, but not here! Instead, I wanted to give them the emotional charge that allegory can provide and take them out of the past, out of their strictly local context, and out of the realm of art. In some parts I try to disaggregate the images by zooming in so far that you can see the chemicals on the glass and travel through them at the molecular level – that’s how vivid they are! They, like everything, are of the earth, something we forget, especially in the digital age.