by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Black Box

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Black Box, the Edinburgh In­ter­n­a­tion­al Film Festival’s strand devoted to ex­per­i­ment­al moving images, operates under something of a misnomer. The name suggests that the big screens and black boxes of the cinema are divorced from, even opposed to, the small screens and white cubes of the art world. Its programme, though, elo­quently shows that the divide between the two forms - film and, for want of a better term, video art - is at least semi-permeable, resting not on the work, but on the artist’s intent, the context in which it is shown, the audience that consumes it and the means by which it is dis­trib­uted.

Of course, this being the EIFF, some of the work on show is purely cinematic. Phantom Love, a feature-length film by Nina Menkes, takes the viewer on an immersive trip through the fractured psyche of Lulu, a woman who, bored of the re­pet­it­ive at­ten­tions of her young lover, allows her mind to empty and fill up again with half-memories and sub­con­s­cious effluvia. What follows is a series of vignettes, in lavish black and white, that switch from the seedy glamour of hotel casinos to harrowing en­coun­ters with a woman who may be Lulu’s sister or her troubled, hidden self. Yet this is still a work at the in­ter­sec­tion between art and film, with nods to Buñuel’s work with Dali, and, thanks to a snake sl­ither­ing down a corridor, direct allusions to the overt, obvious dream symbolism of the Sur­real­ists.

The waters get really muddy with In The Wake of a Deadad, in which Andrew Kötting travels the world with a huge in­flat­able dummy of his late, grinning father, blowing up the effigy at locations of par­t­ic­u­lar resonance to dead dad and live son. The work is conceived as both a 65-monitor in­stal­l­a­tion and the film shown here. The former must be a confusing affair, bom­bard­ing the audience with endless instances of Kötting’s hys­ter­ic­ally Freudian erection of his father. In linear, projected form it is, for all its complex merging of per­for­m­ance work and psy­cho­geo­graph­ic in­vest­ig­a­tion, and its no-budget look, a dis­t­inc­tly con­ven­tion­al film. By turns funny and touching, once the viewer accepts the unedited episodic nature of In The Wake of a Deadad it forms a narrative, complete with surprise plot twist, and paints a portrait of a family beyond Kötting’s awkward tribute to his father. Sure, its not exactly the stuff of a Saturday night at the multiplex, but the simple shift in present­a­tion­al modes shows that ‘difficult’ video art can become ‘easy’ cinema.

To an extent, the reverse is true of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, now showing outwith Black Box at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. This is the dual-screen gallery version of Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s cinema release, one of an edition of 17 that pairs the original film with raw footage from one of the cameras used to track the French in­ter­n­a­tion­al during a match between his club Real Madrid and Villareal. It’s an absorbing piece, which, as the two screens oc­ca­sion­ally come together to display the same shot, calls to mind much of Gordon’s video work, with its recurring themes of doubling and dop­pel­gängers. And, too, this version works as - to borrow from the jargon of the DVD extras menu - a ‘making of’, revealing the choices made in the edit suite, and the glossy sheen given to the washed-out rushes in post-pro­duc­tion. It also raises questions about the dis­tri­bu­tion of artworks made of moving images: why is this work a hugely expensive, limited edition, when the film on which it is based was made available to anyone for the price of a cinema ticket? (A question that can be asked of many a ‘cinematic artist’, like Mathew Barney, whose masterly Cremaster Cycle is trapped in $100,000 DVD sets, or Glasgow-based doc­u­ment­ary-maker/artist Luke Fowler, whose fluid filmic portraits can only be seen at gallery screen­ings, despite, arguably, belonging in the cinema.)

To return to Black Box, Beverly Hood’s piece Madame I not only questions modes of dis­tri­bu­tion but folds the means of viewing the work into the work itself. Telling the story of an anonymous patient in a neur­o­lo­gic­al study who has lost her sense of pro­pri­o­cep­tion - the awareness of the body in space - this short computer-animated film is designed to be viewed on a mobile ‘phone. And so Hood po­et­ic­ally evokes Madame I’s situation, a con­s­cious­ness that has lost its moorings to the physical world, and forces us to look to our own dis­em­bod­ied existence as avatars virtually linked by the ever-present network through in­creas­ingly soph­ist­ic­ated mobile devices.

Is Hood’s work video art, a short film, or some as-yet-unnamed in­ter­act­ive ex­per­i­ence? After taking in the work on show, or the films screened, at Black Box, such dis­t­inc­tions disappear, and this is the programme’s great strength: it not only gathers the best in moving images at the margins, but questions their very nature. Fas­cin­at­ing stuff, in­di­vi­du­ally and col­lect­ively.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.