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

Langlands & Bell

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The Talbot Rice Gallery’s ex­hib­i­tion of films and an­im­a­tions by Langlands & Bell - an artistic duo who, when they’re not making sculp­tur­al work, have been at the vanguard of new media since the late 1970s - serves well, among other things, as a history of the tech­no­lo­gy of film, from Super 8’s flick­er­ing black and white to the polygons and textures of computer sim­u­la­tion.

The show opens with Ooh La La Les Legumes!, a doomy, Godard-in­flu­enced piece made in 1979 when the duo were still students. The loosely struc­tured narrative sees Langlands and Bell drifting through Dijon’s markets and cafes, as the camera plays doomily across grave­stones and follows cows being herded into an abattoir. A later student work, Pseudo, borrows both the soun­dtrack­ from Hitchcock’s Psycho and the director’s tech­n­iques, to craft a silent noir in which a woman, engrossed in a thriller on TV, finds herself under attack.

These early pieces are gripping, and soph­ist­ic­ated in their ex­plor­a­tion of film technique, but it is only when Langlands & Bell develop their own cinematic language, and turn their cameras on the real world, that they hit their stride.

Borough Market, filmed in 1986, is a tightly focused portrait of a place, and the people in it. Close-up shots of market traders and their punters mugging for the camera are intercut with death masks and cheap statuary, an auc­tion­eer­ takes bids at breakneck speed, banging his gavel, a stiffly formal equi­val­ent to the vendors shouting prices outside. These frenetic scenes are set against shots of city workers flowing along pavements on their way home. The shots build to form a dense study of the market and its sur­roun­d­ings, con­trast­ing the forward-looking city boys with the tradition-bound stall-holders.

The most recent film here, Folke­stone­ - Boulogne: A Blind Date, applies the same tech­n­iques to two towns, and the journey between them. In a nod to their earlier work, Langlands & Bell let their camera rove over more stalls of fruit and veg, and record a fisherman com­plain­ing about the decline of his industry. Shots of the red cabins of Folke­stone­’s funicular railway give way to scenes of a cross-Channel ferry chugging into Boulogne harbour, a simple jux­ta­pos­i­tion of two transport systems kept running by the tourist trade.

Shots of elderly folk dancers in tra­di­tion­al costume jigging to accordion music are matched to sequences of gangs of kids clad in the in­ter­n­a­tion­al uniform of hooded tops and tracksuit bottoms. These two groups couldn’t be more different, you might think, but the teenagers are dancing too, per­form­ing “jumpstyle” moves. By cutting between the two, Langlands & Bell reduce the apparent distance between the two cultural act­iv­it­ies, high­light­ing the fact that, while the folk dancers are pre­ser­v­ing local customs in the face of glob­al­isa­tion, their children, despite the American street­wear on their backs, are busy creating new folk dances.

These pieces are, above all, about people, but when Langlands & Bell remove the human component from their work, they falter. The Artists Studio is a 2002 in­ter­act­ive computer animation that recreates the interior of the Old Library Hallway at Petworth House in Sussex, where JMW Turner kept a studio, con­tras­ted with a virtual version of Langlands & Bell’s own studio space in London. I found it an exercise in frus­tra­tion, spending five minutes des­per­ately trying to escape an upstairs landing, and the rest of my time in­ter­act­ing with the virtual space by banging my virtual head against the pixelated purple flock wallpaper of a Petworth corridor. I can’t blame Langlands & Bell for my lack of co­ord­in­a­tion and un­fa­m­il­i­ar­ity with the computer games that inspire the work, but even if I had been able to glide smoothly from Turner’s old haunt to the slickly designed spaces of their HQ, I doubt I would’ve learned as much as I did soaking up the at­mo­sphere of Boulogne, Folke­stone­, Borough Market or Dijon.

In the upstairs gallery, The House of Osama Bin Laden, a work which earned Langlands & Bell their 2004 Turner Prize nom­in­a­tion, is another in­ter­act­ive sim­u­la­tion, this time set in the al Qaeda fig­ure­head’s one- time base in Afgh­an­istan. The stills re­pro­duced in the catalogue show someone exploring the bombed-out building, finding a rocket launcher propped in a corner, and storage spaces full of moth-eaten rugs. On their field trip to Afgh­an­istan, Langlands & Bell risked life and limb, only realising when reviewing their research photos of the hide-out that they had been snapping away just inches from un­ex­ploded land mines. There’s no sense of danger or immediacy to be found in the finished work, though. This could be a com­ment­ary on the media hysteria that led up to the invasions of Afgh­an­istan and Iraq, but it seems more likely to be an un­for­tu­n­ate side-effect of Langlands & Bell’s embracing of new tech­no­lo­gy and bloodless focus on physical space, a com­bin­a­tion that alienates the viewer as much as their film work achieves the opposite.

There’s another problem with these simulated spaces. Langlands & Bell may have been prescient in making work in line with games such as Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to explore city­s­capes, or the al­ter­n­at­ive reality of Second Life, where users potter about their second homes, but the in­ex­or­able pace of tech­no­lo­gic­al progress leaves these pieces, state-of-the-art five years ago, looking a little dated. This is not true of even the earliest film works, which - despite the fashion of their time, and revealing the tech­no­lo­gy behind them in the grain of Super 8 or the crispness of DV - show the world, rather than attempt to recreate it.

This is a divided show, then, evenly split between dis­ap­point­ing, anaemic in­ter­act­ive an­im­a­tions and warm, lyrical filmworks, but those films make it a must-see: nobody can beat Langlands & Bell at portraits of people, places and the ties that bind them together.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th December, 2008.