Home, Hymn, Hum
We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had created,
reminisced about other, different places—
but were they? Hadn't we known it all before?
In vineyards where the bee's hymn drowns the monotony,
we slept for peace, joining in the great run.
He came up to me.
It was all as it had been,
except for the weight of the present,
that scuttled the pact we made with heaven.
In truth there was no cause for rejoicing,
nor need to turn around, either.
We were lost just by standing,
listening to the hum of the wires overhead.
John Ashbery’s 2004 poem Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse, set in a generalised American suburb, is a vague portrait of the American dream. It depicts a landscape of mass-produced ‘monotony’ across America. This landscape, a byproduct of a broken American dream where people seek ease and comfort in their surroundings, leaves them burnt out by ‘the great run’ of labour. The greatest pleasure is depicted as the privilege of boredom among the comforting sound of others’ labour, the ‘hymn’ of the bees in the vineyard. There’s no space for curiosity about people; it is not convenient or productive to be curious.
However, Ashbery’s poem does not simply provide an atmospheric account of life in mid-century America. The event of the poem is the meeting of ‘he’ and ‘me’. It could be interpreted as a queer encounter because, despite being set in a residential neighbourhood, intimacy is depicted outside of the home and this encounter is conveyed as contrary to religious ideology — breaking the ‘pact… with heaven’. What we know for certain is that ‘he’ being open to meeting ‘me’ changed the landscape, though not towards a clear resolution. This meeting caused the speaker to stand not in time with the world (of drives and driving and productivity) but instead caught in the hum of two people listening together.
Ashbery focuses on what happens when one allows himself to be lost and changed by an unanticipated event, through a process of opening up to foreign experiences. The poem’s speaker describes how this process can produce a sense of liveness, and what this agency might feel like: a ‘hum’. This liveness, this hum, became a trait that emerged in many of the films selected for ‘X’, the somewhat ambiguous theme for this year’s Berwick Film and & Media Arts Festival. A drive towards a liveness and agency—produced through an opening to the foreign or the unanticipated—provides a critical frame for this year’s films and installations.
BFMAF’s retrospective program An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall, curated by Thomas Beard, looks at queer identity beyond the gay rights context of the late 1960s. This series proposes a revisionist history, countering the notion that queer cinema — and queer visual culture — became solidified only after the flashpoint of the Stonewall riots. Opening its focus to other countries, eras and forms, the programme of ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ is nonetheless full of films showing characters who are transformed through foreign encounters and experiences. Queer cinema by its nature addresses intersubjectivity, the experience of collisions of bodies and desires, either hidden or overt. From the masochistic voyeurism (or voyeuristic masochism?) of Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour to the tragic consequences of the obsessive relationship in Mädchen in Uniform, ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ highlights powerful moments of becoming, comparable to Ashbery’s poem, though often taken through to their narrative resolution, whether tragic or triumphant. Across this diversity of films, we are reminded how queer culture formed (and deformed), and how it continues to challenge what we consider intimacy: how people love.
Berwick New Cinema artists Steve Reinke and Patrick Staff continue to work with the historical legacy being framed by Beard. Reinke’s A Boy Needs a Friend directly address the subject of intimacy and ‘queer Nietzschean friendship’ in autobiographical observations which the artist makes tangibly visible, yet which still seem radically private. In one sequence, we see a close-up view of one of the most concealed, unholy areas of the human body, onto which is being tattooed an ouroboros; this symbol of feedback and rebirth becomes a metaphor for a radically personal act made visible.
In Dear Hester (Reversed), Patrick Staff appropriates a drag performance video by Hester Reeve, in a way inserting his own subjectivity into this document. Through an exchange of letters between himself and Reeve, Staff describes how finding the video in an archive and viewing it elicited a powerful reaction from him, its ‘gender fuck, gender queer’ implications made manifest at a time when he is ‘trying to figure something out’ about himself. Ultimately, Dear Hester (Reversed) simultaneously incorporates the original video, Staff’s reaction and both Reeve’s and his correspondence, all in the span of a few short minutes. These elements are compiled together for the viewer but their sequence is shifted, the initial discovery becoming the denouement.
In contrast, Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Eleven Men (pictured above), an adaptation of a short story by Franz Kafka, proposes the potentiality of encounters as frustrating and ultimately doomed to fail. The video poetically investigates the relationships of its narrator to her different lovers through a range of Vietnamese films from the years 1966-2000, each starring actress Nhu Quynh. The text begins ‘I have eleven men’, and sequentially the narrator describes each man’s strengths, weaknesses, mannerisms and peculiarities in acute detail. Despite the keenly personal nature of each description, the overall arrangement of these portraits, and the film footage shown during each, produces a sense of ephemerality in these relationships. Continuing collisions of intimacy become subverted by the eventual next portrait the narrator sketches. It’s as if each man — and each relationship — reveals a marvellous potential without that potential ever becoming realised.
The main action in Ashbery’s poem is in the smallest movement between the words home, hymn and hum. This trajectory in time from the confines of the home to the hymn ends in a hum. In the films above we have examined works that utilise intersubjectivity in showing how intimacy can be expanded beyond the home.
Artists at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival also create new audio-visual landscapes that address intersubjective experience through a hum, through unknowing, new landscapes and new languages. This reluctance to conventional language in favour of unknowing is reflected through the programme as a technique to forge new ways of linking both images and ideas.
One such artist addressing this hum is Artist in Profile Deborah Stratman, who describes her practice: ‘I want to come at things from a place of unknowing. I make because I don’t know… I’m asking questions, trusting my audience to experience visual poetry and different audio-visual structures that say as much as language can.’ Stratman facilitates the audience’s experienceing through the time-based medium of the moving image, which, like music or performance unfolds over a duration, temporarily suspendings the outside world in favour of traversing the landscape — in the case of her installation Xenoi, a circular, feedback-laden view of the Greek island of Syros.
The videos of Molly Palmer and C. Spencer Yeh both explore landscapes that hum, scenarios where communication is primarily done without words. In 2002, installed in The Barrels Ale House, Yeh shows a compilation of performances by bands, musicians and sound artists that he recorded during the titular year. Brief snippets in quick succession, the outré music and performances occurred in small venues, warehouses and basements, and often featured charged, kinetic and unanticipated interactions between performer and audience. While a handful of musicians may be known quantities today, the majority are of far less renown. Our now-archival encounters of them fourteen years later seem just as exciting (and sometimes shocking) as they must have been in the early aughts.
Molly Palmer’s Some Shapes Without Edges shows otherworldly humans communicating through rhythms and patterns in the midst of a wonderfully-crafted mise en scène. Through layering, rhythm and multiplicity (of bodies, viewpoints and perspectives) we witness fractured identities. These bodies encounter each other (themselves) through the flash of a camera and humming musical tones.
Multiple, mirrored portraits of self also appear in Jenny Brady’s installation Going to the Mountain, a raw portrait of several infants engaging in processes of learning and cognition. Structuring her footage of these children to highlight their movements and senses, Brady suggests that they ‘might represent site[s] of embodied knowledge’, their engagement with objects through touch or taste existing in a heightened state. Brady’s montage of these children’s ‘primal choreography’ reminds us how we’ve all navigated a foreign world at one time, and how the difficult, ugly and primitive process of learning landscapes anew is still within our capacities.
The films in this year’s Berwick Film &and Media Arts Festival show that, by opening up to what’s around us, we have the both the potential and the agency to be utterly changed by an unexpected event. As Lauren Berlant succinctly summarises Ashbery’s poem in her book Cruel Optimism: ‘Be open to the one who comes up to you. Be changed by an encounter.’
-- Chloe Thorne and Herb Shellenberger
Chloe Thorne is a London-based film editor and animator working across cinema and artist film. She graduated with a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College.
Herb Shellenberger has curated screenings at institutions such as Arnolfini (Bristol), International House Philadelphia, Light Industry (Brooklyn), LUX (London), Molodist International Film Festival (Kiev) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco). He is a recent graduate of the Central Saint Martins/LUX MRes Moving Image programme, and has previously lectured on artist film and video at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and Alternative Film/Video Research Forum (Belgrade). He will organise a series focused on American experimental animation of the 1970s-1980s at Tate Modern in 2017.