February 2008, Berlin International Film Fest

A crime against art (Hila Peleg)

One hand on open (Stefan Pente and William Wheeler)

Berlin International Film Festi
val – February 2008

The 58th international Berlin film festival (also known as Berlinale), has a section that is of special interest to the art world. It’s called Forum and it places itself in the boundaries of the cinema, presenting films and video experiments, performances and exhibitions. Here we found two videos that concerned the contemporary art scene in particular. We are speaking about A crime against art, directed by the Israeli Hila Peleg and One hand on open, by the artists Stefan Pente (born in Zurich) and William Wheeler (born in Virginia).

A crime against art documented the so-called Madrid Trial, a performatic idea of the artist Anton Vidokle staged at ARCO, the contemporary art fair of Madrid in February 2007. When Anton Vidokle was called to organize a panel at ARCO, he told the person who invited him that he was neither a curator, nor a merchant, nor a critic. He decided anyway to accept the invitation and he mounted a “trial against art”. The starting point of this idea is a presumption that a crime against art has been committed. And the result, a judicial process that looks exactly like the ones you can see in the movies and in TV shows, with all its dominant characters: the judge, the witnesses, the defense attorney, the prosecutors and the audience. Anton Vidokle and his friend, the curator Tirdad Zolghard, decided to put themselves in the place of the defendants, and different art theorists and art critics play the other characters (Jan Verwoert, Charles Esche, Vasif Kortun and Chus Martínez).

The process took place in real time: it was not scripted, so the film shows how the actions develop, how the arguments and accusations build up, how the people involved had to think on the spot about common problems in the contemporary art world today.

The end result is an interesting debate mainly surrounding the question whether contemporary artists are nowadays acting in collaboration with the bourgeoisie. What you see during the whole film is simply the trial, and from time to time several signs here and there saying pinching things like: “In 2015, artists who refuse to take part in the entertainment industry will inevitably live under deteriorating conditions”, etc. But despite the homogeneous nature of the material, the timing and edition of the film is good enough for the movie not to become boring in any moment. On the contrary: there are some parts where it’s not possible to elude the extravagant, sometimes ridiculous character of the whole idea, and the people involved in the trial themselves are having a hard time trying not to laugh about what they are doing; a laugh that couldn’t avoid passing on to the audience of the cinema.

At the beginning of the trial the facts are not clear and the evidence has to be provided. So the judge needs first to define the corpus delicti, which takes around the first half hour of the movie. When the charges are defined and accepted by the judge, the accusation goes on. The defense attorney and the prosecutors enter into a hard and interesting debate that is difficult to reproduce and describe, but easy to imagine: at what point can an art agency be critical to the status quo?, what is the relationship between art and institutions?, is there a collusion of artists with the “new bourgeoisie”?, did Vidokle and Zolghard – organizers and defendants – make up the trial following a kind of heroic desire of martyrdom?

The climax of the movie arrives when the defense attorney unexpectedly asks his “client” Anton Vidokle if he considers himself a bourgeois. After some tense and silent seconds (Vidokle’s face in close-up), he finally answers yes. Then the defense attorney concludes that it’s not possible to accuse a person for not acting against his own social class. This moment when Anton Vidokle accepts his belonging to the bourgeoisie is probably the central point of the trial (even though in the beginning of the movie the prosecutor already points out the fact that everyone in the room is part of the bourgeoisie). The result of the trial – whether the defendants are innocent or guilty – is not really the point. The strength of the movie is the chance to watch a documentation of an interesting performance that unveils several problems in the contemporary art scene, staged at the heart of the contemporary art market.

After the movie, during a short talk with the audience of the Berlinale, I had the chance to ask Anton Vidokle why, having expected that the debate will be related to the topic “collusion with the bourgeoisie”, didn’t he invite a single person that doesn’t belong to the bourgeoisie for the trial. Vidokle felt uncomfortable with the question and he answered that I was taking the movie too literally and that the question concerning whether he is in fact a bourgeois or not, is not completely answered...

The other relevant movie was One hand on open, by the artists Stefan Pente and William Wheeler. It’s filmed in high definition video, and so it was projected. The media itself is interesting because we’re still not used to watching video in real high definition. Even though the format is already a standard in filming, there are not too many occasions where the format is respected during the screening. Usually what we see is normal DVD definition but in big screen instead of our domestic TV. The decision to screen One hand on open with respect to the format on which it was filmed was not just a technical issue. The content of the movie somehow relates to the format.

Pente and Wheeler decided to film the entire movie using the chroma key technique (also known as bluescreen), where the action is filmed with a big blue screen as background, which is after replaced (or not) with other images. In the case of One hand on open, this technique results in completely artificial spaces, some kind of no-spaces containing only minimal decoration and the necessary objects that will be just enough to give a context to the viewer. This scenography, completely theatrical and openly fake (digital walls, backgrounds made out of drawings, etc.), brings a unique ambience which is enhanced with the materiality brought by the high definition. It is not the pixelated image of the normal video nor is it the lively sense of the analogical traditional film. The high definition gives a crystal clear image that goes perfect with the purpose of avoiding any naturalistic aim. Another aspect that helps this is the fact that in their use of the bluescreen, the directors make everything not really work inside a “box” (a “blue box”, as the program says), but distributed on a flat surface where the three dimensional artifice is avoided. The characters and the objects are put in a sort of bi-dimensional plane where they suffer changes in size and overlaps more than distances in the depth of field, which here doesn’t really exist.

The dispersion of entities in the surface also has to do with the action of the movie. In it there are several characters, all of them transgendered, that are thrown together into the screen with different worries. The action took place in an institute for violence studies, where one of the characters tries to recover her lost memory, the director of the institute is engaged in a theory about “self defense against hate violence” (against sexual minorities), a researcher is working on the idea of the “bodyless” and at the same time getting frustrated about the director, etc. The actions are for times hard to follow because of the complexity of the philosophical concepts that are used but also because some actors make more than one character. Also because there is not a clear and unique line of facts (as there is no depth of field) but a surface where the passions, actions and inactions of the characters are all together as if the 100 minutes that the movie lasts were canceled and in the end we were in front of a medieval painting where different facts are presented together, distributed in the same piece of cloth.

Diego Chamy

Berlin Internationale Filmfestspiele - http://www.berlinale.de/

Diego Chamy

Diego Chamy is a multidisciplinary artist.
He studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, were he was born. Until 2004 his work was exclusively focused in music, but since 2005 he stopped playing music and all at once started to work in the fields of sound poetry, performance art, dance and video art. He occasionally writes texts for different publications.

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