Issue 3/2013 - Net section

Controversial Flattening

Flatness: Cinema after the Internet at the 2013 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

Rainer Bellenbaum

“Confronting flatness with flatness”—this is how the curator Shama Khanna somewhat willfully paraphrases the ideas of the British cultural theorist Mark Fisher. In his book Capitalist Realism – Is There No Alternative? Fisher presents a noteworthy diagnosis of the depressing and—in terms of problem-solving—inefficient hegemony brought about by the inexorable spread of neoliberalism. Fisher considers the principle of ensuring the constant flexibility of social actors, which we take for granted these days, as a main cause of the flattening of attentiveness and interest in learning. As a teacher confronted with his pupils’ lack of concentration, he is a fierce critic of this development. For Khanna, on the other hand, the phenomena and implications of flattening are by no means as straightforward.
This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that, as curator of the special theme program Flatness: Cinema after the Internet at this year’s International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, she invited contemporary artists not only to present their films but to curate their own separate programs. The spectrum of works presented—gallery art, internet activism, performance documentation, auteur films—elicited a number of astonishing constellations and points of contact. Presented as conventional screenings, and yet in their juxtaposition occasionally reminiscent of the contingency of algorithmic search engine results, the programs were hardly designed to create an overpowering impression. And this is exactly what the curator intended to achieve: to escape the affectation and the metaphorical aspect of aesthetic expression. This does not mean however that some of the clips, as well as their juxtaposition, did not cause some irritation.
Under the modest title A Movement, for example, a variety of different works were conjoined, such as Jason Dungan’s Flows and This Lemon Tastes of Apple by Hiwa K. Flows, a production commissioned by the festival, shows concise exterior scenes of London: images of rain-soaked streets; details in the asphalt; banal, filthy corners; sustained views of street traffic through windows. Evidently shot at the photographer’s leisure, the material has been stylized after the fact through the creation of multiple visual layers. Every so often, parts of the image freeze while others remain in motion. This formal play highlights the constructedness of the cinematic image. This Lemon Tastes of Apple, by contrast, which was screened directly afterwards, takes the audience to the battlefront in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyya, where government forces brutally gunned down a civil protest in November 2011. While passers-by run to seek shelter from the bullets and tear gas, and casualties streaming with blood are carried off by helpers, Hiwa K. walks through the streets as a musician. Accompanied by a guitarist, amplified by two megaphones, and inhaling the tear gas through his harmonica, he plays Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. K. then collected the scenes filmed by onlookers, for the most part strangers, with their mobile phones and compiled them into a film. The direct coupling of Flows and This Lemon Tastes of Apple not only indicates that images of war, instead of simply illustrating objective situations, can also depict subjective, performative actions. Also interesting to consider is the difference in the degree of urgency with which K. performs his act, defying all panic and danger, and with which Dungan insists on the formal aspects of cinematography.
Oliver Laric, another artist who co-curated the program, switches back and forth between reflections on formal pictorial aspects and documentation of current political events. Conceding the heterogeneous nature of his composition Hybridize or Disappear, he hoped nonetheless that the program’s sequence would result in a “new film.” He was confident that the audience had the requisite prior cinematic experience to make this happen. Furthermore, he supplied those who read the catalogue with concrete key words: for Kai Kostack’s 3D CGI simulation of a knitted sweater falling (Knitted Clothing Simulation at Ultra High Detail) they were: “CGI, detail, fabric, mesh, macro, slow motion”; and for Chris Marker’s musical elaboration of a police video constructed of security camera footage, reconstructing the preparations for an allegedly politically motivated assassination (Stopover in Dubai): “Dubai, Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, GNTV, Mossad.” Through this gesture of laconic key word creation—the emphasis on search terms—Laric, who as a Net artist was not personally present at the festival, pinpointed one of the event’s fundamental features: any attempt at conceptual clarification, or at coming to terms with the challenge the internet poses to the politics of imagery, is subordinate to the principle of extensive possible links and interconnections.
This openness, however, prompted the audience to wonder to which extent the method of flattening was advocated or criticized by those involved. Ed Atkins, who was also co-curating, expressly came down on the latter side in the panel discussion. In view of the multifunctionality of digital technology, which he welcomes and which allows us to write, listen to music, edit, and render all at the same time on our laptops, he looks for remnants of personal responsibility as well as a way to express “aesthetic depression.” His video Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, which is more of a gallery production since it was created within the framework of online practice, confounds the flawlessness of advanced modeling techniques by allowing arbitrary stains, drips, or lens-induced artefacts to creep in. More optimistically, Anthea Hamilton strikes back against the theory of media flattening by seeking to emphasize a physical connection to imagery rather than mental metaphors. The results of her research into historical disco culture, presented in the form of video clips, escaped the screen’s flatness through live Kabuki theater immediately prior to the screening (Venice, The Kabuki Version).
Despite the presence of such a diverse range of movements attempting to discover the emancipatory potentials of flattening, Khanna and the co-curators were able to find a surprising common denominator: the work of Robert Bresson. His methods of fragmentation, modeling, and disillusionment provided cinematic points of reference to those with a persistent interest in the avoidance of emotion, as well as models for games of deception between polished perfection and oppression or (dis)embodiment. Admittedly, the Flatness programs at Oberhausen, as opposed to Bresson’s productions, did not condense into tragic or melodramatic vanishing points. But wherever, in place of such concentration, these formal and activist works, personal and virtual performances, as well as commissioned and independent productions collided, there was a vague inkling of where today’s opportunities for action might lie.

International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, 2–7 May 2013;


Translated by Jennifer Taylor