Walking into the sunlit Hauptbanhoff, the first thing you observe is someone promenading while staring at a small iPhone monitor. At first glance you see just the one person, seemingly watching some a video while waiting for their train. However, as your perception widens, that person turns into a sea of people, all walking the same paths in orchestrated choreography. As it turns out, you haven’t stumbled onto some bizarre Lynchian locale or film set; you’re actually immersed in the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, in a film work that is easily one of my most interesting discoveries in the vast sea of documenta 13.
As soon as you collect your own iPhone and begin the journey, you realize Cardiff and Miller have created something that is completely engaged with cinema. This is a future of the medium I call home, a future I’m very much looking forward to.
There are dozens of artists who’ve attempted interesting tours of art spaces (guerrilla tours of museums, offering counter narratives to the artwork on the walls come to mind). But Cardiff and Miller are using small screens to create as immersive and richly textured a cinematic experience as any I’ve had.
As you stroll through the open foyer of the Kassel train station, your narrator sets you afoot on a trail she’s created, placing a screen of filmed material in front of you, yet allowing the peripheral experience of the actual station to leak in. This blending of the real and the fictional jumps with exciting energy. At one point, it’s with great pleasure that you discover the music you think exists in the real world is actually a construction inside the monitor.
A small brass band emerges as if from behind your monitor, dominated by the oomp-ing of the tuba. A young ballerina begins to twirl and just when you think you’ve entered the narrative, a camera crew joins them. You’re watching the act of creation itself, a staged performance within a staged performance. A man yells cut, and your focus is re-directed into the architecture of the frame in front of you. For 20 minutes, small narratives emerge and disappear into the artificiality of the small device, creating an awareness of the screen’s presence that is profound in its ordinariness.
Cardiff and Miller’s piece alone is worth the price of admission, yet the curators of documenta are cunning. Further into the train station, another small screen piece awaits, as Lebanese performing artist Rabih Mroué (who made a Seattle appearance earlier this year at On the Boards) hones in on the pedestrian journalists who have provided witness to the atrocities currently plaguing Syria.
Rabih begins with hearing that the Syrian people are literally filming their own deaths. He discovers dozens of YouTube videos where average Syrians, using their cell phones, document an assault in the street. The horror of these videos explodes as one of the perpetrators aims a gun at the documenter, fires and the camera falls to the floor.
It’s a haunting series of videos presented first in the form of flip books, then in a series of isolated blown-up still frames of the gunman, then in the form of a twenty-minute lecture. Rabih explains that our experience of recorded media never leaves us in a theater or our homes dead at its conclusion. We the viewers continue to roam in search of more images until the credits role. It’s a stunning analysis of why the cameramen continue to stare as the rifleman, in what seems like an eternity, raises his gun and fires at you the viewer.
Rabih’s piece, in conversation with Cardiff and Miller’s work, is an outstanding engagement of our times and of moving image media in general. It is exactly these kind of chance juxtapositions you hope for in the abundance of material present in a festival like documenta. I truly expect to see more works like the Cardiff and Miller piece emerging the coming years. This is an exciting new area of cinema and I hope some Seattle filmmakers also start to engage its potential kinetic energy.