For eight days, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s sixth annual Migrating Forms festival presented an eclectic range of works that charted the multidimensional scope of recent filmmaking and its experimental precedents.
Bookended by the premieres of two vérité films both set in a very narrow, highly contentious slice of the Pacific Rim, the lineup opened with South Korea-born American Soon-Mi Yoo’s essay film Songs from the North (all works 2014, unless otherwise noted). The work is a pastiche of introspective documentation of her three sanctioned visits into North Korea’s nearly impenetrable borders and snippets of state-produced and -endorsed propaganda films. The festival closed with Fruit Chan’s new feature The Midnight After, the Hong Kong Second Wave director’s bizarre satire in the guise of a classic horror film.
A survey of new works by American video artist Rachel Rose included the stunning, stormy A Minute Ago. Interspersed in the program were clips of material she sourced from the 1970s, such as footage of a Pink Floyd performance in Pompeii and Robert Breer’s avant-garde animated short T.Z. Later that same evening was a screening of William Greaves’s legendary 1968 social critique Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, a stylistically kaleidoscopic approach to the making of a single film. Screening blocks on other nights were devoted to short films from Allora & Calzadilla, Barry Doupé, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, and Jon Rafman, among other visual artists. Swedish-American filmmaker Rolf Forsberg chose to show not his own footage but rather the videos that have influenced him, exhibiting both the promiscuity of his interests and the uncomfortable influence that marketing campaigns (whether they are films promoting Christianity or social tolerance) have when brazenly delivered as fact.
Los Angeles artist Stanya Kahn’s deadpan black comedy Don’t Go Back to Sleep intercuts scenes of awkward exchanges between a quirky, affected hospital staff — in what appears to be an abandoned new-construction home in the midst of renovation — with bursts of spare, snaky interstitial beats, scored by the artist and musician Keith Wood of Chelsea Light Moving. The urgency of the doctors’ and nurses’ purpose is tempered by the team’s overwrought articulations of quotidian melodrama in their very long stretches of downtime, with talk of chakras and milk and games of pool that fill the extended gaps in between the occasional bloody trauma. Zooming out from architectural details on the property and in on bleak emergencies, the film’s straight-faced absurdity is its most haunting quality. The artist is known for arresting performances and improvising uncertain fictions, and here she delivers a surreal hour-long workplace drama whose unsympathetic characters are unsettling rather than reassuring.
Lance Wakeling’s Field Visits for Chelsea Manning, a Rhizome commission, is a first-person travelogue that follows the former Army intelligence officer’s geographic odyssey from detention centers to courtroom after releasing sensitive classified documents to Wikileaks. Traveling from Kuwait to Virginia, Kansas and Maryland, Wakeling overlays satellite images, military trial transcriptions and surreal road-trip encounters. With knowing resignation, Field Visits suggests that access to the information that determines what we know is still highly privileged.
Cory Arcangel’s gleeful takedown of fast-food marketing, Freshbuzz (www.subway.com), is an exhaustive study of the ubiquitous American sandwich chain’s web presence, and is perhaps most nakedly derisive in its subject matter, as if stifling laughter behind the muted spans of the video. The black hole of time that such an exercise can consume seems almost incomparable to Gabriel Abrantes’s Ennui Ennui (2013), with its endless clicking between Rihanna’s Twitter account to searching for details of presidential scandals, all set to dialog appropriate for Bond movies and political thrillers. Beautiful, sweeping takes of nature — cutting through ominous black clouds by airplane at midnight, a young woman reading Georges Bataille at the foot of green mountains — are woven together with the French artist’s typical romantic humor. Where does the time go?
Like the momentary flash of html code that a slow connection will reveal before a webpage fully loads, “Migrating Forms” discloses many of the digital and celluloid seams in the panorama of visual culture, betraying the microscopic triggers of recognition that shift us from looking at something out of boredom to staring, enraptured.