Shifting Strategies for Systemic Change: Lo schermo dell’arte festival di cinema e arte contemporanea. A Conversation with M+M, Oliver Laric, Renzo Martens, and Chong Yan Liu by

by December 17, 2021

The fourteenth edition of Lo schermo dell’arte, a festival of cinema and contemporary art, is marked by a tension between possibility and choice: that of returning to an in-person event or watching the festival via a video-streaming platform. This tension, caused by the need for a pragmatic solution to an exceptional circumstance (the pandemic), contributes both to a meta-reflection on the festival format and to a new hermeneutics of the moving image. If the museum as connective architecture, as defined by Giuliana Bruno,1 and the coercive architecture of the movie theater have defined the history of modern and postmodern cinema exhibitions, today we face the possibility — both authorial and spectatorial — of a multiplication of viewing spaces. The consumption of filmic content on the iPhone, investigated in 2010 in an ethnographic (and prophetic) study by Francesco Casetti and Sara Sampietro,2 seems to have moved from personal contexts to occupy the spaces and formats of institutional exhibitions (festivals, screenings, shows). The macro-field of moving images is enriched not only by its relationship with cinema as a cultural object, as we see in the work of M+M, but also in its potential for generative interaction with artificial intelligence, as in the work of Riccardo Giacconi (Diteggiatura) and Oliver Laric. The following is an interview with some of the artists of the festival — M+M, Oliver Laric, Renzo Martens, and Chong Yan Liu, included in “Thinking Beyond – Moving Images for a Post-Pandemic World,” an exhibition curated by Leonardo Bigazzi at the Manifattura Tabacchi in Florence — in which we discuss the multitude of approaches to moving image production, keeping in mind that the tension between possibility and choice can transform crisis into change.

Vincenzo Estremo: References to cinema such as the scale model that recalls the special effects created for motion pictures of the analog era, or the shots and photography typical of genre cinema, or the explicit recall of Polanski’s so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” bring me to ask you what is your relationship with cinema? Is it wrong to think that in your work it becomes a cultural object or, even better, an archive of visual modes to deconstruct and redefine?
M+M: Yes, you are right. On the one hand, cinema is for us like a collection of narrative material, and on the other, it is a toolbox to describe certain situations and feelings. This also includes the idea of cinema as an archive of visualizations and “genres.” For us, cinema is also something from which to start dealing with themes that interest us. The “Apartment Trilogy,” for example, already contains certain elements, such as the isolation of the individual, his fear, and the struggle for territory, which we intended to deal with thematically in the Mad Mieter (2019) project from the outset. The cinema (but now also TV and the internet) is at the same time the material background for a kind of filmic palimpsest, perhaps comparable to a frottage transposed in time. As artists, however, the use of filmic materials allows us to deal more directly with the phenomenon of subjective temporal perception, its psychological implications and the resulting phenomenon of suddenly changing identities.

VE: Mad Mieter is a half English, half German title. The Mieter is the tenant. The domestic space of your work reveals itself as a violent and inhospitable environment. Is there any connection with the contemporary condition of closure and the shortsighted politics of our time?
M+M: The idea of Mad Mieter was born before the COVID pandemic. But of course, the situation in the film reminds us of the lockdown, which made us lock ourselves in our homes to avoid all contagious contact. And so, our tenant’s attitude seems very relevant today: being alone, bizarre, and anxious to defend her home from intruders. But these are all sentiments found in human communities, trying to defend their territory, or their so-called “homeland,” without realizing that the supposed intruders might have been themselves all along. Unfortunately, in recent years we have all seen an increase in this aggression — especially towards strangers or migrants.

VE: The project is bigger than the film we see. There have been many other ways you exhibited the project: the sculptures, the museum on the plantation, etc. White Cube (2020), if compared with Episode III: Enjoy the Poverty (2008), seems to be a documentation more than a documentary. While in Episode I (2003) and Episode III your provocative performance was also the body of each film and your own discourse was predominant, in White Cube we assist at the shift of your position. You are no longer playing with the boundaries of the contradictions, but are pursuing the contradiction. While looping the privileged standpoint of art’s critical rhetoric back on itself, your gaze seems to be at the same time deluded and attracted by the “possibilities” offered by the art world. Is it right to say that you tried to detach yourself from your film?
Renzo Martens: I am afraid that it is extremely rare for people who work on plantations, whether in the here and now or in the past, to be actively invited to partake in discussions in the art world. This is remarkable, because while it is widely acknowledged that ideas, art, labor, wealth — everything! — were in the past appropriated from plantation zones and the people inhabiting them, this appropriation is not something that has stopped. It is not something that stopped a hundred years ago. Therefore, expropriations are not resolved by critically looking to the past through exhibitions or seminars or catalogues. There is a real risk that exhibitions and seminars on the past in effect merely strengthen the position of institutions, and extract further resources if they do not redistribute at least some of the wealth to communities that still live and work on plantations in the here and now. Yet, in the case of Congolese palm, rubber, and cocoa plantations, places that have funded countless art museums in the West and in some ways continue to do so, I have never heard of any contemporary art curator that went on a studio visit to see what artistic developments occurred. So yes, a museum on a plantation, as a lever for these exchanges to happen, and for these exchanges to be redistributive rather than extractive, and for capital and agency to be claimed back, seems timely and necessary.

VE: The art world does everything possible to escape from the white cube as a space, but it keeps perpetuating the idea of the white cube as an economic generator. What’s the risk of applying the institutional theory of art in a context completely different from it, like the Congolese one? Within these years, did you ever feel like a white savior or, even worst, an exploiter?
RM: The plantations in Congo are not “completely different” from the context of the white cube. Quite the contrary, plantations are intimately connected. We can consider Simon Gikandi’s work on the matter: museums have not only been financed by plantations, but museums are a key way to launder profits from plantations. Or we can consider Ariella Aisha Azoulay’s work, which argues that the neutral category of art came out of plunder — plunder from plantation zones. In our case, the program does not just bring back the museum and art to the plantation community. It also brings back the land that was confiscated by the companies and puts it in the hands of the community. It allows for a new world, a post-plantation if you will, in which art is a constitutive part. I think solidarities between producers and consumers of any product, whether palm oil, cocoa, or even art, can help make sure that the means of production return to the hands of the working classes, in this case plantation workers. This does not require any saviors. It is called solidarity.

VE: Your work has a brief digital history, but it resembles an era. Retracing your activity, we may acknowledge the rise and the affirmation of digital culture and its impact on authorship and originality. Could you tell us what changed within these last ten years in your approach to digital resources? Is your “image mining” always the same?
Oliver Laric: I am not sure if it ever was a brief digital history. It has been and still is my primary site of work, even if there are manifestations in physical spaces. I think my approach has shifted, in that I feel less like everything is up for grabs. I’m trying to reflect more on mechanisms of selection and act case by case. Perhaps I also feel less problematic about having a more generative, less adaptive role.

VE: Your work 19 (2018) is a very private and delicate confession that deals with human fragility and the sense of loneliness in some specific circumstances. How in your work is the personal narration related to personal empowerment?
Chong Yan Liu: At first, I wasn’t sure that my understanding of the phrase “personal empowerment” was sufficient enough for me to tackle this question. I had a rough idea of its meaning, but I rarely use or think about this word — especially in the context of my work. So, I decided to Google it, and this is an extract of the definition I found: “authority or power given to someone to do something/individuals are given empowerment to create their own dwellings/the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights/political steps for the empowerment of women.” Based upon my findings, I’d say I’m more cautious with using this word than I am positive. I do feel stronger and more confident in myself, which is in stark contrast to how I felt when I was back in my home country of China; having this conscious self-awareness is not something I had before I integrated into French society. I was encouraged by my surroundings, tutors, friends, with their open-minded outlook on all things in life. They encouraged me to be more conscientious and unashamed in my desire to question. Perhaps I would feel more comfortable if this question of empowerment was brought to me by a viewer of my oeuvre, as I do not view my work this way. I simply felt the need to express pain, so this video was born; the question of empowerment never entered my head. I have and will continue to create in a way that is unsure of itself. If I have questions that I want to ask, I find a way to address these contemplations through my work. I have many doubts about myself, hence the need to ask these questions, so I remain reticent about empowering myself. I’m too afraid of ubiquitous terms/labels such as “feminist” or “politically correct” being attached to this work, and I have no desire to be unintentionally associated with someone else’s political beliefs or agenda. I only see myself empowered by the outside world — never by my own ego. My following piece will be focusing on some conversations that I had with one of my dearest transgender friends, who sadly passed away earlier this year. There is no empowerment; only regret and longing for something which is forever set in stone — her suicide. Yet I am constantly inspired, propelled forward by the past. Life itself empowers, so I do not feel the need to empower others.

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Vincenzo Estremo