A Slow Assessment: 2017 Whitney Biennial Film Program

This year's Biennial in New York presented a highly representative cross-section of what is vital in the contemporary film scene.
Michael Sicinski

Dani Leventhal's Platonic

This review, I think, might best be understood as an example of “slow criticism.” This is a term coined by Filmkrant editor Dana Linssen to describe “wayward articles,” ones that have a personal or political element that is somehow not timely. We can imagine that the reverse of this is “fast criticism,” the up-to-the-minute report from a film festival, the 140-character response tweeted out the minute the first press screening is over.  

These thoughts are not timely. The Whitney Biennial closed on June 11th, and the film program screened its final program on May 21st. So although I expect many of these films to have a life long after their appearance at the Whitney, I am not providing any kind of late-breaking news flash from the film or art world by writing about these works in this forum.

But in a way, that is the point. Even as the Biennial was going on, I did not see nearly as much coverage of these programs as I might have expected. Maybe there’s just too much going on these days. Even most of the film writers I know are spending their time focusing on the slow-motion catastrophe that is the Trump presidency, and I don’t blame them. Who has time for movies? But I think it may be something else. 

I came of age, aesthetically speaking, during the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, there was no single American art exhibition that defined the cultural and critical terrain quite like the Whitney Biennial. It was a lightning rod for conservatives like Hilton Kramer, a whipping boy for liberal aesthetes like Arthur Danto, and a punchline for punk rock wannabes like Peter Schjeldahl. While the Carnegie International was the stodgier, prestige vehicle of the era, the Biennial was the Wild West, giving now-forgotten artists like Kenny Scharff, Ashley Bickerton, and Tom Otterness their first taste of institutional legitimacy. The 1993 Biennial, in particular, was a flashpoint for the arrival of multicultural politics in the New York / L.A. art worlds. (Remember Daniel J. Martinez’s infamous admission pins, which read “I CAN’T / IMAGINE / EVER WANTING / TO BE / WHITE.”)

Thanks to the Biennial’s film and video section (which I mostly learned about through the catalogs—I never got to the actual screenings), I got an early jump on filmmakers who would become very important to my own critical development. John Hanhardt was the programmer then, and thanks to his perspicacity I stumbled upon the likes of Dan Graham, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Trinh Minh-ha, Yvonne Rainer, Ernie Gehr, Warren Sonbert, Dara Birnbaum, Su Friedrich, and Nathaniel Dorsky far earlier than a Texas farmboy had any right to. It was the 80s, of course, so there were a few time-bound duds in there. (Bruce and Norman Yonemoto… You haven’t heard those names in years.) 

If the Biennial no longer commands the attention it once did, this is no reflection on the show itself or its programmers. Blame it on the end of the monoculture, which has affected even the highbrow sphere. While right-wing demagogues continue to bray about the deleterious effects of institutions such as academia, the media, and yes, the art world, all of those entities are now so decentralized that no single element within them holds a monopoly on cultural capital. In this spatial network of fragmented hierarchy, it’s harder to keep up with a sense of what’s important. One gets the sense that Pipilloti Rist’s Girl Who Doesn’t Miss Much is probably missing out on quite a lot these days. 

One possible answer? At the risk of bringing things full circle a little too obviously, slow criticism. If there’s not enough time to pay adequate attention to what’s going on the first time around, we can stop and retrieve. The programming by Christopher Lew, Mia Locks, and Aily Nash for this year’s Biennial strikes me as a highly representative cross-section of what is vital in the contemporary film scene. One could quibble about exclusions, but each of the included artists more than deserves his or her place. 

In order to achieve a combination of comprehensive coverage and manageability, I have chosen to write about a single film by each of the featured artists. Note: Shakedown by Leilah Weintraub was not available for viewing. 

Also Known as Jihadi (Eric Baudelaire, 2017)

Baudelaire's newest film, Also Known as Jihadi, is a kind of conceptual remake of Japanese director Masao Adachi's best-known film, AKA Serial Killer from 1969. Updating the very idea of mass killing to fit the measure of our current nightmares, Baudelaire uses dozens of official police and government documents to trace the surveillance and eventual apprehension of a French resident suspected of recruiting members for Daesh.

As the film progresses, we are given numerous tableaux, from the young man's neighborhood, through his air travel, into a surreptitious drive through Turkey to the Syrian border, and toward a number of apparent training camps. The film ends in a prison yard. What is notable, of course, is that Baudelaire shoots these locations—those which would be the setting for "plot" in most any other film—with a kind of flat objectivity. At the same time, there is a hint of point-of-view in these scenes, as if Baudelaire is putting us into a direct visual identificatory frame with the alleged jihadi. First person and third person: these landscapes hover in their undecidability.

By alternating between landscape and objective written reports, Also Known as Jihadi generates a tension between two systems of signification, neither one necessarily delivering the "truth" that such investigations, or the cinema, tend to promise. Instead we are asked to reconcile the juridical language of the state with the beauty, or even the emptiness, of the spaces that have unwittingly subtended terrorism, that most unthinkable of activities.

Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary (Sky Hopinka, 2017) 

Sky Hopinka is a member of the Ho-Chunk nation of Wisconsin, and his while his films do indeed address the contemporary situation of First Nations people in the United States, it would be a gross reduction of his artistry to simply reduce them to this aspect of representation. Hopinka has gained attention in avant-garde circles in recent years not only because of his unique cultural and historical perspective, but because each of his films is a forceful, painterly object. They combine a vernacular treatment of landscape with a sort of interior illumination, an approach that makes even a night shot headed down the road seem physically palpable, replete with possibility. 

In certain respects Anti-Objects is Hopinka’s most visually sophisticated work. This is to take nothing away from his equally impressive earlier films, Jáaji Approx. (2016) and I'll remember you as you were, not as what you'll become (2016), both of which were also included in the Biennial. But Anti-Objects combines Hopinka’s concern with minority Native languages (in this case, Chinuk Wawa) with the change and variance of landscape. Backed by a minimal soundtrack, Anti-Objects depicts the sky around Portland and Washington State as a kind of high-key video screen, saturated with deep blues and purples. (As with Hopinka’s earlier films, the image manipulation in Anti-Objects recalls late Godard.) 

The land is off center. Bridges are set off their axis. Wooden porticos and metal beam supports are offset with on-screen text discussing the state of matter: “We are composed of matter and live in the midst of matter. Our objective should not be to renounce matter but rather to search for a form of matter other than objects.” As we hear two speakers discuss a sing-song guessing game in Wawa, Hopinka shows us the pure color of film exposure, standing in for the skies. We see streams, forest glades, and other natural formations revealing their color in clear, even sunlight. All of these elements hover around each other in Anti-Objects, and as the text (from Kengo Kuma) specifies, “the image remains fragmented; it never coalesces.” What does come together in Anti-Objects is, as its subtitle suggests, a space without path or boundary, a nation whose language and sovereignty exist as parts within an uncertain whole—a constellation that forms a living people.

Black Beach / Horse / Camp / The Dead / Forces (Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, 2016)

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is a Puerto Rican filmmaker whose work bears some comparison with that of Kevin Jerome Everson and Mary Helena Clark, or newer filmmakers such as Carmine Grimaldi and Karissa Hahn, in the sense that she tends to make short works that do not necessarily exhibit an obvious signature style. Each of the four Santiago Muñoz films included in the Biennial is very different from the others. However they share certain commonalities that become very clear as you see more of her films. Individually, they are compelling; collectively, they are a force.

One through-line that becomes visible in Santiago Muñoz’s work is her exploration to Puerto Rican history, in particular its status as an exploited colony of the United States. This colonial status has resulted in military abuse of the island’s land, an economic immiseration of the indigenous population, and a denigration of local, cultural, and religious practices, particularly those tied to Afro-Caribbean traditions. 

In many respects, Black Beach / Horse / Camp / The Dead / Forces is the most difficult of Santiago Muñoz’s included films, partly because it is a syncretic, multi-directional work that observes its subjects without attempting to label them. A silent film, it shows a man on the beach moving palm fronds—seeming to clean the shore at first, but then moving and arranging them with such deliberate care that it becomes apparent he’s involved in a ritual. As the film continues, we do indeed see horses, children swimming and playing beside a campsite, and by the end, an elderly woman acting as a shaman, performing a kind of auto-resurrection.

Although the film’s title and its one-thing-and-then-another form recalls Ute Aurand’s work, Santiago Muñoz is actually documenting a struggle in land use. The film was shot on the island of Vieques, an area that the U.S. Navy used as a missile range for 60 years. Local residents are trying to reclaim the island as its contamination level falls, even though the beach itself is eroding, the island’s wild horses are in uncertain health, and many of the long-term residents are battling illnesses of their own. If one image captures the ambivalence of current life in Vieques, it’s two young boys swimming with a plastic skeleton, as though death were just a daily companion. 

Crossing (Leslie Thornton and James Richards, 2016)

Crossing is a work by Thornton and Richards that is partly intended as an homage to the work of Bruce Conner, whose found-footage montage films have clearly influenced Thornton’s own work. But Crossing, which was presented as a film loop alongside some of Conner’s films, plays with different notions of montage. What does it mean for one image or sound set to appear alongside another? The piece alternates between extended passages that follow, one after another, and fragmented poly-frames that juxtapose six individual images in a kind of horizontal windowpane. These include kaleidoscopic crowd scenes, landscapes, and studies of the human body— a veritable taxonomy of available image types.

Over time, Crossing evolves to include passages that are more traditionally associated with documentary or social-problem filmmaking. We see a pornographic photo shoot and scenes from an urban slum, footage from a fish processing factory and a variety of nature imagery (alligators, tortoises, ants). There is no clear relationship drawn for the viewer among these categories of images, which seems to be the filmmakers’ point. Each movement from frame to frame, genre to genre, requires a “crossing” of a sort, a mental remapping of the terrain of the film. The material is not random. Instead it is emblematic of particular ways of registering the world, and Crossing is in large part about the gradual, repeated smoothing out of the bumps along its own semiotic highway. 

The Dragon is the Frame (Mary Helena Clark, 2014)

Some contemporary filmmakers insist on direct messaging and painfully overt symbolism, somehow afraid to trust their viewers with the freedom to make meaning out of organized fragments. Mary Helena Clark is decidedly not one of those filmmakers. Hers is an art of affect and suggestion, built from certain anchor-images around which other elements can drift and circulate, but only inasmuch as those elements retain their relative autonomy. Right up through her latest work, Delphi Falls (also included in the Biennial), Clark continually introduces unexpected new components over the course of her films, but not in a manner that necessarily recodes what has come before. Rather, new information alters the fundamental relationships of the films themselves, such that the very boundedness of the films, their parameters as discrete, knowable texts, is what is disrupted.

Her older film, The Dragon is the Frame, is an elegy that is somewhat paradoxically organized as a film noir or murder mystery, one that pays direct homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But the parts don’t fit, and it is only in the eventual recognition of this faux raccord that Clark’s higher purpose becomes apparent. As we hear Bernard Herrmann’s score, we see the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, and other Vertigo locations in the present day. But they are only fragments, and Clark pays particular attention to their details, like the rivets and suspension cables on the bridge. We also see close-up details of women’s fashion, such as an entire screen filled with an undulating hounds-tooth pattern, and several scenes superimposed with broad bands of sequins, a dress that recalls those displayed in Kenneth Anger’s masterpiece Puce Moment.

In the midst of these elusive (and allusive) shards of memory, Clark provides images of her actual subject: Mark Aguhar, the late transgender / race activist whose assertions of brown-femme pride in her Tumblr blog and art exhibitions provided inspiration to so many, not just the “gurls” who were her target audience. Clark’s tribute is a reckoning with the fact that, despite Aguhar’s messages of body-positivity and self-worth, she took her own life at age 24. By invoking Vertigo and adopting the outward framing and organization of a detective story, Clark problematizes the “verdict” of suicide, implicitly indicting the white heteronormative psychosis embodied in Hitchcock’s film as Aguhar’s killer. (Aguhar’s own words: “It’s that thing where you grew up learning to hate every aspect of yourself and unlearning all that misery is really hard to do.”) In this regard, The Dragon is the Frame—which takes its title from one of Aguhar’s exhibits—pays homage to an activist and pioneer, celebrating Aguhar’s beauty and power. But it is also a reminder of the difficulty in being a gender outlaw in a society intent on throwing you away.

H-E-L-L-O (Cauleen Smith, 2015) 

Cauleen Smith has aligned her work with the broad, syncretic doctrines of Afrofuturism, something that can be seen in various ways throughout her various projects. She has made videos dealing explicitly with the music of Sun Ra, for example, and several of Smith’s films exist as the products of an artist alter-ego known as Kelly Gabron (whose name is a play on the poet / counterculture guru Khalil Gibran). In H-E-L-L-O, Smith borrows one of the most famous tropes in the science-fiction repertoire and turns it into an explicitly political gesture. Filming around New Orleans, in locations that still bear the traces of Hurricane Katrina, Smith shows various musicians, mostly jazz but some classical as well, repeatedly playing the five-note “greeting” phrase from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is incongruous, of course, hearing a sax and tuba duo playing this tune on the banks of the Pontchartrain, a musical sequence that was ostensibly composed to communicate with alien life. But Smith’s point could hardly be clearer. Consider the feeble response to Katrina, federal officials and news media calling New Orleans evacuees “refugees,” and the continued, systematic neglect of this predominantly African-American city. As far as NOLA is concerned, they might as well be on another planet. 

Listening to the Space in My Room (Robert Beavers, 2013) 

Most of the filmmakers selected for this year’s Biennial are “newer” on the scene—if by newer, we mean having emerged in the last 20 years! At the same time, there are two figures in the line-up who could justifiably be called “masters,” although they might bristle at such a designation and the gray eminence it implies. As it happens, they could not be more different as filmmakers. Leslie Thornton belongs to that group of artist-scholars who have used appropriated imagery and post-structuralism to interrogate the idea of signification itself. But Robert Beavers believes in the power and beauty of images and sounds.

But to be clear, there is no element within Beavers’ films that the artist leaves unexamined. A true modernist, Beavers transforms his environment through unexpected sound / image juxtapositions, meticulous framing, and above all a piercing, almost Baroque sense of color. I have written before that Beavers’ films feel like emanations from the distant past, but this is not entirely true. What they do is engage the details, the habitus, of the European tradition from within the modern cinematic apparatus. These films comment on time’s passing, while gently asserting their existence in the present. 

As one can tell from its title, there is a touch of synesthesia governing the movements of Listening to the Space in My Room. Held together as much by silence as by the frequent sound of a cellist playing in the room, Beavers’ film is about exploring resonances and architectonics of a particular locale. We hear his voice speaking about the room, a voiceover situated between concrete description and poem, as we observe dark corners, vibrating spider webs, the trembling hands of the cellist, shadows on his sheet music, and daylight pouring in through the window.

Soon Beavers takes us outside the room, where vibrant flowers and an older woman digging in the garden serve as painterly counterpoint to the hard-edged forms of the home’s exterior. In most every instance, Beavers avoids straight cuts, instead rotating his lens plate to bring a new view onscreen. This is one of the key innovations of Beavers’ cinema, and it generates a push-and-pull between spaces and images, prompting us to expect to move closer to an object, only to have it replaced with a new, different object. In this way, Beavers creates a kind of haptic cinema, making every shot a tactile scene of expectancy. 

Lost Nothing (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2016)

In choosing works for the Biennial, I am guessing that Nash and company had a fairly easy time deciding on the inclusion of Kevin Everson, whose body of work has grown to become one of the most probing, most poetically evocative expressions of contemporary American life. However, I would also guess that she faced a decision that was equally difficult: which of his films to include? Everson is not just a prolific filmmaker but an incredibly consistent one, each of his films contributing in its way to a larger inquiry into the complex representations of African-American identity and history, its assumptions and signifying systems. 

Many of Everson’s finest films are works of portraiture. Collaborative in a sense, they depict a complex interplay between Everson’s cinematic style and the subject’s subtle yet knowing performance of self. Lost Nothing is a three-and-a-half-minute portrait of Willie James Crittenden, a middle aged man who has had trouble with DUIs. Of course, this is not the extent of Crittenden’s personal profile, but this is the story he chooses to relate to Everson, and in the context of Lost Nothing, it becomes a tale of past transgression and redemption, price paid and lesson learned. Everson cunningly uses Crittenden’s narration as a voiceover, avoiding sync sound, so that we hear his words while seeing Crittenden’s fragmented face in extreme close-up, or, in the middle of the film, Willie riding shotgun as Everson films him in the car. A small film, Lost Nothing can be seen as both an adamantly individual work and a part of a broader mosaic in Everson’s work, a sort of group portrait of loss and regret that is one consistent aspect of his broader social vision. 

Mediums (James N. Kienitz Wilkins, 2017) 


James N. Kienitz Wilkins has a fascination with civic discourse that borders on the perverse. We can witness this tendency in films such as Public Hearing (2012), which consists, indeed, of a direct enactment of a transcript of public hearing discussing whether or not to allow Walmart to build a store in Allegheny, New York; and The Republic (2017), a three-hour audio play about libertarianism and the social contract. In these works, Kienitz Wilkins operates like a kind of anti-Frederick Wiseman—not “anti” in the sense of being against, but in the antipodal sense. Whereas Wiseman displays the functioning of democracy through the close observation of its ordinary functioning, Kienitz Wilkins devises highly artificial scenarios that spotlight the postures, maneuvers, and shibboleths of our theater of socio-political operations. 

As its maker has pointed out, Mediums derives its title from at least two places. The film comes in at medium length (38 minutes), and consists entirely of medium shots (all characters framed from the knees up). But that’s just a bit coy. There are clearly other meanings behind the title as well, and one of them seems to pertain to language and situation. The scenario involves a group of strangers brought together when summoned for jury duty. They are a cross-section of the public, all assembled by a process that cuts randomly through the middle of the populace. As they start talking with each other before a pair of clearly back-projected exteriors (the courthouse steps / a Dunkin Donuts across the street), they frequently interrupt pleasantries with highly artificial, mediated forms of discourse.

When one agitated young man complains about being called for jury duty, an older man lectures him about the importance of the task. It’s unclear at first whether the guy is pedantic or speaking from a rehearsed spiel, but before long, Kienitz Wilkins’ method reveals itself. The various “characters” deliver dialog from sources as unlikely as the owners’ manual for the 2004 Volkswagen Passat; the Dunkin Donuts franchisee contract; and the New York State health insurance website. These discussions are framed in the context of strangers offering each other helpful advice, but of course Mediums is playing off the fact that this kind of technical discourse is highly unnatural. It is a specific medium, a way of using language to accomplish a highly specialized task, without any obvious “speaker” from whom it issues forth. Putting these speakerless words in the mouths of performers serves to highlight the degree to which this kind of language—and for that matter, the law—is not supposed to have a body. Kienitz Wilkins has actors channel these abstract thoughts—conjuring them, like mediums—while exposing the way that our lives are literally governed by passionless, disembodied language, intended to sound not angry or mournful, male or female, left or right, but just straight down the middle—a happy medium. 

Ouroboros (Basma Alsharif, 2017) 

Palestinian-born, L.A.-based artist Basma Alsharif makes complex works that articulate the sometimes-difficult zones between the political and the poetic. Although not all of her work directly addresses the Palestinian question, one can perhaps understand it to be one of the bedrocks of her artistic thinking, since so much of her film and installation work addresses the instability of presence and absence, the limits of language and representability, and the necessity of memory as a bulwark against the official forgetting that characterizes systems of domination. 

Despite often addressing very serious topics, Alsharif’s work frequently displays a sly sense of humor, and this is given free reign in Ouroboros, her first feature film. Sort of like Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis as remade by Trinh T. Minh-ha, Ouroboros combines the trenchant with the absurd, imagining a world in which Palestine is a fully recognized nation and immigrants can move freely across borders according to their desire. The first part of the film moves backwards, revealing a speculative Gaza that resembles the commercial centers of the Emirates; periodically, we see the bombed-out reality poking through like a bad dream. Midway through, Alsharif shows us a party scene in which dozens of “guests” follow bizarrely scripted gestures and small talk. 

But the majority of Ouroboros follows the trajectory of one man (Diego Marcon) who seems to move easily through space and time, coded as an immigrant but not necessarily belonging anywhere in particular. Through the power of cinema, and a visionary internationalism, Alsharif imbues this man with an almost superhuman freedom to move across continents, survive on foot alone or get together with friends, and eventually land up in an 18th century chateau vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of 2001. Like the mythical ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, Alsharif’s film warps time and disengages with linear notions of character development. We don’t know anything more about our traveler than we did when we began, but Alsharif has provided us with a utopian conception of lived space. In cinema, perhaps, begins responsibility.

Strangely Ordinary This Devotion (Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson, 2017)

Strangely Ordinary This Devotion

Dani Leventhal’s films operate on a micro and a macro level, creating small formal dramas between the shots, while always functioning as entire conceptual works. She and her partner, filmmaker / performance artist Sheilah Wilson have produced one of the finest works of the year, in part because Strangely Ordinary This Devotion consolidates the strengths of Leventhal’s previous work while edging it into a new, bracingly personal direction. In its way, SOTD is a family drama, one with a unique queer / sci-fi bent that is simultaneously belied by the quotidian.

SOTD has a loose conceptual storyline. Women are now able to “make babies without water,” producing “water babies.” This is a power discovered among “lesbian women in Ohio.” This idea is only there as a vague articulation of the primary motifs that actually organize SOTD, including water, blood, pus, various openings of the body, the color red, and the interface between women’s bodies and the natural environment. The first image consists of Leventhal’s mouth being filled with a smooth, round stone, a launching pad that will serve as the beginning for several other varieties of image exploration: skin on rock; bodily penetration; the invasion of the body by a foreign object.

SOTD is in large part about family life, and one of the overwhelming things about this film is the happiness it depicts. We see the couple and their daughter Rose swimming, the little girl dancing to Prince, Dani and Sheilah having sex, and even a clearly fake fistfight between the two women. This offsets the disruptions of (e.g.) Dani having a cyst drained on her scalp, or the pouring of blood into the ground in a ritual planting of the stone. Throughout the film, in subtle but unmistakable ways, we can see the influence of Wilson on Leventhal's work. The focus on quotidian ritual, the body, and transactional objects between bodies and the physical environment, are all characteristic of Wilson's performance work. This influence also serves to partially quell the restlessness and anxiety that marked much of Leventhal’s work in the past. But above all, SOTD displays a kind of queer family structure based on values of body acceptance and non-hierarchy.  

When one of the women is shown “making a water baby” by having her period in the lake, it’s a moment when the inner and outer worlds of SOTD seem to intersect. Within the family, this act shows Rose that there is nothing unusual about having your period, and why not have it in the lake? But within the film itself, it is an opportunity for a gorgeous, painterly crimson, clouding the water like a three-dimensional Yves Klein. Leventhal and Wilson’s family values suffuse the art, and vice versa.

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Whitney BiennalWhitney Biennal 2017Eric BaudelaireSky HopinkaBeatriz Santiago MuñozLeslie ThorntonJames RichardsMary Helena ClarkCauleen SmithRobert BeaversKevin Jerome EversonJames N. Kieniz WilkinsBasma AlsharifDani LeventhalSheilah WilsonLong Reads
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