Civic Duty: Close-Up on James N. Kienitz Wilkins' "Public Hearing"

This film slips between documentary and drama in adapting verbatim an actual community debate surrounding the building of a Walmart.
Jesse Cumming

Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. James N. Kienitz Wilkins' Public Hearing (2012) is playing July 11 - August 10, 2017 on MUBI in most countries around the world.Public Hearing

By now the influence of the Internet on contemporary film and video art has been long established and theorized. More often than not, discussions have centered around aesthetics concerns, be they theories of the low-resolution media (noting Hito Steyerl interest in "poor images") or the splintered nature of tabbed browsing. Less consideration has been placed on the banality that pervades much of the material we find (or perhaps pass over) online. With a number of projects in his increasingly broad body of work, Brooklyn-based artist James N. Kienitz Wilkins has examined the politics or poetics undergirding that which might immediately seem to be neutral and unremarkable, such as the coded racism of stock images in his film B-Roll with Andre (2015). 

Public Hearing (2012), Wilkins' debut feature, is a verbatim adaptation of a 2006 consultation transcript-cum-script, in which a rotating group of individuals debate the proposed construction of a Walmart “supercenter” expansion in Allegany, New York. The text was downloaded from town’s website, then staged and filmed with professional and non-professional actors exclusively in close-up, using grainy, black-and-white 16mm film. 

In addition to presentations by Walmart representatives promoting their in-house analysis attesting to the local infrastructural and traffic flow capacity, we hear and see responses from the community. As might be expected from individuals willing to spend their afternoon in a municipal public hearing, many speakers come out against proposed expansion, though not all. The comments are broad: some individuals voice concerns with the actual appearance of the building (“with all due respect I find it ugly”), others voice their concerns about stormwater run-off and local vegetation, or the reduced availability of locally-butchered meats.

“Pro” speakers include a coterie of current Walmart employees attesting to their positive experience with the corporation. Some speak of the opportunities they’ve been granted and what they deem to be fair compensation, while others use their allotted time to detail the philanthropic and community-minded efforts undertaken by the local branch, discussions which seem positioned to counter community concerns about money flowing directly into the coffers of (out-of-state) big business.

Public Hearing premiered and has frequently circulated on the documentary circuit (including Copenhagen's CPH:DOX and the Jihlava International Documentary Festival in the Czech Republic), though generic distinctions are difficult to assign given the film’s slippery play with found material and performance. Parsing such designations between what does or doesn’t qualify as a documentary perhaps isn't the most illuminating point of inquiry into the film, especially as the engagement with documentary is only one historical antecedent that the film seems informed by without ever fully adhering to. At times, the performances recall the language of TV dramatizations, while the structuring use of the sourced transcript also hints at Duchamp and his modernist interest in readymades (something Wilkins also explored in his 2015 piece Tester in which the artist constructed a noir narrative around a found, unedited BetaSP tape).

Finally, given the contained setting and timespan it serves to note the influence of stage dramas: Wilkins' interest in theatre has been further realized with his 2017 teleplay-inspired film The Republic co-authored with Robin Schavoir, also screening on MUBI. If Public Hearing resembles theater, however, it is one decidedly independent of a proscenium arch. In fact, the complete disavowal of wide or even medium shots ensures that the film never permits its audience a cohesive or coherent sense of cinematic space. The disorientation and blurring between speakers is accentuated through frequent inserts of fidgeting hands that grow more restless as the proceedings drag on—is it a Walmart representative uncapping that flask, or slowly peeling that orange? Or a bored local citizen? 

Occasionally, voices are heard but never seen, including that of Wilkins himself. Presentation materials are referenced and gestured at, but rarely shown; when they are shown, the images are typically clipped and projected on a speaker’s face. The one exception occurs early into the film, in which Wilkins cuts from the film's tightly framed, frequently sweaty faces, to a brief and minimal computer animation sequence, still in black and white. The camera floats through a wooded hill to reveal a large and nondescript shopping complex with an equally vast parking lot. The solid forms and lines begin to shift and blur, before we’re offered a vast top-down visualization of the complex. It fades to white, and we’re returned to the non-descript space.

The fragmenting of the room and the bodies of the individuals inside of it has the ultimate effect of reducing the entire proceedings into a grey blur, a slippery ricochet of voices and glances that (intentionally) leaves us with little beyond a vague sense of the democratic process. It’s here that that the film’s connections to “theater" might be read in conceptual and cynical terms, given the ultimate ineffectual nature of such municipal proceedings in the face of corporate profit motive; the Supercenter was of course ultimately approved and constructed.

In April of this year Wilkins premiered Mediums as part of his contribution to the Whitney Biennial’s film program. The 38-minute piece, described by the artist as “a medium-length movie filmed exclusively in medium shots,” is an unofficial sequel to Public Hearing. Like the earlier film, Mediums utilizes found text as a structuring device, including jury selection pamphlets, car manuals, franchise contracts, and blog posts. Here, however, the assemblage of jargon and professional communication material is subtly threaded between equally stilted original dialogue, to uncanny effect.

Also shot on Super 16mm in a soundstage, in front of three backdrops, the film follows the interactions of characters outside of a court house; some are citizens arriving for jury duty assessment (in between their plans to buy a 2004 Volkswagen Passat or invest in a Dunkin' Donuts franchise), others are lawyers trying to find enough time for a sushi lunch. At one point a character references "that public hearing,” in a nod to the earlier film, but Mediums rarely enters the realm of the courts themselves and instead matches its formal expansion with a conceptual one, to examine the lives of individuals as they're implicated in the democratic process.

The shift is evidenced through the film’s second connection to Public Hearing: the individual of Trevor, who participated in the initial Allegany hearing and was played in the film by Dave Bennett. In Mediums Bennett reprises his role as Trevor, this time reciting the individual’s actual blog posts and poems. The film’s final exchange has Trevor recites a poem to a lawyer, who seems to skip over its content in favor of an earnest discussion about the importance of copyright. If Public Hearing serves to reveal an unexpected poetics in found municipal proceedings, littered with corporate and technical jargon material, the closing discussion of Mediums reveals that poetry, despite its best efforts, can hardly isolate itself from outside interests.

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