Viennale 2012. James Benning's "the war"

A new video work by American avant-garde filmmaker James Benning explores the videos of Russian activist/activist-art group Voina ("war").
Daniel Kasman
James Benning the war

Since last November saw the premiere at the Austrian Film Museum of several new works by James Benning after the Viennale had ended—YouTube Trilogy, small roads, Two Cabins and Faces—the festival seems to be making up to its international guests like myself that had left the city last year disappointed at being unable to catch them. This year new and old works by Benning are being shown during the festival. One day was entirely devoted to what one might call the One Way Boogie Woogie project, showing first the 1977 film by that name shot on 16mm, a cryptic graphic-materialist narrative primarily documenting a particular rundown, industrial neighborhood of Milwaukee, followed by One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (2005), which revisits the same area again through 16mm, and concluded by a new, longer digital work based on the area and following a related principle, One Way Boogie Woogie 2012. Another visit to the past by Benning also premiered at the festival: Easy Rider, which remakes the 1969 film using duration and location as cross-decade (and media format) continuity in a quest to find that counterculture film's locations from then and see what they contain and express now.

Of those, I was only able to see the first, original Boogie Woogie; but I did have the unexpected chance to see the final new Benning work intended for the Viennale, the war. This short feature was initially scheduled at the festival before the Russian activist group Voina (“war”), whose footage makes up the bulk of the war's imagetrack, requested that Benning not show the work publicly. I was lucky enough to see it at a private screening in Vienna, where, in the context of Benning's other new work here, it also appears as a re-visitation, but of a different kind: neither precisely personal (as when he re-finds his old movies in his old city) nor contemplatively analytically cinephilic (as with Easy Rider, and 2011's Faces), but rather starting from a kind of private curiosity then shared with the public. It is a simple but powerful archival record of present history, configured in such a way as to challenge the audience's engagement with contemporary digital video in a highly politicized, and dangerous, context.

The first two-thirds of the 55 minute video is a selection of activist/art-activist videos produced by Voina: several acts against the police and the Russian state, both violent (turning over cop cars, setting fires) and prankish (staging a protest concert during a courtroom hearing, women activists kissing female police officers, painting a giant penis on a drawbridge facing the old KGB building), as well as more narrative or conceptual videos, including Pussy Riot's Orthodox church musical intervention / music video and the disturbing integration of children of group members into their protests and art.

With footage ranging from, I believe, 2006 to 2012, originally found on the Internet and much of it now no longer available (or at least easily watchable) online, these individual vignettes vary in image quality and legibility in terms of what is happening to who and why and what it could mean. They are presented by Benning in unmediated form except for his curatorial selection and ordering of them, and the accompaniment of an opening photograph with the audio of a news report about the group. Most importantly, they remain unlabeled, dated, or contextualized, and no dialog, signs or lyrics are translated. After the sequence of videos ends—with an image of the newborn girl of what can only be described as the leading couple of the videos, just as an image of the couple and the girl opened the movie—the war begins providing a linear series of title cards and subtitles, identifying each video piece, providing the translations that were missing during the videos, and some minor explanations and exposition, all over a black screen.

This simple structure asks the ignorant viewer—as the work marvelously targets a very specific audience: those not fluent in Russian and unfamiliar with these videos or their events—to imagine the world, the state, society, culture, and populace that these actualities and staged events are extracted from, comment upon, and attempt to intercede in. They are aggressive, passionate acts of action and creation, but exhibited in the vacuum of the video work, thus their qualities, their successes or failures, their truths, the world they exist in, what they do or intend to do, are all question marks for us to consider. The key information provided later over darkness requires something further: imagination and memory. This later section called to my mind both Hollis Frampton, whose structural works challenged the viewer to form and reform the viewing experience in his or her head, as much as it did the 2012 film by Nicolas Rey, anders, Molussia (also playing at the Viennale), whose act of translating into English a previously inaccessible political text, like Benning's act of translation, is a work of select and essential editorial publication, archiving and intervention: suddenly we have a record, brief, elliptical, explosively suggestive, of a very specific world, and of a fresh, vital turmoil.

Yet this record is not just the text but the intervention between the videos, stripped and presented, and their minimalist “explanation” and labeling—one without the other feels potent but hobbled, if not crippled. Formally separated, one can let each “track”—image and sound, then text—retain a stark, confrontational individuality and political charge. They also contain, of course, and ambivalently, the sense of having stumbled upon them online, as if the first part is a hyperlink trail of engrossing but confusing revelations of a new kind of video weapon wielded at and from within a country whose interior politics and society is generally a mystery. Similarly, the second part can feel like a dense text of works cited from an article whose actual content one doesn't have access to. Thus the war in a way mimics the way an audience member / user (and perhaps Benning himself) can discover traces of international political activism, and then, with considerable promise and optimism, proceed to research deeper into their meanings. It radiates an extremely strong, genuine sense of discovery; and I wonder how that will change and/or fade on repeated viewings.

The act of the mind and sensibility of the viewer in combining these two parts into semi-coherent, separate pieces or a kind of muddled flow of mottled video footage and radical proclamation is certainly one meaning of the “war” of the title. In that meeting place, the place between the consumption of media and an impossible, complete comprehension of its meaning, expression and intent/extent, is the location for the battle to make sense of reality, of radical political activism, of the recording and presentation of that activism, of “evidence” and its context, of the power and limitations of both. Ultimately, it is the fight to retain records of this reality, work, and the intervention produced, in the archive that is cinema.

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