The 18th Museum of Modern Art Doc Fortnight, which wrapped on February 28 in NYC. is a showcase for films and media works big and small that artfully extend the typical conventions of non-fiction storytelling.
This year the festival offered a prominent focus on projects from Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. Using innovative narrative and media strategies, many of the makers explored serious global topics like the dwindling of natural resources, the aftermath of war and the terrors of refugee displacement. A sense of urgency infiltrated many stories; a call to action seemed to be an underlying intention. These offerings served to emphasize how the role of the documentarian, once mostly observational, then gradually more participatory, is evolving quickly towards one of unconcealed advocacy.
This growing shift in points-of-view was especially demonstrated in a program of award-winning new media projects titled “From HACKING to FACT-Checking: Artistic Strategies for the Post-Factual Era,” hosted by Gerfried Stocker, Director of Austria’s famed Ars Electronica (AE) and Victoria Vesna, director of UCLA’s Art Sci Center. She’s also an artist and AE jury member.
Increasing numbers of non fiction media makers are motivated by the ongoing collapse of traditional media and information hierarchies, as well as the rising threats of “fake news,” audience “silos” and “information overload.” Makers are now more frequently creating media to not only expose bad actors but to also serve as a platform to advocate for an imagined, alternative future scenario. Armed with an array of postmodern agitprop tools: animated infographics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, as well as performance, gamification and experiential tactics, these artists aim to simultaneously inform, engage and enrage audiences.
Inspired by earlier provocateurs like The Yes Men, all the projects screened shared an aspiration to combat “attacks on truth and fact” with impact and influence.
Vesna screened a video of one of her own recent works, which explores an escalating environmental catastrophe: the impact of micro plastics and (especially fracking) noise pollution on the earth’s oceans. Titled “Noise Aquarium,” she assembled a team of engineers, scientists, data visualizers, programmers and sound editors to create a 3-D audio/visual interactive installation. Audience members are confronted with animated 3-D model projections of various species of plankton (one of the tiniest life forms), enlarged to the size of whales. Participants use their feet to manipulate a floor device which produces very loud destructive noises and visuals, to demonstrate how phytoplankton, which contribute 50-85% of the atmosphere’s oxygen, are adversely affected. “The message is so important. We’re drowning in plastic and no one is researching this,” Vesna said. “I had no idea that plankton produced so much oxygen. If they die, we die.”
Though displaying a similarly provocative purpose, some projects screened were simple, absurd fun. Jan.bot, programmed by artists Bram Loogman and Pablo Nunez Palma, automatically generates new short films each day based on “trending” Internet topics. The films are crafted entirely by an algorithm using archival footage in Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum’s “Bits and Pieces” collection. This oh so shareable on social media approach would have delighted the Dadaists, as much as it now entertains (and educates) contemporary viewers.
In the discussion that followed the new media screenings, Stocker noted: “It is very easy to get totally depressive. A very good and important filmmaker, Yann Arthus Bertrand, said ‘It’s too late to be a pessimist.’ Actually being pessimistic doesn’t help at all. The big challenge, and this is where art and technology can have a very interesting marriage, is creating empathy, creating exhibition and engagement in a world that is so dominant with information–whether we want the information or not. The next possible way to really reach out to people is by getting them a subjective experience where they become part of the game. (Another) important practice in this movement of artists is they no longer stay in a kind of distant critical position but are really getting involved. Artists actually start to propose alternatives. I think one of the strategies we can try is conquering this issue of space, and using all media to influence and manipulate public opinion. If we are complaining there are too many stupid things, then we have to create good things. ”
Some selections in the short form program, ‘The Presence of Place,” also evidenced the sly, yet transformative power of artist as advocate:
In the YouTube friendly WTF by Emiko Omori, an otherwise innocent drive through Chinatown becomes astonishing. As the camera observes multiple Asian people peeling and eating bananas, this two-minute film becomes a visual manifestation of racial and sexual epithets, as well as revealing the often bizarre synchronicity of real life. It truly is WTF?90 Seconds in North Korea by Ranko Paukovic is a secretly filmed, entirely observational, 15-minute slow motion tour of everyday life. Images of rural and urban existence gracefully come in and out of view, and look non-threatening and utterly conventional, but one is left with a troubling sense of the country’s political and social isolation. Crafted like a 1930’s slapstick cartoon, Jacqueline Goss’ clever, seven-minute Failing Up uses abstract footage of Donald Trump’s Manhattan real estate (with fight sounds courtesy of Home Alone) to illustrate America’s farcical current political climate.
In Monica Kliemz’ sixteen-minute A Singular Garden, the former oncologist combines images of past events with recent footage of a Rio De Janeiro public park—once the site of formal affairs for the Presidential Palace—to compose an impressionistic portrait of the social and political complexity of contemporary Brazil.
A Baroque church in Cuba is the setting for Glenda Leon’s sublime five-minute Hablando con Dios. Glimpsed from high above and illuminated by flickering lights, the congregation seems to be quietly transfixed by the ornate altar. Yet when the camera zooms closer, viewers discover it’s an entirely personal, electronic higher power these individuals worship when talking with God. As the audience laughed in recognition, one was left with the question: Can our devilish and distracting interconnectivity ultimately become a source of infinite celestial light?
2019 Doc Fortnight personal highlights:
Arcadia: Paul Wright’s splendid film constructed entirely from 100 years of archival material—industrial, documentary, fiction and experimental footage–creates a portrait of a people’s relationship to and with their land. It’s easy to interpret its narrative as a very poetic explanation of how Great Britain got to Brexit.
Water Makes Us Wet (An Eco-Sexual Adventure): How can one not love a film made by two fabulous females who resist stereotyping? Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker and her partner, artist and educator Beth Stephens travel throughout California (with their dog Butch), to meet with scientists, biologists, water-treatment plant workers, performance artists and Annie’s elderly mother, in a search to discover what we can and must do to protect our planet’s fresh water supply.
Volver a Ver (To See Again): Judith Velez Aquirre’s chilling portrait of the aftermath of the Shining Path’s nearly 20-year guerilla war (1982-2000) in Peru. Two decades after their reign of terror ended, photojournalists who had covered the fighting in remote Andes villages, return to meet the (mostly Indigenous) victims, who had been subjects of their photographs years earlier, in an attempt to re-write the “official” story.