Under the Microscope
Chop Off, M.M. Serra (in person), 2008, 6 min. video USA
Faceless Things, Kim Kyung-Mook, 2005, 65 min. video South Korea
Sick Film, Martin Creed, 2006, 20 min. video UK
Brain Surgeon, Ömer Ali Kazma, 2007, 15 min. video Turkey
Magnetic Movie, Semiconductor, 2007, 5 min. video UK
“I am human, let nothing human be foreign to me” – de Montaigne
How do I convince you that this isn’t just a selection of gross-out tapes? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t want to dismiss the intoxicating allure of sights that should by all account repel and repulse us, but you have to agree that cinematic shock and prurience has a bad reputation. What does it mean to embrace images of real puking, shitting, cut-open bodies, to willingly go online or to the local underground cinema to witness extreme gestures and acts with enthusiastic gusto?
Not for the faint of heart, this international video program offers unsettling scenes of reality’s surface opened up for all to see. The bodies and objects – sometimes the same thing – in these tapes are under the microscope, stripped bare and exposed to the penetrating gaze of the camera, which is uniquely capable of bringing us viewers into harrowing, stomach-turning situations that we might otherwise never lay eyes on. Through looking with an unwavering – even mechanical – eye at extreme states, these tapes pervert the disembodied and authoritative gaze of science, redirecting it towards more deviant and less instrumentalized forms of spectatorship that do not offer the acquisition of knowledge as an alibi for looking. They suggest that being an unmitigated voyeur might be a more honest, embodied and thus empathetic way of learning about our fellow creatures and our world than to be a detached expert watching in order to simply gather evidence.
We see recognizable human forms and psychologies up on screen here, but in states of extremis, and we react with disgust or pleasure – a thrill. Our own bodies – let’s assume that they are safe and sound at the moment – seem to be reacting on a base, visceral level to the bodies in crisis on display in all their abject glory. They are like threats made to our bodily integrity and dignity – warnings that this can happen to you, whether against your will or with your full consent.
In M.M. Serra’s visceral and dizzying new video portrait, Chop Off, a man enthusiastically discusses the ins and outs of his extreme body modification practice, taking us through the squeamish yet methodical process of severing his joints one at a time. Fully engaged, Serra’s empathy for her subject is total and so we are incapable of dismissing or rejecting him, instead feeling each chop as if it we had inflicted it on ourselves. (I dare you to try not to feel a tingle in your fingers.) She contextualizes his “art of amputation” within the history of corporeal spectacles such as freak shows, while drawing attention to the power dynamics between human oddity and spectator.
The young queer South Korean director Kim Kyung-Mook’s Faceless Things is a disturbing low-budget feature structurally divided into only three scenes, each rigorously shot in a single take, which makes the slow-burning tension sometimes overwhelming. In fact, the feature’s underground origins and the tone of menace it creates gives one the impression that literally anything – no matter how unspeakable – could unfurl in front of our eyes. The first and longest sequence is filmed with an unwavering, surveillance-style camera, recording a disturbing hotel room tryst between a large and domineering married man and a teenage boy. The second episode takes place in a claustrophobic bedroom, and is recorded in grainy video. It features a graphic scat interlude between the director – whose face is mostly off-camera – and a masked male partner that gets interrupted by an animated fantasia. The film ends with an enigmatic confessional coda by the director, making the work a fascinating, disconcerting examination of psychosexual alienation and self-exposure.
Sick Film is British artist Martin Creed’s structuralist document of the vomiting styles of the British. One after another, each identically-framed subject wanders out onto the pristine white soundstage and lets loose everything they hold inside (some requiring more effort than others). Presented in ascending order according to the volume of matter expelled, we begin with dribbles, drool and retching and end with a copious quantity of barf that boggles the mind – and guts. A metaphor for raw and unprocessed self-exposure, the vomiting on display also seems to reveal something of the subjectivities of its producers. Here Creed takes an act of extreme abjection and revels in the personal idiosyncrasies that emerge when each Technicolor torrent is choreographed against a neutral background for a steady camera.
Capturing the real with vivid accuracy, Turkish artist Ömer Ali Kazma’s Brain Surgeon depicts in graphic detail the eponymous craftsman at work on a woman’s brain, refusing to allow us to look away and focusing on the precise actions of the man and his tools. The video provokes that particular kind of nausea that comes from seeing a sensitive, fragile organ – in this case the very cradle of our being – exposed to the world, so vulnerable now that it’s removed from the protection of its sturdy enclosure. The video is part of a larger series that casts a mechanically detached gaze on different forms of labour, from clock maker to animal slaughterer.
Magnetic Movie by British science geek duo Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) might seem out of place in this blood-and-guts program, and certainly there is no human body – traumatized or otherwise – in sight here. Using the near-infinite capabilities of digital animation, it gives sumptuous visual form to the invisible magnetic fields constantly pulsating all around us, here in the labs at NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratories at UC Berkeley. The phenomena described by space scientists are illustrated with jittery colour lines and bouncing dots. Here it is not human bodies that are laid bare by the cinema but the very forces that govern the universe, and knowledge is gleaned perhaps paradoxically through acts of imagination. Semiconductor’s imaging software bridges the gap between the material and the intangible, and we must make the leap of faith with them into this speculative world. – Jon Davies