Swiss Video Art at the 14th Media Arts Biennial of Chile «El cuarto mundo»
Bienal de Artes Mediales – Los Limites de la Tierra
Museum of Contemporary Art
August 2019 to January 2020
By Carolina Martinez
For some time now it seems that the media arts and their different substrates and ways of expression have been giving up futuristic aesthetic technologies to reconnect with the most basic and profound: the nature and the planet. The legacy of industrial society and capitalism has brought about not only the exploitation and precariousness of labour. Through automation, it has reached high production and its consequent surpluses and waste, an unprecedented climatic and ecological disaster. Some will say that this crisis cannot be entirely attributed to the industries turned into businesses, but it turns out that they also generated a society that forgot the sense of community and forgot any sense of unity and connection with its surroundings and closest habitat.
It is said that the relationship with the world has changed. However, in the words of Bruno Latour, this already implies this alienation, where is evident that human being segregated perception between culture and nature, in which the first refers to what’s civilized and, the second, seems to refer to man in their roughest state. If we understood this kind of linguistic misunderstanding, perhaps we could take the necessary steps to radically change our habits, as organic beings that are part of this nature.
It is based on this spirit of a quest for awareness and reconnection between people – and between people and the environment and the world through new semiotic and pragmatic reinforcements – that the latest editions of the Chilean Media Arts Biennial have developed their curatorial concepts. In its 14th edition, in 2019, it brought us «El cuarto mundo» (The fourth world), inspired by a sculpture of the same name from the Chilean sculptor Carlos Ortúzar installed in 1972 at the UNCTAD III building. This property, built under the government of Salvador Allende in a record time of 275 days, hosted the Third United Nations World Conference on Trade and Development. The sculpture alluded to the terms first, second and third world, with the fourth world being the most marginalized part, the one furthest away from any development process. During the coup d’état, the regime made the sculpture disappear along with other symbols that represented the ideological program of the Allende`s government.
The 14th Biennial of Media Arts in Chile chose to revisit this visionary statement by the sculptor, the event was held in different venues and had artists from Chile, Switzerland, Denmark and France, among others. The exhibition «Los Límites de la Tierra» (The Earth’s Limits), co-curated by the Swiss Jean-Paul Felley and the curatorial team of the biennial, is on until January 26, 2020 at one of the most important venues of Santiago’s and Chile’s artistic circuit, the «Museo de Arte Contemporáneo». The works exhibited are presented to us as catalysts of this call for an ecosystem reconfiguration.
Audiovisual pieces that move between video art and essays are what the Swiss artists Ursula Biemann, Pauline Julier, Julian Charrière, Silvie Defraoui and Roman Signer bring us. The artist, theorist, curator and video-essayist Ursula Biemann presents us with «Acoustic Ocean», a film-essay with a fictional component. In Lofoten, an archipelago located in Norway that has suffered the consequences of climate change, the singer and ecological activist Sofia Jannok, who belongs to the Sami ancestral culture, plays a scientist who records with machines the ecosystem’s sound, specifically, the ocean’s sound. Due to the depth and darkness of the deepest sea, sonic sound is the main form of communication between sea creatures. A sound that is imperceptible to the sensory abilities of the human being who, in their daily life, constantly ignore the establishment of a bond with other nature systems.
Through a powerful and colourful image, which immerses the viewer in the mission of this scientist-medium, Jannok becomes a catalyst for this appeal for humanity to establish ties with other living beings. While we find ourselves hypnotized by the actions that try to discover and capture something that seems to be a secret to be unveiled, texts come up, with quantitative and qualitative information of biological and scientific order, regarding the damages in nature and its order, a product of the environmental crisis. Awareness, sometimes, needs to be triggered by pragmatic information so that one understands what is the reality that we permanently avoid. Fortunately, there are other people trying to take charge of showing us a side of the truth.
Continuing on the descriptive and informative character, Pauline Julier brings «Naturalis Historiae», an audiovisual piece that can also be considered an essay film. Differently from what was done by Ursula Biemann, who integrates fiction, in this work Julier appeals to the subjectivity of images, to nature and history. Through events and stories filmed in China, France and Italy, the artist tries to show how biased the concept of history can be and the events that have occurred and occur throughout it, whose legacy, conveyed to us, is written by certain people who hand us facts filtered by their perceptions and, above all, filtered by a time period. The notion of nature is also discussed, because what we get from it are its representations provided by certain ways of thinking about them, which also pass through the lens of those in charge of these views. All of this covered by the arbitrariness of the creation, production and reproduction of images and by an entire scopic regime.
«Naturalis Historiae» begins with the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, while Julier was in Qatar. Unable to return by plane, the director finds herself trapped alongside strangers, a situation which triggers this account of our conception of nature and its representation. Each chapter, as a visual essay, reports some facts that serve to record Julier’s postulates and that are accompanied by the words and thoughts of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola, the Chinese paleobiologist Jun Wang and the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour.
Through these networked narratives, the different cosmogonies and conceptions on which the human being have relied are analysed and debated, until the supposed Anthropocene is refuted. This period, under which we supposedly are today, is a highly debatable concept for avoiding other conditions outside the ecology and the ecosystem, in which the capital and power systems also interfere. Finally, «Naturalis Historiae» makes us leave the room with the certainty of uncertainty, where definitions can only be touched by attempts at analysis and categorization, understanding that we are in a reality built by each of us.
Swiss-French Julian Charrière, one of the most promising young artists, takes us on a cinematic journey full of landscapes that simply mesmerises those inside the room. Charrière stands out for his experimental research that mixes video, photography, sculpture and performance to address themes that permeate geology, archaeology, history and ecology. In the Operation Crossroads, the United States conducted atomic bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, in the 1940s and 1950s to test the strength of such weapons upon a fleet of ships. This place, whose nature resembles paradisiac postcards, was contaminated by the effects of these tests, and it also hosts the ruins that once housed the structures of such procedures. This place with an almost apocalyptic description is the stage of «Iroojrilik» (2016), a video of approximately 20 minutes that shows us Charrière mastery in direction, photography and, above all, editing. The perfect cut puts in relation a nature pure as paradise – and as life – and the interference of man’s hand, which, once again, stemming from destruction, brings the idea of the inert or even of death.
A narration or caption is not necessary. The planes that show these destroyed morphologies are in cadent rhythm with the beaches, palm trees, sea and sunsets that are interrupted by camera shots from the sea travelling towards the surface, showing us the ruins of a sunken humanity. All this is accompanied by a sound design that keeps us in constant tension, as if some truth were about to be revealed. And the revelation takes place throughout the video, the epilogue of a future and imminent extinction built by man throughout history.
The mixture of images and words is present in the work of Silvie Defraoui. The artist and her husband Chérif used to sign texts and works together under the generic name of «Archives of the Future» – until the death of Chérif in 1994. After this, Silvie continued her work. «La Rivière» is a 2009 video that slowly shows the course of a stream that flows into a pond, which starts to be crossed by colourful fish in warm hues while typographic characters are passing over the moving image. That generates a dissociation in perception by forcing the senses to establish priorities with respect to what is observed within the frame. As in an act of magic, the fish become flames in the water. This succession and superposition of an almost mystical representation is amplified by phrases scattered on the floor, which, in a certain way, remind us of fortune cookies sayings: «trust in chance», «observe the flight of birds», «small miracles usually happen» are some of the sentences that can be read. Defraoui radically changes the certainty of the exact and social science by an intuitive path that is almost a prophecy for the dark times ahead of us.
Finally, Roman Signer, who presents part of his work for the first time in Chile, brings us a series of five videos that seem to be detached from the other accounts. Known for his illogical character, Signer uses the absurd to challenge the absolute truths that mankind believes to hold: a little house madly dragged downhill by snow, a chair that spins in the middle of a river, or a truck with water containers that goes up a ramp like a skateboarder compose what, again, puts us in the difficult – but also urgent and necessary – place of having to question our position in the world and how are we building and assimilating the era in which we live. Still, every second is part of the past and every moment seems like a countdown to an uncertain future where language and worldview need to be individually and collectively reviewed.