I saw so much good art over the last few months, thanks to foundation but also mainly having time to see shows. I will do a recap of all the best shows, most of which seemed to be about video art, but first some thoughts on one of the most thought-provoking pieces, which I'm still thinking about because it's so prescient and influential: Johan Grimonprez's pre-9/11 video essay dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.
It’s 1997. The world is four years shy of an event which will change perception of terrorism in the West. Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez makes his ground-breaking ‘dream – documentary’ dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a non-chronological video essay on plane hijackings and acts of terrorism in the 20th century. His kaleidoscopic use of news archives, airline promotional films, military footage, advertising and banal home videos results in a visceral, even frightening experience that manages to remain intimate through its emphasis on real people. Focusing on the influence of the media which spreads and intensifies such acts of violence, the shocking and sometimes overwhelming footage is anchored by quotations from novels by Don DeLillo that contemplate the effect of political terror on western society. Like Grimonprez, DeLillo was eerily prescient in his philosophy of terror, used here by the filmmaker to provide a narrative thread for his escalating imagery.
The manipulative power of the film is interesting – sequences from news archives showing terrorists and perpetrators are intercut with tender home videos and upbeat music, eliciting feelings of sympathy in the viewer for what we would morally regard as the ‘wrong side’ of the battle. The film also features children as a recurring motif, signifying the loss of innocence that took place across this time period through shocking cuts and clips showing children bearing the weight of these events, sometimes literally such as in the uncomfortable footage of children carrying a bloody plane. Their inclusion in his found footage shows their use as props by the media in order to manipulate viewers.
Grimonprez packs an emotional punch, particularly so when he does not show the true horrors. In one memorable sequence, he displays text describing atrocities that were committed, overlaid on unassuming, even joyous clips of a family pool party. While suggesting the horrors are too great to show, that our imagination alone should be enough, he also accuses the viewer of culpability in our consumption of media. We are aware such atrocities occur, yet we choose to avert our attention, ignoring larger issues in favour of our own petty problems. Therefore, his inclusion of these clips of domestic bliss transforms from something initially harmless and even humorous to a sinister accusation through their sharp contrast to matters of world conflict.
The purpose of the film was something I grappled with throughout watching. It is informative, documenting data about hijacks across the world, across the decades. It is erratic and exhilarating, the editing and careful combination of shocking archive clips and home videos building a canvas of terror. It is very prescient and current through its consideration of media and terrorism. However, it is also pre-9/11, and quintessentially a product of the 20th century, not least because hijacks of commercial planes are a relatively recent phenomenon, but due to the fundamental changes in media, warfare and perceptions of terrorist acts since the turn of the century. These events were intrinsically linked with the anxieties, sensibilities and socio-political tensions of the period. It can be seen, therefore, as a portrait of an era, still relevant but a product of its own distinct time. Grimonprez evokes this with authentic archive footage presented in non-chronological order and a font that just screams of a 1970s news broadcast.
I think it is important to view now, as its issues of terrorism, international politics and the influence of mass media are still as present and relevant as ever, though Grimonprez’s treatment is very raw and immediate through his use of grainy footage and unwillingness to hold back or censor. His clips feel as though they have been uncovered, dug up from the suppressed western consciousness of the era. This contrasts sharply with our current, sterilised media, so readily available but muted, despite the fact the conflicts we face are similar in nature, if more urgent. Perhaps the problem lies in the saturation of images and information we are fed, the wealth of media available literally at our fingertips. Viewers now are generally more desensitised to the violence and horror he shows on screen – the reaction he received in 1997 surely differed, held the power to shock its audience much more as it is something they would not have had access to before. To modern viewers, especially younger people like myself, we’ve seen much of it before, if not handled in quite the same way.