Sensorial overloads, low-key video narratives, global trotting collages and art world stars were some of the attractions of the protean programme of the Osnabrück Media Art Festival in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. Last week the festival arrived at its 19th edition. As one of the main media art events in the world, it is a barometer and a survey of what’s happening in the increasingly hybrid world of moving images. This year’s slogan was Smart Art, which according to the programme notes translated into works that "question social conventions, take familiar things out of their context and subtly track down the absurdities of individual and social everyday life." There certainly was a lot of that as well as a great deal of not that, but you can’t blame the organisers for trying to wrap up with some kind of thematiccoherence a sprawling programme that included experimental shorts and videos in a wide range of forms and aesthetics, space-oriented installations (which will run until 18 June), multimedia live performances and other events of expanded cinema, a congress on theoretical discourses about current media art and an international student forum.
What is really smart in the case of Osnabrück is the avoidance of the terms ‘film’ and ‘video’ to favour the expression ‘media’, which gives the curators and organisers more freedom to bring together different work practices and thus foment a dialogue between practitioners who pursue different visual languages. It also creates an environment where conventional narrative gives way to new forms of storytelling and to works whose artistic ambition is more Dada than Hollywood.
Since the festival calendar included simultaneous events, it was impossible to see everything. So the bewildered spectator had to look at the programme as a vast pool where they could jump in at leisure and come out of it with an idea of the whole. From what I saw I noticed a tendency by some artists to break international barriers in collage-oriented pieces, weaving together footage captured in different places and countries, a tendency which seems to signal how geographical borders have disappeared from their creative minds. Mixed media was also big on the agenda, and many works I saw were hybrid, contaminated artifacts, happily juxtaposing different visual languages and media in carnivalesque symbiosis. Cases of low-key video narratives were also to be found and one particularly good work that lept to my attention was the British feature Stella Polare by Andrea Kennedy and Ian Wiblin, a flâneuristic meditation on dislocation and the metaphysical lingering of history. The war was also present but mercifully works intended as piss-takes of Bushisms were thin on the ground. The few cases that alluded to Iraq, Bush and what passes as ‘political statements’ these days (often based on what people see in the media rather than real knowledge) were typically sub-Michael Moore standard and offered no new angles.
I wish I could say I had a whale of a time with Matthew Barney’s new film Drawing Restraint 9 starring himself and his wife Björk. An incursion into Japanese iconography, the film starts off with lush, beautifuly shot imagery and gradually (actually, very gradually) moves towards the sequences when Barney and Björk perform a strange laceration ritual on board of a Japanese whaling ship where they have been invited to as ‘occidental guests’. Barney became famous for his Cremaster series and he is nothing short of an art world superstar. But with this film he teeters seriously close to Peter Greenaway’s neo-baroque territory. The programme notes informed us that Björk was reluctant to make another film after her famously traumatic film experience with Lars Von Trier in Dancer in the Dark, but Barney persuaded her to be in the film as well as compose a soundtrack for it, which alternates between moments of sheer beauty and New Age ridiculousness. Drawing Constraint 9 is often a stunning film with superb photography, but perfunctorily ruined when Barney and Björk take over the screen. Björk is uncomfortable (as anyone would be with all that gear on) and Barney’s performance is weak. Their screen coupling is a case of narcissism getting in the way of art. Quite a few people walked out of the screening, stupefied with tedium, and when the lights finally came on (after what seemed like four hours – it’s two hours and fifteen minutes long, quite a stretch for a non-narrative film), people were gazing at each other as if to confirm everyone else was feeling the same.
But to finish this piece on a positive note, I couldn’t recommend more John & Jane (pictured), Ashim Ahluwalia’s confident second feature about call centres in Bombay and which won the he dialogue prize of the Foreign Office in Osnabrück. Although it sounds like one of those documentaries about corporations and globalisation coming out of Robert Greenwald’s film factory, this is much more sophisiticated than that. Ahluwalia blends the distanciation of observational documentary with hints of sci-fi to blur fiction and verity as he delves into the lives of six call centre workers whose lives lie somewhere between the real and the virtual. The tense, pulsing electronic soundtrack enhances the dystopic futuristic feel of the film while a disturbing, Ballardian picture of globalisation emerges on the screen. With John & Jane (a reference to the names of the average American) Ahluwalia has cemented his place as a key figure in non-Bollywood cinema (he’s the founder of Future East pictures, the production company behind this title) and hopefully his work will get the attention it deserves.