The work of Ben Russell has often implicated the camera as a kind of drifting witness; a quasi-subject in passage between zones. In some earlier work (the ‘Trypps’ series, for example) these passages have been between mental as well as geographic zones, between intense mental states and geographies. The interlinked nature of these kind of states and spaces has led to terms such as ‘anthropology’ or ‘ethnography’ to be used in regards to his practice. The terms are slippery in the face of this work, even problematic – Russell’s camera is a highly aesthetizicing witness. What kind of study is being made, as a young woman is seen in the course of an LSD trip in the American Badlands, or a group of costumed people drift slowly around a Surinamese village (Trypps 7 and 6 respectively)? The camera is certainly engaged in some kind of participant observation, to use an anthropological term, but perhaps a better term might be subject-specificity. The camera seems to travel with the minds of those it witnesses.
These works recall the films of Jean Rouch, as an acknowledged influence, and at times (especially in the longer piece ‘Let Each One Go Where He May’) the slightly uneasy ethnographic and perambulatory auteurship of Louis Malle’s ‘Calcutta’. But other work, often taking the form of installations, is perhaps less bound by the camera-subject and is more multi-ocular, registering a wider spectrum of events pertaining to magic, ritual, and the mind in space. These different kinds of work mark various modes of subjectivity, also somewhat ritualistic, within the film and within the audience. Between sitting, walking and standing – between ways of being physically grounded whilst the mind makes its own manoeuvres.
The piece commissioned for the 10th Film and Media Arts Festival at Berwick-upon-Tweed, ‘The Twilight State’, elaborates further on Russell’s approach to the state of the mind in space. It is an installation housed within an ‘ice house’ storeroom on the town’s quayside, a pair of rooms with thick stone walls. A 28 minute loop (S16mm film transferred to video) is screened in the second on these rooms. One enters through the first, where a droning soundtrack plays a sine-wave meant to match the frequencies of twilight itself. A projector beams elements of the footage (‘spatial transitions’, as the artist describes them) through a rotating set of prisms. Two rooms, two projectors, two sets of sound; all of which combine to produce a multiplicity of states occupied by the body of the viewer.
The concept of the ‘twilight state’ is medical, referring to a kind of functional unconscious where action is nonetheless possible. But the title resonates with metaphorical implications to do with dream states, with geographical location, and with the duration of devotional practice. It recalls an idea described by Don DeLillo in his novel ‘The Names’, that as night falls ‘the things of the world are no longer discrete’ – that the strata of reality are bled together.
The work places together two examples of religious or ceremonial-folk practice from Swaziland and South Africa – a meeting of the Jericho Church of Zion, and descriptions of dreams by sangoma (faith-healers or ‘diviners’, two of whom are in training). These sangoma were asked to narrate significant dreams without interpreting them. In doing so, they produce a form of narrative that the camera cannot properly access, an inner space. In some cases their accounts begin as if they were voiceovers added to footage of the camera slowly approaching a small building, but as the camera enters the speaker is seen talking in sync with the soundtrack. This makes clear the work’s awareness of how such an inaccessible inner state might be moved towards. Their accounts also make clear that a depth of language is the thread that draws their dream-narratives out into the open and into their waking world as well as that of the work. An initiate sangoma, a young woman, speaks about her family, her ancestors and about specific places visited in her dream. She then goes on to visit these places in real life, with her guide. The dreams, in fact, are pre-real rather than premonitions. They mesh together with reality, and in turn with the film medium. The work’s linguistic layer rushes into great specificity as she lists ancestors and places; the cadence of her speech increases. The things of the dream are the things of reality.
Again, this recalls DeLillo’s ‘The Names’, a novel obsessed with the act, and the tool, of language as a kind of divining rod and a means of locating subjectivity. The book’s narrator asks ‘Do people make things to define the boundaries of the self?’. In ‘The Twilight State’ the young woman almost replies: ‘I received my tools after I called out to all my ancestors’. The narration of dreams is language that is inward-facing in origin, but must nonetheless be spoken aloud and brought out into the world to find its meaning. For the young sangoma the meanings of dreams are not interpretive but definitive; they locate the subject. This is also the effect of Russell’s subject-specifity as an approach to film.
The other main film sequence, the depiction of a gathering of the pentecostal Church of Zion, presents the inner state in a more collective guise. This sequence shows a service that begins with words from the bible, and then gradually enters a state of glossolalia, of speaking-in-tongues (a linguistic manifestation of the ‘twilight state’). In the course of this the sense of the work’s ‘participant-observation’ is subtly and aptly made active as a member of the congregation, in the midst of dancing and entranced speech, is seen holding a tripod and repositioning the lights that illuminate the scene. In doing so he re-directs and guides the consciousness of the camera, deepening the links between all of its subjectivities whilst reminding the viewer of the materiality of the work. Something similar happens at several moments within the film where an optical device or ‘other lens’ of some kind comes before the camera – a coloured gel held across it, or a small glass object creating a blurred fish-eye view of a forest. An elephant is shown in slow motion, a tracking shot passes across trees with the sun behind them, a mirror is seen on the ground. As one of the initiates walks, the soundtrack is a recording of dream-root being prepared – which is taken by sangoma to assist the clarity of their dreams.
Russell describes these elements as ‘disrupting authority’, which is certainly true according to the rules or conventions of the documentary film. But ‘The Twilight State’, as a whole, functions precisely because its ‘disruptions’ are the connections it reveals between states; between mind, language and place.