The current Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the art world into a fight for relevancy that, as galleries and museums have had to close their doors, reveals the limits of their techie expertise. Many face new challenges, but the technophilic, literate, and adept are of course out there. David Blandy is one such case, and two new video works by Blandy, commissioned by John Hansard Gallery, reflect on the current crisis.
Live on John Hansard’s website from 1st – 31st May, ‘How to Fly’ (2020) merged the format of a ‘How to…’ video tutorial, which Blandy has used in works such as ‘How to Make a Film About Extinction’ (2014), and Grand Theft Auto 5’s in-game editor, employed in his ‘Finding Fanon’ series (2015–17). The film starts by Blandy addressing his audience with an easy familiarity: “Hi guys, I’ve been thinking about making a film about flying.” The playful deceit of walking you through the process of how to make a video continues, as Blandy explains how to navigate GTA 5’s in-game editor and that you need to choose an avatar. He settles on a cormorant as he says he feels an affinity with the bird, “so we’ll go with that.”
Once Blandy sets up everything you would need to know to create such a video, ‘How to Fly’ moves into a scene where the cormorant glides around the GTA 5 landscape and Blandy reads out text supposedly lifted straight from the web. The text offers tactics for dealing with the current crisis through the symbolism of the cormorant’s behaviour. We are told that in ancient cultures the cormorant represented liminality, standing with one leg in and one leg out of the water; that it is stoic and patient.
Despite a monologue that knowingly borders on the schmaltzy, with Blandy suggesting that “the cormorant is telling you that hard times are actually gifts,” the effect of the reading paired with the game footage is genuinely arresting. As the cormorant flies into the sunset and the 6 minute work draws to a close, ‘How to Fly’ lingers on the moments when you slowly return to the world from a meditative state.
‘How to Live’ (2020), which is on the John Hansard site until the end of June, also offers tactics for finding peace – “The key is to be grateful for the progress you’ve made” – but moves further, showing how universal forces are inseparable from our understanding of human life. Through the premise of explaining how to make static images move using Adobe After Effects, ‘How to Live’ shifts through the power of the sun, to photosynthesis, to the creation of oil and coal, before questioning the systems of signs and stories that humans use to comprehend the world. Blandy offers thoughts on how possible futures may materialise that veer between the idealistic and encouraging, and the sinister. In every surge of collective action, he says, are “the seeds for something better,” but he warns how nostalgia and mythology are mobilised by people for their own interests. Current conflicts between the left and the right are barely veiled in such proclamations.
In ways, the staggered release of these two works is reflective of how attitudes have shifted over the last few months. ‘How to Fly’ offered tactics for dealing with the immediately unknowable, but ‘How to Live’ reveals how moments of crisis are moments where the whole world vibrates, exposing forces that are within reach of control and others that are not. Confronted by systems larger than human life, there is little action we can take: a debilitating prospect in some senses, but maybe a liberating one in others. How we look at such things, is what Blandy wishes us to consider.