Unintended consequences can be the result of something done in good faith, with the best of intentions. They are symptoms of short-sightedness, an inability to see the full range of an action’s outcomes. Hyper-awareness of such short-sightedness has become the distinguishing feature of life in a globalised world, where connections between an action and its environmental, social and political repercussions are myriad, their scale and range magnified by modern technologies. This year’s Jerwood/FVU Awards sees Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta engage with the theme of ‘Unintended Consequences’ by considering, in very different ways, the complex nexus of vision, knowledge and representation.
Brenann’s ‘Listening in the Dark’ traces the history of bat research, bringing together voices of zoologists, bat ecologists and geologists in a traditionally documentary approach. These voices, complimented by documentary footage of 1940s bat experiments and US Navy underwater explosions weave a complex history, suggesting ways in which discovery of echolocation affected scientific research, including technologies used at war. A recent discovery forms the crux of the story: the pressure drop created by the rotating blades of wind turbines makes the bats’ lungs explode, with ‘reefs’ of dead animals forming at the foot of offshore windfarms. The film’s narrative loops with beautiful irony when a geologist picks up a fossilised bat, explaining how biomass collected at the bottom of the sea eventually turns into oil that is extracted to make fossil fuels.
Brennan plays with scale and abstraction to suggest the very blindness that underpins the film’s narrative. In the footage from nocturnal expeditions the camera lingers on abstract patterns of dark branches, letting the viewer focus on the sounds that accompany the film: those of Eptesiuc Serotinus, Myotis Mystacinus, Tadarida Teniotis and other bat species. It proposes an alternative to the scientific gaze and the customary angle of a documentary shot that prioritise vision over other senses. For a moment at least we are forced to try and apprehend the world differently.
What Brennan’s film does brilliantly is dissolve the supposedly objective distance usually assumed in documentaries on nature. Here humans and the repercussions of their actions no longer fall in the camera’s blind spot: what Brennan’s film explores is not so much bats, as the history of human engagement with these animals. And when we hear the sounds of the bat detector in the dark, it is as if the bats were returning the human gaze by different means.
Perretta’s ‘15 days’, equally concerned with the ‘blind spot,’ takes for its subject the refugee crisis. The story is told from the point of view of ‘15 days,’ a refugee who refuses to reveal his name. We never see ‘15 days’. His representation on screen is limited to computer rendering of a shabby tent, clips filmed around refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk, and a computer rendered drone footage – proxies that have by now become visual archetypes by which the refugee crisis is represented.
‘15 days’ sets up the opposition between absence and presence, between single story and greater picture, that points to ways in which certain groups are rendered invisible to the public eye through their visual treatment in the media. The questions at stake here are how to represent an individual story that forms part of a greater narrative? How to see the greater picture without dehumanising and abstracting the individual?
In asking these questions, Perretta’s film treads somewhere between documentary and fiction, exposing the inability of either alone to convey the complex experience of displacement. The digital indifference of the drone’s surveying eye stands in stark contrast to the hushed and anxious voice of ‘15 days’ reciting a prayer. Perretta re-enacts the ‘blind spot’ that obfuscates the violence performed on refugee bodies, directing it at the shabby tent as a proxy. All the while, the disembodied voice brings back the image of the body, referring repeatedly to skin, flesh and bones of the individuals that form the ‘brown multitude’ to which it belongs.
In his monologue ‘15 days’ mentions a gaze emanating from the ‘bluest eye’. In Toni Morrison’s eponymous novel exploring internalisation of racial violence, 10-year-old Pecola loses her mind and comes to believe that she possesses blue eyes. Madness is here equated with blindness: Pecola is no longer able to perceive the world around her accurately. In exploring the themes of blindness, invisibility, and obfuscation, both films in this year’s Jerwood/FVU Awards reveal how often what we know is conditioned by what and how we see, emphasising the ethical imperative of making images that represent, and make visible by different, unusual means.