‘The Inoperative Community’ at Raven Row is a timely meditation on tribalism, participation and isolation. The show has two main points of focus: can ‘individual’ exist without ‘community’? And, how does the medium of film respond to communal experience?
The exhibition’s twenty-six different films make up nearly sixty hours of footage. Each film was made in, or uses material from ‘the long 1970s’, a highly politicised period that began with the idealism of the 60s and ended with disappointment of the early 80s. There are seven rooms screening films simultaneously. They range from Stuart Marshall’s five monitors on a continuous loop (‘Journal of the Plague Year’), to Lav Diaz’ eight-hour investigation into how a consciously constructed narrative conveys the truth of grief and trauma (‘Melancholia’). Alongside the looped films in the seven different spaces is a screening room that has a different programme of films every day, with each programme addressing a different aspect of the exhibition’s central theme. It is here that curator Dan Kidner has constructed a framework that explores film as a vehicle for communal consumption of narrative and image. In the screening room are arguably some of the most important films of art cinema: Marc Karlin’s ‘For Memory’, Johan Grimonprez’ ‘dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y’, and three of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s films. All are gems but it is worth doing a bit of planning.
Of course, with such a huge amount of material it is not possible to consume every image of the exhibition. Exploring the rooms I realised that every choice to sit and watch was a choice to not-watch somewhere else; I became a participant in one community while enacting isolation from others. In the essay that lends its name to the exhibition, Jean-Luc Nancy suggests that “the individual is merely the residue of the experience of the dissolution of community”. The films agitate this point, many highlighting the tension between the freedoms of the individual and the structures of society. While watching Luke Fowler’s docu-essay ‘Depositions’ I was reminded of the necessity of community to preserve individual humanity. Fowler’s film uses 70s BBC reports and new footage to show the rituals and landscapes of different communities in the Scottish highlands and how they have been (mis)represented by the mainstream media. The blunt blackouts between his lyrical landscapes and the archive footage foreground the gaps that lie between communities. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt suggested, it is in the dead space between the limits of nations that the human rights of the individual fail – be that the dehumanisation of Jews that allowed a Holocaust, or the de-nationing of refugees that allows our current crisis in Europe.
But membership of a nation is not a simple affair. In Jean-Pierre Gorin’s ‘Poto and Cabengo’, twins Grace and Virginia have transgressed the norms of American society by creating a self-referential language with its own codes. Rather than being a symptom of ‘mental retardation’ we discover it is actually the product of a German mother and American father sharing an unhappy suburban house, isolation and a transcontinental traumatised history. The danger of existing outside society is captured in the potent scene where Virginia is chastised by her teacher for not singing the national anthem. Her survival depends not only on the community to protect her, but also on her ability and desire to pledge allegiance to it and so renounce her micro-nation of two.
All this makes the exhibition sound very dark and depressing but I was constantly reminded of Nancy’s assertion that “one cannot make a world with simple atoms … There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other”. Like the siblings at the centre of Leslie Thornton’s wild and unearthly ‘Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding’, the twins of Gorin’s film are fantasies of an individualism. They contain a completeness, a Deleuzean ‘fold’ that is of and about itself and so can never be without or alone. And while watching Erica Beckman’s ‘You the Better’ where the shifting colours of the purpose made light-box include the viewer in the film, I thought about how in Nancy’s essay he pictures Homer’s Penelope waiting for Ulysses to return. As she forever sews a tableau, forever undoes it, around her structures, rituals and micro-communities form. Ultimately, then, it is in the striving for community that the individual finds completeness and ‘immanence’.