Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, Bankside, London, SE1 0LN

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Ed Atkins and Naheed Raza Jerwood Space Review by Emily Burns Is there life after death’ What does the future hold for humanity’ These are the immortal questions which divide us into believers, hopers and the resigned. Realism. Idealism. Existentialism. Solipsism. Pragmatism. Nihilism. All these philosophical ‘isms distil into this conundrum that hovers over all our heads like the Sword of Damocles. In two small, dark rooms at Jerwood Space, this year’s winners of the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards, Ed Atkins and Naheed Raza, apply their creativity to the debate in the second installation of the exhibition, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Springing from the same brief to explore past and present perceptions of ‘the future’, the pair presents two starkly contrasting but nevertheless complementary visions. Raza’s ‘Frozen in Time’ addresses the (potential) pros and cons of cryonics - the process pioneered by Robert Ettinger in the 1960s by which the human body is essentially frozen in the hope that medical technology will advance sufficiently to enable scientists to resuscitate and revitalise the preserved dead, arguably claiming a somewhat hubristic modern ownership of the Biblical tale of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. In a seamless procession of quasi-documentary footage, Raza’s film escorts the viewer through a series of testimonies by people with investment in this ambitious project, interspersed with atmospheric close-ups of the bleak and beautiful frosty machinery involved in the ice-mummification process. The narrative ‘voice’ is not audible and yet powerfully implicit in the selection of interviewees, choice of location and arrangement of the sequence. Raza’s academic background in medicine is evident in the immediacy of her approach to the material as well as metaphysical qualities of mortality. She frankly addresses the practical aspects of keeping a ‘dead’ body and mind intact, whilst also evoking the ephemeral qualities of the setting through suspended, haunting shots of unfurling, icy mists. The background sound is a disconcerting mix of sonorous humming, primal screeches and mechanical clanging, a fitting soundtrack as the course of nature is dragged off track by human intervention, seeking to cheat death, Mother Nature’s ultimate trump card. For most of us, exposure to cryonics has been in the form of cringe-worthy sci-fi fantasies and an Austin Powers film, so we approach the subject with amused scepticism. Yet, by presenting the facts without heavy-handed didacticism, Raza encourages dialogue. The viewer is introduced to individuals who have signed up to the programme sitting in their homes and the scientists who are seeking to cheat death giving a tour of their lab. We even hear the stories of those who have embraced the chance of an extended life and are currently suspended in artificial sleep, such as ‘Patient Number 66’. The enthusiasm of the scientists involved in ground-breaking research is infectious and humbling. Ultimately, however, Raza’s survey reveals the truth is not so dissimilar to the parodies, painting a farcical if not tragic picture of optimistic people clinging to an unproven hypothesis. You want to believe them but, as the risks of the procedure are explained - the microscopic chance of resuscitation and the probable physical and mental legacy - the success of the project seems tenuous to say the least. It’s a game of chance with the odds stacked against you - a Pascal’s Wager for the 21st century, only here the concern is for the preservation of the secular body rather than the spiritual soul. In contrast to Raza’s focus on flesh and blood bodies, Atkins’ ‘Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths’ presents a disconcertingly realistic motion-capture figure of a naked man whose otherness is instantly established by his situation, sitting at ease at the bottom of the ocean, his digitally-rendered hair swirling about him. The film flicks between shots of the lone figure and close-ups of other scenes. A powerful segment shows hands held under running water, begging the question: if the protagonist is already under water, whose hands are they’ Is there another person in this futuristic fantasy or are we witnessing a memory’ These inconsistencies keep the viewer on edge and disposed to concentrate on the spoken and subtitled words in search of explanations. While in Raza’s film, people present facts and theories to be weighed up, here the viewer is privy to a single, ponderous monologue. The mystery man speaks clearly in surreal subtitled bursts of musings, punctuated by breathing, sighs and silence. The message is disguised, the words disordered, and meanings slip through the fingers, simulating the hands and water motif. Poetic but obscure phrases re-emerge at intervals, inspiring a sense of familiarity with every repetition that could almost be mistaken for understanding. Beginning with the opening line of fairy tales ‘Once upon a time…’ the ramblings mix mundane statements (’...I don’t want to hear any news about the weather…’) with the nostalgic (’...Christ, the sun on those Saturdays…’) and the sensory (’...barrels of salted meat and freshly laundered linen…’). Music is likewise used to great effect, morphing from tightly-structured harpsichord music, through passionate, fluid opera to Disney’s cheesy ‘I can show you the world’, lifted from another fantasy tale. The white earpiece worn by the protagonist suggests this might be the idiosyncratic soundtrack he is listening to. The background sound, however, is white noise, intensified by moments of white on the screen. Perhaps it is significant that both the sound and colour white are made up of all other colours and sounds combined. This erratic cycle of words, sounds and colours could represent a world of all and nothing, a futuristic purgatory where the foreign and yet familiar protagonist is left in limbo in time and space, recalling pasts, mindful of the present and mapping diverse futures. In different ways, the two films showcased in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ challenge preconceptions of what it means to be alive, blurring the boundaries between man-made and natural creation. Raza’s film explores a procedure that is the culmination of scientific efforts to answer our yearning for immortality but also arguably, through reconfiguring our bodies, meddling with the natural order of things. Conversely, Atkins presents a less corporeal but equally potent example of mankind’s efforts to engineer ourselves out of our environment and circumstances: as nature’s computers ourselves, we can now formulate our own cyber-world by programming new synthetic bodies. Even computers, the vehicles for this process, take on an anthropomorphic form with software for skin and cognitive codes steering logical thought processes, all wired up to a core skeletal structure of hardware. Evidently, the scientific theorist, inventor and Futurist, Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), was onto something when he declared: ‘The best way to predict the future is to design it.’
The Jerwood/ Film and Video Umbrella Awards and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, (the first edition of the Awards), are a collaboration between Jerwood Visual Arts and Film and Video Umbrella in association with Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. The exhibition ‘Tomorrow Never Knows: Ed Atkins and Naheed Raza’ is hosted by Jerwood Space, London and Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. Film and Video Umbrella is supported by Arts Council England

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