POINT issue#38 was originally published in hard copy for the week 31st July-6th August, 2013
AMONG THE WHERE?
ORIENTING THE LITERARY CONCEIT AT DPAG
The “most prestigious” gallery in New Zealand, the DPAG, is hosting a new show titled Among the Machines. Co-curated by Su Ballard and Aaron Kreisler, it brings together 13 artists apparently readdressing Samuel Butler’s “nowhere” from a 21st century perspective. This show is troubling, but in an unexpected, not necessarily negative, way. Among the machines is certainly a “Russian doll” making it a difficult task to review in 500 words.
Its first shell is one that engages visually: a room suffused in a deep blue hue, ice that scrolls unendingly, a sales room for an interplanetary settlement. Spectacular at first, it is this shell that the casual visitor might prefer to stay in, like a day in the museum “hands on” room in which you feel like you’re actually touching and handling things, if you’re willing to ignore the fact that any real interactivity has been sacrificed for safety. Touch, but we don’t trust that you can treat it properly you poor, simple member of the public.
|Bronwyn Holloway-Smith Destination Pioneer City (Postcard, 2011)|
…Then the doll splits in half and something else rolls out, perhaps you were halfway through a snarky review, pompously demolishing it on the basis that a much better approach would have been to focus on the “residents of nowhere” the internal erewhon that results when global technological interconnectedness destroys the capacity to distinguish the individual, and realize that Ronnie Van Hout’s contribution (Bleeding Despair)…kind of did just that.
It’s at this point that a reassessment is in order: Perhaps the show is not really trying to be post-colonial aesthetic nostalgia with a veneer of technophobian Victorian zeitgeist? Perhaps there is also an acknowledgement that a more interesting post-industrial human presence has negated locational isolation?
But even such ground given to the show, there remains niggling sense of something problematic, something which hindered its reading initially.
Among the machines is unsatisfying because it does not consort with the real reasons behind Victorian technophobia and relies on a distanced romanticism of the figure of Butler who ends up lacking any real relation to the digital, post-industrial world the show otherwise boasts of connecting. Butler’s world was caught in conflict, not simply ‘machine verse nature’ but also ‘God verses Man’ (specifically; the Victorian belief in a benevolent Christian God and man’s subservient position beneath Him which renders human productions ultimately incompatible with ‘creation’ clashing with a nihilistic realization of the power of scientific and industrial progress stood to undermine this metaphysic) and rich verse poor (or Capital verses Labour).
As ‘progress’ has pushed the nihilism of the late 18th and 19th centuries through into the post modern absurdism of the 20th and further onward into the apathetic digital post industrial culture we inhabit today we find that among the machines’ usage of Butler’s analysis of mechanization is incomplete, perhaps superficial, as it overlooks the lineage of thought and social institutions that, had they been explored properly, might have provided the interesting link between the centuries that this show had been seeking.
3 OUT OF 3 AIN’T TERRIBLE
Reviewing the Film Society’s presentation of DREILEBEN
Back in the early mid-2000s, the near- parallel rise of cable TV and the DVD box-set gave an unexpected burst of commercial life to what I’d call the “accumulative cinematic narrative”, the obvious, old idea that longer narratives were possible through a series structure, that could then hold an audience for a longer period of time. New versions of old serial structures (eg: The Wire [2002-2008]) were broadly revived for an audience that showed signs of concentration and stamina. But this moment soon passed, and the possibilities of a commercially coherent but long-form expressively accumulative narrative are still largely unexplored.
So it’s been a considerable pleasure to spend time with this series of films, The Dreileben Trilogy . Made up of three separate features directed by different filmmakers, which take a common genre situation – an escaped convict on the run in a small town – and apply three subtly different but quite familiar approaches to separate stories, and along the way interrogate the way we see narrative in genre cinema.
There’s nothing new in messing with audience narrative expectation; dream narratives and framing devices in cinema date back to the silent era. Indeed, the post-modern cinema was very engaged in a process of superficially redefining our consciousness of narrative while doing nothing to subvert it: films like Memento  and Adaptation  make much play from twisting themselves around our embedded understanding of narrative cinematic structure, although in a way that rewards our genre savvy, rather than encourages us to look outside these conventions.
For me, the seemingly more conservative but more innately serious, engaged approach of the Dreileben films does the opposite to these ostensibly innovative American films. Where they rewarded knowledge by tweaking the viewer with shocks every time something happens in a way that is structurally deviant, these three films build an accumulation of information in the traditional “whodunit”-style mode, in parallel with a rarer, more formally serious, self-conscious and quite radical mode. Less ostentatious, but also much less conservative, this approach works in encouraging the viewer to actively step outside slowly comfortable genre positions.
It works because these three works are only tenuously united by story; the real unities are of the culture of a small town in Thuringia. From that sense of place and history, each film explores very different ideas. Unlike the conventional wisdom of such a linked structure – that there must be a central control, a single creator even! - these films make allusive, respectful nods to each other before stretching out into their own territories. The effect is to create a version of a horizontal integration: different worlds lived in different ways running on different engines.
|Still from Beats Being Dead [Christian Petzold, 2011]|
The first film, Christian Petzold’s coming of age drama Beats Being Dead, spends much of its time locked into the characters’ bubble of parallel awkwardness and blissfulness, only to burst it with quite serious ruptures indeed. Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around opens out into volubility immediately, a warm, jittery, colourful social world, concealing a cold heart. It welcomes us into an emotional space we missed in the first film, drawing our attention to the differences - a fantastic technique for laying modes of relative “realism” next to each other. The third film, Christoph Hochhausler’s One Minute of Darkness returns to the thriller genre the films are all working around – and further subverts this perspective. Narrative expectations within the film are provided through traditional use of revelation, but the accumulation we’ve gathered between the three films is very carefully displaced by an element of narrative unreliability. What would seem the most traditional thriller of the three on its own becomes, within the whole trilogy, the most startling.
The key is the very thing that is unfamiliar: a lack of hierarchy that goes so far as to disrupt our ability to find an absolute “truth narrative” from the events shown. Such a decentralization provides for new, acutely political possible readings of what is traditionally among the most hidebound and politically conservative of genres.
THE POLITICS OF HATE
As As Editor-in-Chief of the National Business Review, Nevil Gibson put it, “This year’s NBR Rich List is bigger and richer than ever before with the total minimum net worth of members now at $47.8 billion, an increase of $3.5 billion on last year’s list. Add the small group of New Zealand-based international billionaires on the Rich List and the figure climbs to $60.4 billion, an all time record.”
The NBR has been compiling a national Rich List since 1986, attempting, largely successfully, to build a kind of celebrity culture around the accumulators of vast wealth in this country. In 1986 a minimum of $5 million was need to get on the list. By 2007 the criteria for inclusion had increased to $50 million. This years list has 158 NZ individuals and families and 5 overseas born NZ residents.
The Rich List confirms that, unlike the majority of New Zealand society, the super-rich aren’t suffering in the slightest from the economic recession, they are profiting from it. This parallels other countries around the world, for example, in the United States after-tax corporate profits reached a record level of GDP, up 18.6 % to US$1.75 trillion in the third quarter of 2012, while workers’ wages fell to their lowest share ever. The increase in wealth of our richest people has been driven by substantial increases in investments, “the New Zealand equity market returned 25.9% last year and has added another 10% in the first half of this year.” (NBR Rich List, p.13)
In his regular column in the NBR, ‘Opening Salvo’, Matthew Hooton invites us to “Celebrate the NBR Rich Listers”. The tone of his column is everything but celebratory though. In it we can see a rather shrill and increasingly desperate attempt by the right to defend New Zealand’s obscene inequality of wealth and income. The recent efforts of campaign groups like Living Wage Aotearoa and the Child Poverty Action Group are clearly having an effect on Hooton and his ilk’s nervous systems. Whereas right-wing ideologues used to talk about the ‘politics of envy’, Hooton, in his defence of the Rich Listers, denounces all those who care about poverty and inequality in this country as engaged in a “politics of hate.” (NBR, 26/7/13, p. 2) Although it may be seen as a sign of the strength of neoliberal hegemony over New Zealand’s public discourse that such rhetoric can be easily indulged in by a mainstream right-wing commentator, I think it is clearly a sign of the stress that it is now under.
To underline how detached from the rest of society the Rich Listers are it is sufficient to outline a couple of pertinent facts relating to New Zealand’s income and wealth distribution. To find yourself in the top 10% of income earners in this country it is sufficient to earn a whopping $72,000 a year. 95% of us earn less than $93,000. In terms of wealth, the top 10% own more than half the country’s entire net wealth. The top 1% own three times as much as the bottom 50% combined (just under $77 billion owned by around 29,000 adults.
For the editorial staff of the NBR the source of wealth in society is not the generalised social labour of the working class, accumulated over the course of centuries of co-operation. No, it somehow springs forth eternally from the superior entrepreneurial abilities and thrift of isolated individuals. Thus we have Nevil Gibson reflecting on the “simple living and frugal habits” of our ‘ordinary millionaires’ and how they eschew flashy cars so they can set themselves up to become even richer! Such myths of ‘primitive accumulation’ have been with us for a long time. The wealth of the capitalist class derives from the surplus labour they appropriate from the working class, through the mechanism of wage labour. The working class collectively produce more value than they receive in wages. The Rich List functions to divert attention from the real source of capitalist wealth in production, pretending to find it in a list of ‘honest’ individuals.
In the end of course Hooton and Gibson are apologists for the capitalist system rather than its personifications in the Rich List. In this they share ground with most of their left-liberal opponents who desire a ‘fairer’ distribution of income and opportunity but would leave the fundamental social relations of production unchanged. Whether we can have a renewed form of social democracy in the 21st century is very much a moot point. We have to seriously ask ourselves how much longer we can allow this system to destroy lives. To help you I suggest a politics of hate – hatred of capitalism.