SUPERPOWER: AFRICA IN SCIENCE FICTION

29 May

ARNOLFINI, BRISTOL, 5TH MAY-1ST JULY 2012

The first thing that this exhibition’s curators (Nav Haq and Al Cameron) do is stake Afro-futurism right through the heart, noting that it’s a stylistically and politically distinct historical thing and not a living movement. While Superpower is not entirely satisfactory for a number of reasons- it’s a bit jumbled and unfocused, to cut a long critique short- it does at least attempt to engage with Africa and its issues in their own terms, as they are now, not as they were in the 70s.

One particularly striking (and, to me, wonderful) thing about this show is that quite a lot of the work in it takes quite a wide detour around what is generally considered orthodox artists’ video. With one exception- towards which I will turn my attention shortly- the work errs on the side of slickness and clarity, both of which tend to be looked down upon in the world of gallery video, a world in which video art is never knowingly understood and rarely shows any sign of film-making craftsmanship because being crappily made, confusing, lazy and wrong-headed is apparently a signifier that a video is proper art and hasn’t been sullied by bourgeois concerns like actually being any good. Works like these just don’t often get shown in white cube galleries thanks to this inverse snobbery. Neill Blomkamp’s self-initiated and self-financed early works about hi-tech chaos in South African slums, for example, were indeed so slick and compelling that they led directly to his critically acclaimed and popular feature film District 9. [WHITE CUBE GALLERY CURATOR SCREAMS, CLUTCHES PEARLS, FAINTS.] Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi is also a serious work that has the high production values and self-consciously cool, modernist-futuristic design that owes more to Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott than it does to Bruce Naumann and Joseph Beuys. Hallelujah.

Of course this also mirrors a distinct counter-trend in video art, one in which video artists like Steve McQueen and Gillian Wearing are starting to move overtly and deliberately into full-blown narrative feature film making, presumably out of a frustration (which I and many other artists share) with the exceedingly narrow parameters of what most art galleries will show when it comes to moving image work. If art world princesses like McQueen and Wearing are bailing out, just imagine how pissed off and stymied the rest of us are.

It may be a coincidence and it may not be a coincidence that the only British artist in the show (as far as I can tell, anyway) goes down the aforementioned drearily familiar road of poor craft, bad storytelling and weak concepts. Mark Aerial Waller’s Superpower-Dakar Chapter is glossed with what is already a nasty, rancid little old chestnut:

“The wooden acting and low budget video effects contribute to a fluctuation between the forms of soap opera and travelogue, yet the science fiction leanings of the video perhaps open the possibility for transforming the dominant narratives that cinema reinforces.”

I’ve seen this kind of apologia far too many times over the past few years. NO. No it doesn’t “contribute to a fluctuation” (whatever does that mean, anyway?) Nathaniel Mellors has already tried this one on and found it suits him. I think the truth of the matter is these artists just don’t know how to get good performances out of their actors, because this takes experience, practice, empathy, craft, professionalism. It’s not a thing you can just pick up because you happen to have a reasonably good eye for imagery and you can hold a camera straight; these are separate skills that don’t necessarily or automatically coexist in the same individual.

This rationale is also profoundly upper middle class and patronising. I’m certainly not a huge fan of soap operas, but I doubt any of the artists or curators who glibly reference soaps or “bad acting” have the slightest notion of how much hard work and craftsmanship goes into making a genuinely popular continuing drama that goes out every week or even more frequently, and still maintains a modicum of quality control and consistency. And I’m talking about Latin American Telenovella quality here, not Mad Men: yes, even maintaining a Spanish soap’s level of output and (yes, basically low in its ambitions) quality is the work of huge teams of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing and spend every working day doing it. They don’t just throw those shows together. They certainly aren’t given the opportunity or even encouraged to make excuses for how poor the results are.

If you’re going for bad acting and shoddy film making, really go for it. Make sure we know it’s meant to be bad and that there’s a good intellectual or conceptual reason why it’s bad, rather than merely saying in this adolescent, sneering way Oh, it’s meant to be bad. Like a soap, yeah? as a cover for the fact that you were trying to make something good but you failed.

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