Fredrick Wiseman’s fascination with ‘the institution’ lies in its occupants: workers, clients, passers-by and witnesses. In his films, the idea of the institution is expressed in people rather than stone, his material gathered by observing and spying on the human activity therein. As a recent article in the New York Times put it, ‘Mr. Wiseman’s great subject is human beings, in all of their — of our — variety and uniqueness.’ Aoife Desmond has a different subject.
As part of her recent show at the Galway Arts Centre, Something Momentous Germinating, RetroReflection was screened in its most recent 16mm print. In it, University College Cork’s Environmental Research Institute is observed, primarily as a location/destination in itself rather than as a home or workplace. A recent, modern building, we can assume it possesses all the efficiencies and compliances of such things, all science and angles. There is glass and brick, measuring instruments and institutional furniture. The colour looks to have been desaturated somewhere between the camera and the screen, thus flattening the building further, putting the place at another remove. The colour is further soaked out by the relative absence of humans for large parts of the film: there are views out of windows, views through doorways and implements observed, but people are largely absent from the narrative. That is not to say that there is no-one on the frame, rather that they appear largely as parts of the building, as extensions of the institution, not vice versa.
As RetroFlection continues, we begin to notice that, although we are in a new build, many of the tools employed in the Institute’s work seem antiquated or at odds with the obvious claims to cutting-edge status of the place. (Please keep in mind that I have absolutely no expertise in the matter of the lay-out of a contemporary professional laboratory! I suppose I was expecting robot arms and lasers, however unlikely.) The apparatus mightn’t look out of place in a secondary school science lab and with it, character begins to seep into the work. A bubbling beaker is lovingly observed at length and there are recurring appearances by humble plastic water bottles, elevated to starring roles in untitled science thrillers. This humility allows the human elements of the building to participate in the story: a stereotypical scientist, glasses and lab coat, appears to work on a theorem or formula in marker on a window, itself a gesture towards the representation of scientists in cinema: another crouches over some unseen task in a lab, the picture of dedication. The workers here flow to a logic set by the place, they take on the mien of the institution and its work.
However, over time, this down-at-heel appearance, coupled with the dry colours, began to feel uncanny – I found myself becoming uneasy. This was exacerbated by the camera, which is often looking up from an angle, making clandestine documents. As this has been shot and presented in 16mm, it carries an historic weight, especially within a monolithic setting such as this. The story of the public service film and tyrannical repression is here, so is the history of documentary filmmaking and dinky school projectors. Any flaws in the stock or impurities in the chemicals are coupled with the exigencies of shooting film, the limits of the lenses, the fragility of the camera to push us a little further back from the subject. We are kept at arm’s length by the camera, which never appears to leave the tripod: forced to stare, compassion is absent in the viewing, just as warmth is absent from the print. Throughout the film, a male voice provides a monotonous, discontinuous commentary on the building and its place in its surroundings, on the building and its place in relation to the camera. This, in conjunction with local field recordings and soundtrack provide a thread running throughout the work, which amplifies the space between us and the building.
Science, cinema and architecture are all obvious modern themes and here they come together in a vision which, in its particular balance of warmth and space, sentiment and observation, might owe more to Nigel Kneale than to the more obvious JG Ballard. This is the case despite the flatness and subdued colour of the print, and the effect of distancing caused by the camera positioning – the homeliness of the familiar scientific imagery draws us in. RetroReflection doesn’t present itself as cynical observation – it’s an act of engagement and warmth, not a stab at cold and dispassionate science, but open armed. We aren’t looking, we are participating.
The tropes of science fiction (in its very broadest sense) are constantly evident in contemporary video and film arts: Jesse Jones’ Against the Realm of the Absolute, referencing Joanna Russ’ feminist provocation The Female Man; various Martin Healy works referencing ‘mad scientist’ and ‘last man on Earth’ ideas; the improbable, uninhabited landscapes of Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, all these can be seen as echoes of the Cold War anxiety expressed in the less lurid corners of science fiction cinema of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Society driven underground and deindividuated (Logans Run, THX 1138), post-apocalyptic collapse and survival (everything from On The Beach, Stalker, Quatermass, Threads), the distressed loner, doing what (usually) he has to do in a changed world (Planet of the Apes, Silent Running, The Omega Man, Elephant). I’m not trying to suggest that these works belong on the same shelf but much of their aesthetics have been appropriated or assimilated into the moving images of contemporary art – for the viewer of a contemporary art film the imagery of science fiction film-making is waiting in the wings. Yet it is characteristic of RetroReflection that the depiction of the relation of humans to science witholds any hint of this science fiction storehouse of pessimism and anxiety. Instead, optimism is the defining tenor: while visually we are reminded of a public service broadcast from another time, the subject (both material and human) is expressed as benign, ultimately kind. Which, in short, is what made me uneasy.
Desmond’s film has a lightness of touch that comes from the conditions of its making: a confident maker embedded in a community. This gives the viewer (and the work) a simple sense of itself, a wohlbefinden. However, it is this very sense of comfort in a simultaneously homely and scientific environment that I found discomfiting: behind the unassuming plastic water bottles and familiar Bunsen burners lies a tension, ready to disrupt this dream. RetroReflection, despite its strengths, asked for an extra dimension: the presentation of both itself and its mirror – the eerie creep of science past, of failed humanity.
RetroReflection was shown as part of the solo exhibition of Aoife Desmond’s work, Something Momentous Germinating, on 30 September 2017.