A zebra is taking a bath and its stripes are washing off. The animal is harnessed, standing in a white-tiled bathroom. The camera is static. Over a period of five minutes, the water falling on its back slowly rinses away the black and white lines, revealing that the zebra is in fact a donkey. This is the entirety of Sharif Waked’s video, Bath Time.
It showed at Dhaka Art Summit 2020 as part of the selection of films Gaza on my Mind, programmed by Francesco Sebregondi and Jasbir K Puar, itself part of Rituals for Temporal Deprogramming, the film and video series curated by the Otolith Group. This context is important because, like the other films in this programme, Bath Time is all about its location. The location is Gaza, the strip of Palestine that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, where the zebra in the zoo died because the medicines required to keep it alive could not be imported. The donkey in Waked’s film is the improvised replacement zebra.
Samsul Alam Helal, ‘Runaway Lovers’. Image courtesy the artist.
In another video from the same programme, Light From Gaza by Mohammed Harb, a succession of lights and lines flash across a dark background. In some places, they resolve into forms that are reminiscent of crosshairs, or take on the graininess of images from missile warheads. Yet these pulsating forms are also refuse to be recognised as representations, and remain abstract vectors and clouds of particles.
During the discussion, someone points out that we are not used to seeing such humorous, melancholic, or abstract media from Gaza. We are more used to documentary images of devastation or protest. In response, Kodwo Eshun, one half of the Otolith Group, says that these films are part of “a pluralisation of different modes of testimony”. Maybe we are oversaturated with the familiar journalistic images of Gaza, he suggests. Maybe the more poetic images in these films can convey different sorts of truths and can move us in new ways.
In a way, this is the entire effort of Rituals for Temporal Deprogramming. In addition to the videos from Gaza, the programme brings together recent works from a range of video artists and filmmakers, including Rania Stephan, Tony Cokes, Rehana Zeman, and Morgan Quaintance, addressing various crises around the world. Rather than communicating only documentary evidence, they expand the forms that video can take. In the Otolith Group’s words, they are not just moving images, but also “rites, rituals and ceremonies”.
Rania Stephan’s Threshold is composed entirely of shots of people entering and exiting rooms. These shots have been extracted from Master of Time, a 1987 sci-fi film by Egyptian director Kamal El-Sheikh. In this series of jump cuts, every door opens into another door. As the characters in the film cross these thresholds, we catch little bits of dialogue, and struggle to make out a narrative. These fragments tell a story of a crazed doctor experimenting on human subjects to extend lifespans for 300 years. It ends, as we knew it would, in tragedy. The attempt to become immortal is a familiar trope from science-fiction. By fracturing it, Stephan keeps us in the strange, liminal space of the threshold, creating a different way of being in time.
As the title of the series suggests, the films and videos here are interventions in our experience of time. Some like, Stephan’s, break open narrative forms. Tony Cokes’ videos, instead, strip video down to its essential components. In Face Value (2015), Evil 12 (edit B) Fear, Spectra and Fake Emotions (2009) and Microhaus… or the Black Atlantic? (2006-2008), Cokes makes essayistic arguments through the combination of text, music and backgrounds in primary colours.
The Otoltih Group, ‘O Horizon’, 2018 (film still). Courtesy and copyright the artists.
In Face Value, the text consists of quotations from Lars von Trier, David Bowie, and Kanye West in which they express their admiration of the Nazis. While the texts are enraging – “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars”, “I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad” – the music and colour modulates our relation to the words. As they change, these inflammatory offhand comments made by celebrities feel by turns urgent and pressing or calm and detached. The interplay between these simple elements concentrates the rhythms that exist in all time-based media. The force of media is perhaps not in narrative but in visceral experience.
This has echoes in our contemporary political situation, with the rise of fascism around the world. Politicians gain popularity today less for the meaning of their words than for the feelings they are able to evoke through their pitch and tenor: Donald Trump has learned from Kanye West what he learned from Hitler. Many such connections to contemporary politics emerge in the long and engaged discussions that follow each segment of films. Kodwo Eshun and Angelika Sagar are sharp interlocutors and moderators, astute at opening out the images we see on the screen to the world around us.
Himali Singh Soin, 'we are opposite like that polar futurisms', 2017-2019, multi-channel video. Courtesy of the artist.
The discussion circles around the question of our location, Dhaka. The films about Gaza, for example, and Francesco Sebregondi’s presentation after them, are an occasion also to reflect on strategies of containment in this part of the world, where Rohingya refugees are held in camps in Bangladesh, and Kashmir is under siege from the Indian state. As Sebregondi remarked, if Gaza is a site for some of the most technologically sophisticated repression in the world, it is also a source of political imagination for how to resist these forms of domination. As such, the films in Gaza on my Mind, and Rituals for Temporal Deprogramming in general, are a call for new forms of representation which might short-circuit systems of violence and dispossession.
These disparate films are brought together above all by the question of possibility. How are different futures imagined as possible or impossible based on how we represent them? If images enable us to act in certain ways, then the radical aesthetic experiments we see here open the possibility of acting in new, previously unimaginable ways, breaking out of the cycles we seem to be so deeply trapped in today.