By Hannah Black, 12 February 2013
A recent article in Mute by Alberto Toscano on high-frequency trading used the phrase ‘ciphers of our incomprehension’ to describe attempts to depict the super-fast computer transactions that now power the market, financial algorithms that pass beneath the experiential, though they also constitute it.1 A cipher of incomprehension suggests an incomprehension raised to the second power, an incomprehension that cannot find its way into representation. Matthew Noel-Tod’s new film Bang! occupies different territory – the park, not the bank; the historical, not the mathematical – but it attempts to put a visible something in the place of an indecipherable churn of information. Its assembled fragments vibrate with the effort of dragging something that resists visualisation into the light. All this, and a cast of singing dogs! (It’s the singing dogs that earn the film its punctuation mark.)
Bang! – commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery as part of Noel-Tod’s year-long residency in Victoria Park – is a very ambitious 24 minutes: a super-compressed history of the world, starting with formless outer space and ending with the internet, via cave paintings, Plato, Jesus, Descartes and so on. Besides his own practice, Noel-Tod has worked with a number of other artist-filmmakers as a cinematographer (David Panos and Anja Kirschner, and Laure Prouvost, among others) which is perhaps why, by contrast, this film feels resolutely un-art-like, resisting poetic camerawork and musing voiceovers, or rather mediating between camerawork and voiceover through a series of garish animations and/or talking dogs. That Bang!’s production process included workshops with schoolchildren might have informed these choices, resulting in animated sequences that, far from being kid-friendly concessions, contribute to the film’s eerie gloss. Unlike, say, recent works by Johanna Billing (Hollybush Gardens) and Adelita Husni-Bey (Gasworks), which featured child performers to evoke the social imaginary, Bang! figures childhood as a developmental blank screen, a gap or absence upon which different images of the human can be projected – or into which the human might fall. At screenings of Bang! in Victoria Park, real live children laughed at a scene where dogs dance on a pond relating the doctrine of God made flesh. The children’s laughter wasn’t theological, but it was hardly possible to view it from an adult position of total comprehension. Bang!, a little like a kids’ multiplex comedy, is full of details that seem destined to go over the heads of its immediate audience. In the case of Hollywood family movies, this is to placate bored parents; in Bang!, the overwhelming weight and detail of the film’s ideas, impossible to take in on any single viewing, seems aimed not at any particular audience but at a higher, omniscient power: perhaps the ‘Dog’ who stands in for God throughout the film, a tired inversion that the film succeeds in re-enlivening.
Here, the compression of information is the point of the information; the point of the information is that it has exceeded the merely informative, as with the HD footage and shiny animation, or the internet memes alluded to in the closing scenes, all of which capture something more perfectly real than reality. The layering of images and of historical moments produces an unanswerable demand, something like the effect of checking in on social media, or glancing over a page of news headlines: all this stuff, but what does it want from its audience beyond a bare minimum of attention? The atrocity exhibition makes way for the newsfeed; the atrocity, as in J.G. Ballard’s novel, is the multiplicity – yet despite the dystopian register, Bang! is funny and deft. This is nothing new – excess and the terror of excess are the mode of the contemporary, from post-internet art to American fiction via shopping at Ikea – but Noel-Tod’s treatment of it is remarkably calm, even icy: a minimalism of the maximal.
The digital is a god’s-eye view, more perfect than the human eye can bear. The only human figures who appear in Bang! are a cartoon Neanderthal dragging his knuckles, a gaggle of 3-D animated children, and a man wearing a dog’s head. Every other character is played by a dog. The animated children are the least human apparitions; blank-eyed, smiling fixedly and rendered in a range of skin tones, they float around the philosophising dogs, more sinister than cute. ‘Man anthropomorphizes himself – that is the first misrecognition,’ squeaks Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, played by a Jeff Koons-style golden balloon dog, as the equally hollow-looking children float off into the ether, mysterious grins still intact. An introduction in which Pico explains that his name is ‘Latin for tiny’ and his surname ‘sounds like mirror’ uses the tone of BBC educational programming only to open up new vistas of incomprehension. ‘I wrote 900 theses,’ says the dog, referring to a seminal work by Pico that attempted to lay the grounds for total knowledge; the children float away, unconcerned. The script seems visually unsupported here, cut loose; but these moments where image and text detach are enjoyably disorienting, and allow the film to hover between didacticism and the pleasure of images – again, not unlike children’s TV, although free of the nostalgia that implies. Yet the film is more dialectical than that; the fluent, ultra-contemporary images point to the didacticism of the spectacle, which teaches us how to see, and the history and philosophy lessons that comprise the script are compressed into brief, saturated moments: images.
Faithful to the Theodor Adorno quote that begins the film – ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanity’ – Bang! doesn’t presuppose the human as a natural fact but presents the necessity of formulating it, or protecting its promise, through social effort: art, philosophy, struggle. The long history the film (preposterously, humorously) traces is not the endurance of an always-existing humanity but a history of how the human has been understood in different social conditions. Socrates, played by a stone dog presiding over Victoria Park, announces ‘Men have no world, but they have language’; in response, Alcibiades (also a statue of a dog) speculates eagerly, ‘If I’m not yet a man, I could be some kind of god!’ Humanity is socially created, not God-given – though its present form is dog-given, extracted from the suffering of animals and workers, beings whose ‘right’ to life is disputed, even as their bodies provide the basis for the social. As Bang!’s breathless history reaches Descartes, a looped and claustrophobic shot of a playground tunnel and the sound of hammering and howls provide the background to a monologue delivered by a sad-faced pug (the best actor), who laments,
Monsieur René has nailed me to a board. He likes to extract our hearts alive to see how long they beat, to separate the cause from the effect […] I came here as a stray, thrown off my land.
The bravura of equating Cartesian vivisection and enclosure, newly proletarianised peasant and freshly dissected dog, is typical of the densely packed script written by Noel-Tod and Benedict Seymour. So, too, is the scene’s throwaway punchline, combining Descartes and pet food: ‘I think therefore IAMS.’ (Exclamation mark!)
The slippage between ‘dog’, ‘man’ and ‘god’ persists throughout the film, the moments of torsion in these terms often marked by jokes. When Socrates-dog explains that man is ‘sunk in himself’ (a Kierkegaard reference? Never mind, laugh at the funny dog), and dogs are ‘in thrall to bones and Chum’, Alcibiades protests, ‘Nonsense! I like sofas.’ ‘Yes,’ replies the wiser dog, ‘but you don’t look after them.’ We move on the voice of a Christian Dog, emanating from a park fountain: ‘I sent my only son […] a guide-dog for the blind.’ It’s hard to pick out the many uses that dog-hood is being put to here, variously standing in for man, god, worker and more. Marx observes in the 1844 manuscripts that capitalism ‘animalises’ the worker, forcing him to reproduce only himself, rather than ‘the whole of nature’ reproduced by truly human activity:
man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing, etc; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.2
Here, the animal is the lowest threshold of the human, but also the last refuge that the human retreats to. Similarly, in a famous passage in Minima Moralia, Adorno proposes as both goal and origin of dialectical thought the image of floating in mindless bliss, ‘rien faire, comme une bête’ (doing nothing, like an animal). It is not enough perhaps to say that the animal (the dog) can be both the highest and lowest form of being, enviable in its capacity for self-enjoyment and its ignorance of death, but at the same time completely alien to us, because it does not ‘have language’ – although this might go some way towards explaining the popularity of online pet videos. As Adorno suggests, the animal is both what we have to transcend (as animalisation) and what we aim for (as happiness).
Yet, because as a species we have yet to achieve doggy-style paradise, the undecidability of dog-ness in Bang! appears as pointed, polemical indifference, as do the film’s many re-combinations. The revolving golden dog shit that begins and ends the film suggests capitalism’s ability to turn everything into undifferentiated shit, or indeed to posit shit as gold. If the Cartesian subject can become a brand of dog food, a pug can be a prole, Plato a park ornament, if a park can stand in for the whole world, then – then what? In this, Bang! is absolutely faithful to a particular contemporary mood, the correlate of the incomprehension alluded to by Toscano: ‘the opacity of transactions happening fathoms beneath our perceptual threshold’. While Toscano suggests that a true materialism of this opacity would demand attention to how it impacts on ‘the lived time of our collective and political life’, Bang! prefers to dramatise how it suspends or complicates that attention. Skimming and scanning through human/canine history, Bang! enunciates not collective life but general malaise. Did we crawl out of the prehistoric ooze for this? For 4chan and Hipster Runoff? An iPhone text message exchange bastardises Beckett at his most despairing: ‘I can’t go on’, ‘I’ll go on’. The cheerful green bubbles of the iPhone SMS screen make it worse, if it’s possible to make Beckettian misery more miserable still. And yet to represent emptiness with such wit, intensity and vigour is a gesture against emptiness, just as the production of incomprehensible ciphers might, at best, point to an eventual decipherment.
Bang! was produced and filmed during Matthew Noel-Tod’s year-long residency with Chisenhale Gallery and Victoria Park. The film’s initial public screenings took place 30 August 2012 at Chisenhale Gallery and 22 September at the Hub Building, Victoria Park. More of Noel-Tod’s work can be viewed at www.matthewnoel-tod.com
Hannah Black <hannahfb AT gmail.com> is an artist and writer. She lives in London, where she is a student on the MFA in Art Writing at Goldsmiths and is currently an artist in residence at Space in Hackney
1 Alberto Toscano, ‘Gaming the Plumbing – High Frequency Trading and the Spaces of Capital’, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/gaming-plumbing-high-frequency-trading-and-spaces-capital
2 Karl Marx, 1844 Manuscripts, section on ‘Estranged Labour’, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm