A Sunken Trembling, Recalled Dimly
The Otolith Group at Globe
The films, photoworks, installations, curatorial projects, talks and publications of The Otolith Group explore the accumulated science fictions of the present in order to reflect upon the powers and capacities of historical futures. They were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2010; now, for "Globe," the The Otolith Group has put together a special program that includes the singing of share prices, a homage to HP Lovecraft, and—as a musical highlight—one of the rare performances of the techno formation Dopplereffekt. Ossian Ward asked a few questions.
||The Otolith Group is a London-based collective formed around two filmmakers, Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, which takes its name from the otolith organs inside our heads (also known as inner ears) that orient our bodies to gravitational pull. Their work, however, often metaphorically leaves this Earth behind as if to observe it anthropologically and historically from afar – even sometimes from an unidentified position sometime in the future, most noticeably in their now completed trio of narrated sci-fi films, the Otolith Trilogy, which were first shown together, in their entirety, as part of their 2010 Turner Prize exhibition.
Speaking to Kodwo Eshun about the Otolith Group’s three-day takeover of Deutsche Bank’s Globe. For Frankfurt and the World, it’s clear that such a multi-platform event involving films, performances, talks and audio-visual works merely mirrors their already multidisciplinary practice. Indeed, the programme’s overarching title, A Sunken Trembling, Recalled Dimly is borrowed from their current retrospective, Thoughtform at MACBA in Barcelona (until 29 May), where it is the fictional title of a real drawing by Anjalika Sagar’s father – who also features in the final part of the trilogy, Otolith III, in which he sketches an alien in the year 2015. "We wanted to find out what would happen if we continued this moment beyond those 90 seconds at the end of that film," explains Eshun of the Otolith Group’s seamlessly morphing and evolving set of enquiries, "so the whole Frankfurt project is a way of folding in the layers of our work and the various strands of research we are undertaking before we start to shoot a new cycle of films in April."
Their three days of Globe are in fact structured as thematic episodes to help the duo explore a series of specific questions and problems currently vexing them ahead of their next intense phase of artistic production. "We’re not the masters of ceremony at all. We want to create an alternative form of pedagogy in which we learn from artists whose work we respect and want to understand further. The films don’t ever illustrate the research but we couldn’t make them without going through this period of study and without exposing at least some of that process to a public audience."
Day one of A Sunken Trembling, Recalled Dimly focuses on ways to effectively or aesthetically map the financial world – partly a response to the location of the events within the global headquarters of Deutsche Bank’s famous Frankfurt Towers and partly, says Eshun, "a way to make the market visible, audible and sensible. We all know the individual costs of the economic crisis but can we understand the complex systems behind it?" On the Wednesday, there’s a screening of a performance by Swedish artist Ola Pehrson who died in a car accident in 2006, entitled NASDAQ Vocal Index. "He created a piece of software," says Eshun, "that turns the graph of the rises and falls of share prices into musical notation that can then be sung by a choir." This will be followed by a discussion with a Danish artist Lisa Autogena who created a similar work called Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium in which multinational stocks appeared as glinting stars in a night-time constellation, shifting and flickering depending on how the shares of each company were trading in real-time.
The second day will begin with meditations on one of the Otolith’s most pressing current topics of research: hydropolitics. "The role of the ocean in globalisation is often misunderstood or ignored, but it actually functions because of the world’s ports and container ships." The latest film by the Otolith Group, the brooding and monochrome Hydra Decapita, will be premiered in Germany on Thursday. The 33-minute work is set to the electronic music of a defunct Detroit-based techno outfit Drexciya, a surviving member of which will also be performing the climactic concert of this series under a more recent alter-ego, Dopplereffekt. The formation’s performances blend references to the aesthetic of past totalitarian systems with an enthusiasm for technology and a belief in progress to create a contradictory and sometimes rather ironic mix. In musical terms, Dopplereffekt continues the history of Detroit techno; their live performances are legendary. Drexciya crafted a sonic landscape to represent a fictional underwater species of mutants that emerged after slaves were thrown off ships during the infamous high mortality rates of the Middle Passage. "We then shot scenes in caves and at sea off the coast of Cornwall and linked it all with JMW Turner’s controversial 1840 painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming on, which was defended by John Ruskin in chapter 14 of Modern Painters, three paragraphs of which have been sung by Anjalika as the songover, rather than voiceover, to Hydra Decapita."
As well as the sea, the programme for day two of A Sunken Trembling, Recalled Dimly includes Werner Herzog’s blistering Lessons of Darkness (1992), which highlights the petropolitics of the first Gulf War in ominous sweeping shots of oil fields ablaze and deserts covered in black clouds of dust. "There were many documentaries that dealt with the crisis and war at the time," says Eshun of this selection, "but Herzog’s film takes an almost extra-terrestrial perspective. We are always interested in the science fiction of the present and looking for other ways to look at these big political subjects."
The final day is an all-out homage to the medium of the audio-essay and will introduce a new 22-minute spoken-word piece by the Otolith Group called The Secret King in the Empire of Thinking, influenced by Jack Kirby and HP Lovecraft among others. "This medium is dying in the UK, perhaps in a way it’s not in Germany with the Hörspiel, but it’s an important extension of our interest in the film essay format."
The list of scholars, philosophers, artists, musicians and thinkers either being invited or referenced during these screenings and seminars might seem daunting to the attendees, but perhaps no moreso than to the Otoliths themselves, who are also coming to be schooled in some way. Their only degree of control over events is in their overall shaping of the programme, but, says Eshun, "We don’t make any distinction between creating, curating and criticising. We don’t recognise those hierarchies, but give them equal importance. Consequently, we have the freedom to work between all three." The trilogy continues…
Globe. For Frankfurt and the World
Art, Music & Performance in the Deutsche Bank Towers
March 16 – March 18, 2011
The Otolith Group: A Sunken Trembling, Recalled Dimly
Wednesday, March 16
18:00 – 18:30 Nasdaq Vocal Index | Film
18:30 – 19:00 Samuel Stevens, Atlantropa | Film
19:00 – 20:00 Peter Hutton, At Sea | Film
20:00 – 21:00 Lise Autogena & The Otolith Group, Abstraction and System in an Age of Recessional Aesthetics | Talk
Thursday, March 17
18:00 – 18:20 Brian W. Rogers, Nilofar Naraghi, Nazanin Naraghi, Ab va Garma | Film
18:30 – 19:00 The Otolith Group, Hydra Decapita | Film
19:00 – 20:00 The Otolith Group & Brian W. Rogers, Geoaesthetics, Terracentricity, Hydropolitics and Petropolitics | Talk
20:00 – 21:00 Werner Herzog, Lessons of Darkness | Film
Friday, March 18
18:00 – 18:30 The Otolith Group, The Secret King in the Empire of Thinking | Audio-essay
18:30 – 19:20 Mark Fisher, Radar Traces | Audio-essay
19:30 – 20:00 Mark Fisher & Justin Barton, LondonunderLondon | Audio-essay
21:00 – 22:00 Raya Baddran, Mark Fisher, Justin Barton & The Otolith Group, Radiophonic Terrains | Talk
22:30 – 23:30 Dopplereffekt | Music