Time and its disruptions have long been important to the work of the Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eve Sussman, notably in the mesmerizing 89 seconds at Alcázar (2004), which brings the viewer just up to the hushed moment that is Diego Velasquez’ Las Meninas, and the well-reviewed Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), which is lavish, deliberate and anything but linear.
In her new exhibition at Haunch of Venison in London, her first in the UK, Sussman and her ad hoc group of collaborators, the Rufus Corporation, have once again immersed us in an absorbing and complex film experience, titled, unorthodoxly, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir. It’s not exactly a “film,” the artist says, but rather something different each time, assembled on the spot from 2,637 filmic fragments, some color and some black and white, by a computer program, called a “serendipity machine.”
White, to give it a more convenient nickname, is set in a dystopian metropolis where the inhabitants seem to be both Russian and English, if the narrative voiceovers attest to anything as pedestrian as demographics. The world the film gives forth is accelerated, systematized: it’s like a textbook of mystery.
The narrative is jumbled and endless, but watchable, a glorious, sumptuous mishmash of footage (Sussman is good at sumptuous), carefully composed documentary and verité shots, staged narrative, plus what looks like bits of old stock and found footage, pumped up to big-screen proportions, the colors and forms melting on the screen. White shows that the moving image can be sampled like music, in fragments, and that we get from them an instant buzz, no matter what comes before or after.
Yet White also contains a lot of old-fashioned story-telling. The fairly charismatic and handsome hero, Holz, is on a quest to find a job in the fictional City A, only to discover that everything is just out of reach and beyond his control. His tale waxes and wanes with the workings of the "serendipity machine." City A is conspiratorial, tedious -- the water is spiked with lithium, thus rendering its citizens incapable of knowing the time. We’re given to understand that in some way language is running out, time is running out, water is running out, there are too many people and, well, it’s just too late.
Whether the drama is political, ecological or eschatological is unclear. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, is part of the story, too, and another work in the show, placed just outside the film’s viewing room, consists of two large glossy photographs by Sussman and Nicolas Locke showing actors the cosmonaut’s original office, preserved as a museum exhibit since its lock-down on the very day of his fatal MiG plane crash.
Another work is Wintergarden, a three-screen video by Sussman and Simon Lee that presents images of identical shaped balconies on concrete pre-fabricated blocks of flats, or "krushchyovka," found in countless ex-Soviet cities. The slowed-down film melds and morphs a number of the eccentrically decorated balconies together, thus presenting a crazy-quilt of humankind superimposed on top of the master plan of Communism.
Much of whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir was shot in the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, which boasts a sci-fi landscape that produces a kind of high-falutin’ steam-punk backdrop for Sussmann’s meandering disquisition on history, landscape, time and fate.
Existential choices are endlessly implicated, yet all the alternatives to individual self-determination are given as well: not just drugs in the water to induce docility but the weight of place, history and the collective will, and -- inherent in the film’s choppy structure -- the relentless ineluctable randomness of events whose sense, if there is any, is left to the citizen to provide.
Each viewing of the work will be different, but because of the interwoven motifs, somehow the same. Like Duchamp’s Standard Stoppages, those three pieces of string he dropped in the 1910s, each the same length yet each different in the shape it took on the ground. This complex and, it should be said, potentially tedious construct is endlessly captivating.
Eve Sussman / Rufus Corporation, "whiteonwhite:algorithmnicnoir," Apr. 15-May 14, 2011, at Haunch of Venison, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET, UK.
LAURA K. JONES is a journalist based in London.