N° 85 Frontyards and Backyards
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20 March - 1 May 2005
Lonnie van Brummelen's recent films are about the contemporary public space in conditions of physical reconstruction and the demarcation of territory. They are silent and are screened using large, rattling projectors, with the images filling the entire space of the wall. This emphatic stage direction gives them the air of installation-like ensembles.
Obstructions (2003) shows the renovation and restructuring of roads and squares in busy city centres and the reactions these changes elicit. Grossraum (2004-2005) deals with the social impact of borders, where the free movement of persons and goods is restricted, in this case not temporarily but permanently, through deliberate barriers and exclusion arising from legislation and practical objections. Van Brummelen's films hence deal with human behaviour in situations involving obstruction and with specific actions taken to escape from restrictive conditions. She registers the multiple modes of improvisation that are devised by people who find their path blocked. Obstructions and Grossraum provide images of a large-scale order, a physical structure, which people overcome or evade using numerous contrasting, small-scale manoeuvres, each with its own direction and purpose, as a result of which the films are ultimately tableaux documenting the genesis of a fascinating chaos. The films show situations of curtailed mobility, as Van Brummelen herself encapsulates it, the ultimate imaginable consequence of which is the possibility of a total, permanent discoordination, as in the building of the Tower of Babel.
Obstructions was filmed in black and white, and its five 'chapters' show locations in Amsterdam and The Hague where streets and squares have been dug up. In this film Van Brummelen adopts high vantage points from which, in long shots and slow movements, with close-ups and panoramic vistas, she scans the wide field of view that unfolds in front of the camera. She shows a cityscape crammed with detail and in the throes of reconstruction, with roads and houses, people, machines and vehicles, fencing systems and construction vehicles, indicating the weather and light conditions but devoting strikingly little attention to the sky and space overhead. Obstructions is a film that - in spite of its expansiveness, the enormous variety of the scenes captured by the lens, and the sometimes graceful movements of the traffic - arouses a sense of unease and claustrophobia, partly because of the way it is framed: there are too many people manoeuvring pushchairs with too much difficulty in between cement blocks and past barriers, getting sand blown in their eyes while carrying rolls of drawing paper on their way to catch a tram, or alighting from some vehicle and losing their bearings amid the construction vehicles. Sometimes the city scene becomes a house-fringed, almost abstract-seeming system of strips and lines intersected by vertical lampposts and poles, navigated by cyclists and other road users. Then our sight is blocked by trams that lumber into the picture at lower right like massive moving blocks, twisting and lurching again and again before finally leaving the frame again at upper left. Not infrequently the trams get stuck in the roadworks and line up, waiting to be waved on. At one dark building site, Van Brummelen films the abstract geometrical effect of the cement moulds and grids, before shifting to the adjacent sun-drenched road over which people armed with rucksacks and prams walk into the camera's field of view, past accelerating cars.
Grossraum is a film shot in colour, which in its present version shows two locations where restrictions and the limits of human freedom are not so arbitrary: Ceuta, a small Spanish enclave in mainland Morocco, and Hrebenne, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, with a tailback of waiting trucks stretching for miles. So Grossraum provides an overview of the physical consequences of politically and socially strained coexistences, in which long shots and a consistently high vantage point provide both a sweeping panoramic survey of the landscape and a series of miniatures showing human actions in this tableau, including the difficult, partly illegal movements to and fro that people are trying to sustain there. High fences line the border in Ceuta, but these do not prevent countless men from taking packages of European goods from the enclave across the border into Moroccan territory and Moroccan merchandise in the other direction, while border guards in the intervening no-man's land watch in resignation. For all their colour and sunlight, Ceuta, and Hrebenne are sad places, which gradually yield their tragic story in a series of long film shots.
Lonnie van Brummelen's films evoke a wealth of associations. They recall the photographs that Breitner made of Amsterdam a century ago, as possible material for his paintings: remarkably lively, direct images of passers-by who - partly blurred as they rush past the camera - stand out in the foreground against a distant setting of houses and canals. The unexpected visual arrangement gives the photographs great directness. Breitner even made some photograph series, impressive in their composition, recording the major urban planning projects that were being carried out in Amsterdam at the end of the nineteenth century: major changes in the city centre such as the construction of the Raadhuisstraat and the city's expansion towards the East and along the Overtoom. Photographs like this reflect not only Breitner's interest in the visual aspects of major urban planning projects, but also his eye for the changes and renewal that the city was undergoing, and the elaborate organisation, extent and physical complexity of such projects.
Van Brummelen's film Obstructions is perhaps more reminiscent of short documentaries made around 1900 showing streets in city centres such as London and Paris, which convey an astonishing bustle and liveliness. Scores of horses, coaches and carriages (sometimes extremely high and heavily loaded), and people wearing clothes that strike us today as curious and impractical, pass by at different speeds, all of them shot from street level, from a static position and in long shots that, because of the time-based nature of the film medium and the lively movement of the objects and people captured by the lens, have retained an astonishingly direct impact in spite of the time gap. With the graphic qualities of the black and white images, the film material has a presence that makes it easy for us to believe that the city once looked like this. It is the early modern bustle of the metropolis, the extraordinary and unique qualities of which are celebrated by Baudelaire. This reality, by now remote in history, becomes for us, through the illusion of the moving projection, an imaginable reality. But these films are less calculated composition than either Breitner's photographs or Van Brummelen's films, and more documentary registration.
In a formal sense, Obstructions is akin to the avant-garde films of the 1920s and 1930s. Examples include the early films of Ivens, at the heart of which are machines, construction, and labour (Rain and The Bridge from 1928, We Build and Zuyder Zee from 1930), or more notably perhaps, the Russian constructivists. The enthusiasm with which the Russian avant-garde embraced the dynamic energy of the metropolis has an insistent quality in the photographs, photocollages and photomontages of artists including Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Klutsis, and even more so in a film such as Dziga Vertov's The man with the movie camera, from 1929. In these artists' work, experiments with high camera vantage points, a stereoscopic downward perspective, and the abstract surfaces and diagonal lines, rich in contrasts, in the framing of the images that appear before the lens - of traffic flows, crowds and vehicles such as passing trams and buses - largely present an estheticisation and idealisation of the modern city as an expression of the new social order. Massiveness, energy and large-scale movement, combined with montage techniques in which repetition, speed, double images and skewed perspectives heighten the film's dynamism and complexity, are key components of this artistic propaganda.
Lonnie van Brummelen's films Obstructions and Grossraum adopt an abstracting, aesthetic as well as a documentary approach to the motifs presented, employing contrasts between the bird's-eye survey of the scene and the individual details that are also filmed from above, and devoting attention to montage and the meticulous direction of the movements registered within the frame of the camera's eye. But in spite of these formal methods - which are reminiscent of earlier avant-garde films - there is no trace in Van Brummelen's work of any optimism regarding the opportunities created by mechanisation, technology, and social reconstruction. Instead, she uses filmic resources to record in images the results of confrontations between construction and disruption, arrangement and improvisation. Roundabouts torn up for roadworks and large building sites are no longer metaphors for inexorable progress; they are images that show, more than anything else, the results of these confrontations - social chaos and confusion. Sun and light, rain and reflection still yield beautiful abstract effects, but even they have acquired ominous metaphorical overtones.
That Van Brummelen intends her films to operate in part on the level of metaphor is clear from her texts. She writes that the global increase in scope for movement, acceleration and virtualisation have bred social counterparts such as a new intolerance, a tendency to impede freedom of movement, and a new trend towards isolation and seclusion. With the worldwide growth of ever faster, virtual exchanges of information, she notes, have come new tensions and dilemmas for policymakers facing political and administrative decisions, and artists seeking to adopt a position about these trends find themselves in polarised situations in which they will inevitably be seen as taking a stand for or against certain parties or interest groups. In these circumstances, all scope for an open exchange of ideas is lost. It is hard to imagine that Van Brummelen's films, which are about freedom of movement, migration and trade, and obstacles preventing them, are not also about her interest in socially committed art, in artists focusing on these geopolitical developments and being motivated by the belief that they are engaging with them. The question then arises of whether the films may not, perhaps, have a third layer of meaning - whether they are not intended, in their metaphorical significance, to convey certain moral implications as well. After all, the locations at which Van Brummelen shot Grossraum are the guarded border zones of Fortress Europe, where the migration from poor to rich countries is blocked and where those who are trying to gain access to a better quality of life are branded illegal immigrants - if they have not already drowned or suffocated during their individual or collective efforts to reach Europe.
Van Brummelen is not the first artist to concern herself with such emotionally charged themes, nor is she the first to be conscious that in this position - which tests the limits of the feasible and admissible, impinging on political and moral spheres - the artist's position is also implicated. But even if this position is no longer classified as discursive exploration but is automatically seen as serving some ideology, or the views of some lobby, it still reflects the need to formulate a judgment. And with her assertion that every position adopted by an artist is assumed to be serving the interests of some party or another, she seems to have concluded that the concept of a higher truth - the wider pattern of human behaviour in particular circumstances, which might tell us something about the greater world order in which we live - has moved far out of sight beyond the horizon. Looked at in this way, her films are emphatically anti-utopias.
Jan van Adrichem
De Haan, Van Brummelen, 'Autonomy as Strategy'. Amsterdam 2004, p. 3, 10-11. In this context it is interesting that Lonnie van Brummelen commented (in a conversation with the author on 26 January 2005) that she has often wondered, when making her films, whether the Russian constructivists were conscious that their films were used as propaganda and deployed to boost a political system. This set her reflecting on how free (or fettered) the artist's profession truly was, and therefore how free (or fettered) her own art might be. In other words, she raised the question of whether any way in which one might function within a system, including the neo-liberal, neo-capitalist system, might not implicitly express the workings of that system - whether consciously or unconsciously - which would therefore also inevitably apply to her own work.