When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1980s, a 1979 teen film called Over the Edge seemed to be on television nearly every day. Its opening credits always thrilled: ‘This story is based on true incidents occurring during the 1970s in a planned suburban community of condominiums and town houses, where city planners ignored the fact that a quarter of the population was 15 years old or younger.’ The movie portrayed teens driven crazy by the rigid architectural grids of modernity. The film’s events were not actually factual, but no matter: its largely invented history, presented with a perverse historical authority, spoke a certain associative truth. This approach might be termed a ‘Report on Probability’, a re-imagining of history to suggest new ways of positioning the present. Such was the title of this group show at Kunsthalle Basel, which presented a chorus of speculative, mostly cinematic ‘histories’ from nine international artists who see nothing fixed about the ever-mutable, ever-useful past.
Curator Adam Szymczyk took the title from a 1968 sci-fi novel by Brian Aldiss that features two sets of narratives – one earthbound, one extraterrestrial. Likewise, many of the show’s works are palimpsestic. From Lars Laumann’s brilliant 2006 video treatise overlaying Princess Diana’s death onto Morrissey’s musical output (the latter predicting the former) to Anna Molska’s deft filmic weaving together of the 19th-century social drama The Weavers and contemporary Silesian coalminers, the artists here invariably regard history as a rough draft to be re-written – each new version shining faintly through the last.
Glasgow-based artist Corin Sworn’s film After School Special (2009) is an elliptical re-edit of Over the Edge itself, thus doubling the alteration of historic record. Condensed and overdubbed, the film’s feral youth now talk philosophically of their situation. It’s as though Jean–Luc Godard characters are waxing poetic out of the mouths of flaxen-haired beauties in flared jeans. It’s also a speculative exercise: what if the kids had been able to articulate their disenfranchisement, might they not have tried to burn down the school? Given intellectual agency, the children of the planned community might constructively challenge its basic tenets. Sworn does not go so far as to arrange this, but its possibility infuses her work with a buoyant anticipation less fatalistic than the original film.
More cryptic is Łukasz Gutt and Anna Niesterowicz’s The Minstrel Show (2009), which records a big band performance of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ – the song Frank Sinatra and Count Basie made a standard – at an impressive Polish Radio studio. The camera lingers over the band – all pale Poles in shiny tar blackface – before swooping away. The comment on Poland’s monoculture is taken, yet the use of blackface to make the point troubled me. The formal beauty of the contrast between the black paint, light skin and the stage’s tawny appointments, was unnerving. A firm grasp of minstrel history seemed traded for an easier exploration of its formal possibilities – not, to my mind, an equal bargain. Regardless, the song’s addictive swagger (‘let me swing upon the stars’) set a weird, jaunty tone that followed me through the show.
Two videos with more humble production values followed: Sven Augustijnen’s tour through Brussels’ Parc Royal, and Patricia Esquivias’ lo-fi PowerPoint presentation on subway mosaics and ’80s gentrification in Madrid and New York’s East Village. Augustijnen’s work, Le Guide du Parc (2001), delighted, as a half-sweet, half-creepy ‘guide’ provides a thinly veiled tour of the park’s cruising spots, revealing the park to be a palimpsest with multiple layers of meaning and utility. In The Future Was When? (2009), Esquivias explores how the modern city determines what is ‘historical’ (thereby restorable) and what is not – a decision, she indirectly imparts, that must be made by the city’s citizens too.
The exhibition’s only non-cinematic work, Las Casas Is Not a Home (2009) – Runo Lagomarsino’s elegant, didactic visual essay on Spanish colonial history that comprises collages, photographs and assemblages – was also the only piece that explicitly traced the way in which history has long been used speculatively. Photographs depicted a cerulean-hued 19th-century wallpaper called ‘Inca panorama’ found in a German village near Basel. Its pattern – based on an Enlightenment-era book from France about the Incan empire’s demise and the 16th-century Spanish proto-abolitionist priest Bartolomé de las Casas – is an artistic construction parading as fact. Its point, to glorify a destroyed culture, was inherently political, exoticization notwithstanding. So too is Lagomarsino’s installation, which reroutes Spanish colonialism (also his history) through his distinct artistic sensibility, with its acute sense of polarities – of design, of politics, of geography. His stenciled texts reveal this acuity: I’M HERE BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE; IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE SOUTH IS / IT’S SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU’RE FROM THE NORTH. Moving among the texts, I nearly expected to read: HISTORY: IT’S NOT OVER, IT’S JUST BEGINNING.
First published in Issue 126