Otolith Group’s “Thoughtform”
By Rebecca Close
Of the installations and films included in the Otolith Group’s solo exhibition “Thoughtform” at the Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona, it is those that can be characterized as “film essays,” a form of filmmaking that allows documentary footage, theoretical reference and fictional narrative sequences to confront each other, which emerge the strongest from the London-based art duo’s body of work produced in the last seven years.
The seed piece of the film essay series “Otolith Trilogy” (2003–09) is an installation entitled Timeline (2003), a large printed timeline that stretches across the walls of the exhibition space, starting in the early 20th century, marking significant, factual dates in the lives of the artists’ grandparents, which then lead to fictional occurrences set in the future. At the end of Timeline’s sequence the viewer reaches the date of 2103, which is also the setting of Otolith I (2003), a film in which Otolith member Angalika Sagar’s fictional granddaughter narrates the story of how advanced experiments in microgravity have produced a new species of humans ill-equipped to live on earth. Otolith I’s premise, in which the future mutant-humans can only access their homeland through the media, anchors the film trilogy’s experimentation with voice, sound and footage as a critique of the relationship between the proliferation of images and the spectacle and capital it generates in today’s world.
One voice becomes many in the film Otolith III (2009) as a cacophony of narrators fight for their role in a “premake” of The Alien, an unrealized sci-fi screenplay written by the late Bengali director Satyajit Ray. As with the sound installation The Secret King in the Empire of Thinking (2011), where viewers are invited to imagine a foreign landscape based on an audio-clip that describes US designer Jack Kirby’s preliminary sketches for the set of another unmade sci-fi film, Otolith III speaks of the importance of re-imagining the unimagined and preserving the significance and status of the unfinished or unrealized works within the history of images and film.
In the film Nervus Rerum (2008), a Steadicam traverses the tight spaces between buildings in Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, seemingly unconcerned with the people who come across the camera’s gaze. With a menacing soundtrack of synthesized sounds mixed with clarinet music, the film refuses to adhere to the archetypal media portrayal of the refugee situation and rejects the oft-pursued documentary narrative of “telling the victim’s story.” The absence of descriptive voiceover or interviews, the conventional methods for communicating information about a place and its inhabitants, is as disorientating as the visual experience of the claustrophobic architecture of the camp.
In “Thoughtform,” the Otolith Group’s experimental films and installations, which challenge the notion of narrative, meaning and purpose in image, video and film, propose an alternative to the modern day issue of the saturation of images and spectacle in media, politics and daily life.