Alberta Whittle @ Glasgow International & Rene Matić @ Arcadia Missa

17/05/2020.      ZM

Emoji summary: 💧 🥵 🔹

Wallah, I hate this country. I hate everything; I hate the weather, I hate the government, I hate the bbc. My dadi rings me every day at 3pm; this week I asked her what she thought of the government’s new corona strategy and between the two of us complaining and slagging off Boris, she said, ‘even if we don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t really our country, so what can we do?’ It’s a weird one, but a boring one - this friction of being born in and growing up in a country so deeply and inherently racist that you find yourself agreeing with your dadi when she says ‘this isn’t our country’. I have lived in London my entire life, I cannot imagine living anywhere else, I wouldn’t want to. But the idea of calling myself British feels weird, wrong, and deeply deeply embarrassing, even though I technically am. This isn’t a stubborn assertion of my exceptionality, it’s truly felt: we’ve been here, this is ours, but equally this isn’t rly ~our~ country. This is relatable, a widespread feeling that’s a direct product of a state that’s invested in a hard filter, top-down, tight grip on who it accepts as citizen and subject, it neglects us so carefully that belonging feels like an enormous psychological leap. And where does art sit within that? How can we expect institutions and audiences to sincerely care about our lives and work when the deep state openly doesn’t? And how can we stake a claim to these institutions in return? The only public we can trust is ourselves, bound by a knowing and reckoning that our experiences are different and specific, but also fundamentally part of the same system. 

This week I thought I wanted something bland and safe to write about; toast soft with butter for my churning stomach. I am sad, numb and scared by the world around me, weak in the face of the systems that dictate it. Art has never felt like such an interruption; escape and distraction don’t work, bland and safe feels offensive rn. I watched Alberta Whittle’s <business as usual: hostile environment> on Glasgow International’s website, and I recognised a stomach churning in unison with mine, their bubbling rhythms synced up. Split screen, wide ocean, black and white footage of the boats as they landed - old timey and rolling. Then: ‘NF’ painted over and over on the side of an overpass, a train rattles across and then it’s the EDL, n one of those CGI engines animating newsreel audio about nursing shortages and immigration salary thresholds. It builds and builds, there’s a sharp chronology that cuts through the visible edge of sentiment and happening; nurses and factories, rumble rumble to charter flights.

Alberta’s film is a quick response, a ‘working iteration’ of the original commission, changed to meet life right now. State racism & anti-blackness, National Front, Windrush scandal and now dying on the frontlines of a pandemic bc a government that doesn’t care about black lives is forcing people to work without due consideration for their safety. These things are not that separate, the fact the film’s been reworked doesn’t feel like an overhaul but rather an update for the way everything has exploded; the way death has always been pressed close for some, but now there’s a morbid transparency to the expectation of it. I hate this government, I hate this country. Still, the opening title calls this film ‘an offering and a gesture towards remaining soft in spite of the overwhelming hostile environment’ - I feel too soft though, butter soaking into toast, like if you pressed me it would leave an indent.

‘In a hostile environment, respectability will not save you’. Slow drums and then the dancing begins - 7 mins in is where I enjoy the film really and truly. Smooth hips, tumbling drums; it starts to roll away from itself and being caught up in the logic of the state. Towards a space separate from labour and utility, towards enjoyment, pleasure, expression, joy. From that point 7 mins in I want to call on another film, write about it against Alberta’s; Rene Matić’s <we give a lead to britain> is on Arcadia Missa’s website. 12 minute film, shot in Lambeth Town Hall - in 1955 it was the venue for the ‘no colour bar’ dance, where white and Caribbean couples danced together. It’s a scene I recognise in some of the archive footage Alberta uses. Rene uses body and movement to draw a hard line between historic past and right now. Dancing across the screen in slo-mo, artist’s body becomes a portal, foreground for a throwback, a stretch into a yesterday that looks back at us with hope for settled resolution. It feels sadder when I watch this film straight after Alberta’s. The tender-soft-past Rene summons feels like a horizon that drifts away from us as we walk towards it; maybe that’s just me, the mood I’m in, my clenched jaw. On a different day, maybe I’d say this film resurrects a past that is unspoken and made invisible, a more personal and discrete rendering of moments that can feel towering and enormous - on a different day that would feel like enough to stop my stomach as it gasps. I flick back to Alberta’s film. The split mirror shot tightens in on the singer’s mouth as she screams a rhythmic punctuation over cascading drums, flat matte grey, an angry music fades into a wave with bubbling foam and as the sequence closes I feel a tear roll out. I wish we were harder, solid smooth brushed steel coating; I wish we were all as tight and compact and impenetrable as little pebbles. 

I’m not prepared for a prolonged conversation about presentation & display in GI and Arcadia Missa’s online exhibition. I think bunging a Vimeo embed link up on a website homepage is a bit meh, especially considering there are some beautifully considered and tempered online modes of display out there; if you’re looking for something chewy and delightful in that way, go to flatness.eu or blacktransarchive.com bc they’re more fulfilling and satisfying for brains & eyes in that exchange. For both GI and Arcadia Missa, there are more thoughtful ways to deliver work, more thoughtful ways to place works in dialogue with each other & with viewer. 

But, stepping around that; I am glad both of these works are on the internet at the same time, in conversation next to each other in the tabs i have open. They break the waves of each other, fill in the gaps of my feeling and don’t leave space for me to manoeuvre between them. I need that tightness rn to justify the intrusion of art; that tight logic, firm, flat and sizzling against the acid surface of my fear. I hate this country, and it hates us back. 

Both these films are available online now: Alberta Whittle's <business as usual : hostile environment> is on the GI site, as part of the Glasgow international Digital Programme, until 31st May. Rene Matić's <we give a lead to britain> is on Arcadia Missa's site until 23rd May. <<<< links in text

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