Withdraw from Reality into the Thresholds of Danger: Dreamlands at the Whitney

Written by Vanessa Gravenor

The use of cybernetic devices often correlates to withdrawal from reality, something cinema has provided since its beginning.  This desire for flight has utopian ambitions, and the possibility of a deleterious repercussion: a retreat away from reality allows one to transgress the present and can engender a propaganda machine that spews lies. This paradox is where the exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art finds itself, by examining how a medium has enabled our penchant for cybernetic dreaming but also how this medium bolsters propagandistic agendas.

With regards to cinema, Walter Benjamin wrote that it has both fascistic potential and revolutionary potential: the revolutionary potential belonged to the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, while the fascistic potential can be seen in propaganda films the Nazis used in the Third Reich. Nazism wouldn’t have been possible without the major mediums of broadcasting such as radio and cinema. Marshall McLuhan deemed these two enterprises hot mediums because of their total immersive properties. Many of the works in Dreamlands show cinematic techniques of conveying the war apparatus, especially the earlier film based works. The more contemporary works go into the territory of Donna Haraway’s cyborg by invoking gender-bending potential, and the projection of identity that humans make upon the cyborg.

Taking its name Dreamlands from one of the first films produced by Edwin S. Porter, Coney Island at Night (1905), the film shows the dreamland park, under artificial light as well as a surreal mechanical vision. Porter’s short experiments with film were produced after Thomas Edison’s invention of the motion picture camera and the light bulb. In the tracking of the camera, one sees the excitement in the arms of the photographer, as well as a sense of foreboding of what this new invention might bring to the world. Is the device sinister or a foray into play? Like Harraways manifestations of the cyborg, the mechanical lens of the camera signifies a transgressive break, and most importantly, a new representation of reality – a dreamland. In this sense, the dreamland is new territory, which will not adhere to the laws of the father, which is useless for cyborgs. As Donna Haraway reminds us in the Cyborg Manifesto:

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Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Frame enlargement from CROSSROADS, 1976 , 35mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, sound; 37 min. Courtesy Conner Family Trust and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, © Conner Family Trust

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

This sense of foreboding, woven into the notion of the mechanical vision of the cinema, comes to fruition during the 1940’s as film was used to create propaganda, as well as to deliver the news of bombings. A rupture in the nervous system occurred at the time. The exhibition comments this fact by showing Disney’s drawings from the animated film Fantasia that was produced while the war accelerated in Europe. Even the plot line of Fantasia explores man’s debacle with technology by showing how Mickey Mouse is perplexed by his magical abilities that he cannot control. The exhibition text explains that he: “foolishly releases magic that he cannot control, transforming a broom into an automaton that nearly destroys him.” Reflecting upon the cinematic device, the movies might be a beguiling invention of war while at the same time a transformative tool for the future. This apt observation is more of a prediction for Disney which today is, of course, capitalistic with a militant notion of “fun” backed by major corporate power.

There are many other works that convey the ethos of experimentation with odd cerebral and technological connections to weaponry, such as Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichkunst, that shows his experiments with abstract patterns of filmstrips. An atonal composition by John Cage accompanies the work, another musical development that ran concurrently to post-war traumatic breakdowns.

Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, a contemporary work, tackles cinema’s uncanny connection to mass destruction. Using entirely declassified military footage as its source, Conner shows continuous clips of bombings of harbors during the Second World War taken by the military. Each scene shows clips of destruction and wreckage that flow into one another. All in all, the black and white image appears beautiful and pristine and is entirely spellbinding as one of the most powerful works in the exhibition. Additionally, the grainy surface of the film has no auspices of digital refinement. The viewers become transfixed by the horror of mass destruction, brought to them through archival form.

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Alex Da Corte (b. 1980) and Jayson Musson (b. 1977). Easternsports, 2014. Four-channel video, color, sound; 152 min., with four screens, neon, carpet, vinyl composition tile, metal folding chairs, artificial oranges, orange scent, and diffusers. Score by Devonté Hynes. Collection of the artists; Courtesy David Risley Gallery, Copenhagen, and Salon 94, New York. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2014 © Alex Da Corte; image courtesy the artist and Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

Pierre Huyghe and Phillip Parreno’s Ann-Lee explores the cyborg, a hybrid between human and monster, and the boundaries between human and character. Their One Million Kingdoms features the manga character walking in a regenerated landscape of mountains, delineated only by lineage and the passage of time.  The project’s emphasis is to project life upon the immortal character whose life can be discontinued, as computer life is inconsequential. Ann-Lee is a cheap manga character the artists bought before it was discontinued; she is both a commodity as well as a digital rendered caricature.  Hugh and Parreno envisioned Ann-Lee as a sentient human with a degree of autonomy, renewed through relational aesthetics and shared between several artists. The different variations of Ann-Lee included Dominique Gonzelez Foerster’s Ann Lee in Anzen Zone (2000), Melik Ohanian‘s Ann Lee, I’m dreaming about a reality (2002), as well as Tino Sehgal’s (this performance project was not featured). She is brought together in all her parts at the Whitney. Can Ann-Lee think? This is the question the work asks, mirroring Alan Turing’s same question half a century earlier on the imitation game.

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Bruce Conner (1933–2008), Frame enlargement from CROSSROADS, 1976 , 35mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, sound; 37 min. Courtesy Conner Family Trust and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, © Conner Family Trust

Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun also features cheap and factious animation life. Factory of the Sun is a parody of video game lore and follows different dead activists who die in game-time in the future. One character dies in a protest, and another gets hit by bombs in terrorist attacks. The event of death is so far away that it becomes a parody of the present. Steyerl also features Deutsche Banks’s criminal activity, deconstructing the character of the live reporter through a series of unscripted actor role-playing. All in all, her film is a hilarious parody on the nature of the viral properties of the Internet by showing how an in-game YouTube dance transforms and appears in life. Here, again, we see the chimera of the dreamland, as in her work, life is reduced to a mere in-game transition that will shatter and reconstruct in three, two, one.

The melding of life is a key undercurrent of the exhibition: life melding with the machine, life-transgressing boundaries. Like the cinema that was formulated as an extension of the military complex, the cyborg itself is predicated upon danger.

Using the construction of the game as a whole, Factory of the Sun and Ann-Lee question the mechanisms at play within the production of cyber technology. If the technologies we use on a day-to-day basis, manufactured as sunshine machines, can be put down and never used again, what does this do to the labor force that builds these machines? Does life follow suite for them? As Harraway reminds us, the people behind our sunshine machines are women: they are expendable but more importantly invisible.

Other works in the exhibition continue to explore the intersection of cyber land with dreamland. Such works include Ian Cheng’s Baby Feat, which consists of a large vertical screen with abstract imagery. Cheng has devised a chatbot system where three sex workers talk to each other based upon a regimented set of codes and exchanges. The overall result is a vapid chaotic mess of signs and signal, a testimony to life in Silicon Valley, a dark danger of today.

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Installation view of “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016,”(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 28, 2016-February 5, 2017). Oskar Schlemmer, Das Triadische Ballett [Triadic Ballet], (1922/1970) E.2016.0044; Pierre Huyghe, One Million Kingdoms, (2001) E.2016.0050, Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

Other works in the show include Andrea Crespo parabiosis, neuro libidinal deduction, which shares aesthetic similarities to Huyghe and Perreno’s Ann-Lee in the flatness of the digital design, though it is concerned with constructions of normativity devised by medical industries. In her video, a line resembling a scanner flies back and forth on the screen, revealing different avatar characters that “light” up. Again, this work functions as an intellectual foil to both Ann-Lee and Factory of the Sun.

Dreamlands begins with this remarkable double paradox of recognizing cinema’s indubitable connection to warfare, while at the same time, striving to be a people’s weapon. Several works in the exhibition epitomize this, such as Edwin S. Porter’s, Coney Island at Night, Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun, and Huyghe and Perreno’s Ann-Lee, while other artists satellite these concepts such as Ian Cheng’s Baby Feat and Andrea Crespo parabiosis, neuro libidinal deduction, the latter half of which shifts towards digital exploration of these paradoxes in contemporary life. Ultimately, the exhibition fails to break open the notion of what a Dreamland is, especially its conceptual connection to the cyborg, which we as viewers are only left to extrapolate upon. As a whole, the show occupies the cyber light of sunshine matter, though as we all know, there is darkness behind this liquid consciousness—that is the darkness of reality. In the wake of a political climate where we are left uncertain whether the cyborg has brought us further into the trenches of fallacious fiction or if it has allowed us to transgress new horizons, the exhibition seems to vacillate in these gray tones, uncertain as well of our cyborg selves.

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Installation view of “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016,” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 28, 2016-February 5, 2017). Oskar Schlemmer, Das Triadische Ballett [Triadic Ballet], (1922/1970) E.2016.0044; Pierre Huyghe, One Million Kingdoms, (2001) E.2016.0050, Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

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