James N. Kienitz Wilkins: Hearsays

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James N. Kienitz Wilkins, The Dynamic Range, 2018, VR film still. Image courtesy the artist.

Gasworks, London, September – December 2018

‘I’m tired of moving images,’ the narrator of the short video Indefinite Pitch (2016) tells us. It’s easy to sympathize: the twentieth-century avant-garde dream of everyone being a filmmaker is upon us, incessantly uploading videos of ourselves eating and unboxing tat, surrounding us constantly with loops and flashes. ‘Hearsays,’ which is the first gallery-based exhibition by the filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins, is a refuge from this deluge, with a single photograph The Second Person (2018) presiding over two moving image works in a mostly empty space. The photo, a lunar selfie, captures the 1969 moon landing as reflected in a space helmet, a photo drawn from NASA’s archives, but apparently, the press release claims, slightly modified – though the artist’s manipulation seems invisible. Similiarly, in Indefinite Pitch and the virtual reality (VR) film The Dynamic Range (2018), the artist seems to be absent from the picture, with both works featuring austere and largely inert visuals. The movement is instead provided by male voice-over narrators, each video defined by dense, meandering monologues. Listening to both men go on and on, the audience is cast as a therapist of sorts, listening to two neurotic but smooth-talking patients describe their doubts and troubled projections as they both try to negotiate a relationship with cinema. The artist might be trying to give up on moving images, but he apparently hasn’t given up on the “movies,” as he calls them.

‘I’m trying to tell the truth,’ insists the narrator of Indefinite Pitch, delivering his lines in a gravelly film-noir detective voice over a succession of still black-and-white images. The video revolves around a set of puns on the word ‘pitch’: pitching a film idea to a funder; the sound vibration rate; the steepness of a sloping river; and tree resin. Combining all four, we are given a crime mystery film plot, set in the riverside logging town of Berlin, New Hampshire, while the voice and siren sounds are manipulated to go up and down in tone. The still images – of small waterfalls and dirty eddies of a river – progress slowly as the narrator confesses that the plot is stolen from the 1927 silent film The Masked Menace which has been destroyed, and that he’s never even been to Berlin, a town upriver from where he grew up. References to technical details, like film frame rates, and to how we might be watching the video may be a kind of ‘truth,’ but what becomes clear is that it is his own desire for the film to be a film that has become the film itself.

This desire takes on religious and cosmic dimensions in The Dynamic Range. Produced originally for the planetarium format, the VR version involves a lot of staring awkwardly upward: at first, into blackness, as a few dots appear and we look into an ersatz starry sky. The narrator, impersonating the actor Morgan Freeman, tells a series of anecdotes that talk about the gap between the human desire for narrative and our limited ability to actually comprehend the realities of such narratives, describing cinemagoers as ‘faith-based gamblers’ looking for redemption. In one story, a man describes the movies as ‘a free space,’ while his partner mocks this, citing racist tropes such as Freeman’s frequent use as the ‘magical negro,’ calling it ‘some Bruce Almighty bullshit.’ By that point, the starry sky above us has developed into a sort of blue curtain, gradually encircling the virtual dome overhead, becoming a red, then pink, sun-like circle. The video culminates with the story of the same man going to a video camera store, testing the latest high-spec camera while accidentally leaving the lens cap on; in a moment of epiphany, compared to staring into the sun, the non-footage created strikes him as the perfect film: ‘Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to show.’

Wilkins’s films are a smart take on the maxim that telling the ‘truth’ is itself a fiction – though his version of that particular fiction and all of its professed exhaustion seems firmly rooted in the past. As minimal videos, they feel like a savvy postmodern retooling of Structuralist film concerns, hijacking a few Hollywood narration tropes along the way – imagine a cross between Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). What he leaves us with, in the imagined non-film of The Dynamic Range, is something like the expanded cinema of the 1970s, locating cinema as primarily a mental phenomenon – but where the even ever-so-slightly moving image remains as a necessary lie to believe in. All of this, even the giving up, is an act of devotion.

Originally published in Camera Austria, No. 144, Winter 2018

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