Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From May 5 to July 1 2012, the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, was home to “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” an exhibition curated by Nav Haq and Al Cameron. Exemplifying a recent trend for artists to view the continent through science-fictional lenses, it includes work by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva (Portugal), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Luis Dourado (Portugal), Mark Aerial Waller (UK), Neïl Beloufa (France), Neill Blomkamp (South Africa/Canada), Omer Fast (Israel/Germany), Paweł Althamer (Poland), Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), and Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq (Egypy/US/UK).

Some of the short films on display – Kahui’s Pumzi (2009), set in a water-scarce future Africa, and Blompkamp’s Tetra Val (2004) and Alive in Joburg (2005), the latter of which was hothoused into District 9 (2009) – might already be familiar to SFS readers. Of them all, though, the most intriguing is Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2009), consisting of three parts, each of them continuously looped in an individually dedicated room.

Nostalgia I is a four-and-half minute HD video: in a forest, a white man in camouflage fatigues builds a trap from branches and twine; on the soundtrack, a former Nigerian child soldier talks about his childhood and how a surrogate father figure taught him how to make a partridge trap from branches and twine.

Nostalgia II runs for ten minutes on two synchronized HD screens: on the left, the former child soldier, now a man; on the right, Omer Fast. The interview subject does not seem to understand the artist’s questions, and although he describes the partridge trap his father taught him to build from sticks and twine, the artist grows skeptical of the subject’s inability to provide specific detail about growing up in Nigeria. And, depending on when you join the film, it sooner or later becomes clear that both men are actors, the interview a reconstruction.

The thirty-two minute Nostalgia III, shot on 16mm and transferred to HD, contains eight scenes, with several momentary flashforwards (or, depending on when you join the film, flashbacks). The setting, loosely sketched in passing hints, is an Africa faced with the problem of illegal immigration from Europe (it is unclear whether this is an alternative present or a future after European civilization has collapsed, but everyone dresses like they are from seventies Britain or from a seventies British adventure television series). Nostalgia III alternates scenes from two stories. One follows three British illegal immigrants, who meet their fate in secret tunnels under the African security perimeter. It is a linear narrative, albeit with two scenes actually occurring simultaneously, but the second story is a closed loop. In each scene, one character describes how to make a trap out of sticks and twine, and in the next scene, a character who has heard this information recounts it as first-hand knowledge – A tells B, B tells C, C tells D, D tells A, A tells B, and so on.

While fascinating, Nostalgia is also a little troubling. Its spiraling narrativization, and concomitant destabilization of experience, marginalizes a specific Nigerian voice, transforming his life into an art-commodity. But it is not as troubling as Blomkamp’s shorts, which contain all the problems of District 9 in embryonic form; or as Althamer’s Common Task: Mali, a photographic record of an “encounter” with Dogon villagers that reeks of colonial appropriation and the touristic gaze.

imagesThe other highlight is Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2008), an installation recounting the first African space mission – an endeavour every bit as foolish as the one in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006). Launched from Angola, Icarus 13 landed on the surface of the sun – at night, so as to avoid deadly heat – and successfully returned to Earth with ‘some particles from the photosphere’ for laboratory study. The six-hundred-word account of the mission covering one wall culminates in the observation that ‘from the description given by the astronauts, the Sun has the most beautiful night’, before announcing upcoming tourist flights to finance further scientific investigations. There are also a tabletop architect’s model of Icarus 13 on the launch-pad, and eight photographs. The first photograph shows Icarus 13, rising in the centre of the frame, viewed from Luanda, with a vast open sky above and beyond it. The rocket, though, is actually the mausoleum of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president – its base resembles the flared rockets of a Soyuz launch vehicle, while its jagged pinnacle looks like a prototype for London’s The Shard. Other striking buildings are similarly repurposed: a domed structure is labeled “Astronomy Observatory, Namibe Desert,” despite its obvious lack of astronomical equipment, and a low, flat building whose obliquely angled walls might suggest, from above, a star shape, is described as a “Centre of astronomy and astronaut training, Namibe Desert,” although in reality it is a cinema. A medium shot of five construction workers is captioned “Building the spaceship Icarus 13,” while a yellow torus against a dark background is “First picture of the Sun’s photosphere from Icarus 13 in orbit.” The final photograph, labeled “The return of the astronauts,” prises open the gap between image and caption even further by containing nothing to which the caption could actually apply. It is a gap that frustrates, and which calls for the viewer to inflate it with story – just as Kia Henda fills the frustrating gap between the dream of independence and the nightmares of civil war and post-colonial dependence, between socialist aspiration and neo-liberal hegemony, with myth, tall tale, humour and hope.

Among related events at the Arnolfini, Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck), Rehan Hyder (UWE) and I ran a workshop, “Martians of Africa,” on the relationship between sf and colonialism, asking what would happen if one considered such anti-colonial and post-colonial films as Les statues meurent aussi (Marker and Resnais France 1953) and La Noire de… (Sembene Senegal/France 1966) as works of sf. The exhibition’s run came to a close with a double bill of Africa Paradis (Amoussou Benin/France 2006) and Les Saignantes (Bekolo Cameroon/France 2005).

(Blompkamp’s short films, Gusmão and Paiva’s The Shadow Man (2006-7), and almost all of Beloufa’s Kempinski (2007) are available on youtube. The text of El Baroni, Beaudry and Haq’s second ARPANET dialogue – a fake conversation between Samir Amin, Steve Biko, Francis Fukuyama and Minoru Yamasaki, which would not have seemed out of place in Moorcock’s New Worlds – can be found here.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 118 (2012), 559–61.

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Primer (Shane Carruth USA 2004)

primer-movie-poster-2004-1020241222[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 98 (2006), 152–6]

From a garage in Dallas, four men run a business in their spare time, using scavenged components and their knowledge of physics, computers and engineering to devise patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich. Two years, fourteen patents – and the best they have managed is disenchantment with each other and a marginal mail-order business selling JTAG cards. However, while experimenting with superconductors, Aaron (Shane Carruth) stumbles upon something peculiar – the system they have built puts out more energy than they put into it. He and Abe (David Sullivan) keep it secret from Phillip (Anand Upanhyaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden). They realise that ‘the easiest way to be exploited [is] to sell something they did not understand’ but also, over following weeks and months, that they are ‘out of their depth’. Until one day, Abe takes Aaron step-by-step through what he has learned – they have actually created a kind of time machine. If they switch it on at time A and enter it later at time B, they can return to time A; but this also means that between times A and B there are two of each of them coexisting. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but things start to go awry when the much less cautious Aaron begins to fantasise about getting revenge on an investor who messed them around: Aaron imagines assaulting him and then going back in time to tell himself not to do it. He dreams of acting with impunity, of becoming so rich that he is above the law.

Actually, things go awry much sooner (or possibly later) than that: Aaron grasped the machine’s potential more quickly than Abe realised and has been deceiving him, carrying out his own agenda. Aarons and Abes multiply, attacking other versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. Aaron and Abe appear less frequently in the same shot, and when they do they are often separated not just by distance but by the vertical lines of background architecture or ominous black shapes.

Placing all that has passed under erasure, the story ends – I think – at some point between the start of the film and Abe’s first use of the time machine. An Abe is sabotaging the machine while the original Abe (or possibly the same Abe, only earlier) is building it, in the hope that he will give up (read backwards, his surname, Terger, provides a clue). An Aaron, somewhere overseas and apparently with corporate or state backing, is constructing a much bigger machine, while the original Aaron (or possibly the same Aaron, only earlier) continues to live with his family. I think.

Writer-director-editor and co-star Carruth (he was also responsible for casting, production design, sound design and the film’s original music) is rumoured to have shot a scene in which everything is explained, but if so, he was wise to cut it – and not only because it must have contained long and stilted dialogue (and probably lots of diagrams). The film is effective because of its refusal to clarify what we see and hear. Fresh but often elliptical information demands that we, like the protagonists, revise our understanding of earlier scenes, which in turn alters our understanding of the information. Multiple viewings are required for those who wish to figure it out, but, like Videodrome (1983), I am not certain it can be – and this renders it probably unique among American time-travel fictions. For example, unlike the Back to the Future ( 1985–90) and Terminator (1984–2003) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to an oedipal primal scene fantasy; and however much their final reels might prattle about the future not being fixed, they lack Primer’s more thoroughgoing destabilisation of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to modernist European time-travel fantasies like La jetée (1962), L’anné dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime ( 1968) (Primer’s womb imagery, aural rather than visual, seems to allude to the latter in particular).

Like these nouvelle vague films, Primer is also a meditation on cinema itself. Although it is a coincidence that the Lumière brothers ‘invented’ cinema in the same year that Wells published The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), there is a complex interconnection between time-travel and motion pictures that goes beyond the Wells/Paul patent for a never-constructed fairground ride/exhibition space that reconstructed the Time Traveller’s voyage. The projected representation of past moments, undercranking and overcranking the camera so as to produce fast- and slow-motion, editing out frames or editing them together – these are all experiments in altering time, reconstructing it so as to be experienced differently. (And it is worth recalling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Marienbad was inspired by Aldolfo Bioy Casares’s neglected sf novel La invención de Morel (1940), whose title nods to Wells but whose story of a man who falls in love with an unattainable woman in a virtual projection of a recorded past was itself inspired by the author’s fascination with silent movie actress Louise Brooks.) Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through four windows in it: the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering; perhaps a consequence of shooting insufficient coverage, it nonetheless disrupts and thus becomes instructive about the ways conventional editing creates the illusion of continuous time and space. Elsewhere, jumpcuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

Technical errors during filming left much of the sound recording unusable; the post-synchronised dialogue and ambient sound often just don’t sound quite right, further alienating the viewer, especially during scenes dominated by hard-sf speak. The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance while its characters do little to evoke a sympathetic response, making it something to scrutinise rather than wallow in – not that one would want to: the world it creates is far from appealing (shot on super-16mm, and blown up to 35mm via a digital intermediary, it is dominated by sickly greens and yellows), and not just in terms of its appearance.

Roger Luckhurst argues that the figure of the heroic scientist – whether Ralph 124c41+ or Thomas Edison – emerged in popular culture just as the real-world efforts of the latter and his ilk were industrialising and commodifying the processes of technological innovation, effectively removing it from the realm of the individual creator. Just as La invención de Morel explores capital’s colonisation of the unconsconscious in terms of the articulation of desire through the commodified image of an actress, so Primer sees the logic of capital spread into every aspect of its protagonists’ being. They work 30 hours per week in the garage on top of their day jobs. Robert proposes a project which might be fun, but Aaron and Abe dismiss it because it is unlikely to reach a marketable stage. Alienated from their labour and from whatever pleasure they derived from tinkering with things in the garage, all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They have instrumentalised their skills and desires, and compartmentalised their lives. Unable to produce a profitable device, they instead use time-travel to pick up information on stocks and shares. The fantasy of free energy (and self-replication) turns into the fantasy of immaterial capital boundlessly reproducing itself. By explicitly rejecting the lottery in favour of the stock market they throw themselves into capital’s annexation of our future.

That their experiment is doomed is suggested throughout by the sense that life cannot be compartmentalised, that causation is complex rather than linear. At one point, Aaron ‘accidentally’ reproduces his cell phone, and when it rings he has to work out whether the network will contact both identical phones or just search grid by grid until it finds one of them. Elsewhere, inexplicably, the father of a girl they know suddenly appears with two or three days of facial hair despite being clean-shaven just a few hours earlier. ‘There’s always leaks,’ Abe tells Aaron, and consequences seem to come not in chains but webs which reach in all directions.

Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex present already out of control. Its garage inventors resemble the utopian writers described in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), but unlike them Aaron and Abe are unable to imagine change, the radical break – the first negation – that makes utopia possible. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only conceptualise using this fabulous new technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the same. The market might pretend it is homeostatic, orderly and inevitable, but a fragment of hope can be found in how thoroughly Aaron and Abe are made to learn that the status quo is complex, dynamic and riddled with contradiction.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980)

shiningIt is difficult to know what to say about The Shining, especially as so much has already been said, some of it of dubious merit.

Like Stephen King, I am baffled as to why people find it so scary; unlike him, I rate it way more highly than his original novel (and the miniseries does not even get a look in).

It is a film I never used to like much, although I always admired its soundtrack and steadicam (Kubrick is so very effective when tracking-in that you can forgive him for his lesser parallel tracking, but, to be fair, Jean-Luc Godard’s not as good at the former as he is at the latter). And I have always been a little taken by the simple tricks Kubrick deploys – an omission here, an ambiguity there, and what Michel Chion describes as his ‘commutative editing’ – to make his films seem enigmatic and profound.

This time round, the film grew on me. I have no idea if this is because I finally watched the 25 minute longer US cut (although some months ago Roger Luckhurst predicted such an outcome, and I learned a long time ago he is usually right about stuff). I was struck very forcefully this time round by the visual and aural resonances with 2001 – and partway through the job interview scene, I stopped hearing the dialogue as being badly-delivered and started hearing it as a development of the earlier film’s depiction of linguistic thinning and debasement. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) channels the performance of sincerity and the platitudinous corporate drone of Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and everyone sounds like they are delivering lines because that is what so much of human identity and interaction consists of – performativity.

When I recently read King’s novel, I posted about its proleptic depiction of precarious, disciplined neo-liberal labour. This is developed in Kubrick’s film. The Overlook itself, despite it age, resembles one of the non-places of hypermodernity described by Marc Augé: those spaces that are the opposite of utopia because they exist and do not contain any organic society. For all the historical markers we see on display – from those big cans of kosher dill pickles in a hotel that would once have been restricted, to the Native American designs and images on the walls, to the very 1970s purple penis carpet – it is oddly dehistoricised. It is a space that might even confound Steve Buscemi’s5609791_std CHET! in its obscure blurring of ‘trans’ and ‘res’. The Torrance family, that signifier of a private realm outside the world of work and exchange, that gesture towards organic society, is destroyed by the relentless demands of the Overlook, which is only concerned with Jack as labour-power.

The Shining shows the coming proletarianisation of the American middle class, or perhaps merely charts the delusion of social mobility at the core of the American Dream. This is Jack – the terrorised and terrorising, self-surveilling, self-disciplining and other-discipling sadomasochistic subject of a monstrous power. Just the way capital likes it.

shiningAnd management doesn’t care for one moment that he has produced the treatise on work-life balance. To the Overlook, it’s just a paper trail to prove the staff have been consulted at.