In my first exposure to environmental video art, I went and caught the Flaherty NYC program at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan this week, where a group of artists/filmmakers presented their work in line with the program’s theme, “Waste, and Other Forms of Management.” The lineup was impressive, including works by Cannes-featured Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong and respected animator, educator, and writer, Robert Russett. But most striking was Polish-American filmmaker Pawel Wojtasik‘s latest film entitled “Single Stream,” a 23-minute meditation on waste and the overlooked, a bit like his previous work, “Pigs”. He showed up for a post-film panel along with sound artist/technician Ernst Karel, who worked with Wojtasik on “Single Stream,” and fellow filmmaker Dana Levy, whose short film, “The Last Supper,” was featured in the program.
While the entire program’s thematic flow was pretty flawless (albeit jolting at times), as the panel continued, I began to think more and more about two artists’ films as a kind of cinematic triptych, each a surreal landscape weaving into and out of and through human life. Levy’s “The Last Supper,” a post-apocalyptic vignette of a dinner table – complete with a half-eaten cake, a tipped over bottle of champagne – mired in a green swamp, revels in the aesthetic of nature taking over civilization, the only presence of the human being a few culinary artifacts. Its 3 minutes are a wonderfully terrifying and stunning portrait of the post-human. And yet the title, lying wholeheartedly within the Christian realm, inescapably implies resurrection and rebirth. It’s difficult for me to say whether the piece is entirely apocalyptic or not, especially considering the fact that, while swamps will likely remain desolate and deathly in our collective cultural conscience, the scene is teeming with plant life.
Wojtasik revisited the idea of rebirth during the panel, explicitly mentioning his recent consideration of the Buddhist myth in which the religious figure springs from a lotus flower that is all but buried in the mud. The disgusting, or, at the very least, the overlooked, is thus a topic that flows through the cinematic veins of his two featured works, which offer close, extensive, and straightforward portrayals of waste. He chooses to focus on what is culturally deemed ugly and turns them into stunning, incredible, and, sometimes, highly unsettling images that are somehow beautiful, in a sense. In “Pigs,” the screen is filled to the edges with pigs rooting in the offal of human civilization – namely, tossed food and rotten milk – which, while disgusting to us, is quite an efficient use of waste that ensures the apparent liveliness of these penned pigs. It’s unexpected and disgusting, and yet the film is incredible in its simplicity. Trust me, viewing the film in its 8-minute entirety – or at least being forced to sit through it – also forces you to reconsider your view of both waste and the lives of pigs. For Wojtasik, his camera is a blunt tool, its blank stare making parts of our own world seem completely alien.
“Single Stream” achieves this in an incredibly cinematic way, employing the sonic artistry of Ernst Karel and steadicammed, slow motion shots of every detail of a Boston waste sorting facility. At 23 minutes, it is an immersive experience that would make Slavoj Zizek proud in that it finds “poetry” and almost even “spirituality” in waste, confronting that which we, as a culture, often fail to. It’s sort of a documentary version of Levy’s “Last Supper,” highlighting a scene that is both dominated by the lack of life and yet teeming with action, always hinting at some living form. The short glimpses of the human workers and even the shots of pigeons picking through the trash – likely to find material for their nests – are beautiful reminders of life in waste.
That idea is entirely in the realm of what I’ve often come across in this blog – that is, the effort of finding life in ugliness, in waste, a la Zizek’s contemporary version of nature – or maybe I’ve just been reading/watching too much Zizek. In any case, the three films (and others included in the program) were refreshing and contemporary takes on waste and its inescapable relationship with humanity.
Film stills and featured image from artists’ respective websites.