Signal and Noise: Sara Eliassen and the Visual Roots of Fascism

Sara Eliassen, "The Feedback loop" (still). 2018. Image Courtesy of Munchmuseet.
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During an October campaign event leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump declared himself openly as a “nationalist,” but not a “white nationalist.” Of all the inflammatory remarks Trump has made, this one rang closest to an open alliance with fascism, reverberating dangerously with the rising populism and xenophobia in European countries. In a climate where nationalist sentiments are becoming normalized, what is the role of art? This question has long haunted avant-garde artistic production. While some artists respond with direct forms of political action, others probe the structural nature of political speech and nationalist ideology.

Norwegian artist Sara Eliassen has been pursuing the latter strategy with formal and conceptual acuity. In her yearlong project for Oslo’s Munch Museum’s series “Munchmuseet on the Move,” Eliassen examined the formal origins of fascistic propaganda and its effect on modern screen culture. What distinguishes Eliassen as truly contemporary, however, is how she enfolds histories of feminist filmmaking into her politicized approach. The Feedback Loop follows Eliassen’s earlier work that explicitly deals with feminist approaches to gendered subject formation, such as her 2014 film A Blank Slate. But rather than bracketing feminism’s concerns to gender, Eliassen places herself within the legacy of the movement’s formal innovations.

Described as a research-based exhibition, The Feedback Loop – Fragmented was the conclusion of programming conceived by Eliassen and curator Natalie O’Donnell, which took place between April and December 2018. Installed in a space near the Munch Museum’s future home in the neighborhood Bjørvika, filled with brand-new gleaming corporate buildings, the exhibition’s scenography borrowed less from the archive than from the towering immersive media in spectacular commercial spaces, from airports to Times Square. The show included no fewer than twenty moving-image works playing on devices from 16mm film projectors to flat-screen monitors to an iPhone. Eliassen installed her works alongside her research material, creating striking vistas where, for example, imagery from national branding films of the ‘30s and ‘40s echoed sequences of found footage in her own. Eliassen also featured films and research material by contemporary artists who share her leftist politics, like the radical Mexican film group Colectivo los Ingrávidos and the feminist filmmaker (and Eliassen’s former professor) Lynn Hershman Leeson.

The heart of the exhibition comprises three thirty-second films that Eliassen made for display in Oslo Central Station this past summer. The films fuse Nazi-era film imagery with footage of a contemporary teenager, a spectator who appears to enter the 1930s film. Eliassen described the visual entanglement of the human with the cinematic scene as “cyborgian” – a concept that Leeson has explored since the 1960s. Each advertisement-length film was created for – and filmed in – a specific spot in the station. Inserted into a regular, commercial loop of major brand advertisements for seven days, Eliassen’s films were screened 67,000 times and seen by 150,000 visitors per day.

Sara Eliassen, “The Feedback Loop.” 2018. Image Courtesy of Munchmuseet.

The vignettes appropriate imagery from the 1938 documentary Symphonie des Nordens, directed by the German literary scholar and translator Julius Sandmeier. Shown as Norway’s contribution to the 1939 Venice Biennale, Symphonie des Nordens attempted to create an emotional identification with the Norwegian landscape through montage effects and stirring music. Eliassen’s films subvert this formal language. Each clip begins with a black-and-white image of a fluttering Norwegian flag. As a blond girl in traditional Norwegian dress appears on the screen and looks downward, the film camera zooms outward to reveal her image on a screen in Central Station – the very screen on which the film played. A dark-haired boy is seen from behind, in the position of the viewer, gazing up at the girl. The view cuts to a close-up of the boy’s face, where a fuzzy image of the Norwegian landscape is reflected in his dark eyes. Suddenly, the boy is transported into the wintry landscape, where he gazes upward and the sequence begins again.

As art historian Pasi Väliaho points out in his catalogue essay for The Feedback Loop, Eliassen’s cinematic techniques recall those of the early 20th-century avant-garde. Her shot that zooms backward, mirroring the exact position of the viewer and thus implicating the audience, hearkens to the climax of Dziga Vertov’s experimental Soviet documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Yet Eliassen’s thirty-second films do not reproduce the narrative buildup of Vertov’s cinematic masterpiece, but rather the grammar of the TV ad, or even the GIF. In her choice of a dark-haired teenage boy actor, whose appearance is ethnically ambiguous, she heightens the tension between notions of the “native” and the “foreigner,” the historic and the contemporary, the image fixed in time and the cyborg, who is at once organic and technological.

The Feedback Loop – Fragmented shows the short films on separate screens, interspersed between monitors showing clips from Nazi-era films like Symphonie des Nordens and Olympia (1938), Leni Riefenstahl’s sports documentary. On a wall, a cracked iPhone plays a loop of the contemporary propaganda film Welcome: Portraits of America (2007), produced by the US Department of Homeland Security and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts for US Customs and Border Protection. This saccharine video deploys montage to carefully construct a narrative of American diversity, both ethnically and geographically. As viewers in Eliassen’s exhibition crouch down, they can hear the soaring soundtrack – a song played at Disney light shows – through the phone’s tinny speakers.

Sara Eliassen, “The Feedback Loop – Fragmented” (Installation view). 2018. Image Courtesy of Munchmuseet.

Eliassen contrasts these films with political works that disrupt the narrative legibility of contemporary media. Works by Colectivo los Ingrávidos, a radical film collective founded in 2011, create counter-imagery to official political reports about atrocities in their native Mexico, such as the practice of femicide. Eliassen also devotes considerable attention to her feminist predecessors. Projected on a screen in the back of the space, Eliassen’s new collaboration with American artist Leslie Thornton, Finding 1.0 (2018), reflects upon memory and identity. Long considered an underground filmmaker, Thornton is now recognized as a pioneer of feminist art and film that critiques contemporary technology. In the non-linear collage film, Eliassen prompts Thornton to repeat Norwegian words. Thornton tries, in this way, to make sense of her relationship to the country – her father and grandfather were immigrants from Norway who worked on the Manhattan Project, and were, for decades, sworn to secrecy. Shown on a nearby monitor, Leeson’s two-minute Commercial for Myself (1978) playfully contextualizes her “absence in her work” through her five-year performative alter-ego project Roberta Breitmore. “We have the option of becoming second- and third-generation versions of ourselves in this new electronic era we are entering, not only psychically but biologically,” she says. At the end of the ad, Leeson asks viewers to send a list of “the most human values.”

The call for “human values” rhymes eerily with a new group of advertisement-length films that Eliassen has created for the public art agency KORO/URO in response to Vigeland Park. Receiving more than one million visitors per year, Vigeland Park is one of Oslo’s most popular tourist attractions. It features more than 200 sturdy nude sculptures, created by Gustav Vigeland between 1924 and 1943, which depict each stage of human life. Vigeland’s works have been widely criticized as embodying a Nazi aesthetic. The artist once said, “I welcome German soldiers with their excellent discipline to walk around between my work.” In Eliassen’s films, Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures of fighting bodies seem to come to life as sculptures are juxtaposed with dancers – much like the discus-thrower in Riefenstahl’s famous Olympia sequence, displayed like a portent at an oblique angle to the Vigeland series on a suspended monitor.

On freestanding screens beneath the Vigeland films, which are slated for future public presentation, Eliassen projected 16mm films of public arenas in various cities. Screens NYC (2016) features the artist’s footage of projected ads in Times Square, while Screens Oslo (2018) documents the vignettes in Oslo Central Station. The effect of her work in Central Station is shockingly anti-spectacular. Sandwiched between advertisements for corporations, Eliassen’s films don’t garner any particular notice. As Pasi Väliaho writes, “Perhaps today screens – at least screens in the public space – have evolved into noisy devices that disseminate, not meaningful order (like the films we still go to see every now and then in movie theatres), but rather sensory ‘disorder’.” He adds that rather than considering screens as an interruption to life, we might define them as integral to it: “We should thus understand the status of screens today as ‘elemental’ media […] without it, our existence would not be what it is.”

To consider screen culture and media representations as a fundamental condition of human life is a political, and deeply feminist, concern. Generations of feminist-identified artists, from Martha Wilson to Carrie Mae Weems to Amalia Ulman, have appropriated and embodied female stereotypes in order to critique the patriarchal gaze. Eliassen’s earlier film A Blank Slate also explored the female actress as a kind of projection screen, incorporating references to famous male-directed scenes starring women. The Feedback Loop reframes the lineage of critical image-making as inherently tied to feminist ethics, like those practised by Thornton, Leeson, and Colectivo los Ingrávidos. Here, the critical impulse resides in impeding the smooth consumption of images. Väliaho explains that the critical work of visual art might still be to interrupt the feedback loop with what is perceived as noise: “Noise makes itself manifest when a system shudders and threatens to break […] It is in events like these that we become (negatively) cognizant of the milieus – the media – that support our existence.” Rather than clichéd notions of disruption or enlightenment, Eliassen’s project revels in the notion of noise. Her exhibition gets under the skin and scratches at the corners of collective memory, reinforcing cinematic language as a sharp political tool.

 

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