Decasia Live

Unthinking indulgence is the easiest way to sink avant-garde art, but does that mean violently decayed films of long-gone camel crossings are automatically overwrought?

Decasia Live

Decasia Live

City: New York, NY
Venue: Angel Orensanz Center
Date: 2007-01-25

Indulgence is the most easily misunderstood aspect of avant-garde art. It’s not enough to pile up wildly adventurous ideas -- you have to make them work together. That’s not to say disparate forms can’t sync seamlessly, but without some sense of a grand thematic structure, ambitious art becomes muddled beyond repair, leaving the audience to wander. That’s all well and good if confusion is your conceit, but not if you’re actually trying to say something. So where does that leave someone who wants to show violently decayed footage of long-dead Indians and camel crossings on screens in an old synagogue as an orchestra plays a strange and elusive live score? Walking a fine line indeed. Envisioned by composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison with the help of a number of other artists, Decasia Live is an interdisciplinary art piece which pairs a wildly avant-garde score with visual montages of exotic, decaying footage. And when I say “decaying,” I mean it quite literally: the images -- taken from old stock footage -- have begun to melt away with age and oxidation. Saving them from utter desolation, Morrison captured the distressed black-and-white scenes in their various states of decay, creating an unrelated series of psychedelic montages that melt in on themselves. Needless to say, Decasia is an inspired idea, but, as I make my way towards the art space where tonight’s site-specific presentation will be performed, I still have my doubts: this will either be a stroke of artistic genius or a painfully executed act of over-indulgence. One or the other. There’s no in-between. As I enter the Angel Orensanz Center -- a repurposed 19th-century synagogue abandoned in the slow dissolve of New York’s Yiddish Lower East Side -- I’m struck by a sense of exulcerated history. By art-space standards, things look just fine, but that doesn’t stave one’s sense of the synagogue’s decay. Long, tan-grey arches reach above the great, open heights of the main hall, crisscrossing the peeling blue of the dome’s ceiling. The once-grand bimah and backing altar are also damaged -- not rusted or broken so much as dissolving, paint flecking in rude, unmanaged lines. A patchwork of threadbare rugs has been haphazardly placed along the floor of the enormous room. Intersecting at random, the rugs' overlaps create bunches, bumps that give the illusion of waves in an untamed sea of material. Sitting cross-legged on a small patch in a corner, I rest my back against a large speaker, one of several subwoofers surrounding the main room. Taking a cue from others sprawled out on the carpets, I place my hands behind my head and lean back, staring at the 13 surrounding screens. Each of the long drapes hangs well above my head, shielding the balconies behind. * * * BOOM! I’m woken from a momentary power-nap -- these things happen when you find yourself staring into the dome of an old synagogue -- by an explosion of sound. To say it radiates through me is an absolute truth: I’m shaken by the speaker at my back and fall forward, awkwardly crawling to the floor. Led by a matronly woman with fire-engine red hair, a small group of musicians has taken the pulpit. Surely they can’t be making all this racket? It’s a moment before I realize that the vast center of the room is surrounded, and that the majority of the Manhattan School of Music’s massive TACTUS Contemporary Ensemble’s members are hiding behind the screens. While I can only see momentary flits of their faces through the canvas, I can feel the full-bodied sound of their 55-piece orchestra as light bangs begin to square off against the soft mew of strings.

Without warning, a single grainy image pops onto each of the surrounding screens. Mirrored on all sides of the room, a man appears in religious garb, dancing in a slow circle. The image seems rather random -- if perhaps academically interesting -- and the aesthetic is that of old family footage. Soon, minor lines create crags in the image, and the edges begin to blur. But what’s the big deal? Doesn’t look that decayed to me... Soon we segue to a new clip, a group of travelers against the horizon, slowly crossing the desert on camels. This image repeats itself, and, as time passes, I find my eyes drifting from the screens to the hearth of the synagogue. The music bounces slowly up and down in some kind of demonic raga, as images dance on the synagogue's bare accoutrements. Like charcoal etchings, the travelers are shadowy, but their movements are clearly outlined. It’s pretty, of course, but if I wanted to trip out to shadow puppets and weirdo music, I’d just set up a flashlight in my apartment and pull out a Harry Partch LP. Is this really all there is? I’m busy considering the disadvantages of avant-garde excess when, again without warning, the orchestra kicks things up a notch. Suddenly the sparse-but-booming score is overtaken by heavy bells and yelping, long-bowed violins. It’s a startling change, one that draws my eyes back to the screens. The images have become grainy. What were once fairly clear scenes have become lines of strange static. The effect is like black-and-white Brakhage, with unrestrained shapes pulsing across the screen. Then, out of the chaos, an image takes form, not superimposed but actually emerging from the anarchy. Whoa! Now that’s some trippy shit. Special-effects artists can only dream of this kind of control. The images are like negatives piled under lab slides -- little mitosis-like lines shutterbug across the screen, obscuring what’s under as they pop in and out of focus. Faces melt, as if taken unexpectedly by some spontaneous wasting disease, degenerating into free-form pixels as they warp and bend. We see a group of men bouncing on Model T-like Ruff Ridas, only to be consumed in a flame-like burn of the reel. Foreign soldiers carry wounded comrades as the torn footage pixelates, and their bodies become living impressionist paintings. As the brass rises in a discordant storm, people in a city street seem to catch fire: the decay of the footage bends the structure of their bodies, whipping them in contorted, specter-like wisps. Clarity returns in moments, only to be violently whisked away. A sharp buzz of controlled feedback fills the room, and the orchestra falls into an aggressive army brass processional anchored by the one-two hammer of heavy bass drums. Now we see the real power of the photo-capturing technique: a house that’s actually burning is shown clearly, but, compared to the images that weren’t actually on fire, it seems docile. The orchestra unleashes a series of bass-heavy drones as we switch back and bodies continue to contort. It’s as if the screens are made of rubber and a hand is pushing from behind, welling the images in strange, unnatural ways. I said it earlier, but it bears repeating: no amount of special effects could bend and melt bodies like this. And no person could either: after all, this psychedelic storm is propelled by the whims of nature and the dispassionate burn of chemicals. Before I know it, an hour has passed, and we’ve returned to the image of the camels crossing -- their subtlety now a welcome cool down after a frenzy of violent images. And then the spinning dancer returns in his hat -- excited and proud -- ushering us out of our haze. The orchestra whips into a final surge and falls silent. I’m physically stunned, shaken by the overwhelming intensity of what’s unfolded. Overindulgence may be its muse and confusion its conceit, but damned if Decasia isn’t the absolute definition of inspired avant-garde art.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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