The author Elisabeth Beresford died three days ago on Christmas Eve. Her best-known creations were the Wombles, those eco-friendly denizens of Wimbledon Common (rather than their Tute Bianche-inspired white overalls-wearing anarchist namesakes). The Wombles became a furry staple of the cultural landscape of mid-1970s Britain when Beresford’s books about the diminutive creatures who spent their days recycling (or upcycling) the rubbish left behind by humans were adapted into a popular television series for children. Disorientating visions of the Wombles morphing from the cosy world of stop-motion animation into larger-than-life pop stars improbably wielding guitars and microphones in the Top of the Pops studio linger on the edge of my childhood memories (indeed, a quick search reveals that they were the most successful group in the UK charts in 1975). Their blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearance in Otolith III suggests yet another oblique angle of approach to the work of the Otolith Group.
‘Making good use of bad rubbish’ was the motto of the Wombles. In a much-quoted passage from the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin strikes a similar tone when outlining the methodology for his unfinished textual megastructure: ‘Method of this project: literary montage . . . the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them’. By adapting the principle of montage into history, particularly in relation to what could be classified as the refuse of history, Benjamin argues that it becomes possible ‘to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event’. By recontextualizing history through a process that constructs images and sounds in a comparable method to Benjamin’s ‘literary montage’, the Otolith Group crystallize small individual moments from which their notion of ‘past-potential futures’ can be rediscovered.
If the emblematic figure of Otolith III is the Alien, for Inner Time of Television it is the Owl. The two works occupy the same room at Tate Britain’s Turner Prize exhibition. Since my last visit, the prize has been won by Susan Phillipsz, momentarily stifling the debate (see Cathedral of Shit) over the Otolith Group’s potentially lucrative status as prize-winning independent artists and an organization already substantially funded by the Arts Council. Arguably, in a creative bid to transcend the pettiness of such art world rivalries, the Otolith Group’s transgression of the administrative limits that accompanies the integration of such dualities corresponds to their preoccupation with other disciplinary transgressions. This is most clearly manifested in the complex relationship between what I have simplistically termed the Owl and the Alien.
Inner Time of Television consists of thirteen television monitors each simultaneously broadcasting a 26 minute episode from Chris Marker’s 13-part television series L’Héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy). The rarely screened series was made in 1989 and features numerous artists and intellectuals interviewed individually or recorded in groups at a range of symposia and banquets in Athens, Berkeley, Paris, and Tbilisi. Each episode deals with a specific theme (Democracy, Nostalgia, Mathematics, Philosophy, etc) which add up to an extended analysis of the cultural heritage of Hellenism (positioned as an inverted Orientalism?). Most episodes also include archival footage from films, plays, documentaries, alongside various images of Greek statuary. As if in homage to Athena, each interviewee is assigned a totemic owl that accompanies them on screen (either as a projected background image, or as various two- or three-dimensional models or mobiles). The owls occasionally give the heavyweight intelligentsia (Iannis Xenaxis, George Steiner, Cornelius Castoriadis, Michel Serres) the appearance of being highly articulate yet soon-to-be-predated mice. Indeed, I became so sensitized to the presence of owls that when I walked the couple of miles from Tate Britain to Bloomsbury I found myself photographing a hybrid flock of owlish figures adorning corporate logos or perched in shop windows, eventually concluding with the familiar owl that welcomed me in the main foyer of Birkbeck.
Marker’s influential presence as the collaborative ghost in the machine of Inner Time of Television leaks into Otolith III. In a conversation reprinted in A Long Time Between Suns, the Otolith Group’s Kodwo Eshun comments that watching Marker’s films ‘heightens your preference for density; they train you to think in terms of an aesthetic of articulation particular to montage’. Citing an argument made by fellow traveller in theory and filmmaking Hito Steyerl that political solidarity involves articulating different constituencies together, Eshun explains that ‘building a relation between an image and a sound partially resembles the building of relationships between different political subjects. The montage of the political exceeds the frame and opens out onto the question of solidarities’. So what kind of political refunctioning of the source material have the Otolith Group activated by their Womble-like recontextualizing of Marker’s television series in a gallery space? For me, pursuing the related ideas of montage and of articulating different constituencies together, this seemingly fundamental question was usurped by the more immediate desire to map the affinities and disjunctions between the ways in which Inner Time of Television and Otolith III are experienced by the viewer in that same space. For the Owl, thirteen monitors are staggered apart around the walls of the first half of the room. Each monitor is accompanied by a single chair and a set of headphones. I felt a curious sense of isolation when sat watching various episodes, especially when they showed conversation and drink flowing around the convivial table in Tbilisi where Georgian toasts heralded passionate philosophical and political asides (a scene so vivid that the very next morning I went for a delicious breakfast of eggs and Georgian plum sauce at the Little Georgia café near Hackney City Farm). Sat alone with the headphones clamped to my skull, I kept glancing distractedly at the neighbouring screens with their sequential repeats of talking heads and owlish familiars. In theory, the experience was in direct contrast to the communal viewing of the Alien in the other half of the room. On what could be described as the fourth wall of the space, Otolith III plays hourly in front of a number of chairs set around a large table containing reading lamps and Otolith Group texts. In practice, during the seven or eight hours that I cumulatively spent in the space, the majority of visitors tended to stare momentarily at a few of the monitors without taking a seat or picking up a set of headphones. They would then spend a couple of minutes either standing or seated while contemplating a random sample from Otolith III before moving on towards the siren song beckoning from the lowlands of Susan Phillipsz further on in the exhibition.
The idea of literary montage returns with a vengeance during the closing credits of Otolith III. On one side of a split-screen, a camera tracks across multicoloured seams of shelves crammed with books: a mobile bibliography. Assorted volumes of political philosophy and cultural theory (including a large number of Zone Books with their distinctive Bruce Mau covers) are interspersed with monographs on art and film. There are clusters of literary and cult classics, science and science fiction, plus numerous titles that could be filed problematically under anthropology, history, psychology, or similar disciplinary limits. However, the heterogeneous adjacencies of the items stored in this personalized library (or libraries) begin to collapse such separate classifications. The collection becomes a collective, an aggregate of parts that forms a constellation of new relations. This is made immediately explicit by the soundtrack from the other side of the screen that includes a shifting voiceover repeating the names of various figures: Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Marx, Mao-Tse Tung, Don Bradman.
Following the measured pace and tone of the premake of Satyajit Ray’s The Alien, the effusive referentiality of the credits threatens to unbalance the work. More worryingly, all those bookshelves dredged up the image of Chip Lambert in Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel The Corrections. The narrative arc involving Chip, a disgraced professor turned struggling scriptwriter, supplies a fictional example of yet another failure to get a film into production to place alongside The Alien and Lord of Light. In the novel, the penurious and debt-ridden Chip, never lacking a sense of irony, liquidates the assets of his bookshelves:
He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of radical critique of late-capitalist society, and how happy he’d been to take them home. But Jurgen Habermas didn’t have Julia’s long, cool, pear-tree limbs, Theodor Adorno didn’t have Julia’s grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue. By the beginning of October, when Chip sent his finished script to Eden Procuro, he’s sold his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
The figures of Otolith III are personifications of propositions. What we enjoy about the essay film is the way in which it can dramatise the life and death of ideas. Thoughts take on a peculiar life when they are nominated.
Anjalika Sagar, A Long Time Between Suns
Scanning the titles of the books as they drift into and out of view during the credit sequence, my attention was arrested for a fraction of a second by the juxtaposition of Finnegans Wake and The Wombles to the Rescue. Forget Chip Lambert and the buying and selling of ideas, surely this (deliberate?) adjacency dramatized yet another small individual moment that articulated different constituencies together, attempting to create new forms of solidarity between the recycling of different communities of words and different communities of waste? From the Owl to the Alien . . . The Wombles to James Joyce . . .