Charles Lum at the 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 25, 2008

One of the highlights of this year’s Porn Film Festival was last night’s screening of a suite of short films by Charles Lum, The HIV Collection. Taken together, the films form a fractured feature of sorts that sustains itself thematically through a deployment of repetition that borders on confrontation, yet is never tedious. The films are extremely personal, and address various facets of the artist’s life as an HIV-positive gay man – particularly his pained ambivalence surrounding issues of sex and discretion.

Morning, Noon & Night serves as a sort of “day in the life” of Lum. Park, at only seven minutes, is one of the best (and funniest) films about cruising I’ve yet seen. The longest film, facts. SUCK, is as blunt as its title, portraying Lum’s conversations with his own doctors, shrinks, nurses, and pharmacists, then juxtaposing these interactions with footage of himself speaking directly to the camera on issues of desire and self-image. In Indelible, we are bombarded with a manic collage of the famous “pig guts” scene from the movie Carrie and footage of cumshots in bareback gay porn; the film is as disturbing as it is funny. Overdue Conversation is a split-screen conversation with one of his close friends, wherein each films the other, about whether it is necessary to disclose your HIV status before having sex with someone. Finally, “black” is another recorded conversation that takes place backstage at the Black Party in New York, wherein Lum interviews another friend about an unsafe sexual encounter he engaged in only moments before.

What makes these films feel so fresh, I think, is Lum’s near total disregard for cinematic convention. In many ways, his approach reminds me of that of the writer Peter Sotos, for whom the direct and explicit conveyance of information takes precedence over lofty notions of form and aesthetics. Lum brings the camera wherever he wants to go and uses it as a tool for his own ends – not to serve some unified conception of art or even a preconceived final product. At the same time, he is never grasping at straws in these films – the camera and the process of recording become an extension of his own being, and work hand-in-hand with whatever the situation happens to produce. There is nothing contrived here, and so it is never boring to watch – you literally don’t know what’s going to happen from minute to minute. It would be interesting to see if Lum could sustain this momentum over the course of a longer film.

In short, Lum’s willingness to submit to the momentary chaos of the life he lives, and generously presents, makes for fascinating viewing material. Taken together, the films comprising The HIV Collection form a complex self-portrait that lingers in the mind long after you watch it, sparking as it does so many questions: questions that are so important, most of us devote our lives to ignoring, rather than confronting them. It is for this reason I believe The HIV Collection will come to be regarded as a classic.

PORN AGAIN: 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 24, 2008

This week I’ll be “reporting” from the third installment of Berlin’s Porn Film Festival. By reporting, I mean that I’ll be catching films here and there, discussing what I’ve seen, exploring general issues that arise in the conflation of art and porn, and delivering final verdicts – not on the Festival itself; I think the mere fact of its existence is a wonderful thing – but on the films I happen to see.

This is my second year attending the Festival. For me, the highlight of last year’s festival was the discovery that, despite the blatancy of its name, the organizers’ interpretation of what constitutes “porn” was actually quite open. That meant getting to see such treats as LLIK YR IDOLS, the recent documentary on the New York No Wave scene of filmmakers, many of whom arguably employed elements of porn in their work; a beautiful documentary exploring the nature of bestiality, the title of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten; the first Israeli gay erotic feature film; plus a whole host of shorts, including Bruce LaBruce’s recent Give Piece of Ass a Chance.

This year’s Festival will include a special focus on Asian porn cinema; directors Charles Lum, Petra Joy, William E. Jones, and Ola Ege; an exploration of the career of porn legend Jack Wrangler; plus the usual program of features, documentaries, shorts, and an ambitious program of lectures, workshops, and nightclub events.

What has impressed me so far about the Festival is its curatorial integrity. The fact that so many filmmakers have refused to allow their films to be screened at the Porn Film Festival because of its name just shows you how stupidly moralistic and righteous our culture remains in the 21st century. Ironically, a lot of films focusing on some aspect of the porn industry – even films including the word “porn” in the title – have refused to show at the Porn Film Festival Berlin. (See this interesting statement from the Festival organizers for more on this.)

While there are films from hardcore porn studios being shown, these films comprise a small segment of the Festival program. What you find when attending the Berlin festival is a rigorous filmic examination of the very notion of pornography – from both contemporary and historical vantage points. It seems to me that the Festival’s primary focus is on constructing a bridge between two superficially separate realms – “art” and “porn” – effectively uniting them. That there is no one correct way to go about doing this is testament to the Festival’s diversity and legitimacy.

Even if the filmmakers who refused to show in the Berlin Porn Film Festival don’t get this, at least the audience does. Judging solely on looks alone, this is no porno convention. You won’t find cliché plastic blonde vixens, shaky old men in raincoats, or overweight pony-tailed sleaze merchants haunting the halls of the Porn Film Festival venues. Instead, artists, intellectuals, and bohemians of all ages and sexual orientations are filling the halls and auditoriums. While it may not draw the largest crowds, the fact that it attracts the elite of the cutting edge endows the Berlin Porn Film Festival with a buzz sadly lacking in more mainstream film festivals.

London Book Launch: November 2nd

by Travis Jeppesen on October 22, 2008

See you there!

VILE: A Note on Jeff Koons Versailles

by Travis Jeppesen on October 19, 2008

The mainstream media’s recent attempts at writing off the critics of Jeff Koons’s Versailles exhibition as “conservative” miss a simple point:

Jeff Koons is probably the worst living artist, if not one of the worst artists who ever lived. This is not a political argument, but an aesthetic truth.

In fact, the ponderous garbage that Koons produces sullies the very word art, and you don’t have to be an art critic or an intellectual to figure this out – you just have to have eyes.

Provocation on its own is fine and can even be great. But unless you’re some soft-headed puritan from the Midwest, there is nothing remotely offensive or provocative about Koons’s so-called work in terms of content. Rather it is meant to offend through sheer tackiness. It is no compliment to Koons that his execrable non-efforts are successful in this dubious realm. It is a sign of mass stupidity, blindness, and vulnerability to manufactured reputations that he has become so successful materially.

We must always question the legitimacy of any institution or gallery that, by showing Jeff Koons, attempts to legitimize him as an artist.

3 Reasons Why Art Writing Still Earns a Bad Name

by Travis Jeppesen on October 18, 2008

You can read my short essay on said topic in the latest issue of Dazed & Confused. It’s pretty much a condensation of my thesis in Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”.

Thiago Rocha Pitta at Andersen’s Contemporary, Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 16, 2008

\"Heritage\" (film still, courtesy Andersen\'s Contemporary)

Notes on an Island Shipwreck is a simple project exploring the polar motifs of land and sea. Thiago Rocha Pitta is restrained in his approach, and the exhibition is well thought-out, though not extraordinary. The centerpiece, Project for a Stormy Weather Painting, is a large piece of canvas upon which water, soil, and pigment have forged the violet gray blackness of a storm at sea. It could also just be a dirty cloth hung in an elegant manner. Behind the piece, on either side two videos play, behind a wall. The first, Heritage, shows a boat with two trees planted in soil sailing across the ocean. The second, Inland Shipwreck, documents the burial of said boat, sans tree, in the earth. In a room upstairs, a single photograph captures a still from the former video; it looks as though trees are growing out of the water. It is somehow the most moving piece in the entire exhibition.

There is more, though. The office contains the boat itself, or a replica thereof, with soil and trees intact.

Then there are three unremarkable watercolor Sketches for sultriness, stills of the Inland Shipwreck, and Fossil Rain, a photo of huge rock formations withered with strange lines, presumably an after-effect of acid rain. All these things feel supplementary, if not excessive, to the work previous mentioned.

Thiago Rocha Pitta is said to have created this work out of homage to Joseph Conrad, the sailor and writer who was in many ways indebted to the Romantic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps this is why you get such a quaint sensation looking at the artist’s project. With a slight nod to the environmental catastrophe that has reached global proportions, Pitta seems to be concerned with making sense of his subject matter, rather than heralding it. Perhaps the artist has in mind a more poignant idea – that nature has lost all the mysterious, wild attributes of the sublime that the Romanticists once hailed in this age of rigid pragmatism and scientific certainty. Whatever the case may be, you leave the gallery with the rather ambivalent impression that the artist’s engagement with both his materials and subject matter has been desultory at best.

\"Fossil Rain\" (photo, courtesy Andersen\'s Contemporary)

For Jan Jakub Kotik, at 3am

by Travis Jeppesen on October 16, 2008

I do an occasional poetry column with Matthew Wascovich at 3ammagazine.com. In the latest installment, now online, you can read my homage to Jan Jakub Kotik.

Money Talks by Jan Jakub Kotik

Olaf Breuning’s Ultimate Suicide

by Travis Jeppesen on October 7, 2008

PLUS: Read an essay on Olaf Breuning’s Home in Disorientations

Ayse Erkmen at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 6, 2008

If minimal art has any importance, it’s in making us notice things that we wouldn’t otherwise. Ayse Erkmen has this figured out. She gives us an art that is barely there. What is it that Gertrude Stein once wrote – there is no there there. Or was it someone else? It doesn’t matter who it was: this is how you feel when looking at Ayse Erkmen’s art.

Companions is what she calls this, her latest exhibition. But it’s also the name she gives to her art. The sense of traveling, of a present continuous, and how dizzying that is… You enter through Portiport, a metal detector that probably beeps when you pass through it. The museum guard inspects your ticket. There are signs everywhere, warning you to enter the exhibition at your own risk, and so you are uneasy. The artist wants to threaten the spectators, it seems. But what she really means is that if you don’t look hard enough, you won’t see anything. Or at least, not enough. It is so easy to overlook; thus, let this be a lesson in looking.

The fluorescent lights hanging low from the ceiling in the first room are the most threatening thing. These lights so cold and institutional. Now you can touch them. You are afraid that if you hit one of the wires you will be electrocuted. Perhaps this is what the warning means. Sparks will fly, power will short-circuit, the entire building will be shrouded in darkness. And you will fry. Electric liquid will leak out of your nostrils, your other orifices. No, better not to touch anything.

In the next room there seems to be nothing. This seeming so raw and dignified, you don’t trust it. And so you stand there and wait.

You wait and you stare. Something shifts, a slight change is affected. You’re waiting for something more, it doesn’t come. It is the wall. You go up to it, see that it isn’t really a wall, but a panel. The panel moves – almost imperceptibly, white against white – changing the dynamics of the space ever so slightly. It can give you a headache, this blank ponderousness it induces, so you leave the room, cross the black carpet in the corridor, wind your way up the stairs, past the green and white ribbons upon which Ayse Erkmen has printed her own name.

A word about the ribbons. The ironic striving for a signature is a bit overstated here – that is to say unwarranted. Art that comments on art in general must have something further, beyond the slightness of that commentary, in order to entrap us in the guise of its forepresence. Erkmen doesn’t always get it right. You understand that it’s deliberate in its execution, but it’s still not careful. Another example of this is her usage of photos taken from digital image banks.

I guess I’m resistant to conceptual strategies because it’s so easy in these times we live in to be schooled. What isn’t innate is cheating. Contextual appropriation and all that nudge-nudge wink-wink that comes with it. It lends itself to easy reading – something that every work should defy. Erkmen isn’t exactly a newbie; she should know this and maybe she does.

Still, the failure of certain works included is more than made up for in the upstairs room. You are immediately relieved of whatever high-minded seriousness there has been so far when the White-Tailed Wildebeest, victim of taxidermy, on wheels, greets you at the entrance.

You move further, into the video room. Safety belts have been strapped around the columns supporting the ceiling, forming a network, a blockade. Beeping sounds from the seventeen video monitors form a sort of accidental-intentional sound installation. Induces the feeling of being in a dangerous – yet protected (the safety belts) – space. The monitors are scattered, big black and blocky, so you are constantly having to walk around them in order to see.

The oddness lies in the sheer array of subjects. In one series of films, three-dimensional animated shapes dance by in a straight line making funny noises. Something you might see on a Saturday morning cartoon. Then you read that the cute little shapes are actually replicas of landmines.

A lion snarls. Its sole gesture is stuck on a loop, making it look like it has some kind of tic.

Erkmen’s most poetic – and therefore most unexpected film is Free Time/Idleness. It consists of a barrage of every day images that hold nothing in common except perhaps movement. A house reflected in a canal, the trembling water; a crow walking along the shore; the interior of a car driving down a highway; a palm tree heaving in the wind. The worship of banality becomes a science. Suddenly, all is redeemed, as you see that we live in a world without good or evil, beauty or ugliness. A world marked by the quiet simplicity of being.

Christophe Chemin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 4, 2008

My interview with Christophe Chemin, on the subject of his current exhibition at RISE Berlin, is now online at WhiteHot Magazine.

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