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This special fall 2008 season of programming has ascended from the depths of a lower world, a wellspring for intuitive leaps of the imagination. It includes films, videos, performances, gallery installations, artist talks, a new anthology all devoted to excesses and extremes. A Lower World is a psychic space, a secret resource that twists behaviour and unforms conscious thought and intention toward illogical excesses and extremes. It is a region where unreason rules and the Id goes unquestioned and unfettered. A Lower World is a humid cellar where unexpected and perhaps dangerous life forms grow in the dank and dark, a fountain of true, uncontrolled revelation overflowing with enigmas.
In the 21st Century, a Lower World is not just a repository for fusty old archetypes, although many tenaciously hang in there. Buried deep within is something wild and ancient that cannot be eradicated, at least according to British artist Marcus Coates. In his 2004 video installation Journey to the Lower World, Coates is a shaman who makes the descent and brings back animal wisdom.
The archaic anachronisms in the archive of A Lower World mutates into cyberspace, outer space and pop culture in many other works. As form follows function, old uncertainties of structure and style explode. Their narratives, although absurd or irrational, are linear in that they are processes that manifest over time. Ryan Trecartin (I-Be Area, 2007) tells stories with frenetic theatrics that are super- saturated with colour and character. The insistent bombast of his actors edited at warp speed is a viral digitization of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
Psychedelic flows and hues short-circuit the conscious mind with the inexplicable: in Semiconductor’s Magnetic Movie (2007) subatomic particles dance and sing. “For me psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia your worldview fell apart. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a metaphysical outside, it was about your own consciousness,” said Mike Kelley, the artist behind the epic Day Is Done (2006) in the PBS series Art:21. In Pleasure Dome’s first-ever gallery exhibition, Mungo Thomson’s The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), Michael Bell-Smith’s Up and Away and Takeshi Murata’s Monster Movie are lush, pop and work their magic far below the level of consciousness.
Rolling back the Enlightenment and dethroning the Superego, A Lower World is a flight away from the tyranny of reason and into unfathomable honesty. “Unreason is best,” writes Emily Vey Duke and Copper Battersby in an unpublished essay of the same title, “because unreason is always open, like a mouth, or a plane, or a hand.” These works put forward a non-hierarchical, supremely ethical connector between individuals at their most flawed and abject. The value of the pointless is recognized and inevitable failure celebrated.
Poised at the knife’s edge of the Cold War the film and video artists of West Berlin were driven to the heights of unreason by the extremity of their geography. West Berlin was a fortress, the last fringe of the West protruding into the East, a haven for experimentation, social resistance and a radical queer punk underground. Their work has a dark and lugubrious heart, full of apocalyptic visions driven by the arms race, and a true pessimism that comes from knowing it really can all end tomorrow.
Rather than perpetuate lazy intellectualism around ideologies, comical relief in the form of narcissism, hypocrisy and confusion proliferates in Tammy Ben-Tor’s Gewalt. There are no footholds where the rationales that fertilize fanaticism can hide and grow.
Works of radical self-abnegation and latent cruelty like Julian Hoeber’s Killing Friends (2001) and Nathalie Djurberg’s claymations like Untitled (Working Title Kids & Dogs) (2007) fall outside ideology and enlightened discourse. Further poking at the pathetic, the flawed and the failed, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn improvise characters who are all Id with no discernible filters. Like most of the protagonists of A Lower World, they are unhinged from any sense of purpose, foraging for contact and any kind of agency. Dreadful and funny, they are the female counterparts to the men that Laurel Nakadate courts in her videos. She demonstrates how to reach out and touch someone. “…As much as it is pathetic and funny and sad and ridiculous, at the end of the day it’s about the hope that something will go right, and the constant wishing for a world where things might start to make sense,” says Nakadate in an interview with The Believer.
Mike Kelley meanwhile examines the rituals of social indoctrination that occur in American high school education, revealing their impressive pomp and irrational power. But what happens when order collapses in a nervous breakdown? In Casting Spells (2006), Emily Jones’s performance unravels literally and figuratively as she unravels the plight of Israeli Palestinians. One can try to create a safe container for dark illogical urges. Kim Kyung-Mook’s scatological feature Faceless Things (2005) tries to contain two disturbing sexual encounters within its rigorous, unflinching camera-gaze.
Instead of the shit in Faceless Things, it is vomit that dominates Gale Allen’s performances and Martin Creed’s Sick Film (2006). Over-consumption activates an equal and opposite reaction. Instead of rejecting overproduction, John Bock and Hooliganship re-utilize the colourful and grotesque detritus found in the bargain basement of Western civilization. Cycling through discursive digressions, Bock’s happenings blow out the narrow confines of contemporary reality to ground us in the lowly and earthy side of life.
A Lower World presents an inversion of the normal hierarchy of intention. Low culture trumps high culture. Pop replaces history and repulsion frees the imagination from intellect. The conceptual flow is reversed. Subconscious urges flow over critical judgment and its versions of logic, beauty and truth. The wasteful, absurd, dissolute, entropic, flawed, misbegotten and vile are given centre stage. Fully embodied performances channel the animal within as well as psychosis and perversion. Cravings and appetites are privileged, insanity indulged. Is the irrational so irrational and is the absurd so absurd? Everything has its place and its reasons. Unreason is best if one wants to explore freely and make discoveries without prejudice. A Lower World fully acknowledges its lack of omnipotence but not its lack of potency.