Reflecting on film as a concrete, physical reality Emily Wardill’s Night for Day at the Secession reimagines utopia’s political and technological horizons.
What is it like, how does it feel to be something entirely else? »Felt«, the title of one of the works in Emily Wardill’s installation, is not just the material that covers one half of the floor in the first and most of the walls in Secession’s three room basement – themselves covered with slashes of nearly black paint made up of red, blue and yellow – but also as the past participle of the verb feeling points to a matter of attuning. Closing with the unlikeliest but simultaneously unforgettable definition of love, »how it felt as though someone had taken out your brains and replaced them with wassabi« (165)1, it is actually the question at the beginning of her video that »Night for Day« is suspended by. A textual undercurrent surfacing as a sort of silent sub(s), monologue-dialogue with both the screen, the viewer, a you and I, who finally finds their/her/his voice in a computer-generated version of Alan Rickman’s (1946-2016) redefining love as wasabi with two s’es: »I asked you who you would like to be, and you said you would like to be me, your son.«
»Felt« (2020) itself is a stretched sheet of pool-table cloth faded to a lime-green in the sun except for a constellation of green orbs of different sizes that were protected during exposure. A photogram pretending to be a painting in the space between the two videos that overarch the exhibition, alternately lit up and eclipsed by a carousel projector beaming slides of the moon onto its walls and the other objects in it, strung down from the ceiling like the oversized triangle (»One«, 2020) dangling by a piece of neon pink rope where you enter. Two hammock chairs, a silver witches ball hanging in the ropes, their shadows on the wall appearing and disappearing, turned off, and on: they are »props« in the first video, in a few shots of the orb swinging through a half darkened room, apparently the artist’s studio, as well as when the camera stares past a gorilla in its cage and at a visitor on the other side of the bars – almost reminiscent of Bas Jan Ader’s »Nightfall« (1976), where Ader, alone in his garage, dropped two hard to lift stones onto a string of lightbulbs on the floor, one after the other, creating night. In the second film installed in the back room, »I gave my love a cherry that had no stone« (2016), the silver orbs reappear as part of a modernist relief in front of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s auditorium in Lisbon. Its empty seats, too, are not to be looked from, but looked at.
Here the sound of the first projection blends into the second, its screen tilting forward in the viewer’s direction, jerkily panning the building and its white-shirted male protagonist like a joystick (more than a drone), with digital slurs where the rendering deliberately didn’t make it to the right resolution. The beamer fanning in this room can be heard cooling itself, interrupted intensely only with bursts of laughing, water dripping, heavy panting and the clapping of an absent audience. These occasional sounds don’t really make it back to the first room that opens to the verso of the projection screen, as if you are walking in through the back door. The triangle’s chime at the beginning of the film is repeated throughout: when the speakers pause, when the »son’s« voiceless narration sets in, when images take overhand.
These parts of the video are the most impressive but also the hardest to summarize: the sun setting on the triangular family residence that architect António Teixeira Guerra had built for himself – and now functions as the imaginary home for Wardill’s »you« – zooming out to a Google satellite photograph of Lisbon, an image of the moon superimposed onto the dying sun, cut into a triangle with craters and clouds. The ocean from afar, then up close, foam crested and, immensely closer, waving into digits. At one of these points, one of the two astrophysicists interviewed by Wardill explains »white noise« actually »never happens in the real world«, the hot pink rope resurfaces as a softer rose colored subtitle. Scrambling for an image, the flaky pixels on the screen blend to one with Secession’s terrazzo floor beneath it.
Even after one viewing of the video’s 48 minute loop, it is hard not to think of Jarman’s »Blue« or even Godard’s »Contempt«, not because of the monochromatic moments the first or Villa Malaparte as another architectural protagonist, but because viewing becomes hearing: because all three movies make use of a musical refrain to introduce new chapters, to let images speak, making fragments and scenes indistinguishable, stopping the linear flow of time, spooling it back and forth. The layers and connections that Wardill’s video establishes are not loose associations, but manifestations of an (im)possibility.
But the confusion these temporal discontinuities bring about is not only a metaphor for memory, how trying to remember something old and thinking the new are not altogether different. It is what »Night for Day« works hard to enunciate. Juxtaposing the story and reflections of now 79 year old Isabel do Carmo, founder of the Portuguese Revolutionary Brigades, with the words of two young software developers running a startup in the European country’s capital, attempting to program computers to recognise moving images, is less about generational conflict than bringing together their political and technological horizons under the sign of utopia. Utopia, which for do Carmo was both something palpable in the sixties but also the goal she and her party tried to realize, before neoliberal developments signaled its defeat, while for two astrophysicist entrepreneurs Alexander Bridi and Djelal Osman »utopia can be fictional«.
Wardill records, without expressing a preference for either of their positions. Moving between quotes visual and textual, between footage found and explicitly shot for the film, inside and outside, far out vs. extremely close, and subtitles that both translate and stand on their own, the exchange of voice(s) effects a soft surprise, as in one scene when the silent narrator remembers how occasionally the actor in a series was replaced, while the role would stay the same. That it doesn’t have to be contractual complications, but irreversible reasons which cause these switches is not directly addressed, but mirrored in one of the most trenchant moments in the video, when Isabel do Carmo openly talks about the armed actions she and her husband would undertake and the one principle the Brigades held to: never to kill (154-155). Leaving unsaid if they were successful at this or not, she concludes that when a life »ends it’s not possible to repeat it« (151). The remark is immediately responded to within the film’s framework by reversing the cataclysmic landslide cum explosion that occured while she was speaking, and the narrator, still in search of a voice, confessing that »mostly I wanted to make a video to show you that I WAS capable of going backwards«. This too is a key sentence in understanding Wardill’s work as a revolutionary and utopian belief in film, a medium allowing us to record, replay – but also rewind.2
That which cannot be repeated in reality, bringing someone, or just their voice, back to life, is possible in film. And so when Wardill proposes a mother trying to identify with her »son«, she does it without gender trouble, from the latter’s perspective. The cameos and clips from mainstream cinema, of »young models« (148) that are trying pretending to be machines, and footage of the dancing »fembot« in Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s »Tales of Hoffmann« (1951) that reappears digitized and crumbling throughout »Night for Day«, play their part in the impossible role of stepping in someone else’s shoes, falling in love with a doll like Hoffmann does in the movie, or that of Pinocchio who wanted to know what it is like to be a real boy.
Foreshadowed by this twilight, it is in the concluding speech about »one thing dressing up in the clothes of another« (165) that the concepts of impersonation and animation fully intersect, in both meanings, impersonation as putting up an act, and animation in the sense of bringing to life, but also and without any doubt: the moving image. The space inbetween that visitors have to go through, to go from one projection to the other, with pictures of the moon that might as well be pictures of the sun casting their shadows on the stage set installed there, summarizes this momentum, these moments of sensitivity to light that the film captures.
In retrospect, after the landslide recalling itself and the one »thing« dressing up as another, it comes as no surprise when the shirt the actor is wearing in the second projection – in what becomes a new story, of the clothes without their emperor – suddenly comes to stand on itself, a ghostly second skin floating through the empty auditorium without a body to fill it.
If anyone ever wondered what film feels like, if it were a living thing, Wardill has, and she does it with poetic justice.
1 Generously made available as a pdf on Emily Wardill’s website, the eponymous artist (note)book Night for Day published on the occasion of the show is a marvelous paper object, with a faux faded green front and darker green back cover. Printed on a deceivingly light-weight paper, green-dotted throughout and slightly rough so the images stick but do not shine, the publication contains other voices, transcripts of interviews conducted in preparation of the video, hand-annotated copies and photographs of Wardill’s research literature and references such as David Mourão-Ferreira’s »In Memoriam Memoriae«, a wide selection of screen grabs and two commissioned essays, its chapters labeled on the open spine like snippets of text from medieval manuscripts reused for binding. Page numbers are added in the text when quotations from the video are also printed in the book.
2 Here revolution, literally and intransitively, is recurrence (preferably in another direction).