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Animistic Apparatus: Stories of Encounters

by May Adadol Ingawanij


Animistic Apparatus: Stories of Encounters

What if exhibitions weren’t primarily addressed to humans?

Southeast Asia’s art history includes the long history of making objects and performances as offerings, situating artistic practice in animistic ecologies relating humans with spirits and other nonhuman beings. Itinerant projectionists in Thailand were routinely commissioned to show outdoor movies as site-specific nocturnal rituals addressing those spirits with local- ised sovereign power over that site, a fascinating form of ritual practice that emerged some time in the mid twentieth century and retains a residual presence to this day.

Animistic Apparatus draws inspiration from Southeast Asia’s ritualistic genealogy of artistic practice and expression. This curatorial project asks what if contemporary film screenings and installations were reimagined as if they were rituals offered and addressed to nonhuman beings. What if artistic ecology positioned humans as precarious makers of offerings, rather than as authors of work or producers of self-expression? What could artistic practices and exhibitions be if humans were situated as one of the mediating parts of the apparatus and ritual of communication with nonhuman beings, and human audiences were an incidental part of the enactment and display of art, neither invited to nor excluded from the ritual or the event?

It is a privilege to be collaborating with our comrade & kin, Berwick Film & Media Festi- val, to bring Animistic Apparatus to this year’s festival. This second iteration of the project’s speculative exhibition takes the form of site-based installations, performances, and story- telling, featuring visionary Southeast Asian artists Lucy Davis, Lav Diaz, Chris Chong Chan Fui, Tanatchai Bandasak and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Dispersed across Berwick-up- on-Tweed, the installations stage an encounter between the artists’ works and the open air sites and spaces of historical sedimentation of the town, embracing the vulnerability of exposure to its weather, its geographical and infrastructural composition, and nocturnal ambience. Animistic Apparatus also connects in a spirit of kinship with the exhibition and performances by George Clark and lololol collective.

Diaz’s eight-hour epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is being projected through the night here at Quayside as a gesture of offering to our host town, with its ecology of visible and invisible beings. The film is a cinematic address to the dormant revolutionary spirit of the Filipino nation. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, it observes the nihil- ism gripping the male intellectuals of the nation-in-the-making, and it portrays the ambig- uous potency of the mythical creatures of the land who ensorcelled the men and women of the new nation, and whose capacity for destruction rivals that of the colonisers. Diaz’s epic honours the strength of the nation’s daughters, the women who endure as guard- ians of the memory of struggle and who embody the inexhaustibility of life. How might the practice of film projection be translated into a durational form to chime with the film’s powerful embracing of feminine-inflected life-force in cataclysmic times? Projecting A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery in the open, as if it were a breathing, vulnerable body, and as a quiet gesture of bringing the film to life without the accompanying celebration of spectatorial endurance, is one such experiment. One night, while this corner of the world sleeps, the apparatus of projection enfolds the shadows and wandering figures in the film into the rhythm and expansiveness of night and in anticipation of the new day.
The night as a world of larger-than-human forces, and the potentiality of the nocturnal as the realm of the outside and the unknown, are resonating themes connecting Fire- works (Archives) (Weerasethakul), Camera Trap (Chong), and Central Region (Bandasak). Weerasethakul’s work is shot at night during the current period of Thailand’s descent into dictatorship, using the ground of a nonconformist Buddhist temple in northeast

Thailand, an untimely space filled with stone animal figures. The installation ritualistically addresses the forgotten spirits of revolutionaries and dissenters in his northeastern home region through choreographing the interplay of extremity of darkness and illuminative flashes from different sources of light with bodily and photographic gestures. This iter- ation of the Fireworks (Archives) installation further intensifies the nocturnal ambience, enfolding the screen and enveloping its surrounding space by situating the video within the dramatically enclosed chamber of the Bankhill Ice House, a stone construction built into the hillside and historically used to store ice for the salmon trade.

The cavernous ruins of New Tower and Coxon’s Tower become hosts, respectively, of Chong’s and Bandasak’s videos. Chong’s Camera Trap deploys an archival process to explore historical and present day usage of camera technology to track animals’ movements and habitat. Part of his long-term, multidisciplinary artistic research into the destructively modern human activity of industrially extracting and profiting from natural resources, the work uncannily juxtaposes Eadweard Muybridge’s animal motion stud- ies with images of creatures in the wild captured by camera devices placed in forests in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Camera Trap reminds us that filmic innovation is a history implicated in ecological violence. Yet in contemplating the wild animals’ direct look to the surveillance camera, implying this spectral look to be one of the accidental conse- quences of technological automatism, Chong’s work suggests that the camera simulta- neously becomes a tool to teach humans about the limit of our knowledge and capacity.

At the beginning of the project, Animistic Apparatus commissioned Bandasak to make a short video responding to the ways in which animistic practices across Southeast Asia create potent spaces and conceptualise sites as sovereign terrains of spirits of place. We are delighted to premiere his Central Region at this year’s festival. Bandasak travelled to Sam Neua in Laos to take footage of the pre-historic standing stones scattered across the highlands. Drawing his inspiration from the notion that the standing stones demarcate sacred space by casting a territorial radius, Bandasak uses the filmic technical capacities of dissolving and superimposing images to transfigure the documentary footage he has compiled into a kind of conceptual animation, highlighting the vibrating, trans-temporal quality of the standing stones as living matter and potent nonhuman beings.

Southeast Asia has long been one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world, and it is now likely to be one of the worst affected by climate breakdown. Among the artists in the region sustaining a durational and politically committed mode of inquiry into relations between human and nonhuman beings, Lucy Davis stands as an important pioneer. We are honoured to present two installations from the Migrant Ecologies Project, an extensive practice-led research project founded by Davis a decade ago to explore the intertwining of nature and culture in Southeast Asia. The video animation Teak Road maps the region through an inspirational artistic process of inquiry into the life of a piece of teak wood that was turned into a bed some decades ago, which the artist found in a second hand shop in Singapore. With a deceptively light touch, the video weaves the memories and speculations of experts and people with first-hand knowledge to create a cartographic tapestry placing this mundane piece of wood into much larger stories of war, colonisation, voyaging, and cosmology.
Migrant Ecologies Project’s Railtrack Songmaps creates a multimedia archive of rela- tions between people and different species of birds along the railtracks at Tanglin Halt, a historic quarter in Singapore undergoing urbanisation and rapid environmental change. Its iteration at the festival takes the form of a sound assemblage installed in Berwick’s

Town Hall Old Gaol. The sounds of bird calls, people’s stories of living with and learning from the birds, and the lyricism of the Malay-language pantun verses inspired by bird songs, make their temporary homes in the cells whose passage of time and past dreams of flight are marked by the graffiti on the wooden wall panels, etched by the prisoners that have passed through these cells, of ships and boats in voyage during the eight- eenth century.

We are delighted that Davis, Diaz, Chong, and Bandasak are joining this year’s festival. The durational practices and creative processes of Animistic Apparatus’s featured artists explore ecologies and worlds damaged by colonising ambitions where the potential for change may lie in radical forms of entanglement between ghostly presence, nonhuman

beings, and powerless humans.

The artists are speaking about their practices at the first Animistic Apparatus semi- nar ‘Ecologies and Art in Southeast Asia.’ In the second Animistic Apparatus seminar, the project’s curators join lololol, a collective who participated in the project’s recent field trip in northeast Thailand, and exhibiting artist George Clark, to exchange stories of our experiments with using spaces of ritualistic film projection as sites for artistic practice and inquiry.

Animistic Apparatus is a curatorial and book writing project initiated by May Adadol Ingawanij in collaboration with Julian Ross (University of Westminster). This iteration of the project is guest produced by Bangkok-based curator Mary Pansanga. We are grate- ful for the kind support of the British Academy’s Mid-career Fellowship; the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM), University of Westminster; and the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).

    May Adadol Ingawanij is a writer, curator and teacher. Her recent texts include ‘Aesthetics of Potentiality: Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Essay Films’ (2019) and ‘Itinerant Cinematic Practices in and Around Thailand During the Cold War’ (2018). Recent curatorial projects include ‘On Attachments and Unknowns’ (with Erin Gleeson, Phnom Penh, 2017) and ‘Lav Diaz: Jour- neys’ (London, 2017). She is Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Westminster and Co-director of the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media.