Complex Polyphonies: Sounding the Art of the Otolith Group

“Xenogenesis” at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge marks the first major presentation, in Canada, of the video works of the Otolith Group. The exhibition, which features a selection of works from the last eight years of the group’s practice, was curated by Annie Fletcher and originated at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The presentation of the exhibition in Lethbridge, Alberta, was organized by Kristy Trinier, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery’s former director. The Otolith Group has become widely known for the criticality of their research-based video, film and installation works. These demand we think and rethink questions of colonialism, race, time and the subject’s relation to these categories through a range of technologies, ideological filters and speculative possibilities. Founded by filmmaker Anjalika Sagar and musicologist Kodwo Eshun in 2002, the group takes its name from a small bony structure located in the inner ear of all vertebrates that is crucial to the process of interpreting sensory data and locating the body in space. Entering the SAAG’s exhibition spaces, viewers pass by 10 tiny otoliths belonging to a species of fish, displayed as scientific specimens in a vitrine in the gallery’s foyer. Even if a viewer is familiar with the extensive archival and pedagogical work of Sagar and Eshun, this inclusion from the realm of natural history strikes you, as a viewer, as an odd first encounter with the practice of this UK-based collaborative group best known for its contributions to the essay film—a genre most closely associated with Chris Marker and Harun Farocki. But then, discursive leaps and the attending vertigo are real in the face of the Otolith Group’s corpus of work, and certainties that extend beyond the curiosities of museological display will have to be thrown to the wind. The known world, up and down, past and future, human and animal, one or many, are all shot into the zero gravity of deep space. Viewers beware: a greatly expanded notion of identity, history and futurity is being forged here.

The Otolith Group, Sovereign Sisters, computer animation transferred to black and white HD video 3:47 min loop, installation with purified water, 2014. Courtesy of The Otolith Group, LUX, London and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge.

The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, two-channel HD video installation, colour, sound, 43:00 mins. Courtesy of The Otolith Group and LUX, London.

The sounding out of forgotten politics, alternative histories and models of futurity is the mainstay of the Otolith Group. Indeed, the key reference for the exhibition is the “Xenogenesis” series, published in 2000 under the title Lilith’s Brood by African American novelist Octavia Butler (Grand Central Publishing). But then, all the works on show are girded by the politics and discursive backstories of Afro-Pessimism and Afro-Futurism. Sovereign Sisters, 2014, is an animated two-channel video projection that takes its departure from René de Saint-Marceaux’s Universal Postal Union Monument, 1909, a neoclassical sculpture celebrating the rise of global communication in Bern, Switzerland. Sagar and Eshun’s remake is half sculpture and half horror movie. The racialized female personifications of the five continents encompassed by Saint-Marceaux’s system have been reduced to skeletal spectres. Rather than uniting the world, they appear to suck the life from it as integral parts of a vampiric system. On the other hand, the film essay People to be Resembling, 2012, offers up a model to live by. Propositional in nature, the work hinges on the three-year musical career of the “jazz trio” Codona (1978 to 1980), whose multi-ethnic makeup and cross-cultural fusion of Middle Eastern, African, Indian and Western musical vocabularies prefigured the rise of “world music.” This model of interraciality is replaced in turn by the far more radical voices of separationism heard in The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, a two-channel video featuring the words and groundbreaking music of the African American minimalist composer Julius Eastman. Bringing sidelined figures and forgotten narratives into visibility, giving them a future by amplifying the voice inherent to each and playing one off the other, is a recurrent trope. Behind it lurks the old convention of documentary film and photography, but in the works of the Otolith Group this is charged with the propositional politics of each singular example that is rekindled in the company of each reference. There are many more thematics; the visual is under constant pressure from the audible in this corpus. Repetition—as in drumming or fingers hitting the keys of a piano—mirroring, the translation of knowledge across seemingly unrelated discourses, and the hollowing out of the subject, the body or the medium for larger frames of reference are all a norm in the work of the Otolith Group.

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