Lore has it that audience members panicked when the life-sized locomotive came throttling toward them on the screen of the 1896 Lumiere brothers’ film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. But in 2013, audiences remain placid as they watch a tank barreling through the narrow street of a ravaged Syrian city. Casual observers of a reality recorded anonymously on cell phones and iPads, they witness the war over social media.
However disparate these images may seem, they come together in the work of Czech artist Tomáš Svoboda. In Filmu uz se nebojim, or Not Afraid of Film Anymore, sequences from both the Lumieres’ famous early work and from the contemporary, unnamed video from Syria form the basis of an installation mounted at Jeleni Gallery in Prague this past November.
The gallery was darkened to simulate the atmosphere of a film screening, but unlike in a movie theater, the audience could not remain seated. Rather, they had to follow a motorized toy train winding its way through two adjacent rooms along tracks that ran at eye level across the walls. Its lights briefly illuminated still images displayed along its route, and gradually, one began to discern the imagery from the historical film. But as the train progressed, the images slowly changed from those quaint early scenes into the inferno of destruction in Syria.
In this video, as in many others documenting the conflict, an approaching tank directs its cannon toward an invisible and unidentified cameraman, who in turn has fixed his lens on it. As the tank draws closer to him—and through his lens to the spectator—it becomes larger and larger before it is consumed in a blinding explosion. At this point in the installation the light went off, we realized that the author of the video had died, and a moment of darkness prevailed over the space until the toy train started up again.
A painter by training, Svoboda increasingly explores stage design and the fundamentals of media, often combining imagery drawn from different sources and techniques. His theatrical settings seem sketchy, but intentionally incomplete—broken down into segments that come together only once we fully engage with his design and plot. His narratives point not only to changes in media but to the lasting psychological effect they have on the individual and on society as a whole.
Not Afraid of Film Anymore brings into focus our shifting perceptions of the possibilities of this medium, and addresses the impact of its incessant presence in our lives. Modern warfare and cinematic techniques and technologies have often been co-produced, and Svoboda’s installation shows the two in high relief. Where we might have once been frightened by the moving images on a screen, we are now the calm observers—if not the producers—of the most horrifying scenes there are. With our modern technologies, it is now not only the military that can surveil, record, and shoot, but also citizens and insurgents. In this context, the role of the documentary filmmaker or conflict photographer may be overshadowed by that of a participant or bystander capturing the situation unfolding around him.
“Syrians are filming their own death,” said Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, in his lecture-performance The Pixelated Revolution, of the use of mobile phones during the revolution. Few journalists have reported from inside the country, but a steady flow of photographs and videos has been shot and shared on social networks by civilians, activists, and militants. This move from the professional toward the amateur citizen-journalist and the ease with which images are digitally disseminated have been celebrated as the democratization of information, especially in war-torn regions. In Mroué’s Shooting Images, a reenactment of another shocking video from Syria, a cameraman’s viewfinder and a sniper’s scope meet with deadly results. Why the cameraman doesn’t pull away but instead stands firm to shoot his own death is not easily explained. Said Mroué, “By watching what is going on through a mediator—the little screen of a mobile phone—the eye sees the event as isolated from the real, as if it belongs to the realm of fiction.” Svoboda’s Not Afraid of Film Anymore makes a similar suggestion: while the Lumieres’ audience mistook what was projected for reality, the Syrian cameramen mistake the reality displayed on their cameras’ screens for film.
Not only have our perceptions of film changed, but film in turn has altered our perceptions of reality. The unexpected pairing of footage in Not Afraid of Film Anymore opens up a space to better comprehend the horrific consequences of conflict, moving it from a localized into a universal realm. In so doing the artist underscores our changing experience of the world as a result of technological innovations that have brought about increased media production and staggering amounts of information. These seismic changes have loosened the established cultural rules of what is visible and sayable and allowed anonymous creations into the once-guarded realm of masterpieces. Thus these videos by brave, if inexplicably self-sacrificing, creators offer a means to understanding the complexity of the present world as seen from the ground.
Charlotta Kotik, a native of Prague, has worked at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and was the curator and chair of the Contemporary Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1993, as the United States commissioner for the Venice Biennale, she presented pieces by Louise Bourgeois in an exhibition that later traveled internationally. During the course of her career, Kotik has organized over one hundred museum exhibitions, presenting work by contemporary artists such as Mariko Mori, Kerry James Marshall, John Cage, Jenny Holzer, and Robert Longo. Presently, Kotik works as a writer and independent curator and facilitates various projects for galleries, alternative spaces, and museums.