On Loretta Fahrenholz, Ditch Plains at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York

— Annie Godfrey Larmon

Loretta Fahrenholz, Ditch Plains, 2013, HDV, 29 min, still

Loretta Fahrenholz, Ditch Plains, 2013, HDV, 29 min, still

A silent dancer crawls around a carpeted Marriot hallway, pressing his form against walls, doorframes, and the camera that captures his movement. He sweats. Jazz plays low and smoky in the background, buried by the intensity of the hallway’s fluorescent lights. He finds an open room, where in darkness a sinuous figure performs anguished contortions on a messy bed, the whites of his eyes glowing menacingly in the camera’s night vision. Bodies strewn on the floor and draped over chairs become suddenly animated, though numbly, with mechanical movements, attending to the unheard voicing of dead cell phones.

Later, a dissonant symphony of cracked and discarded phone screens emote into the nearly deserted streets of East New York. Their recorded video messages are materially impervious to the natural disaster that appears to have wiped out most humans in Ditch Plains, German filmmaker and artist Loretta Fahrenholz’s twenty-nine-minute dystopian street ballet. One insists:“If anyone’s out there—anyone at all—if you can hear me now—I just want to say, whoever the fuck you are, that I love you. I love you and goodbye. This is a recording.”

This performative utterance, also a plea for connection, is held hostage by its eternal inscription into the space of binary code and hardware. It invites an eerie consideration of what happens to recordings once untethered to any receptive audience—and further, what happens to subjective agency as it is increasingly formatted to digital media? How is community being reconceived as a result? Fahrenholz’s film suggests these questions via the representation of some abstracted, posthuman near future, but their bearing resides in the real-world dynamics of a group of street dancers.

Pixilated gestures in the choreography of the Brooklyn-based Ringmasters Crew provide a formal vocabulary for Fahrenholz’s investigation of the uncanny vertigo that accompanies a contemporary over-reliance on technics. With simulated death match performances of “flexing,” “bone breaking,” “pauzing,”and “glytching,” Ringmasters—Corey, Jay Donn, and Marty McFly—literalize the metabolism of digitality; their bodies fast-forward and rewind, skip, swipe and break down. Their movements are robotic, numb, and zombielike.

Cultural theorist Jonathan Crary has recently analyzed the ramifications of digital embodiment alongside the incessant demands of the contemporary global capitalist system and its prioritization of screens. His 2013 text 24/7 [1] begins by recalling state-funded efforts that support the progression toward human integration of nonhuman apparatuses and networks, and the development of “augmented cognition” that will enhance human-machine interaction. Together with the production of an antifear drug, and the US Defense Department’s recent investment in research on functioning productively despite sleeplessness, these studies evince that Fahrenholz’s equation of technophiliacs and zombies isn’t such a fiction.

These tech-zombies move disjointedly between decaying architecture and sidewalks, wearing flashing neon lights and engaging in full throttle dance-shootouts. The brilliant sound design of Steffen Martin materializes these abstracted gestures with the electronic crashes, skids, bangs, and booms of Grand Theft Auto. The improvised performances achieve a productive abstraction, but are also grounded in lived scenarios of power exchange and socioeconomic gravity.The abuttal of aestheticized extremity and documentary footage of the disaster management in the Far Rockaways following Hurricane Sandy is unnerving, as is the fractured choreography of a stop-and-frisk re-enactment.

While it forcefully takes up questions of technology and the instability of the subject within mediatized environments, Ditch Plains likewise pursues and reflects upon a methodology of recording. Fahrenholz’s work often presents filmic forms, but rather than quoting them with postmodern abandon, she tests out their syntax and repurposes them. Here, the styles staged range from the dramatic narrative arc [2] in American hip-hop music videos and documentaries, to French director Jean Rouch’s ethnofiction. Her recent My Throat, My Air employed both the vernacular of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and trashy horror flicks. This deconstruction of the history of cinema attempts to specifically reconcile what the artist cites as a recent history of 1990s German neorealism, or an “estranged realness as style,” with the distancing-effect of artistic modes of production. As a result, each work employs a performative mode, in which the artist implicates herself, but remains dissociated. Fahrenholz has an ethnographic impulse to capture the intimate or weird moments that occur spontaneously within small communities—moments that often resist the self-consciousness inherent to recording.

This tendency is met with an inquiry into how communities internally reify, relate to, and reproduce themselves via the spectacularized image. To do this research, she implants herself within artistic milieus—art school graduates, the collective Grand Openings, the family of former Fassbinder actor Ulli Lommel, or here, a street dance crew—and sets up the constraint of a stage, where improvisation and play unfold organically. On this stage, social tensions are fictionalized, offering different access to them, and a safe space to tear them apart. This strategy is conducive to intense collaboration and a distributed sense of authorship, one that eschews any dominant vision to be realized.

This stage also serves as a sieve, through which to trace or divine some previously unrealized collective consciousness. In each of her projects she culls, condenses,and structures a series of loosely related material, allowing commonalities to surface and a number of critical threads to enter and interact in unexpected ways. Ditch Plains brings together a sci-fi text written by John Kelsey, the event of Hurricane Sandy, narratives of cannibalism that dominated the news while the film was in production, and biographical stories and dance forms of the Ringmasters Crew. During production these elements were kept discrete and isolated, connected only by the general ambiance of fear and machinic imperialism that the artist set forth. As she edits, Fahrenholz maintains this incongruity between parts, favoring an irksome experience for a viewer.

This imposition on a viewer—the imperative to actively watch and constantly reorient oneself within an ambiguously narrative structure, is where the artist seeks some radicality. It is, perhaps, a methodological antidote to the crisis of attention detailed by Crary and performed by the Ringmasters Crew. Crary’s book posits that sleep is the final site of resistance to semiocapitalist hegemony, not only as a withdrawal to an unmediated state, but also as a reaffirmation of community. Sleeping requires the basic comfort provided by safety, and safety requires the physical protection of others. So, in a sense, this resistance is duly located in sleep and in the contract of sleep that is a desire to protect another, and the belief that another will be protective. While a speculated post-apocalypse of sleepless and alienated digi-subjects is aestheticized here, the gestures, narratives, and time shared by the performing dancers work against this future, as they are born from and affirm the Ringmasters Crew community. By resisting any resolute authorial vision and insisting upon the incommensurabilities inherent to the subjects that make up any community—and the elements that make up any story—Fahrenholz asserts a claim similar to that of Crary. The maintenance of community, contoured by its assemblage of differences, is a buffer to the dehumanizing effects of the growing technosocial apparatus.

Loretta Fahrenholz, “Ditch Plains”
Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York
September 8–22, 2013

  1. [1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London/New York: Verso Books, 2013).
  2. [2] A narrative arc is a way of organizing and diagramming the sequence of plot events.