This yearlong moving image series takes its cue from German thinker Walter Benjamin’s two brief texts Short Shadows written in 1929. Comprised of fragmentary essays, or what Benjamin called “thought-figures” or “thought-images,” the texts meditate on the fundamental relation between thought and language through specific reflections on phenomenology, art, astrology, and psychology. Some eight decades later, theorist Svetlana Boym borrowed Benjamin’s title for a section of her notes on “the off-modern,” or the paths not taken by the more canonical variants of Modernism. For Boym, the short shadow, like an imperfection on the surface of an image, designates an artistic strategy that has the potential to reveal the “porous nature of historical time.”
Like Boym and Benjamin in their respective approaches, the artists presented in this series are concerned with the political importance of unexpected historical interconnections, and they advocate for a practice capable of attending to and moving within them. Mostly produced within the last decade, their films, videos, poems, and performances shine a light on cultural and historical events that may otherwise remain in shadow, and, whether anchored in real or fictional scenarios, each work stretches beyond a singular moment or place.
Short Shadows includes such varied films as Lucrecia Martel’s restaging of a 1950s novel set in an 18th-century South American colony, Clarissa Tossin’s reflection of Mayan influence on California Modernism, Deimantas Narkevičius’s underground staging of Jesus Christ Superstar in early 1970s Vilnius, Dora Garcia’s fragmented reenactment of Buenos Aires happenings during the psychosis of the 1960s disappearances, and Basir Mahmood’s gestures of contemporary “Lollywood" cinema. Much like these individual works, the series as a whole is elliptical in structure and form, presenting an entangled dramaturgy of cultural and political history. In so doing, it aims to articulate the inseparability of aesthetic, social, political, linguistic, territorial, and technological conditions, yet attempts to resist treating that inseparability as simply a set of straightforward themes or plot lines.
Shadows are fundamentally linked to the history of cinema, both technically (images produced literally by light and shadow) and also in terms of its basic metaphors: not the least of which being Plato’s Cave (in which those held within see the shadows cast on the wall as real objects), or later with the shadow plays and phantasmagoria of early proto-cinematic experiments. Like cinema, however, what they also do is bind images to objects in a passage of time. But Short Shadows not only refers to the magic of cinema or phenomenological affect. It also suggests the disruption of cinematic illusion, a strategy fundamental to artists moving image and experimental film practices. Short Shadows alludes to the communal experience of an on-screen shadow cast by the late-arriving audience member, and revels in the deliberate disruption of a seamless phantasm by artists whose work endeavors to excavate the surface of such scenarios in order to reveal their formation.
EMPAC Spring 2019 presentations, residencies, and commissions are made possible by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with continuous support from the New York State Council for the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts; and the Jaffe Fund for Experimental Media and Performing Arts. Additional project support by the National Endowment for the Arts; the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.