Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball and Mark Boulos' Marxist films: Abandon Normal Devices in Liverpool

By Ben Miller | 04 October 2013

Review: SEFT-1 / Los Ferronautas; The Pirate Cinema / Nicolas Maigret, until October 5; Mark Boulos, until November 24 2013; Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool

a photo of a silver metallic car
© Photo Ben Miller
A rain-covered pavement on a Liverpool street corner is perhaps not the place you might normally expect to find a metal-and-wood road-rail vehicle.

Designed to "hijack" both train tracks and rugged natural landscapes, SEFT – the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, to give it its Spanish title – resembles a cross between an angular version of the DeLorean from the Back to the Future films, a Winnebago and a giant toaster.

And it has already probed and traced the canals and waterways of Lancashire, repeating the geological surveys it undertook in the Amazon along the abandoned railways of Mexico and Ecuador.

Two award-winning young Mexican artists, Andrés Padilla and Iván Puig Domene, have been working on this quirky, surreal and robust missionary since 2007. Padilla is a Fellow of the State Fund for Culture and Arts of Jalisco, Puig spent his early years searching streets, tropical jungles and car junks for materials before studying Electronics and Fine Art.

They speak with twinkles in their eyes about their humorous, weirdly cartoonish vehicle, surrounded by brightly-coloured arrows stuck to the paving slabs. But they’re also studiously serious: peering through the glass (windscreen wipers not provided) reveals a complicated cockpit capable of embarking on an odyssey to explore new lands, returning with footage, photos and sounds.

In a world of 4x4s, the instruction to Abandon Normal Devices – the name of the citywide festival the yellow-t-shirted, umbrella-clutching attendants are here to oversee – seems encapsulated by SEFT-1.

A different kind of monitoring is going on inside the spiralling cinema tower of FACT, although the invention it concerns – file sharing – is about as common as sexualised pop videos reaching the top of the charts.

One of those, American singer Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, flickers and flashes on and off as part of a bizarrely absorbing installation across three screens in a ground floor corner. It vies for attention alongside fragments of more pop videos (Robin Thicke among them), scenes from blockbuster films and nanosecond clips from topselling boxsets.

The idea, by Bordeaux new media experimentalist Nicolas Maigret, is to create a way of monitoring precisely what people are downloading from BitTorrents across the planet, hacking the network and then creating clips of the top 100, cut-up with bits of darkness and a digital display of where in the world these videos are being sent to.

The effect is collage-like, and the implications of visualising open networks in this way are unsettling, compelling and illuminating. The world is more connected than we can imagine, even if global taste, upon reading the consumption chart, seems questionable at best.

If Maigret follows through with his plan to apply this to political information dissemination, the results should be more revealing and subversive.

film still of men on stock exchange
© Mark Boulos
Mark Boulos is an American installation artist who has never had a major retrospective in a British gallery, a situation redressed in Echo, a spooky, vertiginous out-of-body experience transposing the viewer onto a cityscape via mirrors, a 19th century stage trick and a camera technique favoured by Alfred Hitchcock.

Three of Boulos’ films, including two dramatic documentaries, are also being screened. Try to comprehend the artist’s bravery and you find yourself being bluntly advised to sail from a riverbank and never return on pain of death, or taking part in military manoeuvres with the New People’s Army, a Philippines group defined as terrorists by the west.

All that is Solid Melts into Air, made in 2008, has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, pitting stock market scenes from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange against communities on the Niger River Delta, portrayed on opposing screens.

Both are struggling to control oil, and Boulos creates a certain synchronicity between them at times, so that, say, share price values scroll across LED displays at the same pace as the river passing beneath a boat floating past multinational-controlled oil rigs.

The Africans are members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and their message – despite its murderous desperation – is ultimately more rational than the rabid hum and anxious barks of the men in ill-fitting jackets on the first day of the 2008 credit crisis.

“We believe in killing idiots, people who come to steal our wealth,” declares one of the militants, causing all eyes in the gallery to lock on to him. “We are the people who matter. We are not afraid of anyone.”

Fires rage from the rigs, the flames rising and rescinding in uncertain tandem with stocks, skyscrapers and the gesticulations of tetchy traders. The empty office of an operations area moves in time with the muted isolation of shanty villages, seen from the boat. A man is fishing to feed his children, the traders hover for fluctuations.

“I am vexed,” says one of the villagers, although you suspect that subtitled interpretation may be an understatement. “The government takes oil but we suffer and suffer.” He threatens future kidnappings, and another man, in a red balaclava, says their dream is for freedom, poverty alleviation and justice, believing that God will make their bodies bulletproof.

Boulos is a self-confessed Marxist filmmaker – the title of this work is taken from a passage in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto – and his movies are loud and disconcerting, combining in a din of forceful contrasts. Sensitive dispositions might wish to avoid the global collision course.

  • Abandon Normal Devices continues across Liverpool until October 5 2013. Visit andfestival.org.uk for full details.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

a film still of a man wearing a balaclava
© Mark Boulos

a photo of video screens in a gallery
© Photo Ben Miller

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