We arrive at the venue in the middle of a thunderstorm. Grey sheets of rain and the occasional flash and rumble. The steep sides of the valley seem to concentrate the storm’s energy and amplify its darkness. It is loud, melodramatic weather. An expression of raw force, an untameable nonhuman power.
We step off the coach and scuttle quickly across a little bridge trying to avoid the rain, the shadow of the venue looming out of the half-darkness like a crass gothic metaphor, like a poor novelist’s best attempt at imagining a moody castle. Except that it is not a castle, it is a former hydroelectric power plant that I think was designed to look a bit like a castle so as not to completely ruin the otherwise idyllic valley in which it is located. One kind of power station masquerading as another very different kind of power station.
Perhaps it is this setting, or perhaps it is the thunderstorm overhead, but I am preoccupied with power in these first moments of the lab. By its dual meanings of electricity and agency, and how they are tangled up in one another in this place. We are told that the production of power was very important to this region of Italy, that through hundreds of these kinds of hydroelectric plants it provided power to much of the rest of the country. That because of the importance of that power to the still young nation those producing it became themselves the most powerful people in the area. From water came power and then more power.
We sit in one of the vast warehouse-like spaces of this power station and watch Guido Van der Werve’s mesmerising looped film Nummer Acht (everything is going to be alright) on a giant screen hanging in the centre of the room. In the film a lonely and indistinct figure stumbles endlessly towards the camera across a remorseless empty arctic landscape. White ice. White sky. The man is followed by an unsettlingly huge oil tanker, its black hull ploughing through the ice like a great blank face. It is undeniably threatening, towering over him as it does, and yet there is also something docile in way it follows in his wake, like some preposterous industrial-age pet from a Studio Ghibli film. It is a human creation, this lumbering nonhuman monster, and it follows where we lead.
And yet there is no stopping it. The man must keep walking, ceaselessly, never turning back, blown endlessly forward like Benjamin’s angel of history. Machine power and human frailty, and beneath it all an infinite expanse of ice.
It is a great film. I could watch it for much longer than I did. I read the title again and it reminds of the line from The Magnificent Seven about the man falling from the roof of a building and muttering to himself as he falls:
so far, so good, so far, so good, so far, so good
This curious and disturbing ballet of human and nonhuman actors is reconvened later on in Ursula Biemann’s short video essay Deep Weather. As in Van Der Werve’s film we are confronted by an almost magical realist horror, a mythic collision of competing forces. In this instance we are in the Alberta tar sands, following helicopter shots of a shattered, catastrophic environment. Cratered moonscapes. Acid lakes. Grotesque non-human machines in the service of all-too-human greeds. An area of land the size of England has been ruined, simply laid to waste. On the other side of the ocean we watch men and women in Bangladesh building barriers from sandbags in a desperate attempt to repel the rising sea levels. So far, so good, so far, so good, so far, so good.
It is shocking. It is devastating, as any brief glimpse into the reality of climate change is. And perhaps inevitably the conversation afterwards returns to the question of power. What power do we have to change this? To make this better? What kind of agency can we have? What is this art actually doing?
We want to know about effects. The urgency of the circumstances seem to demand to an urgency of outcome. Ursula Biemann’s refusal to provide or even seek such immediate evidence of tangible change resulting from her work is at once infuriating and refreshing. She asks us to stop thinking about what else her art could or should be achieving elsewhere, outside of this place. To begin instead from where we are now and what we can do here. This is our political moment, she says. Here in this room.
In this old power station we have the power, even if only temporarily.
Another flash of lightening. Another boom.