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DEMO, from moving image to experimental politics

Interview by Agata Kik

Parcelles S7 (still), Abtin Sarabi 2020. © Abtin Sarabi
Parcelles S7, Abtin Sarabi (2020). Video still

DEMO – Deptford Moving Image Festival was launched in 2019 in South London. Under the title Hyperworlds, the first edition examined unconventional ways of being in the world and speculated on new modes of constructing contemporaneity. It was initially set up to explore a general issue from different angles and through multiple modes of working with the cinematic medium.

Now, transformed along with the post-pandemic social system, DEMO has evolved into a permanent curatorial platform with a focus stayed and intensely dedicated to finding political potential in moving image works. Moreover, DEMO entered the digital realm for good. As a result, they present video works over a more extended time and establish closer collaborations with the artists involved. 

In the year of the pandemic’s outbreak, as an emergency response to COVID-19, DEMO presented their second edition of the Moving Image Festival for the first time entirely online. Devoted to tackling the topic of Contagion, this special edition underlined connectedness as the quintessential condition of life as a human being and their simultaneous entanglement in the surrounding outer environment.

It reflected on human activity, which is a constant process of contamination, despite being fictionally bounded by ideologies and social constructs. Artist and architect Pekka Araxin designed the virtual environment to explore the potential of the screen to contain the space for the whole festival to take place in.

Breaking away from conventional scrolled-down content, the festival’s digital platform showcased videos and special projects commissioned especially for the digitally designed experience space. The artworks were accompanied by a reader comprising articles and fictional text. At the same time, the online platform took on the structure of a constellation of works scattered around an abstract cosmic space, presenting a narrative scenario that reinforced the interrelatedness between the present artworks. 

Protocols of Immanent Conflicts, created in collaboration between AUDINT & Anna Engelhardt, was one of the special projects showcased during DEMO 2020, co-commissioned in partnership with Gossamer Fog. The AUDINT group’s extensive research into the barely perceptible peripheral sound called ‘unsound’ and its utilisation to manipulate human perception merged with Engelhardt’s interest into (de)colonial politics of algorithmic and logistical infrastructures in post-Soviet space to collaboratively produce a hypothetical multimedia scenario speculating on holographic warfare and colonial strategy.

Pauline Curnier-Jardin’s work Explosion Ma Baby is highly expressive in its audio-visual form; the work demonstrates ritualism rooted in patriarchal power systems. Full of naked newborn babies in front of the screen, constantly passed around among male hands in front of the St Sebastian’s sculpture, the work questions family and social hierarchies while speculating on subversive value systems.

Previously presenting scenes from Tehran, while before from Baghdad, DEMO is dedicated to their global programming, bringing together on the same one screen a worldwide selection of works that ‘develop their narratives from the point of view of subalterns and dispossessed people’, formally and conceptually embracing experimental approach to the moving image medium. Their international character of programming is expressed in their ways of working themselves. In a group of 7 collaborators based in 4 different countries across Europe, DEMO is a collective, creatively composing contemporary, moving image experimental politics.

Camila Beltrán, Pacifico Oscuro, 2020 (still)  © Camila Beltrán
Pacifico Oscuro, Camila Beltrán (2020). Video still
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Explosion Ma Baby, 2016 (still) © Pauline Curnier Jardin
Explosion Ma Baby, Pauline Curnier Jardin (2016). Video still

For those who are not so familiar with DEMO Moving Image, could you briefly describe its evolution from being born as a festival and having now become a permanent curatorial platform? Could you also go back to the beginning and share what the trigger that made you get together then was? And what is it now that motivates the collective behind DEMO?

Felice Moramarco: The first edition of DEMO as a moving image festival took place in 2019 in Deptford (southeast London). At that time, I was working in the Art department at Goldsmiths, and I came up with the idea of organising an event in collaboration with the college, local galleries, and cinemas to present a series of moving image-based projects and screenings centred around a main theme. The idea was to tackle a general issue from different perspectives and explore various modalities to work with the cinematic medium. While preparing the second edition, the pandemic happened, so we decided to move DEMO online.

One of our main concerns was, however to reflect on how a festival could take place in a virtual space and elaborate an adequate format for it, so we decided to commission the platform to an artist – Pekka Airaxin – in order to design it as a work of art in itself communicating with the other works presented, rather than just as a container. The online festival was quite successful, so we decided to keep working online, extending DEMO from a yearly festival to a permanent curatorial platform. We felt the need to work within a wider timeframe and on a regular programme. In this way, we can reflect more consistently on our curatorial methodology and collaborate more in-depth with the artists we present.

What are your ways of working together? Has your collaboration changed since your work on the first programming? How do you distribute and share responsibilities? Are there any challenges working across different fields?

Caterina Avataneo: We are a team of seven people living between Italy, the UK, Germany and Switzerland. We have never met all together in person yet, but we regularly speak, squeezing group calls between our daily jobs and busy schedules. We tend to share the various monthly programming and follow the related admin individually, but we share the fun bits, such as research, brainstorming for future programming, etc. How we distribute and share responsibilities is purely democratic and guided by each of us and our interests, time and availability. The main challenge is finding the time to work together. 

As a curatorial platform exploring the aesthetic and political potentialities of the moving image, could you share with us how you go about programming the online screenings? Is there a specific curatorial framework that you follow when you decide to publish different video works, or does it develop more organically?

FM:  The field of video art is immense, and we tried to elaborate on some very general criteria to navigate it. The works we display are always films with an experimental approach to the moving image, both in the ways this medium is deployed and the narratives the films develop. For this reason, we tend to avoid works that have a kind of “canonical” approach to the cinematic medium and that are either too aesthetic or documentarist.

What is important for us is to maintain a transnational approach in elaborating the programme to widen the spectrum of voices, ideas, and stories and favour works that develop their narratives from the point of view of subalterns and dispossessed people. This is what we mean by “moving image experimental politics”: investigating how the moving image can open up new spaces for thought, imagination, and subjectivation that somehow counter-hegemonic aesthetic and political paradigms.

Where do you see political potential in moving image works? Would you agree to have your collective work described as activist? What is different in your particular approach to video screenings and broadcasting of moving visual images?

CA: Finding political potential in moving image works is exactly our primary goal, and this can happen in various modalities, even if not necessarily straightforwardly political in the classic sense. It is becoming more apparent than ever that aesthetics and politics go hand in hand, and it would be pointless to separate them. Some of the works to be found on DEMO will shed light upon urgent issues of our present or highlight dynamics of power and marginalisation, raising awareness and calling to action. Others will present more speculative approaches, depending on the artists. I would not define the DEMO as an activist but a platform where discourse can happen while sustaining artistic practice.

FM: If by activism you mean pursuing specific political objectives, I think that art practice is not the most effective way to do it, so we tend to avoid this definition (although there are some examples of artists that have been able to combine activism and art practice perfectly – I think of Forensic Architecture, for instance). I believe that, like all forms of human activity in a collective and social dimension, art practice is intrinsically political. It is, however, political in its terms.

So, to unfold the political potential of art practice, or a medium, one needs to look at the specific modes in which they enable communicate, represent, create relations, approach reality, and shape ideas. As a form of expression, I found that the moving image is a particularly interesting medium from this point of view because it embeds different semiotic levels that organically develop through a temporal dimension and articulate in various directions.

In June 2020, you organised the second and first digital edition of DEMO Moving Image Festival. What was your experience of showcasing works made for the screen anyway, for the first time without physical space of encounter between the viewers? What will you take forward from this experience into your work on future programming?

CA: In June 2020, DEMO was still a summer festival. When we had to move it online, we wanted to challenge the modalities to envision an online programming as a mere succession of content. So we commissioned artist and architect Pekka Araxin to design a virtual platform that became the container for the festival’s programming. There were videos, special projects commissioned for the online format – one by Invernomuto and one by Anna Enghelhardt & AUDINT (you can still see a version of it on the online gallery of Gossamer Fog, whom we partnered with) and a reader featuring articles and fictional text on the theme of the festival: Contagion.

I was personally very proud of what we managed to put together, although it was a very challenging project from the point of view of coding and platform management. A positive aspect of online programming is that the viewer can decide when to dedicate an hour to the film and explore the material we select each time. For some works, though, the online format just does not work; that’s why we will also programme physical exhibitions and screenings if the occasion arises in the future.

How differently do you approach film programming through your online platform? 

FM: The idea of turning DEMO from a yearly festival to a regular film programme was driven by the intention of having a broader timeframe to present video works online and closely collaborate with the artists involved. So we developed a display format where each film is available for three/four weeks and is presented with other research material, such as essays, images, podcasts and audio pieces, to create a helpful framework to expand on the themes and narratives embedded in the films.

The idea is to provide the viewer with additional tools to improve their experience of the works and highlight their thought-provoking elements. In this way, we aim to approach each film as an open field of discourses, narratives and imaginative aspects to allow for further speculations. 

How do you envisage DEMO’s future? Is there a particular field you would like to explore next? Would you like to highlight any upcoming collaborations or projects that you are currently planning?  

CA: Personally, if we manage to grow, I would like to commission new productions and facilitate artists to realise their work with the support of DEMO. We are trying to build a network of partners, giving DEMO more tentacles, let’s say, and becoming a platform for the divulgation of artistic practice and new approaches within the moving image.

FM: What is indeed crucial for us is to reflect on and elaborate new possible modalities to articulate the relation between art practice and politics through our programme, but also by activating broader debates on this topic with artists, theorists and researchers, which might take the form of workshops, symposiums, and publications.

We launched four screenings by Arash Nassiri, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Abtin Sarabi, and Camila Beltran titled Shattering and Healing, running until October 2021. The four films represent different forms of collective ritual practices as dimensions for the negotiation and activation of processes of subjectivation and being with, which will also offer us the chance to examine ideas around community and shared space in relation to the transformation and ongoing displacement caused by the pandemic. This series is supported by Fluxus and the Royal Holloway College of London, and it would not have been possible without the collaboration of the researcher Lilly Markaki.

What is the chief enemy of creativity?

CA: Precariousness and lack of serenity.

FM: I guess fascism and depression, in all their forms and iterations.

You couldn’t live without…


(Images courtesy of DEMO)
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