Selling subversion

Lizzie Muller

UK-based festival onedotzero has cornered the world market in digitally generated moving imagery, its slick and fashionable brand celebrating the fusion of artistic expression and commercial opportunity. It brought to the Sydney Film Festival its signature, well packaged compilations of what Director Shane Walters describes as “nanotainment”, a mixture of motion graphics, pop promos, computer game graphics and animated films. But inside the shiny packaging lurked some dark and unsettling themes that questioned the impact of technology and commercialism on our lives and the powerful role of nanotainment in anaesthetising us to their effects.

Nanotainment is all around us, defining our visual culture and even our reality. Our lives are filled with bite-sized servings of moving imagery. On the bus, on mobile phones, on the internet, at the ATM; all these media delivery locations are short-attention-span zones where we do not have time to question or reflect on what we have seen. We may not even notice the scores of mini-movies we consume everyday.

So it is a strange experience to sit and watch hours of the stuff in one go. It’s a bit like making a meal of hors d’oeuvres, the feeling of fatigue and over-consumption obliquely suggests the negative effect of the saturation of moving images in our daily lives.

Among the inevitable cutesy animations, comic inventions and upbeat dance videos, the darker works gravitate to themes of biotechnology, urban disintegration, propaganda and consumption. The clash of the natural, artificial and commercial is explored in films such as Quietus, by Precursor, a journey through a fantastical artificial life system where organs, hooked up to a chaotic mass of plastic tubes, leak blood and sprout exotic flowers. There is also Ebaby, by Pleix, in which a baby in a computer incubator is connected by a “remote relational system” to an unseen “mother” via sensor gloves.

Others explore urban distopias. Plates Animation’s video for Let It Go (Cormega/MOP) depicts a post-nuclear apocalyptic stand-off where gas-masked police nod their heads to the beat. Alexander Rutterford’s video for Radiohead’s Go To Sleep features automata in business suits walking obliviously through an imploding city.

The most self-aware and ironic of the works expose and deconstruct the rhetorical power of graphics and advertising, or nanotainment. Knife Party’s (Simon Robson) polemical What Barry Says illustrates a monologue on American foreign policy with an ingenious sequence of stencilled graphic slogans which morph into swastikas and tanks, revealing the totalitarian function of logos and visual design. Richard Fenwick’s Safety Procedures demonstrates the power of graphics to sanitise dangerous realities. An animated airline safety card shows a crash landing in water, as the voiceover calmly recites the emergency drill. The simple graphic characters demonstrate a counterpoint reality in which uncooperative oxygen masks, lifejackets and escape hatches thwart passengers’ attempts to follow the instructions.

Most disturbing, however, is the profoundly ambivalent Psyop agency’s theme tune Anthem, in which animated characters sing a cheerful homage to their ability to “persuade, change and influence.” The economy will fail if we don’t keep selling things to people: “That’s where Psyop comes in” they sing, as mushroom clouds explode around them. “You won’t notice you are dying—just as long as you keep on buying.” What’s scary about Psyop is that they depict themselves and the media they produce as an essential part of an insane, dangerous, manipulative reality, catapulting itself towards destruction. But a look at their list of clients, which includes Pfizer and Starbucks, shows that they are happy to play their part in the insane reality they depict.

onedotzero demonstrates a similarly paradoxical attitude to the powerful weapon of nanotainment. In a Q and A session during the festival, Shane Walters spoke with excitement about the proliferation of possible commercial outlets for the content he deals in. He has positioned onedotzero to take advantage of these outlets not only by collecting and showcasing work, but also by producing and distributing it. As the organisation goes from strength to strength it is hard to say whether this is commercial savvy at the service of critical and alternative artistic expression, or whether the political and subversive content is just part of the “edginess” of the onedotzero brand. Given the overwhelmingly commercial nature of the format, are the more challenging works neutralised by being employed as just another selling point?

onedotzero_Sydney, 51st Sydney Film Festival, Dendy Opera Quays and The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 17-22

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 29

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004