Chantal Akerman said that “there is no good documentary without a bit of fiction, and vice versa.” Of the four videos in this Almost Doco collection, Liam O’Brien’s has most in common with cinema in that it’s a sad comedy set in a fictive reality. Early April engages with film laterally, though, in that its narrative has no resolution.

A nameless, emasculated blow-up doll wakes and plods his way through a go-nowhere day, which will be the same as every one that follows. There is a total absence of other people, other lives going about other work. There’s a desire for social interactions: he tries and fails to make a Skype call, his iPhone lockscreen shows a couple kissing and he watches PornHub in bed. Though our protagonist is just a doll, O’Brien’s shaky camerawork and repeated close-ups imbue him with a surprising amount of emotion: he’s thoughtful, he’s concerned, he’s anxious, he’s let down, his brow wrinkles with sensitivity. He’s a real character.

This conflation of people with objects and objects with people takes on a deeper sense of alienation when you consider that the plastic protagonist is a surrogate for the artist, who is currently in residence in New York City. This is his bedroom, his commute, his studio. The Sterling Ruby poster on the wall came with the sublet. The plastic man is not just imaginable as an actual human, he’s modelled on an actual human.

Plentiful philosophical references abound should you care to scour the books on this plastic man’s desk and note the YouTubes he watches to get himself to sleep. You might see Early April as a droll meditation on the diminished status of artists today, a cartoon portrait of failed masculinity, or a quasi-fictional demonstration of Nihilist thought. But I read it as being about the reasons for its own emptiness: as a way of saying that life goes on. Lauren Carroll Harris

 

You can read about visual artist Liam O’Brien and see excerpts from his video and other works on his website http://www.liamobrien.com.au.

A grim reverie. An unspecified climate of concern. Jacobus Capone trawls a stick through indifferent Arctic snow. He’s a slight figure. Crossing from left to right, he leaves little evidence of a trail. This gruelling labour has an outcome, but it’s only implicit. The subtitle is Fathoming a Circle with a Line, but we never see the giant circle resulting from Capone’s ostensibly straight lines. It’s a visual trick: all circles are made of straight lines, if you zoom in closely enough. I imagine a hidden scene in which we see a birds-eyeview of a giant, spindly circle traced into the bleached-white snow. Another shot might show it being covered by the next gale, the cycle complete.

This isn’t the first time Capone has made a portrait of a wild place, centred on its relationship with his body. Rather than summoning scenes of natural destruction, the artist tends to create images in which humans are made redundant by the hugeness of the wilderness. He generally appears dwarfed by the scale of the landscape, repeating a gesture or staying completely still while a waterfall cascades before him or wind rustles around. They’re humble works, in which people are small and sometimes effortful. This is the first of Capone’s videos I’ve seen in which he is engaging in a form of drawing, performed in slow movements of endurance, in the snow rather than on the page. But the formal sparseness and visual language remains the same as before—a monochromatic palette, an ineffectual silhouetted figure against a vast and careless natural backdrop, adding up to a study of futility or contemplation. Lauren Carroll Harris.

 

Jacobus Capone is a Perth-based visual artist whose video installation Forgiving Night for Day, in which Fado singers in Lisbon greet the dawn with song, was a featured work in the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival. You can see an excerpt here.

Sydney artist Frazer Bull-Clark has made what he calls a moving postcard of Beverly Hills, Hurstville, and beyond that, what reads as a picture of the oddity of Australian suburbia. Beverly Hills is a suburb with a largely unknown history even to Sydney residents. I can find only a few online mentions of its distinctive cocos palms, which one blogger says were planted in the 1940s to exoticise the area with a Californian vibe in tune with its namesake.

As a portrait of a place, there’s a link between this work and the city symphony genre of films, such as Symphony of a Metropolis (Berlin, 1927) and Man with a Movie Camera (Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, 1929). Bull-Clark uses Super 8, a celluloid format long past its heyday, and a favourite of home-movie enthusiasts. The grain and texture of this format is unusual in moving-image art today, which has historically borrowed heavily from television and now from digital sources. Unlike digital video, celluloid film lives in the black moments between physical frames that your eyes flick over as they form the film image; film lives because of undetectable flashes of absence. In choosing Super 8 to capture the palm trees of Beverly Hills and transform that landscape through moving image (notably, through the central visual motif of zooming in and out on individual trees), Bull-Clark brings the near-deceased materials of film history closer to the vernacular of contemporary art. This bridge between the formal concerns and materials of cinema and art is a key space for Almost Doco.

The irony of Bull-Clark’s work is triple-edged. It’s expressed in its materiality—by using a lo-fi film format to suggest the work could have been made in any era. It’s expressed in the music—an upbeat track with a dreamy 1970s American sound by an Australian band. And it’s in the work’s subject—a modest Australian suburb named after a glitzy Los Angeles one, with introduced species of flora to create a visual resemblance. Long live… America? Lauren Carroll Harris

 

Frazer Bull-Clark is a Sydney-based filmmaker and artist. You can see his portrait of a Canberra artist and his suburban environment in Leaving Lost on the National Portrait Gallery Vimeo Channel.

There’s an internet community for everything. You haven’t even dreamed of the niches within niches out there, in the muddy depths of unpublicised YouTube channels and discussion forums. Tiyan Baker’s video portraits of loneliness have won major awards. Here, she turns her attention to create a side-glancing portrait of one internet community: people who post and watch videos of other people dying—on Reddit. Some people like to do this—881 people, to be precise. The extremely NSFW forum is highly regulated, populated with threads that must have a descriptive title, along the lines of:

“A couple having a late night kiss on a road are struck and killed by a drunk driver.” “Car sliding sideways takes out a guy, he stays upright while it shoves him into the wall.” “Woman busy texting fails to see water in front of her and drowns.”

There are further rules. “There must be a person—not an animal—actually dying in the link.” From the murk of these video links, Baker creates a guided meditation video in which the viewer is invited to feel their own death—as you imagine life departing the body, tension leaves the muscles, bloodflow slows, your thoughts disconnect from the day’s worries and you slip into a state in which life is felt rather than verbalised or intellectualised. Baker washes her low-res death clips through a soft pink and purple cast, sometimes duplicating and flipping them symmetrically to generate further abstraction, and imprints the comments of Reddit users over the top. It’s their video too.

I don’t really know what death is and I don’t think Western societies are good at understanding it. So I understand the fascination of the r/WatchPeopleDie users, why they post and watch and comment so obsessively, perverse as that seems. To me, Baker’s video is a very sincere work in an era of irony—lateral in the realisation of its themes and oddly, spookily relaxing to engage with. But there are deeper ironies: what are the ethics of distributing footage of a stranger’s death without consent, of making such footage the fodder of art? How is it possible to find catharsis in videos of trauma, and is that okay? Watching an act involves you in it in some way: do the Reddit viewers think about that? Baker herself puts it this way: “Are some engaging in a meditative act by witnessing this content and forcing themselves to be unmoved by it, and therefore unmoved by the inevitability of their own deaths? Is what they do somehow transcendental and important and honourable and brave?”

The video can be listened to without visuals for a purer meditative experience, because once you realise the video’s premise, you begin to pre-empt each death. Intelligently, Baker withholds that moment, instead letting you see seconds of danger in often mundane situations: a person perched on a ladder or a plane sailing overhead becomes a dreadful sight, the implication is everywhere. Lauren Carroll Harris   

 

Tiyan Baker is a Sydney-based video and sound artist. Examples of her work can be found on her website http://tiyanbaker.com