Late last year, African–American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower made the New York Times bestseller list, 27 years after it was published and 14 years after the author’s death. The book is a vision of a 2020s California, gripped by a climate crisis and rampant inequality in an apocalyptic capitalist world. Butler’s work is finding a resurgence in an era that feels as if it’s held together by plot points from a dystopian novel.
Butler’s writing is at the centre of Xenogenesis, an exhibition by The Otolith Group at Buxton Contemporary. A photograph of the author greets the viewer at the entrance to the exhibition, and the title Xenogenesis is taken from a trilogy of books she released in the late ’80s.
The Otolith Group, formed in 2002 by London-based collaborators Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, have championed the video essay and experimental film genre over the past two decades, making works inspired by the output of Butler and the late Jamaican–British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall.
The backbone of their latest exhibition is three extended video works made between 2013 and 2018. In the legacy of Hall, The Otolith Group interrogate how cultural phenomena operate within a framework of power, institutions, politics and economics.
Medium Earth (2013) greets the viewer as they walk into the gallery. Like Parable of the Sower, the work is set in the desert of southern California, along the San Andreas fault line. The desert, with its precarious boulder outcrops, is rendered as if it were an ominous alien planet in an episode of Star Trek. Shots of a freeway snaking through the mountains and an underground car park are surprising interventions of human life.
Sagar’s ethereal voice drifts over the top of the film. She inhabits the character of an “earthquake sensitive” – someone who claims they can sense impending seismic activity through pain in their body and other seemingly unrelated signals.
“What do faults promise?” says Sagar’s character. “We feel faults below 2.0. Thousands of us feel them, straining, building stress in the shale, folding rocks into compressed curves.” The connected fault lines of the globe are talked about as though the Earth were a body, its pain sensed by a selected few.
In a room behind this video, the installation Who Does the Earth Think It Is? (2014) expands on the phenomenon of earthquake sensitives and their relationship to seismic activity. Letters and faxes describe earthquake warning signs that people say they perceive, archival copies of communication sent by members of the public to a California-based geologic research centre. A poetic sensitivity to the Earth begins to sound like a web of conspiracy theories – people predict deadly earthquakes through body pains, amplified sounds of static, strange smells or irregular cat behaviour; some explain the earthquakes as God’s divine retribution against undocumented immigrants.
Surprising storytelling devices tie together the three major works in Xenogenesis. The strength of extended video works in an exhibition setting is the total aesthetic world that the viewer inhabits within the gallery. You move in darkness from room to room, entering deeply considered worlds that are constructed from the building blocks of cinema but freed from conventional narrative forms. This experimentation opens up strange renderings of our present.
In the Year of the Quiet Sun (2013) uses commemorative stamps released between 1957 and 1966 by the post-independence Ghanaian government of the country’s inaugural president, Kwame Nkrumah. The stamps follow Nkrumah’s aspirations for a pan-African unity, alongside concurrent liberatory movements on the African continent and in developing countries in Asia and Latin America during the Cold War. Archival footage of intergovernmental conferences of Third World leaders trying to find peace and liberation – and of the Western-led “Pax Americana” – is interspersed with the stamps.
The work’s title refers to the 12 months from November 1964 to November 1965, when a cyclical decrease of the sun’s surface temperature allowed the first space expedition to study the sun. As Nkrumah released stamps that looked to the sky to commemorate the year of the quiet sun and satellites being launched into space, political unrest simmering in Ghana led to a coup that overthrew his government.
There are eerie links between current events and the works in Xenogenesis. The Otolith Group give us tools to understand our world as a phenomenon embedded in flows of history, time, politics, culture and the emotionally complex lives of people. They make our present feel even more dystopic and surreal, with the compartmentalised events we’re seeing play out in front of us – attempted coups, dictators, conspiracy theories, climate change – connected to a larger narrative whole.
O Horizon (2018), the longest and most recent work of the exhibition, takes the teachings of Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore as a starting point, and was filmed over five years at a university he founded in West Bengal in 1921. Shot in 4K resolution, the work is a construction of imagery and sound in a non-narrative, meditative form. It begins with a reading of one of Tagore’s poems, “The Year 1400”, over cinematic shots of a forest near Tagore’s university and heavy machinery working the earth: “A hundred years from today / who are you, sitting, reading a poem of mine?”
The poem and the site of a utopic school are used to imagine the passage of knowledge and culture as a form of trans-temporal terraforming. Images of groups of students reading Tagore’s work under a tree at the university continue over the narration of his poetry. People sing and dance in classical Bengali forms, accompanied by music emerging from iPhones in idyllic environs.
The “O Horizon” of the title refers to the thin layer of soil that covers the Earth, the layer closest to human activity. Over 90 minutes of surreal sound and moving image, The Otolith Group compose a portrait of how cultures build worlds for a relatively short moment on a billions-year-old planet, but it still somehow feels timeless.
The Otolith Group’s artistic practice manifests from a life dedicated to the academic study of the humanities and how culture shapes us. Their film output, working in the tradition of visionary artists and intellectuals who help us imagine possible futures in times of crisis, is emotionally alive and intellectually captivating, balancing feeling with the rigour and insights of theory. In a time when the cyclical nature of history is becoming clear and the study of our own culture is being deliberately eroded, Xenogenesis creates an unsettling and all-too-familiar mirror of ourselves.
Xenogenesis is showing at Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until February 14.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Dystopian visions".
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