Truth is complicated. We live in a world bombarded by coded messages that urge us to perk up, pay attention, take sides, and weed out those that are trustworthy from those that are less so. In film, television, print, and online we are in a constant state of self-definition: this is us, that is them. We define ourselves against a backdrop of trusted leaders, voices, guides, and influencers. But ultimately, how can you tell the truth? How can you tell the truth?
As part of this year’s Gallery Weekend Berlin and in collaboration with London-based gallery waterside contemporary, Campagne Première will host an exhibition of British artist duo Karen Mirza & Brad Butler titled The Unreliable Narrator. Taking its namesake from the exhibition’s centerpiece video, the show is an examination of the influence of perception, conditioning, power, and privilege. A work whose intent is set on persuading viewers to question the role of a narrator in truth-telling and the ability to find one concise truth in the context of war.
Detail: Act(s), 2014, Installation
Located on the third floor in the interior garden at Chausseestrasse 116 and lined with windows overlooking the courtyard, the gallery’s main hall is flooded with natural light. Entering the space, one is greeted by a stark demarcation: a red theater curtain bisects the space, setting the stage. Visitors immediately find themselves in what appears to be a school classroom. A neon sign spelling out “you are the prime minister” buzzes against the crimson curtain and hangs forebodingly over a single row of wooden school desks. Atop each is the first page of an entrance exam to the prestigious Eton College, a British educational institution known to have produced 19 of Britain’s prime ministers. Based on a real scholarship examination from 2011, the page has a singular question, a singular scenario. Visitors immediately and unwittingly are assumed as stand-ins for test-taking student candidates. They are asked to picture themselves as heads of state in 2040 in order to write a speech justifying “necessary” and “moral” use of military force against civilian protesters. An urge to take a seat and gaze out the window as a student contemplating their future in a classroom suddenly takes hold.
You Are The Prime Minister, 2014, Installation view
Behind the curtain, the video work The Unreliable Narrator focuses on the tragic events of the 26 November 2008 led by a group of Pakistani jihadist gunmen, including a three day siege of the Taj Mahal Hotel, that led to 166 deaths and hundreds injured. Playing on two separate screens in a windowless confine, the film braids together multiple narrative strands ultimately producing a sensual all-consuming imminence so often doled out by the media, doses willingly consumed by the contemporary news junkie.
The Unreliable Narrator, 2014, Video 2-channel installation with audio, 16’20”
The accompanying audio is similarly jolting and disorienting, placing the spectator in close proximity to both the events and the bodies of the perpetrators themselves. On the one hand, the feet-on-the-ground first hand accounts of the attacks are taken from intercepted phone calls between the young (and obviously inexperienced) gunmen and their controllers in Pakistan. Carried out on their Blackberries, the conversations shed light on attacks that seem produced and performed by and large for the media and for the benefit of their endless replay on YouTube. Alternately, the dominant—almost omniscient—narration, recalling a Western style newscast, is carried our by female writer and activist Rahila Gupta. As the film progresses, jumping from violent scene to violent scene, a once seemingly impartial narrator becomes increasingly sensationalist, subjective, and even mocking, arrogantly dispensing sweeping statements producing the lustful sensation of permanent emergency.
While the artists’ voices are conspicuously (or apparently) absent from the list of unreliable narrators set before us, the exhibition gestures at a fog of war so often overlooked and echoes the questions set forth by Judith Butler in her 2009 Frames of War. “What happens when a frame breaks with itself is that a taken-for-granted reality is called into question, exposing the orchestrating designs of the authority who sought to control the frame.” This suggestion signals and warns against multiple coexisting narratives, conditioned dominantly by the winners, the conquerors, the writers of history.
(Image at top: Karen Mirza & Brad Butler, You Are The Prime Minister, 2014, Neon sign, 220 x 12 cm. All images courtesy of the artists, waterside contemporary & Campagne Première)
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