A response for LUX Scotland the 15th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival

Still from Ixe, 1980, Lionel Soukaz

As I was checking in, the woman who ran the B&B showed me on a map a walk you can do around the walls of Berwick. She pointed out the best location to see dolphins. This excited me, I am a long term fan of dolphins. On camping trips in Cornwall and Scotland as a child I would drag my family to various dolphin centers eager to see them. It was sunny so I chose to do the walk rather than go to the cinema. That’s pretty like me. On the route were a couple of the exhibitions in slightly run down historic buildings and sites. I was more excited to see inside these spaces than I was by the screens on stands among all the stones and cobwebs.

I was headed to the lighthouse1 which was at the end of a long stone breakwater. It was a circular squat tower, in red and white. It looked somewhere between Moominhouse and the bathhouse Too-ticky stays in over the winter2. As I sat on the wall facing out to the sea I got a message from Lucy on instagram. She told me she had seen dolphins there when she was in Berwick. Then apologised for ‘back seat berwicking’. I didn’t see any dolphins, but I did see a group of swans bobbing about.

The opening film of the festival was the first thing I watched. Cemetery3 is about the final journey of Nga, an elderly elephant, to the mythical elephant’s graveyard. The film was dark and slightly hypnotic. The camera brushing the surface of the old skin of Nga was a visual delight. As was the scene of the elephant being washed. The relationship between Nga and his mahout4 (an elephant keeper) is constructed as one of caring interdependence. But I’m weary of believing that, the film spoke a lot about violence committed in the name of care. Without meaning to sound culturally insensitive elephant goads sit in the back of my soft head5.

Animals and violence speared through a lot of the festival. Animals are a visible trend in the wider art world at the moment, not just this festival, perhaps partly due to the resurgence of interest in Donna Haraway6. At a festival focused on performance earlier in the year I attended a panel discussion structured around Haraway’s thought. These discussions often seem to center human forms of knowing in relation to ‘non-human’ rather then considering the desire to ditch the human altogether. Cemetery, through its use of sound, allowed space for an exploration of other forms of knowledge. In a similar vein Onyeka Igwe’s fantastic the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered7 centered various forms of knowledge production, without seeking to explain or justify these modes.

I think back again to that panel discussion about Harraway at that festival I attended earlier in the year. I felt that everyone was avoiding talking about death and necropolitics. Not only was her book Staying With The Trouble criticized for a focus on population control8, but that the ‘non-human’ needed to include the dead, or that we needed to rethink our understanding of living and dying. I don’t usually spend much time thinking about death as I find it a triggering subject for my mental health, but it is a subject that refuses to be put down.

Throughout Berwick l I was frequently confronted with images of dying animals, carcasses and illness. I was sat in the dark, my body inert, processing these images unsure what had led to their capture. As I watched these gorey scenes I couldn’t help but think about what Judith Butler describes as the ‘radical equality of the grievable’9. How these non-humans had been considered non grievable before their deaths, and a spectacle after. I didn’t find it transgressive, just sad. Maybe I am too sensitive. I’m unsure if it was death itself, or the explicit presentation of a fragile body, that sat so uncomfortably. I would have appreciated trigger warnings about the graphic animal carcases.

However at the same time I was buoyed by Dani ReStack & Sheilah ReStack’s shot of a dog hanging off a strap on dildo by its teeth10, and the call for coyote kinship. Or of the raccoon eating with its hands underneath the unfolding complex narrative of Cooper Battersby & Emily Vey Duke’s You Were an Amazement on the Day You Were Born11. Or the cat rubbing itself on a dildo in the visceral presentation by Paul Clinton of Lionel Soukaz’ Ixe12.

Soukaz presents again other forms of knowing, remembering and being not always so visible. He seems to present these without judgment or hierarchy, allowing beings to be for example, addicted and still have worth. Not asking for these behaviors to be healed, condoned, or justified. I guess this is his radical queer anti-assimilationist politics. This resonates for me with Onyeka Igwe different forms of knowing and storytelling, presented in a way that seems to remove hierarchies.
Ixe is at times almost as hard to endure as the repeated dead animals, but explores with nuisance grieving and norms. It made me think about grief and social death. It also left me wondering what my body can do, beyond being represented. It made me want to feel my body move rather than be static in the dark.

After the panel discussion on Harraway I was having a drink in the bar with some of the attendees. At some point the conversation turned to audiences, behavior and boredom. I explained how I think from the social model, accessibility within moving-image and performance is under considered. This understanding needs to expand beyond captioning and audio description to accommodate people with neurodiversity needs. For example being able to comfortably leave an event if you need a break for whatever reason.

Another member of the conversation felt like they didn’t want to care anymore, like they were being asked to parent the audience members. I felt uncomfortable with this as it feels a cop out to ask of others personal responsibility when we live in a society that doesn’t enable this for all beings, and when one is refusing to take responsibility for their own output into that society. It’s frustrating that accessibility is still an afterthought, and a somewhat contentious one. That to care is understood as being subjected to another’s needs, rather than being a radical act. This must reflect back on who is being platformed and enabled.

There did seem to be a lack of consideration around accessibility at Berwick. I didn’t see information about captioning, hearing loops, audio description, venue accessibility, content warnings, or break spaces. This does lead to thinking about who is enabled to be at that festival, in that conversation and at that parties at the golf club where attendees danced into the early hours.

I did leave inspired, excited and happy to have attended. There was a large complex web of sensibilities and themes that resonated with me. I ate a chip butty. I did some dancing. It made me think more about what I want the work I make to do. It left me feeling a joyful kinship with some of the work being presented. In his presentation of Lionel Soukaz, Paul Clinton discussed how some of the work was used as an awareness raising tool, with discussions occurring after the screenings of the issues around LGBTQ+ rights, drug use, and illness. I wonder if these feelings I describe as affirmation, or kinship when watching the work of some folks, is akin to that form of awareness raising.

1 https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1041698
2 These are both locations in Tove Jansson’s The Moomin books and comics. The most prominent visuals of this world for me is the Japanese-Finnish-Dutch anime television series produced by Telecable Benelux B.V. in 1990.
3 Cemetery, 2018, Carlos Casas
4 ‘A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, or keeper. Usually, a mahout starts as a boy in the family profession when he is assigned an elephant early in its life. They remain bonded to each other throughout their lives’ Mahout Wikipedia entry, accessed 16/10/2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahout
5 ‘The most common tools used by mahouts are chains and the Goad Aṅkuśa (or ankus, anlius) – a sharp metal hook used in the training and handling of the elephant by stabbing the elephant in the head, and in areas like the mouth and inner ear, where the animal is most sensitive.’ Mahout Wikipedia entry, accessed 16/10/2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahout
6 https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/in_depth/who-on-earth-is-donna-haraway-why-the-art-world-cant-get-enough-of-the-posthuman-ecofeminist-and-55676
7 the names have changed, including my own and truths have been altered, 2019, Onyeka Igwe
8 https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/#rf55-7774
9 This quote, and my understanding of this concept come from Judith Butler’s 2018 Glasgow Gifford Lectures: ‘’My Life, Your Life: Equality and the Philosophy of Non-Violence’ which took place over three October nights at the University of Glasgow.
10 Come Coyote, 2019, Dani ReStack & Sheilah ReStack
11 You Were an Amazement on the Day You Were Born, 2019, Cooper Battersby & Emily Vey Duke
12 Ixe, 1980, Lionel Soukaz