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Birmingham Ornament

Yuri Leiderman, Andrej Silvestrov

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From the East: Week #3 Birmingham Ornament
Yuri Leiderman, Andrej Silvestrov
2011

67 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Date
Repeating till Tuesday, February 22, 12pm EST

For years now, Andrej Silvestrov and Yuri Leiderman have been working on an epic project called Birmingham Ornament, a Surrealist series of (politically often very pointed) skits that, theoretically, can be arranged and re-arranged at will.

The film comprises several narrative lines, each of which was shot with its own specific stylistics in different corners of the planet. All the lines in the film intersect to form a common statement expressing criticism of modern civilization, and tossing around Oriental tyranny and European democracy’s lack of determination.

Birmingham Ornament is the third installment of From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat) as the ninth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The film is presented alongside a text response by Uri Gershowitz.

From the East runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 10 through February 20, 2022, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned response published in text form.

A Poem About Poetic Language: An Analysis of Yuri Leiderman and Andrej Silvestrov’s Birmingham Ornament
By Uri Gershowitz
Translated from the Russian by Sergey Levchin

There is no question that we are dealing with a work of poetry, highly multi-dimensional and multifaceted. What then is its subject? Poetic language. More precisely,poetic language as envisioned by the Futurists—one that must bring about redemption, a better life. The question of its timeliness aside, the ornament cries out for interpretation and analysis.

This pre-analytical, emotional response is highly significant, because it generates the sort of energy that is essential for an analysis of a difficult text. In what follows, I will attempt a detailed structural analysis and elicit the principal meanings of the first part of the film (as there is also Birmingham Ornament 2, 2013).

How then is this film put together? It is made up of a series of fragments, though it is hardly a disjointed patchwork: indeed, the ornament is woven out of several strands or lines. Each line is cut into segments—these are the numbered fragments—which are then reshuffled and presented to us out of order. At the same time, we cannot help but notice that each numbered fragment belongs to a certain line, that can be reconstructed if we but pay attention to the numbers. Let us take a closer look at the lines that make up the first part of the film.

LINE 1. Quasi-Surrealist Manifesto: The News Anchors

Some kind of information is delivered to us in the form of a TV newscast. In my view, this line represents a poetic manifesto, comparable in some respects to the Surrealist Manifesto of André Breton. I will refer to it as the Quasi-Surrealist Manifesto.

LINE 2. Ornamental

The second line is made up of live musical performances recorded at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham. The pieces are performed by various ethnic ensembles and filmed before a succession of peculiar backgrounds: e.g., images of Anne Frank, wartime newsreels, images of memorials associated in some way with the Second World War, etc. The multi-ethnic character of the performances, along with the chosen backgrounds and staged props may share some common thread, yet each stands on its own, and connections between them appear arbitrary. I will refer to this line as Ornamental, since its ornamental quality is most distinctly pronounced.

LINE 3. Testimonial

The third line is one of testimonial or narrative: Yuri Leiderman’s father is filmed recounting the story of a Jewish family’s survival during WWII. This is a personal testimonial of the Holocaust, similar to those recorded by Claude Lanzmann. The language in this line is “normative,” i.e., typical of a storyteller and lacking any surrealist qualities.

LINE 4. Performances in Odessa

In the fourth line, three red-headed Nazis wander through Odessa, staging a series of performances. Besides the three performers, this line includes a group of people gathered on a balcony, discussing the outbreak of the Second World War and a boy hiding from the Nazis in a courtyard, among others.

LINE 5. Poetic Odessa

This line, which I am calling Poetic Odessa, focuses on the singer-songwriter Stas Podlipsky—a man who had faced a great deal of adversity in his life and emerged as one of the most prominent “bards” of Odessa in the 1980s.

LINE 6. Philosophical Poesis

I refer to this line as “philosophical,” though the philosophical and the poetic are difficult to tease apart. The protagonist of this line is the Berlin-based actor, theater director, and poet Grigory Koyfman. The provisional title Philosophical Poesis is meant to distinguish it from the “musical poesis” of the preceding line. These are two distinct types of poetic language, though for the moment we will not delve into the finer distinctions between the two.

Besides the six strands outlined above, we can distinguish several “points,” e.g. a fragment in which Yuri Leiderman appears with his daughters, and which does not appear to belong to any of the six lines. We can construe these fragments as a kind of “dotted line” that runs through the first part of the film and into the second. Another example of a “point” is the fragment “Saint Mandelstam,” an icon-like portrait of the poet set amidst a group of horses at pasture somewhere in Siberia. This is another “dotted line” connecting the two halves of the film.

It should be noted that elements of Surrealist language are present in all strands of the film, with the exception of the narrative or testimonial line, but each line is distinct with respect to the Surrealist quality of its language.

The Transformation of Goepolitics Into Geopoetics

We have now distinguished six (and a half) strands that make up the film. The question before us: What is happening here in terms of meaning? What meanings are generated by the fragmented intertwining of these strands? To answer these questions, we must take a closer look at one of the most important lines, the Manifesto. In this manifesto, the idea of a poetic language—perhaps even of the work as a whole—is presented at the very outset. The first fragment begins with the words:

“Basically, the idea of turning ethnicity, politics, race, whole people — of turning them into non-existent objects, something akin to rollers, boxes, clumps, wardrobes… Basically, political invectives, which must be understood strictly as poetical invectives. Basically, to smear geopolitics over geology and poetics.”

Thus, the transformation of geopolitics into geopoetics is one of the principal ideas presented to us at the start of the film. How are we to understand this gesture? In the most radical sense, it denotes a change in the mode of existence or a means of existence. In other words, we are dealing with a mode of existence wherein my perception of reality is strictly mediated through the prism of the poetic. (the prefix “geo-” is critical here, inasmuch as it points to the multiplicity, or manifold nature, of the poetic. For those tempted to interpret this multiplicity from a postmodernist perspective, the “news anchors” return in another fragment to explain that it is something other than a simple proliferation—see below.)

The second appearance of the “news anchors” (Fragment 2) is even more fraught and more abstruse, pointing up the radical nature of the project. Here we are told, “National Socialism had for the first time achieved a reverse transformation from geopolitics to geopoetics.” So this, it would seem, is the transition accomplished by the Nazis (cf. Nidesh Lawtoo, “Poetics and Politics (with Lacoue-Labarthe),” 2017). Is it possible that such a transformation may be realized under a fascist regime? The answer comes in the following sentence: “This was an evil transition, below the level of life, elevating life into the monstrously significant.” The elevation of life into the monstrously significant results in the Holocaust. In other words, Fascism is, indeed, a geopoetics, but one that places life center-stage. Such a geopoetics is located “below life,” as it were, elevating life into something significant, a kind of desired ideal. Such an interpretation of life (even if geopoetical) leads to the Holocaust. “Whereas our transition is a kind of white magic, vis-à-vis the black magic of Fascism. It is an empty ornamental transition above the level of life, reducing life to the monstrously insignificant.” This, in other words, is a radically different poetic project, in which life, through a poetic act, ends up “below” poesis, i.e., turns out to be something utterly insignificant. In this sense, one must be transformed into a creature inhabiting a poetic world rather than the real (i.e., political, social, cultural, etc.) world. One’s life must be located wholly in this poetic world: one must evolve a poetic existence wholly impermeable to the underlying realities of life (ordinary, everyday life—what the film refers to as “f*cking life”). The Manifesto, moreover, informs us that the poetic itself must remain in seed form and by no means sprout forth.

In reality, the idea behind this project is hardly new. We may recall Marinetti: It is 1908 and he is in his car, driving along a road. While trying to pass some bicyclists, he winds up in a ditch—and has an epiphany. This is the origin of the Futurist Manifesto, which proclaims the emancipation of revolutionary language, the fracturing of syntax, etc. We may recall Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, which puts forth a similar message, “Fare­well to absurd choices, the dreams of dark abyss, rivalries, the prolonged patience, the flight of the seasons, the artifi­cial order of ideas, the ramp of danger, time for every­thing! May you only take the trouble to practice poetry.” We may recall the OBERIU poets, Kharms and Vvedencsky (they are explicitly mentioned in the film). Despite their differences, all these movements may be characterized as a pursuit of a life-conquering poesis. We may recall similar efforts not only in poetry, but also in the visual arts (relevant names and movements are referenced in part two of the film—here we might only mention Abstract Expressionism with its roots in Surrealism). All these references underscore the fact that Birmingham Ornament is but a continuation of that tradition, a new attempt to accomplish what Futurism, Surrealism, and other movements could not. It is an avant-garde that is one hundred years old: Its one hundred years of solitude passed, it emerges once more. I see this “re-emergence” as a neo-Surrealism or a neo-avant-garde, i.e., a new effort at a poetic language that will at last overcome this eternity, this “f*cking life,” everything that makes man subservient to politics, society, etc.

Ornamentality

Now we can understand the title of the film, which is simply “an empty ornamental transition occurring above the level of life.” Why ornamental? Why is ornamentalism so significant here? Why this emphasis not only on surrealist language—the poetic surrealism of Stas Podlipsky, the philosophical surrealism of Grigory Koygman, the performative surrealism on display in Odessa and Birmingham and the surrealist manifesto of the “newscast”—but also on fragmentariness, the breaking-up of the various strands into points continually interrupting one another? Here, I believe, lies a matter of utmost significance: It is impossible to invent a surrealist language that would not turn into black magic, become fascistic in nature, a language sprouting like grass, trapping me and drawing me into some kind of social or political partisanship. To keep this from happening, I must prevent this language from sprouting: Just as soon as I demarcate it, I must suppress it. And this suppression requires a further technique—one of reflection, wherein something is caught up and instantly brought down, turned upside down, crossed out. For example: Behind the surrealist language deployed by the “news anchors” one clearly detects the tenor of a manifesto, evident in such phrases as “we shall overcome all,” “unfurl a new reality,” etc.—all hearkening back to Marinetti, Breton, et al. Yet, when accompanied and interrupted by a tale of the Holocaust, the “manifesto” assumes a wholly different quality: Before the backdrop of the Holocaust it changes its meaning and loses its lofty “tenor.” At the same time, in the film the Holocaust is consistently positioned not as an historical or political phenomenon but as a poetic one. Here we glimpse the radical nature of the project: “In essence, ‘geopoetics’ is itself the Holocaust, understood as a vocal ensemble, ensemblement, Eskimo.” The Eskimo, in other words, is an upside-down Holocaust, annihilating any sprouts of a socio-political language. Ornamentality, it seems, is a mechanism for the “mutual degradation” of all utterances that make up the composition. The story of the actual Holocaust is set off by the performances of the red-haired Nazis in the Odessa train station, while the images of Anne Frank are offset by a performance of Indian music. This intersection of several languages, interrupting one another, may well open a path toward a poetic language that keeps itself in check, preventing itself from burgeoning into some kind of fascistic utterance, some kind of shoot, some kind of political power—something that occurs continuously throughout the entire history of avant-garde movements. We can recall Marinetti’s “alliance” with Mussolini, the revolutionary bent of the Futurists, etc. It would be easy enough simply to declare: I reject all revolutions, war, struggle, etc. Yet there is no such declaration in the film. On the contrary, revolution and war are constantly discussed in the Manifesto. In the third fragment of the Manifesto we are told, “This is not foolish post-modernism, not a proliferation of equally valid ideas, but seedlings, which will never sprout, never become grass.” They are talking about war, but war is transported into the realm of the poetic: It is a struggle for poesis.

Struggle in the Realm of Poesis

When I analyze a text (any text), I put my full trust in the author (who is never dead to me, no matter how abstract he may be). This trust is what allows me to get at the true meaning of the author’s message. What should a pale intellectual think about? Where else might he find the bend of his knee, secure a place where conversations fade? But the source—indeed, the very source we seek—is called war.” In other words, this project is not one of peace. It is a war, but one that takes place, as we have said before, in the realm of language, the realm of poesis. It is a struggle against all tendencies of the poetic to tilt toward the real, the socio-political. Thus, the performances recorded in Birmingham are “defamiliarized” (a term coined by the Russian Formalists) not only by virtue of their own visual-poetic language, but through interaction with fragments from the other strands of the film. In this way their potential socio-political resonance is canceled: Geopoetics displaces geopolitics. “The important thing is to keep piling up agglomerations in this world, where everyone in their pursuit of happiness seeks after alleviation and despises agglomeration.” These are linguistic or poetic agglomerations. Poetic agglomerations grow into an ornament, whereby one can break through the tranquility, lassitude, engrossment in the dingy washtub of real life that leaves no room for the poetic.

From one of the fragments we learn that:

“Social foundations prevail powerfully through all of Russian literature, even in its absurdist iteration. Even in Kharms and Vvedensky—all those communal apartments, knocking on doors, police, open up. What if we made all that social veneer go away completely, like rain, like a lost jacket? What if we turned that communal apartment into a devil-knows-what—a hotel on a sea coast, that’s when we’d get the kind of scrap of wood that is, strictly speaking, nothing at all, but anything may be carved out of it.”

This pursuit of a scrap of wood in contrast to the thing made is precisely the path indicated above—because anything already made, any carved figure is instantly transformed into an object for social or political manipulation. The strategy of preserving the poetic is to produce scraps of wood, blanks, golems, which can be carved into something—potentials rather than finished “products.”

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Uri Gershovich (based in Moscow) is a philosopher and expert in medieval Jewish philosophy. He spent twelve years at the Steinsaltz Institute where he worked on the Russian translation of the Talmud. Since 1998, he is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Jewish Culture in Russian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and lecturer in Judaica at Moscow State University and at St. Petersburg State University. From 2012-2016, director of research at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Gershovich has participated in a series of theatrical projects, including the productions Engagement (dir. G. Seltzer) and Sipurimspiel (dir. A. Silvestrov).

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Category
Film, Democracy
Subject
Russia, Humor & Comedy, Europe, Modernity, Surrealism
Return to From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages
Return to Artist Cinemas

Yuri Leiderman (b. 1963, Odessa, Ukraine) is an artist and writer, and one of the Moscow Conceptualists. He has participated in apartment exhibitions in Moscow and Odessa since 1982. He was one of the founding members of the Medical Hermeneutics group in 1987, leaving the group in 1990. Leiderman was a participant in the 68th Venice International Film Festival and at Venice Biennale (1993 and 2002), Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam (1996), and Biennale of Sydney (1998). He lives and works in Berlin.

Andrey Silvestrov is a film and theater director, artist, and producer. His film works as director and producer include Volga-Volga (2006), Kandinsky Award for the Best Media Project of the Year; Brain (2010), Best Experimental Film Award of the Syracuse International Film Festival in New York; Birmingham Ornament (2011), Discovery Award of the Horizons Program at The Venice International Film Festival; and Birmingham Ornament 2 (2013), Special Prize of the Rome Film Festival. Special and retrospective screenings of Andrey Silvestrov’s films took place at TATE Modern (London, UK), Ludwig Museum (Cologne, Germany), Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, UK), and Pompidou Centre (Paris, France). As an artist he has taken part in contemporary art biennials in Bergen, Kiev, Odessa, and Istanbul as well as other exhibitions. He lives and works in Moscow.

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