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Five Degrees of Longitude

Metahaven talk about their work “Hometown” and the world it inhabits

Ghina Abboud in Hometown (2018)

Amsterdam-based artists Metahaven employ a variety of tools, concepts, and tropes to reveal the poetic potential of the mutations humanity has been going through. In its inaugural issue Home, EastEast had a chance to present an exclusive online screening of their two-channel film work Hometown (2018). Researcher and EastEast editor Lesia Prokopenko spoke with Metahaven’s Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden about their work and the world it inhabits.  

“Before we continue, let us agree on the time,” suggests the protagonist of Metahaven’s 2018 film Hometown. But the station clock’s noon, “made out of one and two,” happens to be three—moreover, we later find out that “the station clock came to a standstill, it’s always the same hour.” Our only chance to synchronize is to become attuned to the dream-like logic of unmeasurable time and ever-changing space. 

Hometown was shot in two different cities located in the same time zone, only five degrees of longitude apart. One of them is in Western Asia while the other is in Eastern Europe. The narrator-protagonist of the film has two faces and two voices, represented by the names of Lera and of Ghina. Perfectly entangled, they aren’t and yet are the same person. The environment they inhabit is woven from the loosely identifiable cityscapes of Kiev and Beirut, welded together by the oil-spill rainbow of viscous animated insertions, by shadows and the glare of the sun “hiding in moonless blue.” Ghina sets a time and place for a meeting: “I’ll see you at dawn where the road splits in two,” arriving there alone to encounter herself in a joyful dance. 

A fictional “forgotten city, forever remembered” is the only possible homecoming destination. Home is a dimension that always needs to be discovered anew. At any given point, there is nothing more concrete and nothing more elusive. A hometown keeps constructing itself around you in your sleep, and you never wake up to the same world as the previous day. Home is always both of the future and of the past: “I return to where I never lived before.”

What, then, is in the present? Deliberate ice-cream leaks, pixelated real-life lemons (for the shoot, they were roughly peeled to resemble badly rendered digital imagery), a shanzhai plastic bag with a BMW logo spelt “WWW” (found by chance at a Ukrainian market). The present is a cunning trick, a fleeting diffraction of matter and data. To embrace its absurdity is the only way to reach a moment of clarity. In another serendipitously filmed sequence, Lera comes across a white butterfly and demonstrates what one is to do with this newly emerged fragile sense: grasp it gently and set it free. 

Metahaven. Hometown (2018). Installation view at e-flux, New York, 2019. Photography by Gustavo Murillo Fernández-Valdés

Lesia Prokopenko: While working on the script for Hometown, you drew inspiration from Russian nursery rhymes—I know about your particular love for “The Crocodile” by Korney Chukovsky and Eugene Ostashevsky’s translations of poetry by Russian absurdists. What is, in your opinion, the value of reading it today? 

Metahaven: We are still at the very beginning of answering this question for ourselves. First, there is joy in this poetry. It goes way beyond reading a funny story. The funniness is in the semantics just as much as it is with the materiality of the syntax. Then there is also a concern with truth. The moment that we encountered the work of Chukovsky, Kharms, Vvedensky, Marshak, and many others, was at a crossroads in our own lives in the company of a dying parent and a young child. So, our first encounter with this work came at a moment when its angel-like nature was immediately clear to us. This sequence in our life made illogicisms in absurdist poetry and children’s poetry feel natural: happiness in sorrow, sorrow in happiness, dark lightness, light darkness. 

Why angel-like? Because of the cuteness and the anarchic innocence. We’ve written elsewhere that “a child’s first speech acts do not consist of words so much as sounds. We measure the result that these sounds produce by something other than their effectiveness at transacting. While we tend to live by a working agreement that things in the world correspond to their names, we rejoice in a small person voiding that agreement.” Language in a child’s world is always in the making, and children often take language more seriously than adults do. Even when they become aware of the system of (social) rules and contexts that people use to give value to statements, they may ignore it. Adults often manipulate their message to get a point across, and in doing so violate whatever brittle contract existed between language and reality in subtle yet essential ways. For example:

Y (me, waiting at a red traffic light, with X, on a bike):
            “Ah, this is taking forever.”
X (six years old):
            “No, it’s taking a few minutes.”

The key operation of some of the proto-absurdist perevortyshi (turnarounds) and their predecessors, nebylitsi (neverhoods) is about putting things together that don’t match, that contradict each other, about putting them inside the “wrong” kind of logic. This combination is intuitively funny and in a certain sense true: more true than their forced separation into sense and nonsense. Because these rhymes do not exist in a vacuum, they can be read as political; they always prevent some centralized version of reality from appearing to (or claiming to) make perfect sense. They were deemed politically suspect during a regime and during a time that was obsessed, like ours, with “realism.” Chukovsky was accused of inaccurately portraying the lives of crocodiles; the OBERIU authors were, in their autonomous poetry as well as their works for children, persecuted for political agitation. 

Our receptiveness to this poetry does not make us experts. There is a long way from loving to understanding, and we are somewhere on that road. Right now, precisely, we are in the mid-eighteenth century, trying to understand an anonymous poem from that time that already appears to exhibit many of the traits that can be found in works from the twentieth century. 

It seems that the emergence of absurdist poetry in Russia, while not exactly an isolated process, took place along distinct paths. In part, it seems to have branched from a nomadic, satirical folk tradition linked to the carnivalesque, which was at odds with the formation of a centralized Russian empire and the increasingly central role of the church. But there are also mystical aspects to it—not necessarily in opposition with the carnivalesque―that relate to apophatic religious statements.

This tradition was then also cross-pollinated with influences from France, Germany, and England.

In the second half of the twentieth century, folk absurdism became a subject of scholarly observation and scientific study, at least in the West. Chukovsky’s From Two To Five was widely read in English. The folklorists Iona and Peter Opie coined perevortyshi as “tangletalk,” indicating how it entangles its utterer in an impossible proposition. Politically, it remains an intensely networked body of work. Indeed, Pussy Riot cites Vvedensky, but they also cite Nikolai Berdyaev—both, with all their differences considered, could be seen as mystics. The subtle possibility of mysticism, of holy fools, is almost never reproduced in the narrative that seeks to label absurdism as straightforward political art. Something like OBERIU’s “meaninglessness,” for which its members were persecuted, asks the difficult question of political art to define itself and even the question as to whether such an art can purposefully exist.

The time to which this work belongs has not ended.

LP: Is that what you mean when your protagonist says she inherited “the future of the ruins?” 

MH: Poetry is a living object. It is intertextual. It practises memorizing and forgetting, repeating, and building upon building. Through all that, it survives not just as a written document, but also as a living immediacy of art meant to be understandable to all, if only (or especially) during a fragmentary glimpse.

The quote from Hometown you mention is honing in on the idea that you do not just inherit the object but that object’s future. Just like Henri Bergson wrote, that “time […] is nothing but space,” Vvedensky wrote of a “shimmering” that occurred when you disregarded the conventional measuring units of time, and looked closely beyond or between them: the measurements-as-names for time’s (and thus of life’s) organization readily dissolved.

Lera Luchenko and Ghina Abboud in Hometown (2018)

LP: Could you speak more about the poetry in Hometown? How did the film come about in general, did you have any particular strategies in your working process?

MH: The film would not have been possible without those who worked on it, most of all Ghina Abboud, the protagonist on the Beirut side. Ghina is a filmmaker herself. Ghina is an observer and a caregiver and a highly spiritual person. We were so lucky to meet Ghina, and also to stay in touch through thin lines of dispersed messages. There isn’t much of a strategy there to be honest. You can’t strategize about finding a common interest or even a common ethic. But you can try to act in such a way so that the possibility of a common interest, or ethic, may arise. Jinane Chaaya (who produced the film in Beirut) has been important as well. Jinane is used to working on much more prestigious films and initially saw our project as an experimental film. That’s not typically good news within the context of cinema, but in Jinane's case this was different. She created a space for the film to grow. And Karim Ghorayeb, the cinematographer, was so important for Hometown as well with his festive, fast, and improvisational approach. Of course, we want to celebrate our co-workers on the film, to make a point about how films come together and how different this is―for us at least!―from drafting something out on a computer screen. On the Kiev side it was no different: everything there originated from an earlier collaboration with Yulia Yefimtchuk, a Kiev-based fashion designer who is working with unisex clothing with post-Soviet design motifs. Yulia has also since then created garments with the slogan “Propaganda About Propaganda,” evidently inspired by The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda), our 2015 film that we had a long conversation with you about a few years ago. The recursivity of process is vital here. Yulia and Tania Monakhova, the line producer, then introduced us to the camera duo Yarema Malashchuk and Roman Himey―who are also filmmakers―and to Lera Luchenko who became Ghina’s counterpart in Kiev. Also here, the film went through a growth process. We recall rehearsing the script via Hangouts with Lera in Kiev and Alex Anikina in Moscow. Alex—an artist, researcher, and teacher who recently got her PhD at Goldsmiths—not only translated the English script into Russian but also influenced and changed it. In particular by inventing a new word: “co-sensuality” / “со-чувственность” for “morality from within.” The scene in which that word occurs was the first one we recorded, in the upstairs area of a market hall in Kiev, and the first take from that recording was included in the film. 

Poetic cinema can cross-pollinate the implications between a word and an image and vice versa, and is not determinist, whereas narrative cinema steers a story in one direction and not another. Poetic cinema can potentially appear cyclic, whereas narrative―in which entropy is leading―tends to feel linear. Hometown was made within a tension between poetic and narrative―there are elements of both but rather than being on either side of the division, the film contains pockets of storytelling, like lyrics and a chorus almost.

Hometown could not have been possible without Mhamad A. Safa, a composer, musician, and architect, who at the time operated under the moniker LAIR. The main theme that Mhamad wrote somehow joins into the emotional space of early Detroit techno of Derrick May and Carl Craig—haunting, melodic, and lyrical. For us, it breathes the idea of dawn, of beginning, of the early morning after a night spent excitedly awake. It appears in the film two times: once around the beginning, when Ghina is eating an icecream, and second, when she is jumping on the empty Hamra―Place des Martyrs junction in Beirut, “where the road splits in two.” For us, that scene is about a one-person rave.

LP: Coming back to Vvedensky, his poem “Snow Lies” has a prominent presence in your film Eurasia (Questions on Happiness), 2018: “the world flies around the universe / nearby the hot white stars / flits imperishable bird / seeks a home a nest / there's no nest a hole / the universe is alone…” What is Eurasia about? Does it have any connection to the conceptual and visual intuitions of Hometown

MH: Eurasia is a docufiction-slash-poem reckoning with the border zone between Europe and Asia and the territorial fictions, infrastructural megaprojects, kitsch interfaces, and nationalist politics invoked in this critical age of “counterglobalization.” Structured around three poems interwoven with a narrative situated in and around the eastern Urals, Eurasia binds together the paradoxical worlds of pipelines, Belt and Road infrastructures, polluted landscapes, and plastic drinking straws produced in eastern China—and distributed all over the world—through a densely interconnected web of cinematic scenes and archival materials. Vvedensky’s “Snow Lies” (1930) is one of the three guiding poems and the most important of them: it pictures a “death,” and subsequent “resurrection” of a woman amidst anxiety-inducing illogicisms that are mystical and funny at the same time. 

Above: Metahaven, Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) (2018). Installation view at Version History, ICA London, 2018. Photography by Mark Blower

: Metahaven. Stills from Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) (2018)

The obvious difference with Hometown is that while we are responsible for the structure and narrative of Eurasia, in the latter we cite someone else’s work. The film cites Vvedensky and applies it to a situation that may or may not relate to his work. But we think it does. In particular, “Snow Lies” appears at a moment that we are in Karabash, a copper smelting town near Chelyabinsk, and there are mountains of black slag and mountains where nothing grows in the sulfuric and arsenic climate. That devastated space in which the pastoral and epic functions of nature and landscape are all but dead resonates well with the poem where we may say that, as in other works of Vvedensky and OBERIU, phraseology is kind of destroyed and turned on its head. In the same way, something new begins in this site of passive geophysicality.

LP:What was your intention behind turning to the notion of Eurasia? How does it relate to the perpetual shifts in one’s perception of space brought by new communication technologies and to the ongoing questioning of Eurocentric routes?

MH:It may be useful to circle back to some of our earlier work, for example when we used graphic design to speculatively “represent” islands, such as Sealand, or Iceland (the latter in 2012, through the campaign Come to Iceland. Bring Data). Planetarity, the possession of a planetary-scale reality as well as a reality of the planet in the cosmos, is to a large extent decided by the notion that there are no islands within its condition―that this reality is borderless and cannot be confined by natural or artificial boundaries. On the other hand, (geo)politics still pretends to be governed by―as well as govern through―the exception and thus the boundary. All bordered political bodies are in essence enclaves, spaces of exception. These spaces—like islands―also function as ways to experiment with projecting dreams or edge conditions that apply their own rules or non-rules. 

To claim that communication technologies shift our perception of space is to acknowledge the paradoxes, clashes, and overlaps that manifest themselves between planetarity and the enclave. In the same way that nobody has ever seen “The Roman Empire” in its entirety, nobody has ever seen “Eurasia.” Eurasia is a sub-planetary concept called into existence to counter or exist alongside other sub-planetary concepts. It does not tell us anything more than that Europe and Asia are not separated from each other by water. 

That being said, while nobody has seen Eurasia, there are instances of Eurasia that can be seen and are telling. During filming, we went from Ekaterinburg to the Kazakh border, first through the heavily industrialized Ural cities and then onward into the empty steppes.

Metahaven. Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) (2018)
"Snow Lies" (1930) by Alexander Vvedensky

Within the steppes, something peculiar happens to the landscape: an emptying out, “опустошение,” of content, and therefore of what we can call “meaning.” The territory, optically, ceases to be a collection of “things” and ceases to provide orientation or direction. At the same time the steppe is not “nothing,” it does not conform to the idea of either a clean slate or a desert. It empties out, pauses meaning, providing a huge, stretched-out canvas to reconsider what reality is. That this spatial phenomenon manifests itself within the transitional area between (or perhaps: belonging to both) Europe and Asia may be a complex form of environmental coincidence, yet at the same time it translates as a canvas for planetarity. If we’re correct, the artist Anton Vidokle filmed his trilogy on Russian Cosmism in Kazakhstan. Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker was originally planned to be filmed in Tajikistan. Through the notion of the Zone―as introduced by the Strugatsky brothers in their 1971 novel Roadside Picnic―planetarity and the enclave coincide. The Zone then contains what cannot be explained or claimed by the surrounding “normal.” 

Even though some of the key scenes in Eurasia are about this stretched-out canvas and the pause of meaning, the political impetus of Eurasia is not neutral. 

Metahaven. Topsy-turvy landscape. Stills from Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) (2018)

Commonly held space of difference, like the Eurasian steppe, relies on an always-unfinished practice of translation which is precarious and error-prone. The artist Natalia Papaeva has created what is to us a very striking performance work, titled Yokhor, consisting of a lullaby from the Buryat Republic. In it, the artist is desperately repeating―over and over, first singing, then shouting―the words she remembers from the lullaby, not only hinting at but embodying the disappearance of the Buryat language. Here, Papaeva is doing something more than representing Buryat culture on the world stage; she is embodying the vector by which that culture becomes untranslatable, by which it is becoming exempt from finding words. This points us to the limits of the presumption that we are all simply involved in reperceiving space through digital tools. The act of translation, always one of curiosity and restraint, itself depends on the availability of a live original.

The very tools of our translation―such as Google―are now also tools of our blindness. To your question, the rise of far-right nationalist politics across the board, as is the case in the political concept of Eurasianism, appears to be almost a function or even a pathology of the software platform. In a purely materialist explanation of these politics, getting low-cost scalability for a heretofore quite obscure political program has never been easier whereas this program’s common systemic opponent―multilateral liberalism―has never been more vulnerable.

Left: Metahaven. Mise-en-anthroposcene (2019), jacquard weaving, 190x120cm. e-flux, New York, 2019. Photography by Gustavo Murillo Fernández-Valdés

Right: Metahaven. Now You Know You Now (2019), jacquard weaving, 190x120cm. e-flux, New York, 2019. Photography by Gustavo Murillo Fernández-Valdés

LP: I tend to think of space as something that is being constantly produced by every single body that constitutes it (following Henri Lefebvre’s ideas as well as Luciana Parisi’s understanding of how the “algorithms construct the digital spatiotemporalities that program architectural forms and urban infrastructures, and are thereby modes of living”). In this sense, the tools you’ve mentioned always serve multiple conflicting—but also symbiotic—agendas at the same time, and none of these tools can claim a total outreach or “coverage...” 

MH:The question that haunts us here is who―or what―is the symbiont? If the tools are both conflicting yet also symbiotic, how can such an apparent paradox be described in a way that satisfies not just a need for clarity, but also a need for depth? Communication technology can be understood as a form of firing the fundamental and emergent properties of the universe back at how we communicate, e.g., it is thanks to and because of an ongoing excavation of the physical properties of force (like electromagnetics) that the earth itself transforms, terraforms, and is literally excavated from its materialities so that we can communicate, across everywhere, constantly faster. Our joint act of writing words to one another in a Google doc is part and parcel of the same process. Space is being constantly produced by all bodies, but some of these human and non-human bodies may possess “levers” or force multipliers to impact it both physically and cognitively in ways that others don’t. 

LP: Like a virus, for instance.

MH:Yes. We are now waking up to a world in which the possibility of movement is becoming severely limited. It does inspire a much closer look at one’s own surroundings, as well as the tools with which we re-create presence, such as the notorious video conferencing platform Zoom. At Strelka’s The Terraforming this spring, we conducted a “Zoom Cinema” class. We wanted to discuss (planetary) simultaneity. Can what we are going through as a species at the moment, in the context of COVID-19, be said to constitute a single, or the same thing? Since simultaneity governed so much of what we’ve come to think about as collective experience (a football match, TV series episode, rock concert, club night, presidential speech, “where were you when this and this happened,” etc.), it would be interesting to explore the potentiality of simultaneity in a time (the height of the COVID-19 pandemic) in which physical gathering itself is foreclosed. Millions of people are creating for one another a de facto form of live TV now that supplants physical simultaneity in the same rooms and buildings. Of course, instead, this form of telepresence serves us something else, something much more interesting, patchy, and unfinished, than Ersatz-thereness. What will happen, we asked, if we point the makeshift cinematic instruments that we are now condemned to outward, instead of at ourselves? The “Zoom meeting” gets redefined as a “film shoot” in a two-channel (two users in the meeting) field report on the circumstances of quarantine in two (or more) distinct locations. If “games are machines that fill memory,” can we imagine performing a series of experiments with the group on repurposing or even intentionally misusing the simultaneity apparatus for “cinematic” ends as just another way of filling its memory and perhaps flexing our mental apparatuses away from surveilling ourselves?

One coincidental element of the Zoom Cinema prompt is that many of its outcomes came to look like the Hometown setup, as in two 16x9 aspect ratio moving images next to each other. 

Left: Metahaven. Come to Iceland. Bring Data (2012), in collaboration with IMMI, Iceland

Right: Metahaven. Eurasia (Questions on Happiness) (2018). Installation view at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2018. Photography by Peter Tijhuis

LP: How has the pandemic affected your own feeling of home? And generally speaking, how do you feel about your actual home and hometown? 

MH: It’s by no means our intention to naturalize or normalize the idea of home in a way that reduces it to something familiar or comprehensible. Because it is not. We’re very fond of Flavia Dzodan’s short audio piece Home Office for Sonsbeek, in which a bit of Jordan Peterson gibberish interrupts the transmission, about which she says: “this radio— which is not a station—sometimes picks up static noise from outside.” That is so much of a sci-fi cinematic technique of wrapping! While discussing the radio piece with Flavia, we came to talk of a poem, by Giorgio Caproni, as it was cited by Svetlana Boym. It covers some of the trappings of thinking about a concept like home:

I have returned there
where I had never been.
Nothing has changed from how it was not.
On the table (on the checkered
tablecloth) half-full
I found again the glass
never filled. All
has just remained just as
I had never left it.

Sono tornato là
dove non ero mai stato.
Nulla, da come non fu, è mutato.
Sul tavolo (sull’incerato
a quadretti) ammezzato
ho ritrovato il bicchiere
mai riempito. Tutto
è ancora rimasto quale
mai l’avevo lasciato.

The detail here that does not get fully expressed in the stunning English version appears to be the incerato a quadretti: a chequered tablecloth that is waxed and maybe made of a plastic-like material. Not a luscious fabric, but its cheaper, PVC simulacrum, onto which the monochromatic tartan is printed, not woven. 

Our neighborhood grocery delivered fresh vegetables and other delicacies to our home doorstep about every two days while we were in quarantine. We sent them a shopping list as a WhatsApp direct message. Ramis replied, usually within seconds of receiving the message: “Toppie!” After collecting the groceries from his mom’s store, Ramis sent a cashier receipt and a so-called “Tikkie” which is a prompt for our payment.

Ramis appeared with the groceries just minutes later. 

During the lockdown many cities became versions of the same empty-looking typology, as if they were Pyongyang or East Berlin: versions of pre-1989 model cities without any significant sense of public life, and therefore looking like what the future used to look like―looking like the past of the future. In that way, the lockdown, which triggered so many support networks through intense affect, via email and overcrowded apps and interfaces, at the same time produced pristine skies with no airplanes and spatial emptiness, looking like a modernist plan, or like a music video. We are still vexed by this relatively brief but decisive phase of standstill.

LP:In early May, during the lockdown, Balenciaga released a video that you made for their Loop series: it’s a literal loop of 360-degree footage of a person walking through the forest, day and night—something straight out of Information Skies. I found it curiously insightful and humorous in its simplicity: the setting might seem monotonous, but the air is so clear, and, anyway, how could one ever get bored if one is traveling in the iris of an eye. What’s your take on it? 

MH:Balenciaga asked us to create a loop based on a sequence from our film Elektra (2019), in which we used a fish-eye lens and rotational movement. In Elektra, it was a child walking circles in a forest, with stunning music by Kara-Lis Coverdale.

Metahaven. Still from Elektra (2019) and Balenciaga Loop 09: Iris (2020)

To us, it is kind of striking how the emotion changes between the two pieces. The emotion in the Elektra sequence is something like “The lucky fact of your existence!” (this is a Shakira quote to be perfectly clear!) The piano, by Kara-Lis, says “I am!” and we agree. But it also echoes the interior voice: “I am responsible.” “I am displaced by the fact of your existence.”

Artwork credits:

Metahaven, Hometown (2018)
31 minutes
Languages: Arabic, Russian
Subtitles: English, Ukrainian

Made possible with the support of Sharjah Biennial 2017, Sharjah, UAE
With special thanks to Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; Izolyatsia, Kiev; Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam

Cast: Ghina Abboud, Lera Luchenko
Director of photography: Karim Ghorayeb, Yarema Malashchuk & Roman Himey
Music: Mhamad A. Safa
Line production: Jinane Chaaya, Tania Monakhova

Metahaven and EastEast would like to thank Walid el-Houri and Amal Issa for the provided information on the ways to support Beirut.

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Lesia Goleva
Head of Outreach and Partnerships, Contributing Editor at EastEast. Born in Kyiv and currently based in Berlin. She has studied Chinese philosophy and worked in culture and PR.
The work of Metahaven consists of filmmaking, writing, and design. Recent solo exhibitions include Turnarounds, e-flux, New York (2019), Version History, ICA London (2018), Earth, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (2018), Hometown, Izolyatsia, Kiev (2018), and Information Skies, Auto Italia, London (2016). Among recent group exhibitions are Ghost:2651, Bangkok (2018), the Sharjah Biennial (2017), and the Gwangju Biennale (2016). Recent publications include PSYOP: An Anthology (Koenig Books, London, 2018), and Digital Tarkovsky (Strelka Press, Moscow, 2018).