LSO St Luke’s, London | 8 June
Around three-quarters of the way through Hypnosis Display – the Opera North-commissioned collaboration between the San Francisco-based filmmaker Paul Clipson and Portland’s Liz Harris (of Grouper fame), tonight screened within the gorgeous, cavernous enclaves LSO St Luke’s – a disembodied voice declares retrospective feelings of “… uneasiness, in a place that maybe we never should have been.”
The voice is, we believe, referring to an alien abduction or similar, but the phrase effectively pins down the overwhelming, sprawling disorientation of the duo’s breathtaking new work. As a ruminative vision of America – “a collective mind’s-eye trip through landscapes of American myth making” according to Opera North’s press release- Hypnosis Display sees the construction of a truly otherworldly landscape, at once largely manmade but simultaneously dehumanised and foreign, a kind of inverted Turnerian Frontier. If there still exists an academic belief that America in this sense is ‘closed’ (or, rather ‘finished’), then Clipson’s and Harris’ iteration, in contrast, is a totally alien appropriation of a familiar space, in effect repositioning it as a new contemporary sphere of the unknown.
The film opens with flickering shots of rippling water, one of the few visions of a truly unadulterated natural world herein. America’s west coast is cited – along with the ‘worker’, the ‘city’, and the ‘street’- as a key landscape in Hypnosis Display; that it opens and closes with this elemental motif is significant in representing an impossible barrier, the Pacific, to the historically West-facing progress of the country as a both a geographic and socio-cultural concept. From here, Clipson intersperses glimpses of a figure – a recurring sight throughout the next 75 minutes, and essentially an everyman protagonist afforded the overlying status of metaphysical observer – with shots of degraded gossamer and intense zooms on, at first, water droplets on leaves, before quickly segueing to details of decaying plant life, themselves precursors to the views of the tumbledown, collapsing warehouses which tie more directly to the aforementioned themes.
Details of stairwells, chain link fences and bridge columns become complex geometric patterns, passing us swiftly by like the dark, unfamiliarly rendered train carriages Clipson returns to over and over again – the latter an archetypal facet of the ‘myth’ of America, remaining both staidly modern and romantically archaic. Skyscraper frontages roll past on an almost infinite loop, Harris’ banks of woozily buried, arpeggiated keys simultaneously lending proceedings the air both of a rollercoaster in inescapably endless motion and an alien architecture of impossibly precise angles. People appear largely as shadows; though we do see a few in detail, they’re never truly immersed in their environments. Rather, they’re almost ghostly figures, simply observing rather than becoming a tangible, convincing part of their surroundings.
The difficulty in grasping Hypnosis Display as a conceptual whole comes with the simple rush of being overloaded with visual information; I feel as if I’m admitting defeat by stating that my understanding of the film as I saw it feels near impossible to clarify with words. But perhaps this is a complement to the artists. Indeed, by the time we reached the closing ten minutes or so of wildly flickering, heavily layered car headlights and lit-up cityscapes, banally simple truths refigured as divine entities, something as straightforward as ‘concept’ (ha!) over visual fireworks seems a distant memory.
It should go without saying that Hypnosis Display is crushingly beautiful, and certainly the most strikingly immersive piece of film I’ve seen for many years. Clipson’s collages of 16mm film – largely black and white but occasionally bursting into vivid technicolour – are unrelentingly kinetic, expressing themes by way of churning repetition and quickfire cutting, lulling the viewer into a dreamlike state of hypnosis. It’s all quite breathtaking, a step up from the already impressive collaborative work he’s been responsible for with other likeminded sonic artists such as Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
Harris’s soundtrack, inevitably, plays second fiddle to the visuals. This is not to disparage her work; though there are occasions of iridescent beauty scattered throughout – recalling the AIA duo of records particularly – and the constant grounding of ebbing waves of tidal drone, typically buried vocals and Wurlitzer loops is as satisfying as her other recent long form work, Violet Replacement. What is particularly interesting is Harris’ mannered use of fractured industrial loops, mirroring the motion-filled visuals, a far cry from her more commonly embraced aesthetics of woodsy murk and celestial drift.
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Words: Thomas Howells