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Divine Violence, the fall 2017 exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, centered on disruption—political and otherwise. The show was defined by a percussive assault of moving images, sounds, and associated ideas. Curated by Yesomi Umolu, it featured four works coproduced by the artist Cinthia Marcelle and the filmmaker Tiago Mata Machado: the single-channel videos Buraco Negro (Black Hole) (2008), O Século (The Century) (2011), and Rua de Mão Única (One Way Street) (2013), and the two-channel video Comunidade (e o outro processo) (Community [and the other process]) (2015–16). Organized in two sections of the gallery, the pieces accentuated the precariousness of social harmony and foregrounded how our perception of the nature and magnitude of any particular disturbance hinges on the representation of such events and vice versa.
Marcelle and Mata Machado composed the selected video works in Brazil, where the longtime collaborators reside. Since 2013, the country has been home to pervasive civil unrest. Millions of protesters have taken to the streets to decry government corruption, censorship, and repression as well as issues like rising transportation costs and inadequate social services. Such ferment is efficiently schematized in the duo’s cinematic interpretations. In Community (and the other process), dozens of people alternately socialize and brawl while queuing at the perimeter of what seems to be a concert. In One Way Street, by comparison, tens of masked individuals charge toward an unseen barricade or barrier, hurling incendiaries and other projectiles off camera right. According to a 2017 interview with Marcelle and Mata Machado published by Newcity Brazil, the nonprofessional actors cast in this anonymous role included actual “black bloc” demonstrators who participated in some of the key protests of the summer of 2013. Yet, this context was impossible to glean from the video itself in accordance with the general ambiguity of the larger show. The indeterminate mise-en-scènes of One Way Street, Community (and the other process), and The Century look more reminiscent of blockbuster thrillers or dystopian sci-fi flicks than of any real-world locales.
Instead of offering a clear vantage point on current geopolitical affairs, the exhibition’s most identifiable source material was drawn from canonical political theory. Titles such as One Way Street and The Century reference the respective writings of Walter Benjamin and Alain Badiou. Even more conspicuously, the exhibition as a whole takes its name from Benjamin’s 1921 essay, “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” (Critique of Violence) in which he interrogates the etymological and ontological imbrications of violence and (dis)order. Highlighting the multivalence of the German word Gewalt, which denotes not only violence but also force, power, control, and might, he distinguishes between what he calls “mythical” and “divine” violence. He categorizes mythical violence as “lawmaking” and divine violence as “law-destroying,” explaining that “if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood” (Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, 297). In making this distinction, he underscores that divine violence exceeds even the most elaborate machinations of state and counter-state violence. Truly revolutionary, it is utter, infinite, and absolute.
The strikingly atmospheric nature of Divine Violence evoked this all-encompassing quality. In the room closest to the entrance, two black-and-white abstractions—Black Hole and one half of Community (and the other process)—shared the sole screen, looping consecutively. In the second and significantly larger room down the hall, color footage shot in desolate urban landscapes periodically played on four screens, with the second half of Community (and the other process) projecting on the interior of the hall’s partition, One Way Street running on the adjacent wall, and The Century showing on both sides of the far corner. Due to the spatial and conceptual proximity of the included works, visitors did not encounter discrete media installations so much as a totally immersive environment.
Between loops, the black-walled space fell unnervingly dark. Because of this intermittent visibility, it was sound, more so than what could or could not be seen, that enveloped audiences in the psychodrama of the exhibition. Much as the events on screen never devolved into sheer chaos, the accompanying audio eschewed pandemonium. The richly layered soundtracks—which included murmurs, barks, cheers, alarms, booms, cracks, clanks, chimes, guitar strums, slides, and the occasional shout—instead resembled something akin to minimal, ambient noise rock. Ranging from a low hum to a crescendoing racket, the cacophonous soundscapes guided visitors’ movements throughout the gallery.
Divine Violence’s atonal musicality was most overt in the live action footage of Community (and the other process), which presumably takes place within an earshot of a set or performance of some sort. On screen, concertgoers dutifully stand in a line that stretches the entirety of the frame. After several minutes, they break rank and begin to thrash around wildly, appearing to be fighting one moment and moshing the next. Just as the physicality seems to intensify, the crowd is forcibly dispersed. Marcelle and Mata Machado pair this recording with an animation that distills the fracas into clear-cut geometries: white vertical lines (each correlating to a concertgoer) pulse and vibrate against a black background, variously congregating, clashing, and scattering. The two-channel work brings into sharp focus the sublimated tensions that invariably inform and, at times, overwhelm our collectivity.
Such interrelationships are also the primary concern of Black Hole, which alludes—in its visual and sonic components and in the double entendre of its title—to cosmic instability and far more intimate entanglements. In the work, a white granulated substance is blown back and forth across the frame with increasing exertion until the seemingly antagonistic exchange climaxes in an audible orgasm. The inclusion of this primal union significantly expanded the scale of Divine Violence’s examined sociality. Definite parallels can be drawn, for example, between the liminal, ecstatic violence that permeates these throes of passion and the deliberate collisions of the concertgoers in Community (and the other process). On sight, Black Hole’s swirling, starry constellations rhymed beautifully with the dominant lines and colors of the exhibition as a whole. However, its blunt sexual content was difficult to square with the referential restraint of the other works on view.
The Century was, by far, the most confoundingly enigmatic. In the video, utilitarian items like rubber tires, hard hats, and metal drums crash into the frame from off camera, propelled by a consistent force that belies no source. This accumulation of effects powerfully literalizes the common journalistic lede, “violence + [verb],” used when reporting on the escalation or de-escalation of turmoil. An online search for the phrase “violence erupts in Brazil,” for example, yields several thousand hits. Deceptively agentless headlines like this simultaneously spectacularize and depoliticize the violence in question. In a similar fashion, The Century excludes any acknowledgement of the causes and consequences of its pictured mayhem. Although this destruction seems, at first, to represent a fantastical overthrow of the status quo, upon further consideration, it reveals itself to be quite innocuous: only consumer and industrial goods fall victim to the undisclosed force, the surrounding built environment remains untouched. If this is anarchy, the necessary rejoinder seems to be: by what measure? The work’s muted severity is all the more apparent when considered in relation to the dire character of One Way Street, which was installed to its immediate left. The two are conceptually coupled, albeit diametrically opposed: one depicts a coordinated attack on an unknown target under the cover of darkness; the other portrays the sustained bombardment of a specific site in broad daylight. One Way Street approximates the customary look of present-day insurrections, as popularized by viral photos and videos and Hollywood productions. The unfolding scene is imbued with uncertainty and possibility. The Century, by contrast, refuses this romanticism, instead presenting a jarringly materialist perspective on such attempted upheavals. It registers only the resulting wreckage, as though occurring in a historical vacuum.
In Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” he cautions that it is impossible to recognize divine violence as such, insofar as it exceeds—indeed, annihilates—what is otherwise known and knowable. There are obvious incongruities between his characterization of this totalizing force and the range of those displayed in Marcelle and Mata Machado’s Logan Center exhibition. By leaving so many details open to speculation, Divine Violence called attention to the limits and limitations of prevailing conceptualizations of social conflict and its resolution. This circumspection is all too needed in an age in which the rhetoric and imagery of so-called revolution are more ubiquitous and, arguably, more threadbare than ever before.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Pembroke Center, Brown University