“Come Here for a Minute First”
I And The Others in The Work of M+M
Is this a plea? A demand? A threat? Does this sentence which was chosen as the exhibition title herald the beginning of tenderness? Of a discourse? An argument? The ambivalent meaning of this phrase is designative.
While these questions remain unanswered, this much is clear: the sentence refers to the film The Shining by director Stanley Kubrick based on Stephan King’s novel with the same title: The words “Come here for a minute first” initiate a seemingly ordinary conversation between father and son. M+M (Marc Weis, Martin De Mattia) pick up on this dialogue in their two-part film narrative Montag (Monday) and turn it into a simultaneously enacted conversation held between father and daughter, and at the same time, between husband and wife.
M+M call these film installations in several parts synchronous narratives. In conversations, which occur simultaneously, almost identical dialogues are staged with changing protagonists. The actors use analogous rhythms and correlating speed in order to express contrasting emotions. In this way, they question language as a means of expressing individuality and identity, and examine the shifting interfaces of language and personality in an altered context.
The choral sound of questions and answers, which defines all M+M’s synchronous narratives, creates the impression of ritualised chanting, similar to spoken prayers in a congregation. However, while audibly recited prayer is intended to inspire a communal and devotional spirit in worshippers, M+M want to achieve exactly the opposite. Detachment and devotion, coldness and affection, violence and tenderness, aggressiveness and tranquillity, uncertainty and superiority are expressed with the same sentences. The viewer is left with the aggravating sense of no longer being able assess the situation.
The levelling of differentiated speech and action structures raises questions regarding individuality and identity – and also regarding the freedom of our thoughts and actions. How is identity defined today? How is personality constituted? What influences our language, our thinking and our recollections? How important is collective memory and what part do the media play in this context? And how about films?
“Everything we know about our society and even about the world in which we live, we know thanks to mass media.” These are the opening words in Niklas Luhmann’s essay, Die Realität der Massenmedien (the truth about mass media), which was published in 1995. The daily news defines our perception and interpretation of the present, films and shows provide patterns for personal experiences and individual communication, and form our collective memory.
M+M refer to these examples from the media in their texts and dialogues. They use speeches by contemporary politicians, current reports and motion pictures. Existing texts are taken out of context and isolated, and are dissected and reassembled at the same time. This procedure not only takes place in so-called magazines, which the artists publish with vivid and expressive typography, but also in synchronised film narratives with interchangeable actors. M+M disassemble the way in which a situation is perceived by simultaneously presenting several interpretations. This simultaneity intentionally overwhelms viewers and prevents them from classifying the situation as right or wrong, good or bad, or true or false in accordance with media rules as is usually done. Ideas of truth or reality lose their stability and become blurred in a labyrinthine reference system of possibilities.
The dialogue in the two-part installation Sonntag (Sunday) is taken from the 1963 film Le Mépris by Jean-Luc Godard. In the first sequence Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli as Camille and her husband Paul are lying in bed in a bored Sunday mood. She asks him whether he loves her feet, her knees, her bottom, her breasts, her neck etc. In this role Brigitte Bardot embodies both the naïve Lolita and the erotic seductress.
M+M turn this scene into a double enactment. The female part is played by a woman and also by a girl. The situation in the synchronous presentation oscillates between the husband/wife and the father/daughter relationship. Previously inseparable connotations are enhanced by the division into the roles of woman and child. A both dazzling and disconcerting atmosphere develops which owes its consolidation to the parallelism of sentences and movements. Viewed separately, these scenes seem almost harmless. However, the merging by means of an analogous rhythm between language and image leads to controversial questions regarding the husband’s role and his perception of himself and his conversational partner. Can the roles in the family be clearly separated? Or: where and when do the borders become blurred?
In her essay, Gender Trouble, which was first published in 1990, Judith Butler points out that instead of being predetermined, sexual identity is formed and confirmed by the repetition of rules and discourses. In other words, she supports the theory that gender categories are not inherent but are the result of performative education.
In the synchronous narratives Sonntag and Montag identity is established by means of the repetition of the same speech and action patterns which were originally acquired as either male or female. Thanks to the duplication of the scenes, the female protagonists are deprived of their singularity and become representatives of a socially established identity determination which is by definition beyond individuality.
Furthermore, these double enactments lead to chronological disorientation. The story could be taking place in the present but then again it could also be remembered or anticipated. The simultaneous narratives, which are repeated in multiple, so-called “dirty” loops, make an intermittent experience of time and space possible. They produce the feeling of a permanent present in which roles and identities have become interchangeable.
As mentioned above, Montag refers to the chapter with the same title in the film The Shining. The author Jack Torrance, who is acted by Jack Nicholson, withdraws to a remote hotel in the snow-covered mountains with his family in order to work at his novel in peace. Little by little he goes insane. In the Monday scene, the son confronts his father with his illness and his barely suppressed propensity to violence. This dialogue marks a significant turning point in the story because from then on the father’s murderous bloodlust and hallucinations become obvious.
M+M deviate from the original. Their main interest lies in the text. Without a concrete context, this dialogue seems harmless at first. It is interrupted at a crucial moment on the verge a possible escalation. In the two artists’ interpretation, an everyday scene containing sinister potential develops between husband and wife, or, in turn, between father and daughter.
In these synchronous narratives named after days of the week the perfect family is exposed as a nucleus harbouring both love and violence, and as an unprotected area between two extreme but nonetheless closely related emotions. An indeterminate condition of unsettling ambiguity manifests itself. The recurring images merge in a conflicting emotional state between dream and nightmare. Rational perception based on causality and coherence is bound to fail. M+M’s filmic narratives elude all attempts at specification and must be viewed as ambivalent allegories.
Loss of Identity
These works reveal the rapid and severe upheavals that crucially altered our society during the past decades: family, the smallest social nucleus, has lost its relevance as a safe and established, and also identity-defining domain. Apart from that, lifelong employment has become an exception in the working world, while temporary contracts have become normality. The resulting demand for ongoing mobility and flexibility severs social ties and turns homes into mere stopovers. Today, not only extensive but also very differentiated analogue and digital systems become personal networks, each of which only cater to certain aspects of life: “We have so many online friends that we need a new word for the real ones” a commercial in the daily paper Die Welt said.
Schlagende Wetter (Firedamp Explosion) is the title of a film installation that deals with the structural changes in the Ruhr Area. The term “Schlagende Wetter (firedamp explosion)” is derived from the world of coal mining and refers to an explosive mixture of gasses in mining shafts. M+M applied this title to the social tensions caused by the transformation of the Ruhr Area from an industrial into a service society. Because of the coal mining crisis, established structures broke down and entire social classes not only lost their means of existence but also their tradition-bound concept of themselves and as a result, their regional identity.
In view of this economic crisis and the concomitant social changes, M+M staged a dialogue which takes place in an extended family. The filmic narrative starts in the coal mining shafts and works its way through the domestic context up to the barren landscape of the tips. Analogies between the camerawork and the dialogue blend the spatial and temporal levels represented by the protagonists.
The atmosphere is defined by alienation. Intimate living areas, such as the kitchen and the bathroom, which are usually associated with warmth, no longer provide comfort, the cold emptiness of the tips and the run-down tristesse of the coke plant enhance the actors’ inertia. “Nothing” happens. There is “nothing”. “Nothing” changes. Just as the word “nothing”, the sentence “be quiet” is a reoccurring leitmotif in the dialogue. And so the loop ends where it began: in the forlorn gloom of the adit.
Search for Identity
The controversial term “multiple identity”, has become established as a description of the modern individual. It implies that today one person incorporates a patchwork of several identities that are the result of both circumstances and networks. This is a reaction to a complex society in which social ties no longer form an interrelated whole, but instead necessitate the linking of different context-related roles. Our multilayered and ever-changing society provides countless role models and choices. While promising freedom and self-determination these choices also imply the risk of failure.
A change which harbours social dynamite. This can be observed in the manifesto L'Insurrection Qui Vient, which was published by the anonymous French group of authors who used the pseudonym The Invisible Committee. It was translated into English in 2009 and was given the title The Invisible Insurrection. In the spring of 2010 it was translated into German under the title Der Kommende Aufstand. The authors begin their critical political review by describing the dissolution of established concepts of identity. They say:
“The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. (…)We’ve become our
own representatives in a strange commerce, guarantors of a personalization that feels, in
the end, a lot more like an amputation. (…)If “society” hadn’t become such a definitive abstraction, then it would denote all the existential crutches that allow me to keep dragging on, the ensemble of dependencies I’ve contracted as the price of my identity”
The authors’ arguments reach a highpoint in the following excerpt:
“To call this population of strangers in the midst of which we live “society” is such an
usurpation that even sociologists dream of renouncing a concept that was, for a century,
their bread and butter. Now they prefer the metaphor of a network to describe the connection
of cybernetic solitudes…“
Aspects of the disintegration of traditional concepts of identity and the social consequences feature in the synchronous narratives. The artistic strategy of repetition with different actors turns identity into a role-playing game, an ever-changing makeshift solution in which reality and fiction merge until they can no longer be distinguished. This phenomenon is reinforced by a multimedia reference system.
This passion for staging disorientation also inspired the artists to turn fictitious books into reality. One example is their publication of the Pie Bible, “The Book of Love” from the American teenager comedy American Pie as a compendium of sexual revelations by numerous artist colleagues. They also published Jack Torrance’s manuscript from the film “The Shining” as a literary “Masterpiece of Repetition” which repeats the same sentence over and over again on every page: “Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen (All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy)”. A call for action? Aggression? Protest?
In 2010 the artists drove through Essen in a reconstructed Fiat 600 from the 1960s and called for strikes via megaphones in front of various company headquarters. “Strike! We need a real strike!” The artists’ appeal for protest, which was inspired by Antonioni’s Red Desert, went unheard as a completely deliberate anachronism.
In the four-part installation Dance Köln (Dance Cologne) the artists interpreted a conversation between a teacher and a pupil as if in a scene from a western. The Munich based author Andreas Neumeister developed the script on the basis of news reports on the deportation of a Turkish adolescent who had committed over 60 crimes by the time he was fourteen. From 1998 onwards, the “Mehmet Case” dominated the national headlines for years. Furthermore, this case led to an acrimonious debate about integration and crimes committed by foreigners, it kindled fear towards citizens with a so-called immigrant backgrounds and offered many a projection surface for their prejudices and political campaigns.
M+M translate the conflict with and about “Mehmet” into a conversation between a pupil and a teacher which they analyse in four variations. In this interpretation the pupil and the teacher alternately pose as the provocative and dominant interrogator. Scenes in which either the teacher or the pupil can be seen standing on a chair with a noose around his neck add further tension to the situation. Who is the victim and who is the offender? This does not become clear in M+M’s interpretation: “Put on a brave face in view of a bad situation, put a on bad face in view of a good situation, it makes no difference, it makes no difference at all. The bad cop is the good cop’s ugly brother. That’s the way it works. But it works. I’m happy to be the bad cop. Somebody’s got to do it. Things have to carry on.” The laconically repeated sentences merge in a menacing mixture of television platitudes such as “Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten (good times, bad times) . (…) Mainz wie es singt und lacht (Mainz and its singing and laughter) and discriminating comments such as “learning German so that you can read Dieter Bohlen in the original? (…) learning German so that you can read “Mein Kampf” in the original? (…) I’ll German that out of you: speaking German means speaking precisely” At the end of the dialogue the unanswered question of identity remains: The toughest tough question still is: what do you do in your real life?”
Confronting these synchronous narratives and their simultaneousness can lead to a disconcerting experience: is it possible to distinguish between what is right or wrong, or real or fictional? Or does our subconscious, which is accustomed to relying on a resilient construction of reality, conclude that in a context in which at least half of everything is false, ultimately nothing can be right? Is the question of reality obsolete once reality and identity have been seen to be performative?
M+M poetically stage the loss of identity as an aesthetic interpretation of disorientation, the manifestation of disintegration as a game and the world as a fragmentary cinema.