Still from HyperNormalisation showing journalist Daniel Pearl.
This is mostly a critic of Adam Curtis‘ work for the show Mezzanine XXI, performed by Massive Attack, although their curating act is equally up for critics. I went to their concert a few days ago, in Lisbon, and was ill impressed (to say the least). I knew the concert was going to be a reflection on the past 20 years. I’d read Robert del Nadja critic of nostalgia and empathized with it. I also knew it would be punctuated by images, but what I was not expecting was this low level propaganda and this superficial use of shocking imagery and propagandizing strategies. So how do I leave a Massive Attack show irritated and thinking about ethics in the context of images of atrocity? I’ve talked to some people who went to the show and read a couple of reviews. I’m obviously on my own here.
Below is the video showcasing Massive Attack performing Where have all the flowers gone?, by Pete Seeger. This was the breaking point for me but, as I turned my back to the screens and told my friend I was ready to go, I also looked around to confirm the gratuitousness of showing this sort of imagery in such a context. So people kept stomping their feet to MA’s sound, while looking at dead bodies on screen. It had zero effect. I could swear that the portuguese audience only manifested itself at one point (images of Trump) because they knew other audiences had been doing it. That doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t care; it might mean we don’t like being manipulated. People who attended the show were on average 40 years old. If, by that time, we’d still need to see this cheap propaganda in order to put up a fight, we’d be in deep shit. This sort of strategy might work in different contexts (audiences, cultures, etc.). Selling a show on the premise of music and then forcing the audience to come in contact with an ideological discourse is quite clever, but also very unethical and offensive. Is this the sort of consideration MA have for those who listen to them? The answer to this is a clear yes.
The main strategy beyond the show is “shock”. That goal is pursued through different media, stimulating various senses. In my case, the eyes were obviously over stimulated and hurt. I often closed them, but still the concert felt false, inauthentic and overly mechanic. No soul, no truth, only a very professional pursue of a goal, amidst several other problems. Del Nadja wants to avoid creating a “boring show”, so Massive Attack end up creating a simulacrum of a music show. Adams Curtis continues:
Gigs have become very formulaic these days (…) not just gigs but all of culture – and that’s the challenge. The way you make people look again is by finding a different sort of image. And so the overall aim is to show how over the past 20 years, we’ve gone into a very static, repetitive world that surrounds us with the same images that keep us from really looking.
In HyperNormalisation (2016), one of his well-known works, Curtis masters his documentary style. It’s a three hours spectacle, with zillions of images, countless information and a clear agenda: to say that we’re “so much apart of the system that it is impossible to see beyond it”, to say that we’re all to blame by playing along with capitalism; we all normalized what shouldn’t have been vulgarized; we’re all part of a deep web of corruption and bad blood. There’s no way out; it’s the Armageddon. Did I mention I hate this sort of thing? Michael Moore is a much softer version and still it’s too much for me. When it comes to documentaries my hear falls closer to Frederick Wiseman.
But I understand why Curtis does this sort of work and why Massive Attack wanted to pair with him. Curtis has seen it all and this rhetoric is extremely successful, but when we choose to leave data out we’re not rewriting history, we’re just ignoring facts. Both Massive Attack and Adam Curtis are appropriating communication strategies that they’ve been too exposed to. Fortunately for us, not all have fallen preys to this world of make believe. Some of the images that are projected while MA show their version of Where have all the flowers gone appear in the aforementioned documentary. Some are equally out of context, gratuitously displaying horror, humiliating the victims once again; some have a wider framing in one of the scenarios.
Zillions of highly contrasting images, vivid colors, repetition, drone imagery, symbolism, minimalist music, infinite aerial footage, endless images of technology and repetitive tasks, graphic and computer imagery and other resources referencing propaganda imagery. It’s conscientious counterpropaganda. However, it might be worth mentioning that in the beginning of HiperNormalisation, Adam Curtis says counterculture has also been normalized…
Robert del Nadja was interview in Portugal by Vítor Belanciano. They’d met before. Introducing the conversation, Belanciano names Curtis “one of the greatest philosopher of our times”. Maybe he’s lost it, but I decide to look for clues that could support such a statement and it might be that he’s just reinforcing Nadja’s discourse:
I am a great admirer of all his documentaries and this [HyperNornalisation] is no exception. When I saw All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), showing that the world of computers had distorted and simplified our view of the world, instead of liberating, I immediately thought I had to collaborate with him. I really like the way he uses the past to tell us stories about the present. He is a brilliant archivist, journalist and philosopher, all at the same time. It makes us think about very complex issues in a simple way without being schematic. He has his own vision. And that is not for everyone. At the same time, as Massive Attack, we share with him this idea of collage, in which the past, the present and potential futures get mixed-up. We end up being closer in terms of the creative process, but also in the way we examine current popular culture,through a dynamic re-evaluation of the past that can lead us to new interpretations and clues. When I saw his documentaries and realized that his process was analogous – talking about the problems of the present through a collage of archival images – it was a revelation. And that’s what he ended up doing for this tour. To create a movie pasting images of the last 20 years that challenge the world today. He doesn’t care about nostalgia, just like us. It’s easy to freeze an idea of the past and stick around. But it is more interesting to revisit this past creatively, reflecting on how we came to live in the reality that surrounds us.
It is not impossible to bring politics into music and maintain an ethical righteousness that is respectful to the artistic essence of the project. Many have done it. On that note see, for example, PJ Harvey‘s project with photographer Seamus Murphy for Let England Shake.