The avant-documentary films of Adam Curtis feel right at home in the gallery setting of e-flux

Adam Curtis' documentaries are on view now (Courtesy e-flux)
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Lecia Bushak

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Images move rapidly across the screen, seemingly random clips from old and silent films, news broadcasts, all set to a choppy soundtrack ranging from Ennio Morricone to Nine Inch Nails, with a domineering voiceover.

The voice is that of forward-thinking documentary journalist Adam Curtis, and the work, titled All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011), is among ten of Curtis’ films (made from 1989 to 2011) on view now at e-flux in their show The Desperate Edge of Now. As he narrates tales of failed financial markets, cybernetic utopias, or Randian heroes, the rapid-fire imagery somehow comes to make sense as a complicated, chaotic whole.

What differentiates Curtis from most filmmakers whose work shows in galleries is that he’s not an artist, but a BBC television journalist—one whose work is so artful, so out of the ordinary, that it’s presented as a bridge between the two worlds.

Instead of clawing to get scoops and those fleeting 30 seconds of air time, Curtis digs into the trenches of history, philosophy, and science; he weaves together the events of the past century to create one long, confusing narrative, in which everything is interrelated, though in complex networks, through backdoors. His work, in brief, attempts to make sense of the chaos of the modern world; so his films, in turn, themselves become chaotic.

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All watched over by machines of loving grace from mayo11 on Vimeo.

His films often center on the themes of power and the sinister forces at play behind society. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace—particularly the second film in the series of three, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” explores how political leaders have used scientific theories—like the idea of self-regulating ecosystems—to justify various senses of order in society (in particular, the British empire’s attempt to maintain power in South Africa with Apartheid).

In The Power of Nightmares (2004), three films follow the parallel stories of neoconservatism and modern Islamism, and how these movements created today’s climate of fear in politics. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007) argues that the vision of freedom (and of the free market) ingrained in Western culture is limited—and also, of course, a “trap.”

The narratives are stimulating and engrossing, like walks through a history book or an image-packed museum exhibition on the disasters and successes of the 20th century. Yet Curtis grazes the sphere of the conspiracy theory at points, leaping to loosely-connected conclusions. From the journalistic sphere, conservatives in particular have attacked Curtis’ work for just this sort of tendency toward selectivity and simplification. The emphasis on style over argument makes him something of an easy target for such charges. When Curtis wrote an article in The Guardian on the self-regulating ‘ecosystem’ myth explored in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, the comments exploded with debate over his argument’s accuracy, noting that the argument was “elegant … but not conceptual[ly] elegant, with much inductive logic and far too little references to arguments beyond the narrow confines [Curtis] choose[s].” This could be applied to most of Curtis’ narratives. Such charges, Curtis told The Guardian, “sort of pissed me off.... There's an affectionate tone in that series. I'm kind of taking the piss out of conspiracy theories.” 

But this is precisely what makes Curtis’ work so compelling, that he finds the line between objective reporting and the looser space of interpretation and speculation. Yet Curtis’ work requires a tremendous amount of research, and he conducts in-depth interviews with politicians, experts, and academics like any other journalist. What distinguishes him, above all, is his desire, clear in his work, to inform as well as affect his audience, to layer them with the facts at hand as well as with his visual artistry. If Curtis’ films were reduced to the script alone, would they appear in an art gallery? Probably not. It’s the avant-garde film and sound techniques, chaotic and repeated jump-cuts, that earn Curtis his art-world accolades and coalesce medium and message.

Curtis recalls, in many ways, literary journalist Ryszard Kapuściński—who was also often criticized for his “personal” take on journalism. Kapuściński, a Polish journalist who was a foreign correspondent in the 1950s and ‘60s, wrote long-form, stream-of-consciousness narratives that were based on voluminous research and indisputable facts, but also, because of their looseness and fluidity, lingered on the brink of fiction. For this reason, Kapuściński’s work (including Empire and Shah of Shahs)—like Curtis’ films—transcends the temporally limited sphere of most journalistic output.

Whether Curtis’ arguments about the “trap” of freedom or self-regulated ecosystems are the same sorts of truths as the who-what-when-where-how-why of traditional journalism, is very much open to debate. Yet given that his central project is challenging the idea of power in modern society, Curtis most likely would encourage his audience’s questioning of even his authority—as an artist and as a journalist—through these dizzy, stylish films.

’The Desperate Edge of Now’ is on view at e-flux, at 311 East Broadway, through April 14.