Animistic Apparatus: cinema for the spirits

From Thailand to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a group of artists are curating outdoor film screenings for non-human audiences: projecting movies in the black of night to the natural, and supernatural, world.

Matt Turner

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) was installed in Bankhill Ice House as part of the Berwick Film and Media Arts festival’s Animistic Apparatus screening

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) was installed in Bankhill Ice House as part of the Berwick Film and Media Arts festival’s Animistic Apparatus screening

What if humans weren’t the primary audience for cinema? This is the provocative question that sits at the centre of Animistic Apparatus, a research project looking at the “relationship between mediation, conceptions of life, and historical, cosmological and ecological imaginaries”. Taking the Thai tradition of itinerant outdoor film projection as inspiration, the project proposes that other means of moving image exhibition should be considered than that which presumes that films are made and shown for human spectatorship alone.

Initiated earlier this year, the project has so far taken the form of talks and screening programmes in Bangkok, a skills exchange lab in Udon Thani and, most recently, a site-specific exhibition programme, outdoor overnight projection and seminar series at Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival.

 

1. Thailand

An Animistic Apparatus ballet in front of a screen in Udon Thani, Thailand

An Animistic Apparatus ballet in front of a screen in Udon Thani, Thailand
Credit: Noir Row Art Space

“A couple of things propelled me over time to initiate this project,” says May Adadol Ingawanij, Animistic Apparatus’s principle organiser and co-director of University of Westminster’s Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM). Having travelled across Thailand for a research project surrounding itinerant cinema practices in the country, meeting individuals involved in outdoor projection for “commercial, propaganda and sometimes ritualistic purposes”, Ingawanij started to think about this activity in relation to animism in south-east Asia, linking it to recent theorising that recasts “animism as ecologies involving humans relating to spirits”, and to her wider research into the history of installation practices in the region.

“In Thailand’s case, something very interesting began to happen with the Cold War,” Ingawanij explains. Mobile projection tools proliferated in the country. In Udon Thani, for example, site of one of the biggest military bases, 16mm projectors, cameras and accessories arrived with the construction of the station, “partly for propaganda purposes, but also partly to entertain the GIs”. From here, she says, the story becomes about “how these tools are then sold on and get into the hands of cinephiles and enthusiasts who then use them for other purposes”.

A projectionist at work at the Udon Thani Animistic Apparatus show

A projectionist at work at the Udon Thani Animistic Apparatus show
Credit: Noir Row Art Space

Ritualistic projection – when a client commissions a projectionist to screen films as an offering to the spirits of an area – is just one example of this, but exploring the tradition led Ingawanij into thinking about questions “of human/non-human entanglement” more broadly, and the role of improvisation in rituals, cinematic or otherwise. “It’s not a practice that’s set in stone,” she says, talking about the projections for spirits in Thailand. “You don’t go to a text and follow the instructions for this to happen.” The content is generally unspecified, but action movies (Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Final Destination 3 being the examples provided) are apparently popular, and the length, form and feel of the projection activity emerges out of a dialogue between the client and the contractor providing the service.

Fittingly then, the translation of this background research into the Animistic Apparatus project’s public activities have taken a similarly improvisational form, first and foremost through the ‘skills-exchange lab’ in Thailand, which Ingawanij otherwise described as a “sociable field trip”. Forty artists and curators from across south-east Asia gathered in Udon Thani to experiment upon the questions proposed by her project conceptualisation, collaborating with a outdoor projection troupe to see what artworks produced for non-human audiences could look like.

An Animistic Apparatus workshop in Udon Thani

An Animistic Apparatus workshop in Udon Thani
Credit: Zai Tang

“We had three days”, says Julian Ross, Ingawanij’s assistant on Animistic Apparatus and a programmer at International Film Festival Rotterdam and Locarno Film Festival. “The first two days were exploratory and workshop-driven – just to get a sense of the scale, the screen, the space, the equipment, and to have a dialogue with the projectionists and the other participants. The last night was a presentation of our ideas as an offering for the spirits.”

“We went there and improvised and experimented with whatever the artists wanted to do,” Ingawanij adds. The activities that participants got involved with varied, but generally included combining pre-existing materials or methods with something more site-specific.

Animistic Apparatus in Udon Thani

Animistic Apparatus in Udon Thani
Credit: Noir Row Art Space

Christian Tablazon stuck soot taken from cremations at the temple the group were projecting in to strips of 35mm film, projecting microscopic lived legacies of the site itself. Danaya Chulphutiphong, Pathompon Tesprateep and Pam Virada played with projection troupe technician Kasem Khamnak’s triple-stacked projector system in order to superimpose their films over each other and the various elements of the physical space. Sheryl Cheung and Xia Lin worked with Riar Rizaldi and Arnont Nongyao to make an audiovisual noise-and-strobe performance using a combination of live code and contact mics mapped to the movements of other participants.

The encounter was just as important as the outcome, and much of the learning processes that occurred through the experience related to the function of the space itself, specifically “the intensity of the darkness”, as Ingawanij explains, but also how the landscape makes its own demands. “You go as someone borrowing a space, and as a group that has to accept hospitality, maybe from those that live there who are therefore custodians of that space, but also in the sense of more invisible forces or beings,” she says. “Even if you are not superstitious or don’t believe, you don’t just barge in.”

 

2. Berwick

Camera Trap (2019)

Camera Trap (2019)
Credit: Chris Chong Chan Fui

All of this fed into the presentation of the project in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where installations, projections and workshop activities were spread across the programme of Berwick Film & Media Art Festival’s 15th edition. “I thought I would get the intensity of darkness here,” Ingawanij says, about England’s northernmost town – but what she calls “creating processes of encounters” offered more of an exciting unknown.

An alchemy between site and artwork was very much present with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) (2014, pictured at the top of this page), installed in the depths of the Bankhill Ice House, an underground salmon-trade facility dating back to 1672. A tribute to both the spirits of Apichatpong’s home region and the revolutionary spirit of its human denizens, the installation features radiant flashes of light and loud firework crackles that emanate outwards. Within this black cavern it seemed much louder, brighter and more imposing that it does in a traditional gallery setting. Spookier, too.

Tanatchai Bandasak’s Central Region (2019), an Animistic Apparatus commission, at Berwick Film & Media Art Festival 2019

Tanatchai Bandasak’s Central Region (2019), an Animistic Apparatus commission, at Berwick Film & Media Art Festival 2019
Credit: Tanatchai Bandasak

“All the artists in this iteration share a sensitivity to the aura of space, and bring that to the installations,” Ingawanij says, citing Tanatchai Bandasak’s Central Region (2019) – commissioned especially for Animistic Apparatus – as an example.

The film features a series of shots of prehistoric standing stones found in the highlands of Laos, captured in low light situations that transmit a real sense of sublimity. Ensnared by moss and vines, often part-covered in creeping fog, they stand silently in the film yet convey the atmospheric experience Bandasak described as having when he first encountered them: feeling the presence of someone (or something) unseen or unseeable, despite being seemingly entirely alone. Installed within the cramped confines of Berwick’s Coxon’s Tower, the projection sits beside a plinth of its own, intended, says Ingawanij, “to evoke the standing stone, but also to create an encounter with the space”.

Situated deep inside the darkness of Berwick’s New Tower, Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Camera Trap (2019) also plays with its location, A video that contrasts contemporary footage of wildlife captured through ‘camera traps’ – devices triggered by movement used to monitor animal behaviours – with images made by early photographer and filmmaker Eadweard Muybridge in order to study the varying ways that animals move, it proves a transfixing experience. Though it’s simple enough in concept and execution, its various black-and-white flickers and bright-eyed nocturnal creatures evocatively illuminated the blackest corners of the cell-like cave it was installed in.

A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery screening at the 2019 Berwick Film Festival

A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery screening at the 2019 Berwick Film Festival
Credit: Erika Stevenson

Most potent however was perhaps the overnight projection of Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), as a few people, several bats, and maybe some spirits too descended on the town’s Rose Gardens, where an outdoor projection was thrown together between trees in a public park situated just beside the sea. Approached from a distance, the site offered strange sensations: sounds of indiscernible rumbles and distant cries; dialogue from the film spilling further than the light of the projector itself. All this in the kind of darkness provided by an outdoor projection where the only light source is the moon and the stars.

“Lav Diaz is a storyteller,” Ingawanij says. “It’s the first thing he says about himself.”

An Animistic Apparatus ‘workout’ at Berwick

An Animistic Apparatus ‘workout’ at Berwick
Credit: Erika Stevenson

The idea of telling stories is central to Animistic Apparatus in all its forms. It’s in Ingawanij’s conception of the project and how it is implemented. It’s in the gathering in Udon Thani, in the processes of encounter and dialogue encouraged in Berwick and by the workshops that accompanied them: informal group seminars led by Ingawanij and Ross, and even less formal ‘workouts’ led by their Udon Thani collaborators Sheryl Cheung and Xia Lin that materialised the project’s ideas through early morning martial arts, listening and nature-walk sessions. And it will presumably feed into its next form, a book that Ingawanij is currently writing.

“Storytelling is an essential part of animistic practices. You have the encounter, the scenarios of communications, and you have the stories that are told,” she says. “I think storytelling is essential to thinking ecologically, and anchoring our being in the world in a more ecological way, our smallness in the world but also our absolute interconnectedness.”

An Animistic Apparatus workout at Berwick Film and Media Art Festival 2019

An Animistic Apparatus workout at Berwick Film and Media Art Festival 2019
Credit: Erika Stevenson

What if humans weren’t the primary audience for cinema? This question posed by the project isn’t necessarily intended to be answered. Animistic Apparatus, it seems, is more of a starting point for alternative ways of thinking than something that is intended to produce conclusive results.

“I don’t feel like the exploratory phase of the project is over, and I don’t feel that it’s ever meant to end. It’s always supposed to be exploratory,” Ross concludes.

“The presentation [in Berwick] is just one iteration of the project, and one possible outcome. Every time we present it, it will have that kind of site-specificity. It’s not going to be a final outcome that we present, where we have answers to the questions we propose. The questions themselves are important to present.”

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