At carlier | gebauer, Berlin, the artist explores where the boundary blurs between violence and security in public spaces
As if in reference to its title, Aernout Mik’s film A Swarm of Two (2017) is sound-tracked by nothing but the buzz of the two projectors. Like many aspects of the work, this hardware hum alludes to some familiar experience that, in the end, constitutes little more than its ghost. The two-channel video, which runs to 30 minutes, was shot on a shopping street in the Belgian coastal city of Ostend. On each screen are a pair of police officers – two men and two women; two of them white and two black – who crawl and tumble across the pavement or edge along the shopfronts in an interchangeably absurd, melodramatic and pedestrian choreography.
After the succession of lockdowns and terrorist attacks in Belgium (and elsewhere) in recent years, heavily armed and uniformed figures have become worryingly commonplace in public areas. Similarly, in Mik’s work, a lack of auditory contextualization renders what should be a state of emergency not exactly ordinary, but so nonsensical that one cannot help but surrender to a very ordinary viewing experience – that of total, passive absorption. Although silence offers its own brand of intensity, it is sound that normally indicates what we are supposed to be feeling – that which is blasted from the orchestral pit, not whispered by the prompter. But what is most unsettling about A Swarm of Two is that I am not sure that I am, in fact, unsettled, nor if I should be.
At certain points, two channels sometimes show the same scene from a different angle, while at others they seem to belong to parallel realities or a broken chronology. It is an artistic choice that serves to ensure the work’s message remains perpetually out of reach. This is meant in the best way, because if this film could talk, what more could it say than ‘the world is a scary place’? Instead, it opts for senseless non-sequitur: a vaguely erotic wrestling match among a pile of cardboard boxes and the sudden appearance of a golden retriever teeter on the ridiculous and, thanks to the earnest urgency of Mik’s mute arrangement, allow for contemplation without conclusion – indeed, without coherence. While the noise and narrative of such a turbulent scenario might have taught the audience a lesson, the shrill didacticism might also have inspired an exit. Instead, this is a mesmerizing pool of multiplexed ambivalence you can’t seem to pull yourself out of.
Most of Mik’s videos are conceived as installations in which viewers are set in bodily relation to what they see and to others in the room. At carlier | gebauer, however, we are dropped within a traditional black box. In this environment, the cinematic flow of infantry on the high street, as if lifted out of a Hollywood action plot, is thoroughly at home, which heightens the strangeness of every other aspect of the work. This incongruence acts to undermine the collective understanding that primes the piece: that is, why the police are there in the first place, and what they are protecting us, the public, from.
In one scene, an officer turns guerrilla warrior as he removes his uniform and uses his T-shirt as a hood, before, in an unexplained cut, he reverts back to his native role. In a second, the aggressor is also the lover, as a bite becomes a kiss, just as, in a third clip, a saviour dragging the wounded to safety doubles as tormentor, the dragging done by the hair. Here, violence and security are locked in a dynamic tango that makes the purportedly stable logic of the outside world appear as delusional as it is dangerous.
Aernout Mik, ‘A swarm of two’ runs at carlier | gebauer, Berlin, until 14 April.
Main image: Aernout Mik, A swarm of two, 2017, video still (detail), two-channel video installation. Courtesy: the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin