In the heart of Kazakhstan—cradled to the South by an army of ’Stans: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—is Baikonur, a deceptive dot on the Eurasian landmass. Back in the day, Baikonur was ground zero for the Soviet Union’s space race: Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova were the first man and woman to blast off into the great unknown. The world’s largest operational space facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome has slowly transitioned from secretive epicenter of Iron Curtain space cowboys to extraterrestrial playground for the rich and famous. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet republics transitioned to independent sovereign states, Baikonur remained under Russia’s control in a long-term rent agreement with Kazakhstan, supplemented by its lucrative space tourism program.
This cosmonautical chronicle is just one of the seeds germinating in Eve Sussman’s new multifaceted film whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir. Mining a surreal post-Soviet ambience, Sussman and her ad-hoc creative think tank, the Rufus Corporation, create a calculated, never-ending fever dream caught in a forgotten corner of the Earth. Made up of thousands of video and audio clips, many shot and recorded in alienating urban Kazakh environs, whiteonwhite is endlessly assembled and randomized by a computer algorithm. The result is difficult to categorize, but also eludes being pigeonholed. Most definitely a film, with depth levels unusual for any piece of art, this experience is also an art installation, an experiment, a computer program, and an infinite spin on a spiraling and evocative fictional narrative.
Equal parts sci-fi, noir, and formalist structure, whiteonwhite embraces two creative touchstones that lie at the quintessence of this project: the first is the protean symbol of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the second is its namesake, Kazimir Malevich’s painting White on White. For Sussman, the Cosmodrome served as a geographic springboard and Malevich an intellectual one. Although Sussman and her crew were not permitted to stay, let alone shoot, in Baikonur (in fact, they were kicked out), this didn’t prevent them from surveying the potent atmosphere embedded in the tenacity of the Russian space program and the desolate milieu of what was communist-era cutting-edge 50 years ago.
Sussman acknowledges that referencing Malevich’s White on White not only allowed her to close the circle on a film trilogy based on well-known, emblematic paintings, but also to dive into Malevich’s concepts, which are sometimes categorized as mystical. His austere painting from 1918, literally a white square inside a white square, was the ultimate representation of his Suprematism theories, a utopian world of pure form attainable through nonobjective art. Perfection, at least in painting, meant transcendence from the natural world where abstraction was objective representation. Ironically, Malevich was driven to nonrepresentational painting in the early 20th century because of the successes he saw in his countryman’s films at the time. Sussman playfully infuses whiteonwhite, also a piece that works slightly outside the traditional idea of realism, with Malevich’s formal yet oddly theosophical notions of abstraction, most notably by breaking the unspoken rule that films must have a beginning and an end.
The synopsis, such as it is, revolves around Holz, a scientist sent to this dystopian landscape to conduct research for a company called New Method. By doing away with classical plot structure relying on climax and resolution, whiteonwhite adopts a steady Sisyphean pacing, patiently doling out details about Holz and his life inside fictional City-A—the water is scarce, words are rationed, and the presence of lithium creates both a possibility and danger. Not unlike Andrei Tarkovsky’s poignant Stalker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s recently resurrected sci-fi masterpiece World on a Wire, or even Chris Marker’s short masterpiece La Jetée, whiteonwhite thrusts the viewer into a decaying future held together by a vague sense of paranoia. The unique adhesive is the fragmented and cyclical structure that is silently propelled by the pure objectivity of an algorithm, something that Malevich would have appreciated. His notion of utopian fulfillment as translated in City-A, however, is very much an empty suggestion that was once there but is now lost.
The computer-generated arrangement is most certainly a source for much of the mystery in the film, but it is not a secret. A monitor on the wall to the left of the screen displays the inner workings of the algorithm dubbed the “Serendipity Machine.” Each clip and voice-over is tagged with a number of identifying words: fog, anxiety, clock, discomfort, reel-to-reel, empty, woman, and apocalypse, as examples. A monitor beside the screen shows a roulette wheel spinning as it chooses a tag, and then spins again to find a match. Here’s an example of the code you see spool out on the algorithm’s monitor:
searching for match to tags office, window, holz, blue, blur, dream, alone trying tag: dream 237 matching videos choosing match #63: WOWFILM-04-09-DVCProHD-19-22 after 0 rejections searching for match to tags alone trying tag: alone 159 matching videos rejected no. 127 WOW-September08-HDV49-2-2: couldn’t find file chose match #151: S8-Reel_2c-10-office.mov after 1 rejections
A fascinating thread in and of itself, it is joined at the hip with what viewers see played out seamlessly on the screen like the strange digital meandering in an even stranger analog land.
When introducing the work at the Walker in April 2012, Sussman explained that the algorithm was written out of the desire to create elegant moments of chance that are sometimes inhibited by the conscious creative process. Visiting the film more than once will give you the sensation of déjà vu until you sink back into a confusing web of surveillance and surveying. Visiting the film over and over again, as I have in the past month, reveals a mesmerizing anomaly where there are perpetual layers of discovery. Voice-overs get played over different shots and extended takes get truncated and wedged between different scenes, not unlike a dream where your subconscious is desperately trying to figure something out.
The work is an island of its own and much of that visual delicacy delivered via ones and zeroes flows like a cinematic stream of consciousness, but there is a substantial amount of referential exploration that forms a backdrop. Sussman and Jeff Wood, who plays Holz in the film, maintained a blog during the project that reveals some of the intentions, concepts, and sidebars of whiteonwhite—obsessions with space travel, ruminations on Malevich, and investigations of place. One thing that Sussman specifically took on was the re-creation of Yuri Gagarin’s office, using photographs she took of his preserved work space at the Russian Space Museum. Not only was it created for an installation, but it was also used as a set piece for Holz’s office. It’s a subtle gesture that exemplifies the film’s layers of specificity grounded in the artists’ engagement with the work and the process.
The most surprising thing about this never-ending story is how fluid and seductive it is, despite being edited by HAL 9000. Shot on a number of formats—Super 8, Super 16, 5D, and HD—whiteonwhite maintains a very unique mise en scène of unwavering production values. It is undoubtedly the carefully controlled aesthetic of the images and soundtrack and the sheer numbers of those clips that keep the film from going off the rails. The fate of the Serendipity Machine, as it apathetically sequences tags and possibilities, is tethered to Holz’s as he wanders the bland block architecture in his perennial nightmare. The film, the computer, Holz, and, with enough time, even the audience become unhinged now and then, and this is where whiteonwhite is most strongly connected to Marker’s La Jetée: they both embody the past, present, and future with a frightening beauty, and they both find solace in the helplessness of their heroes. But more importantly, Sussman joins Marker as a filmmaker who expands and challenges our understanding of narrative film.