Black sparkles flicker across a white expanse before white scratches and gradient fog interrupt gray monochromes in Joachim Koester's three-minute, 16mm film projection "Message from Andrée," an art film at the service of evoking sublimity, failure, invention, dissolution, and questions of veracity that is screening at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Black Box through March 6.
For the past two decades the Danish artist has located the often-blurry line between fiction and reality in his work. Predominantly combining photographs and video in installations, much of Koester's work features fragmentary or questionable narratives that delve into the myths associated with locations, such as Transylvania and its connection with Bram Stoker's "Dracula," or people, such as renowned occultist Aleister Crowley. There's an inherent mysticism investigated in this body of work. Koester weaves the fantastic within certain effects of documentary to generate a tapestry of truth and fantasy.
"Message from Andrée" employs the previously discarded photo negatives from an ill-fated 1897 balloon voyage of Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée. He failed to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon, resulting in his and his crew's deaths and subsequently propelling Andrée to posthumous fame in Sweden. Nils Strindberg, one of the crew members and the photographer on the trip, took pictures of the balloon, its crash, and other momentous events, resulting in more than 100 plates. These plates, developed later when the final camp of the explorers was discovered in 1930, also contained many images that were considered trash by archivists because they were full of noise and static and showed "nothing." Those who researched this failed expedition discarded these plates because they were incapable of informing anyone of the hard truths of this brutal failed endeavor in a traditional pictorial sense.
To an artist like Koester, these discarded plates opened up an entire field of probability where truth and the genre of documentary can come into question and even begin to define the sublime quality of the unknown. Koester filmed these plates with his 16mm camera, generating an abstract sequence that approaches animation. "Message from Andrée" follows the aesthetics of abstract non-narrative filmmakers such as Saul Levine or Stan Brakhage and the work of structural/materialist filmmakers—there's a lot of flickering happening.
"Message from Andrée's" images are entirely abstract—there is nothing clear within the film outside of the meta-narrative of the experience that can be gleaned from the wall text and there is no linear narrative to the images. Certainly this footage, if it had existed as a conventional documentary, could have been afforded some voice-over and intercut with interviews and other expectations of the genre. It could convey some information with which to suture the lost time of these three brave explorers. We are denied that easy resolution.
The Austrian director Michael Haneke, adjusting a famous quote from filmmaker Jean Luc Godard ("Film is truth 24 frames per second"), said, "Film is 24 lies per second at the service of the truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth." This quest for truth has driven much work in both film and photography across multiple axes between art and journalism or cinema and documentary. We are obviously in an era where authenticity itself is a genre; the cellphone video, the screen capture, Snapchat, and other ways by which something real, or perceived to be real, gets captured and disseminated can adjust our ideas of not only media's essence but the truth itself. A documentary film is quaint compared to the reality of a cellphone video.
Koester's denial of the documentary impulse and the decision to excise these non-images from the history of Andrée's expedition fuel his short film. He is responding to the presumptions made by someone, who upon recovery of these plates made a decision that some plates that conveyed visual information were of higher value than plates that were developed into frozen abstraction by their exposure to the elements—circumstances of the trip and extreme cold. A value judgment was made and by challenging that judgment, Koester exhibits a poetic interpretation of existential meaning. Those plates may not show us the scene of the balloon or cruel failure, but they do evoke the expanse of cold and abject dread.
So what does it mean when Koester exhumes a false history from a fallen Swedish tragedy turned myth? He assists in chipping away at the foundations of the past. By doing this, the present, or our perception of it, also disintegrates. The past does not exist anymore, and our recollections and recordings are tainted by our own memory, by time (it isn't stopping), and by media. The abstract patterning and aberrations of "Message from Andrée" tell more than the clearest image of the balloon deflated on the ice or the team assembling a sled on the pack-ice. Specifically these abstractions speak to the edge of isolation and desolation but also to the romantic sublimity inspiring many of these extreme excursions and our longing to know more about the edges of our world. That it arrives to us as an abstract film viewed as a sequence of real-time palimpsests is besides the point because "Message from Andrée" at its core addresses the failure of memory and an embrace of oblivion.
For more information on "Message from Andrée," visit artbma.org.