“The future belongs to crowds,” wrote Don DeLillo in his prophetic pre-9/11 novel Mao II (1991). DeLillo’s thesis—that the narrative role of the writer has been usurped by terrorists, whose acts are globally visible as televised spectacle—echoes Jean Baudrillard’s radical contention that reality has been replaced by mass-media images and individuality subsumed by the crowd. The Polish artist Artur Zmijewski’s work has tended to highlight the plight of the marginalized individual in a traditional humanistic sense that resists Baudrillard’s postmodernist formulation. In 2006 he made a series of films, each titled with the first name of the subject, which involved doggedly following a single Polish worker through a typical 24-hour day. However, he has also shown a provocative willingness to tackle sensitive historical and political events head-on: the film he presented at Documenta 12, A Game of Tag (1999), shows a group of naked volunteers running playfully around one of the Nazi gas chambers in Poland.

Following a DAAD residency in Berlin, Zmijewski presented a new series of films there that fell somewhere between those extremes. The roughly 10-minute clips were shot by the artist at public demonstrations around the world. Headphones were attached to the monitors on which the films were shown, but the soundtracks were also played at low volume on speakers, generating a cacophony of outcry and dissent. Zmijewski considers his work a form of empirical social and political research, and most of his previous projects have involved staged experiments, designed by the artist to generate unpredictable results. The new clips, however, consist of documentary footage, and the presence of the artist behind the camera would appear to give the work the innocence of a personal political statement. Somewhat refreshingly, given the current spate of heavy-handedly self-reflexive film work, Zmijewski casts the film medium, and indeed the art context in which it is shown, as simply a necessary vehicle for his content. “There is no art in these movies,” he has said. Yet if we try to define that content, it resists clear-cut categorization and definable ideological position.

All the clips showed relatively ordered and planned events, as distinct from spontaneous riots. Zmijewski was observing the ways large concentrations of people behave—whether out of resentment or celebration—when they are impelled by sympathy for a particular cause. Left- and right-wing demonstrations were juxtaposed: we saw the funeral of Jörg Haider, the extreme right-wing Austrian politician, alongside a demonstration by Solidarity trade unionists in Poland. Drums were beaten by Palestinian demonstrators against Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as by Irish Protestants on a Loyalist march in Belfast. If there was a tendency across the range of films—strengthened by their close linear installation—to homogenize crowd behavior as a generic expression of collective emotion, Zmijewski persistently zoomed into the chaotic margins of events to create micro-portraits that defy generalizations. These individuals strive to articulate their own personal predicaments even as they surrender to the crowd’s consensus. Hovering between political statement and objective research, Zmijewski’s stance makes itself synonymous with the demonstrators’ ambivalence. A scientific study would only attain authority by exempting itself from the process it observes; Zmijewski’s art is willing to implicate itself in the contradictions of its subject.

One of the clips, documenting a lighthearted reenactment of the 1944 Warsaw uprising before a clapping audience, hinted at the theatrical quality of the “real” demonstrations. It stood as a reminder, contra Zmijewski’s professed position, that the act of filming lends a fictional quality to the events, and that there is artifice inherent even in the purest, most transparent, political representation.

Zmijewski’s work was on view at DAAD Galerie, Mar. 28-May 9.

Photo left: Artur Zmijewski: Democracies (Ramallah), 2009, video.

Photo right: Democracies (Warsaw 2), 2009, video.