Popular Unrest, a new feature-length film by London- and New York-based artist Melanie Gilligan, taps into the collectively insatiable desire for crime dramas and tech fantasy, and Hollywood’s management of our fears about free will and government. Like her TV counterparts, Gilligan uses professional actors and mixes taping strategies to yield documentary-styled fiction, and divides her gory, fast-paced narrative into a series of episodes that builds toward a surprise finish.
In the genre-riffing Orwellian world she’s built, the streets of London are familiar, but something is amiss. A news montage reports serial stabbings. John, one of the film’s vague heroes, watches television, which frequently references The Spirit, a Big Brother-type computer system advertised as a handy way to track children using GPS-encrypted sneakers, but also protested as a controlling entity escapable only in death. Inexplicably John heads to an abandoned warehouse, where other people have also “just wandered in.” From the outset of its five episodes, the story hesitantly dissolves the proposed binary of human and technological interactions.
Compelled by some unseen force, individuals with nothing in common are drawn together and feel deeply connected. John’s group is invited by scientists to participate in experiments aimed at revealing the connection of The Spirit to spontaneously generated community. The tests increase awareness of The Spirit, and, curiosity sparked, the group goes out in search of their own answers. They track down one original builder of The Spirit, who ascribes to it governing powers, and rationalizes the stabbings that continue outside the lab as “labor saving cuts.”
The group endeavors to capitalize on their special consciousness and penetrate The Spirit in order to combat its tactics. The filmmaker endows their Matrix-like voyage with philosophical significance: Is it possible that by arranging ourselves into groups that embrace difference rather than clinging to traditional social formations like the family or nationhood we may overcome subjugation? The groupings in the film resemble communities discussed in terms of love by Hardt and Negri in Commonweath (2009): “Sameness and unity involve no creation but mere repetition without difference. Love should be defined, instead, by the encounters and experimentation of singularities in the common, which in turn produce a new common and new singularities.” Within Popular Unrest, new and unexpected allegiances are fomented, but about their ability to effect real social change Gilligan is skeptical. Their collective attempt to fight back against The Spirit, which comes in the finale, leaves its critical project open.
The work is available as a set of videos available on the Internet and is also touring as an installation. At the Walter Phillips Gallery, Popular Unrest is configured in a circle of five cubicles, one for each episode. The space was transformed into a black cube, and made starkly silent by plush carpeting and padded space dividers. The videos’ audio could only be heard through wireless headsets, and the video slips on each time you enter a cubicle, cannily mirroring the story. Like the characters of Gilligan’s fiction, the viewer is treated as an atomized entity whose environment and relationships are tightly controlled by an unseen hand. The problem set described in the video makes the isolating viewing experience uncomfortable rather than pleasant, emphasizing the importance of being with others—no matter how different their interpretation may be.