Expedition Content takes to task the supremacy of the visual in film, delivering a vibrant, versatile work of experimental ethnography.
Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati’s Expedition Content could best be defined by its many absences: primarily by a lack of vision — in a rather broad, literal sense — through a lack of legible images, resulting in a piece of ethnography that is absent a colonial, traditionally Western-oriented gaze which has been typical for the genre since its inception. But that’s still a bit too loose a proposition; it’s one that would imply there are images here by which one should even measure qualities such as legibility, or basic technical elements like composition. For the vast majority of Expedition Content’s 78-minute runtime, viewers are subsumed in darkness; on a strictly ocular level, nothing much happens besides some on-screen text occasionally popping up to provide basic historical information. In that sense, you don’t really “watch” this… well, “movie” feels like an odd descriptor, as this has little to no moving images; but for the sake of simplicity, it would be more accurate to claim one “listens” to this work instead. Yet, Expedition Content is currently being exhibited as a moving-image release, shown in theatres across the country, where “viewers” are expected to sit in front of a screen and treat this like any other film-going experience. The material presented — a small sampling of some 37-hours of field recordings anthropologist Michael C. Rockefeller taped while on Robert Gardner’s 1961 Harvard-Peabody expedition to Dutch New Guinea — could have easily been mastered onto a CD, sold as an album, and considered as a piece of art within a medium where these inherent auditory qualities would be best suited. But taken as a piece cinema, and especially when considered within the tradition of filmic ethnography, these immediate constrictions produce interesting, often radical results (a connection can be made to Derek Jarman’s Blue, but that had least had a bright color going for it).
For starters, not since Memoria late last year has there been a big-screen release this demanding on its audience to contemplate the intricacies of its sound mixing, the sort only detectable once heard across different audio channels in a large auditorium with good acoustics. Even with no images, the sheer vibrancy and versatility of Expedition Content’s sound design are cinematic enough to warrant its current distribution methods: in surround sound, an average rainstorm turns into a near-tsunami. More importantly, the work serves as a reclamation of improper formal and ethical power dynamics: in commercial cinema, sound often serves as subservient window-dressing for the image’s dominating indexicality; for far too long, the relationship between the two has been lopsidedly in favor of the latter, the former reliably called upon to instill emotional affect, establishing mood and heightening tension whenever the need arises. Without the assistance of a cohesive visual logic tethering these recordings, it’s sound that’s left to operate as the sole conveyor of all permissible knowledge; one must constantly re-interpret and re-imagine what exactly they’re listening to, usurping any feeling of authority that spectatorship of this kind usually instills in the process. But it’s precisely this loss of control — along with Expedition Content‘s other technical omissions, none of which are structural shortcomings — that allows us to “see” anew, where the violent dominance of visual information no longer reigns supreme.