Karen Mirza and Brad Butler: Deep State

Waterside Contemporary, London, 2, 3, 6–10 November 2012

By Oliver Basciano

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler: Deep State, 2012. Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, London. Courtesy Waterside Contemporary, London.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler use Deep State, a 45-minute HD video, to project leftwing political provocations, but give depth to the rabble-rousing with a series of invocations of historical precedents within the medium. These twin themes are apparent from the start: in the opening sequence the videomakers both quote David Hall’s 1971 TV Interruptions (7 TV Pieces) with the use of a burning television (though this one displays the word ‘occupy’), and intercut this reference with short clips of riot footage, images of socialist flyers and a shot of a promotional poster for The Iron Lady (2011), but with the photo of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher defaced with a Hitler moustache and ‘I killed the British working class’ scrawled across her cheek. Even before the title page appears – it includes the verbal note that “this thriller is inspired by true events” – a whispered voice begins an often densely abstract narration, scripted by fantasy writer China Miéville, that weaves itself in and out of Mirza and Butler’s twin political and art historical interests.

Butler and Mirza then deluge the viewer with a further collage of archive protest footage. This adrenaline-inducing torrent is broken up occasionally by various performed interludes: a woman makes a series of jerky movements and guttural vocalisations against a neutral white background, for example (taken from another of Mirza and Butler’s recent videos, Hold Your Ground, 2012), or (as a further reference to an older seminal work by another artist) a man runs towards the camera, the scene using the same frame and camera angle as a shot from Owen Land’s Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970). For the most part, however, the film is given over to depictions of communal anger. These range from grainy Pathé News films of flat-capped hordes battling custodian-helmeted police, to mobile phone footage from the Arab Spring. Wrecked cars, police beatings, street battles, kettles, banners, graffiti, makeshift missiles and masked bandits recur as motifs regardless of geographical or historical context. Strung together, with the circumstances behind each protest opaque, these politically complicated events become somewhat aestheticised. There is a feeling of nostalgia evident too, even towards the footage of relatively recent protests.

Some of the clips are shown as projections, in turn filmed by the artists, often with a single audience figure silhouetted in the foreground. There is the suggestion that we are removed from this form of protest, that we can only look in on it and experience these fights through the rectangular framing of moving image. At one point Miéville’s narrator notes that “TV centres are like a fortress. They know what they sit on.” Later the script intones, “TV and cinema are occupied by the enemy, and I feel like an occupied territory.” The Egyptian art-activist group Mosireen – whose practice involves broadcasting and disseminating self-filmed protest footage – provided Mirza and Butler with some of the protest imagery used, and it is hard not to compare the duo’s work, here confined to a gallery, to that collective. Rather than seeking to reclaim the streets, Mirza and Butler seem to view broadcast media as a more relevant territory for contest contemporarily. Yet unlike Hall’s TV Interruptions, and unlike Mosireen’s work, Deep State – and only because of the context of its display – doesn’t quite manage to practice what it preaches. Mirza and Butler were one of the winners of the 2012 Jarman Award, which entails making a film to be shown on British terrestrial television, so perhaps their work will find its natural home in the near future.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.