Re-collecting Omer Fast

This was an experimental catalogue essay written on the video artist Omer Fast, attempting to replicate Fast’s exploration on the themes of memory, re-enactment and repetition through the structure and style of the writing.

-Omer Fast is dead. This is a fact I discovered hidden within the first few pages of In Memory, a catalogue published by ‘The Green Box’ on the works of the artist in 2009, when I was conducting my own research. It was a statement made by the editors of the collection in response to the designer’s invitation for the late artist to write a ‘short, sweet (even salacious) footnote about the book’s title’, an unanswered request that would render the catalogue forever a work-in-progress. A further footnote provides instructions for the ‘uncommitted’ reader to ‘skip ahead’ onto page 111, should they wish to find an ‘outline’ of the late artist’s ‘brief but admittedly patchy career’. These trickling numeric signposts are a fitting literary device for the video artist whose own visual narratives ignore conventions of linear trajectory, showcasing a fond preference for confusion over resolution. It is a gesture which smacks of the late American writer, David Foster Wallace, whose own postmodern epic Infinite Jest contains a videotape so mesmerising that all who lay eyes on it waste away and die. Perhaps Omer Fast, finding himself trapped both behind the camera and in front of it, foresaw his own hypnosis as inevitable.

I deeply regret that I did not manage to procure an interview with the artist before his untimely demise, but it is not difficult to imagine what he might have said or what he might have looked like. For Omer Fast lives on in his works. He is true to his self in his videos, appearing always as director or sympathetic interviewer, eking personal narratives out of his subject’s past experiences and memories, from the bomb-blasted deserts of war-torn Iraq to the tranquil uniformity of American suburbia, with the professionalism and ease of somebody who has done this in front of a camera many times before. He can be found in ‘Take a Deep Breath’ as the apprehensive director overseeing the re-enactment of an American medic’s encounter with a suicide bomber, endeavouring to re-tell the story in a series of tableaux vivants. Sporting a buttoned-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, Fast resembles a meeker, scruffier version of Foster Wallace sans-bandana, attempting to supervise his unruly cast who, it appears, simply do not know how to play dead. He returns, sleeker and more mature, in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ (‘Everything Rises’), interviewing an adult-film producer about the origins of his interest in this line of work and guiding a voice actress through an uncomfortably poetic and seductive account of a refugee’s rape at the hands of her smuggler. But Fast’s films are anything except transparent, their premises confused by the frequent meta-fictive narratives which characterise much of his work. Mediating the divide between entertainment and authenticity, the figure of Fast standing in front of the camera is a problematic one, because for every ‘Omer’ that is seen, there is one who stands behind the camera, unseen.

In a remarkably felicitous turn of events, some objects that were found on the film-sets used by Omer Fast came into my possession after endless requests for information and access to archival resources. The sets themselves of course had long been dismantled, for as anybody in the industry knows, nothing is permanent or authentic. Shop-fronts and signposts nothing more than a few feet of makeshift constructions, fake limbs—human or otherwise—appear and disappear, moulded out of cardboard and rubber, coloured with veins of red paint. One of the objects is a prosthetic nose, used on the set of ‘Take a Deep Breath’, by the actor who plays the dead body of the suicide bomber in a re-enactment of an American medic’s (true) tale of how he administered CPR to a suicide bomber in Baghdad. In the film, the jilted actor, fired for his refusal to keep his eyes closed during the filming of his death, pulls off his prosthetic nose and hands it to ‘Omer’ in exchange for a phone call, claiming that it—the nose—belongs to him. The nose is unrecognisable now, a dirty lump of flesh-pink plastic with no distinctive curvature of nostril to indicate it was ever meant to resemble any part of the human body. Its purpose was nothing more than superficial, used to ensure that the actor’s original appendage, which was not remarkable enough for the camera, was enhanced and enlarged so that through the smoke and debris scattered about the re-created blast site, it could be recognised that he was a human figure, or what remained of one. Characteristic of video art, the film takes place on not one but two screens, one which follows the perspective of the on-screen ‘Omer’, filming the re-enactment, and the other follows the off-screen Fast, who dictates the perspective of the audience. The difference is small but noticeable; on one screen, we see the re-enactment as truth, and the other we see the re-enactment as an inherently false reconstruction of an unreliable narrative, which has been retold so many times that even when questions of moral ambiguity arise, they are recited with a robotic ring.

This prosthetic nose, which now sits harmlessly in front of me on my desk, eventually becomes embroiled in a criminal report. At the end of the film it is discovered that somebody has called the cops on the set, reporting a bomb explosion. Two policemen, whose identities are hidden behind two stereotypical pairs of sunglasses, question ‘Omer’ on the legitimacy of their production and demand that permit papers be handed over. It eventually dawns upon the crew that the call was made by the same actor who had previously been fired for keeping his eyes open under the flimsy alias Keith Richards. The film takes an abrupt turn for the confusing, as neither ‘Omer’ the director nor his crew are able to remember what the actor actually looked like, contradicting each other’s descriptions of the young man with ‘green-brown’ eyes. At last, the camera-man has a revelation that they have captured him on tape. The film loops back to the beginning, imbued with a new factual purpose as criminal evidence.

As it turns out, Fast’s films left behind a quite a long trail of discarded prosthetics. The prosthetic nose was just the beginning; soon I began to receive offers of rubbery blood clots and dye-soaked bandages that were left behind from his other works. The objects I had to decline for practical purposes included the burnt-out carcass of the white sedan which exploded on the set of ‘5000 Feet is the Best’, plastic machine guns broken in half, army uniforms and burqas torn to shreds. There was a whole material archive lying out there, objects waiting to be turned into relics. There were limbs and torsos from ‘Her Face was Covered’, left and right legs with the shoes stilled tied on, comical in their isolation, unconnected to any identity. It was becoming quite a collection. Taken out of the frame, without the context of the videos in which they appeared, these objects were simply bits of trash. Only when imparted with a narrative could these objects exist. Otherwise, they would have never have been crafted in the first place. Drama sells. A growing demand for factual accuracy, perpetuated by technological advancements in the media which enable crystal-clear transmissions of images depicting global terror and warfare to reach our screens even as the events themselves unfold, has kept the make-up department in the entertainment industry alive and thriving. 

What then, are we looking at? Can an image ever be trusted, when ceaselessly replicated out of context? Can the recalled narrative of one person’s subjective experience, when revealed literally behind the screen as nothing but the product of a thousand cuts and edits, a pastiche of words handpicked by the director, be anything more than fiction? With the exception of ‘Continuity’ and ‘Spring’, Fast’s works are rarely fictitious, his narratives drawn out from the experiences of real-life soldiers and their experiences. Yet, they are never straight documentaries, more akin to the strangely familiar, inverted landscapes of the hyperreal or the magi-realistic.

For Christmas, I received a small remote-controlled drone as a gift from a friend who spied me watching combat-training videos and assumed that I had a newfound passion for military warfare tactics. It was bought with good intentions, no doubt, but I had no desire to use it. Footage captured by commercial drones is found everywhere nowadays, mostly used in music videos and amateur films made by travel bloggers, documenting their experience. This footage is not so much inauthentic or false as it perpetuates a belief that to truly experience the cultures of difference places, one must be able to look from up high as well as down below. The obsession with the complete picture, with dizzying heights, has become fundamental in contemporary advertising culture, selling an image that can only be mediated from improbable perspectives. An American soldier whose Christmas was spent with a suicidal German girl may have also accidentally shot a civilian on the road in the line of duty (the number of accidental civilian deaths rises every year since the declaration of the war on terror), and the drone pilot may have done the same at 5000 feet, but the camera is equally as implicit, shooting without knowing truly what is being shot at. With each beep of the video recorder being turned on, the pilot winces. Suddenly he is a performer, an actor, no longer a soldier in his line of duty. He metamorphoses into storyteller, following a fictitious tale of a railway-obsessed man hijacking a train, of a couple who cons casino-goers out of their trousers and credit card details.

The scenario repeats, but the stories change. ‘We tell these stories to make our lives a little less boring’. Repeating his lines, the pastiche of fictions reminiscent of the short-stories of ‘Fight Club’ creator Chuck Palahniuk; nihilistic, fast-paced narratives that pretend to be nothing other than untruths. But, intersecting these stylised segments appears the blurred-out image of a man who narrates his own experiences over peaceful shots of a travelling birds eye view. These intersecting moments are attempts to indicate that that which is not seen is the real, that sometimes, the real is what cannot be seen, or what is not allowed to be seen. And yet, even the delivery of this unidentifiable character is too smooth to be unrehearsed, too deliberate to be improvised. Layers of fiction are layered above the fictionalised. The scenario repeats, but the stories change. Embedded within the cinematic framework, these multiple perspectives are at once familiar and unrecognisable, just like the footage I shot over my house with the drone I was given for my birthday from my parents because they thought a fresh perspective would do me good.

More often than not, these films perplex and confuse, begging the insight of the artist himself. Fortunately, Fast is not one to shy away from the camera. Countless videos and transcripts of the artist in conversation can be found online, replicated on multiple websites for posterity. I found endless links, copied and recopied, in the citations of articles and journals, bookmarked by the unassuming footnote. I have enough quotes by the artist on his own works to create an entirely new interview of my own, but I am afraid that would not be very interesting to read, and furthermore, I would not be saying anything that had not already been said. Instead I have decided to hand-pick the quote that I felt to be most relevant and thought-provoking in the context of this essay:

Fast:   ‘Cinema is immaterial and hyper-real. Life, by contrast, is spastic and inauthentic. In seeking authenticity, the […] performers repeatedly recreate selected moments from [the] past […]. These perfectly controllable situations allow [Fast] to literally step into the frame and become director [as well as] actor and spectator’.

These were the words given in an interview with the BFI in 2015 for his first feature film, ‘Remainder’, an adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s novel of the same name. I hear it was a modest success. I hear many who watched it were confused by the continuous temporal jumps, but enjoyed the cinematography. The quote, in comparison, neatly and succinctly ties up Fast’s intentions. Suddenly, it begins to make sense. In the meantime, an essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus occupies one part In Memory, titled ‘Infinite Jetzt’ or ‘Infinite Now’, finds itself paralleled with the deceased artist’s own commentary, whose authority cannot be questioned since he is no longer present. Insofar as we know, the artist is alive and well, currently residing in Berlin with his wife and daughter, working undoubtedly on his latest project. And yet somewhere, typed into permanence, in a narrative which pre-dates this one, it exists that-

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