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The Esper Machine: The Collaborative Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

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by Drew Gardner
January 16, 2014 1:09 PM
1 Comment
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Information has a way of escaping. It bounces and refracts like light. It pools and flows as water does. It moves in different directions, leaking out of images, out of language, out of the expressions on human faces. No matter how carefully it's diverted or how willfully it’s contained, it proliferates in a way that can never be fully controlled.


There's a scene in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner where Harrison Ford's Dekard is looking for replicants who have escaped from an off-world mining colony to earth. He inspects a photograph with an Esper machine, a Photoshop-like device that harnesses a latent psychic power in the viewer to zoom into a photograph and shift perspective within it to view areas not included in the original image. He finds a convex mirror reminiscent of the one in Jan Van Eyck's Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife and enters its reflected image to find the evidence he needs. The scene is an allegory for the proliferation of information in human documentation, and the way our powers of attention can unearth its hidden conduits and make it into meaning.

Another photograph, this one not featured in a science fiction film but released several years ago by the press service of the Russian Orthodox Church, also turned out to contain more information than what first met the eye. It shows the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, seated at a wooden table, talking with Russian justice minister Alexander Konovalov. There is no watch on Kirill's wrist, but a closer scrutiny of the scene reveals a luxury Breguet timepiece in the reflection of the table's glossy wood surface. The watch had been photoshopped out by the church's press service, but they had neglected to erase its reflection. The press service may have had the sense that this status symbol, worth several times the average annual salary of a Russian worker, might seem extravagant for a man who has taken a vow of poverty.

The story of the erased watch was picked up by news services internationally after its discovery. In manipulating the image for their own ends, but also inadvertently leaving in this sliver of reflected truth, the Russian Orthodox Church drew attention to the very thing they were attempting to conceal. The patriarch at first denied that he owned such a watch and rather ironically called the photo evidence "a collage." Later he was forced to admit the watch belonged to him, blaming his press service for the slip-up. The entire event was a collaborative political multimedia art piece. The elements included the release of a digitally altered photograph with a clue carelessly left in, the subsequent text and photographic comparisons produced by the journalists covering the story, the performance of an ironically counterfactual refutation and then admission by the church authorities, and the final prose and images summarizing the story in the Western press. All these bits of language and image writhed together chaotically in the murky digital networks that connect, intersect and provide collision points for collaborating and competing groups of people across the world. Looked at from a certain angle, everyone involved in the event looked like a member of the same political arts collective working together to manifest it. Like movements of information, collaboration may extend itself beyond the particular wills and goals of individual actors involved in it. The internet has sped up this process exponentially.

Patriarch Kirill is best known in the West not for his luxury watch collection or his unintentionally ironic political photo collage, but for being the central figure in the prosecution of Pussy Riot, the feminist performance art collective that has produced online videos of guerrilla punk rock performances in public spaces in Russia. Pussy Riot is the most famous group of performance artists that has ever existed, thanks in no small part to active collaboration with Kirill and, ultimately, Vladimir Putin.

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1 Comment

  • Jason @ FilmmakingStuff.com | January 20, 2014 12:18 PMReply

    This is a great story and one that totally needs to be seen.

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