Re:Vision: an exploration of our contemporary experience

Re:Vision is nearly over. From April to June 2017 we were privileged to host interviews and conversations with writers and film directors as diverse as Kamila Shamsie, Tom Pickard, Courtney Traub, Tim Hannigan, Shamim Sarif, Noami Shihab Nye, Josh Cohen and Doug Millard. Our conversations were followed by screenings that were equally eclectic, from the 1946 film noir Sorry, Wrong Number to Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity: A Film for the Future to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

During those eight weeks sixteen local writers worked with colleagues from the Department of English at NTU. They explored literature and film in workshops whose themes included the telephone, home, travel, race and sexuality, empathy, deep time, the uncanny and orbit. In each workshop they analysed and debated complex material – at times with gravity, at others with hilarity – and then got down to the business of writing in response to it. They produced, time and again, thought-provoking new work that they’re going to present at a public reading tomorrow.

What will they have to say about the writers, the films, the ideas? How do they envision our ‘contemporary experience’? In fact, what might we mean by the term? In response to his own question, ‘What is the Contemporary?’ Giorgio Agamben writes:

The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.

For Agamben, perception of the contemporary experience means becoming attuned to its darkness, developing a kind of night vision. Entering the semi-darkness of the film auditorium each week during Re:Vision I would think about Agamben’s idea of seeing in obscurity and how we only had a few minutes before the deeper, thicker, darker darkness that we needed to be able to watch the film would surround us. Sometimes are eyes weren’t enough and we needed extra lenses too: because the screening of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams was in 3D we couldn’t see it clearly without special specs. Looking back at them, it seemed to me that there was something at once comical and moving about an audience in plastic goggles trying to makes sense of the discovery of cave paintings from more than 32,000 years ago – in obscurity, looking towards obscurity, trying to understand something utterly beyond our time.

What did the Re:Vision workshoppers perceive in this darkness? What new visions can we look forward to from them tomorrow? In the opening line of her short story ‘Exit Right’, one of the writers who will be reading her work, Julie Gardner, gives us her vision of the future in a short story about the 167th birthday of ‘patient 4528TM’ who is kept alive by machines in an ‘exit hostel’. There’s more to it than that, of course: it’s a story that’s also entirely contemporary. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I can say that each time I read the opening line I think again about these notions of seeing and darkness. Gardner writes: ‘Gradually the total blackness lifts – gentle blue-grey light moving to brighter tones’. It reminded me of the end of the films each week, how I would emerge from the reveries they and the writers that talked about them had inspired, how I would come out of the darkness of the auditorium, attune my vision, get used to another way of looking.