Article by Jack Radley // Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018
Israeli-born, Berlin-based artist Dani Gal‘s most recent film, ‘Hegemon’, currently on view at the IBB Video Space at Berlinische Galerie, undermines the assurance of American power and military morality. Gal juxtaposes pedestrian visuals of one day in the nation’s capital with audio from interviews by 11 top American foreign policy experts, including John Feffer (Co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies), Lawrence J. Haas (former White House Communications Strategist), and Carol Rollie Flynn (former Executive Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center). While their expertise rings loud and clear, their often-opposing viewpoints are at odds with the banality of the office accoutrements and urban architecture on screen. The film’s challenge is a daunting one: to make already dense political information accessible and entertaining. But for those who can stick it out, the work challenges key notions of American exceptionalism, surveillance, and militancy. In the end, ‘Hegemon’ is more of an impressive accumulation of political research than an exciting artistic endeavor.
The film reveals vignettes of a history untold to the American people. Gal exposes the lack of anthropological education in military endeavors, fueled by masculine ideologies. For example, when the United States wanted North Vietnamese soldiers to retreat during the Vietnam War, they dropped provocative leaflets of scantily clad women to entice them to return to civilian life. However, due to their conservative culture, the Vietnamese soldiers thought these were crude, not persuasive, and scorned the adolescent tactics of the U.S. Before the Vietnam War, U.S. military appeared to have no limits. Afterwards, well… The film exposes a plethora of shortcomings, from cyber security and the military industrial complex to positions on Islam and notions of freedom.
Gal overlays—or really, dilutes—these noteworthy anecdotes with everyday images of Washington D.C. Unaware passerby populate street scenes of underlying patriotism, as Uncle Sam nutcrackers adorn store windows and flaccid American flags whisper in the wind. These views often examine office windows or apartment buildings with a voyeuristic perspective that recalls the photography of Arne Svenson. Gal questions public space and privatized values through the invisibility of information. The cognitive dissonance that emerges between the informed interviews and the unaware public confronts viewers with their own privacy and positions within global conflicts.
Projecting military tones onto civilian bodies, Gal creates a conceptual patina that challenges the imposition of values using force to support democracy. The artist undercuts an image of power by evoking the surveillance state with the film’s omniscient, anonymous point of view. He infuses the video with sound mixed from electromagnetic fields that can only be heard using a special device; however, this failed metaphor for the hidden forces that shape American power goes unregistered for the universal lack of said device.
Ella Fitzgerald‘s patriotic ‘Strike up the Band!’ closes the film with a rousing cry to assess the truth about the pursuit of democracy through militarism, public and private information, and surveillance in U.S. civilian life. In the echoes of the interview’s conflicting voices, Gal poses the question: is the U.S. a “hegemony or… a global power in crisis?” Shot before Donald Trump officially took office, the visual banality of the 80-minute film’s attempt to destabilize notions of America as a superpower is less illuminating when the President is doing this himself, daily, on a smaller screen.