Snake Eaters

I often find myself faltering when I’m asked to explain what my films are about. I find it much easier to explain how they came about — the consequences that shaped them, like the angles of geography that guide water to curve itself in a particular way.

My current film was germinated by the reminder of a childhood mythology. As a child, I always thought that the colorful mosaic that stood above the theatre on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue was the place that people visited when they fell asleep. Carried by the unvalidated conviction that tends to harbor in the imaginations of children, I thought the mosaic was called ‘Iavnana’, lullaby — the place of dreams. This perception was bolstered by the apparent inaccessibility of the structure in waking life. It had neither doors nor windows, only a hallucinatory, three-dimensional facade that was ornamented by pulsating forms.

As summer condensed into the sticky heat of August, I began to think about Georgia’s Soviet legacy in a localized sense. The theatre on Delisi was flanked by a long slab of temporary construction walling, a surface that was pasted reiteratively with posters of politician’s faces. Dig just a millimeter or two beneath, and you would uncover an archaeological site of expired political claims, battling with the other advertisements and expletives that tend to stack up in public space. I could never remember this wall not being there. Like much of the landscape of Tbilisi, the provisional had inadvertently become permanent.

Directly opposite the wall, a huge billboard was emblazoned with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s face, which was used to advertise the words ‘Georgian Dream’. But what had happened to our dreams, to our collective feeling for the horizon of possibility? Did these photographic renderings of middle-aged men’s faces, multiplied into oblivion, indicate the length and breadth of our ability to dream?

In late September, as the evenings dawned ever-earlier on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue, I began to notice the dancers that rehearsed on the floor of the theatre below the mosaic. The grace of their movements, elevated from the senseless ammunition of the traffic of the street in which I stood, moved me. Through focus, through artfulness and discipline, they seemed to negotiate a liminal space between the unwieldy utopia of the mosaic — the derivative of an empire that had fallen from grace — and the unhappy overload of impressions below.

I began reflecting on the naming of the street on which this building stood. Its namesake, Vazha-Pshavela, had written a poem called The Snake Eater that began to hold increasing relevance to me. The poem explores the revival of its protagonist Mindia’s consciousness of the many tongues by which the earth speaks, and the intense grief that is triggered by his insight into nature’s speech. If Vazha were to stand on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue, would he recognize the place that was named after him? Or would he share the alienation of Mindia, who was so defeated by his homesickness that he conspired to die by drinking his masters’ brew?

I too, carried a kernel of that grief. I had begun to feel climate change blowing into daily life more and more, like autumn leaves cascading beneath a gap in the door. Our fruit trees had a limited yield, and our nut tree had no harvest at all. There were two days until the parliamentary election, and public consensus suggested there would be another lockdown following the result. Planning a film felt like standing on a sheet of melting ice.

I cast my first ever electoral vote in Georgia on October 31st. The following morning, a morning when the election result changed depending on which television channel you listened to, I noticed my grandmother preparing muraba. She was carefully sorting through each piece of fruit, making sure none of the bad ones ended up in the chosen pile. Accompanied by the sonic vitriol that bled from our household TV, I was reminded of the political process of counting votes. I was also reminded of the process of infection — the infection of covid-19, the ‘infection’ of electoral fraud, the ‘infection’ of Russia’s imperialist influence on Georgia, the risk of infection that comes with improperly conserved food. Even Zurab Tsereteli’s mosaic, which I had once imagined as the face of an uninhibited utopia, turned out to have courted its own controversy; I learned that the sculptor has often been criticized for his affiliation with Putin’s regime.

The days were blinded by accusations of stolen voices.

As autumn took hold, it was marked by ongoing preparations for winter. Whilst my grandmother made her muraba, my uncle Mamuka began to prepare grapes for their hibernation in amphoras, which he kept above ground. He was, in a sense, lulling the grapes to sleep, but it was a sleep in which the fruit dreamt with all its senses open — every undulation of the climate, every visitation of snow and rain, would come to inflect the eventual taste of the grapes. Wine thus becomes a parable of the year in which it was made.

Soon afterwards, chance drew me towards a Georgian folk music ensemble called Ialoni. Ialoni were busy preparing to record an album from the ancient and highly diverse genre of Iavnana songs. Iavnanas are lullabies, but they were initially sung in rituals that were intended to heal children who were sick; many of the lyrics refer to illness, and the batonebi songs refer to a pre-Christian spirit that visits the household when a child has taken ill. I began to think further about the therapeutic potential of art and the alternative, exploratory politics that it invites for our consideration.

During one rehearsal, the teacher Nino asked some of her students with stronger voices if they could hold back a little on the delivery of a song, in order to avoid provoking a harmonic misbalance in the group. I wondered what it would be like if these practices and values could be scaled up, or translated to other fields. In the field of architecture, for instance, there is very little regard for the balance of forms, or for any sense of cultural continuity; everywhere you look in Tbilisi, a building company is enthusiastically vying to erase the legacy of what was, and to dominate the field of vision of civilians. If only those politicians, those architects behind the structures that arrange our lived experience, could reflect these sensibilities. If only the cultural traditions, the songs, the grapes, were more than a refuge or a place of escape, but an integrated part of the societal landscape.

Until that time, I try to locate the pinpricks; the living traces of a summer dream that have continued, trembling, and against all reason, to persist.

They live as lessons, as asterisks, as glowing retaliations against a winter that pretends it could exist no other way. They are the jars of fruit, the hand-me-downs of ancestry that sustain us in the hope that conditions will, one day, be ripe again for another becoming.




 

Born Late   |  TEXT |  WORK IN PROGRESS |  2020

 

 

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We have been told — again and again — all our lives — (quietly at first, and then to a deafening pitch) — that it’s been getting late. That something should have been done a long time since. That it’s too far gone, that we missed our shot, that we’re down to scrabbling over breadcrumbs.


Few people seem willing to speak about the cadence of a late hour, however: what it brings, and what it calls for.


The late hour bathes in shadows. It coaxes lullabies. It conceives of rest. It swallows hard facts whole, and turns them into equivocations. Its condition is stirred by perceptions as light or as scarce as hairs of silk; that which would not even factor as a mirage to the harsh figurations of midday.


You and I were born late. So why keep time? I think that disavowal of inherent clarity, the subtle yield towards gravity, is the grounds for our resistance to this long and disconcerting day. And we can resist things, not on their own terms, but in another register. That is, falling gracefully. Preventing a fruit declared rotten from being in waste. Refusing to concede our lives to despair. The regenerative art of decay.


You know what lateness feels like to me? It feels like nascency. Like a moment of awe inside a garden that has flowered from uranium. Like a child’s will to strike a match. Like the playground of visions that exhales from the wreckage of another fallen state.

Excerpt from upcoming publication, Radiations Publishing house: Martlesham Walk

ISBN: 978-1-8382791-0-3

Parrot postcard, personal collection

 1412   |  16MM FILM | SOUND | 5" | GEORGIAN | 2020

 

In the anonymous rooms of 5-star hotels in cities and resorts across Georgia, thousands of people have been learning what it means to be locked inside the same room for two weeks. These people live behind a veil; they sleep, they pace, they examine the life that exists beyond their window pane — perhaps exchanging furtive goods, or words of camaraderie with their floor-mates; those with whom they share lost time.

1412 received the jury prize in the COVIDEO section of Batumi International Arthouse Film Festival.

It also featured as part of a video installation, Mementos from the 14th Floor, at Project Artbeat's Moving Gallery in Orbeliani Square, Tbilisi, 12-20 Sept 2020.

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Stills from 3 channel video installation, Mementos from the 14th Floor

Installation view

Improper Canning Procedures   |  TEXT |  2020

 

Before words or continents, there were vowels without consonants.

The vowels would give rise in winces and in kisses (a! o!) — in encyclopaedic tremors of breath,
In the knifelike warbles that emerged,
Like arithmetic between the flesh.

The early risers pass fruit and shards of light down to the forest floor.
Everything is made of small things, but some of them heap up.

As continents gathered, they clamoured for consonance. The engine of sense began to contour air; it studied into air, and found it pliable. The vowels, ever fluid, were congruent to the shape of things.

As the consonants staccato’d over gulps of air, they sculpted intermittent differences everywhere.
We imagined what we were, and so we knew what the difference was.

- Excerpt from text contributed to Rachel Elizabeth Ashton's publication, On Butterflies, Moths, and Other Worldly Creatures (2020)

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Video still: West Stacks, Green Library, Stanford University

The Cabinet




 

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Like a whale-bone corset, like a world that never breathed.

Subdued beneath a fine veil of dust, the cabinet is a scene beyond its own appointment.

Perfectly still, the china lies unthought, delivered from carnality, and only monumental.

Only for the occasional glance does it perform:

A solemn play of light, an affected bow, a sequence of rehearsed images.

Formality reigns, setting a place for ideal forms that — having never arrived — are never considered gone.

This formality signs a contractual release for the hurried, irregular mass of living to go on. 

The cabinet conserves the role of a drab paragon,

called to testify upon the release of a tension for perfection.

*

As far as anyone is concerned, they are as deaf, dumb, and as mute,
And as indispensable, as icebergs.
This is for the iron balustrade and for the flashing wing.
It is for the lift that nods recurrently; for endless acceptance, for a life of undecorated service. For a conveyor belt’s migrations, for the barrow and the long-necked crane, for all the silent workers, for those that do without a stay. Tirelessly, these things propel.

Pause with the spirits of utility. They are hard-heard and uneasy, like a draft beneath a door.
They belong to a world without mirrors, and deflect the gaze.
When their backs break, when they go to rest,
They take their final lodgings in the tide
— just as one of a thousand things moving gradually,
without very much ceremony, from sight.


 

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The Nocturnal Hum   |  16MM FILM, DIGITISED | SOUND | 5" | ENGLISH | 2019

 

 




 

The sound,
To those who moved away or were led to move,
Would later register as a perfume
Causing them to slip a disc in time
and gather, in a sudden rush
Every single time at once

*

The century turned on its furnace
And the world become a glowing orb
And the fog in San Francisco
Began to drag its feet




 

As the world, and the fog attenuated
And the images grew —
All too few,
And too clear

The fish grew silent,
And the signals did too

And it would, one day,
Become hard
To communicate
The passage
To safety



 

"It's not a military secret. It's not the sanitation district. It's not the Army Corps of Engineers. It's not an extraterrestrial, a nuclear device, or a Russian submarine."

 

The Nocturnal Hum concerns the filmmaker's discovery of acoustic similarities between two forms of sound that are native to Northern California: the warble produced by foghorns as they guide the Bay's ships to safety, and -- beneath the water -- a resonant hum that is produced by toadfish during mating season. These sounds have undulated through the Bay Area for generations, perforating both public and private space.

 

The film is also about the visual similarities between fog and smoke, the signals that guide us, and the place of perceptual multiplicity -- of 'mistakingness' -- in light of the increasingly unequivocal presence of climate change.




 

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Avirbin Chamovirbine




 

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