A review of German artist Nina Könnemann’s 2012 film, which is on display in the Ikon, Birmingham, until 10th November 2013.
//A man stares vacantly, cigarette in hand, finger tapping.
tap tap tap
tap tap tap
Nina Könnemann’s film ‘Bann’ records smokers in London, engulfed in shadow, watched as they creep around office blocks and slink into alleyways. Using repetition and decontextualisation as tools for viewer displacement, Könnemann creates a candid filmic study that represents a direct observation of human nature, where smoking is considered as a form of escapism.
Könnemann presents the viewer with multiple corporate figures. Perhaps suggestive of seeking personal escape, isolated smokers are watched as they tap, pace and jitter. Könnemann places the viewer within the film; following the figures from a distance, they adopt personas of peeping toms.
The viewer’s exact positioning is unclear. The opening scene suggests the footage has been captured using CCTV. Angled down onto the figure and observing from a distance, the camera’s position appears fixed. However, as the figure moves, the camera follows. The figures are watched (and so are considered) through the eyes of the artist; the clues of the camera’s positioning are deliberately concealed. This creates a displaced experience, where the viewer’s attention is directed toward the secretive nature of the observed smokers, and Könnemann’s understanding of filmic language is emphasized.
The press release accompanying the exhibition (unhelpfully?) suggests Könnemann’s work as ‘capturing behaviour that exists on the edge of social order since the recent European ban on smoking in public places’. Whilst this may be true, having spent time with the film, I would suggest that it achieves more than (just) this, and should be considered within a wider context.
Smoking is taken outside of its usual addictive context. Könnemann creates repetition by focusing attention toward specific areas of the body. Particular snippets of footage are selected and arranged into a narrative that both reveals and emphasizes the addictive nature of smoking; a dancing foot, a flickering glance; a tapping finger; signs of anticipation and angst. Extending this, the subtle arrangement tells a more personal story. Becoming a compilation of personal moments, each frame represents both an individual, and an individual’s, moment in time. Könnemann translates the cigarette as becoming a metaphor for time, where justification is provided to be without time.
Emphasized by footage that draws attention to vacant stares and empty expressions, auto-repetitive movements and silence (the entire film is devoid of sound, and I expect this is deliberate), Könnemann highlights a study of human behaviour that suggests a universal need for time out.
A quote from an ex-smoker is interesting here; she states that ‘people talk of “social smoking”, but actually smoking is probably the most anti-social thing you can do … it’s an excuse to be alone. It’s a break, where it’s ok for the length of time that your fag will give you, to just relax into yourself … [to] zone out and not be a part of anything’. This notion of escape is represented, however bleakly, in Könnemann’s work. Groups of smokers cluster together, creating the illusion of a sociable environment. On closer inspection though, a lack of communication, verbal or otherwise, becomes apparent, and everyone exists in isolation.
Representing the need for personal space, Könnemann’s work speaks of human nature. Directing our attention to streets dotted with burnt out cigarette butts, what might perhaps initially be considered as litter, now become representations of people; humans and their intimate moments of isolation. Perhaps also suggestive of the corporate modernisation of today’s society, or as a way of highlighting the strain that collectively, humans put upon themselves in working city environments; in a society that constantly demands more; in the midst of fast-paced technological advances and the swarm of social media; Könnemann successfully captures the contemplative state that smoking induces, extending the ‘smoking’ and ‘the smoker’ past their usual contexts, resulting in work that allows profound insight into the attitudes and behaviours of human kind.