Thursday, January 14, 2016

First Look ’16: Toponymy

Do not cry for the Perons, weep bitterly for Argentine architecture. It was not pretty, at least as practiced in the provincial Northwest in the early 1970s. Jonathan Perel will take the audience on a silent video excursion through four villages created as part of the government’s urbanization campaign to combat guerilla uprisings in Toponymy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 edition of First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

They were all designed and built by the national government and it shows. No private developer would ever do such ugly work. Of course, Perel’s narration and narrative-free approach does not do them any favors. After cherry picking still shots of the various government memorandum and schematics detailing their design, Perel gives viewers a tour of each Tucuman province village, consisting of sixty-eight snippets, lasting fifteen seconds each. Or so he says. In an attempt to pass for subversive, he reportedly changes up the plan without telling us. Nevertheless, the viewing experience remains the same.

Toponymy takes its title from the study of place names, which is in fact apt. All four Tucuman villages are named after fallen military heroes. Somewhat ironically, Casa Soldier Maldonado looks like it has been kept up better than those named for Lieutenant Berdina, Captain Caceres, and Sergeant Moya, but it is a dubious distinction. Still, we cannot help noticing how much open space and greenery these towns have. Naturally, they are all laid out almost identically, with ugly entry arches, tree lined boulevards, and a central park. Frankly, the military’s Tucuman burgs would probably get high marks from the urban planning departments of most universities.

The problem with Perel’s approach is there is really nothing to tell us why these micro urban centers are so distressed, aside from the Dirty War and the recently dismissed government’s ruinous economic policies. The architecture looks shoddy and oppressive, but there is no reason why the residents still cannot thrive. Without more context, we are basically looking at a document dump, followed by the most depressing travelogues ever.

Perel is getting likened to Heinz Emigholz’s wordless architectural documentaries, but at least films like Perret in France and Algeria takes us inside visually stimulating buildings. In contrast, Perel does not give viewers much to engage with, especially if they are not fully cognizant of his ideological and aesthetic conceptions coming in. For an extremely narrow, self-selecting, and defiantly pretentious audience only, Toponymy screens Sunday (1/17), as part of this year’s First Look at MoMI.