Three-channel video installation with audio (35mm super16mm).

year: 2007

For more visit - official website of SCUM.

Cinema of Cruelty

In the now classic tome, Madness and Civilization (1961), its author Michel Foucault locates the historical origins of mental illness in the West during the Middle Ages. It is here, he cogently argues, where the institutionalization of the other in the guise of a medical condition first emerges; for leprosy was the pandemic in which quarantine was initially used to contain infectious disease. It became apparent, however, that medical isolation brought with it the potential for social control. During the Enlightenment amidst the battle cry of liberty, fraternity and equality, madness was considered more than an illness and was also perceived as the antithesis to Reason; it acquired a different dimension altogether as both a mental affliction and as an irrational, social aberration that imposed on the body politic. The status quo’ s reaction to this social burden was pragmatic yet authoritarian: since mental imbalance impaired a person’ s faculty of reason including the ability to form rational moral and political judgments, medical diagnosis was broadened to subsume psychological disorders which, in another context, may have been nothing more than transgressions against authority. Or, conversely: transgressors against the state deemed politically threatening could be considered deranged and confined under the pretense of sickness and rehabilitation.

The medical, categorical revision of insanity to include elements of the socially undesirable became the dark side of the Enlightenment on which Modernity has partially constructed its edifice of progress. Along with the sanity/madness binary and the Enlightenment philosopher’ s meta-discursive self/other dichotomy, came other analogous coupling produced by Western colonialism which helped legitimize its global “ manifest destiny.” Western/non-Western, occident/orient, colonizer/colonized and civilized/savage are just some of the antitheses that parallel Foucault’ s historical and epistemic pairings of sanity/madness, reason/folly, and mind/body. But the question of the other has also been theoretically crucial to other disciplines beyond that of history including psychoanalysis and philosophy, for example. One could argue that objects/relations theory, in which the ego-self cannot know itself without interacting with what’ s external to it, underscores the other as germane for self-knowledge. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas offers another way to understand the self’ s epistemological necessity of the other. Or, more to the point: according to Levinas, the other is the unrecognized aggregate of the self that exists within but because it is unacknowledged and repressed, the self projects its conflicted denial externally onto what it deems socially disdainful. This is outwardly discerned in racial, gendered, and class differences; but the other is also the abject, the scatological and especially the corpse. In other words, they are all repulsive reminders of the other, and everything the self is not. Institutionalization, social marginalization, the normative and transgression, as well as the self/other dichotomy and its analogues, are just some of many strands of thought that frame Wojtek Ulrich’ s Scum (2007).

In Scum (2007), Ulrich constructs a rather dark and traumatic cinematic tableau via three, larger than life-size video projections that are installed in a quasi U-shape configuration. This projection format anchors Scum architectonically and is the physical setting from which its multivalent narrative unfolds. The three different screens occasionally operate in a kind of call-and-response; sometimes the individual videos projected onto them are so seamlessly integrated that the work seems to transmogrify; other times they are highly differentiated yet manage to maintain an overall narrative coherence. The precision and seemingly effortless synchronization of the three projections and the various ways they play with and off each other have an affinity with, for example, Mike Figgis’ Time Code (2000).

Time Code is an unconventionally structured film in that four cameras are used to tape different parts of a scene, which are then projected as four individual frames onto one screen. The strategy Ulrich deploys in Scum is similar, but deviates from Time Code in that there are only three frames rather than four, and the left and right screens discreetly jut out from the walls to slightly encompass the viewer. In this sense, Scum creates a phenomenological experience as well as an optical one; and coupled together, formally extends Scum’ s aesthetic far beyond film into the register of sculpture and installation. Its veering into a three-dimensional work necessitates a more corporeal engagement with it; for bodily movement rather than just visual reception is intrinsic for its experience. This effect is further nuanced by the dominant role of the viewer. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the three screens, on which Scum is projected and seen from different points of view, engender a subservience to the spectator. As we see the video from a privileged and centralized position, spectatorship is one of power not unlike Jeremy Bentham’ s infamous Panopticon. The Panoptcon was a type of prison designed in England in the late eighteenth century. It was a breakthrough in penal technology because inmates were monitored without them knowing they were being watched, thus, in the words of Bentham himself, the Panopticon was “ a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example." Like the Panopticon’ s observational centrality in which all those imprisoned are watched by the disembodied eye, the viewer of Scum is hegemonic as it surveys the video work like an overlord over his subjects, or like a warden over his prisoners. In one sense, then, Ulrich conceptually absorbs the viewer as surrogate for both the victim and victimizer into the work’ s narrative; we could then deduce that we are as much innocent as we are guilty of the atrocities that ensue in Scum.

Another formal strategy that Ulrich employs is shooting the same scene from various angles that are then played across three different screens. This doubling effect, in which a scene is concomitantly viewed from anomalous perspectives, creates the sensation that the characters in Scum are trapped in a Beckett-like, fatalistic universe. We see them simultaneously moving to and fro, coming and going, and arriving and departing, and these shifts not only inflect the work with formal texture, but structurally echo the video’ s cinematic ambiance of confusion, terror, and submission. This subtle and nuanced modus operandi effectively conjoins and disrupts the work’ s temporal and spatial intricacies and, in a roundabout way, is structurally akin to Kurosawa’ s classic Rashomon, in which an event is told from different points of view. Scum’ s Nietzsche-like “ eternal recurrence,” also has an affinity with the looping technique that is formally and conceptually constitutive of Stan Douglas’ Win, Place or Show (1997). There are, however, other tropes that Ulrich utilizes from a plethora of sources that imbues Scum with a visual poetics and formal dynamism amounting to a work of elegance, delicacy and fragility. Yet paradoxically, Scum still maintains its overall potent, forceful and brutal aesthetic; its beauty is refined though explosive, and could even be analogous to what Andre Breton had said about Frida Kahlo’ s painting: “ a bomb with ribbon tied around it.” For Scum is a masterful work of Wagnerian proportions in which its geseamkunstwerk-like sublimity is shot through and through with catharsis, aggression, and animus. In the midst of its dark and apocalyptic vision, there nonetheless remains a subtext of redemption, pathos, anima, and a profoundly humanist empathy that borders on spirituality. Scum’ s manifold aesthetic richness that permeates and structures it into a challenging and ambitious work of art is, however, first set-in-motion by where it is physically set: a frightening and sinister historical locale that is testament to humanity’ s blood lust and social cannibalism.

In Scum Ulrich deploys, to great effect as cinematic backdrop, a cavernous underground complex called Der Riese that is presently located in Poland’ s Sowie Mountains. The geography itself has been under political contestation; before World War II it lay within Germany’ s borders, after the war it became part of Poland. Fecund, fertile and inundated with a diversity of species of flora and fauna, the Arcadian beauty of the Sowie Mountains is in sharp contradiction to the monstrous subterranean world that once inhabited underneath it. The initial construction of the massive tunnels that extend in numerous directions, of which some are as large as 27,000 square feet, began a couple of years before World War II. But it was with the Nazi invasion of Poland that Der Riese acquired its monstrous and sinister history via the forced labor used to build it. The tunnels were created by the sweat, blood, tears, agony, and lives of concentration camp prisoners. Construction of this massing underground structure went on 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and the daily horror and misery occurring there spanned the spectrum of inhumanity. For example: there were deaths by accident in which large sections of tunnels collapsed on laborers; mortalities incurred from fainting spells triggered from the infernal heat as well as exhaustion; fatalities from typhus and other forms of infections and bacterium as well as from lack of nourishment and blatant starvation; and insidious emotional torture, degradation, rapes and violations of the most debased sort inflicted at will by Nazis onto the weak and dispossessed. When one walks through the tunnels today, which some have called the devil’ s bowels, the specter of its history of horror remains deeply scarred into its veneer. The walls seemingly palpitate with agony, for they are palimpsests of anonymous dead souls; phantasms and memories of atrocity have been embedded into their surfaces creating a patina of death. It is here, moreover, where Ulrich has chosen to set his apocalyptic magnum opus Scum.

Scum opens with an ear-splitting audio-track of a beating heart. In tandem with this hypnotic intro are two figures who appear on the right and left screens separated by a middle screen, on which is projected a deep blue, expansive, cinematic shot taken underwater. Water is a formal and conceptual motif in Scum: not only in the initial opening sequence and in the end where it serves as a kind of coda, but its recurrence takes the form of deluge as well as the setting’ s overall feel of dampness and moisture that ostensibly permeates the tunnel walls. After the opening trio of projections, an unclothed man on the left screen who fulfills well the role of protagonist/hero, crawls out of his make-shift, dilapidated bed. A very distinguishing element that Ulrich utilizes as a kind of binary to underscore the self/other dichotomy as well as a signifier of difference is nudity. Almost all of the characters in Scum are nude: men and women that are thin, fat, old, middle age, and young; in short, humanity. Naked may be a better way of describing them because of their inherent powerlessness. Further underscoring their disempowerment are the very few individuals who—in stark contrast to those stripped bare—wear loin cloths; and to emphasize further still the subhuman nature of those “ costumed,” an individual in a position of authority is hooded in a mask made from what appears to be a severed animal head. As the protagonist/hero on the left screen “ wakes” up, he plunges into an abyss of water projected onto the central screen and is “ birthed” into a sinister, existential, underground hell. As the video unfolds in a rhythmic and jarring point/counterpoint across the three screens, the viewer is confronted with many harsh, yet beautiful scenes of a dystopian nature. We are, in a metaphorical sense, visiting Der Riese but through a primeval or possibly futuristic setting.

The latter scenario manifests through the lack of historical signifiers as well as the nudity. It is this same absent presence that helps to telescopically push the triadic tableau back into the entrails of pre-history. With either possibility, however, it is Ulrich’ s mastery of the medium and the powerful story he tells underscored in his relentless barrage of myriad formal and imagistic elements that seizes our attention: harrowing claustrophobic perspectives; darkened cavernous interiors, illuminated angles shot from divergent locales, long cropped shots rhythmically offset with close-ups, a syncopated filmic flow deployed across three screens, and then, of course, are the images themselves. Some of these include: shackled individuals, humans frightened and scurrying like rodents, beatings and dismemberment; a mass of naked, writhing people hoisted together in a net as if they are captured prey. Collectively, the scenarios are both repellent and compelling and amount to a kind of Dante’ s inferno, or apocalypse, or Armageddon, or holocaust, and possibly even a kind of futuristic inquisition. These aesthetic and narrative elements that rhythmically play off the three screens as well as the minimalist soundtrack produce a breath-taking visceral work of intensity and sublime beauty. It is this coupling of sublimity and abjection that has distinguished Scum as exemplary of art’ s power and thus situating it as unequaled in the history of recent video practice.

Raul Zamudio

Fragment of a conversation with David Thomas on the SCUM installation:


WU: If I filmed in a direct, melodramatic and passionate manner, seemingly matching its content, it would be too stifling….and this has to be stifling, but in a different manner; this is what camera 35mm and a super 16mm give. I became convinced of it later, but intuitively felt that a 35mm is the best choice. It encodes the signal which the viewer will be able to decode. That which actually enters into the conflict with the content.

DT: Is it the content that demands such approach…?

WU: It was also to be an opposition to this unbearable style or suffocating “unstyle”, that we watch everywhere and which almost everybody uses all the time. “Video esthetics”, which was or became a-esthetics, or is or was indifferent to any “esthetic quality”, was brought to the “canon” from which one had to resort to a 35mm and a super 16mm. But the reasons were of a technical nature, because I take no interest in other reasons, excluding artistic ones. One may interpret it as meditations on difficulties and even the impossibility of today’s faith in miracles and faith in the miracle of cinema. That’s why I stand astride between the film and the video. I don’t feel like I’m standing anywhere, as a matter of fact. For those who make videos it’s not a video but a film. For filmmakers, it’s not a film but a video installation. Which suits me very much, but I don’t trouble my head about it.

DT: Your escape or in-between position looks like you would like to smuggle the remains of the “old” esthetics?

WU: Faith had to appear for a moment in an esthetic game, because it is about faith with which we commonly judge everything at the esthetic level, which is, off course, a cosmic nonsense, and rather slides into religious or mythological obscurantism! Idée fix proves to be true, and not hallucinations only. All hopeless characters were or are real characters, not a hysterical dream or hallucinations only. Maybe miracles do happen here, but with no faith in them. I didn’t make any sense to use some ironic distance here.

DT: And you think that a 35mm guarantees that you’ll escape the video?

WU: This is a vision which is void of any guarantees (a place is a guarantee) in real world as well as in the phantasmic world. Using a 35mm and a super 16mm gave something else, namely it gave me a chance to place kitschy scenes, like a rain of fire. Only this way does it work as some sort of warning, which one cannot take seriously. Lack of means generated something that appears as a counterpoint to the escape from the postmodern form or narration. In any case, it’s only a pretext. In truth such kind of problems don’t interest me at all. Any “film” or artistic problems, or endeavors associated with it. The place and problems posed generated or imposed what we see as the final effect.

DT: And 3 screens? What did you want to escape from? And what did you want to come close to?

WU: One screen sends the explicit signal that it happened, the second one that it didn’t, and the third that maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. A responsibility for the presumption as to what’s going on rests exclusively on the viewers. This is like an opposition of three horrors, a phantasmic horror, a perverse world, a betrayal, a swindle and a horror of monotonous, estranged, underground every day life in a psychotic universe. The oneness of our experience of reality falls apart into three components: sterilely monotonous, imaginarily “un-sublimed” brutal version and obscene cruelty, 3-screens, 3-dimensions, 3-points of view. If we go beyond the phantasmic screen, which seems to give a false aura at the beginning, we may choose between evil and even worse, between the sterile, helpless, monotonous social reality and the phantasmic real world of auto-destructive violence.

DT: I’ve viewed it, as you know, dozens of times, but I still have a problem with the narration.

WU: The narration is compound, it holds a number of essential details and events void of living logic. And yet, maybe the senselessness and complexity give an impression that we are pulled into a schizophrenic, nightmarish delirium where there are no regulations or logic. The plot is “coherent”, although the line that separates the reality from the hallucinations becomes blurred. From the beginning we know and feel that a defeat awaits us in all imagined and unimagined possible worlds. It has already happened in one. Its recurrence is a certainty.

DT: And the motif of a recurring person? At one point he/she even passes him/her-self?

WU: The motif of the two same persons is not the same. Although it looks the same. In the second loop, one can see yet another version, repeatedly watching “the same” gives a key to “a few versions”. The transition from the inner impossibility to the outer obstacle and back. The realistic horror encountered in a dream is significantly more real and horrifying then the reality. It was necessary to suspend the rules of plain reality and to “materialize the horror”. The entire action of the film happens in time suspension “between” these two moments. The “film” is based on the impossibility of the main character, who meets himself. After a long “detour”, he comes back to the starting point, but from a different perspective.

DT: The scheme that guarantees the “uniqueness” of this universe is inaccessible, anyway.

WU: One must take the main character seriously, although it works and is to work as an absurdly superimposed film ... a film superimposed on a film. Its own directness and naivety with the admission of clearly kitschy elements.

DT: The ending is that upon approaching it, our experience of ourselves loses cohesiveness and falls apart.

WU: In the final phase we have something like “the highest” or “the lowest” that controls everything or at least it seems to us that it does, but one cannot be sure, which one is essential to realize the most destructive impulses. And making this whole “mess” meaningful (that was my intention). But it doesn’t have to work this way. This is the only positive character or thing in this entire “undertaking”, if one may say so, “objectively” registering - from our point of view - all the achievements, desires, and lusts of the main character as well as those of all others, because there are sometimes two of them, sometimes three... which proves and indicates the timelessness and spacelessness of “synchronic” registration.

DT: The same happens with the sound?

WU: The sound which accompanies this show tries to lead one astray rather, break the seriousness. It may also be read as a commentary to permanent botching all up by the main character, that act of grand sacrifice and pathos and conceited greatness or sadness. The sound tries to be embarrassing, be “beyond”. The cinematic texture of a 35mm and a super 16mm undermine his own ideological project or introduces distance to this film – project, making his inner impossibility and defeat visible…

DT: So what is, in this case, the most important element of this “undertaking” which keeps this “film” together?

WU: The energy of the film, to which we must surrender, when it maltreats us and we loose control, we’ll receive the inner “peace”. It is also a warning in various versions not to pay attention to all shams and pretenses of the suit.

DT: Is it so as not to make any pretenses that you “let out” everyone naked where the temperature as you said is stable and is 4 degrees Celsius?

WU: In a birthday suit…to de-realize the characters, to bring them to their primitive state, untainted by any deeper reflections. In order to overcome the habits (associations) and problems resulting from them, it was necessary to see all actors in their deepest nudity, to look into their guts.

DT: …a cold and dark matter…

WU: Indeed, this situation is a dark matter for everyone, most of all for those who desire to die but are afraid to violate the suicide ban, on “real: ground where it happened as well as on a superimposed film.

DT: What’s the role of a loop for you, which, as you state, is one of the most important elements, if not the most?

WU: Loop and flashback (of this place) is authentic, it is the only justification of ambiguity and un-cohesion of the scheme. The logic here is a metaphysical torment and sheltering of what links all these heterogeneous relations. A ruin, an underground, where people were actually murdered, as a real shelter of a “preposition”. A shelter with no way out, an underground vastness where time doesn’t flow, occurrences accompany, delusive like a dream and imagination, the hour lasts nonstop, the illusion that all happens once, as if it were an attempt at a better night. The loop has another essential role. Imperfections detected immediately lose seriousness and strength, and when we analyze them fully, they become easier to bear. Through a loop we’re watching it anew, and once again, round the clock, because what’s happening there does not “teach” anything. A man is incapable of drawing conclusions, hence is sentenced to constant repetition. That’s the core of the matter. And the loop repeats it with us, viewing the same anew. Loop as a repetition which we must repeat, traveling down the same road, repeatedly, repeating nonstop the fiasco, because it’s our natural element and it’s coded in us. It is a 3-part picture. One time it glitters as a left side, after another loop as a right side, and a few loops later as a middle part. It depends on which one you’ll concentrate. It glitters as a positive and a negative. One screen pretends a uniform reality, the second one – a diversified one, and together they pretend to make a whole.

DT: Isn’t it all becoming too melodramatic?

WU: Only on a 35mm was it possible to intensify the melodramatic and kitschy moments attempting to “penetrate” what really happened in that place.

DT: Does it all have some inner structure, did you try to base it on something?

WU: The construction of the entire show is “mathematical”, it has an exact structure and proportions. The description is constructed “geometrically”, it is to some extend an exact calculation, almost like the way the work and extermination of people in the location where we shot was calculated and planned.

DT: ???! So then how does the “real space” work? Is it only a costume for the rest?

WU: That’s not a costume, that’s a real space, which hasn’t been touched nor changed since 1945, because it was impossible to change, it is the hardest rock. It is played out against authentic realistic hell, tenths of thousands of people were murdered here. The main “hero” is a complex labyrinth “Riese”, without any makeup. Only the repetition plays here, as a recreation of the “real” phantasm. It is no set design, by any means, this is an authentic location without alterations, where people died in great suffering, during annihilating forced labor, in terrible fear and stress, treated like vermin. The question is being posed anew, as a result of doubting all answers, which attempted to clarify it, and explain it. This “film” is somewhat a superimposed version of what really happened there, a flashback, it is a fact, I only superimpose it. It’s some sort of a “dream”, phantasm, not only to come closer to that time or recreate it, I superimpose films, sick and hopeless, and it’s not to confirm the truth or otherwise, but to find out which one will be stronger: the one that’s “acted-out”, or the real one. I’m trying to “jump over” the real version, to make an even nastier horror than the one that was.

DT: Are you suggesting, or is it only my “impression”, that everything that had happened here was only for the purpose of making this “film”, which is more horrifying than the reality which happened here???

WU: “SCUM” is a senseless incident, a scandal, which pretends to be it (the real scandal is this place, the labyrinth), but “SCUM” wants to be the “truest”, the darkest. The handicapped being sentenced to a fiasco, which I’m attempting to intensify.

DT: And there is still a want, why? Where does this want come from?

WU: We most likely love “blind exercises” with their ruthless deadly result. The problem is rather who will invent a more extravagant “darkness”… that’s what turns one on most.

I think that such a background with what had happened and what is “acted-out” are identical. Factual fiction, no matter whether it’s true or not. It is the harmony of a subject playing with an object, objectivity is out of the question, because precisely this situation is most objective. Conformity doesn’t have any meaning here either, it’s even undesirable. The content of what happened in “Riesen” (labyrinth during the war), doesn’t have any meaning, what does is the storytelling which invents itself. Sorcery or hoaxing is out of the here, it’s about revealing a shady business, which is predetermined, but exposing any delusion. Letting real imagination speak, which had taken place previously, the picture doesn’t state, doesn’t certify. It’s only an imaging material.

It is that place that forced making it, inventing this story, to rescue oneself from a slow murder on one’s mind. It had to be answered with another murder, a phantasmic one, to suppress “this” fear. For now we sense this fear, we are drawing near it…it is still far off, but one realizes its importance and meaning. But all these phantasms are “our” destroyed dreams, it is our tool of compensation. Returning to the old principles is out of the question in the end. We drown the anxiety with continuous horror and with a deep faith, because only with such faith one can play tricks like that.

DT: So ‘SCUM” is good news, then?

Scum - trailer
Scum - how it works