Ben Russell—filmmaker, artist, curator—challenges conventions of documentary representation from within to produce intense, hypnotic, and, at times, hallucinating experiences. His curatorial work follows his filmmaking, which unfolds between experimental cinema and a form of speculative ethnography; he calls it “psychedelic ethnography.”
Watching a film by Russell means going on a nonnarrative, ritualized journey, one that short-circuits the visceral subjective charge of psychedelia with ethnographic protocols of visualization and objectification. The particular power of his filmic work lies in underscoring the affinities and differences to be found between these two different states. An experience that he forges, on the one hand, through examining the cinematic apparatus itself and its potential for immersion and mimetic identification, and, on the other, by the very subjects and subject matter of his films, which often traverse the liminal and engage in altered states of consciousness and in secular practices of ritual and trance. “Transformative experiences,” Russell says, “go hand in hand with critical awareness of cinematic devices and their historically coded limitations.”
Born in 1976 in Massachusetts, Russell now lives in Los Angeles. He became known through his series Trypps (2005–10), in which he first worked with the physical experience of noise music. Nevertheless he quickly moved on “to include the various poles of action painting, avant-garde cinema, portraiture, stand-up comedy, global capitalism, and trance dance à la Jean Rouch,” as he notes. Several feature-length films, installations, live performances, and short films have followed. And, as the founder of the Magic Lantern screening series (among many others), Russell has conceived of and organized over one hundred thematic film and video programs. For documenta 14, he presents a new film project that examines the social and global scale of the politics of mineral extraction. It is a comparative film study about the communities of workers in an illegal, small-scale gold mine in Suriname and in a state-owned copper mine in Serbia. In addition, he has organized a four-day film and performance festival in Athens, titled HALLUCINATION(S), inviting independent filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, and film researchers to collectively unravel cinema’s hallucinatory potential.