Filmmaker Duncan Campbell takes a deconstructive approach to documentary. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Filmmaker Duncan Campbell takes a deconstructive approach to documentary.

Political figures and automaker John DeLorean are among the Irish artist's subjects.

Back to the future: Duncan Campbell's "Make It New John" (2009) explores the life and legacy of John DeLorean.
Back to the future: Duncan Campbell's "Make It New John" (2009) explores the life and legacy of John DeLorean.

Irish-born, Glasgow-based Duncan Campbell has built his career on the belief that documentary is "a peculiar form of fiction." Campbell doesn't reject documentary filmmaking but rather seeks to trouble its reception by producing videos that expose their seams and disrupt conventions. This installment in the Carnegie's Forum Gallery series presents an in-depth look at Campbell's work through three videos of 30 to 60 minutes in length, screened in rotation, along with a scattering of screenprints.

The videos are the main event, each focusing on a strong-willed, inherently interesting individual key to Irish or European history. Campbell provides limited, albeit vital, biographical information while disturbing our tendency to accept, at least under certain circumstances, such information as uninflected truth. This is art-with-issues; not content to entertain, it means to change our thinking. Campbell combines a variety of archival materials with unexpected sequences and edits, surreal montage and inappropriate sounds. He artfully employs these Brechtian disruptions to alert us to the illusion of transparency and, by implication, the interests surreptitiously served by that illusion. 

"Bernadette" (2008) spirals around the short-lived political career of Bernadette Devlin, an iconic Irish civil-rights activist and firebrand of the 1970s. As a member of British parliament, Devlin broke with the Irish republican tradition of abstention in order to focus on civil rights and class struggle. This 37-minute study of Devlin is comprised of sections: caressing, close-up imagery of a female body that may or may not be hers; news footage that lays out the trajectory of her career in a less-than-linear manner; and a narrative that is autobiographical, apparently. 

Similar fragmenting strategies prevail in 2009's "Make It New John," which pokes around in the somewhat more familiar (to American viewers) saga of John DeLorean. DeLorean engineered the Pontiac GTO muscle car and was subsequently CEO of DeLorean Motor Company, whose high-end sports car was produced in West Belfast before the company crashed in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, fiscal mismanagement and cocaine-dealing charges ideal for TV-news titillation. Sequences in this 50-minute video include a beach-party fugue that evokes DeLorean's fun-loving playboy persona, footage of DeLorean squirming under reporters' probing, and a scripted fiction of a conversation with aggrieved factory workers. While incorporating fiction as a strategy for truth-telling, Campbell holds to the belief that the truth is worth pursuing.

German economist and bureaucrat Johannes Tietmeyer, architect of the eurozone, much in the news for its role in the debt crisis, is the subject of "Arbeit" (2011), though his image never appears in the 39-minute video. "Arbeit" conveys that what gets written as history is selective and biased. But at the same time, the video includes a history lesson illustrating how the European Union was an attempt to diffuse the power of a reunited Germany and its potentially resurgent nationalism.

Campbell's works on paper highlight a dilemma that runs through his work. "Factories Act 1961" (2008) is a reproduction of an official government document that, we're informed by wall text, has been subtly altered, but in what way I could not discern. Official histories are far from a monolithic category, including everything from sincere attempts at accuracy to willful misrepresentations. To disrupt them is most illuminating when there is a widely recognized history to play off against. But while Devlin and DeLorean are somewhat familiar subjects, Tietmeyer less so in the U.S., none are household names. Most people could not provide biographical detail about any of them, much less pick up on subtleties of bias or omission.

Campbell, at age 40, is of that breed of video artists who spend more time in the archive than the studio, facing a monitor instead of a blank canvas. (William E. Jones' "Punctured" at the Carnegie in 2010 was another notable example.) Campbell sees useful knowledge residing in the documentation of the past. But he also brings to bear postmodern doubt regarding supposedly simple facts and the manner in which they are deployed — sometimes "spun" — to achieve results. While Campbell sows skepticism, his work doesn't diminish documentary's role so much as provoke the viewer into active engagement and expand documentary's strategies for approaching the truth, even as the results are always conditional. His lessons might be a wee bit subtle for the general public — viewers must pay close attention and extrapolate to get the point — but for the even mildly media-savvy, it teaches by showing and not, mercifully, by hectoring.

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