Offshore Speculation: In conversation: Anja Kirschner, director of Polly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands

By William Fowler

polly-ii-plan-for-a-revolution-anja-kirschner-1.jpgPolly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, 2006

London-based artist Anja Kirschner’s latest video, Polly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (2006), presents a vision of London’s East End transformed by severe flooding and illustrates elements of the social upheaval that ensues. Divisions in the social structure are glaringly revealed and the film’s namesake and narrator, Polly, challenges the viewer to question what is seen over the film to come – ‘what you consider to be the rule, recognize it as misrule’. Within this, self-elected saviors of the people become seekers of self-interest, and pirates, who traverse the flooded waters around Canary Wharf, offer chances of liberation.

Polly II uses elements of genre, including the swash-buckler and soap opera, but couches these in references to Brecht and Brechtian strategies and a context of historical and geographic conflation. By exploring elements of 18th century London and its (commercial) relation to the wider world and the Atlantic, but also today, Polly II piles the cards spread by the British Empire back on top of themselves and creates a contained world of allegory. This world, however, is positioned within contemporary detail; one of the video’s scenes concerns a governmental consultation meeting with local residents – involving people who had been to just such meetings.

The subtle but expansive intertextual referencing within Polly II is further illustrated in a supporting publication that also demonstrates the extent of Anja Kirschner’s wider research. Her previous video, Supernumeraries (2003), has a similar reference tool. Both documents (available at www.supernumeraries.org) juxtapose prints and film stills with contemporary illustrations and quotes to uncanny rhythmic effect.

Anja Kirschner is now working on a Western with black cowboys, set in Hackney.

William Fowler: Where did the Western idea come from?

Anja Kirschner: The decision to make a Western came together from several starting points. For one, I tend to depart from historical material. In my previous films, Supernumeraries and Polly II, I drew on the radical history of the enclosures, maritime expansion and researched slavery and 18th century colonialism. These lines of inquiry led me to start reading about the emergence of the American frontier and the fact that almost a third of cowboys were former slaves. The history of the West abounds with material that I find myself consistently drawn to – the role of ‘the law’ in the imposition of capitalist social relations, versus the visionary potential and political agency inherent within ‘outlaw’ activities - mutiny, crime and rebellion.

polly-ii-plan-for-a-revolution-anja-kirschner-2.jpgPolly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, 2006

Secondly, I tend to be drawn to epic genres. Figures like pirates and cowboys have a very particular popular mythology, one which is often drained of historical facts or is politically conservative – for example you don’t see black cowboys in Westerns and swashbuckling adventures don’t reflect on the labor relations that drove many ordinary sailors to piracy – however, this ‘pulp’ material provides a rich source of motifs and genre set-pieces to be played on or subverted. I’ve been drawn to the cinematic iconography of Westerns for a while, exploring it in my recent drawings and paintings.

Finally, my films have tended to collide different historical periods to reflect on contemporary struggles. The idea for my new film is to set a Western on Hackney Marches, currently one of the sites of the 2012 Olympics. Westerns have a highly codified way of depicting the enclosure of territory and the arrival of large-scale enterprise and state authority. These are motifs that can also be deployed to dramatize what’s happening in Hackney.

As with my previous work, I want to create a trans-historical setting where the past can shed light on new and recurring problems and create a productive representational dissonance. Thus outlaw figures that emerge during moments of capitalist expansion enter my films alongside their contemporary ´accomplices´ as specters of historical possibility.

Since I work with fairly complex narrative structures compressed into short formats, drawing on familiar genre conventions can function as a kind of shorthand, referencing wider narratives and conceptual frameworks. In Polly II, I deployed, sci-fi, soap opera, Brechtian theatre and 18th century accounts of piracy to this end.

WF: Could you say something about your approach to film and your interest in it.

AK: I suppose I’m interested in the way that film can open up a space for fantasy or utopia that supersedes the banality of the everyday. In that way I’m more drawn to the bold gestures of ‘action’ genres rather than the mundane, anti-human abjection that seems to dominate in low-budget shorts and ‘indie’ films at the moment.

polly-ii-plan-for-a-revolution-anja-kirschner-3.jpgPolly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, 2006

That said I’m not interested in romanticized forms of un-reconstructed heroism found in ‘golden-age’ cinema. I want to assert the harsh reality of often-suppressed historical facts but without recourse to some kind of phony notion of gritty ‘authenticity’. Rather, I want to investigate and portray what might be inherently redemptive about a particular historical moment by setting my films in imaginary or fantastical territories that collide different registers. I am interested in creating social tableaux rather than individual case studies and this is probably why I’m so drawn to the works of Hogarth, Breughel and Brecht. These use stylization, artifice and caricature to present social structures whilst calling upon the viewer to take a moral and political position on what is presented.

But in many ways, despite this commitment to fantasy and artifice, many of my ideas are drawn from real experiences of living in contemporary London. I’ve been involved in community struggles against state-led gentrification in the East End and in some ways my work is literally situated in this widening gap between the rich and poor.

WF: In the flooded city depicted in Polly II there’s an uncanny resemblance to events in New Orleans, post-Katrina. How did this come about?

AK: In Polly II a flood becomes the pretext for flushing out the urban poor. The water serves as a metaphor for aggressive urban gentrification and I worked with a cast of predominantly working-class actors, many of whom had lived through successive waves of displacement in the East End and were drawn to the film by their anger at what had happened in their area.

It wasn’t until two months after the film had been shot that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the aftermath, described by Mike Davis as perhaps the ‘biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project Black America has ever seen’, was a real-life realisation of the metaphorical deluge in Polly II, an emergency that was engineered to become a tool for class cleansing – obviously a curious case of fiction preceding fact. But what has been happening in New Orleans is still happening on a less dramatic but no less vicious scale around us in London.

polly-ii-plan-for-a-revolution-anja-kirschner-4.jpgPolly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, 2006

WF: It’s interesting, the environment suddenly exerts itself and provides a moment of instability and in doing so draws attention to the social situation. The aftermath or follow-up though is that those in control reassert themselves even more strongly. That’s the literal meaning of revolution – change and return.

AK: Polly II has an open-ended conclusion. It’s set in an imaginary revolutionary situation but the catastrophic, unfocused and even suicidal nature of the violence unleashed doesn’t necessarily hint at some kind of return to order. Rather than speculate about the possible outcome of an insurrection, I wanted to focus on the problems of organization arising during any political struggle, the nature of demands, the confusion about the agents of change and the role, as well as the limits, of violence in such struggles. These themes are as relevant to contemporary or small-scale protests as they are to a larger social upheaval.

I was also interested in the pure potentiality of a situation when order is disrupted and contestation for power begins.

To some extent the plot of Polly II was based on actual events from the 18th century, just as the actions of a real Captain inspired Conrad to write The Secret Sharer, something I drew on for Supernumeraries. But I’m not depicting or referencing these moments so they can be measured against so many subsequent defeats or presented as easily digestible celebrations of ´heritage´ or downright nostalgia (and I have little sympathy for re-enactments on that level); rather, I use them because they penetrate the present like so many callings and loopholes whose explosive potential still speaks to us.

WF: How are you positioning your work and where do you see it going?

AK: I suppose my work is positioned in that rather uncomfortable place between video art and narrative cinema. Both Polly II and the Western contain ideas and narratives that could expand to feature-length but are condensed into short films.

The problem is that there are few opportunities for artists working with the moving image to make feature-length projects, while in the commercial industry there is suspicion about anything that breaks out of established genres.

However, I am planning a film based on the last days in the extraordinary life of Jack Sheppard whose spectacular prison breaks threw the whole of 18th century London into turmoil. Ideally this would be feature length.


Polly II Plan for a Revolution in Docklands will be screened at the BFI National Film Theatre, as part of the programme ‘New Lands’, in late spring 2007. Anja Kirschner’s videos are being preserved in the BFI National Archive.

William Fowler works as the Curator of Artists’ Moving Image at the BFI National Archive.