On May Day Eve, Travis Wilkerson and two members of death-folk outfit Los Duggans, Dylan Wilkerson and Miguel Hernandez, performed Proving Ground, probably the first multimedia Leninist rant to have ever graced the Sundance Kabuki, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Travis Wilkerson did the ranting and controlled the Kaptivator, a device intended for VJs that allows video clips to be sampled, looped and superimposed. Los Duggans provided musical backing on two guitars and the occasional banjo, with rolling folk melodies that seemed to propel Wilkerson’s exhortations forward. The piece had four distinct movements, opening and closing with Lenin’s theory, specifically his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and moving, just as Lenin would, from theory to practice in the middle two movements. In these movements, the dramatic center of the work, Wilkerson raged against the US bombing of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and compared the recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli Army to the Sand Creek Massacre of the 19th century, when a group of Colorado Territory militias lead by Colonel Chivington slaughtered a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho.
Wilkerson is best known for his 2002 film An Injury to One, which drew connections between the murder of Wobbly organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana, novelist Dashiell Hammett’s involvement with the Pinkertons, and the environmental devastation wreaked by the Anaconda Mining Company in Butte. In Proving Ground, he trades the measured essayistic tone of the earlier film for polemic agitation, aimed at provoking action rather than contemplation. Wilkerson repeatedly whipped himself into a controlled frenzy during the short performance, his voice occasionally slipping from stern provocation into screamed outrage. The images projected onto the screen behind Wilkerson’s soapbox were nearly always looped and superimposed, using repetition and the associations generated by layered images to hammer his points home with nightmare loops of suffering. At one point, the bombs falling from an American plane appeared on screen as if tears falling from the face of a screaming woman.
SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara, in his introduction to the piece, contrasted Proving Ground to previous festival entries in the KinoTek track, which began in 2006 and focuses on works that utilize technology in innovative ways. Wilkerson’s work, Uyehara argued, does not fetishize technology, but employs it only as a means to an end. "The technology takes you somewhere else," he said, "and hopefully it makes you a different person than you were before you entered." The technology of the Kaptivator also contrasts starkly with the technologies of warfare on display throughout the performance. The images of bombs, tanks and military surveillance and targeting that recur throughout the performance all figure warfare as a science of suffering, against which Wilkerson’s Kaptivator has the appearance of nothing so much as a rock in a sling.
Where was Lenin’s place in all this? The images of Lenin in the first and final movements of the piece show him moving in jerky gestures toward and away from the camera as the film plays forward, backward and then loops. His image is superimposed alternately over black-and-white shots taken from a car’s windshield at night, the headlights of other cars appearing as sparkling points of light, or shots looking up at large glass and steel buildings in an urban space. Wilkerson places Lenin as the prognosticator of all the warfare that follows, having seen it coming in his 1917 pamphlet, written during and in reaction to World War One, that sees Imperialism as an accelerating, self-perpetuating force, feeding off the wars and destruction it causes.
Political theater at its most galvanizing, Wilkerson’s short performance ended 45 minutes after it began, but gave the audience plenty to think about on their way home from the theater. After Wilkerson spoke his last line, flinging a page of his script off the podium with fervor and walking behind the stage curtain, Los Duggans stayed onstage to perform two songs, including a rousing rendition of the fitting "Which Side Are You On?"
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