“We were fearless orphans looking back and destroying all these ghosts” is the quote that The New Blockheads as a private case, a feature length documentary film by Lana Berndl, opens with. The film follows Sergei Spirikhin, a former member of the idealistic group of performance artists called The New Blockheads, as he performs various works of art around the city of Vienna. The New Blockheads as a private case will be playing at the Fall 2021 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 19.
This film is presented in a series of seven novellas. The way that the information is presented to the viewer is through the lenses of a couple of cameramen who are following Spirikhin around the city of Vienna on foot. This provides for a first-hand experience as to how the various art performances are received by the general public. While the viewer is not necessarily in Vienna with the filmmakers, they are able to understand the premise behind street performance in a major city, as this is essentially a universal experience for anyone who has actually been in an urban environment. As far as this particular film is concerned, the first-hand experience provides the viewer with a feeling of participation in the journey that Spirikhin and the filmmakers are on to uncover what art truly is or can be.
The first is titled “Spirikhin’s Crimes” and this is where the bulk of Spirikhin’s street performances are displayed. The first performance has to do with a series of random objects displayed on a paper towel that is stretched to the length of an entire road. The viewer watches as Spirikhin and his friend Vladimir discuss the installation and how the ambiguity of the piece adds to the wonder behind it. It becomes clear to the viewer that this film is going to be questioning the idea of art itself, and what exactly can be classified as such.
The next performance piece is one where Spirikhin walks around Vienna carrying a cross, that he has made, and which he taped pieces of fake dollar bills onto (the bills appearing relatively real to the onlooker). There is something to be said about the settings in this performance because each place that Spirikhin brought the money cross to elicited a different response and gave the cross a different meaning.
At an art gallery, where Spirikhin was trying to present this piece to the gallerist as a valid art installation, he was immediately rejected because filming was not allowed in the gallery; he was unable to even speak his truth. This interaction displayed on screen forces the viewer to wonder whether or not they should accept this cross as a form of art. At a bank, Spirikhin brought to the viewers attention the idea that the United States of America prints money on paper all the time. He then argues that he should be able to exchange his own printed money for the money that the government printed for him, for what then is the difference between the two? Then, at a church, the cross takes on a whole different meaning. Spirikhin brings up the long standing tradition of bribery in the Catholic church and conveys that the concept of tithing is essentially a way for the Church itself to make money, while the churchgoer can be sure that they’ve secured a spot in God’s good graces. Spirikhin then attempts to bribe the Priest with his money cross in exchange for the Priest’s blessing. Interestingly, the people wielding the cameras refuse to enter the church as in their eyes it is forbidden to film inside. This leaves out key information for the viewer as to what the interaction between Spirikhin and the priest looked like first-hand. Here, the lack of footage actually adds to the message of the film, as it can be a testament to the power that the Catholic church holds over certain people. This adds another layer of meaning to the performance with the money cross and enhances the viewers experience with footage that does not even exist.
The next four novellas consist of footage from times when the New Blockheads all performed their art pieces together, some twenty years earlier. This footage is of key importance to the film as it provides the viewer with a context of what Spirikhin is trying to accomplish through his controversial performances. A viewer who may have seen him as slightly out of his mind, now shifts their understanding to a space where it is clear that the tests being performed on the members of society are acts of pure genius. This allows the viewer to make their own deductions about Spirikhin’s performances as the film progresses.
The last novella is simply titled “Toilet” where Spirikhin is sitting on the toilet, speaking simultaneously to someone on the phone and the viewer themselves, about what the experience of watching his performances was like. It seems that the question that the film has been toying with of ‘what is art?’ is finally answered when Spirikhin looks directly at the camera and says “I mean, I jumped on the stage with my heart.” Art here is an expression of the self, unfiltered and ready to be. And if the viewer were to ask ‘when is the right time to express myself through art?’ they may look to Sergei Spirikhin who would say “Tomorrow is probably too late. And yesterday it was still too early!”
Don’t miss Lana Berndl’s quirky documentary The New Blockheads as a private case at the Fall 2021 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 19 where it screens live at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105 (Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey) and all day via Video On Demand. A purchased ticket gives you access to both these screenings. Go here for more info. Go here for more info on the New Jersey Film Festival: https://newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2021.eventive.org/welcome