A narrative structure is hardly detectable in Steve McQueen’s earlier video and film installations, but not so in the later pieces. The two related works Carib’s Leap and Western Deep initiated a phase of relatively long films, played out on the borderline between documentary and subjective experience. These pieces are deeply influenced by the (pre-)history of their respective locations — the colonial period in Carib’s Leap and the inhumane working conditions in South African mines in Western Deep — but do not focus on their specifics. Moods and self-contained, unconnected scenes and actions dominate without explicit reference to the larger context. This approach features in many of McQueen’s longer, narratively oriented works.
«It’s not documentary – it’s using and abusing
documentary to do something else.
Documentary claims to give you the full picture,
but here the viewers have to fill in a huge
part of what’s going on.»
The only allusion to the historical and political background of Gravesend, for instance, is a scene depicting the sun setting over Gravesend harbour. The harbour of this town on the Thames hosts the opening scene of Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness (1899), describing a fateful journey into the Congo during the colonial period. The film and title Gravesend subtly suggest an historical parallel between the colonial exploitation of Africa during the Industrial Revolution and the current exploitation of the Congo to gratify the needs of the Digital Revolution. The montage of highly contrasting film images coalesces into a geopolitical statement on global interdependency and inequality.
Steve McQueen’s treatment of the NASA Voyager project in Once Upon a Time, while similarly cryptic, makes astute observations. In a slow fade-over, the film shows a series of 116 images sent into space by NASA in 1977 aboard the Voyager I and II spacecraft as information about our planet for possible extraterrestrial life. The biased portrait of life on earth already drew criticism at the time, as it omitted poverty, injustice and war, but the project attests to a faith in such utopian attempts that is almost inconceivable today. The time capsule continues to move farther and farther from the earth both geographically and in terms of contemporary developments: in 2012, the probes entered the heliosheath, billions of kilometres from the earth, while the recorded images they contain are frozen in the late 1970s. By combining the selection of visual material made by scientists with audio recordings of unintelligible babble produced by the subconscious (known as glossolalia), McQueen questions the very possibility of mutual understanding.