Forever Prisoner?


Huda Awan




“I hope for nothing, and yet I live in expectation. Things are going to change. I can feel it.”
Morgan Quaintance, A HUMAN CERTAINTY (2021)
One day, when I was six years old, I decided to spin around very fast in tight circles, trying to make myself dizzy, delighted by the physical disorientation the repetitious movement brought about. I spun and spun and spun, then stopped to feel my head spin, then spun and spun and spun, then stopped to feel my head spin, then spun and spun and spun, then stopped to feel my head spin, then spun and spun and spun, then – bang – I hit my little forehead on the corner of the radiator. I suppose it was inevitable. I began to cry and went upstairs to find my mother, who in turn began to cry when she saw the blood. 

“The camera spinning around the room – it actually made me cry.” My friend Elizabeth said this of REPETITIONS when I told her I had yet to write this text. She and I were sitting outside the Wasabi beside Russell Square station. When I rewatched the film the next morning, I decided, yes, the camera spinning around the room was moving (in both senses of the word) – delightfully disorienting.

But the sly thrill of breaking a pattern lies in defying an expectation. Morgan Quaintance knows this, exploits it. PALACE is a simple film, structurally speaking. Two separate visual patterns are established, the latter disrupting the former. The film is silent as these sequences make themselves known, but when a section of DJ Screw’s INSIDE LOOKING OUT begins to play around the two-minute mark, soundtracking a new recursion, it feels like a bold move. I’m pretty sure I started laughing when I heard it. “Sitting in the county, I’m living in an hourglass, twiddling my fucking thumbs, waiting on time to pass,” recites the vocalist, over and over. Lyrics to remind us of the monotony of a loop. How many times will that hourglass be turned over?

If PALACE introduces patterns and loops as formal tools, then REPETITIONS is, in part, a meditation (also repetitive) on the shapes of these loops, their day-to-day manifestations. Grainy, black and white, reversed and slowed down footage of two feet climbing up a set of stairs, the edit juddering rhythmically between one frame and the next, producing the feeling of having taken two steps forward, one step back. The movement of the image traces the contour of a spiral -- recurrent and circuitous (but crucially, a progression). Later, watching a section in which disparate images flicker on the screen, accompanied by dramatic music and robotic voice-over saying “down, out of sync” on repeat, I was reminded of a relationship between two people caught in a sour, discordant dance, which they can’t seem to find a way out of.

Setting a rhythm is one thing, breaking it is another. Withdrawing from a cycle demands a false step (a forehead against the radiator) or a forceful act, a defiance of the pattern’s expectation. “We’re tired of ya’ll giving us these commemoration pens,” says the off-camera voice of a labour activist, “hazard pay is what people need, right? … They should let them keep five years of this part time, instead of starting these people back down to zero [emphasis added], once they turn over full time … they got people in debt, it’s on they credit report, they can’t keep up with the bills.” The vocal intervention intends to puncture a different kind of systemic arrangement.

With SURVIVING YOU, ALWAYS (2021), Quaintance triangulated image, audio and text to examine the falsity of transcendence vis-à-vis psychedelic drugs. In EFFORTS OF NATURE, his latest work, he capitalises on the affective power that a happy marriage between image and audio can bring about. The film’s first loop features a piece of footage of ex-Chicago mayor Harold Washington visiting a school on the South Side of the city, framed in black outline that sits in the middle-right of the screen. The loop is ostensibly visual, and paired with a recording of American poet Yusuf Komunyakaa reading his poem FACING IT (1947). Quaintance refrains from sectioning and looping the audio, allowing the poem to run through – in reverence, I think, of the internal rhythms of Komunyakaa’s recitation, which accentuate the looping camera movements of the clip.

I get the sense that Quaintance is interested in big feelings and big questions. Some I had while watching these films: can novelty exist without the mundanity of repetition? Can there be breakthrough without being first caught in a loop? There is something contemplative about how image is distorted and paired with music in EFFORTS OF NATURE. The audio and visual repetitions here are not numbing ouroboros; no, I’d think of them more as riffs. It makes me wonder whether the words “forever prisoner,” which appear on the screen at various points, might benefit from a question mark.

HUDA AWAN is a writer based in London, and the Content Producer for Open City Documentary Festival.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the programme EFFORTS OF NATURE: NEW WORK BY MORGAN QUAINTANCE at Genesis Cinema, 9 September 2023.