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Math Anxiety: Antigenic Drift
(This article previously appeared in FilmThreat.)
Antigenic Drift, a mesmerizing, beautiful and thoughtful video by Lewis Klahr, takes its title from the tendency of viruses to mutate their form, making them resistant to drugs. The amazingly beautiful images in this video evoke every possible way of combining the concepts of the body, health, mathematics, medical science, and fear. For example: a diagram of the muscles in the human body is covered with bubble wrap. An acupuncture chart labels the pressure points. Mutating blobs of color, like diseased cells, multiply. Barcodes dance over orange plastic netting. Individual foil packets dispense pills, gum and condoms. Repeatedly, a figure stares down a long fleshy corridor, as if trying to look inside the body itself. The written text which occasionally appears ("Virulent Capital") is generally spelled out in Scrabble pieces, emphasizing once again code, pattern, and language. By extension, the film seems to speak of our culture-wide obsession with quantifying people, products, and behaviors into discrete, measurable doses. (Not to mention the money which is being made off of all this.) We even see bottles of milk inside of a pill dispenser. Apparently, even a mother's nurturing can become quantifiable and profitable. The film is suffused with a sense of menace. To a person with a life threatening disease such as HIV, which is constantly in danger of mutating and becoming untreatable, there is a palpable sense of the danger inherent in mathematical patterns. Antigenic Drift makes this fear visible and audible.
The fabulous soundtrack by Rhys Chatham is a potent collage of sirens, machine sounds, eerie bells, hospital monitors, airport announcements, and crowd sounds. The last third of the film is set to a landscape of dissonant, chiming guitars, creating a gorgeous but completely unsettling landscape of sound. These ever mutating, ever inventive visual and sound collages evoke a sense of the body's vulnerability, as we trust our lives to advanced medical science, drugs, and research. The genetic basis of life, in which health or sickness is coded into the chemical language of DNA, shows that science and mathematics have roots deep in our biological existence. The analytical and scientific approach to health holds both promise and terror.
Strong dynamic contrasts in the music, from total silence to wild bass-and-drums, make the film a gripping and dramatic experience, unusual for such an abstract piece. The animation techniques and style are similar to most of Klahr's work, but the piece is structured more like an abstract visual and musical essay, rather than like an opaque narrative, as in some of his other films, such as False Aging. Klahr's pitch perfect compositional skills make every frame of the video beautiful to look at. This highly successful application of Klahr's style to a very different subject shows Klahr's breadth as an artist. (The subject isn't really all that different; many of his films concern the intersection of chemical and sexual addictions.) His penetrating intelligence is felt in every single cut, juxtaposition, and visual choice. Antigenic Drift shows that Klahr is capable of using his considerable artistic discernment and powers of observation on many kinds of films. He has developed a powerful film language, capable of speaking about the broadly cultural and political, as well as about the personal.
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