“Too bad it’s sinking”. (Self-) surveillance, climate dread & other existential terror at Miami’s Borscht Resurrected

, 13 December 2019

There’s a real sense of inevitability that pervades the city of Miami. It’s a kind of ‘tautness’ that comes with the mainstream clichés of money and excess, while also being home to a vital immigrant population from Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, South America. That’s without mentioning South Florida’s precarious positioning at the United States’ frontier of impending climate catastrophe—rising sea-levels and intensifying hurricanes included. All of it is starkly, luridly visible in Miami, in a kind parallax of perceptions where a multitude of oppositional forces exist alongside each other in the same reality. Borscht Film Festival embodies these contradictions.

Deon Rubi, Borscht 0 pendant (2019). Photo by Jean Kay.

Founded by a group of art students in 2004, the “quasi-yearly event” named after a Ukrainian beet soup ostensibly came to an end with its 10th edition in 2017. Borscht 0 marks its resurrection, a rebirth commemorating the program’s return from a two-year hiatus with a gold-plated bread clip pendant designed by artist Deon Rubi. The aforementioned ‘VIPer’ passes are a fancy alternative to the usual film festival lanyards for invited press and participants, in keeping with the program’s idiosyncratic thrust enacted across venues from November 15 to 24. Here, artist and self-described “camp counsellor” Jillian Mayer calls herself a bot and sends daily texts, while hosting events at a skate park, a masonic temple, a Hungarian community centre, on a speedboat. There’s a screening and installation in The Centre for Subtropical Affairs jungle garden, presented by Native and Indigenous film collective, COUSIN, as well as free entry into the recently revived Peachfuzz dance party in an inner-city nightclub. A night of reggaeton in a warehouse follows a screening of feature-length work-in-progress Perros Callejeros by Chris Campa. The work is described as Miami’s answer to Harmony Korine’s Kids, who, incidentally, lives in Florida now, contributing his own selection of videos to Borscht with the owner of a skate shop named after Hurricane Andrew.

Borscht’s focus on showcasing artists, performers and filmmakers based, born, and connected to Miami over the nine-day schedule is impressively packed. It also allows for encore screenings of documentaries on everything from alt-right “memetic magick” and Bar Mitzah DJs to blow job robots and virtual reality masturbation machines. There are no clashes in the program and a uniquely communal experience. Out of town and local VIPers bunk together in a hotel on Miami Beach, and surprise special events are sprung across other planned moments of preshow Borscht cocktails and an excursion to Santa’s Enchanted Forest.

Adam Khalil & Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal (2019). Film still.

Often ‘keeping it in the family’, so to speak, there’s a unique cogency to the programming that sees the same faces pop up again and again throughout the festival. COUSIN member Adam Khalil co-directs the impressive revolutionary narrative of Empty Metal with Bayley Sweitzer, while presenting a related short on the Miccosukee tribe alligator wrestlers who appear in the film in his Allapatak short with Adam Piron. Borscht Corp affiliate Dylan Redford produces Kali Ann Kahn’s ‘Fairchild’ and directs ‘Emergency Action Plan (EAP)’. He also acts in countless short films, playing a cop in Harrison Fishman’s bewildering Adult Swim-level anti-comedy ‘The Big Parade’ and a would-be predator in the camp horror of Olivia West Lloyd’s ‘Dead Mall’. The latter film was filmed in same defunct Burdines department store that’s owned by a real estate developer and houses inner-city artist studios. The Borscht Corporation office is there too, its iconic logo on the glass door resembling the circular ouroboros snake symbol, except with the addition of a limbless alligator. The two self-consuming heads are suspended in their own cycle of destruction, fused and feeding off each other in a perpetual state of deadlock.

This feeling of hopeless urgency is one that touches everything and everyone in the Borscht 0 program and beyond. There’s short after short suffuse with climate anxiety in a city where a comment on the beauty of Miami is often met with a melancholy “too bad it’s sinking” in reply. Located in time at a technological tipping point, related themes of surveillance and social alienation dominate. The most brutal example comes in Billy Linker and Ben Carey’s Joker Gang, which follows the distressing day-to-day life of a self-made Instagram personality famous for—among other things—tattooing his face. Permanently masked by the severed grin of a DC comic book character, Joker 305 performs to his deriding, trolling audience, impervious to their taunts.

Billy Linker & Ben Carey, ‘Joker Gang’ (2019). Film still. Courtesy Alleged Films, Amsterdam.

Other examinations of the contemporary condition of self-surveillance and internalized psychological warfare range from the deeply troubling to the uneasily light-hearted. A beach-goer is bludgeoned to death by the camera that stalks him at Borscht’s Spookyami Shorts. A Florida man records an elaborate unboxing video for his new purchase in Corey Hughes’ ‘MyToeShoes.com’. The 360-capture ‘tiny planet’ technique visually reduces the world around him to the protagonist’s own, solipsistic experience.

GoPros and selfie-sticks appear throughout the festival program, particularly in the showcase at the Masonic Scottish Rite Temple for Bisque Corp’s ‘Bisquetopia’. Founded by Trevor Bazile, the younger collective of Borscht fellows names itself after its own (French) European soup and adopts a similarly playful approach as its older counterpart. Some of the films are profound in their examinations of the contemporary ‘digital native’, and others are downright silly. Most of them are funny, but unsettling. Conversation among an older audience centres around whether generation Z is really as self-involved as the tools at their disposal make them out to be. Meanwhile, these Bisque Corp Zoomers echo the soft smugness of youth by their cheeky pronouncement, “we’re young and I think we’re more talented”, during the Borscht Film Festival Main Event the following evening.

Corey Hughes, ‘MyToeShoes.Com’ (2019). Video still. Courtesy the artist.

It’s a dissection of this naïve pride that informs Zia Anger’s deeply moving and self-reflexive account of the making of her never released feature film with the benefit of hindsight in ‘My First Film’ at the temporarily revived Firebird theatre. The interactive performance sees the New York-based director narrate the fraught process of production and ultimate rejection of the work in painful, self-deprecating detail through projected video and text typed live: “all I see are dangerous things I did to my friends.” Miami native Cristine Brache contemplates teenage depression, femininity and tradition in the Santería rite of ‘Why Did You Look Back’ at the grand Knight Concert Hall downtown.

At the ‘Dead Mall’ party on Saturday, attendants hand out long-stemmed flowers and glow sticks beside a garish ladder installation under the the blinding fluorescent lights back at the old Burdines department store. One of the elevators isn’t working but by the time everyone files out and into the working one, we’re spirited away to the second floor of the abandoned shopping centre—DJs, blue lights, a bar; a bouncy castle, an inflatable tube man, dancing. Up the moving escalators and past the hazard tape cordoning-off parts of the third floor, the original restrooms follow the signs for shops that no longer exist. Emptied and repurposed, it’s the same building that houses the Borscht Corporation office, BFI Miami and countless other independent artists and organizations. Their presence is testament to the heavily entangled and resilient creative community of Miami that continues to survive within these declining monuments of economic expansion. These days might be numbered but they’re marked by the irrepressible will to endure.**  

Borscht 0 Film Festival was on at venues across Miami, running November 15 to 22, 2019.