The Future in the Present
The year 1999 was my ninth in Beijing. Carlo Laurenti and I had just embarked on what proved to be a fruitful cooperation: he had countless pages of material that he had written about China, and I had built up my own extensive library of visuals. We were trying to edit the material into video essays or, better, a kind of visual sanwen 散文.
We were particularly intrigued by the upcoming celebrations for 1 October 1999 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. In preparation, I had been filming video footage around the city and Carlo was constantly jotting down ideas. We then decided to make a short film. Nobody invited us to join the show, neither in front nor behind the stage. But we soon realized that virtually no one else had been invited either, except for party-state leaders, performers and the usual cast of walk-ons.
The Grand Parade for 1 October 1999 promised to be the first mega-media event of its kind in China, one to be enjoyed not through some embodied participation or encounter, but entirely in front of the TV set. We decided to follow the rules of this particular game in the hope of rendering a personal as well as a paradigmatic account of the day-and-night spectacle. We too would be watching, just like everyone else; but we'd also be 'spying'. After all, watching/spying is integral to the peeping-Tom nature of video.
With the complicity of a friend, we got access to an empty room in the Changfugong New Ontani Hotel at Jianguo Menwai, opposite the main diplomatic residential compound and looking down on the highway overpass where the Jianguo Men Gate had once stood. We were closeted in that room with our window on the world and a TV set with satellite connection. We arrived well in advance to avoid being stopped on the way by the numerous roadblocks thrown up to cordon off the corridor for the parade. We were there from around 6pm, 30 September, the Eve of the Event.
Through the night we filmed all the preparations taking place along the avenue and then well into the morning of 1 October. Meanwhile, the TV in the room was providing images and sounds from the places that we couldn't reach from our eyrie. Following the parade itself Tiananmen Square was open to the public and there we were, together with the masses, filming until the lights in the square went off and the last military personnel were leaving.
During the whole process, we felt as though we were witnessing the end of something and the beginning of something else. Ten years earlier, another era had come to an end in that same place, although in a far more dramatic fashion. Perhaps an old idea was reaching a climax while new things were just sneaking in. All of this is explained in the marvelously lyrical narration that Carlo created for our film, 'The Future is Being Served'.
During the editing process an interesting thing happened in relation to the soundtrack. We dissatisfied with the various musical themes and combinations we'd been working with when, suddenly, provoked by the images on the screen, Erik Satie's 'Parade' came to mind. We layered in the whole of Satie's composition over our timeline and, miraculously, everything synched just perfectly, so much so that we had gunshots in the soundtrack at the very moment when PLA army extras were walking through the empty streets and sirens were wailing when doctors and nurses appeared on a float. Even the length of the music, uncut, fit matched the length of the video perfectly—from the preparations in the early evening right up to the final fireworks on the following night.
To me it seemed to be more than a mere coincidence. It was too perfect, mirabile dictu, an example of the cultural unconscious at work.
The other 'coincidence' is that virtually everything that the narration of the film observed has come to pass in the past decade. Perhaps this is proof yet again that politicians best turn to artists for long-term policies instead of relying too heavily on the gurus of finance.