“Upon first watch,” Cam Robert for NPR writes, “the music video for Bonobo’s song “Kerala” seems simple: a repetitive series of on-the-beat cuts as lead actor Gemma Arterton runs through the streets, losing her mind for no apparent reason.” The repetition Robert points to here rules the music video, only ceasing when the protagonist, Arterton, closes her eyes. She stumbles through a park, then along a street, then across the roof of a building as bystanders collide with her, reach out to help, stare on in wary fear.
The rolling repetition Bison (Dave Bullivant) uses is unnatural, the manifest opposite of persistence of vision which perceptually allows us to blend distinct film frames into what we perceive as motion. Here our desire for motion, for the visual narrative to progress, is relentlessly resisted. We are trapped in loops.
This would create perhaps an untenable relationship with a protagonist: an exercise in stuttering and nausea, an experiment the viewer would tire and turn away from. Except, Arterton’s character it would seem has her reasons; in the background, sometimes out of focus, sometimes with immediate effect on her, impossible and uncanny things are occurring: rocks lift off the ground, a meteor hurtles towards earth, a building floats in the air. We are drawn into a double seeing: we see the film footage repeat and are caught in its repetitions as she is, and we see or try to see past those repetitions to the strange events occurring around her. As Robert adds, “The anxiety created by that repetition serves a purpose: It forces you to pay attention to the things happening around Arterton as the scene plays out. Nothing in this video is as it seems.”
Alone, the repetitive editing would be technique killing art. Instead, where we might tire of her stuttering world, we see in these uncanny events a counterpoint, an antagonism, a conflict that threatens her. We identify where we would otherwise have lost interest or been just overwhelmed with stimulus.
Does this make our viewing desire threefold: a desire to see forward in time, free of the repetitions; a second desire to not be drawn into the past and what we have already seen; and, third, a desire predicated on the uncanny occurrences, which has us yearn to see past the repetitions, past the tug forward and backward in time. It’s as though Proust’s manic melancholic poetics found Eisenstein’s montage and seeing is being pushed to its limits. The result is perhaps not what Julia Kristeva called Proust’s “time embodied,” but perhaps anxious bodies as victims of time. I experience this film with my queasy stomach, my anxious compassion, and the place where migraines start – no small feat for a play of images on a screen.
Jacob Brookman in the British Journal of Photography traces this technique back to an earlier video Bison made for the group Four Tet: “The glitching technique was first premiered by Bison in a promo for Four Tet’s remix of John Hopkins’ ‘Vessel’, back in 2010. The looping motif matches the mechanical EDM aesthetic of both tracks, but the new video’s decreased choreography results in a more unique, potentially more nauseating effect.
The visual experience of “Vessel” is more palatable, the loops are not as large, where in “Kerala” the narrative and the lengths of the shots promise us motion, that the narrative will move on; then it does not. That repeated refusal causes more nausea. Both films, then, borrow from photography in the sense that they resist motion, fragment it.
With over three million views on YouTube at the time of the writing of this article, the video has intrigued online audiences. The repetition joined with the uncanny occurrences around Arterton create a peculiar ambivalence, something to see past the repetition. More than one viewer has posted on the threads, attempting to itemize almost manically the uncanny moments:
0:00 – meteor
1:00 – rock levitating
1:05 – man on bench feeds nonexistent birds
1:50 – building floating, rotating
2:02 – door caves in
2:15 – man in restaurant’s eyes glow
2:27 – TV footage shows the video about 30 seconds into the future flipped horizontally and without the roll back edits
2:42 – man crossing street duplicates
2:50 – restaurant sign foreshadows building fire
3:03 – car gradually changes color
3:06 – man floating in sky
3:16 – fire in building
3:28 – solar eclipse
3:46 – people standing in a grid pattern, looking up
3:57 – birds take flight (or are they humans?)
The resulting anxiety and desire suit the story being told, Arterton’s overwhelmed character and her struggle to escape. Bison, in interview with Brookman, remains ambiguous about what all these events add up to: “I like everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting. I’ve been driven by curiosity instead of an end goal.”
Bison defines his process as technical first: “I have my mini obsessions into a technology and that’s how I like to work [but] I think that a strong aesthetic voice is something born out of a large body of work. With Bonobo, there’s a lot of technical things going on within it, but it still has this warmth and this character. And that is – as a solo director – where I exist.”
—R. W. Gray