I have been curiously watching a conversation about sexism and Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All on Collapse Board that keeps bringing me back to the violent reactions I have toward Renzo Martens’s Episode III: Enjoy Poverty.
Amongst other nightmarish topics, Odd Future rap about rape, homophobia and murder. I find it difficult to neatly summarize Episode III in the same way. In Martens’s own words, during a trip to the Congo he tries to set up an “emancipation program that aims to teach the [Congolese] poor how to benefit from their biggest resource: poverty.” Both of these descriptions are totally inept, but you can listen to all of Odd Future’s music on their website, and you can watch Episode III when it screens in Toronto as part Gallery TPW’s programming on 28 May, 7 PM, at Cinecycle.
In defence of Odd Future’s lyrical content, Everett True asks the question: Since when is the singer ever the song? I can like Odd Future’s music or not, but rapping about rape is not rape. Rapping about murder is not murder. I’m not familiar with how they always employ their homophobic lyrics, but in this instance they probably are being homophobic. And this is where criticism comes in. True proposes these questions as a place to begin: “Are those lyrics really damaging anyone? Do they create or reflect culture? Are they simply playing with the darkest shit they can dredge out of their hormonally-buzzing teenage minds or actually inciting people to action?”
But Martens is a different case because his work is not a self-contained construction. His “emancipation program” involves people not in on Martens’s game and makes a shameful spectacle of them. Again in Martens’s own words: “The piece is the third in a series of films that, by enacting their own parameters, try to make visible their own complicity in a world obscured by depictions of it.” His film is not about the people he meets in the Congo. His film is about himself and the art world, yet it is nothing without the exploitation of the people he encountered there.
Episode III makes me angry in an unproductive way. I’m pretty sure it is evil. Where Odd Future opens a dialogue about the effects of art on the world, Martens shuts it down. I cannot stomach the thought of talking about the aesthetic values of Martens’s work when it is such a glaring affront to the basic respect due to human beings generally. And I want to hate Martens for it. But as True reminds me: since when was the singer ever the song? And yet, the fact that it’s a shitty film as a film is maybe one productive or objective way of analyzing it. Maybe this is how I get outside of my anger and speak about the work. It just feels so cheap…
I haven’t figured out how to articulate my response to the film. Maybe I haven’t figured out my response to the film. Maybe I haven’t figured out the film. And probably, I need to be careful about what criteria I bring to bear in an analysis, to somehow stave off my emotional reaction in an attempt to forge a critical understanding of it. Or vice versa.