Sarah Messerschmidt on Constant + The Making of Crime Scenes


Sarah Messerschmidt writes on Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner’s Constant and The Making of Crime Scenes by Che-Yu Hsu as part of a series of texts commissioned on new films in this year’s programme.

This duo of films speak to the measurement of space through new technologies and the social constructs produced by these ways of seeing: the history of measurement standardisation and the corresponding social change it roused, as described by Constant (Sasha Litvintseva & Beny Wagner); the forensic reconstruction of the political assassination of the writer Henry Lu, and the concomitant relationship between a criminal gang and the Taiwanese film industry in The Making of Crime Scenes (Che-Yu Hsu). Despite their nonfiction, the films are genre-adjacent to formal documentary, testing the format of nonfiction filmmaking with experimentally non-linear storytelling. They each incorporate a variety of visual styles, weaving together varied approaches to cinema in order to drive at a central theme — Constant makes notable use of a 360 degree camera in several amusing scenes, wherein two 17th century astronomers clamber punch-drunk through pastures, apparently calculating the earth’s proportions; The Making of Crime Scenes recreates gun violence via a mix of CGI software and tiny plastic dolls in stop-motion, whose eggshell heads shatter when struck by bullets.

Each film opens with a digital render: the same speckled effect of computerised imagery fills the first frames as the images shift position to demonstrate their artificial three dimensions. Forensic scanning technology is the central prop used throughout Che-Yu’s film (despite its technical precision the device seems almost toy-like, particularly when its operators are pictured cheerfully singing karaoke), while Litvintseva and Wagner adopt digital architectural modelling to demonstrate contemporary methods of gauging dimension, overlaying these images with a goofy cartoon wielding a club — the cave person’s first measuring stick. Although the images rendered are illustrative of physical things, it is the immeasurable void of digital space in these scenes that are most striking. This seems to be a deliberate tactic: boundlessness sets into relief how systems of power produce the impression of an objective reality, in this case, by those who enforce standards of measure, or those who can mandate a murder without consequence. The omniscient voice in Constant states at one point, “between the map and the territory lies an infinite expanse,” a phrase which seems to acknowledge the impossibility of containing all lived experience within a single scheme.

The relationship between the respective subjects to politics is clear. The Making of Crime Scenes sketches out a complicated entanglement of wuxia cinema with the US and Taiwanese governments, the latter of which ordained Lu’s murder and then promptly covered it up. Constant proposes that measurement standards — first, via the metric system developed during the French Revolution, leading to more contemporary methods based on abstract units — are utterly bound to European colonialism and its programmes for total dominance. Between them, both films examine the relationship between biological life and the modes of data collection and surveillance that interprets, organises and controls it, zeroing in on systems of technical knowledge in order to tell complex sociopolitical histories.

Sarah Messerschmidt is a writer who works across anthropology, art and critical theory. Her current research examines nonfiction and artists’ films as ways of representing experience, looking at moving image practices as methods of reinvention and world-making. She is an affiliated writer with “The Whole Life: An Archive Project,” a collaborative research initiative at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (2022), and AIR Munich at Villa Waldberta in cooperation with the Kunstverein München (2022). Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Art Monthly (UK), Another Gaze, the Burlington Contemporary Journal, Flash Art, MAP, Texte zur Kunst and Third Text, among others.