Just as smells have the power to thrust you back into a place you haven’t been for years, so certain sounds can arouse instant, primal emotion. The wordless, inhuman cry of the air raid sirens used in WWII is the sound of abject fear. A terrible, unholy noise, it still conveys that terror when played today – its usage in peacetime perhaps having an added layer of feeling uncomfortably inappropriate, embodying a danger we aren’t currently facing.
Considering this, it’s odd how hearing it in a sticky basement at 85A’s Renegade Maskerrade is almost expected, and well in keeping with the night’s programme of confrontational spectacle. With the premiere of Judd Brucke’s industrial horror film, Chernozem, the collective promised to "unleash a cinematic barrage," and they weren’t joking. The masked ball is host to militia, bear-baiters, chain slaves, a ‘fried chicken man,’ Weimar spies, geishas, and marginals with fluffy Mohicans – costumes that have clearly not just been knocked off in an evening. In a ‘total cinema’ experience, the film is book-ended by parties at The Flying Duck, where characters from the film engage the crowd in outrageous performances.
The central sunken pit of the dance floor has been fenced with barbed wire, and a thuggish warden looses the masked freaks in to duel, with much stirring and goading. One of them leers too far over the fence and the crowd draws back in apprehension. It seems every one of the crowd is also a performer – we, without masks, are the outcasts.
Throbbing music aids the performers’ audacious air and our intoxication. Though there are giveaways that it’s all theatre, roles are enacted in complete seriousness. There’s a real feeling of uncertainty – what the hell is this joint, anyway? Maybe it’s a private club where everyone goes back in time to Weimar Germany, when art was political and genuinely subversive.
An officer in a greatcoat bellows at us to proceed to the GFT for Brucke’s film. Stopping traffic, the whole company troops along the road, pausing to project the film onto the walls of unsuspecting tenements.
Two years in production, Brucke’s film echoes German Expressionism, Soviet propaganda films, and draws on a host of sources including Greek mythology. In some strange cinematic reversal, most of the seated audience are flattened out and stylized in black and white on the screen. In the inky quality of VHS, their white faces and exaggerated cheekbones translate into the dark glamour of early silent films. The city seen in the frequently unrecognisable views and scrublands of 'Grand Guignol' is the Glasgow of the past.
As with any classic chase movie our attention is with the action, attempting to follow the sprawling plot – not easy through the blur of gin. It concerns Maschine, a boy with a factory for a head, who escapes slave labour aided by Siamese twins, outruns murderous dogs and is seduced by his own mother, before becoming a sacrificial marionette – or something like that. In the end, the plot outruns us, but it the whole film is a beautifully grungy spectacle.
Though 85A are not working against a political backdrop like that of the Weimar Republic, they have reprised Weimar’s aesthetics and its rebellious attitude. The evening's visceral sense of authority and intimidation is refreshing, and key to its effectiveness is the fact that we encounter it in the context of visual art. Perhaps art can still be affective, after all.