Caitlin Quinlan unpacks the tensions in Revital & Tuur’s moving image work: life and death, loss and heartbreak, as well as the systemic violence of industrial and political processes.

Look closely at the moth, feel your skin shudder at the plant’s textures, move freely and fluidly with the dancer — enter this realm and leave the world as we know it behind
Caitlin Quinlan

There is a moment in May The Fox Take You, the latest work by artist duo Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, where the image cuts from a field of mustard flowers to the interior of a studio space. The only thing connecting the locations, it seems, is the colour yellow — the field is awash with the buttery, bright petals and in the studio, strips of yellow tape delineate a square on the floor within which a similarly coloured robotic dog is trained. This yellow appears in flashes of block colour again throughout the work, uniting disparate spaces through a commonality. It suggests a throughline, a recurring motif to highlight the interlinking and layering of Cohen and Van Balen’s co-existing worlds despite the fact that, on the surface, they may appear totally different to one another.

Other notions of coexistence are repeated in the film commissioned by Somerset House in partnership with University of the Arts London’s Creative Computing Institute (CCI). An atlas moth is shot in extreme close-up at the beginning and end of the film and, in this magnified look at the moth’s wings, its unique markings look like the skin of a snake. Yet, this appearance and the suggestion of its threat does not stop the moth from being a moth — its softness and perceived brutality are present simultaneously. The same is true of the carnivorous plants that appear in the work also in close-up, where their beaded hairs and cavernous chambers become beautiful weapons. They enact a slow violence, a central theme of the work, upon their prey to devour them.

The theme of violence has been present in some capacity in much of Cohen and Van Balen’s work together over the last ten years, often more subtly to look at how systemic violence is produced through industrial and political processes, and how things that are mediated to us as reality often encapsulate within them a form of very slow, sometimes invisible, aggression towards others. With May The Fox Take You, however, it becomes a much more central and addressed thematic concern. There are several types of violence here, too — the moth and the carnivorous plants speak to the inherent destructiveness of nature, where cycles of life and death are inevitable and ever-present. But there is a very human kind of brutality on display too, particularly in the interactions with the robot dog. The dog is kicked in order to test its abilities; cruelty is therefore embedded in its learning mode. When we consider the developing role of AI in our everyday life, this particular kind of learned hostility passed on from humans to our technology becomes a terrifying truth to be reckoned with.

It’s integral for Cohen and Van Balen in their practice to leave space for both collaboration and individual artistic freedom. One of them will always initiate and lead a project and the other will offer their ideas and support throughout the process. In the case of May The Fox Take You, Cohen was at the helm, working intuitively through concepts that have long informed the duo’s work, but also within more personal histories. The lines of text that feature in the film are Cohen’s own translations of idioms, swear words and blessings from Jewish Iraqi, a dialect spoken by Cohen and her family that is on the brink of extinction. There is a sense of violence in many of these common phrases and curses, even if they are not intended as expressions of aggression, but also within the destruction of the language itself, too. In many ways, Cohen refutes these harsher aspects by drawing these texts together in disjointed yet lyrical harmony, crafting a poem or song-like experience for the viewer.

Cohen and Van Balen further consider means of deconstructing violence in this work, or of altering the interplay between humans and machines. This is most evident in the use of music, which was crafted by Van Balen and, with support from the CCI, machine learning models, from ideas offered by Cohen. Van Balen composed the rhythmic drumming that gives the film a sense of urgency and pace, while the machine learning models generated the more haunting violin and string arrangements. As such, these ideas of pain and technology become embedded in the form as well as the content of May The Fox Take You. Other practices of deconstruction are evident in the choreographed dance sequence later in the work, where a performer enacts the territorial, aggressive gestures of pogo dancing in the empty studio space. In this context, the movements are stripped of their more combative mosh pit origins and repackaged as an expressive, liberated form of dance.

Together, this push and pull depiction and rejection of brutality articulates the state of the modern world where the two are inextricably linked. If the film evokes confusion or uncertainty, this is a key part of that coexistence; the work presents this confusion as a state of resistance against a society of structure and labels, where violence is ever-present. Look closely at the moth, feel your skin shudder at the plant’s textures, move freely and fluidly with the dancer — enter this realm and leave the world as we know it behind.

    Caitlin Quinlan is a freelance film critic and writer from London, with work published for the Guardian, ArtReview, Sight & Sound, frieze, and MUBI Notebook among others. She is a member of the UK Film Critics’ Circle and FIPRESCI, a BIFA voter and also works as a freelance researcher and editorial consultant for A24’s publishing department.