Karl Philips, still from '7 Square Metres'

Karl Philips, still from ‘7 Square Metres’ (2014)

BRUSSELS — 7 Square Metres (2014) didn’t set out to explore the subject of failure. Belgian artist Karl Philips’s first documentary film was supposed to record the complex implementation of a site-specific action at a 2011 summer music festival.

“Sometimes I think music is an alibi for companies to do festivals,” Philips says in the opening scene of the film. “It’s shifted from an alternative culture to an exclusive culture. If the music festival were a state, it would be a dictatorship.”

For 7 Square Metres, he began with the question, “Is an underground still possible?” Rather than attempt a political action, he planned to mount a project he considered a “test case” — an experiment designed to find answers rather than prove a point. The laboratory was the festival Pukkelpop in the Belgian town of Hasselt. Founded in 1985 as a grassroots event, it has since grown to become a gargantuan, corporately funded monolith, prioritizing rules and conformity over rebellion and community. Early shots in the film show tie-dyed youth breaking through barbed-wire fence, only to be tackled by security guards — a scene Philips compares to the conditions of transnational migration.

Philips and his team set out to “hack” the festival by occupying a piece of land (7 square meters, to be exact), a tiny ”we are here” kind of gesture. They purchased a foldable camping trailer, which they buried during a covert overnight operation in the field where the festival would be held four months later. The process involved a crew of more than 30 people, including multiple engineers and a lawyer, as well as several months of training and practice digs.

The plan was to resurrect the trailer on the festival’s second day (just before Eminem’s set). But that never happened. On the scheduled date a freak thunderstorm hit, killing five and injuring 140 others. The festival was cancelled and Philips’s project scrapped. A month later the team returned, patterning their original overnight process, digging up the camper, and replacing the earth they had removed. The experiment had failed.

Excerpt from Karl Philips, ‘7 Square Metres’ (2014)

With spontaneous interventions, flash mobs, and creative protests, the art lies less in the action produced than in the conversation it stimulates. An intervention like Philips’s is designed to jolt people out of their realities (or perhaps back into reality) and ask them to observe themselves, their surroundings, and think more critically and honestly about both.

In Philips’s case, the goal was two fold: to point to the co-optation of alternative cultures for profit by the capitalist system and to suggest that participants in those cultures can actively resist the system, not necessarily by flat-out rejecting it but by embracing and subverting it. This second point is evidenced by the administrative organization of Philips’s project. The team formed a limited liability corporation and had a lawyer present through the entire action. In effect, they were using the same system that protects corporate bullies from prosecution to shield themselves in their attempted subversion.

On a more symbolic level, the notion of undoing capitalism from within is suggested by hiding the work inside the festival. As opposed to setting up a counter-festival, another event outside the official zone as an act of protest, the team literally placed its work inside, without the festival knowing it was there. The aim was to stimulate a series of conversations, both during and after the event, about alternatives, co-optation, and capitalism. But because of the storm, none of that ever happened.

Karl Philips, still from ‘7 Square Metres’ (2014)

While the original project makes for a provocative proposal, the film doesn’t always succeed. It takes the defeat of this specific work as its subject but resists commenting on the status or value of failure in art making, simply presenting it as a topic for contemplation. Failure can be one of the most illuminating moments in creative practice, and the team’s choice to ignore exploring it on deeper, more theoretical terms feels somewhat empty. More problematic is the film’s efficacy in storytelling. When accompanied by sufficient explanation, the narrative becomes clear, but I’m not sure whether it can stand on its own. This is largely because the most important plot point — the storm — barely makes an entry; in the credits, Philips says discussion of it was minimized out of respect for the victims’ families. The storm was a major event in Europe, so it seems fair to assume viewers there will have the necessary context to understand. But could 7 Square Metres play successfully in other parts of the world where the disaster was a minor news item at best? I have my doubts.

By downplaying this element, the film also misses the most ominous part of the whole saga: it was extreme weather — a product of global climate change, ultimately the most destructive result of the systems Philips is trying to subvert — that prevented the attempted subversion. This feels almost like capitalism fighting back and prevailing. While the film shies away from any conclusion, the viewer may be left with the lingering question: what if resistance really is futile?

7 Square Metres screens at the Image Generator festival (Eikelstraat 31, Antwerp, Belgium) through February 2, and is on view in the No Walls Expo (Fenixloods 1, Rotterdam, Netherlands) through February 17.

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Chris Dupuis

Chris Dupuis is a writer, creator, and co-founder of the curatorial platform RT Collective. He divides his time between Toronto and Brussels.