And if I fell under the spell of your call
I would be, be caught in the undertow
Well, you see, I've got to say no, no, no
All or nothing at all
(All or Nothing at All, Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence, 1939)
Darkness slowly morphs into daylight as an aerial view of the Danish city of Viborg comes into focus. At a first glance it looks idyllically picturesque with its water-surrounded brick-buildings and their red-tiled roofs. Soon this picture-perfect postcard falls apart and we are confronted with what resembles a post-apocalyptic diorama in which the urban landscape has been shredded and torn. Not one image remains standing in Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács’ new animation All, or Nothing at All. Here visual representation is fragmented, twisted, and crooked into a form that professes something far darker and dystopic. It is no coincidence that the animation takes its cue from the musical film West Side Story (1961), a modern-day Romeo and Juliet narrative set in 1950’s New York against the backdrop of gang violence and racial inequality. All, or Nothing at All mimics West Side Story’s opening sequence — both show a birds’-eye view of urban development. Viborg, one of the oldest Viking settlements is contrasted with New York, the symbol of America’s melting pot and can-do spirit. However, whereas in West Side Story a critique of social and racial injustice can never fully escape the aspirational narrative of the American Dream, nor evade the tackiness of an impossible love story, in Broersen and Lukács’ piece love and aspiration seem to be taken out of the equation. Moreover, the “drama” is located elsewhere and the moral high ground propelling the actions of the two protagonists in the Hollywood blockbuster, is all but lost in All, or Nothing at All.
There is no love story here as a gang of avatars — all fashioned after singer Nina Vadshølt whose voice accompanies the work — roam the desolate streets of Viborg enacting the choreography of West Side Story. But who is this gang of Ninas actually fighting or fighting for? Who or what are their adversaries here? What is this display of public posturing? In a West Side Story identity and community are embodied and acted out through movement: the Puerto Rican Sharks move differently from the white Jets, not only in terms of how they dance but also how they (are allowed to) move through the city. This all becomes skewed in All, or Nothing at All. Here the avatars, who all look exactly the same and all repeat the same dance movements, reproduce a cultural homogeneity that is deeply unsettling. They might be with many, but there is no pluralism. Their occupation of space goes unchallenged, as there is no pushback or opposition in the ghost town Viborg has become. The avatars’ dance routine is as much an improvised cartography of the city that delineates its dilapidation, as it is an expression of tribal uniformity. Indeed, these avatars move through the collapsed city as if they were a militia with their slow-motion dance moves weaponised. It is unclear whether this gang of avatars is benevolent or not: have they survived the havoc wreaked on Viborg or are they an omen of worse to come?
All, or Nothing at All does not offer any straightforward answers as is the case for most of Broersen and Lukács’ oeuvre in which they question the boundaries of visual and sonic representation and its subsequent perception. This specific work points to uneasy tensions produced between the spectres of the past jostling with currents of the future. The feeling of impending threat is foregrounded by the bleak urban landscape and Vadshølt’s eerie a cappella rendition of Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence’s 1939 song All or Nothing at All. Originally a love song made famous by Frank Sinatra, here, accompanied by ominous splashes of water and footsteps, it becomes a harbinger of ruin: the ruins of the past and the ruins to come. As such, All, or Nothing at All takes place in a suspended temporality in which ruin simultaneously collapses backwards and thrusts itself forwards. In a global context in which right wing populist nationalism, from Trump and Johnson, to Modi and Bolsonaro, takes the political stage, the authoritarian ghosts of the past have decidedly come back to haunt us.
All, or Nothing at All can therefore be read as a warning. Not only does it visualise the wreckage that comes from a reality based on xenophobic exclusion, discrimination and nativist ideological folly, it also points to what happens when a hardened mindset of “all or nothing at all” evacuates the middle ground and leaves us with a polarised and broken world. Broersen and Lukács have harnessed this brutal sensibility poetically in their new work. As the animation progresses Viborg appears increasingly bombed out, a phantom shell of a city that floods. Much of Broersen and Lukács’ work points to nature and how it is constructed — in their practice more deconstructed — within visual imaginaries. Interestingly for this project they turned to an urban landscape devoid of human presence, except for the dancing avatars. There is something distinctly alienating in watching this film. Something that queries our own subject positions within political, urban and other ecologies.
All, or Nothing at All can also be seen as the vengeful return of nature to a damaged planet. The closing scenes show us a city engulfed by water as the avatars continue undisturbed with their choreography and song. It is a striking and rather literal example of fiddling while Rome burns. In other words, occupying yourself with divisive rhetoric when larger life-threatening issues are at hand. In this sense the eco-critical layer of this project provides an additional framework to reckon with. Floods are indeed tried and tested morality tropes that indicate how human hubris is punished. Today, however, floods are prime indicators of climate disaster, resulting from that very hubris. In the absence of a planet B, the stark choice is between nothing at all and a slim chance at survival. As the camera fades out and extracts itself from a submerged Viborg, All, or Nothing at All suggests that we will not be able to sing and dance our way out of our current predicament, for we will be left with nothing or nothing at all.