Review: The Task
Directed by Leigh Ledare. US, 2017, 118 min.
Available on Vimeo. Link to view at the artist’s website.
Leigh Ledare’s nonfiction feature is set entirely in one room playing host to a “group relations conference,” which places a number of unrelated people in a multilayered circle as seen above. “During a sequence of small and large group meetings, the group studies its own self-made social structure,” explains the description of the conference on the artist’s website, “an abstract ‘task’ that allows participants to examine the identities, roles, desires, and biases individuals import into the group, as well as conscious and unconscious group dynamics.”
This multi-day, multi-part conference was held specifically for the sake of The Task, but the resulting film depicts only the “large group meetings” section of the event, and even then, only the last three of four total, meaning that we join the film at a disorienting midpoint. According to the method dictating the conference, these large group sessions include about 34 people—28 participants (some come and go), three psychologists (or “consultants”), and three observers (who remain silent)—all instructed to discuss the group’s dynamics as they become apparent in the “here and now.” Since this particular conference was organized for the sake of Ledare’s artwork, we then add six or seven more people to the total—including an operator for each of the six cameras (all placed near the outer walls of the room), and occasionally Ledare himself (who intrudes at some points to provoke focused responses)—adding up to about 40 “characters” in total, although many never speak.
Given all that to keep track of, and the necessarily stationary position of the cameras, The Task utilizes one constantly-recurring image structure: Somewhere near the center of the frame is the face of whoever’s currently holding the selected camera’s attention, occasionally close-up but usually seen at some distance or even in the background; and meanwhile in the foreground that person is offset by the shoulders, backs, or faces of their fellow conference-goers, which remain out of focus but nonetheless create a sort of frame within the frame. At its essence, The Task depicts faces reacting to and mediated by the bodies of others—both on a visual level and beyond it.
And this manner of composition, while completely engrossing on a surface level, also reflects many of the film’s larger aims—aims that, for whatever it’s worth, are probably not too far off from the stated mission of the conference model itself. According to the nonprofit Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, which takes significant credit for the development of the method depicted in the film, the purpose of the conference is to help participants “learn about group, organizational and social dynamics; the exercise of authority and power; the interplay between tradition, innovation and change; and the relationship of organizations to their social, political and economic environments.” And indeed each of these dynamics plays out quite emphatically at some point during the film itself, not only within the discussions happening in the circle but also within the group’s collective physicality—like for instance, it’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most significant “drama” in all of The Task concerns whether or not somebody is going to steal somebody else’s seat.
The film is separated into seven chapters, each of which represents a mostly continuous stretch of dialogue/exchanges/conversations. When the first chapter begins, the participants are in the middle of discussing the “roles” and “categorizations” that have already taken shape in the room before the film began; that quickly leads to a discussion of the gender- and race-specific disparities inherent in typical American professional hierarchies, and that in turn leads to two more conversations that branch off from it—one about the growing hostility between the “participants” and the “consultants” (a conflict that seems to be part of the method’s design), and the other regarding historical injustices and how those particular traumas are now being reflected in the group’s own nascent power structures. None of these individuals conversations ever conclude so much as they’re deferred, and then layered on top of one another until you lose sight of whatever started the pile in the first place.
The extent to which all these different subjects and dialogues are crisscrossed, both in the room itself and then once again by the movie’s form, is perhaps best illustrated by an early moment where a Chinese-American woman states that she aimed to “unconsciously obliterate” a white man during one of the earlier, unseen parts of the conference. Soon afterwards she explains that she behaved that way in part because “as an Asian female, I have often sat in silence [while I] contained a lot of emotion, and you look at the history of how this country was built, Chinese people built the railroads—”—but even at this early stage of her sentence, she’s already been cut off by two or three separate interjections heard on the audio track; then simultaneously a new participant enters the room, provoking more noise to drown out the original speaker and even drawing the view of the cameras away from her, too. In this sequence and most others throughout the film, “crosstalk,” as the participants call it, is quite prevalent. And so the soundscape, much like the frame, is usually occupied by at least a few people during any given moment, and then also prone to further distraction beyond them—another effect that mesmerizes on the surface, and resonates with meaning below it.
Even more context is probably necessary at this point, perhaps even for those who’ve already seen the film. For starters, while the stated aims of the Tavistock conferences sound quite anthropological if not outright philosophical, it seems at least to my layman’s eyes that the function of these conferences is actually far more careerist and corporate in nature. I get this impression, in part, from Tavistock’s own literature, like for instance a .pdf document hosted on their website that notes that “the strategic and structural dynamics of organizations can be studied and understood and the knowledge acquired and then applied by working through the conscious and unconscious dynamics of leadership and management in organizations.” In extremely reduced brief, these conferences, which are quite expensive to attend, are not by any means intended to be therapeutic (to wit the artist’s own descriptions of The Task use the phrase “socialpsychology method” instead, and then frame the film as an “intervention” upon that method).
So naturally the goals and motivations that drove certain individuals into the conference also becomes a subject of discussion at certain points, with some participants insinuating, for example, that others are using the experience mostly just to devise strategies for achieving control in other, presumably more professional group settings. And that’s just one specific case among many where the larger context surrounding the conference becomes vitally important within the dialogues happening on screen, despite that context remaining completely unexplained beyond what’s suggested by those same dialogues.
So, to clarify a few things: The conference seen in the film was organized by Ledare, personally, in Chicago (chosen for its “segregated” nature), with collaboration from a conference director of the Tavistock Institute (who does not appear in the film). According to interviews with the artist, he selected and prepped the “civilian” participants, while the Tavistock representative selected the psychologists and other doctors necessary for the full conference. But as the artist tells it1, conflicts abounded pretty much from the start2: While Ledare had financed the conference with the understanding that he and his crew would be fully integrated into the process, the psychologists immediately attempted to divert the participants away from discussing or even referencing their presence. That unexpected development gives way to further discussions that also hint towards events occurring behind the frame, mostly regarding the conflict between the “method” of the event and its alternative function as “art.” And those talks, in turn, lead back to Ledare’s aforementioned entry into the faux-sacred group space, provoking another sequence of statements that soon facilitates the speedy deconstruction of the entire project.
Perhaps because the film was primarily exhibited in “fine art” spaces and festivals, Ledare’s feature has often been discussed and written about in terms of larger philosophical meanings that are somewhat above the “text” of the conversations happening in the film itself. And indeed this review, focused as it is on the formal construction of the film and the lack of context therein, probably doesn’t make it sound too accessible either. Because of that it must be stated explicitly that The Task, itself, is really not heady nor pretentious in the slightest. In great contrast, what it is, if anything, is uncomfortably direct: A representation of human behavior in a controlled environment—and in a controlled environment that, counterintuitively, seems to encourage unguarded vulnerability on the one hand and power-play gamesmanship with the other. And that contradiction, built into every corner of the project and the film, indeed provokes illuminating, oft-combative responses from the participants involved, and even from the consultants too… with all of that eventually contributing, knowingly or not, to what is for me the realest and deepest quality of The Task—its rigorously behavioralist study of American conversations, relations, and even just gestures during its “present day” of May 2017.
Like at one point near the end, the edit continually returns to a younger woman adjusting the right-side strap of her overalls. For a minute or two, this becomes something like a subplot: There are multiple cuts back to her, tracking the position of the strap, then showing her looking at others or down at herself before moving it once again. Ledare gives the viewer time to really process the behavior; not to understand it, which is of course impossible, but to at least reflect on it, and try. This one progression of images strikes me as being right at the heart of The Task. And that is, of course, a very personal reaction—one that probably mostly just reveals how much my own focus tends to stay on the surface of things. But, this film, The Task—what a surface! Simply as a record of nonverbal language, dialogue, and facial expressions—as a symphony of inflammatory gazes, exasperated discourse, and incredulous sighs—Ledare’s film is constantly enthralling, revealing, and damn funny. In that rare attention to speech and physicality, both individual and collective, The Task seems to quite literally capture people “in light of” their peers. And with that it stands out not just as a major work of the contemporary American cinema, but as a significant record of life in the here and now.
1. The information in this article regarding the film’s production is primarily taken from two recorded interviews with Ledare (at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in England and the Box in Los Angeles, respectively), and therefore represents only the artist’s view of the events described.
2. Ledare went on to incorporate his conflict with the Tavistock reps into other art pieces connected to The Task: The film was first exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of a larger exhibit by the artist that also included “a series of photographs and assemblages of found mass media images;” and contained in one of those collage pieces was a redacted letter allegedly delivered as part of the Tavistock psychologists’ continued attempts to “extort” the artist for control of his film. The Task screened regularly as part of that exhibit, played various dates on the international festival circuit shortly thereafter, and was then made public on the artist’s website in September 2019, so these efforts were presumably unsuccessful.