Film Studies: Something happened

In the simple stories of his films, Roman Signer studies the basics of narrative satisfaction. Tom Lubbock is entranced by this Swiss artist's 'parade of superbly judged futility'
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You set up dominoes in a line and push them over. You play Pooh sticks. You light a firework and wait for it to go off. What are you doing? You're not doing anything very "pointful". You're arranging a beginning and an end. You're giving the world a simple shape. You're organising an event.

This is the sort of thing that Roman Signer does. He stages object-happenings, actions, he sets processes in motion, and the things he does – his "sculptural events" – could well be called pointless. The Swiss artist is in his sixties, but his works have only recently gained wide attention. His show at the Camden Arts Centre is his first solo British appearance. Sit down in front of a sequence of his short videos and you're in for a parade of superbly judged futility.

Signer organises on a small scale, mainly. His events are hand-sized, body-sized, shed-sized, no civil engineering. His means are DIY. His films are shot for demonstrativeness, as a clear record of the action rather than of anything finer. Often, the artist appears calmly and efficiently setting things up. There's no magic. How it's done, what actually happens, is the whole story.

There always is a story, sort of, to these operations. Sometimes, they're very elementary, sometimes quite elaborate, sometimes extremely elegant. And here are some examples:

A hand, with difficulty, gets three bricks to stand balanced end-on-end in a column on the sand at the very edge of the sea. The waves wash round it again and again, until through their pushing, or their undermining of the sand, the column falls flat.

A large red balloon, the size of a space-hopper, is floated in a stream and comes to a tunnel under a bridge, where it stops, being just too big for the tunnel's round mouth, and thus acts as a plug, preventing the flow of the water, which builds up behind it, until eventually the accumulated water-pressure is sufficient to shoot the balloon out through the tunnel, and everything runs free again.

A remote-controlled model helicopter is perched on a square wooden board, which is in turn floating on a stream and heading for a sheer-drop waterfall. As the board tips over the edge of the waterfall, the helicopter just lifts off and proceeds, through the air, more or less in the direction and at the speed that it was travelling along the water. As the board, having plunged through the fall, recovers level stability in the water downstream, the helicopter descends to resume its former perch.

A multitude of metal spheres is suspended in a regular formation from the ceiling of a large room. Exactly beneath them, on the floor, in identical formation, is a multitude of soft clay cubes. Suddenly, simultaneously, all the balls are released. They fall as a single plane. Suddenly, simultaneously, they stop, embedded in the clay blocks.

Now, these things are funny – because they're such utter non-events, or because they're deadpan violent (he sometimes does explosions), or because the objects involved seem to take on a life of their own, or because, like the balloon in the tunnel, there's such perfect internal economy to the operation. But as well as comedy, there is a heightened attention to the materials and physical processes involved – and more than to the objects, to the form of the event.

These films are about things like timing, causation, chance, obstacles, goals. The one with the dropped balls is called Simultaneous: sheer simultaneity is what it depicts. Signer is interested in what – in "something happenings" – can qualify as completeness, closure. What makes for a before and an after, a start and a finish, a result, a shape, a circle turned, a story told? The bricks, the bricks, the bricks – yes, they're over! The block of ice – has melted! The bucket with a hole in it – any moment now – drained! Signer is a student of the basics, the rudiments of narrative satisfaction.

Signer also makes gallery sculptures, objects that look like the ingredients or end- products of one of his processes, and even though physically they are the bulk of this show, they're not of much interest. The films are the best, and the best thing of all is the "big" film – an extended wall-projected sequence, called Table with Camera. It plays in a loop, as art videos tend to. But from the start, it goes like this:

We see a stretch of river – straight, shallow, level – between green banks, and a white wooden table standing unmoved in the middle of its stream. The table-top is just clear of the water. There seems to be a film camera bolted on to it. The water flows around the table's legs. Then – bang! – charges attached to each of the legs are fired simultaneously. The legs are blown clean off. The table-top drops flat down on to the water's surface, and floats upright. With the camera still on board, and accompanied by its flotilla of dismembered legs, it is carried off down the river.

Then we see the incident again – but now from the viewpoint of the camera stuck to the table.The explosion itself doesn't jolt much. The big change is between the camera stationary and the camera away. This time, the film doesn't stop there. We follow this camera, from its own floating point of view, on its journey downstream.

It's a long drifting vision of riverbank and rippling stream, and not much incident save for the legs sometimes bobbing into view, the occasional bank contact. What you're most conscious of is motion, the two sorts of motion. There's the steady onward progress of this viewpoint as it is carried down the river, but at the same time, there's a continual slow spinning round, randomly, this way and and that, as it responds to the swirls in the current, so that its direction of view is utterly disconnected from its direction of movement.

An uneventful journey it is, but a rather incredible one, this story of an eye. George Bernard Shaw once called the camera "an eye without a mind". Normally, of course, there are minds to guide it. But here this eye is released from the captivity of human purposes – though not exactly set free. It travels bound to the fate of the stream's flow, and the fortune of its unpredictable eddies. It is helpless, but it is taking it all in. It becomes a kind of semi-consciousness, a being that has experience but no powers, that sees but can't look, a jellyfish life of pure passivity in which there is only motion and collision and vision. This is a long subjective shot with no subjectivity, the gaze of nothing.

At least, that's one way to look at it. But there is another. "If a thrown stone had consciousness," said Spinoza, "it would believe that it was flying." Signer's film is a version of that script, too. To give a moving object a point of view, or a viewpoint motion, is to create a life of a kind. Vision can't but hint at consciousness, and directional motion can't but suggest purpose. Put them together and you get a sort of critter, on a sort of adventure, not floating, but travelling, and – as it nudges the overgrowth on the bank – exploring the world around it.

So as you follow this journey, you veer between animation and evacuation. Perhaps you're getting a glimpse of the secret life of things, the world as objects see it. Or perhaps it is a glimpse into a limbo state, a condition of pure drift, passive motion, mindless viewing, where there are no mental or physical capacities except a limited kind of vision. A disability nightmare? A dream pursued by mystics and sunbathers?

Suddenly, crisis looms. A bridge comes into view up ahead. We just catch a glimpse of it, on one of the camera's endless blithe rotations. Is our eye going to strike one of the piers? In the nick of time, the story ends, the artist in waders strides into the picture and removes table and camera from the water. Thirteen minutes. But in a gentle, practical, dotty way, it has been a voyage far out. Take it.

Roman Signer: Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 (020-7435 2643). Until 2 Feb. Closed Mondays and Christmas week. Free