Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge
With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, Arkemy’s experimental film Bingo! features two-dozen senior citizens playing the parlor game in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced into the film for thirty seconds every twelve minutes, footage of snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves.
Another of his tedious films, Topiary, some call “introspective.” Horticulturists shear shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. Tell me this: How is a view from a distant rooftop of abstract laborers silhouetted in glaring sunlight introspective? Every once in a while, a snail inches over tears in rancid linoleum.
In Terra Firma, his best for how short it is, we peer through openings in reflective glass at milling tourists who sometimes crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Look fast, though, at snail-infested grow bags!
In Interstate, a film shot like Formerly a Forest from a circling drone, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north out of town. In the clutter of a people-less picnic set in the shadow of an oak tree, a snail crests a rim, pouring itself into a Tupperware container.
Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. It’s hardly an act when a snail in the public garden below propels itself forward on a single, flat foot, secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” a mechanical voice announces, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, doesn’t he? He overdoes it with incidental noises. Human voices run together.
He’s made a name for himself filming strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. The mollusks he glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers. “Snails,” he tells me one afternoon, “are faceless.” So his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form lines around whole blocks, anticipating blockbusters. They wait at bus stops in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. “You’re going to have to help me with this,” I tell him. “Is not the mundane at some point just mundane? If your films are statements about the environment, why not send a more urgent message? If this is a spiritual thing, tell me about the spirit.”
Arkemy, whose real name is Glen Olson, smiles and asks me what I see when I walk through a wet park. I think of matted leaves. He says, “Get a whiff of it, young man. Scoop our share of soil.” He tells me in a tone that frankly I find condescending, typically Boomer, that like the snail we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to silence me, and it does (it disgusts me), he says triumphantly, “If you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”