A calendar year ago, the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, the seat of American democracy, suffered the worst assault since 1814, when the British burned it to the ground.
This time, the attack was launched by American citizens, many of whom identify as patriots. They did so at the implicit—some would say explicit—instruction of the American president of the day, Donald Trump. And many of the attackers filmed themselves while committing such crimes, posting the footage live across the internet for the world to see.
The chaos and lethal violence of that day is captured, in viscerally immersive terms, in a new film by the American photographic artist Andres Serrano in his debut film Insurrection, which is premiering via a series of free-to-the-public screenings starting today at CulturalDC’s Source Theatre in Washington, close to where the attack took place.
Midway through the film, Serrano includes a chapter titled “Breaching the Gates”, a morbidly fascinating sequence comprised purely of footage of the riots filmed by the rioters and presented without audio overlay or other artistic intervention. The sequence is the result of the months Serrano spent retrospectively scouring the internet for photographs and footage of the uprising, much of which was uploaded to conservative social media platforms like Parler.
Three days before the attack, an internal police intelligence report was distributed to Capitol security. It described a potential threat to the Capitol as a result of Trump supporters.
“Unlike previous postelection protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counterprotesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th,” the report read. “Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.”
Without overt judgement or condemnation, and adhering to a dry, ambivalent tone, Serrano puts viewers amidst that crowd, inviting us, perhaps, to try and understand their sense of grievances, as well as the unifying motives that led them to launch such a seemingly self-destructive, aimless yet deadly assault on American institutional power.
But Insurrection is more than a study of the traumatic events of 6 January 2021. “Breaching the Gates” is bookended by archival and historical footage looping back through 150 years of American history, all expertly montaged by Serrano.
“I use the historical recordings to viscerally remind the viewer, again and again, that history repeats itself in specific ways,” Serrano said of the film in a statement.
Serrano edits celebratory events in American history alongside violent outbreaks, seeming to explore how aggression and brutality are woven into the national psyche—its popular culture, its founding narratives, its race relations, the very premise of the pioneering spirit.
“If those leading the Capitol Riots were Black, they would have been shot down like dogs,” Serrano said. “Black people have been killed for a lot less than futzing around the Capitol.”
As the film unfolds, so it leads us up to the Capitol attack, contextualising the insurrection with the still-shocking content of news segments and online forums that set the conditions for January 6.
Although Serrano has made his career primarily through the use of still photography, Insurrection showcases his ability to edit carefully referenced musical interludes to documentary material. For example, he includes instrumental interludes from the Civil War-era children’s rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic, overlaying the score to footage of the Capitol Rioters as they prepared to invade the building.
Also included is the USA Freedom Kids song made famous by a viral video of young girls singing about “crushing the enemies” at a Donald Trump rally in 2016. The final piece of audio in the film is a recording of a scripture-charged speech delivered by a preacher from inside the Capitol rotunda during the insurrection.
Serrano, the 71-year-old, half Honduran, half Afro-Cuban American artist who lives in New York City, is best known for his controversial 1987 work, Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. In 2019 he staged The Game: All Things Trump, a pop-up exhibition of Trump memorabilia and artefacts he had acquired, in Manhattan. The exhibition was followed by a book about the project.
This film, the first of Serrano’s career, is produced by the London-based organisation a/political, and is being screened with the support of CulturalDC, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit known for financing, among other projects, Jennifer Rubell’s Ivanka Vacuuming in 2019.
- Insurrection by Andres Serrano, 6-15 January, CulturalDC’s Source Theatre, Washington, DC