Horses & Ants – Benjamin Orlow on the Creation of his 24-Hour Visual ‘Opera’

By John Vandevert

The nature of opera is changing. No longer bound by the stage, the whole idea that a libretto set to music and then staged is the true definition of an opera is dead. To be an “opera” is now a state-of-mind, a creative worldview that seeks to posit that all things are connected, with the actors involved as “characters” in the dramaturgical universe of their surroundings.

If classical music is to have a future, we must contend with the fact that while composers across the epochs like Peri, Monteverdi, Mozart, Gounoud, Ravel, Liszt, and Gershwin, along with revolutionist like Schoenberg, Cage, Glass, Adams, Deutscher, Mazzoli, Ronchetti, and Okoye (too many to note) were and are exceptional in pushing the hand of operatic composition forward, the underlying reality is that they are but slaves to the formalist conception of opera. In any case, I argue that it is through dissolving opera’s formalist boundaries that true innovation can arise.

Benjamin Orlow’s work does just that.

Based in London, having gained his artistic education at Goldsmith College, Finnish-Russian poly-medium artist Benjamin Orlow has created for himself a world that is at the same time foreign and inviting. Primarily dealing in large-form sculptural art and installation-based projects, this experimental film is one of several that he’s produced which reflect his creative raison d’etre.

As he stated in conversation,I am trying to communicate how I perceive the world, my life and experiences, and the things around me.”

The film began as his way to make his mandatory, 347-day NCO (non-commissioned officer) military service in the Finish Defence force more palaptable after having put it off for many years. As a 29 year-old artist already established in his work, to take this much time away from creating was inconceivable for him. When asked why a film when most of his work is sculptural-based, he noted that the mediums he uses are, “directed by what is accessible to me at the time in terms of materials, logistics, and what I’m trying to do with the work.” Thus, after reading the “Soldatens handbok,” he figured that he’d make the most of his time given his professional experience, “I was already working as an artist and so I thought, I’m going to make some sort of work out of this.” He became a “unit photographer” and the film was the result of 347 days of living, filming, and embodying the life of a nameless soldier.

“Horses and Ants”

Benjamin Orlow’s cinematic work entitled “Horse and Ants” is a quasi-documentary, quasi-surrealist articulation of the disorienting effects of homogeneity and boredom, monotony and the expropriation of free-will all for the illusion of safety from an unknown foe. Using real footage, interpolated with military films, exercises, long stretches of mundane waiting, and a “dream sequence” a la Humperdinck, Mascagni, Britten, Debussy, Elgar, or even Wagner (a notable influence as it was revealed). The “opera” (called this due to the film’s overarching narratival design and act-based organization) begins at 12 a.m. in the morning and proceeds in identical pace to the non-cinematic universe, designed to be 24 full hours and eschew the notion of observational distance, fourth-wall boundaries, and typical “suspension of disbelief” practices that audiences come to rely upon. Despite the film being unavailable for viewing, the available description of the opera’s narrative tells of a harrowing journey reflective of a full cycle of the “hero’s journey” (made popular by Joseph Campbell in 1949).

The opera is told from the viewpoint of Frida Josefin Österberg (the musical voice of the film), an allusion to the ill-constructed lines separating civilian (human) from military (machine). In Acts one and two (six hours together), we are introduced to the enigmatic world of the night as a new soldier, where fatigue obscures fictional enemies and the safety of the tent sits disconcertingly against the dark unknown beyond. You forget your immediate surroundings as you are swallowed by the sublime beauty of the planets, stars, and the infinite cosmos.

However, this quickly vanishes as the sun begins to rise and in Acts three through six (13 hours of the film) the viewer is entered into the life of an NCO (non-commissioned officer). From the excitement of forest combat training (known as “minute-functions”), miscellaneous war preparations, weapon checks, lectures, “educational” videos, and civilian assistance, the life of a soldier is unambiguously revealed (albeit edited) to us.

In the penultimate Act (three hours), after a full day, the soldiers are able to relax. They are visited by a vicar to help them return to civilian life, while St. Lucia pays a visit, and soldier’s learn to regain their individuality. Yet, as Carl Orff’s monstrous cantata demonstrated, based in-part on the medieval philosophical notion of the “Rota Fortunae” (“wheel of fate”), despite the desire for emancipation time waits for no one, and all things are bound to repeat. Thus, the final Act (2+1 hours) links the conclusion to its beginning, and as the lights go out shooting is heard in the dark distance, and the cycle continues.

With a run-time of 24 hours (a full day!), Benjamin Orlow’s experimental film converges the cinematic world and the physical world into an oscillating, (de/re-) contextualizing work that brings the viewers up-close and personal with the lives of the dehumanized, quotidian soldier. Yet, as he explained, the soldier’s reality inside of the army serves as the epitome of a distant world where we, the citizenry, build fantastic stories around. Commercials, parades, “attractions,” and popular culture all speak of the heroism and visceral “glamor” of military service. And yet, at the heart of this sycophant relation is vast amounts of excruciatingly monotonous, active-but-going-nowhere boredom.

Undercutting the perception of immediacy and excitement, Orlow sought to return stolen agency to the ‘human’ cog stuck in the dispassionate ‘machine’, bringing the conversation back to how a person’s individuality can be so completely stolen by their surroundings and yet still be there, deep within the maze of the aching mind.

At the heart of the film lies the question, “What does being human look and feel like when it’s taken away from us?”


Process of Creation

In conversation, Orlow explained that it had only taken a matter of days before he began noticing his mental state altering as a result of the meticulous proceduralism yet intensely slow nature of the military world. As he stated, “I thought about going into the army at that age [that I would be able to maintain some critical distance to the whole experience. But it took about 2 or 3 days for me to be completely Institutionalized. I just became absorbed in the logic of that Institution.”

Yet, like he stated, he knew his experience would begett an artistic work, and thus he sought to capture the reality of his situation, not the fanciful illusion portrayed in media and concocted by daydreamers and nostalgia-junkies. He went into his experience with no pre-set plan despite his drastic change of comportment, “I would turn out the camera and do normal things, without plan for dramatic arch or how it would form a narrative which meant when the year was up.”

At the end of his five-and-half-month military experience, he was left with 48 hours of raw footage which had no narrative and no structure. Thus, Orlow’s challenge became building meaning out of meaninglessness, yet he notes this was quite difficult, “partially because the pace was so slow, the pace of reality, and partially because there were experiences and mindsets which were hard to relive.”

Thus, in order to turn his raw footage into a film Orlow expressed that he focused on two different observations during his time. The first being the speed of action, “The military always wants to represent itself as this fast-paced universe. In reality, the experience of being in the military is just very slow and very mundane.”

The other being the catalyst for the choice of an “opera” structure, “This idea [slowness] made me think that I needed to have some sort of structure that could advance this.”

From this initial thought, Orlow’s opera was born. He explained further that the Wagnerian (really Trahndorffian) concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” was central in his process, “The idea of an opera came to me because of the idea of this “total art”, you have the sound, story, characters, costumes, setting, this idea of something larger than life. It felt the context of the military, bombasticity. Thinking of it as an opera gave me a way to organize the footage. I’ll put it into sequences according to when things are happening.”

However, traditional operas have acts and (usually) a single narrative through-line, something Orlow thought consciously about as he explained, “In order for me to understand what’s happening when I will use the system of having different acts. I thought, “I’ll “write” the act based on this, and based on what I wrote I’ll put the actual footage into them.”

From 48 hours cut to 24 hours and from no plot to eight “acts,” Orlow’s “opera” was realized. But his opera is more than cut footage but composed music, and a set group of personalities. Orlow next shared with me the way by which his musical process, final “score,” and the usage of characters came to be.

Music and Characters

Although the full film is not available, on Orlow’s website one can catch a brief taste of the surrealist, deconstructed sound world the film uses in order to defamiliarize its viewers with the human form, and transform our previously-held notions of the illusions of free-will, objective reality, and individuality. The journey to creating the music is much more complex than I had previously thought.

As Orlow notes the music was used both artistically and pragmatically, “To make the cuts not jumpy, I need some sort of sound.”

To accomplish this he began working with the Swedish mezzo soprano Frida Josefin Österberg due to her highly-trained technique and expressionistic abilities. After trial and error, Orlow realized that instead of composing something new it was Österberg’s warming-up that he wanted, “I realized what worked the best was when she was just warming up her voices and going through scales.” He continued, “I re-recorded her singing scales, and I worked with the composer Kristios Yngling to finish the editing process.”

By using an intimate moment between singer and piano, usually never heard by anyone but the singer, Orlow’s foregrounding of scalar patterns and minimalist atmospheres devoid of melody highlights the very premise of his “opera.” He also noted his desire to fuse together speaking and singing in the film’s musical life, “What I wanted was in between singing and ambient noise.”

He went on to describe the nature of the score as an integral part of the film’s overall atmosphere, “Throughout the film you have variations of noise in the background, but it’s subtle so that you don’t really think about it being there. The effect it has is that it sows a connection between the different parts. It puts you in a meditative state.”

Questioning monotony and forcing us to see the truth behind the facade of sheer complacency, Orlow’s music in his 24-hour film speaks to the latent power of music in cinema to provide feelings of surreality. As he noted, “The music and the sound propels the film forward, and makes it more immersive for the viewer.”

The film also features (at least) 12 different characters throughout his eight acts, ranging from primary characters like Österberg and her friend Vesanen, Starck (an authority figure of sorts), the countless NCO-students (Noncomissioned officer, of which Orlow was apart of during his time), St. Lucia (an allusion to the martyr Sankta Lucia of Syracuse), the high energy Liimatainen and the relaxed Pizarro (two NCO-students), along with numerous others like a vicar and a medic named Saarinen. Orlow explains that the usage of characters was an intentional step used to mediate the formlessness of the military universe as well as a dramaturgical resource, “Some of the people are reoccurring, in the same room as I or opposite. The film is very much about social relationships and interactions and hierarchies. In order to describe these dynamics, I found it useful to mention the characters.” He went on to explain that, just like in opera, the grosser plot contains many subplots and personal stories that find their conclusion and are replaced with new ones.

Yet, motifs like characters and music mediate the differences and give a holistic unity to the dramaturgy, “Inside the larger narrative arch, there are mini arches happening all the time. Within that, there are fixtures and that is where the characters are very useful.”

Film’s Response

Orlow was very passionate when talking about the shelf-life of his film and the audience’s reception of his work throughout its existence. When asked about how audiences react(ed) to his work, now five years after its first premiere in 2017 at the Gallery Sinne in Helsinki (Finland), Orlow expressed that the film was made to be a conduit for deeper thoughts on military and existential life.

As he stated, “The way I see the work, when you look at it you don’t see the film but through it and the things that it’s presenting. Conversations about the work end up being about the army, national service, through the medium itself.”

He clarified that his underlying interest, of which the film and sculptural works serve as an extension of, was uncovering the terrifyingly beautiful truth of the human condition, “I’m really interested in revealing something personal, human, and emotional in institutions and forms commonly associated with authority, hierarchy, societal structure, symbols abstracted as symbols. I attempt to remove the abstraction and show the personal behind it.”

Thus, the film’s presentation of the soldier’s reality (bullying and all, something Orlow told me he chose not to feature in the film) in all its unambiguous mundanity and servitude, was an attempt to bring attention to the reality of stolen individuality, “The army is often dehumanizing and dehumanized, and a soldier is usually ‘something’ you don’t think of as a person but an abstracted thing.”

Upon this footing, he expressed the singular goal of this novel, day-long, paradigm-bending film, “The purpose of the film was to show the human. To do this is to show the mundane, how the relatability comes through.” With as much clarity as could be expressed on Zoom, Orlow gave this short but resonant phrase, “Circumstances dictate your actions.”

The idea that a film, or a piece of art for that matter, could have eternal relevancy is something an artist can only dream of, and yet Orlow has managed to create a piece of living, metanarratival art-qua-social commentary that fits succinctly into any decade, and really and epoch it finds itself in due to the obdurate and ingrained tendrils emanating from the military-industrial complex. Orlow noted as much, “The military is its own microcosm with its own rules and sense of time. It’s also repetition, everyday is the same. And I think the film replicates this reality. As long as the system still exists, the film gains its relevance.”

When asked about the title of the work he surprisingly shared, “It came from my mom. My mom asked me ‘Are there any animals in the film,’ and I said ‘just horses and ants.’ But then I started thinking about it. It sounds like a turn-of-the-century epic novel by Hemmingway”.

Maybe, in a way, this is the essential teaching of Orlow’s “opera”. To look at life and really question its contents, challenge the idea of seriousness, and poke holes in the conception of empirical truth. If the way we act depends on where we are and the situations we find ourselves in, then maybe we don’t know ourselves at all? Who are we? Can you answer that question truthfully? Are soldiers less themselves before or after service? Such questions lie at the heart of the film, the probing of the everyday routines we take for granted, and the individualism we assume we’ll have for the rest of our lives. What would happen if we woke up and we were soldiers? Could we cope? I’d like to think yes, and yet at the end of the day you must live it to find out. Orlow did, and what he shared is as frightening as it is illuminating.


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