Feminism Now Symposium: Part 7: Claire Grace

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 19.08.2010

My paper is called Vanishing Acts, Chantal Akerman's From the Other Side. Political strategy
on the left has long been predicated on an assumed link between visibility and empowerment.
While justified in many ways, this approach is not without its limitations. Visibility
can lie like a trap, argues feminist historian Peggy Phelan. It summons surveillance and
the law, provokes voyeurism, fetishism, and the colonialist imperial appetite for possession.
A 2002 video installation by Chantal Akerman tests Phelan's assertion against the frame
of United States immigration policy at a time when border surveillance technologies worth
more than two billion dollars galvanize the link between perceptual and political domination,
a time when, for those whose rights are underrepresented, vanishing may paradoxically offer, at least
provisionally, more than being seen. I had a little trouble with this. There we go. As
Akerman's installation, From the Other Side, demonstrates, if surveillance functions by
expanding the scope of the visibly traceable, producing an artwork about the US Mexico border,
an artwork that can stand up on the side of human rights, may well preclude the practiced
strategy of calling for greater visibility to the hitherto unseen. Akerman's piece reworks
the artist's documentary film from the same year, an unsentimental ethnographic record
shot in Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona and in the surrounding Sonora Desert and Sierra
Madre mountains. The installation juxtaposes dozens of looped fragments from the film with
original videography and surveillance footage appropriated from the United States INS, a
tremendous surfeit of audiovisual data dispersed in three spatial enclosures across 19 monitors
and one wall projection. Despite this sensorial surplus, the installation's undertow pulls
towards the filmic register of critical invisibility. Not without ambivalence, it offers disappearance
as a means of undermining the ideological regime of mastery through vision, a fantasy
hardwired through centuries of Judeo Christian thought and reaffirmed ever more in contemporary
American political culture. Disappearance functions in Akerman's installation as a mode
of resisting the authority vested in three forms of spectatorial power: ethnographic
documentary, surveillance, and art spectatorship, the latter of which we probably won't have
time to address in the presentation, but maybe in the discussion period afterwards. In taking
up Akerman's dialogue with traditions of surveillance and ethnography, what follows here also illuminates
the relationship between the trope of disappearance and her shift in this recent work and others
from the art of making films, for which she is widely renowned, to an installation practice
melding documentary with multichannel video display. Akerman has described the shift in
pragmatic terms. The art world thirsts for installation, but has little appetite for
experimental film. And yet the initial fault lines that would lead to this break can be
detected in her earliest works dating to 1968. Forming through feminist critique and Marxism
in the wake of French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard. her unmistakable style has distinguished
itself from conventional cinema, particularly its naturalization of narrative illusion.
In contrast, Akerman's work exposes the medium's material constructedness through a constellation
of formal strategies, including frontal framing and disturbances in single point perspective,
voiceover and quotation rather than close ups or dialogue, slow moving action, and attention
to everyday details at the expense of plot driven narrative. In many ways, the marked
shift to spatially complex multichannel video installation can be seen as an extension of
these techniques, a more decisive response to the reservations her work has long borne
towards the strictures of conventional filmic representation. Not insignificantly, each
of the films Akerman has transposed in three dimensions are ethnographic documentaries.
The installation practice first emerged two years after the 1993 release of her documentary,
From the East. That film traces the forced migrations of Jewish families, including Akerman's
own, eastward across Europe through the trauma of the early and mid 20th century. Subtitled.
Bordering on Fiction, the installation excerpts various segments from the film and sets them
adrift in a multichannel installation. Even as its slow moving pace recalls the weight
of history, the installation seems ultimately to offer nothing but the complete withdrawal
of narrative meaning. Indeed, as its voiceover indicates, if the documentary extends from
a desire to register some from of truth, Akerman discovered that what the film had in fact
recorded borders on fiction. The installation responds to that condition by placing its
fictionalness in full view, such that all pretense to representational verity fragments,
disperses, and finally disappears. Akerman's From the Other Side proceeds from much the
same point of departure. It, too, reworks a film that lies at the margins of a genre
fraught with historical and ideological implications. Ethnographic film is predicated on the assumed
transparency and objectivity of the camera's lens. Invoking the real, it reinforces the
myths of objectivity and authority conferred to anthropology more generally, a discipline
that cannot be understood in isolation from colonial epistemology and the logic of racial
difference. If Akerman's documentary on the US and Mexico border proposes an alternative
by making use of the countertraditional strategies that have marked her films since the 70s,
it also reproduces some of ethnographic films' most characteristic pitfalls. Its use of interviews,
for instance, interrupts Akerman's consistent preference for voiceover, quotation, and other
forms that avoid and discredit the assumed transparency of frontal address. Instead,
as in this frame, Akerman's camera here performs just the kind of illusion ethnographic film
is designed to produce. A face to face encounter whose aura of authenticity rests on the viewer's
absence as an unseen voyeur. That the installation includes these confessional sequences suggests
a retrospective impulse to rethink the film's unwitting attachment to the power relations
implicit in documentary filmmaking. By including some of the film's most classically ethnographic
sequences, the installation draws that relationship into sharper relief, in order to question
its authority. For a film whose ethnographic subject is also the object of military surveillance,
as is the case here, the drive to engage critically with ethnographic form takes on certain urgency.
Established during the colonial era and coinciding with increasing administrative needs to know,
represent, and thus maintain authority over the other, both surveillance and ethnography
aim to track and render the other as a visual object of study. Both construct their representational
economies as transparent, making heavy claims to realism, authenticity, completeness, and
truth. Such is the ground plan against which Akerman's installation, From the Other Side,
poses its critique of visibility. If the move from film to installation allows the trope
of disappearance to be articulated through dispersal and fragmentation, since through
fragmentation ethnographic coherence vanishes from the representational field, the primacy
of the invisible gains potency through a critical simulation developed in the second of the
installation's three enclosures. It contains 18 television monitors arranged on waist high
plinths in six staggered rows. A walkway divides the rows, three to a side. Arranged thus,
the screens present a shifting and disjointed montage, some dozen looped sequences of identical
duration, roughly ten minutes, but strikingly varied content, drawn from the documentary
and other sources. A wind torn desert marked by a sign portending dead end. Lines of cars
inching towards a border checkpoint. Neighborhoods built of concrete and corrugated aluminum.
Spoken testimonials of local residents. The crosshairs of infrared surveillance. With
this multiscreen format, what is seen depends fundamentally on the spectator's shifting
point of view in time and space, as he or she moves along a chosen trajectory. Crucially,
from no one vantage point are all 18 screens simultaneously visible. Drawn in by one sequence,
the spectator misses all simultaneous sequences that cannot be seen in peripheral vision.
The rows of monitors thus become physical obstructions blocking lines of sight and thwarting
any attempt to absorb or synthesize the totality of audio visual data at play. Cued by the
clips appropriated from the INS and by a structural reference to the banks of monitors in a communications
patrol station, the sensorial confusion gives the lie to the fantasy of surveillance. The
manic surplus of moving images exposes the sheer impossibility of perceptual authority,
the fiction of the truth effect of a dominant discourse of the real. Not withstanding the
fact that new data technologies by now vastly surpass capacities for data analysis, since
9-11, the myth of mastery through vision has only gained momentum, building on a centuries
old ideological foundation in Judaeo Christian culture, where the understanding of divine
omnipotence derives from notions of omnivoyance, as in the phrase, God is watching. Power and
sight bind together etymologically in Akerman's native French, where the word, power, pouvoir,
shares a root with the word, to see, voir. The link between vision and power extends
equally meaningfully through the history of representational form, political culture,
and military technology, emerging now, most distressingly, in the US Gulf Wars and its
policy towards the border it shares with Mexico. In Akerman's installation, however, by calling
attention to the fact of the unseen, the piece works against totalization, against the gaze
that admits no point of view, a perceptual assumption that has remained central to the
construction of surveillance technology as well as classical cinema, not to mention mainstream
current events representation. Akerman's ellipses disrupt that gaze, splintering it, dispersing
it spatially as well as temporally and frustrating its claim to a comprehensive view. If the
dialectics of ellipsis and surplus destabilize the logic of surveillance, the piece takes
the trope of invisibility much further in four spatial iterations of a ten minute loop
sequence introduced in the first enclosure, and repeated three more times in the second
and third rooms. The sequence is shot at night from the windshield of a car traveling north
towards Los Angeles. Taillights of commuters stream red towards the horizon. Highway signage
rushes past, green overhead. The loop closes with a sudden cutaway to a shard of INS aerial
surveillance. Throughout a voiceover in Akerman's monotone, heavily accented English, recounts
again and again the story of a woman from Mexico, who, after immigrating to the US illegally
and working without documentation for some time, loses contact with all those who once
knew her and is never seen nor heard from again. The narrative continues as an incessant
stream, continually recalling the lost woman to mind. The woman herself, however, never
once appears on screen, and as the voiceover affirms, never appears to those who search
for her, neither to her son, David, nor to her former landlord, whom the narrator interviews
for leads. Further distancing the fate of the lost woman from the spectator's mind's
eye, Akerman refuses to grant complete access to the story. While the voiceover repeats
again and again from four sets of speakers dispersed throughout the three rooms, in each
case a medium projection volume continuously subjects its integrity to the jarring interruptions
of multiple soundtracks emitted from the many other sound assemblies in the space, the muted
shudder of a helicopter, the static of walkie talkies, the wind coursing through tall desert
grasses spoken testimonials, and so on. The voiceover is itself quite garbled, textured,
and at times difficult to decipher. By these measures the narrative's audio presentation
denies all efforts to grasp the sign of the lost woman. As Peggy Phelan shows of Yvonne
Rainer's 1985 film, The Man Who Envied Women, by displacing the lost woman from the frame
of the visible and by stressing the fact of her disappearance within the narrative, Akerman
ensures that her invisible protagonist saturates not only the psychic space of the narrative
characters who search for her, but also the cognitive and psychic space of the spectator,
who is left to wait in vain for some fragment of the protagonist's figure to appear on screen,
which it never does. It is not insignificant that Akerman has chose a female protagonist
to articulate the trope of disappearance. As feminist film theory has long maintained,
a heterosexual male gaze and its gratification remain integral to the structure of cinematic
pleasure. It is a gaze that fetishizes cinema's female heroine as an object of desire and
possession. Instead, Akerman's installation locates its protagonist in a figure who refuses
to be represented visually, a female subject who eludes the gaze and obstructs its reifying
operations. The pertinence of this feminist refusal, as it functions here, may be usefully
expanded as a critical reference to the instrumentalization of marginalized people in mainstream representation,
including ethnography, but also news media and its account of border crossers and migrant
workers from south of the border. The mark of invisibility deepens further in the 90
minute wall projection shown in the installation's third and final enclosure. When the projection
begins, it appears to fill no more than a small square centered in the middle of the
wall. Within this restricted field, the by now familiar highway sequence repeats and
loops, the night, the streaming taillights, the steady automotive progression, the voiceover's
lugubrious and monotone account. As the projection continues, however, the darkened wall around
this small square slowly begins to lighten and take on color. It soon becomes clear that
the ten minute highway sequence, along with its voiceover describing the fate of the vanished
woman, is in fact being projected repeatedly on a large outdoor screen installed in the
rugged foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. This, in turn, is filmed in nine cycles during
the 90 minutes before and just after dawn. As the sky brightens gradually, the early
dawn begins the bleach the light dark contrast required for the looped highway sequence to
remain visible on screen. With each ten minute cycle, the light brings the surrounding landscape
to life, but drains more and more content from the increasingly ghostly highway sequence,
before finally reducing the outdoor screen to a blank expanse that reflects nothing at
all, a tabula rasa that denies the spectator the illusion of a privileged view through
a window onto the world. If the voiceover, which persists through the 90 minutes at an
unchanged volume, continually recalls the lost woman to the spectator's mind, as the
voiceover's visual analog finally dissolves into the light, Akerman removes even the deferred
possibility of tracking the missing woman, of surveying her visual trace. In her evanescence
she defies surveillance. Akerman's insistence on invisibility is not free of ethical ambiguities.
Her protagonist's absence on screen in some ways serves implicitly as an affirmation of
the undocumented status and social invisibility of illegal guest workers. More concerning
still, aspects of the voiceover and the absent woman's defiant absence, seem even to signal
the possibility of her death. Perhaps Akerman intends this uncomfortable parallel, not to
affirm, but rather to expose conditions of social invisibility. Somewhat troublingly
though, the installation ultimately leaves that question open for debate. But immigrant
empowerment is perhaps not Akerman's principal impulse here. The project seems more than
anything to reexamine the politics of vision itself. In this sense, the protagonist's disappearance,
while deeply concerning, is also the story of a potentially radical evasion, one that
defies surveillance and spectatorial authority, and that, by its invisible, not here, refuses
interpolation. Furthermore, as a critique informed by feminist theory, by working against
a visually oriented social and economic order, the installation suggests an intriguing countermodel,
that rather than granting perceptual gratification, opens up new lines of inquiry by restricting
representation to the less trammeled space of cognitive, psychic, and imaginative experience.