Losing It: Politics of the Other (Medium)
Authenticity and the Literary Masterpiece
In the monumental, six-channel video installation Where Is Where?, 2008, Finnish cinematographer Eija-Liisa Ahtila broaches for the first time an overtly political topic. Commissioned by and installed in the prestigious Musée du Jeu de Paume, at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, this work is set in the proximity-at-a-remove—in time and space—of the Algerian War of Independence, which has left its traumatizing traces in both the French and the Algerian collective memory. Choosing this topic is an obvious gesture of defiance as well as solidarity. It also stipulates that Ahtila seeks to make political art. Also for the first time, in this work the artist uses sequences of historical documentary, both of the Algerian War and of other war-generated situations. With that “found” footage, the issue of authenticity and historical truth cannot remain unaddressed.
Here I will, however, approach the political thrust of this work through the least likely angle, the literary, poetic aspects of the installation—and this in the literal sense. Documentary is only authenticating for naïve believers in the reliability of signs, however. In other words, it is culturally authenticating. Hence, other means of cultural authentication are also possible. Indeed, Ahtila pursues authenticity in another cultural embedding—an embedding that comprises the lies of heroism and other rhetorical figurations. The relationship to history at large as well as to the history of the medium is further developed on the level of text and literature.
As if to foreground the authenticity of the archival footage in its relation to history as a special case, Where Is Where?’s final sequence literally quotes from a psychiatric expert’s work with two young boys who, confused by the collective grief that surrounded them and the powerlessness imposed on them as colonial subjects as well as children, killed a classmate because he was European. This interview is transcribed by the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre) from 1956. In it, the boys display an iron-clad logic that confuses the adult experts. Ahtila’s work quotes this source text literally. It is a case of “colonial madness.” At the end of the fifty-two-minute duration, one of the boys, Adel, shown in close-up against a burgundy background, says to the doctor who is confused about the boys’ motivation to kill: “Anyhow, I killed him. Now, you do what you have to do” (in French, slightly differently: “faites ce que vous voulez”; do as you wish). In an oeuvre such as Ahtila’s, celebrated for its fantastical character and its treatment of inexpressible individual emotions and the unconscious (as in fiction), this double sticking to documentary evidence might seem a bit unsettling at first sight.
Yet, the dilemma posed in this work is consistent with her earlier work, and extends to video installation as a medium, in the sense of an apparatus or dispositif. Whereas I argue that the earlier works are also deeply political, I consider Where Is Where?, with its strongly political theme, a poetic work first and foremost. It is visually poetical, and, as if to enhance this aspect, it is also poetic as a literary work. The lines of the script read like poetry, and the main figure is a poet. Not coincidentally, as if to drive the point home, the installation is replete with connections to masterpieces from the literary canon. I contend that the political force of this work resides primarily in this poetical embedding, rather than its overtly political theme.
First, there is the diegetic connection to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, 1942, a novel in which the central event is the inexplicable and arbitrary murder of “l’Arabe” by the protagonist, the antihero Meursault. “C’était à cause du soleil” (it was because of the sun [my translation]), Meursault insists in his flat, colloquial language. Incidentally, this flatness in the language is the literary equivalent of the deadpan acting style of Ahtila’s figures. Ahtila’s figures express no emotion. Meursault, too, is a figure who refuses pathos.
But his explanation of his act amounts to something other than a French expatriate suffering from the sun in a foreign country. It is the representation of the murdered man in Camus’s novel that makes the connection significant. The fact that Camus’s “Arabe” is nameless and faceless, and that his slaughtering is arbitrary adds to his erasure. A spark of sunlight on a knife, and the Arab is erased, killed without even having had that label of personhood that is the proper name. The murderer is an antihero indeed. Ahtila, however, questions both the heroism and the antiheroism of the canonical text.
In Where Is Where? the situation is both repeated and reversed. This time it is an Arab who kills a European. And the logic of arbitrariness is reiterated, yet brought back down to earth—and to a different kind of logic than the white man’s omnipotence and lawlessness. In Ahtila’s recycling, the arbitrariness comes to the fore as defenselessness, as the only tool the boys think they have to break the circle of powerlessness in which they have been caught. The two boys choose a classmate, someone their age, because they do not think themselves able to kill an adult. He had to be a friend; otherwise he would not have gone with them to the quarry where the deed is done. Like Meursault’s victim, the young victim does not get a proper name.
Through another literary connection the right to a proper name is foregrounded: “I am Ismael” is the first sentence uttered by one of the two boys who commits the murder, upon which the other boy adds, “I am Adel.” This is an allusion to the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick—undoubtedly one of the most frequently quoted literary sentences in the Western canon. The fact that this is a novel exploring the evil of fanaticism also bears on Ahtila’s work. The use of “I am Ismael” instead of “Call me Ismael” in the installation asserts and stages the person’s right to bear a proper name that individualizes him; that he is. Moreover, the slight change in the formulation conveys that he individualizes himself. “My name”—he has appropriated, in comparison to “call me,” which suggests that individuation is in the hands of others.
In Melville’s novel the narrator bearing that name is the only one to escape disaster so that he can tell the story. Ahtila’s boy shares a similar fate. He accedes to personhood through the assertion of his name and his agency, but, in his case, most likely only to remain in custody. It seems relevant, though, that this outcome is not spelled out in the installation. Moreover, although it is the younger Ismael who has done the actual killing, it is Adel who is the duo’s spokesperson. There is no result of the psychiatric expertise; no judgment. Right after we have seen the other boy, Adel’s final sentence imaged in close-up, the screens go black. The spectator is guided out of the installation, only to be confronted with the archival footage of war violence, including that of a dirty, discarded doll, which keeps one lingering a bit longer still at the threshold of the installation. Within the work, Adel remains the philosopher who incites the doctor to act, according to his political conception—to act according to his duty (“what you have to do”) or his wish (“what you want”).
The main figure, a Finnish Poet (played by Kati Outinen; henceforth called the Poet), is both herself in mourning of someone she lost and is entangled in the history of the Algerian War on which she is writing a poem, or a script. The combination of drawings, staged fictional footage, and borrowed documentary footage, along with the abundant quotations from literary and cinematic masterpieces, speaks to an intermediality, an incorporation of “other” media. It is no coincidence that it also speaks to a sense of collective responsibility in present multicultural Europe. This entails, among other things, a questioning of the distinction between epistemology—what do we know?—and ontology—what is (the truth)? This doubt also pertains to aesthetic movements. According to the interpretation of the American critic Brian McHale, the primary issue of modernism is epistemological doubt: how can we know (what happened, in that war)? The primary issue of postmodernism, in a radicalization of the modernist doubt, is ontological doubt; doubt concerning the existence of the objects of our knowledge: what was, and possibly, what is, the Algerian War?
These questions concern the politics of history, the relationship between present and past, and the permeability of national boundaries. In addition to these two novels, Where Is Where? also alludes to highlights of Western modernist poetry. It invokes, for example, “Burnt Norton,” 1936, a poem by T. S. Eliot about time. The complex relationship to history warrants the enquiry into modernist time—fitting the period the story is partly set in. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Eliot’s poem becomes, so to speak, the theoretical starting point of the work’s project to adopt the past into the present—the starting point, but not the end point. Eliot wrote:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future.
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is irredeemable.
Although it does not quote this poem literally, the Finnish work belabors and critiques the conceptions of time that underlie Eliot’s modernism, especially present in its fatalistic final line. The notion of a retrospective responsibility contradicts this conception.
Among the many reflections on time Ahtila’s work includes, the following seems to respond to the modernist poem, integrating into the philosophical discourse of the poem a subjective touch that ushers in death:
that unexpected moment in time,
when timelessness and time meet.
A pause, a fit of absent-mindedness,
a lapse into recollection.
Especially the line “a lapse into recollection” establishes an argument against Eliot’s “all time is irredeemable.” With Bergson, Ahtila’s work and its Poet bring memory into the present.
As it happens, Eliot is also the forger of the conception of time that I have termed “preposterous.” In his plea for a “preposterous” conception of poetry in an ambivalent relation to tradition, Eliot wrote: “Whoever has approved this idea of order . . . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” In line with Eliot’s view in this passage if not with the view of tradition and individualism in the essay as a whole, I endorse the notion that, like any form of representation, art is inevitably engaged with what came before it, and that this engagement is an active reworking. It specifies what and how our gaze sees. Hence, the work performed by later art obliterates the older works as they were before that intervention and creates new versions of old works instead. This “preposterous” vision of the past in the present extends, Ahtila’s work intimates, to the historical past; that too is altered by the present. In the case at hand this alteration lies in the belated and anachronistic taking of responsibility.
This process is exemplified by an engagement of contemporary culture with the past that has important implications for the ways we conceive of both history and culture in the present. T. S. Eliot’s intuition as he articulated it in 1919 finds a political counterpart in Ahtila’s positioning of the war from the past in the present fiction, so that it, and its consequences, can become real, alive again, and can continue to inform the present, with the indispensable help of the imagination. In light of this conception of preposterous history, the recycling of Fanon’s case history, of Camus’s and Melville’s novels, and of Eliot’s poetic lines, becomes as deeply political a strategy as the recycling of war documentary footage. The latter is empowered by the fictionality of the former; the cultural embedding that we, in the present, need to actively imagine what retrospective—preposterous—responsibility can be.
At the same time, the reflections on time in Where Is Where? join those of William Faulkner, especially those in Absalom, Absalom!, 1936—a novel that distances itself from Eliot’s poetry in verging toward the postmodern. This tipping over into postmodernism is not simply a pedantic point about literary history. It is significant here because of the content attributed to the vision of these respective currents.
Postmodern logic runs thus: if the possibility to know is radically absent, how can you know it is real, how can you be certain it exists? As it happens, Ahtila’s figure of the Poet wavers between these two doubts in her working- through of the Algerian War. As a result, ontology (what was, and what is the Algerian War?) becomes epistemology again (what do we know of the past?), and vice versa. This retrospective logic that places modernism after postmodernism is a form of counting backwards—and indeed, this is what the Poet puts forward. When the Poet counts backwards, she appears to take up an action similar to Faulkner’s novel.
As has hopefully become clear from this all-too-brief discussion, the literary and the poetic intertextual moments of the work lead to philosophical positions bearing on contemporary politics. This is not, then, an exceptionally political work but one that, like the ones preceding it, addresses philosophical conceptions for their political relevance, through an engagement with another medium than the one in which the work is made and functions primarily. This medial “otherness,” I contend, is one of many ways in which this artist pursues political relevance, not through political topics—the one so prominent in this work is, in this sense, coincidental—but through a strong, often embodied, encounter with otherness.
This is perhaps most clear in a work that has universally been perceived as concerning a single schizophrenic, hence, “mad” individual—a work whose strong political thrust has mainly been overlooked. When Ahtila offers audio-visual philosophy, her artworks also bring into such thoughts their own status, form, genre, and medium qua art. In The House, 2002, I contend, this self-reflection on the medium is most radical.
Traveling as Losing It
The House is a fourteen-minute-long video installation of three screens, a central one and two at odd angles from it: the classical form of a triptych. The viewer is most likely to stand on the imaginary threshold between outside and inside the space created by this old religious form. If the (only) figure in The House, a young woman called Elisa, suffers from psychosis, this psychosis is intertwined with the fundamental psychosis of the medium of cinema, with its apparatus in the middle of which we are standing as viewers. To put it briefly: cinema and all forms derived from it are fundamentally schizophrenic media, in that image and sound operate separately even in the perfect in-sync versions of it.
Many filmmakers obscure this psychotic nature of the medium; some foreground it. Ahtila is among the latter, and has done so from her very first works, such as Me/We, Okay, Gray, 1993. The psychosis of the image is produced in a decentering cinematography that is sustained and brought to its maximal potential by the multiple-screen installation setup. Such decentering is not just a critique of a naturalized perception of cinema, but also, according to Paola Marrati, a fundamental characteristic of that medium: “The mobility of the camera, the variability of angles of framing always reintroduce zones that are a-centered and de-framed in relation to any ‘perceiving subject.’”
In the very act of centering—producing the illusion by means of the meticulous method of filming and foregrounding it through the three screens—the image decenters. And this decentering unmoors us, too. Taking self-narration into her own hands, the figure of the young woman mixes her doubt with ours, and, due to this stirring, subject and object converge.
Just one example. Elisa puts up black curtains to darken her house, saying:
I shut out the images.
When I don’t see anything,
I’m where the sounds are.
In the street, on the shore, on the ship.
Like many allegedly mentally ill people, Elisa is hearing voices. And like such patients, Elisa chooses sounds over images—sounds, not words. At first, we assume it is rather easy to see that she is mentally ill. Due to the triptych form of the installation, which encloses and embraces us, we can have compassion with her in a tourist fashion. We can momentarily go along with her madness, and thankfully withdraw from the experience when it threatens to become painful. Surrounded by the three screens, we are inside her head; just as we are inside the head of a Finnish forger of words in Where Is Where?, in The House, too, everything that is presented to us originates in a single imagination. Rather than being mad, Elisa is simply “thinking in film.”
The move behind the curtain that “explains” how vision is always actively limited has already been prepared by an earlier shot. There, a following shot across the space of Elisa’s living room was necessary in order to stay centered on her as she got up from the sofa and started walking, with some care, perhaps difficulty, as if unsure where to put her feet. The moving living-room space, set off against the central image of the moving body, totally normal and routine for the experienced cinema viewer, retrospectively becomes utterly strange here, when Elisa proposes limited vision as a phenomenon of estrangement. Inside the installation, where the viewer does not have an overview and cannot see everything at once, this estrangement is more compelling, and the experience of it, affectively “contagious.”
Rather than mad, Elisa ponders cinematic illusion in a traveling shot that precedes these words, while she walks through her living room. The traveling shot, thus, becomes conceptual. The shot literally “travels” and thereby transforms our standard view of perception. The technique of traveling camera work comes to stand for the transformative power of changing modes of vision. The shot’s conceptual force stems from the tension between the analysis the figure performs and her limited perception. As a result, fixity is suspended. In this way, the shot embodies a denaturalized perception, an impossible way of seeing that is nevertheless the only possible way. The image unmoors the “natural” environment in which the figure exists; hence the shot where, incongruously, we see the young woman flying among tree tops—which is now a conceptual flying.
The figure of the young woman is an image concretely flying between the screen and the viewer. Therefore, it is the image itself that is “psychotic”—and psychosis is enriching in this sense. It opens up new possibilities, new visions. This is an important addition to the insight, put forward so strongly in Where Is Where?, that the iron-clad logic of the boys who are nevertheless under diagnosis as “mad” binds mental illness to the politics of colonialism and its violence.
The House, set in an innocent-looking, idyllic Finnish forest landscape, seems to position psychosis very differently from the later work. Whereas the boys in Where Is Where? are able to articulate impossible political dilemmas, the young woman who inhabits the house of this installation offers a logic of an enriching kind of schizophrenia. In the traveling shot I just mentioned she actually analyzes perception, and the use cinema makes of our limitations to structure, its visual universe. The monologue sounds like a dream coming to its self-reflective end. The unspoken key term is framing. The frame—an eminently cinematic concept and tool—determines what we can see, selects our field of vision for us, and thus sets us viewers, as well as the figures and setting in the frame, up for a limited perception according to our self-interested selection. I would like to see in this deployment of cinematic artifice a conceptual proposition about the relationship between art and “reality”—or rather, the world, life, and society.
In the large majority of moving images, this relationship tends to be anchored in representation. But, as has been pointed out many times, this term harbors a deep and problematic ambiguity. Depending on what preposition and object is implied, one can represent as in politics, where a representative speaks for the electorate; or one can represent as in the political, as describing, giving a version of, someone or something about whom or which one speaks, thus producing an “object.” That is, producing an image. Let us assume for a moment that cinema, video, and other forms of moving images are tools through which it is possible to represent in the double sense: politically, to speak for, and artistically in the political, to speak about. Through this potential the moving image has a great possibility to intervene in the political, although it opens up the possibility for abuse as well.
In all of Ahtila’s works, traditional narration, with its attendant claim to truth, is practiced while at the same time being accompanied by evidence of its impossibility. This is seen most clearly when we consider focalization (the subjectivization of narration). In The House, focalization is entirely centered on Elisa as well as practiced by her. Both the object and subject of focalization, she is utterly objectified and at the same time given total mastery. Consider, as a counterpoint, the “once upon a time” of fairy tales. This formula is obliquely invoked in the scene where Elisa flies through the trees. In her house the walls disappear and first a dog, then a cow, both enter into her living room. She says:
Everything is now simultaneous, here, being.
Nothing happens before or after.
Things don’t have causes.
Things that occur no longer shed light on the past.
Time is random and spaces have become overlapping.
The idea phrased in the last two lines of this passage recurs so emphatically in Where Is Where? that the latter work can in some way be considered its necessary political elaboration. The suspension of normality that we tend to attribute to Elisa’s alleged mental illness pushes forth a philosophical questioning of the determinism of history—history, in other words, seen as a chronological and evolutionist succession. Mark the word “random” in the quoted passage.
The moment when the alleged mental illness becomes the royal road to wisdom is the following shift between the discourse of madness and that of political agency. This shift occurs when Elisa tells us:
Yesterday I was sitting with a friend
at a restaurant table eating,
and I started hearing
the sounds of a paddle boat.
I was simultaneously in the restaurant
and beside the boat in some harbor,
even though I’ve never seen the boat.
The sound was so loud
that it wasn’t part
of the background hum of the place,
but formed another space in my head,
where I was simultaneously.
Due to the triptych structure that encapsulates us, situating us inside Elisa’s head, we are enticed into an inevitable solidarity. Ahtila’s installation takes that conjunction upon itself by separating sound from image. Here, the sounds are too loud, thus detaching themselves from the images. The boat is there, on the left-hand screen next to Elisa’s gigantic head in close-up. The sea pushes away the forest. And among the sounds, we simultaneously hear the beat of the paddleboat, the announcement of the imminent departure of the train to Albany in New York’s Penn Station, and the quick steps of a woman, presumably Elisa, on the steps in front of her house. This is The House’s cinematic form of “hearing voices”—a hearing thought in film.
This moment raises the question that will come up again in later works, the question about the placement of the subject: “Where is where?” This question is raised when the fragile boundaries between self and other are dissolving, just like the walls of Elisa’s house. At stake in The House is the transfer, or, to abduct a term from psychoanalytic discourse, transference, from individual to social psychosis. The psychoanalytic term is only applicable if we concede that a cultural “holding environment” can function strictly as a psychoanalyst, opening itself up to the transference coming from the patient. Here lies the gear shift between psychoanalysis and the political, the possibility of making this theory of the individual psyche function as a social, political theory. This holding environment is primarily made of sound.
This psychoanalyst we play, however, is not the power broker of classical ideas of treatment. Instead, this figure needs to be convinced of the social-scientific nature of psychoanalysis and learn from this “patient” that her illness is a socially induced one. If I try to see the work in that perspective, a thematic element suddenly comes to the fore that, again, prefigures elements of Ahtila’s later work. I see as the primary subliminal theme—to which the works can by no means be reduced—the question of refugees.
Even before developing it I immediately want to complicate this seemingly thematic interpretation. Beyond the political issue itself, which is so crucial in our time, this work about the house with the melting walls first of all takes another step toward extending and generalizing the dissolution of boundaries. The allusion to refugees is merely subliminal, to prevent it from becoming another master narrative; it must remain a “little narrative” if it is to retain its political agency. Here, the boats Elisa “hears” make an iconographic reference to the drama of contemporary refugees making the perilous journey to a safer life in overcrowded boats. In order to succeed, the precarious bond between art and the political, mutually interdependent, needs to be cherished and kept alive. This breathing space provides a theoretical holding environment. That is to say, the work cannot belong to or be appropriated by the realm of party politics and propaganda. Instead, The House is above all a work on and of schizophrenia—a schizophrenia of cinema, where fiction takes on the look of reality and as a result transforms it. Identification is the primary tool of that school of psychoanalysis that takes itself as a social science. This does not mean that the analysts become like the patients, espousing their madness; nor is the identification an emotional one. Instead, considering that madness is the breach of social bonds, the analysts stand next to the patients, make themselves permeable to the latter’s transference, and thus offer the beginning of repair for those broken bonds. The fragility of the cuts of Ahtila’s montage embodies these broken bonds that begin to heal by means of identification. Finally, high-technology cinema can assure us that sound accompanies image in sync, but the sound cannot be one with the image. Whatever the installation’s form, projection is always marked by a discrepancy between sound and image that inscribes heterogeneity à la Lyotard into the work of Ahtila. I contend that Ahtila’s narrative teasers and sound discrepancies fulfill a similar function. Elfving formulates it precisely when she writes, “the images appear at least as unfixed as the voices in their complex choreography across multiple screens.”
Psychosis raises an issue that, once brought to bear on The House as a fictional work of art, brings to the fore a question with profound ontological resonances. In its simplest formulation this question is: how can we know if someone else is “mad”? There is no either/or answer to this question. There are not two but at least three options: someone may be mad, play mad, or appear mad. The first is a state, but fundamentally in process, hence subject to movement and duration, hence time, and always already in transformation in relation to the moment. The second is the result of a choice, although one can be caught inside such a choice. The third reverses the perspective and burdens the viewer with the responsibility: someone may only appear mad because the viewer’s conception of what is normal projects madness onto the other. Moreover, the mad may possess wisdom, knowledge, and insights not accessible to allegedly sane people; “solutions to unusual situations.” This possibility further widens the epistemological gap between knowing that madness does occur and knowing who or what is mad—and why.
This, I speculate, is the point of the fairy-tale shot of flying. We are confronted with the impossibility of deciding whether we are watching a fairy-tale work of fantasy or the representation of a mentally disturbed woman. This impossibility is an intellectual challenge, bound up with an implicit critique of binary opposition as the predominant mode of thought in Western cultures. It is also a deeply political challenge, as we are compelled to relinquish a stark othering of madness in favor of the insight that one can learn from as well as participate in the lesser or differently confined strictures of psychosis. Specifically, given the strong difference in mood between the two choices, the dilemma begins to affect our own sense of “having a grasp.” It becomes doubtful whether this is a purely intellectual challenge. On the one hand, if an intellectual Westerner is asked to understand the mental processes of a psychotic patient, she may feel this is not easy, but, when aided by the usual technical resources, not impossible. When, on the other hand, temporarily having the experience of psychosis requires a disturbing kind of “tourism” many will balk at, and which is in effect politically dubious, viewers of that opinion may decline the tendency to couch this understanding on an acceptance of the difference of mental illness. The invitation to “tourism,” in turn, becomes questionable when we realize that psychosis may be at issue. The figure herself is not psychotic in any obvious way. True, the psychotic patient experiences sense perceptions and thoughts as both bodily and located in outside objects. This matches the states and events Elisa tells us about. We see, after all, the car on the wall and hear the loud sounds of a paddleboat, and she tells us about a ship in the harbor she hears while the voice of the friend she is having dinner with fades into inaudibility.
I suggest the two discourses discussed, the textual genre of the fairy tale and the discourse of mental disturbance, are traps. Both, in opposite ways—the one primarily as wish fulfillment, the other primarily as terror—put us on the wrong track, that is, if we seek to use them to “translate” the work into a readable meaning. But they put us on the right track if their apparent incompatibility makes us endorse the reluctance to translate, to rush us into thinking we understand the work, and to declare meaning at the cost of the work’s complexity. Instead of tourism, then, temporary, unsentimental identification; instead of othering, self-doubt; instead of contempt (at worst) or astonishment (at best), the satisfaction of novel experiences within which what always seemed normal is not. What if this work is not “about” fantasy or psychosis at all, but only uses those discourses as part of its movement and multiplicity, its heterogeneity? Then, a kind of translation becomes a constant, inherent activity that can never end in a so-called “target language.” This makes (political) sense of a very useful term in translation theory, “remainder.”
Lawrence Venuti uses the term “remainder” to indicate an inevitable, but also indispensable, leftover of the source language within the translation. Translation—hence, also, image-as-translation—has a philosophical force to it. This force consists of the capacity to preserve the philosophical force of the source language as a stranger within the target language. Thus it maintains the heterogeneity of the translation, while enriching the potential of the target language. Between psychosis and estrangement from realism within a visual realism, a double remainder persists: one that taunts viewers with their own incipient madness, and one that opens up the normal, sane, or natural to a view of it as just a bit off.
The persistent presence or activation of the remainder is important, because it is where imported values remain, precisely, open to questioning, instead of being “naturalized” by absorption into the domestic routine of the target language. A translation, in Venuti’s eyes,”‘should not be seen as good, unless it signifies the linguistic and cultural difference of that text for domestic [target] constituencies.” He argues that the ethical value of this difference resides in alerting the reader to a process of domestication that has taken place in the translating on her behalf, but also at the expense of source text. Hence, the ethics of translation consist in preventing that process from “slipping into a wholesale assimilation to dominant domestic values.” Something similar can be argued, I contend, about the different visual discourses of The House. These supplement one another but they are not seamlessly connected. In the seams, or cracks, between them, the remainder activates the viewer’s own incipient or remnant madness. This madness, at the very least, is receptive to the schizophrenic nature of cinema itself; it’s always already operating discrepancies between sense domains.
It would not be desirable for Elisa’s “madness”—the key element of the source text, the discourse of madness—to become invisible in the new discourse, the video installation. But the troubling point that no such madness would be acceptable—aesthetically as well as socially, or perhaps even ethically—in the target world, for today, that is, must also remain visible. It is imperative that her madness not become so idiosyncratic that an unwarranted “othering” would result from it. The “conceptually dense text”—Venuti’s term for philosophical texts under translation— must be made intelligible, yet remain, in its foreignness, informative as well as actively provocative, that is, performative. This helps to understand why the figure of Elisa is not at all mad, but instead more lucid about perception than we viewers. What the two discourses of fairy tale and psychosis do together, I submit, is pose rather than answer the questions of legibility and of the relations between the different registers involved in reading; this becomes possible due to the remainder that makes either code deficient. Thus they fold the work onto itself, and pose the question of how to make a meaning that does not foreclose the work in its recalcitrant otherness or in its reluctance to limit its speech to the intellectual register. Losing it, in order to get it: affect is indispensable to make sense of this work.
Side by Side: Installation
Finally, I present an interpretation of video installation as a form and the political potential it harbors. To make the case for such a generalization I will also briefly bring in works by other artists. A multiple-screen work like Where Is Where? and The House, If 6 Was 9, 1995, was the first work of this kind the artist made. As the title suggests, it hints at the value of fantasy. It presents five teenage girls in a composition of three wide screens.
The screens are large: about eight feet each, which brings the total width to twenty-four feet. The installation’s scale suggests a huge billboard in a big city. On such a visually loud “billboard” the work presents a group of people ordinarily not listened to. It is a multiple-screen installation, with different images on each screen but a single sound track and stream of subtitles. The room is darkened, and seating is provided for the ten minute and thirty-five second duration. In these two aspects, the frontal presentation and the darkened room with seating, the work resembles, or alludes to, movie theatre film. This double proximity between the two dispositifs of theatre and gallery, and thus the avoidance of too facile a definition of installation, underlie my choice of this work to hint at the implications of installation.
In distinction from this classic cinematic viewing situation, however, a certain restlessness of viewing is enforced through the sheer dimensions of the screens. The aspect ratio of the three screens together is almost 1:4. This large format produces an effect of scale that is already a first indication that the work is literally working with its own medium, installation. The screens are not arranged in the form of an altarpiece or room, but simply juxtaposed in a flat row, making for a triple-sized screen interrupted by two seams. The emphatic horizontality that results compels viewers, even when seated, to move their bodies from left to right and back, always giving off a sense they have missed something. This compulsion to bodily movement addresses the Bergsonian image’s quality of moving in-between, and moving us, by making the need to move literal. The space of presentation—say, the art of projection—proposes a threshold, in relation to the space of representation on the one hand and the space of viewing on the other. It is in and through that triple space that the work compels agency.
The space of presentation where the two other spaces interact is the gallery. This makes for a very different reception from that in a movie theatre. Yli-Annala wrote the following about the effect of installation:
As in any film screening situation, the video installation fuses the physical time and space occupied by the viewer with the fictive time and space of the installation. In a gallery space, however, I am more acutely conscious of my environment and the people around me; I am able to move around and thus to respond more spontaneously to what is happening around me than if I were viewing a film in a cinema.
As this passage suggests, the primary distinction of installation is the concrete and material space in which it is presented; in which the images move and the viewer can move. In this context, If 6 Was 9 examines the consequences and possibilities of the impossible, yet stubborn recurrence of the opposition or separation between time and space that the illusion of their separability keeps generating.
At the beginning of the work, before seeing anyone, we already hear voices of two girls, alerting us to Ahtila’s signature use of slightly discrepant sound. These voices evoke an ecstatic sexual moment presumably just after the fact, in the past tense, bypassing the present. After this auditive prelude, for which, however, no visual images are provided to match the fantasies with some visible reality, the next sequence brings us outside, to three arbitrary, culturally bland places: the entrance to the YMCA, a boulevard with Christmas decorations, and the parking lot of a supermarket at a shopping mall, all in Helsinki but at the same time anywhere. It is evening, and all three images appear to establish the place where the story is set—a story that is as little story-like as the places are unnoticeable places. One forgets to wonder, though, why three different places are needed to establish a single story. Thus, a suspicion concerning numerical discrepancies can set in. These images establish not diegetic space but installation space: three screens, hence, three places. They also establish time: the supermarket is still open, and in terms of season it is near Christmas. A girl appears.
In a detailed reading of the work to which I cannot do justice here, Butler specifically sets If 6 Was 9 off against Deleuze’s concept of ‘any place whatever’—a phrase that, even without Deleuze’s context, resonates with the drab environment in which most of the work is set. With the Deleuzian context it is the settings’ redundancy that strikes most readily. Butler uses this theoretical backdrop to foreground how Ahtila’s installation is politically forceful and relevant.
When the installation is crafted to “discuss” with the spectator, the autonomy of thought for the spectator is already enhanced, while the embodied encounter remains in place. To shift the ground slightly so as to make the artwork theoretically pertinent on a par with theoretical reflection (rather than merely being justified by it), I contend that the formal and aesthetic complexity of this work can serve here to understand the temporality of the gallery installation in general. That is, it helps to understand this space as “thickened.”
The three screens fill up with images from Helsinki’s undistinguished public spaces as if to contrast more forcefully with the distinction of the gallery film’s space. Instead of the figures walking into the spaces, quick cuts replace these images (at least on two of the three screens), with the image of a girl waiting outside a supermarket. Quick cuts, slow waiting: this paradoxical relationship between image and story already intimates that duration is at stake. Especially in the context of video installation art, duration is, I contend, key to the political. In an art of duration, the viewer is asked, even compelled, to donate time. Duration is the object of giving; it is what allows otherness to sink in and be shared.
But rather than basing that sharing on identification—which either temporarily, at least stuns the subject of the identifier or cannibalizes the other—Ahtila grounds the sharing on the threshold: a space we share with the girls. What is the point of such a threshold to engage with these five girls, and why should this threshold be built into a video installation? To answer this question, let me take a brief look at Canadian artist Stan Douglas’s figure of K in his Vidéo from 2007, not to suggest it is as such comparable to If 6 Was 9, but to suggest that a comparable deployment of conceptual personae is a powerful possibility to be politically effective in two otherwise widely divergent works.
Although a single-channel work, Vidéo is emphatically a gallery film. Douglas made Vidéo to be included in an exhibition devoted to Samuel Beckett. It is a powerful revision of Franz Kafka’s and Orson Welles’s figures of K, in dialogue with the Jean-Luc Godard of Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, 1966, and Beckett’s Film, 1965. In distinction to three of these four works, in Douglas’s work, this K becomes a black woman whose face we never get to see—a cinematic veiling of the face that brings the work most intensely in relation to Beckett’s Film. She is a conceptual persona, with her form filmed from the back, her surface as that constant green jacket that sometimes floats alone through the dark frame, and her narrative position wavering between victim and non-victim. With altogether different means and tactics, Douglas, like Ahtila, undermines authority without relinquishing the leading role of art-making as leadership—up to a point. The notion of the conceptual persona helps articulate this. The primary difference is that Douglas’s visual argument against authority is conducted by means of his conceptual persona through intertextuality, the involvement of specific intertexts, while Ahtila pursues a similar goal through interdiscursivity, deploying discourses rather than specific texts as her interlocutors. This difference helps us understand the difference between these two forms of allusion.
The similarity comes from a comparable questioning of “sync,” in other words, an experiment with “off-ness.” Douglas’s K talks with her body—a body that is young, female, and black—and the moment she does so the camera visualizes the struggle for power in situ. First surrounding her from above, in a manner reminiscent of many shots in The Trial, the camera foregrounds her body language when, at the moment she points at the detectives who are abusing her, the shots approach her drastically. K walks as she talks—eloquently. The decision to show K’s speech only visually changes the role of language. Rather than a tool for narrative coherence and linearity, the “visual” language of film is foregrounded and endorsed. Ahtila uses opposite means to make a similar point. Her films are replete with talk. The speeches in her work are consistently “off” but for the rare exceptions, when the synchronized quality of the speech unmoors fiction in its untenable opposition to documentary.
In conjunction with the ongoing storytelling in If 6 Was 9, Ahtila’s group of girls also talk with their bodies. This gives additional meaning to the editing in which sometimes they remain ambiguously related—do they meet or not? Sometimes they are disconnected by a black leader, and sometimes they are all there, but refuse to interact. Douglas’s K must remain wordless. She raises the questions of the “mute witness” who keeps together without hierarchy the “contradiction that the visible brings to narrative signification.”
Ahtila puts to use the increasing difference she has helped construct between theatre cinema and the gallery film, or installation. In terms of visuality, in both genres of cinematic works images are able to conjure figurations below or beyond the threshold of rational thought. These images are new ones that, in their endeavor to “become other,” establish contact with what we know without knowing that we know it. This is either the cultural subconscious or the individual unconscious, or better, the “unthought known.” In mainstream cinema, characters and cinematic positions of identification—“aesthetic figures”—conform too closely to the already known and are too easily absorbed. Social types or identities, on the other hand, lend themselves to stereotyping but can also show social situations that we inhabit without being aware of it and thus open up a space for looking and thinking about the ways aesthetic figure and social type fail to match. Ahtila has an axe to grind with the authority of the figure of the author or authority.
In figurative art and, in particular, the art of the moving image, so easily construed as conducive to identification due to figures closely resembling human beings, the status of figures as “only” figures does nothing beyond displacing the issue. But there is more to this shift. If fiction is, as the best-known definition has it, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” then the importance of fictional figures only increases instead of diminishes. Deleuze and Guattari loosen up the authority/authorship of the philosopher herself by means of the concept of “conceptual persona,” a figure that helps them think as well as “become other.” This concept not only helps to solve the problems of both authorship and identification-soliciting characters. It has the additional merit of bringing philosophy (as a shorthand for theory, and thinking more generally) closer to art making, or imaging. The term refers to “fluctuating figures who express the subjective presuppositions or ethos of their philosophy and through their existence, no matter how inchoate or unstable, give life to concepts on a new plane of immanence.”
Importantly, such figures are not allegories in the traditional sense; they do not “stand for” some idea, concept, or thought. Such standing in, or metaphorical use of figures would undermine the density of the effect—their vitality in “vertical time”—and might bring the work dangerously close to propaganda. Instead, these figures figure, or shape, the search for still unformed thoughts, rather than the fully-shaped thoughts themselves. In other words, they give shape to the “unthought known.” What happens, then, is the becoming visible, or appearance, of the unthought known itself. The fact that, in Ahtila’s installation, there are five girls, on three screens—a striking numerical discrepancy—is part of their figuration as conceptual personae. Another brief comparison helps clarify this.
In a video installation from 2009, Belgian artist Chantal Akerman (who, like Ahtila and Douglas, is keenly committed to exploring innovative forms of subjectivity in relation to the political) experiments with the exploded image; in a sense, the opposite strategy to Naumann’s physical objectification. Akerman’s Maniac Summer consists of a large screen on which a real-time video is screened. In this video the artist has filmed her home, herself, and her view from the window. The image is a random recording, on tripod, of moments when the artist is sometimes in the image, sometimes not. On two diptychs of close-ups from the same film screened on the lateral wall the same material is fragmented and pluralized—two forms of explosion.
The slowness effect of real time is not as prominent here as in the film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce—1080 Bruxelles, 1975, three and a half hours of film recording the mundane little acts of a woman. Instead, in the recent film the spatial equivalent of real time is at work, the simple and seemingly senseless recording of a limited space without care for camera position: real space. Backlight fades the colors of the furniture, for example, and the only truly colorful spot is the lawn in the park outside on which children play in the bright sunlight. It does not take long to realize this contrast in color is also a contrast in subject position. The woman in the apartment never goes out; the children and passersby never come in. There is no encounter. Similarly, Ahtila’s five girls don’t communicate with one another.
Here, the pluralization (not of the subject but of the fragments of the film) leads to several forms of abstraction that, together, intimate the unmooring of the subject caught between images that progressively lose their meaning. The incidental appearances of the filmmaker in the image do not enhance her subjectivity. On the contrary: since she randomly appears in and disappears from what seems (but is not) an unedited image, she seems caught in the generation of images that have lost their author. What we get to see of her are fragments—of her body, of her life, of her subjectivity. In Akerman’s work the fragment is a trope of the impossibility to be whole outside of the orbit of the collective, the “world.”
I invoke Akerman’s recent work, that is otherwise very different from If 6 Was 9, because it, too, binds the exploration of a problematic subjectivity to pluralization. Where in Maniac Summer the images pluralize, in If 6 Was 9 the protagonists do. The common ground is that figures, in a cinematic work, are also just that: images. Akerman’s images lose their recognizable form, for example, when a view of cars in the dark is zoomed in on to leave only abstract red and yellow stains. Ahtila’s girls do not lose their forms—although they remain nameless, and they too are sometimes hard to make out. The tactics of discrepant sound and fast editing, making them ambiguously together or separate and seemingly indifferent to one another, all contribute to another kind of explosion.
But where Akerman’s subject seems “lost in explosion,” Ahtila’s girls benefit from it. This is possible thanks to the threshold described above. From the timespace of the installation they, or rather their subject positions, are able to reach out to the viewer—and vice versa. Although obviously the viewer cannot “speak back” to the girls, in the installation of gallery films she can speak back in the sense of engaging with, on the threshold; of considering, and revising their view of the conceptual personae the girls perform, “show.” This potential—that visitors actually feel they can “speak back” to the work, if not to the figures—is sometimes what is meant by the term “resonance.” This term imperfectly captures what I am trying to articulate here. Martin Seel defines resonance, a translation for his German word Rauschen, as “an extreme form of appearing: visual, acoustic, and semantic phenomena that fascinate us as an ‘occurrence without something occurring’ and therefore make perception possible at the limits of our faculty of perception.”
This stretching of the limits of our faculty of perception is one moment, or site where visitors can “speak back to” or “answer” the conceptual personae embodied in the gallery work. This potential to be ‘“spoken back to” is the primary point of the staging of such conceptual personae.
Originally published in Journal of Visual Culture 10, no. 3 (December 2011): 372–96.