There’s really nothing, nothing we can do
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.
The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce
We’ll find some more models, everything must run it’s course.
We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end
We were fated to pretend
MGMT, Time To Pretend
[UPDATE 12/6/2010: this review has been edited and published at the fine Atlanta arts review site, Burnaway]
Loops in a Gallery | Films in a Cineplex
The problem with films in galleries is that the viewer can come and go as they please. You’d never walk into a suburban cineplex movie theater 3/4 of the way through the film or simply get up and walk out at your whim. The expectation in the suburban cineplex is that you will arrive by the printed time and view the entire film in an intended, uninterrupted sequence, and then you will leave. In the gallery, however, artists largely resort to looping a film as a way for the viewer to catch it all. But the effect is almost never the same.
O’ Say Can You See (2010) features three videos: one is project onto a screen and behind this are two wall-mounted t.v.s and headphones for the viewer to wear while watching. We’re told by the gallery that the artist said that the project is a meditation on revenge and loss. But if this were the case then the project ultimately cannot deal with the problem I first mentioned: that the viewer just wanders into a spectacle and leaves perhaps only having glanced a spectacle. No matter how nice you make the chairs in the gallery, the gallery space itself almost requires that the viewer move about the gallery, unlike a movie theater.
It’s often not fair to the artist to have their work mediated by the inquisitive, even when the interlocutor is trying, midwife-like, to assist in delivering the artist’s work to an audience that might not be prepared for the conversation that their work is engaged with. Surely that’s the case with Poitras here. As a “meditation on loss and revenge” this work is fairly anemic; however, the work is successful and intelligent in another way.
If the work is simply about loss and revenge, we’re given very little to meditate on here. If meditation were the operative phrase, then we’d look at the (eternal) slow-motion of the main projected work and say, “that’s cheap.” What is achieved with the slow motion, why’s it necessary? One could argue that the slow motion allows the viewer the chance to see many small details in the faces of the people, or perhaps interesting signage behind them. But, since the film is on an infinite loop, the viewer could simply watch the 17-minute loop several times at regular speed and probably catch all that. What would the effect have been if we were to meditate on faces of these eye-witness reactions and it was at twice the normal speed? It would be a very different experience, not more successful. I’m not suggesting it be done, but I am suggesting that the work fails if it’s left in these terms.
The main projection appears to show a 17-minute “audience reaction” shot, with the Star Spangled Banner played backwards, loudly, and slooooowly. I’d argue that this is a piece less about meditation and more about mediation.
Why is there a video camera recording the faces of people watching the results of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers? We’re told that the artist was in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. We’re told that she took video images of people’s reactions to the bombing and collapse of the Twin Towers. But there was no bombing. Two planes were flown into the two towers, planes full of people, not SCUD missiles. The statements from the gallery and artist are suspect – in having the project intermediated (the artist talks to the gallery, the gallery talks to us, like in that game Telephone) and then relayed to us I think we begin to get a more interesting and useful meditation.
Watching the reactions of these people, what is remarkable is that immediately, while they are viewing the events, these people are explaining to each other what they are seeing. That is, they are translating what is happening (right before their own eyes) from a visual medium into a linguistic medium. Then this moment of translation is further translated, by Poitras, into a visual medium again when she video tapes these people and projects it to us in the gallery.
I’d argue that were this a meditation on loss and revenge, then there would have been not a translation of that moment in Lower Manhattan, but a transduction (a term from biochemistry where energy is converted form one class to another). If this were a meditation on traumatic loss and revenge, this would be a work of mourning and melancholia. Freud literally wrote the book on this nearly 100 years ago when he hypothesized that depression was caused by one turning their anger on themselves after the loss of a loved one. We might think that the two videos (somewhat hidden) behind the large projection are intimations of this anger.
What Work Does a Prisoner Do?
The two videos behind the large projection are both about 45 minutes long and are interviews with two people that were arrested and tortured in Afghanistan and then held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay from 2002-2006. There is an interesting effect achieved when watching these (again, looped) videos as the screen is in the peripheral vision with a now fuzzy image of what happened in Lower Manhattan and the loud droning music tends to impinge upon the interviews in the headphones. The juxtaposition of a fuzzy memory (fuzzy, but enormous, just out of sight) and these videos is almost lost, though, once the viewer has to negotiate walking into the middle of a harrowing tale of being tortured for five years.
This is the most troubling element of the project and perhaps the most important one as well. The American viewer, having walked into the middle of this revelation of torture committed in the name of the American people’s freedom to pursue our lifestyle, must now interrogate the men all over again. Because we do not know what has transpired here, we sit and we sit and we listen to the story of brutality and suicides and murders and we wait for these men to satisfy our question, “what did I miss at the beginning of this video?” And isn’t it ethically wrong to not bear witness and hear their story in its entirety? If we don’t listen to them, aren’t we reducing these men to simply a mode of entertainment, commensurable with any other piece of video whether a cat that looks like it’s driving a car or some sitcom from another country? So the viewer must endure the hour and a half of each testimonial, torturous to listen to and torturous to play ad infinitum. An unending cycle of torture.
Both videos are edited so that the loops end with both men discussing how their faith has provided them strength and they also are made to end their stories with statements of how they don’t blame Americans, just the American government (and their respective governments, Germany and the U.K. as well). It’s important to question the ethics of such an edit job. On the one hand the artist might argue that the viewer will walk in at any moment in the loop and so there is no ending on a brighter note (“I ain’t mad atcha, just your government” – the Shawshank Redemption, inspirational prisoner), but why, as an artist, allow the retelling of this brutality be allowed to be walked-in upon (or walked out of) with such nonchalance?
Both men tell amazing stories about how methodically they were tortured with the assistance of medical doctors and psychologists employed to make sure that the kicking and punching and hanging would not kill them so quickly that these men did not serve their purpose. Both men also mention that it was important that when the Military Media came to take photo and film footage of Gitmo that there be things like Qur’ans visible in the images. It was important that when the men were released from their years of torture and imprisonment that their be a spectacle of this transfer, with rows of guns pointed at the men, with new clothes for the men to wear, and so on. “Like a roadshow,” as Ruhal Ahmed (from Great Britain) stated in his interview.
Prisoners serve a number of purposes simultaneously: they are the embodiment of Justice when they cooperate with the sentence a judge delivers, the prisoner might labor for the State (in Georgia they might build the local roads, say), the prisoner exists and so everyone that is not in prison knows that they have freedom. That’s how freedom has come to be understood, not being in prison. Democracy is said to be the mode of governance that most adequately ensures the freedom of the citizens that participate. The United States is supposed to be the protector of freedom, our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were called Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom respectively.
But what these torture victims reveal is that democracies are not any more or less likely to torture a person, to operate outside of established legal boundaries, and to do so with only its own agenda as a guiding principle. I’d risk an hypothesis from the 90 minutes of discussion that these men spoke that everyone lives in a state of anarchy as a base level but then we are all appropriated by those in power through one of two mechanisms: brute force and soft force.
In both instances a key word is apprehension. With brute force one is appropriated by those in power by being apprehended by the police (we say, “Police apprehended the suspect after a foot chase”). One is appropriated by soft force (soft power, public diplomacy, propaganda – these are all synonymous) when one apprehends the normative message of those in power. Apprehension is the knowledge one acquires from putting to work that knowledge, comprehension is simply having the information in one’s mind but not necessarily experiencing an application of that knowledge. This is the other work that prisoners do, by participating as a prisoner they affirm that there is this power structure and that everyone in proximity to them is either to be controlled or to control the others; regardless, it’s a mutually-informing relationship such that the guards come to wonder how they’ve also been housed in this prison with all these prisoners.