Utopias and Realities

Davey Hawkins, The Library of Babel (2012) video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

Davey Hawkins, The Library of Babel (2012) video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

On Monday, September 29, 2014, Anthology Film Archives hosted UTOPIAS and REALITIES, an evening of new video art, curated by Graciela Cassel of TransborderArt.
“Our presence as ‘bio-political’ beings assures our continuing interest in creating new spaces: for some, these spaces are utopias; for others, they are realities,” she writes. Afterwards, artists and theorists engaged in dialogue with the art and the audience. The following is my contribution to the evening’s discussion, modified for the space of the blog post:

Migratory Aesthetics: Interstices in the Utopian Real

Civil war, global warming, states of exception… luscious, generous abundance and entropic decay… targets without boundaries, barriers without reason – “the contradictory experiences of displacement”[1] says T.J. Demos – and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas, metaphor for the deterministic conditions of random events. INTERCONNECTIVITY. How we respond to the conditions around us is influenced by histories we no longer remember but, in turn, impact conditions we may know nothing about. What we say and how we say it matters and the videos presented in “Utopias and Realities” speak oceans and skies, deserts and mountains, rock, paper, scissors, and skin. They speak in silences and rhythmic waves of sound; they speak in color and line; but largely, they speak in metaphor and allegory.

This is utopian – an oblique angle to the real – an image of possibility that is not yet, nor may ever be, reality. It is also dystopian: an address to a capacity to listen – “Pay attention! Listen to me!”[2] – a warning of catastrophe. As Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place speak of conceptualisms:

Allegorical writing is a writing of its time, saying slant what cannot be said directly, usually because of overtly repressive political regimes or the sacred nature of the message. In this sense, the allegory is dependent on its reader for completion [as it] depends heavily on […] image-language…

Note: there is no aesthetic or ethical distinction between word and image.[3]

patricia villalobos echeverría, aguasmalas (2008), video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

patricia villalobos echeverría, aguasmalas (2008) video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

Climate change, war, surveillance, targeted victims, boundaries, both sacred and profane… In an ethical world we are held accountable but – as regards allegory – accountable to what? What are the relations these works make to real life? Alejandro Schianchi’s (Argentina) Untitled (2010) is created from abstract code and in so doing refers to code as language, an alternative language that in turn implies the structural basis of all languages. In the flow of unit to system, his squares, cubes, faceted complex structures and rhizomatic lines reveal the contingency of all systems, including life. This virtual reality is a reminder of the conceptual practices of Lebbeus Woods who believed that drawing = architecture and that architecture must reflect the failures of humanity as well as its potentials.

Though few of these works make use of direct mimesis to picture the world, they are nonetheless rooted in the events of the world and, as art, negotiate what Sam Durrant and Catherine Lord refer to as a “worldly activity… an act of world making that alters, however subtly, the fabric of the cultures in which we live.”[4] Patricia Villalobos Echeverría (Nicaragua/USA) suggests in aguasmalas (2008) that the alteration of culture is consequential. The movement across territories – by land, sea, and air – is perilous travel, particularly for the undocumented migrant. Villalobos makes no literal diagnosis of the causes and consequences of migration but speaks instead to the instability of utopian ideals, on the one hand targeted as dangerous, on the other legitimizing repression.

Her method of engagement is through the uncanny juxtaposition of realism and fantasy, whose “black waters” intimate real threat, posed by the private military company engaged in Iraq and responsible for the death of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, just as they submerge the viewer in imagined tides of dislocated events. By intimating surveillance as an abused system of security, both Villalobos and Graciela Taquini (Argentina) in her pseudo-corporate promo-video Borderline (2007) hold the viewer captive to a suggestion of imminent peril. In the same vein, Felipe Steinberg (Brazil) in North by Northwest, North by Northwest (2012) erases the crop duster plane, frame by frame, within a sequence from Hitchcock’s film, suturing our fear of the unknown, heightened since 9/11, with Cary Grant’s cinematic trauma of mistaken identity.

Noor Abed, We Both Know (2013), video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

Noor Abed, We Both Know (2013), video still. Courtesy of the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

If we understand migration not as a literal movement of peoples but as conditions of upheaval and if we take aesthetic to mean not beauty but – closer to the etymology of the word itself – a condition of sentient engagement;[5] then we come very close to understanding, within this selection of video works, a migratory aesthetics whose form, rather than its literal content, reflects the precarity of bare life.[6] Distinguishing between “precariousness” as an existential condition of life and “precarity” as a social and political condition of the circumstances in which we live,[7] Judith Butler holds us accountable to understanding globally contingent relations. Yet insight, as we see in Jeanne Wilkinson’s Accelerating Decline (2012) is often gained by a loss of clarity: an empathic or engaged insight, by which we recognize our participation is at stake.

Wilkinson creates an interface between her own image and that of the natural world in a fluid, womb-like vision that holds within it the inter-dependency of all life forms to the fate of the earth. Ben Hagari’s (Israel/USA) Fresh (2014) reverses expectation by placing man as the substrata for earth’s abundance in a succulent dialectic between plenitude and entropy: while vibrantly colorful insects feed on the body of an Arcimboldo-inspired man, music is made from the harvested fruits of this bounty. Destiny encircles thoughts, words, and actions in Akina Cox and Joseph Imhauser’s (USA) cross-generational portrayal of some of Meryl Streep’s most memorable characters in The Three Witches (2014), while tripling serves a more sacral expression of unity in David Hawkin’s The Library of Babel (2012). His meditative (and simultaneous) circumambulation of three former mineral leaching tubs is set in a landscape so sublime, one is almost thankful for its atmospheric distance. Ruins of capitalist enterprise transform implicitly through artistic intervention into devotional kivas or a temple’s foundation.

For Jacques Rancière, it’s a question of a double effect: “the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.”[8] Derrida’s frame, for example, is itself “a metaphor for the limits or rules of exclusion placed on discourse.”[9] We see in Demet Taspinar’s Where To? (2009) as well as in Noor Abed’s We Both Know (2013) a willful disregard of the integrity of the picture frame to intimate the permeability of boundaries as well as the blind spots of our vision. In 1983 Shohei Imamura filmed The Ballad of Narayama whose protagonist Tatsuhei must carry his mother Orin to the mountain to die of starvation, a traditional practice known as ubasute. Noor Abed takes Imamura’s indelible image of body transporting body across an inhospitable landscape but rather than use cinematic standards of variable viewpoints, she maintains the distant view of surveillance. We bear witness from a remote, solitary position to the diminutive human figure carrying, in this case, dismantled pieces of an android, both folded into the black shadows and red stones of the hillside.

Hakan Topal, Roboski (2014) video still. Courtesy the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

Hakan Topal, Roboski (2014) video still. Courtesy the artist and TransborderArt, New York.

At once remote and close is the silence in Hakan Topal’s Roboski (2014), whose framing of the restive stasis of the “still” life or tableau vivant opens onto the contradictory nature of description – both image and words – including “stásis” with its two meanings, in the first place: repose, state of rest, position, arrest (status) and in the second: (political) unrest, movement, revolt and civil war.[10] Roboski in spite of being a document – testimony to the consequences of (mis)representation – is also a metaphorical image of great intensity through the inadequacy of representation to speak a truth it can only partially unveil. While the adults hold their position for the camera  evidence of and memorial to a massacre  a young boy (the only remaining son) crawls back and forth among the women, as if seeking his place or role in this story. This is an aesthetic that cannot hold still, that flinches in the expectation of truth but that, ultimately, speaks from within the fissures of contiguous relations. Transgression, transmutation, transcendence, transborder – interstices in the utopian real: art’s moral compass.

by Kathleen MacQueen, September 29, 2014

[1] T.J. Demos. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Duke, 2013), 17.
[2] I refer to Jean-Luc Nancy, Noli me tangere (Fordham, 2008), 9.
[3] Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (UDP, 2009), 13 and 17.
[4] Sam Durrant and Catherine M. Lord, eds., Essays in Migratory Aesthetics: Cultural Practices Between Migration and Art-making (Editions Rodopi B.V., 2007), 13.
[5] Mieke Bal, “Lost in Space, Lost in the Library” in Essays in Migratory Aesthetics (2007), 23.
[6] See Judith Butler, in particular Frames of War (Verso, 2009) and Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, 1998).
[7] Judith Butler, Frames of War (Verso, 2009), 3.
[8] Jacques Rancière, “Politicized Art” in The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), 63.
[9] Louise Hitchcock, Theory for Classics (Routledge, 2008)121.
[10] Carl Schmitt quoted in Jacques Derrida (1994/97) The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London and New York: Verso, 2005), chapter 4, footnote 13.

%d bloggers like this: