Mieke Bal

Dalice by Brazilian artist Célio Braga is a portrait. A beautiful portrait of a middle-aged woman. A close-up against a white background that leaves no opportunity for distraction. Just a face. The portrait, classically believed to be the genre that requires our presupposition of the reality of the sitter and his or her identity to the image. Gadamer called that relation of image to reality the “occasion.” And to be sure, the woman we see does exist in reality. There are two of these portraits, two identical videos positioned opposite each other, so that the viewer must stand between them. Stand, not sit. This is an installation. Asking what the point is of turning this video from a simple one-screen film into an installation, this work allows me to argue that the installed videos produce an architecture of a qualified, in a sense disenchanted intimacy that enables an ethical engagement with the migratory “otherness within” contemporary culture. This argument will move through three theoretical motives that converge in the face: the architecture, or, in terms of theatricality, setting of the installation works and by extension, the exhibition as a whole; the inevitable mirroring that insinuates itself when moving through a space with multiple video screens; and the specific sense of space that emerges from the combination of these motives.
With a hand-held camera Célio Braga has filmed his mother’s face, in her own home. He filmed her during the long minutes he observed her inward-turned grief, her loneliness while engrossed in the task of absorbing the horror of her daughter’s death. This moment of mourning was, we could say with Gadamer, the “occasion.” The son witnesses his mother’s grief, is grieving himself, we can assume, and yet, all he can do is film that silent face, himself invisible. The hand holding the camera is visually holding his mother.
    Of this portrait itself, it can be said that it is gripping, moving, and utterly simple. The woman is impressive, beautiful, but clearly, neither shot nor shown for those features. The only barely visible feature that distinguishes it from countless other portraits is the slight movement, inevitable in hand-held camerawork. This movement, once the viewer is standing there, concentrating on that face because there is nothing else to see, becomes an instance of foreshortened temporality: one can focus on the movement precisely because it is so hard to see, slight, slow, and a-centered. It is visible only at the edges of the face, but facing – looking someone in the face – is centralizing.
    Dalice as it is installed here, raises many questions: of the portrait, medium, the face, and the possibility of empathy, of intimacy. It raises these with some urgency, because the bare facts alone would easily bring up an unease related to voyeurism. The portrait made by a camera is undeniably “occasioned,” but how important for this work is that sense of documentary that this concept implies? The actuality of the occasion could barely be more convincing, dramatic: a mother grieving, one week after. But strangely, there seems to be a tension between these two reality factors. The portrait is less a portrait of this woman, Dalice, than of the emotion that weighs her down. The near-stillness of the image asks what a video portrait is, as distinct from a photograph. The slight movement of the face that seems to be the only difference between these two mediums of portraiture – eyes blinking, turning upwards – has a companion in the slight movement of the image caused by the hand that holds the camera.
    That hand, through the medium reduced to its bare essentials, caresses the face-as-image. The face moves of its own, then the image presenting the face moves. Small, barely visible, secondary movement produces this double movement and through it, powerfully states the poetics of video in intimacy. It asks if it is possible to read the face, to see grief? It asks if it is possible to empathize with an unknown woman across the gap, first, of her aloneness, second, of her son’s absence due to his migration, conflated here with death; and, third, across the gap of our belatedness, our incapability to make contact. Can we see that this face of one of mourning, or do we need to have this intimate knowledge?
    Facing, taken “at face value” (Lakoff & Scherr 1984) is three things, or acts, at once. Literally, facing is the act of looking someone else in the face. It is also, coming to terms with something that is difficult to live down, by looking it in the face, instead of denying or repressing it. Thirdly, it is making contact, placing the emphasis on the second person, and acknowledging the need of that contact in order, simply, to be able to sustain human existence. The first of these aspects can be seen as a thematic undertow of the exhibition, made explicit in several works. This is an aspect that hovers between ontology and epistemology. Can we see faces, can we look someone in the face? The second harbors a socio-political agenda of migratory culture; it makes us aware how often we fail to do this: facing what people go through, their losses and sacrifices. This question is of a political and ethical order. Its counterpart and supplement is the veiled face that refuses to be seen, considering the act of facing always inappropriate and misfired. Instead of a thematic presence of this theme, as, for example, in certain works by Shirin Neshat, here it is present in the political aesthetic of both Hatoum’s and Biemann’s works. The third contains the artistic agenda of the exhibition: the simple “let’s face it” transformed in a challenge: can we really face it/her, make that contact that is so badly needed? The is the question of aesthetic as the experience of binding.
    This is where, for Dalice, the installation aspect specifically comes in. The viewer is forced to stand between the two monitors. Only then can she face Dalice in the first sense, and witness how she faces her loss. But while facing the woman is enforced on those who wish to see this work, so is turning one’s back to her. It is impossible to face her without, uncomfortably, also realizing that she is behind one, looking at the back turned to her, as if sending you away from the intimacy of her home. This double position is doubly moving, then, in the emotional sense of the affect of viewing. It is important to realize that at no time the viewer is trapped. The distance is enough to look away and walk away. But once you decide, freely, look Dalice in the face, you have to face that you must by necessity also turn your back to her.
The silence of the work adds to this double affect. Especially since the background noise of other works is as audible as street noise would be once the door of the house is closed. The small space is both inside and outside. The viewer-visitor is both admitted as a guest and not asked to stay. Dalice invites you in, and sends you away; she invites the intimacy of the encounter and stipulates the ineluctable strangeness that remains. Due to this installation – as distinct from a single-screen showing – the woman figure is empowered, the face given agency, and the viewer’s voyeurism held at bay.
    Two philosophers have discussed the face in terms congenial to this work. One is Emmanuel Levinas, who complements Heidegger’s ethics of care. The latter notion is more spatially oriented in its insistence of reaching out and embracing. Levinas turns this into a presentist temporality of the face-to-face encounter. This encounter is temporally specific not only because it takes place (to use a spatial phrase) but because it transforms the self in stipulating the limitations of the individual’s freedom. The other is Gilles Deleuze, who considers the close-up not exactly of the face but as the face a tool to stop time and extend duration. The triple function of the face, for Deleuze – individuating, socializing, and communicating – is destroyed in the same move.
There are two other works that are based on the face, both also activating the three meanings of facing outlined above, as well on the extension of duration that Deleuze attributes to the close-up. Melvin Moti’s first-time encounter with ancestors is more than an attempt to capture memory in the act at the moment of its vanishing. It is also giving faces to the memorial stories. Each of the elderly speakers is filmed in a close-up, thus giving full duration to their slow speech. The close-ups are also with a hand-held camera. Here, too, the slight movement distinguishes these portraits from the traditional video portrait, turning the talking heads into heads being listened to. The camera signals the presence of the artist, his interest, his participation in the culture of movement, caught, as it were, in the act of listening. Both in Dalice and in Stories from Surinam, the slight movement of the image itself, accompanying the moving face with empathy, signals the intimate relationship between the artist and the portrayed individuals. The intimacy is of a different nature, which is also played out in the mode of installation. Moti’s film is shot in open spaces, such as garages or verandas. The trans-generational contact, similarly, is presented in a space that is open to the other works, that accepts the interference of sound and light.
    Mieke Bal’s Nothing is Missing, also based on facing, stands in contrast to both Dalice and Stories. In sharp contrast with the former, sound is amplified here, producing a cacophony of voices speaking different languages. And different from the latter, here the people are talking simultaneously. In contrast to both, the image is stable, hyperbolically so, the only movement coming from the women themselves as their acts of speaking compels them to lean forward, look aside, or almost leave the frame. Hence, the filmmaker’s presence-absence is included in the film. Since she is not an intimate of the women, however, as the maker of Dalice, nor a descendant in need of the speakers’ memories, as in Stories, the self-reference takes a different form. What is foregrounded here, then, is not the movement of the image but the static yet imposing presence of the frame.
    In this work, mothers whose child left in migration talk to someone close to them about the departure of their children. The women speak to someone else; the speech situation is personal. Their interlocutors are people close to them, intimates, but the relationship with whom has been broken due to the migration of their child. Bringing this conversation across the migratory divide is a double act of facing – on the part of the mothers and on the part of the viewers.
    This work is installed in a living room as a stage for a qualified, fictional and limited intimacy. The viewer as actor is invited to enter the homey space and visit. But as in Dalice, the intimacy cannot be sustained so easily, for the double reasons of video and migration. As for the video aspect, the documentary nature of the work is both confirmed and questioned. The women are, of course, “real,” as real as you and me, and individual. And, at first sight, they have been documented as such. But at the same time, they speak “together,” from within a cultural-political position that makes them absolutely distinct and absolutely connected at once. This is the artificial community that interferes with their private lives so far apart. It counterbalances from within the home that other interference with private lives in the labor relations as evoked in Colony. Hence the installation of these two works in close proximity, as a view from the inside out is paired with one from the outside in.
As for the documentary nature of their images, this is both obvious and obviously undermined, since the situation of speech is framed as both hyper-personal and utterly staged. The migrants’ mothers were filmed talking about their motivation to support their children who wished to leave and about their own loss to see them go. The mothers talk about this crucial moment in their past to a person whose absence in her life was caused by the child’s departure. The maker staged the women, asked the interlocutor to take place behind the camera, set the shot, turned the camera on, and left the scene. This method is hyperbolically documentary. To underline this aspect these shots remained unedited.
    Aesthetically, then, the relentlessly permanent image, embodied by the fixed frame that frames them, is also meant to make viewers look these women in the face, in the eyes, and listen to what they have to say, in a language that is foreign, using expressions that seem strange, but in a discourse to which we can all, affectively, relate. The discourse is itself affect-laden, since the interlocutors are intimate, some as much as the camera-holder in Dalice.
    Intimacy and its drawbacks or impossibility in crammed living quarters is the backdrop of the tension between the two women who (over-)populate the flat and the frame in Cytter’s Atmosphere. In a kind of punk aesthetic reminiscent of Nan Goldin, two young women speak but not quite to each other, in a room littered with things some of which reveal their unexpected but transitional beauty in extreme close-ups. A goldfish, a hand that moves a paper weight with an artificial and miniature cityscape locked inside, within the fish bowl, embedding image within image, frame within frame. The one woman, Gayatri, about to leave the country, talks about a sexual experience with, it turns out, the lover of the other, Julia.
    The close-up is deployed here as a hyperbole of itself. The face shows up in this form, but almost arbitrarily, sometimes only mouth and nose, sometimes hair, a waist, fingers, a cigarette, a knife, a dirty mug, receive the same visual attention. Instead of the bearer of intimacy, the face is clutter. The same clutter reigns in the audio. A door creaks when opened. A word spoken misses its target. Do the women speak to each other, or do they each tell their dreams, thoughts, emotions? “Is it a documentary, or a memory?” says the one. “Memory of what?” replies the other. And off they go, each in a different direction. The video captures the actuality of the brief moment the two women share a place, a lover, and they part. The brevity of time, the foreshortened moment is all that remains. “When is your flight?” “He fucked me twice.” Thinly disguised loneliness.
Hatoum’s Measures of Distancearticulates the severance of migration with the medium of video in ways that appear to sum up what the works in this exhibition together intimate. Here, too, the complicated intimacy with gaps, brought about by the migration caused, in the case of Hatoum’s Lebanon, by war, is braided with the multiple layerings video as a medium allows. While not committed to literal facing, this work on facing in the second sense – accepting a situation of fact, hard as it is – is based on the relationship of mother and adult child, like Dalice and Nothing is Missing. The face is invisible.
    The intimacy is established from the beginning, when the voices of two women laughing set the tone of intimacy, against a background sound of running water. The image, at that point, seems as abstract and Theuws’s, in the same productive sense. Pink shapes on a blue background, with Arabic lettering in black. The abstraction foregrounds the layers of what later turns out to be a shower curtain (blue) behind which a woman’s body (pink) and before or over which the lettering in stark, straight lines speak of the law (of the father) behind which the mother’s nakedness must remain hidden.
    Sounds of a home environment and of a spoken language foreign to many, familiar to others, set the tone of this work without literal face. The intimacy is established almost hyperbolically, with the shower as the most intimate space forbidden to strangers. The sense of intrusion is compounded by the awareness of division – as I hear the language as foreign I am at the same moment made aware of its familiarity to others by the women’s laughing. The intimacy and estrangement come together when the first English-spoken translation in the daughter’s voice, reading her mother’s letter, says: “it seems as if the house has lost its soul.”
    In harmony with the work’s aesthetic of layering that brings out the tension between intimacy and strangeness, the situation of viewing resulting from the installation foregrounds this tension. Sitting in front of the monitor on which the work is displayed, the viewer is both made comfortable and uncomfortable. Physical comfort gives just a hint of home, which is why seating is provided for this work. But placed near the entrance door in Murcia, the viewer is also immediately put in a position of indiscretion, if not outright voyeurism.
The latter discomfort is barely avoided by the aesthetic of layering that veils – not an innocent verb here – the mother’s nakedness. For the daughter, this blurred and layered image intimates, the mother’s body is visible, if not physically due to their war-enforced separation, at least in the daughter’s bodily memory, along with sound – audible to us, but without that intimate memory – and touch and smell, inaccessible for the visitors-strangers. Having the work installed near the entrance as it is in Murcia, near the threshold separating inside and outside, with the wind blowing in as every new visitor arrives, then, matches the wavering of access, intimacy, and estrangement and thus is a significant contribution to the work’s effect.
    Intimacy also implies physical contact. And the poignancy of the situation of many participants in migratory culture is that the physicality of contact is precisely what is cut off, made impossible. For every subject on the move others stay behind, “back home.” Mothers can no longer caress their child before sleep. Coti, one of the mothers in Nothing is Missing, yearns for those simple acts of touching. Husband and wife are separated for years on end. The texture of a child’s skin changes as she grows and the father misses out on these subtle changes. Skin, the body’s surface, is also the interface between outside and inside, as well as between self and other. It is the surface that, in a difference-phobic society, people decline to engage with. In video, the tantalizing quality of the surface is the subject of self-reflexive experiment. The craving for the skin and frustration of access denied underlay many works in their experiments with surface.
    Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, famously compared photography with the skin as the interface. The glossy surface, he wrote, is “a skin we share.” (***find reference; quoted as epigraph in Janneke Lam’s dissertation) “Sharing a skin” can also be considered a kind of activist slogan against the irreducible, if mostly involuntary racism that prevents participants in a culture to fully enjoy the proximity of others often simply by looking away, or looking no further once the assessment “foreigner” has been made. Skin, in this context, instead of attracting, repels, and this repellant quality projected on the skin of others is, precisely, the ground of racism and the exclusionary violence it produces. Just visually, just colour-wise.
    With gloss on the one hand and the opacity of the other’s skin on the other, the status of this largest of the human body’s organs becomes a feature of the double movement of migratory aesthetics. It is a frontier between self and other, inside and outside, access to the desirable touch and resistance to the undesired touch, This is even more relevant when we consider the gloss itself as a reflective surface; one that sends our image back to us. In good light (or bad, depending on your aesthetic expectation) the sheen of the video monitor also reflects his image back to the viewer. Inevitably, then, viewing glossy surfaces entails a measure of proximity, of inclusion. This is very different from a projected video work, where sometimes the installation compels visitors to walk through the image and thus leave their shadow.
    Jesús Segura’s I Can Be You plays with that possibility of shadowing. It doubles the layers and sends shadows to overlay the figures, which are made more distant because of it. The I-you exchange that this work’s title connotes, on which I have written earlier, here acquires an additional significance. It stands for the most basic level at which intimacy is possible, even with acceptance and endorsement of the gaps and contradictions. This exchange is also key to Lupión’s reversed interviews, where the eternal “you” to whom the ethnographer addresses his questions take the “I” position and throw curiosity and exoticizing desire back on the artist. By keeping the migrants out of the frame, Lupíon not only protects the anonymity of people who may not be able to afford to show their face. He also shows the face of the “I” – artist – turned “you” in a somewhat wobbly, hand-held camera image that connotes the free hand of those former “you” subjects now given subjectivity and power over the image. The artist’s face, solely visible, then, mirrors its counterpart we do not get to see. Mirroring is seeing another face as one’s own. The symmetry between the two screens of Segura’s installation recall the mirror image as the visible skin of the self, and the various ways in which what we see in it is by necessity a fiction, as Jacques Lacan has argued, is by necessity a fiction.
    This is a timely reminder, for the fictional quality of the mirror image is key to the possibility of video to address self and other and the intimacy-with-gaps that is both its “nature” and that of migratory culture. In this exhibition, the question of the mirror is raised through double issues – double movements. On is that of the narcissism that threatens all engagement with otherness, novelty, and change in a culture of diversity. The other is that of fiction and its acute need to get at a truth that is obscured by conventional attitudes and resistances (Ra’ad’s Hostage). The sheen on monitors, the shadows on the moving images, and the doubling in symmetry thus join forces in serving the same purpose of critical working with mirroring as a tool to propose inclusion and proximity as attractive.
    This brings me back to Dalice, the need to both face her, and turn our back to her face. When no viewer is present, the two faces face each other, as if consoling the woman in her loneliness by offering, at least, her own mirror image. When the viewer stands between the two monitors, however, the question of the readability of the face emerges with irresistible force. What we see, in the end, is nothing but skin. The surface that both suggests and hides the emotional depth of the woman’s grief that, at this moment, makes up the entirety of her existence. A skin that is emphatically present, in the extremely fine grain of it that the loving camera has captured. The skin that bears its age and displays it, as a testimony of time.
    Skin and the surface that stands in for it, covers it, and mirrors it, all at once, then, presents the viewers of this exhibition with an alternative to the social ills of a culture obsessed with a national and racial homogeneity that has never existed. It does this critical work by means of a variety of aesthetics, that is, by means of offers of connection differently “phrased,” of binding through the senses. The surface that, on the one hand, shows, on the other, withholds, is the interface that characterizes video as a medium, now mingled with “migratoriness.”
    Finally, the mirror experience as of seeing the other (face) as self, or the self as other, is also indispensable for acquiring a sense of space that is not distant and colonizing but based on the possibility of proximity, and on the implication of the self in the space, that, like a skin, we share. One of the reasons the skin and its representative in the medium of video, the surface, have the task of protecting and hiding, as well as of attracting and opening up, is that it positions the body in space. And that is, of course, what inviting people to watch videos installed together, emphatically implies. But the spatial positioning of the human figure through skin is very different from other possible positionings. Skin-in-space precludes distancing, turning one’s back, and indifference. This is how I see the point of the extreme close-ups of women in Ortuno’s La cuna del daiquiri. Separated from the “balseros,” the new astronauts who left for a world unknown to them, they bear witness to the need of those others to leave. The close-up gives them, temporarily and precariously, the proximity they have lost.
    Between skin and space, video in installation proposes, there is a bond that is the ground the aesthetic of video stands on, and that is, at the same time, the ground of migratory aesthetics. This is the unique contribution of Zen Marie’s exploration of nationalism in sports and the role of the aesthetic of the stadium’s architecture in it. Sport, supposedly meant to connect people and thus discourage racism is also the field of racism, if the incidental glib remarks we hear between players on the chilly cricket field in Marie’s video are any indication. The nationalism visible in the architecture and invoked by the history of the sport – cricket – frames such remarks, demonstrating that even the seemingly innocent pastime of sports is a fertile ground for xenophobia. But these thoughts are not accidentally staged in the stadiums and then staged again in an installation that surrounds the viewer from three sides. The abrupt cuts between long shots and close-ups, or between long vision and proximate hearing foreground that positioning ourselves in space will always be intruding upon the space of others, or of otherness, but will also always be a proposition of being there, subjectively. The sense of space this work proposes is radically different from a traditional, perspectival relationship to space that leaves the viewer out of the tensions that inhabit the space.
    In conclusion, then, I remind the reader of a conception of space that is just as “natural,” but less frequently taken into account, than it deserves. I take Marie’s and Biemann’s work, each in different ways, as the articulations of this conception. Space is what Henri Bergson called a “natural feeling,” and not – as in Renaissance perspective – geometrical, and hence measurable and identical for everyone who perceives it. This natural feeling is heterogeneous, different for everyone wherever their stand. Such space can be neither divided nor measured. Bergson calls this space “extensity.” Emanating from the subject, it extends outward, like the mirror image; hence the term. Extensity is like foreshortening, but in reverse. Foreshortened space extends from the “other” toward the subject, not the other way around; extensity goes outward again.
This sense of space does not hold the subject at arm’s length but, on the contrary, all but compels the viewer to engage the figures in the fictions displayed through tactility.
Such a sense of space makes a lot more of the open, un-sheltering spaces of the ruins of Mississippi after Katrina; of the open field of competition of cricket matches; of the street where subjects meet in anonymity on New York’s Fifth Avenue; of the sea where the lone doll’s head or mask in Segura’s Expired all but drowns, but is rescued by the figurative, drawn “hands” of foam that pull it back onto the safety of the sandy ground; of the tiny landscape framed by darkness in Segura’s Speed Cinema; and of the fictional space of captivity in front of the viewer, of Raad’s Hostage whose title figure is held hostage by the media.
What I have argued through the installation aspect, specifically, through the face, then, is this. Space, like time, is thoroughly heterogeneous. Like time, it is complicated by the subject’s position and agency in it. As the link between the individual subject of the culture of migration – migrant or not, transitory or durative – space frames the skin. It gives the skin body, the image depth. Thus, space as what emanates from the skin ultimately completes the specificity of the intricate relationship between video and migratory culture, put into operation in an aesthetic that binds through the senses. This aesthetic takes very different forms, and each work in this exhibition inflects it in its own way. Hence the plural in the exhibition’s title.

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Little Resistances . Contradictions of Mobility

Miguel Á. Hernández-Navarno

…The work by Célio Braga, Dalice, goes deeper into this notion of untranslatability, in this case, untranslatability of pain. His work shows the face of the artist’s mother after having lost her child, forever in this case. We see a silent, impenetrable face. There is an expressionless grimace, which -while revealing nothing- says everything. It is the expression of a loss. But, above all, it is the unstranslatability of one’s pain to others. According to David Le Breton, one of the characteristics of physical pain and psychological suffering is their impossibility to be communicated: pain is a failure of language as it ‘causes cries, groans, moans, tears or silences, in other words, a breakdown of words and thoughts’ (1999:35).

The face in Dalice, offers silence as a screen that expels the subject, which frustrates his intention of understanding the other. There is something in the woman’s suffering which we are sure is there but to which we have no full access; an emptiness that we cannot fill, a blind spot that breaks any plenitude we could try to find.

At stake in the way the work is displayed is also the question of ‘inhabiting distance’: two monitors face each other at eye-level, and between them there is a distance where the viewer stands. The two monitors show the same image, an denaturalized image: a familiar-yet-strange image (unheimlich, or ‘uncanny’ in the Freudian sense). Between these two images, in which the same face is repeated, a kind of ‘paradoxical space of condensation’ is created, inhabited by a viewer who is constantly looked at by eyes in the monitor, which, however, do not seem to be paying attention to anything outside themselves, they are immersed in their pain. In this place the audience feels uneasy, restless, mobilized and thrown inside the whirlpool of the image, between two times which never actually happen, which are always arriving and which never really begin. We might have to think of the space between those faces, that literal interface, as the paradigm of a migratory dwelling, the paradigm of a double movement: the perpetual raft.

… a fragment from Miguel A. Hernández-Navarno ‘Little Resistances. Contradictions of Mobility’

2Move . Video . Art . Migration
CENDEAC - 2008