(I am very fortunate to have had Francisco-Fernando Granados, a Toronto-based performance artist, respond to the work of Keren Cytter in the public discussion organized around The Normal Condition of Any Communication. What follows is the text of his response to Cytter’s work. –cheyanne)
Keren Cytter’s The Hottest Day of the Year is a video pastiche that mixes historical fact and intimate fictions as a way to engage with and complicate the colonial dimensions of the anthropological gaze. It follows a certain tendency in recent contemporary art towards the fictionalizing of supposedly objective discourses like anthropology. In that sense, the piece shares a sensibility with the work of 20th century Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, who would do things like write reviews of books that were never written, and who has been taken up a lot lately by visual artists. The other art historical precedent for The Hottest Day of the Year is the work of Vietnamese-American artist and filmmaker Trin T. Mihn Ha, who through her film and video work in the 1980s introduced the idea of framing the frame, or framing the framer of any given work of art that is operating across power difference.
So, the Keren Cytter video gives a heavily interrupted contextual account of the life and genealogy of a fictitious French woman named Anne-Marie Baptiste, who, according to the story, escapes from the Nazi invasion of Paris by fleeing to Johannesburg, and then goes on to become an anthropologist based out of Mozambique, where she dies of malaria after a couple of years of studying the bloody conflict between two local groups, the San and the Khoikhoi.
Baptiste’s story is told through the voice of her own writing in French, and through a biography-style narrative spoken in English by a voice who we later find out is her grandson, who is a filmmaker with a tendency towards the anthropological, himself.
The first aspect of the piece that I would like to highlight in terms of what really grabbed my attention is the framing of this anthropological tendency. At some point near the beginning of the video, he says, “There are 10, 400, 732 people living in Johannesburg. I know none of them. I pay them to talk to me. I pay them to talk to other people. The happier they are, the sadder I become.”
This Anglophone male voice that accompanies the images of working class South Africans that flash across the screen, reveals his position in two ways. First by interrupting the narrative of his grandmother, the thematic subject of his film. And secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, by including in his narration mention of the economical underpinnings of his relationship with his local informants: “I pay them to talk me. I pay them to talk to other people. The happier they are, the sadder I become.” The framing of the anthropological gaze happens, then, through the visualization of the material structure of the relationship between filmmaker and informant/interview subject. What does this mean? What does this look like in terms of the content of the film? Well, it means that the audience has a sense of how and why the people on the screen have come to speak to the framed by the camera and its operator. By doing this, the narrative of the film manages to accomplish a politics of acknowledgement.
This idea of a politics of acknowledgement finds an echo in a quote by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who in a paper where he argues for the insufficiency of values and the necessity of sense says the following: “ To bring into view that which we cannot ‘see’ – that which conceals itself as the origin of the other, in the other – and to bring ‘into view’ the fact that we cannot ‘see’ it: that is what today makes an ‘ethical’ demand, without which any moral standpoint, any normative or prescriptive, assurance, is only the application of a recipe, with eyes closed, sleepwalking…”
I would like to propose, or try out the argument, that the “bringing into view” of the dynamic between European filmmaker and South African interview subject constitutes, certainly not a definitive or praise-worthy state of ethical exchange across power difference, but perhaps a step towards the ethical that makes an intervention inside the logic of the colonial dynamic through the enactment of a politics of acknowledgement.
That said, it seems to me that it is also important to recognize the limits of the politics of acknowledgement. The limits of the politics of acknowledgement may be drawn at the point at which it fails to transform the colonial dynamic. The politics of acknowledgement is a necessary step, but unless something other than acknowledgement happens, it will not change the form of the colonial dynamic.
What may begin to transform the colonial dynamic might be the recognition of forms of resistance, even in its more nuanced forms.
The spaced out account from the Anglophone filmmaker continues: “… I buy a colourful turtle made out of wires from Daniel. He asks me to call him ‘the wire man.’ I ask him to answer some of my questions. He refuses.”
The filmmaker’s narrative of Anne-Marie Baptiste is once again interrupted by a seemingly irrelevant detail. How, then do we read the wireman’s refusal to answer the filmmakers questions? The refusal is itself a challenge to the filmmaker’s own account of his methods (“I pay people to talk to me”). The wireman’s refusal to answer the questions, and perhaps even his request to be called “wireman” instead of “Daniel,” can be understood as nuanced forms of resistance to the anthropological gaze. They are nuanced because they may not be immediately readable as resistance. It is indeed not able to stop or overturn the nature of the filmmakers project, but it is a moment where we sense (a word that is important to Nancy), a staking out of the limits of what the filmmaker is permitted to learn about his subjects. It is a kind of resistance that understands the power differences of people on either side of the camera.
The filmmaker’s inclusion of this nuanced moment of refusal on the part of the wireman goes beyond the important task of acknowledging one’s position of privilege as a person with access to the means of representation. The filmmaker’s framing of this moment within bounds of the film begins to transform the focus of the anthropological gaze by not only subjectivizing it, but by also revealing it as not always reliable.
Now, I want to conclude with the following consideration: does that mean that the filmmaker shouldn’t address his own position? This question engages with one of cheyanne’s questions when putting together this show, which is:
“How can we participate in conversations that extends beyond our particular subject positions? For example, I want to talk about race and representation, but I look the way I look. How do I access that conversation? How do I participate in it?”
I also want to bring up this question because it is one of the things that the more orthodox side of identity politics has been accused, perhaps fairly, of doing: shutting down dialogue around the politics and ethics of representation by creating hard and fast divisions about who does and doesn’t have a right to speak to this issue or that issue.
In trying to work through this I turn to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who, speaking of the ways in which Nietzsche was taken up by the Nazis to legitimize their genocide proposes that we neither accuse NOR excuse Nietzsche for collaboration with the Nazis, but that we instead enter, that we engage with the protocol of his text as a means of turning him over, of turning him around. The thing that I like about this proposition, as an artist who is in some ways engaged in a task of translation through my work is that it goes a long way to undo the false opposition between form and content and gets us to see that a serious contextual engagement with the forms that we work with, gets us closer to a practice that can exist in an expanded social field.