By Saskia Monshouwer
The three-day seminar Rupture of Representation, during which the participants reflected on several films, was a beautiful and intense experience. Because of the good atmosphere and the interesting people that took part in the worksessions, because of the sympathetic and well-prepared direction of curator Leire Vergara, who guided us step by step to the heart of cinema through theoretic texts and concepts as well by a piece of music of a Catalonian folksinger from the seventies. But most of all, because of the challenging films and artworks that we zoomed in on.
Starting the first day with the experimental documentary One P.M. (1971) by the American documentary filmer D.A. Pennebaker, and the video Cuba Corazón by Jose Mari Zabala. These films were followed by a program initiated by the Rotterdam based Lebanese artist Rana Hamadeh, who introduced us to her interesting and exciting artistic perspective — developed in the context of her long-term discursive research projects about ‘the alien’ that serves as a an encompassing theme for a growing series of performances, choreographic/cartographic works, installations as stage sets, and writing projects. She chose to show us Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000) as an introduction to a discussion, and her last film The Sleepwalkers, that premiered this year at The Showroom in London, and was also part of her first Australian solo presentation at the Institute of Modern Ari in Queensland Australia.
The seminar was concluded on the third day by an equally captivating program chosen by visual artist Wineke Gartz to explain her own work. Gartz introduced us to a video film that fascinated her since years and that might be called the trigger for all her following works: Rock my Religion (1983-84) by Dan Graham. She then presented her work American Pain that she constructed in 2013.
The three different angles offered by Vergara, Hamadeh and Gartz all stretched the possibilities of cinema to the ultimate, all three of them in a distinct way. The films on the first day related to everyday reality, reflected in the fact that One P.M. is always labeled as a documentary, while in fact, the material used by D.A. Pennebaker, who also made the famous Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back (1976), was gathered from a film by Jean Luc Godard. For some reason Godard did not approve of the quality of the material of the direction the film would take (the reason for his withdrawal is unknown) so he quit the film. Pennebaker edited the material as much according to the original idea as possible. The result is a highly experimental film with all stylistic characteristics of experimental films of those days: long shots taken with a zoom (some counted that the film consists of eighteen shots and has two scene cuts). The images move because the camera for the first time was small enough to take it out on the streets, and we see people talk, seemingly without any script. Here and there some one of the film team enters the scene, one or two times it is Godard.
There is so much to say about the film and its intended relation to reality that I will stop here, to try and make a connection to the four other films. It was a good starting point, that raised a few interesting questions about the core of cinema. Did the filmmakers capture reality? The answer to this question of course differs depending on the perspective of the viewer. It did capture reality, if you consider the camera solemnly as an image-capturing machine. In this case it captured a stunning ride on a construction lift showing the city center of New York from the inside, and the outside of a large building under construction. These images appear at the beginning and at the end of the film when Jefferson Airplane gives a rooftop concert. But if you consider the strange long monologues of intellectuals somewhere in a garden, combined with a-synchronistic sounds and the strange street dance of a group of black people making music and reciting texts from the Koran, you wonder whether the film does capture reality.
I’m still not sure what a ‘rupture of representation’ is. It is a analytic notion, meant to describe an experience in a micro-sociologic situation, borrowed from the world-famous sociologist Irving Goffman. But although some details of this notion were unclear to me, you can understand its meaning in relation to film. It is meant to describe a disruption, that makes you realize the scene you’re entranced in is not real. This realization makes you feel uncomfortable, but at the same time might mark the start of something new, like a new thought, a new insight, or an alternative possibility.
This is where the films chosen by Leire Vergara mix with those of Rana Hamadeh. Hamadeh's large discursive projects on the ‘alien’ brought her to think about black. (And Blak — as one of the characters in the film, Big Blak Africa, would say.) What does it mean to be different, to be alien? Hamadeh consciously uses the word ‘alien’ and not ‘stranger’, referring to the ideas of the Sun Ra, an innovative jazz composer, bandleader pianist and synthesize player, who refers to the alienated to imagine a new world for black people. Choosing Bamboozled, Hamadeh showed how complex and acerb the situation is. At it’s release, this Spike Lee film raised controversy. A very funny film, because of the many talented artists featuring in it, but also criticized for the shootout at the end.
In this film Damon Wayans plays a pretty desperate scriptwriter that has to come up with a new idea. He invents a vintage minstrel show with lots of people with black faces, in the hope he will be sacked, but of course, to his surprise, it turns out a big success. I must say I really liked the film, which is a tribute to many excellent black Hollywood artists as a grim reproach to a system that consequently convicts a group of people to be alien to it. I actually liked the shootout: sometimes civilized thoughts end up nowhere, then a shootout helps, at least in films. The film had a big impact, which meant that, when Hadameh showed her own film The Sleepwalkers it was almost impossible to comment. The Sleepwalkers is a complex film in which Hadameh not only wants to say something about being alien, but also wants to express how alienation feels. She even wants to anticipate on possible solutions to work with the concept and to survive. That is a lot to take in for the viewer. Because I really liked the film, and it has been a long time since a film made such a big impression on me, I will write a comprehensive article about it another time. In the mean time, please look at some more information about The Sleepwalkers.
Last but not least, Wineke Gartz. She is a visual artist that makes large room-filling photo, film and video installations in which she uses all kinds of images found during long-standing associative research into certain topics. In American Pain this is American Pain-ting, American landscape and all kinds of current images and topics which she observes. And it actually is her strong (painter’s) eye for images that defines the work. She combines in a rigorous way whatever she finds: bling, and women, cars and trees, advertisements and all kinds of trivia that become meaningful in the way Gartz puts them together. She ‘paints’ with light images, shown on every spot of a location, on the floor, the ceiling, the walls. Each of them in their own pulsating rhythm combined with rock music and rap songs.
You can understand very well why she chose to show us Rock my Religion. There is something rebellious about her work. It’s shameless and controlled in the same time. Dan Graham tried to make a truly critical film about the United States and succeeded: featuring Patty Smith, next to Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, a religious group coming from England to New York in 1774. They worshiped by ecstatic dancing or "shaking", which dubbed them the Shakers. Ann Lee preached to the public and led the Shaker church at a time when few women did. There is also much more to say to this film, but for now I will focus on its positive influence on Gartz’ work: fascinated by the concept of ecstasy, by intoxication, music or religion — whatever — her works gain meaning. Images swirling around. The other concept, loosely related to both ecstasy and landscape, is indigenous American culture. Although she calls herself a romantic, she is not simply looking at the Indian culture for finding Arcadia. Instead she is looking at what is actually there, like the big Casino in an Indian reserve next to New York. There her program contributes to the overall underlying theme of ‘rupture of representation’: Is it possible to review what we know and change our perception of reality?