By Mieke Bal and Shahram Entekhabi's
This diary upon a time, travel was an exotic adventure, a discovery
of unknown places and cultures, an encounter with strange people. today, one
day’s flight bridges the distance between Europe and the American mid-west.
But in a region where the landscape is flat, life monotonous, and the people
accepting that everyday life harbors no surprises, it is still possible to have
an adventure. this diary is the account of a two-month long sojourn among those
strangest people of all in today’s world: common Americans.
the diary consists of digital photographs, presented in a slide show, and a spoken text. at a relentless rhythm, photos of ordinary things made strange by the eye of two European artists appear on a screen. the one, a man born in the middle east now living in Germany, with a background in architecture, the other a woman from the Netherlands with a background in academic research, they went on a trip to meet the people who determine the state of the world, to take a look at theirs: Ohio, USA.
from an immense photo archive made day by day a selection shows ordinariness at the sharpest edge. simultaneously a text is read by the voices of a variety of people living in Ohio, as if they were the recipients of a letter reflecting on their world. montesqueue’s Persian letters reversed. they may stumble over a word or hate an opinion, they may agree with the sense of flabbergasted unreality that sometimes shimmers through, but they read on nevertheless, as an act of friendship.
Hectic as always. I had five minutes to drop off my equipment at home before
going to the office, see students, and teach. But the asylum seekers I had just
talked with, their predicament without exit, was lying heavily on my stomach,
and depression threatened. I turned the corner of my street and there he was.
Cheerful, energetic, ready to swing. A familiar image by now. We have worked
together on one small and one huge project, in Berlin and in Amsterdam. And
now, the biggest of all: eight weeks in, of all places, Cleveland, Ohio. The
invitation was one we couldn’t refuse: two months to work, instead of
a stolen week here and there.
We had decided to depart together from Amsterdam, so that we could pass US immigration together. You never know. Anyone from the Middle East is a suspect, of whatever. And Iran is not popular with the powers that be, these days. So, he came a day early from Berlin.
We made it, but believe me, again, it wasn’t easy. As usual I was running around in circles in a desperate attempt to escape the horrors of packing. I swore to myself that only one suitcase would have to do. Plus the luggage cart, the backpack with equipment, the tote with stuff to do on the plane, and a waist wallet. Of course, in the end I added a garment bag. Phone calls to make, instructions to give to the house sitter, and meanwhile, thinking ahead, about all we are going to do. With Road Movie on my mind as somehow both the easiest and the most difficult project.
Easiest, because it is so simple. The man from the Middle East walking the straight road of the Mid West. The most difficult, because its conceptual nature makes its clarity crucial.
But I must stop musing and get going; the plane won’t wait. The minute we left the house to get into the taxi he started to take photographs. A visual diary of the trip, he said. Of the front of the house, the suitcases so many it made me sick to think of the transportation, the trunk of the cab, the road, and of course, the airport. Just before she noticed what he was going to do he snapped up the woman at the check-in counter. From the corridor, a bit before we got in the security check area, he took the security guys who were about to interview us, including asking if we had photographed them – which wasn’t allowed. I asked why and the man said that this was obvious: of course, the bad guys would love to know who the security guys were. Well, they wear uniforms, don’t they? So what’s the point? They couldn’t stop the photo from being taken. They didn’t need to either; what danger could it possibly pose? To see that there actually is security at the airport? That’s a given, a public knowledge, even if I fail to see its effectivity. The freedom this security syndrome is supposed to protect is damaged by the pointless taboo. His tiny transgression is an attempt to retrieve that damaged freedom. The joy of such small acts is in the knowledge that it really is no crime, so even if it makes them furious, they cannot do anything against it.
Entering the United States with a man from the Middle East, from Iran no less, is an adventure in itself, unfortunately not within reach of the camera. Like most Americans, the people at the booth are friendly. We stood there, together, and our passports had the same color. He put his down with the back up, so that the Arabic-looking letters were not leaping out. Mine was handled first, and it took two minutes, a few stamps and a remark about the weather to get in. Then the officer turned his passport and said: “Oh, you know you are in for a tough and long ceremony” and equally cheerfully took us to an office where he was given an enormous stack of papers, and a form to fill out. He made up a birth and death date here and there, and no one said anything. It was just a bit of hassle, nothing major, especially since we had the incredible luck to be the first in line. So, that moment of anxiety passed rather easily and swiftly, and we had the required time to make the next flight.
Except that, for reasons unknown, my boarding pass had a mark on it that singled me out for a special, extensive security check. With typical historical amnesia, the sign for “special security” on the boarding pass is SS. While he was shepherded to the quick treatment and was waiting with a patient smile on his face on the other side, I had to wait, and wait, and wait more. Then I was completely body-searched, while the woman performing it was sing-songing a litany of announcement of what she was going to do and how chaste and decent it would all be. “Sensitive areas I will only touch with the back of my hand” was the best one I have yet had. I have stopped feeling humiliated or aggravated by the anxiety of missing my flight. The futility of feeling anything is clear to me, after a few of these incidents. I just think about the next moment, once we get through. And about the incredible waste of resources, human and economical, that goes into this security. Clearly, the point is not to catch anyone but to increase the fear, to answer terror with terror, so that no one feels safe anywhere anymore, and Daddy State can remain in power because the frightened children need the reassurance.
After a very short flight we landed, and our host was waiting for us. That was a nice change from the anti-welcome ceremony at the entry airport. We were driven to a hotel near campus, of a style so out of date that it is funny and delightful. The cab driver gave us a lecture about all the attractions of Cleveland, and listening to him it sounded like the most exciting town in the universe. I missed the last bit, because I managed to fall asleep for the five minutes before arrival. The reception manager at the hotel also lectured about how delighted he was, and they all were, to have us. Looking me straight in the eyes he repeated the ritual phrase three times. Not that all this happiness entailed help with the many pieces of heavy luggage. I am completely useless in such situations, so this job fell on my poor colleague who, exhausted himself, had to make two trips.
Then the night: always a bit disorienting, alone in a hotel room that could have accommodated a large family. The sheer size of the room, or I should say apartment, made me miss my own house, where everything is beautiful and pleasant, familiar and my own. I thoroughly dislike living in hotels. I did a stint of a month last year in Toronto and came to loath the hotel, large but on the edge of shabby. This feels the same. And of course, alone in the queen-size bed I always feel so pointless. Not to speak of the insomnia that bugs me at the best of times. So, that’s it, we have arrived, he got into the country of freedom, and we can make our work that critiques it.
After some five hours of interrupted sleep, I got up to unpack the bags. That always helps a bit against the loneliness. But once all the papers have emerged from the suitcase, I see all the work in front of me and depression sets in. I am through with that work pressure. I can’t take it any longer. I know I have done enough, but the network of expectations from other people keeps me imprisoned in a spider’s web of Things I Must Do. I have a few hours before meeting up with him, and should spend them going through a manuscript, but instead here I am, writing the diary of this adventure. This is what happens with this collaboration: I know he is so eager to get going, and for him this is what he does
I have to read that book that about artist collaborations. They call them artist couples, and he calls us that, too. It feels funny to me, because we each live in a couple and to use the same word seems strange. The kind of relationship is so utterly different. But when we work, it is true: we are a couple in art making. We are here for many reasons, the primary one being the opportunity to make work. Not tourism. He likes the emptiness of the place, the there-is-nothing-to-see element. He goes around taking pictures of just about anything. His diary.
We just got time to do the real tourist thing: go to the supermarket. I remember my first to a really huge one. It took me over an hour and of course, I spent way too much on useless things. The one we went to this time is medium size, a bit small for American standards I suppose, and he got some fun and many pictures out of it. The moment of the day, five to six pm, made me sleepy. I am not so good with jet lag. So, he went for a neighborhood walk and I took a nap. He came back with eighty photos. Many were taken in a bar where shooting at a man on a screen with the passion of real hatred was the fun thing to do. Astounding pictures, some really threatening, some pathetic.
Later we went for a bit at Alladin’s. I remember the kind of place from my Rochester years. Falafel, hummus, baba ganoosh (called baba here) and a wheat salad. Nice, too much, fattening. Mediocre wine. We talked about our children, and a bit about sex and the crazy relationship it is forced to have with love. Being in a crisis with my guy, a crisis that has actually to do with sex, I still can’t get convinced by the idea that there is no connection at all. The best sex I ever had did coincide with being madly in love, and although I have practiced it, casual sex was never more than proving myself that I dared. It’s a habit, sure, and life in couples even more. Still, when you are inside a habit, it’s really hard to not go with the emotions it prescribes. I just don’t manage to stand – to feel – outside of ideology. He told a story about a relative in Teheran whom he had surprised making love with a guy. He had always known, for the cousin was constantly in the company of that other guy, which in the Middle East is not so obvious as it would be in the West, given the sex segregation there. The cousin married, had a disastrous marriage, and carried on with his lover. For him, a child then, this was the lesson every one needs. If his oldest son ends up being gay, he’d be surprised but not shocked, and at any rate, accepting. Not doing what you desire, he knew early in life, is a disaster.
During this conversation he said something really disturbing, and more so because it seems so plausible. He said that most migrants leave their countries and crave to live in Europe because of illusions they have about sex. A blond girl, Hollywood-style, is their image of sex. And if they come from a repressive culture, they think in Europe or the US sex comes easily, the girls are all beautiful, and the money and power follow. I bet it’s true. Not, that this makes economic inequality an insufficient reason for migration. It just seems the highway to disaster. Then the loneliness after arrival, the humiliation, the social isolation, must be even harder as the illusions were greater. Sticking together in discontent is the only way to live all that down. It doesn’t change my view of the legitimacy of migration after colonial exploitation. It only makes my compassion with these guys more heartfelt. And my compassion with the not-good-enough girls at home.
We also talked about caring men. One of my interviewees, a handsome
Caribbean actor, had started a theater company just to get the immigrant and
second-generation kids off the street. Many of his kids are now well-doing actors.
I was stunned by so much passionate generosity. It turned out the guy had been
raised in Diaspora by a single mother of ten. Apparently, the mother was an
endlessly caring woman who took in other relatives as well. When I asked him
what the most important things were he had learned from his mother, he said:
an enormous respect for women. I pushed him, then he said: caring for others,
not as martyrdom but as a pleasure and a natural habit. All those kids he took
off the streets will have experienced it, and, hopefully, will do as their role
model showed him when it’s their turn to care for others. Brilliant.
He clearly has a similar attitude. Caring comes naturally to him. Then, associating on my own welling-up tears, I told the story of the Iranian thirty-five-year old man who had been an illegal immigrant in three countries for fifteen years now. At the end of his stories I also felt tears coming up and said so. This guy said he would also cry but had no drops left. So, over dinner I told this story, but he was much more skeptical. He said this expression was part of martyrdom discourse in the Arabic world, and part of the stuff that makes terrorists. Granted. Dangerous. But still, this young man was in a fix that I cannot even begin to phantom, with or without his dried-up tears. The discourse of martyrdom is dangerous, but leaving a young man in limbo for fifteen years is just as dangerous This guy’s life had been taken from him. He is the one who, when I asked about what he wanted, or would have wanted, to do in life, said that he couldn’t afford to even dream about that, because the awakening would tear open the wound of his trauma. No life, no dreams. What’s he going to do, then, when he is forcibly returned to Iran?
This cheerful conversation ended on his story about forced prostitution. They steal baby girls to raise them in seclusion. Once perfectly educated and twelve, thirteen years old, they serve for a one night stand to a rich sheik and are then thrown out, into the arms of a pimp if they are lucky. Hair-raising. We agreed that pedophilia is where we both draw the line. Hippy past or not, touche pas à mes bébés. Stay away from kids. I know that my rather encompassing tolerance for other people’s habits is not endless. I remember dreams of what I would do to the guy who raped my daughter. Death was too kind for such a monster, and I dreamt up all my sadistic tendencies. Thanks heavens it never happened, although there was one situation that would have called for some action, but I only learned about that many years later.
He completely agreed, had the same fantasies. His six-year old girl is the kind of cute thing that already brings up such fears. It’s funny how we got passionate about the same thing. The same fury, directed at the monster from hell we know to roam around in large numbers. Everything else fades away compared to that level of evil. Loving a child is not even the issue, for how else would she be thrown out after one night? I am beginning to hate sex. It does so much damage to so many people.
Laura Joseph :
A Monday, the beginning of a workweek. It felt like an ordinary one but it wasn’t. We had the bureaucracy to contend with this morning.
After lunch, we were scheduled to attend the seminar, and we had twenty minutes to spare. We sat in the sun on a bench and immediately started to further conceptualize the projects we want to do here. It’s so much fun to interact with someone who never wastes a minute in small talk, to always get to the point.
Stephen Kern :
He spoke really beautifully, in spite of the half-baked English. He is very communicative, and they all understood him perfectly well. He said something beautiful about the meaning of home: home is where he could have Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim friends without giving it a thought. Losing home was losing that innocence. It was the most important thing that had been said. Since he lost that ability to befriend diverse people without thinking of political divides, he never had a home, nor an identity. Then he told another story. The best approximation of home was the movie set turned town where the gypsies who were extras in a film were allowed to stay after the film was made. Now it’s a thriving town. This is in ex-Yugoslavia. The film called Time of the Gypsies by Emir Kusturica left a town behind. The name of the town is the Russian word shutka, for “joke.” That’s where I feel most at home, he ended, in a joke. No one laughed. They didn’t get it. That, or they were still wiping imaginary tears shed for his mum. Sentimentality runs rampant in this culture.
Caitlin Orr :
After the seminar our assistant took us to a weird shopping mall to buy a computer. He wanted to buy a Mac laptop, same as mine, to be able to have an editing studio on a PC campus. As always in computer stores, it took forever without reason. Then, while they were installing the additional memory we both bought, we went for a marguerita on a terrace clearly conceived with the purpose of making the mall look like a street. You shop, then you celebrate your buys with dinner next door. A world apart, where everybody is wealthy and no one else is in sight, Everything looks artificial. We had a view on a Cheese Cake Factory with a phony Middle Eastern dome. When we finally got our stuff and went back to the hotel it was almost nine.
Samantha Veit :
I wanted to learn the program so he showed me how to do things, but that made it so slow that he got irritated. We discussed it and decided I would do a little bit each day, then he would take over to go faster. That is one of his great features. If something annoys him, he talks about it before getting irritated, instead of after and then blow up, as is more usual. We gossiped about the look of the students: bland, white, rich. He was even more negative than I, because I have been here and know this. For him it was a shock. The difference between the old people who live permanently in this hotel, and those spoiled kids on campus, is striking. In the morning, waiting for our ride, he had been playing cards with an old black woman who is sitting in the lobby every time we pass through it. She talked and he enjoyed it. He is so sociable that way. He knew her life story in three minutes. I was too tired to join and snapped away a bit. She got up to show a dance she liked, and danced through the lobby. It was amazing.
So, while we were venting our annoyance with the situation, he came up with yet another project, inspired by this old woman’s need to dance, to celebrate whatever there was to celebrate. It inspired him to propose the following idea. He would announce in the hotel a birthday party for a Sunday afternoon. Then we would invite all the people to perform for our camera, anything they liked. It will be a bit tricky to avoid ridicule and edit it in a dignifying manner. But it might be beautiful. The inhabitants are extraordinary. They are all a bit odd, clearly alone, and talking the same semi-religious upbeat discourse the receptionist used when we arrived. The other receptionist, almost an albino, singsongs his cheer on an even more falsetto tone. Imagine those two together!
The gallery for our installation has many corners and, worse, lots of glass, including an entire corner in glass and a gigantic skylight. As if designed to keep all video art at bay. What walls there are were whitewashed. It will all have to be rebuilt and repainted. A daunting job, and no one knows how to do it – except for him. He’ll probably end up doing it himself. Afterwards he kept saying how depressed the space made him. Thinking that we almost got it in MOCA almost makes me weep. It’s better than nothing, but just barely. We have to make do with it; the invitation cards – more beautiful than the show will be by far! – have been printed and sent out. It’s a big disappointment, we were so looking forward to installing the show and see the beauty of the work as an entrance into its politics. It now seems both will be lost on this crowd.
He got really down by it all. He interrupted my work and started to complain about everything: the exhibition space, the imprisonment on campus by lack of mobility, the new project. That last bit got me upset. He just dumped his depression on me, and didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Most of the time he is very pleasant, but sometimes he does this; starting to talk without letting me put a word in. I just had some footage in a tape that I had taken because I liked it, for my own fun. When he saw that he started to preach about how the project needed coherence. But coherence clearly meant: according to his directions, not my own input. But worst of all, I couldn’t put in a word.
We were offered a car to borrow. So, we drove her home and went out to shopping malls hunting for a hard disk. The sensation of freedom was just overwhelming. We stopped to snap away at ducks in a park, simply because we could. We drove around until ten pm and it lifted our depression in a big way. If only I had thought of this beforehand, we could have rented a car at the airport as all Americans would do (except the many who never get to fly and do not own cars).
We heard about the depression in which Cleveland has gained a dubious championship. Thirty percent under the poverty level, the steepest increase in unemployment in the country, hence, the worst crime rate, and so forth. The most unsettling thought is that this state, and this city, will probably vote for Bush, not because there are still more rich than poor people but because of despair, the war is the only rallying cry that has any meaning. This situation is plunging the world into catastrophe; it’s just a matter of time. I am convinced of it. We are about to live a third world war, this time beyond ending, ever. I am reminded of my Palestinian student’s commentary in a draft chapter on catastrophe: natural disaster, but then man-made.
We set out to find a location for Road Movie. We drove for hours and all the road were flanked by trees. Nowhere in sight was the kind of pain rural country road cutting through corn or tomato fields that I had fantasized up for this project. How ironic; to think that this was supposed to be about the emptiness of the mid-western landscape, and that we can’t find it! It goes to show how fantasies are removed from reality.
Over wine, another serious conversation. He talked about mind and body and used the metaphor of the mother-child relationship to describe the relationship between his soul and body. The soul the mother of the body – not so bad, not bad at all. It gives room to the unity as well as the sense of “disobedience,” the unbreakable bond and the dependence without the illusion of total merging. The metaphor had something consoling about it, for me at any rate, struggling as I do with my own body’s increasing disobedience. And it is far removed from the more usual master-slave metaphor.
He also talked more about sex. I always get a bit uneasy when guys talk to me about sex as if it was something we ought to discuss for some reason. Or, alternatively, as if it didn’t concern me at all. He talked about the repression of homosexuality in Islamic countries. This I can imagine to push people out of there into immigration and all the misery that entails. Sure, this is more understandable than the Hollywood hypothesis he came up with the other day, although I can also imagine how naïve hormone-pestered boys will go for that one. Homosexuality would count the same as being a woman, in such countries, but women rarely get to migrate. Except my beautiful Rwandese interviewee who left a war zone with two small children. I am still under the spell of her personality and her story.
In the evening we had dinner at someone’s house. This was delightful. His wife is a very nice young woman who is a minister in a Presbyterian church. They had also invited friends, a colleague of hers and her husband. So, here I was, in the company of two women ministers. I had never encountered any, as far as I remember. The friend had lived in Holland so we had that in common. She had brought a cheese plateau wit Dutch cheese and wonderful dates, clearly to make us both feel at home. Sweet thought, not necessary. When abroad, things Dutch are not at all on my list of desires. But the two women were very lively and for a while, the conversation was gender-segregated. Then he turned to me and said: “Do you realize what this man does for a living?” It turned out the friend’s husband worked at a shelter for the homeless. He was willing to do an interview and help us get in touch with some of his guests as well. This is wonderful beyond belief. For a project on home, having homeless people to tell their stories is so important, a unique opportunity to make the project better and give the discourses more depth.
On the way back to the hotel, our host told us a bit about his own background. He comes from evangelical fundamentalists. Amazing, another kind of people I had never dreamt I would personally meet. I didn’t want to ask him probing questions, but one day I will. It will be good to understand the minds of people so strange to me that I have avoided to even think about how they think.
In the bathroom of their house, where other people have gardening magazines or mystery novels, there was a basket with religious books. Later, I asked him if he had seen that, and he had, and had photographed it all. Good thing, too; I went without my purse and couldn’t take pictures. Who would foresee that I would ever have a fun evening, laughing and talking a lot with really nice people, in the home of religious people with a fundamentalist background?
It was a bit of a hassle to prepare. My tripod was not stable enough, his was better, but it’s so heavy that I couldn’t possibly have carried that one. Our host had found two old suitcases, marvelous fifty-years old Samsonites. One blue, one rust color. Same size. They needed to get some heavy content to be convincing. We put huge packs of coca cola inside, one regular coke, one Pepsi light, not that it mattered but it was funny that this was what we had in the car. Then the tripod was adorned with big water containers hung with security tape. When all was set up, he whitened his face with baby powder. He has an obsession that this film must be a reference to Buster Keaton. For me, that’s fine but what matters is not that. This film, for me, is very important.
In the middle of this mood change, in the far distance where the vanishing point has swallowed him, a tiny figure appears. It’s the man, reappearing. Strangely, now the viewer looks actively forward to his approach. He is facing us and we are getting ready for an encounter. The previous emptiness that had triggered a simmering of melancholy is going to be relieved. He comes closer and we look on the rhythm of his equally fast, although slightly more tired steps. The visual discourse has changed profoundly. From a narrative in the third person, we are now set up as the “first person,” having an active experience, addressing with our eyes the other who is the “”second person.” The do-gooder feeling sets in. Open-minded, the emptiness of the American Mid-West is not exciting enough for us. We are going to reach out, welcome the man from the Middle East. His walking towards us is a gift. The encounter will give our life meaning and purpose. He will help us turning from indifferent to a good person, hospitable, charitable.
When, finally, he comes to us, however, he just walks out of the image. After having been rejected once too often, he cannot be bothered with our needs to feel good about ourselves. He turns the table on us, responding to our previous indifference with his own. His pale face suggests exhaustion, perhaps anger, but really, nothing is readable in it. No imploring, no begging for mercy, no demand for sympathy and contact. It’s too late. In-difference breeds indifference.
The second week has started. Time goes too fast. I need to stop and take a breath. During the group discussion I was struck by the fact that he tried to speak several times and was overruled by others. Then I noticed that the only other person with less than fluent English, an Israeli playwright, didn’t get to speak either. This is something I feel like remarking on, but then don’t. That leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. But it seems patronizing to say it. It’s not out of fear to be criticized or seen as intolerant or dogmatic. It’s just that the two guys I would be speaking for might feel embarrassed.
Suddenly, we got itchy; we wanted to see the film we made yesterday. So, we went home relatively early, I put out appetizers, and we started to watch. It is really stunning. The best part is what we had not foreseen: the emptiness of the landscape reflected in the emptiness of the image during the longest part of the film. His walking away is fast; his return slower. I was so happy and proud with this film!
Sometimes I find it very difficult to spend these long days in his company, and I am sure he feels the same irritations. It is a merciless situation that aggrandizes all the less pleasant features of two personalities. Yesterday we had another of those small confrontations that made me very angry. We went out, after six pm, just for a bit of air. We had been inside all day, frantically working on a slideshow for Friday, which took much more time than we had foresee (as usual). We were both ill of the confinement. He wanted to post the Xerox copies of the photos of our portraits, by way of ads for the exhibition. At one point, he put four on one bulletin board, and I said: “enough!” as a joke. He turned around and said: “Mieke, let me do this!” and wanted to leave. I was flabbergasted. First, I think I can crack a joke, even if a bad one, when I feel like it. Second, this is our project, not his alone. He keeps insisting on this, when it suits him, but every once in a while he turns around and treats me like his assistant. It makes me very mad indeed.
So, I couldn’t speak and almost cried, got that look on my face that leaves no misunderstanding about my mood. I couldn’t get myself to say something. I know he is sensitive enough to realize that this was bad, so there is no need to say it. But I swear that the next episode won’t go unnoticed. I work as hard as he does, and if he is obviously the primary artistic creator, I contribute a lot, and he never fails to say so. This behaviour is not related to that; my guess is, it’s about gender.
After the episode with the posters, I wanted to be alone, and he as well. He wanted to go out to a bar, and of course, it was clear that the constant togetherness is beginning to get on both our nerves. But in the end he didn’t go, because the slide show was still not finished, and he ended up working on it in my apartment until I put a risotto on the table. I made the mistake, a constant in my life, of cooking a bit too enthusiastically for my own good for a number of days. Then, the routine is set, and I will cook every day for the rest of our stay here. He remarked on that and I thought I’d use the opportunity to say that he was welcome to cook, too. Then he said: I think I am more welcome to wash the dishes. That was a clear one. So, he feels exploited that I let him wash the dishes, I feel exploited that he lets me cook. It’s the everydayness of it, the routine. I like to cook, simply not being obliged to do it. But I acknowledge I do this to myself. It’s weak to expect him to get the clue and insist on cooking. The idea of one person, friend, exploiting the other has no mooring in either person’s reality; it is the consequence of a routine fed by convention.
Strange, strange. Yesterday I simply forgot to write in this diary. Every morning-after it is the first thing I do, reporting to myself on the day from which too little sleep has not quite restored me. Day 12 I simply repressed from my memory. I did have a lot of urgent work to do and so, I have a bit of a rationalization available. But truth be told, we had a big crisis. The crisis that had been waiting to happen over the last days. I had expected it to happen. But I made the old mistake, always. When something happens that makes me upset, I don’t say it. I want to think first if I am right to be upset, or if, perhaps, it is something in myself and not anything he says or does. With my own partner we have had this problem all our lives together. Now, in this weird professional relationship where friendship inevitably develops but nothing else, I do the same thing. So, I push back my tendency to burst out. I fall silent. Until some really small thing, usually misunderstood, aggravates me again, and I burst out when it is least appropriate.
I took this to mean a disparaging remark about my visual imagination. Although he denied that later. So, I burst out, and, as always to my horror, started to cry. This tends to go over poorly with guys. They see it as emotional blackmail. I am just a crybaby, and can’t do a thing about it. But that shouldn’t come into a professional discussion. But somehow, how can it not? I have felt used by men, by my own lover, and now I felt used by him. I told him he treated me like his assistant. The problem is, of course, totally two-sided.
We have an idea, then each develops more ideas around it, makes in concrete. But in that stage we don’t talk enough about it. Then, at some point, when we talk again, we each talk from a different concrete image in our mind. And that image is different, because it has developed differently. I think he develops it more concretely, I more conceptually, and perhaps he gets stuck with an idea that then doesn’t find realization so easily.
With Road movie, I was the one who had the idea. When it took us so long to find the right road, we ended up in a place quite different from my fantasy. But for me, the moment when it happens I adapt my fantasy to the reality at hand, as long as that is good. He finds that compromising. For me, it is part of an ongoing dialogue with reality. I have a need for that dialogue. That’s where the excitement comes from. If, at the end of making Mille et un jours, I felt this was the film I had wanted to make, that doesn’t mean at all that it was as I had imagined it. No, it was entirely different, but growing into it by making my fantasy subject to revision on the basis of what happens is, for me, the performative quality of art making. If he, then, calls that compromising, I feel misunderstood and that makes me lonely.
He had the idea of inserting a CD-R with images into the catalogue/magazine. A blank one, which we would sign. It’s smart. It is not at all the same as the video material; that would be giving away the artwork. But it does make the magazine more valuable, and the owner keeps a visual trace that no photographic publication can provide. Also, the signatures make it a collector’s item, which is good for the artwork. It makes it something special, coveted, whereas most catalogues, even big ones, have a minimal “shelf life.” I so hate that typical expression. It is so American and makes academic work (it is also used for that) seem fleeting commodities. This is not untrue but it makes us all look like fools.
He is totally negative about this country. I am, too, but on the other hand I know that some small environments can also be quite marvelous. This place emanates a resigned passivity. No one seems excited. It feels as if we were hired to bring the excitement they lack. He remains calm, and cheerful, even when saying the most devastating things. But he really loathes American culture.
For someone coming here for the first time, all the fake architecture, plastic flowers and plants, and plastic smiles must be daunting. I am more used to it. But the discourse remains bizarre. I cannot imagine how I ever lived here. I never really did, but I spent an awful lot of time. The mesmerizing television screens in every bar, where you have speech and two layers of subtitles running in parallel, with no connection between them, sum up what this culture is about. In one stream you get Bush, a weather report, and some act of violence in the Middle East. Then ads that follow without transition. No wonder people go crazy in this country.
The day came and went, as they all do during this residency. I am beginning to find the constant working difficult. My life feels empty, even though art making is the most satisfying thing I have done in a long time.
Grocery shopping at a new shop, that’s how exciting life gets here. The shop was marginally better, but so big that it took an hour to come out with ten items. I am already totally fed up with the food, the eternal dips and chips or veggies. Cooking is something we rarely take the time to do, although if at all, I am the one doing it. But the equipment and the ingredients are so minimal that it remains boring. One bottle of wine every evening, then I go to sleep and he leaves to either watch t.v., go out looking for a way to communicate with people, or to work more. If this was my permanent life, I’d die. If this was my city, I’d die. But for a while, it is still an experience. The American experience by excellence: boredom, repetition.
Same for me, and this diary. It feels like a repetition. I guess that’s the point, in the end: every day is the same. Today was a little different, though. A small break in this hectic stream of working days. We went to the office for only a few hours.All this in the context of a country where people don’t have health insurance, don’t get treatment if they are not insured. Uninsured people who need emergency treatment get a bill much higher than insurance would have to pay. Just to make them realize they ought to get insurance. Which, of course, they can’t pay. It’s awful to realize how complicitous we all are in a system that is decidedly inhumane.
The first day with our foursome. It was an opportunity to go out and not work. The outing was a bit of a failure, though. We drove out early to the South, hoping to encounter some Amish people. The road was more boring than ever, the towns more ugly, and no Amish were in sight. Of course, we could have known: Sundays they stay inside. We had hope (I had insisted) that they would go to church, and leaving early we would catch them coming out of church. “Catch them” sounds really nice, doesn’t it, for someone who has resisted ethnographic othering and capturing for so long. Tourism remains an attraction, even if one wants to reject it totally. So, no Amish, and nothing else either.
When we got back into town we drove west towards the downtown area. That was a good move. For two weeks, he has been dreaming of aggressive-looking youngsters to film in an attitude and body pose that can be construed as vaguely threatening, without really being threatening. The idea is to film them as if they were responding to a suspicious look, the racist look that assumes big bodies must carry guns or otherwise want to be malicious. In response, our youngsters simply look with a gaze that says I own the world. The downtown area might be populated by people qualifying better than the meek, empty-eyed people on campus.
There was. The architecture was that great mix of old and new skyscrapers, and since the stores were open, it was also nice to see the people. A black woman was logging black garbage bags with stuff in it She had four bags and a small one, and could carry only two at any one time. So, she left the rest, took two some 50 feet forward, then came back for the rest. The stuff looked heavy and I wanted to offer to help, but felt it would be out of place. She might not trust me and think I wanted to run with her bags. We went inside one great-looking old office building, now – guess what? – a shopping mall. Body shops and towel stores, make-up shops and socks. All the futilities imaginable. The inevitable food court, of course. And many escalators in a huge open hall. I suppose the idea was to use an office building from the rich days as something to which the people have access. But it was so utterly pointless, especially in an area where very few people have money to spend in shopping malls. Those who do will probably avoid this one as the pest.
The atmosphere of depression was written on the people and the buildings. Many stood empty, dilapidated and shabby, some black from smoke, with worn, washed-out signs boasting “luxury apartments for rent.” On the way back, the number of abandoned buildings increased when we drove through the more inhabited areas. It is serious, that much was clear. Rumor has it that 30% are unemployed, 50% of children live under the poverty level, and the last 30 years, 50% the population has left the city. Grim statistics, that make the suburban part of town where the campus and our hotel are, seem like ghettoes of immoral luxury.
Then the work week began. His film about Busch in Berlin is a gripping, powerful combination of documentary and fiction. Black-and-white, found footage, with a horrible song about the heroes of 9-11. I don’t think the audience liked it much. The rift between Americans, even academics, and Europeans has become unbridgeable. This is what politics has the power to do. It is not that anyone there supports Bush. It is just that the values Bush has been promoting stick in everybody’s throat. What was to be an ironic title – Homelands and security – where, I thought, the s after homeland made all the difference, has been unreflectively taken seriously. They talk about homeland, about pride being an element in the sense of belonging to a nation, and us and them, as if no critical theory had ever happened.
At some point, he came out very strongly about the color of poverty in downtown Cleveland. That was true, but no one responded in any way that showed they got the point. It was brave of him to say it. It was also impossible for them to engage with it. If they could, the situation wouldn’t be what it is. It seems impossible that a population can live with this without doing something, and yet, the system is so firm that even in the face of the greatest horrors, the onlookers think they are ok, probably thank the Lord for not living in poverty. It was one of those moments of great alienation: to hear him say it, and to hear the silence of the others.
There was barely any discussion of the film. They are too polite to say it hurts their feelings that “their” president is represented as an alien. But politeness makes discussion impossible. It ended with the hair-raising words, “thank you for sharing this with us.” It is a dismissal, a way to move on to other things, and in the process making another us/them divide.
Tuesday in the afternoon I have interviews scheduled with homeless women. I need to concentrate a little bit or empty my mind of worries before that, so I thought we should all go to the museum. That means there are only three not-full days to install the show. I remember vividly the evening before the opening of my exhibition in the Boymans. But at least that was not my own work, it now seems I had more distance. He talks about similar situations in Macedonia, and many other places. Probably this is true. It still seems to me that Wednesday will be dreadful. These are situations where I feel totally handicapped. I know I’ll only be able to do silly little things, seated, and boss other people around. He, in contrast, is very handy and is the only one with installation experience.
This was also the day of madness – and thus, our only (half) day of freedom. The vice-presidential debate takes place this evening on the Case campus. It is called The Race at Case. All week, security has been tightened. Today no one can access the campus at all. An unheard-of measure, canceling classes and all other activities. Security trucks block off the area and satellite antennae are crowded in one place. Thanks to this madness, we were able to go to the museum. A few hours respite.
He went to the area and took amazing pictures. The emptiness of the excitement itself, the litter of political slogans and just the two names in big letters on huge posters. The endless queues of trucks with satellite t.v., the security, it all looked fake.
We decided to watch the debate. The first thing about it was that practically all the discussion time was about keeping our country safe, the global war on terror, and the need to send more troops. Edwards was only marginally better than the despicable Cheney. But the second thing that was very striking was the media manipulation in favor of Cheney. The prelude images were filled with Bush banners. The images where the two were juxtaposed on a split screen were shamelessly partial. Cheney was larger, frontal, and his broad shoulders were cropped for granddaddy is soooo big, and big is powerful. Edwards was a restless young Kennedy type, with ample space around his shoulders. His head about half the size of Cheney’s. And when they were shown sitting together, Edwards was in profile, Cheney frontal. I couldn’t believe that CNN would be so blatantly manipulative, but it was clear. We took some pictures of the screen to check later if it had been a paranoid hallucination. It was not.
The content of the debate was so depressing that I can’t even bear to think back and remember it. I don’t know what the world will come to, in the hands of these people. We are back in the worst moments of the sixties, with a nuclear shield in outer space, and every criminal having ample access to the weapons that are lying around or offered for sale by the many corrupt military. Whether he wins or not, he will always have so many supporters that it seems this whole country is suicidal.
He went to sit in the empty chairs where last night, Edwards and Cheney had been sitting. He took all the litter of a dishonest campaign the sole purpose of which is power and money, at the cost of lives.
It’s odd, but recording our days here has insinuated itself almost as an addiction. I had no time today to even think, yet not writing anything seems to make all the energy I invested in this diary so far to be a total waste. I’ll have to be short and crisp – not my forte. 52. tatiana zilotina
We are setting up things for the performance with security tape, in two days. We have some good helpers and a good location. It will work out. He will stretch out tape over a pompous grass circle in front of the library. Another version of Road movie, this time more of an acting performance. Whereas the road was in the middle of nowhere, unidentifiable, this is going to be in the middle of a power center. Yet, it will be equally empty. Anonymous power, expressed in neo-classical buildings of hyperbolic size, and manicured grass, a few miles away from the downtown misery. The class segregation is astounding. He will don his migrant suit again, and whiten his face. I hope the weather has that same overcast but dry character. That makes the red of the tape more striking.
Today we did the long-awaited performance.
In the morning there was an e-mail from the security officer in the building where we had planned to shoot from. He wrote we didn’t get permission. We marched over, gave ID and other info, and when we turned out to be legit faculty, he said he would speak to his boss again. But this was an hour before the planned performance! So, we went to the library, where we had already acquired office spaces to shoot from, to ask if we could go on the roof. That, surprisingly, turned out really, really easy. Ten minutes before we were back in the office to instruct the participants, we had the permission and had been to inspect ourselves. It was a brilliant location.
After we did it, we went to lunch with the crew. That was a good idea, because he was entirely drained. This became worse when he took a quick look at the footage and hated it. He went into a deep dip. A disappointed child. He couldn’t handle the difference between his dream and the reality of the footage. I barely got to see it. What made me initially furious was that he was clearly angry with me for not having prevented the destruction, so soon after it was made, of his sculpture by a fascist maniac, but for what he saw as a complete failure. I felt terrible, and guilty, for if everything was botched, I would have been responsible. When, later in the hotel, we projected all the footage on the wall, the surprise that awaited us was exhilarating. Once he had adapted to the change, the footage was simply very, very good.
We did another film of what is becoming a series. This sequel to Road Movie should be called Rockefeller Avenue, or Boulevard. The former is ironic in its grandeur; the latter in its allusion to Boulevard of broken Dreams. It was to be about the Migrant looking for work, but arriving too late, after the depression has set in and the West has no more work to offer. The idea was a simple as the two others, a one-act performance. He walks up to a factory, arrives at the door and finds it closed. The factory, not only the door. He returns back to the camera and moves on to the next. Our guide, a specialist in the history of technology, had promised to take us to these sites.
We went looking for obsolete old factories on a street that was really called Rockefeller Avenue, and that was blocked off. So, the first shot is him walking away on this street, and the last one, we imagined, him coming back
We went on, and found another site where he walked alongside a fence, behind which stood huge containers of oil. This is a moment of deep irony: the man from the Middle East comes to the West to look for work, and all he finds is oil, but behind a fence. The other side of that street was also quite appropriate, so we shot that as well, including him sitting at a picnic table. The third try delivered the site we had been hoping for, but we were not allowed on it. Never mind, next to the still-working factory we saw another destitute building, that did the job. So, we filmed and filmed.
I have been writing an academic text for the seminar, this Friday, about art making as scholarship. Last night he came up with an idea for presenting it. This is fantastic. We ask Benita to read the first pages of this diary. She has a beautiful voice. During the beginning, entrance and coffee, we play the photos of the diary along with a CD of this text. We say nothing about it. Then, when the session opens, I give my lecture, including four projections: a clip from Mille et un jours, one from Beckett’s Film, then his I?, the short video he made in Berlin as a response to Beckett’s film, and that inspired the series we are doing here; this we will project several times on a loop,; and Road Movie, the film we made the first Sunday here. During that projection, symmetrical to the beginning, I will continue to talk. It will be quite an event.
Remarks about the boredom of Cleveland or the emptiness of American culture didn’t go over without soliciting resistance. I had also added a short text on the series of one-act films that included the phrase “the emptiness of America” at the end of a paragraph. That made one person want to contradict me. I keep forgetting that, in spite of all the shared criticism of US politics, it is still their own country I am criticizing. I keep forgetting that is the Bush campaign, not the reality, that wants me to assume that anti US politics means anti-Americanism.
Another Sunday, another work day. I can barely remember a Sunday with leisurely breakfast, a mystery novel, coffee with waffles, and some chatting. Today, we are doing the fourth installment of the series of short films we never set out to make here. The series just happened, like a small accident. Today, we are shooting the most delicate of these, a birthday party at the Alcazar hotel. We invited the elderly residents, the staff, whoever wished to participate, for a birthday cake at their usual tea hour. We have ordered a big birthday cake with sugar flowers and his name in both Western and Farsi script, and “happy 45” on it (he is actually 40).
Last night we went for marguerites with the students and some others who had helped us in various shoots. This was an old plan, dating back to the first days, when we had a horribly tepid marguerite in the shopping mall, waiting for a Mac installation job. The student helping us settle in, indignant about the quality of the drinks, proposed to have marguerite in a better place, and last night was the moment. This went a bit wrong. He came in late, and as a result, the only place left at the table was a corner, next to, and in front of, a couple who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Shortly after ordering food, around 8 pm, he suddenly up and left. I was wondering why, but couldn’t figure it out.
When I came back, at around 10, he called and it was clear he was upset. I went to see him. He told me the couple had been saying horrible things, carrying on about Bush – they are the only Bush supporters I ever talked to! But I didn’t know. Worse, they kept using the word “nigger,” even when talking about children. This is also the woman who reiterated early on that he looked so much like the Israeli ex-boyfriend of her daughter. That had seemed a bit insistent at the time. Now, in combination with this racist talk, it had felt outright offensive. He had left simply because he couldn’t stand that talk anymore, and felt isolated, literally cornered in that corner of the table.
I was very upset to see him so down. I was also very upset to have been an unwitting aid to isolate him, in a situation where he constantly feels ill at ease to begin with. Is the talk of “niggers” to someone from the Middle East, a racist offense in itself? Of course it is. Why else would this talk never have reached my ears, only his? In the middle of deploring the evening and the company, he was arranging photographs. The photos of the Rockefeller Boulevard shoot are brilliant. I find it so astounding that he can do two things at once, one negative, one constructive. It demonstrates the flexibility and creativity of his mind. But he is upset, and rightly so, and that won’t go away so quickly.
I am upset, too. For him, for all the other people who are constantly
hurt by these small acts of a racism that cannot be legally forbidden. It is
a psychological torture on an everyday basis. Being white, I am inevitable implicated
in it. My heart bleeds when I think of that collusion. I wish I could do something
to make it better, like a mother kissing a bleeding knee of a child, in a futile
gesture the only meaning of which is to touch the other and say: I wish the
pain to go away. But we are no longer children and pain no longer goes away.
I had to go to Berkeley for four days. I hope he gets a nice break, too. This constant working is not good for either of us, not even for the work. When Monday comes, we have to begin winding up the work. Right after his return he needs to go to Switzerland with a convincing portfolio. Only two more weeks, two days of which go into the Columbus trip. That is meant for new projects, and a change of location. I look forward to that, staying with old friends and meeting new people. But it means we have not enough time for anything, including my apprenticeship with the technology. Then, the election. I dread this more than ever. I am steeling myself against the terror that will hit me if Bush wins, or is appointed again by his brother’s minions. Democracy?!
For him, this weekend turned out to have been a resolution to a period of vagabonding around, looking for community. He has felt terribly alone and tried to do something about it. But searching for community made him more alone than ever. So, he took these days to return to himself, to stop being alone, lose the hope, so that he could find himself and be content with what he found.
We had a work planning session. He had some rightful objections to this diary. It is the nature of a diary that it is a personal, one-voice text. This leaves out his views, experiences, the events he took such delight in and in which I didn’t participate at all. Moreover, I write about him, in ways that he would like to answer. I think he is entirely right to feel that way, especially since this is a collaborative work we are co-signing. As usual, he came up with a terrific solution. He will mark where I leave out his perspective on something he cares about, and we will attempt to add something. It’s a new challenge: how to have a dialogue within what is by definition a monologue? It is an exciting possibility that might have further ramifications for our understanding of cultural work.