LOOPS & GAPS: Video as Entrance into the Unknown*
The starting Point video 'I?'
In his 2004 film, I? of 4.17 minutes, Shahram Entekhabi (Iran 1963) revisits for contemporary culture the concept of Samuel BeckettsÍonly film, called FILM, starring Buster Keaton (1965). In the typical and, by 1965 historical fashion of early cinema that had no dialogue, lots of body movement, and visual explorations of the shock encounter with the city that characterized modernity, Keaton, 40 years beyond his greatest successes jumps and scuttles around in New York City, never showing his face to passers-by or public. In the final shot, and in what might be an ironic concession to the viewer hungry for realistic solutions, it turns out that face is hideously distorted.
The primary element of BeckettÍs concept is the unlikely combination of going around in the public space of the city while never revealing the face. Then, in his bare apartment, he cannot avoid the eye of the other. He must destroy all images, as well as eliminate all eyes, to be able, finally, to look into the camera. This is, in the end, a narrative film, even if no word is spoken.
Entekhabi takes the conceptual nature of FILM up but omits such a reassuring ending Æ reassuring because it projects the refusal of the face-to-face on the figure who hides. EntekhabiÍs lone figure is never seen because the environment doesnÍt care to see him. For today, it is of crucial importance to reflect on the relationship between the individual subject whose life the constitution demands we respect, and the larger communities whose members the Western world denies that individuality. For, as I? in its intertextual relationship to FILM seeks to explore, it is not productive to remain obsessed with the individual face as long as a true face-to-face cannot occur. As it happens, the film doesnÍt manage to be narrative, either. It just describes ten episodes of an ordinary day, in no particular order and without any event out of routine.
I? became the starting point of a series of short films Shahram and I made together, in which the inscription of historical (dis-)continuity crossed with geographical failed encounters is shaped further. In a variety of ways we tried to ñboycottî narrative at least in its traditional guise, in order to avoid some of the power structures that inhere in that mode. The first narrative aspect we tried to avoid was the narrator, or voice. My critique of voice in the article makes clear why: first, to avoid the authority of a speaker and replace it with a performance that puts the burden of representation not in one basket but in that of the performer and the people he interacts with, as well as the camera whose activity is made visible by the mode of editing.
In an exploration of the media that have shaped our visual consciousness, the works show that the temporal looping that characterizes video installation is on a par with a multiple ñloopingî that is visual, social, and ñmediatic.î In addition to the circularity of looping that precludes the suspense-raising beginning and the satisfying ending of narrative, the films are marked by gaps. They show a constant interruption, sometimes a failure of the action, as in Alcazar, sometimes a visual interruption of movement, as another way of creating never-ending stories, as in Road Movie.
The films reflect (on) the medium in which they are made, sometimes to the point of interrupting the medium itself, as in Rockefeller Boulevard. At the same time, they] The films reflect on the hierarchies among media, in particular, the prime position of painting in the Western artistic tradition since the Renaissance, on the one hand, as a counterpoint to the lure images constitute for prospective migrants, attracted by blondes and cars, both equally flashy; and, on the other hand, narrative, the structure with beginning and end that informs us about events, forming sequences and frequently involving a crisis, told by a narrator or ñvoice,î versus the endless series of unspectacular, ñtrashyî narratives that ñjust happenî as a way of shaping the everyday life in a cultural setting.
Depending on when one enters the gallery space, the film looks like a still photograph, evoking a traditional landscape painting, or like a film. The one-shot film Road Movie is 17 minutes long. On a four-lane highway, dangerously close to the cars, on the edge of a green median stretch of hollow road, a man walks. The man in the somewhat shabby, slightly out-of-style but very proper suit and black shoes just walks away, his back turned to us. He carries two old cardboard suitcases. He walks fast and disappears into the distance, into nothingness. He never looks up. Cars keep rushing by. Then for at least eight minutes nothing happens but more cars.
Just when the viewer might get a bit annoyed by the narrative silence, something happens again. From very small to recognizable, the man comes back, as a relief of the tension emptiness creates. But to process this as a narrative one begins to ask questions that explain the two otherwise disconnected events of his departure and his return. Was he sent back at the other end, refused entry or chased away by angry Americans-only types, or did he return because America has nothing to offer? Or did he return in belated acknowledgement of the viewer? At the end, he comes close enough to looks at us, but he doesnÍt ever look us in the eyes, because he is too busy walking on. ThatÍs all.
In the other films of the series GAPS, we see what might have happened during the primary gap that constitutes this filmÍs anti-narrative void: that time during which he was, so to speak, inside the vanishing point. These tiny events, in turn, also constitute interruptions, gaps, disappointments.
Caution responds to the tradition of performance art. This movement that started in the late 1960s sought to denounce the deceptions of art, including the theater and its narrative realism, and the subordination of viewers condemned to passivity. Performance art resisted narrative. Here, the man reappears on the prestigious oval lawn in front of the library, where students walk by to go to classes. A normal day on an American campus. Nothing seems likely to happen, and for a few minutes, that is just what you see, from the distant height of a rooftop, as well as from the frontal and side positions on the ground. The overt and fast editing undercuts the smooth narration one might expect. The tiny figure walking the middle of the path opposite the high viewing point, strikes as slightly out of place: the gap is put in place, visually. It is also put in place in the performance, as he walks faster than others, as if he had a purpose.
He begins to unroll red-and-white European caution tape, routinely used to block off areas that represent a danger for the public. He knots the end of that tape to a tree. With fierce determination Æ or is it resigned repetition? Æ he screens off an area. Repetition, here constituting a dense sculptural wall of bright colors, establishes the hallmark of the series as video installation. Repetition also counters narrativity, where retroversion, instead, helps the story along. Then, he begins a somewhat longer walk over the lawn to the other side of the oval. He attached the tape to a tree there, then returns.
Is this a narrative? Yes and no, or rather, at first no, then yes, after all. Avoiding a narratorial voice in video is nothing to write home about. But to avoid what ñvoiceî stands for is easier said than done. Instead of a voice, there is the organizing editorial hand, but in spite of the attempt to show its hand by fast cutting, we cannot take that hand for a voice. Rather, the editing is subjected to two competing ñvoicesî: the performer who centers the images, and the relentless dictate of sequence. The minuscule acts that constitute the larger intervention are, as narratology has it, ñlogically and chronologicallyî ordered. The onlookers or indifferent bystanders and passersby moreover, create what can be called a ñsense of narrative.î Any moment, one expects one of them to respond, and act in relation to the performance, thus breaking the invisible wall between the performer and the public and turning the performance into a narrative. Does it happen, hence, does an embryonic narrative occur? Yes, almost, when two people cross at the exact place where the tape cuts the path in two. But then, no, when they each simply lift the tape and walk underneath it, separating again. Not even an encounter takes place. Narrative is again aborted.
Yet another act happens in the gap when the figure had disappeared in Road movie, but do not expect it to be related. The wind blows fiercely; the legs of his pants flip-flop, showing the thinness of the fabric. He must be cold, and the hot climate of his home emerges by contrast. Just as the media of photography and video, here, are set off against each other. If you need a story, it would be this account of what happened during the time he was gone, in Road Movie, in the vanishing point. With the two suitcases that mark his recent arrival, he explores different sites on a large, impenetrable space. Urban, but without people; desolate, without nature. The industrial area of a city that is long past its economic flourish. He walks past huge oil containers, that ironic icon of the Mid-WestÍs appropriation of the middle-EastÍs natural riches. Between him and the containers stands an insurmountable fence. Then, looking around, sitting at a picnic table, peeping into broken windows, walking along an unreadable low building, he seems lost. In the distance, a chimney still vomits clouds, unreachably far-away symptoms of possibility; a reminder of what he came to search.
But, embodying retroversion, he is irremediably late. Industry is over. The buildings to which he came, on which he had set his hopes for a better life, are ruins of history. By the time he has understood that the only way to survive was to follow the oil from his country to its destination, the oil had burned up. Modern times have become an object of nostalgia, and the Migrant is no longer wanted. In the end, we imagine, he returns to the invisible point from whence he came, on this side of the camera.
What I submit for discussion here, in this context, is what I see as the wavering between narrative temptation and the ultimate failure of narrative, both phenomena leading to the question of performativity. If on the one hand, the narratorial voice in its cinematic form of camera and editing, is countered, if its power is taken over by performer and unreflecting bystanders, and on the other, the coherence of the series of events in sequences with some logical and chronological solidity is destroyed by gaps of all kinds, do we therefore have to say that narrative is no longer at issue in these films?
Personally, I donÍt think so. I am convinced that the impulse, or desire, for narrative, is so strong that precisely those gaps that destroy the potential story also generate the possibility of story. Without falling back of phenomenological accounts of gaps, such as Wolfgang IserÍs ñleerstelle,î I would like to hear your view of what those gaps do there, in the larger part of Road Movie, between the films, or acts, and in Rockefeller Boulevard. Without being characters or events, the gaps are something, do something. And when beings and doings get together, classical narratology holds that story begins.
Mieke Bal (1946) ist eine bekannte niederländische Literaturwissenschaftlerin, Kultur- und Kunsthistorikerin. Sie ist seit 1991 Professorin für Literaturtheorie an der Universität Amsterdam und war dort auch ab 1993 Gründungsrektorin des Amsterdamer Instituts für Kulturwissenschaften (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, Theory and Interpretation (ASCA)).