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- ScrollDiving — Release I
Im Going to DescribeBeatriz Santiago Muñoz
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Im Going to
Describe a Ritual
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
Retirer anba dlo means to withdraw beneath the waters. It is a vodou ceremony that some friends described to me while I was in Haiti last year for a couple of weeks. The ceremony only takes place after a year and one day has passed since a person's death. During the first days after the death has occurred —from one week to about nine days— theTi Bon Ange, the spirit of the deceased, releases itself rapidly but lingers close to its corporal body.
The waters are the ancestral residency of loas, the spirits. During the anba dlo ceremony, the soul —Gros Bon Ange— is transferred from ancestral waters to a govi, a vessel which is located in the peristyle’s altar. In order to move the Gros Bon Ange, the invisible and mysterious spirits —the loas— are summoned through musical dance rituals and langaj. The Met Tet, the loa which is closest to the person —literally: the head’s master— will be liberated as well. Thus, one communes with them directly through possession.
The objects composing the ritual are quotidian: bottles, cornflour, fire, sequins, satin fabrics, rum and water. All are poor materials. Consequently, the treatment, the attention to form, timing and movements are what produce the transformation of consciousness and perceptual abilities. The loas inhabit the same time and space as the living through the body of a chwal. It is thus said that the loa mounts the possessed body as a rider.
This state of possession has been described in many ways. It is a harsh process —that of attrition— for the possessed chwal. During its possession, the loa fully occupies her body —although this is not the only possible outcome.
The ceremony also guides the serviteurs toward different types of trance —but not all lead to a state of possession. The trance can be joyful or inspirational, it can also be an errant-trance —a journey from one place to another— or an open door to Ginen mysteries, to mystic aspects of vodou —something called Nan Domi. As for the metaphysics of vodou, these lucid dreams allow for profound states of consciousness and thought.
The ceremony is a big travay, a laborious effort that opens the gates between the world of the visible and the invisible.
This ritual depicts a sacred time and space of exception in which attention and perception are transformed.There is no single position from which one partakes in the ritual, but instead these positions are fluid and interchangeable. While serviteurs alternate between lucid and possessed states —between abandonment and advocacy, those who are initiated —children or visitors— lucidly carry out concrete actions, such as killing a goat or drawing a vevé in the peristyle. The sick and the visionaries that occupy other positions can also be powerful figures. When the ritual is practiced in a communal way, as part of daily life, it is not a static repetition of forms, but is instead a constant transformation. The loas multiply, new aspects are born daily, their forms and practices transform, and their metaphysical aspects expand.
The spectator is present as well, but only as a marginal figure. They can master the meaning of forms, timing and ritual salutations until becoming an expert, certain aspects —perhaps the most important ones— such as an awareness of the state of trance and possession, the sense of commonality in a group action, the transformation of the perception of time, the sensorial intensification that emerges with the repetition of rhythms, and the attention to space, sacred objects, and the group's energy will remain unknown forever. Among other possibilities, rituals bring us closer to other states of consciousness for perceiving what we cannot perceive in everyday space and time, and for identifying ourselves with the other.
We participate in many rituals on a daily basis. Sitting down to dinner contains ritual aspects which transform a physical necessity into a communal, affective event. I use this example because it shares something with a given artistic practice: the transformation of states of consciousness and perception through the sensorial, the material and the formal. Art is a practice which aspires to the transformation of states of consciousness through the total transformation of its sensorium.
Ritual and art also share the possibility of being perceived through multiple positions. In a ritual, this multiplicity is evident. Nevertheless, the experience of art has been overturned so violently to the side of the spectator, that we rarely speak about the aspects of artistic practice which are perceived from these positions. From the position of one who makes art, this process intensifies perception, and the relationship between form and a new state of consciousness. In ritual as in art, we construct upon the materiality and metaphysics of every type of object, whether average or exceptional.
When thinking about artistic practice through ritual, we can open the former towards positions beyond the figure of the spectator. What about the transformation of the subject, the poiesis, the hyper-sensorial states that allow for leaps in thought? Within a ritual you can be a lucid expert, a mad visionary, a child, and master of objects and form, possessed. From what position can we describe all this, analyze it and theorize it? How can we open this possible transformation of the subject? Or of the communal transformation?
For instance, if we talk of the camera as a ritual-object, of making cinema as a space-time ritual, and the artistic processes of perception and consciousness akin to ritual, what do we pay attention to? It is no longer to the presentation and perception of the spectator. What happens when we think about possession, in the acute, individual and communal state of perception? In the implicit learning form, youngsters do not receive vodou classes, but instead attend the ritual along with the expert, the initiated, the madman and the sick.
Jean Rouch said the following about cinema as ritual:
“When I filmed the second ritual, I was in some kind of trance that I call ‘cinema-trance’; the creative state that allowed me to closely follow the initiated person. The camera plays the role of the ritual object. The camera becomes the magical object that unbinds or accelerates the phenomenon of possession, because it leads the camera operator through paths that she had never dared to take if she not had the camera on hand, guiding her towards something that she barely understood…in this universe made of fragile mirrors, the presence of the observer —who is close to men and women who, with one clumsy movement could unbind or stop the trance— is not neutral. She is integrated within the general motion, willy-nilly, and her subtlest actions can be understood according to this system of thought. All the people who I shoot nowadays are familiar with cameras and know what one is able to see and hear. Also they have seen further screenings of the movies that I make throughout the editing process. In fact, they react to this art of visual and aural re-election in the same way as they react to the public art of possession or the private art of magic and enchantments.”
—Jean Rouch, Ciné Ethnography, in Steven Feld (ed.)
The Creative Trance, pp.181-82
We can choose other analogies: the hallucinogenic journey, the psychoanalytic cure, the political demonstration or musical improvisation. The states of attention, perception, and reflection through musical improvisation is something very well-known in the Caribbean. This is the side of the artistic practice that I’m interested in thinking about. All these practices allow us to see the shape of processes and recognize experiences from different positions. These all have some ritualistic aspects, and the ritual contains these practices.
Collapsed Time: the Ritual Object
Paso del Indio is the name of an alluvial plain in Vega Alta, in northern Puerto Rico. In 1992, Puerto Rico’s Department of Transportation and Public Works Department proposed to build a highway extension towards Arecibo. All of the archaeologists who knew of the place realized that if the highway passed through a place called Paso del Indio, there would be archaeological findings. One day, the excavators unearthed a complete skeleton as if it were Atabey’s hand holding a body between her fingers. At that moment, the current law obliged the state to halt the excavation and devote some time to archaeological investigation. The Department of Transportation opened a call, and a governmental auction and a bureau of archaeologists took charge of the project for some years. Two-hundred residents from Río Abajo, a neighborhood that stands on the plain’s limestone hills, were employed in the archaeological excavation. Twenty years later, I spoke with the archaeologist in charge. That day in his office, various stories were entwined, or perhaps they were all the same story as I tell it here.
He told me: hundreds of bones were unearthed. About 200 individuals of the neighborhood, worked for minimum wages in groups of eight or ten, spread out in a grid over the terrain. We arranged them into groups, and every group had a designated leader, and this leader had a different color helmet, which made him more powerful compared to the rest. These hierarchies created discipline and order within the labor. We taught them to take photographs, draw objects and bones for depicting their dimensions and state. One of the skeletons was of a woman in childbirth, with the fetus’ skeleton still trying to pass through her body. One day, two or three men arrived symbolically dressed up as Taíno Indians, and entered the project’s office. They were against the exhumation of their ancestors, and they considered the project as a transgression of their sacred place. But we offered them work, and in a couple of days they changed their uniforms. All of these skeletal remains are now in the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico. As for the objects and fragments that were found, the initial archaeological proposal included their identification, cataloguing and storage, but the government did not want to comply with the contract. It was cancelled in its third phase —that of preservation. The excavation had paralyzed the highway construction project for too long. Unsubstantiated allegations of corruption circulated, and rumors of wage theft thrived among Rio Abajo’s employees. This destroyed my career. Another technical studies company took over the project and ended it at the earliest opportunity. This is why they were hired.
The archaeologist in charge said to me: the hallucinations produced by Cojoba are geometric hallucinations and repeated under tesserae patterns. Look at this representation of a cemí upside down, backwards and on its side. Imagine it superimposed on the hills that surround Caguana. I’m telling you a story about the hallucinations. It was at the beginning of the 70’s. Some friends had been turning a large rural plot into farmland, and they were arduously sowing fruit trees and coffee in the shade. One day everyone took Belladonna tea. In the beginning they thought that the effects were of the slightest, but later on the trees started talking to them. The trees said that we were at war with each other. That we have been at war for centuries. They attacked us and we fought against them. When we woke up from our trip we realized that we had destroyed all the trees on the farm.
In the office of fluorescent lights and air conditioning, the archaeologist told me about the transmutation and migration of indigenous mythology from the Southern Cone to the Arctic. When I returned to Paso del Indio I searched other stories for their geographic, material, and actual panorama. Which one of these places could be Cacibajagua, the black cave from where all life departs? The cave of death, the mythological anus. Which one is the god of disorder and chaos, the one who collects and delivers ancestral knowledge? I visited the place once a week and I stood with my camera under the bridge, I was looking for twin figures, as told in the story of the divine and syphilitic twins. I was looking for obscurities, nocturnal creatures such as the Quequerequé. I was wondering from where the lute turtle comes from, what type of supernatural power do the androgynous have?. I was also walking among the houses in Río Abajo, doing interviews with unclear results. I found several men that had worked digging up some of those bones and objects twenty years ago. One of them had had a leader’s helmet. After working with the archaeologist he had been assistant in some other similar projects. He was about 45 years old. His name was Julio, and I asked him to come down the bridge to show me where he had been digging. He tucked a gun in his pants and he came down to talk with me. Meanwhile, his mother was in his house, looking through the window. The house, built by Julio himself, had no balconies.There, beneath the bridge, there were televisions, snails and pink-colored bowls. Julio had learnt to draw during that project, and he also worked in other archaeological projects as an assistant. Thousands of years ago, bodies were buried. Now, cars and dogs get buried. Nobody knows where Paso del Indio’s objects ended up. For a while they were in plastic bags in a basement, in the offices of Tren Urbano in Avenida Piñeiro. Now, no one is able to locate them.
One evening, two teenagers of 13 and 14 years of age, emerged from the wooded nothingness. They asked me what I was doing there, and they told me that they were looking for a horse that they had lost. I explained to them the story of the place. They already knew, although they were not alive in 1992. They had listened to the tales as children’s horror stories. For Heniel and Keniel these were stories of skeletons, of indians with rotten teeth, of the bones of a woman with a fetus between her legs. His parents, uncles, and brothers of teachers had been working on the excavation project. Since that day, every Saturday I came to Paso del Indio and I stood down the road, in front of the house where Heniel and Keniel lived. They came down, they were not ordinary kids; both had an unusual masculine tenderness and solidarity with children raised in liberty. I told them what I had learned, and they told me what they knew. They acted while I was filming. We watched the footage and started again.
The future and past are superstitions, and all these facts have equal weight: the red-tape harassment, the hallucinogenic tea of Brugmansia versicolor, the gun in the pants, the indigenous cosmology, the air conditioning in its highest function, the replicas, the bureaucratic straitjacket, the beautiful drugged visions of the humanist archaeologists who were young in ‘69, and the beautiful visions of the drugged out indigenous who are young in our reconstructed memories. They all coexist together, we take them all in one single gulp. They do not exist in one past or another, but all at the same present time and in the same memory.
I carry all these with me, along with a camera, walking with a man who learned to draw by unearthing skeletons and is now carrying a gun while walking under the bridge. I go after him, a woman with a camera, to stop under a bridge, every Saturday for two months. The pear trees in the corner tell me that they protect me, and El Bichote supervises from afar the car theft operation around the corner. When Heniel and Keniel come, we disarm everything and we assemble it back. Sometimes Heniel directs, sometimes I do it myself. The three of us improvising. We don’t speak to each other as teacher-student, nor as mother-sons. The relationship is weird, non-determined.
I have a camera in my hands; I carry the ritual object. How do we name all that happens before an image appears? What discipline is this? Who is the possessed one?
The Domain of the Landowner, the Cimarron’s Forest
The cimarron’s forest was thus the first obstacle that the slave opposed to the transparency of the colonist. There’s no clear path, there’s no way to advance in this thickness.
—Edouard Glissant, The Known, The Uncertain
This is a short story about seeing and not seeing. Before creating an image, we have to be able to see, and we have not always been able to. The landowner sees territory as a space for domination, the cimarron sees a confusing forest that offers freedom or danger. The darkness, the opacity, the noise opposes clarity, to control.
The aerial view is the favorite representation of the U.S. Navy, who for 60 years bombed Vieques island, in Puerto Rico. During those 60 years they produced hundreds of aerial images, and hindered citizen’s gaze from other parts of the island.
If language is not for being believed but to compel to an order, then the visible, as well as in language, establishes an order. It determines what is possible to think and feel about the present and future. The U.S. Navy, through its Department of Photography, produced images of daily life in Roosevelt Roads/Vieques. Aerial images of its entire East coast and other images that, more than describing a group of persons or a geography, were reproducing the ideology of racial dominion over the Caribbean, and showed us a series of technologies of the visible. To train ourselves to see our geography through this lens is also part of our preparation for the war. This visual order organizes what is possible to think about our territory. We locate ourselves in the category of military ruin, whereas it could be shore, secret society, cave or thousands of other forms and ideas. The camera, the lens, the subject’s positionality, the image’s darkness or clarity, its depth of field, all are part of this grammar. Facing this order, —whose most representative actual construction might be the camera-drone— we need something more than analysis, description or interpretation. The task demands the generation of a post-military practice that breaks with this visual order which structures not only what can be seen or cannot, but the positions from which are operated. Who and what becomes subjected; how and by what means it is observed.
The name given to this archive by the U.S. Navy is ‘1975 Drone.’ Roosevelt Roads had a research and development Program on drones —self-directed missiles— since the 40’s, when the base was inaugurated. Recently I learned to manually develop film. It took me about two hours to shoot, rewind —three times— and develop my 3-minute length film. Military photographers were flying light aircrafts, filming with infra-red film, developing and projecting, everything done within an improbable timespan, which allowed them to calculate their bombing targets. I’m not saying that the activity was beautiful, but rather that they were skilled. The military photography developed its technique from the air. Journalism continued at ground level until after the Vietnam war. The U.S Navy enjoyed the aerial view so much to the point that they used it for everything, even for the commemorative photographs of the troops. In Ceiba’s base, the best place from which to observe the bombings is the bar in the general’s house, with a whiskey in hand; it is the most private space for entertainment.
In 2000, during the period of civil disobedience and occupation of Vieques’ test bomb camps, Governor Roselló created a Special Commission to evaluate the environmental damage and human rights violations in Vieques. The Admiral in charge of Roosevelt Roads offered a helicopter to carry the Commission to the shooting range. In the helicopter were Archbishop González Nieves, Norma Burgos —the so-then Secretary of State, a couple more people and a news cameraman. While flying over the shooting range, the self-confident voice of the Admiral explained what they were seeing. The cameraman was filming Norma and the Archbishop looking through the window towards the shooting range.
The Admiral was observing the shooting range from the position from where he has always observed. ‘Nothing new, here I’m before the military polygon, it is the same as always.’ The Archbishop and the Secretary were observing too. They were visibly affected by the landscape and by a point of view that, until now, had been concealed. For the first time they could lean out of the window and see what the U.S. Navy have seen for 60 years. The camera observes them; it is there for documenting this first moment of visibility. The Archbishop and the Secretary are aware that they will be watched while seeing. The Admiral deals with narrating the scene. The camera caught when, despite the Admiral’s voice, the Archbishop and Norma were crying.
The military vision, and the reproduction of this vision as a transparent one, from above, is a vision of domination. Against this vision we have left the forest, these new forests formed by mastic trees, African tulip trees, beach morning-glories, ornamental ferns and coconut palms that grow over toxic spills and which are populated by iguanas, toads, packs of abandoned dogs and noisy crickets. Transparency belongs to the master. The forest belongs to the cimarron. In order to see the future of the place instead of the military ruin, we have to see it from the ground. We have to let the forest grow once more, to hinder transparency, to collapse, misunderstand and change our position constantly. Listening to the noise without searching the signal.
This is a photograph taken by the U.S. Navy in Vieques. The name that the Navy gave to the archive was ‘Vieques Riot.’ It is an image taken at ground level with an automatic photo camera. The action at ground level obliges one to face the demonstrators. At ground level, the Navy neither dominates the terrain, nor the bodies that —unafraid of their presence— are joyfully posing before the Navy’s cameras, When the military vision is forced to descend to ground level, its answer is always to debase all the trees. The image is horizontal, the scale is human. One thing is evident in this type of image; there is no dominion.
This is the landowner’s vision of domination.
This is the confusing forest, the cimarron’s freedom.
One of the most well-known stories about quasi-films is about the film Maya Deren started to shoot in Haiti on movement and vodou’s ritual dance. It is a fable on failure as the only ethical possibility. Although she went to shoot hundreds of 16mm reels, she never edited the film. Deren had proposed to the Guggenheim Fellowship a movie about the formal relationship between vodou ritual dance and the structure of children's games, among other things. She had learned briefly about Haitian culture out of a love affair with Gregory Bateson. Bateson —already a renowned anthropologist and author of an ethnographic piece on Bali’s ritual dance— was married. Once she won the grant, they planned to go together to Haiti, but the day before the flight, Bateson changed his mind and broke off his love affair with Deren. She flew alone. She perceived the vodou rituals as a total mythological and aesthetic system, impossible to detach dance from belief, trance and possession from objects or rhythm without exerting violence through representation. All this contributed to abandonment of the film. A few years later, in New York, she wrote Divine Horsemen, a book that explains her reasons, and narrates in detail her experience with vodou initiation. She explained the transformation of her ideas about the project in this way:
“It was this order of awareness which made it impossible for me to execute the artwork I had intended. It became clear to me that Haitian dance was not in itself a dance-form, but part of a larger form, the mythological ritual. And the respect for formal integrity that makes it impossible for me to consider Cezanne’s apple as an apple rather than as a Cezanne, made it equally impossible, in Haiti, to ignore the total integrity of cultural form…”
—Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen.
Deren identifies herself with practitioners, with the degree of attention to objects, movements, and with the possibilities of transformation; therapeutic value, analysis and metaphysical thought in the form of ritual, loas and trance. It is the narration of the newly initiated —and I think, of a lover.
Sarah Maldoror, whose name was Sarah Ducados, took the name of Maldoror because of her love for another author with a pseudonym; the surreal and the cursed Comte de Lautréamont.
She is a French filmmaker of African descent and Guadalupense parents. Married with the Angolese Mario Pinto de Andrade, she was a poet, founder of political organizations, and a central figure in Angola’s anti-colonial movement. Maldoror was the assistant of Gillo Pontecorvo in the filming of The Battle of Algiers. Her first feature film, Sambizanga, takes place in the months before a prison revolt in Luanda that was a trigger event in Angola’s anti-colonial resistance. It describes a process of communal and individual radicalization through the long search of a woman whose husband has been incarcerated, and subsequently, tortured and killed. The participants are non-actors. The shots are close-up. As image, Sambizanga is a narrative and a register. But let us consider for a moment that Sambizanga was presented in 1972, and the Angolan War of Independence will not finish until 1974. The importance of this film is not limited to the meanings that it could generate for audiences in European festivals and cinephiles all over the world. If we consider all the possible positions, the subject’s possibilities for transformation, Sambizanga is an essay.
Clip taken from Sambizanga: “So I hear you/ So I accompany the observer/ So I take note of the details/ So I observe/ So I can participate in a secret network.”
Her second feature film was entitled Guns for Banta, another narration on a national liberation war, but this time located in Guinea-Bissau. It was filmed among the partisans of Almícar Cabral, and once more, from the point of view of a woman. Sarah Maldoror arrives with 16 people to a small, isolated island, which is part of Guinea-Bissau. The technicians, including the cameraman, were trained in the National Liberation Front during the Second Algerian War. Recently, Matthieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, a visual artist, has compiled a series of texts about this non-finished film. I’m reading an anecdote collected by Suzanne Lipinska:
“There were 17 of us, with our own film equipment, suitcases and provisions, disembarking at shore. It was getting dark. The boat left and there was nobody to welcome us. The town was very beautiful. Immense circular huts, with hairy roofs of long thatch, doors, patios and covered windows girded by bamboo fences or some fabric, hogs walking everywhere and magnificent trees with wide roots as large muscles. In order to open the door to the Diabadiana hospice, it was vital to meet the ‘President’ but he was not around. We went from hut to hut.”
“It was Eva —big, proud, generous— who came to rescue us, first by offering us water for bathing and then coffee to revive us. She is a militant who has worked extensively with the rebels. Thanks to her, finally we met the ‘President.’ The conversation was not easy. We explained our necessities in French, this was translated to Portuguese and then to Balance, with the same reverse process for obtaining the answer. We had two problems; first, where to sleep, and second, how to persuade the entire population to participate in the filming. The first problem was solved without major difficulties. They spread us out among the huts. Sarah and I were invited to share the President’s hut alongside all his wives. But the second problem required a town’s general meeting. The musician played bambolon for a long time before they payed attention to his call. It was late at night when the first inhabitants arrived to the meeting point under a big tree, a great kapok. Women dressed up. They were carrying small stools upside down over their heads and their babies nodding off on their backs. Another President from the neighboring island explained, in a two-times translated, flowery language, the aim of our visit. We were there to make a film. What is a film?”
—Suzanne Lipinska, Filming with the Balanta People. Africasia No. 19, 6th-19th July, 1970, reproduced by Matthieu Kleyebe Abonnenc.
We can start upside down and ask: “What is a film?” “There were 17 of us, with our own film equipment, suitcases and provisions.” Whether or not an image exists for a spectator, this that we call cinema starts with the intention with which Sarah Maldoror and 16 technicians disembark. These are some of the practices, intentions, forms, and affects that cinema creates even when it does not produce a single image: it is a device that provokes ethical questioning, encounters among subjects, sensorial events and socio-natural transformations.
At the beginning of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes explains his interest in photography and the place from which he is interested in thinking about it. In the text, Barthes identifies three practices, three emotions, or three intentions of photography: to make, to submit and to observe. Barthes is writing about the moment in which the spectator is consolidated as a consumer of images in mass media. Due to personal and practical reasons, he proposes to speak from the position of who observes photography. More specifically, he speaks about the spectator-consumer of images; this is what most interests him. The first question made by Barthes at the beginning of his reflection on photography in Camera Lucida is “What does my body know about photography?” If we go back to that moment where he recognizes different positions and decides to investigate and think from the side of the spectator, we can see that other positions exist. And much more than those that he describes.
I propose to talk from the side of who makes, who submits, who observes, and blend these three intentions, emotions and practices in order to open other positions. Particularly, the positions that recognize the transformation of the subject and the perception, the importance of improvisation, the state of trance. The latter is understood as artistic practices which are continuously pursued and desired by the possessed and the operator; by who submits and by other figures that may well be accidental or marginal. All these practices that also constitute making art, but that have been degraded as minor and superficial practices, without depth; as mimetic practices.
Guy Regis Junior, playwright, was who invited me to Haiti last year. Besides being a writer, he is a translator. His most beautiful translation project —because of its resistance to art as message, as instrument, as representation— is a translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time from French to Kreyol. Kreyol is an oral language; French is the language of literary instruction in Haiti. The translation of Proust to French is not a necessity, there are not thousands, not even hundreds of readers waiting to read Proust in Kreyol. In this case, the translation is an exercise that creates a space for reflection between two texts. An exercise about what is possible to think between two languages and ways of naming and seeing the world.
The interviewer asked Guy to talk about the process of translation:
“I read Proust with unspeakable happiness. I kept reading him, as everyone does, both frantically, and driven by need for deep meditation. This great torrent in such deeply personal language – I wanted to express it, to interpret it myself. In other terms, translating is reproducing, interpreting. That desire was enough, and I got to work – like a child, mimicking, interpreting this music in my own way, with my own instrument, my own language. Translating is entirely egotistical and at the same time sacrificial. We translate out of the desire to deeply read a text. Everything starts there; language comes after.”
—Guy Regis Junior during the interview.
All life is public in Port-au-Prince, all space is a common one. All the vehicles travel simultaneously in all directions. All the foreigners in Haiti are white, regardless of their skin color. The industry of misery, that peculiar philanthropic presence of NGO’s and ‘international cooperation’ in Haiti —which has consumed the majority of funds donated after the earthquake— has created a clear-cut division between Haitians and those who live at their expense. The workers of international cooperation organizations sign work contracts that obliges them to never walk the city alone. When I walk the city alone I’m immediately identified as a foreigner looking for something to be photographed. I bring nothing good, everyone points at me ‘NO’ with their index finger when they see me get closer with the camera. Haitians in the street have it very clear that I have something to win and they have something to lose. All are pretty aware of the way photography exploits their miseries, all are certain that every single photograph will be sold to be used by the media, whereas their lives will not change at all. They are not interested in being instrumentalized as symbolic value within spaces of image consumption. They are not interested in being a sign within our discourse. They physically resist to representation and the incorporation of their bodies, affects and particular motions within a symbolic field. They could give lessons to the rest of the world on the circulation of photographic images.
In order to film in the street, I approach every person very slowly, showing them my camera but without looking through the viewfinder. I offer a long explanation. I really bore them. I show them the images after filming. ‘You see? It is just your arms,’ ‘Nothing about the place,’ or ‘It is a really tight-cropped frame.’
Among friends, the camera is something else. There is an affective exchange. Daphne Menard sings to me in a folkloric theme. I sit on the balcony with him, I move around him until finding good illumination, I focus the lens and smile while listening to his private concert. Daphne is Christian, but before religion is the song, and he is a total connoisseur of all traditional vodou music. He sings a song about a child arrested by the police on the way to buy coffee; he asks himself how his mother will come to know his whereabouts. This exchange of attention and affects needs the ritual object, the camera, but the reproduction of the image and possible spectators are yet too marginal for the transformation of consciousness provided by the camera, the song, the attention and the perception.
I’m telling the following story as heard in Haiti a year ago.
The artist André Eugene has his atelier in a neighborhood called Grand Rue in Pòtoprens. Half the town was in and out his atelier, and many people were working at a time in there. Some visitors arrived with cameras, because; who is not travelling to Haiti without a camera? Three assistants of Eugene wanted to do what tourists do, but they were Haitians, so they had no camera. They took a bottle of engine oil made out of black plastic, they cut it in half and drew it like a video camera, with its visor, even with headphones, and they would stroll around the neighborhood interviewing —with a brush as a microphone— and looking through the camera.
They reproduced all the movements, intonations and affects related to filming: they looked, framed and focused through the small screen as a periscope. They were moving around the subject looking for the best shots, listening through the headphones —and, as camera operators, they did instruct their subjects. Even so being aware of this fact, their subjects responded to all these movements with changes in their attention, straight backs and appropriate ways of speaking —formality, a smile to the operator and the public, attention to the questions, even nervousness. They carried all that we would describe as cinema, except the image’s reproduction. It was months after the earthquake.
“There were many foreign journalists and we wanted to imitate white people with their cameras. We used a bottle of engine oil as a camera and a brush as a microphone, and we behaved as if we were journalists and we were interviewing people. Our camera and our microphone were fabricated, but the project is real.” The real thing, ‘Je we bouch pale,’ which, translated from Kreyol means ‘the eyes sees, the mouth says.’
A few year laters, a friend of André Eugene came from London to visit them and he promised a camera that he sent when he came back to his country. Now they have a camera that reproduces images. When they go out filming, they also bring the first camera and this always appears in all the images. Every image of this new cinema contains the memory of the former.
With all of this, I want to tell you:
That we have been thinking for so long about artistic practice exclusively from the spectator’s point of view —and even more, from the spectator/consumer— to the point that we almost do not recognize those other positions that were once pointed out. And still there are others that we cannot perceive, to the point that we have come to think that everything has already been seen and made into images, whereas what is visible and made into images is so little. This is the advantage of thinking about art history, photography and cinema from such a marginal territory.
Because recognizing the way in which the aerial view distorts with its vision of domination, it is something so immediate, so obvious that it makes even the Archbishop weep. Our lives are closely imbricated with something that this order is unable to sense. Because the NO of Haitian people demonstrates that there is a position of resistance to representation, to be signed for —the same resistance that Maya Deren once perceived. And that behind this resistance —as in the case of André Eugene’s friends— there is a practice that does not produce images for anyone, that does not submit itself to representation and, as in Proust’s translation to Haitian Kreyol, it makes and it is made. There are ethical, political and material hindrances to visibility as Guinea Bissau’s war is a hindrance for Maldoror.
That to limit art to what is possible to perceive from the position of the spectator, reader or listener —the image as sign, representation-as-event— within image’s circulation is only a minute scrap of what we can think about art, its intentions and affects.
We have been miseducated in Aesthetics. We misunderstand the fundamentals of this philosophical dialogue, because neither quotidian practices, nor economies, nor institutions sustain the figure of the spectator within this field. There are more positions for the one who makes, than for the one who, idly and disinterestedly, wanders the halls of the Arsenale, locating herself in the position of the spectator. Here the spectator is a specter.
That, if we want to unpack other possibilities and positions, to think profoundly on states of consciousness, leaps in thought, sacrifice and selfishness —as Guy holds, speaking about the experience in translation as a value in itself— the depths, the resistance to be a sign, we should stop thinking about the spectator, on representation and the sign for quite a while.
As tiny windows along this path: we have the quasi-cinema, the material and ethical resistances, the committed and risky positions of the possessed, the visionary, the madman. We have the noise, the confusing forest, the minor and degraded practices: essay, mimesis and failure —the image without spectator, cinema without image. Because we already have these positions, we can speak about those. If they are neither sign nor representation, what are they? What is their function? Their work is that of the formation of the subject, anti-therapy, essay, transformation of states of consciousness through material, structure, movement, form and so forth.
This is the travay.