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Reflections on the Blindness Series
by Lucas Hilderbrand
Originally commissioned and published by Video Data bank (vdb.org) for the collection The Tran, T. Kim-Trang Blindness Series, 2009.
Reflections on The Blindness SeriesLucas Hilderbrand
“Recent medical experiments have shown that a great deal of vision is unconscious: we are blind to certain things and blind to our blindness. Those twin blindnesses are necessary for ordinary seeing: we need to be continuously partially blind in order to see. In the end, blindnesses are the constant companions of seeing and even the very condition of seeing itself.”
-- James Elkins
“Deep down, deep down inside, the eye would be destined not to see but to weep. For at the very moment they veil sight, tears would unveil what is proper to the eye. And what they cause to surge up out of forgetfulness, there where the gaze or look looks after it, keeps it in reserve, would be nothing less than alétheia, the truth of the eyes…”
“History is embodied in physical characteristics.”
--Maxine Hong Kingston
When I was teaching at course on experimental documentary at New York University, the class session that most fascinated the students was about blindness and vision. I had assigned readings by art historian James Elkins from his The Object Stares Back, quoted above, and a case study by Oliver Sacks from An Anthropologist on Mars in which a man regained his sight after years of blindness but could not make sense of what he saw. I had also invited a friend, a doctoral student in neuroscience, to give a guest lecture on human brain’s visual cortex and lab experiments with attention and perception. And for screenings, I showed Tran T. Kim-trang’s Ekleipsis (1998) and Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the latter about the filmmaker’s vision loss as a side effect of AIDS and featuring 70-some minutes of a blue screen. My goal for this class session was somewhat simple: to expose students to profoundly interesting work in order to, hopefully, inspire them to contemplate the sense of sight—that mode of perception upon which so much of daily life, communication, and art depends but upon which we all perhaps reflect too little.
Vision is inherently subjective, yet social. Vision is about more than the physics of light, the optics of the eye, the cognitive processes of the brain—though this sense takes up a disproportionate share of our mental activities. There are basic physiological functions for vision, yes. But there are also ways of seeing, to borrow John Berger’s famous title. These ways are learned, constructed, experienced, historical, personal. Why we look and the meanings we make of what we see are cultural. Seeing can be about desire, about control, about our pasts. As suggested in Ekleipsis, blindness may be the scar of history. With The Blindness Series, Tran created eight videos between 1992 and 2006 looking at the topics of cosmetic surgery, sexuality, surveillance, hysterical blindness, language, and actual blindness, framed by an introduction and an epilogue.
The Blindness Series’ thematic and formal complexity not only suggests the multifarious ways in which visuality can be approached, but it also reflects upon the complexity of Asian American identity. Since 1970, the immigration statistics in the U.S. have shifted dramatically so that half of all incoming residents come from Asia, with simultaneously increasing proportions of émigrés from South and Southeast Asia (compared to Chinese or Japanese immigrants). The greater Los Angeles area has emerged the de-centered center for these varied ethnic communities. Tran emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a youth in 1975. She later studied at CalArts and has been based in Southern California throughout her professional life. Although her work is not reducible to this biography, the confluence of these details certainly informs her frequent focus on the experiences of diasporic South Asians in Southern California. As David James has observed, “a very prolific Asian American avant-garde film and video culture” has emerged in the region “on the periphery of the [Hollywood] industry.” Tran is not only one of the preeminent artists of this scene, but, on a personal note, she was one of the most welcoming people when I moved to the LA area.
Peter X. Feng has suggested that Asian American identity is constituted by gaps of history and representation, as well as tensions between Asian-ness as a general concept and particular ethnic and diasporic identities. Mainstream media has largely ignored or stereotyped Asians and Asian Americans, and thus artists such as Tran take deconstructive approaches in their own media representations; they “construct Asian American cinematic identity by locating their subjectivities in relation to dominant cinematic discourses… by repeating them ironically or ‘splitting’ them.” Tran’s work could be situated (and has probably screened) alongside recent experimental media by such diasporic Asian artists as Trinh T. Minh-ha, Richard Fung, Shu Lea Cheang, Janice Tanaka, Ming-Yuen Ma, and Rea Tajiri. The Blindness Series is, in many ways, about diasporic Asian experiences and may have parallels to other Asian American artists’ work. But I want to stress that it also offers general critiques of visuality and reflections on (nearly) universal phenomena of vision.
Tran has said that she begin work on her videos by reading. This shouldn’t be all that surprising for those who have seen her work. It rigorously yet freely quotes from an astonishing array of sources, becoming a compendium of insights and reflects on vision. Fortunately, though, she doesn’t merely quote the usual suspects or the expected texts. Nonetheless, her work reflects what might be called the academicization of single-channel video. I mean this in two ways. First, since the 1980s, there has been an increased influence from and engagement with critical theory in video art. Tran’s work is deeply informed by theory, and the aesthetics of her work reflect a kind of praxis. Secondly, the economic reality is that many video artists teach and rely upon institutional support in order to produce their work. Tran is a full-time professor at Scripps College and has previously taught at UC-San Diego, UC-Irvine, Otis College of Art and Design, and CalArts. I can only surmise that such pedagogical experience necessarily enriches her own work.
According to Tran, she was inspired to make The Blindness Series after seeing an exhibition curated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, titled Memoirs of the Blind, which culled works from the Louvre’s permanent collection pertaining to blindness. She was struck by the generativeness of the framing rubric; there were so many works, so many ways of approaching the concept. Without suggesting that the work is derivative, I see The Blindness Series performing the same kind of curatorial project: seeking out and bringing together those aspects of the Southern California Asian American communities, popular culture, and her own life that in some way expanded her—and the viewers’—ways of thinking about vision. If The Blindness Series can be read as deconstructive, it’s in a way that refracts vision into layers of meaning, into complex ways of rethinking seeing and the varied cultural constructions that have been created around eyes.
In addition, Tran has indicated that these videos responded to her own personal fears of vision loss and to a longstanding emphasis on structural experiments with perception in experimental cinema. Each of the eight videos in The Blindness Series presents its own strategies of exploring non-fiction media-making and has its own internal structure, form, and logic allowing them to be viewed independently of the other tapes. As a collection, the tapes reveal innumerable strategies that span the field of experimental documentary: appropriation and citation, interview and narration, collages of sound and image, recording and manipulation, evidence and association, ethnography and testimony, technological play and historical critique. Although I have noticed a turn toward documentary, the archive, and historical speculation in video art and experimental cinema generally, I can think of nothing else quite like The Blindness Series. The series is complex, sometimes challenging, sometimes sexy, sometimes devastating, sometimes distancing, sometimes very human. Sometimes there are too many layers of information to process it all, and sometimes we simply listen to people tell us about their lives. Looking on the series as a whole, we can see how Tran has worked through distinct-yet-related issues of visuality, race, sexuality, technology, and trauma over the course of more than a decade. I comment on these issues in turn below.
The series begins with Aletheia (1992), and even more precisely, with grainy, close-up images of Braille. At first, it isn’t clear what we’re seeing. There are bumps, but they are indistinguishable as texts, and the soundtrack bristles with horrific strings. It’s a moment of non-recognition, as if our own processes of vision and cognition have failed us. Instead, we experience what Laura U. Marks has described as haptic vision: a sensual experience of the texture of the image, in which our eyes wash over the image rather than identify with specific forms. It would be misguided to claim that we actually experience blindness in these moments, but this opening is an invitation to see differently. This video acts less as a stand-alone investigation of particular aspects of vision than as a montage overview that introduces issues that will be addressed in the series: self-induced wounds from plastic surgery in the hopes of assimilating, sexual arousal as predicated on vision and teased by blindness, hysterical blindness as the result of political trauma, and a surveillance camera that looks like an eye.
The later Alexia: Metaphor and Word-Blindness (2000) reveals a similar emphasis on tactility as a mode of seeing. The fifth tape in The Blindness Series, it addresses a breakdown of cognition: word blindness. This condition, known as alexia or visual aphasia, typically results from brain damage. A person can still see, but he or she loses literacy. Words are visible, but the letters are an incomprehensible series of symbols. Throughout the piece, Tran’s finger presses down on adhesive plastic labels, physically scanning the raised white letters as if they were Braille symbols. Tran also materially replicates the inability of words to communicate by holding a sheet of paper with printed text under a faucet; water turns the paper flimsy while she scrubs and erodes the printed letters. They go from legible laser-printed characters to speckled fuzzy letters to indecipherable dotted residue. The video Alexia explores word blindness in relation to metaphor, as dialectical cites to explore the breakdown and invention of meaning. Again, the finger becomes an important tool of communication, as, in the absence of language, she turns to the fundamental gesture of pointing. Visually, one of the most striking traits of this video is that, in contrast to other tapes in the series, the dominant color is white. Throughout the tape, there is often a cloudy haze that obscures much of the frame as images appear through a small iris in the middle of the screen. The effect is not unlike a reverse cataract, one that suggests a kind of blankness or absence of meaning.
Physical blindness is represented in the most stylistically straight-forward of the videos in the series, Amaurosis: a portrait of Nguyen Duc Dat (2002). Nguyen was born with glaucoma and has never seen more than gradations of light; he liked watching lightening storms, but such focusing on light would give him headaches. He now sees nothing. His life has involved other trials as well: the son of an American G.I. and a Vietnamese woman, his father abandoned him in 1973, and his mother died in 1975. In 1990, prior to emigrating to the U.S., he spent six months in a Bataan refugee camp. Yet he is remarkably upbeat. He recalls his fondness for spending time in Hanoi barber shops because they were the only places to hear American pop music when he was growing up. In 1989, after hearing famed guitarist Segovia play, he began to learn guitar himself.
When we meet Nguyen, he shows off his custom guitar, with special dimensions and extra half-fret at the base of its neck. We see various concert footage of him playing guitar with the Orange County-based band Bayadera—a self described “melting pot of musical styles” including rock, R&B, and Latin music. He expresses desire to take up the flute because it conveys the sound of serenity and sweetness, so Tran gives him a flute and, in return, he performs an original tune six months later. Without sight of any kind, he finds inspiration in other senses—sound, obviously, as he is a musician, but also the all the sensations stimulated by water. He speaks of his love for the ocean—the sand, the salty air, the sound of waves, and wind against palm trees. Water—even just taking a shower—inspires him, and much of Tran’s interview with him takes place poolside. The testimonial footage may be deceptively simple, though, for it always speaks to greater issues of the personal impact of geo-political conflict, of diasporic displacement, of losing sight and yet finding one’s place in the world.
In other videos in the series, the tension between image and sound, or between layers of visual information, create another kind of blindness. In some of the tapes, there is too much to take in, and thus the viewer can’t see and comprehend the whole work. Aletheia’s collage-like structure frequently involves superimposed images, written quotations, clips from films, sound samples, and voice-over. Some of the works are clearly cited or are immediately recognizable, while others remain obscure. Simplified, yet still complex, in Operculum (1993) the screen is split in two haves. On the left, white text scrolls over a black screen; on the right, Tran presents black and white footage of her consultations with various plastic surgeons. Simultaneously, we hear her questions and the doctors’ assessments on the soundtrack, which may nor may not sync with the image on the right. The effect is again one of information overload. Through this layering, the viewer’s attention is divided—so much so that, for me, at least, the soundtrack dominates the tape. Even upon re-watching the video with the intent of reading the scrolling text, I find my concentration challenged. I enjoy that, in a video—a series—about vision, the audio trumps the image.
The second video in the series, Operculum focuses not on sight or blindness per se, but on physical alternation of the eyes. Like many of the videos in the series, Operculum addresses issues of race, ethnicity, and national identity. As may be so obvious as to be overlooked, racial and ethnic distinctions are by and large premised upon appearances. Beyond the happenstance of geography and heredity, it’s on the basis of the ways we look that we are racialized. And, as this video suggests, something as superficial as the shape of one’s eyes allows for both racial categorization and, through alteration, assimilation. The physiognomy of Asian eyes, of course, has become one of the primary markers of racial difference and bases of stereotyping.
Operculum begins with newspaper advertisements demonstrating before-and-after images of eyelid modification and an informational video’s disclaimers. Tran consults with a series of plastic surgeons about eyelid alteration surgery (blepharoplasty), and what is involved in terms of physical modification in order to create more rounded, creased, Occidental eyes. Tran shows us a computer mock-up of where incisions in the artist’s own eyelids would be made. We hear the doctors attest that Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese are the primary Asian eye surgery clients and assess that, “Vietnamese have a better eyelid crease than Chinese,” while Japanese eyes are sometimes “a mixed bag.” Doctors tell Tran that she has a promising upper eyelid crease, but that fat should be removed above her eye to look “more feminine” and from below her eye to get rid of her “tired look.” I suppose that cosmetic surgeons are supposed to talk their patients into procedures, but their rhetoric just seems insulting, even racist. Without any apparent sense of self-awareness, one doctor comments, “Oriental women have a lot of fat in the face everywhere.”
Operculum ends with a list of five tips for post-surgery recovery, including, “No sex involving the eyes for 2 weeks.” What kind of sexual activity would this mean? What kind wouldn’t it be?
Multiple works in The Blindness Series speak to sex, sexuality, and desire in relation to looking. As has been argued at least since Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the gaze is sexual. Depending on one’s vantage point, looking can be arousing or it can be demeaning, but sexual attraction is nonetheless often a matter of liking what one sees. Among other appropriated film clips, Aletheia prominently features 9 1/2 Weeks (rather than merely two weeks) in its survey of vision and erotic fantasies. In an extended series of shots, Kim Basinger has a black cloth tied around her eyes, her mouth often gaping with performed arousal and signature blond mane falling around her. In this excerpt, it’s unclear whose fantasy is at play: his (Mickey Rourke’s) or hers (Basinger’s). What we see, however, is a classic pornographic narrative: a woman being trained into pleasure by a dominant man, being pushed beyond the threshold of prior experience. Blindness becomes not only about becoming submissive, but for her, it becomes a new way of experiencing the world. Blindness allows her to taste and to feel newly intense sensations. On the soundtrack, we hear dialogue from another, more explicitly feminist text, Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986), which has been transposed onto the image; it is at once both more comically pornographic and more compelling. We hear a role playing fantasy of a doctor who touches a hysterically blind woman’s breast as she has “never been touched before”; he says that he will reawaken her sense of sight through sexual gratification, but the medical molestation is undermined when the woman asks the doctor why his cock isn’t hard. In one of those curious accidents of language, the French verbiage “bandé” means both blindfolded and having an erection.
In Koré (1994), the third video of the series, Tran offers her most extensive exploration of sexuality and visuality. Rather than retread familiar critiques (such as Mulvey’s), however, she offers queer and otherwise marginalized perspectives on the erotics and sexual politics of looking. Koré is clearly the queerest video in the collection, featuring two nude Asian women making love with blindfolds (echoes of 9 1/2 Weeks, though this time both partners are blinded), street scenes of homosocial crowds that seem to evoke gay cruising, and attention to critiques of the U.S. government’s counterproductive HIV drug testing policies. These three issues suggest the myriad relationships between looking and sex: in the first, blindness gives way to fantasy and heightened attention of other senses; in the second, hook-ups are (hypothetically) negotiated through the exchange of looks; in the third, AIDS’s devastation of the immune system renders the body vulnerable to CMV (cytomegalovirus), an opportunistic infection that can cause blindness. Arguably even more queer, Tran includes footage from low-budget sci-fi films that imagine perverse corporeality: in one instance, a worm-like cyclops that could double as an uncircumcised phallus and, in another, a pair of breasts with eyes in the nipples. The shoddiness of the special effects and make-up somehow add to their deviant allure. Tran also shows the ultimate taboo: footage of a white man’s penis shriveling in real time.
Of all the videos in The Blindness Series, Koré seems the most of its time—which is not to say that it’s dated, exactly. It’s not. But its juxtaposition of provocative images and discussion of AIDS does recall the cultural moment of radical queer politics of the early-to-mid 1990s. A woman identified as an “AIDS worker,” who gives an account of CMV and drug testing, is identified in the end credits as also being one of the women who has been featured in the erotic lesbian sequences of the video. On the soundtrack, she comments that being blindfolded made her more liberated to perform on camera, and that her eyes would have inhibited her. She also speaks to the importance of seeing fun and hot footage of same-sex activity between Asian women because such images are so rare in popular culture. These are visibility politics, indeed.
Ocularis: Eye Surrogates (1997) focuses on surveillance, or seeing by mechanical proxy. In this tape, Tran plays audio recordings from calls to a surveillance hotline. The respondents suggest monitoring children through secret cameras in their bedrooms and lockers and through wiretaps of their personal phones. Another respondent reveals her own paranoia as she wants to have her boyfriend’s every move monitored, while a man indicates that his biggest fear is being caught masturbating by a hidden camera. The artist recounts (her? others’?) stories—getting caught watching porn while babysitting, framing a school bully on a bus security camera to get him expelled, working for a surveillance company. Such surveillance—or fear of surveillance—not only acts to document or inhibit actual crime but also undermines interpersonal trust and intimate behavior. On the image track, we see low-resolution black-and-white video footage of the artist under surveillance in her own home, as she snacks in front of the TV or tries on clothes; she also records the world around her via a camera in her car. Occasionally we see her converse with friends, who seem unaware that they have become the subject of observation, and thus, part of her work. The tape seems more concerned with the impulse toward voyeurism and abuses of power than in making claims about the right to privacy. Says a woman quoted in the video, “Surveillance is kind of funny because it creates anxiety and boredom at the same time.” Finally, the tape also raises the specter of technological determinism—that is, the idea that technologies shape our desires and actions. In the decade since Tran made Ocularis, surveillance has only become a more prominent site of cultural anxiety, as security cameras have proliferated to the point here virtually all public spaces and many private ones are under observation. As Tran observes, the prevalence of surveillance in everyday life may both indicate an exhibitionistic desire to be watched by some and an even more common internalization of surveillance that leads to “decentralized self-policing.” As text onscreen indicates, “it triggers a shift from targeting a specific suspect to categorical suspicion of everyone in a particular group.”
Probably the most difficult work in The Blindness Series, Ekleipsis (1998) is also the most rewarding. The tape begins with a timeline of Cambodian history, and eventually it becomes clear that the work responds to the curious phenomenon of hysterically blind emigrants who fled Cambodia after years in forced labor camps under the Khmer Rouge and came to settle in Southern California. These women represent the largest known population of hysterically blind people in the world, one that is also rare in its uniformity. As researcher Gretchen Van Boemel told the New York Times, “I kept seeing women from Cambodia that came to me with basically the same ocular history. … Usually it was something like, they saw their husbands murdered in front of them and cried and cried and when they stopped crying they couldn’t see.”
Tran quotes Juan-David Nasio, “to treat hysteria, we have to create another hysteria artificially,” and she thus recreates a hysterical stroboscopic experiment as described by Freud. Images flash on screen in succession with interstitial black leader in-between. At first some of the images barely register as identifiable, and the breaks between images defy making cognitive connections between them. Tran technically creates an effect of hysterical blindness—or at least a reaction of physical trauma long the lines of agitation, dizziness, or nausea. It’s literally hard to watch, frustrating both vision and comprehension. But the series of images repeats, staying on screen a bit longer each time, with less and less blackness in-between. We begin to see patterns and recognize things that at first seemed out of focus or too close-up. The early images—of rice, pineapple, jewelry, eye-glasses—give way to scenes of crowds, camps, militarism, eye tests. Although Tran refuses to name Pol Pot in the tape, she has commented on his uncanny relation to the work: he died the day she completed it in 1998.
The closing chapter of The Blindness Series, Epilogue: the palpable invisibility of life (2006), considers life, death, and familial relationships—whether hereditary or intellectual. The video was inspired by Tran’s pregnancy with her son and the imaging technologies, such as pregnancy tests, sonograms, and x-rays, that allowed her to see him in development before he was born. (We also see stop-motion animation of her belly as it expands during pregnancy.) The piece changed, however, with a coincidence: her son was born on the same date and time—September 11th—that her mother passed away, in 2003 and 1997, respectively.
A year later, Jacques Derrida died, and so the series both begins (via inspiration) and ends with this philosopher. Tran quotes an exchange between documentarian Kirby Dick and the theorist from the film Derrida (2004). Dick poses the question of which philosopher Derrida would wish to be his mother. Derrida responds that for him, philosophers are masculine figures and therefore none that came before him could be his mother. A woman who thinks could only be imagined after deconstruction, and therefore his mother would have to be someone who was part of his legacy, not part of his heritage.
In the catalog of the exhibition that inspired this The Blindness Series, Derrida writes, “These blind men explore—and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see. The space of the blind always conjugates these three tenses and times of memory. But simultaneously.” This passage suggests some of the complexity of vision as a metaphor for looking back on history, for seeing the present as it is, for how we imagine the future. The Blindness Series explores vision with similar intellectual ambition, yet with its gaze focused on more specific issues of visuality, race, sexuality, technology, and trauma. These videos are not merely about seeing or not seeing. But, then again, neither is vision.____________________
Lucas Hilderbrand is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the books Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright and Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic and essays that have appeared in Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly, GLQ, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Women and Performance, Jump Cut, and Resolutions 3, among other venues. He co-edited (with Lynne Sachs) a special issue of Millennium Film Journal on "experiments in documentary" and co-curated (with David Evans Frantz and Kayleigh Perkov) the exhibition and catalogue Cock, Paper, Scissors for the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives.