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by Michelle Dizon
Eyes Drawn: Asian American Femininity in Tran T. Kim-Trang's operculumby Michelle Dizon
Fade in from bright white. The camera, accompanied by urgent, dissonant violins, grazes across a textured surface that we soon come to recognize as the raised bumps of Braille. The image cuts to a Caucasian woman’s face being prepared for plastic surgery. The size of this shot is smaller than the aspect ratio of the frame and surrounded by a black border. Soon a voice, processed through a filter, states:
This focus on the Asian American eye as a locus of racialization in aletheia, will set the stage for Tran's second video, operculum, which highlights how the Asian American eye is shaped by the Orientalist legacies of inscrutability on the one hand, and Blepharosplasty, a surgical procedure of which removes fat and excess skin and muscle from the upper and lower eyelids, on the other.
I think, he tried explaining, that history being trapped in people means that history is embodied in physical characteristics such as skin colors. And do you know what part of our bodies they find so mysteriously inscrutable? It’s our little eyes. They think they can’t see into these little squinty eyes.
In operculum, Tran uses herself as a subject and poses as a possible client for Blepharosplasty. She consults with plastic surgeons around Los Angeles and explains that her video camera is there to document the consultation for her parents who are going to pay for the procedure. Throughout the video, the screen is split. On one side we view Tran's consultation with the doctor and on the other side we view the discourses that surround the procedure. In what is said by the doctors, we come to understand how Asian American women are subjected to two impossibilities: an 'inscrutability' aligned with the monolid on the one hand, and assimilation aligned with the lidded Western eye on the other hand. It is the latter route of assimilation that will allow her entry into the standards of Western femininity.
From one doctor, we learn that to remove the extra fat from Tran’s eye is to make it "more feminine." This doctor claims that the procedure will allow for a little bit more of Tran's eyelid to show so that she will be able to put on makeup. From another doctor we learn that it has “been easy to make a nice improvement in Oriental people because there is a lot of fat in there and once you take away the fat it folds in pretty nicely." As is evident from the statements of both doctors, the Asian monolid is associated with something that stops short of beautiful and with a lack of femininity. The Western standards of beauty to which these doctors subject Tran's eyes are both gendered, racialized, and embedded in long histories of Orientalism.
As operculum proceeds we gradually learn the real risks that this surgical procedure can pose. There are two procedures for eyelid surgery that Tran might undergo: one by scalpel and one by laser. In either case, there is danger of temporary or permanent loss of vision from bleeding in the back of the eye. Between the desire for eyes that fit Western standards of beauty and the real risk of blindness as a result of the procedure, Tran maps a split that manifests formally in the split-screen that dominates the work. While getting the procedure might allow the Asian woman to be seen within the terms of Western femininity, at the same time what she paradoxically might sacrifice is her own ability to see. The Asian woman is thus shuttled between two impossibilities: she can keep her sight but remain in the realm of racialized inscrutability marked by her monolid. Or she can opt for Blepharosplasty, and risk her own blindness for the promise of entry into the realm of Western feminity that a lidded eye would afford.
The Blindness Series was inspired by the exhibition Memoires of the Blind organized by Jacques Derrida and it is productive to consider operculum in light of the exhibition's propositions. Derrida asserts two hypotheses for the exhibition. The first is that even though drawing might be understood as a visual practice, one in which the world is translated onto two dimensions through the hand of a draughtsman, drawing is always concerned with and compelled by blindness. The second is that at the heart of all drawings of the blind is the origin of drawing itself. These two propositions are important to consider alongside not only operculum , but alongside the larger The Blindness Series, for they suggest how Tran treats the practice of video-making as a form of drawing. By focusing on the theme of blindness and aligning it with the act of drawing, Tran dislodged herself from a work with video steeped in the 'truth' or veritability of a matter. Rather than using video to instantiate an understanding of vision lodged in Western Enlightenment assumptions about truth-value, mastery, dominance, and power, Tran works to describe a visuality at the interstice of race, gender, and history, a visuality that simultaneously situates blindness in both a poetic and political dimension.
The masterful, dominant, and violent forms of vision countered by Tran's The Blindness Series are described in a Cheyenne tale, included as a voiceover in the first tape, aletheia. The tale links the European genocide in the Americas to the politics of visuality. It shows how the desire for mastery within Western visuality is not limited to the eyes, but rather, part of a larger egotism in which the world exists only for the self. In the tale, a Cheyenne man bears the gift of sight in that he is able to send his eyes out of his head with a simple command: “eyes hang upon a branch.” When the White man sees him do this, he asks to be taught to do the same. The Cheyenne man teaches the White man but warns him, under no condition, should he send his eyes from his body more than four times in one day. The White man finds the tallest tree and sends his eyes from his body again and again and each time they return to him. One, two, three, four… the problem begins when the White man disregards the warning. "The fifth time his eyes remained fastened to the limb. All day he called, but the eyes began to swell and spoil, and flies gathered on them. White man grew tired and lay down, facing his eyes, still calling for them, though they never came; and he cried." The tale shares that the problem is not the birds-eye view that the protagonist, White man, gains by sending his eyes out of his body and onto the branch of a tall tree. In fact, it is the Cheyenne who teaches the White this feat of eagle's sight. In matters of vision, the problem is not the vision itself, but its abuse. The loss of the White man’s eyes originates not in the power of sight, but in a desire for visual mastery that, in turn, denies the location and limit of his own body.
Over the course of the narrative, we see his desire for mastery played out again and again, not only over what the eyes see, but also over the other creatures that the White man encounters. When his eyes, bound to the branch of the tree, begin to swell and rot, he captures a mouse. The relation he has to the mouse is not one of dignity and respect, but instead of power and capture. When the mouse offers to retrieve White man's eyes for him, White man, rather than trust the word of the mouse, opts instead to exert his domination over the small creature. He tells the mouse that he will only let it go if it gives him one of its eyes. His conquest over the mouse reaps one small eye that he places in his large human socket. It rolls and rattles and turns in on itself. But despite his possession of the mouse's eye, White man still cannot see. He continues to search for a way to make good on his lost sight. When he happens upon a buffalo, he also requests its eye. The buffalo gives one to him, but it is too large for the human socket. It protrudes far ahead of White-man's face and he can only see far into the distance. Between the eye too small and the eye too large, there is no real vision-- only the illusion of vision as seen through the skewed perspective of disembodied eyes that have been replaced through conquest.
The tale is not only one of a relation between men, the White and the Native American, but instead, its frame is much more expansive and considers the relation between the White man and the living world. White man is shown to hold a negative relation to the living world and his own sense of humanity, hinges upon this negative relation to others. The more he draws distinctions between himself and the other living things he encounters, the more he is able to consolidate his sense of vision, in spite of his primary state of blindness with the loss of his eyes. Over the course of the narrative, we find that what is lost is not only his literal vision but a relation to all living things that is not founded on domination. What is revealed is that in his domination is a fundamental loss of himself, a loss that is continually repeated with each attempt to reconcile his disembodied sight, his mastery, through violence.
As the Western gaze is more often than not, transcendentalized and transparent, the perspective that this tale offers is that of the minority as they see the White man, seeing. The mouse eye turns in on itself, a solipsistic gaze, unable to see the relation of itself to the rest of the world. The buffalo eye protrudes from the head, a transcendental gaze that can only see far into the distance. In both cases, the eye occupies a space at a vast remove from the body. It floats, between one vision and the other, and makes every desperate attempt to reconcile the disparity. The disembodiment of White man's vision in this Cheyenne tale can be juxtaposed with the way Tran's Blindness Series dislodged itself from a work of seeing that might forward the visibility of a matter. Rather than instantiating sight, Tran works to unravel a complex visuality at the interstice of race, gender, and history-- an interstice where it is not possible to explore what is unseen or invisible, but where it is necessary to engage with the politics of visibility and all of the relations of power that produce what can and cannot be seen, who sees and who doesn't see, and what one sees from where.
In operculum, Tran offers a specific analysis of the relation between visualization and objectification, one that explores the layers of history that are housed in the racialized and gendered body and the discourses that come to write it. By exposing the Orientalist logics embedded in Blepharosplasty, Tran draws the Asian American women's eye away from those who would want to alter its contours and offers a critical reflection on how power determines the field of vision. Importantly, Tran does not only stay in the realm of representation but does this work within the visual itself, questioning the deep Eurocentric assumptions that underscore vision. operculum creates an important space to interrogate Asian American subjectivity and desire while reclaiming the possibility for history to not only be trapped in the Asian American woman's body, but to be unleashed. By contending with the racism that is deeply embedded in Western discourse, Tran opens the door for new, liberatory, and self-determined possibilities in Asian American gender and sexuality.
Michelle Dizon is an artist, filmmaker, writer, theorist, and educator based in Los Angeles, California. Born in the United States as part of the Philippine diaspora, Dizon’s life experience has been shaped by the politics of migration across the Pacific Rim. The violence of imperialism and the intimate spaces of resistance within globalization form central pivots in her work which take the form of multi-channel video installations, expanded cinema performances, essay films, photographs, discursive events, pedagogical platforms, and writing. Dizon is the founder of at land’s edge, an experimental platform for visual research and catalyst for decolonial thought and action. She has taught courses on documentary, visuality, postcoloniality, globalization, war, feminism, and ecology at the California Institute of the Arts and served as co-chair and core faculty in the Visual Art program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She earned an MFA in Art with specialization in Interdisciplinary Studio at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric with designated emphases in Film and Women, Gender, and Sexuality from the University of California, Berkeley.
Can I Get a Witness?
by Tracy Biga MacLean
Can I Get a Witness?Tracy Biga MacLean
Early in ocularis: Eye Surrogates (Betacam, 21m, 1997) the following words appear as text on the screen: “The new surveillance transcends distance, darkness and physical barriers. It transcends time. It has low visibility or it is invisible. It is often involuntary.” “The new surveillance” in the sense of contemporary observational and regulating practices is a concept that relies on new forms of representational technologies such as cheap, closed circuit video systems, GPS, and sophisticated aerial photography. This new surveillance, considered within the broad terms of contemporary strategies of monitoring, is the principal concern of Tran, T. Kim-Trang’s 4th tape in her 8-part Blindness Series. The phrase “often involuntary” can be read in two ways. Most obviously, the objects of surveillance may be unaware of the monitoring. But “often involuntary” may also refer to the act of representation itself. The mounted camera that runs 24 hours a day, every day, or one prompted automatically by motion detection can record without the presence of an operator. Surveillance, in these “often involuntary” modes has become highly visible as an artistic theme and formal method in both contemporary art practice and popular culture.
But we also know that surveillance can be voluntary or even requested; it frequently functions as a mode of incrimination or confession, as it does in reality programming and reality-style programming such as The Office. Beyond these depreciated forms, we can also see how the request for the pleasure of being looked at can be denied: the use of “dummy” cameras, the tapes that are never viewed, the poor quality resulting in an incomprehensible image. Much is recorded, but little is ever seen. In an age when the cameras are running, but no one is necessarily looking, does it become necessary to request one’s own witnesses? Where might one find them and how might one engage their attention? Most importantly for this discussion, how does a video art practice—one that shares the basic technology of surveillance, but enlisted for quite different purposes—negotiate these questions? This essay will explore the ways in which, throughout The Blindness Series, Tran complicates the relationships between the involuntary and the voluntary; the interface of automatic reproduction with artistic identity and intention; the paradox of looking without seeing; and the opposing impulses for privacy and the desire to be known.
It was always her plan, Tran says, from her first conception of The Blindness Series as an MFA student at CalArts in the early 90’s, to address surveillance among several topics of vision and its loss. While the assertion from ocularis: “it has low visibility or it is invisible” applies to the process of “the new surveillance,” it could be said that a quality of low visibility or invisibility applies, as well, to the creator of contemporary video art. It is possible to consider Tran’s work through the tension between two conceptions of the video artist—one arising from the space of traditional art history and the other from the range of high theoretical concepts associated with film theory.
The artist/auteur Tran, through the production of works variously enacted across the spaces of gallery installation, projected cinema, and playback through a monitor, confounds traditional separations of media and, therefore, the separately constructed models of the creative producer. The gallery, the cinema and the monitor are all pertinent realms in which to consider Tran’s tapes. But what happens to the assumptions attached to these spaces and categories and the place of these assumptions in criticism and the academy when their distinctions erode? What are the implications for the figure of the video maker, a person for whom there may still not be even an adequate term of description? In the voluntary and involuntary, visible and invisible ways in which Tran interjects herself as director, producer, editor, writer and performer in the tapes, she explicitly engages with these postmodern questions—but ultimately and deliberately her work is more a series of paradoxical gestures and adopted positions than a fixed and coherent presence.
While the language used to describe video art is borrowed from film—close-ups, high or low angles, tilts and pans—video’s history came to be written in the language of art history—formalism, objects, sculpture, space. So-called “fine art” video artists were consciously distinguished from video makers with social, political or documentary concerns, and these “fine art” artists were often most interested in investigating the formal properties of video as a medium. The modernist exploration of media specificity addressed questions concerning video’s color, lack of resolution, manifestation on the monitor, etc. The shifting nature of video technology may have both encouraged and foiled these analytical impulses. Unlike film, in which the basic image-producing technology remained stable for 100 years, video technology has been constantly evolving. In the 10 years between production of the first work in The Blindness Series in 1992 and production of the 8th in 2006, Tran has used three different video formats (3/4”; Betacam; digital Betacam).
The first image in the first tape in the Blindness Series—aletheia (3/4”; 16m; 1992)—announces an examination of the formal aspects of the medium and invokes the specter of broadcast television. The credits appear over what seems to be an out-of-tune broadcast, lacking vertical lock. (This pattern of opening credits continues for the first five tapes.) The serial nature of the Blindness videos speaks less to the form of the television serial than to the creation of an analytical category. Tran has said that “The model [of the piece] was actually a book,” but the series is book-like only in the sense that the tapes might be construed as separate chapters. Despite the “introduction” and “epilogue” the series does not offer a sustained and developing argument or narrative. Rather, it consists of a set of meditations on vision and its loss. But if the series is not really book-like, in the invocation of books (and tapes, films, essays, art, etc.), Tran perpetuates a de-hierarchicalization of forms. Her refusal to fetishize film and painting, or denigrate tape and television, is one of Tran’s most significant moves.
Within the conceptual category of “blindness,” the tapes move between the highly abstract alexia (Digital Betacam, 10m, 2000), the genre-inflected amaurosis (Digital Betacam, 28m, 2002) and the narratively inflected ocularis and ekleipsis (Betacam, 22m, 1998). Aletheia also engages in a critique of popular culture, as well as introducing the themes and some of the method of the series that will develop. This inaugural tape incorporates clips from a number of films including Brazil; Wait Until Dark; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; A Clockwork Orange; Ju Dou; A Patch of Blue; and 9 ½ Weeks that take as their subject matter blindness or eye troubles, as well as, in several cases, the articulation of blindness and race. On the soundtrack is a voice-over reciting an indigenous American folktale about the “white man” who loses his eyes, and Roy Orbison singing “Sandman.” Simultaneously, we hear and see, as text, quotations from such theorists of performative writing as Maxine Hong Kingston, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Frantz Fanon, and Andrew Marvell. This profusion of references creates the impression of pastiche because it isn’t completely clear how seriously or in what way we should regard these thinkers and their discourses. This is collage rather than seriality as dominant trope. The subsequent tapes adopt varying methods and levels of abstraction rather than re-enact the same dynamic.
In her own writing on the series, Tran emphasizes the tension between documentary and “fine art” video as techniques of observation or examination. She recognizes the imperative for critics to make a choice between these modes, but rejects the need or perhaps even the possibility of making that choice on her own part. Aletheia is certainly the most traditional tape in the series from the perspective of video art in the 90s; it features fragmentation, layers, appropriated footage, and an implied critique of popular culture. However, in this regard, the irony implied by the tape’s Heidiggerian title is actually a red herring. Alethia, the Greek word for “truth,” announces a series of essayistic tapes that will continually remind us that the perceived world is built on multiple and conflicting representations assuming various forms and together unable to construct a coherent truth. Yet, overall the series will systematically reject a modernist sense of irony—the putting forward of a concept, the purified absence of which one knows no representation can match. It will reject, as well, a systematic aesthetic mode—leading to a postmodern irony in which debris constitutes representation.
If alethia can be characterized as the most traditional video art piece in the series, what kind of creator does that designation imply? Both Martha Rosler and Marita Sturken discuss the video artist as historicized and mythologized in keeping with Romantic/modernist heroic concepts. Rosler identifies an emphasis on “expression” as an “opening for the assimilation of video—as ‘video art’—into existing art-world structures,” and sees the “sanctification” of Nam June Paik as the creation of a simplifying creation myth. “And—oh yes!—he is a man. The hero stands up for masculine mastery and bows to patriarchy.” Sturken notes that video art is presented as a “subjugated knowledge within art history,” but its “museumization,” and the institutionalization of funding has emphasized certain histories and certain types of work at the expense of others. Myth arises when the complex history of video art becomes contained by the figure of the Romantic/modernist artist hero, bent on personal expression and operating outside of institutional and economic constraints, as well as any productive interaction with popular culture. Seen within this context, the often-observed scornful attitude that video art adopted towards television was less a pointed and profound critique than it was an inoculation against pollution.
Along similar lines, the earliest conception of the film auteur, articulated by French critics in the late 50s and early 60s and subsequently popularized in the United States through the simplicity of Andrew Sarris’ “pantheon” of directors, was an attempt to replicate the traditional artist in a realm which was both more explicitly commercial and more confusingly collaborative. Although producers, performers or other creative contributors could sometimes assert some aspect of a consistent personality across a film or group of films, it was the film director who was awarded the mantle of film author/auteur. These early conceptions of the auteur were basically aesthetic, based on a Romantic vision of the individual, and they implied a figure capable of controlling the meanings conveyed by a film. Subsequently, under pressure from theoretical influences such as the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the literary theory of Roland Barthes the concept of auteur-structuralism emerged. Here, the emphasis was on systematically analyzing a group of texts for consistent patterns and motifs. These texts might be attached to the name of a particular director—Howard Hawk's in Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, for instance—but with far less emphasis on the empirical creative individual. Were we to address the Blindness Series in these terms, we might analyze binaries such as: self / distortion of self; narrative / abstraction; vision / memory; telling / withholding; theory / superstition; transcendence and distance / immediacy and accessibility. By presenting these stylistically varied tapes as a related group, Tran might seem to invite this type of analysis.
Another auteur emerged in the form of the post-structuralist author, posited not as a person, but as a concept created within the text through the agency of the reader. In this formulation, the text is seen as separate from the empirical author, and the status of the author is inevitably diminished. Foucault uses the metaphor of the “dead man,” what we would call the “dummy” in bridge or the person who doesn’t play a hand of cards, to represent this figure, or rather concept. As the status of the humanist subject is discounted, the constructive role of discourse and language is foregrounded. But the “author,” in its role as author-name, persists as a way of organizing and deploying texts through production, marketing, and distribution. At the very least, the progression of these film theory concepts of authorship emphasizes that texts and authorship are historically determined categories, and suggest that postmodernism will generate a new form of author. Nicolas Rombe, analyzing the “surge of personal websites and blogs,” identifies a “tyrannical authorship presence, where the elevation of the personal and private to the public level has only compounded the cult of the author.” For him, the author is not nowhere, but everywhere. “We are all authors today. We are all auteurs. We are all writers. We are all filmmakers.”
We can identify a variation on the omnipresence of authorship by extrapolating to the artist/auteur Angela McRobbie’s postmodern feminist category of the “real me,” in which the “real me” is a mask, myth or fiction, which must be left behind to be replaced by a constant invention of the self. The idea of a feminist “real me,” like an authorial one, may have been a “necessary fiction,” but now “the continual process of putting oneself together [might] be transformed to produce the empowerment of subordinate groups and social categories” if only we can “live with fragmentation, with the reality of inventing the self rather than endlessly searching for the self” (608). The empowerment of subordinate groups and social categories through fragmentation and the invention of the self is relevant to an artist such as Tran, who continually raises issues related to her creative presence in the Blindness Series.
Certainly there are aspects of Tran’s career that suggest a heroic, Romantic conception of the artist. We might first note the remarkable artistic assertion implied in planning a decade-long, 8-part project on a single theme while still in art school. Further, she operates in an institutional setting, academia, where the perpetuation of her reputation as a creator is crucial to advancement and funding. One area in which we can identify a sense of authorial control is through Tran’s name. As she was leaving graduate school, in an effort to “formalize” how she would be known and at least partly in homage to Trinh T. Minh-ha, Tran adopted the Asian manner of placing the last name first. The initial “t” stands for “Thi,” Tran’s middle name, which is then followed by her given name “Kim-Trang” (pronounced “Kim-Chan”).
The name operates in contradictory ways. Tran both cares about the “formalization” of the professional name and acknowledges that the name is often misunderstood, misspelled and mispronounced, even by people she has known for a long time.
I definitely want to control the perception of the name, when people see it, when it’s written…what I want the records to document.…. But of course I also recognize this disconnect between what they see, how they say it, how I treat it, because most of the time I will not correct people. So yes, the name gets performed over and over depending on the relationship amongst people and the context.
After alethia, the second tape takes an entirely different tack. In one sense there is still a strong sense of authorial assertion through Tran’s use of theory. All the tapes in the series might be said to be already theoretically present. The analysis is already built in, so the viewer has little recourse to his or her own theoretical intervention or analysis. But we can also see elements of a post-structuralist auteur. Tran is both present and obscured: through the formalized name “Tran, T. Kim-Trang”; “marked” and “unmarked” performances; frequently distorted voice-overs; selection of extensive quotations; use of found footage; layering of fictional and non-fictional elements; and varied formal and genre choices. One might say, that Tran, or rather the author function, is constructed across the series.
In operculum (3/4”, 14m, 1993), Tran performs the role of a young Asian woman seeking plastic surgery. On the right side of the frame, she shows footage of her face as plastic surgeons discuss an operation to create an eyelid fold. On the left side of the frame, she scrolls an historical text describing lobotomies performed through the eyeball socket. Tran, in her false presence as potential customer, seems interested and impressed by the sales pitches. But there is no “real me” in Angela McRobbie’s sense within this performance, through either racial or gendered identification. The fact that Tran is a woman, an emigrant, and Vietnamese is relevant, but not dispositive here. About this tape, Tran says, “I would hope my position is very clear… that I’m obviously against cosmetic surgery, but not particularly because Asians are Westernizing their eyes.” Her position is clear, although to some extent that is a function of the art video context; in this genre we don’t anticipate an apology for plastic surgery to erase the signs of racial difference. It is also a function of the archaic medical text on the left side of the frame, which is, however, easy to ignore in favor of the human drama unfolding on the right. The precise objection to cosmetic surgery is less clear. Perhaps bodily manipulation coerced within any subordinate population may be the political basis of her opposition, but the tape is more abstract in that it also references the Derridean sense of “folds.”
Tran has credited Jacques Derrida as an inspiration to the Blindness Series, particularly an account she read about an exhibition at the Louvre curated by Derrida in 1990-91 called Memoirs of the Blind. Like Tran’s series, the exhibition offered meditations on blindness, its metaphors and representations. Although her knowledge of the exhibition was originally limited to a press account, it is worth considering some aspects of the show and Derrida’s commentary on it. Charged with “the choice of a discourse and of the drawings that would justify it…” Derrida chose from the Louvre’s collection self-portraits and portraits of the blind, arguing that the power of drawing “always develops on the brink of blindness” and that this is “a sort of re-drawing, a with-drawing, or retreat [re-trait]…sometimes lost en abyme, in short, a specular folding or falling back [repli]…” (3). For Derrida, of course, all signification is blindness. The trace of the line is our only access to meaning, but this trace is always sous rature, under erasure, and its meaning always subject to delay. Tran plays throughout on these well-known Derridean tropes.
Derrida considers the metaphors and memoirs of blindness in terms of the media specificity of drawing, playing heavily on the multiple meanings of the word “trait” as both a characteristic and a line. In light of this influence, what are the implications of Tran’s choice of video? It is clear that she rejects the modernist fetish of media specificity in favor of video’s economic and institutional function.
Tran refuses to privilege film for political reasons, but that stance is also a refusal to use a choice of media to maintain auteurist hierarchies in which film historically always trumps video. Tran’s rejection of cinematic caché is not without paradox. While claiming no interest in “touching” the material basis of representation, she has created alexia (Digital Betacam, 10m, 2000) a tape in which the camera as eyeball scrapes along represented objects—paper and punch labels with raised letters. Tran may not need to touch the medium of representation, but her camera does. This is not a touch meant to impose a nostalgic aura on film stock, or paper for that matter, but touch as a possible alternative to vision in deciphering text. The nature of the video image itself is similarly not the relevant point. “You can get a similar degraded or distorted effect in film and photography [as you get in video.] I don’t think any of those mediums are so far apart any more.” Technological developments in digital manipulation are at play in this statement, but Tran’s collapse of the mechanical and electronic is a radical assertion within the context of experimental film and video. The distinction between mechanical and electronic reproduction is passed over in favor of contemplating the work of art in what we will see has become an age of automatic reproduction.
Why video? Politically speaking it’s a mass medium. It’s affordable, it’s immediate and it’s accessible. I could have done film, but it’s not immediate, and I didn’t care about the tactility or the materiality of film. I wasn’t interested in its preciousness or that kind of thing. It’s not like the viewer can touch the film, so what’s precious about touching the film for me? Nothing.
Economic and institutional aspects of video are also important to the aesthetic reception of the Blindness Series tapes. Tran notes that it is possible to give a person a videotape or DVD (cheap, portable, and easy to use) in a way that is practically impossible with a film print (expensive, heavy, fragile and requiring specialized equipment and specialized skills for playback). By refusing this distinction, Tran refuses the auteurist, maculinist and elitist connotations of expertise. Because in many sections of her tapes the iconic image, text and soundtrack are all competing, it is impossible to comprehend all the material in any of the tapes in single viewing—or even multiple viewings. As Tran says, “I don’t expect anybody to just sit through it once.” Tran emphasizes the iterative, serial, and archival aspects of her tapes as opposed to the “uniqueness” of other fine art mediums; the tapes are performances, perhaps, not dissimilar to the iterations of her name. For Tran, it is important to create work in a format that can be distributed in multiple venues—gallery, cinema, monitor—for multiple viewings.
Tran speaks of “Tapes that are meant to be seen repeatedly.” But some tapes are not created through the look of a creative individual and are not necessarily meant to be seen at all. The key tape in regard to issues of authorship and the automatic in the Blindness Series is ocularis: Eye Surrogates (Betacam, 21m, 1997). Along with broadcast television, contemporary surveillance and its reliance on video technology has been a staple theme of video art.
The surveillance video represents the image that is produced without any one looking or seeing—without a controlling subjectivity. It presents an extreme example of a characteristic of all analog and digital representations. They are all at least partly “automatic” in that they capture elements unseen (unrecognized or unrealized) by the artist. The camera that sees without anyone looking certainly recalls the point from Derrida’s treatise that struck Tran most profoundly:
As with Derrida’s conception of the draftsman—who is always blind—the video surveillance technician creates the conditions of representation (camera, recording format, adequate light, position) and then does not look. There is no camera operator, much less an artist, in the mounted surveillance camera. There are both positive and negative aspects to this form of recorded observation. The beginning of ocularis quotes Jacques Attari, economist, scholar and French presidential advisor, on the disturbing use of surveillance for the establishment of power relationships and social control; and Walker Evans, depression-era American photographer, on the importance of “star[ing]” to make life meaningful. The flip side of deliberate staring, of course, is the deliberate exhibition of self—both visually and aurally.
In truth, I feel myself incapable of following with my hand the prescription of a model: it is as if, just as I was about to draw, I no longer saw the thing. For it immediately flees, drops out of sight, and almost nothing of it remains; it disappears before my eyes, which, in truth, no longer perceive anything but the mocking arrogance of this disappearing apparition…. The child within me wonders: how can one claim to look at both a model and the lines [traits] that one jealously dedicates with one’s own hand to the thing itself? Doesn’t one have to be blind to one or the other? Doesn’t one always have to be content with the memory of the other? (36-37)
In Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida quotes Borges, who wrote, “people always hope for confessions” (35). Ocularis cannily links surveillance with its contemporary counterpart: the confessional mode. The conceit of the video is an anonymous hotline. Callers were invited to recount their personal experiences with or fantasies about surveillance. In fact, Tran did set up such a hotline and used some of the “real” stories from “real” callers in the videotape. Other stories are drawn from her own life and still others are invented, demonstrating Tran’s increasing interest in fictional narrative. The tape complicates the power relationships of looking and being looked at by considering how individuals volunteer for and participate in their own surveillance. It is as if the prisoners in the panopticon have prepared oral histories of their incarceration. The confessional linked to surveillance reproduces the dynamic of most reality television programs. Just as important as the cameras positioned to catch serendipitous interactions are the confessional segments in which solo participants describe their feelings about living in, or being kicked out of, the televisual fishbowl. It also invokes what might be called the “gulag narrative,” the detailed accounts of former detainees in institutions that admit no unobserved moment for either the prisoners or the jailors. There can be confessions of powerlessness overcome or scrutiny accepted.
Tran’s conception of surveillance doesn’t rely solely on power deployed unilaterally. Where is power, after all, if no one is behind the camera? Many of the images are of antiquated technologies—old-fashioned camera pens, camera briefcases, a camera gun and camera necktie —that are almost quaint. These images are predominant in the beginning of the tape and are replaced in the later part by footage of both private and public spaces. This footage is mostly innocuous; it seems incapable of revealing anything criminal or even anything of interest. Perhaps the most thematically provocative or voyeuristic segments are those that show one woman (Tran herself) modeling clothes for another woman. However, the poor image quality and matter-of-fact manner of the figures drains erotic nuances. There is no guilty identification with looking at something we shouldn’t.
In fact, rather than only emphasizing the voyeuristic aspects of surveillance—with the entwined realms of power and sexuality—Tran acknowledges the role of surveillance in economics and the construction of place. In the first voice-over, Tran’s (distorted) voice explains that “Americans spend an estimated $1 billion a year on electronic security camera systems.” One of the more elaborate anecdotes is told by a woman with a ”Southern” accent who encounters surveillance in two jobs—one for the government, where she steals equipment and discovers she is pregnant through a security retinal scan; another in a job creating a “smart” toilet to analyze excrement where she was falsely ”fined for stealing.” In another anecdote a child being bullied on a school bus, by being called “rice head,” tricks her tormentor into violent behavior on-camera, and another caller recommends cameras in locker rooms to suppress bullying. Surveillance is both individual and institutional, protection and threat, publicly protective and privately embarrassing, and related to the realms of work, citizenship, criminal justice, childhood and the most private physical and emotional moments. What results is a kind of libidinal confusion.
In ocularis the theme of visual surveillance is organized though its audio corollary: the anonymous telephone hotline. These calls sound as if they were heard over a telephone line, introducing another level of mediation. Several stories are narrated in a false voice (accents, speeded up or slowed down sound) by Tran herself. From one perspective, these manipulations that draw attention to the audio track demonstrate Tran’s sophisticated crafting of her medium and her recognition of the potentially-great meaning-making of sound. But from another perspective, one that recognizes the historical reliance on the visual in both experimental film and art video traditions, the use of sound reinforces the post-modern notion of the “unpresentable” as articulated by Jean-Francois Lyotard:
From this perspective the metaphor of blindness pursued by the series is not “seeing” as a metaphor for knowledge or understanding; rather, it is a metaphor of creation based on a dynamic of seeing and not seeing. It recognizes that the concept of “seeing” is always a metaphor and that the goal of creation is almost impossible to fully satisfy.
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. (81)
Tran uses the relationship/disjunction between sound and image in a related context in the final segment of The Blindness Series. In the Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life, Tran contemplates the loss of two crucial parental figures. First, her mother, who died six years to the day before the birth of Tran’s son Nikola. Tran superstitiously reinforces the connection by showing both her mother’s death certificate (Sept. 11, 1997) and Nikola’s birth certificate (Sept. 11, 2003), while ignoring the significance of 9/11 as the sign of the apocalypse. The second death: Jacques Derrida, the original inspiration for the project, who died October 9, 2004, approximately two years before the completion of the final segment. Reversing the usual logic of woman as seen and man as disembodied voice, Tran’s mother, Duong Thi Pham Slemmons, is represented only through her voice on an audiotape (no pictures, no videotape) and abstracted symbols such as tea brewed as part of traditional Chinese medicine, particularly those herbs associated with fertility. Derrida, however, is visually manifested through text that accompanies his voice, in both a common san serif font and a special “Derrida” font designed by Tran, which appear simultaneously on screen, and through Derrida’s own family photographs. Tran links the philosopher to her own mother by selecting Derrida’s response to the question: “If you had a choice, what philosopher would you like to have been your mother?” and through photographs of Derrida’s mother taken both before (BD) and after his birth. After extended musing, he concludes that if his mother was a philosopher, she would be his granddaughter.
In view of Tran’s decision to represent her mother without images and the several photographs of Derrida’s mother incorporated in the piece, it is difficult not to think of how Roland Barthes explains his concept of the photographic studium and punctum, which he illustrates using the example of his own mother’s photograph. In Barthes’ view, one seeks an apocalyptic or time-ending event in contemplating a photograph. The punctum is that small remaining element that escapes the domestication of the real. The studium represents the encrustation of ideology; it consists of endless codes and interpretations that manifest the real as merely a textual fiction. The punctum is the only thing that can be real and that really matters in a photograph; it persists, but only as a mystery. The search for the real in the form of the punctum becomes an apocalyptic search for that which exceeds representation, which is also history.
In an attempt to step outside the textual systems he so masterfully understands, Barthes turns to his own mother’s suffering and death. Discussing a photo of his mother posed in a winter garden, he says, “My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life). From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death. That is what I read in the Winter Garden Photograph” (72). It is through the mysterious figure of the mother, accessible only through a representation, that any hope of escaping text and history exists.
Barthes’ model of the punctum is both theoretical and geographical. It exists as an area/idea in excess of textuality or image—outside the map. But Tran’s world is one, like the one in Borges’ story, in which there is no area outside an already mapped space. Borges famously describes “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” In the story, the people, recognizing that the “Map was Useless,” abandoned it, as well as any engagement with the “Disciplines of Geography.” While total surveyance or surveillance might be the putative goal, it is ultimately pointless. The fantasy of total textuality, representation, or mapping appears in ocularis in the first call from the surveillance hotline. After alluding to the erotics of “the desire to be surveyed,” a woman’s voice muses:
There is no space for a punctum in this fantasy. Ocularis describes a dynamic in which the continual search for excitement, through the act of perpetual monitoring, itself becomes regular and banal, and therefore useless. This banality is reflected in the flat affect of the voice. At the same time, there is no suggestion that it is possible to attain a position outside of these representational constraints.
But, um, I would like it if there were some completely seamless technology invented that would allow some kind of perfect transcription of all of the moments of my life and I would like it if there was someone who was interested enough to give up their life and to spend their life watching my life instead.
In “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” within a discussion of the possibility of nuclear war, Derrida argues that any apocalyptic effort to exceed the “archive”—the recorded system of textuality and representation—is itself “fabulous[ly] textual.” In so doing, he closes down the possibility that no experience is outside history/representation/text, including the image or the repressed image of one’s own mother. Noting that nuclear war would mean the “total destruction of the archive if not the human habitat,” Derrida argues that the very idea that the archive could be destroyed is itself a textual proposition. This idea transforms fiction away from its traditional function as (analog) mimesis towards a (digital) representation of itself. When both fiction and the real are both code, there can be no distinction. Tran was assailed by some critics for “lying" in the tape operculum because of the “fiction” she put forward that she was a woman seeking eyelid plastic surgery, but would it be any less an artificial construct if she had legitimately sought to modify the external appearance of her racial identity? The layers and folds of these possibilities contribute to the sense of ambiguity that characterizes all the tapes.
The final segment in the series seems to diverge from the multiple concepts of blindness explored in the previous seven segments. Here motherhood functions as a metaphor for both embodied and textual creation. But, while highly abstract, these creative functions are built on the dynamic of seeing. All paths, folds and traces lead back to Derrida, Tran’s original inspiration, who wonders, in Memoirs of Blindness: when is it necessary to have a witness?
Perhaps Nikola, who is seen in the epilogue in the “unpresentable,” fetal, and sonic form of his pre-natal ultrasound, can serve as that “third party who sees” in lieu of Tran’s biological and philosophical mothers, who are both gone before completion of Tran’s biological and artistic projects.
A testamentary scene always presupposes—along with the supplement of a generation—at least a third party who sees, the mediation of a lucid witness. By means of a story of a signature, this witness attests that he has clearly seen, thereby authenticating the act of memory and the last wish. (21)
Throughout the series and in various ways, Tran enacts the role of artist/auteur, but her work performs a critique of that concept as a valid category. In her elaborate credits, she insists on different categories of creative production—writer, producer, director, editor, talent. But then she fulfills all the roles. Through her concentration on the loss of vision, Tran reinterprets the modernist tropes of vision, distance, and knowledge through investigation. “To me the visual is about having a certain power through maintaining distance. Surveillance is absolutely about distance.” Her response is to eschew vision. Not seeing allows the closeness of the felt emotions to be revealed in the tapes, even those emotions one might rather suppress: grief, panic, disappointment, resignation and loss.
A loss of distance has other implications for the work. The Blindness Series represents a transitional moment in the medium of video art when it abandons its reliance on high art separatism to collapse the categories of analog and digital; mechanical and electronic; gallery, cinema and monitor. As such it is comfortable with a self-conflicting tension. These suspended tensions necessarily have implications for Tran’s implicit construction of herself as an artist, and the artist as subject. How does one transcend one’s own position within the category of the Other, without a fundamental insistence on either transcendence or the subject on which the Other is predicated? In The Blindness Series, Tran plays up the differentials: not selfless but not a subject. Not real, but not campy, ironic, or kitsch. The term of reference is actually always fading, a vanishing. In the chef-d’oeuvre of the series, ekleipsis, a sequence of images appears repeatedly. Each image fades quickly to black, but by their final iteration the scenes invoke a memory from earlier in the tape. These images provide a metaphor of vanishing for the authorial presence. References fade. Theory appears and moves around like “floaters” in the eye, becoming richer as it escapes a fixed point within Tran’s artistic vision
Tracy Biga MacLean received a Ph.D from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and was the Academic Director of Intercollegiate Media Studies at the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California from 2004 - 2011. After relocating to the Pacific Northwest, she now works in the Office of Effectiveness and Strategic Planning at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Washington.