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by Laura U. Marks
Mute GodsLaura U. Marks
Civilizations are built on agreements about what is figure and what is ground. Languages determine what merits attention and what should recede into the background. In a highly visual society, images embody these filtering qualities. Alexia: Metaphor and Word Blindness suggests there is not a great difference between word and image; rather, both arise from gesture. If the body is the ground, gestures arising from it become figures, at various removes from the body: the pointing finger, the spoken word, the diagram... The argument of this video essay is that meaning has a prediscursive and synthetic quality that cannot be reduced to the symbolic.
Tran T. Kim-Trang’s “Blindness Series” is always working the border between the representable and the unrepresentable, or, we might say, between figure and ground. Within it Alexia is perhaps the work that most slips away from the visible, while asking questions about how meaning arises from figuration. There is very little to see: diagrams, droll sketches, and a haptic close-up of hands laboriously manipulating a punch label machine. These recede from view, in a technique Tran has developed throughout the series of frustrating vision, withdrawing objects from perception. Many of the works in the series express a particular embodiment—Aletheia privileges touch, Ekleipsis simulates hysterical blindness. For its part, Alexia seems sleepy, like a person who is trying to speak while still only half-awake. The notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” arrive with deliberation, one by one. Tran’s voice-over, slightly disguised as usual, is a low murmur that barely allows the words to escape. Black-and-white drawings of visual metaphors float groggily into view. Half-seen, as though through a veil, the punch label machine cranks out words with difficulty, as though pulling them from a half-conscious mind. “DO ... NOT ... MISTAKE ... THE ... FINGER ... FOR ... THE ... MOON.” Alexia is dense with concepts that hover just below its somnolent surface. Thus its form is a metaphor for a particular human dilemma.
Alexia plays a kind of sonic hide-and-seek. Tran utters complex quotations from Wittgenstein, Vico, Wheelwright, and other thinkers in the aforementioned deadpan murmur. Arriving to the surface of the video, the ideas burst like bubbles. Yet above and below the dry words, the grave, deliberate notes of the “Moonlight Sonata” seem to embody the sound of thought. This sonic contrast is one of the hints Tran drops that what appears to be ground is always ready to yield figure, while what appears to be figure is always on the verge of dissolving back into ground.
The charming, troubling sketches in Alexia are supposed to illustrate the intuitive quality of metaphor, both visual and verbal. Three objects or scenes, merged and indistinguishable, resolve into focus with superimposed titles naming them, inviting a mental game. What is there in common between a fish, a winding river, and a snake? Between a woman with jewels, a city street, and a city lit up at night? Intuitive connections surge up that take much less time to realize than to explain. Tran lifted these from a book called Understanding Visual Metaphors that seems to beg its own question. Apparently these sets of images were shown to participants for 90 seconds, first without words, then with the text description as in the video. Participants had to pick the two that were most similar. Usually, of course, they did much better when the descriptions were shown. The verbal metaphors spark the brain, but for me it is the goofy drawings illustrating them that incite emergent meaning through their idiosyncratic plasticity. The relationship between a watering can, a woman with long hair, and a hanging plant is more evident in the sinuous line used to describe long locks and dangling vines. And whatever there is in common between a drowsy person, a “droopy” house, and a living room must be argued by the biomorphic drawings. These funny metaphors remind me of the thought process of schizophrenics, with their word plays and canny pattern recognition. Schizophrenics enjoy meaning at the expense of communication: they extricate figures where normal people perceive nothing and flatten into ground what normal people accept as figures. People with regular brain function can also enjoy the intuitive connection that precedes, grounds, language, in the game of metaphor. Thus the metaphors also illustrate the struggle between cliché and invention.
Human communication is a fall from grace. Tran delicately tenders Giambattista Vico’s fable of the origin of language, which came into being like a thread stretched between gods and humans. Vico claims that gesture arose before speech, as well as spoken word and visual image, and that it was their prototype. Thus “pointing with the index finger is the most rudimentary form of signing.” Closest to the source of meaning in Vico’s fable are the gods, who communicate in hieroglyphs but remain largely mute. Then come heroes, who speak in metaphors and are halfway between mute and articulate. Then humans, who speak in prose and are entirely articulate.
So then language evolved from gesture to speech, from poetry to prose. “Metaphors have their source ... in their long-lost mythic capacity, the sense of the ultimate unity of internal and external experience.” This is spoken over diagrams of the development of alphabets from expressive glyphs to regularized symbols. There is certainly something ancient about signs that seem to have come into contact with the thing they represent, something that presupposes a connection between world, body, and language. Maybe signs were born as mimetic and gradually became more symbolic. As the poet-philosopher Gongsun Long (Kong Souen-Long) noted centuries ago in his “Discourse on Pointing at Things”, language tends to peel the meaning away from its objects—or as the Zen saying goes, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Vico’s fable of the birth of language invokes a time when words and deeds were inseparably linked; humans’ fall from grace, he suggests, is to have lost that intimate, material core of language.
While humans have become increasingly talkative, the gods have become mute. A strange thing about our species' language is that the more it carries out its function of precise description, of crowding the universe with the verbal counterpart for every atom of existence—the more it does this, the more we become aware that realms of experience continue to eclipse the bounds of language. Lately it seems that language, and perhaps particularly the English language, is being deployed for infernal purposes. Terms for the gods and sweet emotions are twisted to generate names of patent drugs. Phrases and ditties that populate each English-thinking unconsciousness are being copyrighted so that we have to pay a corporation to use them. And the language of empire continues to invert the meanings of peace (war), democracy (plutocracy), and security (apartheid), among others.
We might believe, with the maverick neuroscientist Julian Jaynes, that the voices of the gods heard by Odysseus and others are no more than communication from one brain chamber to the other. But I would prefer to pretend with Vico that it is the gods themselves that gave us the infinite ground from which we might tentatively pluck figures--words, images, sounds, meanings. And confronted with the visual cacophony of petrified, useless words we humans have created, bristling like a forest of swords, the gods have retreated.
Yet metaphor, for Vico, like the mimetic capacity, for Walter Benjamin, remains the trace of godly grace in human language. A metaphor is a vestige of the mimetic capacity. Metaphors often originate in the body, where we feel the connection between the fish, the winding river it swims in, and the snake that wiggles like the winding river. Despite our fall, we can imagine that an echo of language’s divine capacity remains in profane language—when the gods pluck the taut thread of language, humans feel it reverberate. Or to speak in Vico’s secular terms—as these three languages arose simultaneously, “for of course it was humans who imagined the gods,” Tran quotes dryly—even as humans segregated poetic language from the prosaic, we perfumed our quotidian with the occasional whiff of poetry. Poetry is waiting to pop out at us from the most prosaic description. Consider this exchange between two of my family members.
Jan: Last night I saw a coyote.
Bill: Are you sure it was a coyote? Their rear end is higher in the air than their front end.
Jan: This one was even.
The poetry straining to emerge from prosaic language often finds the best escape routes in translation. For the shift from one language to another reveals the uneasy, thrilling space where meanings lift off words and attach themselves to things, where metaphors are more truthful than prose. My VAPE instructions, translated from Italian, transform my mosquito-smitten chamber into a loose space waltzing with the open air.
Each VAPE MAT ‘E’ plate is effective for 8 to 10 hours without loosing its effectiveness. It kills common and Tiger mosquitoes present in the room and keep them away when in the open air (balconies – porches – etc.)
Alexia approaches its second subject, word blindness, indirectly. A fictional character, while researching this condition among people with brain damage who can perceive individual letters but not words, or vice versa, writes with increasing alarm that he is beginning to lose his own ability to read. He finds he prefers to have words spelled on the palm of his hand. Tran mimics word blindness for the viewer with sheets of typed text whose deteriorated characters are almost impossible to read, or papers that are sluiced with water, rinsing the words away. This combination calls to mind Helen Keller’s learning to read when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, held her hand under the pump and spelled WATER on her palm. Keller learned writing in the most mimetic way, by learning to associate the object of knowledge and the symbol for it, water, through touch. Children now who have trouble learning the alphabet are sometimes taught to read using letters and associated objects they can touch, smell, and eat.
So the mimetic source of language tends to surge up again when its symbolic quality is weakened. At such times we remember to what degree the mimetic is the ground of the symbolic. And—in what is a tender point for this work and this series on blindness that are so steeped in ideas—the mimetic seems finally to be what makes life worth living. In the last words of the video, Tran reads softly the modest researcher’s writing in his journal: “I am thankful that my ability to read music is not lost. For what would life be without music making?”
By blurring language’s figurative quality and focusing on the mimetic ground from which it arose, Alexia invites a reenchantment of language. Not a refusal of language—for after all, most people want to communicate with each other and do not envy the schizophrenic’s isolated inventiveness—but a readjustment that would move us a bit closer to those imagined gods.
Laura U. Marks is a scholar, theorist, and programmer of independent and experimental media arts. She works on experimental cinema, the media arts of the Arab world, Islamic genealogies of Western philosophy, and the embodied, process-based analysis of information culture. Her newest book is Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2015); she is also the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke, 2000), Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minnesota, 2002), and Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art ( MIT, 2010). She has curated programs of experimental media for festivals and art spaces worldwide, including the Robert Flaherty Seminar in 2015. She teaches in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, where she is Grant Strate University Professor.
The Voice of Blindness
by Ming-Yuen S. Ma
A shorter version of The Voice of Blindness was published in Resolutions 3: Global Networks of Video, Erika Suderberg and Ming-Yuen S. Ma, Editors. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
The Voice of Blindness: On the Sound Tactics of Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Blindness SeriesMIng-Yuen S. Ma
Foreword: “Using The Negative To Bring Out The Positive”
I approach Vietnamese American video artist Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Blindness Series (1992-2006), a collection of eight experimental single-channel videotapes, in a manner that is markedly different from traditional media scholarship. In the following study, I do not assume the position of the detached and supposedly “objective” scholar who has a critical distance from her or his subject. The position I assume in this study is that of the engaged observer. I have known Tran as a friend, colleague, and sometimes collaborator for almost eighteen years. I have participated in the different aspects of the Blindness Series, and am familiar with the processes through which Tran realized each of the videos. Furthermore, like Tran, I am an artist working in media, familiar with the process of video production, and one who shares some of her concerns and interests. I believe this sustained interaction with and intimate knowledge of the conception, production, distribution, and reception of the videos in the Blindness Series provide me with a perspective that is not available to a more traditional media scholar.
In the following essay, I focus on the audio elements in the eight videotapes. I begin with a general analysis of how sound is used in the series, and deduce some overall strategies and tactics that Tran deploys in her use of these audio elements. Although the soundtracks for the videos differ greatly, ranging from polyphonic to minimalist in their make up, the voiceover narration emerges as one of the Blindness Series’ central audio devices. I then examine Tran’s use of the voice through two theoretical frameworks: one, voice as a metaphor for subjectivity, and two, voice in its materiality. I focus my discussion of these frameworks on two of the videos in the series. In the first, I draw from the French feminist vision of a polyvocal and corporeal feminine discourse to discuss the many voices within Kore (1994). In the second, I use the cinematic sound theories of French writer and composer Michel Chion, primarily drawn from his books Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen and The Voice in Cinema, and US feminist film scholar Kaja Silverman’s work on the female voice and subjectivity in film in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema to discuss the phenomenon of vocal embodiment in Ekleipsis (1998).
My focus on sound in a video series very much concerned with vision may seem to be off-target to some. I would argue that Tran herself adopts a similar strategy in her videos. Her use of blindness—commonly understood as the lack of vision—as both metaphor and phenomena in the series is a strategy of using the negative to accentuate the positive. In her exploration of topics ranging from hysterical blindness to video surveillance to cosmetic eyelid surgery, Tran consistently shows that the lack of vision speaks volume about visuality itself, and that those without the ability to see are sometimes able to elucidate and comment on visual culture in ways that the sighted cannot. In my exploration of the sound tactics in the series, I adopt a strategy parallel to Tran’s. In the introduction to his book on the history of sound reproduction, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Jonathan Sterne points out that while there has been much attention paid to the theorization of visual culture within fields such as art, art history, film and media studies, as well as cultural studies, there has been comparatively scarce efforts to theorize a sound culture. He referred to it as a “visual hegemony.” Within the field of film and media studies, a particular manifestation of this hegemony can be seen in lack of studies focused on sound in or as media in comparison to the plethora of visually centered studies, debates, and schools of thought. In most cases, audio components in a film or video are overlooked in favor of visually centered analyses, and only addressed as an afterthought, if at all. Michel Chion went as far as declaring, rhetorically, that “there is no soundtrack,” arguing that “the sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track.” Chion also points out that in the vast majority of sync-sound films, “each audio element enters into simultaneous vertical relationship with narrative elements contained in the image (characters, actions) and visual elements of texture and setting.” That is to say, the meaning of an audio element in these films have more to do with the visual image it interacts with than with the other sounds around it.
It is significant to point out here that most media scholars of sound have focused their studies on feature-length narrative films. Chion bases his observations primarily on Hollywood cinema, European and Japanese art films. Silverman, like Chion, also bases her discussion primarily on narrative films. Although she cites examples of feminist avant-garde films in her discussion, they are ones that are concerned with expanding upon dominant cinema’s feature narrative form. As I hope to demonstrate below, Tran’s experimental videos, while they share some of the concerns of narrative films, utilize tactics and strategies that are radically different from them. More importantly, in her use of sound in her videos, the instances in which the audio, as opposed to the visual, becomes the primary conveyor of meaning far exceed the examples I have come across in narrative feature films. Of course, Tran’s oeuvre here only represents a case study, and there is a wide variety of experimental media, each with their different usage and deployment of sound. However, in a preliminary way, I believe the use of sound as the primary conveyor of meaning in Tran’s work gestures towards a larger argument that it is more likely in experimental media, as opposed to narrative feature films, where more of an equilibrium can be struck between the visual and the audio. It follows, then, that it is in the study of such media that the visual hegemony can be challenged and destabilized. Thus, by drawing attention to sound in the Blindness Series, an element that is often overlooked in the visually hegemonic field of media studies, I am focusing my discussion of Tran’s work on elements that are outside of visual representation, and ones that speak to its limitations—thus enacting my own strategy of using the negative to accentuate the positive.
The Uses of Sound in the Blindness Series
Tran utilizes a wide variety of audio elements in the Blindness Series, including voiceover, interviews, dialogue appropriated from Hollywood films, recorded conversations and readings, as well as music ranging from Ludwig von Beethoven to the Stereo MCs. Her sound tactics also vary from video to video: the multi-track polyphony of Aletheia (1992) and Kore, where the layering and cross-cutting between different audio tracks reflect a channel-surfing aesthetic, are in marked contrast to the stark minimalism of Operculum (1993), Ocularis (1997), and Ekleipsis, where the voiceover is the primary soundtrack. Tran herself remarks that as the series progresses, she uses less and less appropriated sounds. Instead, she shifted her focus to using narration, written by her and others, in the later videos. While the first four videos in the series: Aletheia, Operculum, Kore, and Ocularis seem to alternate between polyphonic and minimalist sound tactics, the three videos produced since 1998: Ekleipsis, Alexia, and Amaurosis (2002) all featured a minimal soundtrack that privileges the human voice over music and other found sound. Amaurosis, in which Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” emerges as the principal audio text, is the exception here.
When Tran uses found sound in the earlier videos, it is often for the purpose of detournèment. According to Guy Debord, “detournèment, the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble, has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde…” and that:
In Aletheia, an audio excerpt from Working Girls (1986), a film directed by Lizzie Borden, is dubbed over images from Adrian Lyne’s Nine 1/2 Weeks. In this sequence, we hear dialogue from Working Girls, in which a female sex worker indifferently enacts a sexual fantasy about blindness with one of her clients, while we see images from Nine 1/2 Weeks showing the female protagonist (Kim Basinger) engaging in sexual play that involves a blindfold. Fragments of texts by Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, William Butler Yeats, and Michel Foucault are superimposed over these images. In this sequence, the cross dubbing between the two films detourns both the sound and image, and highlights the power structure of dominant cinema, which attributes the ability to see to men and male subjectivity. The superimposed text introduces other concepts pertaining to vision and sexuality, and adds to the layering of meaning in this sequence. In this layering of image, sound, and text, the summative effect is the creation of what Debord called a “meaningful ensemble,” in which the elements acquire new meaning through their re-organized grouping with each other. Later, in Kore, Tran continues to re-work dominant cinema’s images of blindfolded women by juxtaposing them with fragments of horror films, pornographic writing, activist interviews, experimental films, and art videos, further detourning them from their original context. She also reclaims the blindfold from a phallocentric paradigm by positing an alternative reading. In the video, the blindfolded women’s inability to see is re-presented as a source of pleasure and erotic power. I will consider these sequences in detail when I discuss the relationship between Kore and feminine discourse in this essay.
The two fundamental laws of detournèment are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element—which may go so far as to lose its original sense completely—and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect.
Similar to Aletheia and Kore, Operculum also uses the detournèment of sound and image to level a critique of dominant structures. In this case, the juxtaposition of sound recorded from consultations for cosmetic eyelid surgery with text passages about attempts to use lobotomy as a cure for schizophrenia exposes the brutality and sadism engrained within the “fashion-beauty complex”. The racist and sexist undertone of the Beverly Hills plastic surgeons are made all the more evident when heard over written descriptions of horrific practices such as frontal lobotomies performed with an ice pick that is inserted through the patient’s eye socket. Yet, Operculum is not an overt condemnation of cosmetic eyelid surgery. It is interesting to note that Tran’s use of detournèment here is different from its common usage as satire and agit prop in many contemporary experimental videos. The use of detournèment in Operculum is not explicitly political. Instead, Tran seems more interested in creating a de-stabilizing effect by combining unlikely source material, and then using this de-stabilization to suggest new or expanded meanings for these images and sounds. In taking detournèment away from agit prop, Tran allows more room in her usage for multiple meanings and ambiguities to emerge. While the juxtapositions in Operculum remain critical in relationship to the source material, their interpretation is very much left to the viewers and their reading of the ensemble. Much of the appropriated dialogue and music in the earlier videos of the Blindness Series are used in this manner, which recalls Debord’s description of a “parodic-serious stage” in detournèment, where “the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming at arousing indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference towards a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity.” In the Blindness Series, there is too much care in the selection and juxtaposition of the original to qualify Tran’s engagement as indifferent. Therefore, the sublimity that she strives to render here could be more aptly described as the critical sublime.
Other than as elements of detournèment, music is also used as a structuring element early in the series. In Aletheia, processed images of Braille text are edited to the discordant strings played by the Kronos Quartet, while close-up images of Asian eyes are cut to the rapid-fire punk chords of the Angry Samoans. At the beginning of Operculum, a montage of images related to cosmetic surgery matches the beat of a Stereo MCs song. A beautiful sequence of two blindfolded Asian women making love in Kore is edited to the ecstatic melodies of Loop Guru. In these sequences, Tran’s editing strategy is similar to that of music videos, in that the soundtrack drives the visual imagery. The relationship between the content of these songs and the visual imagery is primarily structural rather than content-based. While the lyrics of both the Angry Samoans and Stereo MCs do relate to the subject of vision and blindness, the more abstract, non-verbal music of the Kronos Quartet and Loop Guru drive the rhythm and pacing of the editing in their respective sequences. While their emotional color contribute to the mood and ambience in these sequences, their discernible content has very little relationship to the visual imagery. Therefore, unlike the vocal elements discussed earlier, music is used simultaneously and in differing degrees as structural, emotive, as well as textual elements in the Blindness Series. In the more recent Alexia (2000), we see yet another usage of music. The video features a soundtrack that alternates between Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and voiceover narration. In this video, which focuses on word blindness and metaphor, a Buddhist aphorism, “do not mistake the finger for the moon,” quoted in the beginning of the video, is echoed in the title of the Beethoven score. In this case, the choice of music seems as much conceptual and metaphorical as it is formal.
In his books Audio-Vision and The Voice in Cinema, Michel Chion identified the human voice as the sound that is almost always privileged in the cinema. He described this primacy of speech as a form of vococentricism, where the human voice, “is isolated in the sound mix like a solo instrument—for which the other sounds (music and noise) are merely the accompaniment." The human voice is also a central audio element in the Blindness Series, but unlike in the narrative films that informed Chion’s writings, Tran’s use of the voice is almost exclusively focused on voiceover narration. It is the primary vocal element in all but one of the videos in the series: Amaurosis (2002) is a video portrait of blind musician Nguyen Duc Dat , and is organized around a series of interviews with Nguyen. The talking heads interview format is also used in Kore, where Peou Lakhana , an AIDS worker and participant in the video, discusses the relation between women, AIDS/HIV, and blindness. Although this sequence employs a documentary format, it is in fact staged, and Peou’s statements are scripted. Aletheia, Kore, and Alexia all included voiceover narration, while in Operculum, the plastic surgeons unwittingly narrate most of the video. The sound track of Ocularis and Ekleipsis are composed entirely from voiceovers.
In Kore, Ocularis, Ekleipsis, and Alexia, voices are frequently altered through the use of analog technology and different vocal accents. The alteration of voices through technology and performance in the Blindness Series begins with Aletheia, but its usage becomes more prominent in the later works. In Ocularis, this tactic is used partly to mask the vocal identities of participants who responded to an ad, which Tran placed nationally to solicit fears and fantasies about video surveillance. Participants call a 1-800 toll free phone number and record their fantasies on its voicemail. The video includes some of these messages as a part of its sound track, but the pitch of the participants’ voices is altered to mask their identities. In other videos from the series, voices are altered to lend different meanings to the narration. Kore includes a passage from Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, narrated in a male voice with a raunchy southern accent, which destabilizes the national origin of the text with a sexual twist. Its counterpart in the video is an erotic female whisper that describes female masturbatory fantasies involving the eye. This voice is miked close to the body, with no reverb, while in the male voice reverb is added to make him sound like he is speaking from inside a tunnel or through a tube. In Ocularis, a fictional account of a paranoid woman, obsessed with surveillance, is narrated by a high-pitched female voice that also sports a southern accent. However, in this case her accent serves to locate her geographically, and also to hint at her racial and class background. In his 1977 essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes borrows from Julia Kristeva’s use of pheno-text and geno-text in his effort to distinguish between the phenomena of a song and its materiality. In Barthes’ formulation, the pheno-song “covers all the phenomena, all the features which belong to the structure of the language being sung, the rules of the genre, the coded form of the melisma, the composer’s idiolect, the style of the interpretation,” while the geno-song “is the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality,’’’ He further theorizes the latter’s mode of signification as in “not what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sound-signifiers, of its letters—where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work. It is a very simple word but one which must be taken seriously, the diction of the language.” Barthes calls this signifier the “grain” of the voice. Through changing the pitch, reverb, and accents of the voice in her videos, Tran uses its “grain” to alter the meaning of these passages. In Ocularis, the diction of the voiceover as well as its content contributes equally to the meaning of the narration. However, in the two narrations from Kore, the audio processing and accents are emphasized to the degree that a significant portion of the words in the voiceover becomes difficult to comprehend. So, to transpose Barthes’ transposition of Kristeva here, unlike traditional voiceover narrations, where the pheno-voiceover is usually the conveyor of meaning, the geno-voiceover in these two narrations overwhelms the pheno-voiceover and becomes the primary sound-signifier. Here, the diction of the language has overpowered its words.
Kore: Multi-vocality as Metaphor
In addition to working with the materiality of a voice, Tran’s juxtaposition of many voices within videos such as Aletheia, Kore, and Alexia engages with recent debates on subjectivity and authorship. The notion of a singular authorial voice has been complicated by theoretical practices such as post-structuralism and deconstruction, where subjectivity is attributed to the act of reading and looking as much as to the act of writing and creating, thereby constructing the meaning of a work through the intermingling of multiple subjects. Feminist critical theory, in particular that which draws from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, has also contributed to this complex notion of subjectivity, fragmenting the singular voice of the author into many voices speaking within a complex system of repressions and drives; a multitude that challenges the singularity of phallocentric domination in language and in visual culture. Tran’s multi-track sensibility and her inclusion of diverse source material in the Blindness Series certainly reflect an affinity towards a multi-vocal model of subjectivity. However, there also exists within the videos an antithetical privileging of selected voices. These are voices that speak about the experiences of women (Aletheia, Operculum, Kore, Ocularis, Ekleipsis), people of color (Aletheia, Operculum, Kore, Ocularis, Ekleipsis, Amaurosis), and queers (Aletheia, Kore), as well as similarly marginalized voices that are under or misrepresented in dominant media. In this sense, the Blindness Series shares with other works drawing from marginalized experiences a commitment to create visibility for these groups and to challenge their misrepresentation in the dominant media. These struggles in representation are often described as “finding a voice” or “claiming a voice,” where previously suppressed voices are affirmed and celebrated.
Kore is an example of how these seemingly contradictory sensibilities can co-exist within a singular work. Kore incorporates many different voices—in the form of voiceover, text, music, interview, and found sound. In this video, which investigates “the conjunction of sexuality with: the eye as purveyor of desire; the sexual fear and fantasy of blindness, with a focus on the blindfold; and women and AIDS,” Tran has drawn from texts by Bataille, Luce Irigaray, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Eros Denied, AIDS and Vision Loss; music by Loop Guru and A Thousand Points of Light; as well as film clips from Zombie, Flesh Gordon, The Dark Half, Gothic, Swelter in Vogue, One Eye Leads, Damage, and Tokyo Decadence. Tran weaves these many and different voices together into a flow of images, sound, and text, often juxtaposing different voices in a single sequence. The opening sequence of the video pairs the techno song “Read My Lips” by A Thousand Points of Light with re-scanned images of a woman masturbating. The irony of this juxtaposition recalls some of the found footage sequences discussed earlier in this essay, where the use of detournèment creates a critique of the source material. In this sequence, the source material is former United States president George Bush’s catch phrase “read my lips,” —already decontextualized by the musicians of A Thousand Points of Light, who sampled it in an electronic techno beat. Tran further destabilizes its meaning by pairing the song with a close-up image of a vagina, shot in a circular pan off a video monitor lying flat on the floor. The camera, acting as a surrogate for the viewers’ eye, circles the image while zooming in. What is initially perceived to be an abstract, strobing light is revealed to be an image of female masturbation, sped-up to match the frenetic beat of the song. While this sequence can certainly be seen as an ironic feminist rebuttal to the conservative politics of George Bush, it can also be read as a direct reference to Luce Irigaray’s essay “When Our Lips Speak Together” in This Sex Which Is Not One. The “lips” in the title of this essay refer to both the lips on a woman’s mouth as well as her vulval lips. Indeed, Irigaray’s vision of female sexuality is an important reference for Tran in this video, and Irigaray’s theories of a multi-vocal, non-hierarchical, and corporeal feminine discourse also correspond to the polyphonic, channel-surfing sensibility in Kore.
Feminine discourse (écriture féminine) is a practice of writing and speaking proposed by a group of French feminists as a discourse that “will always exceed the discourse governing the phallocentric system; it takes place and will take place somewhere other than in the territories subordinated to philosophical-theoretical domination.” Hélène Cixous further describes feminine discourse as “a text that divides itself, pulls itself to pieces, dismembers itself, regroups, [and] remembers itself.” Although Tran is working in video, Kore’s non-linear structure and its blending of heterogeneous elements work surprising well with Cixous’ description of a text-based praxis. And Tran’s juxtaposition of source material, ranging from horror films to AIDS activist literature to techno music, certainly befits Cixous’ pronouncement of letting “the other tongue of a thousand tongues speak.” The emphasis on the close relationship between voice, language, and desire in feminine discourse is also evident in Kore, where the narration is often modulated with whispers, groans, and other non-verbal sounds of the body. Furthermore, Tran’s use of analog audio effects and performance to create particular articulations in the voiceover, such as in the passage from Bataille’s The Story of the Eye performed by the male voice with a southern accent, is very much a realization of Cixous’ vision of interweaving writing and voice so that meaning is engendered through the process of writing and speaking the text.
Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth. One is never separable from the other. You/I: we are always several at once. And how could one dominate the other? Impose her voice, her tone, her meaning? One cannot be distinguished from the other; which does not mean that they are indistinct. You don’t understand a thing? No more than they understand you.
Speak, all the same. It’s our good fortune that your language isn’t formed of a single thread, a single strand or pattern. It comes from everywhere at once. You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses.
However, Kore only operates up to a point within the paradigm of feminine discourse. While Tran’s efforts to reclaim the blindfold and her exploration into a touch-based eroticism in the video echo Irigaray’s notion of a fluid, all-over female sexuality, her inclusion of male voices as well as her foregrounding of race in Kore challenges Irigaray’s utopian fantasy of “constantly touching herself” and “speaking resound endlessly.” Besides quotations from Bataille, Kore also included video segments from two male collaborators, one, by artist Tyler Stallings, features a model spaceship crash-landing into a flaccid penis, and the other, contributed by myself, is an excerpt from my video Slanted Vision (1995) that was created in collaboration with writer Han Ong. In this segment, super-8 footage of Asian men shot in the streets of Hong Kong and San Francisco is projected onto my face and body, and re-shot on video. The film and video footage are then edited together with a voiceover, written and performed by Ong, who speaks about reclaiming our subjectivity as queer Asian men through the act of looking. While feminine discourse is certainly not theorized as being restricted to female practitioners only, and Irigaray repeatedly speaks of being “several at once,” it is undeniable that the multi-vocality within feminine discourse is very much theorized through the sexual plurality attributed to an essentialized female body.
In her book, The Acoustic Mirror, Kaja Silverman critiques Irigaray’s heavy reliance on the binary opposition of male and female, and she cites Ann Rosalind Jones’ enumeration of the psychic, physical, social, economic, and political differences among women, which Irigaray tends to ignore in her utopian discourse. While Tran seems to depart from the essentialist paradigm of feminine discourse through her inclusion of male voices in Kore, it is also significant to note that the men in Kore can hardly be considered as normative within the phallocentric system. Bataille’s vision of sexuality is perverse, excessive, and equally transgressive across all genders. Tyler Stallings’ image of the penis, a symbol of phallic power, is flaccid and crash-landed upon. The narrator in my projection sequence articulates his desire for other Asian men. It is also significant to note that the most joyous and pleasurable sequence in Kore is one that shows two blindfolded Asian women making love to the Loop Guru’s “Hymn,” a song that pairs electronic drum beats with South Asian instrumentation and the ecstatic ululation of a female vocalist. In this sequence, at the culmination of the video, the images of the Asian women explode in saturated reds and oranges. The swooning camera is placed very close to the women, giving the viewers a sense of being in the middle of the lovemaking. The footage conveys a sense of haptic tactility through its strobes and blurs—a result from being shot in a low-shutter speed. With its imagery of women loving women, and its celebration of touch-based pleasure, this climatic sequence in Kore can again be read within the paradigm of feminine discourse. Another passage from Cixous seems an apt description here:
However, the key signifiers in this sequence: the blindfold, the Asian features and bodies of the women, the South Asian instrumentation and female vocalist locate this sequence outside European and American cultural contexts. The pleasure represented here: blinded, non-verbal, and touch-based, is apart from European and American paradigms of vision and language. Thus, this sequence and what it represents is also situated outside the discourse of the Lacanian Symbolic. In addition, since one of the Asian women here is Peou Lakhana, whom we have seen speaking as an AIDS worker in other parts of the video, the presumed primitivism of non-western bodies and pre-verbal pleasure of the sequence is disrupted by Peou’s other representation as articulate, knowledgeable, rational, and very much within the western context of an AIDS activist. When the credits roll at the end of the video, we hear Peou’s voice reflecting upon her experience performing in this scene. Her self-reflexive voice further complicates any essentialist readings of the lovemaking sequence, while it also situates it amongst the many other voices in the video.
The Voice sings from a time before law, before the Symbolic took one’s breath away and reappropriated it into language under its authority of separation. The deepest, the oldest, the loveliest Visitation. Within each woman the first, nameless love is singing.
Trauma and Vocal Embodiment in Ekleipsis
While Tran’s Kore incorporated many voices and different modes of articulation, the soundtrack of another video in the Blindness Series, Ekleipsis, is by contrast starkly minimal. In Ekleipsis, the soundtrack is composed entirely from voiceover narration. All of the voices in the video are women’s voices, which parallel the video’s focus on a group of Cambodian women refugees living in Long Beach, California. They are known as the largest group of hysterically blind people in the world. All of the voices in the video have been altered, resulting in different degrees of audibility. These voices fill up most of the soundtrack, and are only interrupted twice in the video by text quotes that are silent. The images from the video are similarly restrained, consisting of shots of the textual history of Cambodia in close-up pans, newsreel photographs of Cambodians during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and a series of images, separated by black space, that repeats throughout the video, with the clips becoming longer as the video progresses. These sequences are composed from media images of Cambodia appropriated from TV news, documentary, and fictional film sources, as well as symbolic images that include close-up shots of jewelry, glasses, a pineapple, and rice. The video opens and closes with a low pitch and distorted voice that speaks in the first person. This is the fictionalized voice of the Cambodian women, and the most difficult to comprehend in the video. Other voices in the video include what I will call the academic/psychoanalyst voice and the journalistic voice. There are several variations of the academic/psychoanalyst voice: all are high-pitched and performed with a haughty accent. The journalistic voice sounds the least altered, and is the most clearly audible in the video. While the voice of the Cambodian women frames the video, most of its body consists of exchanges between the two other voices, where the journalistic voice, speaking in the second person, recounts the horrific experiences of the Cambodian women under the Khmer Rouge. The academic/psychoanalyst voice, speaking in the third person, discusses the history of hysteria, trauma, and psychoanalysis in a European and American context. This voice is the most theoretically dense and emotionally detached in the work. There is, about halfway through the video, a brief interlude from these two voices, when a young girl recounts, in first person, her experience in the Khmer Rouge labor camps. Tran’s sister, Namolisa Slemmons, performed this narration, while Tran performed all the other voices.
The French term for voiceover is “voix-off”. According to Michel Chion, voice-off designates any bodiless voices in a film that tell stories, provide commentary, or evoke the past. Chion’s book The Voice in Cinema is very much concerned with disembodied voices in cinema. In the book, he focuses on the concept of the acousmêtre—the magical, all-knowing, and all-powerful voice that is not attached to a body and one whose power is lost when its source becomes visible. Chion traces the origins of the acousmêtre to the voice of the montreur d’images, the picture presenter who narrated the lantern slide shows that toured through the French countryside in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These shows are one of the precursors to modern cinema, and the voice of the montreur d’images, who read from texts designed to accompany these shows, sometimes called “talking journals,” became integrated into the cinematic device of the voiceover. Although Chion bases his observations primarily on narrative cinema, his concept of the acousmêtre is very similar to the “voice of god” narrator used in documentaries. Like the acousmêtre, the “voice of god” narrator is all knowing and often disembodied. Like the montreur d’images, the disembodied narrator in documentaries often dictates meaning to the images that the viewers are watching. While none of the voices in Ekleipsis are synchronized to a body, (or “nailed,” to use Marguerite Duras’ term) the journalistic voice and the academic/psychoanalyst voice both exhibit characteristics of an acousmatic voice. The journalistic voice provides the viewers with information about the experiences of the Cambodian women. It is not quite a “voice of god” narration, in that it does not directly comment on the images seen. It connects to the images in video by virtue of its subject matter, and at specific moments when objects it mentions appear on the screen. Even though it is often narrating horrific experiences, it remains “objective,” neutral, and emotion-less, very much within the realm of rationality by virtue of its audibility and inflection. The academic/psychoanalyst voice is denser in that it speaks in a theoretical language, and its accent served to add to this sense of detachment. It provides meta-commentary to the predicament of the women, but never connects to their experiences. It intellectualizes their suffering in the abstract language of theories and symptoms.
The third voice in the video, the one that represents the Cambodian women, is the most difficult to hear and to understand. Its pitch is lowered so much that it hardly sounds like a woman’s voice. The reverb is distorted to the degree that it sounds like the narrator is swallowing her words, or that the words are struggling to burst out of her throat. These effects, along with an exaggerated intonation, make her words virtually incomprehensible. In The Voice in Cinema, Chion traces a particular kind of acousmatic voice that he calls the “I-voice”. He wrote:
For Chion, the I-voice is characterized by two qualities: close miking and “dryness,” or an absence of reverb. These qualities create in us, the viewers, “an intimacy with the voice, such that we sense no distance between it and our ear,” and a lack of “concrete and identifiable space” with which to situate and distance the voice from ourselves. The voice representing the Cambodian women in Ekleipsis shares some of the characteristics of Chion’s I-voice: it is closely miked and situated very close to our bodies. In fact, I would venture that its sonorous qualities place it inside our bodies. When we hear it, this voice becomes lodged deep inside our throats, struggling to get out, to be formed into comprehensible words. This effect is very similar to another concept that Chion calls “corporeal implication”, “when the voice makes us feel in our body the vibration of the body of the other.” Chion also notes that extreme cases of corporeal implication occur “when there is no dialogue or words, but only closely present breathing or groans or sighs.” It is significant to note that while the Cambodian women’s voice is speaking a comprehensible and powerful text, its articulation of this text renders the meaning of its words virtually incomprehensible, resembling the bodily sounds mentioned above. Therefore, the meaning of these passages is not so much conferred in the text of the voiceover, but in its sonority. More so than in the two narrations from Kore discussed earlier, here the geno-voiceover takes precedence over the pheno-voiceover as the conveyor of meaning. Tran is able to create a voice, in which its “grain,” corporeally implicated deep inside our bodies, can both give us a sense of the horrors these women experienced, and impinge upon us the impossible struggle of articulating their experiences in rational speech and language.
The cinematic I-voice is not just the voice that says ”I,” as in a novel. To solicit the spectator’s identification, that is, for the spectator to appropriate it to any degree, it must be framed and recorded in a certain manner. Only then can it function as a pivot of identification, resonating in us as if it were our own voice, like a voice in first person.
Chion also discusses the relationship between vocal embodiment and horror in The Voice in Cinema, where he cites the correlation between the French terms for embodiment (mise-en-corps), entombment (mise en bière), and interment (mise en terre); closely linking vocal embodiment to death and burial. In the book, he uses the example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to elucidate his point. The three speeches delivered by the mother’s voice in the film progressively reveal Norman’s (Anthony Perkins) psychosis by bringing her voice closer and closer to his body. This is accomplished through the progressive elimination of reverb in her voice on the film’s soundtrack, so that by the time Norman is revealed as the murderer, captured, and put in a holding cell at the police station, the mother’s voice is completely “nailed” to his body. We see Norman’s face in a close-up, his mouth unmoving, yet we hear the mother’s last monologue as if she is speaking from within his body. His gestures and facial expression correspond to her speech. Her voice is dry, and there is no reverb, creating an effect that Chion describes as “…to suggest possession by spirits, or ventriloquism.” In this impossible embodiment, the dead mother has completely possessed Norman through her voice. For Chion, the embodiment of an/other’s voice is almost always a horrific experience. He traces this association between horror and vocal embodiment back to the uterus, where he envisions a child being complete engulfed by the “umbilical web” of the mother’s voice. Kaja Silverman has critiqued Chion’s fantasy as a symptom of male paranoia and castration, while she argued that disembodying the female voice can be a challenge to “every conception by means of which we have previously known women within Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body that she is constructed there.” In Tran’s Ekleipsis, the horror that is conveyed through impossible embodiment is not the horror of the phallic mother, but the horrors of war and atrocities. The voice of the Cambodian women is not the voice of a dead woman. It is a fictionalized voice that draws from the collective witnessing by these women survivors of the horrific acts committed by the Khmer Rouge. Acts horrifying enough to disable their vision, rendering them hysterically blind. Yet this voice, like the voice of Norman’s dead mother, is out to possess bodies. It lodges itself in our throats, struggling to burst out. We feel its vibrations buried deep within us. We experience the women’s trauma through its grain. We are corporeally implicated by how we often distance ourselves, very much in the manner of the other voices in the video, from atrocities that happen in other countries and other cultures. Instead of being engendered within the sound design of the filmic text, the embodiment facilitated by Ekleipsis happens outside the video’s textual body and inside the bodies of its viewers.
An incomprehensible voice that speaks of the horrors of hunger, torture, and execution. A scene of touch-based pleasure represented in audio-visual imagery. There is a consistent endeavor within Tran’s Blindness Series to speak the unspeakable and to show that which cannot be seen. To understand these seeming paradoxes, we return to the beginning of this essay, and to the strategy of using the negative to emphasize the positive. Just as the empty spaces in a Chinese landscape painting by, say, thirteenth century painter Mu-ch’I, defines its pictorial elements; blindness—the lack of vision—structures our perception of what is visible in this video series. In a similar way, the many voices within the Blindness Series, both metaphorical and material, speak to the limitations of visuality. Speaking in many tongues, and sometimes in the non-verbal diction of whispers, groans, and cries, these voices speak about what is outside visual representation. What they collectively say is that both pleasure and horror maybe unrepresentable, or that our current visually hegemonic system of representation is inadequate to portray these experiences. In her videos, Tran presents us with glimpses of possible alternatives: voice, music, touch, multi-sensory experiences, and multiple subjectivities. In a project that is so concerned with visuality, it is these non-visual elements that make full what we do see in the videos.
Epilogue and Amaurosis
Tran’s recently completed video Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life (2006), the final piece in the Blindness Series, concerns itself with the two progenitors of the series—Jacques Derrida, whose exhibition Memoirs of the Blind had inspired the series; and Tran’s own mother, Doung Thi Pham. As in Psycho, the mother’s voice also plays a key role in Epilogue. The soundtrack for Epilogue is similar to the other videos in the series, in which the voiceover serves as the primary audio element. In this video, the voiceover alternates between excerpts from conversations with Pham while she was dying from lung cancer, recorded both at the hospital and in her home; and excerpts from interviews with Derrida, conducted two years before the French philosopher died in 2004. There are significant parallels here between the voice of Pham in Epilogue and the voice of Norman’s mother in Psycho. Both mothers are deceased, and both mothers are not shown visually in the video and film. They are acousmêtres. However, unlike the murderous phallic mother in Psycho, Pham’s voice in Epilogue is benevolent, communal, and reflective. In a conversational manner, Pham speaks of her and Tran’s family history from a matrilineal perspective, and her wish to see her daughter, Tran, start her own family before she dies. The recording of her voice is also different from that of Norman’s mother. Instead of a dryly miked voice with no reverb, the sound quality here conveys space and places the speaker within a group of people—we sometimes hear the voices of Tran and her siblings responding to their mother on the soundtrack, and the sounds of other activities taking place in the hospital room and home are also occasionally audible. This is not an undead voice that is out to possess bodies. We have the sense that the mother’s voice here is speaking to and within a group—she is conversing with her family and progeny. Her disembodied voice also serves to trace a sense of lineage in Epilogue, one that extends back to Duong Thi Pham’s mother and grandmother, and forward to Tran and her then unborn son. The representation of motherhood in Epilogue differs significantly from Chion’s discussion of motherhood and birth in both Audio-Vision and The Voice in Cinema, which tend toward the horrific and stifling. Tran’s meditation on motherhood imbues Pham’s voice with subjectivity, a sense of the communal, and spirituality.
Completed before Epilogue, the seventh video in the Blindness Series, Amaurosis, is a portrait of blind Amerasian musician Nguyen Duc Dat. Like many of the other videos in the Blindness Series, Amaurosis is filled with human voices. There are extensive interviews with Nguyen, and vocal excerpts of Basil Rathbone and Thich Nhat Hanh.There are also two scenes that show Nguyen playing music. The first shows him playing a flute that Tran has given him, intercut with images of water and the sea—sources of inspiration for Nguyen. The sequence that follows shows him and his band playing at the Ritz nightclub. At almost four minutes long, this sequence is the last in Amaurosis. It features a continuous soundtrack of the concert, with photo images of Nguyen’s band and video footage of other concerts and of Vietnam edited over it. These two sequences are the most expressive audio sequences in the video. The qualities of their sound also complement each other well. In the first sequence, Nguyen plays Tran’s flute solo, with a bare and minimal sound. This sequence is moving not only for its melancholic disposition, but also in that it connects the personal histories of the maker and the subject of the video through the shared object of the flute. In contrast, the final sequence in the video sounds joyous and celebratory. It shows Nguyen playing with the full accompaniment of his band. His playing is magnificent here; the music is rich and dense—a rewarding conclusion to the video in which there is much discussion of Nguyen’s talent. While they certainly demonstrate Nguyen’s virtuosity as a musician, these musical sequences also produce an interesting effect in the video. The interviews, conducted primarily in Nguyen’s voice, anticipate the musical sequences. The way the verbal information of the interviews and the emotive score of the music interact is another articulation of the strategy of using the negative to emphasize the positive, where the negative space of the music makes full the positive space of the interviews preceding it. The soaring music at the end of the video fills up what the interviews delineated, thus completing the portrait of Nguyen. Tran’s use of music as an expressive voice in Amaurosis is significant, in that it comes towards the end of the primarily vococentric Blindness Series, and points to interesting new directions in her oeuvre.
Ming-Yuen S. Ma is Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, and the Co-Chair of Intercollegiate Media Studies at the Claremont Colleges. He is the co-editor of Resolutions 3: Global Networks of Video (winner of SCMS’s Best Edited Volume Award in 2014), and the Moving Image Review of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Ma’s experimental videos and installations have shown national and internationally in venues ranging for the Museum of Modern Art in New York to a tour bus driving around Los Angeles. He has also worked as an administrator, curator, and board member with numerous media, art, and activist organizations in the past twenty-plus years. He is currently working on a book exploring the relationships between experimental media and sound cultures. For more information, go to www.mingyuensma.org.