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