The Line and the Letter: Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Video EssaysHolly Willis
Lines of text float against a milky white background, the words hovering just beyond perception and remaining images of text rather than words to be read. The images in turn embody a handful of ideas – about language, metaphor, communication and the ability or inability to see – all of which constitute the 10-minute video by Tran T. Kim-Trang called Alexia (2000), a term that designates “word blindness,” a condition that afflicts stroke victims and prevents them from perceiving individual letters. Rather than explaining the condition, Alexia instead enacts it visually, aurally, textually and discursively. The video becomes in all its formal attributes a means for exploring a nexus of ideas without culminating in a polemic or concise conclusion.
One of the eight videos that constitute Tran’s The Blindness Series, Alexia joins a much larger body of work dubbed “essayistic,” a term used since the early days of cinema to designate films and videos that follow in the footsteps of the written essay and the work of writers such as Montaigne, who eschewed the careful arrangement of a convincing argument in favor of loosely structured explorations. The cinematic essay boasts a long and venerable history, with some of the most respected filmmakers tackling the genre and crafting extraordinary films. The essay film has also served as the focus for a long list of critical articles describing and analyzing the form, including Hans Richter’s 1940 piece, “The Film Essay: A New Form of Documentary Film” and Alexandre Astruc’s “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo” from 1948, which introduces the “camera pen” that has inspired countless makers. The video essay, while enjoying a shorter lifespan, nevertheless also claims a significant segment of overall video production and concomitant critical attention, especially from 1980 onward with the eruption of autobiographical video pieces offering insight into notions of identity and subjectivity.
Discussions of the essayistic in film and video often center on comparisons between written essays and filmed or taped essays, finding alignments especially in regard to form – essays, both on paper and in media, meander from topic to topic; they essai, or try something; they often deploy the voice-over of the maker; and they are personal, subjective, partial and poetic. Critics often compare the process of writing, a solitary act in which the writer uses a pen to translate the meandering of ideas onto paper, to the process of essayistic composition using a camera, where the tools of inscription become almost interchangeable. Despite attempts to codify the form, however, it remains slippery, resisting easy classification. Indeed, Michael Renov, in his essay “History and/as Autobiography: The Essayistic in Film and Video,” highlights the fact that essayistic works tend to “resist generic classification,” instead hovering between the binaries that distinguish narrative and documentary, as well as traditional documentary filmmaking and avant-garde production.
In “The Essay as Form,” written between 1954 and 1958, Theodor Adorno passionately defends the essay, dismissing the traditional German perspective that condemned the form’s hybridity and inviting readers instead to consider its particular merits. These merits include the fact that the essay is not concerned with universals, but instead cheerfully explores the particular and the local. “Its concepts are not derived from a first principle, nor do they fill out to become ultimate principles,” writes Adorno, acknowledging directly that the resistance to “ultimate principles” may prohibit the essay’s acceptance within the realm of a more stringently defined philosophical tradition. “It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about,” he writes. “It says what occurs to it in that context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say.” Adorno goes on to note that for this reason, the essay “is classified as a trivial endeavor.”
Within this logic, Tran’s videos are trivial. They are not interested in first principles or grandiose claims. Instead, they function through the unlikely juxtaposition of topics and ideas, which bustle against each other in a rich mix of political questioning.
Tran’s videos are also not typical of many essayistic films and videos that rely on first person perspective to provide coherence. In his essay “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” Phillip Lopate writes, “It could be said that all first-person narration tends toward the essay, in the sense that, as soon as an ‘I’ begins to define his or her position in and view of the world, the potential for essayistic discourse comes into play.” He goes on to note that “first-person narration in film is complicated by the disjunction between the subjective voice on the sound track and the third-person, material objectivity that the camera tends to bestow on whatever it photographs, like it or not.”
Tran’s work, however, eschews the “I” of Lopate’s essayistic discourse, replacing it with a politicized “we” that emerges and becomes magnified through Tran’s lens. In some cases, the voices of others are heard, as in Oculars (1997), in which people were invited to phone in anonymous accounts of fears and fantasies related to surveillance and these voices are heard throughout the tape; in other cases, Tran’s tapes become collective in that the concerns she raises are inextricably social, connected to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Thus, while they are certainly Tran’s, once uttered within the essay structure of the tapes, the issues and questions presume a broader platform and focus, one that is grounded and specific, but bigger than the singular. Further, Tran is far less concerned with personal observation and how subjective musings conjure, describe or interpret the world, and more interested in a specifically critical essayistic form. While the idiosyncrasies that characterize the personal are certainly present, they reflect less on individual subjectivity and more on a politicized questioning, and the polemical stance of the documentary opens to the possibilities of creative reading. And indeed, Tran also provides a breadth of interpretive possibility, thereby placing an unusual degree of trust in – and commitment to – her viewer that is rare, even in the essay film.
In this sense, Tran’s work points to a shift that took place in the mid-1980s and early 1990s as a generation of artists schooled in post-structuralist theory transposed critical thinking and writing into media, bringing along a fascination with text as artifact or material. To be sure, the use of text in art was not new, nor was it new to film and video. Many students, for example, would have encountered discussions of text in Conceptual art from the 1960s forward, and students of film theory would be familiar with the discussion of narrative and the politics of identification, and the ways in which text onscreen might disrupt the ceaseless suturing of story. Peter Wollen, for example, claims in a 1981 essay in October that “language is the component of film which both threatens to regulate the spectator, assigned a place within the symbolic order, and also offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image." He goes on to explain how text can function disruptively: “A film is like a book whose pages are extended in time, to be inscribed with graphic signs. The project of a counter-language, then, is one which implies a transformation of the symbolic order of these graphic inscriptions, neither a refusal of ‘writing’ and a relapse into a realm of the image as such, nor an acceptance of the canonical codes of the dominant narrative cinema, the cinematic law, so to speak.” Wollen’s cinematic collaborations with Laura Mulvey attempted to find this middle ground, between the domination of the psychoanalytic realm of the symbolic and the chaos of the imaginary. Again, however, this model of expression falls short of explaining Tran’s mode, and her particular deployment of the essayistic in that it remains rooted in a resistance to cinematic narrative, which Tran avoids easily, in part through video and its history of medium-specific resistance.
Indeed, Tran’s use of text boasts a specific function in the context of academia, at once anchoring the notion of the essay to its heritage on paper and, by extension, its weighty significance within academia while also touting the potential opacity of the textual. Text onscreen in video gradually became rampant, sometimes polemical as in the early video Television Delivers People (1973) by Richard Serra, sometimes poetic as in the short visual poems such as Darling Child (1993) by Tom Kalin, and sometimes specifically intrigued by language and signification as in the video art of Gary Hill, whose Incidence of Catastrophe (1987), based on Maurice Blanchot’s “Thomas the Obscure,” features flowing, full-screen images of text on paper.
Tran has discussed her fascination with critical writing generally and its impact on the series. She notes that even before she began the first video, Alethia, in the early 1990s, she already had the eight-part structure in mind. “I was keen on structuring the series like chapters in a book,” she says in an interview with Abraham Ferrer. Further, the series was inspired by a show co-curated by Jacques Derrida in 1990 titled “Memories of the Blind,” and it concludes with Epilogue, a video that took shape around the death of Derrida in 2004. Derrida here designates not only high theory and post-structuralist thought, but also someone fascinated by the role of video and the word-as-image onscreen and the possibilities it opens up for signification. In his essay “Videor,” he writes “[Video art] is a ‘new’ visual art that ... appears to be one of the most discursive, and not only with discourses but also with textual forms that are heterogeneous among themselves, whether literary or not (Blanchot, the Gospels, for example), that seem to be altogether at odds with such a working, with what one thought ‘video’ art had to be.”
For Tran, the fascination with text is evident in the numerous examples of words on screen – Alethia, Ocularis and Ekleipsis all boast artfully rendered snippets of text, for example, and there are images of fingers passing across the bumps of Braille and in Epilogue, text is rendered in a font based on Derrida’s handwriting. Presented as an aesthetic as well as a communicative object, the text in these instances loses its easy transparency, becoming something to look at rather than to look through. Its meaning is doubled, enacting what D.N. Rodowick dubs the figural in his book, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After New Media. Among the several definitions Rodowick offers of the figural, he writes, “In a larger sense, the figural defines a semiotic regime where the ontological distinction between linguistic and plastic representations breaks down.” He continues, “This opposition, which has been the philosophical foundation of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, is explicitly challenged by the new electronic, televisual and digital media.”
Tran’s work and its continual return to the materiality of text refuses to accept the invisibility and transparency of the textual. The opposition noted by Rodowick, between the linguistic and the plastic, breaks down in her work, with the result that The Blindness Series bridges the philosophical and the poetic. And this is the territory claimed by Adorno for the essay. He argues that the essay, both in spite of and because of its “impurity,” demands respect, further noting that the apparent transparency and objectivity of a universalizing philosophy should be questioned. He writes, “The academic guild accepts as philosophy only what is clothed in the dignity of the universal and the enduring – and today perhaps the originary. It gets involved with particular cultural artifacts only to the extent to which they can be used to exemplify universal categories, and to the extent to which the particular becomes transparent when seen in terms of them.” For Tran, the particular never becomes transparent in order to exemplify the universal. Instead, like the text that flows from letter to line and back again, the particular comes to the fore to be studied and in turn, the video essay as essay brings the very structures of expression into relief. In this way, The Blindness Series gives us a new critical practice, one that is less Astruc’s camera stylo and its presentation of the maker and instead the politicized, deterritorialized and frequently collective form of enunciation that conjoins word and image, letter and line, and in the process, reimagines the essay in the terms proffered by Adorno 50 years ago.
Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where she also serves as the Chair of the Media Arts + Practice Division. She is a co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine, dedicated to independent film, and was the editor of RES magazine and co-curator of RESFEST for several years. She writes frequently about experimental film, video and new media.