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Seeing through Documentary / Arguing with Art
by Alexandra Juhasz
Seeing through Documentary / Arguing with Art: Video as Integrative Feminist Praxis in the Sight of Tran T. Kim-TrangAlexandra Juhasz
After my initial, somewhat stunned, (re)review of this long-forgotten essay—to be soon, and at last, published online on Scalar—Tran informed me that this draft of my text was dated March 23, 2005. I was impressed and dismayed by this author’s (my past self) ideas, writing, and bombastic turns of phrase. She certainly wanted to go for it! I suppose the new me could clean it up, tone it down, make it current, but I’ve decided to leave it alone less because I am lazy and more because the datedness of my writing and preoccupations point to some of the institutional and infrastructural issues raised by both my essay and the larger project, More Than Meets the Eye. Many more than eleven years in the making, this amazing body of writing by some of the art and academic world’s most admired authors all focusing their energy and insight on Tran’s impressive Blindness Series, at last is available through contemporary technologically and institutional supports (and lack there of) that have everything to do with the subject at hand: “Feminist video and its criticism has always known and marked that style, process, and content are all effects of and affect the text. Feminist media theory establishes that images create real experiences and politics, just as feminist video artists insist that a politicized video process creates radical images.”
I am proud to be part of this larger effort, I am relieved that it is done, I am perturbed that we’ve all aged so much since we began work on it, and I am aware that this is a testament to the place of (feminist) video within larger systems. I hope that readers of this essay will experience my contribution with attention to these larger structures that control, frame, allow, and prohibit our abilities to see freely.
There is no video theory in the way that there is a body of knowledge called film theory or, rather differently, television studies.
--Sean Cubitt, Videography
Before we can get to the absence or taming of video theory, and how the Blindness Series of Tran T. Kim-Trang might let us see this, first, an informative detour. Let’s go to the station, where we will view, ourselves unseen, the strangest of births: cinema’s invention, over a hundred years ago. An extraordinary primal scene, one that seems more postmodern than modern in that it appears that this technological baby is sired from the most queer of families, one with several dads: the Lumiere brothers and George Melies. We can see that Film Studies celebrates two proud blood-lines: non-fiction and fiction. The one-take actualities of the Lumieres with their apocryphal train, the little babies being fed, society’s swells strolling and its laboring stiffs departing the factory, all shot in long take from the static Cinematograph, and yet in all this simplicity, we still marvel at this real time, mimetic, magic delivery system that gives us what once was, here, now, later. Meanwhile, Melies concocts marvelous imaginary fabrications: hopping, happy Moon creatures, journeys to invented destinations. He uses the same machine not to bring back the dead, but to create life. Later, Eisenstein and Bazin will give nuance to these binaries: editing versus long take, analysis or contemplation, the construction of reality, the realism of technology. Of course there are political legacies grafted on to these formal systems. But we need not go there yet. All we need to know from this detour is that film’s history and its theory follow two distinct trains leaving from the one station: the aesthetic and the informational.
Institutionalized art-delivery systems…tame video, ignoring or excising the elements of implicit critique.
--Martha Rosler, “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment”
Film studies rather unselfconsciously celebrates its exceptional French Fathers and has struggled to maintain a mythic foundation story built upon a clear binary to do so—documentary/narrative, art/entertainment. Mapping film in this way makes certain things clear, while obscuring others. Then, video came along, and, lacking video theory its fledgling critics used the flawed (film) tools already in place to tame video, and “take away its implicit critique”: a critique of binaries, cinema, foundations, fathers, among other things. So, video was broken neatly into the same two tracks, only for this family the gendered roles were quite clear—art and documentary, Dad and Mom. Any cursory review of the very few anthologies and monographs about video theory and history will reveal this ubiquitous coupling. Please forgive my bald demonstration. Here’s Sean Cubitt, in one of only a handful of monographs written on the subject of video. Cubitt names two approaches for the medium:
And here’s Erika Suderburg, co-editor of Resolutions, the 90s stab at video theory:
… art and culture. These two terms resist definition, but, in terms of video media: “art” describes an approach centering on the problem of autonomy, of what happens when the medium is set free—or cast adrift—from a necessary condition of daily life. “Culture,” on the other hand, is the approach which insists that there is an unbreakable bond between the specificity of video practices and the generality of social life. The dialectical relationship between these two contrary approaches is what shapes the arguments of the whole work.
Suderburg takes up a two-promise (rather than two-track) model—liberation of self or art work—while Cubitt names two fields—culture and art—but the familiar binary stands firm. It seems impossible to think about modernist culture outside this frame. However, the two-parent origin tale for video, while repeated often enough, has never been quite as convincing as the one it imitates. For there has never been two parallel tracks for video. To say it more simply, the conjugal model—as clunky as it already is for film—makes no sense at all for a medium that knew it was linked primarily to one forebearer, television, and then only secondarily to a whole host of institutions: art, documentary, science, warfare, communication, film. Furthermore, video was founded within an anti-establishment context bent upon the re-making of such institutions, and made use of an explicitly feminist critique to do so. Within an art world (and art school) context, and out on the streets and in their homes, feminist artists and activists were there at the beginning—together inventing a feminist pedagogy and practice that championed this medium because it was process oriented, unsanctioned, sloppy, impossible to commodify, easy to distribute, and open to collectivity. Certainly their work was concerned with the medium’s unique properties, but this was so that the form could be best used to interrogate the operating assumptions that organized daily life in patriarchal institutions like the family, the home, the art world, the American left, and the bedroom. Deirdre Boyle explains how video technology was an ideal medium for artists to move outside the art world and into the “real” world as contemporaneous art theory envisioned:
The aura of liberatory promise still clings to video art’s historical trajectory…grassroots television networks, a wired global village…the education of all of television’s children, and the means of production delivered into the hands of the disenfranchised,. ..Within the myopic art world, video’s “promise” was partially realized in the 1970s as conceptual artists, sculptors, and performance poets committed to a devaluation of the commodity side of the art object.
Boyle’s remarks—like Suderburg’s and Cubitt’s previously—make a double, or self-contradictory move that is informative and demonstrative. Even as video’s history is broken into its two, too-familiar tracks—art and culture, art world and real world, art and communication, art video and documentary—the opposite is noted: their integration, blurring, connection. And I will over-simplify, or perhaps make manifesto, to claim that such parenting by dialectic occurred (even as it was as quickly repressed) because the parents of video were feminists (and their friends) who with an anti-establishment zeal used the medium to attack the patriarchal ideals that organized the society, the left, the art world, the entertainment industry, and their own psyches. A feminist problematic, and its solutions, were at the founding of video. This is the only high/low art form originated by, or at least with, women who were publicly expressing, at the foundational moment, a feminist critique of which everyone was aware and from which everyone gained.
The role of the artists as individualist and alienated hero was being eclipsed by a resurgence of interest in the artist’s social responsibility, and as art became politically and socially engaged, the distinctions between art and communication blurred. At first there were few distinctions between artists and activists, and nearly everyone made documentary tapes.
To not engage with this set of questions proved to be a careful, if perhaps hostile or misogynistic choice. That video art, a modernist practice that makes the formal properties of the medium its sole or at least primary concern, has become the sanctioned, commodifiable, institutionalized embodiment of a now pure video reaffirms the field’s fear of messy female origins. And, in this video dynamic, politics gets re-assigned to the child, while the father re-fashions Himself to look more recognizable; art video, to move in the museum, to get academic attention, had to rid itself of its feminist (ideological) impulse. Granted, men and women continued to make video that merged art and information, aesthetic and communication, but typically one strain of the work was elevated to allow the work to be compartmentalized, analyzed, and institutionalized through a recognizable binary criteria.
In this fashion, film scholars turned video into film by forcing it through their own (flawed) paradigms of origin, while art critics and sociologists did the same. The school of video and its theory that is most closely attached to art history, the art world, and the (video) art object has attempted the complex feat of theorizing the aesthetic specificity of this unique medium outside its real-world investments. Video is not film, although it is a text. Alongside, but never intersecting this tradition, is a body of writing that looks to video made by disempowered others who make cheap, opinionated television. This video theory disregards the object, and focuses instead upon its process and function: an active and enabling production and reception by citizen participants. Video is not television, although it is mass culture. In the process what excited everyone most about video was ignored—that it messily, refreshingly can not be so reduced: “Video has again a special relation to modernism: every pursuit of the medium’s specificity uncovers a new impurity, a new relation between video and the adjacent arts.” “Anti-establishment in its disregard for commodity values, video defies a depoliticized hierarchy, since it is socially engaged.”
Like most media theorists, I too have taken a side, linking my practical and theoretical work on video to realist practices that mark the text itself as secondary to a primary project that occurs in the lived world. To do so, I have battled a few giants: Feminist Film Theory, as one. In opposition, my school of media theory and production mostly disregards the video object and focuses instead upon its processes and functions. Thus, in my books, AIDS TV and Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Media, I argue that in activist video projects the construction of political identities and communities through media production and reception is what this medium delivers best: an active and authorial relationship to a media culture of images and ideas. What these tapes look like pales in comparison to how it feels to make and watch them: to see oneself, to hear one’s words, in the authorizing form of television, as one criticizes authority and is launched into history. And so this, my theory, goes: stepping out of time, to play with form, is the privilege of those who have already been granted agency. In a recent essays published in a special edition of Camera Obscura on feminist video, I focus upon collectivity and the production of the female subject. I use the text to see empowering collective procedures of production and political possibilities for reception.
But here’s where I cop to the same necessary and disenabling ideological blindspot that has formed video’s theoretical lineage. For the conjugal model for video makes no sense, and is historically inaccurate. How can we look at video and its history keeping in sight its impurity, its delightful intermixing of social engagement and textual obsession? First, find the most integrated sites of production: outside but connected to the museum, inside but estranged from the political. For instance, in the U.K. (as in the U.S.), video’s invention, and ongoing history, found activist collectives learning and making video external to but associated with the art establishment. Cubitt explains:
A video theory more honest to its origins and its objects should not ask whether a particular work is more neatly mapped onto a history of modernist art production that identifies its discrete and magical powers or whether its legacy is social change or rhetoric, in and about the real and messy world. Video theory should begin by knowing that video is both, and more. Art, technology, and social life align in video. Video theory should ask of a work and its artist how she meaningfully integrates ideas and practices about art and life. In my analysis that follows, I hope to enact a form of video criticism that demonstrates its links to a repressed but foundational feminist video history and theory. I go to a site where the tracks intersect, interact, circle back to the station.
The workshops, exploiting what D.N. Rodowick (1989) refers to as a “political modernism” in which avant-garde techniques are drawn into the service of sociopolitical videomaking, oscillated between these two positions, making purposive works whose formal concerns were to be understood in terms of political objectives.
Over the past ten years, Tran has made eight formally diverse videotapes called the Blindness Series. She explains that these are a sequence of experimental documentary videos that investigate the many issues and metaphors of blindness. Like one side of a multi-faceted crystal, each tape examines a particular aspect of the larger topic, and each adopts a different set of formal qualities. For my purposes, the video work of Tran is not exceptional but demonstrative. As is true for many in the field, she is a contemporary video maker whose work shows in the loftiest museums and the most local of cultural centers; her video speaks alike to art historians and recent immigrants. Trained in art school, political collectives schooled on critical theory, and as a feminist immigrant in this hostile nation, Tran’s influences and commitments are multiple and mutual. As is true for many video artists, her project looks to the art and real world. I will look closely at two works from the series, Aletheia (1992) and Amaurosis (2002) because they are most obviously, and respectively, an art video and a documentary. Aletheia, in representative 90s video vernacular, mixes genres, topic and sources in a multi-layered, many-messaged montage. As it blends the high cultural theory of Freud, Derrida, Foucault and Irigaray—in written text or spoken word—with mass cultural images; as it mixes gay male sex acts with native American myth; as it merges bumps of Braille with the Kronos Quartet, Aletheia is always, sort of, about vision, blindness, race, gender, nation and video. Meanwhile, Amaurosis’ subject and style are more clear: blind classical guitarist, Nguyen Duc Dat, seen in medium long takes of medium close-up talking-head interviews about vision, blindness, race, gender, nation, video and guitar. But these pat, two-parent descriptions do the work disservice. To rid the former of ideology is as awkward as draining the latter of its claims to form. Why go there? What does this compartmentalization allow us to see about Tran’s video, and to what does it blind us?
Knowing these videos as art and documentary allows for an easy way to distinguish between notable disparities in style (one dense and quick, the other spare and tempered) and content (one about ideas and images, the other about a human subject; one referring to culture, the other representing it). Of course, it would be as fruitful to think about this transformation—1992-2002—as marking quickly changing trends in video (what is fundable, what is cutting-edge), but the powerful hold of the fiction/non-fiction rubric obscures these sorts of categorization. Moreover, the points of convergence between these two dissimilar but related objects seems equally telling. In both, Tran layers and disaligns sound and image. Certainly Aletheia is the more distorted, mixing as many as six tracks of information at any given frame (music, voice reading theoretical text, another voice speaking, layered video, and written text). But in the spare, but thus the more apparent moments where she departs from a realist image of Dat—to cutaway to street scenes of historical or contemporary Viet Nam, to show us computer generated models of vision—a greater and more complicated distortion occurs. Where have we gone, why do we leave Dat’s bedroom, who has taken us there?
In the “art video” that uses bits and pieces of reality to construct only more video, no quick and seemingly random cut from image to another breaks this logic: we are always inside a monitor that is referring to itself. But again, too simple, for in Tran’s surveillance images of real Los Angeles streets that house real plastic surgery offices where real Asian-American women’s actual eye-lids are cut, bloodied, and sewn, in her images of so-many close-ups of one-fold eyes, in her insistence upon linking her images to a real world (a narrator reads actual street addresses) to which her many images refer, and a theory of representation that asserts that how things look affect what they mean, Tran will never let video’s images and sounds refer only, solely to the medium. And just so, in the “documentary” she will not let us lazily anchor down into the easy comforts of the indexical. In perhaps the strangest and yet most innocuous of cutaways, Tran cuts to an image of a Vietnamese street in a montage at the video’s close that is otherwise composed of images of Dat’s musical career. Does his music take him home? Does it so transport Tran, also a Vietnamese émigré? Are we, too, allowed to see outside ourselves, our Nation, our television, because of the powers of Dat’s guitar and Tran’s video? Such space and time travel is the magic of video, its form made manifest; just as it marks the breakdown of subjecthood. In a related cut-away, seen twice in the tape, Tran departs from Dat’s interview to make us see appropriated Nova footage that breaks vision into two tracks: Imagery and Perception. The thing-itself, the image, and the apparatus that lets us see and know it, perception, are split but co-dependent, inseparable. Tran makes us remember that the real and representation are also so linked through video. Lose sight of the technology, the specificity of the medium, to your own loss of clarity and control.
And so with seeing “content.” Both pieces address the same “political” and “personal” themes as mediated by the video practice of Tran. Her hand in the first is transparent, and yet too visible: as we jump, wildly, from image to thought to sound of eyes and seeing and vision linked in only one possible way, through her vision of vision. And aren’t those her eyes we see? In the latter piece, she is slightly more present, we hear her voice, see her narrative remarks as text on the screen, and her subject, Dat, addresses her at the tape’s end, thanking her for making him her “video person.” But aren’t those her eyes we see? Tran and Dat are both Vietnamese-Americans with single-fold eye-lids: his mangled by blindness, certainly, but both signifying the same distance from an Anglo-American identity, history and privilege, both remembering a violent story of war, dislocation, and colonization. Of course she tells his story to tell her own: there is more than one “subject,” more than one “video person,” just as in Aletheia the focus is multiple.
The documentary/art divide is thought to be marked by politics and by the real, by video that is text and video that is social process. “Traditionally, art historians have ignored social and political factors because they have been considered beyond their carefully delineated parameters. ..Video, as a product and process that represents many differently derived practices by numerous artists and social groups resists this closed system…. Furthermore, video defies the art historical practice of ordering the field into a depoliticized hierarchy of stylistic categories.” Feminist video and its criticism has always known and marked that style, process, and content are all effects of and affect the text. Feminist media theory establishes that images create real experiences and politics, just as feminist video artists insist that a politicized video process creates radical images. To acknowledge this integration of text, process, and the real at the root of video is to mark two exciting, motivating, contradictions where change is possible: that video must and always will refer to the real as it is always most truly only itself, video; and that lived reality must and always will refer to video as it is always most truly only itself. In Aletheia, we hear a voice read that “history is embodied in physical characteristics.” In Tran’s Blindness Series, race, nation, vision, gender and sex are in and of video and the body, the body that makes video, and the video that makes bodies. To not see this is to be blind.
Alexandra Juhasz is the incoming chair of the Film Department at Brooklyn College, CUNY. She makes and studies committed media practices that contribute to political change and individual and community growth. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995); Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001); F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, co-edited with Jesse Lerner (Minnesota, 2005); Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/learning-youtube); co-edited with Alisa Lebow, The Blackwell Companion on Contemporary Documentary (2015) and with Yvonne Welbon, Sisters in the Life: 25 Years of African-American Lesbian Filmmaking (Duke University Press, 2016). Dr. Juhasz is also the producer of educational videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy as well as the feature films The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about feminist Internet culture including YouTube (aljean.wordpress.com) and feminist pedagogy and community (feministonlinespaces.com and ev-ent-anglement.com). With Anne Balsamo, she was co-facilitator of the network, FemTechNet, which debuted its feminist rethinking of a MOOC, a Distributed Online Open Course “Dialogues in Feminist Technology” in Fall 2013: femtechnet.org/.