Docu-art Dilemmas

Francis Frascina on schisms, ‘splitting’ and contradictions in documentary art

Mark Boulos’s three-channel video installation No Permanent Address, 2010, the central work of his current exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, is rooted in debates about the roles, affects and ethics of documentary in art-making. These debates, which include differing emphases on film and installation as strategies for engaging audiences politically, parallel divergent positions on art and activism resulting from a schism in relational aesthetics – artist-constructed social experiences as art-making.

I am thinking of differences between Claire Bishop and Grant Kester on ‘art’ or ‘practice’ as qualified by ‘activist’ or ‘politically engaged’ or ‘socially engaged’ (see Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, February 2006 and exchange of letters Artforum, May 2006). For Bishop, quoting Jacques Rancière, a political work of art has the double effect of the ‘readability of a political signification’ and a ‘perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification’. The aesthetic is thus ‘the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change’ characterised by ‘that tension between faith in art’s autonomy and belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come’. The primary places for such aesthetic rupture are exhibition and gallery spaces in the art economy. Kester, on the other hand, advocates community collaborations, group activities and transformative experiences through interactive process as concrete results for socially and politically productive creativity. Here, both the readability of a political signification and a critical distance from the art economy are paramount. As I will discuss, filmmaker Renzo Martens’ criticism of a Boulos video installation at the 6th Berlin Biennale in 2010 echoes these differences, which characterise contradictions faced by artists using documentary in pursuit of radical politics.

No Permanent Address, which was commissioned by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, draws on recordings made during Boulos’s extensive stay with members of the New People’s Army (NPA), a Maoist revolutionary group in the Philippines fighting for the redistribution of land and wealth. Boulos’s edit of these recordings uses a three-screen triptych to disrupt expectations of viewers as passive consumers of ‘factual documentaries’. The ‘reality’ of a particular scene is constructed by split screens relying on viewer participation to make meaning from the fragmented, often desynchronised, partial elements of what constitutes a representation. Boulos is concerned with the ‘splitting of the subject’ where, for example, women in the NPA disavow the personal – sacrificing love, children and family life – for collective revolutionary commitment. Across the screens, individuals’ caring sensitivities to members of the group are fragmented from their militant attitudes to the enemy. There is further splitting and disavowal: the NPA is on the US State Department’s list of ‘Foreign Terrorist Organizations’ and on the EU’s list of terrorist groups. Officially they have no redeemable qualities, yet the installation includes a ‘comrade’ calmly and rationally questioning the father of a killer and the split-screen dialogues convey complex communal relationships based on gender and sexual equality. Do official lists of terrorists rely on an illusory unity of the subject? Is the US-based ‘war on terror’ a catch-all statement of disavowal and otherness with its own contradictory corporate financial interests? One of the NPA recruits contrasts his ‘real man’ battle persona with the sensitive realities of his homosexuality, another carefully cleans his semi-automatic rifle with a close-up of the manufacturer’s stamp confirming that it was made in the Philippines ‘under licence from Colt’s, Hartford, CT., USA’. The arms industry revels in licensed profits and ideological disavowal of subjectivity.

In interviews, Boulos questions the post-1989 ‘death of communism’ in the light of active groups such as the NPA and cites Marxism’s critical power to explain the near collapse of capitalism during the banking crises, financial scandals and the demise of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in the US in 2008. In No Permanent Address, Marxism is Boulos’s theory, documentary film/installation his means and the precarious lives of communist revolutionaries his focus. The last point raises important dilemmas. All academic research projects involving human participants are scrutinised by professional ethics committees to safeguard the human rights, dignity and informed consent of subjects against researchers’ exploitation of them as objects. In contrast, each artist has to rely on their own ethical monitoring and face the dilemmas of representation when such care is trampled by acts of state power. This is mournfully conveyed in Lisson’s basement gallery by Boulos’s installation Red, Green, Blue, 2013, which was produced on receiving news from the Philippine Communist Party that most of the people in No Permanent Address had been killed in attacks by the country’s military. This ‘memorial’ and No Permanent Address are the results of an artistic freedom to rupture conventional categorisations unhindered by institutionalised ethical constraints, yet they become marketable products in the art economy. Accepting this contradiction is to accept ambivalence.

Boulos explored a two-screen format in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, 2008, which the Belkin Gallery owns. His video installation draws on the artist’s filming of two distinct but symbiotically related locations. On one enormous screen, there is resistance against Royal Dutch Shell’s devastating environmental and social impact in Nigeria by members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and, on the other, the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) in the midst of the Bear Stearns near collapse in March 2008. The installation places viewers in an intense and physical relationship with visual and aural demands to focus on one side, then another, then on constant turns. This produces an active dialogue on a multinational corporation’s extraction of oil from a post-colonial state in Africa and the extraction of profits from oil as a global commodity in one of the US’s financial trading sites. Stock-market traders treat oil as an abstraction with future speculative value obscuring the labour relations that produce and distribute the material thing – the oil itself. The conditions of production and distribution rely on miserable poverty, physical atrocities and trauma in countries far away from the site of stock-market trade. Again, Boulos explores splitting and disavowal in terms of subjects and the technical means of their representation.

Boulos’s work, he declares, ‘interrogates the truth-claims of documentary’ and questions why ‘video so powerfully coerces a suspension of disbelief’. Wary of such coercion in the construction of claims for truth – media seduction in conveying values and beliefs as objective facts – Boulos aims to ‘undermine empiricism’ by representing how subjective belief can become so devout, so unquestioned, that it becomes ‘real’: belief in the commodity market, or in corporate-led consumption, or in political militancy, or in the higher authority of a religious ecstasy, or in terrorism as other to the nation-state.

At the 6th Berlin Biennale, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which also employs animation and digital after-effects, was one example of artists engaging differently with documentary. Phil Collins’s short film marxism today (prologue), 2010, represented an approach consistent with the conventions of TV documentary: a sequence of interviews and archive footage exploring the experiences and views of former teachers and academics who were educated under Marxist-Leninist rubrics in the GDR (East Germany) and a gymnast who represented the GDR at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. At the Biennale, the film was shown without its later 2010 companion Use! Value! Exchange! and in this presentation format single-screen cinematic conventions promoted viewer absorption and relative passivity. When shown together each film is projected in sequence on separate screens – with the need to move seats – inviting audience participation and reflection on the documentary format. Although Collins focuses on the melancholic loss of a particular ideology and knowledge system for ex-members of the GDR now living in a capitalist Germany – a past they officially have to disavow – he is also interested in the affective register of his work. For example, British viewers might become aware of the ideological construction and linguistic fictions of their own subjectivity reliant on the long legacies of monarchy, empire, religion and liberal self-regard. Although Collins is also interested in the illusory unity of the subject – split by alienation, structures of power, melancholic loss and false consciousness – dangers of objectification are as relevant to Collins’s project on living subjects as they are to Boulos’s very different installations. Avoiding these dangers is a necessary part of the negotiations of art practice.

A third approach was adopted by Martens’ feature-length Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, 2009, (Features AM340) where splitting is a device: a self-reflexive tension between being the director of the film and a central character in the narrative to explore the contradictory role of an artist making a film about colonialism, corporate exploitation and the activities of global organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ostensibly, the film is about poverty as a commodity to be owned, bought and sold where palm oil plantations and gold mining are the sources of profit and human suffering. In the DRC the UN logo is a contradictory sign of both the ‘aid’ industry, which has relatively few benefits for the poor because donor economies claw back aid under ‘technical assistance’, and ‘peace keeping’, which in effect makes the Eastern Congo safe for the AngloGold Ashanti Corporation to mine. Self-critique, for Martens, is signified by documenting the transportation, through the jungle, of parts to construct a neon sign strapped to a boat, ‘Enjoy (please) Poverty’, to expose how artists, photographers and aid workers intent on improving a situation through representation and intervention often produce narcissistic results, including financial and career profit. Here, Martens is, on the one hand, a white artist employing local labourers to carry parts of a westerner’s artwork deep inside the war-torn, poverty-stricken DRC so that they can watch a neon reminder of their plight and, on the other, the documenter of that exploitative act. For Martens, the episode is an example of how the film is inherently self-critical of its own modes of representation: to create a ‘critique of contemporary art’s claims for political and social change’ and ‘a critique of what the film itself displays’ (Art Papers, September 2010).

In an interview with artist-curator Artur Zmijewski, Martens characterised problems for artists who claim to produce politically engaged work when they ‘operate within the art economy’ (November 2010, published in Zmijewski and Warsza eds, Forget Fear, 2012). For him, the ‘free zone’ of the ‘field of art’ is a safe haven where it is ‘exceptionally easy’ to produce artworks that critique political realities or the status quo because artists and artworks are divested of any consequences. Similarly, members of the ‘art public’ who are concerned by the horrors of contemporary events gain solace in a gallery by seeing artists or filmmakers trying to deal with such events. Artists become gallery-based activists, sustained by art-world cultural and economic provisions, and their activated audience, absolved from responsibility, return to passivity beyond the confines of the exhibition space. For Martens, if an artwork ‘disregards the economic reality in which it is set’ it is ‘not self-conscious’ or likely to have any transforming affect on a ‘global art audience’ who are content with the ‘status quo, or have no real problems with it’. He cites All That Is Solid Melts Into Air as an example of interesting work at the Berlin Biennale that ‘makes it easy for the spectator to be critical of the oil industry’ and feel sympathy for those in the Niger Delta fighting against a ‘powerful Goliath’. However, ‘we all know we flew here, to Berlin, to come and see the art shows, on planes fuelled by the same oil companies, with fuel produced in places like the Niger Delta’. For Martens, because Boulos’s piece did not address the economic reality in which the work was produced (the artist benefiting from petroleum-based intercontinental travel) and consumed (biennales’ reliance on environmentally heavy costs) it creates ‘just an illusion of criticality’. His alternative is to avoid trying to expose, for example, the complexities of corporations or the war in Iraq, because he has neither the power nor access to do so without falling into what he regards as normal art-world critique. Instead he focuses on his ‘own production process’ in the making of his films ‘in which the manipulative systems of power at play are exactly the same as any other industry’. Is Martens’ specific criticism of Boulos’s installation really a generic contradiction for all artists who seek to disseminate radical projects? Has he missed Boulos’s engagement with a dialogic installation format and splitting of the subject, which has its own self-critique? Is his criticism of Boulos itself an instance of the splitting of the ego in the process of defence – Martens disavowing in the work of others that which he tolerates in his own?

The risks for Martens are that viewers miss his self-critique, read the film too literally and criticise him for opportunist exploitation. For example, by assisting indigenous poorly paid ‘studio’ photographers to perfect western conventions of photographing dying children, Martens suggests that their poverty could be alleviated by entering into the image market of disaster capitalism. He is aware of the contradiction and ethical dilemmas compounded when the photographers are denied the necessary western photo permit to make, sell and distribute their images. The permit is denied to them on the grounds that their images of atrocity, starvation and death do not have the same ‘quality’ as accredited western photographers employed by photo agencies. In exploring the manipulative system of power at play, did Martens construct an unethical trap for the ‘studio’ photographers? Is this a Kester-type relational practice documented in a Bishop-type aesthetic?

The documentary-based work of Martens’ interviewer, Zmijewski, raises similar questions. In 80064, 2004, the artist is in a tattoo parlour persuading Józef Tarnawa, a 92-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz extermination camp, to have his faded tattooed prisoner number ‘renewed’ to reopen the ‘doors of memory’. Understandably hesitant, Tarnawa eventually acquiesces to the artist’s desire, which may have the coercive characteristics Zmijewski disavows. There are dangers that artists become blind to their use of subjects as marionettes in their artist-constructed social experiences as art-making. Embedded within a community experience, they get what they want from the interchange and re-present it to other audiences who may have inimical ideas, values and beliefs. Even so, for Bishop, both Zmijewski and Collins fulfil Rancière’s aesthetic: videos produced for spaces in the art economy that have a political signification and an uncanny effect. Boulos’s installations and Martens’ film also seem to satisfy these criteria despite significant differences between all four artists: technical means, use of documentary, emphases on splitting and the split subject, and the presence of disavowal.

Disavowal also characterises the relational aesthetics schism brought about by Bishop’s and Kester’s inability to accept ambivalence about places for and affects of political art. To avoid consequent rupture they cleave apart contradictory feelings so that there are only ‘good’ and ‘bad’ places and affects. Perhaps Martens does the same. In this context, Boulos’s installations, including those exhibited at the Lisson Gallery, represent compelling engagements with the difficulties and contradictions involved in a political practice that critically addresses the roles, affects and ethics of documentary in art-making.

Mark Boulos is at the Lisson Gallery, London until 9 March 2013.

Francis Frascina is author of ‘Berlin, Paris, Liverpool: “Biennialization” and Left Critique in 2012’, forthcoming in the Journal of Curatorial Studies.

First published in Art Monthly 364: March 2013.

Sponsored Links