Jeremy Millar (b.1970) is an artist living in Whitstable, and tutor in art criticism at the Royal College of Art, London. He curated the film programme, Speak Near By, for the Whitstable Biennale 2012. This short essay accompanied the programme.
Near the beginning of her first film, Reassemblage (1982), made during three years of anthropological fieldwork in western Africa, the Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha narrates, over shots of Senegalese village life:
I do not intend to speak about
Just speak near by
Her narration continues and is fragmentary, often repetitive; a question asked of her – ‘A film about what’ – again, and again, less out of insistence, one suspects, than habit, an enquiry that lessens the need to look for oneself. We know what to expect of such films, and Trinh knows that we know, too – ‘Colourful images, naked breast women, exotic dances and fearful rites. The unusual’. But such things are denied us largely, and what we are left with, it might seem, are those aspects most often left on the cutting room floor – the unfinished camera pans, the subject too close, or too far, to be clearly legible, or even out of focus altogether – or the incidental in-camera edits made at the join between two shots, and repeated so close to its end, ‘speak near by’ might ordinarily seem a declaration of intent, a position to be taken. And yet there is that ‘just’, an acknowledgement of quite how provisional, how fragile, such a position might be: it is a ‘just’ that tends towards the marginal rather than moral.
This is a position with which many artists have some familiarity, however, and one in which I find myself in now, as a I hope to speak near by the films which I have selected for this exhibition; and these are films which not only speak near by a number of contingent subjects – let us here call them ‘ritual’, ‘performance’, ‘possession’, even ‘magic’ – but also speak near by one another, speaking over and across one another, speaking to one side.
‘I have called this new film Ritual,’ wrote the American filmmaker Maya Deren, ‘not only because of the importance of the quality of movement … but because a ritual is characterized by the de-personalisation of the individual’. The term ‘de-personalisation’ became significant in her search for a cinema that might be ritualistic, rather than merely spectacular, and she uses it again, in a way that might assist our understanding here. ‘Above all, the ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in the dramatic whole. The extent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual: on the contrary it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specializations and confines of personality.’ In entering into ritual, our actions depend not upon ourselves; rather we become but one part of a far larger entity, and one that seems to control what we do. Deren was fascinated by trance and, inspired by the films made by anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead in Bali in the mid-1930s, she decided to use her Guggenheim Fellowship award to fund a trip to Haiti where, on three more trips over the next four years, she filmed numerous Vodoun possession rituals. With Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-6), made just before her first visit to Haiti, Deren uses cinematic forms – slow motion; repeated sliding edits; jump cuts in time and space – to create an interior version of consciousness, an hallucinatory, dream-like state; an oneiric cinema. The footage that she shot in Haiti remained unedited, however, her proposed film – which was to include some of Mead and Bateson’s material from Bali, as well as children’s games from New York – left unfinished. One can only speculate why this was the case, but perhaps in viewing her material Deren was confronted with the limits of cinematic representation: while her carefully crafted films seemed to allow us access to quite different forms of consciousness, a straightforward documentary film of someone within such a state can not.
It is not that the body of a person within such a ritual act, in trance, or undergoing possession, is not changed, but rather that it is these changes alone – the upturned or bulging eyes, the foaming mouth, the writing limbs – which come to represent that which cannot be represented: the spirits which are their cause. What fascinates us here is that which escapes us, eludes both our representation and our understanding (and no doubt the one because of the other). The body of the possessed represents this other reality, but its representation in turn does not this other reality show. What remains is a body in movement, aestheticised and, most often, exoticised, also. Perhaps this is what we see in Joachim Koester’s film Tarantism (2007), the title of which refers to a condition found in southern Italy, resulting from the bite of the wolf spider (Lycosa Tarantula). The symptoms included restlessness, and convulsions, and at one time it was thought that the condition could only be cured througha form of frenzied dancing, called the ‘tarantella’. The dancing was placed under the sign of Saint Paul, whose chapel then became the ‘theatre’ for the meetings of the afflicted, and a desperate, and communal, agitation. It is this dance – or anti-dance – that provides the basis for the movements in Koester’s film, enacted by performers within the blank space of the studio.
I would suggest that what we see in this film is what Richard Schechner has termed ‘restored behaviour’, that is, actions which are ‘independent of the causal systems (personal, social, political, technological, etc.) that brought them into existence’. The performers in Koester’s studio are not attempting to cure themselves of a spider’s bite, but are rather ‘restoring’ the behaviours, enacting it, of those who came before. (And even those ‘original’ performers were enacting a previous behaviour, perhaps a suppressed Bacchanalian rite). Whereas anthropology, and anthropological films, place great value upon the ‘authentic act’, here we might ask what such a phrase could possibly mean.
If tarantism was a form of communal transformation – what Western scientism might now term a ‘mass psychogenic illness’ – then its representation here seems unlikely to engender that same condition in the viewer. However, possession rituals, more generally, might be said to blur the line between passive observation and active participation, as spectators are often drawn into the trance. Shezad Dawood’s New Dream Machine Project (2011) might be considered an attempt to do likewise, encouraging the viewer to enter an altered state through its enacting a ritual practice rater than simply representing one. The work reflects the artist’s interest in Brion Gysin, the artist, writer, and associate of William Burroughs who moved to Tangiers in 1950. In the Cinémathèque de Tanger, Dawood created a monumental 3m-high version of Gysin’s ‘Dream Machine’, a spinning open drum structure of movement and light that is said to lead the viewer into a ‘hypnagogic state’, or one between wakefulness and sleep. Dawood’s subsequent film is a performative record of his part recreation of Gysin’s own legendary event in 1968, in which Brian Jones and the ‘Master Musicians of Jajouka’ performed at Gysin’s coffee bar ‘1001 Nights’, and its viewing now might be considered an attempt to transport us not only into another mental state, but another time and place, also.
Derek Jarman’s 1977 film Jubilee begins with a transport so audacious that even Gysin might have balked: that of Queen Elizabeth I four-hundred years into the future, and to a London that has become a wasteland, drenched in violence, littered with decay. We soon meet ‘Amyl Nitrate’, whom Jarman describes in the script as a ‘punk intellectual’, dressed in twin-set and pearls, spiked hair and zig-zagged make-up, as she attempts to educate a gang of violent young women who have been rounded up off desolate streets at the point of a gun. Her reading, from a book, introduces us to a world that is less dream-like, and more nightmarish, the result of an ability for people’s desires to be made reality, rather than be sublimated as art. Yet it was then, she says, that she started to dance, wanted to defy gravity, and we cut to a scene in which, dressed in a traditional ballerina’s costume, she dances around a large bonfire alight on a piece of derelict urban wasteland. Jarman edited this section from a longer, 12 minute super-8 film, Jordan’s Dance (1977), so-named after the woman who plays Amyl in Jubilee. Like a tutu’d moth, Jordan dances around the fire, observed by the masked figures of Art, and Death, yet there is no reverie here, none of the light-flickering ecstasy to be found even with Gysin’s ‘Dream Machine’, (and what is that, if not a mechanised fire, designed to take one out of oneself at 78 rpm). The fire in Jordan’s Dance is no useless expenditure, however, to be ‘promoted, raised, displayed and burned in vain’, as the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described the erotic force of art. No, here the fire has a use, and it is to burn books.
Perhaps dance, and the aestheticized ritual of possession, will allow us access to quite different forms of understanding, ones unconfined by the traditions with which we are most familiar. ‘I haven’t danced for a long time,’ Amyl says in the scene that follows her dance in Jubilee. ‘No-one’s interested in the ballet anymore.’
Image: Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007.