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THE MIGRANT IMAGE
THE ART AND POLITICS OF DOCUMENTARY DURING GLOBAL CRISIS
By T. J. DEMOS
Duke University Press Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Indeterminacy and Bare Life in Steve McQueen's Western Deep
Steve McQueen's Western Deep (2002), like his later film Gravesend, is striking for what it does not show. Documenting the labor conditions of miners in the TauTona mine near Johannesburg, the deepest gold mine in the world (also called Western Deep No. 3 Shaft), the film begins unexpectedly, with a long sequence of utter darkness. At first, the shocking soundtrack dominates: piercing mechanical screeches and metallic low-pitch knockings, delivered at an extreme volume, vibrate the exhibition space. These sounds reverberate immediately throughout the visitor's body, as if striking it with unseen force. It is as if we, the viewers, have suddenly found ourselves blind, within the grinding internal organs of some industrial machinery, our bodies turned into drums. This clamor lasts for several minutes, accompanied by flashes of colored lights, which remain ambiguous and disorienting. As estranging as the soundtrack, these fugitive sensations emerge at a low threshold of visibility. By the time we realize that the camera has been positioned in an elevator loaded with a group of miners descending to an infernal depth, a metal grate has been thrown open, the sound has suddenly stopped, and we have been plunged into an environment that is as extraordinary for its silence as it is for its bizarre greenish illumination (see figure 13).
For a film that ostensibly documents a South African mining operation, this dark introduction is strategic. Roughly twenty-five minutes long and shot with a super-8 camera, later transferred to video, the film, on the one hand, draws in its audience by thrusting it into a pitch-black environment and enveloping it with intense aural sensation. That sound is physically registered and opens the body to a series of impacts unexpected in the virtualized domain of contemporary video installations. In this sense, the film proposes a parallel between its subject and the terms of its reception, creating a multisensory mimicry of the brutal experience within a mine. On the other hand, there is the conspicuous refusal to represent in the visual register, which frustrates the documentary impulse to which the film is seemingly pledged (in a way similar to Gravesend). A black hole lies at the beginning of a film about a journey into a mine, and this darkness is not simply metaphorical; rather, it says something important about the film's image conditions. The film begins enticingly with a paradox stretched between metaphorics and negation, between the virtual and the actual, between documentary reference and cinematic intensity. It presents us with a form of sensation based on the flickering presence of absence, or conversely on the recognition of a lack of anything like a presence to capture. Commissioned for Documenta 11 in 2002, Western Deep remains exemplary for fulfilling the imperatives of the exhibition director, Okwui Enwezor, for contemporary art, which in retrospect have been paradigm-shifting for artistic discourse and practice: to channel postcolonial experience against the forces of a triumphalist globalism, and by doing so, to expose those zones of economic and political inequality that are normally and tragically unrepresented within the dominant mainstream institutions of contemporary art (and indeed, the exhibition has been a crucial point of reference for this book). For Enwezor, such juxtapositions and geopolitical relations provide the crucial counterweight to the myopic reign of capitalism's global empire, with its unfulfilled rhetoric of technological progress and democratizing institutions: "From the moment the postcolonial enters into the space/time of global calculations and the effects they impose on modern subjectivity, we are confronted not only with the asymmetry and limitations of globalism's materialist assumptions but also with the terrible nearness of distant places that global logic sought to abolish and bring into one domain of deterritorialized rule."
That Documenta 11 sought to undertake the "representation of nearness as the dominant mode of understanding the present condition of globalization" was clear. The exhibition was filled with examples of photography-based work that rendered proximate such forgotten geographical areas and forsaken ways of life—many from the global south—that normally fall below the radar of dominant mass media and mainstream political representations (as well as that of the popular art press). To mention only a select few, there were Ravi Agarwal's documentary images of the daily life of India's landless poor, including images of camped-out, homeless families in Gujarat, families stationed with defiant pride before middle-class housing blocks that harshly exclude them, and David Goldblatt's photographs of postapartheid South African "intersections" that incisively juxtapose extreme urban poverty and corporate wealth, showing precariously built cardboard and plastic shanties constructed on trash heaps before the towering skyscrapers of the corporate business district that shamefully overlooks them (see plate 2 and plate 3). Also included were Olumuyiwa Osifuye's images that picture the decrepit but lively streets of Lagos, Nigeria, and Ulrike Ottinger's documentary film of the artist's passage through Eastern Europe, lyrically revealing the experience of women in the geographical and temporal periphery of modernization. Far from a unified group, this handful of selections from the massive show are exemplary in that all stress a photographic or filmic connection to those shadowy zones on the margins of the global order. By their inclusion, Documenta offered what Enwezor's cocurator, Carlos Basualdo, termed a more generous and complex geography, one that transformed the exhibition into a more inclusive, transnational public sphere.
In tandem with its geographical rearrangement Documenta 11 carried out a reordering of the hierarchy of artistic mediums. As several critics have noted, it elevated above all others documentary modes of representation—photography, video, and film—which assumed a privileged place, ostensibly for their ability to depict Enwezor's "postcolonial order" with the accuracy of the camera, and thus to bring visibility and testimony to geographical regions and cultural areas beyond everyday Western sight. It is perhaps these documentary mediums that, based within a paradigm of the "evidentiary," are seen as best equipped to compete with the hegemony of mainstream television and Hollywood film—among the central purveyors of our vaunted image of a positive, inclusive, democratic globalization. The documentary turn, however, elicits potential dangers, familiar from critical analyses of earlier waves of politicized and multi-culturalist art advanced decades ago. Current documentary practices, for instance, may return dangerously to precritical notions of representation that make problematic assumptions of transparency or neutrality. These practices may also run the risk of proclaiming truthful depictions of a "reality" of authentic subjects living beneath a spectacle of stereotypes, or, again, of unified fields of alterity (the postcolonial "order"?), whether archaic or geographically distant, that exist as if anterior to representation. While politically activist and radical in rhetoric, the proposed transparency of a political signified may bring with it a paradoxically authoritative interpretive structure that forecloses an otherwise open and polyvocal field of meaning. Yet today, many artists are just as likely to move in the opposite direction, embracing the instability of representation, even its decidedly fictional status, to the point where it becomes common, even fashionable, to announce subjective biases, or to argue for the impossibility of documentary representation tout court, due to its historically discredited status, even if this clearly was not the case with Documenta 11. For his part, Enwezor argued that his Documenta would render postcolonial meanings and histories present "either through the media or through mediatory, spectatorial, and carnivalesque relations of language, communication, images, contact, and resistance within the everyday." The explicitly signaled multiplicity of approaches was clear in the inclusions of Allan Sekula's critical realist photography and Jeff Wall's staged documentaries, Walid Raad's invented scenarios regarding the Lebanese civil wars and Agarwal's earnest documents of Indian poverty, among many other such complex, even dissensual groupings.
Neither transparently objective nor openly fictional, Western Deep resists being situated in relation to any simple oppositions (as does the most compelling work in this vein). Declining the aesthetics of photographic fiction, McQueen's film evinces a commitment to documentation, to a witnessing of experience that is neither the result of its own fabrication nor a collapse into a modernist fetishization of its conditions of representation. The film's ambition is to put us in the context of the hellish space of a gold mine in postapartheid South Africa. But it also refuses the pretense of transparency, articulated in its initial withdrawal of visuality, which, as it does in Gravesend, expresses the limits of its capture of a reality that exceeds it, and thus rejects any supposition that the "postcolonial" exists as such, for ultimately that history depends on the representations that structure it and that can also determine it anew. In this regard, the darkness at the heart of Western Deep proposes the materialization of the very limit between representation and reflexivity, locating a threshold wherein we confront the uncertain relation between the two. There, the film creates a zone of open-ended possibility, what Gilles Deleuze terms a shaded center of indeterminacy. This opening joins cinematic and audience spaces, and it intimates another way to approach the "terrible nearness of distant places" of which Enwezor spoke, an approach that requires further exploration.
As such, McQueen's work forms part of a growing trend in contemporary art, one that Documenta in part intended to map and continues to develop today. Artists are carrying out a new modeling of documentary form, one incredulous about the objective or unmediated representation of a truthful event or experience, even while it refuses to dispense with the ethical imperative to pose relationships of proximity—if troubled and complex—to those typically excluded or marginalized from the global order. McQueen's project shares this imperative with several of his peers (many of whom were also included in Documenta 11), including Walid Raad, Zarina Bhimji, and Amar Kanwar, especially insofar as such work joins the exposure of postcolonial experience with an innovative modeling of representation, which in the case of McQueen's film unleashes an uncertain relation to time, uproots any secure material site, and opens onto a multiplicity of meanings. Also relevant are the aesthetically experimental films of artists and groups close to McQueen's formative context in London, such as the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and the Black Audio Film Collective, which focused their cameras in the 1980s and early 1990s on the politics of British race relations during Thatcherite rule, without assuming the paradigm of truth and objectivity that have plagued traditional forms of documentary. Just as those models emphasized a multi-accented and creolized cinema positioned between the poetic and the documentary and contested the straightforward representation of politics by stressing the politics of representation, as discussed above, Western Deep stresses the uncertainty between the real and the virtual, the documentary and the imaginary.
Following the opening shots of the elevator's protracted and clanky descent into the dark abyss of the mine shaft (in reality it takes approximately one hour to reach the TauTona mine's deepest point), Western Deep portrays miners passing ambiguously through obscure subterranean tunnels and drilling into rocky walls with heavy machinery (see figure 14). The atmosphere in front of the camera frequently fills with dust, blurring visual access with clouds of matter while the soundtrack alternates unexpectedly between the deafening screeches of drilling noise and sudden, unexplained passages of total silence. Adding to the resulting sensory disorientation, the scenes are recorded in highly restrictive visual fields without horizons or distant recesses, which contributes to the overall sense of perceptual claustrophobia that the film exploits for its powerful experiential affect. Significantly, there is no narrative structure, voice-over contextualization, or textual description that might otherwise rescue us from the film's seemingly unscripted sensations, which in traditional documentary practice would connect such chains of shots and endow them with thematic significance. Rather, the film joins visual and aural sequences with uncertain relations, presenting us with a continually modified series of mutating scenes and shots, as if we were wandering about a labyrinth. Passages of dark mine shafts abruptly interrupt silent images of water conduits, shots of miners performing strange step routines, and scenes of their relaxing in a lounge with a television set perched in the corner. The soundtrack continues to strike out at us without warning, as sudden bouts of earsplitting drilling heighten the film's sensory and psychological shock.
Yet while Western Deep offers a powerfully disorienting cinematic immersion—of visual claustrophobia, aural disorientation, and narrative disarray—that places us viscerally within the context of the gold mine, it also brings about the viewer's estrangement from that same vicarious experience. The result is a transgressive blurring of interior and exterior spaces, breaking down the clear division between the film's virtual reconstitution of the sensory experience of the mine and the audience's awareness of being situated in the aural-visual environment of a film installation. Western Deep produces that blurring between perception and representation by, for instance, moving between the excruciating drilling sounds and passages of silence. During those moments of quiet, one can hear oneself breathe, a desired effect, as McQueen points out, that heightens the awareness and sensitivity of the spectator's presence in relation to the image. In addition to reminding viewers of their bodily existence before the image, the periods of silence establish a cinematic situation in which viewers create their own sounds for a film that they themselves partially realize. A continual back and forth occurs throughout the piece between powerful sensations internal to the film and openings onto the self-reflective space of an embodied viewership, with audience and film continually joined and separated. The exaggerated visual effects also create for the viewer a somatic encounter, one defined by the perception of intensified colors and streaks of light, particularly as posed against the gorgeous darkness in which so much of the film is cast. As Enwezor observes, "McQueen renders the space of cinema into a zone that is simultaneously haptic and optical." But in doing so, Western Deep does not completely engulf the viewer within its immersive expanse. Rather, the sudden alternations between sounds and silence, between the haptic and the optical, bring about the audience's oscillating embodiment before the image and its inclusion within it.
It is precisely this alternation that creates a cinematic "center of indeterminacy" between the actual and the virtual, the real and the imaginary, which engages the filmic tendencies that Deleuze tracks in his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image. With reference to the post–World War II cinema of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealists, Deleuze observes that there we encounter the breakdown of classical plots and the crumbling of classical filmic techniques that link movements to action. With the new cinema of Godard, Resnais, Duras, Antonioni, Fellini, and others, shots and scenes develop without correlating chronological plot movement and thematic orchestration, but rather by a principle of the indeterminable: film disarticulates sequential time, crystallizes images into virtual and actual meanings, and releases the unstructured and nonnarrated power of visual and sound sensations. As Deleuze explains, cinema unleashes "a relation between the real and the imaginary, the physical and the mental, the objective and the subjective, description and narration, the actual and the virtual" where "the two related terms differ in nature, and yet 'run after each other,' refer to each other, reflect each other, without it being possible to say which is first, and tend ultimately to become confused by slipping into the same point of indiscernibility." This description offers a good approximation of the intertwinements of the film's visual and sound sensations and the viewer's perceptual experience as encountered in Western Deep.
Excerpted from THE MIGRANT IMAGE by T. J. DEMOS. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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