Thursday, October 25, 2007

Paul Chan's video films might be an excellent example of vulnerablist political art.

Three of them were shown at the Madison MCA this evening, and I'll write about two:

RE: THE_OPERATION (2002), a half-hour series of invented letters and emails from the Bush cabinet as they fight the "war on terror" on the ground in the Middle East, seems like a setup that could only result in sarcastic caricature (which could be perfectly good satire--"what if they really did have to serve in the armed forces"). Instead, the text Chan gives these politicos includes a more or less ordinary letter from George to Laura, a musing by Condi on masculine equations of war and sex, an anonymously delivered, predatory sexual message by Ashcroft, a press release regularly disrupted by static, a text by Blanchot on friendship. Some of it's funny, most is variously strange--and even the moments of "character assassination" lack any "nyah-nyah." I find the tone (or various tones) admirable and moving, as well as profoundly disorienting.

It's Baghdad In No Particular Order (2003) that particularly inclines me to give Chan the Vulnerablist's Stamp of Approval. A fifty-minute sequence of pieces of footage from Chan's 2002 trip to Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness, this is "artless" art in the best sense; Chan's technique with the hand-held camera is, by his own admission, "not that good," and the cinematography has the look of any video shot by a highly thoughtful, sensitive and observant tourist--because it more or less is that, rather than an imitation of that style by someone trying to make their work look "authentic."

The juxtaposition of scenes is paratactical, as the title implies, though the composition is clearly thought-out. The voice-over (spoken not by Chan himself, but by a woman whose name I didn't manage to write down) is infrequent, usually just telling us the name of a person or type of music we're seeing. When the voice does wax philosophical, it does so without any need to produce an intellectual "ah-ha!" At one point, the voice says something like, "They only trust me enough to stare when I am blind... blindness is the prerequisite for clairvoyance--" a direct reflection on the situation of filming (in this case, a pair of fascinated, silent children toward whom Chen has turned the viewer screen on which they're displayed) and a less direct one on the intention to show the film to others. Both in the film and on his website, Chen is refreshingly unapologetic in his love of philosophy, it's always both interesting and relevant (in one Godardian moment Chan puts a quote from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory into the mouth of a girl showing a drawing to the camera, and it works wonderfully). His program note frames BINPO as a Benjaminian project, which it manages to be, with less pretense than any other self-described Walterwerks I've encountered (Benjamin might be the philosopher who comes closest to Vulnerablism).

I don't think I've described the film very well. Perhaps a single moment will illustrate it better:

Throughout, the camera wobbles and swerves, and there are many close-ups that are too extreme for the lens to focus; subjects blur in and out. Toward the end of the film, the camera lingers, in a dim room, on a series of (I'm pretty sure) black-and-white snapshots of people who have died, the shot so close that, in general, they appear as face-shaped blobs with dark holes for eyes--almost skulls. This closeness, however, also means that any tiny movement of the camera has a huge effect, and so part of a face will become clear as the lens is tilted just a bit, or the entire photo becomes visible for a second. On occasion, this movement results in the haunting illusion of the eyes blinking--the shifting of focus in different directions on multiple areas of the picture is disorienting enough that the photo seems to have come to life.

Both of the latter two films, and this one in particular, meet the major Vulnerablist criteria (loose and tentative as they are): rough edges (not as a pose, but also treated as compositional material), room for humor and mournfulness as well as Brechtian alienation, directness and philosophical complexity, parataxis and naturalism, the inclusion of the composing subject without the protection either of accusing or excepting itself, careful reflexivity and a moment-by-moment openness to what happens.

No conclusion.

The "footnotes" (aka "Part II" of the film, an archive of texts, sound, paintings, and clips from the film) are online.

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