Stirring Streaming Dreaming – Media. Power. War
It Is not Red, It Is Blood
Thesis for the re-politization of the electronic media and the cyberworld.
Or the Body under Communism1
'How to squeeze the body and fill it with oil and blue vitriol?' — the body in Eastern European video art — the video works of Marina Grzinic / Aina Smid
To understand the representation of the body in new media, the body immersed in the specific totalitarian context of Eastern Europe's Socialism and Communism, we must first of all decode the intersection of cultural, political and theoretical strategies that lie beneath such representation. We can address the common heritage of totalitarianism in the same way as we address the common platform of (European) democracy. I propose to reflect on Communism as an oppositional, differential setting, and to do the same with the body. Moreover, let us think about the body under Communism in a non-literal sense, in other words, as a paradigm and a model with which to grasp the cultural tactics and practices of the Eastern European context, and not merely as a historical accident, which ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In short, the body under Communism denotes specific tactics and practises in art and media in the Eastern European context.
To begin with, we need to clarify what we mean by the 'body' and 'Communism,' both concepts which have a strategic and political value. Today, Communism is being commodified for consumption, and this is part of the process of the circulation of cultural stereotypes. It seems that Communism was the 'lingua franca,' and yet, for those of us coming from the so-called Eastern European context, it is losing its status of 'lingua materna'. Ironically, Communism, and its big brother, Socialism, were developed as clear patriarchal systems.
Meanwhile, the body today is like nature, a commonplace and powerful discursive construction. The body is a topos and a tropos, a figure, construction, artifact, movement, displacement. Thus the question 'how to squeeze the body and fill it with oil and blue vitriol?' is not rhetorical, but strategic.
We will see that oppositional strategies and, as well, readings will result from how we will fill the body and where we will insert the blue vitriol into the image.2 This reading, however, will be partly utopian, as we are investigating the concept of the so-called rudimentary body, which lived in the Communist context, firstly as a political body, to trace out the interference between the body and the Socialist / Communist system, and then to focus ourselves on the body as a topos of different deformations and usurpations.
The aim of the new generation of video artists has been to investigate the means by which a subject and the body is produced and articulated in electronic moving images. Especially, to investigate the ways of visualization of the so-called absent body, object or history. In order to fulfill this task, many video artists developed alternatives to the dominant forms of (post-) Communist visual strategies, by utilizing different methods of misrepresentation. The term, 'misrepresentation,' which derived from feminist film practice and theory, is, according to Griselda Pollock3, a reversal of the processes of identification. Misrepresentation seldom provides an anticipated pleasure of identification, rather constantly undermining the expectant models of identification with a positive narrative or a heroic character. Instead, the aim of misrepresentation, according to Jo Anna Issak, is to effect the "ruin of representation,"4 precisely on the grounds of what has been excluded — from the non-represented object, the non-represented period (e.g., of the historical periods such as the American Pop Art movement, or the film noir / Hitchcockian decade). This creates a significance derived from absence, and in this way, investigates the means by which a subject, and the body, is produced. This allows for new discursive practices, which are able to function in-between forms of high and mass culture. Such counter-narratives are resistant to the point that they could no longer be included within a philosophical binary opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical oppositions, resisting and disorganizing, without ever constituting a third term (Jacques Derrida5). The achievement is thus the decentralization of the subject to the point where, instead of outside or inside, a powerful dynamic relation to both outside and inside, dependence and independence, art and nature and, ultimately, to what is real and what is not exists .
On the other hand, when misrepresentation forms a fictitious path (semantic and semiotic opposite coinages), the video medium allows for a mode of display and analysis of the manipulation and the duplication of history itself, as practised by the Communist authorities. This means that the analysis is not a matter of effacement of the elements of the Communist history or reality, but of replacement and substitution, whereby the perceived elements are re-contained through familiar representational forms. It is a question of working, of using the elements of Communist history itself, in order to deal with this history.
"I've learned everything by watching. Without those pictures we wouldn't exist either," says the male protagonist, in reply to his friend's question about his cross-dressing habits, in the video work Bare Spring (Grzinic / Smid, 1987). This 'road video,' dedicated to the 'road movies' of Wim Wenders, aims to portray the sensibility and specificity of the 1980's rock generation in Slovenia / ex-Yugoslavia. The identity of this generation was represented, not through the psychology of an individual, but through the formation of a new visual and cultural space, via the recycling of stereotypes. What we are witnessing in the video medium is the act of taking possession of documents, photographs, images, faces and bodies, which are constantly produced as types, stereotypes and prototypes. Consequently, in video there is (contrary to the anticipation of the realistic doctrine) no psychology, except when it is a constituent part of a 'quotation' or 'stereotype'. Bare Spring also includes stereotypical, prototypical and typical images of women from Grzinic / Smid‘s earlier video work Cindy Sherman, or Hysteria's Production Presents the Reconstruction of the Photographs of Cindy Sherman (1984).
In this work, the video reconstruction of Cindy Sherman's photographs consisted of recycling scenic and stylistic elements and details, as well as performing poses from Sherman's photographs in front of the video camera. This act of taking into possession the photographs which Cindy Sherman herself utilized in the production of female types, stereotypes and prototypes, is a kind of double twist. The images of women, the many faces and identities, which had already been 'stolen' by Sherman from film and mass media, are taken one step further. The video work is thus a kind of double negation of identity — a negation of the already recycled images of Cindy Sherman. It can be regarded as the return of the repressed, which pushes back: returning the photo-images to whence they were taken, or borrowed — from the 'empire of the moving image'. The methods described result in a video image which exposes a never-ending display, insertion and rearrangement.
Likewise, the body is an artifact cobbled from other artifacts, rather than from a profound life experience. In contrast to the mass media-produced idea that the body connected with new media achieves a natural totality, processes of post-Socialist visualization of the subject, and of her / his body in the media, underline this artificial, mediatized, constructed and unnatural human body, and her / his thoughts and emotions.
The site where many of these video works were made also has negative connotations. The location was not a place clearly visible within the structure of the social system; rather, it was the bedroom or bathroom of a private apartment.
In the video The Moments of Decision (Grzinic / Smid, 1985), one of the actresses 'borrows,' through video-effects, the face of the actress who played the leading role in the 1950's Slovenian motion picture of the same title, directed by Frantisek Cap. Within the video image, the film story thus continues, with the introduction of live acting and new iconographic elements.
By exposing the female character from Cap's partisan movie, the drama is transformed into a melodramatic love story by means of double acting, blue-key effects and artificial reminiscences (biographical, historical, political, artistic). Surely, the process of 'keying' a film into a video actually announces some concrete destiny for film and, in a more general sense, the faithfulness of film as viewed from the point of video? If we paraphrase Christine Buci-Glucksmann, from her book The Madness of Seeing, video can now be considered in the position where "eyes can see how eyes see."6
The first sequence of the video The Axis of Life (Grzinic / Smid, 1986-7) features an alluring female body, cut just above the bust. Suddenly, the blood starts spurting out: red, thick, sticky and 'real' — at least to the degree of reality permitted by the transformation from the static image of blood to the one which overflows from the body and the screen. The body, with its smiling face, is not convulsed with horror, but with sensuous delight. The character is actually seized with pleasure, and gasps rhythmically as the blood spurts out. This 'Bloody Madonna' sequence contains references to pop icon Madonna, as well as to Caravaggio's Judith and Holofern (1598). The body is simultaneously heroically exposed and stigmatized. The body in the Communist context occupied different positions, from an alien position (corpus alienum) to one in direct association with crime (corpus delicti). Here, we are witnessing two methods of media visualization, which also attempt to intersect the video medium with high and mass culture.
The storyline of Axis of Life is that of two women remembering their 'common' husband — a man who was imputed to have killed both of them, whereas they had, in fact, murdered the husband. The video refers to the dialogues and subtext of the Stalinist purge processes, and to the period of the Cold War, as visualized in the aesthetics and mythology of American Pop Art and hyper-realism. References in the video are Edward Ruscha‘s Hollywood (1968) and The Loner (1969) by Gerald Lang. The subversion is produced by the Stalinist text, changing the reading of Ruscha's work from hyper-realism into a Socialist realism (now functioning as a Socialist poster).
The sequence is followed by the talking heads of the two actresses, like huge hills or objects, fitted into a synthetically produced reddish desert, on whose surface is imprinted in the far distance the final letters of the word 'Hollywood'. As Jean Narboni put it, "Discordant are not only perceptions and emotions, but also the faces, which are real territories."7 To transform a face, however, does not mean only to use it as a territory along which one can stroll. A face can also be doubled (or multiplied, for instance, in the triplication of one actress within the same image) or borrowed.
The use of a reproduction of Robert Cottingham's picture F.W. (1975) represents an homage to American urban hyper-realism, and again, the American urban landscape of the 1960's and '70's is transformed into a setting for a hard-boiled Communist detective story.
In the video Axis of Life, Grzinic / Smid (who are also the performers) used parts of their own black & white 16mm film At Home (Grzinic / Smid 1986-87) as historical references. The script of At Home is based on the diaries of the Slovene writer Edvard Kocbek. It is the story of a man and his role in World War II. The film evokes at least three themes: the longing for a 'home' as the nominee's land, the impossibility of being truly loved, and the inevitability of death. The main references for Grzinic / Smid in this film were sequences from Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, Psycho and, in particular, the famous camera trick in Frenzy, where the camera, in one continuous take, travels up and down the staircase and announces that the murder was committed. This sequence is first carefully reconstructed in the film At Home, and then deconstructed in the video Axis of Life.
At Home applies the aesthetics and iconography of 1950's Socialist realism, while, at the same time, paying homage to Hitchcock. The fascination with classical film genres (e.g., the detective story, science fiction and the horror movie) is transferred to video mythology. At Home represents the impossible reflections of the Hitchcockian suspense. Moments of Decision, At Home and Axis of Life together form a trilogy, depicting three specific periods of Slovenian (as well as the so-called Eastern European) history and art. These periods correspond as follows: Moments of Decision — the pre-WWII bourgeois past of Socialist countries, and War during the 1940's, Doma (At Home) — the leaden 1950's, with the antipode in Hitchcock, and Axis of Life — the leaden 1970's, mirrored in American hyper-realism and Pop Art.
In the video A Girl With Orange (Grzinic / Smid, 1987), the key image is a copy of the painting by René Magritte, La trahison des images (The Betrayal of Images, famous for its caption: Ceci n‘est pas une pipe, or This is not a pipe). The painting's significance is in the context of Michel Foucault's interpretation of it.8 The use of quotations and recycling methods suggest questions about originality and repetition, about reality and media simulation. The method applied here is actually the reverse to that applied in The Axis Of Life. The entire environment is real, the scenes shot in an abandoned castle, in a flat, on the street, in a workshop. The counterfeiting of the optical reality is achieved by the transfiguration of dilated bodies, by a playful arrangement of objects, by color (brilliantly real and imaginary at the same time) and by sound (which can be felt as images can be heard).
Thus, the actors and the objects are inserted, doubled, transfigured. The actors reproduce and dissipate themselves endlessly. A video image is a coexistence of the imaginary, real, mythical and documentary. The video image has ceased to function as a metaphor referring to its model (the reproduction of an image); it has become a transformative agent, dealing with two forms instead of two images.
The position of the body in relation to history and theory in the so-called post-Socialist, post-Communist or post-Capitalist context can be grasped precisely in Bilocation (Grzinic / Smid, 1990). Bilocation is the simultaneous residence of the body and soul in two different places. The term is perfect for delineating the process of the video medium, and for describing history in relation to the body. In Bilocation, original documentary footage shot by TV Slovenia during the 'civil war' in Kosovo in 1989 (a territory in the south of the former Yugoslavia, racked by national unrest and conflicts between its Albanian and Serb populations) has been used and juxtaposed with the imaginary world of synthetic video images. The documentary footage, which had not been shown previously on national TV, is overlayed onto the image of a ballet dancer (e.g., inserted into her eye, encrusted in her intestines, etc.). These are images about (historical) places, where our own memories become at once psychotic and erotic.
In Bilocation, the body is prepared and embalmed similarly to the way a body was prepared for a Socialist parade, or, for example, that of a man condemned to death, before he is taken to the scaffold. It is as if the culmination of every parade was not the excitement it aroused, but might just as well be a body — embalmed, glazed, and made up as a victim. When dressing for the parade, we are actually adorning the body, which is soon to be destroyed by lust. The body is re-picturing the visual rituals of the body in the East and West. Are we remaking the body of history? No, it is rather a simulation of its political and emotional coordinates. The body is used against amnesia, shifting tenses in a way that deepens our understanding of memory and history beyond the video medium. However, it is not only this; the way the body is presented in Bilocation clearly shows that the body in video is only the video resolution.
Through an electronic and digital process of encrustation, a concrete destiny for the video medium — which in the 1990‘s relates to an entirely changed political and artistic context — is realized. Video works identify with the Zeitgeist of the war in the Balkans of the 1990's. The documentary shots of the war are encrusted with constructed fictional material. Instead of simply identifying with a documentary about our present situation, the structures of electronic processes offer paradoxes and non-linear editing. Peace conferences to stop the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed to be constructed with equal skill, but without resolution. Through video and the processes of re-appropriation, such as recycling different histories and cultures, a multicultural hybrid aesthetic condition is provided. This is an attempt to create empathy where apathy reigns, and to create anxiety without ecstasy.
The video Three Sisters (Grzinic / Smid, 1992), presents a different visualization of the classic play by Anton P. Chekhov, and relates to a radically altered political and artistic context. It can also be understood as an attempt to discuss the disintegration of Communism, as well as racism, nationalism, and the new political machinery of free-market Capitalism. It contains, for instance, a remake of a famous Benetton commercial. It also explores the relationship between Chekhov and Eisenstein (referring to Battleship Potemkin), and between Chekhov and De Palma (referring to the film The Untouchables). The video is like a virtual explosion of the 'rotating swastika'; splinters of the explosion take us into the very innards of the post-Communist condition, a condition saturated not only with 'blood and mud,' cadavers and monsters, but also with the most ludicrous utopias, visions and strategies, as well as a consciousness of the apocalypse, and the self at the end of the millennium.
In Three Sisters, the last act of disobedience perpetrated by the stereotypical transvestite body (the same as the heroine of Liliana Cavani's Night Porter) is her line at the end of the video: "I shall live." The strategy is not to make fakes, but to develop tactics of political and aesthetic articulation of one proper reality and the politics of resistance, as, perhaps, Homi K. Bhabha would say, around a specific kind of subject that is constructed at the point of disintegration. Here I will turn on its head Godard's re-formulation of the French Nouvelle Vague. Godard said, “it is not blood, it is red,” but what we can learn from the body under Communism is, “it is not red, it is blood” — a kind of traumatic reality is emerging through the surface of video in the post-Communist era.
In Labyrinth (Grzinic / Smid, 1993), we view the juxtaposition of artificially constructed surrealistic imagery based on Magritte's work (e.g., Young Girl Eating a Bird, The Heart of the Matter, The Lovers, etc.), and documentary footage from the refugee camps where Bosnian refugees live in Ljubljana. The video recycles different histories and cultures. We are witness to a disturbing psychological game that is played out between the striptease dancer and the audience; the story in the video goes beyond simple questions of identity, forging kinship. It is not so much to show the body as something else, but rather, the idea of dealing with, or living with and through, contradictions. This means that it is not a question of only losing the body, but actually getting it back through a process of rethinking the place where the body was/is produced (engendered).
The bodies that featured in the video works of Eastern Europe are not only mapped as territories, not only producing a kind of intersection of outer and inner space, nor of visibility and invisibility, but were reconstructed and re-invented again and again within the video medium. From them, we tried to squeeze out monumental effects — to make them modern relics, sexual fetishes, encrusted and filled with substances such as oil, blood and blue vitriol. As metaphorical territories, these bodies condensed history and a strategy of suspense, so that we may wonder to which history the faces belong, and to whom these bodies were delivered. The bodies were / are chains of eternal replacement of meaning, in the same way that history is itself articulated by partially readable faces and bodies.
At the end of the millennium, the body has found itself in the chaos of fear, pain and wars — attacked and de-centered. Above all, it is a fleeting physical-material fact. A credit-card sized processor has taken our body materiality. With a single key, we can plug into any high-tech appliance. And so, our dreams of going somewhere far away, of escaping the dimensions of ourselves as nothingness, are realized here by reversals of the body in time and space, and space in time. It is clear how a tremendous impact can be achieved by technically reversing the linearity of time. Sometimes a backward move by the simplest video switch is the most adequate measure of our feelings and thoughts.
'Everything, everywhere, everybody' is the slogan of the '90's that results in a confusion of bodies, concepts and strategies — a type of out-of-joint situation for the subject. We find ourselves within all media, in all bodies, in all possible spaces at once. This puts into question some fundamental arguments concerning art and culture. Operating in the new mode, the positions of identity also reveal to us other internal media and social processes. We are faced with leaving a historically defined position, which imitates the natural world of our senses. With new media and technology, we have the possibility of an artificial interface, which is dominated by non-identity, or difference (Peter Weibel9). Instead of producing a new identity, something much more radical is produced: the total loss of identity. The subject is forced to assume that s/he is not what s/he thought her/himself to be, but somebody-something else.