Friday, 16 October 2009

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Sunday, 11 October 2009

book of motion

Today at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, my friends in the group propeller - Pete Harrison, Augusto Corrieri, Tim Vize-Martin, Emma Bush, Neil Callaghan - are launching the publication of their collaboratively written book, Five Rooms (Acts of Language).

Here is a pre-publ
ication response I wrote for them. For the propellers have indeed made a beautiful book. I wish I could be there to celebrate it with them.


These collaboratively authored texts constitute a book of motion: of fallings and flyings and journeys of many kinds. Materials here are in perpetual flux. Matter circulates at differing speeds and transforms, as do spaces, times, images, narratives, selves. Identities and their constituent elements migrate in a dynamic unfolding/infolding of translations of things, people, stories. The authors trace the mortality of forms, and the trajectories and contours of time’s metamorphoses and of matter’s becomings: its dynamic ‘fidelities’ and ‘infidelities’.

For everything here is on the move, in transit: information (genetic, viral, sonic, electronic, visual, semiotic, ideological), people young and old, past and present, and events. Here events are protean in their meanings, and promiscuous in their proliferative ripples and dispersed echoes. A meteorite falls, and elsew/here so does a leaf, a seal in snow, light, rain, ‘Andrew’. Moments of shock, tiny or momentous, recur - eruptive occurrences when the doors of perception are cleansed, or at least re-written, by a sudden transformative ‘appearance’, a visitation, as untimely and unforeseen as that of an angel.

A catalogue of epiphanies and revelations in the everyday, some of them read as portents, symptoms, coded messages. Others trigger memory or breed confusion in this exquisite cartography of a politics of wonder, belonging, displacement and connectivity. At such moments – carefully distilled invitations to attend, imagine and connect - an infinite web of perceptions and circuits are activated, and the shape of time, memory, history and geography morphs, stretches, tears, and pulses.

This is also a book of passages, mapping a weave of interconnecting territories and the mysterious wormholes that both link and separate them. Here the world is re-membered as ‘something slippery, elusive, open’. Trace elements of lives – extinguished, sputtering or aglow - are continuously unmade, re-routed and refashioned. Within these pages coexist gods and dogs, dream and fear, love and loss, the exhaustion and hope of flesh and stone. And as readers, we are invited to inhabit the spaces between fragility and persistence, chance and fate, regimes of order and the apparent formlessness of a deeper grammar of complexity.

Five Rooms costs £10.00, and can be purchased online through Acts of Language here

For other responses to Five Rooms, by Cathy Turner, Tracey Warr and Wallace Heim, see here

For the propeller website, see here

For information about Acts of Language and its other publications, see here

places voices faces

I spent most of yesterday at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, watching a screening of Claude Lanzmann's astonishing film Shoah (1985). Dan Gretton had invited me to help him introduce the film, with Alan Boldon. It was being shown as part of Platform's 2-month long residency at the Arnolfini, C Words: carbon, climate, capital, culture, and in conjunction with Dan’s performance lecture next week (and forthcoming book), Desk Killer.

11 years in the making, and 9 1/2 hours long, Shoah is a profoundly unsettling and challenging document, a kind of limit text that seeks to confront and engage with the unrepresentable. I had seen it before over 3 days in Melbourne in the mid-1990s, as part of the preparation for training as an interviewer for the Shoah Foundation's international oral history project, a coordinated gathering of testimonies from survivors from around the world (now archived in Israel and the USA). This first viewing was interspersed with lengthy discussions with survivors, members of the Polish Jewish community in Melbourne; these remarkable, buoyantly alive women had been children in Auschwitz.

Yesterday's second viewing in Bristol took place over a single day, with 3 short breaks: starting at 2.00 p.m., finishing at about 12.45 the following morning. Inevitably, an immersive and gruelling experience, so much of its detail forgotten and now reawakened. Afterwards we lurched out into the night; on the quays on the other side of the water, clubs and bars pumping. And I remembered those women in Melbourne: the fire and compassion in their eyes, the palpable life-force they exuded, their astonishing clarity, generosity and gentleness.

Below are the notes I drew on to introduce Lanzmann's film in Bristol. I reproduce them here for Dan, with my huge respect for his work: -

First, a quotation from a 1985 interview with Claude Lanzmann, published in Cahiers du Cinéma:

‘I began precisely with the impossibility of telling this story. I placed this impossibility at the very beginning of my work. When I started the film, I had to deal with, on the one hand, the disappearance of the traces: there was nothing at all, sheer nothingness, and I had to make a film on the basis of this nothingness. And on the other hand, with the impossibility of telling this story even by the survivors themselves; the impossibility of speaking, the difficulty – which can be seen throughout the film – of giving birth to and the impossibility of naming it: its unnameable character’.

So, a film created under the sign of, and in the face of, a double impossibility – the absence and unnameability generated by what Maurice Blanchot called ‘the utter-burn of History’. As the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma suggest, ‘the film is made entirely of words & gestures around a kind of blind spot that is the absence of the images it speaks about’. Lanzmann insists it is a ‘work of art’: an ‘originary event’ constructed with ‘traces of traces’.

A note on the title: ‘Shoah’ is a recurrent term in the Hebrew Bible, used to refer to the ravages of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, and so on ('acts of God'). By mid-1940s, it had become a central term in pre-state (and later Israeli) public discourse about these catastrophic events for the European Jewish diaspora. By extension, it means ‘catastrophe’, ‘destruction’, ‘annihilation’. Initially it was chosen by Lanzmann not knowing Hebrew, not understanding its full meanings: he described it as ‘a brief opaque utterance, an impenetrable word, as unsmashable as an atomic nucleus … another way of not naming it’ (the events and the film).

Compare the term 'Shoah' with the theological implications of the term ‘Holocaust’, in relation to which Lanzmann was dismissive: derived from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, 'Holocaust' means ‘burnt offering’, and suggests sacrificial offerings, a ritual inevitability.

A second quotation from Lanzmann: ‘A film on the Holocaust has to set out from the principle of the rejection of memory, the refusal to commemorate. The worst moral and artistic crime that can be committed in producing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the Holocaust as past. Either the Holocaust is a legend or it is present; in no case is it a memory’.

Lanzmann proposes a particular model of memory in his film: through micro-histories rooted in precise facts – where? what? when? who? how? to whom? (not why?) - and places. For this is a profoundly topographical film, with its insistent return to the scenes of these crimes, which Lanzmann, with reference to Pierre Nora, calls ‘non-sites of memory’: Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Lanzmann believed that the brutality and violence of these facts in these places might have been weakened by the simplistically causal/linear narratives constructed by many historians. As one writer on the film, Leon Wieseltier, puts it, Lanzmann seems to have wanted to spare his witnesses ‘from the perfections of narrative’. And in his film the disjunctive plurality and weave of the witnesses' voicings, speakings, are more important and productive than any simplistic, seductive, reductive narrative arc.

One of Lanzmann's core concerns was to restore a sense of the immediacy of the Shoah for contemporary viewers, to make the past present, to make it 'take (a) place' with its horrors, complexities, ironies uninsulated: in other words, to presence its un/imaginable absences vividly. For example, Jan Karski's account of the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto; or the Czech Filip Müller on the hellish predicament of those Jews coerced to work within the Sonderkommando units in the ‘undressing rooms’, gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz - Müller survived 5 liquidations of the Sonderkommando.

Those interviewed are often asked to re-experience situations rather than to narrate memories. Many of them play out their roles in the relevant or related sites; performed versions of what happened are re-staged to take place once again in the site of trauma, thereby reintroducing the past into the present. Simon Srebnik, for example, one of only 2 survivors from Chelmno, returns to the Polish village; or Abraham Bomba, former barber for women in the Treblinka gas chambers, cuts a man’s hair in a salon in Tel Aviv; or Henrik Gawkowski, the Polish train driver of transports to Treblinka, once again in an engine rolling up to the station sign for Treblinka.

This return/re-enactment is an ambiguous technique Werner Herzog has used repeatedly, in Little Dieter or Wings of Heaven, for example; it’s a kind of Brechtian technique of reconstructive theatricality, or perhaps a psychoanalytic revisiting of the site of trauma, an acting out as a way to reactivate and work through. At times in Herzog, as here in Lanzmann's film, the ethics of the director's coercive pursuit or insistence are troubling to say the least. In Lanzmann's film, the camera zooms unapologetically to extreme close-up when masks crack and unbridled painful emotion is exposed.

Notice also how the revisited spaces themselves are called to ‘testify’ through their absences. They are surveyed slowly to disclose what remains and what has disappeared, such attenuated images often accompanied by the voices of those who suffered there, voices that ‘excavate’ archaeologically (a metaphor Lanzmann uses). In these sequences there is a recurrent discrepancy or friction between deceptive ordinariness/tranquillity in the present and former horrors – often in a silence that registers a terrible silencing. This disjunction requires reconciling in the spectator/witness in the present. (Lanzmann’s initial title for the film was Site and Speech, which points to the radical economy of means employed in the film: just ‘places, voices, faces’ (Simone de Beauvoir) - although in the end Lanzmann abandoned this title as ‘too abstract’).

Lanzmann’s focus here is on the systematic transport and machinery (bureaucratic, administrative, logistical etc.) of the murder of millions of Jews from early 1942, in particular in the ‘Operation Reinhardt’ death-camps at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and then at Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is no attempt here to provide a ‘complete’ history, despite the thoroughly researched historical framework underlying the film (and Lanzmann's indebtedness to the historian Raul Hilberg, one of very few interviewees here not directly implicated).

Necessarily there are all sorts of omissions. For example, there's almost nothing here about Jewish resistance, nor how most of the interviewees escaped death, nor collaborations in deportations by Western European governments. Nothing at all about ‘Operation Barbarossa’ when nearly a million Jews were murdered by the German Einstazgruppen in Eastern Poland, the Ukraine and other western Soviet States.

Perhaps most conspicuously, the film contains no archival film clips or photographs of the camps, victims, survivors – a total absence of any direct historical images of the film's principal subject (surely very rare in documentary). Lanzmann, marked by Adorno’s misgivings about the recycling of such images, felt they were inadequate, misleading; he dismissed them as ‘images without imagination’, an unsavoury, even pornographic spectacle.

Lanzmann was very clear about what he viewed as the limits of representation. He believed this past could only be accessed and animated now through a requirement for a focused effort of listening, learning, engaging imaginatively from the particularities and partialities of the details of 1st hand accounts. He saw documentary mimesis/reproduction as a hindrance to this other kind of ‘re-membering’ (anamnesis) that he was after – and this is at the very centre of the film’s ethical dimension. Lanzmann proposes a highly structured meditation on or moral enquiry into this genocide, awakening in the imagination the lived physical/carnal experience of its very processes of destruction: the intricate machinery designed to render subjects into dehumanised objects, in what Franz Suchomel (the secretly filmed former SS Unterstürmfuhrer at Treblinka) calls the ‘industrial production-line of death’.

The structure of the film provides a dense network of first-hand experiences of and perspectives on these systems, and particular roles within them. No one talks about the ‘Holocaust’ as global abstraction. There is only the concrete lived (and partial) experiences of witnesses to one aspect. Cumulatively the film elaborates a mosaic of perspectives, presented non-chronologically. And ultimately cyclically – we end where we began: with the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising, as described by Simha Rottem, and the transports from the ghetto to Treblinka.

Through the film's complex architecture, Lanzmann was aiming at what he called ‘an incarnation, a resurrection’, with these fragments designed to make of ‘the whole process of the film … a philosophical one’. And ultimately a profoundly unsettling and demanding one for spectators, who are witnesses to those ‘bearing witness from inside the very burning of the witness’ (Shoshana Felman). The film’s structure and its length ask of us particular qualities of commitment, attention, listening, compassionate imagination and reflection, and the work of an integrative re-membering here now.


Liebman, Stuart (ed.) (2007). Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press (particularly essays by/interviews with Claude Lanzmann, and by Simone de Beauvoir, David Denby, Leon Wieseltier, Anne-Lise Stern, Georges Didi-Huberman, Timothy Garton Ash)

Jacobson, Philip (1986). 'Life after death', The Sunday Times, 2 March

Monday, 5 October 2009

witness of time

Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh
Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh
Live Art Development Agency / MIT Press, 2009

Let’s start by revisiting the bare bones of the performance projects by Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, realised between 1978 and 1999. Six projects in all, beginning with a series of five year-long performances. First, one year of solitary confinement in a sealed cell with no communication. Second, a year of punching a time clock on the hour every hour and photographing this action: 24 frames a day for 365 days. Third, a year living rough outside on the streets of New York, drifting and seeking shelter, never going inside. Fourth, one year tied at the waist with a rope to the performance artist Linda Montano, with a prohibition on touch. Fifth, a year spent abstaining wholly from art, its making and its spheres of influence. Finally, a 13-year project in which Hsieh proposed to make art without ever showing it in public, a project during which he effectively disappeared. On New Year’s Eve 1999, at the cusp of the new millennium, in a brief event at the Judson Memorial Church to mark the project’s ending, Hsieh simply told those who had gathered that he had succeeded in keeping himself alive …

The publication of this superb monograph is timely indeed. To date very little of substance has been published about this most remarkable artist and his profoundly unsettling body of work, despite the fact that its contours and challenges are etched indelibly into the psyches of so many involved in contemporary art and performance. We know these deceptively simple shapes, the sculptural forms of the bare bones outlined above, and they are as honed as the shapes of some of Beckett’s most economical work. Or rather we think we know them, for they linger on in unresolved reverberant forms within us. In reality, individually and collectively these works confront and resist claims to knowledge: about art and its parameters; about the passage of time, meaning, identity, freedom; and ultimately about what really happened in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years of these extraordinary ‘lifeworks’.

In a brilliant opening essay, ‘Impress of Time’, Adrian Heathfield contextualises and unfolds the implications of Hsieh’s ‘life lived at limits’ (58) with consummate sensitivity and thoughtfulness. He treads lightly and respectfully throughout, refusing to explain this work away in any singular and inevitably reductive ‘reading’, instead approaching each work in turn not as a referential or symbolic narrative structure but in terms of what it does. In this way, he seeks to articulate something of the affective ‘force’ of this body of work as a ‘constellation of enduring ideas, echoing in the present’ (58).

As well as providing detailed descriptions of each of the projects in turn, Heathfield explores a wide range of such ideas, including: Hsieh’s conception of art and life as simultaneous processes; his embodied instanciations of radical paradox, including the ambiguity of relations between constraint, solitude, freedom and thought in his work, and his deconstructive ‘binding together of activity and negation, production and redundancy’, public immersion and isolation, movement and stasis (45); the differing temporalities of photography and film, and the unstable epistemological status of documentation; Hsieh’s embodied stagings of an ethics of alterity, relationality and civility; his recurrent engagement with aspects and structures of ‘the law’ (he cites Kafka as a core stimulus), set alongside his vulnerable status as an illegal immigrant in the US; his decelerative ‘wasting of time’ in non-productive and uneventful works of extreme duration, and the critical frictions his ‘use-less’ slowness seem to propose within the accelerated temporalities of late capitalism. En route, Heathfield also traces relations with Conceptualism, Performance Art, Body Art in the West, and connections with a range of other artists including Bas Jan Ader, Harry Houdini, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Abramovic and Ulay, and, perhaps most startlingly as a deterritorialising line of flight, the tightrope walker Philippe Petit. These connective genealogies are invariably and finely attuned to differences, and Heathfield resists collapsing this relational cartography into any homogenising empire of the selfsame.

The bulk of the book (pp. 63-315) is given over to Hsieh’s exhaustive documentation of each of his ‘lifeworks’. Scores, flyers, maps, punch cards stamped and signed, legal documents attesting to Hsieh’s own ‘rules’ having been respected (cells and ropes sealed and unbroken, punch cards stamped etc.), and thousands of photographs. Hsieh also includes calendars registering minor breakings of his strictures, such as hours missed in the punching of the time clock: 133 absences in the total of 8,760, each one catalogued in relation to one of three possible ‘reasons’ - ‘sleeping’, ‘late’, or ‘early’.

Many of the beautifully reproduced images comprise lengthy series of stills cumulatively registering the passage of time, in dated punch cards, say, or gradual hair growth. It’s intriguing to revisit the hourly photographs of ‘Time Clock Piece’ in this print context, laid out on 31 consecutive pages, each page containing 12 vertical columns / film strips of 24 images (i.e. one day per strip, 12 days per page). The lay-out produces an uncanny juddering temporality, and at the same time foregrounds the sheer enormity of the (t)ask. Its astonishing difficulty is somewhat elided in the high-speed, suppressed-hysteria energetics of the 6-minute stop-motion animated film version, within which each day – each column within the book - is condensed into a second (see Hsieh 1999). On the page one can skim and flick, or endeavour to accept it as a kind of meditation exercise: an invitation to engage with the im/possibility of paying attention to each image, to the rare blank spaces when Hsieh failed to make it, and to the infinite blank spaces of the unimaginable 59 minutes or so between each image. The labour of attempting to ‘read’ it as a (ruptured) continuum takes time and real effort. Cumulatively it’s incapacitating, one soon struggles with a kind of ‘blindness’ and defaults to skimming; and in the end we come no closer to understanding what really happened. One recognises Hsieh’s absolute clarity of purpose and will-ful integrity in the work, but ‘he’ is always elsew/here.

Ultimately, Heathfield locates Hsieh as ‘a sentient witness of time’ (11), engaged in practices of ‘aesthetic duration’, with each work ‘a sense passage in which corporeal attention is drawn to (a) time reforming’ (22). Each of Hsieh’s ‘untimely’ projects constructs a space of severe, self-imposed privation and constraint within which time passes and thinking happens. Each performance elaborates a rigorously precise architecture for the event of thought as art; but none of those thoughts are communicated. The internal life of the being in human being - Hsieh’s lived experience of brutalising bare life in extremis - is forever withheld in an economy of denial that serves to create empty spaces for our own projections and dealings with incomprehension. As Tim Etchells puts it in his letter to Hsieh, the extensive documentary traces of the work that survive ‘show everything but tell nothing’ (357). Hsieh moves implacably towards the self-erasure of ever greater illegibility, invisibility and silence to leave us confronted with ‘a sculpture of nothingness’, and we are pulled back endlessly to ‘a face off with the void’ (360). Or, as Hsieh puts it with characteristic economy and lack of sentimentality: ‘Living is nothing but consuming time until you die’ (335).

The book draws to a reflexive end without closure in a long and engaging interview/exchange between Hsieh and Heathfield (‘I Just Go On In Life’), and a series of open letters to Hsieh by Peggy Phelan, Marina Abramovic, Tim Etchells, Santiago Sierra, and others from Hsieh’s personal archive. The latter include a hand-written note from an irate and anonymous Chinese person – ‘Artist? UGH!’ (354); and a delightfully formal letter of support from a (real) estate agent in Michigan – ‘I don’t totally understand exactly what you are doing but I do think it is very important. Keep on with your good work…’ (350). The letters allow different modalities of writing to open up other more intimate perspectives on and creative responses to the work, most effectively to my mind in the exquisitely performative contributions of Peggy Phelan and Tim Etchells. Finally, Carol Becker writes back into and out of the book in an elegant summative post-script, in which she applauds Heathfield’s approach to the curation of these materials. His framing, she suggests perceptively, creates ‘a safe holding environment where the work can rest … The intent of the pieces appears intact, allowed to exist in its emptiness and silence, still elusive even after so much has been said’ (369).

Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh
Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh
Live Art Development agency / MIT Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-262-01255-3 383 pp. £29.95

Hsieh, Tehching (1999). One Year Performance Art Documents, 1978-1999, DVD-ROM. For further details, see here

Also available through the Live art Development Agency’s online Unbound: see here

This review of Out of Now was first published in Performance Research 14:2 ('On Training'), June 2009: issue edited by Richard Gough & Simon Shepherd