Barbara Hammer: tender fictions

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The Marco Polo Syndrome

It has been very inspiring to read about Jose Bedia’s work by Gerardo Mosquera in the context of the Marco Polo Syndrome.

By practicing palo monte in Cuba,  an Afro Cuban cultural complex of Kongo origin, the Western artist “appropriates “primitive” techniques but not in order to reproduce their programmes: he creates elements with them that articulate his personal discourse and iconography.” Because he is creating Western culture from non-Western sources, he is making a step towards de-Europeanisation.

The reason why this is important is because Art and Culture have been defined from a European standpoint or Eurocentrism which is the main “symptom of a disease that perceives whatever is different as the carrier of life threatening viruses rather than nutritional elements.” This is what Mosquera defines as the Marco Polo Syndrome.

Bedia’s art is relevant in the context of the Kongo culture itself, far from any foreign or European references. He opened himself to the so-called ” primitive” cultures – that opened themselves in return – in what he has called a “voluntary transculturalisation in reverse: from his “high art”education to a “primitive” one.”

The problem with Eurocentrism is that it is rooted in colonialism and colonialism stopped traditional societies in their natural progression, instead it imposed forcefully a different way.  The result is that today, these societies struggle to deal with their own issues and have also adopted the problems of the West. For example, in Trinidad & Tobago, 9/11 was felt as if it had happened in Port of Spain. It  was lived as a Trinidadian disaster, people adopted it, they owned it.

Eurocentrism has also affected the West in that there is no connection capable of transforming this unhealthy relationship  into one where both sides benefit of their own interests and values, in a global situation. But this is changing and the critique of Eurocentrism is part of the possibility of a global dialogue among cultures.  Artists being adopted by other cultures and adopting other cultures to create a narrative satisfactory to the West and the “primitive” in its pure form are a big part of the dialogue.

I will conclude with a beautiful quote from Mosquera: “The cure for the Marco Polo Symdrome resides in overcoming centrism with enlightenment from a myriad of different sources.”

Sophie Meyer 2012

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World as Archive

We make, gather, compile archives and create a world of archives so that we remember, so that we don’t forget our history and the stories of others. Human beings have taken great care in recording and storing the product of their work throughout history. It is gathered mainly in National Libraries whose access is limited and carefully monitored. Alain Resnais’ film “La mémoire du monde” shows the gigantic French National library in Paris with its 100 km of walls covered with books. It is like entering an immense fortress, a sea of documents, it gives vertigo and we can question how many of us will ever have access or any interest in engaging with this well protected world of knowledge and memory.

I would rather look at the World as an Archive myself and see the land and landscapes as repositories of memory like Susan Hiller does in “The J project” where she scans the German landscape for remaining Jewish street names. She then created a visual inventory of 303 roads, streets, paths referring to a Jewish presence. As opposed to a traditional public memorial that suppresses collective memory by freezing meaning rather than preserving it, Hiller offers a living memorial. She creates a space for memory, a visual archive where the memorial is not immediately visible. Careful study, close reading and contemplative immersion are required to understand her work so that remembrance becomes possible.

Hiller’s work “promotes an ethics of memory rather than teaches a lesson of history”. Her interpretation of the archive is alive, poetic. She thinks the landscape as archive and captures its evocative powers.

Sophie Meyer – 2012


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Globalisation as universal Art

When addressing the issue of globalisation, the immediate correlate seems to be homogenization.

Colonialism globalised the idea that the West was superior and civilized in opposition to Indigenous cultures still very close to Nature. There was the West and the other, the oriental as Said explained. The world was separated in two and the model to thrive for was the West but in the post modernist era a third space is becoming prominent in Art, the Diaspora. It is a world where people move simultaneously though the visible and the invisible.

Mohini Chandra’s approach to globalisation via vernacular culture is one that puts the experience of the Diaspora at the centre of the dialogue. She uses photos of her own family to explore histories of migration and cultural identities shifts in post colonialism. In “Travels in a New World”, she tells her own story, conducts a “personal anthropology” in exploring her family’s past to inform a wider view of the South Asian Diaspora. In remembering her childhood, she connects it to the history of the places and cultures she lived in and takes us on a journey questioning cultural identity.

Chandra’s look at globalisation through the vernacular prevents the subversion of the dominant culture through appropriation in Homi Bhabha’s words. She connects her viewers to the universal through her individual experience and escapes globalisation.

Her work is beautifully summed up in Sean Cubitt’s thought: “Either globalization severs us from one another permanently and to the point of disparate isolation; or it must be challenged by these other nets of interest, care and memory.”

Sophie Meyer – 2012


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Travelling Images: Memory, Time and the Analogue Media Experience.

In mid-2011, I accessed a vernacular archive of slides which contained hundreds of images of Chile. These images were sent to England during the 80s to connect Chilean exiles (who were living in Britain at that time) with the changes that were taking place in their ‘homeland’ during Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). The archive contains images of social change. Overall, it reflects the increasing obsolescence of the Chilean socialism embodied by Allende’s government, the perpetuation of Pinochet’s neoliberal model, and the struggle against those changes.

I began to manipulate the slides, to interrogate both their materiality and their hidden stories. Since the archive’s images were mostly taken during the 80’s, during my childhood, I could also recognize in these images my own recollections of a dictatorial past and my own childhood experiences. It was irrelevant to me whether that recognition was valid for others or not. I was much more interested in the opportunity to reflect on myself as taking up the role of an anthropologist while investigating these images.

At the beginning of this year Kodak announced the end of its production of reversal film, which is the film used to make slides. I found it compelling that today I was watching this archive about the increasing obsolescence of a political system through an obsolete medium. And I found it compelling that I was looking at this ‘obsolescence’ today in London; at a time when, in Chile, a socialist utopia seems to be being reborn through the student social movements. In the same way, the obsolete medium of film was being reborn through my digital camera.

The outcome of this research process is this video named diapofilm-1 elaborated out of the projection of the slides and sounds from Chile. It is an invitation not only to connect with the exiles’ experience of watching the archive and their possible concerns at the time. But also to the sensorial and tactile dimension of the analogue experience, in which the slides as objects, the mechanical sounds and the projector also count. The piece involves a complex relationship with temporality and space, creating a dialogue between past and present, here and there, that includes the media used.

In the film, the slide machine apparatus is like the ‘pre-cinema’ technology of the magic lantern. Like in Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ when the boy projects the images with the magic lantern in his room, the projection of the slides transforming the space into a series of legendary and historical scenes. These scenes, by triggering memories and fantasies in the viewer, produce a connection between the past and the present through the mechanical apparatus.

This process is not only represented through digital video and audio, but also it is translated into other media, it is a “media translation”, in this case through digital video. This dual operation opens the discussion on two very contemporary subjects, which are media convergence and media obsolescence.

The current moment is conceived as one of convergence: a moment in which different media can be “transcoded” into the new digital one. It has been said that this media convergence eliminates notions of medium specificity. However it has brought into existence, as Raymond Bellour has proposed, two kinds of crossbred works. Firstly, those that produce new images by an exchange and collision between different media images. Secondly, those that makes an old medium apparatus go beyond its traditional formations, while absorbing the formations of the new digital media. Diapofilm-1 belongs to the first group, because through digital video, the slide apparatus is dissected, analyzed, halted, reanimated and reassembled, so as to serve as a means of producing formal and conceptual expressions.

There has been a special interest in the “outmoded”, discarded media, in recent times. In fact, there has been a contemporary obsession with the obsolete and with ruins. Andreas Huyseen points out that this obsession hides a nostalgia for an earlier age that had not yet lost its ability to imagine other futures.

In the last few years, this obsession has become especially tangible due to the political and economic uncertainties and the lack of alternatives that the economic crisis has shown up. When we think about other futures, it reminds us immediately of the social utopias of the XX century. In the case of the Diapofilm-1, that is the socialist utopia of the Marxist government of Salvador Allende.

Through the digital camera, it is not only analyzed and reassembled the obsolete photochemical medium of the slides, but also the obsolete political utopia of Chile in the 70s, which definitively disappeared in the first decade of the XXI century. In the film, both the obsolete medium and the obsolete political system are reborn as a frozen moment of the past that speaks to the present through the space of viewing and the slide apparatus.

Thus, like the boy watching the images of the magic lantern in Proust’s novel, the slide projector triggered memories and fantasies of my childhood in Chile, bringing back images of those times, and at the same time it transformed the sensorial space in the new home that I am building day by day in London.

by Pablo Mollenhauer


Huyssen, A., 2006. Nostalgia for Ruins. Grey Room -, 6–21.
Shaw, J., Weibel, P., Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, 2003. Future cinema : the cinematic imaginary after film. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
(to be presented in the conference “Journey Across Media”, University of Reading, 2012)
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Indian Arts on Film

Some of the themes approached during the discussion with Arun Khopkar and John Wyver at Ambika P3 was objectivity in documentary making, the documentary method and documentary evidence.

Both  filmmakers worked extensively with artists and it took, for some projects,  years before a film was even envisaged. It was the time necessary for the filmmaker to understand the work done by the artist and to build up a trusting relationship. “The contemporary documentary approach in the visual arts has buried once and for all the myth of the “disinterested’ or “objective observer” as Vit Havranek mentions in “The documentary method versus the ontology of “documentarism”.

Answering a question from the audience, Khapkor said he wasn’t worried about objectivity, “there is a moment when you feel that the voice is speaking to you. You have to respect the poetry of it.”
For Wyner, “the notion of subjectivity is not a concern” in art either. His motto is “the desire to evoke, create and experience an artwork.”
Author and director of 45 films on different artists, he regrets that television sees documentaries as “evidence” rather than a shared experience:  “the BBC is dominated by the concern  of documentaries “being about Art, knowledge and not about giving you (the viewer) an experience about Art”.

As I watched Khapkor’s second film “Volume Zero” on the architect Charles Correa, I  learnt about his work, his ideas, his life and the impact of his genius on architecture. It was very informative but documentaries are primarily made to inform about a specific topic. If we look at the meaning of  a document, “the basic unit of documentaries… etymologically speaking, (it) is defined as something to instruct” says Sophie Berrebi in” Documentary and the dialectical document in contemporary art.”
Far from being neutral though despite the apparent unobtrusiveness, documentaries plunge the spectator in the intimate universe of the artist filmed from the camera’s point of view. In the case of Khopkar’s  “Figures of thoughts” –  a 33 minute film on the work of three Indian contemporary painters – the director follows the artists in their own space, reconstructs their work environment and  in some cases films the making of the paintings. Khapor chooses a specific cinematography for each artists and concentrate on either the work or the artist.
Documentaries are ” the result of observation and dual process of selection: in the “real world” and in the edit suite. What the viewer takes as reality is in fact a reality seen by someone else, it is a second order observation.” observes Kitty Zulmans in “Documentary evidence and/in artistic practices.

The debate between informing, giving an “objective” account – still seen to some extent as being the first goal of documentaries – and the given “subjective” approach of the director is at its high when speaking of documentary Art. As Wyner concluded, the notion of subjectivity is a problem in News and current affairs but not in Art.

November 2011, Sophie Meyer

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My approach to documentary making

As I am embarking on making a documentary on a ritual from a foreign tradition: Stick fighting in Trinidad, I am studying documents, evidence, factual reports made by historians and ethnologists. Kitty Zulmans speaks of “documentary evidence”, she says “documentary and evidence have a claim to truth, a claim to honesty, objectivity and veracity.” Gathering, selecting knowledge and also making my own by conducting interviews and asking specific questions to selected interviewees, then cut the gathered information, put it back together with my own interpretation is far from objective.
Objectivity doesn’t exist since any information collected is already filtered; gathered by subjective minds, various people with different truth, education, approach to life. Objectivity is clearly not the point. Does it make my work less valid?

Like Arun Khopkar shared during the discussion in “India Arts and film” at Ambika P3 in London last week, “I am not worried about objectivity, there is a moment when you feel that the voice is speaking to you. You have to respect the poetry of it.” The filmmaker’s truth, his/her genuine approach and integrity, letting the poetry drive the collection of knowledge is what has made the best piece of work and Art. Even in Science, an area well known to be widely considered as objective and cradle of true reality, the biggest discoveries have been based on what I would call “informed instinct”, moments of “poetry”.

As a filmmaker, I want to share a visual “document” that I made with an audience. “Etymologically speaking, a document is defined as something to instruct” Sophie Benebi reminds us in Documentary and the dialectical document in contemporary art.
My aim is to instruct, give knowledge but in order to open the possibility for the spectator to get an experience of the Art of stick fighting. Conveying enough knowledge so that the viewer can experience the object of my research based on the relationships that I am developing with my subjects is key to make documentaries. I see knowledge as a process not an end and documentaries as “creative treatment of reality” to take John Grierson’s words.
V. I, Havranek describes very accurately how the “contemporary documentary approach in visual arts has buried once and for all the myth of the disinterested or objective observer.”
I am interested in showing the beauty of Stick Fighting and its spiritual African roots, my stance is clear. I am “engaged”. Havranek remarks, “in essence this term simply labels an approach in which the observer’s position is established as a conscious process.”
The relationship between the people I am featuring and interviewing, the documented and myself is key since my approach is grounded “in the relationship between the artist (myself) and the subject, which is perceived as bearing, enduring and gauging of the political and social matrixes to which it is connected or to which it connects itself.” Havranek insists on “the importance of dialectical ties to the documented and media criticism in the documentary method versus the ontology of “documentarism.”
The documentary approach in visual arts is based on the process resulting from the relationship between documented and documenter. It reflects this very process.

Sophie Meyer
November 8, 2011

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