Monday, 2 July 2012

What Does It Mean To Be Sophisticated?, Renzo Martens Meets Bernadette Corporation, Artistic Event Review

text by Cristina Bogdan and Mihaela Varzari

published with ARTA magazine, Bucharest, issue 6-7, 2012

about Episode III / Enjoy Poverty (2009) by Renzo Martens and Get Rid of Yourself  (2003) by artist collective Bernadette Corporation (hereafter BC), screened during the Turbulent Surfaces II event at kynastonmcshine art center in London, curated by Kirsten Cooke. Martens’ film is the result of two years spent in the war zone area of Western Republic of Congo. It is a follow up of an earlier film, Episode I, shot in Chechnya during the internal war there, in 2004. It has the form of a documentary, as does Get Rid of Yourself, apparently concerned with the riots stirred by the so-called ‘Black Bloc' movement in 2001, on the occasion of the G8 summit in Genoa.
One image is not enough. The image is not enough.
According to cinema, one image claims another.
Then we have dialectics[i].
A discourse is being constructed through images, and eventually that discourse is resumed to one image. What do we know of Africa? Malnourished children. What do we know of anti-globalization protests? Supermarket riots. What do Martens and BC argue? 
That this simplicity of the image is poverty.

To be sophisticated is not to be simple.

A simple image is not, contrary to what is commonly thought, the most efficient image. In order for an image to function, it needs to grow in sophistication. The symbolism of the image of “the Other”, as constructed by themselves and as shown by the media, is poor: Congolese workers looking at the White men for every answer, always complaining about their poverty; protesters dressed in outdated new age clothes, listening to violent music and performing kitsch acts like hammering an ATM.And the fight is against the rich and powerful – even if completely void – symbolism of the media, the advertising, the fashion industry, the official organizations, in short, of Empire[ii].
The antithesis at work in Get Rid of Yourself is between the minimalist photoshoot of a haute couture range and the visually noisy riots. The product of the photoshoot then remains visible throughout the riots, as the publicity panel stands shiny in the midst of the action, like a sort of reminder that the winner’s position cannot, as yet, be taken by those who are unable to construct their image as winners.

In both videos, there is an explicit moment when the lack of efficiency of the Other’s discourse is pointed out bluntly: in Get Rid of Yourself, a clown philosopher calls the rioters unintelligent for being scared of their “becoming rioters”, and thus not being able to collect the fruit of this act.
Martens dedicates about a quarter of his film to teaching Congolese photographers how and what to shoot – killings, rapes and malnourished children, instead of their usual parties – and when he fails to have these pictures sold to the Western media, he points out the poor quality of these images, which stands for the incapacity of the Congolese to see themselves in a powerful way, be it Western or African-oriented.

 Film still, Get Rid of Yourself by Bernadette Corporation, 2003
 Courtesy of kynastonmcshine art center.

To be sophisticated is to be efficient.

But who sees what? Who is seen? Martens’ Episode I is overwhelmed by these questions. A crueler version is “Why film this?”, which a woman with an amputated leg asks from below, in her hospital bed. Sophistication is cruelty. When Martens asks “the Other” to film him and tell him what he thinks of him now, he is only following the logic of the media up to its end. What does it matter if this Other is a disfigured man who can only answer that Martens is better looking than him? Why should he not ask a crowd of old women queuing up for provisions brought by the Western NGOs, whether they find him attractive? Why should he not pick a young woman in the crowd and play with her the comedy of love, bringing his intimate questions on the table, in this camp of sorrow? It is just the same when young healthy journalists come to these countries and ask bulgy questions to the locals, in order to get some drama for those back home. In fact, it is precisely what Romanian journalists do on a daily basis, extorting stories from those who are unaware of their image, without the slightest critical approach.

So is it still possible to take the image of the self into one’s own hands? To construct it? I like to think that BC have worked (undercover) for 10 years in the fashion industry only to be able to answer this question. Yes, that is possible, but one needs to stand on solid grounds. Martens also spend 2 years in Congo in order to make his second film. An image, if it is to be efficient, must be constructed out of acts. Otherwise it is as void as a publicity panel.

The problematic question of who is filming, who is setting up what we, the spectators, are going to see. While BC make use of fashion images in order to show the empty signifiers, associated with one or another political identity, Martens puts the camera on himself to show the impossibility of escaping a system which validates itself by not allowing other possibilities to exist. In both films Martens films himself as if to insist on showing his complicity as an image maker, distributor and ultimately beneficiary. On the other hand, BC inquire into image production by completely remaining anonymous and choosing to have as their porte-parole a character wearing a mask and a famous actress.

Extra visibility and absence: 2 strategies to confront representation.
What do they have in common? Sophistication.

 Film still, Get Rid of Yourself, 2003 by Bernadette Corporation 
Courtesy of kynastonmcshine art center.

To be sophisticated is to have a voice.

The image is not enough. That’s why all this is moving image. Voice is direct representation. Against mediation. PRESENTATION. Godard, in Ici et ailleurs: “How did that sound take power? It took power because at one given time it made itself represented by an image.” Sound vs. voice: not to let the former drown the latter.

At this point one cannot avoid to link both BC and Martens to the critical documentary form, established by the likes of Godard and Farocki since the late 60’s[iii]. Perhaps the most significant operation of this documentary form is the criticism of image through image. Words perform, in this case, a separate operation. In a poststructuralist sense, words and images are both “texts”, and need to be deciphered on their own, in order for one to confront them.
Obviously this form of criticism of image through image is sophisticated. But in the contemporary situation, Martens and BC add another layer of sophistication by playing with the artistic status of their documentaries. In fact, none of the movies can be classified as documentary, especially because they do not perform any “empirical research”[iv]. Against empiricism, which could lead on to a belief in “objectivity” and from there on to ideological ossification and discrimination, both approaches prefer to turn to the subjective and eventually cinematic to make their point. The form could be classified as “visual essay”.

Once upon a time, Lord Byron chose to join the Greeks into fighting the Turks. Martens situates himself in a great series of preservers of humanism, one could argue. Whether he does it consciously in order to break away with a romantic dream, or he is interested in such issues as global power relationships, or he secretly wishes to take further, relational aesthetics, in a quite perverse way, his films are difficult to pin down.

One aspect we would be interested in discussing more in depth, is how the film indirectly engages critically with the art system. Impotence, personal borders, politics of guilt, domination, submissiveness have been researched and exposed by contemporary artists, especially in the last two decades, as a follow up of the new political reconfiguration of the world. The film reveals as much the different strategies of dealing with domination and power relationships, as it shows the self-referentiality, by creating a fictional script – “the map that precedes reality”[v] – in order to facilitate a true criticism of the current realities.

Film still, Episode III by Renzo Martens, 2009
 Courtesy of the artist.

Being sophisticated is to know you are impotent.

Seen in this light, Martens’ attitude is more susceptible of criticizing the art system within which he operates. The impossibility of getting out the loop, created by his own vanity (as the artist himself admits), of having an impact, is the basis in interpreting his work. We are living in a narcissistic age, created by the pressure for self-oriented life style of the late phase of capitalism, and Martens chooses to speak for a generation of artists struggling with/ suffering from the feeling of impotency. sex, lies, and videotape , the 1989 independent American film directed by Steven Soderbergh, tells the story of a sexually impotent man who, for his own private enjoyment, videorecords women discussing their sexuality. In Episode III, Renzo Martens also, gathers fictional or real information, records testimonies in order to cure himself from impotency. Is it the assumed impotency in relation to improving the poor’s lives, transferred to the art world, which infamously operates with recognizable tools known only by an elite?
At this point, reference to the sociologist Walter Mignolo comes in handy. He points out what he calls de-linking from the colonial matrix of power, and goes on and explains why it is necessary: “because while knowledge is controlled, as it is now, by the reproduction of the colonial matrix of power in the name of development – technological advancement and marvelous gadgets, the privilege of economic and military progress – we will remain within the colonial matrix, engaged in radical internal criticism but still believing that there is only one game in town”[vi]. In the case of Romania as part of ex-European communist countries, we are experiencing an uncritical “link” to the matrix in the shape of a Turbo-type capitalism, embraced and glorified through a soft type of colonialism. How responsible are the artists to observe and point out these needs is an ethical question, and morals do not go with art.

This is also illustrated by one of the strategies in Get Rid of Yourself, where we watch Chloe Sevigny rehearsing what seems to be an anarchist monologue. She voices political slogans and manifestos, while moving casually in the kitchen. The lines seem totally devoid of substance and we see her increasingly getting bored and having trouble with the pronunciation of the word “subjectivisation”.What better way to represent clearly the failure to produce a changing discourse, during the protests or after them, than to use this mirror figure as a trap.

Episode III, 2009. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

Sophistication is dangerousWhen Martens’ neon sign that reads “Enjoy Poverty” shines in the Congolese swamp, when Chloe Sevigny mocks the confessions of a revolutionary, the whole discourse is turned upside down and faces the danger of being misinterpreted. None of the movies takes sides or has a clear emancipatory claim. Sevigny is a disruptive tool in Get Rid of Yourself, due to her persona as icon of underground cinema / fashion celebrity – a shady figure in a binary world construction. Martens constantly mines this same construction by refusing to bend his discourse in order to meet the poor’s needs, however without managing to receive any equivalent response from his interlocutors. What are we left with at the end of these films? With the feeling that there is still an outside? Being on the edge is the artistic position par excellence. It is clearly not the safest.

Episode III, 2009. Film still. Courtesy of the artist.

[i] One might argue that Benjamin’s dialectical image is the ideal prefiguration of cinema. Just ask Godard.
[ii] The reference is to Hardt, M., Negri, A., 2000. Empire. Harvard University Press. 
[iii] Emblematic examples are J.-L. Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs (1976), with its suspicious look at both politics and the image, and the possible relations between them, and Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989), a filmic essay about the discovery of the concentration camps through accidental surveillance images.
[iv] After the screening of Enjoy Poverty at kynaston mcshine art center, London art critic Maxa Zoller proposed a reading against Martens film, trying to inscribe it in the documentary tradition of Rene Vautier and Jean Rouch, and claiming that, contrary to them, Martens was not able to do / did not understand the meaning of empirical research. I argue against this simplistic reading.
[v] In On Exactitude In Science, Borges imagines a map that is the exact size of the world. See [e-book, accessed 10 June 2012].
[vi]Mignolo, W., 2000. Local Histories/Global Designs, Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledge, and Border Thinkig, Princeton University Press, p. 325.

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