Ways out of the echo chamber

Unlearning privilege – talking with the disappeared

an event by Jesal Kapadia, Mattia Pellegrini, Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson

at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers

Saturday 17 December 2016

Since November 2015, artists and filmmakers, Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson have been in residence at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in Paris. ‘Unlearning privilege – talking with the disappeared’ is the second in a series of events organised within their Centre for Language Unlearning.

Still from Bombay: Our City (1985) by Anand Patwardhan

Given the current panicked reflection on how the educated and well-intentioned can still make individual or collective sense, let alone re-connect with the needs of those excluded from the perks of the neo-liberal system, this pause for thought at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers was welcome, both in it’s content and it’s form. For this pre-Christmas get-together on a cold and rainy Saturday evening in the outskirts of Paris, the main space had been arranged into a chill-out zone: low-lighting, rugs, pillows, blankets, music and a video projection. Arriving at 4pm, and requesting an idea of the length of the program, the answer was not clear; we would see how things went…

This confident negation of a set program felt refreshing in an era fragmented by smart packaging, relentless deadlines, quick pay-off distractions, and where we have now learnt to doubt the integrity of our information sources. The offer of an extended period of reflection felt all the more welcome, framed as the event was within art-world or artist-driven protocols, which tend these days to rigidly frame and compartmentalise such moments of exchange. The sleek and stream-lined approach is efficient and avoids awkwardness, but is awkwardness really such a bad thing ?

Seated in a large circle, the 15 or 20 participants were lead into a discussion structured around a series of texts, music and film excerpts, chosen by New York-based artist/activist Jesal Kapadia and Italian artist, Mattia Pellegrini. The proceedings ‘faded in’ with songs by Bismillah Khan and a selection of Vietnamese 78’s, interspersed with film excerpts. Initial discussions unfolded with an air of uncertainty as we felt our way into the material. It was with a pleasant relief that we moved to the kitchen and dining area, where discussion continued during the preparations of an Indian meal and then gradually gave itself over to the pleasure of cooking and chatting, interspersed once or twice with more readings. The closing session brought us up close to midnight, I felt both soothed and agitated by a desire to hold onto the loose strands of this evening and draw them out further with the hope of reconnecting again some time soon.

It’s important to note that the evening took place a month after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and a few months after Britain voted for Brexit. We were at a point when hopes that the foreseeable future would be shaped by educated and reasonable sentiments feel compromised in the extreme. The feelings and desires of till now excluded groups, and those leaders who manage to profit from their latent energy, have gained significant leverage. Immigrants, the unemployed, impoverished and uneducated, are playing a central role in the rupture which we are experiencing. How do we turn away from our immediate preoccupations and survival strategies, and consider these individuals, engage with them, understand them as part of our own impoverishment?

When examining the content of this evening more closely, one becomes aware of a layering affect. In both the title, Unlearning privilege, talking with the disappeared, and the choice of films shown, the central issue seems clear. It is worth observing however that the issue of privilege was never once verbally addressed during the evening. Perhaps to deal with such a topic frontally would have been too weighty and charged, leaning towards narcissistic self-examination and high-lighting the abyss before us. As the subject fanned out across multiple planes, it revealed a larger context, traversing gender, ethnography, psycho-analysis, subject-object relations and protest, and referenced practitioners in various fields from the past 4 decades.

Still from Inventory Inventur – Metzstrasse 11 (1975), by Želimir Žilnik

In order to arrive at this larger context without rendering the subject of the excluded once again invisible, one must describe some of the films. The first, an experimental documentary, Inventory Inventur – Metzstrasse 11 (1975) by Želimir Žilnik, depicts the inhabitants of a building in Munich in the 1970’s. A large portion of these being migrant labourers, there are few woman, and most speak haltingly with limited vocabulary as one after the other they descend a staircase and briefly introduce themselves to the camera. The filmmaker never intrudes, but it is clear that the organization of this sequence shot has been carefully planned and a protocol has been suggested. Bombay: Our City (1985) is the second film, a documentary by Anand Patwardhan, about a community of untouchable status (confined to menial and despised tasks) in Bombay. It evokes again the problem of communication and how to represent someone when the means for exchange and understanding are limited.

Still from Reassemblage (1983), Trin T. Minh-ha

The third, a film by Vietnamese film-maker, Trin T. Minh-ha entitled Reassemblage depicts a tribe in a very rural part of Senegal, in the early 1980’s. A series of images of the tribe are edited in a fleeting succession, which avoids the steady gaze. The soundtrack of music, silence, and some words by the filmmaker comes across as poetic and problematizes the act of looking by avoiding the assignment of meaning. An extract was also shown from Lav Diaz’s 9-hour masterpiece Melancholia (2008), which explores political disillusionment seen through the eyes of Filipino resistance fighters. This film was swiftly labelled by one of the participants as “poverty porn,” for which Filipino filmmakers are often criticised; exploiting extreme poverty without actually advocating for those being depicted. The accusation was later retracted.

Still from Melancholia (2008), Lav Diaz

One is aware in each film of awkward dynamics at play in them. Who is filming? Who is watching these images and projecting their meaning onto them? How can the relationship between the self and the other be in a process which is constantly evolving and being tested?

The notion of logarare was introduced, as developed by poet, art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi. Through recorded conversations with her companion, Pietro Consagra, and other members of her close circle between 1972 and 1977, Lonzi’s “Taci, anzi parla” documents experimentation within relationships and the shifts and slippages which this experimentation allows. Stripped of professional and social veils, the structures and assumptions on which one has built one’s identity break down. The term logorare refers to this wearing down of structure (patriarchal structure in particular). One can imagine this kind of discussion between a couple, part personal, part ideological. From my own experience, there is a gradual transition which happens in an extended conversation with someone whom one shares one’s life with, beginning with getting things off one’s chest and talking past each other, defending one’s point of view, to gradually reaching a new, more nuanced understanding of self, and what it is one shares with the person before one.

The reference reminded me of a paragraph from Marcel Proust’s, Le Coté de chez Swann, where he describes the flagstones in the church in Combray, which have been worn down, caressed by the centuries of dragging hemlines and passing feet, so that they seem finally to melt into each other like honey. Their structure, broken down.

The old porch by which we entered, black, pocked like a skimming ladle, was uneven and deeply hollowed at the edges (like the font to which it led) as if the gentle brushing of countrywomen’s cloaks as they entered the church, and of their timid fingers taking holy water could, repeated over centuries, acquire a destructive force, bend the stone and carve it with furrows like those traced by the wheel of a cart in a boundary stone which it knocks against every day. Its tombstones, under which the noble dust of the abbots of Combray, who were buried there, formed for the choir a sort of spiritual pavement, were themselves no longer inert and hard matter, for time had softened them and made them flow like honey beyond the bounds of their own square shapes, which, in one place, they had overrun in a flaxen billow, carrying off in their drift a flowered Gothic capital, drowning the white violets of the marble; and into which, elsewhere, they had reabsorbed themselves, further contracting the elliptical Latin inscription, introducing a further caprice in the arrangement of those abridged characters, bringing close together two letters of a word of which the others had been disproportionately distended.

(Le Coté de chez Swann, Marcel Proust p. 62, translation by Lydia Davis)

Towards the end of the evening, Jesal proposed the notion of the personal drive; the impulses which push us forwards in the world. She talked about Occupy Wall Street, which she had been closely involved in, and the reticence people felt to return home at the end of the day, as if returning to the isolation of personal space severed them from something vital.

The final question of the evening seemed to be: how can one’s one’s impulses, projections and obsessions be integrated into a world where our point of contact with reality has become so slight, reduced, accelerated and so frequently tricked and deceived. How do we project our desires, and continue to respectfully negotiate the borders of those around us, and our own, in a process akin to logorare?

There was a casually ritualistic aspect to the evening which deepened its success. In his book, Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), sociologist Randall Collins explores rituals (as diverse as funerals, sex, rock concerts, conversations and employer-employee relationships) as events which can either lead to a rise or a fall in emotional energy for those involved. Collins proposes that one of the central aspects that enhances emotional energy, is the idea of rhythmic entrainment, whereby individuals are drawn into a shared mood and actions begin to flow into one another, creating excitement, a sense of mutual focus of attention. Even in situations where the short-term emotion is negative, as for example grief at a funeral, the ritual experience provides long-term results of solidarity and a sense of access. As a result, Collins proposes that society is constantly in a state of flux, as individuals and social groups experience ebb and flow in their emotional energy levels.

As the world order shifts before our eyes and beneath our feet, and opportunities to question and challenge our boundaries are becoming increasingly inaccessible, experiences such as Unlearning privilege, talking with the disappeared, provide invaluable nodes in the growing of a network of fresh understanding, and embolden our capacity to extend these lines of thought into an uncertain future.

Gregg Smith, January 2017

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