IN TRANSIT - EXHIBITING THROUGH THE BLIND SPOT
Screenshot from Jean-Luc Godard: Notre Musique, 2004.
Screenshot from Jean-Luc Godard: Notre Musique, 2004.
Screenshot from Jean-Luc Godard: Notre Musique, 2004
“And this always takes place in the exchange, in the system of reflection where it is the other we look at––we never see ourselves; we are blind; we see of ourselves what comes back through (the difference of) the other. And this is not much.” (2) Hélène Cixous
There have been a lot of discussions about display practices at international conferences, in new art magazines, books and art academies around the world in recent time. As much the investigation into historical examples of exhibition displays and the development of new models of exhibiting are important as much vital it seems to me that our thinking about these issues could need a point of entry beyond the permanent request to make exhibitions. To word it differently, what happens if the exhibited wants to insist on its right to refusal to appear manifestly in public but, at the same time, builds on the political potential of the act of exposure? At first sight, this point of entry seems to be quite counterproductive for something like a curatorial activity whose major issue is to display creative practices in public. But this reflection addresses a field of making that consists of various faces. One of it is a thinking practice that enables us to get my head around the potential of exhibiting independently from an often formulated focus desperately searching for either display as another manifest structure in difference to the works on display (‘the curator’s task’) or the display as the work itself (‘the artist’s task’) at the side of its current fetishisation and by that territorialize what is which practitioner’s discipline. I am neither interested to continue the dichotomy between material and immaterial things nor in a historical analysis along a strictly academic definition where a curatorial practice ends and an artistic one starts. My continuous curiosity rather starts from an everyday practice of someone who contributes exhibitions in a time of an overabundance of curatorial projects. This comes, however, with a great love for exhibition making.
How can a good thought be hidden between the images and sounds of a space, in order to resist a fast commodification of its mind-opening potential? Its resistance might be misunderstood for an intellectual montage (3) or it might be mistaken for a negation of the exposing apparatus. Yet, the place of action here is not the speech act in the first line of a protest. Nor does it appear in a favoured manifestation of the ‘making of’, as can be observed in many recent artistic and curatorial projects. An exhibition practice operating through the Blind Spot, for example, initiates the strong intuition that the political does not take place under an all-enlightening spotlight.
The Blind Spot is a moment in the future: we can never capture it but it is ever present. We carry it around with it in our bodies as it walks with us. We cannot get rid of it nor can we step out. It draws a line between inside and outside, but the line is both a crevice and a stitch, diluting the clear distinction. We cannot quite say at what moment each comes into operation. Does the Blind Spot detach us from our field of action? Or does it attach us to it? At present we can only say that it marks a possibility where a train of thought pauses for a moment in order to allow an uncertainty of blindness taking place. Uncertainty is a hallmark of our times: there is uncertainty in keeping a job, in getting a project funded, in forecasting earthquakes and volcano disruptions. But instead of fighting against uncertainty, the Blind Spot could be taken as an enabler of it. We are uncertain of seeing, in times where there is an excess of the seen. Our lives are directed not by our secure knowledge but by an inability to see.
The beauty of the Blind Spot is that we cannot isolate its appearance because it is a line of action providing the conditions of seeing without becoming manifest in an image. Let’s not exclusively address the optical sense through the Blind Spot though; instead we could take its modus operandi as an allegory for thinking around exhibiting: the ‘ex’ in the verb ‘exhibiting’ is not only coded to inscribe meaning onto an image, in a space or into a sentence of a print. It also prefers an ‘outside,’ the act of exposure, when the ‘ex’ travels through the circuit of a closed knowledge.
The absence of light-detecting faculties will exile the Blind Spot in the very moment when we think we have applied our knowledge and finally brought it to light. The moment when it seems that we have detected a word, an image or a space, the Blind Spot makes them disappear. Following the Blind Spot leads into a future away from utopian concepts that would replace one existing imperative system by another. This type of future is hitched onto other temporalities, like the past and present, in order to “carry out my creative sabotage of the future” as one Otolith III character suggests at the end of the last part of the Otolith Trilogy (4). That does not sound like a stage declaration of a thoroughly arranged plan, but rather as a not quite predictable arrival time, where thoughts are shaped below having the means of production and beyond the subjugation to a representative voice. That is a powerful potential. In that relation, an image, a word or an exhibition may reject attempts of signification and representation because the Blind Spot permanently changes the field of action; like a wild animal that can only be caught at the risk of losing its life.
Our brain fools us into thinking we have control over the exposed – a seemingly complete control over an exposure in public. But no camera lens will be fast enough to record the vanishing point. Becoming blind (a process and not a given) is rather a way to exit an instance of control and it follows its own set of rules. It demands that we think about the political in a different way, implying silence, exile and uncertainty. The Blind Spot shatters the illusion of an absolute knowledge, just like the blackout on TV deranges the image. A pause in direct action. Public presence is not lost here but generated through an accident, a blockage or an inhibition that disturbs and opens a patterned system. Encountering the Blind Spot indicates a possibility to give a thought a twisted direction away from a position of knowing. Of course, we cannot get out from this position since we are politically and socially constructed beings inhabiting a set of cultural codifications that enable us to manage our everyday life at our location of action. But the Blind Spot makes us enter a moment of non-knowledge – not as a gap to fill but as a component of a texture of being permanently on the road.
This feeds a way of thinking that believes in exhibiting as a mode of production arriving from the inhabitation of a Blind Spot: a shared silence of a public in which various sets of knowledge are only useful through their exchange. Being on the road puts us in a position of waiting for the next flight, in misunderstandings because we cannot follow the language spoken on the street, asking a stranger for the way, watching a fellow traveller or searching for a place to eat. We might encounter our Blind Spot while travelling in a foreign place: we need to ask questions in order to find our way and a place to stay, a grocery store to buy some food and a street where a friend lives. While we look at the map, we might see from above how the city is shaped and organized, but being within a system of crossings, squares, businesses and social actions, the quotidian usage of space makes us blind. The excess of mobility and speed, the noise of traffic and voices envelops our itinerary. Being on the road does not so much fix a moment; the ongoing movement rather lets us clandestinely move around for the sake of an immersion into a foreign place. Time and again, the exhibition space is a foreign place. Each manifestation changes its appearance and gives a temporary domicile for guests.
We can see the Blind Spot. This might contradict with the just written. But it becomes temporarily manifest through a movement between proximity and distance. We all know this famous technical experiment and it may be published in this book a couple of times. A star on the left and a circle on the right are drawn on a paper. The left eye is closed looking at the circle on the right. Depending on size and distance, moving the paper back and forth, the star disappears until all we can see is the circle: two marks and a bodily movement provide a measuring tool for detecting, for seeing the blindness. The test might deliver a proof for the Blind Spot, which seems to be magic and simple at once. But we see nothing that could serve as evidence of the truth in a legal sense. Encountering the Blind Spot is encountering an excess: we see nothing but remember an appearance that was there just a moment ago, but isn’t anymore yet will be there again soon. It is an excess, because the condition of seeing is shaped by blindness, by the layering of one possible exposure after the next. We know the star is there, because how can it disappear if we saw it just a moment ago or can glimpse it ahead?
The world in front of us appears to be a phantom, something we may have in mind. However, to borrow a thought from Serge Daney, “unidentified images are engraved in the retina; unknown events inevitably happen and spoken words become the secret code of an impossible self-knowledge.” (5) Is the disappearing star in front of our eyes like a secret code of an impossible utterance? There and not there at once. It sounds promising and enables us to enter a condition of secrecy. It takes leave from the function to carry a theme and a meaning. This image of a void discards the delivery of information and a word denies serving a proper name, but it insists in its multi-directionality. Image and word follow their own life, not representing anything, but moving back and forth as if a subject. The condition of the Blind Spot enables the seen to decide about appearance and disappearance as we can decide to stand in front of a camera or not. A secret word in the textile of blinding does not hide knowledge behind a spotlight, but moves on in its own right. That’s a vulnerable existence.
The imperative of the seen is broken through the right of being not-exposed. Proximities and distances alternate and take the Blind Spot into appearance, yet, it is impossible to inscribe its appearance into a proper meaning. It directs the gaze towards us, into our eyes watching a scene: a busy street in Sarajevo during a sunny day. The city hosts a literature festival where Jean-Luc Godard delivers a lecture attended by Olga Brodsky. He talks about shot and reverse-shot: documentary and fiction: Palestine and Israel. At the end of the conference, a friend of Olga’s will give Godard her DVD containing a film that she made during the festival. She is walking in the street. In her bag are books which will be mistaken for bombs in a cinema in Paris some weeks later. She is walking in a street in Sarajevo. We cannot see her yet; the image is blurred and only the red bag may identify her while she approaches us. “It’s like an image coming from a distance.” When she arrives in front of us, the sunlight irritates her gaze and her eyes blink. Her gaze seeks a focus out of the light. Her eyes meet the camera’s eye; her image looks at us: the sound turns off and we only see her speak. What we see is an image covering the sound. The image is too loud so we cannot hear anything. Olga has become an image without a voice. Silence. For this moment, we share our mutual silence for which we will need to develop a language. Then a speech shoots through the image: “There are two women, side by side. l am one of them.” Where is the second woman? We only see Olga. And who is this I? Is it another voice that has been attached to her mouth?–– CUT–– She has turned her back to us. Olga won’t answer these questions but leaves us with an uncertainty. The lens of a camera and the ‘ex’ of exhibiting are performed through an act of refusal and a gesture of revolt. It has opened the closed circuit of a secure frame of knowing.
The lens of a camera and the ‘ex’ of exhibiting are confronted with an act of refusal. We are confronted with our own blindness: a blinding moment, in an aural and visual sense, dilutes a clear distinction between the criminal and the defeat. The image looks at us while taking its own path. A gesture of independence. It does not wait for us while categories of known knowledge analyze ‘what is going on.’ It won’t help because we are blind since we apply a pre-figured pattern to analyze the seen. But this is not what the image is waiting for; it resists interpretation and categorization. This approach no longer makes it possible to look at a scene as a given fact or to locate the power of exposure merely within an image-forming apparatus in the distance; we are implicated in this apparatus. The act of exposure, in the exhibition space, on the cinema screen or on a computer display, etc., results in an entanglement of temporalities within the exposed: coming from a past, their public display marks a present and we, watching it, “carry out a creative sabotage of the future.” The act of exposure is an explosion of contradictions, including us. Borrowing a sentence from Juan Goytisolo “What lies ahead of us now is like a story without thought as if bequeathed by an impossible will. More than ever, we're faced with the void.” (6) The blinding moment, exposed as silence, as a cut or a blackout, denies a complete picture of the world, or to phrase it differently, our blindness is an intrinsic condition perforating the real.
Does our ability to see hide even more than we think? We walk around with a fragmented gaze. It looks like an image being ready to serve as evidence of the truth or an identifiable image. But the Blind Spot teaches us: what we encounter will always remain incomplete with quite some unexpected holes; and sometimes – while being on the road – “I was clandestine”, as Serge Daney writes. It will not occur in a state of being detected, but in the temporality of a movement, a passage.
NO PRODUCT: In a recent talk, the Indian thinker Gayatri Spivak talked about her visit to Kosovo. She regularly undertakes trips with a group of thinkers to places like Kosovo, which have become known through mass media, curatorial projects and UN reports as “places of conflict.” She spoke about a form of knowledge production that does not, for the umpteenth time, emerge through an interview with a local taxi-driver, or through context analysis and ‘doing good’ for the community. Instead of having a specific goal or itinerary, the group follows the route of hanging out, talking, meeting colleagues from the area, inviting guests, maybe reading a text together, sitting in a café and entering a stage of thinking where “a critical position is that which breaks one’s own world.” (7)
Spivak called her travelling a NO PRODUCT project. This is hard to achieve since we are living in times of Capitalist Realism, in which we are so-called cultural producers and in which the British writer Mark Fisher sees the conflation of economics and politics regulating our speech and action. There is no way out of capitalism, since there is not outside anymore. But we can achieve different forms of practices which enable us to move between disciplines and thoughts, below the power of state and above another ‘alternative’ capitalism. Practice here follows different temporalities. It is not so much the case that the distinction between past, present and future ceases to exist, but time follows a movement of thought shaking categories of a linear time chronology. We might install an exhibition, take a picture or finish a piece of writing – a practice of thinking will establish a further complicity with the matter of concern, folding past into future and multiplying the present tense.
The crevice and the stitch: here it is again. We might have walked away a bit from our Blind Spot that refers so much to the aspect of seeing, yet we can now take from the Blind Spot its rejection to keep the crevice and the stitch as separated but entangled entities. The Blind Spot moves us between the exhibited ‘there’ and us ‘here,’ not in order to come up with a new product but with uncertain trains of thought, voids in mind and a desire to elude colonizing patterns occupying the eye, the ear and the body. The ‘and’ does not indicate an addition, a further element in a chain of operations, and even not just a relation between inside and outside. Betwixt and between is a condition of thinking. This space in-between, the AND, Gilles Deleuze unfolds as “precisely a creative stammering, a foreign use of language, as opposed to a conformist and dominant use based on the verb ‘to be’ ... it’s always in between, between two things; it’s the borderline, there’s always a border, a line of flight or flow, only we don’t see it, because it’s the least perceptible of things.” (8) This form of movement does follow a possibility to learn how to not see, in order to see. It enables a thinking practice in form of a display in transit. This ‘display’ is not another view-fixing apparatus as we might find it in modern architecture or in the shape of another manifest element in space such as a wall, a plinth, a showcase, as displays are generally considered. It rather is a resonance body, which includes us.
But let’s not forget that the exhibition requires ‘holding out’ something. The ‘ex’ in ‘exhibiting’ is like the lens of a camera or the pen in the writer’s hand. A wandering, an ongoing movement undoes the common western paradigm that places exhibiting on the side are meant to inscribe history and stop a process (the latter in particular had been a reason for Fluxus artists for rejecting the art institution). The main drive, however, is not to establish a competition between manifestation and movement, but to unfold the co-existence of both, in order to utilize the political potential of exhibiting. The exhibiting moment then, perforated by Blind Spots, unfolds a texture with acts of exposures that might leave a trace. Some kind of manifestation is needed, because not anything goes, but the display in transit deranges the inscription of a historically protected meaning – it ex-inscribes those protections, and by doing so, it is sending us on the road.
The Blind Spot then is not so much a model, but a condition of thinking. It does not stand for another curatorial theme or an exhibition topic. For us, it enables a practice to realize an exhibition not so much about a theme, but how to walk around a theme, including our relation to it. It makes it more difficult to think of a ‘common ground’ anymore from where we all could start. The ground has become a blinding texture where codes of knowledge contrast with displaced places, silenced voices and phantom images, in which we are implicated – moving in the crevices of exposures.
Having said this, a blinding texture enables us to think through exhibiting, not as a clash of cultures, but through a shared silence where knowledge comes into being through “the exchange, in the system of reflection where it is the other we look at – we never see ourselves.” As long as we walk around with our Blind Spot, a structure only appears to be a model for living. It takes us to a possibility of 'exposure', of 'making public' without describing or explaining that what we see, but unfolding the conditions of not seeing. Because “we are blind” and the only thing we can do about it is to see ourselves thrown into strangeness, which Hélène Cixous describes as “a passage from the one to the other, de l’une à l’autre.”
And it is the ‘I’ as a ‘We’ from which we have to start. Permanently on the road.
(1) The Otolith Group, A Long Time Between Suns, Otolith III voice over script, London and Berlin, 2009. See also the essay Sabotage the Future by T.J. Demos in the same publication.
(2) Hélène Cixous, rootprints. Memory and life writing, London and New York, 1997, p. 16.
(3) Intellectual Montage is a technique developed and applied by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s as an educational tool in revolutionary cinema; it cuts the continuity of editing by juxtaposing two images with the purpose of creating a shock effect, distancing the viewer from preconditioned modes of perception.
(4) The Otolith Group (Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar), Otolith Trilogy: Otolith I (2005); Otolith II (2007) and Otolith III (2009).
(5) The Tracking Shot in Kapo, in: Postcards from Cinema, New York, 2007, p. 21
(6) All quotes taken from: Jean-Luc Godard, Notre Musique, 2004
(7) Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: What is Critique? Saturday, 21st May 2011, 18-21h, Frankfurt Research Center for Postcolonial Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt.
(8) Three Questions on Six Times Two, in: Negotiations, 1972–1990, New York, 1990, p. 45. Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma 271, November 1976.
Berlin, October 2011/February 2012
Print version published in Katja Gretzinger (ed.), "Thinking Through Blind Spots," Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht 2012.