Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Michael Sicinski
1. This is the story of a repetition. General Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina for the first time in 1946, and served two terms of office, from June 4 of that year through September 21, 1955. From 1946 through 1952, his first term, he ruled with his wife Eva at his side, and this period was characterized by sweeping reforms that benefited the poorest sectors of society, such that “Perónism” became identified as a particular brand of Latin American “strongman” leftism.
Perón was deposed by a military coup d’état in 1955. Following a period of exile, he returned from Spain in 1973. In the intervening 18 years, Perónism had become a free-floating signifier of populism to be appropriated as needed by various factions. Upon Perón’s return, there was a clash between radical leftist Perón supporters, called Montoneros, and right-wing Perónists, at Ezeiza Airport. Thirteen unarmed leftists were killed in what became known as the Ezieza Massacre.
Upon returning to power, Perón joined forces with the right-wing elements and, together with his third wife Isabel, formed the Argentine Anticommunist Association, or Triple-A. They worked to purge the nation of leftists, including Montoneros and other left-wing Perónists. Later on, the Argentinian psychoanalyst and artist Oscar Masotta would describe himself as an “anti-anti-Perónista,” and it is in the context of this radically altered repetition that we can perhaps understand Masotta’s double negative.
2. This is the story of a repetition. The early work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, particularly that work collected in his volume Écrits, undertook to reread the Freudian corpus within a linguistic framework. How does the subject enter language? How is the unconscious structured like a language? How can the symptom be “read” as though it were the revealing detail of a complex text?
These were the terms under which Lacan introduced the categories of the Imaginary and the Symbolic into the psychoanalytic vocabulary, and, although it is a gross simplification, these categories roughly correspond to the fullness and lack, the presence and absence, that Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics postulated as existing at the heart of language itself. (We employ language to negotiate absence; if everything were available to us, we could simply point to it.) So Lacan’s rereading of Freud was, in a way, a close reading that revealed an aspect that was always there. It was only toward the end of his career that Lacan seemed to find something that was completely outside the Freudian scheme.
What Lacan called the Real was a psychic space that was beyond symbolization, a space of trauma and absolute lack. If the Unconscious in Freud is the “Other” of the subject, the Real is the “Other Other,” a place of one’s darkest, most inexplicable drives. This was the point at which several of Lacan’s acolytes broke with him, and a distinct “Lacanianism” was inaugurated, for better or worse. The repetition of rereading had broken from the master text and become a new discourse, one that seemed to threaten to install a new master along with it. Lacan, however, famously remarked, “It is up to you, if you wish, to be Lacanians. I remain a Freudian.”
3. This is the story of a repetition. In the first extended sequence of Spanish artist and filmmaker Dora García’s Segunda vez (“Second Time Around”), we see a man in a warehouse explaining to a group of mostly senior citizens that they have been hired as performers, but are not really expected to act. For the duration of their performance, they will stand on a wooden platform for one hour, shoulder to shoulder, while a bright white light illuminates them. The room will be filled with an electronic noise that the man, at different points, calls “unpleasant” and “strident.” (He offers the performers cotton wool with which to stuff their ears.) After explaining the nature of their task, he calls each of them up one by one and pays them in cash, making sure each of them signs a receipt.
Once everyone is properly paid, the host of the event addresses the audience. He explains that for an hour, they will be able to safely look at these “lumpen” senior citizens, and that nothing can hurt them in this situation. To emphasize the safety of all concerned, the host has assembled 12 fire extinguishers, and sets one off as a test. When the last of the foam and gas is emptied from the canister, the performance proper begins, and the bright light and “strident” sound commence.
What García has staged is a re-performance of a “Happening” by Argentinean artist and Lacanian psychoanalyst Oscar Masotta, entitled Para inducer el espíritu de la imagen (“To induce the spirit of the image”), from 1966. As the performance host explains, following Masotta’s original narration, the work was inspired by another performance that Masotta saw earlier, a musical event by minimalist composer LaMonte Young. And, as is explained later in García’s film, Masotta borrowed the concept of the “Happening” from the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins. Masotta was repeating a method in a new context, always careful to cite his forebears. The re-performance occurred in Buenos Aires in 2016.
4. This is the story of a repetition. Between 1974 and 1983, a right-wing military junta ruled Argentina. This period of extreme repression has come to be known as the Dirty War, as at least 30,000 Argentinean citizens were “disappeared” by government forces during this time. This process began with the Perónista Triple-A, which was charged with rounding up any leftists or political dissidents.
One of the ways in which these citizens were “disappeared,” and what has become one of the most infamous tactics of the junta, was the vuelos de la muerte, or “death flights.” This was an extrajudicial form of assassination whereby Argentinean citizens who were deemed “enemies of the state,” customarily with no evidence, were loaded on airplanes or helicopters and then dropped out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean or one of the country’s larger rivers.
In the second extended sequence of Dora García’s Segunda vez (Second Time Around), we see two groups of people who are separated. One group is taken to a theatre, the other to a seaside outdoor location. Those in the theatre watch a rock drummer perform on stage while a video monitor displays an image of two men carrying a live, wriggling woman through the woods. The woman is tied up and wrapped in a white sheet. The outdoor group is asked to wait by some rocks and then, from the distance, a helicopter emerges. The pilot flies extremely close to the assembled crowd, as though it will land next to it. Instead, it hovers, while a young woman inside smiles and waves. Having made contact, the helicopter takes off again and flies away.
What García has staged is a re-performance of a “Happening” by Argentinean artist and Lacanian psychoanalyst Oscar Masotta, entitled El helicóptero (The Helicopter), from 1967. At the end of the performance, both audiences reconnect and attempt to discuss with one another what they experienced. What emerges, at least from García’s re-performance, is the basic epistemological incompatibility that El helicóptero instills. In trying to explain what they witnessed, both audiences realize that they themselves experienced a limited set of memories and sensations, and they are not easily translated into words. So how can they communicate them to another?
It provokes a repetition that is characterized by slippage and mutual misunderstanding. There was a fair amount of agreement about what the two parts of the performance signified. The woman in the sheet was taken to be a desaparecido (one of the “disappeared”) because she was bound and wrapped and being carted around by men. The helicopter seemed to call on the memory of the “death flights,” while turning that memory on its head with exaggerated friendliness. But both groups struggled for what they considered to be adequate language to “really” explain what they had experienced. Somehow, for the audiences, these cultural touchstones were not enough. There was an affective excess that was unique in the experience of having been there, and neither audience could communicate that to the other. Therefore, much like the Freudian theory of trauma, in which an experience is repeated in order to gain an elusive mastery over it, the post-performance discussions were like a repetition that only reiterated just how little could actually be mastered through the medium of language. The re-performance occurred in San Sebastián in 2015.
5. This is the story of a repetition. In the third extended sequence of Dora García’s Segunda vez (Second Time Around), we meet a small group of people sitting in a waiting area in a government office. They discuss the different days on which they each received their summons to appear in this office, although none of them specifies what they are there to do. This is because they do not seem to be sure why they are there. This is particularly odd, since one of the people waiting, a young man named Rocco, has actually been to this office before and has been called back for a second time. But he is no more forthcoming about the nature of this appointment than any of the first-timers.
Each of the assembled individuals goes in and comes out, until the last person waiting, a young woman named Rita, goes in, and the camera follows her. Inside, the camera circles the room, and we see that at least seven officials are stationed within this relatively small bureaucratic space. She is interrogated about mundane facts—her family’s names, her studies, what was discussed in the waiting room—and is then asked some rather odd, intrusive questions, such as whether she wears lipstick when she goes out, or if she thinks that the young man, Rocco, might be homosexual. Because her answers leave them wanting more, she is asked to come back in four days.
This section is an adaptation of a story by Julio Cortázar from 1977 entitled “Segunda vez” (“Second Time Around”). The story was written at the height of the Dirty War. In it, the point of view shifts from a nameless bureaucrat speaking in working-class Argentinean slang to that of someone who has been waiting to be interrogated, a woman named Maria-Elena. When she goes in for questioning, she is asked a standard set of questions, with no curveballs of the sort that threw Rita for a loop. In Cortázar’s story, there is a sinister, Kafkaesque element to the most ordinary inquiries—name, job, years in the position—whereas in García’s repetition, it is more about the fear of the unknown, and the unpleasant prospect of being called back for a second round of questioning.
6. This is the story of a repetition. In García’s previous film, The Joycean Society (2013), we observe as members of the James Joyce Society of Zurich read Finnegans Wake. They analyze the text one page, one paragraph, sometimes one word at a time. Some members have been with the society for years, while others are relative neophytes. People join and leave the reading group at various intervals. As The Joycean Society makes clear, it is okay for a newcomer to start the Wake in the middle, because when the group gets to the end of the book, they will start it again, from the beginning. The James Joyce Society of Zurich has been reading Finnegans Wake together for 35 years and counting.
7. This is the story of a repetition. At the 2016 Gwangju Biennial, García created an artwork entitled Nokdu bookstore for the living and the dead. The theme of the biennial, “What Does Art Do?” was answered by García very clearly: Art repeats. Art historicizes. Art engages in its immediate environment. Nokdu bookstore was a fully functioning pop-up bookstore set up in the Biennial Hall, a recreation of a similar bookshop that was a location where student activists hid from police during the clashes that came to be known as the Gwangju Massacre of May 1980. Because of those student protests, various democratic reforms came about, including the freedom to hold such cultural events as the Gwangju Biennial itself, and to freely buy and sell the books available at García’s pop-up bookstore. What was at one time a desperate act of resistance is repeated as a memorial and a “happening,” a historicized aesthetic gesture.
8. This is the story of a repetition. Masotta’s Happenings were recontextualized repetitions of actions thought to be unrepeatable. Similarly, García’s restaging of these events for Segunda vez is a double violation of the Fluxus principle of non-iterability. However, in her article “Aesthetics of Repetition: A Case for Oscar Masotta,” Professor Juli Carson writes: “Perhaps, following Lacan…repetition involves the return of the different, not the same. [Masotta provides] a case study for a practice of repetition, one conceived in Buenos Aires…amidst an onslaught of military coups that would eventually lead to the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s…These events—aesthetic, political and theoretical—are happening (again) for the first time in the discursive field of contemporary art and politics. For some the events are quite literally new, as they have no memory (primary or secondary) of the historical or neo-avant-garde vis-à-vis contemporary art. For others it’s figuratively new. But it is the latter—that subject who knowingly repeats, always as if for the first time—who functions as a courier of historical memory and is thus an interrogator of cultural practice—that concerns me.”
In other words, it is the conscious repetition of an action in a new context that alters its function that marks the repetition as difference. When Masotta conducted his Happenings, he was translating one set of acts of aesthetic freedom into a new space, in which those acts had a very different and distinct set of social and political valences. For LaMonte Young, the introduction of extended electronic tones was a way to explore the sonic overtones for which conventional musical notation could not account—an aural landscape that exceeded the logic (or the “authoritarianism”) of the 12-tone scale. For Masotta, repeating this gesture under an actual authoritarian regime, Young’s Happening became about actual aggression, the fact that even under the most punishing conditions, there are unexpected and uncontrollable outcomes. No “note” can be held forever without revealing its weaknesses, its own breaking point.
9. This is the story of a repetition. García’s repetition of Masotta’s Happening serves several new purposes of its own. It functions within a film that is largely intended to highlight the legacy of Masotta, which remains underappreciated outside South America and Spain. Likewise, in providing a broader context on Masotta as an artist and intellectual, Segunda vez brings his work as a performance artist into dialogue with his Lacanian background. In this regard, a work like El helicóptero might be understood not only as neo-Fluxus performance but also as examinations of the limits of articulation in the face of shared cultural trauma. Likewise, the direct confrontation with the elders in Para inducer el espíritu de la imagen is a rehearsal of the Lacanian theory of the Gaze, as that which “subjectifies” you from the outside.
But there is also the question of “Why Masotta, why now?” By the same token, García’s film asks, “Why Cortázar?” What do these texts have to tell us now? They were both responses to the Dirty War and the increased normalization of terror. In the case of Cortázar, García’s film repeats his recognition of the droning bureaucratization of self-surveillance and the citizenry’s cooperation with state terror. With Masotta, García’s film repeats his identification of the power of the irrational to disrupt even the most absolutist forms of social control, and the Lacanian Real as a space of resistance within the subject that no authority can ever really touch.
10. Among the documented human-rights abuses during the Dirty War: paramilitary raids on universities; the separation of children from their parents, to be adopted out to military leaders; the targeting and incarceration of leftists, academics, scientists, labour leaders, human-rights advocates, and the media. This is the story of Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, and the United States. This is the story of a repetition.