índice Nr. 46
José Roca
Critical reflections from Colombia

1 November 2002
During the month of November, the festival L.A. Freewaves, one of the most important video and new media events (www.freewaves.org) will take place in Los Angeles, California. For the section Latin American Frewaves, the Colombian filmmaker Juan Devis, president of the festival, invited 9 curators from different Latin American countries, who curated a selection of videos and web-based works.

The following text corresponds to the selection I curated for the event.

J. Roca
versión en español
Face Value
Contemporary video works from Colombia

Fernando Arias, Sandra Bermúdez, François Bucher, Santiago Echeverry, Juan Fernando Herrán, Oscar Muñoz, Lucas Ospina, José Alejandro Restrepo, Carlos Salazar

Curated by José Roca

In "Face value", his essay on Andy Warhol's 1964 film "Blow Job", Douglas Crimp contends that most of what had been written about this important cinematic work (that, incidentally, was withdrawn from the visual field for more than two decades) tended to concentrate in everything that was peripheral to the film itself: its relation to Warhol's other experimental films, the action that was taking place outside the field of vision, the metaphor for gay invisibility in post-war, pre-Stonewall America, the cleverness of the cinematic approach that bypassed censorship while addressing a taboo subject. Even the necessity of actually watching the film was put into question: one Warhol scholar argued that Warhol's films "(…) can be instantaneously conveyed as ideas without actually being seen."

Countering all these arguments, Crimp states the obvious: even if the film was the hub of a complex set of issues that were outside the visual field, what remained to be seen was still powerful, and all the more because in the absence of a complex plot (most people see the film knowing already what to expect from it) the gaze concentrates all of its attention on what is left for us to see: a face that experiences a wide range of feelings and emotions that are conveyed to the spectator. Being the site where all senses coexist, a face is also a metonymy for the self and is thus an image charged with (many) subjectivities.

This selection brings together video works from nine Colombian artists in which the recurrence to the depiction of a frontal face is singled out as a unifying formal trope. As in "Blow Job", in these works there is both a visual discourse and one outside the frame. I would contend that a reflection on identity (social, sexual, political) is deployed through all of these works, despite their distinct goals and agendas.

The eroding of the traits that define identity is one of the evident goals of Oscar Muñoz's Narcisos (2001), in which an I.D. photograph is the basis for a drawing-as-photography process that is registered in video. As critic Mónica Amor has noted, "ID pictures are part of a fixed chain of signifiers (ID numbers, passport numbers, social security numbers, other pictures and documents) in which legibility and recognition are crucial to the constitution of the legal archive of the state". Thus, Muñoz's work, where identification is been rendered impossible, can be seen as transgressive of the social norm and a commentary on disappearance, a term that has strong connotations in Latin America. According to the myth, Narcissus became so enamored with his own reflection on the water that he ended up drowning, in his desperate attempt to seize the unstable image. "Narcisos" makes part of a large series that Oscar Muñoz began in the early nineties, reflecting, among other things, on identity, history, and the stability of the image over time. After preparing a silk-screen frame with his self-portrait, Muñoz delicately sifts graphite powder onto shallow containers filled with water so as to produce an image that floats on the surface in unstable equilibrium. As the water evaporates, the powder gradually settles and, responding to the changes in the environment, becomes distorted. "Gone down the drain" is a common expression for what is irredeemably lost. This video takes the temporal component of his previous works a step further, as we are able to experience the disappearance of the image in real time. Muñoz's works establish a discourse on disappearance that is also obviously political. In this sense, his video relates to José Alejandro Restrepo's Video-Verónica (2000). The popular saying "seeing is believing" ascribes an enormous power to the image as the embodiment of truth. Christian iconography stems from a long-established tradition of adoration of images, yet religion is based on faith, which paradoxically is precisely about believing without being able to see. "Video-Verónica" makes part of the "Iconomía" series, in which José Alejandro Restrepo investigates the status of the image in contemporary visual culture; Iconomía shows the ambiguity of that status, always oscillating between iconophilia and iconoclasm, fascination with the image and the constant threat of its suppression. In the biblical iconography of Verónica (from Vera icona, the real image), a woman holds the piece of cloth where the indexical trace of the face of Christ was impregnated. In Restrepo's work, though, the image in the cloth is never fixed; in fact, it is constantly, ceaselessly, restlessly changing.

As a result on Colombia's internal war, a conflict that has spanned for more than forty years, thousands of people have been kidnapped or disappeared. Both as a way to bear witness of the fact and as a public act of reinstating the presence of their loved ones, it is common to see in the news the relatives of the missing persons, usually mothers or wives, holding the images of their dear ones in front of them or wearing t-shirts with their photograph. Unlike Muñoz, who references myth as an allegory, Restrepo addresses myth as a device for reading the present and as a way of commenting on the current state of things.

This presence of forms of the sacred in contemporary urban life is the basis for Fernando Arias' God Does Not Exist (2002). In the middle of a political crisis that has displaced more than two million people, there has been in Colombia a renewed interest in religion. But faith has atomized in a myriad of sects and beliefs, each one offering its own set of mythologies, genealogies and explanations, and each one demanding something from its believers in exchange. "God does not exist" is a visual readymade picked up by Fernando Arias in the streets of Bogotá. The backdrop of the Planetarium and the sound of the urban chaos add to the effectiveness of the video in providing a glimpse of the chaotic urban life in this sprawling city. The video shows a close-up of a "talking head" dexterously conflating quasi-scientific interpretations of the Bible with sci-fi literature and a wide array of received ideas while carelessly incurring in evident contradictions as the discourse is deployed. What could be dismissed at first glance as an obvious scam is problematized as the camera focuses on the face of the second "missionary". It becomes evident how these displaced individuals, in their search for belonging, have surrendered their selves in favor of the idea of an ideal collectivity because no matter how absurd or alien it might appear, it can never be worse than reality.

Throughout his entire work, François Bucher has reflected on the shifts from individual to collective identity, and on the status of art as a sign of culture. Bucher's "Two Essays on 'Contempt'" (2001) are a continuation of the issues addressed in his 1999 video "Twin Murders", "a fascinating mix of cinematic experimentation and literary inquiry delving into the psychic processes of subject formation", as Gregg Bordowitz has written. The first of the two short videos begins by positing up front its referent, Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 masterpiece, Le Mépris (Contempt). Godard's opening scene stages the dispositive by filming himself filming the story: a film within a film, a movie about the making of a movie that is itself based on a book (The Odyssey). Bucher re-stages it once again, as the camera zooms out from the film clipping to reveal the monitor in which it is playing (see a short clip). Just as "Contempt" staged Godard's relationship with Hollywood, Bucher's works stage his relation with a historical moment where the ineluctable fate of all art is to be a reflection on itself and the conditions for its existence. Myth is invoked through the stark faces of the statues of Athenea/Minerva, Neptune/Poseidon, and Homer that punctuate the visual narrative. As Bordowitz remarked of Twin Murders, "his work expresses the doubt about two forms of identity that are actually mirror images of each other. On the one hand there is the myth of individuality: a view of the subject that ultimately reinforces alienation. And on the other hand there is the equally false and damaging myth of an ideal collectivity that subsumes all desire into bureaucracy".

Art and its institutions are the subtext for Lucas Ospina's Untitled (2002). In his delicate drawings and watercolors, Ospina has explored the ideological implications in common expressions and everyday forms of spoken language. In his latest series "Hair", the artist makes cartoonish drawings in which bodily hair links the characters to each other, thus establishing relations of subordination - with obvious sexual undertones: a goatee becomes someone else's pubic hair, a long mane ends up being someone else's armpit. When the characters are identified as "critic", "artist", "gallerist", "curator" and so on, the implications are obvious (and often hilarious). This "animated drawing" is in itself an ironical take on recent trends in drawing-based video works (á la Kentridge). In this sense, although addressing a precise topic (commodification of art - even self-proclaimed "political" art), the voluntary clumsiness of the animation is in itself a commentary on artistic practice.

Warhol's "Blow Job", which I have taken as a referent for my curatorial approach, is implicitly invoked in three of the works included in this selection. Carlos Salazar's "Pleasure Politics: Dido" makes part of a long series that only recently have been shown in public. In a previously released work included in "Fragments for a lover's video" (an exhibition of short videos curated by José Alejandro Restrepo - the title is a take on Barthes' essay) the subject was coaxed into reading randomly chosen fragments of Saussure's Linguistics while she masturbated: over the duration of the video, the voice is subdued by the cries of pleasure until orgasm overcomes discourse (or rather becomes it -as the title would suggest). But while we assisted to a private act made public, the identity of the performer remained unknown. In "…Dido", the situation is inversed: all we can see is the face. Structured like a romantic Lied and set to Stockhausen, Salazar's short video explores the layers of mediation that separate pornography from what is not considered as such. The issue of exploitation is also a blurry one: Salazar is projecting his desiring gaze on his subjects, but it is always her who commands her pleasure. On the other end of the scopic drive is Sandra Bermúdez's "Eruptions", an hour-long video that shows the face of the artist watching porn movies. "Eruptions" highlights that pornography is ontologically anti-climactic, since - unlike eroticism, where satisfaction of desire is always deferred - it continuously fulfils any desire that might arise. Functioning in a similar way as Warhol's "Blow Job", the viewer in Bermúdez's video understands from early on what to expect from the video and consequently concentrates in what can be seen: the artist's face. But, unlike Warhol's film, there is no final outcome, no expected end, and no climax. The viewer is thus drawn again from what can be seen (the inexpressive face of the artist-voyeur) to other clues: bits of petty dialogue, incidental sounds, and clichéd music. Bermúdez's previous works have probed into the codes that define pornography, often by offering the viewer something that appears as such but that in fact is not (i.e. close ups of the artist's hands that glisten with beauty products). Bermúdez effectively shows that given certain clues, instead of "what you see is what you see", what you see is in fact what you expect to see, or rather, what you desire.

"Blow Job" has often been read as a metaphor for the was invisibility of the gay community in the seventies; Santiago Echeverry's two videos included in this selection also address this issue, albeit in a more playful way. Both "Lover man" (2000) and "Summertime" (1996) are related to Echeverry's ongoing project "Cabaret", where he links the plot of the original play (with its portrayal of a cosmopolitan Berlin that coexisted with the Nazi horror) to everyday life in war-stricken Colombia. In "Lover man (where can you be?)", Echeverry appears simultaneously in everyday attire and as a drag queen singing Billie Holiday's beautiful ballad - that has become a gay anthem in Bogotá. Echeverry's work is highly autobiographical, and is the result of his involvement with the gay culture in Bogotá, its relative invisibility and its (often auto-inflicted) ghettoised status (the videos are on view on the website of Echeverry).

Although he has stated that his presence in the video is incidental, Juan Fernando Herrán's Untitled (1993) evolves visually around the close-cropped face of the artist. The camera frames the face then focuses on the mouth, the locus for many biological processes - from the sexual to the scatological - and also the site for language. It is precisely the shift from basic body functions to the utterance of the word that marks the entrance of the subject into society, individual into collective identity. But Herrán shuns rationality and recurs to animalness in order to "relativize humankind in order to place it at the same level with other living beings". This act of negation (of the subject -of his identity) is necessary in order to transform his object. As Alexandre Kojéve has noted, "In contrast to knowledge that keeps man in passive quietude, Desire dis-quiets him and moves him into action. Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can do so only by the "negation", the destruction, or at least the transformation of the desired object: to satisfy hunger, for example, the food must be destroyed or, in any case, transformed. Thus, all action is 'negating'". Herrán thus rethinks the genre of Landscape, replacing visuality with actual experience of the place through the involvement of the body. Sculptural processes transform "raw" matter into "art" through the involvement of mind and body. In Herrán's personal ritual, nature goes through the body, as it were, in order to become sculptural form and thus a sign of culture.

The title of this short selection is intentionally misleading, as it would imply coherence between very different works. In fact, the very notion of "Contemporary Video from Colombia" is problematic, as at least half of the artists live outside the country; indeed, for most of them video is but one of the media they commonly use. Moreover, the selection spans at least two generations. The expression "face value" is appropriate, though, as it refers to taking something for its stated value without questioning what is visible, forgetting that the effect of the surface often obliterates deeper meanings. As Bataille noted in Theory of Religion, "everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow". All these works transcend the topics and genres they seem to be addressing: urban documentary, landscape, pornography, drawing, photography. Together, they provide an interesting narrative about identity while refusing to conform to any expectation of what "Colombianness" is or might be.

José Roca

New York, 2002

©  José Roca

Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder
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