The Rhetoric of Sincerity: Review of Life Stories at Gallery TPW (Toronto)

The Rhetoric of Sincerity: The hybrid practice of realist video portraiture
A review of Life Stories at Gallery TPW

In Life Stories, at Gallery TPW in Toronto, we meet a lounge singer, a sex worker, a former alcoholic, an objectum-sexual, an Israeli lesbian army commander and an assortment of other characters who share their personal stories for the camera. It is through their confessions that we learn about them, that we come to understand their identity. The camera takes record of these confessions. Its presence creates the situations that engender the confessional dialogue. However, what makes the videos in this exhibit interesting is not just the subjects and their stories, but the forms and methods of production used to make them. Investigating and experimenting with the confessional’s rhetoric of sincerity, these works cross the traditions of documentary and video art and demonstrate a spectrum of possibilities within this hybrid of traditions. These works circulate in galleries, rather than theatres, challenging the audience’s expectation of documentary. The portrait is an enduring art form that has shifted in purpose throughout history. In the recent past, postmodern artists have enlarged the spectrum of portraiture through the innovative use of form but also of content. Many artists have used the portrait as a way to challenge notions of identity through feminist, queer and post-colonial critique. Bunking stereotypes and traditional representations of the other, postmodernist portraiture is often seen as a challenge to the idea that identities and the markers of identity such as gender are fixed. This type of work also questions essentialist notions of identity as well as the attitude that the subject’s inner persona could be summarized by images. Perhaps the biggest factor involved in shifting portraiture’s purpose and possibility is the emergence of new technologies.

Although no longer seen as a new technology, video was born in self-portraiture. Portable, inexpensive, and easy to use, the Portapak video camera changed the means of production for screen-based art. It eliminated the necessity of a crew and it allowed for immediate playback leading to a much more personal relationship with the camera. Art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss explains that the medium of video is the psychological condition of narcissism. (Krauss) Because of video’s ability to be hooked up to a monitor and viewed in synchronous playback, she sees video as a mirror-reflection allowing artists to investigate the body through performance. Artists such as Vito Acconci, Lisa Steele and Bruce Nauman created work in this vein. Video also emerged as a response to television, film and other screen based mainstream media by developing its own aesthetics. The shooting style was usually very raw – either handheld or completely still on a tripod. Artists left the camera running for long periods of time, slowing down the image (in comparison to television) creating an analytic space so the viewer could contemplate the image. Focusing on the self and the body, video artists created new forms of personal representation. Several writers and theorists have situated video as a feminist art form. Indeed, female artists were among the first to really establish the medium and many saw it as a form untainted by history and free from the constraints of a patriarchal tradition. A significant amount of early video work was led by the feminist motto, “the personal is political” and it blurred the line between the public and private space. Female artists such as Martha Rosler, Wendy Geller and Joan Jonas accomplished this by focusing on personal narratives, the body and performance. Rather than being narcissistic in the sense of love for the self, these artists were more concerned with exposing the self for political purpose. Emerging during the second wave of feminism, video art allowed women to make self-portraiture that was under their own control.

The video confessional emerged from feminist video art and video portraiture such as the work of Sadie Benning. The confessional has been used in academic research, television and has become ubiquitous online on sites such as YouTube. Characterized by a still, overhead or face-on camera shot, often operated by the confessor, it quickly moved from video art into social documentary work such as Taxi Cab Confessionals (1995) before being appropriated by mainstream reality television. It is frequently employed in documentary film, either through interviews or private purges, because the form has established a commonly understood rhetoric of sincerity. Nowadays, documentary ‘film’ is a term that is sorely abused. In fact, most documentary is shot on video and has been for over ten years. Although this move to video has been nearly total, documentary as a tradition and practice taught in educational institutions continues to situate itself historically within the realm of film. While many documentary ‘film’-makers ignore their relationship to this history through their choice of medium, video makers have begun to encroach on ‘realism.’ The documentary portrait is one of these sites where the two traditions collide. Some artists push this form with experimental and transgressive approaches leading to a form of realist video art that circulates in art gallery contexts. In Life Stories at Gallery TPW, the artists demonstrate a spectrum of possible approaches to confessional portraiture within this hybrid of traditions. Curator Chen Tamir brings five short videos together by Meiro Kozumi, Tova Mozard and Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela on four separate flat-screen televisions mounted in front of triangular wooden seating stations. Mozard’s two pieces and Kozumi’s deal with one subject, while Amir and Sela’s three video collaboration deals with several people including themselves. Tamir describes all the work as “confessional video portraits documenting the stories of unusual individuals.” (ibid.) While Mozard, Amir and Sela are motivated by a more traditional documentary impulse – that is to capture real events as truthful as possible – Koizumi’s work distances itself with critical reflection.

Mozard’s Leona Babette (2002) focuses on an elderly actress and lounge singer who speaks uninterrupted for seven minutes before addressing the artist directly: “You’re so quiet! Why don’t you say something”? Throughout her monologue she demonstrates her talents by belting out snippets of show tunes, stopping herself abruptly to describe the style and voice she might use to perform them for an audience. Babette’s persona is so much larger than life its absurd. In Tamir’s essay, she describes Babette existing “as a performance, not a person.” Babette’s identity is defined by her perceptions of the desires of others. When the performer addresses Mozard, it’s as if she’s demanding instructions. In Mozard’s other portrait, Wall of Love (2005), a self-described Animist tells the story of her marriage to the Berlin Wall. An objectum-sexual, Eija-Riita Eklöf Berliner-Mauer loved and married the Berlin Wall, however when it was torn down she was faced with a psychological trauma that she could not bare. The video never tells us, but Berliner-Mauer coined the term ‘objectum sexual’ in the 1970s. She maintains a website about her marriage to the Berlin Wall and she contributed to a documentary about a woman who married the Eiffel Tower in 2008. In Mozard’s portrait, Berliner-Mauer explains herself and her trauma through a written statement read as voiceover. We see her in her living room, working on the computer, smoking, playing with her cats, but never do we see anything that speaks to her fetish. Unlike the other artists in this show, Mozard adheres to the fly-on-the-wall style shooting of direct cinema. Long takes, minimal editing, and never a change in the scenario or scene, Mozard’s images are very photographic in the sense that they are still, composed and uninterrupted. She simply watches, never attempting to stimulate some sort of response or catharsis, letting her subject’s presence hook the viewer’s interest. With this simple aesthetic, we can feel the traces of early video art, which commonly used a still, tripod-mounted video camera as a container of the subject’s actions. At the same time, there is a concern for the subject, to allow her to speak for herself. Through her aesthetic choices, we begin to feel the presence of Mozard behind the camera giving us a glimpse into her production method. She listens carefully, rarely if ever speaking herself, employing a technique that both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog would call ‘the pregnant pause.’ The pause forces the subject to fill the awkwardly still air, as Babette does, showing something about the person the audience might not have otherwise grasped.

Aesthetic choices inform the viewer’s sense of production in the work of Amir and Sela as well, who provoke their subjects into action throughout their video series Beyond Guilt (2003-5) filmed entirely in Tel Aviv, Israel. The female directors are incredibly aggressive when it comes to stimulating their subjects into action and their motivation seems to be completely voyeuristic. Using a handheld consumer camera, the shaky camerawork lends itself a feel of party footage rather than a constructed piece. In the first video of three, Amir and Sela provoke sexual situations and conversations in a nightclub bathroom. The participants include a group of hetero macho men, and a lesbian army commander and her girlfriend. Tamir notes that most, if not all, of these participants have experienced life in the military and it becomes clear that a militaristic outlook on life has been ingrained into their sexuality: “A lesbian army commander, who surely must navigate discrimination against her own sexuality and gender, nonetheless mimics the chauvinism encouraged in the army.”(Tamir) The second video explores this outlook further. It features several officers and former soldiers who are lured by the directors from online chat rooms to take part in an S&M session at their hotel. The women then focus on each participant asking deeply personal questions about their bodies and their sex lives. In the last video, the directors bring a female sex worker to their hotel and have her turn the camera on them. The video makers ask the sex worker how to pose seductively, how much money they could fetch in the business and what she thinks of their bodies. Power dynamics become a prominent theme, playing out through the language and sexuality, but also through the control of the camera.

Although challenging, Amir and Sela’s work does not stray from the boundaries of one of documentary theorist Bill Nichol’s modes of documentary: the performative documentary. Developed further by film theorist Stella Bruzzi, the performative doc challenges notions of objectivity in film and instead highlights its own means of production to demonstrate the constructive nature of film. For Bruzzi, this mode “…signals the death of documentary theory’s idealization of the unbiased film.” (Bruzzi, p.163) Performative documentary is rooted in the idea that the documentary would not occur would it not be for the performative act of creation on behalf of the director. That is to say, the documentary would not happen if it wasn’t for a filmmaker making it happen. “These filmmakers,” Bruzzi writes, “to varying degrees, participate in their films because they are interested in discovering alternative and less formally restrictive ways of getting to what they perceive to be the essence of their subjects.” (ibid. p. 164) With this ethos in mind, many documentarians have developed themselves into characters or caricatures of themselves. The best example of this might be Nick Broomfield, the so-called ambulance-chaser of documentary. Broomfield badgers his subjects while playing a naïve idiot, which is simply a ploy that allows him to ask poignant and absurd questions. Like other directors working within the performative mode, Broomfield lets the audience judge the subject, but he also is sure to demonstrate the seams of production and forefront the role of the camera when gathering information.

Similarly, Amir and Sela (especially Sela) play the role of curious and promiscuous single women. Their questions are often met with skepticism, but they are often able to persuade their subjects to strip naked, make-out, engage in mild S&M and confess deeply personal things about themselves. One must wonder if these artists could have gathered the same information if they were men. The artists play up their own sexuality often to entice their subjects. At one point, Sela asks a man in the bathroom how much he would pay her for a blowjob. The editing of the video makes it unclear whether or not this took place. However, the difference between Amir and Sela’s work from performative documentary filmmakers like Broomfield, is the way in which their videos take on a raw, anti-aesthetic quality that makes them feel like documents rather than documentary. They feel like naïve records of events rather than constructed representations. We know this is not true as the footage is edited, music is added, and they are incorporated into a thematically linked series but the affective impression remains. The context of these videos, plus the rawness of the footage, makes me wonder if the subjects understood that the women were filmmakers, or if they simply thought they wanted to record them. The viewer not only feel the artist’s presence, but sees and hears them at all times, especially in the third video where they playfully submit to the sex worker and strike poses on the bed. Channeling the underlying ethos of early feminist video work, these artists blur the line between public and private experience. However, unlike early feminist video, these women direct their power both towards themselves and their subjects.

The most transgressive piece in Life Stories is Meiro Koizumi’s Human Opera XXX (2007). Koizumi’s piece is not only a viscerally difficult video to watch, it also completely abandons the notion of respect for the subject. While the other artists in this show are motivated by a documentary impulse, Koizumi is not concerned with the subject, his story, or his desires. In the video, Koizumi starts by placing the text he used to place an ad seeking people to tell a personal sad story. The ad tells us that they will be paid. As the scene opens, Koizumi is adjusting the lighting and moving certain elements in a set that looks like a cable access science fiction television show. The artist continues to set the stage, which we will later realize to be completely arbitrary. Rob Hoekstra, the paid subject of the piece, enters the scene and takes a seat. He at first asks if he may read a poem he has written, however Koizumi asks him to simply tell his story instead. Hoekstra proceeds to tell a story about a girlfriend, his bout with alcoholism, his girlfriend’s pregnancy, their subsequent break up because of his addiction, his overcoming of the addiction, finally getting to meet his daughter and be a father, and some sort of tragic end, which remains unclear. While Hoekstra tries to tell his story, Koizumi continuously interrupts him because he wants to enhance the aesthetic of the image. At first, Hoekstra seems fine with these minor modifications, even holding a streamer on a stick, as if he were at a birthday party. Finally, Koizumi attempts to draw on Hoesktra’s face, saying the image is uneven and boring and the marker will make it better. This is the only time we see Hoekstra protest; however, he eventually gives in. Suddenly, the video rapidly jump-cuts and we see his face take on more and more artifice until it is completely humiliating.

Koizumi’s blatant lack of respect for the subject raises questions about the boundaries of documentary. Can we even consider this work to be a documentary? What do we actually learn about this man? If it is, in fact, the performance – that being the relationship that unfolds between subject and director on screen – that is being documented, and not the subject’s story, can we be satisfied that Koizumi is presenting the truth? Although he is considered a performative documentary director, Michael Moore is guilty of staging events and misrepresenting context in many of his films. Moore often edits out the aspects of the staging that would damn him or undermine his point. Koizumi lets us see his manipulation at the beginning, but as his interventions to the subject’s story increase, so to does the speed of editing. The negotiation between Koizumi and Hoesktra is left at one or two disagreements. The rest of this negotiation is edited out. Through a series of fast jump cuts, Hoekstra’s face goes from clear to covered in marker, with his shirt wrapped around his neck, a piece of tinfoil stuck to his face, a giant metallic tube mounted next to his head, and a sandwich shoved in his mouth dripping with drool. To complete the humilation, Koizumi ceases to show the subtitles of Hoekstra’s story as he reaches the climax. We also cannot decipher his story audibly because of the sandwich in his mouth and Koizumi’s continuous screams into the metallic tube. As viewers, we learn so little about Hoekstra and we don’t get to see the full exchange between artist and subject that led to the humiliating conclusion. Hoekstra doesn’t even get to finish his story. Does this work function as a documentary or even as a confession?

Another obvious question is why would anyone withstand such humiliation? It’s quite possible that Hoekstra is an actor (I don’t think he is) – it almost wouldn’t matter. Koizumi’s piece is really a text about mediation and truth. All documentary is stylized to some extent and it must undergo editing. Even the grandfather of documentary, John Grierson, calls documentary “the creative treatment of actuality.” (Grierson, John. Quoted in Lugon, p. 70) Koizumi’s ridiculous set and instructions to Hoekstra are meant to explicitly point out the mediated nature of the documentary. We know that Hoekstra is paid for his participation. Since he’s a former alcoholic, it makes me wonder how badly he needed the money. If Hoekstra’s persistence is due to his commitment to confess and purge himself of his past, to get the money, or if it is because of his trust in the artist, we as viewers are still put in the position to judge him, but we are denied the necessary facts. Koizumi’s piece creates a critical distance from the confessional, from documentary, from the rhetoric of sincerity in order to demonstrate the role of mediation and stylization in conveying ‘the truth.’
Similar kinds of work circulated through Toronto recently. Last year, Aspace Gallery brought Stephen Andrew, John Greyson and Hito Steyerl together for a show entitled Documentary Uncertainty, which interrogated notions of objectivity, representing the real and the function of archival materials. These works all used documentary forms to question and even undermine documentary’s ability to make truth claims. Similarly, Koizumi’s piece isn’t so much a documentary as it is a study of documentary forms and their ability to produce affect. Unlike the other artists in Life Stories, Koizumi’s work is not guided by a documentary impulse. This is why it functions in an art gallery context more effectively than in a screening situation where it might be called an experimental documentary.

Audiences tend to expect that anything calling itself documentary will present truthful information. Film historian Alex Anderson calls this expectation the “contract with the audience” and this contract is the foundation of the form. Bill Nichols argues that documentary is a form of rhetoric and it presents itself with the proposition “This is so, isn’t it”? Nichols says, “objectivity looms as a more crucial criterion and point of engagement. The claim that ‘This is so,’ with its tacit ‘isn’t it?’ – a request for consent that draws us toward belief – makes objectivity, and the denotative, a natural ally of documentary rhetoric.” (Nichols, p.30) However this consent is given by the audience with the supposed commitment of the documentarian that they are depicting the truth. Koizumi’s piece is the one that belongs in the gallery space more than the others. While I can see the other artists’ works functioning in festivals or screening situations, Koizumi’s piece almost requires the gallery system to work. Within the gallery, no such “contract” exists. If anything, viewers should expect to be challenged and have their assumptions questioned.

In all of these works, there is an investigation of the relationship between subject, camera and artist. Although Tamir focuses on the relationships that develop around the camera, I am more interested in the way the role of the artist becomes a subject position that is activated in different ways. Especially in Koizumi’s work, there is a power dynamic at play between him and Hoekstra that seems to suggest that Hoekstra has decided to trust the artist and his vision, despite the degradation that he must endure. This is my major problem with Koizumi’s work. He disrespects his subject by not fulfilling the promise of the confessional, and he abandons the contract with the documentary audience. Although transgressive and affective, the work can only function in an art gallery where it is ultimately understood as a discussion on form. Hoekstra’s confession is high-jacked and unfulfilled. However this is also the power of the piece. “No promise was broken,” Koizumi might say with a Hitchcockian tone, “he was paid, therefore he is only an actor.” Although cold-blooded, Koizumi’s piece can be seen as a critique of the rhetoric of sincerity and a disciplinary and violent reaction to the outbreak of online confessionals on YouTube or reality television. If a confession is about exorcising personal demons, Koizumi’s piece reminds us that exorcism is rarely a comfortable act.

Video art’s history is interesting because the traditions of other genres such as documentary film have influenced its development. Krauss’ assessment that video’s medium is narcissism is somewhat dated now that the genre includes a wider variety of expressive forms, some of which are deeply rooted in the realist tradition of documentary. On the other hand, video artists have frequently used the medium to criticize other screen-based media such as film and television. The artists in this show represent a cross section between these impulses. Some artists such as Koizumi are using the form to interrogate the confessional and documentary representation, while others such as Sela and Amir are experimenting with the act of documentary making and pushing its borders. Mozard’s form of confessional is perhaps the most traditional, but also perhaps the most revealing. Her subjects speak for themselves, they let us know how they want to be understood. The question of how we see them remains open.

Tamir concludes her exhibition essay with the following questions: “What does it mean to make art about a real person, and what does it mean to view it? What kind of strange power does the camera have that it allows these relationships to form in the first place”?(Tamir) I cannot pretend I am able to concretely answer them, as the purpose of portraiture is forever reformulating. To be a viewer of these works is to be placed in the role of witness, but also judge, both of the subject, the artist and the method of production. Although we ask ourselves why anyone would participate in these exploitive representations, we must consider the subject’s agency and willingness to be revealed as a performative act in itself. There is a reason these people confess; they make the decision to make themselves vulnerable. We as viewers cannot dismiss every video confessional as an act of narcissistic self-flattery because self-exposure often has greater personal and political significance. The camera takes record of the confession. It takes those words and makes them a document. The camera gives people the outlet to offer themselves up for judgment. Perhaps the more important question is why do we desire the judgment of others?

 

Work Cited

Bruzzi, Stella. (2000). “The performative documentary: Barker, Dineen,
Broomfield”. in New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge. p.153-180.

Tamir, Chen. (2008) “Life Stories”. Exhibition Essay, Gallery TPW.

Kraus, Rosalind. (1976). “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”. October 1:1
Spring.

Lugon, Olivier. (2005). “‘Documentary’: authority and ambiguities”. In
Documentary now!: Contemporary strategies in photography, film and visual arts. Belgium: Nai Publishers. p. 64-74.

Nichols, Bill. (1991). Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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