Becoming Foreign, or Using the Canon Against the Canon
by Ilka Becker
(Excerpt, full essay has been published in Annette Weisser: Make Yourself Available, The Green Box, Berlin 2015)
From a linguistic perspective, meanings arise when we distinguish between things, when, in order to make the world comprehensible and manageable, we assign names to objects and persons and allocate them to categories. Each culture defines itself according to symbolic boundaries; this also applies from an anthropological point of view. Borders are drawn to exclude the banished and the other, and through this exclusion to ritually create the self, to make it identifiable. It can be inferred from this that differentiations in type, class, and group form the basis for a cultural understanding of self in a specific manner, depending on the theoretical model used. In this sense, each respective definition of identity is the implicit precondition that determines what is experienced as foreign. When subjects are reduced and classified according to particular attributes that define their otherness and foreignness, however, this must be regarded as stereotyping.1 Thus, for instance, “skin color” is established as a characteristic feature and symbolically created in this manner. Regarding modes of social behavior, determinations of this type serve as a basis for “white” identity and are reinforced with the help of biological explanations and visual representations that make them appear natural. This is why stereotypes create a specific connection between “representation, difference, and power,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1997 in his text on “The Spectacle of the Other.”2 Otherness, however, can also be regarded in the sense of an ongoing process of becoming foreign or alienated as a productive irritation on the part of a clearly separate subject, without denying the uniqueness of the other. In this case, the alienation does not serve to pigeonhole an excluded other, but rather to recognize foreign and incomprehensible aspects in what is ostensibly the self. Annette Weisser’s video works „Canon“ (digital video, 1:50 min., 2006) and „Karla’s Song“ (HD video, 13:31 min., 2012 investigate this symbolic and political interstice between foreignness and alienation and give expression to its ambivalence by means of visual and acoustic montage. They inquire into how one can respectfully approach and be touched by the other, without presupposing an intact and possessive self. The self functions here as a stage for cultural and symbolic disruptions and must be made accessible through an ongoing effort, hence the exhibition title „Make Yourself Available“ can also be interpreted in the sense of make your self available. In her video work Karla’s Song, Annette Weisser takes on this task by using a newspaper photograph to examine cultural patterns and interrelationships while at the same time exposing their inadequacy to serve as explanatory models. The camera seems to feel its way around the photograph, gliding along its surface in slow motion, changing direction and zooming in on details in a manner reminiscent of the programmed movements of a screen saver. Occasionally, the continuous flow of what is actually the digitally simulated tracking shot of an image file is interrupted by a black frame. The news photo the image is based on, taken by Al Seib, was published in the Los Angeles Times on October 10, 2010. It depicts Karla Vargas, who was ten years old at the time, testifying as plaintiff against the city of Los Angeles. Together with her mother, the young girl had taken part in a rally in MacArthur Park on May Day, 2007, where they demonstrated in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants from Central America and against the racist violence and prejudice these immigrants are subjected to in the US. Police used brutal force to break up the demonstration, with police helicopters circling over the area, calling out commands to the crowds, in English, via loudspeakers. Karla Vargas’s blurry shape can be seen from behind, but cannot be identified. She is holding a white sheet of paper in her hands and reading her statement out loud, which was translated into English by her lawyer. She reads it as though it were a foreign text; her native language is Spanish. The photograph’s focus is not on her, but on the four people listening to her; it seems as though their reactions to her statement can be inferred from their facial expressions. The people portrayed are, from left to right, Police Commission Executive Director Richard M. Tefank, Police Chief William J. Bratton, Commission Inspector General Andre Birotte Jr., and Commission Member Shelley Freeman. Together, they comprise a photographic tableau of the emotions the girl’s statement elicits. While Tefank gazes at her in what appears to be skeptical amusement, Bratton, a controversial figure in LA, seems deep in thought, resting his chin on his folded hands. On the other hand, the two Council Members in the right half of the photograph appear unsettled, while the woman even seems alarmed at the ten-year-old, who reads from her text like a script. Annette Weisser matched this visual choreography to the film’s soundtrack, for which the composer and pianist Christoph Grund composed a song based on Schubert’s musical rendering of the Erlkönig and Birthe Bendixen supplied the vocal interpretation. Annette Weisser’s song text transposes the drama of Goethe’s ballad to the situation of a mother and daughter in the crush of a demonstration. With ever increasing tension, and based on Karla’s testimony—excerpts of which have been published on the Internet—the lyrics portray the fear the two felt during the time leading up to the hearing, as well as the dangers presented by the tear gas, shots, and helicopter din, which the girl in Weisser’s lyrics mistakes to be birds cawing. “Mother, the birds, do you hear them? They caw and circle overhead, they’re pointing the way, but I don’t understand.” Merged with the images, the German song text becomes the girl’s artificial and, in keeping with the romantic genre of the art song, artful voice. Its cultural and linguistic makeup might well be no more foreign to her than her own (English) testimony. In the image’s economy of affects, the adults function as embodiments of the gaze; in acting out her role, the girl is nonetheless able to present the text in such a way as to rupture the newspaper photograph’s outraged morality and consequently its documentary gesture. The camera’s virtual motion runs counter to the organization of the gazes within the image, which are directed at the vague empty spot of the girl’s figure and lend meaning to the exemplary role of victim accorded her. Annette Weisser addresses these various gazes as ways of relating to the situation. Initially, the newspaper photograph suggests that they are forming subjective stances, and that these stances reveal truths about Karla Vargas and the events that have occurred. The montage and the manner in which the news photo enters the picture frame both as still and as animation, however, subvert the photographic establishment of a unified and fixed position of subject—both within the image and in relation to the viewers encountering Karla’s Song in the form of a large-scale spatial projection. To the extent that Karla’s Song neither entails nor simulates the continuity of a filmic défilement (the running sequential image), the work generates its own type of photographic temporality. The still photograph serves as an anchor for a reanimation3 that ends in the line of flight of the musical narration. By preceding some of the interstitial black frames with semi-transparent images that “cloud” the eye like the tear gas referred to in the lyrics, Annette Weisser questions the image’s asserted transparency and the depth of meaning that accompanies its message. Thus, at one point the fluid motion ends in a microscopic zoom onto the white sheet of paper in the girl’s hand, revealing a phantasmatic white noise that approaches the degree zero of photographic information.
1 Cf. Richard Dyer, Gays and Film, London 1977, p. 30.
2 Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the Other,” in Stuart Hall (ed.), Representations. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London 1997.