SMBA Video programme ‘Really Exotic?’

Date: Sunday, 17 June 2012, Time: 4:45 – 7:15 p.m.
Location: Kriterion, Admission: €5, free with Cineville pass
Reservation required: 020-6231708 (Kriterion)

Participating artists: Artun Alaska Arasli, Neïl Beloufa, David Hammons, Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia, Moridja Kitenge Banza, Olaf Breuning, Tatiana Macedo, Sarah Vanagt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Clemens von Wedemeyer and Katarina Zdjelar.

In an experimental and inquiring way, the videos presented in ‘Really Exotic?’ take us along on a visual, transcultural expedition in search of the exotic. The programme does not aim to find an ultimate proof or meaning of the exotic. Rather a variety of perspectives are brought together to show the multiple understandings and uses of this burdened concept. In each video a form of the exotic comes to the fore, but every time in a different environment and setting.

In the past, the exotic has been related to primitivism, the concept that, roughly speaking, entails an idealization of the unconscious and the original condition, captured in the image of the ‘noble savage’. This kind of exoticism is confronted with irony in works like Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia’s The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey (1993) and Olaf Breuning’s Group (2001). Both mimic the primitive exotic by playing with and ridiculing the stereotypes that inform the primitivist imagination. Moridja Kitenge Banza’s Hymne à Nous (2008) caricatures the nineteenth century Europeans’ civilizing mission that aimed at transforming the purportedly primitive into the presumably civilized, by presenting an army of copies of themselves as the epitome of a ‘Europeanized’ African man. Irony directed at the primitive exotic is however just one of the strategies of alienation applied by the artists.

Neil Beloufa, Sans-titre (2010)

In his writing on exoticism in nineteenth and early twentieth century French literature, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov exposes different forms of exoticism, but not all of them are based on an ominous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ scheme. With regard to the work of the French writer and ethnographer Victor Segalen, Todorov points to the ‘exotic experience’, a way of engaging (while traveling) with the unfamiliar from a point that presuppose an ‘us’ and ‘them’, a scheme departing from the proposition that without the ‘other’ the ‘self’ is incomplete. ‘Without identification,’ Todorov writes, ‘one does not know the other; without the bursting forth of difference, one loses oneself … one must be an exote to reconcile the two’. This kind of exoticism departs from the idea that, in the philosopher’s words, ‘the exotic experience is available to everyone; at the same time, it eludes the grasp of most. A child’s life begins with a progressive differentiation of subject and object; as a result, the whole world, in the beginning, seems exotic to the child’. Growing up entails an ‘automization of perception’, but everyone can revive the exotic experience by avoiding familiarity. As Todorov summarizes: ‘The common experience starts form strangeness and ends in familiarity. The exote’s special experience starts where the other ends – in familiarity – and leads toward strangeness’. The exotic experience is for Todorov thus an experience in which someone is estranged; it is a process of defamiliarization of oneself to the environment that is engendered.

The videos presented in this programme invite the public to indulge in strangeness, though the decision to provide the programme title with a question mark already points to the fact such an experience cannot be guaranteed, because it depends on the viewer, who needs to temporarily adopt the role of the exot. The exotic experience is, again in Todorov’s words, ‘much more [than naiveté or total ignorance] a matter of an unstable equilibrium between surprise and familiarity, between distancing and identification. The happiness of the exot is fragile: if he does not know the others well enough, he does not yet understand them; if he knows them too well, he no longer sees them. The exote cannot install himself in peace and quiet: no sooner does he attain that state his experience has already grown stale. No sooner does the exote arrive that he has to get ready to leave again; as Segalen said, he must cultivate nothing but alternation. That is perhaps why the rule of exoticism has often been converted from a precept for living into an artistic device: Chekhov’s ostranenie or Brecht’s Verfremdung (French: destanciation, English: “defamiliarization”)’.

In the ‘Really Exotic?’ programme, the exotic experience is understood as a benign form of exoticism, because it is based on a self-reflective and temporary ‘praise without knowledge’; worse forms of exoticism have led to, for instance, transformative missions of the exotic other or ideologically supported the colonisation of the other’s land. ‘The Really Exotic?’ programme takes Segalen’s conception of the exotic experience, as illuminated by Todorov, to its logical consequence and presents videos which look at everything differently. Because of the artist’s focus on detail, even that which is actually familiar to us can become unfamiliar. The artistic contribution to this programme takes us along on an exploration of an estranged environment that can at the same time be idealised and critically viewed.

Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia, The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey, 1993, 30′
The Couple in the Cage shows the travelling performance of Guillermo Gómez -Peña and Coco Fusco, in which they exhibited themselves as a caged couple from an imaginary island in the Gulf of Mexico. While the artists’ intent was to create a ironic commentary on the notion of discovery, they soon realized that many of their viewers thought the artists were real exotic “savages”. Their interactions with audiences in four countries dramatizes the dilemma of cross-cultural and anthropological misunderstanding in our contemporary world. The performances are juxtaposed with archival footage of ethnographic displays from the past, giving an historical dimension to the artists’ social experiment. The Couple in the Cage is a powerful blend of comic fiction and distressing reflection on the morality of treating humans as exotic curiosities.

Olaf Breuning, Group, 2001, 9’57”
Group is a film that follows a group of young men through one inexplicable guise and behaviour after another. It begins with bearded Vikings washing ashore and walking along a beach. It ends with camouflage-painted ‘natives’ racing with flares through a tropical forest. The film puts together Western notions of the primitive and the exotic with fashion and rock culture. In this strange mixture of symbols and styles the exotic experience seems to be cultivated, since it is consciously sought after and enjoyed. But to what extent are these characters really estranged from their environment, since their primitive symbols can be understood as hollow resemblances to historical and exotic objects that might be well-known by now? They seem to be seeking such experiences for the fun of it. In some way the film does not simply praise the exotic from a primitivist perspective, but makes it look ridiculous.

Sarah Vanagt, Little Figures, 2003, 15′
In Little Figures three big statues which stand on the Mont des Arts in Brussels are given a voice. Godfrey de Bouillon, King Albert I and his wife Queen Elisabeth hold an imaginary conversation with one other, and wonder what has happened with Jerusalem and the Belgian Congo. Three young newcomers to Belgium perform this conversation between the historical figures, which they approach in a playful manner, for instance by asking each other what they see from their fixed position. While the camera circles around the statues the expression on the faces seem to change, influenced by the emotions in the voices. During their play, the Filipino boy, a Rwandan girl and a Moroccan boy learn something of the history of the unknown country in which they live. The lively imagination of these children almost provides a secret passage to the past. For some moments the conversation is interrupted by an interview with the skaters on the squares around the statues. They know nothing about King Albert, a sign that the many voices and perspectives in Brussels can be considered an unknown field open for exploration.

Moridja Kitenge Banza, Hymne à Nous, 2008, 1’20”
In this film, Hymne à Nous, Moridja Kitenge Banza multiplies himself into a choir of twenty naked men who are praising themselves with a song. He has taken the lyrics of the Congolese and Belgium anthems and used the melody of Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony to blend a symbol of European identity with Congolese pride and history. It is not solely this mixture that might be disorienting. Since this harmonious symphony is sung by a choir of twenty undressed men, this registration of a recital becomes a rather uncomfortable situation. Moreover, the blend of nationalistic symbols is difficult to locate on a geographical map. The exotic experience in this film might be precisely this impossibility to relate this specific symphony to an existing place.

Clemens von Wedemeyer, Against Death, 2009, 9’
Against Death tells about an exote’s special experience and seduces its viewers to indulge in strangeness. At the start the camera takes us with it on long tracking shot through a flat in London. At some point the camera’s focus shifts onto one of the two protagonists, an exhausted explorer, who tells a friendly anthropologist about a quite recent experience. He says he had encountered a group of masked people in a forest who had made him immortal in a ritual. To prove the truth content of his story, he cuts his own throat and sinks onto the floor. But while following the anthropologist in another tracking shot through the flat, the camera at some point catches a glimpse of the explorer, who slowly gets up again. Then it wanders to the point of view we saw in the beginning. (In an exhibition setting, Against Death is shown as a loop.)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, 2009, 17’40”
A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, set in the north-east of Thailand, focuses on remembrance and extermination. The narrator is searching for the story of the life of his uncle. A slowly moving camera captures the interiors of various wooden houses in a small village in a tropical rainforest. All houses are deserted except one, in which a group of young soldiers are taking shelter. Below the houses they are digging up ground, to exhume or bury something. The narrator tells his uncle that he wants to reincarnate him, and informs him about a small community called Nabua where inhabitants have abandoned their homes. Is this the place where Uncle Boonmee will be brought back to life again? To what extent is it credible that reincarnation can occur, or is this too exotic to be convincing?

Neïl Beloufa, Sans-titre, 2010, 14’57”
A luxurious modernist villa in Algeria is the setting for the film Untitled. In fact the villa is a reproduction, fabricated from cardboard with wallpaper made from photos. Within this disorientating space various people talk about the period when terrorists were using the house as a hideout. Neïl Beloufa based his film on an actual invasion in a villa by terrorists in the 1990s. Oral accounts of witnesses are re-enacted by actors, who are primarily filmed from the back. These accounts of the landlord, neighbours, gardener and others contradict each other, so that reality and fiction intermingle. By this, the film destroys our rational understanding in which truth and imagination can be divided into two distant categories. This expedition through staged oral accounts might lead one to distrust any oral history.

Katarina Zdjelar, Rise Again, 2011, 11’23”
Rise Again focuses on a group of refugees from Afghanistan. At first the camera registers the movements of single men through the bushes. By exploring these woods close to the asylum centre, they step outside their limited roles as refugees. The forest is the ground that enables these men to transform themselves, even as they alter the forest. With martial arts elements, played and documentary scenes, this film connects and articulates different historical and geographical places. This film brings to mind armed forces and refugees, victims and explorers on a mission. New possible meanings are constantly introduced that rewrite the story seen so far. Because of this introduction of new elements that rearrange the narrative, a process of defamiliarization takes place. The similarity of one of the refugees with Bruce Lee is such a new element. Is his workout a daily routine, or is he acting a role imitating the Hollywood actor?

Artun Alaska Arasli, Wormhole, 2012, 3’
This film by Artun Alaska Arasli resembles the correspondence of an explorer on an expedition far away from home, who report about his voyage. Knowing that this message will be home before he will, the explorer gives an emotional testimony to his relatives. Apparently he is part of a scientific investigation that focuses on the domestication of horses and cows somewhere in a distinct place. But in which far-away region do wild horses and cattle still live as an unknown species on this earth? The information the explorer gives is too imprecise to tell. Still, the report provokes the imagination of the unknown with just some simple words that form a narrative about travelling. Where does an imagined experience of an nameless place lead?

Tatiana Macedo, Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, 2012, 15’
The Gallery Assistant in an art gallery or museum is a fundamental element in its spectacular mise-en-scène. A sense of authority is projected upon them, their primary role is to see and be seen. For three months Macedo met and filmed a number of people who perform visitor assistance roles at both Tate galleries in London. An inversion of roles takes place. Macedo looks as closely at them, as much as they look at the thousands of visitors who wander the galleries everyday. But as soon as she places herself with her camera, she also becomes a target for scrutiny; her body is as present as theirs, with her own ideas, anxieties and impulses. By refusing to give the spectator a countershot, the space is perceived as if looking at itself, in a claustrophobic circle. The gallery becomes both observer and observed, a mechanical and organic body where numerous powers and performances take place.

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