Monday, May 11, 2009

Reflections on Michael Rush: "Balance and Power"

During this curious week, perhaps the last week in which the Rose Art Museum will exist as a fully functioning public art museum, I've been reflecting on the many academic partnerships that Cultural Production faculty and staff had with the museum's director, Michael Rush. Our first such partnership emerged when Michael brought to campus the remarkable exhibition, "Balance and Power", on video surveillance in contemporary art, which he had organized the year before at the Krannert (University of Illinois). Michael encourage me and my colleague Andreas Teuber (Philosophy) to develop an academic symposium in conversation with the exhibition. Inspired by the happy coincidence that Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named, had invented the right to privacy in 1890, we called the conference, "Privacy Rites: Space, Surveillance and Power in Historical Perspective." Our colleagues' musings ranged across the toilets of Pompeii, the dynamics of subjection and surveillance in Elizabethan poetics, and post modern and post panoptic regimes of marketing and contemporary art practice. We concluded with a performance in the Rose of Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, evoking the terrifying knocks on the door of NKVD and its regime of constant surveillance.

In the Foster wing, Michael had curated a dizzying labriynth of video screens, juxtaposed at angles, displaying an array of contemporary video artists' engagement with the problem of surveillance.

As an anthropologist, I found his linked installations led me to new insights on my own research in rural southern Africa, on a topic seemingly remote from contemporary video art. In the late 1980s, I spent about a year following a mass witchfinding movement as it made its way across the impoverished rural communities of eastern Zambia. As had been the case with previous popular movements in southern and central Africa aimed at detecting and neutralizing suspected witches, spirit-possessed diviners held large ceremonies in which they directed small hand mirrors at each every villager, one at a time. The mirrors, which were frequently compared to “cameras” and “X-ray machines,“ were said to reveal to the witchfinder the otherwise secret amount of “witchcraft substance” inside each man and woman. Those accused hardly ever protested their innocence, and often stood by meekly as their house walls, roofs and personal possessions were ransacked by the youthful witchfinders seeking incriminating witchcraft horns, which were widely held to be definitive proof of mystical malfeasance.

When I asked the leading witchfinder, “Doctor Moses” why hardly anyone resisted these interrogations, he explained,

"When they stand in front of the mirror, they can’t resist, they can’t run away… It is like when somebody is in front of a television camera. They just want to be seen. Even if they have a secret they want to hide, they can’t resist the camera. They just want to be on the screen, they can’t say no... That is how we trap them, here in the Circle of Truth. No one can turn his face away from the camera, as much as might want to!"

Two decades later, encountering Michael Rush's exhibition, I began to understand how deeply prescient Doctor Moses’ words were. Surveillance is ever-more extensive, and yet, as suggested by the works of art in Balance and Power, as well as the ever growing popularity of American Idol and Reality TV, the lure of the camera is ever more irresistible.

The all-seeing camera, we are repeatedly told by those in authority has the capacity to safeguard the body politic of all that afflicts us, even as it renders us paralyzed in a stupefying hall of mirrors. For months even years after each witchfinding rite, communities were caught up in complex, painful debates over degrees of complicity in the violence of the ceremony, which caused them in various way to see themselves as the embodying both the gaze of the righteous as well as the subject and object of voyeuristic, licentious gazes.

Our title, “Privacy Rites” evoked these and many other ironies, so reminiscent of the core paradoxes at the heart of any ritual process: we are deeply attracted and flattered by the camera and the screen, even as we seek to flee or evade them. Yet privacy in its modern forms is not itself a ritual process as such, but rather seems born of the interruption of earlier ritual sequences, especially those oriented around the domestic realm. Consider for example the mythic crisis which supposedly gave birth to the modern “right to privacy”, as formulated in Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ famous 1890 law review article. They were, it is said, inspired to write the essay due to the violation by a news photographer of the wedding breakfast party of Samuel Warren’s daughter.

Why was this so terribly heinous? After all, a picture of the bride and groom taken that afternoon after the wedding ceremony would presumably have been viewed as an entirely appropriate addition to the Society page. During an afternoon visit to Balance and Power, looking at the various filmic penetrations of bodily space and ostensibly "private: domains it occured to me that the key violation in the Warren case seems to lie in the (premature) interruption of the processual structure of the wedding rite. As anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner note, rites of passage are structured in three phases: (a) separation of the principals from everyday life,(b) the liminal or "betwixt and between" phase, in which the principals stand outside of conventional categories and experiential coordinates, and (c) re-integration or re-aggregation, in which the principals re-enter ordinary life, usually at a higher or altered social level or status. At the Warren breakfast wedding party, the photographer seems to have invaded the first phase, of separation, from which even the groom would have been excluded, as the bride's immediate family celebrate their solidarity with one another through commonsality just as they are about suffer their impending partial dissolutoin, that is to say the 'loss' of their daughter. The unauthorized photograph in this sense punctures the restricted ritual domain of the separation phase, thus imperiling the overall logic of the entire wedding ceremony, the quintessential rite of bourgeois social reproduction that celebrates the birth of the ethereal transcendental adult selfhood. The modern concept of “privacy”, in other words, is born of a truncated or perverted ritual process.

This theme, of a captivating violation of ritual, a rupture that is itself constitutive of new modes of personhood, ran through the many presentations we heard at the Privacy Rites symposium, as well as the many works of art displayed in Balance and Power. Tim Hyde’s Untitled Bus allowed the viewer to partake of a dreamscape of nocturnal travel, the reverie of the mind’s blankness on the ride home at day’s end, which only bursts when a passenger spies the camera and in turn locks our gaze in his gaze. We were propelled into a sudden awareness of of private space only at the moment when the normally secure wall of the screen has been punctured. In Jill Magid’s Lobby the artist’s willfull violation of conventional bodily and public/private boundaries, hijacking a public video screen to reveal her bodily orifices while standing in full and open sight of passers by, inspired multiple reflections by viewers of the nature of voyeurism: we are not only taken on a microcosmic fantastic journey though under her clothes but also, from the commanding heights of the lobby atrium, gaze upon the faces of astonished onlookers, whose public privacy we now violate. In turn, in Mirror Site, Kevin Hamilton skillfully presented us with a fractured vision of contemporary media-mediated public space. We are strangely exposed on screen, even more so than we are in normal public space, precisely because conventional relations of self-other are inverted and subverted in such puzzling ways.

There is thus, I gradually realized, a thread of continuity across twelve decades from Warren and Brandeis’ wall climbing photographer to these recent works of video art, each of which, paradoxically, helps birth a new awareness of the private through acts of rupture, violation and transgression.

More subtle violated boundaries characterized Jim Cambell’s Library (2004) in which the shadows move in and out of of the New York Public Library. Libraries are, in the best sense of the term, deeply haunted places, in which the presences of those who have come (and left) before us are continuously sensed if not quite immediately graspable. The monochramatic schema of the piece nicely evokes the black and white textual media through which, in effect, the living and the dead encounter one another in the library. His evocation of photogravure also moves us back and forth across generational time: are we seeing the library staircase as it was yesterday, last year, or a century ago? Are all the city's dwellers, the living and the dead, passing by one another in a great, shadowy parade? Might we sense a mournful, elegiac tone that obliquely references the losses and the legacies of September 11, 2001? (And might we also read the work as a commentary on the Patriot Act and the increasingly routine surveillance of libraries and their patrons that has followed in the wake of that tragic day?)

As I hope this example suggests, Michael's exhibitions, substantial works of scholarship in and of themsleves, have stimulated and propelled further works of scholarly reflection and critique. I've loved that his shows push us to see the political and the aesthetic in new, unexpected ways that they simultaneously engage our intellectual and artistic faculties, that they are conversation with classical and contemporary works of scholarship and encourage us to re-read these works with new eyes. Michael's relentless curiosity, his rigorous standards for analysis and presentation, have constantly pushed me as a scholar of ritual to rediscover the enigmatic dynamics of symbolic action lodged in the interstices of late capitalist social worlds. For that, I remain deeply grateful.

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