Catalogue essay about the New York based video artist Shelly Silver. Musée de l'art et de l'histoire, Fribourg 2001
"Dear John, she knows she doesn't do it perfectly, but she wants to do it nonetheless," the voiceover in Shelly Silver's newest work suicide (2001) states. This fictional travelogue tells the story of a failed filmmaker who is contemplating suicide. Feeling lost and without desire, she sets off to travel through various countries and cities, accompanied only by her camera. Desperate and hopeful at once, she tries to capture the moving world around her as a means of saving herself. "This is the story of desire. Or the loss of desire," the voiceover of the heroine opens the story. This voyage of self-survival turns out to be more about desire than about its loss.
We don't know, and never learn what she doesn't do perfectly - her work as a filmmaker, her planned suicide (which she keeps alluding to), or her lovelife (we see an image of a billboard of a couple caught in an embrace). But this is not important. What is important here is that a wish is articulated, ("she wants to do it"), and that this desire for the unlimited production of wishes is related to a female subject, the heroine herself.
Wishes want to circulate "nonetheless", without limits and borders. They want to travel unrestrained, but they always involve and produce specific subjects and directions. The heroine admits: "Only a certain kind of person, from a certain kind of country, from a certain kind of background would think this way." Taking the trip with her, seeing the world entirely through her crazed eyes, the viewer can't help but identify with the heroine's free-floating desire, which gets chaotically attached to the most unlikely of objects. If suicide is the story of getting lost, we, the viewer proceed to get lost with her.
Not only in suicide, but in many of Silver's current works, the reality of wishes and the production of the flow of desire as a life force and crucial factor of identity are all at stake. "Desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows," Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write in Anti-Oedipus (1).
According to these two theorists, our contemporary state of being consists in being dis/connected - connected and disconnected to our own particular objects, to people and bodies, to computers and data streams, to screens, ads, sounds, and visuals. Living means motion, action, flows, interruptions, and restarts.
In an analogous way, the handheld camera moves, shakes, jumps, and stops of suicide mimic the rhythms of movement, interruptions and restarts that are produced by desire. In one scene, as the disco beat and lyrics (repeating the phrase "Nothing's gonna stop me") to a Japanese pop song plays, the stream of moving video images abruptly stops. There follows a series of stills of a woman, our protagonist, being photographed by others on the street. (This woman is the author Shelly Silver herself, casually showing up periodically throughout the video, playing the part of the main protagonist). We see a series of these 'tourist' photos: of men, of women, of couples, then back to our protagonist; and then three bar hostesses all smiling and giving the peace sign; a man holds his arm around the protagonist, laughing. Then the video movement restarts, and we see a mechanical clown moving his head and lips, to which the heroine eerily lip synchs, "I like you, I like you a lot, I like you, I like you a lot. In suicide everything that the camera captures becomes a possible participant in the dialogue, everything becomes animated and animistic in an almost magical sense and begins to communicate with the 'I' (eye) of the filmmaker (and author), as well as with us, the 'I's' (eyes) of the viewers.
The voiceover functions as a monologue of the filmmaker's reactions, memories and letters, as well as projections of what the surrounding people might say to her (or if one is willing to make a further jump in identifying with her madness, did indeed say to her). It can be seen as a one-sided dialogue with friends, strangers, animals, objects and images that wander in front of the camera's lens. And thus the voiceover is a mediation between addressing outsiders, and addressing the interior 'I's' of the filmmaker. Its apparent continuity and homogeneity guarantees a constant stream of desire addressing somebody/something, and being addressed by somebody or something. Film theorist Margaret Morse writes: "In Benveniste's linguistics, subjectivity is based in discourse between subjects in a here-and-now." For Morse "subjectivity is characterized by the reversibility of 'I' and 'you', as shifters or empty positions." In this sense, the voiceover functions as a shifter, which is at the same time peopled with voices and eerily empty. Morse continues "subjectivity can never be real or full, as it is always based on simulation [...] That is, 'I' and 'you', 'here' and 'now' are not the subjects, place and time of the act of enunciation: these linguistic forms are 'shifters' and 'simulacra' within the discourse that imitate the act of enunciation within the utterance." (2)
Silver plays sovereignly with these simulations by staging her own fictive, documentary-like travelogue, where she herself plays the main figure, coincidentally also a filmmaker. Thus, the boundaries between what is true and what is fiction, for the viewer completely blur. (According to Silver, more than a few of the contemplations and confessions of the filmmaker/protagonist are quotations or misquotations from various authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Yukio Mishima, Thomas Bernhard and Yasunari Kawabata, thus shifting the 'personal' monologue yet another step.) And so it becomes evident that the pseudo-authentic 'I' of the "failed filmmaker" leaving for Japan is a substitute for something different which cannot be represented. This 'I' emerges in in-between spaces of absences and has to be performed on and on: "Dear John," the voiceover says, "all decisions must be made in space of eight breaths. [...] not here, not now."
suicide is neither about suicide, because it performs paradoxically in the opposite way, in that it elicits rather than erases desire. It is rather the performative enactment of making somebody (or something), not whole, not happy, but rather, meaningful and viable. "There is a human need for and pleasure in being recognized as a partner in discourse, even when the relation is based on a simulation that is mediated by or exchanged with machines" writes Margaret Morse. (3) To survive, the heroine must somehow find her own way to becoming part of all the streams of desire surrounding her.
Performing the pleasure of addressing human and non-human partners and being addressed by them, suicide not only shows that identity and subjectivity have to be constructed again and again by connecting with others, but that production of desire by interaction is the most fundamental activity for the construction of self-identities. In suicide the subjectivity of the filmmaker is not a distinct entity apart from the outside (separating the author and the viewer), but a set of temporary preliminaries which overlap and dissolve. N. Katherine Hayles talks about subjectivity as "Speaking for myself, I now find myself saying things like, 'Well my sleep agent wants to rest, but my food agent says I should go to the store'. Each person who thinks this way begins to envision herself or himself as a posthuman collectivity, an 'I' transformed into the 'we' of autonomous agents operating together to make a self. The infectious power of this way of thinking gives 'we' a performative dimension." (4) Shelly Silver underscores this dimension of multiplicity by using only one voiceover which at the same time represents and resumes a lot of different absent voices. Thus, the presumed homogenous univocality of the voiceover is always split, simulacrous and apparently an artificial construction of homogenous identity. "[The] subject itself is not at the center, which is occupied by the machine, but on the periphery, with no fixed identity, forever decentered, defined by the states through which it passes." Deleuze and Guattari (5)
S/he seemed attracted to me
Unlike this paradoxical strategy of the pseudo-homogenous voiceover which deconstructs the subject as a contingent set of streams and intensities, in small lies, Big Truth (1999) Silver incorporates the performance of real dialogues with different voices. She used authentic excerpts from the Starr Report about President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. However, we only find out that the texts were taken from the Starr Report when we read the end credits. While we are watching, the things that are said only seem somehow familiar.
The video is a kind of visual radio play in several acts where there is neither a climax nor a dramatic denouement. It stops the same way it starts: right in the middle of a sentence, in a fragmentary way. In the beginning we hear the husky voice of Louis Armstrong which seems to come from a horrible abyss, singing an old song about an affair. The song is played again and again later on. All we get to see is pictures of animals in a zoo. Moreover, we hear eight voices, four female, four male. They talk about an illegitimate love affair, or to be precise, about intimate physical acts, sex, emotions, wishes, hopes, fears, insecurities, how it all started, interruptions, and the end. A common theme. The different voices often say the same, or almost the same words, e.g.:
Ken: She seemed attracted to me
Simin: She seemed attracted to me
David: He seemed attracted to me
This undermines the authority of any one speaker, of any one truth, as well as the obviousness of only heterosexual love being involved. The many speaking voices and the randomness of the personal pronoun open up a wide range of variations, and contexts about the same, quasi-universal theme of sex and love.
The details, the reflections are touching precisely because they are so common and normal. As a viewer, one can identify with so many of the details, knowing the strong feelings, the unique features and abysses behind this hackneyed story and its descriptions of sexual practices. We stare at eagles, zebras, prairie dogs, lions and elephants, sweet seals, playfully fighting monkeys, excrement-eating stags, bottom-sniffing camels, as we listen to people talking about intimate physical acts. The physical and reproductive aspects are not only reinforced to the extreme by the pictures of the zoo animals (as a matter of fact, there is no other level than physicality, obsessed with drives and desires but without freedom). The zoo and its animality behind bars, along with the narratives of the lovers and their anxieties, feelings of guilt, reticence, repression of drives that border on the unbearable, all reveal a love story in the age of observability and investigation. The fact that it happened at all, and there was an ability to articulate it, that these subjects got involved with each other and maybe even had feelings of love for each other, that the secure bases of their lives were shaken because of what they felt for each other, and most of all, the fact that it is impossible to assign hierarchical power - this is what makes the story of small lies, Big Truths so unruly.
Tracy: I never expected to fall in love with him. I was surprised that I did.
Ken: At times I believed that she loved me too.
Tracy: At times I believed that he loved me too.
All the speakers are in the same position, experiencing varying states of crisis. They have literally "gone to the dogs." Traditionally speaking, this is a female position. No position here is gender-specific, phallic, castrating, oppressing or exploiting because each sentence relativizes the individual validity of the previous one. It is the representation of people, who are together on their way through an enclosure of insecurity, doubt, and perhaps a little happiness. If we associate the story with Clinton in retrospect, it also reflects the decline of an eminent governing patriarch, his move into the private, female, animal, subordinate position where there is instability, and where privacy and physicality are subject to control by the law, surveillance and multi-media publications. Even though the video is permeated with sadness and melancholy, which is created by the shift to more monochrome images and the clumsiness of certain animals which seem handicapped (such as seals on land), the affirmation of physicality expressed by the off-screen voices, the affirmation of desire, unconscious not-knowing, recognition in retrospect, contradictoriness, the subordinate position of the "animal female," not only reveals itself as a radically anti-rational, anti-pragmatic way of individual action but as the privileged position of letting the desires flow. The rupture that separates music, the language of the bodies and the pictures of the animals cannot be healed, but only be crossed.
Joan: I take full responsibility for it. It wasn't his fault it was mine.
Bill: I take full responsibility for it
Kathy: It wasn't her fault, it was mine.
A Woman has no home in this world
To conclude my argumentation that Silver's recent work is always about desire as a constitutive element for a precarious identity construction beyond simple models of identification, I would like to discuss 37 Stories About Leaving Home (1996) It gathers together a group of Japanese women from three generations, mother, daughter and grandmother. They talk about their life, love and desires, and about each woman's relationship to her mother and/or daughter. The women are shot simply, talking facing the camera; these shots periodically intercut with other images corresponding to the content of their speech. Also intertwined is a Japanese folktale, a story about a daughter who has been stolen by a monster (Oni), who the loving and desperate mother sets off to find. This story is separated out, visualized differently from the rest of the tape. These images are flickering, magical; sometimes in deep, lush color, other times in archival-looking black and white. It is as if they came from another time in the past suggesting another very old truth.
37 Stories begins similarly to suicide, with an introduction spoken by a female voiceover:
"In the city of New York, in the continent of North America, there lived a dissatisfied daughter who was convinced that she was living under an evil spell. And so after suffering from it for many years, she decided to leave home. [...] Luckily, in the far away land where she found herself, rocks and trees and trains and cars could be gods, and so she started collecting 37 small stones, of varying sizes and shapes."
Whereas suicide, as a whole, is about the discovery of magic and the animation of inanimate things, and their significance for the construction of a desiring self, 37 Stories takes the belief in magic as a structural starting point. This gives the project a certain kind of mythic framework. Furthermore, it guarantees that the Oni story connects the various Japanese women interviewed, as well as the opening (but for the rest of the film absent) daughter from the West, who hopes to discover the power of the magic by making a film, "not in a straight line..."
After this introduction a young woman tells a recurring childhood dream in which her family is repeatedly wiped out by a bomb. She explains the dream as having to do with her ambivalent feelings towards her family; how as a child she feared being separated from them, but at the same time wanted to get away from them as soon as possible. Thus, already in the beginning of this video, we are confronted by ambivalence, by the connecting and disconnecting of the machine of desire. A girl talks about how her parents never loved her, another woman speaks simply and movingly about how she remembers the songs her mother taught her. A middle-aged woman states that what she knows about love is limited, because since the age of 15 she has only been with her husband (who, she says, has made her very happy). But she also says that she would like to have the opportunity to think only of herself, "do whatever I want to do." An old grandmother comments: "My life just happened to me. Children and all. Laughable not?" And we see her laughing.
37 Stories About Leaving Home links all these singular and interrupted stories of affection, loneliness, loss, ambition, and strength to create a new complex, ambivalent and contradictory narration of love between mothers and daughters. The more we enter these different and personal perspectives about family, and especially Japanese female relationships, the more we realize how much love circulates between these subjects. But there is little possibility to articulate it properly:
"The children kept coming, one after the other. The more I had, the more I realized how my mother... must have suffered through the same thing, and I felt bad for the times I'd fought with her. By then Mother was old. Only death lay ahead... and then she died."
These last sentences of the video make evident that if you do not try to create something which touches you in the here and now, which gives space to your dreams, it inevitably will be too late. Trying not to be too late, the mother in the Oni myth sets off to find her daughter, performing and revealing her love. At the end of the story, the monster and his friends are about to catch the mother and daughter when they escape by showing their "most important place," their vaginas. This makes the monsters laugh so hard, the women are able to escape and save their lives.
The video ends magically, mythically. We hear the sound of drums, faces and bodies are lit by fireworks in the night. The images are similar to the strange atmosphere created by the visuals and the sound in the Oni myth: residing both in and out of time, and filled with love between mother and daughter. What 37 Stories reveals is that there is little place for this very special relationship in a patriarchal and capitalist country like Japan: there is no home for their desires. (Also in the West there is no room for the strong feelings between mothers and daughters). It is a line which seems to be cut off, and the traditional Oni myth functions as only a trace of it.
Finally, in 37 Stories About Leaving Home Silver paints a world that all woman can enter into and recognize. Silver does not try to suggest a world of a global sisterhood, for we realize there are too many differences and gaps. But she engenders a complex patchwork of female desire floating through many bodies, faces, ages, generations, and ideologies. We do not only have to think about living under a bad spell and having to leave immediately, but perhaps we can also think about coming home, hugging our mothers, our daughters, "finding ourself" (or selves). An old woman relates:
"My parents always told me, once you leave the family to become a wife this is no longer your home.... In Japan, there's a saying: 'A woman has no home in this world'."
Perhaps the disappeared daughter from New York reappears at the end, showing not her own home, but, along with the mother and daughter of the Oni tale, revealing her 'most important place.' This place, in the eyes of the monsters, is uncanny (un"heim"lich), a nothing, a castrated and therefore castrating absence which cannot be faced (up to), provoking mad, uncontrollable laughter. But in the eyes of others, the daughter's creation of a metaphorical place in which many wishes of very different women can co-exist, intersect and circulate, is a place full of meaning.
In all of the works discussed above, sexuality, love and desire are not only fundamental human life forces, but crucial factors for identity and subjectivity, especially (but not only) as it concerns female subjectivity. These subjectivities are never homogenous or fixed. They are rather intersected by different streams and flows, subjected to various intensities and qualities, always drifting and changing, but not in the popular "free floating" sense. (Female) Subjectivity rather seems to start from a permanent state of crisis, and includes a "going to the dogs." S/he is out of her home, out of herself, caught in a stream of images. Acting out the crisis, incorporating it, she makes evident that this crisis is more than just a personal situation: she embodies a global human condition which is (politically, socially, gender specific etc.) varying and varied, but in a certain sense, about becoming female -- if female denotes a specific structural position within a setting of power relations. She is a "posthuman, nomadic subject." (6)
Silver’s works are about subjectivity, or rather about the ”femininity” of subjectivity in the age of its medial construction. And they perform it. 37 Stories About Leaving Home deals with identification through narration, incorporating it through addition and similarity: she is from New York, from Japan (and she is not). She is grandmother, mother, and daughter (and she is not). Whereas 37 Stories About Leaving Home uses human characters, so-called third persons interviewed by a disappeared author, in small lies, Big Truth the human characters are gone, split into mute animals and contemplative voices. Identification is performed by the un/likeness between animal and voice, as well as by the shifting pronouns the speaking voices use. And finally in suicide, a monologue, or rather, a dialogue with the images captured by the eye of the filmmaker's camera is performed. The narrator's technical eye and textual I communicate constantly with her surroundings. Becoming part of it she sometimes switches "to the other side" (of the camera) and for a very short time her always absent body is represented as an image for our consumption. In this last video we identify with her by miming, occupying and embodying the continuous empty place of the speaking "I", literally becoming and getting lost in the switching "I".
All these various ways of identifications with a s/he, or I, which is not me, but an other one, an alien, a non-human, are driven by the wish of participating with, and becoming part of, the productivity or the text of an other. It is driven by the desire to perform the pleasure of interaction, constantly merging with other flows of desire. Subjectivity in Silver’s sense means loosing the boundaries, becoming the flows, cuts, and stops. Becoming a text, a texture of desire.
(1) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism & Schizophrenia, The Viking Press, NYC, 1977, pg. 5.
(2) Margaret Morse: Virtualities. Television, Media Art and Cyberculture, U. of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1998, pg. 9.
(3) Ibid., Morse.
(4) N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, U. of Chicago Press, 1999, pg. 6.
(5) Ibid., Deleuze and Guattari, pg. 23
(6) see Rosi Braidotti's Nomadic Subjects and N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman.