No regret to not inform

blogger’s delinquency: although posted in march 08, this was written in october 07

Last week I went with a couple of friends to the Renaissance Society in Chicago to see a new piece by Steve McQueen called Gravesend, a 17 minute video (transferred from 35 mm film, projected in a HUGE dark space) about coltan mining in the Congo.

The poster essay [see Renaissance Society website] written by Hamza Walker describes the film as “unapologetically abstract” and “resolutely purged of any information illustrating economic links….”

I feel unapologetically bothered about such an artistic strategy.

I’ m sure many will find the piece beautiful. In the most arresting sequences we see or barely see in the dim light, miners (black), shoveling in a chiaroscuro pit. We see close-ups of their hands (black) picking little bits out of muddy clumps or out of walls or breaking larger clumps with a hammer, again to pick the bits from the chunks and wash them in a stream…. And then we see close-ups of industrial processes, preternaturally clean, featuring a robotic arm seizing and repositioning what look like coltan ingots to further, in mechanical rhythm, a process we don’t understand. Linking the shots of hands groping mud and the machinic purity, nothing more than a black and white animation of squiggly lines based on the currents or geographic track of the Congo River. After the precise robotic sorting of ingots, we will soon restart the loop back at the mine, after stopping for a ponderous sunset over an industrial harbor, ostensibly referring to the English town of Gravesend, from which the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, relates his tale. No additional contexts along the supply chain. Not an abstract peek at that terribly abstract thing, the markets trading coltan futures and other derivatives, nor, more concretely, the parts that go into cell phones and computers or the hands that assemble those goods, nor the price, feature and brand wars that keep cell phones “moving” in the market, nor the mountains of phones abandoned for new models. Outside of the camera’s tight frames on the bodies laboring in shadows and their eager hands, nothing about the decades of war and atrocity in the scramble to control the mineral resources of the Congo.

That job is left to the curator’s essay (Walker’s) which does provide some history and general details about the Democratic Republic of Congo and the economics of coltan. So, the division of labor referenced in McQueen’s film – both obliquely and obviously– is reiterated in the gallery: artist will do the resolutely purified positioning of parts and curator will do the heavy lifting of background explaining and connecting to lived histories in our world now. This is not the only place that conventional divisions of symbolic labor are observed.

I appreciate an artistic practice that declines the duty of informing. After all, information is everywhere and the urgent need seems to be how to get it to matter to people. If the information is there already, why should an artist spoil his art with it? Better to make something that motivates people to find out more, absorb such knowledge, come to their own conclusions regarding what to do about it.

But is this the only option? A friend that went to the show with me said that maybe the artist wanted to be sure not to slide into documentary forms. On that matter Walker’s essay says:

While its unembellished footage brings it into a discursive relationship with documentary and other forms of reportage, Gravesend above all else is a poem, and an epic one at that. Strikingly beautiful, and supremely ambitious, it is a highly formal meditation that speaks by looking.

Another division of labor. Why does the artist add his heft to the well guarded boundary between documentary and poem? That’s obvious enough; in most people’s minds documentary and reportage are jobs: toiling, grunting and sometimes even paid labor that must adhere to a form set by the social, a form that clearly sets out information and obviates or disguises bias by obeying conventions that certify objective or at least reliable information. The poem is the inspired offering of a special individual, moved by a refined sensibility to give form to elegant perceptions regardless of the object being perceived. The poem glimmers and radiates; the document hopes to shed light. It’s assumed that these polar pursuits–the documentary and the poem–loose status by sliding toward each other. The poetic documentary finds its credibility compromised. The poem with a job to inform is déclassé, forfeiting much of its prestige.

The only problem is that none of this is really true anymore. The degree to which such pure categories existed was the degree to which we wanted to believe in them. That was relatively easy during the swells of modernism in the last century, but now a rigid adherence to such divisions is more forced than ever. The conventions of documentary objectivity have never been entirely stable to begin with and for years now practitioners have been quite consciously reinventing the form along with our expectations of certifiable truth claims. Scores of media makers take on documentary subjects and methods while simultaneously interrogating the form itself, inflecting it in idiosyncratic ways. The issue for viewers is shifting from a position of accepting or not accepting a delivered truth to examining their own media literacy [and how what we perceive acquires meaning]. Given the endless proliferation of competing truth claims in our media environment, it becomes incumbent on viewers to develop their skills at evaluating both information and opinion and in the process to grapple with the ethics implied in their response.

One of the more perverse aspirations of some threads of high modernism was the constitution of pure visual experience. In certain frames this was the ultimate poetry for visual artists and apparently the criterion is still meaningful to some as this passage from Walker’s essay suggests:

Over and above any socio-economic and political machinations, Gravesend favors discreet outward appearances. For McQueen, the facts of the matter are visual and visual alone as Gravesend’s stunning production values attest. He insists that Gravesend “first and foremost is about looking,” even at the expense of knowing what we are observing. Textual footholds are dismissed; no maps, no dialogue, no villains, and no experts.

According to Walker’s statement, it seems the artist of this poetic product has taken on himself a “just the facts” protocol much more exclusive than those embraced by most artists dealing with complex contemporary issues and the feelings attached to them. It is rare that an artist desiring to further the discourse about a given issue and unafraid of being contaminated by a whiff of documentary, would take on a method that is visual and visual alone.

Why do some artists continue to restrict themselves to a set of parameters that is artistically exhausted and perhaps even morally complicit with the status quo? With or without stunning production values, insisting that the facts of any matter are visual alone is a position that studiously avoids the troubling questions about that matter. In this case the artist proves to us that he commands the resources to travel to presumably remote mines in the Congo, gain access to high tech manufacturing schemes, and insist on visual perfection. The subject matter of the film—an historic situation that is complex and tragic—elevates his work from mere poem to “epic” poem. The film depicts an implacable system containing human and nonhuman parts but ultimately not subject to human agency. The system is beyond our comprehension and within it no victims or villains muss the abstraction. The messenger of this cosmos is beyond good and evil and depicts his subject in the same mirror.

The complex concatenation of systems that describe the economic life of coltan is full of winners and losers, more and less numbing or fatal. Finally we the viewers, typically in the US or UK or EU, are lumped with the winners. Though the stakes for us are debatable, we gain from not thinking too precisely about practices that treat products depending on coltan mining like infinitely replaceable, always obsolete technology, i.e., garbage. Like the profiteers in the supply chain, whether they are war lords who manage labor with the end of a gun, or corporate executives who do business obtaining the mineral blindly through “opaque” brokers, we are not to be interrupted by moral considerations of the violence that makes our consumables not just available but affordable, finally dispensable.

But in the gallery, the high ground we are offered is to be beyond good and evil. In the art world, for artists, institutions and viewers, this buys prestige. When a definition of prestige is consistently more amenable to the interest of winners than losers we can only suspect its underpinnings.

There are many good reasons to eschew the haggard forms recognized as photographic “documentary.” Especially when we meet these images in the field of consumption instead of in the context of specific cases made by human rights organizations to stimulate action. That is a world in which visible evidence still can put people on the spot, and in many cases is required in the long slog for influence. But beyond the specialized propaganda wars of NGOs, corporations and governments, conventional documentary makes many of us feel powerless: either guilty and hopeless, or, if we are equipped with a sophisticated critique of the form, effectively off the hook.

Perhaps this aspect of documentary is part of what moves McQueen to maintain the high art fortress intended to protect his work from such a dreary fate. He has gone to great trouble to make a work about a deeply troubling subject, a world inextricably shadowing our daily life. Even though I am critical of the strategy, I don’t really want to judge his intentions.

I’m not looking for art whose methods and purpose can be collapsed to a function of conveying information. But neither am I interested in works that collapse their possibilities into the narrow spectra delineated by a false opposition between the documentary and the poetic. The kind of creativity that intrigues me rejects both of these well-trodden options in order to explore the huge and murky territory not defined by either.


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2 Responses to “No regret to not inform”

  1. pedrovel Says:

    Just saw this great response to that show and wanted to share with you my own review of it published some time ago in artnet:

  2. Coltan: The New Blood Diamond? | stevemcqueengravesend Says:

    […] “I appreciate an artistic practice that declines the duty of informing. After all, information is everywhere and the urgent need seems to be how to get it to matter to people. If the information is there already, why should an artist spoil his art with it? Better to make something that motivates people to find out more, absorb such knowledge, come to their own conclusions regarding what to do about it.” (Source: Publicamateur, 2008, No regret to not inform, [Link]) […]

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