The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Following the recent experimental TV broadcast of Silvia Kolbowski’s video project, critic and theorist Emily Apter spoke with the artist about her two works After Hiroshima Mon Amour and A Few Howls Again? Silvia Kolbowski’s work is political in many registers: psychoanalysis, feminism, conceptualism, institutional critique, the ethics of spectatorship, war and memory, and the fate or afterlife of radical subjects, be they historical events or people. In 2009’s “Dear Silvia,” a print and audio work, a young girl reads 31 e-mails from nonprofit political organizations urging action and contributions in the absence of government action. The text project “When Even Good News Worsens a Panic,” plays off a typical financial news media byline, and in the slide and audio installation “Proximity to Power: American Style,” businessmen and media moguls, along with adolescent boys, answer questions about their relation to those more powerful than they. An excerpt from A Few Howls Again? (AFHA), one of the projects discussed in this conversation, was broadcast on Visión Siete Internacional, an international news show on public television in Buenos Aires.

Emily Apter (Rail): In discussion you often bring up the symptomatic foreclosure of psychic life in what is recognized as “politics,” at least in contemporary North America—impasse, blockage, hostage-taking, breakdown, double binds, blind spots; these name politics at the current pass. What do you think about this? How does your work engage this problem?

Silvia Kolbowski: We live in a puritanical country of psyche-deniers. The White House and Congress are drowning in the language of self-determination, which denies the complexities of the human psyche, let alone the complexities of the psyche’s response to the endless hurdles put in place by an iniquitous society. Oprah intones ceaselessly about how the human will can triumph over any adversity—including institutionalized poverty, racism, and sexism. If a politician reveals struggles with depression, their career is damaged if not ruined. Most academics and journalists of the left seem to be embarrassed by the thought of having to take mass and individual psychology into account in analyzing politics. And I would say that even in much of what is called critical or political art, the psyche is a blind spot. And yet public life is inseparable from the psychical realm.

For more than a decade I have raised the issue, at public cultural events or in writings or implicitly through projects, of how important it is to try to understand why mass populations can be in thrall to the political, media, and corporate forces that undermine them. It’s really not sufficient to explain this enthrallment by saying that passivity is engendered by entertainment or our educational systems. The United States population remains overwhelmingly passive in the face of years of assaults on their civil liberties and basic material needs. Politicians may gloss over the “insecurities” felt by the great majority of the American population today, but we have no popular capacity to understand this in ways that would be required to save this country from what looks increasingly like an unstoppable downward spiral.

In my artwork I often find myself presenting psychical processes and conflicts as they arise through memory, or I try to create a space of spectatorship that draws out an affective response, that stages a political challenge for the spectator. In almost all instances, I try to situate a historical event or period, while assuming that such work is not exclusive to a psychical dimension.

Rail: Can you say more about the specifics in your practice in regard to the “presentation of psychical processes and conflicts”?  How have specific works experimented with the psychic life of politics?

Kolbowski: For the last 15 years or so I’ve worked analogically in relation to a current political moment. In After Hiroshima Mon Amour (AHMA), the Iraq war and the abandonment of Katrina are looked at through the lens of the American bombing of Hiroshima. The video projection never mentions Iraq or New Orleans in its script, although footage is shown of both, albeit unidentified. AFHA? brings Ulrike Meinhof back to life, so to speak, from a newspaper death photo, in order to think about the ethics of state violence in the present moment. Has the United States actually ever dealt, on ethical or historical levels, with the atomic bombing of Japan? Have we wanted to recognize our own aggression? Have we faced the trauma of a kind of class and race warfare directed against New Orleans? Can working from history in a way that resonates with the present allow for a reciprocal reflection, from the past to the present, from the present to the past?

The two projects I mentioned present psychical processes and conflicts in a narrative sense. But my approach also attempts to understand the dynamics of spectatorship, and the spectator is always a spectator with an unconscious, and therefore an overdetermined memory. For me as an artist, the consideration of spectatorship is as important as are the “narrative forms” of the projects. In her time, Meinhof presented a major social conundrum as a leftist militant who was also a mother and a lapsed pacifist, and who had been an incisive and respected female journalist/commentator. The anger heaped on her during her time as a militant, while she was in prison, and even after her death—was it overdetermined to some extent by her status as a woman who was angry about injustice, angry to the point of violence? Is that one of the reasons why the public Meinhof became a projection of people’s anxieties and displaced fears? She remains a fixation for many, and sometimes a screen memory as well. That collective process of fixation is not just a conscious one. So while people cull timelines and historical facts about Meinhof and the Red Army Faction, it’s also important to look at the psychical processes involved in her historicization, and its consequences for the present. I think art offers a means for such considerations because it isn’t burdened by even a pretense to empirical proof—or it shouldn’t be.

Rail: Henrietta Stanford, in a text about your Meinhof project, borrows a phrase from the novelist Henry Green—“dreading forward”—and applies it to AFHA?’s “‘stop-photo animation’ technique, which holds the same frame on the screen for an extended period…and then the next…and then the next.”

Stanford arrives at a Freudian model that she calls “staying anxious.” This model “carries within it a certain psychic and political utility; it becomes a way of ensuring the mind can effectively endure—and respond accordingly to painful realities of contemporary life; conveying a protective ‘signal’ which alerts the ego to an impending menace, it is a ‘way of staying in relation to history without being consumed by it.’ ”

Would you agree that anxiety’s affective charge enables us to avoid becoming mired in passivity, inertia, and despair? With Meinhof—re-enacted but not idealized—are we enjoined to “keep vigil in the face of unpleasurable anxieties”?

Kolbowski: When I first read Henrietta’s text on AFHA? I had the uncanny sense that she had somehow gotten inside my psyche. I didn’t think, when I was producing the work, that its actual form—a particular use to which the mediums of photography and video lend themselves—would be anxiety-producing. But many people have responded to AFHA? by telling me that the form itself frightened them, made them feel anxious.

Video still, After Hiroshima Mon Amour, 2005-2008. Video and 16mm film; 22 mins.

I am comforted by knowing as much as I can about the dire state of national and global crises, and also made very anxious by that knowledge. I find Henrietta’s model profoundly enlightening for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a way of responding to the activist left’s well-meaning but pragmatic—and I think for that reason ultimately ineffectual—injunction to avoid the inertia and passivity produced by despair and anxiety over our economic and socio-political decline. Don’t despair! Act! Resist! How different is that from Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” or Nike’s “Just do it”? Henrietta’s model offers a way of sublimating the anxiety of despair into something else. And it allows for a turning toward that which produces anxiety, toward the very things from which the Right would deflect us. I was very struck by that way of seeing the Meinhof project. I hadn’t initially thought of using the stop-photo animation technique in the work. I had intended to use a series of projected photos with titles. But so many photos arose out of the shoot that I realized during the editing phase that I could make a kind of animation out of them. A visual jumpiness resulted. That was a happy accident because the stop-motion effect seems to solicit a relevant affective response from the spectator.

Rail: With “staying anxious” there is a strange solidarity forged between programmed catastrophism—“dreading forward”—and political resilience. It aptly describes what happened over the course of two sessions I had with you in preparation for our collaborative presentation at Princeton. In the two-week interval between our discussions of your 2008 video AHMA the 9-point earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. “After Hiroshima” became part of an uncannily foretold sequence we thought of as “after Fukushima.” We entered the state of “staying anxious,” looking straight ahead at the prospect of nuclear catastrophe and the myriad smaller environmental disasters encountered daily—fracking, acid rain, poisoned water, toxic air—that add up to catastrophe in slow motion. Our political hope, under these conditions, becomes, precisely, suspense.

Kolbowski: And now we’re in a post-Tropical Storm Irene phase, where in many places in the Northeast the past has literally been washed away, with no clarity on this extreme weather event coming from those with top official power. Now, that is anxiety-producing, and as Meinhof wrote, we can “fight melancholy with coffee” or “vapid sobriety with schnapps,” or, to invoke Henrietta’s concept, maybe we can “stay anxious” and alert to possible strategies of resistance.

Rail: To continue with the moment we’re in, the word that comes to my mind is dysphoria—a depressive position suffusing every aspect of social and economic life. When you evoke an “unstoppable downward spiral” in relation to the “thrall of populations to political, media, and corporate forces that undermine them,” the word that condenses this condition for me is dysphoria: from the Greek δύσφορος (dysphoros), from δυσ- (difficult), and φέρειν (to bear). It is defined as an unpleasant or uncomfortable mood; sadness, a downer moment, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, spleen, bipolar disorder or manic swings, withdrawal (from addictive cravings), the total evacuation of euphoria.

But, in searching for a way to politicize planetary depression, how does one avoid the trap of personifying supra-individual entities like the nation or the “neoliberal economy, ” whose logic is coextensive with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its Romney-inflected expression: “Corporations are people, my friend!” Imputing a psyche to political groups or “the globe” is one problem, but the alternative is equally problematic, which is to remain stuck on subjects without affect or critical consciousness: legal persons, consumers, voters, possessive individualists.

Maybe we should explore the possibilities of a politics of discorporation that would bring a psychoanalytic critique of incorporation and identification to bear on the ethical disbarring of corporate interests.

A blogger wrote in reaction to Romney’s remark: “I propose that we call the death penalty for corporations ‘discorporation,’ and that we make a ceremony out of it.” What do you think about a politics of “discorporation”?

Kolbowski: That’s a difficult question. With regard to imputing a psyche to political groups or “the globe,” I can readily admit that a psychoanalytic perspective could never be a primary strategy for solving the kinds of problems produced by runaway capitalism, the fight for global resources, the legacies of colonialism, etc. Having said that, I don’t share your concern about an inappropriate personification of institutions, because institutions are inherently relational. A point that Mignon Nixon brings out in her 2005 text “On the Couch” has always stayed with me. She quotes Jean Laplanche’s observation about transference having always already existed outside the clinic. In fact, I read Mignon’s text as an argument for how to consider psychoanalysis in a setting larger than the analyst’s office or the clinic, to consider the role of transference even in art. Freud did not “invent” transference. He gave a name to the types of relational displacements that already existed in the world, even if his focus was on the psychoanalytic setting. But what’s interesting about understanding the dynamics of transference in terms of the political and mass realms is that transference often encompasses unbalanced relations among those with more or less of something. And to me that is one description of the current situation—whether that something is money, power, resources, access, status, etc. And while those relations are concrete, they don’t lack phantasmatic components. What affects are getting displaced, by whom, for whom, and onto whom?

In my exchange with the artist Walid Raad a few years ago, I paraphrased from Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage, which I had just seen performed in Central Park. In this version of the play, Mother Courage says something like, “The people like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering; they know their investment means there’s a good chance of victory.” So when we try to understand why people would identify with those who have a ruthless disregard for them, we have to think about why identification with exploitative greed at the top might keep people from demanding better treatment. I just can’t think about political situations today without thinking about the psychical component, without thinking about transference out in the world. But I’m an artist, and so I try to formulate my activism through my art, although I’m often slotted into the category of an artist who makes “critical” art and is an activist on the side. But I don’t think about my work that way at all.

Above and below: Video stills, A Few Howls Again?, 2010. Video loop; 9 mins.

Rail: I take your point about why one might want to retain a personification of institutions as a way of apprehending transferential displacements. I think my worry was directed at allegories of World System or the Planet or Capitol that impute subjective personalities to political entities and geographic phantasms, as if placing them like sovereign avatars in the cosmic space-frame of a video game or turning them into epic characters subject to pathetic fallacy. 

Your work mitigates the pitfalls of this kind of thinking in grand abstractions. It trains the spectator to analyze material events at specific historical junctures; to become informed through activist data-mining. In a piece like AFHA? you use the technique of the close-up to look into the “face” of “the terrorist.” One begins to see more clearly the psychopolitical continuity between frustrated thymotic impulses on an individual scale (the rage provoked by thwarted political agency) and a militant planetary politics that embraces dogma in the face of slack conviction. Meinhof’s depression—cavernous eyes, baleful stare, bloodless flesh—stands in for a global depressive position; an economy contoured more and more by a recessionary drive; tipping increasingly toward destitution, exhausted resources, distributive injustice, clinical psychosis.

Kolbowski: You’re describing a symptomology of sorts—rage, dogma, depression. Freud considered the symptom a formation of the return of the repressed. These days I notice more and more that the very word capitalism is being repressed in mainstream political discourse. In the context of unregulated capitalism, especially in the United States, class inequity is repeatedly repressed. Even liberals, of course, don’t want to talk about that. I remember that in 1989, when my son attended the politically liberal Public School 3 in Manhattan, I was vilified at a parents’ meeting for pointing out that he and his classmates seemed to make friends across racial lines in the school, but not so much across class lines. I was accused of trying to restore a class division that they had worked so hard to erase. Should politicians think about what has been repressed in their countries or regions? Globally? No politician will move us out of the United States’ ever-rightward shift without being able to understand such a concept. And although some on the left believe we should give up on legislative politics altogether, give up on the state, is there really a viable other choice in a country this size?

But frankly, although being an artist who reads has made me sensitive to such issues, that is not my area of knowledge, expertise, or skill! For me, one burning question is what art can contribute to a struggle for equity that no other profession or discipline can offer. There is a loose debate around art and activism that seems to be slowly coming to a head these days. For example, I define my artworks as activist, but usually the two categories of art and activism are polarized even today by those in the expanded realm of critical art (for want of a better term). I cannot believe, after all this time, and all the important discourses—like Rosalyn Deutsche’s and Hal Foster’s—that contributed to a more subtle understanding of the political realm of art, that we still seem to have such narrow definitions of activism or activist art. And I believe that narrowness is fully dependent on a denial of the psyche. Because it’s only by assuming that the civic being has no unconscious that we can project change as something that comes about without addressing shifts at the levels of fantasy, identification, displacement, etc. Those are not terms that are easily accepted, at least in this country, within the discourses of activism articulated by most artists I’ve spoken to about it. Most artists engaging in a discourse of activism still seem inclined to polarize art and activism, or to define activist art narrowly. This doesn’t mean, of course, that activist art can be defined so flaccidly that it incorporates even art that proposes no forms of resistance to the status quo.

Rail: How to access and reorient the political unconscious through art? That seems to be one of the central questions emerging from our exchange. Art, including conceptual and activist practice, is often hobbled by the assumption that the political unconscious can be awakened or somehow channeled differently if we are prompted to see things differently. So considerable effort goes into entraining viewers to perceive (or in literary parlance, “to read”) symptoms of radical injustice, political sham, extreme violence, dysphoria, etc. However, as we also know, shifts of fantasy, desire, objects of identification are not easy to effect even if their visual strategies succeed in fascinating viewers. If it were a simple matter of learning to become a symptomatic reader who learns to discern what hides in plain sight or lies buried in psychic furrows, art would be more successful at reprogramming the political unconscious.

Kolbowski: Accessing and reorienting the political unconscious, or awakening, channeling, or reprogramming a political unconscious—such methodologies are not ones with which I feel comfortable as an artist, because they imply a degree of overt instrumentality. The status that art still occupies in most capitalist countries, Eastern and Western, situates it most often in categories of transcendent experience, distracting entertainment, or free-floating market ciphers—I find troubling the idea of giving art an instrumental role in those contexts. Would that political or public policy today were instrumental in progressive ways, and not empty! And would that critical art practices today did not rush in where policy fears to tread. That is wheel-spinning at best, and an effacement of democratic and aesthetic possibilities at worst.

Maybe I can best respond to your comments by describing a recent experience that I had with regard to the Meinhof video, AFHA? A few months ago I was approached by the executive producer of an international news program that plays weekly on Argentine public television. This executive producer, Francisco Ali-Brouchoud, is someone who also has a sound and performative art practice and writes on art. He proposed to me that the Meinhof video be broadcast on the TV news show Visión Siete Internacional. It was very intriguing to me, and very exciting, because he didn’t want to create a “special” space for this video on the show. It wasn’t going to be shown during a discussion about art, or as a report on an exhibition. In a way, what he was proposing was that an excerpt of the video be shown as a way of looking at the political questions raised by the artwork itself, in the context of an anchor framing it with a historical account. After a two-month dialogue and effort at excerpting AFHA? (necessarily reduced to TV time), translation, negotiations with the anchors, etc., he recently managed to get such a segment on the air—an artwork presenting imagery and discourse different from typical news imagery and discourses. I think there is a lot of potential in this idea of using different media platforms for art without mimicking informational forms. It is also intriguing that this could be accomplished at this moment in Argentina.

Rail: Silvia, you are not unique among artists committed to redressing denial of the psyche in politics, but I think you are one of the few whose work mobilizes a soundtrack that complicates the delivery of visual fantasy. Your projects enjoin us to hear the phantasm (not just position it visually), especially when it howls but is not heard. Your title, A Few Howls Again? pays homage to a phrase, itself borrowed from the writings of the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte, that Ulrike Meinhof used in her 1968 broadside Water Cannons: Against Women, Too: “Malaparte’s image of dogs with slashed bellies who don’t howl because their vocal chords have also been cut is no longer totally apt. We are hearing a few howls again—at least a few.” I think AFHA? re-releases those thymotic howls—at least a few. 


Emily Apter


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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