action, en passant
As we pass through the city, most of our observations and encounters are accidental. People we see on a bus, someone passing by in a car, fellow pedestrians on the pavement. They go by unnoticed, a few stick out, reminding us of something, or surprising us. The rest is drift.
Rarely, we observe an action. Something that is happening in order to mark a particular place, a moment, a social condition. Figures that are neither drifting, nor intervening – in the sense of interrupting an ongoing social process, nor performing – in the sense of a deliberate play that sets itself apart from that social process, or that represents something other than itself. Figures that act through passing by, like an art action that is woven into the fabric of the everyday, creating a rupture, an opening. Nothing too unusual.
See an intruder pass by. A human-like figure in a white mask that covers the entire body, walks through the busy downtown streets of an African city. If we were not there when the action happened, we follow this action on video.
Street vendors, passers-by, almost all black African people, watch the figure in amazement: it is dressed in an all-white cotton suit with a large head cover – not a business suit, but a costume with arms and legs that covers the entire body and hides all detail. The figure carries a stick. Neither the face nor the hands are visible, the impression is that of a tall guy, but even whether it is really a man can only be guessed. The shining white of the suit stands out among the red sand of the streets and houses, among the colourful dresses and the dark skins of the people around. A huge attention grabber. People shout, they make comments or address the figure directly. They call, “Hey, white guy!”, and while the mask is indeed white, it is not clear what or whom it conceals. Since this cannot be ascertained, the mask is taken for what it is: a large, silent figure with an intense social presence, it is there not only among but also for the people, to watch and wonder about. Pure presence, blank visibility. Some women at the market are scared; they hide from the figure or run away. We see children who feel impelled to go near the figure and touch it. Passing by.
Observe a woman in modern dress as she walks through the streets of Belgrade, holding a gun in her hand. If we did not see her there, we observe the action on video and in photographs.
No one seems to take notice of the rifle that the woman is carrying casually as she walks through different parts of Belgrade. In her other hand she holds a white plastic bag, that universal container of consumer society, always a sure sign of banality. She wears a leather jacket and jeans, her blond hair and fair face are radiant. She walks with a purpose, but there is neither rush nor panic in her movements. She knows where she is going. We may come to know that she passes by specific places in the city where, over sixty-five years ago, during the Second World War, the Yugoslav resistance movement staged actions against the German occupation. We may come to know that the woman is the artist herself. She is not re-enacting, because in her walk there is not the slightest implication of repeating the actions that it commemorates. Her walk is a form of mapping and marking the memory of a city. Implicitly, the action also pinpoints the ephemerality of that memory: there are no monuments to the partisan actions that she re-visits and most pedestrians around her have no inkling of the historical dimensions of those places. But why is it that nobody seems to take notice of the gun she is holding? Is it because a gun turns into an insignificant object when it is not held up and pointed at somebody? Is it because it is such a normal object that it easily goes unnoticed – just like a plastic bag would? Or is it because here a gun carried openly is something that can be expected in a city from where, fifteen years earlier, men would set out at the weekend to support the military actions of Serb troops against Croatians and Bosnians in the neighbouring republics? Even if at the time those guns were not carried around in the open, everybody knew of those excursions and knew that guns were being moved about in car boots and large bags. Here instead, the gun is made invisible by being held with no effort to hide it. Gun, bag and face are camouflage, each for the others. Passing by.
See a man walking through the streets of Mexico City at a fast pace. He holds a pistol in one hand, pointed towards the ground. It takes only minutes until he is stopped and arrested by police. If we were not there when the action happened, we follow this action on video.
The man has just bought a pistol. The scene is rushed and full of nervousness. The tension of a city that does not trust its inhabitants seems concentrated in him. He seems to have no specific destination, but the gun he holds needs a target, even an arbitrary one, and that is what makes him dangerous. His stiff arm is waiting to be raised at someone, at something. We wait for this to happen. Utter provocation. It won’t happen. Then the police arrive, bringing additional fear to the scene. Whereas most have to just let the errant man pass, the policemen must attack him; who knows how he will react. The man is passive as he is arrested. He is held, taken to the police car and searched without putting up any resistance. He is pushed into the police car, which then drives away.
A short while later, the scene is repeated. We may come to know that the man is the artist himself who, after his arrest, convinced the police that he was an artist with no bad intentions, so that they would allow him to re-stage the entire scene once again, this time with their consent. In the gallery where the video is shown, there are two projections on the same screen, and we notice at second glance that the second video, projected on the right, which apparently shows the same scene in the same places, is not identical with the first; not a rendition of the same action recorded with a different camera. The second video shows the documentation of a re-enactment of the first. Only the first video, on the left, has a time code running – showing that the arrest takes place just over twelve minutes after the figure took up the gun. The re-enacted version betrays the complicity of the policemen when, during the arrest, the camera is all too close to the body search and then even enters the police car for a moment before the image cuts back to a distant position from where the car can be observed as it drives off, as in the first video.
This construction becomes fully clear only when the videos are shown in the gallery. Someone sitting in a café on the figure's route may wonder why, within less than an hour, the same guy walks along the street with a gun, allowing himself to be arrested by the police in the same spot as before. Possibly he sees the people with the video cameras which suggest the artificiality of the action – although even that is no longer certain in times of Reality TV. Passing by.
See a figure pass by. A human-like figure walks the city dressed in a camouflage suit which covers its entire body in a brownish grey cloud of cloth strips. We observe this action on the street, or documented in photographs and video. We are invited to don the suit ourselves.
We see a figure moving through the city, slowly, carefully, its human features hidden by a mass of fabric. The suit renders not only the individual who is wearing it invisible, its camouflage design also obscures the presence of the figure itself, blending in with the grey colour of concrete and the shades of grey and green of plants. A useful and flexible form of camouflage. When the figure passes through the polished modernist environments of glass and steel, it stands out in stark contrast, but even then the figure – a figment – is visually so vague and indistinct that it is hard to imagine that it might be concealing a person. The being is somehow “less”, it is less of a human figure, less of a presence, less. Out of focus. Without clear borders or contours. Not a marker but a blurring.
A telephone number published in the local newspaper connects to an anonymous voice that relates the position of the camouflage suit, at times stored in a red box, or hidden in a corner of the city. Any city. The suit can be put on for a stroll through the city, turning the wearer into the anonymous figure. Passing by.
Observe how a big lump of felt is being carried from Kennedy airport in New York and brought to a taxi; it could contain a person. Driven away by the cab, the lump of felt reappears in an art gallery where the man who was hidden in it will spend a week with a coyote in an enclosed space. Afterwards he will again be rolled up in felt and carried back to the airport, leaving the country without having seen anything but the gallery space, having communicated with nobody but the coyote. If we were not there, we follow the action on photographs.
The felt cover protects and insulates the man from the city. He traverses the city in a soft limbo. Is the city also being protected from him? From a distance, it looks as though a corpse was being carried around. Nothing too unusual.
In the gallery, a space is prepared with several materials, a stick, some straw, separated by metal bars. A coyote is waiting. The man in the lump of felt is carried inside. Over the next hours and days, a quiet communication of gestures and movements and words will unfold between man and beast. Maybe obscure, maybe transparent. What does it mean that the scene can be watched from beyond the gallery bars? Who is being protected from whom? And what does the man take back to wherever he goes after his departure from the airport that he is again taken to, rolled up in felt? What does he leave behind? Passing by.
See a shadow pass by. We see photo documentation of a woman’s everyday actions. The style of the photographs suggests that they were taken by a distant observer who did not want to be noticed – like a private detective.
We may come to know that the artist asked her mother to hire a private eye to spy on the artist, documenting her life. What looks innocent to the detective are actions that are happening under the condition that they are being observed by somebody who is not present on the scene. The complicity of the middle-person who does the hiring is not so much with the detective, but with the assumed victim who, in the bigger picture, is the true perpetrator of everything that happens: she initiates the hiring, thus indirectly controls the observation, and she performs the actions that are being observed and documented.
All of this is obscure to the uninformed onlooker on the site: here we see a woman in the streets or in a café, alone or with others, acting unobtrusively. Or we may notice the person who, like a detective, or a stalker, seems to be observing someone – it is unlikely that we will get a clear impression of the person he is observing. Either, or.
In the resulting photographs however, the same actions take on a different meaning. They indicate a story that is to emerge from the fragments we see, a crime or a love affair to be hidden, a secret to be revealed. Actions that have no particular significance when we observe them, but by having been singled out in the photograph become relevant – for what? For the woman? As voyeurs of the documented actions, we become seduced; accomplices to an exhibitionist of a special kind. Passing by.
Observe a woman who stands in the street. Her upper body is naked, but strapped around her shoulders is a box that covers her breasts. The box has a little curtain at the front. She invites people to put their hands through the curtain and touch her breasts. If we were not there at the time, we observe the action on photographs or film.
People are standing around her, there is laughter and excitement in the air, photographers are taking pictures. Somebody is there with a megaphone, making a statement about film and mediation. A public affair. Maybe a scandal.
The box that covers her breasts creates a rupture in the imagination of her nakedness, of the supposed availability of her breasts to a desiring gaze. The box covers and hides, yet with the curtain it provides an opening, not for the gaze, but for the hand. While the encounter of the two people takes place in public, the touching of hand and breast is hidden away from public observation. As observers we can only fantasise about the two sensations, of touching, and of being touched. Passing by.
See a cloud pass by. We see a person wearing a sort of cloak of different fabrics, a patchwork of pieces in different shape and colour, creating an asymmetrical open form that is set into motion by movements of the arms and the rest of the body. We may see this action in a street, or in an art gallery, or documented in photographs.
We may also see other people in other ‘cloaks’ or wearable tents, equally patched together, but in different shapes and colours. Each creates a mobile sculptural structure that is determined by the body of the wearer and his or her movements. The free form invites a free movement of the body, like in a dance.
The person is protected, yet neither hidden nor camouflaged. The figure that we see is a hybrid of person and cloak, a kinetic sculpture that only happens when somebody slips into it and makes it come alive with his or her body movements. The figure-sculpture opens up to the surrounding space, it is a spatial configuration in flux, folding – unfolding. It draws nearby observers into the spatial dance; it transgresses the corporal boundary of the individual and redefines the collective space as a flux-space, eroding the border between wearing and watching. Passing by.
Watch four human-like figures move across a limited square floor according to strict rules and movement patterns. We follow the action on a television screen.
The identical-looking figures wear large hooded cloaks that cover them from head to toe, the large hood covering the head so completely that no face can be seen. No physical features can be discerned, save for arms that are folded in front of chests. The cloaks have different colours, so that four figures can be distinguished, even though their movements appear close to identical – the fact that they are apparently not fully identical suggests that the cloaks are worn by four different individuals, each with there own particular pace.
They enter the surface one after the other, walking in identical movement patterns. We seem to be observing an algorithmic machine, an impression that is particularly strong when they cross the middle simultaneously in a synchronised semi-circle, turning the symmetry of the movements into a single, more complex collective movement.
After a defined number of sequences, the figures leave the square one after the other, disappearing as fast as they came onto the stage, until only one figure is left, closing the cycle and beginning the next one without interruption. Then the other figures again begin to join in – the square is never left empty. The movement programme appears open-ended, though the video registration ends after two full cycles. Passing by.
Back to our own walk, to our own drifting, to our own passing by. Roles, styles, clothes and gaits we choose. Action.
Note: Actions by: Vincent Meessen (The Intruder
), Milica Tomic (One day, instead of one night, a burst of machine-gun fire will flash, if light cannot come otherwise
), Francis Alys (Re-enactments
), knowbotic research (MacGhillie
), Joseph Beuys (I love America and America loves Me
), Sophie Calle (The Shadow
), Valie Export (Tapp und Tastkino
), Helio Oiticica (Parangolé
), Samuel Beckett (Quadrat I
Published in: A. Broeckmann, Knowbotic Research (eds.): Opaque Presence. Manual of Latent Visibility.
Berlin, Zurich: diaphanes