Francisca Duran, Traje de Luces (Suits of Light) (2018). 16mm/HD video, 18:05 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.
FRAGMENTED VISIONS OF CONTROL
FRANCISCA DURAN’S CINEMA OF CUTS AND PUZZLES
HOW CAN WE SHIFT THE GAZE? How can we find the blind spots of our visual reality that point to the zones of discomfort where those things that we do not want to address linger? In her work Retrato Oficial 2 (2009), the Chilean-Canadian artist Francisca (Franci) Duran dismantles the classic painted portrait of the white male leader. In her film, this iconic image lurks in the background while a dictator speaks. By repeatedly disassembling and then reassembling the painting, the perspective slightly shifts—almost by mistake— and changes the image forever.
In contrast to theories of absence and haunting proposed by scholars such as Akira Lippit, Duran reveals the dimensions of presence under the conditions of censorship and control. By fragmenting and reassembling the images we take for granted, such as television screens, classical paintings, Google Earth shots and the written word on the page, Duran challenges our vision, our ideas of regulations and boundaries. Her obsession with detail forces us to look closer until we no longer see and in that crucial moment, curiously enough, our vision can broaden.
While theorists such as Akira Lippit and Trin T. Minh-ha have already meditated on the cinematic image as incomplete and fragmental due to its framing, I would like to depart from their discussions and argue that Franci Duran’s video work creates a new way of seeing and sensing through fractures and details and thus develops a theory and methodology of perception that brings the cinematic experience to new forms of resistance that may guide an escape from the gaze trapped in the normative that dominates our access to vision.
A meticulous obsession with detail is the main feature of the works of contemporary experimental media artist Franci Duran. She not only deconstructs her material, she carefully dissects it, exposing ingredients that when later reassembled, shift the image just enough to create something so far unseen. Just like Victor Frankenstein, Duran assembles existing parts. But unlike the literary character, she does not create a monstrous being; instead she illuminates the monsters of history, the ghosts that linger in the archives, and between the lines of historical documents.
In 1973, the United States backed a coup in Chile that overthrew the socialist president, Salvador Allende. Under the direction of President Richard Nixon, General Augusto Pinochet was installed and ruled Chile as a dictatorship that effectively lasted until the 1990s. Pinochet’s reign shadowed and impacted not only Chile, but the world.Duran and her parents were Chilean exiles who sought refuge in Canada. This article focuses on Duran’s short, time- based works because they all deal, in one way or another, with the long-lasting ghost of global dictatorship. By utilizing visual fragments and never allowing for a stable vision, her works prompts viewers to question their perception of and participation in historical and current events.
To understand the language of Duran’s moving images, it is best to begin with a discussion of In The Kingdom of Shadows, a film Duran made in 2006. It takes its title from the first line of a review by the Soviet writer and political activist Maxim Gorky. In 1896, Gorky watched a film that was part of the Lumière Cinema Program held at the Nizhni- Novgorod Fair. After watching The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896), he noted: “Last night, I was In The Kingdom of Shadows”.1
His shadows refer to the projections of images, the role of light in film, as well as the ghostly relationship between cinema and reality because in cinema’s early days, its (perfect) illusion of reality was frequently debated. By using that sentence as a title, Duran connects two fundamental inventions: the invention of the printing press (around 1439) and the invention of film over four hundred years later. Thus, Gorky’s kingdom of shadows becomes writing’s other and the words, which are swallowed by the image, are their main ingredient— a striking choice for a visual work of art.
The film shows a container filled with liquid lead and a typeset paragraph from Gorky’s review that melts in the container. It is set on an early twentieth-century Ludlow Typograph that wasn’t invented until 1906, ten years after Gorky’s text was published. Duran’s film parallels cinema and printing, connecting them as the words melt into the image, as the image becomes the words, the kingdom of shadows, in which voices, like ghosts, reassure presence. Eventually, the lead swallows the words, and the blank surface transforms into a screen for the The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.
Gorky’s words float in the pool of lead. They sink, painfully and slowly, and then disappear. In this time-consuming process, they expose a series of accidental meanings through highlighting phrases unforeseen. In an effort to describe the arriving train as an almost real experience, Gorky addresses the reader: “Watch out,” he writes, “it seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack of lacerated flesh and splintered bones and crushing into dust and broken fragments…”2 As the typeset lines flip over and drown, the phrase “but this too is a train of shadows” lingers on the surface. Particularly the word “shadows” floats for a long time distortedly in the lower part of the film’s frame, until the image is replaced by a train entering the station.
Duran’s In The Kingdom of Shadows develops from the words that compose a review of a film, not any film but the first film, to the actual moving image the review describes. Instead of showing a connection or attempting a comparative analysis between printing and cinema, or film reviews and film, Duran spends far more time on the actual words of the review instead of the image they describe. She deconstructs the words, and isolates them, revealing their potential as language, as words, as symbols, all while they disappear and melt into the container of poisonous lead. They create impressions and emotions that are entirely unrelated to Gorky’s original review of the short film that sparked them. They are no longer a comment inspired by the film but a time-based artwork of their own. Duran’s kingdom becomes a moving meditation on words—because printing is the process that visualizes words—by physically and slowly dismantling them.
Francisca Duran, In The Kingdom of Shadows (2006). 35mm / HD video, 6:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.
Most of Duran’s moving images play with words, letters, and details. They have a focus on language as a powerful force that can be disrupted and dismantled, a matter that consists of tiny graphic or phonic elements, which only make sense if united. Duran exposes this sense-making process by investigating letters and fragments of letters, as if they are as important as the constructs of the texts that they form. As clearly seen in In The Kingdom of Shadows, Duran questions the word-image hierarchy by using text as an image.
Avant-garde cinema has a long history of focusing on language. As film scholar Kim Knowles notices: “in experimental, or avant-garde, practice, the dialogue between film and language manifests itself as an interdisciplinary exchange that seeks to overturn this word- image hierarchy”.3 Knowles underlines her argument by discussing the works of Peter Rose that play with translations and word-fragments in the Futurist tradition. While Duran’s work can be placed within that tradition, she clearly prioritizes the word and yet does not question the place of the image. Her position is closer to Abigail Child’s who says in the preface of her book This is Called Moving: “Poetry provides me with ways of thinking about representation, about a politics of poetic practice, and about how words—and images— interact, grow, oppose, indicate, and construct the social.”4
Duran develops a poetic visual language that helps her to investigate the relationship between absence and presence in the context of the political archive, an archive that often consists of interacting words and images. This visual language also helps her to investigate the visual representation of words within the context of an image. Poetry is a strong form for marking absence by privileging presence over absence, not only by visually creating gaps and empty spaces on a page, (and thus redirecting the focus to the words) but also, and of course more so, in the language itself. In this sense, absence is the shadow of presence.
In his book Shadow Optics, film scholar Akira Lippit writes about the shadow: “Under the shadow, another form of life emerges, excluded from the archive that includes everything”.5 Taking his departure from Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (which can be read as a discussion of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism), Lippit perceives the archive as a written text and meditates about its role in (experimental) film. The empty spaces, the absences, in Lippit’s (textual) archive are not the things that have been lost but the things that have never been written. “Is the unwritable archived in the same fashion as the unwritten?”6 Lippit asks. He continues by constructing an economy of the secret.7 To him, the secret is not that which is lost, but that which is concealed.
The regime that replaced the socialist visions of President Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile was a regime of secrets. Augusto Pinochet rose to power through a coup and under his rule political opponents were brutally persecuted. Thousands were tortured and incarcerated in centers secretly improvised just for that purpose. Around four thousand people disappeared during that time in Chile. Neither they, nor their remains have been found, until today.
The disappeared, the desaparecidos, are at the center of Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light). Born in 1941, Guzmán experienced the Pinochet regime as an adult, and the themes of Chilean history and memory, dominate his documentary films. In Nostalgia de la Luz, Guzmán parallels mothers searching for the remains of their children by sieving the Atacama desert sand through their bare hands, to the philosophy of an astronomer who sees science as a way to examine humanity’s past. When interviewing the protagonists of his films about Chile’s past, Guzmán “works with silence as much as questions and answers”.8 Silence is the absence, the secret, the shadow of presence and often the only tool to express the horrors of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Guzmán’s work about Chile focuses on interviews and deals with the testimonies of his generation, that people who experienced the coup firsthand. That generation is separated from the following generation who grew up in silence about the events—a silence that persists to this day.
Talking about Guzmán’s film Chile, La Memoria Obstinada (1997), film scholar Jeffrey Skoller identifies the doubling of places and events as an effective strategy to address the horrors of the past.9 Instead of revealing gaps in the narrative by showing cracks and emptiness, Guzmán doubles them. “Through this doubling there is a feeling that something unseen inheres in all these people and places,” Skoller writes.10 Guzmán reveals how places used for the torture of political suspects remain haunted even though they have been repurposed. During the Pinochet regime, many places became improvised detention centers such as schools, public buildings and private villas. Today these places have been repurposed, turned once again into schools or other public buildings as if nothing had ever happened. In rare cases, they have become memorials to the horrors they once housed.
One of these cases is Villa Grimaldi, a site Duran focuses on in her piece 8401 (1997). The Pinochet regime torture site was located on Avenida José Arrieta 8401, thus the name of her video installation. While exhibited at a community gallery in Rostock, Germany, the address was printed outside the exhibition space indicating that any location has the potential of becoming a torture center as well as a memorial site. The installation involved a projection of a fragmented Google Street View of Villa Grimaldi, probably the best known torture
Francisca Duran, 8401 (2017). HD video loop with audio and photographs mounted on adhesive polypropylene, 15:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.
center of the Pinochet regime. In her meticulous work, Duran had assembled hundreds of street views into one single frame. By marking the individual pieces of the image, Duran makes a statement about technology and surveillance. The Google Street View is a form of surveillance, but by exposing its image of Villa Grimaldi, Duran connects it to the surveillance practices of the Pinochet regime. Observation is most effective when the observer remains unseen, thus a ghost-like presence marked by its (visual) absence.
Since the incarcerated were blindfolded when brought to the detention center, the location had to be re-discovered by survivors later through audio and other sensory memories. Indicators for Villa Grimaldi were the sounds of the school nearby and the omnipresence of parrots. Duran’s fragmented and distorted Google Street View is a video loop that repeats every 15 minutes. The loop may be mistaken for a still image and involves the barely noticeable movement of a car, until the moment when the image exposes a large square, like a giant pixel, almost like a mistake, and then restarts. The movement is so minimal that visitors might not even notice the image’s slow changes, which are accompanied by three different audio tracks that play separately and are not timed with the visual installation. Therefore, a new visual/audio experience is created. The audio involves the cawing parrots as well as a guided tour of the memorial park that is in Spanish with a partly English audience and features some of the processes of translation among the participants of the tour. However, the voices are not clearly audible, and only when focused, can words be made out. There is also the sound of traffic as if the exhibit seeks to create a sound
Francisca Duran, Retrato Oficial 2 (2009). SD video, 4:06 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.
memory among the visitors. While the audio may be seen as a focus on the disappeared and their memory, as in Guzmán’s films, it can also be seen as stressing the processes of disappearing (by means of surveillance). While the distorted Google Street View obscures the location, the digital image simultaneously provides evidence of its existence.
The poetics of 8401 lie not in the words but in the sounds and the visual fragments. It is the unwritable and the unspeakable that needs its own form of expression, that marks the lack of (artistic) language in finding a new language of ruptures and fragments. The street view is like a surface. No bodies are shown, because they have all disappeared. There are only secrets lurking under the surface and these secrets can only be exposed by questions, by marking the absence of answers.
In Retrato Oficial 2, (Official Portrait 2) (2009) fragmented language becomes a form of rebellion. The film utilizes televised footage of Pinochet’s first address to the nation on September 11, 1973. The televised footage was filmed by Patricio Guzman off his own television set.
Duran’s film finishes with this footage as an act of bearing witness, but it begins with a Google search for the name Bernardo O’Higgins who was the celebrated great liberator (1778–1842), revolutionary, and republican of Chile. Retrato Oficial 2 focuses on a portrait of O’Higgins: a classic life-sized oil on canvas painting that covers the wall behind Augusto Pinochet during his first official address to the nation. A narrator’s voice can be heard reading from the essay “Images of Images” by the Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz that discusses art practice as a grotesque comment on the conditions of a dictatorship and imagines the scenario of only one painting being allowed to exist in times of a dictatorship. That painting is the only one that can be reproduced during those political conditions, but it cannot be altered. The option one artist sees, according to the essay, is to work on the details, to enlarge them and minimally change their angle of representation. This way, the nose or the ears turn slightly and when put together again, like a puzzle, the painting has a cubist feel to it (and Cubism is forbidden in that setting). Again, this film prioritizes the words, spoken in this case, as they give instructions to the imaginary setting. The images just follow the narrative of the essay as it is calmly read out. They are merely an illustration or an attempt to experience the words visually.
What Duran does with this scenario, is to work on the idea of the puzzle and the archive. When material is reproduced from the original, it is ultimately and always already altered. But, it is also a work about not being able to see things in a larger context. When trapped inside a specific historical moment, it is impossible to see the whole from a meta-perspective. Our moments consist of details that are enlarged by individual perceptions. When all those voices and viewpoints are joined together, we will produce an altered version of the original situation. Thus the archive can never truly portray what it claims to portray and its secrets, like ghosts, cannot completely be concealed.
“To confront those who become desaparecido (disappeared) under the auspices of state- sponsored terror … is to contemplate ghosts and haunting at the level of making and unmaking world historical events.”11 To Avery Gordon, the ghost is a valuable concept of inquiry. With the ghost, she does not mean an occult apparition but “a charged strangeness” unsettling the things we think we know, “a symptom of what is missing” and thus an impulse of inquiry.12 Drawing from Walter Benjamin’s materialist historiography, Gordon encourages a form of reconstruction in which one follows “the scrambled trail the ghost leaves, picking up its pieces, setting them down elsewhere”.13 “It takes some effort to recognize the ghost and to reconstruct the world it conjures up,”14 Gordon writes, and defamiliarization, for example, by reordering fragments, may be a successful way to reclaim the past and perhaps protect the dead from the present (as Walter Benjamin attempted to do).15 This becomes particularly relevant when thinking about disappearance as a strategy to erase knowledge, to create “a claim to know nothing”.16 What remains is a “shadowy knowledge” as Gordon calls it, the haunting sensation of the secret.17
It was the work of human rights organizations to recover the knowledge of the disappeared and what had happened to them—it is an ongoing journey that will clearly be unable to erase all gaps. Guzmán marked the gaps in the pain of the mothers who dig through the dust in a desperate attempt to uncover traces of their loved ones. He tells the story of the search for some sort of evidence, the truth, the unfulfilled desire for completion and closure. He focuses on the victims and the path—into the past and future—that is ahead of them. Duran, instead, is concerned with the making and unmaking of history. Her first film of the series dealing with Chile’s past was likewise called Retrato Oficial 1 (2001) and was created thirty years after going into exile. It shows the footage of Pinochet arriving on an airplane. Pronounced unfit for trial, the old man rises out of a wheelchair on his own, waves to the crowd, hugs someone in uniform and continues walking using the help of a stick while the wheelchair is pulled away and disappears.
This footage clearly questions the diagnosis “unfit for trial” (again, a diagnosis that comes in words and that is contradicted by an image). The footage is a silent loop as if to say that there is evidence but we are not using it. Although this footage contradicts the legal statement, the words will not be called into question. With this film, Duran begins her series on the Pinochet regime in Chile, a silent loop, endlessly repeating itself as if to say: as long as there is evidence, we should not stop looking.
Duran does not feed the desire for closure. Instead, she points to the unresolved, the gaps and odds. She focuses on the things that cannot be told. Indeed, she powerfully refuses to tell a story that would suggest a form of closure or a form of narrative logic—even if that closure is open and ambiguous, even if that logic might not be apparent. To her, every sort of narrative embraces the harmony of a tale, however horrific, that can be told. By pointing to the archive and the vague concept of evidence, she reminds us not only of the fact that there are so many things we will never know because the traces cannot be uncovered but also of the fact that there are things that cannot be told.
“What goes unsaid, that which is implied and omitted and censured and suggested, acquires the importance of a scream,”18 as Gordon reminds us. Duran’s work screams. It exhibits and rearranges fragments just to point to the impossibilities of the archive, to the presence of shadows and secrets, to the things we refuse to know and the things we will never know; it is the unwritten and unwritable, but also—clearly—the unacknowledged.
In her film Even if my hands were full of truths (2012), Duran focuses on a CIA-classified document that proves the United State’s involvement in the coup in Chile. The letter was written on September 9, 1970 by U.S. ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry to the U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The subject of the letter was “One and only hope for Chile”. In Duran’s film, that subject line appears on screen and is read by a male voice that clearly meets the audio standards of scientific documentaries. As one’s eyes follow the words on the paper/screen, the letter transforms into a blurry liquid, like tears obscuring the sight. Suddenly everything is enlarged and the flashing pixel squares of what used to be letters are replaced by a black screen offering the information contained in the letter accompanied by a soundscape. The film then transitions to information about the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights that was inaugurated in 2009 in Santiago de Chile. The museum is devoted to exposing the problematic narrative and traumatic memory of Pinochet’s reign.
While the soundscape continues, writing informs about scenes in front of the museum. The shadow of a bird appears. Two teenagers ride their bikes, and are stopped by the guards, and then leave. A man with a backpack pauses. A woman and a man leave the museum. After this, a statement about memory becoming history appears on screen and is followed by an image of the museum. This viewpoint does not change, but the scenes that happened in front of the building differ: teenagers riding their bikes, people leaving the museum, the empty square. The same male voice reads the letter again, this time backwards. Though the words are identifiable, the text crumbles into the words, and becomes something unidentifiable, incomprehensible. In this way, Duran reveals that it had never been comprehensible. It had never made sense at all.
The square in front of the museum is empty. We cannot look inside the building as we could not look inside Villa Grimaldi in 8401. Again, the film remains a meditation about the surface of a building, a container that could be filled with anything—the relevance and responsibility is left to us, the viewers. There is a darkness about the building, a darkness about memory that is not emptiness but everything we do not see. The title Even if my hands
Francisca Duran, Even if my hands were full of truths (2012) HD video. Courtesy of the artist.
were full of truth seems to suggest that even then, even if we could see everything, we would remain blind. The museum is a container and Duran makes us wonder about its contents, leading back to the idea of the archive and the secret.
In her most recent film, Traje de Luces / Suit of Light (2018), Duran shows the footage of a Spanish bullfight obtained from a collection of documentary films by Jacques Madvo. The material was filmed in Spain between 1976 and 1983, the time during which Spain transitioned to a democracy after Francisco Franco’s death (in 1975). Duran parallels the exposed hyper-masculinity of the bullfight with the desired nationalism. In her own description of the film on the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center website, Duran describes how she buried the 16mm footage in soil and left it there to processes of decay before contact-printing and laboriously re-photographing it with “abstractions of light and darkness” that “ground the inquiry surrounding why citizens accept the harm done to others in their name.”
At the end, the film reveals that the “Suits of Light” are the traditional costumes the bullfighters wear. A large part of the footage repeats the final movements of an injured bull. The spears have been driven deep under his skin and blood streams down his body, and in exhaustion, he fights while the screen projects a text from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag’s text meditates on how imagery and violence are connected to beauty and her idea that captions should not moralize. Sontag’s book-long essay on photographs has been discussed for the fact that it does not include a single image. Instead, Duran’s film
Francisca Duran, Traje de Luces / Suit of Light (2018). 16mm/HD video. Courtesy of the artist.
includes a powerful image of violence but obscures and repeats it until it becomes unrecognizable. Thus Duran, in response to Sontag, plays with the aesthetics of that which cannot (or should not?) be shown. The bull is almost unbearable to watch. Again, through visual comment and the illustration of words, Duran manages to twist the relationship between image and text. The image becomes the caption to the text, its explanation, not the other way round.
The film then changes to the composted footage, the material that Duran left to decay, thus drawing attention to the materiality of film. The image becomes a kaleidoscope, more of a glimpse into someone’s mind than into the visual art of a documentary. It is the same footage that was screened before, but it is now hardly recognizable. The bull becomes a shadow, hiding its injuries and visually consumed by the microorganisms that worked on the film underground. A voice reads the poem “Aullido” (2011) (“Howl”), a poem for Allan Ginsberg by Claudio Duran in Spanish. The English translations are projected onto the image. When the reading stops momentarily to give way to the image and music, it seems like a silence, an opportunity to taste the words that have just been spoken. “We are not interested in the images of pain,” the voice says and enumerates other dramatic indicators of oppressive systems. “We seem only interested in the smell of restaurants … we are those who raise our arms in one way or another to tyrannize to kill.”
The poem continues to question truth, to portrait history as a drug-addicted ghost and the human race as hopelessly lost. By focusing on the struggle of the bull, as well as the
microorganisms that worked with the materiality of the film, Duran shifts the focus from the human world to the animal world, perhaps in agreement with the poem. She enlarges the universe and by addressing the issue of oppressive political systems and the end of them, as was the case of Spain during the years the footage of the film was assembled, she looks for the oppression and violence outside these systems as they are inscribed into and simultaneously erased from history.
Nothing is certain, says the narrator, and the film embraces that unpredictability. By not submitting the film material to human control, Duran focuses on the processes that are unforeseeable and makes a statement that not only the archive is uncertain and truth may not exist, but also the future cannot be planned. “We are humus, not Homo, not anthropos, we are compost, not posthuman,”19 says Donna Harraway in her book Staying with the Trouble. “I would like the species, correct its manners” says the narrator at the end of Duran’s film. He also agrees that there is no post-human condition. We, as a species, have to figure it out. The answers seem to be in the past, but as long as we do not look for them, the future will conjure the ghosts into haunting fragments that continue to blur our sights.
- I. M. Pacatus (i.e., Maxim Gorky) on the cinematograph, in Nizhegorodski listok [Nizhniy Novgorod] , July 4, 1896; quoted in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London, Boston, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), 407.
- Kim Knowles, “Performing Language, Animating Poetry: Kinetic Text in Experimental Cinema” Journal of Film and Video 67.1 (Spring 2015): 46-59.
- Abilgail Child, This is Called Moving. A Critical Poetics of Film (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005), xxi.
- Akira Mizuta Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 17.
- Nicolas Rapold, “Heaven and Earth. Searching the Stars and San in Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light,” filmcomment (2011): 48-50.
- Jeffrey Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant garde Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 159.
- Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 63.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 66.
- Ibid., 65.
- Ibid., 79.
- Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 83
- Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 55.