Friday, February 19, 2010

In(ter)ventions Showtime Performance The Second

The readers were J.R. Carpenter, Erin Mouré, and Lance Olsen.

J.R. Carpenter
began with a great feminist essay about women and technology from xxxboîte. She then presented a new multimedia work that incorporated google maps and videos (that she filmed & edited) with the text. It was a great reading.

Erin Mouré always gives a fabulous performance. There was a bit of a technical snag; Mouré's earing was jangling against her mic, and a tech guy disrupted the performance to fix it. But she handled the situation with good humour, and gave an animated reading from her new book O Resplandor. i really wish her reading was longer.

The order was unfortunate. The last presentation wiped the previous ones very much from my mind, because it was so upsetting. i apologize for talking so briefly about two amazing poets, and dedicating so much space to the third.


Lance Olsen's presentation was a video collaboration based on his novel Head in Flames about the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. i won't link to Olsen's site, because he is an artist who seems to consider being offensive the same as being "cutting edge," a reactionary posture against progressive movements. The video was scenes from van Gogh's film Submission which is a fictional account of abused Muslim women. The film is graphic, sexualized, and exoticized: the woman (one actress plays all the characters) are wearing a see-through chador, except when she is writhing on the ground covered in open whip wounds. It looks like porn, with lots of intense shots focusing on the curve of the stomach and the space between the breasts. What i found most disturbing was that Olsen and his collaborator chose to erase the woman's voice, inserting Olsen reading his novel as the soundtrack. If the point of the film was originally to give voice to abused women in Islam, that point was entirely lost. Olsen's voice itself was hard to follow, becoming mostly background noise. The only line i heard clearly was something along the lines of "stop whining like a woman." Interesting choice of words, considering that women are often silenced, and that a woman telling a story of physical abuse is not whining at all. Sure, the novel was not written specifically to be juxtaposed with the film (as far as i know), but a little bit of consideration is in order here. Women are often silenced; abused women and minority women even more so (these groups are not meant to be mutually inclusive or exclusive; they overlap, but not always).

i don't know if Olsen's novel is any different, but the presentation was misogynistic and racist. It plays directly into western fantasies of what a Muslim woman is or should be. It offers womens' bodies as objects to be gazed upon, their suffering as titillation for the viewer.

The audience was given no time to respond to the video. No Q & A was scheduled for this reading. i wish one had been; i would have liked to question Olsen directly. i'm writing this in a state of tired rage. i get the impression that the video is provocative simply because it can be.

To counter all this regressive violence, i'm going to suggest heading over to Shakesville, which is progressive, feminist, and a safe space.


  1. I just found this blog! yay! I am glad to see a negative comment on Olsen's presentation, as I was bothered by it (I too found it offensive and not intelligently so). I was more focused on Olsen's work than van Gogh's as I watched, and since I had recently read a short story which portrayed a Muslim terrorist in a way that I found inept but *not* racist, I was trying to pinpoint during the presentation what made it racist. I wondered mostly if Olsen's writing/art was simply inept, and yet that inept short story writer had managed not to be offensive, so...anyway.

    The "Indian 49" video meantionned in the last post features Sherman Alexie ~ hope that helps you find it.


  2. Thanks for the kind comment, Beth. i'll post the video if i manage to come across it; the name will certainly help the search!

  3. Having found myself thinking of the same issues throughout the weekend, I am glad to read you bringing up the same points, Claire; there seemed a definite lack of representation (both in discussion and in person) of issues of class, race, gender, privelege, accessability, and the like. I'm also glad that I am not the only audience member who was disturbed by Olsen's work...I found myself unable to watch after a period of time, and it left a distasteful residue for the remainder of the weekend.

    It was interesting to note that most references to cultural tensions were made by writers coming from positions of privelge, who were not ethnically diverse. I would have enjoyed a lot more engagement on these subjects, especially by writers representing a larger range of backgrounds. A broader spectrum of presentation delivery may have helped with this as well, bringing us out of the traditional 'expert-novice / teacher-student' (i.e. top down) method.

    Definitely a full weekend, and I am glad to have had the chance to attend and come away with many questions and ideas!

  4. Hi, all. Like you, I'm terribly sorry we didn't have a chance for a Q&A after Andi's and my film. I'm sorry, too, that we didn't have a chance to talk about it face-to-face elsewhere at the conference. Such dialogue, I think, might have helped us understand and clarify our (possibly, though not necessarily) different positions on it.

    I'd start, I suppose, by quoting D Kimm from the conference: "Everything that disturbs is important." That is: I'm glad you were disturbed--even angered--by the film. That's the role of the avant-garde, the innovative, as I see it (and hence leads us, perhaps, to the question of politics of structuration I raised several times at the conference): to provoke into uneasy thought, to make sure we don't simply repeat the narratives that provide us with effortlessness and comfort, the ones repeated so often by our governments, entertainment industry, and academe that we begin to take them as truths about the "human condition."

    For Andi and me, the film is really about silences that refuse to be silenced. While my electronically enhanced voices try to silence the women in the film (much the way Bouyeri wanted women and Theo's position silenced--he beat his sister, shot Theo 8 times and mostly beheaded him; much the way the West wants Bouyeri's position silenced; much the way the 19th century wanted van Gogh's position silenced), they simply can't be. Rather, the women's voices remain as powerful traces in the Dutch subtitles (which continue to tell their stories), in the closeups of their eyes, in the power of their abused bodies (written upon by the Qur’an). In other words, at least by Andi's and my lights, these are silences that are always-already silenced and not silenced and are and aren't.

    What's interesting, then, again at least for me, is that all the voices (the women's, Bouyeri's, Theo's, Vincent's) swirl inside of each of us, despite our best efforts to privilege some and marginalize others. Too, what's wonderful is how none of the characters and/or people involved in Vincent's suicide or Theo's murder are innocent. Or, rather, they are both innocent and not innocent simultaneously.

    Hence that musicality of the film's form, the invitation to think words differently, politics differently.

    Oh, I should also mention, in case it was lost in my opening remarks, that the film, while appropriated and manipulated by Andi and me, is the one Ayaan Hirsi Ali made and Theo produced. The result was his murder and her having been forced into hiding harried by death threats.

    So the whole is intended to explore art’s purpose (all those involved in the narrative are kinds of artists), religion’s increasingly dominant role as engine of contemporary politics and passion, the complexities of foreignness and assimilation, and the limits of tolerance--in a way that harmonizes with Barthes's definition of innovative texts: those that provide questions without answers.

    I don't know how these fraught issues play in Canada, but in the U.S. they're repressed; hence our instinct to address them in a (hopefully) disconcerting film.

    I'd love to talk more about any of this with any of you. These are important issues. Meantime, thanks to you and to everyone for an amazing conference: provocative, stimulating, good-spirited, and illuminating. Here's to keeping the conversation and curiosity alive.


  5. Hi Claire —

    Thanks for this post, and for your responses to/documentation of the conference this weekend.

    As I read this post I was struck by your observation: “What I found most disturbing was that Olsen and his collaborator chose to erase the woman's voice [...].” Your observation struck me because I was actually most disturbed by the visuals. The rapid, repetitive almost MTV-style cutting. The constant returns to the disempowering and dominating profile and “from behind” shots of the woman, or those that cropped her body into parts (a sheer-gauzed navel, etc). And also the film’s (to me) even more problematic and disturbing aestheticization of violence against women. The latter, granted, was initially produced by the original filmmakers.

    I am reminded of something Lisa Robertson said in an interview we did for the 2006 Chicago Review issue that featured her work. I asked her about her complex use of “we”, and she replied: “Whatever pronoun a work is organized around, you have to trouble it.” I agree with Lisa; my thinking develops from my involvement with community arts, how language does and does not facilitate power-sharing in such contexts, but for me every perspective/subjectivity (whether a pronoun or a camera angle) — how we occupy it to construct our relationships with and to others — poses ethical challenges. And when we occupy perspectives that suggest stereotypes (the male gaze, a lyric I) — especially stereotypes we would challenge or that disturb us — I do believe it is important to “trouble” them (and not only appropriate them to disturb). Which is all to say I did not feel the film “troubled” the male gaze at all; if anything, the aggressive re-editing — in tandem with the male voiceovers — supported it.

    All that said, since I did only get to view it once I do wonder whether — by virtue of my strong response to some of the editing choices — I missed other more subtle choices that work against my observations. So if they’re willing to share some of their process, I would very much like to hear from Lance and Andi about the work of re-editing the film.

    Thanks —

    Kai Fierle-Hedrick

  6. Thanks for your observation and implied questions, Kai.

    Let's see what I can do to engage with them:

    --There's no male gaze functioning in the film, at least technically, since it was both written and shot by a woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself the victim of various abuses (clitorectomy, beatings, forced marriage, etc., in Kenya and Saudi Arabia before fleeing to Amsterdam). Ayaan interviewed four Muslim women living in Amsterdam about the abuse they'd suffered (Ayaan, a controversial politician, set up various support structures for such women), then filmed female actors with words from the Qur’an advocating the subjugation of women printed on their bodies reciting their stories. The gaze in the film is the Islamic god's gaze: that is, the women recite their stories to that god/camera, critiquing such destructive ideology as they go.

    --If you're interested in Ayaan's story, I highly recommend her memoir: "Infidel."

    --So the point of Ayaan and Theo's film is precisely the critique of the domination of women you cite above.

    --The point of Andi's and my appropriation and manipulation of the film is to celebrate Ayaan and Theo's bravery in making the film (it cost Theo his life; it sent Ayaan into hiding).

    --We were also interested (this speaks to your re-editing question, and my comment above about musicality--i.e., the aesthetic dimension) in finding a visual equivalent to the sound collage at work; the idea was to treat the images as musical notes (as we do words in said sound collage), to create a visual symphony based (given its complex, disturbing subject matter) on dissonances rather than harmonies.

    I hope that helps, at least a little, to clarify our intentions.

    It might be productive for you to look at the original film (it's called "Submission" and is up on Youtube: just type in the title and the words "Theo Van Gogh"). Andi and I plan to post our version on Youtube in the next several weeks.

    Too, it might prove valuable to look up both Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh on Wikipedia to get a sense of their intricate, conflicted, and intriguing stories.

    Finally, I hope my novel Head in Flames complicates these complications even further. We live in the opposite of an easily parsed world. My sense is that such disruptive films and narratives are the neo-realism our culture needs to begin to learn how to read.

    Thanks again for engaging with our film so seriously. Andi and I really appreciate the gesture.

  7. At the risk of overstaying my welcome, let me also post my closing remarks at In(ter)ventions. In light of our conversation above, they may prove newly illuminating...


    33 Tweets on the Nature of Possibility

    Lance Olsen

    1. Viktor Shklosky: Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.

    2. The difference between art and entertainment:

    3. Art deliberately slows and complicates perception so you can re-think and re-feel language, narrativity, experience.

    4. Entertainment deliberately speeds and simplifies perception so you don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.

    5. Now even bestsellers exist in a secondary position to film, TV, the Web, the Xbox, the iPod, the iPhone in our culture.

    6. Guy Debord: Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit.

    7. Debord: Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit.

    8. There are two kinds of writing: boring & boring.

    9. Boring—as in unselfconscious, as in formulaic, as in writing that wants to be Avatar when it grows up.

    10. Boring—as in writing that bores, burrows, plumbs, troubles, termites along.

    11. Every age gets the literature it deserves.

    12. If you don’t use your own imagination, Ronald Sukenick used to tell his writing students, somebody else is going to use it for you.

    13. Once upon a time, we already knew these things.

    14. Milan Kundera: Remembering is a form of forgetting.

    15. Michael Martone describing narrativity’s tomorrow: anonymous, viral, collaborative, ephemeral.

    16. Proposition 1.0: Writing & pedagogy should be possibility spaces where everything can and should be attempted, felt, thought.

    17. Proposition 2.0: Writing practices should demand greater labor from readers, not less—not effortlessness, never comfort.

    18. Because vexing texts make us work, make us think and feel in unusual ways, attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming.

    19. Curtis White: Narratives generated/sustained by our culture’s political system, entertainment industry, and academe have taught us:

    20. How not to think for ourselves.

    21. The Difficult Imagination asks us to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, thereby:

    22. Asking us to contemplate the possibility of fundamental change in all three.

    23. When we say: We are teaching innovative writing, we really mean: We are re-learning strategies for reading & understanding.

    24. When it comes to writing practices and pedagogy, success is a vastly overrated affair.

    25. Sameul Beckett: Try again. Fail again.

    26. Et cetera.

    27. Limit Texts: those that take narrativity to its brink so you can never think of it in the same ways again.

    28. There exist books that, once you’ve taken them down from the shelf, you’ll never be able to put back up again.

    29. The only useful advice on craft I’ve ever given: Write a story composed solely of nouns. Without your words. Without words.

    30. A narrative in which characterization undoes the Freudian model of identity: past trauma = present self.

    31. That reminds us we are always-already not ourselves and always-already not not ourselves.

    32. Compose because you don’t know what you think until you do, and then you know it even less.

    33. Because if not that, then what?

  8. Hi Lance —

    Thanks for prompting further reading/engagement with Submission, although I have to admit it’s only left me more uncomfortable with the aesthetics of the original project. I also want to say that, for all I’m arguing, I really appreciate your serious engagement with these issues and that my responses to the film and the ways in which I’ve felt compelled to challenge it stem from my own on-going engagement with the issue of violence against women which I hope situates us on the same page if not in agreement...

    I have to disagree with you on the “male gaze”... it certainly is present in the camerawork and — as far as I can tell — remains untroubled by the filmmaking/editing/re-editing. Since the gaze is about the formal perspective adopted by the work, it doesn’t matter whether the filmmaker/artist is a man or a woman. The gaze is a perspective that creates an uneven power relationship between subject and subject... via camera angles that have the viewer/audience looking down on a subject, by lingering on parts of a subject’s body, etc, prompting the viewer/audience to relate to a subject as an object. This stuff is certainly going on in the film. I’m very interested in the project you describe of “finding a visual equivalent to the sound collage at work” (I work across media and I am particularly curious about how formal choices/techniques developed within one medium can influence and/or be applied to another), but I don’t know how to not read the re-editing of the film as having produced/bolstered some pretty aggressive formal effects.

    That said, after taking time with the original film I do think my aesthetic concerns are largely rooted there. I admire Ayaan and Theo’s bravery in their engagement with the issue of violence suffered by Muslim women and their efforts to raise awareness, but I’d counter that when it comes to violence against women it is not such neo-realistic disturbances that are needed so much as an engagement with the issue as the messy daily challenge we all face by virtue of participating in our societies/cultures (e.g., recent WHO reports discuss gender-based violence as a global “public health” issue, and last I heard globally at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime). I guess I find the choice to represent violence experienced by Muslim women with scripted actresses rather than genuine testimony unsettling, the decision to frame the issue with an ultra stylized/symbolic film that skirts complexity problematic. E.g., mood-lighting an abused female body? That turns my stomach any way it’s spun. Women who experience violence already run risks of being branded as victims; aestheticizing them or (re)presenting them in ways that emphasize the damage done to them and/or their victim-status becomes deeply problematic for how it makes it that much easier to other them. That disturbs me, and not in a good way. I strongly believe the process/practice of representing women who have experienced violence engenders a responsibility to resist oppressive power structures and/or caricaturizing their experiences. For all their important intentions, I don’t see a great deal of this happening in Ayaan and Theo’s film. Guess I’m having the same response as those critics who reacted negatively to it when it first came out.

    I feel conflicted as I end this response since I had hoped to engage in more of a dialogue about “Submission” but — again for all I appreciate the intentions behind it (and the re-editing of it) — the more time I spend with the film the more it alarms me. Perhaps we will simply have to agree to disagree?


  9. I do wish you all had approached Andi and me at In(ter)ventions so we could have sat down to discuss this face-to-face over a good beer at the pub--always a preferable mode of communication to this sort of antiseptic, disembodied digital interface--but I'm also very glad we've had the opportunity here to talk a little and clarify our respective positions, and to do so in a thoughtful, good-spirited, increasingly nuanced way.

    I'm glad, too, that both Andi's and my and Ayaan and Theo's films disturb/alarm you, Kai, and in a powerful way. That disturbance/alarm (one of the most important aims of the avant-garde, as we've all agreed: everyone likes to challenge other people's foundational assumptions, but no one likes to have one's own foundational assumptions challenged) gives rise to conversation, and dialogue always trumps monologue.

    I'm afraid we do have to agree to disagree on several key points. I would again take exception to your characterization of the male gaze in the films, arguing that it's obviously a fundamentalist Islamic god gaze reflecting the gaze of a patriarchal culture in order to challenge rather than perpetuate it; I would urge you to take into account the text of both films, which now seems to have become invisible in our discussions, the verbal having been subsumed by he visual; etc. Yet how dreary the world would be if we all agreed on everything.

    I take solace in the fact that we do agree--and I think agree profoundly--on the big stuff (concerning, for instance, violence against women: our position there strikes me as identical). Our disagreements seem to stem from how one might effect change through avant-garde practices (if one can really do so), not whether or not change is essential.

    Thanks again for helping Andi and me think about our project. This has proven in many ways one of the most fruitful discussions at the conference, not because it reached any sort of resolution (god forbid), but because it's attained a rich and provocative hovering.

  10. Thanks Eachleaf, Lance, & Kai for your comments.

    I'm not going to say too much more than what's already been said, especially since Kai already stated much of what I feel in a very eloquent way. I don't feel that the film upsets or really challenges the power structure. It feeds into patriarchal Western perceptions of Islamic women. Similar images abound in our media (of sexualized Islamic women, of violence against women's bodies, of combinations of the two), often going unquestioned. See and (Trigger warning) for just two examples.

    Avant-garde practices are not really progressive when they cannot be differentiated from the mainstream media without the artist's explanation. I am glad that we've had a chance to engage on the issues here, and there are many of them.