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The Index of Truth
by Michael Tarantino, 2003

1. Finalement

15 June 2050

Today, the new Brussels Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) opened on the Grand

Place. After nearly forty-five years of negotiations and construction, the building,

designed by I.M. Pei, is made entirely of glass and is situated in the centre of the

Grand Place. On the top of the building sits the legendary half-lion, half-rooster, meant

to symbolise the cooperation of the Flemish and Walloon communities in this historic

undertaking. As part of the opening day ceremonies, traffic was restored to the Grand

Place and a new underground parking lot was also inaugurated.

The opening exhibition, ‘Belgian Artists in Their Nineties’, was curated by Flor Bex.

This exhibition will travel to Slovenia, Peru and Baghdad while exhibitions organised by

Mr. Bex in these countries (featuring Slovenian, Peruvian and American-Iraqi artists in

their nineties) will eventually travel to Brussels. The catalogue is sponsored by Dexia.

The opening of the museum also featured an introductory speech by Jan Hoet, for

which he was paid 5,000 Euros and a weekend at the Amigo Hotel. Hoet will be a

member of the Museum’s advisory board, which is still searching for a Director. So far,

more than 3,000 applications have been received (and rejected). Until the new director

is named, the program will be organised by a tri-partite commission, consisting of

Marie-Puck Broodthaers, Albert Baronian and Jan Mot. Plans for an Angel Vergera

retrospective are underway.

 

2. A Marriage of Convenience

At a certain point in Sven Augustijnen’s ‘Le Guide du Parc’, the narrator/guide comes

across a wedding party that is being photographed against the lush background of the

Parc Royal. The confrontation of the narrator of a film that seems to exist halfway

between film and fiction and an event that, by its definition, is a staged version of an

acknowledged rite of the state (as well as organised religion)… the costumes, the

vows, the party atmosphere, the assumption of virginity, etc. is disturbing and

unsettling.

Shot in the shadow of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, ‘Le Guide du Parc’ was Sven

Augustijen’s submission for the ‘Prix de la Jeune Peinture Belge’. This prize, so inaptly

named, is a Belgian institution. Augustijnen’s subtle exploration of what is going on

next door, i.e. the park is used as a site for gay cruising, cracks open the air of official

sanctimony which floats over the park and its ‘historic’ surroundings. According to the

artist, the ‘garden of convenience’ functions just as well as a ‘garden of lust’.

 

3. Dreaming in the Daytime

‘The Guardian’ has a daily column called ‘Notes and Queries’ in which all sorts of

questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, are posed by their readers. One recent

question reads:

‘Why do we experience surprise during dream sequences? The mind that experiences

the dream is the same mind that concocted the storyline.’ When I first read this, I

thought of the dream-work that is constructed during our sleep. Afterwards, I realised

that it could also refer to dream sequences in films, which function as a kind of

interruption within the narrative and frequently trap the viewer into thinking that it is

NOT a dream, but a continuation of the film’s reality. When a dream sequence works,

we are surprised to return to ‘normal’, i.e. to the central narrative. When it does not

work, there is no surprise, there is the disgusted realisation that this is a trick that we

have not fallen for. Thus, surprise is the barometer of failure or success.

In sleep, it is different. To begin with, the dream is an unconscious construction, as

opposed to the meticulous planning of a film. It is based on ‘real’ events or sensations,

but seems, to the dreamer at least, to be a haphazard collection of events. So, what

the Guardian’s reader is really asking is why we do not have the same control over our

subsconscious as a film director has over a film. In sleep, ‘the mind that concocted the

storyline’ is not nearly as much in control as this reader thinks. A marriage, or a murder

or a couple of lovers behind a tree may interfere with the ‘story’ at any moment. The

dreamer’s surprise is not so much directed towards these events as it is towards the

unpredictability of this seemingly timeless, boundary-less narrative. It is like giving a

party and saying to an uninvited guest, ‘I’m surprised to see you here’.

 

4. I Don’t Understand

‘I don’t understand what this has to do with cinema. Is it a documentary or is it fake? It

can’t be a documentary. I don’t believe that these things could happen like that, in the

middle of the city. If it’s a fake, it’s a disgrace. People shouldn’t be led to believe that

things like this happen. And those camera movements. What’s the purpose of that? It’s

like that Russian film where the camera is winding through the rooms of the Hermitage,

with a cast of hundreds. Why not just rent a few more cameras and hire an editor, for

god’s sake? And that know-it-all guide, who does he think he is? What a mess. And to

think some of my friends got caught up in it. They were getting married that day, can

you believe it?’

‘OK, OK, but can we take a vote on this piece or not? All those in favour of awarding a

prize, please raise their hands. All right, it’s still three votes to three. Shall we continue

the discussion?’

‘What discussion? What’s the point? This film doesn’t make any sense. Is it all one big

made-up fiction? Or what? I can’t believe that those things are really taking place in

that park. What if the Queen opened up her curtains and saw some scene like that? It’s

not possible, I’m sorry. And it’s completely irresponsible to propose that it’s possible.

But, what the hell, if nobody’s willing to change their mind, then I’ll vote for it. It doesn’t

deserve this extended discussion, so let’s just move on.’

 

5. The Filmmaker as Pickpocket

For (Robert) Bresson, true cinema is ‘écriture’, not ‘spectacle’, so style is the index of

truth and a rigorous realism the only possible style. (Hopefully, definitions of realism

may differ less than definitions of reality.) ...’. In ‘Pickpocket’, we find ‘the same

emphasis on still, contained faces and moving, skilled hands, practicing and working;

the stark, spare beauty of functionally composed and newsreel-textured photography

…’. Daniel Millar, ‘The Films of Robert Bresson’ , Praeger Books, London, 1969.

Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ (1959) combines a straightforward narrative with elements of

documentary and abstraction. What I remember particularly from the film – which I

have not seen in many years – are the close-up shots of hands lifting wallets from

unsuspecting marks and the relationship, somewhere between father and son and

priest and confessor, of the hero, Michel, and Kassagi, the pickpocket who teaches him

his trade. Paul Schrader described Bresson’s films as ‘transcendental’, and we see this

in the look of his characters’ faces, the use of music, the use of off-screen and space

and the attention to detail. When the screen is filled with nothing but disembodied

hands and figures, we occupy a space between voyeurism and complicity.

There is another element of the pickpocket that is alluded to in Bresson’s film: the

sexual attraction, not only between teacher and student, but between thief and mark.

For what is most evident in the abstracted shots of hands and bodies is the physical

contact that is present between one body and another. For, despite the efforts of the

pickpocket to make this act ‘invisible’, to efface the effects of the touch, it remains a

sexual act, a violation of the body of somebody else. The illicit passing of an object

from one person to another, despite its sense of violation, elicits our admiration for its

skill and for the ‘stark, spare beauty’ of how it is represented. (In a contemporary

example, Sarah Waters’ novel, ‘Fingersmith’, which is the nineteenth-century term for

petty thieves, shows how exchanges of identities, personalities and histories are

related to the day to day ‘exchange’ of objects and currency. Her ‘fingersmiths’ are, first

and foremost, actors in a comedy of their own choosing.)

Sven Augustijen’s ‘School for Pickpockets’ describes the ‘art’ of picking pockets like

any other. Its narrator seems like the kind of character one would find in a Paul Auster

novel or a David Mamet film, such as ‘House of Games’. He ingratiates himself with the

viewer, gaining our confidence, making us admire the skill he has to offer. Like the

guide in the park, he uses the force of his personality to charm us, to ingratiate himself

into our critical sense. We drop our guard and follow the steps of the pickpockets’

school, maybe even trying some of the maneuvres at home. Just as we accept the

premise of ‘Le Guide du Parc’ and walk around the Parc Royal, the camera is a

surrogate for our movements, meandering and determined. We accept the role of

student, of viewer, trusting the teacher, the director, the camera to map our route.

The most important aspect of the pickpocket’s discourse to his students is how to

construct the game itself. It is important that they create a narrative in order to create a

favourable context for the theft they are about to commit. This is another kind of

seduction, another way of bending the will and the actions of your mark to the action

you are trying to pull off. The ‘School for Pickpockets’ is a documentary on the art of

fiction.

 

6. Rear Window

To cite one more example of this wilful surrender of control, one need only describe the

premise of ‘lets op Bach’ (1998), a collaboration between Augustijnen and the

choreographer, Alain Platel. A group of performers are taking a break between

rehearsals. They laugh, they flirt, they fight, they act out. They remind me of Warhol’s

Factory girls and boys, an erotic nightmare of fantasy, fiction and reality. But how are

we privy to these goings-on? A camera, seemingly stationed in a room across the

street or corridor, films the performers through a window. The spectator becomes the

voyeur, the substitute of the unnamed camera person. And, like this moment in

Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, the ultimate Hollywood voyeuristic fantasy (along with

Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’), when Raymond Burr, as the killer, looks directly into

the camera at Jimmy Stewart and, by extension, the film audience, there are scenes of

similar recognition in ‘lets op Bach’, in which the ‘actors’ confront the camera and mock

its presence by acting out in front of it. Once again, the dividing point between fiction

and reality is hopelessly blurred. And yet, the absence of markers or boundaries is

what gives the film its rigour. Our lack of balance keeps us immersed in the narrative.

 

7. Guided Tours

Every film is like a guided tour. By coming in at the appointed time, sitting down in our

seat, keeping quiet, turning off our mobile phones, we accept the compact between

filmmaker and viewer, one based on submission and domination. And, whether the film

is ‘Dogville’ or ‘Austin Powers’, we latch onto the narrative as our guide, accepting what

it tells us and what it omits. We accept in order to become immersed in the screen. We

are not really having sex with Nicole Kidman, but we are occupying a privileged

position. We are not participating in Powers’ send-up of James Bond, but our position

as viewers makes our cynicism a vantage point of power. So we accept, willingly, the

pace, the rhythm, the context proposed by the film. If we do not accept, we only have

two options: to fall asleep (and film is one of the strongest narcotics) or to walk out of

the theatre. But the latter is a radical step. I have rarely been tempted to do it. I can

remember a few times ... some pathetic Carlos Saura flamenco drama and, more

recently, Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Dog Days’. I did walk out on the Saura, but stayed to the end of

‘Dog Days’. At the end I still hated the film, but felt that it would have been even worse

to leave the guided tour prematurely. Because then you are on your own, aren’t you?

 

8. I Want to Know

A man is speaking to the camera. His name is Johan. We gather that he is in some sort

of institution, but it is not clear what type that may be, a prison or a hospital. If the

latter, is he suffering from some fatal illness or is he in a mental clinic? As he answers

the questions of the filmmaker and a doctor in the room, it slowly becomes clear that

he is suffering from aphasia, defined in the ‘Collins English Dictionary’ as a ‘disorder of

the central nervous system, characterised by partial or total loss of the ability to

communicate, especially in speech or writing’. At one point, Johan keeps responding to

a prompt from the therapist by saying ‘I want to know’, ‘I want to know’. She cannot get

him to say ‘what’ he wants to know.

Is this not the position of the viewer in watching this ‘documentary’ by Sven

Augustijnen? We want to know what is going on; we want to know more about this

‘subject’; we want to know that the filmmaker will not abuse his position of power. And

we can only know by trusting the filmmaker, by trusting the camera, by trusting that we

(and Johan) will not be manipulated. But that, of course, is a contradiction in terms.

Better to accept the manipulation and go from there.

 

9. Ce n’est pas évident

There is a moment in Sven Augustijnen’s ‘Mission Mont des Arts’ where two tourists

from Tournai, hopelessly lost in the maze of Brussel’s Place Royale, have the good

fortune to come across two helpful guides from the Fondation Roi Baudoin. They are

then given a tour of the entire area, from the roofs of the Musée des Instruments de

Musique to the toilets of the Palais des Beaux-Arts (with guest commentary from the

director of the Palais, Paul Dujardin), from the bowels of the Gare Centrale, haunted by

the ghost of Victor Horta, to the Protestant Church of Brussels. And yet, it is a tour

marked by locked gates, dead ends and apologising, yet impassable, doormen. Like

‘Le Guide du Parc’ it shows Brussels at its most elusive. Brussels is a city that does not

reveal itself at first sight. There is always something beyond the door, around the

corner, behind the tree. Augustijnen’s ‘video tours’ do nothing to help us ‘solve’ the

enigma. In fact, they take pleasure in revealing the diversity behind certain points of

interest, the constant conclusion that things are not what they seem.

 

10. The Museum Director, the Critic, the Artist and the Newspaper

The conversation takes place in the VIP Room of the Brussels Art Fair 2002.

Champagne is complimentary.

‘Did you see that ridiculous newspaper being handed out at the entrance?’

‘Yeah, I did. What’s the big deal? It’s just another plan for a Brussels Museum of

Contemporary Art. It’ll never work.’

‘But it’s a hoax!’

‘Well, it always is, isn’t it?’

‘No, I mean the newspaper’s a hoax. There are no plans for this stupid Dernier

Nouveau Centre d’Art Contemporain à Bruxelles (DNCACB). It doesn’t exist.’

‘Just relax. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Who cares?’

‘Who cares? This is a scandal. A stupid project by an artist who thinks he’s fooling

everyone.’

‘Who’s the artist?’

‘Oh, some Swedish guy living in Brussels. I’ll tell you what – his career will be finished

after people realise what he’s done.’

‘I still don’t understand why you’re so upset.’

‘Oh, Christ, you’re thick. Don’t you see that stunts like this will ruin it for the real

projects in Brussels?’

‘What “real” projects?’

‘Never mind. I’ve got to go meet a guy at a brewery. Do you know how I can get to

Forest from here?’

 

 

Source: Wiels!, catalogue, Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2003