The Index of Truth
by Michael Tarantino, 2003
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 Augustijnen’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 Augustijnen’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