Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prairie Artsters - Beyond Bearing Witness*

Last week, Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s trilogy on violence played at Metro Cinema, followed by a panel discussion on the ethics and politics of violence. The first scene in Benny’s Video, the second film in the installment, is a home video of a squealing pig being air punctured at the top of its skull, captured in close up as it writhes amongst the commotion of farm hands. The scene is then paused, rewound and played again in slow motion. There is no doubt that we are watching the death of a live animal, watching the moment of its death through a mediated sense of control that still denies us (and the character in the film) from actually experiencing the effect of the moment.

The central issue raised during the panel, however, sidestepped ethics and headed straight into the notion of the beautiful. One panelist countered this opening scene by showing a quiet clip of a smiling man forcefully leading a reindeer into the bush and skillfully insert a large blade into its skull. The panelist then called this scene “beautiful” in relation to Haneke’s scene, which captured the chaos of the struggle and included the squeals and the mechanical blast of the air gun, which the panelist described as “cold.”

Beautiful, as an adjective, means absolutely nothing in this context—especially when applied to a visual object. Neither scene for me is very “beautiful,” but I am affected in the sense that my thoughts, my blood, have been stirred. Beautiful, as an emotion, is an arrested sensation we often conflate with something we encounter in the world. The problem here for me is not the death of the animals, but the representations of their deaths and our relation to the event.

In both scenes, there is undeniably a sense of control on screen and off. We as viewers are positioned as privileged, but the reindeer scene, which is supposed to counter Haneke’s coldness, is in fact far more disturbing, as the man with the knife looks knowingly into the camera as he performs. We are no longer just voyeurs into a spectacle, but we are made implicit through his recognition of us, and our fullest attention to his action. What is beautiful then is an archaic sense of desire, or in other words, unrequited pleasure.

All of this also reminds me of the moral outrage sparked last summer by Mexican artist Guillermo Vargas, aka Habacuc, who found a malnourished street dog and tied it up in a gallery setting as a means to force viewers to bare witness to its starvation. A great amount of offense was taken at the supposed cruelty of letting an animal die (as art), and the opposing arguments praise Habacuc for magnifying the lack of social empathy by forcing viewers to confront the inevitable demise of a living creature bred from the social conditions we all silently tolerate. There is nothing aesthetically beautiful about watching a street dog dying, but there is an ethically charged call to arms that does not exist within a simple metaphor.

I remember talking to UK performance artist Kira O’Reilly about the Habacuc exhibit, which had just caught international attention when she was in town last summer, and I was surprised that her response was quite negative. Reilly’s “inthewrongplaceness” received the scorn of animal rights activists when visitors were invited one at a time to witness the artist lie naked in bed caressing and engaging with the corpse of a dead pig. For her, she felt Habacuc’s choice to let the animal die instead of at least trying to save it was problematic.

But long after that particular case, and the hundreds if not thousands more, I wonder why the onus was up to any single person such as the artist—rather than directed towards any member of the attending public—to live up to his or her experience and do something, anything, besides stand by and watch.

*First published in Vue Weekly, March 19 - 25, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton

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