Film

Bonded Debt

Jordan Lord, Shared Resources, 2020—, HD video, sound, color, 57 minutes.  Artist-provided description: A gradient fills the frame, going from pink to beige. A caption appears at the bottom the image that reads: “Some things are too close to be shown.”

“I WANT HOT PINK GLITTER IN MY ASHES,” a redheaded, middle-aged woman quips, triggering nervous, scandalized laughter in a scene that evokes cinema verité as much as a home movie. Around a Thanksgiving table in Mississippi, gallows humor is a family affair, animated by tongue-in-cheek speculations about dismemberment, double indemnity, and itemized funeral budgets. At this point in Shared Resources, a feature-length work in progress by Jordan Lord, we know that Albert Lord (the filmmaker’s father, a graying man who observes this conversation with jaded reserve) is a former debt collector, or “risk manager.” The topic of cremation quickly cedes to that of resurrection—if not of whole bodies, then of severed limbs. Later, another scene offers a dark corollary to these wisecracks. As an ophthalmologist scans Albert’s eyes, which have been impaired from exposure to Agent Orange, the artist’s voice-over explains that Albert’s disability benefits are calculated per body part, with each appraised piecemeal for its worth. “Insurance companies frame a person’s life by certain risk factors that determine when and how they’ll die, assigning their life value accordingly,” Lord tells us. “Under this logic, disability is a kind of debt.”

An excerpt of Shared Resources was included in a virtual screening hosted by New York University’s Center for Disability Studies last month. The event’s alliterative title—“Disability, Documentary, and Description”—could have easily also included “debt,” a central theme of Shared Resources. While under capitalism, both debt and disability typically signify lack, Lord—together with their frequent artistic interlocutor Constantina Zavitsanos—theorizes these concepts in terms of social wealth, as entanglements with others that controvert a worldview based on self-reliance. The title’s constellation of topics maps this ethic of mutual dependency onto a historical genre and related aesthetic form. Staging an immanent critique of documentary, Lord’s films challenge the presumed neutrality and universality of vision, upending the pet adage “Show don’t tell,” in order to reclaim the subjectivity of description. For the artist, description is more than a means of access; function bleeds into form, resulting in a multivalent narration that “gives us so much in excess of what we’re actually shown,” as artist and writer Carolyn Lazard remarked in the post-screening discussion. In the act of telling, Lazard elaborated, information cannot be disentangled from affect, nor—as Lord shows in the latent anxiety of the Thanksgiving scene—can crisis be severed from conviviality.

Jordan Lord, After... After... (Access), 2018, HD video, sound, color, 16 minutes. Artist-provided description: The inside of a body, including a spine and other organs, appears on a laptop screen. A white person's hand reaches toward the laptop's keyboard. On top of the hand, a caption reads: “In learning to make a film, students are taught to show rather than tell.”

Autobiography grounds all three works screened in the program, which also included the shorts After…After…(Access) and I Can Hear My Mother’s Voice (both 2018). Each film features Lord’s family and self-reflexively engages its own making, whether through documenting the process of their mother learning to use a camera, reflecting on what that camera can and cannot capture (legally and physically), or investigating the nuances of participatory consent. Throughout, open captions and audio descriptions develop a complex filmic texture, running as parallel currents to the diegetic components of the footage. These elements perform not as secondary or supplementary prostheses but as collaborative agents in Lord’s documentary style.

Moments of intersensory interference bring this to the fore. At one point in After…After…(Access), the audio description (a voice-over translating images for those without sight) addresses part of the frame eclipsed by a subtitle block (a transcription of speech for those without hearing). The audio description acknowledges this occlusion, that what lies behind the text cannot be seen or described. Throughout the films, such descriptive voice-overs—mostly provided by the filmmaker and their mother, Deborah Lord—complicate both narrative authority and temporal flow. Vision can be more fleeting than language, yet Lord deliberately subordinates the pacing of the scenes to the audio descriptions. This results in a staggered, multilayered tempo that invites sighted viewers to follow an intersubjective perceptual loop, collating their own impressions with extra-diegetic representations of what they see. For instance, in Shared Resources, Deborah reflects on a prolonged closeup of herself, poignantly identifying and interpreting subtle facial tension and gestures that are almost inappreciable to an outside viewer. “I don’t know if you felt any pain when you zoomed in on my face,” she addresses Jordan in the voice-over, invoking both vicarious and cyclical aspects of trauma. In the post-screening discussion, Zavitsanos referred to this segment—Deborah’s affective return to the experience captured by the shot—as a fold in time.

Jordan Lord, After... After... (Access), 2018, HD video, sound, color, 16 minutes.Jordan Lord with Deborah Lord, After... After... (Access), 2018, HD video, sound, color, 16 minutes Artist-provided description: A white quilt with a pink stripe is bunched up in folds that cover most of the frame. A caption appears at the bottom the image that reads: “The frame is filled by a blanket that moves up and down with my heart beat.”

After…After…(Access) emphasizes what disability discourse sometimes calls “crip time,” a somatically attuned temporality incompatible with capitalist forces of standardization and acceleration. Lord’s voice-over traces the etymology of “access” to Middle English, in which it meant a sudden attack of illness, yet the film’s disposition is less fitful than liminal. Its title’s locution invokes the rhythm of deferral while also mimicking the naming convention for artworks created “after”—or influenced by—another artist. In the opening sequence, a litany of names credits Lord’s network of colleagues, collaborators, family, and friends—many of whom took shifts caring for the artist while they recuperated following open-heart surgery—and the concluding voice-over suggests that the film is a product of this collective reproductive labor. Intervening scenes emphasize the tender banality of this work, and of waiting. Lord deconstructs and reconstructs a bed with an erstwhile lover, after moving into a borrowed apartment before the operation; in a cab from the airport, they hold hands with their mother, who came to see them through their recovery. The film also tracks the legal and institutional frameworks that delimit its scope, as Lord recounts the producer’s repeated attempts to obtain permission to record the surgery. The hospital required a multimillion-dollar insurance policy in order for Lord to document the process by which their own body was opened and repaired. Ultimately, they were denied access.

The first shot of After…After…(Access) frames a body in extreme proximity, encompassing only skin, hair, and the edge of a shirt collar. This vantage deprives sighted viewers of immediate apprehension. We are told that we’re witnessing the filmmaker’s pulse, and later learn that its barely perceptible movement is an index of Lord’s leaking heart. This condition, too, is only tenuously imaged in the film through an MRI animation, unfathomable to the untrained eye, including the artist’s. Visibility (and its converse, opacity) are pervasive tropes in debates about cultural representation, but Lord’s understanding of access jettisons this binary. It’s not just that the discourse relies on ocularity and thus universalizes a single-sense organ in a way that could be perceived as ableist. The visibility metaphor also tends to imply that difference is categorical, and that recognition is an end in itself. It’s a zero-sum game: a subject or group is represented and seen, their collective experience packaged and made legible to others, or not. A voice-over in Shared Resources posits, on the contrary, that “the circuit between ‘I and you’ can’t be closed,” and that “difference can’t be framed. It can only be missed. In missing it, it can only be felt.” This language intimates an alternative sensibility, based on a mutual imbrication that nevertheless holds space for dissimilitude. For Lord, access and recognition are only ever partial.

Jordan Lord, Shared Resources, 2020 (work-in-progress), HD video, sound, color, 57 minutes. Artist-provided description: A white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair covering one eye sits, looking down, wearing a polka-dotted raincoat. A hand-held mirror sets on a counter next to her, reflecting her hand and stacks of coins. A caption appears on top of her hands that reads “so I am counting coins and putting in envelopes.”

Shared Resources covers the aftermath of the Lord family’s bankruptcy following the loss of their Louisiana home in Hurricane Katrina and, later, Albert’s job as a debt collector for a bank. The Lords’ financial collapse had an earlier root, too, one particularly formative for the filmmaker: When Jordan was eleven, their father pledged to fund their college education if they were accepted to an Ivy League school. (They attended Columbia. In a shot in Shared Resources, Jordan’s mother lingers lovingly on a photo from their graduation.) This part of the Lords’ story—their accumulation of massive debt on education’s promise of upward mobility—is typically and tragically American. In her 2011 book Cruel Optimism, theorist Lauren Berlant elaborates the attrition of our collective fantasy of achieving “the good life.” Tying that dream’s foreclosure to the contraction of the welfare state since the 1970s and ’80s, Berlant dwells on the self-destructive affective and ideological attachments that such historical shifts leave in their wake. Shared Resources mines the pathos and irony of Lord’s own family drama, drawing out such attachments as they relate to complex intergenerational dynamics around health, masculinity, morality, and consent.

Shared Resources opens on a discussion between Lord and their parents over footage previously shot for the film—a scene that continues to play out in intermittent clips. Albert expresses a strong aversion to a scene in which he experiences an episode of compromised health related to his diabetes and ongoing complications from his Agent Orange exposure. He loathes sequences in which he appears weak, vulnerable, or idle, and worries about comparisons to his wife, who is often shown engaged in housework. Anxieties over productivity and status extend to physical signifiers of wealth as well. One of the film’s still, people-less shots features a sitting room in the Lords’ home. Flanking a faux-rococo painting and hanging above a lavender sofa are two ornate pedestals with gilded tassels, each supporting a porcelain tchotchke of an animal dressed as a bewigged eighteenth-century aristocrat.1 In a voice-over, Albert worries about false impressions: “Look how nice these people’s house is. Look at the furnishings. They’re bankrupt?” Deborah interjects that the furniture—“every lamp, every figurine”—was gifted to them by friends and family after they lost their home in Katrina.

Jordan Lord with Deborah Lord, I Can Hear My Mother's Voice, 2018, HD video, sound, color, 5 minutes. Artist-provided description: Three elderly white women, who appear to be sisters, sit next to each other, singing. Two of the women wear leopard print and have blonde hair with gold-colored jewelry. The third woman's hair is white. She wears a pink jacket, and her eyes are closed. She holds the hand of the woman seated in the center. On top of their hands, a caption reads: “you can read it in their lips.”

Albert’s discomfort around his portrayal in the film colors his character throughout, and we are continually brought back to the tense scene of negotiation between Lord and their parents. Occasionally, images are informally censored by a finger in front of the camera lens, presumably a result of this conversation. In the post-screening discussion, Lord drew an analogy between boilerplate waivers used in documentary filmmaking and those derived from the Nuremberg Code, which mandates voluntary, informed consent from the subjects of medical testing. Lord rejects these contracts for binding participants to a preemptive, one-time agreement that waives their right to withdraw consent in perpetuity, regardless of unforeseen changes in circumstance. In contradistinction to this juridical sense, Lord advocates a conception of consent that is processual and ongoing. As such, Lord and their father, who joined the virtual screening along with Deborah, took up this conversation again after the film, acknowledging the sticky contingencies between contracts, collaboration, and care.

In testing the ethics of representation within the familial sphere, Shared Resources recalls Aerospace Folktales, a 1973 photo-essay by Allan Sekula that also critically engages the documentary genre. Originally presenting it as a slideshow with a soundtrack and written commentary, the artist called this autoethnographic work a “disassembled movie.” Aerospace Folktales focuses on Sekula’s family life after his father was laid off from his engineering job at the aircraft corporation Lockheed. Through interviews with his parents and his own commentary, Sekula draws out ideological commitments that defy the family’s material reality. Just as in Shared Resources, his images are characterized by mostly banal, domestic scenes that juxtapose the discomfort of a father out of work with a mother occupied by cooking and cleaning. Just as in Shared Resources, a contradiction emerges between an individualist doctrine of personal responsibility and the systemic injustices on evidence. In the former work, Albert sets himself apart from predatory creditors, expounding on the moral obligation he felt as a professional debt collector to help insolvent customers. He takes pride in fulfilling the Lords’ commitment to their bank through each monthly bankruptcy payment, and even boasts about voluntarily disclosing the extra disability income he was issued after their filing was complete. “Here he is living on unemployment and he sounds like the Lockheed chairman of the board,” Sekula remarks about his own father. “He thinks all this is a dysfunction of a perfectly equitable system.”

David Graeber’s pop-anthropological account of debt, which garnered widespread attention in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, surveys the concept’s historical longevity, unpacking the religiosity adhering to debt in a culture defined by bootstraps individualism. Instead of advocating for human relations based on reciprocity, which implies both equality and separation between parties, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) invokes models of sociality constituted by the perpetuation of small debts—the Tiv people of Nigeria, for instance, purposefully under- or over-compensate their neighbors for gifts; that way, there is always a remainder binding them. Undermining the moral presumption that debts should or could be repaid, Graeber ultimately argues that “a debt is just the perversion of a promise.”2 Indeed, the Lords’ bankruptcy issued, in part, from Albert’s promise to Jordan, a radical show of faith in his child’s own promise. To secure Jordan’s future, Albert leveraged his own. Decades later, Shared Resources shows Albert feeding a month’s worth of spare change, which he and Deborah had dutifully collected over the month as a meager financial cushion, into a coin machine. He does this in the lobby of the very bank that fired him, where he still holds an account.

NOTES

1. Unpacking the incongruous class implications of kitsch here could be the subject of another essay. As Pierre Bourdieu, the paradigmatic sociologist of taste, observes, “Every interior expresses, in its own language, the present and even the past state of its occupants, bespeaking the elegant self-assurance of inherited wealth, the flashy arrogance of the nouveaux riches, the discreet shabbiness of the poor and the gilded shabbiness of ‘poor relations’ striving to live beyond their means.” Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: The Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 77.

2. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 391.

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