PRINT January 2008


Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, We Will Live to See These Things, or, Five Pictures of What May Come to Pass, 2007, stills from a color video, 47 minutes.

LOS ANGELES–BASED ARTISTS Julia Meltzer and David Thorne have long taken an interest in excavating the past as a means of examining the complex interplay of information, knowledge, and political control. Continuing in the vein of the socially engaged artistic practices they had previously pursued separately, they founded the Speculative Archive for Historical Clarification in 1999—a collaborative whose work began with a number of public presentations and text-and-image pieces based on newly released government documents detailing the United States’ involvement in the Guatemalan civil war and in Chile after the 1973 coup. Their next major project (the last before they abbreviated their name to Speculative Archive) involved querying US government officials about the protocols for classification and declassification. Some of this research would be reproduced in the summer 2001 issue of Cabinet magazine under the title “1 in 32: The Culture of Secrecy.” Featuring images of heavily redacted FBI files pertaining to Josephine Baker, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, and Pablo Picasso alongside interviews with federal employees, the piece conveyed an impression of the massive amounts of time and resources spent maintaining state secrets, while also demonstrating how control over the process remains fundamentally imperfect. The search for such slippage within the mechanisms of repression—whether of the past, present, or future—is a mainstay of Meltzer and Thorne’s joint projects.

Their research-oriented approach culminated in the video It’s Not My Memory of It: Three Recollected Documents, 2003, a work that intersperses three of their interviews with government employees with three stories: one of hastily shredded CIA documents that were meticulously reassembled by radical Islamist students after they seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979; one of CIA personnel respectfully burying at sea bodies recovered from a 1968 Soviet submarine disaster, as documented in grainy cold war footage; and one of the controversial 2002 US missile strike in Yemen. It’s Not My Memory of It thus examines the context and mechanics of image transmission along with the once (and in some cases, officially, still) secret information conveyed. Even as it records actual historical events, the video proposes that history is made contingent as much by its representation as by its occurrence, and that facts remain partially dependent upon an investment of belief.

One could argue that the cultural context for such work has changed in recent years, as a desire to possess the future (more than the past) has destabilized our cultural sense of time and history—something evidenced, for instance, by the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemption, which creates the context for a borderless and unending “global war on terror,” where the rationale for action is based on possible rather than past events. Accordingly, Meltzer and Thorne (who have recently abandoned the Speculative Archive moniker to work under their proper names) have begun to engage with this newly embattled territory as it is manifested globally—as a struggle not only over the form the future has taken and will take in both reality and representation but also over the hubristic and ultimately impossible attempt to defer it indefinitely.

To this end, Meltzer and Thorne have in their two most recent videos chosen to portray aspects of contemporary life and visions of the future in Syria. Given that the country is among the potential targets for preemptive US strikes, it is fitting that they have made it central to their recent practice. However, such self-consciously rhetorically titled works as We Will Live to See These Things, or, Five Pictures of What May Come to Pass, 2007, and Not a Matter of If but When: Brief Records of a Time in Which Expectations Were Repeatedly Raised and Lowered and People Grew Exhausted from Never Knowing If the Moment Was at Hand or Was Still to Come, 2006, are concerned as much with political systems internal to Syria as they are with the nation’s role in regional or global conflicts. (Moreover, that these two videos resulted from a Fulbright Award Meltzer received to study and teach in Syria suggests that they continue the trajectory of her and Thorne’s research-inclined artistic practice.)

Incorporating interviews, textual meditations, performances, and footage shot in various sites in Damascus, from a barbershop to a girls’ school, the forty-seven-minute video We Will Live to See These Things is divided into five parts. It begins with an episode devoted to the architectural history of Martyrs’ Square in central Damascus—a site dominated by a massive unfinished building that functions as an allegory for the past forty-odd years of Syrian politics, during which change (even radical modernization) has repeatedly been promised and yet much remains the same. Here and throughout the work, Meltzer and Thorne demonstrate the impossibility of presenting a comprehensive view of Syrian society; instead, they use fragments, unfinished stories, and, perhaps most evocatively, allegory and metaphor to reproduce, instead of simply reflect, the complexities and contradictions of life in Syria—as well as of their own attempts to depict it. Circles, for instance, appear in the guise of traffic patterns, an indoor equestrian rink, or a fence encircling a complex of residential buildings; so, too, do obstructions, as images are shot behind walls, pillars, opaque glass, and other physical impediments. These formal motifs contribute to a subtle yet pervasive feeling of being hindered or trapped within contained spaces.

Suggesting the complicated negotiations with political hegemony that occur in any society (not just in Syria), the second section of the work features an incantatory poetic text heard in voice-over, detailing what a mythically perfect ruler would provide for his subjects. The words are accompanied by images of equestrian show jumping, horses and riders elegantly maneuvering over preset obstacles under a banner bearing an image of Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad. Next is a section titled “A Democratic Opening, or, At Least a Little Room to Breathe,” a fairly straightforward interview with self-described dissident intellectual and former political prisoner Yassin Haj Saleh, in which he talks about competing visions of the country’s future. The sense of overlapping and conflicting ideologies is amplified by the subsequent footage of a school where young girls recite the Koran and are rewarded with Barbie stickers and other small gifts. The final section, titled “A World Purged by Fire, or, Mission Accomplished,” contrasts everyday street scenes with a text promising an inconceivably perfect future in exchange for complete surrender in the present. Apparently drawn from some obscure book of the apocalypse, the language here in fact borrows from neoconservative discourse, mimicking the rhetoric of freedom and democracy that is used to cloak the reality of securing imperial ambition.

Speculative Archive, It’s Not My Memory of It: Three Recollected Documents, 2003, still from a color video, 25 minutes.

While the line between fact and fiction is fairly clear in their endeavors, Meltzer and Thorne are nonetheless confronted with the problems inherent in self-reflexive documentary practice. Implementing fragmentary, vague, and elusive images to counter those dilemmas doesn’t necessarily reduce the risk of exoticizing a work’s subjects, while a principled critique of representation too often slides into aesthetic formalism when disconnected from larger challenges to institutional authority and dominant ideologies. These concerns are implicitly embedded within the half-hour-long video Not a Matter of If but When, which consists of musings, declarations, threats, solicitations, and pleadings by Syrian filmmaker and performer Rami Farah, who rapidly switches between engagement and disengagement, sincerity and satire, all the while eschewing a prescribed identity as well as a purely fictional persona.

At the conclusion of the work, he states, “I won’t tell you who I am. I don’t want to tell you who I am.” In forcing the viewer out of the passive consumption of a politicized other through Farah’s antagonism and his affective skepticism regarding a variety of political and existential issues, the piece undermines its monologue format by emphasizing a dialogic relationship with an imaginary audience, even as the referent for this “you” also slides among the US and Syrian governments, God, the video’s specific audiences, and Meltzer and Thorne. In both the language he uses and the stories he tells, Farah blurs the distinctions among “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “us,” and “them,” further subverting the fraught relationship of viewed and viewing subjects—one rendered even more so by the ethical issues involved in two artists from the United States traveling to a country such as Syria and attempting to document for a predominantly Western audience its unique cultural and political conditions.

If We Will Live to See These Things threads a motif of confinement, then Not a Matter of If but When explores limits and provokes ideas of authority, both secular and divine. In fables that function like coded messages, Farah at once playfully and soberly questions power—worldly, otherworldly, and his own. At one point he tells a story in which a bomb blows him to pieces, prompting his body parts to squabble while reassembling themselves: The legs want to go on top of the head as respite from all their walking; the arms insist they should be above because they’re the strongest; the torso declares that it feels the most, and so should be given preeminent place; the head counters that it has the brains. Soon, each part begins to strike or devour itself, terminating with the face and head. In another section, Farah describes the replacement of bread with poison as the primary means of sustenance, and people’s gradual acceptance and even enjoyment of this fate.

Farah’s direct yet elusive address exemplifies a change of emphasis in Meltzer and Thorne’s recent work—from classification to communication. This shift depends upon acknowledging the subtle yet important distinction between competing truths and competing discourses, which is paralleled in how Meltzer and Thorne’s archival findings and interviews with government officials have been replaced with texts, conversations, and monologues heavily dependent on figurative language. (It isn’t coincidental that this shift has been accompanied by a temporal reorientation from past to future in their work.) Yet the possibility of meaningful dialogue—and, if political theorists such as Bruno Latour, Chantal Mouffe, and others are to be believed, democracy itself—requires an embrace of heterogeneity and divergence, not consensus. Establishing this difference without eradicating the possibility of conciliation, Farah says, “I won’t starve you to death, and I will never let you freeze. I won’t make you talk to yourself like a lunatic, and you won’t hear your own voice and think it is someone else speaking.” In engaging the procedures by which future-oriented political discourse is constructed and disseminated, We Will Live to See These Things similarly exemplifies Meltzer and Thorne’s evolving politics of knowledge.

Progressive documentary art has always presented counterknowledges and alternative histories, as well as confronted structures of power that endeavor to frame and control communication. In the ongoing In Possession of a Picture: A Selection of Incidents of Photographing or Videotaping by Persons of Interest at Various Sites of Interest, Referenced with Images from Other Sources, 2005–, Meltzer and Thorne create prints where pictures of public sites in the United States, shot by people who have been stopped or detained for photographing them, are represented as black rectangles next to photographs of the same locations downloaded from the Web. Thus a representation of alleged Al Qaeda member Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun’s censored image of the Golden Gate Bridge is juxtaposed with a snapshot of it found on the Internet, with a URL and the photographer’s name provided in an accompanying caption. Here, the state’s ability to classify and declassify completes a trajectory that stretches from paper documents to images, almost to the act of seeing itself. The supposed threat lies not in what the photographs depict but in the circumstances surrounding their production—circumstances that, unlike US government and local law enforcement officials, In Possession of a Picture leaves open for debate.

Recent conceptual documentary practices have productively instigated a debate about how history gets written, who writes it, and the inevitable gap separating history from its representation. In an era in which political administrations fictionalize facts and seek to make facts out of fictions, documentary artistic strategies that focus on existing or imaginary histories and archives are both a mode of critique and a type of mimesis. They prod viewers to reexamine the modes of belief and disbelief projected onto narratives of past, present, and future. While they do sometimes generate insider and outsider status, depending upon who is in on the ruse when fictional components are embedded within documentary modes, such artworks also bring up a more fundamental question: When was fiction not a form of documentary and documentary not a form of fiction? Authority and hegemony reside less in the capacity to make commands than in limiting the range of political discourse and choices. Having previously focused on unmasking those processes whereby the past is covered up, Meltzer and Thorne show that it is equally, if not more, imperative that the future remain visible in the dissentient telling of—and listening to—multiple, divergent stories.

Alan Gilbert is a New York–based independent scholar and poet.