TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 2010

THE DISCOVERY OF SLOWNESS: THE FILMS OF MANON DE BOER

MANON DE BOER’S 16-MM FILM Dissonant, 2010, begins modestly but invitingly. The first movement of Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe’s 1923 Sonata no. 2 for Solo Violin plays over a black screen, the music quoting from Bach’s joyous Partita no. 3 in E major, which intertwines with and increasingly yields to Ysaÿe’s own dazzling modernist tones. After a brief passage of white leader—a self-reflexive gesture common in the Dutch artist’s films—a close-up appears of the dancer Cynthia Loemij listening intently to Ysaÿe’s two-minute composition (one that she’s never had the chance to dance to, until now, although it played when she was offstage at a memorable performance twenty years ago). With her figure framed against the four large windows of a dance studio, her shifting expressions echo the music’s quick tempo and jumpy flourishes. After the sonata ends, Loemij suddenly arcs her body backward, flowing directly into a series of mesmerizing movements performed without music over the following eight minutes, occasionally interrupted visually by long passages of black, during which de Boer changed her reels but left the audio track recording the ongoing activity.

Like much of de Boer’s work, Dissonant builds on the rupture between sound and image, a disjunction that makes viewers aware of unexpected qualities of the performance—the dancer’s panting, her sweeping and at times staccato footwork, the machinic sounds of the camera as the film is being changed conjoining with the clanking regularity of the projector. Nominally a film of a dance, the work opens onto worlds of unpredictable sensations that are intense, albeit understated, and pleasurable to discover. As such, de Boer’s intervention into the contemporary art of the moving image is a quiet yet purposeful one. Although her subtle and exacting use of the medium recalls like-minded projects by contemporary artists—such as Tacita Dean’s Craneway Event, 2009, and its incrementally unfolding cinematic observation of a group rehearsal for one of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s last works, or Steve McQueen’s Giardini, 2009, whose meditative regard and selective negation of sound achieve a powerful sensory effect—her oeuvre remains singular, and consistently asks, What does it means to allow aesthetic experience to infuse one’s being? In this regard, de Boer’s focus on her artistic peers— musicians, actresses, writers, dancers—further distinguishes her work from the equally rigorous and diversely experimental films by other members of Auguste Orts, the Brussels-based artists’ platform that de Boer founded with Herman Asselberghs, Sven Augustijnen, and Anouk de Clercq. De Boer’s rendering of edgy modes of subjective creativity—her portraits of modern dancers, experimental musicians, and conceptual thinkers—defines and energizes an unspectacular culture of artistic production, making possible discerning and sensitive ways of seeing that are fast approaching extinction in today’s speed-obsessed commercial image milieu. That is in large part because her depiction of those practices is perceptually nuanced, aesthetically complex, and ever rewarding of attentiveness—as is manifestly the case with Dissonant.

Whereas the absence of music accompanying the dance draws attention to the singularity of the performance, the representational playfulness of Dissonant soon leaves the viewer unsure of just what he or she is looking at. Loemij (who used to be a member of Rosas, celebrated Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance company) throws herself jerkily into bodily contradictions, with backward circular steps confusing the dance’s temporal progression, along with surprising moments of seeming exit from the performance. But then the cycle repeats itself, with these rag-doll-like movements so precisely calculated and perfectly executed that whether the repetitions have been edited or actually danced is unclear. The black passages add to the uncertainty. Escaping confusion demands acute observation, which eventually reveals that in fact Loemij performs the same dance, including all of its seemingly accidental quirks, six times over the course of the film. Repetition becomes a vehicle for cultivating the appreciation of subtle shades of variance, just as film, in de Boer’s hands, becomes a tool for the precise framing of events that affords our experience of them greater force and depth.

Consider in this light Two Times 4'33“, 2008, a film of de Boer’s that further explores the creative possibilities of repetition. The piece advances her long-standing concern with experimental musical performances in works such as Presto, Perfect Sound, 2006, a film that records Brussels-based violinist George van Dam playing the Presto from Béla Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117, montaged together from six takes; and Attica, 2008, a film of a staged recital of Frederic Rzewski’s eponymous 1972 composition responding to the infamous 1971 prison riots in upstate New York. In both, the artist’s fixed-frame shots and slow pans underline the determined concentration of the players as they immerse themselves in the music. (These two works, as well as Two Times 4'33” and Dissonant, will feature in a survey of de Boer’s work opening in January at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.)

Unlike de Boer’s engagements with those lesserknown compositions, Two Times 4'33" admittedly risks courting cliché by taking up John Cage’s most famous anticomposition. But this very hazard became de Boer’s challenge—how to simultaneously register the significance of Cage’s aesthetic revolution for her own practice and creatively reinvent this now hackneyed piece. She does so by translating the work cinematically, where its import appropriately shifts registers from sound to image. In its first half, the film, shot in 35 mm in order to register the finest of visual details, sweeps left across the strings of a grand piano and settles on Jean-Luc Fafchamps as the pianist sits down before the keyboard and starts a clock to begin the performance. The camera stays fixed on his absorbed visage for the duration of the first part, while the audio track plays the environmental sounds that ensue, including the turning of the manuscript’s pages, and the coughs and the shuffling of an unseen audience. Yet the film is less concerned with Cage’s well-known lessons regarding the impossibility of silence, and attentiveness to accidental sonic incident, than it is with using that now ready-made framework for a rigorous exercise in cinematic perception, one that is framed but not fully determined. It is the browns and blacks of the piano and of the pianist’s hair and clothes, particularly against the blurred blue-greens of the flora visible on the other side of the large, rain-splattered windows, that become intriguing, undermining their seeming irrelevance.

The film’s second half commences similarly, yet with the atmospheric sound eliminated. This time, the camera moves slowly and steadily past Fafchamps and counterclockwise around the room, dragging its adaptive focus over the members of the small audience (and recalling the determined slowness of structural films such as Michael Snow’s Wavelength, 1967). It becomes clear that while de Boer’s cinematic repartitioning of the experience of silence resonates with Cage’s structured structurelessness and participatory aesthetic, the two are far from identical. Whereas it’s true that the film allows its own audience to sensitize itself to atmospheric sensation, the image remains directed, a privileged object, unlike Cage’s piano. As the camera ends up resting on a view of the wind-filled landscape outside the performance space, we encounter a central tendency of de Boer’s work: to indicate a way out of a systematized scenario via a glimpse of the hors-champ, the visual and aural beyond. It is this relay, between her film’s selective negation of its own elements in order to better register its own potential, and the gesturing toward its outside as if to announce its own representational limits, that accounts for the rigor of de Boer’s art, as well as for its paradoxical mixture of the ascetic and the sensual.

Alternately, one could say that de Boer’s films explore the contradictory relation between perception (based on the recognition of preordered forms) and sensation (meaning the open-ended contact with the flux of physical phenomena)—of the kind that Brazilian psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Suely Rolnik also discovers in aesthetic experience, as informed by her readings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In fact, de Boer recently cited Rolnik’s distinction between “the sensation of the ‘world-asforce-field’” and the “perception of the ‘world-asform,’” in order to identify what is at stake in her films.¹ Responding to the kinship between her own artistic sensibility and Rolnik’s philosophical approach, de Boer made Rolnik the subject of her film Resonating Surfaces, 2005, the work that best reveals the political stakes of de Boer’s art. Much of the piece shows Rolnik talking about her past, smoking in a lush garden, footage of which is interspersed with shots of São Paulo. Hers is a story of stories, opening onto Brazilian postcolonial history and tropicalist antropofagia, but the film turns again and again to Rolnik’s early days in Paris, where she had fled in exile after her imprisonment in Brazil during the junta. In the early 1970s, she was attending Deleuze’s seminars when she developed a friendship and subsequent amorous relationship with the philosopher, in the course of which he proposed the project—later understood by her to be therapeutic—of comparing the death cries from Lulu and Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s two operas, which are excerpted at the beginning of de Boer’s film.

Rolnik’s study ended up taking an unforeseen turn—perhaps one presciently anticipated by Deleuze—when she discovered her own forgotten and repressed Brazilian voice in a singing class in Paris and realized that it resonated with Lulu’s cry, made when the character—who has turned to prostitution in desperate circumstances—attempts in vain to resist the knife of Jack the Ripper. In contrast to the melancholy and resigned wailing of Wozzeck’s Marie, Lulu’s cry, for Rolnik, was revitalizing, a life-affirming expression that triggered Rolnik’s own emancipation. When in the course of her class she unexpectedly recited one of Gal Costa’s songs, she felt the aural vibrations crack her protective shell, enabling her eventually to overcome her debilitating amnesia and traumatized relation to language and then to return to Brazil. During this moment of the monologue, the film’s images of São Paulo suddenly appear blanched, poignantly resonating with Rolnik’s metaphoric account of the plastered carapace enclosing her body.

The filmmaker, in other words, redoubles the psychoanalyst’s account of the transformative power of the image by cinematically freeing her subject’s account of liberation from its own narrative enclosure. The film’s protracted introduction is exemplary in this regard: It joins slow, arcing pans of São Paulo’s cityscape with the sound of unidentified voices describing its colors, noises, and smells, a sequence that strikingly delays the entrance of Rolnik’s commentary until some ten minutes into the thirtyeight-minute piece and also announces the delinking of image from voice that characterizes this work. Bringing to mind the cinema of Marguerite Duras, and particularly her poetic India Song (1975), with its similar divorcing of visual and auditory registers, de Boer reinvents the strategy to deinstrumentalize her own film’s imagery, allowing it to multiply into numerous virtual possibilities of meaning—what Deleuze might have called a crystal-image, wherein the real and the imaginary, past and present, become indiscernible. Since the 1970s, of course, the divorce of sound and image has become commonplace, mobilized artistically and exploited commercially, but in de Boer’s work the technique reengages its emancipatory potential in liberating meaning from imposed direction and unleashing the image’s narrative multiplicity.

The result of all this brings de Boer’s film close to the spirit of Rolnik’s account of the micropolitics of perception. For Rolnik, her openness to aesthetic sensitivity allowed her to resist what she calls the microfascism of everyday life that attempts to discipline desire and curtail creative ways of being, imposing amnesia, exile, and silence in their place.² Such was her experience during the Brazilian dictatorship. This was, as she recounts in the film, an alternately thrilling and agonizing time, during which she participated in countercultural experiments with sexuality, communal living, and new music but was repelled by her friends’ frequent lack of political consciousness; similarly, she supported the militant resistance, only to be dismissed for her supposedly apolitical aesthetic preoccupations—despite landing in jail as a political prisoner. However, de Boer’s Rolnik does not represent some far-flung but nonetheless intriguing counterhistory separate from our contemporary reality; it is exactly this vexing connection between aesthetics and politics—so problematically posited today, whether by those who deny art all social relevance or by others who facilely seek to render art politically operational—that remains as pressing as ever.

In this sense, Resonating Surfaces performs an impressive feat. It correlates thematic attentiveness with political engagement and the cinematic exploration of its aesthetic terms. As such, it complements de Boer’s earlier projects, including the artist’s series of short films “Laurien” and “Robert,” both 1996–2007, which similarly examine the paradoxical relation that defines human sensibility—the division between what Rolnik calls its perceptual existence, conveyed by “visual, auditory and other representations,” and its sensory experience as a “living presence . . . that can be expressed but not represented.”³ Existing, in a way, as studies for her more ambitious essayistic work, de Boer’s “Laurien” and “Robert” show the same individuals two or three times over several years in identical close-up, fixed-frame shots—where they appear engaged in absorptive activities, with eyes downcast, seemingly unaware of the camera—which are then shown together as films back to back or side by side. As opposed to the self-conscious theatricality that occurs in Warhol’s onetime Screen Tests—their comparable antecedent—these works elicit an uncanny mixture of the consistency and the differentiation of being, relayed in facial expressions, physiognomy, and sensibility, that persists, yet differs, over time, the process of which transcends representation in any given moment.

De Boer also explored the nature of human sensibility in Sylvia Kristel—Paris, 2003, a nearly forty-minute-long essay film that, like Resonating Surfaces, takes an exemplary person’s life as its subject in order to investigate the limits and power of film. It is therefore ironic, but all the more appropriate, that de Boer chose to work with the Dutch actress famous for her lead role in the 1974 softcore film Emmanuelle—the first film to embrace its X rating for commercial success: in other words, taking a model of pornographic exposure and showing how she, like anyone else, is positioned in the irreconcilable gap between spectacularized representation and unrepresentable existence.

In de Boer’s film, we see Kristel recounting her storied past—tales of romantic entanglements, professional successes, and personal depressions during her life in the film industry, spent mostly in Paris during the 1970s—as recorded during two interviews with the artist, the one from 2001 playing before the one from a year earlier. Shown pensively smoking outdoors, the actress appears only between the passages of her two monologues. As she speaks, shots of the streets of present-day Paris are shown; speech and image once again delinked. Shot on Super 8 film, the contemporary city overlaid with the historical commentary appears strangely anachronistic, one of several disjunctions on which the film plays, creating “resonating surfaces” between the city’s past and present that parallel the variances between the two versions of Kristel’s memory. By the end of Sylvia Kristel—Paris, when the actress emerges for the last time, our perception of her is markedly different, her life of superficial hedonism endowed with reflective seriousness and appearing newly layered.

In such portraits, de Boer’s work is clearly not always pledged to political radicalism. The artist opts to highlight the potentiality of being that surpasses representation’s capture, rather than to dwell critically on the institutions, economies, and social systems that maintain inequality and oppression. Yet that does not mean that her cinema of sensation is a formalist exercise devoid of politics. While her works present us with a roster of unconventional, sometimes subversive artists and activists—which will continue with her forthcoming film on avant-garde percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, Think About Wood, Think About Metal, to premiere this January at South London Gallery—her postrepresentational approach is distinct from the demands for minoritarian recognition that have ruled the art of identity politics of recent years.

De Boer’s work suggests that politics becomes self-defeating when it thinks it knows its subject, the only antidote to which is a sensitivity to the aesthetics of being that constitutes—and, crucially, renders insufficient—visual language. The risk of a practice such as de Boer’s is that its embrace of slowness, quietness, and subtlety courts nonrecognition, at least from the perspective of our hypercharged media environment. Yet it is in direct and critical relation to that world that de Boer’s films make a courageous stand to animate an aesthetic space outside the sphere of sensationalized distraction. While her work revitalizes artistic traditions—of independent cinema and experimental filmmaking alike—de Boer’s use of measured concentration, unscripted experience, and visual nuance, all brought to bear on the representation of cultural production, reformulates that inheritance and thus continues to reinvent the perceptual, sensory, and political possibilities of being in the world.

T. J. Demos is a reader in the department of art history, University College London.

NOTES

1. De Boer quotes Rolnik in a letter to Herman Asselberghs dated March 31, 2010, which was included in the 2010 exhibition “Auguste Orts: Correspondence” at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Belgium.

2. See Suely Rolnik, “Deleuze, Schizoanalyst,” in Manon de Boer, ed. Monika Szewczyk et al. (Frankfurt and Rotterdam: Frankfurter Kunstverein, Witte de With, and Revolver, 2008), 155.

3. Rolnik quoted in de Boer, op. cit.