Los Angeles

Chris Kraus


In Chris Kraus’ first film, In Order to Pass, 1982, one of the actors/participants suddenly asks the question, “What would happen if there were just plain flow between symbols?” The obvious answer is that the symbols would disappear as concrete anchors of received meaning, leaving us with a web of vectors, switching stations, and durations. This is perhaps an appropriate description of Kraus’ oeuvre as a whole, for one can discern in her films a gradual development away from dialectical relationships based on traditional binary oppositions, toward an interest in syntagmatic and metonymic fluidity: in short, a cinema in which becoming is the subject. Instead of a narrative based on the relationship between action and situation, Kraus creates a polymorphous, crystalline state, in which every element contains its opposite, all signifiers are seemingly interchangeable, and discernable knowledge is rendered impossible.

Traveling at Night, 1991, Kraus’ latest film, is a good case in point. Filmed in the remote Adirondack town of Warrensburg, New York, with a group of local fourth-graders and amateur historians, its ostensible subject is the history of the Underground Railroad. The film is less a documentary concerned with ferreting out hitherto concealed facts than a meditation on history and filmmaking as poetic mystifications, in which virtual past and actual present are the same thing. The locale’s chief expert is a former architect who moved to the area twenty years ago and has dedicated herself to keeping her adopted local history alive. However, we quickly discover that the town “experts” have little or no documentary basis for their narrative and depend for most of their information on unverifiable oral tradition. Indeed, Kraus frames her subject with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, 1941, referencing its character Miss La Trobe, who makes heroic attempts to unite people in a history to which she has no real connection. La Trobe is also, of course, Kraus herself, an artist who pulls her viewers into a history that has no verifiable history, a narrative with no real narrative. We are left instead with a film that consists of a series of metonymic flows, in which knowledge is not something concrete that can be intellectually disclosed, but is, instead, something slippery and subjective, projected from the realm of the imaginary rather than based on rational analysis.

One could argue that Kraus merely restates the old Althusserian position that art’s role is to foreground concealed ideology by making “reality” appear strange, the better to disclose its arbitrary structures. However, Kraus’ own diegesis is so intrinsically untrustworthy that we tend to read her films as one dubious ideology reframing another, ad infinitum. In How to Shoot a Crime, 1987, for example, Kraus intercuts a study of police videography, in which a freelance cameraman describes how he shoots crime evidence for the DA’s office, with Sylvère Lotringer interviewing a professional dominatrix. This bringing together of pop sado-masochism with documentary Grand Guignol is less a dialectical study of two types of symbolic violence than a banalizing merger, both with each other and with Kraus’ camera.

As the film unfolds, we become familiar with the documentation of violence, structured by the cameraman’s voice-over describing his shooting methodology. We see three bodies, symbolically lying on a bed, then another corpse, this time a man. The camera documents his apartment, his books, and his knickknacks. Suddenly, the “corpse” is revealed to be none other than Lotringer himself, acting in a simulation of the recorded crime scene. The interviewing object of the dominatrix’s verbal violence is now presented as the subject of the documentary’s visual violence and, by extension, Kraus’ own “murder” of objective truth. We now mistrust everything we’ve seen: police videography (and by extension, forensic science), the objective interview, and the film we are watching. Ironically, through this very symbolic violence to “the real” the film also strives to kill the symbolic. With no truths left to fall back on, the film takes us out of the hierarchical reals/reels of the symbolic into the realm of the simulacrum and the beginnings of pure semiosis.

Colin Gardner