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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)

The question of the subject and the autobiographic in artists moving image practice
Sarah Pucill
The question of the subject and the autobiographic in artists moving image practice

For this issue, I consider the way in which the autobiographic in artists moving image practice has been valued in the critical writing of the historical avant-garde and experimental film and video. The essays here discuss the critical significance of the self as against that of the medium. Here I outline this polarity between self and medium as it manifested in the writings on Structuralist film in the 70s and the feminist critiques of that movement. I then discuss the genre of the autoethnographic and discuss some examples of such work.

In the 70s, whilst the high Modernist Structuralist film movement sought to eradicate any trace of the personal or the subject as author, in the wider frame of Fine Art, the feminist art movement was making famous the slogan “The Personal is Political”. In fact the impact of feminism in art criticism was major and feminist critique and practice succeeded in shifting the parameters for what could be valued as Art . The consequence was that the frames of reference for artistic debate expanded, so emphasising the intersection between the ‘personal’ and the wider social and political context. An important point here, was that the shift was as much in the criticism as in the practice.

In a seminal article in Screen1, Janet Bergstrom and Constance Penley questioned the singular and narrow agenda that had been applied in the historical criticism of avant garde film. They argued that such criticism had neglected to acknowledge the question of who speaks, which necessarily therefore failed to address much feminist work. The consequence of feminist critiques of Structuralist film, that failed to acknowledge the subject as socially constructed and different, led to a spawning of new forms of practice in artists film and video. Much of this practice, too diverse to be grouped into a singular category often challenged the categories between avant garde, documentary and fiction. However, in two recent books published in the US, Catherine Russell2 and Michael Renov3 both lament the lack of critical writing on the body of experimental film and video that emerged in the 80s and 90s that doesn’t conform to the classic canonical ‘Avant Garde’ of structure and form. It is perhaps because the autobiographic stands in opposition to Modernist and Universalist agendas that it becomes a focal issue in Russell’s writing on ethnographic film and video. I will outline some of the key points that these writers raise, in particular Russell.

It is in the theory of Structuralist Film where autobiography is most undermined. In terms of its claims to objectivity, and to the universal Subject, Structuralist film is positioned anti-thetically to the autoethnographic work that Russell endorses. Russell draws parallels between the ethnographic cameraman’s colonising gaze of early 20th Century anthropologists documentary film and the Structuralist filmmaker, both claiming objectivity and universality. Whilst the ‘theory’ of Structuralist film refers to the image always in abstract terms, this ‘wishful ideal’ that image would not signify is, she argues, false because the nature of imagery is such that it will always signify if it is visible at all. The phenomenon of apperception, a key component of Structuralist film, where the spectator watches him/herself watching and as such is apparently distracted from actually viewing the image in voyeuristic terms, can only occur, Russell argues if there is something or someone to see.

The autoethnographic work that Russell and Renov describe stages an examination of the self. In general this work has diaristic elements but the author and his/her claim to truth or objectivity is put to question, as is the idea of a self as ‘whole’ and self knowable. They point to the critical value of a practice that tests the limits of self representation as the autobiographic becomes autoethnographic. This, they write is at the point where the film or video maker understands his or her personal history as implicated in the wider social context. In this staging of subjectivity the subject is fragmented as a consequence of the inherent quality of the medium. It is a simultaneous crossing between the spheres of the private and the public world where the subject of documentation are the artists themself and sometimes their family or friends. The framing of this self acknowledges that self-awareness is anyway already undermined by the ‘Other’ within the self. The medium of moving image is especially suitable to explore this idea of the Other within, as the splitting of the self between image and sound, subject and object, past and present.