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Introduction / Issue 22: Opacity

Published onApr 18, 2015
Introduction / Issue 22: Opacity

Frustrated and inspired thinking led to this, IVC Issue 22: Opacity. During a breakout discussion session at the 2013 Flaherty Seminar, an unexpected connection was made between the participants. Filmmaker Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s short thirty minute film Ça va ça va on continue (“It is okay, it is okay, we go on,” 2012-13) had just been screened. Not long into this conversation joined by the filmmaker himself, someone commented that the experience of watching the film was acutely reminiscent of the work of Martinican writer and poet Édouard Glissant, specifically the recently translated 1990 work Poétique de la Relation (“Poetics of Relation”). Surprisingly, he confirmed that this was exactly one of his sources of inspiration. Ça va ça va on continue, like many of Abonnenc’s works, deals with complications of memory and the representation of trauma and history. The narrative itself slips between quotidian scenes and a rehearsal for a production of the play A Corda (“The Rope”) by white Angolan writer Pepetela, and raises questions of political voice, representing history, and identity and authorship in the postcolonial order. Who has the right to abstraction?

Glissant developed a transformative model of history and development of identities in relation to one another, a thoroughly anti-imperialist theory of politics and aesthetics repeatedly demanding the right to opacity against Western transparency. While Glissant’s provocative ideas and their meaning for cinema and documentary arts heavily impacted the remainder of the seminar for many, as did the news of the day: the series of revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden begun that month. Discourses of cybersecurity, legalities of foreign and domestic surveillance targets, terrorist margins crashing in the imperialist center, and metadata lead to calls for greater transparency, but for whom? A geopolitical view of the situation appeared to call for an estimation of transparency and its supposed opposites.

In our call for proposals, InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture asked scholars and artists to approach opacity in its full array of political and aesthetic senses: optical, literary, grammatical; open to submissions conversant with Glissant’s theories, or rhyming with his approach and the stakes of postcolonialism. The response was a final moment of inspiration, offering new dimensions to approach opacity through visual culture.

In 2011, “Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception” at the MoMA included Alÿs’s Re-enactments, which documents the artist illegally procuring a gun in Mexico City. In the film, the camera follows the artist as he walks through the city’s streets, casually brandishing the illicit weapon, until he is finally apprehended by the police. In “Performing the Document in Francis Alÿs’s Re-enactments (2001),” Emily Rose Lyver considers how Alÿs initiates and later re-enacts this performance under similar—but not identical—circumstances in the Centro, an historically and culturally significant urban center in which the artist works and lives. In question is the immediacy of performance versus the distance of mediation and how this art, based on iteration, is then exhibited at the MoMA.

Guillermina De Ferrari’s article “Opacity and Sensation in Reynier Leyva Novo’s Historical Installations” explores Cuban artist Reynier “el Chino” Novo’s historical pieces from this perspective. Drawing from Glissant and Severo Sarduy, De Ferrari examines the sensorial explorations of Novo’s work, which stage objects and environments to invoke a sense of history and veracity. As she argues, his project levies a political statement against the invisible deception of discursive clarity, interrogating Cuba’s history as well as its peoples’ sense of the historical. In this context, opacity is deployed as a strategic misunderstanding, underscoring the erasure of history, lending that erasure material presence.

Anne Pasek’s article “The Problem of Nonhuman Phenomenology: or, What is it Like to Be a Kinect?” explores the limitations of the recent literature on object-oriented ontologies through an exploration of the sensory and cognitive capacities of the Microsoft Kinect, a motion-reading device designed for Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system. Pasek asserts that object-oriented ontologies often use anthropocentric metaphors to explain the ontological orientation of nonhuman beings and objects, and fail to critically consider a given object on its own terms. “X” (2013), a collaborative performance by dancer Teoma Naccarato, John MacCallum, and sound engineer Adrian Freed, blurs the distinctions between human and nonhuman forms of knowing and agency through the creative repurposing of the Microsoft Kinect’s primary sensory functions. A motion-reading device with basic AI, the Kinect is reprogrammed to produce sounds that correlate to Naccarato’s movements and gestures performed in front of a live audience. The performance calls attention to the differentially-experienced ways of being that exist among human and non-human beings.

Focusing on the tension between the visible and the unseen that is inherent to the medium of photography, American artists Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen point at networks of power and systems of state control. In her paper “Art Documents: The Politics of the Visible in the Work of Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen,” Jayne Wilkinson takes this paradoxical quality of photography as her starting point and offers an analysis of the state’s surveillance system through the projects of Simon and Paglen. In her article, Wilkinson studies the potentials of the medium of photography to create a both transparent and opaque image of reality.

In Knit for Defense, Purl to Control” Jacqueline Witkowski examines the history of craft in relation to war and considers the act of knitting in light of the digital world. The author looks at artists such as Cat Mazza and Kristen Haring, whose projects have complicated women’s perceived historical roles in war. In her article, Witkowski ultimately argues that craft possesses a direct link to the industrial war complex and capitalism despite an encouraged revival of predominantly feminist/feminine/gendered mediums that now constitute the craft market and contemporary scholarship on the topic.

The Color of Silence is silent video by artist Shalom Gorewitz. Recorded near San Andreas fault in the deserts of Southern California, The Color of Silence contemplates the desert landscapes of Southern California, calling into question the effects of darkness and light, opacity, and transparency.

Justin Nolan’s Seeing / Being Seen is a series of videos installed online in “Opacity.” Described as a reflection on tourism, spectacle, and identity, the nighttime piece juxtaposes images captured in New York City’s Times Square of passersby soaked in the light of the area’s many screens. Looking upward or into LCD phone and camera screens in rapt attention, Seeing / Being Seen’s human subjects display only a passing regard for the filmmaker’s camera. However when the filmmaker’s impudent gaze does break their hypnosis, it represents only a shift in processes of memorializing experience by photographic mediation, revealing the performance of identity and device of the camera as token for social inclusion in such cultural spaces or aggressive interloper penetrating private and public space.

Kasia Ozga’s Internal Frontier Series (Frontières interne I and II, 2011-14) explores the strange intimacies non-European Union immigrants experience in seeking long-term residency in France. Using X-ray images that immigrants are required to obtain, Ozga inverts the idea of migrating across boundaries from the external to the internal. She montages these X-rays with images of nation-state borders and conflict zones onto light boxes conforming to standard sizes of X-ray viewers.

As a special contributor, Nicholas de Villiers, author of Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), offers his afterthoughts on queer opacity and its political potentials. Through more contemporary examples such as Anderson Cooper, Jodie Foster, Sally Ride, Vivian Maier, Ellen Page, Queen Latifah, and Lana Wachowski, De Villiers gives a newer and more diverse reading of how queer tactics of “opacity” offer alternatives to the confessional metaphor of coming out of the closet. Moving beyond the discursive and textual examples, De Villiers also explores the visual dimension of “opacity” from the works of Zach Blas about his Facial Weaponization Suite, and argues that Blas’s work offers an exciting form of resistance to facial recognition technologies.

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