Stories from the Rainforest: the dance of relating

As a part of ArtEZ studium generale research on Land: on climate, ownership and coexistence, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s contribution offers a rich reflection on how materials speak to them in and through their artistic practice. By tracing material flows and goods within the global economy, they show the rifts and new relations between human and their environment. This is the fourth and final essay in the series Stories from Rainforest.


Observer and observed

In narrative cinema, changes in perspective usually depict the viewpoints of human protagonists, but could this sensory instrument also make a species jump? It might require us to break with some of the habits of the cinema, for this production system also appears to have been shaped according to the logic that the “inferior things” are in the service of the human protagonist. For example, the activity of filming is often described in terms of taking or shooting pictures, capturing on film. What appears in the film frame is hierarchically ranked in foreground and background, main and supporting role, and (at the bottom) extras and props. There are numerous techniques to emphasize the human players. For instance, a shallow depth of field can visually set apart and elevate human actors from their surroundings.1 With the help of special microphones and audio filtering techniques, the human voice can be amplified and isolated from other sounds.2 In a movie theatre, the human protagonists are literally placed at the center. Just behind the middle of the film screen, the so-called center speaker is mounted, reserved only for the human voice. The voices of other entities (such as rustling leaves, singing birds or an engine’s roar) are diverted. Transmitted by other loudspeakers, ones mounted on the side and back walls of the theater, they sound much quieter than in the world outside, merely providing background noise for the human voice.

In the film we wanted to make with the Maroons, more actors would claim attention than just humans. These non-human actors would not allow themselves to be reduced to the background, because, as the Maroons had made clear to us, they were beings with their own knowledge and agency. But would we, who had learned from “our” culture that “our” knowledge and procedures were the norm, be able to transmit this pluriverse through the cinematic apparatus?

How could we learn more about what perception and representation have to do with ranking? Maybe Donna Haraway’s research into the power of those who are observing and knowing could help us on our way. In the essay “Situated Knowledges” (1988) she tries to unravel the effect of the “god trick,” a delusion created by a spying observer. About the gaze of this observer she writes:

This is the gaze that mythically inscribes all the marked bodies, that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation. This gaze signifies the unmarked positions of Man and White.

This “unmarked” observer would effect a disappearing trick. He imagines himself in an impregnable position, enjoying his disembodied view from above. With a conquering gaze that assumes that it can see “everything from nowhere,” he claims to produce objective knowledge.

The observer who disregards his body as well as his power relationship with his subject we encountered earlier in the writing of Walter Mignolo. Haraway, however, points to yet another domain from which this observer disengages: the earth-wide network of connections. Following the “logic of domination built into the nature/culture opposition,” the deluded observer sees things as objects that are valueless in themselves, acquiring value only when appropriated. For this reason the world appears to this knower—who perceives himself as discoverer—as passive and inert, a mirage that according to Haraway is inevitable:

The object both guarantees and refreshes the power of the knower, but any status as agent in the productions of knowledge must be denied the object. It—the world—must, in short, be objectified as a thing, not as an agent; it must be matter for the self-formation of the only social being in the productions of knowledge, the human knower.3

As makers of moving images, our attention is raised by the warning that observers who forget that they are situated bodies will see only what they expect to find: an inert world, no more than raw material for their images. Would those who operate the camera eye be condemned to objectify, to see without being seen themselves? Had we not also experienced that those we observed through this artificial eye usually looked back at us and informed us how they wanted to be represented (and above all how not)? Had we not come to know filming perception as an incessant negotiation with everyone acting in front of the camera?

Script Forest Spirit: https://studiumgenerale.artez.nl/files/things/01615/scriptForestSpiritEN.pdf

Discussing the script during the recordings of Dee Sitonu A Weti, Nieuw Lombe, 2017.
Codirector Tolin Alexander instructs during the recordings of Dee Sitonu A Weti, Pikin Slee, 2016.

Haraway speculates on this negotiation between observer and observed. Accounts of a “real” world, for her, do not depend on the one-sided logic of “discovery” but on a power-charged social relation of “conversation.”4 Avoiding the logic of discovery would require the object of knowledge to be pictured as an actor and agent, not merely as a resource for the observer.5 She compares this to poetry, in which language itself is also an actor, independent of the author’s intentions. “‘We’ [who] are permanently mortal, that is, not in ‘final’ control,” should therefore re-imagine the world, not as a thing for appropriation, but as a “coding trickster” with whom we must learn again to converse.6

Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan

Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan work together as collaborating artists since 2002, producing film installations, sculpture and collages that explore cultural and geopolitical landscapes such as Europe’s borders (Grossraum, 2005), sites of resource production and global trade (Monument of Sugar – how to use artistic means to elude trade barriers, 2007; Episode of the Sea, 2014, Stones Have Laws, 2018), and the (non) sites of cultural heritage (Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland, 2008, View from the Acropolis, 2012 and subi dura a rudibus, 2010). Most of our projects involve extensive fieldwork and long term collaborations. As part of our artistic practice, we express formal and informal research trajectories and the contingency of fieldwork in textual supplements.

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Haraway, Donna, “Situated Knowledges, the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective” in Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (1988): pp. 575–599.
References
↑ 1

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges, the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective”, Feminist Studies (Maryland, 1988): 575–599, p. 581.

↑ 2

Ibid., pp. 581, 585, 589.

↑ 3

Ibid., p. 592. Our italics.

↑ 4

Ibid., p. 593.

↑ 5

Ibid., p. 590.

↑ 6

Ibid., p. 596.