Panel Presentation, Images 2006, The Mendi


I have to apologize for being so prepared for a panel discussion meant to be more informal - I have everything written out [holds up notebook]. I had an experience last week that’s left me a bit scattered, unable to concentrate. A traumatic experience - and not even an uncommon one, though mostly it happens to people when they are younger: last week I saw my parents having sex. [Two beat pause.] I’m never going on that website again.

Okay, I have another one: Last week I went to visit my friend Bob in Etobicoke. As I was walking up the driveway I couldn’t help noticing that his father was fucking a donkey on the front lawn. He was obscured a little by some bushes, but you could still plainly see his father was fucking a donkey. So I went inside and I said, “Bob, there’s no delicate way to put this, but if you look out the living room window, you’ll see that, on the front lawn, your father is fucking a donkey.” And Bob said. “Oh, [braying] hee-haaw-lways does that.”

So the question I want to save for later: Is one of those jokes more autobiographical than the other? More confessional? Personal?

There were always two lies I told myself in order to proceed as an artist. Not because it is so difficult to be an artist - in fact, it is effortless and rewarding - but because it is slightly easier not to bother making anything. One of the lies I still adhere to - I don’t really believe it, of course, but keep it half in mind as a possibility. The other one has recently become untenable. The lie I’m sticking with: the work I’m going to do in the future will be really good and the work I’m doing now is a kind of dry run or place-holder: doodles that precede the sketches that precede the work itself. The lie that’s become untenable: the images have nothing to do with me. Not that I haven’t always taken the images into account - working with, around, and against them - just that I thought my work as an author was creating discourses in relation to images which existed independently of my authorship. But lately - particularly with the technical/conceptual amalgamation of the digital realm with animation - I have to admit not only that I am an image maker (whether or not those images are found or archival), but that it may be all about the images.

Images resist discourse. A complete linguistic description of them is impossible. They are discursively inexhaustible, which is not to say that they necessarily mean anything.

I’ve always had the rule - though always also only loosely adhered to it - that I will not entertain questions that involve me interpreting my own work. I call on all artists to rigourously avoid interpreting their own work, to never speak in its place. Leave the artwork alone! When people ask you about it, lie and dissemble. Physical violence usually isn’t necessary, but if they persist, strike them. Writers are much better at this. As is said: Trust the tale, not the teller. A reader once said to Faulkner, “I’ve read it twice and it still makes no sense. Can you tell me anything to help me get it?” Faulkner said, “Read it again,” the only reasonable answer. So elicit engagement, seduce viewers into engagement, lead them up to the artwork with a particular orientation, but then leave them there. You must never flatten, reduce, explain or interpret your own artwork.

Even worse than entertaining questions of interpretation are questions of intentionality. Artists have no intentions. We might say that artworks have a singular intention: to exist, to be an artwork in the world. Intentionality is, at best, a clumsy pedagogical tool. There is absolutely no relation between artistic intention and the possible meanings of an artwork. This is precisely what is meant by the death of the author.

So, of course, I won’t be talking about my intentions in making “The Mendi.” I have no intentions. And if, at some point in the process of making the tape I had some intentions, I can assure you that they are now long gone, largely forgotten, and completely irrelevant.

The few things I am going to say about the tape are not from the point of view of the author, but from the position of being a viewer. Of course, as a viewer of my work, I am not just some guy off the street - I am an extraordinarily privileged viewer. I have seen the piece - as well as all the author’s work - several times and find it very much to my taste. I also have a lot of knowledge and information exterior to the work itself. For instance, I know that the artist (who is both me and not me, though I’ll just be saying “I” to avoid becoming too ridiculous) has used some of the same source material previously. (In two of “The Hundred Videos.”) I also know I have never been to Papua, New Guineau; my father was never a Lutheran minister; I did own (and love) an 8-track of the Bee Gee’s “Main Course”; and, most importantly, I am nowhere near 48.

The narrator of “The Mendi,” who is 48, asks two questions - or rather, he asks a single question in light of a previous question: How should I live, in what manner should I conduct my life, where might I find a model for life? The question previous to this mid-life crisis is the question of youth: what vocation should I pursue. Both questions are asked, however tenuously, in light of anthropology.

The youth’s question is directly connected to the ethnographic. He is considering becoming an anthropologist or ethnographic filmmaker. The connection between the mid-life question and the ethnographic footage is even less direct. Neither question is fundamental to anthropology, but perhaps could be. The narrator indirectly proposes (a modest proposal, perhaps) that the goal of anthropology should be apprehension/creation of new or possible models for living. The narrator has absolutely no interest in the Mendi apart from this.

On the narrative level, diegetically, there are simultaneously very strongly and weakly motivated links between the voice-over, the ethnographic images and sounds, and the Bee Gees. Apart from a reference to the bone house, there are only two moments in which the words of the narrator directly motivates the image. The narrator’s first words “Let’s begin with a pig kill,” does indeed lead to images of a pig kill. The second moment is the Bee Gees song with the black screen. Both are moments of violence. They are also the moments of greatest agency for the narrator - here he not only speaks but controls/motivates what we see and hear. It is at these two moments that the narrator exceeds being merely a narrator and approaches something like an implied author.

In a sense, the video is a series of refusals. The narrator, as a boy, refuses to engage with the Mendi, the missionaries, the anthropologists, or the filmmakers. Instead he reads, he masturbates, he listens to the Bee Gees. (Talk about the autobiographical.) While the narrator as an adult does not quite endorse these refusals - he refers to his younger self in critical terms, as being pouty, etc., - he continues with them, and extends them.

The last line, from E. M. Cioran, “I would like to be a cannibal, not so much for the pleasure of eating human flesh as for the pleasure of vomiting it.” Every desire becomes a refusal, a turning away.