Editors: Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann & Karmenlara Ely
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2017
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2017
Why summon a model based on film to organise the series of visual art works making up the overall project known as Unmade Film, Uriel Orlow’s multipart body of work that is bound up with the memory of Deir Yassin? This Palestinian village is the site of a massacre in 1948 where, three years later, a psychiatric hospital was established for survivors of the Holocaust. The obvious presence of film and its paradigmatic function appears to be at the core of the work. The title immediately sets the tone: Unmade Film suggests “film to come” and “future film”, while the modifier “unmade” of course brings to mind something left undone, stressing process and production as well as promise. Moreover, it is not a stretch to hear in “unmade” a critical allusion to the Duchampian ready-made. But rather than found film in the sense of found footage – in other words a reused, recycled object–the project involves a future film, one that is pending, on hold, and what we are presented with is the preliminary work (the reconnaissance, the storyboard), or elements that are separate from the film itself (the staging, the voiceover, the score).More
in Unmade Film, ed. Uriel Orlow (Zurich: edition fink, 2013)
“By the end of the  war,” writes Walid Khalidi in All That Remains, “hundreds of entire villages had not only been depopulated but obliterated… travellers of Israeli roads and highways can see traces of their presence that would escape the notice of the casual passer-by: a fenced-in area – often surmounting a gentle hill – of olive and other fruit trees left untended, of cactus hedges and domesticated plants run wild. Now and then a few crumbled houses are left standing, a neglected mosque or church, collapsing walls along the ghost of a village lane, but in the vast majority of cases, all that remains is a scattering of stones and rubble across a forgotten landscape.”
Enter Uriel Orlow’s multipartite Unmade Film. This impossible film – this not-yet-made film, this fragmented film that never fully becomes one, despite its “plan” to do so – has been emerging over an extended and ongoing period of research and production that excavates multiple narratives and layered meanings that converge in Deir Yassin. Yet by never actually being realised, Orlow’s Unmade Film reconstructs a narrative of space, time and historical blind spots that adds layers of unsettled new meaning to questions of subconscious pain, trauma and suffering in the contexts of obliterated geo-histories.
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published in The Short and The Long of It, Mousse Publishing, Milan, 2011
Transnational shipping routes traverse time zones invented to synchronize the sun’s uneven impact on a globe girded by continuous capital flows. The world as calibrated in an electronic panel showing navigation or stock market data. The universality of exchange requires a homogeneous time. The principle of risk management is control of time; at the same time, entropy creates profits in a differentiated system. To dub this a rationalized time, and oppose to this a local and dense experience of lived time would be to misrecognize the abstract conditions of lived experience, whether this be the pure intuition of time as a blank medium for the human relation to the world or the really abstract time of capital, just as it would be admitting the claims of the rational in the same spirit in which they’re made. Homogeneous and empty time puts us all to work, and whatever survives is the carcass of time. How to stop the state machinery of time? As Benjamin notes, it is by stepping out of the time of everyday experience that experience can again be possible. Because there is no reality outside time, changing time underlies all modern political and artistic attempts to transform reality, from revolutionary calendars and Communards shooting the clocks, to the malleable time of experimental cinema to cut-up chronologies in the novel and the veritable agonies of durational performance. Robert Smithson’s ‘humorous dimension of time’ has some bearing here also, capable as it may be of bridging the utopian contretemps with time and postmodernism’s elision of history, marked by gentle and homiletic ironies: it is this latter sensibility that informs today’s reversions to modernism.
As always (perhaps), the most conclusive instances of a cultural thesis are the involuntary ones. The episode of cargo ships trapped in the Suez Canal for eight years, following the outbreak of a war that officially lasted just six days does rather evoke a giant performance piece, read in its geopolitical and social context. Or a mythic time: the Egyptian blockade of the canal meant to halt the incursion of the Israeli army was not unlike casting a spell over the major navigation channel. It is baffling that the spell was so effective. What about the cargo? What about the profits? Where were the airlifts? It is hard to imagine such a lapse of efficiency in any global trade circuit, much less the high-churn, containerized shipping industry we know from today. In ‘The Short and Long of It’ project, incorporating the video ‘Yellow Limbo’ named after the ‘Yellow Fleet’ of 14 ships marooned from 1967 to 1975, Uriel Orlow tries to re-imagine this little-known incident.
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While the focus of The Short and The Long of It is a real event, Uriel Orlow is more intent on permitting us glimpses than revealing the whole picture. Spilling evocative images and letting out the narrative like yards of rope, Orlow in turn leads and obscures our reading of carefully edited artefacts, images and texts, so that the momentum of our own curiosity dictates the extent of our fragmentary understanding.
The installation relates to an incident that unfolded during the outbreak of the ‘Six Day War’, or the ‘June War’ in 1967. The conflict between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria re-inscribed the US/USSR divide of the concurrent Cold War, as well as the ongoing Arab–Israeli confrontation. In short, as a result of heavy artillery fire and sunken trawlers at either end of the Suez Canal, 14 cargo ships of various nationalities were stranded for eight years in the Great Bitter Lake, a large body of water at the canal’s midpoint where ships pass one another before re-entering the one-way traffic.
Trapped in the eye of a political and military storm, this rum collection of commercial seafarers formed the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA), a pan-national alliance whose main aim was, firstly, to survive; secondly, to create a functioning society between ships; and thirdly, to fill the days, months and years ahead. The GBLA mirrored the evolution of civilisation in microcosm, quickly developing from a programme of contingent survival to one that incorporated robust infrastructures of communication, formally organised leisure pursuits and casual frivolity. Specially designed postal stamps effectively declared the lake as a territory to be factored into global geographies, while onboard Olympic Games converted what Noam Chomsky has referred to as the ‘irrational jingoism’ of the official Olympics to a pan-national gesture of resilient, playful solidarity.
The GBLA might consequently be thought of as a utopian society where antagonisms between nations, creeds, classes and so on have been eradicated; the itinerant essence of a ship, and the globalism it embodies, setting it apart from the territorializing war of attrition that raged around it. On the other hand, the reality may be less idealistic, with the hard-boiled commercial shippers’ insistence that crew remain to safeguard vessels and cargo marking an imperative that simply pitches all hands against looters instead of one another.
Orlow does not indicate which interpretation he favours. He is careful to encourage broad historical, formal or theoretical inferences over specific politics, which the divergent range of media, formats and genres scatters further through its prismatic reflection of different timeframes. A video interleaving vintage photographs and Super8 film shot by crewmembers with the artist’s own recent footage on location is paired with a series of text slides that names moments of particular relevance, general importance or personal interest from the eight years of the ships’ confinement. This three- way comparison of events, disembodied from the timeline of experience, creates a complication
of concurrence, consequence and dissociation, giving rise to a sense that time is pleated, causality radiating and that this rippling expanse of saltwater somehow communicates diagonally through time.
The accompanying selection of found material sets up a similar dynamic field of information, where historical representation is ribboned through with facts, associations, symbolism and poetics. Images of a glut of apples rotting in their boxes, for instance, becomes an exemplar of the flow of capital abruptly halted by the canal’s closure; a snapshot of men in drag hints at the socio-sexual impact of confinement; Orlow’s drawings of fish that have migrated from the Red Sea to the warmer Mediterranean express admiration for the ingenuity of nature and its continuing rhythms of passage beneath the ship’s static hulls, while a sober image of a photographic slide box reminds us of the persuasive archival processes at work that make the past shimmeringly visible. But, whereas nostalgia articulates the weighty pain of partition from a personal past and historiography bundles it with cool rationality, Orlow’s open-handed presentation retrieves a history that is buoyant with the potential of the indeterminate.
“like with everything you have to be selective,
and so much is repetitive, so much”
(Volunteer archivist interviewed in Housed Memory 2000-2005)
This new selection of work, taken from Uriel Orlow’s material collection, what he calls purposefully obtusely ‘stuff’, focuses on two journeys. One north to the Arctic Circle, following in the footsteps of the French scientist and mathematician Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who ventured there in 1736 to measure the shape of the Earth. One south to Benin retracing this time the Punitive Expedition of 1897 against the Benin Kingdom that saw the ransacking and looting of the royal palace. Over 3000 bronzes from this expedition were taken and auctioned by the British to recover the financial costs of the expedition. These two expeditions share the same goal; acquisition. One of knowledge the other of objects. And of both we can ask the question where should they be sited? Orlow’s video installations of the last few years have dealt in varying registers with this same question. Can and should information, knowledge, objects, things and stuff be held, horded or retained? And where is and should this repository be? However, his investigations go far beyond a simple empirical collection of data or a passive request for restitution. In fact, Orlow’s work refuses to make demands, operating instead within an economy of recognition and construction, oscillating between two poles of activity. On the one hand ‘the repeat’ on the other ‘the invention’. Orlow’s new exhibition, Neither Fish Nor Fowl, presents a body of work that is neither new work or old, both document and event. This double figure, both one thing and the other, but not fully either constructs an oscillatory structure that determines much of Orlow’s work. Operating as signposts into a number of his other projects, these works bring into question ideas and themes that have been of importance for some time, provoking a reassessment of his ongoing research based practice.
In Orlow’s video suite from 2008, In These Great Times, a long quote by Karl Kraus, whose lecture lends its name to the work, is exhibited as a vertically fading poster and read by a voiceover actor in a sound studio, the quote ends with the phrase “let those who have something to say come forward and be silent!”. This appeal to come forward and be silent demands a double action. That of standing up, speaking for, articulating in public and, yet, refusing to speak. A movement, seemingly contradictory, but nonetheless powerful. The ‘coming forward’ produces an instant community of listeners, formed around the expected articulation of a politics, but the ‘being silent’ withdraws the expected content, replacing the empty space of the political discourse not with a fullness but a loaded silence.
In Jose Saramago’s recent novel Seeing it is election time. Parliamentary officials wait expectantly in poll booths around the capital city, yet no-one arrives, the torrential downpour keeping them at bay. However, when they do arrive, and arrive they do, en masse at just after 4pm, and the votes are counted it is revealed that over three quarters of the populous have cast a blank ballot slip. Outraged and confused the local government stages the election again, but this time the number of blanks slips counted in the box at the end of the day totals 83% of the vote. This outlandish refusal to vote precipitates a series of increasingly ruthless and aggressive tactics by the government, first to try to account for the anomaly via interrogation and investigation, then to try to punish the city’s residents with a state of siege in a hope they would give in and universally confess their guilt in the matter and in the end, when both those methods prove fruitless, by moving the parliamentary seat of power out of the city and into another. In the face of a denial of the democratic ‘duty’ to elect a leader the government effectively elect a new population. The silence of the populous produces an evental rupture, exposing the true void of the situation. For the government in Saramago’s novel the right to vote has become a duty, the refusal of which reveals the truly un-democratic nature of power. Yet, of course, to post a blank ballot slip is both the refusal of choice, the false choice between one party and the next, and the choice of the refusal of choice. So, as non-choice as choice it is within the bounds of the democratic order. However, democracy demands that a positive choice be made, without which it cannot operate, it is bound by the need for fullness. Coming forward and being silent evacuates the expected full position of the decision, prolonging the art of the dialectician interminably. Slavoj Žižek makes a similar but significantly different point in his recent book Violence. Agreeing with Badiou’s theses on art, Žižek proclaims the lesson of Saramago’s novel is that it is better to do nothing as the nothing rejects the frame of the decision. However, and this is where we diverge from Žižek, the blankers in the novel are not doing nothing; their operation is a double move, standing up and saying nothing. The moment of articulation is performed publicly as an action and as such is a move of solidarity. For Žižek the posting of the blank ballots is an abstention, his project is specifically engaged with a non-active rejection of liberal ideology, private refusal, he makes only the second move, the saying nothing, but does not make the first move, the standing up. Žižek’s Bartlebian politics are a superficial reading of Saramago, overlooking the twofold move that makes public the refusal and thus invents a community sutured around a discursive point that is then necessarily emptied. Denying the active move of suturing, the formation of solidarity, that is standing up with and standing up for, Žižek can’t account for the publicness needed to make silence affective rather than just an a private symptom of apathy. Orlow’s work, in contrast, makes room for this double move.
The Kraus line in In These Great Times points to the twofold action of creative articulation and the emptying of the site of discourse. What, then, is put in the place of this empty place? Nothing but the place. The addition of the place, Orlow’s spatial practice, the silent repetition of the site of historical importance is a form of Nebenschauplatz – an addition to the scene. This marginal spatiality that replicates the scene with nothing but the place brings with it the grace of form. That is, from the margins comes the rupture. This rupture follows the logic of Alain Badiou’s event; that which presents the void of the situation, can never be anticipated or known beforehand, it is the unprecedented and unexpected. In Saramago’s novel the blankers (those who turn in blank ballots) present the void in the democratic situation – the need for any decision, whatever it is, to be made. Interestingly this is the pre-requisite of neo-liberal democratic states; the proliferation of choice demands a decision be made, yet that decision is a madness, a false distinction between one choice and another, to post a blank ballot is to refuse that choice. This blanking is the event of Saramago’s novel. What follows, the investigations, the siege, the escape by the government, even the subsequent bombings are the truths created by the event once it is named. Silence itself does not replicate the Badiouian event, but the situated silence, the collective non-choice, in Saramago’s novel is evental.
Orlow’s work asks very specific questions of the event. As his camera traces endless shelves of books (Housed Memory), the surfaces of café tables and chairs (Ornament and Crime), the inner workings of a document retrieval system in the British National Archives (Satellite Contact), he asks if the event can be remembered, or sited, in place itself. Whether spatiality can account for a production of truth that arises from an event. If pure site is a repository of knowledge, if truth can be inferred from the place itself, Orlow’s practice puts in the place of this truth not truth, but place. An additional or supplementary placing that instead of exposing the ontology replicates the site with the site, re-posits the repository, not with its content, but with the eloquent silence of form. This practice of Nebenschauplatz, placing beside the scene, understands spatially the historical legacy inherent in any event. That acquired knowledge or artifacts are sited within state sanctioned, and therefore hierarchized, museums, galleries, collections, that record only partial accounts of the event. Yet, the other site, the marginal, or beside site, offers an account that although not officially recorded, is equally important. In Orlow’s work this minor historical setting is placed by the major, re-posing questions to the official documentation. In this move he doubles the original event not chronologically but spatially, proposing the re-mapping of history through a spatial practice that both repeats and invents; stands up to speak with the subjects of his work – the holocaust victims in Deposits, the Benin people in The Benin Project, the characters in In These Great Times – yet remains silent. This silence is exactly the invention we speak of, shifting the locus from chronology to spatiality allows Orlow to condense history into site as presentation not document, permitting a formal intervention that repeats differently the archive. The refusal of a narrative structure (that would just replicate existing discourse) is what takes Orlow’s work away from the category of demand for restitution and into the categories of solidarity and invention.
It is also what lends Orlow’s work its political nature. Coming forward and being silent is not an avoidance of or escape from political action, but a truly inventive political act. Not just a form of resistance to state power or normative discourse, but a creative articulation that undermines the formation of power as such by emptying out the place of power by refusing the insertion of specific content. Replacing political content with form (the empty act of standing up yet remaining silent) however, is a dangerous move. One which does not escape the totalizing desires haunting politics. As Badiou suggests the unnameable is the condition of a truth that prevents it from attaining totality. The part that resists incorporation by the truth procedure that has produced it is necessary to allow the truth procedure to continue not as a complete re-foundation of the world, but as an infinitely finite alteration of that world. Badiou asserts that a truth must never be total or complete, to attempt this would be evil. One must always hold back on one’s desire. Form then, must be understood not as a completion of or totalization of the place of politics, but as the initial and processural emptying of that space. Providing a place from which to act. The articulation of silence must not be continued ad infinitum, but be a rupturing point that operates eventally to produce a context or spatial practice that allows for a further investigation. Orlow’s work is exactly this movement, to read it in formal or spatial terms is to account for it in a political manner that produces a space for the future, the possibility of possibilities.
This revolutionary potential is expressed in Giorgio Agamben’s writing on potentiality, where he asserts that: “Of the two modes in which, according to Aristotle, every potentiality is articulated, the decisive one is that the philosopher calls ‘the potentiality not to be’ or also impotence. For if it is true that whatever being always has a potential character, it is equally certain that it is not capable of only this or that specific act, nor is it therefore simply incapable, lacking in power, nor even less is it indifferently capable of everything, all-powerful: it is capable of its own impotence… The perfect act of writing comes not from a power to write, but from an impotence that turns back on itself and in this way comes to itself as pure act (which Aristotle calls agent intellect). This is why the Arab tradition agent intellect has the form of an angel whose name is Qalam, Pen, and its place is an unfathomable potentiality. Bartleby, a scribe who does not simply cease writing but “prefers not to” is the extreme image of this angel that writes nothing but its own potentiality to not-write. ” (Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, pp. 79-83)
The potentiality to not-write, this pure act, coming forward and remaining silent then, is not normative, nor constative, but eruptive. Potentializing the terrain of articulated silence as unfathomably powerful, Agamben echoes the volunteer archivist in Orlow’s Housed Memory: “…one realizes that the lack of drama is the whole drama.” (Volunteer archivist interviewed in Housed Memory 2000-2005) By choosing to focus on information and material gathered whilst pursuing other aims as well as what might be considered the ‘work’ of the journeys, Neither Fish Nor Fowl asks questions of the non-pertinent or marginalised elements of any expedition. Supplementing the place with the place, this activity refuses to decide what may or may not be relevant in a given situation, thus dramatizing the possible lack of drama and taking a sideways glance at not just the subject matter but the process of collecting information and making work.
History requires tact. For example, in the anecdotal history of Zurich’s Café Odeon we find configurations of artists, asylum seekers, radicals, war, isolationism, newspapers, censorship and reaction – chains of association and connection which might tempt us to presumptive conclusions, or even parallels. To preserve what is powerful and immediate about these membra disjecta, however, restraint is called for: they are vital because they are incidental. Interpolation would rob them of their eloquence. Instead they can perhaps be ushered into new configurations, which start to collapse our comfortable sense of chronology.
In his series of works based on the Café Odeon, Uriel Orlow presents us with a film’s exploded elements: shards of research, location scouting, casting. The characters, the café’s denizens, are rendered as iconic pin-ups, but while some are immediately recognisable – Brecht, Lenin, Einstein – many remain intransigently unfamiliar. Meanwhile the café itself decomposes into its elements: its illustrious history becomes untethered from its physical facts, its marble and wood, which seem to open up onto their own more primeval histories. These moments of close attention to surfaces and materials – of ‘vulgar materialism’, as Lenin might have put it – represent a limit, the point at which we must ask what really constitutes this place: can mere matter have a history? Even if we treat the café as a social space, a crossing point for various erratic paths, its temporalities seem to telescope: should we consider it in terms of the years, or decades, in which particular people frequented it – or should we think about what time of day or night might have found them there, at a favourite table? Since most of them will have known each other only slightly, if at all, and since they had no unifying philosophy or cause, what does it mean to gather them together now, in this uncanny class reunion? Can there be a history of customers – of consumers?
Orlow’s challenge to our desire for continuity is radical: the truth of this peripheral space is not one, he suggests, that can be told narratively. In an era where every fashionable bar flaunts the supposed history of its space (usually now-displaced manufacturing), Orlow’s work asks us how we can read the past in a way which does not involve a simple hierarchy with the present. More than this: he wants to know what history is and how it binds itself to an institution, a thing, a space, a face. These faces in the drawings are not there simply to be named, identified; their self-evidence is an enigma. The fragility of the whole project is its fidelity to its subject’s fractured nature, which demands that it run the risk of a certain kind of silence.
Karl Kraus, the sometime habitué of the Odeon, wrote the lecture which here lends its name to both the show and the video in which it features. Kraus wrote in that text a series of taboos on what, in Austria in 1914, no longer seemed possible for language; his lapidary sentences recognise, in an exemplary way, their own terrible predicament. But his ironic rallying cry might still be the model for a response beyond resignation, and one which Orlow has heeded: ‘Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent!’ ”
© Mike SperlingerMore
published in The Benin Project (London: future perfect, 2007)
Dispersed across the gallery space, a constellation of video monitors map the different phases in the process of brass casting by contemporary sculptors in the city of Benin in present-day Nigeria. Filmed images of the sculptors pouring the hot wax into clay casts buried into the earth or polishing the brass castings are punctuated by the irregular sound of radios playing and the intermittent noise of sculptors hammering and fi ling their artworks. Avoiding the medium-shot portrait of the anthropologist’s gaze, Orlow’s camera lingers on the hands of the sculptors, moulding, shaping and sculpting their raw materials into contemporary artworks. Lost Wax is one element of Uriel Orlow’s complex installation made up of discrete but interconnected parts which continue the artist’s preoccupation with questions of collective memory and restitution. Taking as his starting point the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 (a military excursion by British forces in which the British invaded, burned and ransacked the ancient West African Kingdom of Benin), Orlow’s installation is, amongst other things, a meditation on the contingent relationship between the past and the present and between different geographical and cultural spaces that remain inextricably linked, tied together by the metal cast artefacts that have erroneously become known as the Benin Bronzes and which are now distributed in more than 500 museums and collections across the world. Orlow’s suite of works, scattered across the spaces of the Fri-Art contemporary art centre are similarly connected to each other by the artist’s journey: his physical journey from England to Nigeria; but also his artistic journey from the present to the past and back. Travelling through the installation of artworks, the viewer moves between disparate historical moments and physical locations mapped out by the different constituent parts of Orlow’s Benin Project (2007), mirroring the journeys undertaken by the artist and the Benin Bronzes across geographical space and historical time.
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Uriel Orlow uses diverse artforms to investigate where history, place and memory intersect and resonate in the present, whether in archived documents, the physical body or in geographical locations themselves. Rather than reconstruct history as the past, for which the viewer may feel little or no responsibility, Orlow’s work traces history’s charge in the present so that the viewer may experience its living continuity. His work asks what are the terms in which experience, either overwhelmingly traumatic, such as the Holocaust, or learned, as in classical music training, is contained. What are the means by which we classify, categorise and assimilate knowledge, both intellectually and physically? Like points in a stellar constellation, Orlow’s work shapes connections between these systems, making what seems untranslatable, both poetic and precise.
In ‘1942 Poznan’ 1996-2002, Orlow films the site of a Polish synagogue which was converted into a public swimming pool by the Nazis. In a vertical pan of almost 360 degrees, that scans the tiled floor, a swimmer doing a length, the architectural signs of the synagogue, the viewer becomes inserted into the gap to complete the circle, thereby experiencing the ‘now’ of the Holocaust’s legacy. A Hungarian cantor’s mourning song delicately situates the sorrow of the evacuation of cultural and spiritual meaning and the Jews themselves.
‘Housed Memory’ 2002, made during a residency at the Weiner Library, which archives the Holocaust, uses the powerful trope of absence to articulate history’s expansive and determining presence. Rather than film the horrors of the documents themselves, Orlow uses a tracking shot of the library shelves to communicate the engulfing weight of knowledge they house. Interviews with the staff of the library provide an emotional and intimate counterbalance in the soundtrack. The piece evokes the enormity of the trauma of the Holocaust by showing the impossibility of its representation. The unthinkable becomes part of a larger whole happening in the present. The length of time it took to film each shelf determined the nine hours’ duration of the artwork as though it was Orlow’s responsibility in his attempt to honour the material and the lost lives it records to avoid the possibility of creating yet another gap.
‘The Benin Project’ 2007, continues this examination of the far-reaching legacy of history, tracing the story of the thousands of bronze artefacts stolen from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. Becoming a character in a modern quest tale, Orlow travels to Benin to ask the King and his chiefs how they feel without the artefacts, which were essential tools to serve their collective memory. His questions and their responses highlight the cultural and historical slippages that hamper their communication. Another piece called ‘Worldwide Benin’ 2007, tracks the dispersion of the looted objects throughout the western world in a scrolling video list and a wall drawing of a global constellation showing their 500 locations.
The sorting and untwisting of information overload is another key theme in Orlow’s work and the burden of the task of selecting images and text that comprise knowledge, and art itself, is shared through his practice. ‘Satellite Contact’ 2004-5, made with Ruth McLennan, delivers the mechanical marvel of the shifting of data in the National Archives in Kew (formerly the Public Records Office) in which two back-to-back cameras track the progress of boxes on tracks through the hidden interior of the building, coming to rest in a spilt screen that paints a series of abstract, unreadable diptych.
The formal strategy of the video diptych is also used in ‘Midday, Midnight’ 2006, a one minute loop which measures the time it takes to cross a steel bridge at midday and midnight on each solstice within the Arctic Circle. Here time is condensed like a haiku to ‘Housed Memory’’s epic. While historical time has immeasurable emotional lifetimes, natural cycles of time can be collated in a snapshot, but here the brightness and dimness are reversed leaving the viewer destabilised, out of place and time.
The trope of absence/presence is visualised in two further video pieces: in ‘In Concert’ 2005, a cellist and a pianist play along to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 without their instruments. In this poignant, virtuoso inversion of karaoke, Orlow looks at how the body itself stores memory in ways we cannot quantify or capture on film. Are there ways in which gestures and movements retell our pasts without our knowledge and thus determine how we occupy the present and our futures? This theme is continued in ‘Descent’ 2006, in which a young pregnant Israeli woman talks about her reaction to living in Switzerland and her body’s inscribed reaction to a fire alarm as if it were an air-raid siren. She speaks of the ‘bubble of quiet’, which she finds almost as disturbing as the constant fear she lived with before. Again Orlow is drawn to the unsaid, the gaps in her narrative which embody the ongoing, painful legacy of war, displacement and the Holocaust.
© Cherry SmythMore
published in Deposits (Berlin: The Greenbox, 2006)More
Published in Performance, exhibition catalogue (St Prex: Wings, 20006), pp. 2-5.
We are accustomed, when thinking about memory, to move between questions of personal memory (which we do not always adequately understand as socially implicated) and the larger question of cultural memory, which we find physically exemplified by on the one hand ceremonies and rituals, and on the other by libraries, writing, archives and whatever technologies of storage – books, magnetic tape, computers, the internet – are current(1). Uriel Orlow’s investigations of these themes have taken him already to the Wiener Library (which began its life as the actions of a counter-propagandist, not as a memorial) to make interviews with those working there, to accompany video footage of every foot of its shelves. It has also taken him to the National Archives at Kew, where, in a collaborative work made with Ruth Maclennan, the camera adopted the point of view of a document on the automated track used to retrieve and distribute documents for historians and researchers.
Inevitably, there is traffic between our understanding of personal memory and our current understanding of cultural memory, archives, and their contemporary technologies. But leaving aside for a moment the controversy of whether a dynamic mental function such as memory can at all be helpfully understood via the metaphor of the brain as any kind of ‘store’ (this intuitively appealing idea is supported by few who have considered the problem), there are notable, but still relatively little observed and theorised aspects of how memory is transmitted and conserved. For memory is also inscribed corporeally, through repetition and performance. When getting on an escalator or moving walkway for the first time, children worriedly concentrate, stumble or jump; when the skill is mastered, they walk with unbroken stride over the division. The ease is learnt. Swimming, typing or texting – this last an ability most of us have only recently acquired – are only the most visible of the many things we have learnt to do so successfully that we often forget that we have, indeed learnt them. These habit memories, so little thought of, are revealed as vital when they are lost through stroke or mental impairment; and yet they may also survive when other cognitive functions do not, as languages spoken in childhood are often observed to return in extreme old age. Orlow himself became interested in these areas ‘through fascination with neurological research into brain-damaged musicians who despite being unable to remember anything or anyone (not even themselves) can still play music’ (Art Monthly 298, July-August 2006, p.13).
There is a reason why in films about musicians, directors cut between the actor seated, hands hidden at the keyboard (though looking ill at ease), and the disembodied hands of a real, unknown musician. Musicianship, where grace and precision in physical movement come together with reading as the way in which a piece of music is realised, interpreted and internalised, has naturally been a focus of interest in the study of memory. Maurice Halbwachs (in ‘La mémoire collective chez les musiciens’, Revue philosophique, mars-avril 1939) considered part of the problem in this way:
‘Let us now consider, once again, the musicians who play in an orchestra. They all have their eyes fixed on their scores, and in this way their thoughts, like their gestures, come together, because these can be regarded as so many copies from the same model. Let us suppose that they all possessed sufficient powers of recall, such that it was possible for them to play without looking at these pages covered with signs, or to no more than glance at them from time to time. The scores are there. But they could equally well not be present. If they are not present, nothing will alter, since the musicians’ thoughts accord, and the scores have no other part to play than to symbolize the concurrence of their thoughts . . . ‘
In Concert, made with two musicians from the Royal Academy of Music, London, does away with not only the score (internalised in both the memory and in the physical movements of playing), but the instruments. The first movement of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, op. 107, is performed by a cellist, and by a pianist. We do not see their faces, though we assume they see each other exactly as they would normally. They play to a recording they have themselves made, which is thus both a performance and a kind of score for the performance they are now making; and thus definitively more than an act of mime. Absorbed by the performance, we become almost unaware that no instruments are present. And then there is an unforgettable pause when the cellist rests both hands on her knees and the invisible cello, made so present by her gestures, disappears. In Concert is a speculative artwork, not a formal study of cognition. But artworks share with science the occasional need for thought-experiments, and this one presents evidence of a further development of Orlow’s work, that exceeds by far in effect and fascination what the initial premise suggests; not least by its social and mimetic implications and pleasures. The non-musician, seeing and hearing this work, is tempted to imitate, if only in a restrained way, some of the movements made by those who have learnt them so well.
(1) See Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge: CUP, 1989.
Uriel calls yesterday and asks me if I want to write a brief contribution on two of his installations for the catalogue of their exhibition at ifa Galerie in Berlin. I have seen these installations and can, so I believe, remember them well. I nonetheless ask Uriel to send me an e-mail mentioning a few facts of importance for the works in question, such as their titles (did he give them a title?). They ought to jog my memory. Uriel says he will pass on the reminders tomorrow. But would it not be much more fitting to the works were I to try to write about them without such reminders, just the way I have held them in memory after five or six years? One installation consisted of a video projection accompanied by the playing of a tape. I thought it was a Kaddish, but Uriel corrected me on the telephone. The name of the other prayer has slipped my mind.
It will probably be included in the e-mail tomorrow. Uriel had constructed a rectangular space for the projection in which benches had been set up, or so it seems to me now. Is that right? The video, which could be seen on one of the walls and which Uriel had shot during a trip to Poland, showed an empty swimming pool in an old building. The camera soared up and up without ever coming to a standstill, until it had turned completely upon itself and had swung back, its flight still unbroken, to its point of departure. That strikes me today as being an extremely elaborate and technically difficult movement, one that my memory associates in retrospect with Sokurov’s Russian Ark. [No, I am mistaken. Uriel’s description, which I have since received, leaves no doubt about the fact that the movement is cut short, since the body, the bearer of the camera, is standing in the space.The where one was at the beginning. The arch opens out, the end does not simply communicate with the begin- ning. Uriel has thus constructed his space for a voyage of discovery which transpires in another space. Here one can discover what is to be discovered over there. Yet as a viewer who has never travelled to Poland and who has also not inspected the relevant documents in the archives, do I know that I am being shown the inside of the synagogue of Poznan, which in 1942 was re-functioned into a swimming pool by the Nazis? Is not another archive always required, an archive of the archive, a frame in which the archive is positioned, an ark which contains it, and an arch which discloses and closes it off? One could say that Uriel’s space is a moving archive. On the one hand, because his archive cannot count as a permanent institution, and needs a gallery or a museum to accommodate it. Is this strange mobility of the archive directed against the forgetting which lurks in the memory of the archive? And indeed defines this very memory (from out – of memory)? In this case, the spectator should not forget that where a swimming pool is to be found today, there once stood a synagogue in which Jews congregated, and that one of the most terrible crimes in human memory has blocked the transition from the past to the present. [The circumstance that the camera arc does not swing back to the beginning, that its movement only de- scribes a semicircle, perhaps indicates that the transition is not to be understood as a continuous process.] On the other hand, because it is a question here ofinterruption thus recalls the blind spot without which there would be no camera movement, no matter how mobile the camera may be and or how skillfully the cameraman goes about his work, in order to make his own body, the body of the camera, as transparent as possible. The swimming pool is not empty either. And the camera’s gaze lingers for a long time on the tiles which cover the floor. The camera does not describe a movement that extends regularly over time.] What does the eye discover as it is borne aloft? That the indoor pool must once have been a place of worship, a synagogue. The camera registers and archives the change, transform- ing it into a fact. But this transformation has to be carried out time and again, one cannot divorce the fact from its execution. The archive is an ark of knowl- edge, but at the same time an arch erected by Uriel, as if he wanted to hold fast the one and the other end (of the thread of history). A discovery is made during the traversal, such that one does not arrive at the end moving images, in both senses of the term. Does not the prayer of mourning draw attention to this double meaning of movement? Further, because the archive first comes to be opened through the execution of filmic movement, thus making impossible any imme- diate access to a given document. One discovers in the film that for which it provides documentary evidence – the space of the former synagogue. Finally, because the document is actually created through the video and cannot be said to exist as such. The video is not simply the reproduction of an independently existing document. It is a reproduction that is itself preserved and displayed as a document in a space created for it. What do I conclude from the fact that Uriel’s produc- tion of such a moving archive is the work of an artist, not that of an architect or historian? That one only discovers something in an archive when one discovers the archive itself. The archive requires a further ar- chive because it, too, must be discovered each time, or because there is no archive of all archives. However, do I not destroy Uriel’s moving archive by drawing such a conclusion, as if it had served me solely as an occasion, or a reminder, to amass and preserve knowledge in my own archive? – I saw Uriel’s other installation Housed Memory one Saturday afternoon in the Wiener Library. Above all, I remember the video with the camera pan- ning endlessly along shelves lined with documents.
A travelling in Shoah: along tracks? Upon the tracks? A travelling in Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955): along a fence? The journey appears in this case to lead through the corridors of the archive, through the arteries of memory, without ever arriv- ing at a destination. No document is reached for to jog or fill the memory. The fullness of memory remains empty. [I have, as I learn from reading Uriel’s e-mail, forgotten the conversations and the photographs, the setting up of “three different and nonetheless con- nected works”, which first allows the observer to speak of an installation. What, then, do I conclude from the fact that Uriel’s installation is the work of an artist, not that of an architect or historian? That in order for the fullness of memory not to remain empty, the paths, the corridors, the arterial passageways, in short: the connections without which no archive is possible, must cease to communicate with each other, must not flow together (from out – of memory). Like the camera movement in the synagogue that is a swim- ming pool, the camera movements through the Wiener Archive remain silent. For a journey upwards or along is not itself knowledge, even if the journey produces knowledge, or contributes to the production of knowl- edge, even if it is determined by a knowledge. That is perhaps the barrier that the artist Uriel imposes upon my conclusions. I will have to look at the installations again and again.]
Alexander Garcia Düttmann, London, November, 2004
Published in Glad to be of service (Berlin: ifa, 2005), reprinted in Deposits (Berlin: Greenbox, 2006)More