In 1964 Samuel Beckett made his only trip to New York City to make Film, in which Buster Keaton personifies a person perceived by the eye of an untiring perceiver. Forty years later, artist Rosalind Nashashibi, whose films are known for a delicate and contemporary strain of this theme, has made a similar trip, taking up residency in New York for the past eight months under the auspices of the Scottish Arts Council’s residency programme.
Film is an exploration of Bishop Berkeley’s principle ‘esse est percipi ‘—that is, to be, is to be perceived. Berkeley proposes that there is no such thing as matter, only mental events, and the minds that perceive them. Not a huge leap from the more familiar Cartesian ‘cogito ergo sum ‘—I think, therefore, I am: but a step, which, importantly, invites a participation that is both sensory and social.
Beckett’s filmic adaptation of Berkeley’s theory presents a visibly anguished Keaton, desperate to evade perception. The 20-minute film follows a single idea—the silent, yet essentially linguistic, drama of perception—perceiving and being perceived. The focus is fixed on an individual who, having been made the object of our attention, carries the double burden of perception; he is both observed and observing. Understanding that, he is consequently trapped.
Nashashibi’s films are neither so focused, nor so rigidly bound to the idea of watching. Appropriately, the artist’s eye explores the possibilities of a visual, rather than linguistic definition.
In ‘Midwest: Field’, 2002, a group of men fly model airplanes, lost in their own leisure. In ‘Midwest’, 2002, we see city residents idling away their free time, engaged in nothing in particular. These are images of life so ordinary that they fail to register; after all, they can’t begin to compete with the salacious images of today’s razzmatazz headlines.
But Nashashibi has an eye for the uncanny in the common. ‘I’m not interested in mundane things, I’m interested in things that are quite extraordinary. Just because they happen to be in mundane, or, let’s say familiar, environments, that doesn’t make them mundane’, she says.
The environments, or locations, of her films are everyday ones. They are the municipal spaces of the modern world, the architecture of social infrastructure. The numerous hospitals in ‘Humaniora’, 2003—despite clear architectural distinctions implying differences in date and place—appear in her film as, simply, hospitals. The Salvation Army lunch, shown from beginning to end in ‘Blood and Fire’, 2003, defies differentiation from any other lunch. These locations are purposely not localised. They are generalised towards the timeless and the impossible to place; obstructing narrative in both form and content.
‘They are not about individual stories,’ Nashashibi explains. ‘They are much more about archetypes and that’s why there is a generality in the way they are shot. This generality is a choice, not an accident.
‘People get confused by the subject and think that because it’s not a news event it’s not a selected event. But it absolutely is. I’m interested in deliberately saying, “This is interesting—I’m going to turn the camera on now.” I’m also aware that as I shoot, the situation changes, and then there’s a certain magic involved in film. The camera does choreograph things to a certain extent, and some of that is an intuitive process, but nevertheless, very deliberate.’
This deliberation continues in the edit. ‘Editing, for me, is really the biggest part of film-making. That’s when you actually construct the whole thing,’ Nashashibi says.
‘The films are about how you spend time. The way I edit is quite rhythmic. I put together the film in the same way you would put a piece of music together. You think about timing and phrasing and things like that, because there is no narrative.’
Structural time is a subject as well as a formal concern. ‘I’m interested in society; how it’s structured, how we negotiate those structures and the time spent within the structures we have made for ourselves, or that we’ve inherited.’ The films formally move through time without the narrative drive.
‘I sometimes use a structure like morning to night. I have two different ways of structuring the films, one of which is linear—which might be over two days or a certain period that the film represents in time. The other way is a continuous loop: those films tend to be a bit more abstract,’ she says.
Time does not act as a censor of intentions, as it infamously did for the composer, John Cage. The medium of film, itself, provides the boundaries that motivate Nashashibi’s focus. ‘Video is a bit too convenient. Having the potential to shoot unending amounts of footage limits me. With film I need to select something that I really believe in as being interesting or that has the potential to be an interesting project. With video there aren’t enough restrictions.’ By choosing to write in his second language, French, Beckett allowed his medium to impose the same kinds of boundaries on his work.
Language, like the specifics of time and place, is also not explicit in Nashashibi’s films. ‘I’ve just naturally never really used words in my work,’ she says. ‘I’ve always felt gagged by them. I’d stop myself if I started using words. I’d say, ‘Why that word?’ Again, it’s not about a specific character, personality, or individual, it’s about the archetype. That interests me rather than honing in, and words tend to commit you unless you are extremely clever with words.’
‘Hreash House’, 2004, is accompanied by the cacophony of its subjects’ voices, but any individual statement is hidden in the hubbub of the crowd. Even the music of ‘The State of Things’, 2000, where a love song by Um Kulthoum accompanies images of women rummaging through a jumble sale, serves to confuse us by its careful juxtaposition.
The removal of real time, space and words in Nashashibi’s work eliminates specific context, enabling her to present human and institutional archetypes. It also sets us free from Keaton’s trap. By adjusting context Nashishibi opens up a relationship between artist, art and viewer. She opens up a dialogue that the linear, modernist logic that inhabits Beckett’s Film does not. Nashashibi takes the comprehension from perception, but leaves the attention.
Victoria Miguel is a writer living in New York