Wael Shawky, ‘The Cave’ (Amsterdam), 2005, video colour sound, 12’45”, courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg
Duane Linklater, ‘Very Real Things’, 2012, 10’24”
Karen Cunningham, ‘Writing Culture’, 2013, 1’46”

For my third and final selection I have chosen videos driven by monologues delivered by the artists themselves. Although produced in quite different ways, each work uses a form of layering in relation to sound and image, as well as to the information they are communicating. Thus the viewer is presented with works which consider the possibilities of parallel experiences and perspectives.

‘The Cave: Amsterdam’, 2006, by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky,is the third version of the video in which the artist is filmed walking through a supermarket (the first takes place in Istanbul and the second in Hamburg). Reciting in Arabic, to camera, a memorised passage from the Koran, he tells the story of a group of men who hid from persecution in a cave. After sleeping for 200 years they wake to find themselves in a world radically different to the one they knew. The narrative is delivered in a manner that evokes an intensified live TV news report, a premise further enforced by the English subtitles running quickly across the bottom of the screen and mirroring Shawky’s relentless delivery.

As with much of Shawky’s other work, ‘The Cave’ considers the transformative power of allegory and parable to affect social, political or spiritual change and questions the effect of translation—not only linguistically, but also with regards to specific media and other cultural perspectives.

My video,‘Writing Culture’, 2013, considers the privilege afforded to the ‘word’ (written or spoken) over that of the image. The title contextualises the video in regards to anthropology’s self-reflective critique of ethnographic texts as the primary means by which to record the results of fieldwork and the inherent problems of ‘writing’ another’s ‘culture’. It also directly references the influential book ‘Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography’, 1986, by James Clifford & George Marcus, which is largely charged with signalling the so-called ‘crisis of representation’.

Although entirely made in-computer (the voice is recorded directly into the computer microphone and the texts, synonyms of the spoken words, are generated by a software programme), the piece is a simple and somewhat primitive use of the medium.

Canadian artist Duane Linklater’s‘Very Real Things’,2013, continues his work with current and historical events regarding First Nation culture and colonialism as well as exploring, in broad terms, the possibilities and problems of collaboration. Beginning and ending with a re-telling of various communications between Linklater and New York-based Polish artistJoanna Malinowska, the video presents,on screen, a collections of receipts, documents and objects displayed in a manner evoking a selection of items as they would be arranged in a museum vitrine; a sew-on patch depicting a skull and canoe paddles (rather than cross bones) is laid beside a receipt for take-away food with the slogan ‘create your own tradition of fine taste’.

‘Very Real Things’ draws a dianoetic parallel between Malinowska’s use of a painting by the First Nations activist Leonard Peltier (which she ‘smuggled’ into the Whitney Museum of American Art) as a way to highlight the absence of First Nations’ artists’ work within the 2012 Whitney Biennial and the use, by Joseph Beuys, of a coyote in his 1974 performance ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’. Not only do both performances feature an imprisoned subject (Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for allegedly shooting two FBI agents in the Pine Ridge Reservation conflict of 1975. The coyote, far from representing something free and native was, as Linklater points out, held in captivity by a handler on a farm in New Jersey). In each case the subject is used by the culture of contemporary art practice as a stand-in for reality and thus reduced to a metaphor. Malinowska and Beuys’ actions, both with intent to re-address the imbalance of representation within American culture and identity, are reframed by Linklater in the video as purely symbolic and empty gestures. Not least because, despite who, or what they claim to be collaborating with, the resulting work is made ‘by’ and presented ‘for’ the American/European cultural complex they are attempting to critique.

The use of the voice/spoken word acts to take back not only the images on screen but the very idea that the value of the images is secondary to that which they represent. In doing so each work creates a sense of dissonance between the word and the image, the visual and the verbal.

These works can be read as standing in opposition to ethnographic film and documentary in which a culture is authored by a voice from outside of that culture, and the meaning of images, narratives and forms is prescribed. Instead of discrediting ethnography altogether though, these works confront the biased nature of ethnographic practices in regards to portraying the ‘other’ and in doing so reveal ‘that ethnography is also a mode of persuasion’ *, which can be reclaimed by the subject.

* Kris Rutten, An van Dienderen & Ronald Soetaert. ‘The rhetorical turn in contemporary art and ethnography’ in Critical Arts Issue 6, 2013

Karen Cunningham 2014Biographies:

Wael Shawky is an Egyptian artist based in Alexandria who has made and exhibited work internationally. Recent exhibitions include the group show ‘A History of Inspiration’ at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Franceand a major solo exhibition at The Serpentine Galleries, London. Shawky is also founder of MASS, the first studio and study programme for contemporary artists in Alexandria.

Karen Cunningham is based in Glasgow, Scotland. Recent exhibitions include ‘Plasma’ at Walden Affairs, The Hague and ‘Factish Field—part 1’ at Collective Gallery, Edinburgh which premiered ‘Fib’, a film commissioned by LUX and Collective. Along with visual anthropologist Chris Wright, Brad Butler, artist and co-founder of no.w.here, London and Angela McClanahan, lecturer in visual culture, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, she will be taking part in the symposium ‘Factish Field’ at Edinburgh College of Art.

Duane Linklater is Omaskêko Cree, from the Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. His work has been exhibited internationally and he is the recipient of the 2013 Sobey Art Award. ‘Modest Livelihood’, a film made in collaboration with Brian Jungen, is showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto until June 2014. His solo exhibition ‘Decommission’ is at MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie Ontario until March 2014.