by Amelia Rina
August 17, 2018
Degree Critical, the online publication of the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts has been a mainstay of the department since shortly after its inception. As the Art Writing program advances into its second decade, we’re also taking the opportunity to freshen Degree Critical by re-launching it as its own standalone website, so that its relevance becomes more profound than ever. To celebrate this anticipated and exciting new phase of Degree Critical, we are looking back on some of the treasure contained in its vaults. Every Friday throughout the summer, we’ll be re-posting earlier pieces of writing that capture the spirit and essence of the publication.
In what ways is a viewer complicit when she witnesses a documented act of violence? To what degree do positions of power affect that complicity? In her piece “Privileged Vision and the Violence of Watching Death” from Spring 2017, writer Amelia Rina (Class of 2015) unpacks two works by two separate artists, both on view in New York that year. O Peixe [The Fish] (2016), a video by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade and Real Violence (2017), a virtual reality work by American artist Jordan Wolfson each depict a central act of cruelty. She places the works within a larger cultural context, and considers them along a spectrum of power with unflinching, critical vigilance. By posing difficult but necessary questions, Rina asks her readers to examine their own collusion in the passive observation of the spectacle that is recorded brutality.
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
With whose blood were my eyes crafted?—Donna Haraway
I don’t often watch the process of death. I watch the living, and I see images of the dead in the news with increasing frequency, but I rarely see a last breath. For me to witness this most intimate moment would mean that whomever recorded the event did nothing to stop it. Unlike the person controlling the camera, though, I am incapable of stopping the impending death due to the separation of time and space. In this way, images of death can paralyze viewers, implicating us in the acts frozen in time. Bystanders, but not entirely innocent. Two videos that situate viewers inside this complex space are O peixe [The fish] (2016) by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade, and Real Violence (2017) by North American artist Jordan Wolfson. Each artist sensationalizes the act of watching something die, though through entirely different sociopolitical lenses: while de Andrade subtly reveals the narrative of privilege embedded in anthropological and ethnographic studies, Wolfson further ensnares himself in white male privilege by abstracting a brutal act.
In her 1988 essay Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, feminist theorist Donna Haraway offers a framework through which one might examine de Andrade’s and Wolfson’s evocation of human’s long history of physical and psychological domination. She rejects the idea that humans can possess a (useful) transcendent, objective understanding of the world, and insists on the radical multiplicity of knowledge, in effect proposing a way in which the powerless can claim their autonomy within science and society. At its best, art can be a sophisticated tool to navigate the messy relationship between humans and our technologies. At its worst, however, art can be an excuse to skirt responsibility in the name of some esoteric concept. Both de Andrade and Wolfson strive for the former, but only one artist succeeds.
I felt helpless while watching O peixe in the New Museum’s lobby gallery last January. I wanted to reach into the screen and intercede, or I wanted to leave and not look back. But my muscles constricted and I just sat there watching. The film is deceptively simple: a looping series of vignettes show men fishing in the waters surrounding a small coastal village in northern Brazil. Each man patrols the land’s edge in crafts varying from motorboats to rafts, searching for the perfect spot in which to settle. We see them waiting, fingering their fishing lines with the calm confidence of a predator well aware of how superior he is to his prey. Soon, each man is triumphant, dragging their catch’s glistening body out of the water and into the boat. Then something unexpected happens: instead of tossing the fish into a bucket to deal with later, the men take the fish into their arms, press them against their chests, and caress them as their life slips away. The fish, about the size of a human child, struggle, wide eyed and frantic, but they’re no match for the strong arms of their human opponent. The men remain unfazed by their victims’ attempts to escape; their embrace is firm but tender, as though they’re mollifying a hysterical child. The fish gradually stop resisting, which, if they had lungs instead of gills, might indicate that the captured creature was calming down. In O peixe, however, we watch them die.
To watch an animal die, yet remain essentially disconnected from it, is to exercise a certain power over life. “Vision is always a question of the power to see—and perhaps the violence implicit in our visualizing practices,” writes Haraway.[i] I would add that vision is also a question of the power to be seen, not simply as a usable resource, but as an autonomous being with the right to thrive. De Andrade shows us the fishermen not as whole individuals, but as an array of fragmented physical attributes, gestures, and rituals. Droplets of water and sweat glisten on the men’s muscular, tan bodies, just like the scales of the fish shimmer in the sun as they try to escape. We see close-ups of biceps, buttocks, thighs, and abdominals, that first appear to objectify and sexualize these brown male bodies. The film would be a conflation of such problematic ethnographic tropes if it weren’t for one difference: de Andrade invented the ritual performed by the men. This fact, presented in the wall text outside the lobby gallery, repositions the subject of the film away from the men and the fish and onto the broader context, saturated with colonialism, slavery, and racism, that produced the stereotypes de Andrade imitates on screen. As a result, the many layers of power become clear. The fish, our distant cousin from a time when all life existed only in the prehistoric oceans and seas, is the unluckiest. Unable to meaningfully communicate with or defend itself against its human counterpart, it doesn’t stand a chance. The Brazilian anglers overpower the fish, but are themselves caught in the dense web of the ancient, global, systemic oppression and exploitation of black and brown bodies. I am in a powerful position when I watch the film, but I am also subject to the power of the filmmaker who elicits my prejudices and stereotypes. In the case of O peixe, de Andrade inserts himself and his audience into the complicated lineage of power dynamics between ethnographer and subject, between observer and the observed, between predator and prey.
De Andrade appropriates the visual language of the ethnographer—a methodology historically believed to be objective and empirical, but increasingly understood to be fraught with bias, contradiction, and subjectivity. Subjectivity isn’t inherently a bad thing: the problem lies in the assumption (or insistence) of empirical objectivity, which is a perspective historically reserved for the Western white male and is predicated on their ability to be neutral, disembodied, and transcendent holders of knowledge. Haraway asserts that her essay is “an argument for situated and embodied knowledges and an argument against various forms of unlocatable, and so irresponsible, knowledge claims. Irresponsible means unable to be called into account.”[ii] O peixe successfully evokes embodied knowledges through its self-conscious unlocatable and irresponsible representation of a specific group of people: rather than representing an embodied experience, De Andrade highlights an area that lacks embodied knowledges. “There is a premium on establishing the capacity to see from the peripheries and the depths,” writes Haraway. “But here there also lies a serious danger of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions.”[iii] Instead of offering intimate or ethnographically meaningful portraits of Brazilian fishermen, the film acts as a heuristic mirror in which we can examine our sociopolitical blemishes in pristine detail.
Jordon Wolfson’s Real Violence stands in stark contrast to the self-awareness of O peixe, presenting an entirely different environment for watching death, one loaded with cheap psychological manipulations. Instead of the minimally furnished, dark theater constructed in the New Museum’s lobby gallery, visitors encountered Wolfson’s Virtual Reality simulation in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, prefaced by a trigger warning, an eighteen-years-old age minimum, and, in my case, a queue of people that nervously watched the group in front of us don the VR headsets and hold on to the rollercoaster-style railing on the central table (the docents suggested holding on to the railing, as the video makes some people experience dizziness and loss of balance). The installation effectively turns the group wearing the headsets into what, in an interview with ArtNews, Wolfson calls a “body sculpture,” meaning that the piece manifests through the viewers’ physical reactions to what they’re seeing.[iv] When I was waiting in line, several people in the group ahead of me tensed up and cried out during their short session. Through this carefully crafted environment, Wolfson creates a state of anxiety surrounding the viewing of his work. His medium is anticipatory fear; Real Violencebegins at the beginning of the queue, not when you put the headset on.
As with O peixe, the content of Real Violence is fairly straight forward: with the headsets on, we first see the sky, as though we’re looking up, then our gaze lowers to a city street, where a man (Wolfson) approaches another man kneeling on the ground, who he proceeds to beat to such an extreme degree that it’s unlikely the victim could survive, but the simulation ends without giving any conclusions. Throughout the piece, over the sloppy, crushing sounds of blunt force trauma, Wolfson’s voice sings traditional Hebrew blessings that Jews recite during Hanukkah. After all the tension built up while waiting to view the simulation, it is, in a word, disappointing. Though Wolfson used an animatronic dummy instead of a stunt person for his victim, which allowed him to “actually beat the shit out of it,” the image quality still reads as a mid-level video game or animation. Instead of an illuminating depiction of violence, Real Violence is like a bad horror movie that isn’t campy enough to make it interesting. Wolfson attempts to defend his piece against the knowledge that the person we see being beaten isn’t a real person (no humans were harmed in the making of this artwork) by saying that “the real violence isn’t depicted by the person suffering…the real violence is actually depicted by the person implementing the violence.”[v]
To exhibit violence for violence’s sake is to ignore the many situations in which people can’t escape violence in their lives. Wolfson’s wry social experiment can only come from a place of privilege. The audacity of looking directly at the viewer’s forced first person perspective before he proceeds to beat another human to death further emphasizes Wolfson’s fabricated position of absolute power. He wants us to know that he knows we’re watching, and that we can’t do anything to stop him. In the beginning of the simulation, Wolfson gives us a quick glance at the small crowd gathered before the beating begins, crystalizing the association with cell phone videos of brutal acts, whether it’s the rape of a 15-year-old girl livestreamed on Facebook or the murders of African-Americans by police. By choosing to use a white male animatronic doll and his own white male body, Wolfson seems to attempt to separate himself from the endless violence on women and people of color. This only highlights his privilege and ignorance of it. In the same way white European colonialists and ethnographers exploited their subjects as specimens and objects to be manipulated for their own objectives, Wolfson puts himself in the highest position of power and does nothing to challenge the validity of that position. This type of distancing contributes nothing to the broader conversation about art, politics, and culture.
Haraway provides an alternative when she calls for a feminist objectivity and suggests that:
our insisting metaphorically on the particularity and embodiment of all vision (although not necessarily organic embodiment and including technological mediation), and not giving in to the tempting myths of vision as a route to disembodiment and second-birthing allows us to construct a useable, but not innocent, doctrine of objectivity…. So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility.[vi]
What is to be learned from the childish sadism of Real Violence when we can watch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thugs attack protesters while he watches from a safe distance, or Philando Castile dying in his car after being shot by a police officer? Instead, we should listen to the stories of the people who experience violence, know their names, and try to understand their experiences. We should know who is responsible, and in what ways we all contribute. We should be especially attentive to the reasons why people feel compelled to enact violence on other beings, humans or otherwise, and never allow it to be normalized. If it weren’t for the choice of the 2017 Whitney Biennial curators or blue chip galleries like David Zwirner to exhibit Wolfson’s work, it could be easily dismissed and forgotten as yet another power grab in the age-old white male boy’s club. Art is not an excuse to manipulate or exploit people with less power, and using it as such is a waste. Rather than abstraction and the refusal to acknowledge privilege, I want a specific embodied experience and the dedication to define and accept accountability for our effects on each other and the world.
Jonathas de Andrade: O Peixe (2016), The New Museum, January 25–April 9, 2017.
Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence (2017), The Whitney Museum of American Art, March 17–June 11, 2017.
[i] Donna Haraway. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn, 1988): 585.
[ii] Ibid., 583.
[iii] Ibid., 583–584.
[iv] Nate Freeman. “A History of Violence: Jordan Wolfson on His Shocking Foray into VR at the Whitney Biennial.” ARTnews. January 3, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2017. http://www.artnews.com/2017/03/01/a-history-of-violence-jordan-wolfson-on-his-shocking-foray-into-vr-at-the-whitney-biennial/.
[vi] Donna Haraway. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn, 1988): 582.