Quand faire, c’est dire

08/30/2013

The exhibition title Quand faire, c’est dire inverts the title of a well-known work by John Langshaw Austin[1] in which he posits theories regarding “speech acts.” Austin’s work radically influenced philosophical notions of language, transforming it from a descriptive tool into a means of effecting action upon the world. In an interview, artist Chelsea Knight explains that for her “relationships of power are at the core of every social interaction. They affect the way we use and interpret language and, in like manner, language affects the way we understand and use power.”[2] Reflecting on notions of body, discourse and power, Quand faire, c’est dire brings together works that develop each in its own way a gestural language in order to examine, question and denounce the domination of one body by another.

In his filmed performance “Chandelier” (2001), Steven Cohen wears a chandelier, an ostentatious symbol of luxury, while walking and dancing through a township (shantytown) in Johannesburg as authorities tear it down around him. His dress, which clashes violently with his surroundings, and even his movements—a mix of classical dance and religious gestures—serve to underscore the huge disparity between his body and those of the local residents with whom he interacts.

Cohen’s work generally deals with issues surrounding Judaism, homosexuality, racism and ethnic identity. Being at once marginalized as a Jewish homosexual and privileged as a white man growing up in South Africa, his own experience feeds his work. In “Chandelier”, Cohen appears alternately fragile, as he is mocked and attacked by certain residents, but also appreciated, as he is embraced by others. He maintains his position as an artist who has chosen to be there and whose life is not at risk.

A similar tension lies at the heart of “Maid in South Africa” (2005), in which the performer, an 84-year-old woman who has served in Cohen’s family home since he was a child, performs a striptease while carrying out her household duties. Her body, elevated by high heels in which she has difficulty walking even with a cane and dressed in a burlesque costume unsuitable to the tasks she is performing (washing clothes, vacuuming carpets, cleaning the toilet), references slavery and physical abuse.

“Hold Your Ground”[3] (2012), a video by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, was inspired by a pamphlet titled “How to Protest Intelligently”, published in Cairo to prepare Egyptian demonstrators for the uprisings of January 2011. The pamphlet offers practical tips: how to dress, how to defend yourself, what kinds of slogans to chant and which routes to take. Taking the title of their video from this booklet, Mirza and Butler use footage of various demonstrations to develop a gestural semantics of protest. A woman repeatedly mimes movements made by the participants in these events. She accompanies several of these gestures with sounds that could be utterances of an unknown language. Together, voice and gesture seem to form a new language with which the performer attempts to inculcate us.

In “The End of All Resistance” (2010), Chelsea Knight has invited three pairs of people—two U.S. army interrogators, two female actors and a married couple—to role play using military interrogation techniques that privilege psychology over torture, so that the mind replaces the body as an object of threat and coercion. Knight uses double exposures to perform two functions: they visually illustrate the effects of mind games, incessant repetition and confusion, and they link the three couples, in so doing exposing similarities between such military practices and conventions in entertainment and personal relationships. As the text shifts between the duos, the performative nature of language is revealed, together with the fundamental role language plays in establishing power and the way it is anchored in body and experience. Language is inscribed in bodies as they interact, and this interaction is essential to power relations.

Taking as its base the position that languages are tools used within personal and cultural contexts, Quand faire, c’est dire underlines certain fundamental principles of communication. The video projects in this exhibition have unique emotional imperatives, which reveal cultural differences as well as similarities. Each artist takes a chance, setting up an experiment where the outcome is unknown. These videos engage a collective consciousness to ask what is fair and just.

 

Text by Julie Tremble in collaboration with Natalie Olanick



[1] John Langshaw Austin, Quand dire, c’est faire (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1962), 1970. Translated by Gilles Lane from the original How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. (Oxford: 1975).

[3] Hold Your Ground is taken from Deep State (Mirza and Butler, 44 min., 2012).

 

Participating artists: 
Julie Tremble
Natalie Olanick

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