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Tricks of the Trade

Tricks of the Trade
Sophie Berrebi

In Saskia Janssen’s 2002 video Greenhouse Sleepers , anonymous faces, enlarged to a monumental scale, slowly sweep across the frame of the image projected onto a wall. These figures are almost motionless, awkwardly posing amidst potted plants on a revolving plywood platform. Some are seated, others stand alone or in small groups, rubbing shoulders and exchanging glances. Their posture commands silence and stillness. Apart from a feint smile, a discrete sign of boredom or tiredness, the participants of the scene seem both empowered and petrified by their role. But it is not easy to say what their act is about. Dressed in everyday clothing, they turn slowly, displayed amidst a few scattered props: cardboard boxes, plastic garden chairs and blankets.

greenhouse2_0These objects evoke pictures of refugees and displaced people, instantly connecting the projected image to the domains of photojournalism, press reels and documentary film. However, while these slowly moving images seem to be unmistakably anchored in a tragic reality, the evident artificiality of the participants’ pose, the carefully arranged props and the creaky sound of the revolving stage create an uncanny atmosphere. In oscillating between obviously composed images and the suggestion of spontaneity, the video provokes us to question representation and the gap that exists between archetypal images and their real-life referents.

In their state of static display, the ‘greenhouse sleepers’ recall those playful pyramids made from people piled on top of one another, holding legs and arms. They also call to mind images of people crammed atop public monuments during demonstrations, virtually masking them behind banners, graffiti and bodies. Effectively, demonstrators momentarily replace them with monuments of another kind, contingent and fugitive. Whereas press photographs document facts, offer proof and probe a reality that will inevitably be called into question by another image, monuments, in whatever form they take, freeze meaning into fixed, unquestioned forms. While there is always another document and another image to continuously rewrite history, monuments are unchallenged ‘images’ that remain stationary, providing archetypal representations of a story that is henceforth unquestioned. Although monuments are supposed to trigger collective memory, they often end up reifying history, by replacing an already shaky concept with a frozen simulacrum.

Like human pyramids or instant monuments created by demonstrators, Greenhouse Sleepers is a paradoxical object that combines the contingent character of the visual document with the permanence of the monument. A strange oxymoron, this work, like most of Saskia Janssen’s projects, eschews any straightforward interpretation instead playing with conventions and registers.

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In Grass Plot Shoot (Purmerend), 2001, a group of teenagers was invited to perform in front of the camera at their usual meeting place, the football field near their school. Dressed in the latest fashion, they chat, laugh and gather around a scooter. The stereo plays ubiquitous pop music. Two girls make several attempts at an R&B act . As they hang around, several of the kids climb the high fences surrounding the field, and remain there, their backs to the fence, facing the camera. The chatting and laughing goes on as if nothing special was happening, with part of the group magically moved from ground level to mid-air. As the camera scans the field, the trick becomes apparent: tiny hand and feet supports, which are initially invisible, hold the boys and girls on the fences in place.

Strangely enough, this rather extraordinary trick is performed and filmed as if it were nothing special. The unassuming quality of the footage is however, significant in itself. Both as a technique and as a style, the film looks back to the tradition of observational or direct cinema of the 1960s. Direct cinema emerged under the impulse of filmmakers like Fred Wiseman, from the desire to break with the narrative codes of documentary practice that were predominant until then. These documentary filmmakers set out rather to present a more immediate and intimate depiction of the real. Taking advantage of lighter equipment that had just become available, Wiseman and others went out to film ‘what was going on’; avoiding reconstructed or staged scenes and voice-over commentary that characterised the Griersonian tradition. In direct cinema, the viewer became a witness of the events on screen, while the filmmaker supposedly served as a neutral intermediary between characters and viewers. As a result, the stories and scenes they presented were enhanced with a powerful reality effect.

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The typical features of observational cinema, synchronous sound and long takes, are also present in Janssen’s Purmerend . The action goes on as if the camera was simply left to run, unobtrusively. Following the principles of direct cinema, Purmerend’ s images are meant to be self-explanatory. There is no voice-over, and the film shows real-time events that are left simply to unfold. Nothing is explained outside the frame, not even the teenagers’ strange acrobatic act, which is presented as merely a playground routine. However, when the hand and feet supports holding the children on the fence become evident, the unintelligibility of the image forces the viewer to question the limits of this wait-and-watch technique.

In the realm of documentary film, critiques of direct cinema soon pointed out that the so-called neutrality of the filmmaker and the invisibility of the camera were ultimately an illusion, and that these principles did not, as was hoped, present a more ‘objective’ reality. As for real-time effect, so striking at first compared to the elaborate storytelling of classic documentary, it seemed clear that ‘real time’ was just another way of creating a narrative. In filming the teenagers’ performance as if nothing special was happening, Janssen makes the limits of direct cinema apparent and then works through them. The evidently rehearsed and composed scene suggests a break within the continuum of time, both in real life and in the flow of the filmed event.

The idea of a break in narrative time is probably how we should understand the title – A Break in Drewen – chosen by one of the teenagers of this German village in which Janssen organized and filmed a performance. A project somewhat similar toPurmerend invited participation from the nine reamaining teenagers in a remote village in former East Germany, some 100 kilometres north of Berlin. A break in their usual life, the act – as Janssen calls these projects – enabled them to climb and pose on the facade of the barn facing the bus stop where they usually hang out. The film shows the artists interacting with the youths and moments of idleness where almost nothing happens, with the result that the viewer is in a constant state of expectation, akin to the experience of immersion in a fictional narrative. Towards the end of the film various micro-events come together when, for a brief moment, the teenagers remain still on the facade of the barn, creating a fugitive human composition like a public sculpture.

There is continuity between Purmerend and Drewen : the choice of groups of youths from specific social or geographic environments and the representation of their everyday interactions. What emerges from the juxtaposition of the two projects is however, less an impression of the singularity of these groups than their similarities. Despite the different social and geographic contexts, the teenagers act, move and speak in the same way in Drewen and in Purmerend . And the background of stereotypical pop music, the scooters, the motorbikes and the idleness are the same.

Whereas in letting individuals act naturally in front of the camera, direct cinema aimed at presenting characters in the most individualized and truthful way possible, Purmerend and Drewen can also be seen as conveying a sense of the uniformity of social practices across different countries that rather undermines the notion of individuality. Although it may seem like we are provided with information, in effect, viewers learn very little about kids from Purmerend and Drewen, apart from the fact they are much like kids in many other parts of the world.

We know nothing about what precedes or follows the footage presented. The ‘transparent’ camera that seems to leave the field open to view also conceals everything that is not directly within the field of vision. In leaving her videos open to problems of this kind, Janssen suggests that the very process of exposing the ambivalences of recording and showing images is at least as important as the reality of her interactions with her ‘cast’.

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The use of a multiplicity of documentary elements such as photography, video, slides or, in the present case, a book, is essential to engage a critical reflection on the image and its real-life subject. For instance, when Purmerend was presented at the gallery Ellen de Bruijne PROJECTS in 2001, the artist juxtaposed edited film footage projected on a large wall with a slide projection of the same scale. In other exhibitions the project might have been documented by small photographic prints. In Purmerend , the carefully framed still images contrast with the apparent casualness of the film. The latter presents itself as a fragment, an instantaneous document showing the flow of events caught as if by chance, whereas the photographs are more ambivalent. Although we know the slides are part of the same sequence, their careful framing, added to the fact that they cut out selected views from the film, gives them a composed appearance. This contributes to the impression that the slides should be read as though they were further clues, or that meaning might be gained through observing them. There is, moreover, an oscillating movement as the photos document the film and vice versa. But the result of this accumulation of visual material, usually reshuffled and organized for each presentation, is ultimately a heightening of the discrepancies between the different genres of stage-photography and observational, verité-style cinema. These factors convey a sense of uneasiness to the viewer: what is really true, what is staged, what is real?

One immediate answer to these questions would be to present Janssen’s works within the framework of what is often called community-based art, and invitations made to artists to come and work with a specific group, often defined in stereotypical social or ethnic terms. The results of these new forms of public art, which are frequently quite naïve, have been criticized and their limits underlined. The criticism is more or less standard: lack of long-term involvement with a group, innovative ethnography that ends up mimicking classic ethnography or the risk of further stereotyping or singling out a group. At first glance all of these criticisms might be leveled at Saskia Janssen’s projects. But then again this would ignore the props, the sets, the tricks played by the participants and the various formats of documentation that result from the performances presented in exhibitions and books. Janssen’s reflection furthermore suggests that Hal Foster’s reading of the worst motives behind this kind of art – trying to speak for a community, ‘giving’ people a voice – is in fact not really an issue.

Instead of the above, the main concern here seems unmistakably to be the construction of a representation that questions its own visibility and the various modes of interpretation it suggests. One of the most sober expressions of this concern appears in the melancholic Scene Shifters , for which Janssen gathered a group of people encountered in random places, who are all geographically or otherwise displaced. Through the wealth of documentation recalling how these people were brought together in a closed space and what then ‘happened’, the most striking element is the isolation and boredom reflecting the artificiality of their situation. The absence of dialogue, or even eye contact between participants suggests that in reality, they share nothing, not even the project for which they have been cast. The resulting film exposes this void as do the props, which were later presented on their own in the gallery and became as important as the participants themselves. The effect of the empty set, complete with props suggestive of a performance that has just taken place, is double. On one level, the empty set confirms the idea of documentary, live-time, reality events, which once performed, can never be repeated. This further suggests an analogy to performance work in general, where what is left over is the residue of events.

But films and in certain cases, photographs that may be shown alongside the set bring the props to the level of a manipulation of reality, similar to the one enacted in the filmic process. In this process the illusionism of representation is further emphasized. The empty stage recalls Janssen’s stint as a circus performer. Here, the strange lifting devices and bases placed on the revolving stage could as easily become the set for magic tricks, rather than for a melancholic, seemingly haphazard grouping of people that Scene Shifters hinted at. The ambivalence suggested here is entertained by Janssen, who sometimes works with performers of different sorts: bouncers performing splits on a rooftop and cosmonauts demonstrating anti-gravitational stunts in a hotel corridor in Russia’s Star City.

In mixing scientific discourses on gravity with observations on the possibility it may all be a trick, a magical illusion, historical ties with the ‘pranks’ of avant-garde emerge. The viewer may be reminded of everything from Marcel Duchamp’s optical devices to Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void , or Piero Manzoni’s ‘magical bases’. The avant-garde trickster emerged in a context of contesting the traditional aim of truthfulness and beauty assigned to art, as provocative gestures both undermining and giving new meaning to the artist as genius.

Janssen’s attraction to the image of the trickster is, however, to be read more closely within the framework of the construction of representation. The revolving platforms, the hand and feet supports and other props used in her films have seminal importance as low-key but efficient tricks that enable the displacement of reality and the probing of different genres. In presenting the empty stages and props, and revealing the hand and feet supports holding the performers in place, Janssen seems quite literally to pull the human sculptures apart that she has so patiently constructed in her films and photographs. The two processes of doing and undoing go on simultaneously. The rigorous framing of the photographs and the absence of a fixed point of attention in some of the films refer to staged images and verité-style cinema.

Through these different approaches as well as through the various media used to present her work, Janssen probes the interstices of documentary practices, offering a multi-layered approach to the problem of the truthfulness of representation. But even if Janssen alludes to a wide range of fully coded aesthetic practices, her often humorous and sometimes melancholic human sculptures caught on video belong to none of these well-rounded rhetorics. In fact the elusiveness of her practice is in the end her strongest point. The ambivalent way in which she plays around with serious topics and genres but then mocks the détournement itself, casually revealing how the tricks work, catches the viewer off-guard and never delivers a graspable truth.