Pick up & pass off
Pick up & pass off
"So the guy zooms his video-camera from the street into the room where the dance rehearsal is taking place. The home video image is shaking, but dancers don't seem any better: jumping, crawling and cuddling they are engaged in a sort of free-style warming up. Apparently the director is not present yet. As it is dark outside, the voyeur follows their petite actions with camera unnoticed until some of the dancers spot him. They get rather excited, stick to the window, someone is waving his hand, a woman flashes her breasts. The voyeur feels ashamed and tries to turn his camera away. However soon after they get back to the usual routine on the both sides of the window. Even if one may have some suspicion about staging the sound part of the film, the end credits came as a surprise bringing up the fact that the whole thing is meticulously staged collaboration between choreographer Alain Platel and artist Sven Augustijnen. The rehearsal was the performance and the voyeurish act was fictional like porno" I try to describe one of my favorite films from Amsterdam video festival 1999 to the guy in Brussels’s cab. 'That was my film" he smiles. "Iets op Bach." 'Really?" I smile too. Then we talk about Alain Platel and his "real people dance" attitude, about the impressions of Sven's brother from Lithuania, winters there, untill I have to get off. I guess John Cage or couscous, maybe vegetarian couscous would have followed as the next topic.
"If I would write a text on the L'ecole des Pickpockets the last sentence would be the following: "Given the content of Sven Augustijnen's film how one can be sure that the film has not been stolen from the pocket of another artist" I write my e-mail later to Sven after seeing his film-instruction where the two experienced pickpockets from Brussels teach new acquaintance the basic technique of the craft. During the day he advances so much that his practice on selected citizens impresses the mentors. After wondering what do I mean with "stealing another artists' video" Sven asks whether I would like to write a text on the film, to what I reply "Of course, that would be a big intellectual pleasure!" and never manage to do that.
"Well, if I would write a short review on L'ecole des Pickpockets for Village Voice or Time Out" replies Lucy E. Smith to my ideas of the possible end of the text. "I would simply make the point saying that "In this video Adrian Piper meets Alain Platel after meeting with Sam Fuller and Henri Kassagi."
"I would add a Post Scriptum after your end: Don't try this at home." I reply back.
"You mean pick-pocketing or those imaginary meetings?" she shrugs and explains that Henri Kassagi was the professional pickpocket who highly contributed to Pickpocket, 1959 by Robert Bresson. He acted in the main episodes of the film demonstrating the precise tricks which born resemblance to the techniques shown in Sam Fuller's Pick Up On the South Street, 1953, "the fact which suggests that Henri could have watched the American anticommunist film noir before entering Bresson's vision thus picking up and passing off foreign textual elements. However in terms of instruction and dance (leaving the racial and gender issues aside) I would like to place L'ecole des Pickpockets along Lessons of Funk - the 1983 video by Adrian Piper, in which she instructs a mostly white crowd of UC Berkeley students in the theory and practice of booty shaking. Even if pickpockets don't teach choreography directly, their work has the timing, grace and precision of a ballet. Speaking in more general terms a number of contemporary artists developed significant dancing sensibilities: Gillian Wearing's dance in the mall, Peter Land's relaxed fertility twist, Rineke Dijkstra's suburban rave-kids, Juan Capistran's breakdancing on a floor sculpture by Carl Andre, not to mention numerous situations where visitor is invited to dance. As we know this type of the 90's auto-communicative dance is a self-liberating practice, solipsistic ritual similar to the reading of poetry aloud in the Middle Ages. However there are certain aspects of L'ecole des Pickpockets which I find more important than these." writes Lucy.
"Performance in the structure of choreography?" I wonder remembering Alain Platel. But the dance of Pedro and Pepe - two Latinas from The Night of Iguana, 1964 by John Huston comes to the mind first. The graceful way they fight the bus driver on the beach is a complex choreography ending up in the bus driver lying on the floor. Of course, there are other remarkable marriages of martial arts and dance, such as capoeira, however the most striking example is definitely the Funk Balls - Brasilian mix of dance, computer games and fist fight, which resulted in more than 60 deaths since 1996. These examples prove that dance very often functions as a medium for exchange of fundamental messages about life and death. "So you mean the performance in the structure of choreography?"
"Well, even if the pickpockets teach us a certain technique step by step thus comforting the notion of art as arte, i.e. technique, in truth their aim is to teach a complex concept, which I would call the meta-statement of the piece. This meta-statement is invisible as well as choreography of the pick-pocketing, but it is about invisibility itself. It's not coincidence that pick-pockets talk about their practice as art - the film is about art. The message of the Augustijnen's film could be read as a meta-statement on contemporary artistic practice whose ideal model it actually offers: the artists is invisible and classless as pickpocket, he/she creates a situation for everyday-life or live models of complex social situations, works collaboratively in decentralised team play, involves the element of game, shares the outcome and aims at a certain social reconstruction. Don't you think so? Yours, Lucy E. Smith"
"Well, Lucy, art has no bounds. Yours, Bart Simpson."
Anyway, I get back to her in a slightly similar fashion "The ultimate fiction is always invisible and is created by anonymous authors. It is intended to be life-like as life. Is it more difficult to believe that the script you live is real, or the reality you take for granted is scripted? Our experience provides us with an answer - we have to put more effort to believe that the fiction is real than fictionalise our daily environments. However the ultimate fiction is beyond of those questions - it's unquestionable as it is closer to reality than reality itself. How many fictions - grande and petite we participate in with no being aware of it? Everyday life provides us with many complex narratives where we act as uncredited characters. Getting into crowd simulated by invisible pickpockets crew on a subway or making a detour on a cab in unfamiliar town according to the masterplan of twisted driver. Don't be surprised that you pay extra for your trip - there are no free fictions, you must pay for it as you purchase the ticket for the theatre. And don't think that you paid for the extra miles, you paid for the spectacle. By the way, Lucy, do you think that social ideals of pickpockets are OK?"
"The only solution for the great artist of tomorrow is to go underground (Marcel Duchamp)" comes her answer. She definitely insists on her notion of invisibility art and the artist and that L'ecole des Pickpockets teaches not miraculous manual technique a la Houdini, but more complex concept of artist's dissolution and evaporation aimed towards revolution.
"What do you mean?" I reply. "That "It's tomorrow already" (Mixmaster Morris)?"
"Use your head instead of hands" she does not hesitate to get back with the line from her favorite Pick Up On the South Street, to what I could answer only "Oh, Lucy, what a strange way I have to take to meet you!'"
'Look at him. About Johan and François, and eventually also about Eva, Michael, you and me.'
A man is speaking to the camera. His name is Johan. We gather that he is in some sort of institution, but it is not clear what type that may be, a prison or a hospital. If the latter, is he suffering from some fatal illness or is he in a mental clinic? As he answers the questions of the filmmaker and a doctor in the room, it slowly becomes clear that he is suffering from aphasia, defined in the ‘Collins English Dictionary’ as a ‘disorder of the central nervous system, characterised by partial or total loss of the ability to communicate, especially in speech or writing’. At one point, Johan keeps responding to a prompt from the therapist by saying ‘I want to know’, ‘I want to know’. She cannot get him to say ‘what’ he wants to know.
Is this not the position of the viewer in watching this ‘documentary’ by Sven Augustijnen? We want to know what is going on; we want to know more about this ‘subject’; we want to know that the filmmaker will not abuse his position of power. And we can only know by trusting the filmmaker, by trusting the camera, by trusting that we (and Johan) will not be manipulated. But that, of course, is a contradiction in terms. Better to accept the manipulation and go from there.’
Michael Tarantino, (1)
Reconstructing that hot summer of 2003, I realize now, while Michael, with his ‘self-deprecating, downbeat wit, his hangdog, lugubrious look’ (2), was writing probably one of his last texts, I was editing ‘François’.
Suffering from aphasia as well, François gropes at a certain moment his head with his hands: ‘I would like to know what is going on here upstairs… my spirit can’t grasp all this anymore!
And then he looks into the camera and asks: ‘Are you telling him my entire memory?
You're not writing it down, I hope?’
Who is the ‘him’ I am telling his entire memory towards? Or is it the camera that is telling…? Or regarding Michael’s text more abstract, that nevertheless the manipulation or better by means of the manipulation… that all I can say is by the words of somebody else?
Eva, the speech therapist intervenes: -‘Not writing, he's filming.’
-‘He can film me.
That's okay. That looks smart.’
-‘Look at him.’ she remarks his twinkling eyes proud for another prank.
I look at him and can’t help smiling.
-‘I can still drivel.
But that's the problem.
I can still drivel.
I can joke around.
But anything more serious...’ he could keep on jumping nervously from one topic to the other, finaly ending up:‘Seriously, I would like to know…’
What a smile can do! But how do they affect us?
How comfortable are we in the face of one’s in a life times stroke or tumor?
‘In the beginning was the word! … Why?’ the child asks his father in the introduction scène of Tarkovski’s last film ‘The Sacrifice’.
We have the answer on the tip of our tongues…
1. Michael Tarantino, ‘The index of truth’, (in Wiels, exhibition cat., Brussels, 2003)
2. Adrian Searle, ‘Michael Tarantino, Creative curator of contemporary art’ (Obituary, Friday December 5, 2003 The Guardian)