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“A third language”:
the dialectics of invisibility

“We were friends and we didn’t know it,” wrote Maurice Blanchot of philosopher Emmanuel Lavinez. What a strange idea - a friendship that remained invisible to itself. After all, if anything should be self-aware, surely it is that form of interpersonal solidarity based on elective affinity known as friendship. We know, roughly speaking, when friendship begins, and it is one of the rituals of friendship to recall the circumstances of its beginnings. We know too, often with painful precision, when friendship ends, and we may find ourselves looking back alone at what caused the rupture. But an unselfconscious friendship seems to imply that there can be disparate regimes of sensibility that prevent us from perceiving modes of being-together in which we are nevertheless actively involved. If this is the case, we can see Blanchot’s remark less as a mildly perplexing paradox than as a profoundly political insight. For politics, like art, is about perturbing stable regimes of perceptibility, making visible bodies which, though always there, went somehow unnoticed, making audible and legible as music what was previously written off as mere chaos. Reality, in other words, doesn’t just show up on our radar screens because it is there; like desire, it has to be composed. And that composition is a political act.

 What determines which bodies and aggregates of bodies are visible or invisible in the perceptible order of things? What assigns them their coefficient of visibility is what Jacques Ranciare broadly refers to as the “police” Not the police in the crassest sense, understood as the bludgeon-wielding wardens of the law; but the police in the broadest sense “in other words, the often invisible set of institutions that ensure the prescription and regulation of the existent arrangement of what is not only legitimate but literally perceptible. As Ranciare put it in his now classic though still provocative definition,

 “the police is, in its essence, the law which, though generally implicit, defines the part or lack of part of the parties involved. But to define that, one must first of define the configuration of the sensible in which the various parties are inscribed. The police is thus above all a bodily order that defines the partition between means of doing, means of being and means of saying, which means that certain bodies are assigned, by their very name, to such and such a place, such and such a task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable, which determines that some activities are visible and that some are not, that some speech is heard as discourse while others are heard as noise.”1

As political struggle ““ in which art may of course play a role “ forces changes in the distribution of the sensible, social arrangements, discourses and groups emerge from and recede into the darkness monitored by the police. Ranciareâ’s analysis clearly pertains to art; but it also and more generally applies to a line of partition between practices that are admitted and those that are discredited, between what must be said and what cannot be said and by whom, between socially mandatory and forbidden speech and action. To take but one relatively local example: it is only recently, after sustained political struggle that Kurds have come to be acknowledged as existing in the eyes of the state. Though of course their collective existence is by no means a recent phenomenon, their emergence as a collective entity has only come about through a decisive shift in the dominant regime of sensibility ‘a shift in the police lines, so to speak, which means that today Sener Ozmen’s videos can be shown in Istanbul with Turkish subtitles.2

Seen in this light, art is political not because of its subject matter but because it secretes the sort of dissensus-engendering “or consensus-corroding “sensibility that brings previously invisible or scarcely visible bodies into focus. One way artists do this is by enlarging their artistic material to including human interrelations, bringing other people’s subjectivities “ often subordinated subjectivities “ into the artistic equation. This is unquestionably the major impetus behind so-called “relational aesthetics”. Yet, because of the single-signature structure of artworks (which are almost invariably signed by the artist alone), those who collaborate in their production are somehow condemned to disappear “or, paradoxically, to re-disappear, if the work succeeds in drawing attention to their perceptibilty to start with. This is one of the greatest pitfalls of relational aesthetics, and indeed one of the most irksome political paradoxes of cutting-edge art today.

 Perhaps one of the most acute examples of an artist grappling with the dialectics of invisibility is found in the video work of Istanbul-based Selda Asal. Over the past few years, Asal has developed a compelling signature style and approach, whereby she initiates collaborative processes with people from walks of life far from the artworld. The video Love is Fake, for instance, was made in collaboration with teenage girls undergoing psychiatric treatment at Istanbul’s Bakirkoy Mental Clinic, who had attempted suicide because of some unrequited love or other heartbreak. Using her artistic credentials and skills as a door- and conversation-opener, Asal proposed to do drawing and painting sessions with the young women, alternately filming their gestures and the _expression of their subjectivity as it took shape on the paper. Asal herself plays no role in the immanence of the film itself: we see only the young women’s drawings and hear only their accounts of their lives, which acquire a meaning which their desperate act suggests was previously lacking; Asal’s role is confined exclusively to the editing studio”and to signing the finished product.
Her most compelling work to date, Competing with Genies, was shot in the same psychiatric ward with street kids addicted to sniffing glue. The scenes of the young men (scarcely more than boys) depicting their symbolic universe through drawing and paintings, are interspersed with throbbing techno music, underscoring the pulsing experience of sniffing glue, as the boys explain. “On drugs, you see yourself as competing with genies,” says one (as with Love is Fake, Asal’s tersely poetic titles are taken from one of her unnamed participants). By and large, Asal’s collaborators grow comfortable with the initially intrusive presence of a video camera, and carry on with their drawing and painting as if the camera were not on; or take control of the camera themselves, hamming it up, mimicking MTV-style journalism. The subjectivity of those who were so marginal in our policed schema of representations as to exist only as a mute, shadowy menace to public safety, suddenly come into focus as their subjectivity shifts to the fore. As their drawing take shape, piece by piece, a universe of self-destruction, hallucination, and violence, but also of desire and a quest for meaning is fleshed out. Yet what are their names? They seem condemned to remain as aggregates of anonymous subjectivity, unnamed representatives of a social predicament. There is an inherent discrepancy, in other words, between the visibility of the artist and that of her collaborators.

 Yet the very structure of the film suggests that the participants aspire to authorship “they seek to be authors of their gestures, words and desires. And the film gives visibility to this aspiration. Yet they remain unacknowledged even as coauthors of the work. The contradiction I am pointing to here is not some inadvertent oversight on the artist’s part, which could be attended to and corrected. It is a heuristic contradiction for it draws attention to a dialectic of invisibility that exists within our society at large “ and art is not so much about resolving as exacerbating social tensions. Acknowledging them as coauthors would assuredly be an avenue to explore; but it would be purely demagogic if not accompanied by some attempt to address the skewed access to the means of symbolic _expression in our society.

 Asal is currently working on a new project with the inmates at a high-security women’s prison in Eastern Turkey, who are serving time for having murdered their husbands “ presumably in order to escape a life of unremitting torture. There can be no denying that this sort of subjectivity has been eclipsed, and the desire to make such a film is testimony to Asal’s desire to shift the partition lines of the sensible. But even in the preamble to Competing with Genies, the artist acknowledges that her role is ill-defined “and indeed, how could it be otherwise? She fosters a free deployment of her collaborators” subjectivity. And the symbolic and indeed ontological privileges of art cannot be wished away: it is because Asal is an artist that she can confer artistic visibility to the otherwise diffuse creativity of her collaborators. In the same preamble, Asal acknowledges the complicity that develops between her and those she works with, making her role at once maternal, sororal, even friendly, but insists above all on her role as creating what she calls, slightly mysteriously, a third language. A language, one assumes, that is neither hers nor theirs; a full yet indefinite language. This may point a way forward in the intricate dialectics of (in)visibility. For as Gilles Deleuze wrote, “the indefinite lacks nothing, least of all determination. It is the determination of becoming, its specific potency, the potency of an impersonal which is not a generality, but rather a singularity to the utmost extent.”  3

Stephen Wright

1 La Masentente (Paris: Galilae, 1995), p. 52. Our translation.

2 The Meeting or bonjour Monsieur Coubet, in the exhibition The Uncannyunheimlich, curated by Ali Akay, Akbank Sanat, September 2004.

 3 Gilles Deleuze, Critique et Clinique, Paris: Minuit, 1993, p. 86.