This is Not an Institutional Critic

in 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Tina Poglajen

When discussing Laure Prouvost’s film If It Was, the first thing to notice is the voice of the “narrator”: the voiceover, from the artist herself. Kaja Silverman famously wrote that the voiceover belongs to a different class from the rest of film diegesis – it is a voice unattached to a body, belonging to a source and place separate from the camera. It is inaccessible to both the gaze of the cinematic apparatus and the gaze of the spectator. Because of its superior position and position of knowledge, it is privileged – and in films it has historically been almost exclusively male, spoken in “unaccented” English, without any idiosyncratic grain that would localize it or tether it to anything remotely corporeal. In the order which codes the Cartesian duality of the mind and body as masculine and feminine respectively, the authority of such a voiceover is said to be undermined when it becomes anything other than an “unmarked”, supposedly neutral characterisation of “standardness” which connotes rationality and objectivity.

Prouvost’s If It Was frivolously subverts this order of things: its position of authority no longer belongs to an objective or even rational point of view. Furthermore, what is being skilfully and seemingly spontaneously torn down here is the concept of (institutional? artistic?) authority itself. The voiceover is attached to something very corporeal: a hand, which carelessly holds a lit cigarette between its fingertips. The hand belongs to a woman who speaks a French-accented English and does not bother with appearing objective or rational – or even as having superior knowledge (at least in the traditional sense). Instead, it whispers, mumbles and sighs – sometimes urgently, at other times languidly, but always with a kind of conspiratorial wink to the viewer.

Still, it does not hesitate to appropriate things that have traditionally belonged to the rational order, such as art institutions. The film’s main premise is to hijack a museum and redesign it for her own purposes, to remodel it according to her subjective desires, and ultimately, to redefine its function, not in terms of the established, the classicist, the objective, the rational, the detached, the institutional, the elite, the meaningful and the intellectual, but in terms of the marginalised, the post-modern, the subjective, the emotional and the sensual, the immersed, the informal, the commonplace, the absurd and the banal.

All of this is political in itself. Christian Metz, for instance, has written about the distinction between “socially acceptable arts” that are based on the senses held at a distance, and “minor arts” (e.g., culinary arts, the art of perfumery, etc.) that are based on the senses of contact. Consistent with this categorisation of painting and sculpture as belonging to the first group, traditional museums and galleries contain physical or electronic barriers to ensure distance between viewers and works of art. In Prouvost’s museum, this distinction is turned upside-down: walls are torn down, corners are smoothed, paintings appropriated with drawings of “boobs”, and above all, everything is being touched, smelled and kissed all of the time, while delicious sour raspberries can be tasted from around the corner.

The rooms with conceptual art, sometimes ironically referred to as emblematic of inaccessibility and pretentiousness, are used for Zumba classes – the most mainstream, commonplace and even banal form of physical exercise. And while the term “banal” has historically most often been ascribed to traditionally feminine activities or activities that include mostly women, such as conversations between women and traditionally feminine topics such as emotions, relationships and maternity, this time, being banal is a conscious, political choice, too. Being banal – which in If It Was is manifested most of all in the “boob”, either drawn over exhibition paintings or bathed in nature streams and filled with milk – becomes a tool of subversion.

If critics since Brecht have argued for a “detached” view of the arts which would make social critique possible, a view which Laura Mulvey ironically termed being “passionately detached”, then Prouvost’s film proudly declares that “this is not an art critic [sic]” and thereby echoes what a strand of feminist film criticism has always argued: that being detached as a viewer is not a gender-neutral position and therefore still implicated in strategies of domination. Recognising the identification with the image, the abolition of distance, the closeness and the privileging of senses other than sight and hearing as “spectatorial” modes in their own right, Provost’s short film/video installation might lead to an alternative, perhaps more feminine or even “subaltern”, way of experiencing both traditional and contemporary arts.

Edited by Lesley Chow