First person recordings. The work of Gitte Villesen
Originally printed in Zehar Magazine # 52, 2003
In recent years, we can have observed a new incursion of the „personal“ within the practice of some artists that work in a documentary mode to capture un-controlled snatches of what we call „reality“. In such a works, we acknowledge how individual subjectivity has started to add complexity on the economy of representation. The inner voice of the „I“, expressed in the first person in front of the camera, causes the eye to shift, while at the same time advances a new political situation. The narration of these vital experiences, passions, daily habits, emotions and the desire for change challenges any attempt to devise an identity as a totalised entity. The contingency of the „personal“ in its own unveiling thus directly becomes political. Chantal Mouffe sees passion and hope as the driving forces behind a possible change in the social imaginarium. These emotions are grounded on the achievement of a state of emancipation and liberation which is primarily individual but can also become collective. For Mouffe, „passion is a formula we can use to abandon rationality when it comes to understanding subjectivity, but it can also be a means of transcending the established social order“ (1). Following these ideas, we should view passion, emotion and the individual inner voice as a new way of understanding the relationship between the subject and reality. The work of Gitte Villesen shows us how this is possible when her recordings open up a reflection on the portrait as an exercise in subjectivity. Her films ultimately set up personal expression as an act of criticality towards the economy of values that regulate our society.
Gitte Villesen began making videos with people from her milieu, basing her work on the logic of capturing these people’s day-to-day activity through their private hobbies and interests. She made various pieces with Willy, a neighbour of hers in Jutland, fascinated as she was by the way he organised his life around his larger-than-life passions. Willy collected over 600 different cars, although he never actually owned more than one at a time. This fascination prevented him from saving money and leading a „normal“ life like his neighbours. In „Willy as DJ“, Gitte invites us to share another of Willy’s passions: music. Here he plays some of his favourite tracks in his living-room. In a situation in which there is an unusual level of participation between the recorded situation and the spectator, Willy openly shares the personal memories he relates to each song, we as viewers can only hold on to the observation of a daily activity being the trigger of emotion.
Villesen’s videos always give a strange feeling of interaction, based on certain invitation to the spectator to take part in the action. Primarily, this is due to the format of the subjective documentary itself as a technique for rapprochement. But above all, the peculiar way in which the artist herself interacts with the image (we hear her voice behind the camera and she even comes into shot when necessary) frames the situation as open to chance. The artist has mentioned in more than one occasion, that her interest lies on the line between art and documentary, fiction and reality to be blurred (2). All the details of how she organises a shooting come to highlight this idea of fluid re-construction. Thus, it is important for her to have confidence with some of the subjects that will participate in the film, as much as opening the situation to un-controlled moments.
The contrast drawn between reality and personal ideals comes to be an interesting repetition in her work. As a result, her videos always involve individual projects whether or not they actually come to anything in the end. For Villesen, this duality between project and reality shows us the economic, cultural and gender conditions with which the individual has to negotiate on a day-to-day basis. She argues that „this hostility highlights a complex set of rules, forming an ethic which determines how one should speak of difference, what subjects represent this difference and who is authorised to talk about them…“ (3). In „Two Movies by Jessie“, the artist worked with a writer and friend, Lars Eric Frank. The result is a video-portrait of Jessie, a transsexual from the province of Herning in Denmark, made during a short car journey to the coast. The first part of the recording happens inside a car, stopped on the road, as in an in-between nowhere. There, Jessie simply tells to the camera an idea of hers for making a film. Later in the twilight at the beach in the north coast of Denmark, she improvises the structure for a new film that she would record in that same setting. The really important thing here is not necessarily whether Jessie actually gets to put these ideas into practice but the force and emotion with which she narrates them. She already put her personal project into practise when she decided to resort to surgery in order to live the sexuality she feels. Today her limitations are perhaps set by the rejection of a small community, which cannot understand how hope brings social change forward.
In „The Building – The Bikeshop – Andy’s Furniture“, this reflection on the production of social values is widened to cover the art sphere. In spring 2000 Villesen made a series of recordings of some of the different activities being performed in an old warehouse in southern Chicago This is a place with a direct link to the work of the American artist Dan Peterman. Peterman’s work is based on the idea of recycling as a process for questioning not only the value of material resources but of the economy of values which evaluate the art object and consequently control the art system itself. This building is located on one side of the University of Chicago and operates as a self-managed site, run by people from the local area. When Dan Peterman was a student, the building housed a recycling centre and he worked here in exchange for a place to use as a studio; years later, he decided to buy it together with an adjoining plot of land. Since then, it has hosted a number of different activities, such as the publication of a magazine, bicycle-recycling, a residency programme, etc. Gitte Villesen in a three-channel projection introduces the personal relations generated from the daily act of running this centre. She includes direct interviews with the people who everyday visit and work here. The recordings are accompanied by a diagram in a fold-out which introduces the name of the interviewed and his/her work/activity. In a natural way, the recordings offer an indirect image of the suburbs of Chicago, where urban planning momentarily is left out to the self-management of an ad hoc community. But over all it reveals once again how passion can produce a new social momentum.
1) „Hope, Passion and The New World Order“, Mary Zournazi in coversation with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, Sydney, Septembre 2000. First read in UKS Forum, Issue 1, Middle Class, Edited by Gardar Eide Einarsson & Matias Faldbakken, May 2003.
2) As in „What’s the difference?“ A round table discussion with Jörg Heiser, Jan Verwoert, Yael Bartana, Annika Eriksson, Anri Sala and Gitte Villesen, Frieze no. 84.
3) In conversation with the artist, February 2004.