Gitte Villesen

Daniel Pies

Doing Documentary – Gitte Villesen’s Documentary Reflection of the Social

Published in the catalogue for the Danish Pavillion / 51th Venice Biennale 2005.

„Do you always look so intense when you film?…Or are you just stoned?“ – voice-over, music in the background, a fair. Martin steps in front of the camera. A quick cut, another, the camera swings unsteadily downwards: ground, legs, feet out of focus. „Would you please hold this?“ The camera rights itself, Martin reappears, this time in close-up. „I’m on?“ He briefly mimes a showman promoting his attractions, then switches register, adopting a wooing, intimate style: „Couldn’t you open the other eye too, then you would look a lot cuter.“ No reply. His request, however, seems to have been granted: „Yeah!“ and, pointing at the camera, „‚cause your eye does look better than through this one.“ Martin raises his beer-bottle, toasts with the camerawoman, drinks: „She can drink while she’s filming.“ And then, still in close-up, frontal: „Do you get a discount on film somewhere? It’s far out that you just keep on filming…“ Martin changes tack: „Do you want to film my shorts?“ The camera readily accepts his invitation, pans down the front of his body, shows Martin displaying his ripped Bermudas. He begins pleading: „Quit that filming! You’re unbelievable…How ‚bout we go dancing instead?“ No reply. No reaction. The camera holds him in close-up. Martin grows impatient. He makes a fresh start, assumes a new series of roles. He is a mesmerizer gesticulating hypnotically at the camera, intoning: „You’re sleeping, you’re sleeping…Feel how your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier…You feel like putting your video camera down and drinking some beer and going out partying and dancing all night long.“ Nothing. Further advances, cajolery, pleas to stop filming. All go unanswered, fruitless. If he comes too close to the camera, it steps back a few paces. If he tries to evade it by approaching from the side, it pans round, keeping in front of his face and holding him off. In the end, a frustrated Martin concedes defeat and vanishes in the bustle of the fair.

The Rules of the Game: Documentary as Social Interaction

„Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“ (1994) was filmed in one evening at the horse market of the out-of-the-way Danish village of Vorbasse. It is one of Gitte Villesen’s first video works. Its sole (and fortuitous) protagonist is Martin. At first sight, „Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“ seems to be a surprisingly immediate and simply structured work. It consists of a single sequence lasting some ten minutes filmed with a hand camera and punctuated by a few raw cuts. The film fades in with a full shot, a small group of people appear gathering round a try-your-strength machine. One of them, Martin, notices the camera (and Gitte), waves, leaves the group and steps up to the camera. The camera pulls him into focus head on, in close-up. Martin’s face almost fills the frame. He addresses the camera directly, at close quarters. The camera returns his gaze. The game begins.

It is this head-on, close-up framing, the directness of the confrontation that draws the viewer into the work. He identifies himself as the subject of the gaze and moves into the imaginary position behind the camera. He feels addressed. For a moment the medium becomes transparent, vanishes as a technique of representation. At the level of the image itself, however, the contrary occurs: the medium emerges as an increasingly central part of the communication. Here, the camera is not only immaterial gaze but also a physical object that structures and marks out the social actors‘ performances. On the one hand, the camera as gaze signifies to Martin the attention paid to him, thus occasioning and catalyzing his actions and performances. As the film unfolds, however, the camera as physical object progressively crystallizes as their material boundary. As gaze, the camera works as a bait, keeping Martin’s interest alive and provoking him to perform. As physical object, it serves as a shield, fending off his bodily advances and keeping him at a distance. Villesen’s steadfast refusal to drop this shield, without ever averting her gaze, keeps the game of representation in flow. The dialectic of address and denial, pull and push, impels both the subject and the object of the gaze to perpetually new actions and reactions, acts and performances, which are in turn captured as images by the camera.

Despite its at first ostensibly simple structure „Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“ thus evolves as a complex commentary on the activity of documentation itself. Villesen stages this activity as an antagonistic game that demarcates and explores the parameters of the documentary undertaking. Her camera creates a mobile stage of social interaction that involves actors both in front of and behind it in a mutually constitutive process of depiction and performance, in a social game of representation. By portraying the activity of documentation as a process based on social cooperation and confrontation, however, the concept and understanding of the documentary itself is transformed. In this perspective, documentary can no longer be understood as detached observation simply recording and depicting a purportedly pre-existent social reality which itself remains untouched by it. Instead, the practice of documentation emerges as a specific form of participation in precisely that reality which is being documented. It situates the documentarist as a ‚participant observer‘ who himself shapes and produces the depicted reality in an interactive social process generated by the camera, i.e. in a game of representation.

Moving on within the metaphor of documentary as a game of representation raises the question who lays down the rules and limits of this game. Who decides what roles its agents are to play? And under what provisions, with what goals and interests, do they take part? Villesen’s video demonstrates that documentary practice is never just a game of representation, but always also over representation: a game of power. „Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“ makes this explicit by staging the dynamics of social interaction driven by the documentary activity not as a symmetrical relationship but as an asymmetrical and antagonistic one. Although the addresses, movements and interactions always do evolve in a direct relation between the subject and the object of the gaze, it becomes equally clear that it is Villesen as subject of the gaze, who lays down the rules and limits of the interaction. Despite Martin’s requests and pleas, the camera is never switched off or laid aside, the imaginary borderline drawn by the camera as physical object never violated. It is, however, not only in the asymmetry of the gaze that the hierarchization of the documentary procedure comes out, but also in the asymmetry of the gender-specific roles that are acted out as well as in the conflicting goals and interests persued by the players. Villesen readily adopts the position of female object of desire urged on her by Martin, even accentuating the conventional passivity of the role by holding his gaze while not verbally answering his addresses. Underhand, however, she redefines her role in the name of her own interests. While Martin, in the role of suitor, woos Gitte, Gitte bestows just enough attention to ensure his continued participation in the game – to thus secure her own profit as subject of the documentary gaze: the images of his performance.

„Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“ thus turns out to be not only the document of an entertaining evening in Vorbasse, but above all as the document of a performative self-reflection. The essence of documentary here shows itself not as allegedly uninvolved observation, but is identified as a social process that itself generates the documents of its own execution. Moreover, it becomes transparent that the power relations that the social process of documentation establishes between its agents are unevenly distributed. The subject of the documentary gaze evidently acts as that authority which controls the representation of its object. This power of the gaze is aggressively played out in Vorbasse. By situating the practice of documentation as a question of power over the game of representation, the political and ethical dimension of the reflection of the documentary is opened up as a sphere of enquiry: What might a responsible wielding of the power that the camera confers on the subject of the gaze look like? And what documentary forms can be regarded as appropriate and adequate representations of those that are represented?

Speculative Constellations: An Ethics of Knowledge

Situating the question of the legitimacy and adequacy of social representation as the central problem of documentary praxis is the critical achievement of „Vorbasse Horse Fair and Market“. It can be read as the self-reflexive starting and focal point of Villesen’s entire oeuvre. While Vorbasse, however, aggressively pinpoints the ethical and political dimension of documentary praxis by depicting the process as an asymmetrical and antagonistic relation, in later works Villesen explores alternative forms of documentation that seek a more balanced and cooperative treatment of the problem of documentary representation. Although she explicitly takes up the metaphor of documentary as antagonistic game once more in „Three Times Ludo“ (1995) – the work consists of three videos in which Villesen plays two games of ludo with each of three different people -, pointing up the positionality and situatedness of her involvement in the proceedings and thus her stakes in the game of documentation by means of a raw editing technique, the plane of social interaction is already shaped in a much more dialogical manner. The series of video portraits titled „Willy“ (1996) then transposes the ludic character of documentary interaction into theatrical form, the protagonist performing himself and his passions as actor of himself in dialogue with the camera (and Villesen as ‚director‘). In subsequent portraits of individuals and social networks, such as „Ingeborg the Busker Queen“ (1998), „Bus Stops and Parties“ (2000), or „Viggo, Møller, Jacob, and I at Søren Welling’s Small Town Museum“ (2000), Villesen develops an increasingly open, mobile and situationally flexible form of camerawork that shapes the documentary events as a dialogical and dynamic social exchange, without, however, denying the positionality of the gaze.

At the level of presentation, too, Villesen’s works evince increasingly open and dynamic forms of documentary praxis. Her strategy here is to multiply and spatialize the media and formats of documentation. The videos are supplemented with collages, texts, posters and folders and are installed, at least in part, in multi-channel ensembles. The documentary material is thus spread out over different levels of mediation, which then merge in the space of installation as a complex configuration. This becomes particularly clear in Villesen’s installation „The Building – the Bikeshop – Andy’s Furniture“ (2001). Subject of the work is the „Creative Re-Use Warehouse“, a sprawling Chicago structure bought by the artist Dan Peterman some years ago and housing studios, small workshops, a kitchen and various community projects. Villesen reconstructs this social field in four photo collages and a video installation. Placed outside the entrance to the projection room, the collages display the various projects, activities and users of the Chicago Warehouse in fragmentary diagrams. The video installation comprises three projections. In long sequences they show detailed interviews Villesen conducted while the interviewees went about their work in the building. Proceeding tentatively and circuitously, the conversations are frequently interrupted by the activities the interviewees perform. Here, Villesen neither takes up the role of the detached observer, nor that of the interviewer seeking to elicit specific information. Instead, the deliberately uncentred camerawork (distracted by surrounding activity), occasional changes before the camera (as when Villesen hands it to Andy the furniture maker so she can test one of his chairs) and the free handling of the conversations position her as an integral part of a flexible process of social interaction which, though it is guided by certain interests, is open enough to unfold a diverse range of views and attitudes on aspirations, living space and the social structure of projects.

Moreover, the spatial arrangement of the different projections and their non-linear temporal choreography translates the diachronic sequences of the individual interviews into a constellation of complex synchronicity. The sequences are projected on two adjoining walls. On the one wall are two adjacent screens, on the other a third crossing the corner to join them. With soundtrack, no more than one separate sequence (one interview with one person in one room) is shown on each screen at a time. The rest of the screens remain dark, except when, from time to time, they are animated by short, silent sequences showing other activities in other parts of the Warehouse. To the accompaniment of these brief parallel inserts, then, the individual interview sequences run progressively through the room’s three screens. In the course of time, the spatial and temporal dynamics of the installation thus gradually unfold the picture of a complex architectural and social structure, within which various synchronous spheres of activity co-exist in a loose network.

By interweaving different formal systems of reference, Villesen contextualizes the presented material to reconstruct the object of her investigation as a specific social field. She creates a ’stage of knowledge‘ that interlinks the individual sequences by inserting them as singular elements into a dense network of communication. Although the interplay between the elements of the constellation is coordinated at a formal level, it is not framed by an overriding interpretive principle. Characteristic of this mode of documentary formatting of ‚knowledge‘ seems to be a commitment to the singularity of the presented material. Its integrity is safeguarded precisely because it is not subjected to a discursive logic and represented as an instance of the universal. And it is exactly this refusal to violate the material’s particularity by subordinating it to a universalizing perspective that opens up the speculative dimension of the constellation. It situates the viewer as an active agent who is no longer simply required to follow a linear argument but who must keep recombining the elements of the constellation in new and potentially conflicting ways. One might ask, for instance: How are these micropolitics of social organization to be understood? What forms of normativity are they directed against? And which forms of normativity might inhere in these alternative ways of life themselves? The universal here does not frame the particular, but rather emerges from it as problem and potential. If one were to speak of an ethics in relation to Villesen’s documentary production and presentation of knowledge, then in the sense of a commitment to the singularity of a particular, embodied form of social knowledge whose inscription into the registers of the representative is persistently denied.

Micropolitics of the Everyday: An Aesthetics of Existence

Villesen’s refusal to violate the specificity and particularity of different ways of life by subsuming them under a unifying perspective follows a strong ethical impulse. It is the attempt to find legitimate and adequate forms of (re)presenting the social and biographical without reducing the complexity of the (re)presented. The installation of documentary material as a speculative constellation moreover situates the viewer as an active instance of mediation. He is called upon to contextualize the individual elements of the constellation within the horizon of his own experience, in an individual process of reception.

But just what worlds of experience are these that open themselves to the viewer in relation to his own experience? What attitudes and approaches to living one’s life does Villesen document? What is their political significance and is there any underlying common factor? Realized in collaboration with Lars Erik Frank, Villesen’s „Solveig“ (2002) is a particularly good place to begin asking these questions. Subject of the work is Solveig. Thrice married, the father of three daughters, Solveig lived most of her life as Niels. At the age of 62, she decided to change her name to Solveig and continue to live her life as a woman. The work itself consists of a two-channel video installation. The left-hand screen shows a film some ten minutes long edited from two 7-8-hour conversations Villesen and Frank conducted with Solveig. On view is only Solveig, sitting in her living-room and talking about her life as a man, her decision to live as a woman, to call herself Solveig and her private and political struggles for recognition. The camera frames her in static close-ups. For the viewer the conversation unfolds almost as a monologue, only occasional voice-over acknowledgements and remarks recall Villesen’s and Frank’s presence as partners and initiators. Black frames interrupt the sequence, indicating omissions and cuts. In contrast to the intimate, calm, serious narrative taking place on the left-hand screen, the right-hand screen shows Solveig, Frank and Villesen (behind the camera) in lively and playful interaction. The sequence has three parts, each introduced by an insert with the date. The first one shows Solveig, sometimes in split screen, choosing flowers in a gardening centre, returning to her flat, planting the flowers she just bought on her balcony. In the second, we see Solveig in her living-room, this time in a bigger frame, in the background her kitchen. She displays her TV appearances and numerous newspaper and magazine articles about herself. The camera repeatedly zooms in on the press photos and pans across them. Now and then, parallel to Solveig’s narrative, the television in her flat showing video recordings of her TV appearances comes on a split screen. In the final sequence, Solveig is shown picnicking on a park bench with Frank and Villesen (both mostly off-screen) and buying the drinks and sandwiches beforehand in a shopping arcade.

While the left-hand screen shows Solveig in an intimate setting immersed in intense reflections on her own life, on the right-hand screen she is presented engaged in lively exchange as she goes about her routines of daily and public life. Although the verbal exchanges between her and the filmmakers do keep reverting to her life and, above all, her public and institutional recognition as a woman, it is more in passing: relaxed, cheerful, almost parenthetical. Thus the project of Solveig’s life emerges on one screen in the form of an introverted verbal reflection, while it presents itself in the performative mode of daily living and animated interaction with her surroundings on the other. With this differentiation a further dimension of the two-channel projection opens up: It concerns the relationship between desire and reality. On one side, the focussed reflection of the desire to live and be recognized as a woman as well as the concomitant difficulties; on the other, the everyday, lived reality of this desire. Desire and reality here are not exposed as the two unbridgeable worlds bourgeois ideology often makes out, but rather revealed as mutually constitutive and effectively at play in the successful shaping of ones own life in accordance with individual desire and in negotiation with the norms and expectations of the social.

The representation of the shaping of an individual existence as a successful negotiation between norm and deviation, expressed so starkly in „Solveig“, is characteristic of Villesen’s works. Whether it is Kathrine’s and Bent’s producer/collector relationship in „Kathrine makes them and Bent collects them“ (1998), the social network of the Creative Re-Use Warehouse in „The Building – the Bikeshop – Andy’s Furniture“, or Willy’s passion for cars, cats and music – Villesen explores the everyday reality of the dialectics between norm and deviation in its individual and collective variants. Her protagonists neither appear as heroic nor as conformist subjects. They rather become visible as locally situated ’subjectivities‘ that give form to their lives by cultivating and acting out their (actually quite heterogeneous) desires, convictions and passions in a micropolitics of the everyday. Villesen thus gives evidence to the notion of an ethical relation to the self, which Foucault in his late work referred to as an ‚aesthetics of existence‘. Her works portray an ensemble of ‚practices of the self‘ or ‚arts of existence‘, through which subjects „seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, to make their life into a work that carries certain aesthetic values…“ (1). Here, it becomes apparent that the aesthetic process of transforming one’s own existence is carried out in the mode of an „ethical self-constitution“ (2) which takes the form of a micropolitics of the everyday. In this perspective, the shape of an individual existence neither arises from an autonomous and heroic act of self-projection, nor from a complete and unreserved submission to a pre-existing code of rules. It emerges instead from the praxis and reflexivity of lived life off which an individual shape is wrested in persistent negotiation with the rules and norms of the social. The specific shape of the ways of life documented by Villesen are thus revealed as an ‚aesthetics of existence‘ that, on the one hand, clearly and indisputably bears the individual signature of its ‚authors“ and, on the other hand, the traces of the negotiations effected between deviation and normativity, between the transgression of certain social rules and the conscious or unconscious recognition of others. Villesen portrays these ‚aesthetics of existence‘ in speculative constellations, which not only present her subjects but also mark herself – not as dominating over, but as responsible for the documentary game of representation.

1) Michel Foucault: „Der Gebrauch der Lüste“, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1998, p. 18.
2) Wilhelm Schmid: „Die Geburt der Philosophie im Garten der Lüste“, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, p. 24.

Translation from German by Christopher Jenkin-Jones, Munich