Šejla Kamerić, or, Filling the Unfillable
by Nebojša Jovanović
The theorist Renata Salecl, lecturing in the West, has noticed a certain preconception: western universities invariably expect her to speak primarily about events in the region she is from, meaning Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia, or Slovenia. The list of relevant topics includes the fall of socialism, post-socialist phenomena, nationalism, and so on. 1
It has become a rule of thumb that the West will welcome artists from the European East as long as they share these particular priorities. While works by western artists are read through various systems and diverse theoretical mechanisms, an Eastern European artist is expected to place his or her work in the context of post-socialist reality. But rendering the work a mere result of social and political ‘atrocities’ often results in its brutal degradation. Certain individual artists from Bosnia-Herzegovina refuse to play this game, and are moving beyond the prejudice-filled horizon of western expectations. They refuse to accept the role of exotic martyrs who have escaped from the dark and bloody post-socialist madhouse. Šejla Kamerić could be considered the essence of this attitude: her work strongly resists any reduction to ‘Eastern European,’ ‘post-socialist,’ ‘nationalist’ or ‘(post-)war’ concepts. Not only does Kamerić not refer to the topical social and political problems that characterize Bosnia today, she also refuses to subjugate her work to the imperative of a ‘Bosnian paradigm,’ if one even exists. What’s more, analyzing her work reveals that her confrontational strategy – despite the expectations of art institutions – is inseparable from the content of her work, which systematically explores the relationship between the subject and Lacan’s great Other. In other words, she is dissecting specifically those dominant frameworks of knowledge (ideologies) that we use to make sense of ourselves, both to ourselves and to others.
Kamerić’s video works Here and American Dream offer a nice beginning for the analysis of this dimension of her work. Although they were created separately, it is only through direct comparison – as they were originally exhibited 2 – that they function as an integrated, unique piece of work. The video Here is, in fact, a ‘piece’ of a program by a local Sarajevo TV station, which until recently devoted a considerable amount of time to live broadcasts from the bustling neighborhood of Skenderija. It is from these recordings that Kamerić composed Here. What is remarkable is that the footage is not recorded with a TV camera, but with a surveillance camera that functions as part of the security system for the station. People walking past on the street are neither aware that they are being observed/recorded, nor that they can be watched on TV. Even those aware of the TV station’s ‘program policy’ rarely remember – walking by or hurrying to work through the area under surveillance – that they are in danger of being captured by the gaze of the Other.
Kamerić set this video against American Dream (AD). The video was inspired by the phenomenon of refugees in the West sending video messages back to families and friends in their home countries. The messages offer scenes from their ‘new’ lives and are meant to convince viewers that the recorded persons are doing well, that they have been warmly accepted into their new environment. Generally they show scenes from their new homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, their new friends and neighbors. More telling, however, are the details that promise that the senders are maintaining spiritual ties with their native countries and families. “Although we’re far away from you, we still listen to music from home, we enjoy looking through old photographs, we prepare traditional foods, etc.” Kamerić is fascinated by the fundamental discord of the video messages. Though on first viewing they radiate spontaneity and authenticity, Kamerić has discovered forced delusion in them. Planned as autonomous by-products of a certain life situation, as elements of an everyday routine, the video messages turn into comical attempts to show spontaneous reality, to ‘act natural.’ 3 Fearing that their video messages will somehow fail to communicate these attributes sufficiently, the expatriates end up showing too much. Time and again they fail to imitate the spontaneity of everyday life. Thus AD, a video in which Kamerić presents the ‘spontaneity’ of her own life in the U.S. taken to absurd extremes, ultimately works as an imitation of an imitation.
How do you interpret an effect that only exists in the confrontation of these two works? A standard reading of these two videos might point out that they complement each other on a formal level: Here uses a stationary camera, out of the artist’s control; while in AD she is in full control of the gaze. Here shows reality as it ‘is’ without any intervention by the artist; while reality in AD is directed. Here shows public space; but AD presents the private domain. In fact, the real complementary effect of the two works can only be found by moving away from formal aspects. Let’s move closer to the center of the problem by asking the following questions: What if the point of the video messages is not to pass on messages about life in exile to family and friends? What if the issue is not the new life at all, but precisely the one the expatriates have left behind, i.e., the abandoned stabilizing reference point that is the known Other? What if the sender of the video message fears that he or she will become uninteresting and distant, unrecognizable and vague for the Other with whom he or she has, until recently, lived? What if the sender fears that the Other will soon look at him or her just as the camera in Here looks at passers-by on the street, ignoring the subjective dimension, destroying the people as unique subjects and transforming them into an amorphous mass? But one must consider that video messages also travel in the opposite direction. Family and friends who ‘remain at home’ send video messages, but with the opposite sentiment: While messages from the ‘new life’ show only novelties, messages from the ‘old life’ show well-known faces and places. They too are afraid of being forgotten. In trying to convince the great Other that he or she still exists ‘in our hearts,’ the senders of these videos unwittingly reveal the opposite message, a need to preserve a place in the heart of the Other.
Still this interpretation does not go far enough. The commonly held Lacanian thesis is that the great Other does not actually exist, which is banally evident in Here (looking into a camera, through which no one is looking). Kamerić’s works are far from mere proof that the Other does not exist. A paraphrase of Žižek’s reference to the problems of pleasure will take us a step further. Just as the problem with pleasure is not actually that we can never achieve it, the problem with the great Other does not lie in its nonexistence but in the fact that, like pleasure, we can never escape it. We crouch forever in its shadow. It is not enough to simply see the surveillance camera as a frame behind which no one is standing. The far greater problem is that the void is never empty. The mask of the great Other (A) obscures small others – object (a) – as the object-cause of desire. If we use the metaphor of Hegel’s imperial mistake, we can say not only that there is an empire (the great Other) which is deconstructed through a small mistake – object (a) built into its fundaments – but that the smaller objects (a) survive precisely thanks to this mistake: “It is out of the question for me that nobody stands behind the camera. There has to be a presence, somebody watching me.” The truth is, of course, that the only thing tainting that void is the desire for a presence there. This is where AD most complements Here: It reveals beyond a doubt the great Other as object (a). The entire configuration of what we expatriates have left behind crystallizes around object (a), the center of our desire. In making our video messages, we seek to satisfy our illusion-images created by our own desire. 4
We can further investigate the implications of this travesty of confounding the small a and great A by considering Kamerić’s installation EU/Others. 5 Kamerić placed signs on Tromostovlj Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which divided people into ‘EU citizens’ and ‘Others’ – as is done to regulate passage at border crossings. Standing on Tromostovlj Bridge you could choose whether to cross it under the “EU Citizens” sign or under “Others.” But no matter how considered your choice, you would anyway be cheated in the end: Turning around after crossing under the signs, you would discover that from the back, the labels on the signs were transposed.
A shallow criticism of this work would comment on its topical political context, mired in the thesis that it reflects the frustrations of countries waiting to enter the EU; that it reminds them of how close they are to the EUwhile still so far away; that the decision of who becomes an EU member and who doesn’t is not up to the individual states but up to the member states of the Union. But this superficial explanation does not explain how the great Other regularly fails us by sending our own message back to us in its reversed, true meaning: “I want to enter the EU!” – “Oh, no, what you really want is your little nation state because the EU is not actually a consensual project”; or, “I want to be with the others!” – “Aha! You are showing your hatred of the EU and you are in fact more European than Europeans themselves. If you somehow found yourself on the other – EU – side, you would introduce even harsher segregation policies than the existing ones.” If we really had a choice, would we decide to remain tied to the national state? Couldn’t someone choose, for example, the EU option because he or she feels like being a member of European civilization, a cultural and geographical area, and thus completely ignore the issue of a national state?
The answer might be found by demystifying the fashionable notion of the freedom to choose one’s identity. According to this notion, a subject freely and rationally chooses and combines the various identities that come displayed on the shelves of the supermarket of postmodernism. But this notion covers up the fact that the subject cannot leave this supermarket. We are free to choose a hatful of identities, but not without accepting and maintaining the predetermined framework. For instance, it is an accepted truism that under the liberal democratic system we can choose from various political options, but at the price of conceding that capitalism is ‘the only game in town.’ In cyberspace we can be whomever we want, as long as we consent to the interface that separates us forever from our symbolic replacement. We can also describe this logic using a number of political phenomena still topical in the region. The election system in Bosnia-Herzegovina provides one example: When you cast your vote for the candidates for the three-member presidency, you choose from among the Social Democrats, Liberals, Nationalists, Republicans, and so on. But ultimately all three candidates end up trapped in the three-nation matrix of the state Presidency. Despite the fact that you vote for, say, a Social Democratic candidate ‘in full consciousness,’ he or she will end up being a representative of one of the three Bosnian nations, reduced to being either Bosnian, Serb or Croat.
We can now use the psychoanalytical model of guilt. Guilt felt for a single committed crime replaces the guilt of the original crime of patricide, which original guilt draws away from the father’s impotency, which would have rendered it unnecessary to have killed him in the first place. Analogously, boasting that we have chosen an identity that we desire covers up the fallaciousness of the selection, just as would be the case within any other framework. The fact that we cannot escape the framework then dissimulates the existence of the great Other, powerful enough to create or destroy this framework. Therefore, due to its very framework, the choice EU Citizens vs. Others reveals all the naïveté inherent in the issue of national states. You walk under the “EU Citizens” or the “Others” sign but the national state within or outside arbitrary European borders does not cease to exist. But more than that, you have to assume responsibility for your choice – there’s no avoiding it: “Oh, I didn’t know what it was about. To me, Europe is Cervantes, Kierkegaard, Musil, Buñuel, etc., and not a question of the national state…”
Kamerić has elevated to a state of absurdity in some of her works the insistence on the power of the great Other and its constant intrusiveness. In her intervention Crossing, 6 she placed (this being her favorite artistic act) a pedestrian crossing on an almost deserted road. You find yourself in the middle of nowhere and the great Other demands that you cross the road at the designated spot. Do you comply? 7 Kamerić identified an even more extreme case of the interpellation of the subject in the November 2000 election campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In a campaign of propagandist mud-slinging by all parties, now considered the most brutal in recent political history in Bosnia-Herzegovina, HDZ BiH made the most radical pre-election move by declaring that a referendum for citizens of Croatian ethnicity in Bosnia-Herzegovina would take place on election day. HDZ then put up a billboard. It was divided into two horizontal fields: the upper part, in black letters on a white background, said “Choice,” meaning the choice of the nationality you profess to be; the bottom part, in white letters on a black background, said “Extermination”; and the word “Or” appeared in the center. On the manifest level, the billboard allows the viewer the options of “Choice,” voting for rights that would ultimately allow the formation of parastatal bodies and a third ethnically determined entity, or “Extermination.” Croats will be exterminated by the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Kamerić decided to highlight the ideological presumption of this message by recreating it. In her work, Choice/Extermination, 8 she copied the black part (“Extermination”) and pasted it over the upper part of the billboard, transforming it into the message: “Extermination Or Extermination.” Either we, Bosnian Croats, exterminate other nations or we will be exterminated ourselves. 9
Occupying a vacant place, filling the void, is one of Kamerić’s main themes. In her installation Occupied, 10 she stretched a banner reading “Occupied!” in red letters on white canvas over the facade of the National Gallery of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Shallow criticism identified this as the rebellious attitude of a young artist who wanted to provoke the prototypical art institution of Bosnia-Herzegovina, filled as it is with labels like tradition, establishment and so on, by saying that she was going to lay claim to it. Far from juvenile extravagance, Kamerić offered a much more subversive attitude. “Despite the fact that the existing art establishment – embodied by the National Gallery – may label me as ‘young,’ ‘female,’ ‘unestablished’ and so on, I have the right to look for my place in the National Gallery!” This attitude is far more radical and Lacan can help us in summarizing: “The gallery does not exist!” In fact, it only exists as a temporary appropriation by a curator or an artist. 11 So isn’t a gallery just an electrical socket, like the one in the photograph Kamerić took and exhibited as one of her first works? 12 An electrical socket as a paradigmatic object whose only function is to be occupied, filled? It is the gallery that has the ability to prove the thesis that the ‘great Other does not exist’ outside the subject. A young artist wishes her work to be inscribed in the register of the great Other, to be recognized by the art scene and the general public. The standard procedure would be to exhibit her work in a gallery. But Kamerić realized that the very entrance of a work of art into a gallery radically changes the framework of the gallery (the great Other). And if a single work of hers enters a gallery, the artist will never be the same, as each new occupation irrecoverably changes her and vice versa. 13
Let’s go back to the original question of how the two videos, Here and AD, complement each other. If we assume that Here is asking how one can be recognized in a crowd in order to subjectivize oneself in a world watched by the ruthless eye of the great Other, AD provides a cruelly false answer, a comical impasse in its distilled form. AD thus works as a Hegelian detour through incorrect cognition, as a trajectory we must follow in order to get to the true answer to our question. Does the surveillance camera film the crowd in order to – although ultimately not its real function – single out from that crowd an individual, to recognize him as unique and original? Paradoxically, the boring monotonous images of public space recorded by the surveillance camera actually deliver the subject in his or her uniqueness, while video messages that attempt to do the same ultimately miss their target. Which brings us to the conclusion that Here is in fact the only video message that meets the condition of the subjectivity of the expatriates in the eyes of their families and friends. Video messages made by surveillance cameras in shopping centers, office buildings and parking lots should be the ones sent home from the Diaspora. Films that show the expatriates getting around, shopping and working. Only then would their friends and relatives have to ‘extract’ them out of the recorded crowd and, through this act of re-recognition, assign them their status as a subject.
1. “When, for example, western feminists speak about feminism they can discuss such abstract issues as ‘woman in film noir,’ ‘the notion of the phallus in feminist theory,’ etc.; but someone coming from Eastern Europe must speak about the situation of women in her own country because of the ‘horrors’ going on there.” (Renata Salecl, The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism, London, New York: Routledge 1994, p. 2.)
7. The artist’s explanation of this work is particularly interesting. At first glance, she is suppressing the ‘violent,’ ‘totalitarian’ dimension. The artist herself claims that coming to the Russian steppe, she very much wanted to make some basic, identifiable detail that would make the traumatizing wasteland a little warmer, that would pacify it and maintain some kind of fantastic framework through which she could perceive reality. This double meaning should not confuse us: the detail makes up a strict order that tells us (or more precisely, due to the command, we decide we will be told) that the entire mis-en-scène is becoming warmer and more intimate. We also come across the premise that ‘A is a.’ The subject itself decides around which ‘nice’ and ‘identifiable’ detail, or ‘object a,’ he or she will construct a fantasy of the great Other: an ‘A’ that will ensure consistency.
9. The message also ironically distorted the ‘response of the real.’ During the election the OSCE decided that HDZ either had to remove their billboards or change the morbid content. HDZ decided to modify them by completely covering the black part (“Extermination”) and transforming “Or” into “For” within a red circle. The billboard’s message was, now, doubtlessly ‘benign,’ declaring “Choice – For.” A few days later, however, humidity caused a gray shadow to appear from underneath the pasted white paper, revealing the word “Extermination.” Suddenly the billboard trumpeted, with absolute clarity, the real message: “Choice For Extermination. ”
11. Or as Robert Storr, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, put it: “‘The Museum’ does not exist… No matter how rich the collection of any given museum, the material represented in it is only a fraction of what is needed to accurately show the production of an artist, a period, or an aesthetic tendency in all of its essential details.” (Robert Storr, catalogue for the exhibition Modern Art Despite Modernism, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2000, p. 21). On the other hand, the director and curator of the National Gallery of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which exhibited the work Occupied, prefers another type of truth: Others may assist artistic production, may themselves make it, but “we [the National Gallery] are the ones who will evaluate whether the work enters the National Gallery and our history of art.” (M. Huse đ inović in the interview “Revolution in the Art Gallery,” Dani 190, 26 January 2001). Unaware of the contingency and convinced of the absoluteness of her criteria, Huseđinović offers the bleakest proof for the theory that the gallery does not exist except in its temporary appropriation or occupation.
13. The difference between an amateur and an artist lies in this particular: For the former, the presentation of work is a way to be recognized within established art frameworks or it represents a way to cross those frameworks. But an artist is aware that he or she has no defined art frameworks. It is therefore impossible to work within them or to cross them. The real artist knows (or guesses) that real artistic intervention, just like political intervention, “does not occur within the coordinates of some basic global matrix but directly ‘transforms’ the very pillars of such a matrix.” (Slavoj Žižek, “Ko partija naredi samomor,” Problemi issue 1/2, 2000, p. 47).