Many people believe that art is special and exempt from conventional scrutiny. While art may be transcendent, the art world should be subject to the same standards as anywhere else. We think there’s a civil rights issue here. Rosalba Carriera, from an interview with the Guerrilla Girls
Whose voice represents my voice?
Most teachers in Israel are women. Who represents them, their voice? A White male. The majority of Doctors who specialize in women’s bodies – gynecologists – are male. Most heads of women’s health departments in hospitals– are male. Most Film Directors who tell stories about our world are male. The Oscar for Best director has never been awarded to a woman. Is this an issue? Or should we wait for the day all doctors specializing in male genitalia are women?
Recently I participated at a national conference for women’s mental health. I salute this conference and its creator. The conference held a photography exhibition – also a blessed idea – and called out to women artists to send in work. All the artists were women. The subject was – women’s lives in Israel. The chosen curator was – a famous, talented, smart, academic – man. On the catalogue jacket- was a photograph by a famous, talented (dead) male photographer. Is this an issue?
The conference organizers and the curator himself – betrayed ignorance. Ignorance of the her-story of art. Women artists have been excluded from the pages of history of art; “her- story” is being added to “his-story” only since the mid-eighties. The same is true of women philosophers, scientists, etc. Being ignored/invisible is painful, devaluating, and can and does create mental chaos. I remind you – the subject of the conference was promoting women’s mental health. The conference, in practice, re-created – or mirrored the situation in the world. While more opportunities are available for women artists, the money and prestige usually goes elsewhere. In Israel for instance, most art students are women, most curators and critics are women but the powerful positions of directors, head of art departments and academies, collectors, are predominantly male.
The places of value and honor – the curator job and the cover of the catalog – should have been afforded to women specialists. A women curator, who is knowledgeable about “her story” of art, a famous woman photographer like Lee Miller, who has been rewritten into the pages of art his/herstory just recently.
What I’m trying to say is that there is a danger of being presumptuous and condescending when trying to represent someone else, even when you mean well. There are artists who have become famous for works in which they exploit other people in order to prove the point of people being exploited. In his work 8 Foot Line Tattooed on Six Remunerated People (1999) Mexican Artist Santiago Sierra hired six unemployed young men from old Havana and paid them $30 if they agreed on having a horizontal line tattooed on their back. In 160 CM Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000), four drug-addicted Spanish prostitutes allowed their backs to be tattooed, and were paid with heroin in exchange. A few months later, in his work 10 People Paid To Masturbate (2000) the artist paid 10 Cuban men $20 each to masturbate on video, thus alluding to the fact that people in the third world are ready to sacrifice their health for a minimal amount of money. Sierra claims to bring attention to capitalism, exploitation, power relations, and he does; his work ignites heated discussion regarding these issues. However, whose voice is Sierra representing? The heroin addicts? The prostitutes? The homeless? The poor workers of the third world? They remain painfully mute and nameless. In the name of art, he reproduces the exact system he wants to criticize. These volunteers are scarred for life by the capitalist system, and now by Sierra’s tattoo as well. My question – can there be another way to prove the same point? Must Sierra, myself and others create a similar artistic system which degrades these people the way social structures degrade them? In order to prove cruelty must one be cruel?I decided
“Whose voice is it” is a dominant subject which backlights my work both as filmmaker, photographer and Speaker. I focus on the relative invisibility of women’s voices because I am a woman, and the biggest shift in my life and work occurred when I encompassed women’s perspectives and experiences in books films and art. It changed the way I saw myself, it changed my perspective of the world. It changed my life.
Witnessing the dynamics of unheard/distorted voices of women in the world made me sensitive to other places where similar dynamics occur to other peoples. Being conscious of the power of an image to influence reality, Sierra and I are interested in the artist’s role in society, and believe artists have a responsibility. I’m not sure we agree about the “how”.
In my own work I try to start from myself – my personal life. I feel I have a right to talk about and represent myself, that taking a photograph of someone else – especially someone who didn’t give her consent, or is not a personal acquaintance, is like “stealing” a part of their soul for my own selfish purposes. Photographers Nan Goldin and Elinor Carucci, writers Naomi Wolf and Erica Jong, independent filmmakers Allan Berliner, Dan Katsir, Jennifer Fox, Independent researcher Judith Rich Harris all start from their own lives. They honestly and bravely put their own voices in the center, not as egomaniacs, but in a conscious act of saying- reality can be seen many ways, and this is my way. I am not hiding behind objectivity of one sort or another. We all have agenda’s, instead of pretending there is an objective agenda, I put my agenda on the line.
I will give two examples: a photography project in which I consciously and intentionally use my own experience to echo a whitewashed reality, and a documentary film, in which the question whose voice is it reverberates throughout the whole process.
I would never photograph a person without permission. It’s voyeuristic. When you trap someone in your camera you have to be invited. Prof. W.J.T (Tom) Mitchell in a interview with Dana Gillerman in Haaretz The Lie of the Land, April 2008
Subjective voice as conscious act of rebellion
In my photography project The Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit I photographed parts of my redeformed post pregnancy skin in order to address a nonpersonal and practically denied subject of how families and mothers in particular are mistreated and unacknowledged in western society.
I believe the myth about the ease and naturalness of mothering – the ideal of the effortlessly ever- giving mother – is propped up, polished, and promoted as a way to keep women from thinking clearly and negotiating forcefully about what they need from their partners and from society at large in order to mother well without having to sacrifice themselves in the process . Naomi Wolf, Misconceptions.
The subjective perspective in the work – represented in large scale topographic aerial- like photographs (120X18ocm) and texts – is purposeful and subversive as mother’s points of view are (still), in proportion to the extent of the phenomena, few, and traditionally hijacked in the name of advertising, nationality, and psychology. “The mother’s subjective existence is still missing”, says Anat Palgi-Hecker in her book The Mother in psychoanalysis, although the mother has become increasingly important in developmental psychoanalytic theory and in understanding object relations in the last decades, she claims, the mother’s own subjective existence has been left in the dark. This is the reason I shed light on my subjective existence as a mother:
I pointed my camera to the “nature reserve” that emerged in the center of my body because the skin that was created, or more accurately, was left on the stomach area after giving birth, resembled, or looked like – exposed intestines. The stomach visually opened – gaped, and became a mouth – expressing what I felt and couldn’t say, and what no one else wanted to hear.
In the process of pregnancy labor and parenting there were many things I couldn’t refuse…you are invaded (sprouts), by somebody else’s cells, by other’s hands, by tests opinions and practices, your form is changed, your stomach is spread, jumped on, (Waterbed), pressed, depressed, caressed (push), your desires and feelings are ignored.. Your mouth is shut– (bad aid), your form is ripped open (void), you are sucked from- (mobile), cut, and all in good spirits; Balloons, colorful ribbons and congratulations. (Gift)
The ‘acceptable’ thing to do is to hide not only the real feelings and thoughts, but also the tummy in its current shape…So I consciously took back control. I chose to refuse the dominant fashion/trend of whitewashing (Mt. Novolak)…
The body, or skin, didn’t conceal. She didn’t conceal the tension and extreme stretching, the pain and suffering of this stretch, the contraction and depletion, the old age. She didn’t hide the rip and tear, the cracks, rifts and swallow holes. The stomach became, in the most visual and unromantic aspect, mother earth. [1. From Interview with Dr. Hadara Sheflan Katsav]
The exhibition provokes heated discussion regarding the many untold truths (scars) of pregnancy birth and parenting and encourages others to expose their own (scars) horror stories. It is subversive because it contradicts the “usually blissful” images associated with pregnancy and birth, and humorously exposes an ugly physical lie, which, like a magician’s scarf from a hat, is linked to many other hazardous lies. It’s not the (60 percent) women and their faulty hormones who need to be altered by psychiatric drugs; it’s the system that needs changing.
I presented the project in a lecture titled Mother Earth and all that Crap, at the 3rd national conference for promoting women’s mental health at Ben Gurion University, in a session dealing with Post Partum Depression, and AM currently electronically presenting it at the international conference M(o)ther Trouble on contemporary debates, analyses and representations of the maternal at Birkbeck, University of London United Kingdom.
Whose voices are documentaries and mainstream media representing?
Two States of Mind is my Award winning Documentary film nicknamed by the press “Thelma and Louise of the Middle East”. The film chases the relationship of two vivacious dynamic women, Naomi from Tel Aviv and Ihsan from Ramalla, while they navigate their “peace team” vehicle across the Sahara Desert of Morocco in a tough jeep rally. Two extreme political realities: Near peace, and ruthless war ride along.
I decided to give women’s and moderate’s voices and actions the attention of my camera because these voices regarding the Israeli Palestinian conflict are mostly invisible to the general public. In fact, United Nations, for the same reason created resolution 1325 calling for inclusion of women in all negotiation teams. War affects women differently then men and more women and children are being killed in recent wars. Regarding moderates: According to Dr.Khalil Shikaki nearly 70 percent of both Israeli’s and Palestinians support an end to the conflict and two-thirds (the majority) of both publics are opposed to violence. Wow. This same majority, however, is positive the “other” side doesn’t want to end the wars. “No partner for peace”, in other words. Hmmm. How is it possible both societies have such a tragically wrong perception? In my opinion mainstream media (which I name “the BIG camera”) is the main culprit.
In Photography and Politics conference in Bezalel academy of art (2007) Artist photographer and teacher Roi Kuper said “it’s a fact people want to see blood and violence” and he quoted Susan Sontag. I grimaced at this, and so did the woman photographer and educator sitting next to me. Maybe some people like to see juicy gory stuff and this is what the media is feeding them, but where are the opinions of men and women like us? Those who can’t stand violence, even comic-book violence, who don’t read the papers because of it, who, when pregnant, feel this aversion to violence ten-fold?
The opportunity to voice my opinion arrived: the political message the rally, Naomi, Ihsan and myself were interested in spreading was that co–existence exists and even if hard, possible. Their relationship was proof. The production company of the film (my boss) had other plans.
“If the film is to succeed, we need a conflict. No one will be interested in two friends getting along. They’re not really friends anyhow. Make them fight, give us blood, it’s good for drama and ratings”. I was witnessing first -hand how, for the sake of ratings, media creates conflict. Accepting this philosophy, which is taught at every film school (nothing moves forward in a story accept through conflict –Story by Robert McKee), would be making art in a similar way to Santiago Sierra; In order to prove the tragedy of the conflict I would be recreating and perpetuating the presumed reality of an Israeli Palestinian conflict. By making them fight I would be convincing the audience there is no such thing as Israeli – Palestinian cooperation. I also would be betraying and manipulating Naomi’s Ihsan’s and my voices for someone else’s interests. The public wants blood. And the production company wants to sell this expensive film to the public. For the sake of a film. Of Art. Of ratings
Whose’ voice/point of view is this? And how will I ever get work if I disagree?
In the end I did what the production company wanted, but I made it visual and obvious. Instead of editing out my bothersome questions and Naomi and Ihsan’s disdainful reactions, I left them IN. “Why did you pester them with those questions?” is my favorite question in a Q/A session after a screening: the audience dislikes the question asker and sides with the women’s friendship. They are against the production company, which my questions represent. The manipulation tactics are exposed, and we discuss media and its power in our world. Yes, I manipulated Naomi and Ihsan, but they express their opinion about it. They are not silent. At least not totally mute, like the men with the tattoo on their back in Sierra’s work. “Sometimes the Camera can be dangerous” says Ihsan, while covering the camera lens with her hand.
I lecture with Two States of Mind on the role of media in conflict and Women’s and moderates voices. When speaking, I especially stress informing audiences of the invisible but lethal manipulation inherent in the documentary medium because of its allure of “a true story”. Few ask whose voice is this. And moderates voices are rarely front page meat. This creates a false perception of reality. Making decisions to go to war based on a false picture of reality is tragic. As Rosalba Carriera said- “there’s a civil rights issue here”.