Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Donigan Cumming’s Karaoke (1998)

In anticipation for the Pleasure Dome projection and book launch of Splitting the Choir; The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming, which includes Toronto's premiere of Too Many Things, on Saturday November 5th at 7PM at the CineCycle (129 Spadina Ave) ; here is a guest contribution by Canadian Film Institute programmer Scott Birdwise. – D.D.


In an introduction to a public screening of Karaoke in Toronto in 2008, experimental filmmaker and writer Mike Hoolboom posed a question to Donigan Cumming, “Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh.”1 To my understanding, Hoolboom’s question, perhaps inadvertently, cuts to the very heart of the matter of the documentary example. A description of the video will help set up my explanation.

Karaoke opens with an extreme close-up study of an elderly man’s face: with his eyes closed, the man licks his lips; the camera jostles slightly, suggesting it is handheld; the image is almost imperceptibly in slow-motion. Given the man’s apparent age, his reclined posture suggesting infirmary, and the emphasis on his fragile bodily-being (his labored swallowing), it seems, for all intents and purposes, that he is quite sick and unconscious – perhaps even near death. Is this, as Cumming puts it, a “deathwatch?”

The oral component of the video is somewhat distorted: the audio track hisses, faint sounds, clicking and clacking in general proximity, are heard – is this the diegetic room sound recorded by Cumming’s camera’s built-in microphone? Perhaps. But while the sound first seems to correspond to the elderly man’s action, his lip-licking and swallowing possibly the source of the audio, it quickly becomes evident that the sound we hear is not necessarily coming from him, or even from the room, at all. The audio and the visual do not seem to be in synch; they may be from different temporalities, perhaps even different spaces entirely. It really is difficult to tell.2

While the handheld camera lingers over the elderly man’s face with a kind of special emphasis given to his oral region (his mouth), moving slightly back and forth and continually reframing as handheld shots do (a trope of observational cinema), a song emerges from the off-camera audio: a strange combination of Christian pop music and Inuktitut singing.3 The off-camera voices of two women, presumably of Inuit origin, join in with the music, singing along to the lyrics praising Christ, declaring his love and how they are blessed for partaking in it – as one line exclaims (with English subtitles) “How the message will be understood!” At one point early in the song, the recorded music cuts out: it is here, via this aural cue, that the viewer recognizes that the Inuit women’s voices heard are not part of the music recording; they seem, in fact, to belong to the same space as the old man (who, importantly, it seemed at first was singing but in fact was merely breathing). The women are singing along to the tape beside the old man in a kind of impromptu karaoke performance.

About half way through the three minute duration of Karaoke, the camera begins to deliberately and purposively scan its way over the horizontal plane of the old man’s body, arriving at his feet. As it turns out, the elderly man seems to indeed be listening to the karaoke performance with some measure of interest: he is tapping his foot in time with the song. This is the “punch-line” of the video, the moment of truth revealing that the opening half of the video is a kind of set-up, the necessary opening of the gag. As Cumming puts it, “In Karaoke, the horror of a deathwatch is pure illusion. The transgression is a set-up, which turns on the spectator when the camera gets down to the feet. Nelson [the elderly man] is not dead! He is tapping his toes!”4

From here, again in an almost imperceptible gesture, the tape in fact begins to repeat itself backwards, audio included. This switchover almost passes unnoticed – in fact, I would argue first-time viewers often miss it – as the camera lingers over the tapping foot only to return to the “grizzled face” of the elderly man, licking his lips and breathing, in slow motion. With this, the tape ends.5

If we consider Karaoke a kind of documentary, exhibiting its means without end, then we are forced to take seriously Hoolboom’s inquiry. Hoolboom again: “[Karaoke] is shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man…?”6 Hoolboom’s query points to the foundational problematic of the documentary logic of example, which Karaoke exposes via my Agambenian reading of its strategies. The central problem: how is “a landscape of flesh,” that is, bare life, produced, and how is it overturned; or, rather, how is a form of life founded that does not fall back into the trappings of the citizen?

The elderly man framed by the extreme close-up of Cumming’s camera is presented to the viewer in a kind of extreme biological proximity at the expense of knowing who and where he, the would-be subject, is. The epistemological grounds of knowledge related to context and the like are refused for the ontological priority of the body: here he, or perhaps it, is. The elderly man is first and foremost an object of display and his being is reduced to maintaining his very existence: he breathes, he licks his lips – his life is stripped of context, it is bare life. As such, his position relative to the documentary logic of example is analogous to what Agamben considers the foundational gesture of Western politics and metaphysics: the inclusive exclusion of bare life. In this case, Cumming refuses the elderly man’s life-world by way of the close-up, framing and including him as bare life by excluding his environment. The elderly man is the environment, a “landscape of flesh.”

The elderly man’s existence, his existence as such, that Karaoke establishes at the outset and which seems to teeter on the brink between mere being (life) and non-being (death), or, even more to the point, the human (a speaking-being with subjectivity, desire, and history) and the inhuman (a mere “landscape of flesh”), finds an instructive parallel in what Agamben identifies as one of the paradigmatic figures of the twentieth century: the Musselmann. The Musselmann, for Agamben, is the exemplary figure of the concentration camp, whose total degradation and malnutrition has wasted away the speaking subject to the limit-figure of life and language at the brink of death and speechlessness.7 A kind of living dead – who/which is the site of confusion between the categories of life/death and human/inhuman as figured in the extreme biopolitical decisionism of the Nazi regime – the Musselmann is part of the administered process of the killing machine of the concentration camp, wherein the prisoner passes into the threshold of the Musselmann and thus does not die as a Jew or human being, but as mere biological existence, bare life. The Musselmann, then, is a (non)subject without context, history, personality, or desire; it is biology, possible motor skills, and the barest minimum of needs. This seems to be the transgressive status of that withered face in Karaoke: it is the death scene-and death seen, what Cumming calls “the horror of a deathwatch.” Or is it?

As argued above, the Musselmann comes into existence by way of the concentration camp. Agamben is quick to argue, however, that while the Nazi concentration camp is a historically specific phenomenon, it is nonetheless the hypostatized manifestation of a much more general logic. Agamben:
The camp is the paradigm itself of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer becomes indistinguishable from the citizen […] If the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regardless of the denomination and specific topography it might have […] From this perspective, the birth of the camp in our time appears to be an event that marks in a decisive way the political space itself of modernity.8
The camp can appear and manifest an otherwise latent state of exception anywhere, isolating bare life, zoe, from the qualified life of the citizen-subject, bios. The camp is mobile and can temporarily install itself in such spaces as airports, shopping centres, soccer fields, and even living rooms – it is the potential for a kind of sovereign violence that confounds the distinction between the oikos (the home) and the polis (the city, public space) where all public citizens are potentially private prisoners. In this way, the camp is what Agamben calls a “dislocating localization” that scrambles the co-ordinates of a seemingly determinate topos – a space and place – in order to suspend law and order and institute the “inscription of life” into the paradoxical order of sovereign violence.9

In Karaoke, Cumming’s camera, his frame, imposes a kind “dislocating localization” upon the profilmic space: the frame excludes “the surroundings, the room, the context,” rendering the elderly man as “this landscape of flesh,” bare life on the brink of death. As an object/subject held up by the documentary as an example, what Karaoke seems to present is the fact of the elderly man as such. However, is the man merely a “moving still,” that is, a being (moving) on the brink of death (still)? As we shall see, and as was suggested above, the “fact” of the elderly man – the “deathwatch” of bare life – is problematized by the same “violence” and power of the frame which presented it. Indeed, the frame, the logic of the camp as dislocating localization, becomes the very means by which Cumming repotentializes the world: the camp becomes the “constructed situation,” as the presence of fact gives way to the mediality of potentiality; as action falters the gesture appears. This is the gag of/in Karaoke.

The gag of Karaoke, of course, is that the seemingly unconscious subject-object, the ailing man as bare life, is revealed to be engaged with his milieu, tapping his foot as he enjoys the off-camera music. The movement of the frame thus establishes a kind of newly invigorated ontological context for the world in which the video takes place. The significance of the gesture of foot tapping is not that it has the priority of being the new fundamental reality or fact to which the video bears witness, but that, in Agamben’s words, it “defines a life – human life – in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power.”10

If the camp is a mobile space of exception that organizes its own form of disorganization (a zone of indistinction between citizenship and the natural body), that realizes the nihilistic potential for sovereign violence at the heart of everyday law and order (a pure political violence), and that isolates bare life in the ruthless alienation of the human being from its form (by way of transforming experience into spectacle), the “constructed situation” takes this alienation and violence and turns it on its head in a liberatory gesture. It is the constructed situation which can take “this biopolitical body that is bare life” and transform it into “the site for the constitution and instalment of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe.”11

Following Debord and the Situationists, Agamben defines the constructed situation in the following way:
The situation is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art. We can comprehend its true nature only if we locate it historically in its proper place: that is, after the end and self-destruction of art, and after the passage of life through the trial of nihilism… [at] a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis simultaneously. This point of indifference constitutes a politics that is finally adequate to its tasks. The Situationists counteract capitalism [and I would add the state of exception, the logic of the camp] – which “concretely and deliberately” organizes environments and events in order to depotentiate life – with a concrete, although opposite, project.12
The constructed situation mobilizes the “dislocating localization” of the frame and its intrusiveness, its manifestly interruptive nature in a given milieu (breaking the supposed unity of the moment for aesthetic reasons [a nice picture]), and makes of it an opportunity for experimentation in the zone of indistinction it opens between art and life. In this way, the constructed situation transforms life at the level of experience rather than representation or contemplation: life and theatre intersect to mutually transform and repotentiate one another. To put it another way, if the generalized state of exception and spectacle in which we live has already falsified experience and inclusively excluded life, then the constructed situation uses an apparent falsity – its constructedness – to highlight this very spectacle and fragmentation, and thereby put it to an alternative use, albeit one not directed toward a specific end.
Central to Agamben’s conception of the constructed situation is the gesture. Indeed, in explaining the constructed situation, Agamben argues that
Gesture is the name of this intersection between life and art, act and power, general and particular, text and execution. It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics: it is pure praxis.13
Just as the constructed situation emerges from a “dislocating localization,” the gesture exhibits itself as a kind of action that, in exhibiting itself, suspends its commonplace function as a means to an end and becomes a means without end. For Agamben, as I outlined toward the end of the previous chapter, this is the very promise of cinema – the paradigm of (a potential) situation-constructing apparatus (and not necessarily a storytelling medium at all) – itself: to exhibit the very movement of humankind in a state of suspension freed from immediate ends, that is, to show in an immediate way the fundamental mediality of humanity. As Stephen Crocker states in his article “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,”
What the late nineteenth century interest in gesture seems to promise, and what, Agamben argues, remains the promise of cinema since, is some understanding of the world’s movement exempted from all-purpose and displaying nothing more or less than the taking place of life in a ratio of time and movement. As such, cinema gives us the world in the form of a gesture. Cinema brackets out the significance of the event so that the pure act of its enunciation can come forward.14
The constructed situation as, with, and by the gesture does not operate on a representational so much as a kind of para-phenomenological level: whatever “understanding” it generates is not something one possesses, as a collection of facts to be decided on in sovereign fashion, but is rather something one does: it is an orientation, an attitude, of the political body opening to the world.

Cumming’s Karaoke is exemplary in its exhibition of the very gesture that Agamben identifies with the constructed situation. First, the video brackets out the context in its suspension of typical documentary markers of place, “refusing the surroundings, the room, the context.” What transpires is not a narrative or argument in any conventional sense; rather, a situation develops. The viewer is confronted with what seems to be the exhausted figure of bare life, of mere life, struggling to simply be. Is this the barest expression of an existential dilemma? Perhaps, but then, as the camera tracks to his tapping foot, the elderly man’s gesture opens up the question of the political. Neither a fact nor reducible to individual expression (as Hoolboom asks, “Who is this man?”), and not the expression of an autonomous, modernist aesthetic (the “aesthetic dimension” of dance), the gesture exhibits the mediality of the elderly man and the ultimate inseparability of his life (zoe: his breathing, his bare existence) from his being a singularity.15 “It is a moment of life subtracted from the context of individual biography as well as a moment of art subtracted from the neutrality of aesthetics.” 16

The gesture of tapping his foot to the music is an expression, an exhibition, of the elderly man’s “form-of-life.” This is crucial in understanding how Karaoke moves from the fact of a “landscape of flesh” to the potentiality of a subject and the inseparability of his being from his body: “this being that is only its bare existence and…this life that, being its own form, remains inseparable from it.”17 In this sense, it is the degree to which the subject of Karaoke evades being knowable “factually” or as a citizen-subject that he exists as a “form-of-life;” his life is connected to possibility: the elderly man’s political existence depends on his irreducibility to factual existence. The “horror of a deathwatch” as fact gives way to the “gag” of the gesture; bare life opens to what Agamben calls the “absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.”18 In the gag, the elderly man, Nelson Coombs, is thus not the documentary example of a victim, bare life, but an exception. He is an exception precisely because, in the apparently closed-in world of the frame, he is epistemically undetermined; a weak symbol in his potentiality; a “whatever-being” occupying the zone of indistinction between the example and the exception.

Furthermore, the reverse playback of the video deconstructs any pretences of non-mediated presence. Cumming makes Karaoke, the video, gesture itself, undoing its “action” by reversing it back to the beginning. Effectively, Karaoke splits itself in its doubling: it makes itself an example, a paradigm, beside itself. The reverse playback is another example of the ongoing and endless deferrals in the video, challenging any sovereign decision which would ground the political in a limited, instrumentalist frame. In this cinematic gesture of a means without end, Cumming makes the mediality of Karaoke immediate.19

Karaoke suspends the instrumental use of documentary: it never arrives at a definite conclusion, a clear cut end. In the video, being and appearance continually shift, as the “deathwatch” gives way to the punch-line of the gesture of the tapping foot, which in turn moves into an exhibition of the medial nature of the video as it plays back in reverse. The extreme close-up on the elderly man’s face which, while “violently” refusing context, would seem to privilege a kind of epistemology of proximity, yields no such thing. Rather, as the camera tracks, the video exhibits the “gag”: a gesture not circumscribed by the clichés of bare life and citizenship so naturalized by the documentary form. The close-up of Karaoke does not establish the presence of a citizen-subject but exhibits a “form-of-life” that is “not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality.”20 As a means without end, Karaoke and its exhibited example are held up for free use, never exhausting their potentiality in appearing. In contrast to a specific meaning, mediality is the message: Karaoke redeems as the true vocation of both humanity and the documentary project the endless, repetitive and seemingly futile Sisyphean execution of a task without proper completion: an inoperative operability, a non-work: means without end.

Scott Birdwise

1. “We're going to watch a three minute movie you made ten years ago called Karaoke. It's shot very close up, refusing the surroundings, the room, the context. Why conjure this universe of a body, this landscape of flesh? Who is this man, and why is the tape called Karaoke, (after all, he never utters a word, nor do you)?”
2. Cumming interview with Hoolboom: “The tape starts with the cassette being loaded and a tight shot of Nelson’s head, as he licks his lips. The movement of his tongue is slightly accentuated in the edit with some slow motion.” (10)
3. Cumming informs us that the singing is in Inuktitut in the Hoolboom interview. This opens up thinking about a provocative ethnographic intertext to read with Karaoke, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). For starters, both films partake in a kind of cross-cultural encounter; furthermore, music – and the apparatuses for playing recorded music – figures strongly in both. Also, in both films there is the problematic relationship of staging and re-enactment. Pursuing the specifics of this interesting comparison is, however, beyond the scope of this thesis.
4. Hoolboom interview, 10.
5. It should be noted that Karaoke, as part of the “Moving Stills” series, was originally shown in an art gallery context, in a room alongside the other videos in the series. Each video, projected at a large size, ran in a continuous loop, alternating between their respective soundtracks. This presentation format reinforces the formal repetition of the work that is arguably lost in a single channel, non-looped, screening.
6. Hoolboom interview, 10.
7. For his most sustained discussion of the Musselmann see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, chapter II, The Mussleman.
8. Giorgio Agamben, “What is a Camp?” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 41-42.
9. Ibid., 45.
10. Agamben, “Form-of-Life” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 4.
11. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
12. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 78-79.
13. Ibid., 80.
14. Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben,” 12
15. Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 58.
16. Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, 80.
17. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 188.
18. Ibid.,60.
19. Indeed, as Cumming makes clear in the interview with Hoolboom, the encounter itself was staged for his camera; that is, the performers in Karaoke had already listened to the song, sang, and tapped along. Cumming asked them to do it again, this time with his camera running. Thus, the repetition in/of the video replicates the founding repetition of the performance.
20. Ibid., 59.

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