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Photograffiti in Paris—coda: “Vu de la porte du fond”
No one would call Rosa Barba’s work graffiti, at least not the Italian artist’s exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, on display through September 23. Included in the museum’s Satellite 5 series, according to curator Filipa Oliveira the show “intervenes in the interstitial spaces” of the building, from the mezzanine to the basement. Any expo that “appropriates existing areas in the museum that were not originally intended for exhibition purposes” sounds a little graffitiish to me, in its impulse to valorize spatial margins by vandalizing them, so those peripheries stop being transparent or ancillary. Ultimately, though, the superstructure of the musée, as an institution with authority in the world of “art,” which one pays to visit and so on (3€ discount with a faculty ID), pulls the rug out from any mark that might legitimately—by which I mean illegitimately—call itself graffiti.
The piece I couldn’t take my eyes off, Allotted and Confined (2012), is a 16mm silent film running on a 2min, 30s loop in the entry hall, where Barba has installed an EIKI Xenon projector, probably from the early 70s, featuring a Super-16, 50mm, F1.2 lens with Zoom Converter–16. The hardware is important to mention, because Barba is as concerned with dissecting the material components of film equipment—whirring contraptions threading twisted ribbons of celluloid: usually just the means, the machinery that remains incognito when screening a film—as she is in what they “do.” So a pair of otherwise surreptitious frames is brought to visibility: the museum and the projector. At eye level, the short movie—which, to access the rest of the building, you have to disturb or duck under—is cast on a pebbly scrim against a window, the trees of the Tuileries Garden faintly observable behind. A, L, T, F: the film is a scrambled, staccato alphabet, Lego blocks of the logos flashing by: E, D, Y, X. If you watch enough, or if you get up close to the apparatus, where you can read the strip itself, you make out the title phrase scrolling through, amid arrows and further letters and symbols, the blemished bric-a-brac that signals the head or tail of a reel. Onscreen, it’s a saccadic seeing eye chart.
Diurnal and self-replacing, graffiti is nowhere near as quick as 24 frames per second, the rate at which film advances. Watching Barba’s movie is nonetheless an experience in hyperactive, fast-forwarded graffiti: public writing incessantly canceled, reinstated in modified form. It’s like Barba were a watchmaker tagger, broadcasting graff through a démodé motor, onto the plasma display of the capital: a cinematic interpretation of the Republic, with us spectators in the Fifth Republic playing the part of Plato’s prisoners, mistaking shadows for real—believing we’re in a theater, when in fact we’re in the flick. But isn’t a disembodied hand what graffiti has always been, bearing us a warning we can’t construe? In the apocryphal beginning—Daniel 5—the graffiti is relayed by deus ex machina: otherworldly and other-worded, an alien patois, untranslatable language en plein air. The ironies of agency: Belshazzar and all the king’s men can’t decode the Aramaic; when the prophecy is finally made clear, turns out he’s the subject of the inscription—and loses his life, as the Persians sack Babylon. In a more comical vein but no less concerned with altered futures and cultural usurpation, John Cheever’s short story “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin,” titled after the biblical writing on the wall, is about a narrator, recently returned to the States from Europe, who keeps discovering, in bathroom stalls, communiqués that “seemed to be some part of my destiny.” Finding this copious “gibberish on marble” unpleasant to read yet impossible to ignore, he conjectures that, as porn moved into the public domain, potties were forced to welcome the “florid prose” of literature. In the end, suddenly aware he’s wearing a dandy’s duds and talking with “the flat and affected accent of most expatriates,” he goes back to Paris.
A notice next to Barba’s piece said photos not allowed.
And next the thought came to me, in bed before falling asleep, that to photograph the film from behind the screen would be another, and truer, way. That would certainly honor the tenor of an exhibition titled Vu de la porte du fond: seen from the door at the back, or “Back-Door Exposure.” I returned a few days later. Having assumed there’d be no trace whatsoever of the film discernible from outside the museum, I was delighted to find I could see anything at all in the semi-occluded window: the ticking light of the projector, coming at me. I couldn’t see a single letter from the film, however, whether silhouetted on the screen’s verso or exiting the lens. It was all just hypnotic illumination degrading from blue to white, stuttering, staying still, juking a syncopated pattern, before resetting its loop. I resolved that, once home, I’d mime the protagonist of Antonioni’s Blow-Up and enlarge my photos, to a point where I might hope to detect, emerging from the projector’s dilated pupil, details invisible to the naked eye: hellbox in the antechamber, about to fly the device. Instead, I saw myself reflected in the glass, with the Tuileries now behind me as an eerie, witching-hour landscape—myself with a camera of my own, of course, staging an imaging pas de deux between the movie and me.
Then, the prudish, disconcerting realization that the reason I couldn’t spot the moving picture, unspooling anywhere before me, is that it was on me. I had become myself a screen, behind the official one, like a bystander taking a bullet already gone through the body in front. Perhaps, more radically still, the interior curtain was only a shill, and Barba actually meant for the public outside the museum to serve as her exhibition’s literal site: “movement away from the main galleries,” in the express spirit of this Satellite program, couldn’t get more centrifugal than that, especially for an expo not listed among the hors les murs events. A kind of prosthetic graffiti, no, this “poetry of the everyday,” as coordinator Edwige Baron refers to it? Imagine: every passerby nicked, for half a sec, by a speck of graff.
The only way I could locate the ciné-graffiti was by staring at where it was coming from, looking against the grain, as it were, at the window revealing a self I couldn’t otherwise see. “Does the distance or condition of the observer,” asks Tim Johnson in his epigrammatic “Stating the Real Sublime (Annoted),” in the expo catalog, “determine the result?” An astral insignia tacked to my shirt, the film had dwindled to spindle or sprocket—a motif of the engine churning it out—or the petals of a pointillist rose. Or the schematic of a revolver cylinder, shrapnel shredding the heart—for in a mirror, even the heart switches sides, faithless in its task to teach us left from right from wrong.
“Thou art weighed in the balances,” the Ur-graffiti had accused, “and art found wanting.”
Or—maybe you made up the writing yourself: poem of an inner exigency, to compensate for a lack in the city at large. Because you needed to find a heretical text, to sucker punch the government with. Because you needed something veiled to read, in this world of self-evident things.
Andrew Zawacki teaches at the University of Georgia. His latest poetry book, Videotape, is due in spring from Counterpath Press. He’d like to point readers to a forthcoming feature on graffiti at Rhizomes: http://rhizomes.net/files/future.html.
More Open Door Profiles: The Best Job on Earth: On the Poetry of C. D. Wright | Not One of Us, All of Us: Writers Resist, Chicago
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