Nothing Was Delivered 
essay to accompany Laure Prouvost: The Wanderer
International Project Space, Birmingham
September 28 - December 10, 2011

International Project Space presents The Wanderer (Betty Drunk) by Laure Prouvost, a newly commissioned film sequence and installation forming part of her ambitious feature-length film project The Wanderer. Comprising six narrative sequences, The Wanderer is based on script by artist Rory Macbeth who, without any knowledge of German, translated a Franz Kafka novella into English. The film follows a number of characters who undergo a series of increasingly bizarre and mysterious experiences, navigating various situations in which reality becomes increasingly uncertain.

Nothing Was Delivered

One has only to think of the transformation of traveling salesman Gregor Samsa at the outset of Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, or the forever tunneling mole-like engineer of The Burrow, or the hoary figure of the Hunter Gracchus (in an unfinished story of the same name) whose burial ship is never allowed into port, to recall that Kafka’s is a world where the decisive event has already occurred. In this respect, the adjectival “Kafkaesque”—which has entered into common parlance as a placeholder for the atmospheric, portentous, and vaguely mysterious—fails to encompass something signature regarding this mode of expression, namely that the impetus or trigger for events is already in place yet its origin often remains unnamed and unexplained. After all, Samsa wakes up and he has already morphed from innocuous family man to scabrous source of shame and disgust, just as the Hunter Gracchus departed the world of the living long ago, and the labyrinthine maze of the burrow is already complete at the outset of the story. In other words, image and metaphor are already aesthetic facts in Kafka’s narration, a priori conditions that color the mood and feeling of all that ensues rather than being merely descriptive or subservient to narrative denouement. In each instance, it is rather Kafka’s insistence upon images and metaphors as actions and gestures to be inhabited and repeated that underscores the inevitability of variation, difference, and error in his cosmology, pointing to moments when the work of memory becomes corporeal, becomes a symptom in the continuity of events.

As Italian writer Roberto Calasso has written of this seemingly paradoxical dynamic, “For Kafka the metaphorical and the literal had the same weight. The passage from one to the other was smooth. The metaphorical could take the place of the literal and transform the literal into metaphor.”[1] There is a similarly smooth transition between the literal and metaphoric that has asked Kafka to serve as the indirect inspiration for artist Laure Prouvost’s newest project, The Wanderer. A six-part feature-length film to be accompanied by a series of installations, the film is based on a script by artist and collaborator Rory Macbeth wherein he translated Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis(Die Verwandlung, 1915)without a working knowledge of German or the use of dictionaries or online reference. Departing from Macbeth’s tender and absurd interpretation, Prouvost imbues Kafka’s text with the capacity for direct communication. What sounds at first like a joke or conceit entertained over drinks at a bar is taken up in earnest, churning out a tragicomic vision that provides contour to Prouvost’s six film sequences. The rudimentary act of translation without tools or philological resources promotes an impoverishment of narrative, pushing the story to leap from one transition to another, turning over scenes and backdrops until it is the shifting itself that remains.

In the parallel world of Macbeth’s unfaithful translation, for example, the famous opening sentence of Kafka’s novella “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect,” becomes both a literal and hallucinatory setting out, “As Gregor Samsa wandered dishevelled from Morgens to Traumen, distracted and sick since reaching Bett, he came unexpectedly to Ungeziefer.” The words for morning (“Morgens”) and dream (“Träumen”) maintain their upright capitalized stance from the original German but stand as destinations along the protagonist’s path—the bed (“Bett”) also becomes a town and the verminous bug (“Ungeziefer”) that is Gregor’s new life form is the ultimate location for The Wanderer to begin.[2]

In the film sequence  The Wanderer (Betty Drunk), the viewer meets Gregor’s distraught girlfriend Betty as she attempts to drink her way out of conventional framing. As in Kafka’s world, the cataclysmic event is always already present, and it is most often the character’s inability to take in their historical situation that leaves them bereft and prone to repetition and gesture—existing forever beside themselves. Here, The Wanderertakes the temporary form of Betty Drunk who lives in a version of Europe before the Maastricht Treaty and after the collapse of the European Union, where a war is going on with bombing and shelling in the region, mirroring the rift between Gregor and Betty that initiates her binge. In short, it is a time of collapse where the “world is turned upside down.”[3] As Betty increasingly addresses her rant to the viewer, failing to connect with the incidental strangers and stock characters who cross her path, a symptomatic de-synchronization flashes to the fore as she turns to the camera and declares “But still I feel like I am just an image. You can’t touch me can you? I am just a fucking image!” As in Prouvost’s previous work, the conventional rules of engagement and narrative come undone. The contagion inherent to Macbeth’s translation—things becoming places, names becoming cities—colludes with Prouvost’s fit-up style of storytelling to occupy a space in between the cliché power positions of misfit and authority. In this respect, The Wanderer is mired in the shopworn qualities of late cinematic time where not just progressive, novelistic plot lines and bildungsroman storylines but also the episodic devices of farce have been depleted and worn down. Aptly condensed in a phrase from Macbeth’s script, Prouvost’s response is to shuffle and trade in, “Then my language exists through a trapdoor, whether citizens or gods, men are truly stuck.” Opting instead for the petitrécits of transmission and shape-shifting, transition becomes both content and form for Prouvost.[4]

The attraction to Macbeth’s unlikely undertaking shouldn’t come as a surprise to viewers of Prouvost’s earlier videos and installations, as her work is continually building up layers of discord and deliberate misunderstanding. In introducing eight textual responses to her video It, Heat, Hit (2010), Prouvost wrote of her focus on the hermeneutic boundary between image and viewer: “A work is always understood through one’s interpretation and where one mind is at: it’s about losing control, being out of sync, even when just hinting possibilities.”[5]The “out-of sync” skews the authoritative tone and subjective address so omnipresent in Prouvost’s work as hers is a mimetic propaganda without resolution or resolve. Rather, her mimetic efforts at controlling the viewer take on the malapropism of an untutored guide and unruly narrator, characteristic of Prouvost’s earlier work where she performs and addresses the viewer. The affective register of her off-kilter address is extended in The Wandererto a full crew and cast of actors while maintaining the artist’s unique approach to editing and montage. The result is a fragmented, oscillating visual narrative that wavers between the conceit of an epic journey one minute and a claustrophobic nowhere the next. As with previous works, the retinal quiver of a rapid-fire pacing borrows what it desires, holding the viewer hostage to its erasures and repetitions only to meander and dwell upon a pleasurable image or fantastic reverie the next.

As with the phrase “before, before. before it was”—that served as half of the title for a recent solo show at MOT International, London, itself a prologue to The Wanderer—Prouvost’s structural approach is resolutely conjunctive, always coordinating, compounding, and wriggling in between, avoiding closure and caesura. Completed by the qualifying phrase “the title sequence, spinning before next, a squid,” the show title stops at the morphological form of the squid. For Prouvost’s mode of editing seeks to adhere to a shape, a thing that is felt and cannot be denied its material presence. Image translates to sound, sound to intertitle to subtitle correction, and so on—, but always back to image. As her narrator tells the viewer in a low voice in one video, “You want to caress the image”… “You are eating the image.”  

This symptomatic need to adhere and allow image its material form is perhaps most clear in Prouvost’s video It, Heat, Hit, which assails the viewer with seduction and dismissal, inter-cutting a barrage of fast-paced moving images (taken by the artist) with textual directives and warnings that beseech the viewer to stay with the frantic pacing. Cooing one moment with placid words and voice-over entreaties only to rail against the viewer to pay attention and remember everything the next, Prouvost’s narrator is both sinister and comic. The hand-held camera movement, focused on close-up imagery and fragmented views, joins with percussive commentary to bear out an intense lyricism that contradicts and even denies the contemporary malaise of a surfeit of information and images. Everyday footage of the incidental (horses in a pasture, a frog swimming, a man with a bass drum in a marching band, shattered glass, snow, a huddled group of women in traditional clothing) is mixed with clearly staged scenes (car wheels burning rubber, staples in a mouth, red hot coals, an apple extended toward the viewer, a knife on a cutting board, pneumatic drill, shattered glass, smoke) until they are interchangeable. Composing an unforgettable poetry out of emphatic repetition, gestural affect, and confrontational address, Prouvost steps clearly from staid rhetorical arguments regarding appropriation and the distortion of pre-existing or embedded imagery.

In replacing narrative expectation with editorial acuity and associative imprint, the inherent patterning of directive and declarative phrases—which abound in all of Prouvost’s videos and installations—is questioned and overturned, leaving an aftertaste of corrupted authority. Likewise, the signposts of plot development are willingly sabotaged by emotive digressions and dictatorial intertitles, and impaired by bursts of music, color, and foley sound, as the visual, aural, and lexical compete for the viewer’s attention and control of the narrative. What emerges from the maelstrom is a melancholy yet comic vision of restless flight and waylaid departure that is seductive in its display of vitiated power. As in the Beckettian dilemma of time passing without a clearly defined goal or aim, it is unclear what Prouvost’s half-characters are waiting for, or how long they’ve been at it, but there is equal parts release and remembrance in the acceptance that all life “is a wandering to find home,” as Beckett’s shambling protagonist Murphy once put it.[6]

Proceeding via the push and pull of discipline and come- on, her narrator will admonish and coax the viewer closer. In Prouvost’s video Burrow Me, 2009, for example, the subtitle “I managed to take with me a few pocessions, but i was exhausted,” accompanies nighttime footage shot from above of a drunk and homeless man’s coming- to beneath a streetlight and attempting to gather his paltry belongings from an overturned cart. Managing only a bag of select possessions before a prolonged zig-zag exit into the early morning hours, the voyeurism is accompanied throughout by ‘70s crooner Joe Dassin’s Et Si Tu N’existais Pas, 1975. While the song teases out the humor and discomfiting pleasure in watching the man’s ineptitude, the scene also takes on the man’s arduous efforts like a cloak, “I managed to take with me a few pocessions, but I was exhausted.” Always going back and forth between wanderer and director, Prouvost is eternally setting out, inviting the viewer to look on. Indeed, the synaesthetic collapse and build of her image, text, and sound sequences achieve a circular effect whereby Prouvost’s guidance implores as much as it cajoles, reaching for some exit or release only to be brought back to her ineluctable task and the journey underway. The viewer is repeatedly addressed but also notably absent from any shared place with the narrator, irrevocably so. Theirs is an impossible meeting.

As in Kafka’s novels and stories, it is the role of Prouvost’s tragicomic narration to continue to respond and generate rather than resign or fix meaning. “It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the hapless, that there is hope” writes Walter Benjamin, comparing Kafka’s functionary characters to the gandhavarasof Indian mythology, “mist-bound creatures, beings in an unfinished state,” messengers constantly moving between states and existing without a clear status, but also a step closer to pure function. “None has a firm place in the world, or firm, inalienable outlines,” concludes Benjamin, “There is not one that is not either rising or falling, none that is not trading qualities with its enemy or neighbor, none that has not completed its time and yet is unripe, none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence.”[7] It is in the act of setting out, the act of seeking, the act of direct translation, the digging from here to an unknown elsewhere, that transmission reveals its significance. The message is secondary to the role of messenger, the task is transitive not constitutive.  

                --Fionn Meade 

[1]Roberto Calasso, K. (Vintage International, 2005), p. 119

[2] It is worth noting that Franz Kafka wrote his first novel Der Verschollene (or “The Man Who Disappeared”) in the same year as The Metamorphosis. An unfinished manuscript, it was posthumously published by Max Brod under the title Amerikain 1927.

[3]Bakhtin’s discussion of the “Carnivalesque” and its inverted orders of costume, dialect, and ritual in Rabelais and His World, was finished just prior to WWII but not published until 1965.

[4] As Giorgio Agamben writes (in a paraphrase of Walter Benjamin) regarding the paradoxical obligation of art in the face of a withdrawal of tradition and the absence of shared historical narratives: “Kafka answered this question by asking whether art could become transmission of the act of transmission: whether, that is, it could take as its content the task of transmission itself, independently of the thing to be transmitted.” The Man Without Content (Stanford University Press, 1999), p.114

[5] 8 Metaphors (because the moving images is not a book) (LUX, 2011), p.69

[6]Samuel Beckett, Murphy (Grove Press, 1957 edition), p. 4

[7]Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1999), p.799

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated