Bentson Moving Image Commission, Walker Art Center
co-comissioned by Sheryl Mousley and Fionn Meade in collaboration with curator Mason Leaver-Yap
Essay by Mason Leaver-Yap:
Following the path of not-knowing, Renée Green’s new film is a cinematic meditation on lived experience, writing, film and mourning. Conceived as a “film as a conversation,” Green’s ED/HF is a palimpsestic work that touches on the many thresholds opened while thinking about an artist’s life and work. Questions of language, history, and image reproduction technologies are rendered into a touching threnody, a mournful celebration of the power of art, film and poetry.
(2017, video, 33 minutes)
“Extraterritorial,” as the linguistic scholar George Steiner would have it, is a word that can be used to describe a figure who wanders “at home in several languages but earthbound in none.” In his 1970 book of the same name, Steiner portrays this alien person as someone who is not tied to the local idiom in which they were taught, but has the ability to move between and across different cultures. “It seems proper,” Steiner states, “that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism which has made so many homeless, which has torn up tongues and peoples by the root, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language.” The extraterritorial vernacular is thus one that speaks with the grain and in the tone of displacement. This speaking is not just a skill—it is an environmental and political condition. And it is from this very condition that Renée Green’s new film begins, its content preempted by the work’s title, ED/HF, a tersely coded abbreviation of “Extraterritorial Durations/Harun Farocki.”
On its surface, ED/HF could be described as a double portrait of Green and Farocki. Throughout their lives, both have shared occupations as artist, filmmaker, teacher, and writer. Both knew each other and exhibited together frequently. In 2004, Farocki took up Green’s former teaching position at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, when the latter returned to the United States after 12 years in Europe. Today, Green continues to teach Farocki’s works to her students at MIT under the umbrella of her research project, Cinematic Migrations. But ED/HF’s primary focus is guided less by a binary comparison of these two personas, and more by the pair’s personal experiences of migration and the legacies of displacement that have affected both the artists and their work.
The film is lyrically accented in such displacements: from scenes shot in multiple locations across Europe, America, and Java to the palimpsestic fragments of Green’s previous films—including Partially Buried (1996), Some Chance Operations (1999), and Begin Again, Begin Again (2015)—as well as Farocki’s speculative autobiographical text Written Trailers (1944–1967), and aurally, through the soundtrack which bears ambient pulsing signatures, and additionally through the film’s narrator, voiced by South African artist Nolan Oswald Dennis. The latter’s youthful, clipped masculine speech traverses the various first-person narratives of Green, Farocki, and others with seamless precision, against a restless backdrop of camera movements stitched into a glissando montage.
Indeed, throughout the film’s voiceover, the “I” of Farocki casually slips into the “I” of Green, blurring subjectivities and occasionally finding orientation points within shared histories. At one point, the narrator relates a timeline accompanied by archive footage:
1944: I should have been born in Berlin, in Virchow Hospital, but we left the city because of the bombing. I was born in Neutitschein, today Nový Jičín, at that time Sudentengau, today the Czech Republic. We stayed there for only a few weeks; we spent less time there than I have ever needed since then in order to explain that I’m neither a Czech nor a Sudeten German. I have also spent lots of time with the spelling of my name, Harun El Usman Faroqhi, until I simplified its spelling in 1969…
1958-1962:I went to a disreputable bar every day, and this helped me to rebel against my father. I ran away from home several times and wanted to be a writer.
1959: I am born.
1962–1966: I ran away once and for all, moved to West Berlin.
Excerpting parts of Farocki’s Written Trailers (a work that Green describes as “a prelude to something that hasn’t happened yet”), Farocki’s life and Green’s birth merge, weaving through common names and places. But as the narrative progresses, words like “now” and “then” become slippery way-markers, revealing less a linear chronology than a fluid movement between moments of coexistence and crossings in history.
Green describes ED/HF as both drawn from history and “in another realm of not knowing, of immersing myself in Stimmung.” This “not knowing” isn’t simply a feeling of doubt, but rather a feeling that is itself a structuring device—one which acknowledges the impossibility and historical violence of discovery, and seeks to give voice instead to partial forms of knowledge. It also reflects on the impact that such incomplete remainders have on the constitution of selfhood—the capacity to say “I” with only a disparate connection to one’s own past. Early in ED/HF, the fall of the Berlin Wall provides a possible historical point of recall, but the narrator encounters absence even in the desire to clarify personal memory:
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I went to Germany in 1991. Cologne. I find a journal to help me remember. Number 7: 1/4/89–9/12/91. It doesn’t.
Yet ED/HF refuses to solely portray “not knowing” as mere lack. Rather, it considers “not knowing” as writers described by writers Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme—something that implies both the process and the space that allow creation to form. Green also notes the influence of biomythography on her work—a form developed by the black, lesbian, feminist poet Audre Lorde (1934–1992) in her 1982 book, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. “A biomythography,” explains Lorde, “is really fiction. It has the elements of biography and history and myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.”
For Green, how better to expand vision than in film, a genre whose tools of cutting, editing, and sequencing are uniquely suited to portraying the elongations and contractions of time, as well as its elisions and displacements? ED/HF is a densely edited and modular work; both image and narrative make frequent pivots, switches, and divergences. These gestures are far from concealed. The narrator emphasizes such moments, stressing statements as questions, pausing before each “and” and “or.” Later, the voiceover summarizes the formal qualities and operations of ED/HF itself, speaking as if each were its own title or description of its visual contents: “Montage. / Edit. / Combine.” This is both description and command—and it, alongside the work’s portrayals of the editing station and its use of the split-screen format, directly invokes one of Farocki’s most significant films: Schnittstelle/Interface (1995).
Commissioned by Lille’s Musee d’art Moderne de Villeneuve d’Ascq, Schnittstelle emerged in response to the museum’s request that Farocki document his working methods. The result was a modular film that presents views across two channels. Depicting both clips of his own work and the image of Farocki seated at an editing table, Schnittstelle reflects on the question of whether the editing station is an encoder or a decoder.
Throughout his working life, the editing station served as Farocki’s industrial talisman: a tool, a location, a practice. He described the editing station as a “dubious kind of place” that occupies backrooms, basements, and attics. And yet, in its most potent state, it is capable of montage—the act of providing narrative harmony to images where there may have previously been none. In ED/HF, montage reveals the byproducts of a life and their interdependencies. “Friendships, economics, and forms of labor, production, distribution, and geopolitical shifts, wars, affiliations, affection, specific times, as well as changes throughout lives, also play their roles, albeit obliquely—yet indexed/inscribed and composed with recorded media,” notes Green.
In its very density, ED/HF embodies much of the structured thinking of Schnittstelle, implicitly recalling the ways in Farocki’s film moves between formats of representation, including representations of himself over time: youthful on film, mature in film, and then another self—invisible but present as author within the editorial cuts and splices of his films. ED/HF representations are meanwhile concerned with the image and language of time, where those representations—much like the displacing “/” in the titles of both ED/HF and Schnittstelle / Interface—are always both ‘and’ as well as ‘or’. This bifurcating impulse is the continual splitting of narratives into different directions, different forms of time: bar time, musical time, biographical time, spare time, geological time. In short, these are the extraterritorial durations that come to define this work.
* * *
To talk of Green’s artistic practice is to talk of diversions, parallels, and alternates. Her talks, writing, installations, and films are fractal-like in their vertiginous movement between periods, languages, and personas. In ED/HF alone, the narrator journeys through multiple histories and places, murmuring a sequence of statements that are, by turns, titular, aphoristic, and cryptogrammatic: “The Shape of Time. The Shape of Things. The Life of Forms.” And, at one point the voice confesses, “This may be more of a feeling about language than a fact.”
But beyond feelings about language, ED/HF is also a meditation on what kind of language can come to define the fullness and complexity of life, even as that life recedes into history, is reduced to fact, or if it is allowed to leaves traces at all. Given such an endeavor, the film is, at times, gravely weighted: “Parts of our bodies. Remaining in traces. In pictures. In moving images… All of the burdens of history. And burdens of representation,” states the voiceover. Relating to such burdens, Green has described ED/HF as a consideration of a “post-alive moment”—a work that emerged from personal reflection on the recent deaths of a number of family, friends, and peers. She adds that it is an attempt, in some ways, to negotiate with the dead.
In her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996), literary scholar Cathy Caruth states, “It is the inextricability of the story of one’s life from the story of a death, an impossible and necessary double telling, that constitutes [the] historical witness.” Impossible and necessarily opaque in its portrayals of Farocki and Green, ED/HF does not want to be read without the quality of “double telling.” Green notes of her sources, “everything can be found.” But everything—as is the case in much of her work—is also partially buried. It asks that the resonance of historical moments be felt more than explained. In so doing, she exposes the implausibility of biographical transparency and the idea that the act of telling a story, a life, can ever really be clear or complete—even in death.
To come closer to ED/HF’s intention is to demand one stem the desire to grasp at the singularity of meaning, and to refuse attempts to take (violent) possession of knowledge and fix it into a known history. Rather, the film gives over to the sprawling complexity of not knowing, that all-too human quality of imprecision that shapes one’s subjectivity just as much as the presence of knowledge. Hinting at a space somewhere between these two spaces, Green encases the closing words of the film within a nest of voices—hers, the narrators, and finally the poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaking about the Greek mythical figure of Orpheus: “the world has to be twofold.”