The picture of someone’s back


(Paper for the Documenting Performance Working Group, Wayward Temporalities, TaPRA conference, University of Exeter, September 2019)

In what follows I shall be discussing a couple of moving image works, each in their way contemporary cinematic reconstructions of historical events, both working in an explicit performance documentation mode, both playing with the temporalities of acting and spectating, both made very recently.

But to begin with, some words from Oscar Wilde, from his 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest:

Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

A three-word phrase from that exchange was taken as the title of a 13-minute video by artist Basir Mahmood, Good Ended Happily, made in 2018, which I saw as part of a retrospective exhibition of Mahmood’s work I Watch You Do at Cinéma Galeries in Brussels in the context of Kunstenfestivaldesarts earlier this year.

Good Ended Happily. There are several options for how we might read that title, in the context of this piece. To rehearse a few.

A terse mode of communication. A report from somewhere far away. In the moment, and therefore necessarily brief. Details to follow. Need to know basis. In earlier times a telegram. These days a person to person electronic message of some sort, most likely. Job done. Mission accomplished. And how did things go? Good. Ended happily.

Or – more in the Miss Prism mode – an instructive summary, to be passed on to the young perhaps. Of how things were, when the good were the ones who were sure to end happily. According to the fictions anyway.

Or – a third option for now – a ‘funny’ bit of speech, standing out from the rest. Good ended happily. A phrase one might attribute to a non-native speaker of English. Not someone with Wilde’s capability (who was not, of course, native English, or any sort of English really, although he had the facility). Something like the Anglo-Indian speech that some of us might remember from British film and TV comedies of earlier decades. A kind of shibboleth, then. A way of saying, of phrasing, that you carry as part of your being in the world, a performative trap that can hold you up at borders or else get you across. Shibboleth as opposed to visa, meaning ‘already seen’. The latter a document I carry to prove it. So that when I turn up at the border where we shall meet for the first time, it will be a kind of déjà vu. Good ended happily, again.

Basir Mahmood’s video is what we might call a delegated production. That is to say, made according to the artist’s instructions, but with licence to improvise, by craftspeople, specifically here professional fiction-makers. Not for the first time in his career, Mahmood, who works between Lahore – where he was born – and Amsterdam, commissioned a production team from the Lahore-based film industry – Lollywood – to make a film depicting ‘after-images’ of the United States army special forces attack that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, on 2nd May 2011, in Pakistan. A sort of fictional documentary, then.


This is how it works. A camera moves slowly through the buildings of a compound, room by room, along corridors and stairways, passing over the bloodied bodies of men, women and children – all wearing everyday Islamic clothing, all of them apparently the victims of violent death. Occasionally the camera pans down into a courtyard where there is smoke, some flames, or an impression of flames, and where groups of armed soldiers run by, from this side to that, and then after a while from that side to this.

The video is breathlessly quiet except for occasional voices, but they are not the voices of the people we see on screen. The director and assistant director are both wearing microphones, and what we hear are their instructions to the performers. ‘People inside, don’t move on the bed, the camera is here!’ ‘Afghan army, cross now!’ ‘American soldiers, come across now!’ We become aware that the dead people are not in fact dead people, but actors – extras – lying very still – listening for instructions, eyes closed, hyper-alert, knowing that the camera may be upon them at this very moment.

So then, after-images for sure, of something terribly, irreversibly, done. An action ordered, commissioned, be that the military operation or the film reconstruction, in which good ended happily, according to the label on the box. At the same time, however, an action that is yet to be completed, and a scene that patently exposes the conditions of its making, the actors in it alive still to what is demanded of them, their task, their capability, their job. Jobs which – before we get too eager to draw redemptive potential from the epiphany – as the press release for the work takes the trouble to note, belong to an industry that ‘during its heyday… was among the largest film industries in the world,’ but which, ‘since around 1977 […] began a dramatic collapse into creative banality, intellectual decadence and popular irrelevance. Today, it maintains a limited, almost peripheral existence in the arena of Pakistan’s socio-cultural production.’

Perhaps for now it is enough to note that the work may invoke a range of responses, among them shock, outrage and pity. But also humour, not least when we hear the voices of the production team and realise that the actors are staying as still as they can until the camera has passed by. And note too that the difference between, say, history as ‘already seen’, done and determined, commercially reconstructed as hallucinatory after-image; and, on the other hand, an as it were immanent historicity, arrived among us, as yet unspeaking but capable of speech (as if any of these actors might at any moment open their eyes and move) – that this sort of difference is a matter of shimmer and glimpse. Seen through smoke and shadow and flicker, on a moment to moment basis, as you read as you watch.

Like Mahmood’s Good Ended Happily, Albert Serra’s Roi Soleil [Sun King], released for cinemas in 2018, involves another hallucinatory reconstruction – or re-enactment – of an historical event, with, over its 60-minute length, its own distinct stages of removal from that event.

In 2016, director Serra had released the much-admired film The Death of Louis XIV, with the celebrated French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud – a star since his performances as a child actor in the 1950s and 60s in the early films of François Truffaut – bewigged, supine and superb in the eponymous role of the long-lived but now, eventually, dying French monarch.

Then in January 2017, over seven days, for four hours each day, in the white-walled ex-industrial gallery space of Graça Brandao in Lisbon, Serra staged the art installation Roi Soleil, featuring the wigged, costumed and portly figure of Lluís Serrat – a long-term member of the Serra entourage, unlikely to be confused with the lean and leonine Jean-Pierre Léaud – basically wandering the gallery space and groaning a lot (he never speaks), settling on the floor, arranging and re-arranging a pillow, attempting to get comfortable (he never succeeds), gorging on sweets from a little cake-stand, observing himself in a hand-held mirror, and sucking water from a crystal decanter through a rubber tube, the end of which sometimes for no obvious reason he sticks in his cummerbund, next to his stomach where it appears the pain is. The whole event was washed in an infernal or, perhaps, purgatorial red light. Spectators were free to watch the action from a balcony within the gallery and to come and go as they wish.

As Serra explained at a screening of the film at Tate Modern in London earlier this summer, he already had a camera at the installation for documentation purposes, but at a certain point it occurred to him to call in his regular sound person, in the intuition there might be a cinema work in this. To further raise the stakes, during the week of the Lisbon installation his team informed the public through Facebook posts that the Sun King would – as in his other film – definitely die, at a designated time towards the end of the last day, and that they should be sure not to miss the moment.


And that is what happened. We see it on the film, Serra and the cameraman taking the actor’s pulse and pronouncing him dead for the spectators, something they were obliged to do – according to Serra – because Serrat the performer had no idea what time it was, or when he was supposed to die, or even perhaps that he was supposed to die, it being the case that they may have forgotten to tell him.

For this spectator the matter is, again, whatever else it is, comic. But let’s try to come at this for a moment from another perspective.

The smoking, burning compound re-constructed on a Lollywood backlot for Basir Mahmood’s video, or the glowing red of Serra’s film, along with the elements of play in both works on theatricality and historicality, and on temporal power and powerlessness, recall discussions in Maurya Wickstrom’s excellent recent book Fiery Temporalities in Theatre and Performance: The Initiation of History (Bloomsbury 2018). To summarise brutally, Wickstrom’s book is written – and offered to be read – in the wake and in the neighbourhood of conflagrations and political violence, recent and still raging through the environment and body politic, within the USA and also more globally. Her work makes no claim for political efficacy on behalf of the theatre productions she discusses, but does rehearse a politicised theatre-thinking – specifically around questions of time and history – that takes on what Wickstrom identifies as the future-baiting, end-facing, death-assuming chronological thinking that informs a dominant conception of history. ‘Processional history,’ she calls it, a perennial, self-fulfilling history of victors. In short, putting to work the thought of Agamben, Badiou, Benjamin and Negri (among others), along with some particularly involved readings of recent, innovative theatre and performance works, Wickstrom focuses on theatrical acts of temporal disturbance, on the burning and razing of processional history and the suspension of death-derived theatrical temporalities, exploring ways in which human capacities might clear space and time to initiate other histories, and inaugurate – as she proposes – universal conditions of justice and recognition, in the places where any of us live and die. To this end, Wickstrom proposes alternative temporal modalities, other ways of putting history to work, as unexhausted radical potential, in the injured present. They include: penultimate time, the time of living that precedes and supersedes dying; or kairological time, ‘time stopped at the brink, time undefinable by the futural directionality of processional history’ (173); or operational time, that involves not only the time of the image, but the time – and labour – of its making, its composition, its thinking through. Some of which would chime, for example, with how Mahmood’s work perennially reflects and acts on the conditions of its making, and – via labour relations, ownership, identity appropriation, distribution, delegation and so on – the politics of its production. Or chime with the sustained attention that Serra has brought, throughout his career, to the obsolescence – or better, anachronism – of class power, frequently figured as aristocratic, that continues to vampirise a significant share of cultural production.

Except, reading Wickstrom’s book recently, I am struck too by the extent to which the examples I am moved to work with seem so much more compromised – or delinquent – than that. By which I mean also, I think, so much less than she asks for. But a lessness I am inclined to stay with for the while. I shall use the conclusion of this paper to consider, very briefly, why and how that may be.

It has something to do, perhaps, with the camera. That delegated eye that focuses on that which our own conscious sight cannot otherwise see. Not so much specific things in the field of vision, but the conditions by which these things appear to sight. The way, for instance, a photograph of an actor playing a character in a drama cannot help but show an actor, every time an actor, on yet another stage or platform or screen.

Or to adapt a line of thought from Paolo Virno, my own go-to white, male, European philosopher of temporality at the moment, what gets brought into the frame – over the border as it were from the ‘hidden’ to the ‘empirically observable’, as part of an ever-to-be-renewed reification for public concern – is not so much the here-right-now of ‘after-images’ or the aboutness of this or that dramatic representation, but the preconditions that make our representations possible at all (‘biological dispositions, cognitive and ethical attitudes, relation to the peculiar vital context that we call “the world,” and so on’ [Virno, When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature, 136]). So to say, the word or words that – irrespective of our images, actions and performances – have the capacity to be returned to us as our own shared and divided flesh, bringing to consciousness the presuppositions that enable our relations to the things of the world, the environment, and to each other. Virno rehearses some of the objects – ready-to-hand theoretical models – that give a body to these relations: the ‘technical objects’ of cyberneticist Gilbert Simondon; or the ‘transitional objects’ of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott; or Virno’s own proposal, what he nominates as the capacity of social relation as such: amongness, ‘the pre-personal environment of the “among”’, whose necessary reification – in linguistic, cultural and other performance instances – ‘gives full visibility to what is located behind one’s consciousness’, like ‘the picture of someone’s back.’ (136)

But then, taken as technical object – as transindividual mediator of the inter-human relation – the Lollywood production apparatus is a funny enough stand-in for whatever the exclusive live feed machinery was that President Obama and his colleagues were photographed following in the Oval House operations room that day in 2011.

As for transitional objects, those candies, that sucking tube, the pillow and the mirror that allow Lluís Serrat – himself already a stand-in for the actor Léaud – to extend himself in the person of the King, these really do not seem to work that way anymore. No longer ‘social’ objects, hardly mediating ‘between’ a self and a someone else, they are now merely private property. Barely that. Stage properties, rather.

‘Amongness’ meanwhile, for the Roi Soleil – ancien régime monarch anachronistically at large in this disorienting modern bourgeois habitat where personal value appears to be realised solely in the buying and selling of labour power, whoever’s it might be – amongness is at risk at every moment of collapsing into ‘his’ individual – sovereign – consciousness, as a structure of bewildered dependency. Call that a dependency on the art machine, or the theatre machine, whether reflected back to him in his glass as an image of his sole self, or suddenly looming above him – as happens about 40 minutes into Serra’s film – in the person of one of the spectators (who I took at first to be a priest arrived to administer the last rites), there like the others to hear his groans and to watch him suffer and die.

Except, again, something shifts and flickers. We see the exhausted figure of the king, a burned-out and oblivious sun, but in the light that’s left we can’t help seeing also the actor who is there at the same time, one who – we are told – does not even know what the time is, but who knows he is being filmed, and brings – perhaps – by that account a glimmer of delinquent temporality to the deathly schedule, a sense of something else going on. As Serra himself remarked, it needs to be shifting, between – say – the funny and the unfathomable and the maybe offensive, at least. Otherwise it’s just a moral thing. Otherwise it’s not fiction.