Portraying the Other

Text was written by Maria Walsh for the Fotograf Magazine in 2020.

While Alžběta Bačíková’s experimental approach to documentary puts the transparency of the filmic medium in parenthesis, this self-reflexive attitude does not operate at the expense of creating an empathic relation between artist and protagonist, subject and viewer. Over the past six years, Bačíková has been making films that could loosely be categorized as ‘portraits’. In her use of multiple screens and sound channels and with her cross-genre montage aesthetic, she questions the objectivity of the recorded image to represent her subjects.

One of Bačíková’s strategies in relation to the problem in documentary of portraying others without reducing them to objects of knowledge is to use the installation format as an extension of her montage aesthetic. In her film installations, the spatial and temporal disjunctions of the image are accentuated by the intercutting and layering of on-screen sound, dialogue, voiceovers and musical scores that are often shown being composed on-screen. A good example of this is the 3-channel video installation Running Report 2017 which featured new iterations of three of Bačíková’s films: Heroes 2017, Correspondence 2016 and Doctors 2016. All three films are experimental documentary portraits of male protagonists: respectively, Eda, a tire factory worker who practices martial arts and writes martial arts fiction based on the wuxia genre; Oliver, a professional escort; and an elderly solitary Czech man whose persecutory delusions and conspiracy theories are recited by an actor in the film. These networked portraits are approximately 30 minutes in duration, the installation being synchronized to tune out each film’s sound at 10-minute intervals, giving the viewer the option of listening closely to the protagonists’ ‘stories’ as they circumnavigate the gallery.

In its initial iteration, Heroes consisted of a double-sided single screen, the two sides showing different footage relating to Eda’s hobbies and work, while in Running Report, Bačíková juxtaposes two image tracks on a single screen. The shots range from static and handheld camera close-ups of Eda’s body and aspects of his life as well as online images from martial arts movies, the contrast between different classes of image being a characteristic of Bačíková’s work. Heroes also features a unique authorial inscription in that Bačíková pre-set Eda the task of writing a story about the Chinese feminist and revolutionary Qiu Jin (1875-1907). Enthusiastic about the task, Eda’s story recasts Qiu Jin as the object of a male warrior’s desire. As he reads his story, pornography is seen and heard playing on his computer, with Bačíková’s non-judgmental gaze allowing the viewer the time and space to observe the conditions under which stereotypes are both played with and affirmed in this complex portrait of different types of labor.

In its first iteration, three image tracks in Doctors were displayed on monitors contained in a spatialized, open-grid structure. In Running Report, the three image tracks are arranged on one screen, the central channel being comprised of footage found on the data storage site Ulož.to, while the adjoining two enact the soundtrack: an actor in a recording studio performs the elderly Czech man’s testimony; two musicians compose the electronic score adding an eerie atmosphere to the speedily edited Internet footage showing health data, pills and DIY home security installation. As opposed to the observational performativity of Heroes, the presentation of the character in Doctors mirrors the overwhelming nature of online image capture, implying that the unseen protagonist’s paranoid fantasies, while having a particular post-Soviet resonance, are accentuated by immersion in this ‘Big Brother’ technology.

Exploring how identities and relationships are propped on the pre-existent script of language, Correspondence 2016 consisted of a scenario in which two commissioned love letters written by professional writers are read and interpreted by a gigolo, Oliver and an actress. The 2017 iteration in Running Report only features Oliver, the camera’s focus on and cropping of his gestures being intercut with images from Bačíková’s personal image archive – recurring footage of a club, a street scene and waves breaking on the shore. Their inclusion both disrupts the viewer’s access to Oliver’s interiority and minimally signals an authorial inscription that appears more overtly in shots displaying Bačíková’s online contractual correspondence with him about the project.

Bačíková’s deployment of documentary tropes could be said to echo Trinh T. Minh-ha’s description of her films as “interacting movements. The first is to let the world come to us through an outside-in movement – this is what some call ‘documentary’. The other is to reach out to the world from the inside out, which is what some call ‘fiction’”. This movement is more explicitly translated into a collaborative process in Encounter 2018, which features two protagonists, Alena Terezie who is blind and Mac who is deaf, both of whom contributed to the creation of the work. Exhibited in adjacent rooms, the installation consists of two channels of a film documenting Terezie’s and Mac’s ‘relationship’: one channel is sound only, the other is silent and shows the image, the separation of sound and image referring to film history – sound was added to image in 1927 - and to the protagonist’s sensory capacities. Encounter documents Terezie and Mac’s elaboration of how they could go about doing various activities together – going for a drive, doing an improvisational dance and attending a screening of From Saturday to Sunday (dir. Gustav Machatý 1931). While each channel is defined by each protagonist’s sensory capacity, Bačíková’s binary deployment of sound/image and blindness/deafness is less about opposition and more about understanding how our interpretations and judgments are always unstable regardless of sighted or hearing capacities. Due, however, to the overdetermination of the image in film, Terezie is more at risk of objectification as she cannot return the look that is deemed empowering in theories of representation. Almost in defiance of this, Bačíková shows Terezie applying mascara. She sits on the edge of her bath looking towards the wall above the sink where mirrors usually hang, but the mirror has been moved to a corner and angled so that its reflection of Terezie’s actions confronts the viewer as a resistance to the objectifying gaze. This is one of several scenes that challenge the simple form of empathy in which the other is construed as a victim or someone to be pitied. In Encounter, empathy arises from intersubjective exchange: during their experimental floor-based dance, the couple confront one another from opposite sides of the screen. An intimate sensing of the other, as well as a respectful distance that cannot be broached, is movingly portrayed.

This sensibility describes Bačíková’s overall approach to film-making. Her investigation of how a subject can be disclosed without being objectified or pitied has led to installations that interrogate how we relate to others and how others present themselves through technological mediations that do not present the truth of the subject but instead enable us to imagine one another’s life worlds.

Maria Walsh is Reader in Artists’ Moving Image at Chelsea College of Arts, London. She is the author of Therapeutic Aesthetics: Performative Encounters in Moving Image Artworks (forthcoming 2020) as well as numerous texts on art, moving image and critical theory.