Arie Altena 1 Jan 1998

Hello? History? Hello? (1)

Thoughts on terrorists and history on the occasion of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

Zapruder Stress: the weight of endlessly expanding meanings (meanings of representations of what might have taken place). No mystery is solved, and there?s no promise of redemption. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, to get rid of Zapruder stress.

''The world and its appearances

In its appearances

the world, good-bye

world, good-bye appearances

Was that the arrangement?''

Dirk van Bastelaere, 'Zapruderstress'

Take me back to where I belong

History begins as a myth. It might be the first news broadcast that you saw on television when you were young, the war in Cambodia, something that touched you. News like that retains a mythical value. It's not imprisoned in the realm of the history book, nor is it exposed to inflation via overload and habitation: the umpteenth crisis in the news, the umpteenth civil war - how interesting is that after a while?

You notice that images and events have a mythical value when you see them again. I breathlessly watched all the documentaries about the German Autumn of 1977, screened extensively on German television in 1997, recording them on video so that I could watch them again. Why? Are they indeed my mythical stories from the age of television, the stories and images I grew up with? Aside from Black Arrow and Thierry la Fronde, also the Baader-Meinhoff Gruppe, terrorists and freedom fighters?

Third grade, elementary school: arithmetic, the most boring of subjects. We're sitting together in a group of five. We're being pests. The substitute teacher comes up to us. Who's the leader here? I say, No one, we don't have a leader. We're communists. Bewildered by so much brutality, she answers, But communists have a leader, too. Sure, but we don't.

I reenacted the civil war in Angola with my little brother. He had to be the FNLA, while I was the MPLA. The MPLA were the communists, the revolutionaries. Of course I had to play the communists. Perhaps I also imagined that I was the RAF, much like I played Black Arrow, or played my favorite hero, Thierry la Fronde.

The photos of the Baader-Meinhoff Gruppe were similarly burned into my memory while I was still young and had no notion of politics or reality. The irresponsible innocence of youth in a 1970s new housing estate in a mid-sized industrial city?

Calling History

Dial History. That mythical moment when the news hasn't yet been fossilized in schoolbooks and hasn't yet been lost from our attention by the stream of newsbites which you keep following for years; could that be a decisive moment in the constitution of the subject in the age of the mass media? An appointment with history. Hello history.

Dial History. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Sixty-eight minutes of video about air hijackings. A shock of recognition. Hijackings, attacks, images from the news which helped my outlook on life, and I never realized it myself. Seen on the news between the children's cartoon show and the 7 o'clock TV series. I remember this; the heads of the hijackers, I instinctively identify with them. Is that because of the intoxication that video produces, the nose-dive through the visual material, or is it actual identification?

Dial History. Allow me to explain the title. The terrorist is the last individual of the twentieth century, making a call to the history hotline. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1-800. Is it the number you can call to become a part of history? The terrorist draws world history towards himself. You place a bomb and make a phone call. The bomb explodes and you're on TV. If you're on TV then you're a part of history. Right?

Or is Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y the emergency hotline you can call with suggestions on who murdered history?

1 See: Tom Paulus 'Bezet', in Andere Sinema 141, p.57

Has history been murdered? Are the mass media guilty because they exchanged history for the news? The news: forgotten tomorrow, never forming a standard for how you should live, what you have to believe in or what you can expect. It has no memory. And the murdered history: an explanatory story, with context, meaning, and a memory that tells us who we've become and how it's come to be that way.

Are the guilty parties the individuals who, instead of making history, sought their refuge in the mass media? The revolutionaries who adapted to the logic of the media (hunger for sensation: the more powerful the explosion, the bigger the impact). It's only really happened when it gets on the news; only then will it form a part of what people believe.

Are the hijackers candidate suspects for the murder of history? They transferred their battle to the media's spotlights. They got the Palestine issue on the agenda via media exposure, they liberated their colleague freedom fighters via media exposure. Did they adapt to the new world order in which the image rules supreme, in which power is divided by the media?

2 See: Don DeLillo Mao II

Or is the audience guilty of letting themselves be driven mad, of believing in it?

Was history murdered by cynical theorists who contended that hyperreality had won the debate? Communications consultants and advertising people, that bunch, with a vested interest in the erasure of the external world before representation - are they guilty? Or did history simply hide behind the veil of mediatization, the veil of the simulacrum? The simulacrum of numbers, statistics, media images, representations, diverging meanings? Can we recover history by looking through the simulacrum?

3 Or is the terrorist, as Tom Paulus writes, the one who so easily sabotages the history hotline? The only one who can make inteventions where the world leaders have long been powerless, where United Nations are powerless institutions. The terrorist as a sniper in the realm of signs? Someone who slips through the seames? The warlords, sure, they slip through, just like the algerian murder commandos. Their struggle displays no interest in the media. Their terror doesn't need TV. Can the terrorist of today even be compared to the hijacker of 1970? Can the terrorist of then and now even be placed on the same plane as the warlords of the ninetees in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia and Bosnia?

Perhaps I'm asking too many questions. I'm undoubtedly asking questions which are not exacted from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, but which stem from my own obsessions. It buzzes in my head, and the video is definitely responsible for that.

Why are the hijackers the stars in this 68-minute long compilation tape by Johan Grimonprez? Why was Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y a hit at Documenta? Why have articles about Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y appeared in magazines you'd never expect to cover it? Why is it being shown everywhere? Why are we discussing it here? Does it summon up relevant questions? Or is it because the intoxication of watching is ‘fun'? Why was I touched by it? Call history.

Watching Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y consists largely of archival footage: hijackings, terrorism in the air, and everything that has to do with it - from the fear of flying to the murder of Sadat. News items, old film journals, bits of interviews; it's a look back.

We see Kozo Okamoto defeated in the dock, Leila Khaled, the explosion of three Boeings in the desert, Castro and Lenin and Mao - all phantoms and clichés of international terrorism. A voice-over reads texts about plots, terrorists and catastrophes, almost all of which are borrowed from two Don DeLillo novels, White Noise and Mao II. The music of David Shea heightens the sense of nostalgia; nostalgia for a time when it was still possible to unleash a revolution which wouldn't degenerate into a vulgar civil war, nostalgia for a time when terrorists wore bell-bottoms.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is after an emotional reaction. It is a nose-dive through images. Backgrounds aren't investigated; you learn nothing about what the terrorists wanted, nothing about the context of the events. No explanation is given: the viewer is treated to a ‘fun' video in terms of dynamics and motion, which overwhelms you, overpowers you and confronts you without brief asides, without ever putting the images in perspective. It is sublime; here are the pictures, do what you want with them. The video is based more on the visual aesthetic of samples than on their historical or social meaning.

4 For me, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was a journey of exploration during which I was inspired by media such as CNN, MTV and NBC. I wanted to mimic their aesthetic strategies, says Grimonprez in an interview. It's an aesthetic in which the media make the news into a soap opera, interrupted by commercials.

Samples, contexts and context horizon

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a compilation video. Grimonprez selects bits from the news and from films and reassembles them. The meaning of his story, insofar that you create one as a viewer, lies in the sequence of the fragments, the flow. He hardly uses juxtapositions or Eisensteinian argumentative tricks. The fragments don't collide (with some exceptions), but rather follow each other, complement each other, build upon each other, occasionally give another vision than the previous bits. The montage is more or less cleanly sequential, and the fact that the video is largely chronological has everything to do with this. In fact, Grimonprez uses a form of montage which has more of a narrative effect than a disruptive or argumentative one.

His handling of the voice-over is similar; the content of the fragments which are read aloud continually builds upon or interprets what you can already see in the picture. Text and image complement one another, relate to one another in a particular way, as the major themes are continually repeated. These are not deep chasms, and there are no explosions (there are enough of those in the visual material) which summon meaning. The pictures draw the viewer in, into a network of pictures which refer only to themselves, whereby the relationship to the world outside threatens to disappear. The video is enough in and of itself, just as the world of the media is.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y constricts its own context by showing the same kind of images again and again. The video might just as easily have made the context horizon as broad as possible by indicating that there are connections to be made to the politico-historical situation. It could show that other perspectives exist. But it doesn't, undoubtedly by design. And that's what allows Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y to have such an emotional impact.

The selected texts continually emphasize the same things - catastrophes, terrorists, media. The music offers an upbeat counterweight which, however, turns out to be all the more cynical as the images become more horrible. Text and image don't allow any openings to or perspectives on other worlds; they assume a media mono-perspective.

5 And this is not because it is a compilation of media images, it is a result of the way Grimonprez handles them

Yet this doesn't detract from experiencing the material and the story in various, even contradictory, ways.

Hijacking developed from a romantic, innocent idling of time up until the placing of bombs, that's the story I construct. And I see the governments' reactions: from granting demands, to employing murder commandos, all the way up to shooting a passenger plane out of the air. We never come to know the how's and why's of it all.

It seems that Grimonprez is showing innocent, human, amiable terrorists versus frightening government leaders. This is his set-up: violence on a human scale, carried out by individuals, perhaps terrifying ones (I'm inclined to forget the blood-bath in Lod...) as opposed to an anonymous fighter jet casually blowing a Boeing out of the air. The terrorists from the seventies come across as individuals, and even now can still be recognized as people with human feelings. The terrorist from the beginning of the seventies is a romantic hero with a calling, while the responsible government leaders sound like Saddam Hussein, or laugh their heads off at a dumb joke: Clinton and Yeltsin, as seen on TV.

While Clinton and Yeltsin, for example, seem locked up in the prison of the media simulacrum, the terrorists from the beginning of the seventies still stood outside of it - or at least seemed to be standing outside of it. Yeltsin and Clinton are lifeless marionettes, and the innocent terrorists - granted, from another age - are amicable people with whom you could have a nice chat at a party.

When I saw Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y for the first time, I interpreted it as a rewriting of the history of hijackings from the perspective of the terrorists, as sympathy for the terrorist. The terrorists weren't actually violent and inhuman; just look at how well the initial hijackings went. It was the governments who stepped up to inhuman violence and forced its escalation; witness Reagan's counter-terrorist rhetoric. I identify with the terrorists - out of fascination?

What's fascinating about the terrorist is his unfaltering belief. His resolve and determination. A belief so strong that he's willing to die for it. What a relief in times of hypocrisy. What a relief in times in which the only ones who are still willing to die for their belief are rabid nationalists and extreme fundamentalists. Today's democrat in the western world believes in the economy, in cost and benefit analyses, believes that the economy regulates everything. But whose belief in the economy is as strong as the terrorist's belief?

That's how it reads in Mao II as well, and this is quoted in the video. Georg Haddad, the terrorist, says, Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the man who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed (p. 157).

The figure of the terrorist is a possible fulfillment of the dream of being completely free, an independent person instead of a trivial part of an undifferentiated mass. Does the terrorist allow us the possibility of redeeming our longing to break through to history?

See for continuation of this text: Hello? History? Hello? (2)