Arie Altena 1 Jan 1998

Hello? History? Hello? (2)

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

In my view, it doesn't matter what genre Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y belongs to. Is it art, a documentary, a pseudo-documentary? Is it fiction or just a carnival of samples, an over the top video clip with texts by DeLillo? Does it belong in a museum, in a cinema or on TV?

It doesn't really matter. The determination of the genre and the placing of it within a certain exhibition context are neither the only nor the most important criteria in the creation of meaning, and they don't significantly alter the experience of watching. What I wonder about is what meanings are conjured up by the film, what it releases, what kind of view of the world and of history we're being served up here, regardless of the genre; in other words, not where the video belongs, but what happens . The relevant context is the context that the viewer constructs with the video. The context is what you know about the RAF, the PFLP, the German Autumn, what you know about the theories on the power or the powerlessness of the media, what you know about the work of DeLillo, what you know about historiographical theories. In short, your knowledge of the world.

Why should you have to attach all of these kinds of meanings to a collage of images? Is it because of the nature of the visual material (images of terrorists are always politically charged)? Is it because Grimonprez, in his other work, focuses the center of attention precisely on the anthropological, the historical? Or is it a sense of the context that draws you closer as a viewer, inspired by your own interests and fascinations, your own background, your own biography?

I make immediate connections, even while I'm still watching, with the paranoid novel, with postmodern theories on media and history. Another voice beckons: Come on now. It's art, not serious anthropological research. Knock it off.
But the question is to what degree one is allowed to ascribe these meanings to the video. Every rerun of it on my own TV made me rethink it, until I tended to believe that the video is so unimposing in its suggestions that it's hardly possible to speak about a meaning of the video itself. It's my own stream of associations, set in motion by a few images that I isolate from the video.

The cynical view: hijacking used to be the favorite way for a group of weary terrorists to spend their time, terrorists brought to discredit by an overabundance of violence. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a video about the rage of hijacking, hijacking as hula-hooping, what does it matter? You with your DeLillo, your speculations, your theories and your fascinations, you imbue it with far too much meaning.

Maybe Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is only about the aesthetic of news images, using the theme of hijackings as an example. Without any conclusions being drawn. Just a nice game, purely visual, nothing to do with the world beyond images. But can that be so? Is it possible as a viewer not to make any conclusions?

The video can't escape the viewer's urge to interpret. Only the purely sublime, which simply fascinates, escapes that urge. But where does that lead? To anesthetization? Shrugging of shoulders? Fear?

Grimonprez and DeLillo

The fragments from DeLillo's works play a leading role in the video. They interpret the images, they forge the link to postmodern media theory. They program the context in a rather banal way. But there's something up with Grimonprez' use of DeLillo. It's no surprise that he chooses DeLillo, as no other writer has thought as deeply about terror and the similarities between the loner - the man who works in isolation, the writer - and the terrorist, about history and plots and catastrophes.

Grimonprez borrows texts, which he sometimes adapts, from two novels: White Noise and Mao II. White Noise (1985) is about catastrophes, plots, simulacra, the fear of death. It reads like a parodical variant of an overwrought, postmodern, panic-stricken thinking. Mao II (1991) is an exposé on the differences and similarities between the writer of novels and the terrorist, and a good deal of it concerns the contrast between the word (the novel) and the image (the mass media).

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y seems to begin from the standpoint of the dead-end idea that only what enters the media actually happens. Nothing happens until it's consumed, and All plots tend to move deathwards: that's the Cold War DeLillo in White Noise. We engineer death each time we make a plot. The images which Grimonprez has sought out seamlessly connect with these statements.

The statements are seen out of context here, which is hardly a crime. The quotes from White Noise threaten to lose their layered irony. What functions in the novel as irony is taken literally within the video. Which is, of course, allowed. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y also seems to underscore that George Haddad, the terrorist intellectual from Mao II, is right. With DeLillo, the terrorists are the do-gooders who have sold themselves to the power of the Image. They see this, according to George Haddad, as their last chance to still have an influence on the thinking of humanity in an apocalyptic world in which the media decide what reality is. On the terrain that once belonged to the writer, the terrorist is now the lone combatant. In Mao II, DeLillo specifically demonstrates the limits of this vision and tries to demarcate the terrain of the writer anew. He shows us, in White Noise and Mao II, people who sit locked up in the snare of the simulacrum, and it is the vision of these characters which Grimonprez uses as his starting point.6

What it should be, if I were you

In Underworld, DeLillo's most recent book, these themes get a new, partially more hopeful, interpretation. The ubiquitous paranoia and global systems have made way for an emphasis on networks between people. The fear of masses has made way for the longing for communities and the emphasis on their importance. Instead of the Cold War and the threat of an ultimate catastrophe, there are the problems of nuclear waste and pollution. Instead of plots and the fear of death, there's an emphasis on loving your neighbor, even if there are still a few murders. Instead of only the sublime image which withdraws out of reach, there are individuals who make images of their own. And not only terror has become local, history is now local as well. There is still a loner walking through all of this, but he doesn't escape from everything. He's no longer busy with a lone quest, a plot, a journey to the West which will end in a meeting with death. Even if he is still an introverted man who, just like everyone else, bears the burden of his own history on his shoulders. There is no more plot, but there are still stories, many stories which intersect with each other and which are served up here in such a way that the reader doesn't fall into the paranoid tendency of looking for a plot to hatch. In Underworld, the fascination of the media perspective is broken down. Underworld recounts what you might naively call ‘real' history, the underworld. It focuses on the lives of people instead of on paranoia, systems, being blinded by the media, technology and politics. Even though that life isn't necessarily easy, it is, in any case, more human. The thoughts of the loner Nick Shay, after a visit to the artist Klara Sax (who paints old B-52s in the desert), are telling in this regard, even though they're just as flat as the statements Grimonprez chooses: I lived responsibly in the real. I didn't accept this business of life as a fiction, or whatever Klara Sax had meant when she said that things had become unreal (p. 82).

I would like Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y to look beyond the spectacle of the media, beyond the paralyzing grip of the simulacrum; I would like it to show history, which has always been with us, anew.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is easy to deactivate: just put it in a postmodern vacuum. The video is only about how terrorists get into the news, how the media generate images of the terrorists. Yeah, sure, but we already know that song. Although it's executed very well here, it is rehashed; Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y as an apocalyptic video about how catastrophe has penetrated our living rooms. The viewer who interprets Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y in this way suffers from catatonia, is paralyzed in the mirth surrounding the approaching of the end of time.

Seen from this perspective, Grimonprez is stuck in a vision of television, media and history which is passé, passé because it fits too well with the contemporary situation, thereby confirming the status quo and cooping us up in a dead-end alleyway without any prospect of escape. Good art shows an escape route. Grimonprez displays a deluge of images which tend to result in claustrophobia. He doesn't appropriate any of the images himself in order to bring another meaning to the surface, he doesn't delve deeply enough. Grimonprez' compilation is hilarious and in a cynical way ridiculous, yet it is also upsetting. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y shows the triumph of a hyperreality which doesn't allow any history. Sure, that's all well and good, exactly right. It's undoubtedly true within the context of the story of media in postmodern times. But what about it? It's old news.

Why is the video a hit? Because it's a pleasant stream of images. Because it cynically and ironically underscores with a roaring laugh what we've known for a long time. We're not confused, not wrong-footed. The media have power, the news has taken over history, and there were still innocent freedom fighters back in the seventies. We laugh about it. It's a cynical laugh at a cynical history. But anyone who laughs in this way is trapped in the idea that there's nothing outside of this; he gets stuck in a catatonic intoxication (doesn't he?). Same old song. Everything is constructed, everything is constructed - all together now...

I don't want that. That's not a message I find relevant. It's a dead-end alleyway, a slogan heard too many times. I want to hear another story, a story that offers more clarity on how our world works.

Something curious is afoot here: the video shows cracks, cracks which allude to an escape route, cracks which show that the oh-so-easy ‘there's nothing beyond the media' catastrophe mindset doesn't hold true. That there's something else. Or am I just imagining it?

History calling

The meanings with which you imbue Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y depend on what you believe. They depend on what you think history is, how history is made, whether there is any history beyond the media, whether or not the news has replaced history. Looking at Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y can be a discovery if you think about these things deep down in your heart, deep down in your gut.

Do you identify with the terrorist? And do you think that the actual changes which terrorists effect lie not in the impact of their media image (the worldwide fear of airplane bombs), but rather in what happens on the local level (the history that is played out behind the spotlights, in people's homes and on the street)? Do you believe in the existence of a story alongside the sublime, incomprehensible TV image of a Boeing shattered to pieces? Then you'll find something else in the video than will the post-modernist who thinks that in White Noise and Mao II, Don DeLillo is simply sketching a convincing and truthful picture of the condition in which we live.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y might just as well be perceived as a rewriting of recent history beyond the spectacle, beyond the oppressive grip of the panic and the catastrophic Cold War mindset. In this case, the video is a merry look back to the time when people tried to explain everything in media terms, a time when theorists thought that something only existed once it had been covered in the media. Perhaps we roar with laughter for just this reason when we watch the video. It then becomes a re-recording of a few moments from that age, and shows us that the moments have a meaning beyond the media. And it tells us that we can make a call to history.

Home is a failed idea, DeLillo says in White Noise, and Grimonprez repeats him. A place where we belong no longer exists in the age of the global economy, virtual geographies and telecommunication, where disasters penetrate our living rooms via the TV. This awakens our longing for an ultimate disaster and tarnishes our domestic bliss. But that's a Cold War story, because what does that mean, our domestic bliss? What's valid now is the story of longing for a community in the midst of the trans-national communication lines. When I watch Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the feeling creeps up on me that the terrorists from the beginning of the seventies, those romantic, innocent freedom fighters, could fulfill that longing. Striving for the utopia of one's own place, for innocence and purity. Friendly hijackers instead of bomb packages and calculations.

The terrorist as freedom fighter, who can give us back that bygone land before the age of the media. The battle for feeling a sense of belonging somewhere, not in a virtual geography, but in a real place in the world. Tom Paulus writes that Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is history's emergency hotline, a cynical prop and refuge for the lonely hearts who nostalgically pine away for an old world order of grand narratives and patriarchal hierarchies. As I see it, we can do without the grand narratives and patriarchal hierarchies. What matters is the pining away for a time of innocence, when history still existed, when it really seemed possible for human actions to change things, instead of things being changed by manipulation of series of numbers and computer networks. When there were still freedom fighters and countries which you still felt connected to. The longing for this world is perhaps indeed nostalgic, but is it also irrelevant, unimportant, senseless? I don't think so.

For me, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a visit back to my own history, and forms the occasion for an ego trip. A visit that winds up as disappointing, presumably because what I had initially hoped to find is not to be found in the video. But that's no great tragedy. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a catalyst, it allows me forge connections in my head while itself remaining intact. What's important is what happens, not simply what it is. The journey along all of the questions which Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y raises, questions connected to the video even if they only sprouted up in my imagination, is worth the trip it in and of itself.

This design, a series of images which awaken a constellation of thoughts and feelings in the viewer, a constellation which upon closer inspection hardly seems possibly anchored in the work that it evokes, might well become characteristic of compilations and sample-based artworks. At its least, it is an aesthetic strategy which presents itself easily if you're making sample-based art. It is an effect that appears easily; you recognize something, then something else, and then you trip. Perhaps this experience replaces the aesthetic experience in a culture of samples. If that's the case, then Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is also exemplary of what lies ahead.

I came across this quote from Herman de Coninck, the Flemish poet and poetry critic who died in 1997. He writes, You draw out the time that the film takes up in order to be allowed to be someone else. With poetry, you make available, on the basis of a text, the duration that you need in order to be yourself. The amount of time which I rather easily spent watching Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a discovery of another me, and of my secret history. More poetry than a film.

''it seems that people have the

acquired need

to demarcate their cultural identity

in territorial terms

by organizing their

local community, getting

a grip on their workplace and

home, love,

lust and happiness as well as

discovering anew in the abstraction

of this new, historical

landscape with the danger

that it is the parameters

of their ‘specific identity'

needed to recharge the notion of place

with meaning

which become incommunicable

to the other tribes,

confused outsiders, in

the same situation, so to speak''

Dirk van Bastelaere 'Zapruderstress', in Dietsche Warande en Belfort, October 1997


Bibliografie / Videografie

Herman de Coninck, Intimiteit onder de Melkweg, Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 1994.

Don DeLillo, White Noise, Picador, London, 1985.

Don DeLillo, Libra: Lester, Orpen, Dennys, Toronto, 1988.

Don DeLillo, Mao II, Viking Penguin, 1991.

Don DeLillo, Underworld, Scribner, New York, 1997.

Jeroen Olyslaegers, 'Let me take you higher jack!', in Dietsche Warande en Belfort, October 1997 p. 567-574.

Tom Paulus, 'Bezet, de terrorist als legitimatie van de wereldgeschiedenis: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y van Johan Grimonprez', in: Andere Sinema 141 Sept-Oct 1997, p. 56-60.

D van Bastelaere, 'Zapruderstress', in Dietsche Warande en Belfort, October 1997, p. 547-565