Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#3 Bill Horrigan 1 Jan 1990

The Machine that Killed Bad People

without suspecting it, are the carriers of an immense embryological experiment: for even the process 0) remembering, crowned with the victory of memory’s effort, is amazingly like the phenommon of growth. In one as well as the other, there is a sprout, an embryo, the rudiment of a face, half a character, half a sound, the ending of a name, something labial or palatal, sweet legume on the tongue, that doesn't develop out of itself but only responds to an invitation, only stretches out toward, justifying one's expectation. - Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia (1933)


The Machine That Killed Bad People -

Even if not predicated on its eternal accumulation, video does cultivate and inherit a notion of debris. This debris is what we call culture (its archaism: progress...). At any rate, it is the life up until now of the form. Videos instinctive, frenzied entente with debris is no aspersion, by the way, a slur on the maternal pedigree neither of video nor debris. If anything, it's a means of avowing and calling by its proper name the capacity of videos labourers and managers to identify (hence to embrace) the form's upbringing as having provided a remarkable demonstration of territorial/epochal annexation (Ceci tuera cela - video will annex the institutional regime, in the us, of independent film) and discursive mimicry (video perforce as televisions bad conscience, video speaking television language, but cunningly, and garbled, and in insinuating, imperative keys).

Steve Fagin makes debris-compounded feature-length videos in a semi-narrative mode. The dominant idea institutionally and critically based holds that artists' video, other than records of performance or journalistic documentaries, meets its foreordained vocation when work is produced that is extremely short (paradigm: television commercial, 'bite', or sequence) or, if longer in length, is a 'self-reflective essay' dwelling, in a manner that would please Clement Greenberg, on the formal prerequisites for its own articulation. To say this is to cast the field of American artists' video as a haven for agoraphobic miniaturists, colonialist amateur philosophers, language-paralysed stand-up comics, and television-addicted letter-writers; and to say this is, of course, to speak with the blinded partiality of polemic.

The truth of it, though, which is confirmed by the screening patterns and preferences of festivals, museums, and media centers, accounts for the odd figure Fagin's work cuts in this context - this context that is, at the same time, his work’s only programmatic context and thus its only route for 'validation', particularly given the by now effective absence in the us of video's possible relationship (never less than a double-edged sword, but even so, even so...) to the gallery system, except in the case of artists producing installations/commodities.

World television as the stabilizing voice

Fagin's new tape, The Machine that killed had People, is written all over as a fantasy of global television, global pillage. Before that, or beneath it, this is a tape that is written, in the same way as one would say of a novel, before or instead of saying anything further, that it is written.(1) As a novel minus a hero, The Machine casts world television as the stabilizing voice, the one agency lullingly familiar to world citizenry and as such perfectly cast to ease all viewers into the world Fagin has made. In this sense, a casual, parodie resemblance emerges to the ‘docu-drama’ idiom, not so much as actually practiced on television as on the level of certain literary predecessors: John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy, with its characters drawn both from the newsreels and from the imagination, comes to mind, as does, perhaps more pointedly, Ilya Ehrenburg's 1929 The Life of the Automobile, a panoramic race around the world to report in on the ecstasy and the exploitation produced by the prospect of universal mobility.

(1) For an excellent, exhaustive commentary on Fagin's tape, see Patricia Mellencamp, 'Excursions in Catastrophe’, in: Afterimage us, April 1990.

But Fagin's tape, in the particularities and audible nuances of its voices, speaks a clear American, a Yankee, idiom, which then becomes an achievement acquiring irony in light of the tape's internationalist agenda. That’s an irony folding in on itself: the parochialisms of reference and style attached to Fagin's notions of television are understood to be, increasingly, the shards of world language, world beat, a lingua now refined to attain lyricism on a few occasions only: revolutions, personalities, and shopping.

The Machine that killed bad People has been cast by its maker as ‘a miniseries in five episodes’ The promotional tactic advances: Not television from the global village but from an off-world which unties the knots of Jiction/fact and spectacle. The News! The Philippines.

To Fagin's eye, the off-world looks to be the perfect lounging locale from which one can, as a god, absorb ih glances the range of human cupidity and terror. Unlike his two earlier tapes, Virtual Play: The Double Direct Monkey Wrench in Slack's Machinery (1984) and The Amazing Voyage of Gustave Flaubert and Raymond Roussel (1986), both of which, among other things, curiously attended the deathing and birthing labours of 19th century Europe’s ideas of itself and its others, Fagin’s third feature dirties itself up and down in the realistic politics of the present. The notional subject of the piece is the Philippines, from two related standpoints: that of the Philippines as an effective us colony; and that of the difference (and its lack) between the Marcos and the Aquino regimes, this with particular reference, inevitably, to the living well-shod ghost, the perfect Ophulsian, Imelda.

In painting a panorama of this culture, Fagin honours the needs of analysis as well as those of spectacle; and the needs of that double-engagement are satisfied by casting his entire enterprise into the infinitely accommodating forms of television address. The piece is 'anchored' by Connie Landsdale, a perfect blank perfectly mimed by Constance Dejong. Perched behind a news desk, Landsdale reads communiques, welcomes updates from field reporters, and implores us to return after this brief commercial announcement. Commercial interludes are pastiched excerpts from a Home Shopping Network; an offscreen huckster recounts a litany of crimes perpetrated by Marcos legionnaires while onscreen a bestiary of repellant creatures (snakes, spiders) slither over useless consumables. Within the conceit of the entire piece being a world news program (but based where?: the Philippines are made to embody the world), Fagin is able to contain a succession of truth-telling and speculation, internally complete and faithful enough to its funny/serious premise as to drop in the KSKY station logo (the graphic Y containing an eye that first blinks, then bleeds, or cries) at the routine interstitial moments.

Reckoning on the televisually fluent viewers capacity to make sense of the flagrantly disparate 'looks' he orchestrates (Marcos's home video; travelogue visual cliches; junk-news segments built on prurience and oddity; real interviews with Filipino activists and commentators) and to register them all as 'just television', Fagin constructs a rather elaborate counter-spectacle, lulling in the familiarity of its formal structures and decisions but perverse, relative to those structures, in its agenda. To that extent, Fagin’s tape both mimics and critically demonstrates the status television now holds as the agency or the solution through which the appearance of knowledge of distant others must pass.

Dislodging the spectacle's guilt

In watching The Machine - Fagin’s semi-documented, semi- projected rendition of one nations revolution, this reconstruction willed by a total outsider some time after the first facts -, the political convulsions of I989 and ongoing come to mind. (They are, at any rate, alluded to once in the tape: correspondent Alden Pyle - a character modelled on legendary CIA operative Edward Landsdale, and played with solipsistic intensity by the Wooster Group’s Ron Vawter - reads a first-person account of the Tiananmen Square massacre). Still, there is no way they could not come to mind, and to that extent The Machine is not just literally but also metaphorically ‘a work of 1989’. One could honour it by noting its prescience, or at least by recalling the show of regimes falling, on and with the witness of television, over the last twelve months. The Machine is a kind of exemplary analysis avant la lettre of that prolonged, unfinished exhibition.

Today, as this is being written, Imelda is five on television, this being for her a doubly-epochal day: it is her 60th birthday, and she has just been absolved of legal culpability in the crimes undertaken by her husband’s regime. She has much to celebrate, so she is chauffeured from the courtroom uptown to St. Patrick's Cathedral (pastored by Cardinal O’Conner, beloved by Ivana Trump as her personal confessor and reviled by David Wojnarowicz as a fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas...this creep in black skirts (2)), where she will kneel her way up the central nave, clutching her rosary, this as a cleansing prelude to a fete later tonight in a nightclub featuring Egyptian deities as decor and Portugese lovesongs blaring over the rounds of toasts made to Imelda by the billionaire arms merchant Khashoggi, whose private jet will soon escort her home to exile in Hawaii, her own jet having long since been sacrificed on the auction block where it was picked up for a song by pop music bad boys Aerosmith {Janey’s Got a Gun, Love in an Bevator), who are presently using it on their record- breaking tour of North America and Europe.

(2) David Wojnarowicz, ‘Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell’ in: Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing catalogue. Artists Space, New York, November 1989.

What is all of this to say, or ask? It is, a little bit, to ask if the fiction of reality is now knowable only through the fact of spectacle, the clamour of inter-continental dredge and debris. Like the Situationist cowboy, we drift - mostly, we drift.... And yet, and yet: what's to be lost by saying (not asking) that scaled-down individual factors persist, miraculously: the enlightenment (yes) factors of the individual's will to dignity and self-possession - those ideas worth a revolution, worth the blood (whose blood?) lost in combating martial law with a friendly face (Imelda’s gracious phrase). It can be said of Fagin’s tape that its sensuous, mimicking intelligence (it has its own raison ardente) knows a truth about revolution, which is that revolution is an ethical upheaval long after and before it is a political recalibration. His tape speaks to remind us that the change in the domination of the everyday in the Philippines has been merely political, hence mifinal. A distance remains before origin is reached, origin being the goal, the goal's intention being happiness, simply, bypassing any need of decree.

Beyond that, it goes on to say that as word /image and rumour/report of struggle and common fortitude in other worlds comes to us filtered as spectacle, then so the dream of a two-way communication with those worlds inheres in excavating and dislodging the spectacle's frailties, its faults, its guilt; and also in addressing spectacle in a voice that would encourage it to admit its own remorse...; failing that, in drawing from the spectacle an invitation to strangle it to death with its own hands. To an extent, that's what Fagin's Machine wishes, and executes.

The grounding for The Machine that killed Bad People was provided by a trip Steve Fagin made to the Philippines in the fall of rg88, where, with a Filipino student as camera operator, he filmed most of the actuality footage that would appear in the finished tape. Overall, the tape’s mission is to sketch a panoramic picture of the aftermath of the Filipino revolution, dwelling less on the cataclysmic event than on real and spectacular relations circulating within the official exchange of 'power'. Inevitably, that involves dwelling on the representation of revolution, particularly through the agency/agent of television. Divided by titles into sections (Hotel Reporting, shot by Leslie Thornton with a Fisher- Price toy camera, and featuring Ron Vawter; The Marcoses, featuring the dynasty's notorious home movies; 7be Aquinos, and Tourism), the tape as an entirety is suspended in place by a fictional international news program, complete with consumption - possessed commercials, field reports,and anchoring commentary. Woven throughout is footage of Filipino political and cultural activists, Fagin’s voice-over commentary spoken by Trinh T. Minh-ha, and such verite segments as ones depicting faith-healing, teenage prostitution, and cock-fighting. Literally and figuratively climaxing the tape’s two hours of travelogue, theory, fact and fantasy is a staged studio tableau wherein aninfernally mechanical phallic 'machine' pierces and beats the Filipino national emblem into a bloody pulp, a nightmare rendition of imperialisms machine dreams, as anchorwoman Connie Lansdale calmly gazes on from the sideline.