Friday, February 12, 2010

Enjoy Poverty, Please.

Renzo Martens' Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2009, 88 min) is the second of a film triptych on images of war and poverty. Episode I (2003, 45 min) takes place in Chechnya where the artist, instead of making a film about "victims" or "perpetrators" of the war, asks Chechen and Russian citizens: "What do you think about me?" Episode III: Enjoy Poverty starts with Martens' journey to Congo.
Ö.E. I got so nervous and irritated when I watched the film! Let me try to unpack this. In Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Renzo Martens travels to Congo, introduces himself in a village that grapples with poverty and argues that their poverty is, in fact, a very significant asset: Western European and North American journalists and press agencies exploit the very images of poverty and make fortunes on their misery. "What if," Martens says, "you photograph your own misery and make a living out of it!" Most of the film portrays Martens as the "educator" for a group of men from this village. They organize shootings; they undress babies that are very ill or about to die and photograph them; they search for the "best" shots of Congolese people--i.e. the most atrocious, gruesome, and terrifying shots if you will. Once they try to sell their photographs, they get rejected for several reasons, and Martens gives up his "mission." "You will lose in this game even you photograph your own misery," he says, "because you are destined to lose." He points out how the present world order is structured. In this picture, photographs of misery and poverty are valuable only if they are taken by foreigners. He leaves the scene, defeated. What I aggressively reacted against is the ego-centric nature of the film, his cynical but mocking way of approaching poverty and local people. It's rather his arrogance that bothered me. But retrospectively I would say that this is how he wants me to react against him. I smell a great deal of provocation in the air. Without that strong reaction, I wouldn't extensively think about what the film tries to achieve. However, I still have reservations. Even if the dialogues are scripted and he hires people for acting for him, he gets himself involved in things I strongly react against: undressing and photographing ill Congolese babies; close-up shooting of a Congolese kid who tries to eat a mouse (to trigger compassion and also indignation in my opinion); and feeding very poor kids with "good" food that they are really not used to, knowing that they will get sick afterwards. In other words, I cannot stand the fact that he expresses his cynicism towards the Western involvement in Congo through Congolese people themselves. This eventually begs a conversation about ethics of working in the arts and this is precisely where things get intriguing.

B.E. Martens claims his ideas to be art. His artist ego aside, he is right on spot when he says, "I reproduce as a performance the dominant discourse of what happens when the West, in the form of journalists, NGOs, MSF, go into countries like the Congo and exploit poverty as a way of perpetuating their own dominance. They perpetuate this dominance, thus the poverty of the Africans, through the sale of images."[1] Of course one can always turn the spotlight on Martens and ask: "what about you? Do you not use the exploitation of the Western media as an excuse to further exploit the subject?" But better yet I say let's avoid unnecessary quibble and consider the legitimacy of his claim. I don't think you should get irritated right away. I think it would be best to keep a close watch on him to try and figure out where he really stands. When I watched his performance I didn't get offended. Quiet the contrary, it made me think. It's just that I'm just not quiet sure of his sincerity. If he is sincere, then I think he is out there asking the right questions.

Ö.E. We should also add that the film introduces a lot of issues that pertain to NGO system, humanitarian aid, and multinational companies. Escorted by the UN jeeps, the Peace Forces secure the staff and the work of gold mining companies; Western journalists photograph dead bodies of 'rebellious' Congolese who try to steal gold from MNC-controlled, secured zones; humanitarian aid workers aggressively photograph local people who receive aid packages, say "smile!", and document the help-receivers in "great happiness." If you ask me, some of Martens' arguments are quite straight-forward: misery and poverty are lasting, but what is more curious is that the war against poverty turns into an industry that economically developed countries engineer and even manage.

B.E. Well, of course. The well meaning highschool student saves up 10 dollars from his/her meager weekly allowance and donates it to UNHCR. That same 10 dollars evaporates before it can get anywhere near a refugee who is truly in need: most likely spent as part of the business class airfare for a Western staff member assigned to a project site, possibly with his entire family. Considering the massive gap between the expat and local staff salaries offered by aid agencies, considering the budgets of aid operations counted in millions of dollars, it wouldn't be too far fetched to say the NGOs and the UN in most (almost all) instances act much like for-profit companies. On top of all that you have the journalists as Martens describes, "asking people who have lost their limbs how they feel."

Ö.E. We can also discuss how misery is photographed and how images are circulated. As for photographs, at the risk of oversimplifying, the more appalling, the more valuable they are (by valuable I mean expensive or more likely to be circulated in media). Besides that, if a Congolese photographs his or her own neighbor who suffers in poverty, isn't this another form of exploitation? Are poverty photographs more legitimate if a Congolese, instead of a French, takes them?

B.E. No they are not. That simple. Do we need them? Yes we do. Whether we like it or not, these photographs are what we consume on a daily basis. And yes, on rare instances they can cause change. Take Kosovo for example. Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) managed to work much like an NGO in using all the press material towards the publicity of their cause. And when the media was saturated with images of suffering from the Balkans, international intervention happened rather quickly, much unlike in the case of its predecessor, Bosnia. Afterwards, almost everyone pulled out of the region. The story was first pushed to the back pages, then altogether forgotten. And just as Kosovo truly needed assistance it was left to fend for itself. To this day it is still not able to fully stand on its own feet. Like a swarm of locusts we consumed Kosovo, just as we chewed and spit out Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan. Martens' work stands as a reminder to our hypocrisy. Were we truly concerned, why did we forsake them just when they needed us most?

Ö.E. Let's say you want to think and make people think about the use of images of poverty, sustainability in Africa, and pitfalls of humanitarian aid. You want to be provocative so that you can ignite critical conversations. Can you achieve this without offending or instrumentalizing people? I wonder if the film would be less provocative if it didn't use kids and babies. Isn't it too easy to use the image of suffering infants to make a point? Or is mere provocation sexier? If this work was presented as a "documentary," I would leave the screening after seeing the film for 10 minutes, because the film is extremely ego-centric, arrogant, and uses infants who are not really aware of Martens' critical cynicism (at the end of the day, they are not his performers). Yet, things get blurry as Martens takes on the role of artist. Since he defines this film as an "artwork," he steps into this realm where documentary and fiction intertwine. Therefore, the type of questions we ask eventually changes.

B.E. Martens doesn't run. Quiet the contrary, he is in your face and I think he is very pleased to become the unloved, loathed almost, target himself. And that to me thickens the taste of ego/the presence of 'the artist' in his work. I don't think it matters whether he set up parts of his performance or whether they were unrehearsed/spontaneous. The viewer is quiet aware of the fact that this is no documentary. There is way too much interferance, manipulation almost, and although done in a documentary fashion (meaning it has the 'looks' of a documentary), the mutual consent would be that this is an 'experimental' piece. That said, I must confess, what bugs me is his arrogance. Not so much the arrogance he portrays in the performance, but afterwards as he talks about his work in his interviews. I feel uncomfortable when a piece of work is put to such a high place by the artist himself. I don't believe it is the work that matters. It is poverty itself that matters. Poverty should be the focus, not Martens' performance, or his feelings as he creates his 'art'. If the work is there to convey a message, then it should stay that way. As for his arrogance which we see in the piece, if it is an act, then it is well played, very successful. Episode III talks of the way the Western world sees the 'third world'. And his arrogance then becomes the collective look of the western nations to the developing countries. Martens' attitude, his arrogance in the performance breeds from the same depths as the arrogance which lurks in the shadows, under and around every single decision the 'developed' gives on behalf of the 'developing'. We are always ready to judge than to try and understand. Just as Martens does in Episode III. He formulates a plan with his white boy point of view to help Congo ('market the photos of hunger and suffering!') and then he discovers the futility of such an effort ('see, only when you are the subject and the western photographer documents you, the pictures are worth a dime. When you are the documenters of your own suffering the images are not marketable') and unsuprized, he returns to his square one: He confirms his own prejudice. This is exactly what we see in almost all of the deals/negotitations carried out by the western nations on behalf of the African nations per say, for 'the greater good of the African people'. We are the very curators of deadlocks. The originators of insoluble crises. In short, Martens knows his Africa. He is not detached from what goes on in there. He is familiar with the chronic problems the region has. He is also aware of the fact that those who come to the region to solve these problems turn into the very reasons of these problems and part of the stalemate. I will take my assumption one step further: He is not only aware of it but most likely he is a part of it as well. One of the players in the pod. And I believe his arrogance and aggresiveness is a mere acknowledgement of that fact.

Ö.E. I agree with you. To put it bluntly, Martens reflects the European arrogance to criticize what the Europeans do and to search for solutions for Congo, if you wish. Even if he aims to dramatize this very problem and structure his film accordingly. Let's also think about this: where and how was this film screened? We already know that it was part of Manifesta7, addressing to a rather contemporary art crowd. Yet, it has been also screened at documentary film festivals. That said, what are the pitfalls of presenting this film as an artwork? Let's give the work aside and talk about how he talk about his works in interviews and how people receive the work. One of the articles I read ascribes Nietzschean romanticism to Martens, because he focuses on his own persona. On the one hand it might make sense, as he is the very focus of the film and he takes on a variety of roles; he is a journalist, a producer, an artist, a missionnary, and the roles change and feed one another. He is determining element of the introduction, development, and conclusion of the film, which is, as we said, one of the remarkable criticisms he pursues. The European, even if he or she is politically engaged and able to criticize, is at the very center of the discussions. But if he secures himself under the rubric of art and claims to pursue a strategy to criticize things that are not "right," all the reviews/articles that only talk about the aesthetic choices bother me tremendously.

B.E. I say, his arrogance provokes. As if to say there is no bad ad. Perhaps were it not for his attitude the viewer would shelf this piece as 'just another documentary' in their annals of memory. Who has not been to Africa? Doesn't even Madonna have a 'documentary'? Had it not been for Martens and this brainstorm session with you I had completely forgotten about that! Going back to Enjoy Poverty, the pompous approach, and the discomfort which it inflicts on us, mocking at a social scar such as poverty, the humiliation of its subjects, all of a sudden turns post-screening conversation at the dinner table on its head. Instead of talking of Africa and/or the beauty and/or the sadness of images, the situation, the food is discarded and the audience sit there with their stomach curled with anger and repulsion, heatedly discussing Martens work. And through his work the depiction of developing nations in Western media, the handling of other people's miseries, pains, crises. Martens, either consciously (which would make him a genious) or accidentaly is an activist. He plays with the taboo. He mocks the poor, makes fun of the hungry and the dying. Once again he turns the mirror on us and forces us to see our pretense. It is taboo to mock the poor, the hungry, the dying, but quiet all right to watch them die, to watch them suffer, when us the Westerners, us the 'developed', us the rich hold the very cure to their needs in our very hands. All of a sudden it becomes us that Martens is really mocking. And that is what makes us angry. He tears off our masks and we cannot bear the sight of our real faces. An excerpt from one of his interviews: "I am a character, but I’m acting myself. I tried to be the most realistic and sincere ambassador of us. This means I’m a little interested in them [the Congolese], but not too much. I think they are slightly stupid, otherwise they wouldn’t have been poor and would have colonised us instead. If Bono and Madonna sing songs to help Africa, I can do the same thing. I’m willing to help them, but not if this would mean that the prices of our products will increase - then I prefer them to be a bit poorer. In order to make it realistic, a full exposure of the human being Renzo Martens was necessary. So yes, I’m also very much myself." [2]

Ö.E. On a different note, the film is procuded by Inti Films and on their website Martens' film is described as "creative documentary." [3] What do you think about that?

B.E. The way the film is talked about on the internet is almost always as a 'documentary' and yes, I find that problematic. However it may not necessarily be the artist's fault. It is a need by the audience or the critic to legitimize the work by branding it with reality. It's quiet unnecessary as it is a strong piece of work the way it is, and what makes it special is the 'touchability' of this work as opposed to the untouchable nature of the documentary. We need to remember: this is a film. Shot in documentary style only, it is an experimental film. A performance of sorts. It suggests a hypothesis with a debatable accuracy. It does not investigate or document reality. It distorts a bit here, corrects a bit there. An outsider, the artist, steps in with his outsider values and perceptions and causes ripples on the surface. He pokes at taboos, disturbs you and me, triesto turn our world as we know it upside down. And doing that he forces us to face our own prejudices, those we didn't know existed, or those we denied we had. With Martens opening up in his ugliest self in front of us, we are left with nowhere to run.

Ö.E. I'm still curious about the ways in which the film is read or received. I'm truly annoyed when I read articles do the following without touching upon the critical and provocative approaches in the work: associating the character that Martens' plays with the Situationists; analyzing this character through the concept of psychogeographer; relating images of dead bodies that are taken by hand-held camera to LIFE Magazine aesthetics; or reading the film through Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare or Greg Barker's Sergio. Yes, they might be legitimate observations or remarks if the film is defined as an artwork. But I find them terribly weak, given the Martens' claim about critical thinking. Martens tackles a very sensitive subject, with great courage. But when I read open-ended cross-readings between other artworks and reviews that talk anything but art, I get frustrated. If the film is striking and powerful, the reviews or reactions should be the same. They should stand out, they should be provocative, they should tackle the critical arguments. If you say I'm a naive and optimistic person about the propositional and transformative power of contemporary artworks, that's fine, I am one. But if the reception of the work is weak, perhaps we can also think about the strength of the work itself. Does the work really achieve to convey what it wants to say? It's good to see that the label of "art" can initiate really difficult conversations and give a leeway to the artist for being extremely provocative. All happens in a safezone. But at the same time, the reception risks being extremely meager.

B.E. You have all right to be annoyed. However, I say it is Martens himself who should be worried. Or at least I would be if I were him. The more each critic feels disturbed (and a pang of guilt, with the realization that they themselves become mere voyeurs when they choose to just peruse the information that the media offers, as opposed to act on it) and proportionately praise Martens, the chances of him falling from that critic high in his future projects becomes a bigger threat. Raised expectations on the upcoming Episode II or future projects, the tenacity of Martens-the-artist, the permanence of his works becomes a curiosity. One slip and the height from which he may fall becomes exponentially great. Martens, of all people, knows best how transient our memories are. And if he is the anxious type, he has a lot of worrying ahead of him.


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