dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y




dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997

Grimonprez's Remix
Eben Wood
December 2010

Desire, more than any other point in the range of human possibility, meets its limit somewhere.
Jacques Lacan1


In the first image, I'm riding in the passenger seat of a beat-up, dust-covered Subaru south along the border between the Israelioccupied West Bank and Jordan.2 The river is to our left, invisible beyond chain link fence, spiral razor wire, minefields. To the right is the wreckage of a bombed hotel, one of many that dotted the Dead Sea's northern shore before the territory was annexed in 1967. The wreckage is recognizably a multi-storey building, grey, eroded looking, with mostly intact walls and eye-socket windows. Through huge cracks and fissures we can see the mountains rising away from the sea towards Jerusalem. Crowning one of the largest and most intact of the buildings is an IDF observation post, sandbags the same nothing colour of the building, the white flag with its light-blue star bright against the sky. Below the watching soldiers, scrawled on the wall in huge, spray-painted letters that would be legible far across the river border, is a message in English: "Fuck Your Dreams."

In the second image, I'm waking up at dawn after riding all night from Rafah crossing in the Gaza Strip, west across the Sinai to Cairo. Stretched out on the bench-like seat of a small bus, I'd awakened several times in the night, once to see the lights of a freighter moving dreamlike across the moonlit desert, knowing we'd reached the Suez Canal. In the morning light, the rest of the passengers still asleep, the driver and his relief talking softly, I can see we've reached the outskirts of a city, a broad, sparsely tree-lined avenue that is bordered by concrete grandstands. I've never been to Cairo before, but this scene is somehow deeply familiar. We continue along the empty avenue, the city approaching out of the night desert behind us, as that eerie feeling of familiarity, of déjà-vu grows. Suddenly, with a bodily certainty, I remember watching, over and over on the tiny black and white television of my rural American childhood, looped images of Anwar Sadat's assassination. It had happened, I realize, on this avenue, in these concrete grandstands, in the deep intimacy of distant memory.



You remind me of something/I just don't know what it is


Distinct from simply editing an existing work, remixing is the process by which a song is disassembled and then recombined with new elements and contexts to produce something both like and unlike the original, a kind of uncanny double. Describing the origins of the remix in late 1960s Jamaica—in the one-off doubles or "dubs" of ska originals made by producers, engineers, and DJs such as Ruddy Redwood, King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry—Ben Williams writes that a "good dub mix is like an inverse of its original, the ghostly imprint that's left over when you take the song away".3

By introducing a new structural rhythm, a new punctuation, to the song's elements, remixing also transforms the relations between the work and the world around it, its spaces of performance, exhibition or consumption. In this process, what is remixed is not simply an individual work but the very quality that had once made film the paradigmatic modern art. Catherine David, co-curator with Jean-François Chevrier of the 1997 Documenta X in Kassel, in which Johan Grimonprez's film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was first exhibited (alongside Gerhard Richter's monumental photographic archive, Atlas), has pointed out that "[o]ne of the great privileges of cinema of [the twentieth century] is that of being an art form which is confronted with and defined by its conditions of production, that is, by its relations to the institution, but especially by a logic of industrial production".4 David talks about the "irrealization" produced by the postmodern culture of images, in which the specific material, technical, or experiential qualities of different media are lost in "a soft, generalized image with no particular character and lacking qualities", in which an indexical analogue relationship with the ruptured "real" is replaced by the digital simulacrum's absorptive totality.5

Countering David's "image crisis", DJ and ethnomusicologist John von Seggern has described remix as "a major conceptual leap: making music on a meta-structural level, drawing together and making sense of a much larger body of information by threading a continuous narrative through it [...] The importance of this cannot be overstated: in an era of information overload, the art of remixing and sampling as practised by hiphop DJs and producers points to ways of working with information on higher levels of organization, pulling together the efforts of others into a multilayered multireferential whole which is much more than the sum of its parts."6

The different approaches to digital or synthetic media mapped by David's and von Seggern's comments conform to a predictable binary, with the media spectacle's levelling totality alternating with, or flipping into, complex or recombinant forms of cultural exchange. To paraphrase David, the great privilege of the twenty-first-century remix is to be an art form that both confronts and is defined by the collapse of medium specificity into media indifference, of the politically possible into the instrumentality of the virtual.

Meaning here lies in movement, but the tectonic rhythms of that movement correspond to a body that is neither individual nor self-evident. Summing up a discussion of "sampling, memory, and the semantic web", Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, reminds readers of the dialectic between meaning and movement that Duke Ellington captured in a pragmatic axiom: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."7 Miller adds that in understanding the simultaneously interiorizing or psychological and exteriorizing or global implications of the information age, it would be wise to recall and remix the [cautionary] tale of a bored billionaire living in a dream world in Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, who said: "It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet's living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole."8

As DeLillo reminds us through the simultaneously (trans) fixed and mobile character of Eric Packer, in the era of media spectacle, the adjective industrial now haunts the West everywhere as a ghostly absence. Similarly, discussions of documentary practice are increasingly haunted by what has been called documentary's "museumification", its incorporation into artworld spaces and modes of aesthetic consumption. The relationship between Grimonprez's now well-known work and DeLillo's novels, particularly those two "originals" on which Grimonprez explicitly drew—White Noise and Mao II—directly addresses this historical change in the location and function of documentary, as well as the relationship between documentary and other narrative modes of representation.9 DeLillo himself uses the rhythmic interplay of still and moving images to interrogate fiction's defining narrative time and, conversely, uses narrative time to query the image's claim to self-evidence, to transparent meaning. Given the divergent readings of digital culture by David, von Seggern and Miller, there is one particular aspect of the documentary image that I think is important here: the doubled idea of resolution.

Narratively, resolution refers to the drawing together of a story's composite elements to provide some sense of an ending that is not simply the last word before the cover closes, the credits run, and the frame is confirmed. Visually, resolution refers to the quality of an image's surface in comparison to some normative notion of clarity or transparency. In conventional archival documentaries, resolution operates as the principal mark of the image's authenticity, of an artlessness that belongs to the narratives of "real time", outside the documentary's structuring polemic and against the already absorbed surfaces of the feature film. Increasingly feeding a mainstream "documentary culture", as Tom Holert has recently argued, the media has also instrumentalized these "signals of authenticity" on which earlier documentary relied, to de-politicizing ends. In reporting on the war in Iraq, for instance, broadcast networks such as CNN and BBC World "use a whole gamut of contradictory image types and image qualities—pixellated video-phone images in low resolution, the more usual video images, 'talking heads' stagings, video animations with maps and other graphic devices" precisely in order to domesticate or foreclose the narratives that rely on that authenticity to work: "they frame these images with more or less precise data about their provenance, their function and so on."10

Grimonprez finds both senses of resolution in DeLillo, the ironic relationship between them exemplified by the question he samples from White Noise for the first voice-over in his film: "Shouldn't death be a swan dive, graceful, white-winged and smooth, leaving the surface undisturbed?"11



Our bodies and oceans are here, knowable and whole


We are reminded here that DeLillo is present in Grimonprez's film not as a visual but as an aural image, as sound. Re-framed from voice to voice-over, the irony of DeLillo's lines is transformed. In this process, the question is confirmed not simply as a rhetorical negative (indexing the character that utters it within DeLillo's narrative, the narrator Jack Gladney), but as what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls "allegorical irony" or "parabasis", i.e. "the activism of 'speaking otherwise'".12 As Brent Hayes Edwards explains in a pertinent discussion of postcolonial literature's hybrid genres and the global remixing of cultures on which these genres operate, "Allegory is a practice of 'persistent interruption' in language where the cognitive or epistemological is continually breached by the performative or ethical, forcing the attentive reader to move against the current of the prose, to hear the charge of what it pushes away."13

In the opening shot of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y—into which DeLillo's question is inserted—we follow a descending point of view through greenish clouds towards the cipher-like lights and painted numbers of an airfield. The atmosphere is streaked, grainy, hallucinatory, and it is made even more ominous by the rhetorical question that accompanies it. We didn't need the attacks of 9/11 to associate aircraft with violent death, Grimonprez here reminds us (as DeLillo did) before the fact. Such deaths are unlikely to be as ennobling as the allegorical swan dive or its accompanying song, and the surface on which it occurs is likely to be highly disturbed and disturbing.14 Immediately, and especially in relation to the smooth-voiced narrator, we are reminded of the role that resolution plays in the documentary, and indeed, in media narratives generally. By quoting absent narratives (the haunting authenticity of which I spoke above), Grimonprez repeatedly invokes resolution in its double sense: that of the individual image's immediate, visible surface, and that of the movement between or among images, visual and aural, that structures the film's temporality. "It's not going to be pretty", the saying goes, speaking of future resolution, but at the visual level, what we see frequently is pretty, semi-detached from the implications of what we see, the "actual"—that is, allegorical—death at which the narrative terminates.

I write "semi-detached" because while we may feel that the opening images are those of a flight-simulator—and thus not "not real" but simulated, instrumental to the very relations those images both conceal and reveal—their power rests in their likeness to what is apparently not simulated, to that which is (or appears to be) un-mediated, artless or accidental. Collapsing the temporal or hierarchical distinction between what is simulated and what is "real", or between the aesthetic and the political, the unconscious and the conscious, we next see a forward shot through an aircraft cockpit as the aircraft seems at first gently to touch down, then shakes more and more violently, finally dissolving into a blurred wreckage of particulars, swirling, slowmotion fragments reminiscent of confetti-filled paperweights. Now the soundtrack turns sweepingly cinematic before dissolving into ominous white noise. That dissolution is paralleled by a reverse shot—outside and front-to-back—of what is (in narrative logic) presumably the same aircraft we have seen from within the cockpit, crashing headlong into the viewer. At that point, looking at the distinctive, black and white markings on the aircraft's nose, and framing those markings, the precise and controlled placement of the camera, we recognize that this is, in fact, a set-up that belongs both to Grimonprez and to the images he is sampling: a simulation, a test, and at the same time, a mediated event that is ineluctably present.

Whatever Grimonprez's larger documentary interests—to which I will return below—he punctuates them with DeLillo's text and with the non-archival footage that often accompanies that text, the reflexive content of which does not remotely replace the film's rhythmic narrative drive. The opening crash sequence is followed by images of baby birds fluttering and apparently suffocating in a vacuum chamber, an eclipse, a sliver of moon in a night sky, the cartoon title-sequence and images of Lenin, a bland official at a microphone announcing cryptically that "the aircraft is safe", and news images of the first transatlantic hijacking in November 1969. Following this montage sequence, the voice-over continues in first-person plural, turning from interrogative to statement in order to frame a further interrogative: "Everything around us tends to channel our lives towards some final reality in print or in film. Two lovers quarrel in the back of a taxi and a question becomes implicit in the event: who will write the book, and who will play the lovers in the movie? Everything seeks its own heightened version. Nothing happens until it's consumed."15

In Grimonprez's redaction of this passage from Mao II, there is no identified narrator. Thus, he evacuates the idea of character in the fictional sense and invites us to ask how character is produced in the overdetermined positions of a speech-act: not "who is speaking to us here?" but "how are the here and the now and the who located?" As readers of Mao II will know, the voiceover is lifted from the sequence in which the secretive novelist Bill Gray is being photographed, for the first time after decades of concealment and silence, by the photographer Brita Nilsson. It is Bill speaking, and he is commenting on the fact that, being photographed, he has become "someone's material. Yours, Brita". The conventional distinction between a prior reality and the documentary event that operates on that reality has been reversed, inserted into Brita's serial project of photographing living writers, a series that in its productive logic can offer no real resolution. For Bill Gray, this reversal tends literally deathward, as do all plots in DeLillo's fictions. As Jack Gladney, DeLillo's protagonist in White Noise, puts it in a passage that Grimonprez uses later in the film, "All plots tend to move deathwards. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers' plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children's games. We edge nearer death every time we plot."16

In Gladney's reflections, the conventional before-and-after relation of character to speech-act, reality to documentary, life to the consumer event, visual image to caption or voice-over, is never done nor undone. In Grimonprez's film, before-and-after diachrony is replaced by a synthesis that produces history as the constructive transformation of both past and future through the lens of the present. This is, of course, the hope that film originally held out for the avant-gardes, its lifelike motion in place of photography's deathly stillness.

Despite Bill Gray's abject death en route from Cyprus to Beirut, his image as developed by Brita lives on, simultaneously supplementing and displacing him. The apparent seamlessness of Grimonprez's back-and-forth move between White Noise and Mao II and his remixing of fragments from both novels, the assimilation of these fragments by the film's narrative despite its disjunctive archival and non-archival content (the occasionally visible "hand" of the artist's own camera), ironically exemplifies this process. The media's endlessly absorbing horror is itself the subject's eclipse by the objects that seem to reflect but instead absorb and displace that subject, echoing the particularly hysterical formation on which Grimonprez focuses: the intertwined histories of television media and aircraft hijacking.

By "hysterical" here I simply mean a formation that is precisely marked by the sign of desire, by the overdeterminations of deeper or more extensive cultural processes that seem to lie elsewhere and thus necessitate an interpretative journey both forwards and backwards in time, and ex-centrically through space. Lacan anticipates Spivak's reading of allegorical parabasis and its ethical implications early in the lectures that make up The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, when he defines the object of analysis and the concepts, particularly that of the unconscious, on which that object—and the desire that it seems preemptively to resolve—rests. Like the narrative concept of resolution to which I've referred, Lacan argues that the concept of causality "is to be distinguished from that which is determinate in a chain, in other words the law". The privilege of the Freudian unconscious, he continues, is to demonstrate "that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong". Thus the unconscious demonstrates "the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real—a real that may well not be determined".17 This gap of indeterminacy provokes the very "activism of speaking otherwise" that Spivak identifies as an ethical imperative, the parabasis through which Lacan defines the Freudian unconscious, not as something "unreal" but "rather un-realized": "The status of the unconscious [...] is ethical. In his thirst for truth, Freud says, 'Whatever it is, I must go there', because, somewhere, this unconscious reveals itself. And he says this on the basis of his experience of what was, up to that time, for the physician, the most rejected, the most concealed, the most contained, reality, that of the hysteric, in so far as it was—in a sense, from its origin—marked by the sign of deception."18

This reading of the unconscious as an ethical imperative, "marked by the sign of deception", points to a characteristic feature of Grimonprez's remix that connects it with contemporary discussions of documentary. As I've pointed out above, what is excised in the film's opening voice-over is precisely the fictional narrative's dependency on the primacy of character, first Jack Gladney and then Bill Gray. Elsewhere in the film, proper names are transformed into pronouns, male-gendered pronouns to female-gendered, first-person narration to third-person, and so on. Grimonprez converts multiple conversations and characters into a new singularity, a singularity that is nonetheless differentiated into particularly generic—and characteristically male—voices.




My angel rocks back and forth



Grimonprez addresses the overdeterminations of historical meaning and subjectivity (and the interdependency of both) through his remixing of DeLillo, through the seamlessness with which the author's words—distributed across two very differ-ent texts—are worked across the received gap between artwork and medium, public and private, production and reproduction, I and you, male and female, and so on. Formally, it's the restless "zapping" of media images, visual and aural, that Grimonprez identifies as the conversion of modernist film tradition in the age of video and beyond, a zapping that is literally built into the absorptive surfaces of contemporary media, surfaces that exceed any particular medium. "In my film," Grimonprez comments, "there is the image of a man being pushed out of an IranAir plane on the runway at Larnaca, Cyprus, and then the words "INSERT COMMERCIAL HERE" suddenly appear on a black screen. I took this sequence as it stood. It is a breakdown in meaning, like something Brecht might have produced. It reflects the combination of two traditions: on the one hand, the fictionalization and the dramatization of history as in Sergei Eisenstein, and on the other, presenting the context in how the image is constructed through showing for example the presence of the camera in the image, as in Dziga Vertov."19

Instructively, however, we might note a certain repressed in Grimonprez's own assertion that he does not wish to disregard the meaning of terrorism in political terms. In writing that "What terrorists gain, novelists lose", DeLillo compares the position of the terrorist in public life to that of the writer. DeLillo is suggesting this is particularly so because terrorists know how to manipulate the media. Their actions are provocations, but must be presented in a contextual way, not abstractly. Terrorism in Palestine and terrorism among extreme right-wing groups in the United States do not have the same meaning.20

Of course, it is Bill Gray, not DeLillo himself, who compares the "position of the terrorist in public life to that of the writer"— a statement that "reveals" his private character as it conceals the actual media that create, circulate, store, and retrieve the public image that determines that character. And yet, in relation to the ethics of representing terrorism, it is important to call attention to the slippage that does occur here between a character and its author. How do we read through the words of DeLillo's characters to an assertion of what the author himself means—a position that is surely distributed, in one way or another, across and throughout the text in its entirety? This question is analogous to the problems Grimonprez raises in his statement, that we apprehend media images and the indifference they promote, but somehow are able to convert that apprehension into a political or politicizing specificity. In its use of visual and aural images as well as text, Grimonprez's film can perform this critique in a multivalent way that DeLillo's written text must narrate discursively, producing (in Spivak's sense) an allegory of the visual supplement that is everywhere available in the ubiquitous media surfaces of our culture.

This is DeLillo's fundamental irony: the more he seeks seriously to interrogate the limits of cultural systems, the more he recognizes the productive capacity of those systems. The problem is contextualism itself, which in contrast to John von Seggern's hopeful comments on remixing, John Rajchman argues has tended to an immobilizing or ersatz nostalgia; collage or superposition among existing elements has tended to a play or a transgression increasingly devoid of any virtuality, any future. Once celebrated for their complexity, context and collage became obstacles to new architectures, vehicles of the sad ironies of the post- and the neo-.21

Through his process of remixing through multiple texts by DeLillo as well as the range of visual source material (with their respective, indexical resolutions), Grimonprez marks the discontinuity that "is the essential form in which the unconscious first appears to us as a phenomenon—discontinuity, in which something is manifested as a vacillation".22 As Tom Holert has recently remarked, a similar vacillation is palpable in the fact that "every overview that tackles the theories of 'the documentary' men-tions that a documentary practice which does not reflect on the untenability of claims of objectivity has become impossible".23 Nonetheless, the manner in which this refusal of objectivity is performed and the goals that motivate that refusal allow for crucial differences, enabling us to contextualize Grimonprez within contemporary documentary practices as disparate as those of Jeff Wall or Nan Goldin or Susan Meiselas, or of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad and his Atlas Group, particularly in the longterm archival project, My Neck is Thinner than a Hair.24

In a recent collective statement, The Atlas Group observes that "[w]e are not concerned with facts if facts are considered to be self-evident objects always-already present in the world [...] Facts have to be treated as processes." Both Raad and Grimonprez assert that the binary of fiction and non-fiction "is a false one and does not do justice to the rich and complex stories that circulate widely and that capture our attention and belief".25 Holert also comments on The Atlas Group's attention to the "ways in which a so-called document suddenly emerges from the archive, who and what makes it available, and why".26 In doing so, the group's media-works shift viewers' attentions from the content or truth-claims of the document "to the space of speculation and imagination, of deception and adulteration. The authenticity—of sources, witnesses, surveys, images, and so on—is claimed, but an epistemological hesitation and vacillation is already implicit in staking that claim."27

In a concluding remark that relates to the hysterical method of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, The Atlas Group states that: "[o]ur works do not present a chronicle to posterity of the events and deeds of the [Lebanese civil wars], a record of 'what happened'. Instead we think they offer us an image of what can be imagined, what can be said, what can be taken for granted, and what can appear as rational or not, as thinkable and sayable about the civil wars, and about the possibilities and limits of writing their histories. We urge you to approach these documents as we do, as 'hysterical symptoms' based not on any one person's actual memories but on cultural fantasies erected from the material of collective memories." 28

The Atlas Group here stresses the vacillating, disruptive actuality of practice against the putatively one-dimensional "authenticity" of the material drawn upon by that practice. Importantly, it does so without supplanting assertions of truth and historical method with either cultural relativism or the supermarket forms of subjectivity that circulate globally in the putatively postideological, post-historical, neoliberal era (what Eric Hobsbawm has called the "ultra-liberal utopia" that followed the end of the Cold War). In Raad's own words, "[b]y shying away from a search for 'what actually happened', our intention is not to imply that such a search is futile. Nor do we want to suggest that historical writing is always interested and that consequently all histories are equally valid and/or equally suspect. The claim that writing is motivated by one agenda or another must be demonstrated and not simply stated. Furthermore, this demonstration must unpack the various meanings generated by any party's writings, meanings that are invariably overdetermined and thus potentially slip past the control of interested writers and their intended audience."29

Like more traditional archival documentary, Grimonprez's dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y stands poised ambivalently between the aesthetic ideologies of art-world culture and the visual politics of mass or popular media to which that culture seems opposed. To my mind, the idea of the remix is one of the most useful to understanding dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y's relationship to DeLillo's "originals", if we take it as an ethics of reading, an ex-centric disentan-gling of the conflated (narrative) strands of personal and global, private and political. Moreover, it helps us situate the film in relation not simply to documentary but to a range of practices that contend with media culture, particularly with respect to the extension as well as the repudiation of modernist collage or montage practices in contemporary culture. From that vantage point, one might also analyse DeLillo's response within his writing to the transformation of artistic practices after postwar modernism, to the practices of an international avant-garde that is concerned with the functioning of language across different mediums and previous categorical distinctions such as that between high art and popular culture.30

Participation is a key phrase for Grimonprez, as viewers fantasize their roles "within" and "outside" the media to which they respond (in ways suggested by the practice of Walid Raad and The Atlas Group), the alternating currents of personal and domestic, public and global. This fantasy runs throughout dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y as "the activism of speaking otherwise", and it establishes a relation to source texts and to informational networks that is most pronounced in the move from visual to aural image in passages remixed from DeLillo. The (apparently) non-archival images that frequently accompany these passages and form a kind of banal narrative thread throughout the film's allegorical disjunctures, "a double narrative that sets the television timeline against the backdrop of a story. In classical documentary, chronology and structure are logical and a specific vocabulary is used to describe reality, whereas in my film, the chronology of hijacking is underscored by a fictionalized storyline based on a novel by Don DeLillo, which plays with how these notions collide."31

Most simply put, this narrative thread follows a disembodied visual perspective as it leaves home, takes a taxi to a large urban airport, checks luggage, passes through the terminal and views docked aircraft through the windows of a departure lounge, enters the aircraft, taxis onto the runway, and takes off on a long, presumably trans-oceanic flight (with accompanying meals and in-flight film generating an ironic comic-relief).

To say that we are all directly familiar with this global narrative, beyond its mediated image, is of course grossly incorrect, as aircraft travel of the kind that guides Grimonprez's embedded camcorder narrative is bound to a specific geography of social and economic privilege. Among the many things shared between DeLillo and Grimonprez, one is the way in which the previously distinct realms of western, middle-class domesticity and the artistic avant-gardes (or neo-avantgardes) have, in the postmodern era, apparently collapsed into each other on a global stage. Echoing Marx's famous formulation, both DeLillo and Grimonprez remix the differences in history's repetitions, the movement from system to subject, sense to sensation, tragedy to farce, catastrophe to comedy.

This difference is, to return to the two images with which this discussion opened, the distance we must travel to our most intimate selves, to our dreams and waking surfaces, arriving right on time.




Based on a text that was first published as: Wood, E., "Grimonprez's Remix", in Terrorism, Media, and the Ethics of Fiction: Transatlantic Perspectives on Don DeLillo, ed. P. Schneck & P. Schweighauser (London/New York: Continuum, 2010), 110–29.