Performance, Possession, and Politics

Thursday, August 23, 2007
at Eyedrum
8:00 PM

Jean Rouch, Les Maîtres Fous

In which we explore three examples of how artists have used the moving image to both document and actively assist peoples’ attempts to cope with colonization, oppression, and political despair.

In the mid-1950s, Ghana was a British colony known as the Gold Coast. There, the Hauka cult invited the French ethnographic filmmaker
Jean Rouch to document a spirit possession ritual. Rather than making a distanced anthropological study, Rouch used a handheld camera to bring the viewer directly inside the ritual.
The camera shies away from nothing: one of the film’s many indelible images is the Hauka holding burning torches to their own bellies without fear or injury, to prove they are possessed. Remarkably, the Hauka members are possessed in the film not by deities or mythical figures but by the actual officials of the British colonial state: the Secretary-General, the Conductor, the Corporal of the Guard. Rouch’s narration suggests that these possession rituals helped the Hauka to endure their colonization, and that it was the colonial powers who looked mad in comparison. The resulting film, Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters), was so shocking in its imagery and subversive in its message that Rouch’s own friends asked him to destroy it. Today, Les Maîtres Fous is regarded as a landmark of ethnographic film and remains a compelling, fascinating work.

Jack Smith in Ken Jacobs's Blonde Cobra

A few years later in Lower East Side New York, Ken Jacobs was given the footage for an abandoned B-movie film made by two friends. One of the friends was the early performance artist (and future director of Flaming Creatures) Jack Smith. Instead of trying to reconstruct the story of the film, Jacobs radically reassembled the imagery into a vision of New York as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, haunted by the bizarre antics of its penniless bohemian characters. But the showstopper in Blonde Cobra is Jack Smith's hysterical narration – a sort of possession ritual of its own. Hilarious, poignant, and disturbing, it is the record of a man using camp, pop culture, his own imagination, twisted childhood memories and anything else he can find to combat the despair of living as an outcast – a homosexual and a visionary artist in a repressive society.

Finally, we move to 2007 Atlanta, where performance artist
Allison Rentz staged a communal ritual at Eyedrum. Rentz, playing an "art dictator," locked the audience members inside the performance space and using ritualistic music, large toy sculptures, and several assistants, persuaded them to jettison the conventional theatrical experience and become part of the proceedings. Captured in a roving, handheld, twenty-minute single take by Andy Ditzler on a digital video camera, Rentz’s action transforms the Eyedrum space into a mysterious conjunction of theater, party, protest, and microcosm of democracy. The video will be projected in the same space in which the performance took place, adding another layer of audience involvement.

Jean Rouch, Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters) (1955), 24 minutes, 16mm, color, sound
Ken Jacobs, Blonde Cobra (1963), 33 minutes, 16mm, color and black & white, sound
Andy Ditzler and Allison Rentz, The Art Army Is Coming 4 You (2007), 25 minutes, digital video

All screenings take place at
8:00 pm at Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King
Jr Dr Suite 8, Atlanta, GA, 30312

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