The Politics of Identification by Marco Scotini

Stefanos Tsivopoulos and the social mechanisms of representation

The Scene and Repetition
“To begin with”, says Foucault in Discipline and Punish, “the soldier is someone who can be recognized from afar”. Both his body and his gestures are bearers of signs – clear impressions. There is a whole range of corporal and behavioural rhetoric that leads to his recognition and distinguishes his figure from any other. The soldier, as such, is a specific code – a representation.

The deportment of the body and that of the limbs, as well as the reciprocal relationships of the joints, are the result of an instrumental encoding process that assigns a calculated duration, a different size, and a specific function to each part. The soldier’s body is more than just a well-trained body. It is also a body that is assigned to a precise space, which shapes it and individualises it as a soldier. This place, which is separate from others and closed in on itself, is the isolating space of seclusion. It is the place set aside for disciplinary organisation and for the military exercise of the body: the training camp, the dormitory, the barracks. The more the body intensifies its own habits, the more its capabilities are perfected, but also the more it meekly submits to discipline and reduces itself to obedience. The soldier is thus nothing but subjective determination produced by control and regulative training procedures. And it is solely as such that the soldier can be recognised.

It is only by apparent chance that in one of Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s first videos, Actors (2004), the entry of four young men into a military cell, into which they go one after the other, happens to coincide exactly with their entry into the view of the video camera. The visible space that opens up in front of the camera – which remains fixed for the seven hours of the recording and which allows the four young men to identify themselves, one after the other, as recruits – is the same space that mechanically transforms the public into the alleged witnesses of an action throughout the thirty-six minutes of the screening.

In the space we see in Tsivopoulos’s video, the very construction of the image is superimposed on the regime of military discipline. The new relationships of exploitation and subjection which images and the contemporary communications machine use to produce its mediatized subjects in a security society like ours, appear to correspond to control and selection mechanisms of the exercise of power as such. But how does Tsivopoulos manage to combine this dual system of representation within a single visual space?

On the one hand, Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s starting point was a request by young Dutch actors, who met for the first time on this occasion, to play the part of soldiers. To make them interact, he places them in a temporary set that simulates the cramped, empty space of a military cell with just two bunk beds, blankets and pillows.

An initial phase of isolation, which coincides with their internment, is followed by one of reciprocal interaction, in which their behaviour reproduces the stereotypes of military life: comradeship, hierarchical subordination, bullying, obedience to superiors, and the generation of humiliation. This coexistence develops through different responses to the same stimuli, as well as through forms of self-control or the coercion of others. While the situation might be likened to a sort of in vitro psychological experiment – like the one carried out by Stanley Milgram, which was reconstructed by Rod Dickinson, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was again staged by Artur Zmijewski – it is also true that Tsivopoulos’s is very different. His research is never psychoanalytical. If anything, it is always a phenomenology of the representation of the media and its subjects.

It is no accident that the moment when the actors were most identifying with their roles was followed by a phase of sudden unmasking in which each one withdrew from their part and all of them revealed themselves to be students, or at least showed what they really were. The action that is played out becomes an opportunity for them to take part in a sort of feedback or examination of the processes of identification and of the mechanisms of socialisation. This means we have a case of a repetition of an identitary image that is capable of transforming the subject when this subject makes it its own.

This is the way it is for the actors, but by showing this situation to the audience as a truthful enunciation, Tsivopoulos, on the other hand, transforms their role into an exercise of recognition and surveillance. While the spectators believe they exercise control over the recruits, in actual fact it is they themselves who are captured and directed by the fictional nature of the images. With the consequent mise en abîme of the spectator.

What lies at the heart of Tsivopoulos’s study is the power of representation as such. Not the inherent power of the image (its intrinsic force and its semantic innocence or guilt) but the various relationships that bind the image to power in the process of identification, communication, and socialisation. As Stuart Hall remarked on the question of race and otherness, “representation is possible only because the enunciation is always produced within codes which have a history, a position within the discursive formation of a particular space and time”. And thus it is the task of all present-day image policies to break down these codes and the subjectivity that they lead to. Tsivopoulos simultaneously performs a dual recital: that of the object of observation and he who observes. He exposes both of them to the reciprocal interpretation of their own roles, which inevitably prove to be a pure form of theatre in two parts, in which identity-related formations are presented as performance strategies that open up an area of play in social-identification processes.

A similar process was used by Tsivopoulos in his Play (2006) video-installation in which, once again, the themes of violence and of power appear on stage together with those of the roles of representation and of individual symbolic self-projection. The leading figures are five students from the drama school in Amsterdam, with their personal biographies. Here again, as in the previous Actors, the video installation consists of two spaces that are physically separate and yet conceptually indivisible.

But it is in Reverse (2008) that the overlapping of the fictitious space of the set and private reality finds a perfect level of phenomenalisation. Tsivopoulos films a sort of monologue: an interview with Baki Davrak, an actor of Turkish origin but who trained in Germany and who is known to the broader public for his part in Kutlug Ataman’s Lola and Billy the Kid and Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven. Here again he places the complex transactions between subject, body, and identity at the centre of his work. Migration, sexual differences, lack of social integration, and religious and community memory run as much through Davrak’s personal story as through the roles he plays. In Reverse, identification does not simply mean the assertion of a given identity but is rather the exemplary result of a performance operation. Subjectivity is always a position that the subject is obliged to adopt, both in everyday life and on stage, as the result of regulative processes and disciplinary practices. And this twofold position comes together in Baki Davrak.

The narrativisation of Self is the focus of another important work by Tsivopoulos, The Interview (2007). A double projection of the same interview – in which a Serb veteran, who in 1993 escaped the attack on the airport in Sarajevo, talks of the war and of his personal memories – is screened in two adjacent but separate spaces. In both cases we find an interview that adopts the standard production procedures of traditional television and journalism. Also the set for the recording remains unchanged: the same corner inside a building in Belgrade, known as “Legacy Kolakovic” and symbolic in terms of its transformation from a middle-class residence into the annexe of a museum, and then into a gambling house. The difference between the two videos is to be found in the players and the relationships that bring the figures together. In one case, the interview takes place between an English reporter from the BBC and the Serb veteran, while in the other case they are all actors surrounded by television cameras and projectors, acting out a script adapted from the actual interview. This different repetition is by no means a mere comparison between reality and fiction, and between objectivity and subjectivisation. Also in the first case, it is Tsivopoulos himself who acts as the creative producer who commissions and stages the interview as a codified narrative structure.

So there is no departure from the regime of representation. In both cases, we are facing a subject that is not a veritable fact. Rather, this is an “effect” produced by means of and within the image, inside particular textual formations. Once again, at the heart of the scene we find the antinomy between the training that the subjects (soldiers, migrants, fighters, journalists, Turks, etc.) have received and the individuals who occupy them. But in the case of The Interview, we see another transition: from the construction of subjectivity to that of history.


Proof and Archives

A silent sequence in black-and-white introduces the Remake (2007) video. It is a document – the image of another age.

We see the military ritual of hoisting the flag in front of the Parthenon on the one hand, and a huge crowd of people going up to the Acropolis to watch this ritual, or already on the stands of the Marble Stadium in Athens for another ceremony, on the other. This is followed by another sequence, in colour, in which the mute gaze of the camera shooting the film encounters the silence of a parade of objects that, having ceased their function, show themselves for what they have now become. Dead projectors, tape-recorders, vintage monitors, videotapes, spool recorders, editing tables, dollies, microphones and other mechanical units from the past. It is as though we were being greeted by a museum of the television machine. It is the moment when a projector comes to life and the studio of Hellenic Radio Television is once again filled with its crew, its actors, and its staff. Remake shows us a linking of staggered timings and a variety of image regimes. The period of the military junta of the colonels (1967-1974), the years in which Greek state television was born, found footage, period cinema newsreels and new shots or scenes filmed in the studio today, but with archive material.

Here Stefanos Tsivopoulos does not question the relationship between the process of documentation and the fictitious process of subjectivisation as he does in The Interview, Actors, Play or Reverse. Rather, he questions the document as such, as an objective trace left by events, as material evidence, or as the certification of reality. In this sense, he brings into question the authenticity of the document, and thus also its authoritativeness in providing evidence for the construction of history. We might say that in Remake, as in the more recent video In Plato’s Cave (2008), the “regime of truth” is replaced by what we have referred to as the regime of subjectivisation or of identity. But what is the regime of truth if not another regulative principle that makes it possible to control and select the ways in which we build up historical formations? Is it not the procedure that, by separating truth from falsehood, makes it possible to conceal all bonds between knowledge and power? Even though it is certain that the “true” position is primarily the one pronounced by those who have the right to state it, it is also true that the moment of enunciation is the first to be subject to inquiry, if not indictment. While Tsivopoulos takes the television studios as a starting point for his investigation of history and memory, it is because it is there that the act of enunciation has (or had) its origins, and it is there that the truth of images and speeches is fabricated. The back-stage sequences of television presenters, the makeup and broadcasting tests are perfect examples of this. The dialectic relationship between the speaker seen in the act of talking and the shots of images to be seen introduces into the document a precise structure which is not that of the fact, but of what has been attributed to it.

In this excavation of sources, there is no intention to restore the past but simply a desire to refute the evidence of the facts, to catalogue and decipher the traces with which that view of the past was recorded and manipulated. This is why the idea of the device becomes truly central as much in Remake as in the case of In Plato’s Cave. The actors, the cameramen, and the technical equipment in Remake, and the Arriflex 1502 camera, the lens of the television camera, the video projector, the celluloid film, the typewriter, the personal computer, and the monitors in the video – in two chronological parts – of In Plato’s Cave. The Second World War and the war in Iraq are the two extremes that set the scene for an imaginary reporter closed in his post-production centre as he verifies, selects, cuts and re-cuts the images captured during the time of the two wars. But the device that is generally considered as an instrument of capture and control on the one hand, and as an instrument used to produce processes of subjectivisation on the other, is what unites Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s entire production, inducing him to create his production sets as physical extensions of his recording sets, in a sort of endless play of mirrors. In Remake, the role of the devices and sequences selected from archive films is such that they invalidate the nature of the document as yet another fictitious production, and the nature of legitimisation that we attribute to past history in order to orient that of the future. Hardly surprisingly, the celebration of the anniversary of the coup by the colonels on 21 April returns a number of times in the video, through found footage in the form of a great parade with Olympian deities and heroes on allegorical floats, in a sort of repetition of history or as a legitimisation of its advancement. The focus – not so much on the images as such but rather on their use and on the direction they move in, as well as on the mechanisms of their production, selection and distribution – is what makes Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s projects so topical today. It is an approach that is not expressed so much as an aesthetics of permanent suspicion as that of a sort of criticism of the political economics of images. As one of the sovereign processes that presides over and forms the order of discourse, and as a discourse that is objective and independent from power, truth is shown in one of its most emblematic images, like those of science. The monitor that constantly returns images of satellite exploration of the moon to the television studio of Remake, right up to the moon landing in 1969, is not simply a straightforward indicator of the timescale within which the video is set. It is also, and primarily, an image of “distance”, and of its subtraction, as Serge Daney would have said.