Vacarme 41 / cahier

enquiry into the/our outside by Alejandra Riera at Documenta 12


Alejandra Riera’s presentation for Documenta 12 occupies a large space on the top floor of the Friedericianum in Kassel. The space—dotted with windows, criss-crossed by windowed partitions, the photos the video screens themselves like windows opening upon the presence and voices of those with whom she is pursuing her enquiry—strongly resonates the outside she is surveying with other people whose thresholds she is opening, whose boundaries she is breaking. Reading by Jean-Pierre Rehm.

from art to study

Commenting on Alejandra Riera’s work presupposes caution. On the one hand, she takes great care to explain her approach [1] to the point that any elaboration risks superfluity, or even worse, approximation. On the other hand, her conceptual work mixes, according to the hasty coherence of a large collage, heterogeneous materials (archives, photos, films, texts) that require a particular approach and the patient science of creating connections between them. Because ultimately, and this is an essential feature, the rhetoric at work in the form of numerous titles, legends, texts, notes—in short, a critical device deposited within the work itself—is the product of a defensive logic. “Models-without-quality”, “unresolved problem”, “work in progress”, “work on strike”, “fragments”, “partial views”, “unrealisable film” are a few of the many immediately prescriptive descriptions assigned according to a by default rule. However, it would be wrong to read it as the topos, let alone the pathos, of the essential misery of art in the spirit of, say, Beckett or Blanchot. Even if, as Bataille said, the motif of the “scandal” of art, of its crisis, or even worse, of its condemnation, remains a debt inherited from the avant-gardists, one shouldn’t be misled by this. The negation, the attenuation, the exhibition of detours and retreats are so many weapons jealously deployed. This disparaging logic, subjected to the power of paralipsis, represents more than a strategy dictated by circumstances: it is the very form of the work. Or rather, the mark of its very singular formalism. Exhibitions, catalogues, projections, Alejandra Riera endeavours to dress all of these in quotation marks, efficiently erecting a battery of obstacles to seizing them. What she has thus organised is a mode of resistance proper to the work itself. No fragility or deficit here, in spite of the denials. It is a fortress with a construction calculated to defeat its siege.

This might allow us to clear up an equivocation. That Alejandra Riera’s work is concerned with politics couldn’t possibly escape anyone. And its manifest urgency, whose practical translation in other works [2] keeps this word from sounding crude, is uncontested. And yet, the paranoid form (that is, for her, form itself) precludes these urgencies from looking like themes. Like extracts, in short. Always-already reserved, preserved, always-already exposed—resolved. On the contrary, these questions rather supply her with the generic consistency of a medium, an opaque material as such. So it is important to respect and protect its density before attempting to publicise it. To put it plainly: here, the urgent call nevertheless requires a form, a delay, a form of delay, the vigilance of successive retrenchments, an unfolding governed by a suspensive law.

This kind of paradox is nothing new. It contains the double-bind trap that is deliberately constructed by anyone who stubbornly refuses to cheat, to conceal any hasty, degrading accident for the sake of convenience, or to compromise on the essential: the unfathomable interweaving of registers, of contradictions [3] But this trap is in no way indicative of paralysis, it does not make powerlessness into the work’s driving force, not its conclusion. Conversely, it is the hallmark of an excess of ambition. Because, contrary to the stingily lyrical withdrawal in vogue today—and we all know to what extent politics supplies it with alibis and supposedly objective safeguards—what is intended here is an epic regime. An epic that is admittedly somewhat damaged. Or demented. Or put another way, it is permeated by a lyricism that only comes to life through excess. This is no doubt why her work often looks like an epidemic spreading through the space, a boundless propagation relentlessly pointing toward the utopia of an “outside”.

This outside fittingly serves at the title of her recent installation for Documenta 12: Enquiry Into the/our Outside. Madness takes pride of place, free from anything demagogically picturesque. We will content ourselves with briefly mentioning what one part of this installation, a film document created in conjunction with UEINZZ, offers under this title of ‘enquiry’. UEINZZ is a theatrical company that was originally linked to a psychiatric day hospital in São Paulo. It later became an autonomous experimental workshop collective, a federation of psychiatric patients, therapists, actors and philosophers. The guiding principle of the enquiry is simple. Accompany this disparate group to different places—a worksite, an institution, a public park, or the streets of São Paulo—and observe them as they engage in dialogue in the manner of everyday reporters. Contexts, experiences and knowledge are thus given an opportunity to gather and be heard: the project leader, labourer, policeman, fanatical pantheist, street vendor, cook, passer-by asking for the address of Radio Globo, etc. It is impossible to describe the crowd of details (scenes of the Brazilian epic) that inform a film that sidesteps the technical standardisation to which the dubious informality of the “social enquiry” with a “humanistic calling” accommodates itself so well. Something this venture, as Riera herself makes clear, refuses to be.

Anyone looking for the workings of an assessment, survey or an odious portrait gallery with good-natured exhaustiveness will be disappointed. Because the logic of roles is shaken up. The interlocutors express themselves in a mixed conversational space, to take up the title of one of the chapters of the film. And even if no one is free from the possibility of recognition (when it is aided by a uniform, market stall, or the emphatic signs of a psychological disorder), no one finds himself riveted to it, assigned an identity that he is called upon to exemplify, according to the sinister logic of a documentary that lingers on an individual to better spoil itself with typologies. Because no one knows who exactly is asking the questions, nor who is answering, nor, above all, what the precise goal is. What is initially transmitted is an experience of the insufficiency of this type of transmission.

With the exception of a building under construction [4] and a hospital, all of the exchanges take place “outside”. But the street is not a “vox pop” public place, a fortress of public opinion. It is rather, as in Rouche’s films from the Chronicle of a Summer period, the most exposed theatre, that is, in spite of certain “scenes”. It is the least hysterical, and therefore the least theatrical theatre. All the more so since the questions—without ever resembling an interrogation where knowledge would be guaranteed its proper place—alternate between general considerations and the incongruousness of the individual, as in Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants. “I would like to find out if, instead of keeping a door closed, you would like to open one,” a slightly Kafkaesque porter is asked. On the other hand, the collective of “inquirers” does not constitute a homogeneous group. If some of them are strange, unkind or simply talkative, and it’s not always the same people, others are quiet; either their mind is off somewhere or they are absorbed by the story being told. The enquiry is not filtering what is said, but is being weaved in the net thrown up by each situation, without any framework having been agreed beforehand. It is carried out neither in anticipation of a desired result determined in advance, nor in the fraudulently naturalistic miming of an aimless discussion. Because, strangely, madness is overseeing the operation. It ensures those two pitfalls are avoided, and becomes the paradoxical mark of gravity or gaiety (of a kind) that refuses to seek refuge elsewhere. So it no longer presents itself as something brain-dead, but as a disjunctive operation, the possibility of a series of “interruptions”, to use the subtitle of the film. It says a lot about the calmly frenzied ambition of the project that the didacticism of the enquiry-form is protected and accomplished by a madness that is indistinguishable from the knowledge of philosophy, an actor’s know-how, or the abandon with which ordinary things float along. “The truth contained in joy seems inaccessible today. The fact that genres are dwindling away, that a tragic disposition appears comic and the comic appears melancholic, is related to this. Tragedy is decomposing, because it asserts the positive meaning of negativity […]. It is detestable. Art that advances into the unknown, the only art still possible, is neither gay nor solemn; but the third term is hidden from view, as if plunged into the void, whose figures are described by the artworks posted at its borders”, Adorno wrote in 1967. Without claiming to present this third estate, Alejandra Riera, this dark, impossible, modern intermediary, in all her rigor, proposes madness and its ordinariness as a provisional form for the study of art today.


[1Cf., for example, the interview in Vacarme No 32 about her film Images de chantiers en cours, paroles ce celles, ceux qui construisent (Images of worksites in progress, words of those who construct).

[2As in the film named above, which is but a small part of an undocumented personal commitment to the work of Refdaf (Women for the Lasting Development of Africa). There are also all of the exchanges and actions undertaken in relation to imprisoned Kurdish ex-deputy Layla Zana.

[3“If I say something, which I’m later unable to explain, that’s called… a contradiction”, suggests a protagonist in the film cited below.

[4The visit to the Maria Antonia Cultural Centre construction site opens the enquiry (photo at the top of the following page). Valter Ramos, who heads the project and serves as tour guide, tells the story of the site’s archaeology. Originally the São Paolo University of Philosophy and Letters, the building was closed in 1968 and requisitioned by the dictatorship to be used as an identification centre, a sorting office. It will soon open as a contemporary art centre. One can see why, in the chronology of this passage from knowledge to power, and in the interval before it became symbolic, Rieria and the UEINZZ would want to slip in.