I’d like to do look at Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel from 1962, which, I’ll argue, can be read as a paradigm for production as I have been thinking about it for the past few weeks.
Set in a mansion, the film starts with the guests arriving twice. Shot slightly differently, the beginning seems to set the tone for a seemingly non-sensical experience. If you can have breakfast twice in one day, why can’t you enter the same room twice?
As the guests arrive, the cook and the servants take their coats and leave. The hostess is furious with them; she had planned an after-dinner entertainment with a bear and two sheep.
The dinner party is quite successful. The guests enjoy themselves, talk about each other, eye each other with lust, envy, pity.
After the guests move in to the music room, it becomes apparent that no one can leave. They move towards to the hallway, nothing seems to stop them and yet they cannot leave. This condition is never stated clearly. They accept their situation and settle into the sofas. The low-keyness of the horror is unsettling. The viewers as well as the guests are wrapped up in a world where the confinements are unclear yet present.
The captivity is clearly psychological and not physical. In other words, it is self-imposed. The only guest who remains calm is Dr. Carlos Conde. He guides the guests through the ordeals of the days by being rational. An older guest, Sergio Russell, dies and his body is put into the cupboard. Beatriz and Eduardo, a young couple about to be married, lock themselves in a closet and commit suicide. The bear and two sheep that were going to provide after-dinner entertainment break loose and enter the music room. The bear leads the sheep into their demise; they are roasted on a fire created by burning pieces of furniture in the room. Other events include an incestuous brother-sister stealing the morphine meant for Dr. Conde’s cancer patient and a proposal to sacrifice Nobile—the host—in hopes to end their predicament.
At one point, one guest says to another, “Wouldn’t it be a good joke if I sneaked up and pushed you out?” The other says: “Try it, and I’ll kill you.” Soldiers wait outside the house; whatever is preventing the guests from exiting is preventing the people outside from entering.
The guests leave the house after Letitia, one of the guests, urges them to re-trace their steps. The guests thus discover that they are free to leave the room.
Exterminating Angel seems to empty the world of social forms and inject artistic forms instead. The narrative illogic is a logical response to the absurdity of our situation.
The film started with, “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”
I’m going to get off-track before returning to Buñuel, by pausing to think about the notion of free fall. Imagining free fall, without a ground, is, I’m sure, not too unfamiliar to any one of you. The “groundlessness” can be daunting yet it is absolutely necessary. “Ground” anchors and gives meaning to the fall. If there is no ground to fall on, falling becomes floating, as falling feels like falling only when there is something to fall towards. Falling is, thus, relational. The construed sense of perfect stasis, while falling, will help me illustrate Buñuel’s mansion as it relates to praxis.
Stasis, or floating, can give one the sense of false security and normalcy. Stasis, if it is comfortable, obliterates the desire to seek a ground. An artist talks about free fall in the context of social inequality. Her conclusion is relevant for me, though. “Falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place. […] The place we are falling towards promises a shifting formation.”
Shifting formations being the ground on which we fall is an extrapolation of the idea that the very rooms that we are trapped in are more permeable than we think they are. It is precisely seeking a ground when falling that enables us to understand and further what we care about. The walls of the room change as we feel the limits of our enclosure. It is precisely the sense of falling, entrapment, that enable us to become a part of the changing landscapes and entrench ourselves deeply into what is unsafe, uncomfortable and most importantly, unknown.
It has thus hopefully become apparent that Buñuel’s music room is a stand-in for his production, my production, our production and maybe even, inspiring creativity.
My production is propelled by the desire to seek that alternative mode of being, a state of drunkenness. Having been plagued by this notion since October 2005 as described by Nabokov, “a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I will bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm,” my question is formulated around this condition of self-enclosure. I’m not referring to the claustrophobia of the triangular relationship between production, audience and producer. I’m rather curious about the possibility of oscillating between enclosure and non-enclosure, falling and stasis, and what, for each one of you, triggers that oscillation. To put it bluntly, how do you see yourself functioning in the real world, with the lower-case r? If I were to firmly situate my question within the possibilities afforded by Buñuel, what, if any, are the possibilities of escape outside your very own production and conditions? Taking Buñuel’s world maybe too literally, a possible answer is rationality. How do I overcome my inferiority complex, my pseudo-existential angst about producing in this particular way, contributing to the world only in what I would call remote means? Is my work about anything but art itself? How do I overcome the vertigo of looking at my production from the outside, if I can ever get outside? And most importantly, do I even want to?
The above text was written to be delivered as a ten-minute talk at the end of the residency led by Dexter Sinister at the Banff Centre, AB, Canada. Merve Ünsal, an artist based in New York, showed the below three-minute clip at the end of her presentation to “cleanse [the audience’s] palette” before moving on to the 15-minute descriptive, analytical, associative audience participation. The text was written in response to the assignment of presenting a question that the participants have been playing with during the course of the six-week residency, which sought to re-consider and propose an alternative to the Bauhaus foundation course.
The Exterminating Angel