- Seeing Witness: Visuality and the Ethics of Testimony
In Jane Blocker's third book, Seeing Witness, she takes up the question of who represents, or speaks in the name of, the real, whether in terms of actual seeing (the eyewitness) or in terms of that which is beyond what can be seen [End Page 538] (bearing witness). As in her previous two works on performance art, Where Is Ana Mendieta? and What the Body Cost, Blocker writes with a keen and lively intelligence, elegance, clarity, wryness, and from a deeply ethical perspective that engages the larger politics of visual representation and artistic practice. Blocker expands the nature of the kinds of works she examines in Seeing Witness to include an eclectic array of artistic practices, and convincingly brings them all together through the thematic of witnessing. She approaches the figure of the witness and theories of witnessing not from the perspective of what witnesses see and how they are affected by what they see, but in terms of the "how" of seeing: the technologies we use to look with, and the forms of power that permit the looking and which are supported by that looking. Blocker often frames her discussion in provocative and imaginative ways, and clearly distinguishes her work from the body of literature on trauma and witnessing in relation to specific catastrophes such as the Holocaust or AIDS. Instead, Blocker considers, as she writes in her introduction, "what art has to offer to the ethics of witnessing, how art has addressed such things as the ideology of the legitimate witness, the privilege and hegemonic power of official testimony, the politics of the ideal witness, and the ways in which that witness is modeled after the disembodied, monocular camera" (xxiii).
In the process of analyzing what is at stake in "seeing" witness, Blocker continues her pursuit of a new kind of art historical practice that abjures "disembodied intellectualism," or what Judith Butler calls "postures of indifference," which are often misconstrued as "objectivity." Instead, Blocker's avowed art historical practice is based unabashedly on the philosophical concepts of love and desire. This is a thrilling ambition. Blocker makes this explicit in her first chapter, where she poignantly explores the implications of the performance work The Lovers by Ulay and Marina Abramovic. But even where it is not explicit in the rest of the book, the philosophical concepts of love and desire seem to shadow her attentive and engaging explorations. Throughout, Blocker draws the reader into her thought processes, often methodically arriving at unpredictable, original, and persuasive insights.
In her chapter on Ulay and Abramovic, Blocker's primary interest is not the performance work itself, in which two former lovers walk the Great Wall of China from opposite ends to meet in the middle and say goodbye, where they once had planned to get married, but the historical account of it by art critic Cynthia Carr, who joined the walk with Abramovic and wrote about her experiences of it as a very engaged witness. In her second chapter, Blocker writes a particularly strong analysis of the performance works of Native American artist James Luna. Blocker shows how Luna spotlights and parodies the uneasy subjectivity of the white witness who locks the Native American into certain [End Page 539] acceptable forms of identity that depend on white "native envy" and anxiety that native cultures are more spiritual and "pure" than their own. These two chapters are part of Blocker's section on "History," along with a chapter on works by Felix Gonzales-Torres and Ross McElwee on weddings. Here Blocker tackles the trauma of witnessing as a form of split subjectivity, traumatic because the witness is excluded from participating in the very thing he witnesses—love, death—because "to be a witness means by definition to stand outside events, even those quotidian events we experience directly" (37).
In a section on "Technology," Blocker examines photographic projects by Gilles Peress and Alfredo Jaar on the genocide in Rwanda and the ways in which...