The Pain of Seeing: The Videos of Laura Waddington

Bouchra KhaliliThe 51st Oberhausen Short Film Festival Catalogue, 2005.

By Bouchra Khalili

“It’s all white, nothing… Now you are in the central region, you can invent the sea.”
(Jean Luc Godard in front of the immaculate screen, “Scénario du film Passion”)

“Nothing is left except a floating absence, filling the screen, dwelling alone in the sand”
(Marguerite Duras talking to Yann Andrea, off camera in “L’Homme Atlantique”)

Duras said that women share an understanding of pain. That they carry it inside them wherever they are and that the strength of women lies in this intimate knowledge, free from fear. We see this knowledge in the work of Laura Waddington. For Duras it is the “mal d’intelligence” of Lol V. Steine, of Aurelia Steiner but most of all, of Anne-Marie Stretter, who travels back and forth from Venice to Lahore, from Lahore to Calcutta. Like Anne-Marie Stretter, Laura Waddington travels. From London to New York, New York to Venice, Venice to Syria, Syria to Sangatte. But her intelligence is free from affliction and madness. Instead it is lucid: a need to infiltrate the world and dig itself into the visible.

She forges a path through a mental and physical terrain with her selected tools. Firstly, there is the practice of working in a hidden way to get closer to reality. Then, there is the carrying of a small camera to record her impressions, archiving daily the state of her perceptions. And finally, there is the absolute need to understand and account for the condition of the world.

She films her first work The Visitor (1992) in a New York hotel room. It is the story of a chambermaid who photographs the traces of an occupant of a room she cleans each day. Bit by bit this place becomes a room for images, a space in which the objects find their echo through the contact of this chambermaid, who knows how to welcome them, to give them resonance — as if here the photographing of the objects projects them into a mental space.

In ZONE (1995) Laura Waddington carries this process of pure mental projection further, linking it with the greatest documentary practice. There exists always in her the need to accompany the world in its movement, even at its most impenetrable. And so the decision to work with a spy camera, attached to her body, which becomes her blind eye, a pure membrane, vibrating at contact with events her eyes cannot see. She boards the ship, the QE2, from New York to England. The situation implies unavoidable solitude: the passengers in their cabins do not notice the sea. Alone, a woman paces up and down the decks, looking for a man, who is perhaps not there or who simply does not exist.

It would be wrong to suspect voyeurism in the use of a camera, normally reserved for spying. For what Laura Waddington is really tracing is her capacity to renounce her gaze and abandon herself to the movement of her body in order to produce a trembling of vision, if not simply a vibration through contact with the outside world: a gaze that encompasses everything in a single gesture. But she does not stop there. She sets about methodically destroying this trembling image: she re-films the images in video, then breaks through the layers to get closer to the consistency of film. There is nothing redemptive in this re-working of texture. It is, in fact, the degrading of the original recording to better reveal the nature of its vision: impure, fragile and haphazard.

This ceding of control is why there will be no fetish of the recorded image in the cinema of Laura Waddington.

It is what allows her to make The Lost Days (1999) without having filmed a single shot. Here, the aim was to transform images filmed by other people in Europe, Asia and the Arab world into her own images. But aside from a retrospective appropriation – the calling into question of the concept of author – it is once again a way of seeing, of seeing with and through the eyes of other people. To join and mix together multiple points of view alien to one another into a single gaze – a gaze that stretches on a geographical scale towards the transversal. To make of the eye an organ, dedicated to voyage, to perpetual exile, one that ignores frontiers and encircles the world in an endless trajectory.

What becomes apparent and from now on increasingly radical is the necessity of setting off in movement, as the basis of her filmmaking: its form and the story that unfolds. This is most evident in her most recent works CARGO (2001) and Border (2004).

In CARGO there is again a chosen limit: she boards in semi-secrecy a ship bound for the Middle East. From her cabin she records the journey trying to save a few traces, a few images of the ships loading and unloading, impressions that come to her and which she seizes almost blindly. What she records most of all is the difficulty of only being able to live the world by moving across it and withdrawing from its tumult.

In Border it is with the same clarity of intent that she shares the nocturnal routine of the Sangatte refugees. Their waiting, their fear, the nights spent in the fields, the sleepwalk-like wandering along the roads, the confrontations with the police and the absolute refusal to put herself in the hands of the Red Cross and abandon her belief in the exiles’ destiny.

And this is perhaps what is most essential in the cinema of Laura Waddington, a certain capacity for negotiating with fear, with the visible and its requirements – what could be called a constant moral negotiation with reality.For if the world reveals itself in her videos (and above all the most recent ones) it is less by its unavoidable presence and more in the impossibility of containing it. To such an extent – it is as if the world itself is absent.

It is at this precise point that the work of Laura Waddington situates itself, in the region of absence and loss. Her territory begins at the edges of the visible, where absence persists in maintaining itself for a moment longer. It is the darkness which allows the palpitation of the visible, the recording of a luminous imprint, signalling a presence which does not stop disappearing. And a quality of image grain, which marks itself out as a difficult and necessary vision.

It is what makes the images she filmed in Sangatte precious. They bear witness to the ghostly presence of the refugees, attempting to pass through the night, in this territory marked out by oppression. In the same way that Laura Waddington tries to cross this patrolled space to reveal both its perverse topography and its borders. It is a paradoxical space of wandering, placed under the sign of surveillance but also of possibility and freedom. Border succeeds precisely in showing what no report filmed there had managed to show.

One could always reproach Border for a certain formalism, as certain people have not missed an opportunity to do but that is to ignore that aside from the technical limitations that produced this, it is most of all a moral stance that is here at work. A resolutely modern ethic because it is based on absence, loss and a refusal to concur with the myth of the documentary moment as epiphany. It is, instead, a radical call for heterogeneity, diversity, the image saturated to the limits of the visible, producing the disconcerting revelation: there is nothing left to see, only pieces to gather. It is, without doubt, what we call a vision of the world, the least obvious but the most painfully contemporary.

(Translated and adapted from the French for the Oberhausen catalogue)

Bouchra Khalili, “The Pain of Seeing: The Videos of Laura Waddington”, The 51st Oberhausen Short Film Festival Catalogue, Germany, 2005