Syllabus on Opacity
by Ellery Bryan
My first graduate critique was the most heartbreaking. Nine months after a death I was still reckoning with, I had completed my first artwork since that event. The film was a kind of ritual-processing where I envisioned myself being able to mediate with him from this other side. Pulling from my catholic upbringing, it was rife with mystic Christian imagery and movements, as well as many I had adapted in my own practice of trying to reach this person. Using lenses I had constructed out of PVC pipe, I was depicted through a haze of chromatic aberrations receiving a phone call from another world, and directing shots by movement of a pendulum. The critique was long and essentially questioned whether the ethereal visual language I was using was relevant to something as suffocating as my grief. My experience in grad school was a distant and secular one. Stuck in a shallow reflex to reject all hierarchical traditionalism, even an arts education was oriented on the theoretical basis of materiality, objectivity, apathy.
All photographic and image-recorded making traces a history of failed pursuits of objective truth. From the first eugenic profiles of the bodily traits of “criminals” to the advent of police body cameras, the idea persists that a captured photographic image cannot lie, even in the intentionally confusing cognitive dissonance of highly curated online culture and widespread misinformation that preys on gaps in media literacy. Educational and scientific institutions are, too, founded on a similarly constructed idea of objective reasoning, that truth can always be rigorously proven with the use of outdated processes to draw conclusions, which hinders radical progress and secures white supremacy and class hierarchy. Underlying most western manners of study, regardless of methodological guardrails, is the concept that there is one right answer and one reality that disputes all the others.
However, even the most intentionally constructed methods fail. The promise of body camera recordings to expose police violence have almost never brought justice – every viewer and juror staring at the same sequence of images comes to a broad range of conclusions, clouded by personal experience and socialized narrative belief, which fails to convict killer cops or undermine the systems that keep them in positions of power at the expense of marginalized people who are perceived as less sympathetic. While categorical eugenics have been repeatedly refuted, still people of racialized and systemically oppressed appearances and identities cannot access quality care. The rigid scaffolding of reasoning provided by academic environments of study, when treated as though separate from the social sphere and governed by discernible material evidence, promotes widespread confusion when our information landscape is broader and faster, or shifting rapidly under evolving crisis, unable to respond actively to interpersonal needs. It muddies any “right answers” by its inability to adapt to situations that require flexibility, tailored nuance toward vulnerable populations, and ongoing curiosity. In institutional settings, conclusions drawn about the world and its systems are often depersonalized and treated as ideology, apart from our lives where interdependence is pivotal, and where the conclusions we draw are more often in response to felt experience, patterns and relationships.
During my last days before the pandemic, I attended a graduate senate meeting that was held in response to student protests against hate crimes on campus. Protesters had been brutalized by police, denied food and medical care, and surrounded by law enforcement in an academic building that they occupied where the heat was turned off by university administration, in February. Emails from university administrators and campus police denied the use of these tactics. While advocating for a GSO dissent of violence employed against student protesters, peers across a spectrum of disciplines, majority white men, majority hard sciences, asked how they could pass a dissenting measure when there was no proof that these events had taken place, at a protest which they did not attend or engage with socially. The claim to objective truth is the foundation of a structure where people with the most power get to decide what is believable or real on the basis of a burden of proof dictated by tradition that benefits maintaining that power.
That my work was not believable was the primary argument raised by peers and faculty in that first critique and in most others until I graduated. My cohort cited that they were distracted by religious imagery that made the work less sympathetic or serious, they did not understand what symbols I was using, they couldn’t figure out what was taking place in the performances, they were confused by the location and participants and why the work was relevant to grieving. The work I make is extremely intentional and local. It is a series of performance-based ritual attempts within a beloved and queer and insular community where I have lived for ten years among a group of friends, attempting to reckon with the loss we live with through making. We converge in familiar spaces and use the action of our bodies and our conversation to attempt to make spaces for our friends who are no longer embodied to fill up. My films make visual use of absences in order to ask for people I miss to enter, drawing attention to the space between us that is constituted of my desire to be with them. It is an embodied expression of grief created by contrasting the presence and togetherness of performers, it processes the profound loneliness of mourning by exemplifying its opposite in order to make its emptiness visible. I perform erasure by scratching figures out of 16mm film and depict myself interacting with a shifting body of light, I attempt to double myself so that I can emotionally reckon with my singularity. It is an intimate practice to its core. It resists interpretation and intellectualizing because loss is somatic and cannot be reasoned. The idea that in order to justify critique a work must possess an intellectualized legibility denies the right to opacity necessitated by emotional and communal dynamics that rely on languages beyond logic and predictability.
Driving a capitalist hustle culture in film and media art is the idea that there is no room for independent work that is not universally legible. The less-relatable fails to generate profit. Statements become watered down and digestible in this system. Critical communities are left out. The push towards globalism in art-making removes precious space for nuance, collectivity and marginalized voices. It undermines the communal aspect of making something for the people you live and make things with, your important language, how the smallest loving gestures of mutual investment are the ties which make us able to stand with one another against hardship of all kinds. Worst of all, it creates a market goal that denies the validity and imperative of work that is made just for the community who made it, as though the local is less vital and necessary to sustain. Resistance to believing and supporting the narratives of diverse in-groups and marginalized individuals divides communities and breeds reactionary thinking that frames people and their experiences as consumable and disposable. Inability to reckon with broader subjective experience pushes us to feel that to accept the narratives of others would displace us from a feeling of personal certainty on which we can hinge our value and place in the world.
My peers’ discomfort with opacity made discussing my work in an academic setting nearly impossible. I make work by digitized analog film, a tactile living artifact that becomes ephemeral and separated from touch by a screen, in order to place an apparition of myself on equal footing with the people in my life who have died and become inaccessible to me. My relationship with them takes place through repeated intuitive attempts at collaborating on an image through action. It is tenuous and constant and felt and evolving. It is profoundly moving for me and an important method of collective processing with my friends who are still living, a five hour drive from my former school and ideologically worlds away. It cannot be mined for study, replication, reason or profit. The premise of my work is that these relationships are affecting and therefore exist, there is no disbelieving or debate, to propose to debate it is unaccountably painful. This truth is the foundation of my practice and its output. There is no question. Because the premise of my work is rooted in the context of my certainty, it reflects an experiential reality that is indisputably true, regardless of whether the viewer experiences something similar, which is not relevant to engage with it visually or emotionally.
The separation of my lived experience from others, and my human inability to transport my peers and audience into my conclusions, has no reflection on whether the experience that informs my work is real. The idea that our rich internal worlds, and the perpetual project of attempting to intersect them with the people’s worlds closest to us, would dispute any other, ignores the inherent nature of being people and the enigmatic dimension of coming to know others, where desire of all kinds originates. It is in that mystery where we inhabit the constant push-pull of always attempting to draw closer. Nobody has any more power to dispute what I have lived and feel to be true than I do for them, which does not make either of us less believable or correct. The failure to recognize this condition, and the insistence that there is one right way, is the source of all kinds of interpersonal and hierarchical oppression and weaponization of perceived validity – the denial of the pain and truth of others, especially those facing the most oppression, which we are beholden to treat carefully and humbly. It is our greatest responsibility to one another to attempt to reconcile the disparities in experience that cause vulnerable people to suffer, regardless of how comfortable those with more power may feel. In order to do this, a belief in the capacity for each other and the world we inhabit to be redeemed is desperately necessary. It asks of us a willingness to accept ideas that may at first seem contradictory to our experiences, but which moreso add expansive dimension alongside us from which we can learn.
To inform a study of dismantling objectivity I recommend reading all about love, “The Gender of Sound”, and the texts of religious mystics. “AEIOU”, a song about language by Wye Oak.
Images by Ellery Bryan