RIOTS AND RUINS OF CITIZENSHIP
Dizon's work is located in the insider/outsider position articulated by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red. Red is an appropriate start for Dizon's video installation Civil Society, in its hinting at riots by describing an orange sky, a reflection of a fire which does not appear on the screen. Civil Society delicately touches upon three famous riots: Watts, 1965, the L.A. Rodney King rebellion in 1992, and Clichy-sous-Bois, France, 2005.
Riots usually evoke "red hot" images of action, speed, crowds out of control, blood and fire. Images make a spectacle of violence, feeding on “other” dangerous bodies. The wild subalterns, colored bodies and destruction, by rioting, acquire visibility and iconic value, at least in the contemporary global mediascapes. Images of riots constitute an expanding archive, because riots are a favorite of television news, which devote special coverage to them. The media feeds on their speed and their accumulation and excess of people and objects moving around. Images of riots immediately stimulate a collective appetite for violence, and a search for signs of barbarism, especially if red blood appears. The velocity of such images circulation also triggers a forgetting of the causes and consequences of riots, inscribing one image, the red one, in our minds. This image stands in for a complex moment, and a specific historical and geographical tension that will not be remembered later.
Civil Society negates the idea of turning riots into spectacle. Initially, one wonders where the usual signs and signifiers of riots are. Where is the fire, blood, violence, angry bodies? Then it becomes clear that their absence is their presence. In her slow-paced, delicate attempt to "speak nearby", Dizon follows only traces, and in her movements, one finds the space for a much more complex reflection on riots than the media archive allows.
Dizon's work leaves gaps open and many questions unanswered in approaching riots and the subsequent ruins as transnational spaces, that can be both strikingly similar, familiar and invisible. The poet-artist uses three screens to multiply views of the peripheries of global cities, Los Angeles and Paris, projected in sequence or delayed. The audio track of this installation uses voices to move the audience in time and space, connecting and yet distancing historical events. Dizon's voice starts in a personal tone, to interrupt newscast and interview excerpts that subtly echo each other, in a constant shift between absence and presence, official language and intimate experience and memories.
I saw nothing.
I thought of nothing.
It's like it never happened. ...
The city has been rebuilt
but all I see are ruins
burnt out structures
picked up by the wind
Just tell me, I am imagining things
Fifteen years have passed
All has been rebuilt
We have moved on
By pausing and allowing time to distance the audience from places of riots, Dizon creates an in-between space. Following her oscillations among cities, screens and time, one enters into a deep-listening state where historical and geographical ties become more and more audible and visible. A connection between Clichy-sous-Bois and Watts emerges by negation, as a common space of mourning, ruins and failures of citizenship.
Civil Society is the title of Dizon's installation, and it works by using contrast to demonstrate its absence. The term civil society remains suspended in its meaning, allowing for a non-totalizing reading of the events evoked. The riots are never univocally represented. An absent title corresponds to an absence of bodies on the screen, a stark contrast to the media spectacle so eager to assemble colored bodies in images of riots, thus identifying one race, neighborhood or ethnicity with hypervisibility and excess. Dizon's installation offers 'just' voices and places, speaking nearby rather than "showing" people. The camera wanders among housing projects and alienating boulevards, in their desolate, post-war repetitiveness, both in France and Southern California. These remarkably similar ruins constitute the daily landscape for immigrants living in metropolitan centers, their place is the normalized architectural ruin of peripheries, which counterpoints a less visible political ruin, that of their very marginal citizenship. Both audio and visual elements of this 38 minute installation convey a sense of physical ruin as well as mnemonic states of loss, articulated beautifully by an intimate female voice, a distant storyteller, who remains is only identified as "citizen, not citizen, daughter of immigrants". She does not remember the riots exactly, and she is asked to forget, so that the official History of the Nation State and the trajectory of its citizenship can continue and repeat itself across generations.
Another female voice tells of another space of ruin and decay of citizenship, speaking with an accent and a more theoretical language. She is Nacira Guénif-Souilimas, a French scholar whose work connects the histories of Watts 1965, L.A. 1992 and the more recent Clichy-sous-Bois riots, which sparked many more rebellions across France in 2005. She tells us of the reluctance to admit a similarity between North American and French residential segregation, while the images show a new resemblance among working-class peripheries in their racial and class tensions. She urges the need to interpret recent riots as an emerging political language, not to be dismissed as simply apolitical. The distancing in time and space is reiterated by the two female voices, speaking with different tones of the ruins of any monolithic idea of a nation, the assimilation projects and the subsequent failure of civil society as an ideal arena where hegemonic relations of power would be shared and accepted by subalterns.
Michelle Dizon's Civil Society evokes a trajectory of rebellions and struggle, looking at forms of resistance and reaction to failed citizenship in the West, from U.S. ghetto riots in the Sixties, to Brixton in the Eighties, L.A. in the Nineties, Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005, and, one could add, to Greece in 2008 (to keep a Euro-American ground of comparison, although many others could be named). All these incidents point at civil society as a failing paradigm. The first failure derives from the fact that the very notion of civil society presupposes citizenship, which is contested today. Civil society in classic political theory is conceived as the arena of unforced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. The institutions of civil society are supposed to be distinct from the state, the family and the market, but in practice, the boundaries among them are always blurred and complex. In Gramsci’s view, civil society plays an important part as a site of struggle, where domination can succeed or fail: it is the symbolic place where hegemonic culture circulates. The idea of civil society presupposes a universal worldview, made acceptable and natural to the subalterns in order to reproduce hegemony. Citizenship is a necessary component of civil society, without which its members cannot exert pressure on the state, the family or the market. However, in the post-colonial era, the figure of the immigrant emerged as distinguished from the “full” citizen, and denied by the state from obtaining legal and social right. Large parts of the population are today assigned this marginal space of citizenship, politics and sociality. This disinvestment of the state and the market in new citizens coincided very much with the realization that the peripheries of the former colonies were infiltrating the metropolitan centers in the Seventies, and lead to growing tensions.
They'll call it a riot of immigrants
but they are not immigrants they are citizens
Second, Third generation citizens
Just as the boundaries between First World and Third World appear porous and unstable, it is today clear that there are many Third Worlds in the First Worlds and vice-versa (Trinh 1989).
One says, this can't be happening in America,
Another, of course this is happening in America
in shock everyone will say This looks like the Third World
Things like that happen there not here
Dizon’s video reverberates with the emptiness of such 'Third world' places. Echoing and shifting in time, space and voices, the video conveys an absence of people and bodies. The few bodies on the screen are discolored and the opposite of hypervisible. Only a veiled woman walking out of a housing project enters the frame from afar. Only a shadow of Rodney King, small and distorted, appears barely recognizable in a well-known clip. The archival footage of Rodney King being beaten is framed as an opaque point of reference. Such sense of distance characterized also the archival images of Clichy-sous-Bois, presented here in a distorted and pixellated form. Images are repeated with a delay across the three screens, while large white words appear, then change; the syllables are cut and mis-translated on the black screen, in an textual, multi-lingual play that evokes the work of post-colonial artist Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha, whose pioneering video installations pointed to the arbitrary nature of signifiers and signs.
In this assemblage of words, the limits of a political concept are evoked as limits of its very representation and symbols, an increasingly important theme towards the end of Dizon's video, which evolves into a poignant, visual and poetical meta-reflection.
we see red, we don't see blood
In red we move away from an image that represents
and toward one that is aware of its inevitable failure. ....
Something so simple as a color
Might move us from a demand for representation
What kind of history would we tell
if we were freed from representation
Grieving the loss of blood, and the silent forms of violence, Dizon also touches upon the checks and balances of colonial history, an impossibility of justice within the political language of civil society and the simultaneous burden of representation, limiting the poetic endeavors of post-colonial artists. In a similar vein, the theme of passage of time evokes loss and solitude. A sense of loneliness shared by any artist attempting to de-center representation in relationship to immigration. Dizon is trying to escape an exhausted political language, based on the fetishization of riots, both in a conservative sense and in a naieve view of immigrants as inherently revolutionary subjects.
They will kill themselves
The law will protect us I feel safe ...
I saw nothing
I was the daughter of immigrants
They would destroy everything
We had to stop them
They, they, us
Shifting across geographical spaces and the physical space of the three screens, this installation oscillates between closeness and distance, undoing any dualism or stable relationship between metropolitan centers in the West and peripheries "out-there" in the rest of the world. Civil Society subtly critiques the limited roles of immigrant citizens in politics, leaning on the old distinction between "us" and "them": the wild outsiders, and the subdued, hard-working citizen. The post-colonial state offers only one form of political participation to them: to forget, to renounce to any demand, to erase historical and political connections between "us" and "them".
Between us and them
Between them and us
I stood outside myself
Dizon's work translates such crucial questions in a delicate visual language, and concludes with an internal dialogue between the artist's personal and political voice. The personal voice creates a perfect correspondence with the initial part of the film, evoking the warm color of riots, in an endless circularity.
The ruins have nothing to do with cities, structures, streets
fire, ashes, smoke, hints of orange in the sky
The ruins are myself
Part of myself, I leave for the wind
I am in ruins.
Laura Fantone holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and a M.A, in Women's Studies from the City University of New York. She recently completed a research project on ‘Orientalism and the Images of Global Asia in the West’ with the Post-colonial Studies center at the University of Naples 'L'Orientale'. She also teaches and conducts research focused on women at the University of Padua. Outside of the academy, Laura participates in oral history, video and multimedia projects. She is one of the organizers of an Italian network of young scholars activists in gender and precarity issues called Prec@s.