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Performing Death: Derek Jarman’s Medial Blues

FOUR BY THREE MAGAZINE

Performing Death: Derek Jarman’s Medial Blues

JOHN GARLAND WINN

John Winn


Can film transcend its material embodiment beyond celluloid print? John Winn examines English artist Derek Jarman’s audio-visual work Blue (1993), reading it as a transmedial performance rather than a film, while foregrounding corporealities, textures, sounds and voices, thereby opening up the ways in which Blue brings to light questions concerning death.


Color in the absence of man, man who has passed into color
— Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

Art objects are modulable things that change with the passage of time. These changes are either avoided, through efforts like preservation, or treated as part and parcel of the piece. For example, in the case of the latter, Picasso’s collages are bound to their yellowing newspaper clippings and Rauschenberg’s White Paintings are stuck with their collection of dust. This materiality is an unavoidable, but potentially generative, aspect of the arts. Yet the tenuous and immanent exposure of artwork to its environment is frequently effaced when related to reproduced art. Such that a film appears to have a life that transcends its embodiment in a particular celluloid print. However, such an immaterial presupposition is quite unsustainable when a reproduced artwork attends to the very unstable materiality of its reproduction. Such is the case for Derek Jarman’s Blue, which is an audio-visual piece featuring a blue screen for 76 minutes, overlaid by a sound-collage of Jarman’s experiences related to being diagnosed with AIDS.

Instead Blue should be considered a transmedial performance, a performance that is re-embodied with each screening, broadcast, or installation

The piece premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1993, but has since been broadcast on the radio as well as on television, featured as an installation in museums, and theatrically distributed as a film. In spite of the diverse manifestations of the piece, Blue is generally considered, first and foremost, a cinematic work. Yet Blue’s emergence across media shows how the unstable materiality of the piece makes it irreducible to belonging only to the cinema. Instead Blue should be considered a transmedial performance, a performance that is re-embodied with each screening, broadcast, or installation. This reconsideration of the media-specificity of Blue is essential to understanding how the piece is itself a multivalent mediatized body, doubling not only for Jarman’s body—or for the innumerable lives lost to AIDS—but also generating a collective experience between the other bodies presenced before it. In other words, Blue is not only a film, but also a transmediated performance that is ongoing, potentializing the spectral absences of lost forms. These performances will be followed as they relate to the mediation of the blue screen, as well as through Blue’s use of sound-design.

The performativity of Blue gives it a sense of liveness, or immediacy, that derives from its entanglement with its diverse mediations of the blue screen. As Phillip Auslander has remarked, the live and the mediatized are not inherently opposed, although nor are they part of a “shared ontology,” but rather, they should be treated through a “relation of dependence and imbrication” (56). Blue activates a specific kind of live event. For example, the celluloid of one 35mm print of Blue is worn-down, such that, at the end of each reel, scratches and dust overtake the projected blue. These scratches, rather than appearing as mere noise, materialize and compound the passage of time onto the celluloid, in such a way that other film prints or digital copies simply do not do. In other words, the filmic decay of Blue is part of a live and immediate experience, not something additional to a supposed cinematic reproduction. This print’s material specificity is in excess of the film it reproduces. The piece is a performative medial body that deteriorates and dies, but also emerges in other mediated forms across time.

Blue’s medial performance not only attends to its tenuous materiality but is also absent representational forms. Kate Higginson notes, the monochrome screen operates “as a strategy to thwart representational expectations” of the “AIDs-afflicted body” (78). Since this non-representational field forecloses direct identification with a body, Blue, instead, enacts a collective corporality between bodies. The blue screen becomes an associative surface for both those actually present and those spectrally absent, namely Jarman and others lost to AIDS. Further, if we characterize Blue as unstable and modulable across media and time, its corporeal being-together is always activated in the present, through the (a)live ether of the blue screen. In other words, each mediated performance of Blue is embodied. Celluloid and TV sets should be treated as performers that change their source material by media-specific disruptions or variations. Decaying celluloid alters the blue surface and the TV set appears broken, broadcasting only a static blue screen. These mediated performers replace the deferred representations of the AIDS-afflicted body. They stand in for the human body as another fragile and precarious form of matter that can degenerate and die but can also reemerge in other media. These entangled performances, between Blue and its viewers, create a sense of communal mourning in which the lingering presence of those lost to AIDS is accompanied by an awareness of their present-ness. Simultaneously they create an affective field of awareness: being aware of the ongoing loss and the immanence of being present to one another.

This decentralization of Blue’s medial stability also folds into the piece’s overarching soundscape. Jacques Khalip remarks that, although Blue “is a deeply autobiographical, self-conscious reflection on queer life in the time of AIDS,” its “resolute blindness” “complicates [its] auteurist discourses by developing a dissonant, audiovisual aesthetic that refuses to fold back into any kind of unified perspective or signature” (76). In other words, Jarman, as auteur and audible speaker, entangles with Blue’s sonic field, while, simultaneously, entangling with the collective of other bodies experiencing the piece. This queering of the author, of the sonorous voice, is further intensified when Blue is considered as a series of hypermediated performances. That is, not only are Jarman and the audience de-signatured, as singular bodies within a field of blue, but so also is the piece de-signatured, as it is only one mediatized emergence amongst an infinite set of other potential performances. When I sit in a theater and watch this burning blue celluloid, my singular embodiment collapses with Jarman’s.

I am made partial, vulnerable, and dissonant by Blue’s many transmediated performances, which refuse any body with the sense of corporeal security across both time and space

Yet Jarman’s corporeality is itself already dissipated throughout Blue’s queer soundscape. Or as he states: “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits” (7). And this too is further complicated by the fact that there is no singular Blue, only a multiplicity of transmediated Blues, such that neither I nor Jarman collapse into a general relational field of the piece, but are only capable of belonging to particular fragmented pieces. Thus singular identification is not displaced into a unified, collective corporeality. Rather there is no longer any possibility for stable corporeal defense—singular, collective, or otherwise. I am made partial, vulnerable, and dissonant by Blue’s many transmediated performances, which refuse any body with the sense of corporeal security across both time and space. The embodiment of each of these performances complicates the notion of coherent and interior corporeality as such.

Instead, the body is made open, virtual, and indeterminate as a result of this mediatized queering. At one moment of the piece Jarman, having just spoken of Sarajevo, states, “What need of so much news from abroad while all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within me” (3). Yet the audio is also comprised of noise from a coffee shop, the sound of feet stepping against the ground, a door opening, and the activity of the street rushing in. At this point Jarman is heard saying “I step off the kerb and a cyclist nearly knocks me down,” followed by a muffled “Look where the fuck you’re going” (3). This dense ecology of sounds intimately impresses itself upon the surface of Jarman’s body, but at no point does it cross that boundary and enter inside him. Rather, it would appear that Jarman seeps out into his surroundings, conditioned not only by the streets, footsteps, and café, but also by the mediating technology of the microphone. Just as the noises of medical equipment, which read and abstract the body, punctuate the film throughout, this episode shows how the human body is itself mediatized and conditioned by relationships exterior to it. Thus the “life or death” that is “transacting and at work within me,” is heard to be, at the same time, on the other side of the flesh’s surface, on the streets and within sound recording equipment. The body is only a relational node interacting with—as well as undetermined by—an exteriorized, sonic ecology. Similarly when I experience Blue, I am mediatized by its particular performance, but this mediatization is noticeably unstable. Blue’s own medial precarity reinforces itself upon me, so that I am de-corporeal, yet immanently material, and, thus, determined by encounters with my outside.

This exteriorized ecology indicates that language, in Blue, is always conditioned by the resonances surrounding its enunciation. This is not to downplay the poetics that Jarman and others speak, but rather, shows how this speaking is always more than the words spoken. This recalls the writings of Antonin Artaud, whose work was influential for Jarman. Artaud aimed to “change the role of speech in theater,” hoping to construct a kind of speech beyond signification (Artaud 72). As Artaud proclaims in “The Theater of Cruelty (First Manifesto),” “[this theater] extends the voice. It utilizes the vibrations and qualities of the voice. It wildly tramples rhythms underfoot. It pile-drives sounds. It seeks to exalt, to benumb, to charm, to arrest the sensibility” (91). Likewise, Blue proliferates affective vibrations of sound, which ricochet off voices and microphones, where pop or classical music may unexpectedly emerge, or the loud rush of a broken threshold may lead to an immense silence. This virtuality of sound, its capacity to play out in incredibly indeterminate ways, also makes the particular mediatized presentation relevant to the experience of the performance. Was that sonic distortion a result of poor Internet connection, a scratch on the CD, a bent antenna? Or, was it ‘supposed’ to be there? It’s impossible to know, as there isn’t some original Blue to turn to. Rather, such distortion is an inseparable affective component of the live event.

Each Blue is the orgasmic passing of the living and breathing Blues, thus incorporating death into the very act of living

The repeated (a)liveness of the medial performance materializes Blue’s preoccupation with death, such that death becomes active. Instead of treating death as a negation—as the impossibility of continuing to belong to a community—the transmediation of Blue allows it to continue conversing with the living in generative way. In this sense, the piece performs death, providing it with multiple bodies, while carrying it through the modulations of time. Not only are each of these mediating objects references to the memory of death, which allow audiences to experience the ongoingness of mourning, but so also are they each une petite mort. These ‘little deaths’ are actual, in that each performance enlivens what will ultimately come to pass away. Each Blue is the orgasmic passing of the living and breathing Blues, thus incorporating death into the very act of living. In this way, Blue’s deaths repeat the very unrepeatable singularity of a death and spread it across the always-partial media ecology of its performance. The experience of living, of being present for a performance, is punctuated by the experience of dying, of non-living, of becoming the microphone recording my footsteps or the burning Blues projected before me.

This becoming-deathly creates an opening in the piece that allows bodies to momentarily exist otherwise, as a sort of non-human community. Writing on monochrome, Deleuze and Guattari state, “the area of plain uniform color vibrates, clenches or cracks open because it is the bearer of glimpsed forces” and “mak[es] the invisible forces visible” (181, 182). In other words, Blue’s optic plane operates as a virtual surface, which has the capacity to generate a series of affective responses. However, these affective responses are characteristically non-human. That is, Blue reveals to us “the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become” (Deleuze and Guattari 182). Each mediatized performance of blue-death exposes us to the non-human forces that comprise existence, while we, at the same time, become those very forces. I am death, but also the processual flow of things that accumulate to form both the living and non-living. If Blue were seen only as a film, with each screening being treated as the reproduced presentation of a pre-existent original, than the piece’s liveness would be lost and thereby these virtual encounters would not emerge in the same way.

I am death, but also the processual flow of things that accumulate to form both the living and non-living

The experience of Blue, as a series of live and mediated performances, exposes not only the audience to a sort of virtual becoming-whatever, but so also exposes the piece itself. Blue becomes its reflection on the cornea of the eye, just as the cornea becomes blue, mixed with dust and sweat. The ‘little deaths’ that accompany each performance create communal spaces for mourning loss, experiencing death, and embodying relationality, yet they do so without suggesting transcendence to some other plane. It’s right there—in the theater, at the gallery, or on the television—that this experience unfolds.

Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Grove Press, 1958.

Arx, Ban. “Sig-natures: a theory of abstract defense.” Reflexes. Accessed on 1 January 2017.

Auslander, Phillip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Routledge, 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy?. Columbia University Press, 1994.

Higginson, Kate. “Derek Jarman’s “Ghostly Eye”: Prophetic Bliss and Sacrificial Blindness in Blue.” Mosaic, vol. 41, no. 1, 2008, pp. 77-94.

Jarman, Derek. Blue: Text of a Film. The Overlook Press, 1994.

Khalip, Jacques. “The Archaeology of Sound”: Derek Jarman’s Blue and Queer Audiovisuality in the Time of AIDS.” differences, vol. 21, no. 2, 2010, pp. 73-108.

 

John Garland Winn is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and writes for the online publication The Actual School. He has previously written on politics and cinema in the journal Film International.

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