notes on Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel

Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes
The following article is a transcription of a lecture given at the “Feminisms” conference, Malmø, Sweden, June 2002

Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel is collaborative project that began with an invitation that we received to do a two-person show in Mexico City at a space called LaPanaderia in the summer of 2000. Our mutual I interest in the construction of gender combined with the questions which arose as we considered relocating our artworks from the context of NYC to that of Mexico-City led us to the notion of collaborating on the piece: initially conceived of as a group of interviews with women in Mexico D.F. and New York City addressing political and social articulations of gender in the present moment. At the time, our interest was not necessarily in creating a piece that would function as an artwork but rather to provide context for the presentation of our individual work. During the preparation for the show and our research into gender studies in Mexico and Latin America, we immediately encountered two central difficulties. The first was that neither of us could read Spanish and therefore our access to texts was limited to those originally written in English or those that had been translated into English. The second difficulty, which followed from the first, was that much of the literature we could read too readily positioned Mexican and Latin American discourse as either coming after or out of that of Europe and the U.S. or was dealt with as an object of study within European and U.S. academic disciplines. These conditions led us directly to the concerns of Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel: What is the interconnectedness of gender, location, and history, and what happens in the communication of these relationships across boundaries of language and culture?

For some practical information, each interview consists of three positions: an interviewer, an interviewee and a translator. The interviews are documented on video but only the translator is imaged, the interviewer and the interviewee are off-camera but audible in the soundtrack. When we installed Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel in Mexico City we presented 17 interviews on 10 monitors along with our solo work. Presenting the project again at PSI Contemporary Art Center in Queens, NY in November 2000 allowed us to resolve our initial set of relations-those between Mexico City and New York City. We conducted 12 more interviews in New York City and showed 29 interviews from both locations. In addition, pulling the piece out on its own-away from our individual works-provoked us to expand the inquiry beyond the initial relation of the first two sites. In March of this year, we presented the piece again in Vienna and added another 12 interviews, which created a set of 41 interviews shown on 14 monitors.

In each location, the installation of the project has varied slightly but the interviews always play simultaneously in one room on different monitors. (ideally the interviews play on as many monitors as there are interviews although we’ve never been able to do this,) What confronts the viewer in the room are many “talking head” shots of both men and women, a list of participants in alphabetical order (the interviewees as we] I as the translators with no indication of who is who), and a poster displaying the set of questions we asked, which remained the same for each interview. The audio of all the interviews is present in the room at a low volume and, in addition, the individual monitors can be listened to on headphones. Outside the actual information given in the Interviews, there is nothing in the room or on the monitors to indicate to a viewer who is speaking, where they are from or where or when the interview was conducted. The positioning of the monitors does not reflect the different urban sites in which the interviews were collected. The duration of the Interviews themselves ranges from 30 to 100 minutes. They are completely unedited.

We gathered the individuals participating in Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel, the interviewees and the translators, in much the same way and these choices were based on our personal encounter with the location: thus, we often followed informal leads that began with the people we knew living there but would quickly diverge as someone would give us the name of a friend who would give us another name and so on. We occasionally pursued individuals through official organizations, publications and/or spaces that were of interest to us at the time, some of which we knew of before arriving and others of which we encountered much like we would if we had just been visiting the city.

We framed the group of individuals we interviewed by their choice to identify themselves culturally as “women,” to address the specific form of socialization that accompanies this identification (1). Abstractions like “woman” show in their specific character a close relation to the specific histories of personal identifications as well as social and historical relations in general. It implies that by taking on this identity and consequently experiencing the collective identification as “woman” or as “female” from the outside, a more significant relation to the subjective moment of women’s oppression is given. To pose our questions on~ to individuals who define themselves as women confronts the implied affiliation and assumed community that often accompanies the term “woman” without rearticulating it. Furthermore. We try to deconstruct feminist identities to make an adequate understanding of the variety of social relations within this socialization possible. Viewing the identity “woman” as choice, as well as utilizing the concept of temporality as a proposal for looking at identities in general, makes the relation of gender to class, ethnicity and the social and political field immanent. One could say that in the interviews we try to reveal the multiple negotiations of desire, language and political constitution in relation to the term “woman” and not its multiple identities. In her book Am I that name? Denise Riley points to the long tradition and history of the term “woman.” She suggests that “women” is not an identity but an unstable category, and that this instability has a historical foundation. (In this context Riley describes feminism as the site of the systematic fighting-out of this instability.) (2)

[11 minute video excerpt of responses to the question: What does feminism mean to you?]

We met each other in New York about six years ago. Sharon came originally from the USA and Andrea from Germany, and thus we came together from quite distinct cultural environments. Born in 1970 and 1971 respectively, we grew up in the direct legacy of 1970s feminism, a generation that experienced “feminism” as an already established movement, something which had happened. To reduce the many weeks and months of discussion and research, we can say that we both came to Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel with the questions: How Is feminism articulated in the present moment? And how is its interrelation to cultural, social, ethnic and class affiliation constituted? Within the project, as you just saw in the video excerpts, we define feminism as a question: What does feminism mean to you? Which is one of 20 questions chat we ask in the interviews. The situation of the term as a question, while on one hand evading a direct definition, does construct the term, for us, as a multiplicity of discourses that seek to identify, analyze and struggle against, what Chantal Mouffe calls, “the multiple forms in which the category ‘woman’ is constructed in subordination.” (3) Thus within the varied urban contexts in which the project has existed so far, the circulation of the term “feminism”, its variations, modifications, contestations and appropriations, is foregrounded through a multiplicity of dialogues.

We should also say here that our focus on the present moment is not meant to privilege the here and now nor to erase its location in a continuum of time that extends before and beyond it but rather to take those as the ground from which the project steps. Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel is an investigation that aligns itself on a vertical axis of time. Where the simultaneous presence of different historic movements is understood and a continuous linear development /narration is questioned. Here it may be helpful to employ the linguistic distinction between synchrony and diachrony. In his examination of the structuring elements of cultural myth, Claude Levi-Strauss separates diachrony, what he calls linear, directional time, from synchrony, or omnidirectional or reversible time. (4) While synchrony was often posited directly in opposition to a historical investigation, we do not intend our vertical axis of time to be an ahistoric one, but think that it is helpful in our case to consider the way in which the horizontal, historical progression that is privileged by many recent discussions about and around feminism can be limiting. These discussions include both progressive analyses of the historical relations of one feminism to another as well as more conservative trends to articulate a moment of “post-feminism” or those that we discussed earlier that attempt to schematize a geographic and temporal relation of feminism, executing an imperialistic gesture. Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel acts in contrast to these dialogues that either must constantly refer to “what feminism was” or to an idea that feminism is over and gone, by starting from the assumption that feminism was, is and will be. It perceives that each generation has to reposition itself, claim its right to self-definition, independently of an affiliation with a historic practice. We posit this notion of a vertical axis from which one can reach before and beyond, as an alternative to the often oppressive nations of progress and liberation which too easily fall into a totalizing rhetoric of mastery. By aligning the project on a vertical axis, we acknowledge our questions as a reiteration, a repetition of others that were asked before us that intervene in a present moment, its context and positioning. What we are trying to do is: to locate the discourse of feminism at the basis of social relations themselves.

Out of our initial research and our own dialogues with each other, we created 20 questions, which are constructed from and reflect upon our position. The questions are asked in English because, very simply, that is the language we share: the language in which our dialogue with each other and with this material exists. We ask the same questions (with some colloquial variation) in all the interviews. The questions are as follows.

What it is your name and how old are you?
What are you doing in this city?
Why did you move here or, if you’ve always lived here, why did you stay?
What are you reading right now?
Where do you get the material you read?
Do you read in translation?
Do you find yourself limited through the availability of books in translation?
How do you define the term “woman”?
Do you think of yourself as gendered?
What does the term “feminism” mean to you?
Is it active here?
Where would you locate it?
Do women need to be defended?
Do you think there is something like a women’s agenda?
Do you feel part of a generation?
If so, how is this generation described?
How do you relate to class struggle in the context of women’s rights?
Do you experience the presence of a transgendered community?
Do you feel you have the power to narrate your own identity?
What recent incidents can you recall which lead to changes in your gender identity and consciousness?
Are you part of any social/political organization?
Does the idea of a private and public sphere have relevance for you?
How do you feel about the newly elected president/your current government? (This question was specified according to the location.)
What do you think about women’s football/soccer?
Is there anything else you would like to add?

In Dialogues, Gilles Deleuze remarks, “Most of the time, when someone asks me a question, even one which relates to me, I see that, strictly, I don’t have anything to say. Questions are invented, like anything else. If you aren’t allowed to invent your questions... you haven’t much to say.” (5) The interview structure, as Deleuze astutely points out, is fraught with difficulty. Accordingly our project sets up a contradiction, to pose a question usually expects the possibility of an answer, Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel, on the other hand, tries to address the impossibility of a proper or defined answer but still sees the need to ask a question. The questions here, instead of implying predetermined answers, try to open up a space for the interviewee to relate herself specifically to what is being asked, Meaning the interview asks the interviewee to situate herself within a body of discourse. It does not attempt to reinscribe notions of static collective identities, represented as some ‘common knowledge’ but rather to give a platform to describe the complex and fluid identities by which we are interpellated and to figure out how each individual negotiates, rejects and/or incorporates those identities. And this happens in many ways throughout the interviews, through an interviewee’s willingness to dive into an answer or by their outright refusal to answer. The way a question was perceived by the interviewees, for example if someone felt a question was too abstract or not abstract at all, accumulated (over the body of 41 interviews) into another level of meaning, which we had not necessarily anticipated. It was interesting how the individual criticism of some interviewees toward the questions being too abstract or too open was often articulated with the utmost authority whereas the next interviewee could have a very specific answer available immediately to the same question, reflecting a concrete experience or situation. An example is the question, which came to be our most provocative on the level of response “Do women need to be defended?” For some the answer was quick and direct, whether “yes, of course” or “no” or the more elaborated “we need to defend ourselves” or “everyone needs to be defended.” For others the answer came as a question to us: “defended by whom?” These responses reflect back on a number of positions. The specific ambiguity of the English term “defended:” which does not necessarily designate the direction from which defense is given, is difficult to translate both Into Spanish or German. The responsive question, “defended by whom?” thus becomes both an ideological and linguistic query.

Obviously, the questions of Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel are asked in and of the present moment, although often the terminology that we use references a historical moment, The reference to other historical moments or discourses was interesting and provocative except in one particular instance, where we started to perceive that it was closing down the discussion. This was with the question “How do you relate to class struggle in the context of women’s rights?” which we used in Mexico and New York City. After many interviews, we realized that it forcefully and directly pushed the interview back to the terms of an older discourse, which was no longer operative. The term class struggle, for reasons we can discuss more fully in the discussion period, had passed so far out of use for the interviewees that it was as if it was impossible for people to answer in a way that spoke of the present economic terrain. In Vienna, we began discussing this factor within the interview and trying to introduce terms that spoke more directly to the current economic field: globalization, the right to economic well-being, etc.

The locations of the project, so far Mexico City, New York City and Vienna, act not so much as sites but as a form of social and textual affiliation. Thus the shift we make between those places automatically reflects on the complex strategies of cultural Identification, negotiated within ideas of national identity. But what is it that our cultural/national affiliation implies? Particularly in these three urban sites? A person is the border between the ‘social’ as the homogeneous, consensual community and the forces that come from the specific interest and individual identities as well as the inequality within its society. In his essay “DissemiNation” Homi Bhabha describes how “...attempting to formulate the complex strategies of cultural identification and discursive address that function in the name of ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’, [...] make the people the immanent subjects of a range of social and literary narratives.” It is this narrative which makes them not “simply historical events or parts of a patriotic body-politics” but gives them the power through “complex rhetorical strategies of social reference” to be representative and bring a crisis into the process of dominant signification by any empirical sociological category (the nation). (6)

Within the project, it is important to us to emphasize the alternation between the description of an assumed position and its designation. The context of the individual, his or her ethnic, cultural, class affiliations are not read as an attribute applied to each and everyone but as something, which should be understood, as immanent to the subject and therefore part of the subject’s inconsistency In the installation of Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel, which brings all the interviews together, the individual reflections on the questions can be viewed differentially against the others in the room. Each particular interview speaks to the specificity of the geographic and temporal location of its speaking as well as to the limits of this very specificity. Thus, each individual interview is not meant to operate in a uniform manner in all the discourses, at all times, and in any given culture. Rather the series of subject positions represented, simply give rise to a variety of egos that are open to be debated or occupied in their perception by the individual viewer.

[10 minute video excerpt of responses to the question: How would you define the term woman?]

Specifically in Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel the modes of representation for the interviewee is language (because there is no visual representation of the subject of the interview), which points to the questions that have been often discussed philosophically, of the relationship of the individual or subject to language. For Lacan, it is not reality “which constitutes language but language that generates both meaning and reality.” He asserts that the subject takes up speech in his or her desire for plenitude, for wholeness, for understanding, Lacan defines the signifier as “what represents the subject for another signifier.” (7) A word is never just itself and its meaning. In a continual metonymic slide, the signifier insists to keep meaning other things. In this way, “woman” for instance can be defined as power”, “in relation to man” and “a brief moment in my life.” On one level, these three definitions demonstrate that “woman” means multiple things but more than that it demonstrates that “woman” means nothing except in relation to an individual desire, a desire that is constitutive of and constituted by the very term itself.

Language Itself is an enigma of what is both internal and external to the one who speaks. It is an articulation of the self, but when spoken, writes its meaning largely by the control of the listener. Speech is always concealed by representation. Adding other languages and their uncanny fluency makes this rupture even more obvious. The logic of translation seems to be its possibility: decoding representation. But what is the original? What is its context? First there is the need to distinguish the intended object of discourse from the mode of its articulation, to be able to grasp the basic ideas of language. Then if language’s Intention is to articulate the essence of things, the shifts within the essence’s meaning (through time and space) have to be part of its verbal articulation.

For the translation, that means that its implications can never be objective or stable but are tied to the constant modes of transformation. Therefore translation itself has to address not only the context of the origin of the original but also its fluid meaning within the context of its initial utterance. In a certain way that means that by implying the form of representation along with the content, the mechanisms of translation create a surplus in relation to the original. By only showing the image of the translator, Cambio Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel tries to draw on exactly this aspect. To acknowledge the presence of several languages in relation to one topic or subject has the potential to make the modes of the individual languages, their way of circulating, controlling and distributing knowledge visible. Translation is in Walter Benjamin’s words the literary form “with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.” (8) For Benjamin, although translation (unlike art) cannot claim permanence for its products, its goals are undeniably a final, conclusive, decisive stage of all linguistic creation where the relationship of the language to its object becomes part of the language of the translation itself. In our case, all information circulated between the positions—the interviewee, the interviewer and the viewer—is perceived in one way or another through translation, creating exactly that constant awareness of the positionality of the statements as well as the modes of its articulation.

In Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel this task of translation is operating within the specific dialectics of an interview, which, on its most basic level, brings together two interests: that of the interviewer and that of the interviewee. One could call the interaction between those two interests a struggle for power over the situation (over representation), which usually plays itself out directly in the exchange between the interviewer and the interviewee.

The opposing positions of interviewer and interviewee could be related to other relevant binaries: question/answer, beginning/ending, past/future, personal/universal, self/other, analyst/analysand. Intervening into these multiple dialectics in the interviews conducted for Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel, is the figure of the translator: a presence whose conventional involvement in a conversation is intended to be the quiet, calm voice in the background, purely supportive, seamless and transparent. But in our case the translator occupies a visibly centralized and constituted third position, interrupting the direct modes of question and answer, making the relationship of the interviewer to the interviewee indirect, triangular. The broken binary of the conversation creates a palpable uncertainty, which often interrupts and fragments the interview. Because we rarely worked with professional translators, there was a wide range of aptitude, comfort and skill. The impact of the translation on the easy flow of the interview was a constant and unpredictable variable. Slow or labored translations often lead to a change in the mode in which the answers were given (i.e. the interviewee simplified her responses. Some interviewees also became uneasy hearing their own words again or, if they understood both languages, uneasy at the way in which they were being translated. In Vienna, because Andrea is completely bilingual, we had much more information than we had had before about how much or how little was being translated. In one instance, where the translation was entirely fragmented and incomplete, the triangular flow of information came to a complete breakdown and forced Andrea to literally step into the role of the translator and thus into the frame of the video. Different to an environment were one language is perceived as absolute, the power relations between the interviewee and the interviewer In Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel are rerouted to the translator. She or he becomes the “master of information,” communicating not only between the main parties but also towards the potential audience (the camera). It is this rupture of control, this loss of power that clearly points to the limitations of everybody involved in the making and viewing of the project. It is the moment where the limitations to one’s own ability to represent him or herself with his or her internal modes of articulation as well as the codependency of the signifier and its recipient become most visible.

Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel proposes and constructs a space, in which political subjects: those on the monitor (in image or just in voice), and those viewing the monitors, engage in a process of constituting them- selves in relation to each other. It proposes collective action, not through the collapse of difference but through a contingent process of narration: singular, repeated narration. This narration acts here as a performative, in the linguistic sense of words that “do” something, which locates the interviewee, interviewer and translator in a specific articulation, in a specific action. Thus, the interviewee in response to the interviewer, filtered through the translator, enacts the articulation of her position, through which she defines herself in a community, not a sociological one but a political one. In viewing the translated interviews as a singular event, we oppose the singular to either the particular as relative, or the universal, as hegemony. Thus, we mean to once again draw the individual away from an idea of relativism towards a larger field, where it becomes a player in a confined affiliation or movement. As we had pointed out before with the concept of the vertical axis of time, the singular event is marked by and marks the moment of its occurrence, which, in Cambio de Lugar_Change of Place_Ortswechsel is then expanded from Its singularity in the private setting, where the actual interviews occurred, by the presence of the camera which documents the event. Different from a sociological investigation this document will not be edited, analyzed nor particularized for the installation. It is collected in a room unedited where it is, as an originally private, singular event replayed again and again. This room is an archive of sorts, where neither the document nor the archive turn themselves into an ‘objective’ narrative. There is no whole in a conventional sense, where these singular events add up to a collective or representational group, which would claim hegemonic universality. What the viewer experiences are voices without the constant presence of markers like face, name, profession, age or location, etc. This impossibility of an effortless identification with the interviewee compels the viewer to confront the discourse itself and most importantly to position him or herself in relation to it. To take away an authority over the knowledge given, to take a context outside the familiar references in a gender debate and position it unidentified, proposes in alternate navigation or structuring of information. The monitors are staged like a chain of knowledge. The interviews, through translation, are ruptured into the signifying pieces of their articulation and resonate again in the individual who perceives, who navigates their way through the forty-one interviews, editing by personal means. The viewer then becomes the point of departure for yet another chain of knowledge, a participant in a contingent political community.

The question we ask near the end of each interview: How do you feel about the newly elected president Vicente Fox/potential president-elect George W. Bush or the right-wing coalition government? ended up mapping the particular urgency of the current political situation. We began the project in Mexico City directly on the heels of the election of conservative Vicente Fox, lauded by some as a revolutionary change after decades of the PRI rule, but regarded by most of the women we interviewed as a disaster for progressive politics and in particular for the political gains that had been achieved through feminist struggle. (evidenced by Fox’s denial of the partial right for abortion to women, even in certain provinces, who have been victims of rape.) To our surprise, several months later when we conducted the interviews in New York, we confronted a similar situation, as our interviews took place in the indecision of the election that was eventually claimed by George W. Bush, who even since has made significant steps away from the enforcement of general human rights. And again, in Vienna, where the right-wing coalition government, still just two years old, has created a political environment openly hostile co women’s rights. And now, we are here presenting the lecture and installation in Malmø with its proximity co Denmark where as well the conservative, right wing parties have won the recent elections.

(1) Since the presentation of this lecture we conducted the project in Berlin, Germany, where we revised this frame of interviewees. We now say that we interview people who identify as a woman, had identified as a woman, or are or had been identified as a woman from an external perspective.

(2) Denise Riley, Am I That Name? Feminism and the category of “women” in history (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988), 6.

(3) Chantal Mouffe, Feminism, Citizenship and Radical Democratic Politics. In Feminists Theorize the Political (New York: Routledge, 1992), 373.

(4) Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 52-3.

(5) Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987)

(6) Homi K. Bhaba, ‘DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation,’ The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994)

(7) Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis, translated with notes and commentary by Anthony Wilden (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1968)

(8) Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Illuminations (London: Pimlico, 1999)