Spectral Intrusions: The Video Art of Arzu Ozkal

 

The videos of Arzu Ozkal narrate a crime story from the perspective of the corpse. The crimes coming under the purview of her somber and unflinching gaze emerge from the lineup of the usual contemporary subjects: voracious capitalism, globalization, computerization, everyday surveillance, and a transient lifestyle in the U.S. and other 'advanced' societies coinciding with the bankruptcy of community and the drastically reduced power base of literate activity. It is into the inhospitable climates of a gas station along a busy highway, an operating room doubling as a morgue, and an unidentified studio that Ozkal interposes both a body (whether dead or alive is not clear or necessarily material) and the programmed observation of the video camera.

The interjected body functions as a probe-head [1] registering the indifference, sterility, and ambient hostility of the contemporary lived environment. Ozkal's art resides at the extreme interstice between resignation and passivity, on the one hand, in 'Entitled As . . .,' symbolized by the figure of a woman's backÑher ownÑsubmitting to being sewn up in plain view, and outraged resistance on the other. She has evolved an art form of passive aggression, of defiance as the belligerent intrusion of the body into the scene of globalization, aggressive business mongering, and the unimpeded flows of goods, money, and information. Ozkal marshals both the realism of video representation and the temporality of time-lapse photography in the service of a graphic contemporary instance of Ghandian passive resistance.

Ozkal's scenes of corporeal projection and waiting are sexed, and from two complementary directions. Whether the body sits stock-still in the outskirts of a mall poised near a gas station and a drive-through bank, in 'Unattended Body,' or it is sponged down, corpse-like, on a hospital or morgue dolly, in 'Nothingness,' or its back is stitched up with impunity, it both conforms to the near-global mores of female passivity one version of which she has been exposed to in her Turkish upbringing, and it tellingly dramatizes the abuses of global male hegemony, of the active stance by and large assigned to the male identity. The phantasmagoria of global capitalism that Ozkal summons forth at both its aggressive and passive extremes can be apprehended and experienced only on a sexual level, only as both the subjugation and the explosive insight of a female sensibility. And yet the ramifications of this sexual politics extend well beyond the conventions of gender and theology and the geography delimiting 'advanced' nations, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America from their counterparts in the 'Third World.' With the immobilized female body as our probe-head or representative in the transitory space of global capitalism, she affords us a long look at the landscape we have configured around our most everyday and tangible, as well as our considerably complex and systematic transactions. Precisely where the contours of the contemporary body end, by the skin as it were, begins a world of electronic surveillance and cybernetic control horrific in its remoteness and indifference. Whether the skin impassively radiates through the comings and goings of vehicles at a fuel station or it is sutured on a body not acknowledging the pain of the operation, it functions as an uncanny divider between the intimacy of corporeal experience and a sociopolitical surround in which individuality, privacy, and self-determination are increasingly meaningless signifiers and aspirations.

 

From her medium, Ozkal particularly garners forth the flat realism of the video image and the slow, unflinching gaze to which, since its inception, video's often everyday if not banal subject-matter led it. Ozkal has thought long and hard about the particular and peculiar temporality inhering to video art. In the above-named three video pieces, the artifacts comprising the current installation, she has excruciatingly drawn out the time in which the variously painful interaction between body and environment happens. She has slowed time in the plane of representation precisely in order to attenuate the dissonance between observation, the feminine, and the bodily, on the one hand, and the flows of goods and money, the scale of macroeconomics, and the grandeur of globalization on the other. Ozkal situates her viewers in the very midst of a prolonged conflict, but one at a standstill and a draw. The organic process of the body that she interjects, say in 'Unattended Body,' persists in spite of the vast and menacing forces, whether in the form of the electronic money instantaneously alighting on and disappearing from the bank or the road traffic not only transporting goods and services but transforming the depth, scope, and tenor of personal experience.

The persistence not only of the body and its irreducibly human process in the face of globalized experience but also of the critical eye, in whose service Ozkal places her video camera, is a substantial victory against the contemporary mega-forces and odds. This triumph comes primarily at the cost of the gaze (as unflinching as the body as its back is sewn up) that demands our sustained mindfulness. The means and advantages are not all in the hands of the contemporary Oligarchs who control us and determine the scope of our individual resources and discretion from a great distance. If we can only sustain the productive gaze of our sensibilities and interpretative options, Ozkal reminds us, 'we too have our weapons.' [2] To a certain extent the video camera can be mobilized by the artist as a pedagogical tool and model for observation. Yet the same machine is an instrument used to track our movements and control our behavior. Ozkal's videos trip the threshold of a critical imperative extending beyond the instruments and processes of programmed and mechanical observation.

Central to Ozkal's strategy of visual passive resistance is a slowdown of the rate at which the video-eye moves and takes in data. Ozkal invades the routine slippage in film and video over the visual plane, over the telling details that might illuminate the scenario by dismembering it, by freezing the customary velocities of perception and apprehension to a nearly unbearable tempo. In these three pieces of video art, Ozkal announces that discriminating vision, if it is going to persist, will need recourse to a temporality of stoppage and light (as opposed to deep) freeze. (The sponged down figure in 'Nothingness' is not entirely immobile.) This is a violation of visual convention as egregious as a female body's dispassionate cleansing by a remote male figure, or its being sewn up in no particular context. Indeed, a substantial element of the current pandemic of distraction benighting our culture and making it excruciatingly difficult for creative work to either be produced or recognized, is the breakneck pace at which we have become accustomed to the unfolding of events, narratives, and the media. Through the slow forward of carefully developed images compelling in their fascination, Arzu Ozkal solicits us to redeem our vision by subjecting it to an alien temporality, the shadow-temporality of sustained attentiveness persisting through the conventionally mediated flicker.

Henry Sussman,

Department of Germanic
Languages and Literatures,

Yale University,

New Haven, CT, 06520 (R1)

[1] This is a term that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari develop in their A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 190-91. They deploy it in their discussion of the persistent role of faciality in culture, the seemingly obsessive reinscription of facial traits within the flow and displacements of communal organizations and their boundaries. 

[2] This closely paraphrases the last line in the body of Kafka's Diaries.