Learning Listening Accent, migration and separation in 'Nothing is Missing'

A shorter version of this piece is published in our new, first issue 1.1 ‘Practices of Listening’. Read here.

Listening is a practice. But, as with all practices, before we can practice it, we must learn how. In the noisy world of today, learning to listen demands serious commitment. It does not suffice to sharpen your ears, or to focus your attention, the way we might do in a concert hall when listening to music. In the acoustic whirlwind that surrounds us, we have to learn to distinguish between voices, languages, tones and moods. Only then can listening be a socially useful practice: a critical one.

How is it possible to make intimate contact across so many divisions?

In this essay I can only evoke an experiment in what we now refer to as “artistic research” that will hopefully make this thesis convincing. In the years 2006-10, I built up a body of video works in which the mothers of migrants spoke about what the departure of their child meant to them. I filmed these mothers talking about their motivation behind supporting or their attempts to withhold their children who wished to leave, and about their own grief to see them go. The mothers converse about this crucial moment in their past with a person close to them, often someone whose absence in her life was caused by the child’s departure – a grandchild, a daughter-in-law, or the children themselves. I staged the women, asked their interlocutors to take their places behind the camera, set the shot, turned the camera on, and left the scene. This method is hyperbolically documentary. To underline this aspect, I refrained from editing these shots. The slow, unsmooth, and personal talk that results is a confrontation with the need and difficulty to listen. The uninterrupted presence of their faces in the frame compels viewers to look these women in the face and to listen to what they have to say, in a language that is foreign, using expressions that seem strange, but in a discourse to which we can all, affectively, relate.

Becoming increasingly annoyed by the constant complaining about migrants, I wanted to show the side of migration nobody seems to talk about: the heart-wrenching separations from family and friends, and the grief these cause in those who stay behind. Only when we learn to pay attention to this aspect will it be possible to see migration not only as a harsh necessity but also as the creation of a more heterogeneous social texture, which is both in need of critical understanding and a potential source of cultural enrichment. Migration causes the coexistence in one social environment of people who can afford to live permanently in a place with those who cannot, who are driven to displacement. Hearing different languages around us is one element that can teach us how to be attentive and thoughtful about this.1

Fig. 2 Ministry of Justice, The Hague, 2007; photo Mieke Bal

The installation titled Nothing is Missing consists of a variable number of audio-visual units of about 30 minutes, in which a mother talks about a child who has left in migration. Imagine a gallery decorated to look like a living room, where visiting feels like a social call. The video shows a portrait, a bust only, of a woman speaking to someone else. Apart from a short introductory sequence that sets up the situation, the videos consist of unedited single shots. In some cases, we hear the voice of the interlocutor, in others we hear no one other than the women speaking. Every once in a while, one of them falls silent, as if she were listening to the others. The installation itself enacts the tension between global and intimate, since the domestic ambiance is created within a space that is public, although often not a space where such installations are expected. I have installed it in museums and galleries, academic settings, and office spaces. In 2007, for example, I also installed it in a corner office in the Department of Justice in The Hague.2

Between aesthetic and academic work, a certain activism through the promotion of critical reflection in sense-based experience is important. One of the questions raised by the work is how it is possible to make intimate contact across the many divisions that separate people in different linguistic, economic, and familial situations, and why it matters to do so. The goal is not to reach a universal ground for communication but rather to establish the universal as a ground on which differences can performatively be brought into dialogue. In order to establish this, the visitor must play the part of looking at the women’s faces, and listening to what the women say.

We must wonder why people decide they must leave behind everything that constitutes their intimate everyday life

The women are from various countries from which people have migrated since the onset of modern-day globalisation. Still living in their home countries, they all saw a child leave to Western Europe or to the US. My project is not an attempt to understand migration as such, nor to defend its necessity, which I – and, I expect, all those who hear these women’s stories in the installation – take for granted. Rather, if we are to understand the possibility of a universal experience such as motherhood through insight into the intimate relationships against the backdrop of a globalised world, we must first of all realise the enormity of the consequences involved and the changes in the souls of individuals taking this drastic step. We must wonder, that is, why people decide they must leave behind their affective ties, relatives, friends, and habits – in short, everything that constitutes their intimate everyday life. Their motivations, which are too complex to allow for any generalisations, tend to include economic necessity and the dangers of war, but are rarely limited to those overarching issues. While my purpose is not to fully understand those complex motivations, they are relevant in that they are among the ambivalences toward the migration of their child to which the mothers testify. Thus, my primary goal is to explore the possibility of an ‘aesthetic understanding’ that, by means of its own intimacy across the rifts of globalisation, can engage the political through the simple act of listening.

Fig. 3 Interfacing. Copenhagen 2013; photo Mieke Bal

Through this installation, I attempt to shift two common universal definitions of humanity: the notion of an individual autonomy of a vulgarised Cartesian cogito, and that of a subjecting passivity derived from the principle of Bishop Berkeley’s “to be is to be perceived”. The former slogan has done damage in ruling out the participation of the body and the emotions in rational thought. The latter, recognisable in the Lacanian as well as in certain Bakhtinian traditions, has sometimes over-extended a sense of passivity and coerciveness into a denial of political agency and, hence, responsibility. I try to shift these views in favour of an intercultural, ‘relational’ aesthetic based on a performance of contact. In order to elaborate such an alternative, I have focused in this installation on the connection between speech and face. I use speech not just in terms of ‘giving voice’, but also in terms of listening and answering, all in their multiple meanings; furthermore, I would like to turn the face, with their classical ‘windows to the soul’, into an ‘inter-face’.

The form of the installation helps to grasp the idea of critical listening. It enables the mothers to speak ‘together’ from within a cultural-political position that makes them absolutely distinct and absolutely connected at once. This is the meaning of the silences that suggest they are listening to one another, even if they have never actually met. Also, at moments of restraint, when they seem most reluctant to express themselves, the performativity of their self-presentation is most acutely able to pierce through the conventional surface. These are the moments of the performative inter-face. I will describe one instance where the ‘performance of reticence’, so to speak, yielded the most striking insight into how intimacy and globalisation can intersect.

The video shows how their relationship betrays the stubbornly persistent rifts dug by immigration policies

The first woman I filmed was called Massaouda. Her interview provided a striking instance of a culturally specific reluctance, the possible interpretations of which caution us against psychologising or psychoanalysing her. Not coincidentally, this instance occurs at the most strongly performative moment of the video. This is the situation: as I have been able to see first-hand, Massaouda and her newly acquired daughter-in-law, Ilhem Ben-Ali Mehdi, get along famously. However, their relationship also betrays the stubbornly persistent rifts dug by immigration policies. When Ilhem married Massaouda’s youngest son, the mother was not allowed to attend the wedding because the authorities had denied her a visa. Hence, Massaouda was not only unable to meet Ilhem, she also had not been able to fulfill her motherly duty as her culture prescribes it, which is to help her son choose his bride. At some point during the interview, Ilhem asks with some insistence what Massaouda thought of her when she first saw her, after the marriage had taken place, hence, in a kind of powerlessness.3

Fig.4 The transgressive question; video still

At first, Massaouda does not answer, which makes Ilhem anxious enough to insist and ask: did you find me ugly, plain? The older woman looks away at this point. The young woman insists. We will never know what Massaouda ‘really’ felt but the power that the filming bestows on her, as if in compensation for her earlier dis-empowerment, is to either withhold or give her approval. She eventually does the latter, but only after a moment of teasing. When I saw the tape and understood the speech, I suspected Ilhem would normally never have been allowed to ask this blatant question and vent her anxiety in this way – an intuition she later confirmed. As for the mother, she was given the power and the ability to exercise it that she had been denied earlier. Although she initially used this power to mark the rift, she then used it to help her somewhat insecure daughter-in-law.

The nature of this performance is closer to theatricality than to traditional filmmaking

This event entailed a cultural transgression – to ask and insist on a question that would be unmannerly in the culture of origin. This, more than her linguistic pronunciation of Arabic as a second language, is Ilhem’s ‘accent’, in the sense in which Hamid Naficy famously uses that term. This ‘accent’ emblematises the productive, innovative, and enriching potential of intercultural life. In this case, it could occur thanks to the absence of the filmmaker – but also of the two husbands – and the situation of displacement for both women. This interaction – between the people performing and the critic reflecting on how to understand what they did – would be stifled if an all too well-known psychoanalytic apparatus were let loose on this event. 4

Massaouda’s and Ilhem’s performance of intercultural contact occurred on the basis of a close collaboration between the face and the word. Indeed, the spoken word is central to a performance of contact across divisions as well as to the installation. The word is deployed in the attempt to turn a condescending act of ‘giving voice’ into an affirmation of our need to be given that voice. Video binds the image we see to the sound we hear. In this case, that sound is primarily and almost exclusively the human voice and the spoken words it utters. Speech, then, becomes the occasion for a positive deployment of interdisciplinarity, one that operates through intermediality.

Fig. 5 Massaouda and Ilhem after filming; photo Mieke Bal

Firstly, the centrality of the spoken word impinges on the visual form, the close-up. Film studies has been keen on including sound in its analysis, but the visual appearance of words in subtitles seems to solicit nothing but indifference, both in the film industry, where the ugliest outlined words visually pollute the most beautiful images, and in the work of scholars who tend to ignore that aspect. In Nothing is Missing I have attempted to experiment with the visualisation of speech in order to make the most of the convergence of words and images. For example, the positioning of the surtitles make it easier to read the words and watch the faces at the same time.5

It is also in order to foreground the privileging of the voice of the mothers that the films consist of single unedited shots of their faces as they speak and listen. The personal situation presupposes sincerity. At the same time, they are keenly aware of the public nature of the speech they are producing in front of a camera. The nature of this performance is closer to theatricality than to traditional filmmaking. Interpreted as theatrical, the situation is closer to minimally rehearsed, improvised, and inquiring forms of theatre than to perfectly mastered public forms.6

Fig.6 Massaouda’s words gave the work its title; video still

Secondly, the translations presented as surtitles also embody the close bond between the linguistic and the visual aspects of the images – the bond between face and speech. As I mentioned earlier, the viewer is confronted with different languages, foreign to most, audible in their foreignness and visible in an emphatically visualised translation. Placed, visually, above their faces, the language is both made important and presented as somewhat of a burden. English as the universal entrance port is exploited as well as de-naturalised, both by this visual foregrounding and by the translations themselves. The translations are as literal as possible, bringing out the poetry in the original languages without sacrificing to clarity. None of the translators are native speakers of English. Their assignment was to help me stay as close as possible to the phrasings the women used. This method results in this ‘accented’ English that maintains the bi-cultural status of the communication.

Finally, the most acute intermediality occurs in the faces, which visibly produce the sound of the voices through their movement, thus yielding the movement of the image by means of sound. For this, with the language we do not understand, and the need to translate, all in one, the face is the actor. It is really difficult to separate sound from vision, as the mouths articulate with the rhythm of the sounds. This is not simply a case of the ‘moving image’ of cinema. Rather, the moving quality becomes a poetic, self-reflective statement about the medium that re-integrates what the predominance of English as universal language has shattered. This stands in contrast to the particular home-boundedness resulting from a lack of education, in turn aggravated by misogyny and colonialism. In this way, the face and its acts become the emblematic instance of video’s power to transgress boundaries of a variety of kinds.

Fig. 1 installation in Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, 2008; photo: Astrid van Weijenberg
  1. For a longer presentation of this project, see my article “Facing: Intimacy across Divisions”, in The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. Edited by Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner, Columbia University Press, pp. 119-144, 2012.
  2. Nothing is Missing, multiple-channel video installation. DVD, furniture, and mixed media, 4 to 15 units, 28 to 35 minutes, looped.
  3. When Massaouda was denied a visa to attend her son’s wedding I decided to visit her, and this was the beginning of the project. For more on the background of this family, see the video by Cinema Suitcase, Mille et un jours (2003-06), http://www.miekebal.org/artworks/films/mille-et-un-jours/
  4. Nafici, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton University Press, 2001.
  5. A widely-read classic on sound in film is Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Translated by Claudia Gorbman, Columbia University Press, 1990.
  6. On the rhetoric of sincerity, see The Rhetoric of Sincerity. Edited by Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal and Carel Smith, Stanford University Press, 2009.