Benjamin Muon — Deflecting the Standard

[Extract]

It begins without permission. Permission asked. Permission denied. Standard 1. To have taken place on the inside. The inside of a military complex in Bagotville Québec. He, Benjamin Muon, was going to be stationed in the area behind the Aviation Museum, just in front of the aviation runway. He was going to ask the public who use, or frequent, or pass through the military complex to be with him for three minutes of silence. Permission denied.

He does it anyway. He sits at a picnic table, he faces the grounded World War 11 jet, he hears the airborne F-18’s. He is virtually alone, no one is present other than the curator for Galerie Séquence, Gilles Sénéchal, and the cameraman Johann Gass. Benjamin opens a small cloth sack, he takes out a small blank book, a chronometer. He starts. Set the timer for three minutes. Open the book to the first page. Three minutes of silence for Bresil, turn the blank white page, three minutes of silence for Argentine, turn the blank white page, three minutes for Paraguay, turn the page. Benjamin has his list of countries, his list of events: thirty-two in total.

He is keeping three minutes of silence for the victims of American foreign policy. Three minutes for each country. He is systematically going through the list of countries that have had involvement with the United States of America. Thirty minutes pass. The military police arrive. They ask him to leave the military base. He complies.

It is September 28 2001.

Standard 1. A response to a response. Fourteen days earlier, on September 14, President George Bush declared a National Day of Mourning. That same day Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called on Canadians to join in the American national day of mourning by participating in memorials for the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Létourneau; like Chrétian, responds to Bush’s appeal. However; rather than an echo, Benjamin ’s response challenges and complicates the American role of victim. He co-opts the structure of Bush’s appeal, takes out the American nationalism and the Christian rhetoric, and then deflects this act of mourning towards those who have in the past been the casualties of this newly established victim. Standard 1 takes issue with the political implications of what and who gets sanctioned.

RESISTANCE

It begins as an act. A small book containing 200 blank white pages and a chronometer. A solitary silent man sitting at a picnic table. Every three minutes he turns the pages of his book. He is positioned at the edge of a military complex. It is a one-man play, acted out to address a felt imbalance of power.

It is a counter-movement that arises from the felt need to shift the direction of events. Contesting power at a military site where power is potentially transformed into action, (an action that is considered legitimate or terrorist depending upon which ethical framework is used) is a strategy that employs a symbolic power, one that, in order to create a knowing audience, relies on transmission.

TRANSMISSION

Standard 11 begins the day after Standard 1at the salon du Livre at Jonquière. Benjamin Muon is no longer silent, he speaks. He asks people to join him, he brings out his book, his chronometer. He has added new elements, a world map and a l'Etat du monde : annuaire énomique et géopolitique mondial. He shares how his project began, he shares what he knows of the country and he listens to your stories, your concerns. You may be alone with Benjamin , a one on one experience, or you may be part of a larger group, joined together in a common goal. It is always a unique experience. Sometimes discussions last hours, sometimes minutes. He continues his performance in various settings, various cities, some performances are officially sanctioned, some are not. He does not know how long it will take him to finish his list. Every country in the world, listed in alphabetical order, is to be accorded three minutes of silence for the victims of foreign policy in that country.

FROM A HERE TO A THERE

Benjamin Muon insists upon the value of the exchange, the exchange with the person before him now. It is an exchange that of necessity requires a heedfulness to what is close at hand. However; at the same time, he speaks the desire to move towards that which is far away (another country), to bring this close and to hold it near even as he and we know it is not

In a recent article in Parachute: L’idee de communauté, Marie Fraser, in discussing Devora Neumark’s L’Art de la conversation, (which involves setting up a sort of outside living room: two comfy sofa’s and two tables set out on a green rug at the entrance to a metro station in Montréal), brings up Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of community as a "mise en rapport des individus (davantage que) le partage d’un monde commun". She writes:

La possibilité d’un tel espace public et politique fondé sur l’échange et le partage conduit à une interrogation sur le sens de la communauté, (…). Ici, la communauté est une ouverture à l’autre, non son assimilation à un monde commun.

There is, no doubt, a correlation between this work of Devora’s and this work of Benjamin s. Both rely on the spoken word, where the form and the value lie in the act of exchange: information, stories, facts. And although Fraser’s understanding of Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of community may be true for Neumark’s L’Art de la conversation, it is interesting that Létourneau’s Standard 11demands both senses of community to function together, as though one opens up into the other. We do inhabit a common world, and we do need to take in and absorb as our own a sense of oneness, no matter how politically incorrect or colonial this sounds. The structure of Létourneau’s piece, speaking face to face and imaging the earth through the boundaries that delimit countries requires an openness to speak of difference while at the same time works towards our evident commonality. Létourneau articulates the boundaries of the world invoking an awareness of both an embodied here and an over there, while community is formed in the concrete action of bringing people together around a directionality. A directionality that in turn transforms our consciousness of earth from one of fragmented territories into one of mutual habitation.

NATIONHOOD

As Bush declares a national day of mourning, he is at the same time reiterating the declaration of nationhood. Through the official White House Press Release of September 14 he proclaims that:

Justice demands that those who helped or harboured the terrorists be punished -- and punished severely. The enormity of their evil demands it. We will use all the resources of the United States and our cooperating friends and allies to pursue those responsible for this evil, until justice is done.

To declare means to announce, to make known, and to declare nationhood is to claim a right to have control over one’s own territory. And as such it also delimits a border, those who belong, and those who do not.

I am with Benjamin Muon in the Radio Canada building. He has asked me to join him for three minutes of silence. The country is Cap Vert.

The first thing I feel is unease at my lack of knowledge and political savvy. I am made aware of my own ignorance. This country I do not know remains on the level of an abstraction. I try to grasp, to imagine really, through seeing a location on the map, what this country is like. Impossible. Benjamin tells me what he knows of this country, he reads from his book, and yet I can not even know on any other level than faith that this place exists. Yes I know the world is round, and yes I know that this map represents something real, but my body has not touched the earth there. This there stays far away, like words that float above my head and I can not find their home. And then I try to perform well, to give my three minutes of silence for the victims of foreign policy in this country I do not know. I am left imagining clichés of the worst kind. Clichés picked up from television, the news, bloody bodies laying in the earth, too thin people with big eyes looking out at me. I feel incompetent, aware of my limitations, somehow powerless and guilty.

Guilty because of which side I am standing on. There is, standing where I am, in this body, in these shoes, a sense of being the privileged one, of coming from a place where firstly it is my interests that are being served at the cost of other interests. Imperialism constructed the borders that others are trying to recover once again, an imperialism that I, being white of European descent, benefit from still today. And although my life is laced through with threads that come from elsewhere, my life is not subjugated. My language, my land, my artefacts, have not been taken away, destroyed, nor appropriated. And although I speak of imperialism in the past tense colonialism of indigenous knowledge, resources and lands continues by other covert methods today. (Yes, even now as I sip my fair trade coffee) As bell hooks states in her critique of the Columbus myth: The assumption that domination is not only natural but central to the civilizing process is deeply rooted in our cultural mind-set.

POWER

…power is collective, institutional, political validation. I do not advise giving up this practical notion of power. If, however, we "remake history" only through this limited notion of power as collective validation, we might allow ourselves to become instruments of the crisis-management of the old institutions, the old politics.

This is the warning voice of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as she speaks of post-colonial reclamation. She is speaking of the care and self critical attitude that is needed to start changing and reclaiming one’s own space. It is interesting to think of Létourneau’s project in terms of remaking history. For if history is the transmission of narratives that speak the dominant value(s), to counter this narrative through a deflection in a different voice is to offer the chance for a different history.

However, at the same time, if we heed Spivak’s warning we may feel uneasy that Létourneau is employing the same methods of validation as those whom he wishes to resist. We may wonder if he is unknowingly playing into the very structure of power that he opposes. For in taking up these self same methodologies does he then not implicitly empower the very principles underlying the ideology that uphold the system he is challenging?

Létourneau’s title. Standard 1, Standard 11. A strange title, implying as it does a desire to agree, to have a common yardstick for measuring. The standard is the approved model used as a basis for judgement. Also implying a commonness, a sameness, the standard fare.

Létournea employs the map, a tool of imperialism, a geographical/social tool of exploration, classification. A form of representation that is, like it or not, rooted in the age of imperialist expansion and conquest.

Létourneau brings out his geopolitical book.

Létourneau starts the chronometer. The systematic marking out of time through the mechanism of the time piece, itself issuing from a highly suspect desire to map and to know. The first accurate chronometer was fostered out of the state’s wish to be able to knowingly navigate the seas, a desire fuelled by the lust to be the first country with a reliable means of exploration and hence the first to engage in expansion to distant lands.

Although the tools he uses to share are suspect, Spivak also tells us that:

History cannot be reversed or erased out of nostalgia. The remaking of history involves a negotiation with the structures that have produced the individual as agent of history.

This seems to me to be the fine line that Létourneau must, and is, negotiating. We all are products of history, and it is this history that gives us a place of departure, that situates us in a here. We are products of a historical process, a process that has marked us, that has marked out boundaries, borders, the name of one country rather than another. And yet we live in a world where borders are permeable, where interconnections prosper, and grow more and more so, as people, ideas and goods travel more freely.

To negotiate and move ahead we have to acknowledge and see where we are moving from. And we also have to see where our tools come from and what they impart, about us and about how we see the task at hand. A very real danger lies in any assumed neutrality about the tools we use to mark out and describe territory. And yet to sidestep or cover over the violence inherent in the tools is likewise a way of playing possum. Létourneau is calling upon the structures that have and do produce us, our notions of nationality and belonging, and he is using the self same tools that gave rise to our present day status. In so doing he is pointing to our own implication in the current state of affairs and to our own responsibility to interrogate any assumed notion of the standard. It is a strategy of resistance.

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