Tran T. Kim-Trang - Occularis (1997)

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To make Ocularis, Kim-Trang publicized a 1-800 number for callers to express their private fears and fantasies about being watched. This video collects the recorded responses along with stories about video surveillance, including a teenage babysitter watching pornography, a racist elementary school bully and a church leader attempting rape. The broader political implications of public surveillance are examined. code: asiandiaspora as-am

This video highlights several narratives concerning video surveillance—not to reiterate the conventional privacy argument but rather to engage the desire to watch surveillance materials and society's insatiable voyeurism. A variety of subjects recount their interactions with surveillance—getting caught in the act of stealing or watching pornography, being discouraged from making an illegal ATM withdrawal—and question technological determinism, asking whether we choose to develop technology or technology shapes our choices.

Director Tran T. Kim-Trang Interviewed

After fourteen years, noted video artist and educator Tran T. Kim-Trang’s eight-part video opus, THE BLINDNESS SERIES, is now complete. The Series, starting with the visually arresting ALETHEIA (first shown at Visual Communications in 1992), explores the multiple layers and meanings of sight, blindness and its many metaphors. In an online interview with Visual Communications staffmember Abraham Ferrer, director Tran talk about the Blindness Series, its genesis and how it has impacted her creative process.

ABRAHAM FERRER: What inspired the Blindness Series?

TRAN T. KIM-TRANG: In 1990 Jacques Derrida helped to curate a show for the Louvre Museum titled Memoirs of the Blind. All the works in the show were pulled from their permanent collection and had something to do with tears, ruins and self-portraiture. I was taken with his ability to draw connections among disparate ideas and wanted to attempt something of the kind myself. Two other motivations were 1) a personal fear of vision loss and 2) the history of American Avant-garde cinema's fascination with vision.

You produced ALETHEIA, the first episode of the Blindness Series, back in 1992 while still a student at the California Institute of the Arts. At the time, did you envision ALETHEIA as part of a series from the outset, or did the idea of a multi-episode series spring from the thematic possibilities presented through the video?

Even before making ALETHEIA I had an eight-part series investigating blindness and its metaphors mapped out roughly by topics: the introduction, cosmetic surgery, sexuality, surveillance, hysterical blindness, language, actual blindness, and the epilogue. ALETHEIA then became a table of contents, I was keen on the idea of structuring the series like chapters in a book.

While ALETHEIA could be described as employing a "kitchen sink" approach to addressing pertinent topics through video art, subsequent episodes have become increasingly focused and, dare I say, less "experimental." Why is that? And do you agree with that observation?

I don't agree that subsequent episodes have been less experimental than ALETHEIA. I've always been fond of quotes--textual, verbal, visual--and quoting, and depended on them a great deal in ALETHEIA as well as KORE. I would say that with later episodes I've come increasingly into my own voice: words and images. I don't think it's easy to categorize any of the pieces in the series, with the exception of AMAUROSIS, as anything other than experimental. They're hybrids and include elements of narrative, documentary, porn, performance, essays, etc. They play and push the bounds of conventions. They challenge me as a maker and the audience. I never took more artistic risk than when I made EKLEIPSIS (a physical assault on some viewers) and have never reaped better rewards for it.

Yes, let's talk a bit about EKLEIPSIS. Your use of a diminishing strobe technique to mimic the effect of hysterical blindness was challenging, but by the end, I found that your manipulation of the imagery, especially as it serves the narrative, was quite ingenious, and thoroughly appropriate. Looking back, I feel your work on EKLEIPSIS may in fact have been an aesthetic breakthrough for you...

Yes, I agree. But I really believed EKLEIPSIS would never see the light of day because no one would be able to watch it. So I was a nervous wreck after finishing it; speaking of, the day I finished the piece was also the day Pol Pot died. Imagine that. Coincidences like that kept popping up throughout the 14 years working on the series.

I found the penultimate episode of the series, AMAUROSIS (2002), somewhat of a departure in the series, first of all because it is a documentary, and as such it comes across as the most straightforward of all the episodes. Is this a break with the experimental form you established with the preceding episodes, or did the subject matter necessitate a different filmmaking approach?

The subject matter dictated a documentary approach where I could just let Dat [Nguyen, the subject of the video – Ed.] talk about himself and his experiences. Other than selecting the topics for the series in advance, I approach each tape completely wide open. After extended research and recording, the material I collected then dictated the form.

The final episode of the series, EPILOGUE, in some ways evokes your first video SEQUITUR ALLIANCES (1991) in that you reference the cyclical nature of family and life, from your recollections of your grandmother, to the death of your mother and birth of your son. If I view SEQUITUR as a sort of prelude to the Blindness Series, then I see EPILOGUE as bringing things full-circle, as it were. Do you agree at all with that assessment?

I do, and that's an interesting connection that I hadn't seen before. It's not part of the series and it's not even the first video I ever made, but it came right before the series and it's funny how life has a way of completing some circles. A thought back to your question about experimentation, I consider both EPILOGUE and SEQUITUR equally experimental, the difference is that one is very abstract with hints of a narrative but resists it while the other is very clear, also with hints of narrative while resisting it.

Have you been able to step back and view all eight episodes? Have you come to any grand epiphanies around your growth as a filmmaker as a result of taking on and realizing this concept of sight/lessness?

I've not watched the entire series but even scanning them all while preparing the exhibition reels I can already see that some tapes show signs of aging, marked by the times in which they were created, while others are still very fresh. Why that happens is too much to go into, but I put the same amount of passion in all of them.

As for the epiphanies, you know, I put the very same question to myself in making the EPILOGUE, and I'm glad I abandoned it in the end. Halfway in the series, I thought everything I was trying to say was about distance and proximity, and it may very well be. I know that I've gained confidence and been humbled at the same time every time I made an experimental work. And it's been much more exhilarating to be curious, inquisitive, searching, and ever on the quest than having answers. That's what making experimental art has revealed to me.

I understand that you are now developing a new work, a longer-form piece this time. Can you talk about that a bit? Has the Blindness Series served as good preparation for realizing a feature-length film?

Absolutely. I can't tell you how profoundly the Blindness Series has taught me to craft the kind of feature-length narrative film I'm developing. Everyone can learn the conventions of narrative filmmaking. It's finding a voice and a vision that's challenging, and I think for the past 14 years I've been trying on voices and visions, taking risks, and having loads of fun doing it.

The feature narrative is titled CALL ME SUGAR. LOGLINE: A spirited Vietnamese war refugee with five kids in tow immigrates to an Iowa farm where she struggles to find her place in the world among farmers, trailer trash, and churchgoers. Even as this single mother ambitiously pursues the American Dream, she yearns to return to her country. When an insurgency group forms to reclaim Vietnam from the Communists, she gets deeply involved until it threatens her family and she must choose between the future of her children or the past of her dreams.

In addition to continuing a dual career as filmmaker and mother, you also teach art at the Clarement Colleges. From your vantage point, how are the next generation of visual and media artists?

I've been teaching at Scripps College since 1999. Before that I was adjunct at CalArts, UC Irvine, Otis College, and UC San Diego. These are all very different schools with different students and general outlook on media and artistic production. In my estimation, the next generation of visual and media artists have the means and tools to make what they want and they should take care not to be overwhelmed by technology, letting the tools dominate their ideas rather than serving them. I believe the best thing schools can offer artists is an incubator to develop concepts and ideas, and I hope more and more students take advantage of this over gaining skills. I'm continually amazed by the sophistication of students' visual vocabulary, and would encourage them to take more risks. Students have a tremendous urge and feel the pressure from our media culture at large to make conventional narrative and documentary works while the faculty for the most part encourages experimentation and hybrid forms in addition to the established ones. Animation is a burgeoning genre in both video and web works. I think the finest works to have come out of the programs at the Claremont Colleges in recent years have been performance video and political documentaries. And I think that we're in good shape.

And finally...where is the Blindness Series going after L.A.?

Holly Willis and I are currently co-editing a collection of essays, titled MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: WRITINGS ON TRAN, T. KIM-TRANG'S BLINDNESS SERIES, with contributions from Laura Marks, Alex Juhasz, Jesse Lerner, Ming Ma, Tracy Maclean, Allan DeSouza, Lynne Sachs, Peter Feng, Michelle Dizon, David Lloyd, and M.A. Greenstein to mark the completion of this body of work. Plans to tour the series nationally and internationally are in the works, so stay tuned.

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