Hammer Projects: Deborah Stratman
Deborah Stratman describes her work as “an uncompromising look at the ways privacy, safety, convenience, and surveillance determine our environment." In Order Not To Be Here, 2002, is also a lyrical meditation on the suburban American landscape. Shot completely at night, it unfolds in a series of grainy shots of empty parking lots, unattended ATMs, brightly lit subdivision nameplates, and nighttime freeway traffic. These relatively quiet images are bracketed by infrared footage of what appear to be an arrest and an escape. Interspersed throughout are snippets of police radio conversations, TV newscasts, sirens, and car alarms.
Recently screened at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Stratman’s piece offers us evidence of a crime (or crimes) while simultaneously withholding a narrative.
Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.
Deborah Stratman is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in Chicago. She received her M.F.A. from the California Institute of Arts and her B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 1990 she has completed more than a dozen film projects, both on sixteen-millimeter film and on video. These works have been shown at international film festivals—including the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands, and the Vienna International Film Festival in Austria—and at art institutions such as the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, and the San Francisco Art Institute.
By Bérénice Reynaud
The full title of Deborah Stratman's film In Order Not to Be Here was inspired by French experimental writer Paul Fournel, a member of the Oulipo group. In Suburbia (Banlieue, 1990), a "hollow" story written almost entirely in footnotes, he quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas: "It is not sufficient to be elsewhere in order not to be here"—a phrase Stratman slightly altered into "It is not necessary to be someplace else in order not to be here." From sufficient to necessary, from the Aristotle-influenced Aquinas to the creeping para-reality of suburbia, the world has indeed changed, and maybe not for the better. Yet from Fournel to Stratman, the strategy of the footnote continues to pay off; reality is revealed through side-glances, presence through absence, and artistic originality is coined from borrowed tropes.
What motivated Stratman, who majored in science in college, to gracefully evolve toward art making was the desire to "satisfy [her] curiosity though something more tactile than numbers and experiments." Film became "a technical mediator between [her] ideas and a finished product," ultimately allowing her to insert time into her work. Like the filmmakers whose influence she acknowledges—Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Ernie Gehr, Nina Menkes, Ulrike Ottinger, and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huiller—Stratman is obsessed by the "sculptural" quality of time: in an obdurate landscape shot held beyond the conventional limits of spectatorial endurance, time does not flow toward a resolution, but is congealed as a "pressure block," a stasis waiting to explode, a presence failing to materialize, an ever-vanishing present.
In her already-spectacular career (having completed fourteen films since 1990 and fourteen installations since 1996), Stratman has demonstrated a fondness for idiosyncratic landscapes—the snowy, volcanic vistas of Iceland (From Hetty to Nancy, 1997), the expanses of the Taklamakan Desert in China's Xinjiang autonomous region (Meet Adiljan, work in progress), the urban wastelands of Chicago's West Side (The BLVD, 1999)—and explored the tension between two kinds of American void. On the one hand, there are the open spaces of the West, still fresh from the frontier ideology, turned into blank, clean slates by the eradication of indigenous presence and history, yet strangely empowering for the subject who drives through them. On the other hand, there are the suburban spaces—Naperville, near Chicago, where Stratman grew up, or Valencia, California, where she attended graduate school—and their “soulless” vacuum. No expanse of wilderness here, no open vistas, no history, no community either, but architectural constraints built out of fear: gated compounds, fences and walls, and shopping centers accessible only by car, as well as drive-through pharmacies, fast-food restaurants, and ATMs. In Order Not to Be Here grew out of a wish to understand why people find such dwellings desirable and ended as a meditation on the uncanny powers of surveillance devices in the suburban night.
Suburbia suggests manicured lawns, sunny landscapes, mothers in jeans or pastel dresses taking adorable children to the mall. At night people retreat to their homes, as shown in an arresting shot of the film, in which a large house stands in the dark, with all its windows lit, but nobody outside. By contrast, night and the city have long enjoyed a powerful romance. In Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit (1982), unspoken desires, chance encounters, and fragmentary narratives emerge from the streets of Brussels in a summer night. In The BLVD, a whole subculture of street drag racing turns a dilapidated black neighborhood into a great place to hang out. In this latter film, however, Stratman punctuates the action (car racing, lively interviews) with static shots of deserted industrial spaces, washed-out signs, and empty streets. In Order Not to Be Here is made up almost entirely of such punctuations—shots of spaces devoid of human presence—an echo of the footnotes in Fournel’s story.
There is nothing more terrifying than nighttime suburbia, and In Order Not to Be Here courts the horror genre (the picture reproduced in the Sundance Film Festival catalogue shows a dog with long fangs, barking furiously and ready to attack). Stratman shoots with a sense of wonderment, as if unsure of the reality that her camera captures. As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), the surroundings seem unreal, not really here, coming either from a near future (science fiction) or a recent past (the vestiges of a just-disappeared civilization). Capturing the present is problematic in a time-based medium, for it is an evanescent point that keeps being engulfed in the “giant funnel of expanding past” or receding into a forever-evasive future. Yet cinema has a whole array of tropes and techniques (point of view, reverse-angle shot, suturing process) to reintroduce the presence of the spectator. At times, In Order Not to Be Here touches upon this “zero degree” of filmic écriture in which the presence of the observer is eliminated: these spaces do not exist, and I’m not really here.
Unlike the empty streets of The BLVD, which bear witness to a specific history—labor struggle, patterns of human dwelling in Chicago, relocation of industrial plants—these suburban spaces have no history, and the only future they project is the moment when the children are going to leave the nest. Moreover, they were not created for the human gaze, but for a complex array of surveillance devices, from ATM video cameras to police helicopters. In Order Not to Be Here has been justly praised for its morceau de bravoure, a slightly edited seven-minute helicopter shot staged and directed by Stratman, in which a man runs to escape pursuit, while the sound track, lifted from a CNN news report, details an unlikely suburban nightmare: a man, gone crazy, barricades himself in his house and then sets it on fire. The sound and the image work in contradistinction to each other: one man runs, dives into the water, and eventually escapes surveillance by disappearing into trees, while another, surrounded by police and TV reporters, has nowhere to go. Until that penultimate shot (the last one being post-credit found footage of a suburban house on fire), the only human presence in the film is encoded in infrared police tapes (arrest, chase) or audio material (alarm sirens, police radios). Human bodies appear only as traces. They are ghostlike appearances on the infrared tapes, or they haunt the off-screen space through unseen actions. The most telling shot may be that of an empty red supermarket shopping cart lying on its side in a parking lot, while a loud siren (car or burglar alarm) is heard. The combination of sound and image suggests that some incident took place but that, through an elaborate surveillance or monitoring system, the source of disorder has already disappeared, vanished into the suburban landscape.
Quotations from Deborah Stratman are from an interview with the author recorded on March 21, 2003.
Bérénice Reynaud is a film critic and historian who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.
Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and members of the Hammer Circle.