We never heard that noise before—we dug in the ground we didn't realise the sound was coming from above (Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter?, 1992)

The "Exotic" is Uncannily Close
Simon Taylor

Johan Grimonprez's ethnographic video projects address a pervasive condition in late-twentieth-century society precipitated by increased rootlessness and mobility. In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford identifies this as a "condition of offcentredness in a world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture".1 Until the beginning of our century, writes Clifford, westerners regarded other cultures through exclusively Eurocentric eyes; all other races and classes were judged according to the normative ideal of bourgeois individualism, which was considered the pinnacle of human civilization. While two World Wars and the Holocaust destroyed any lingering pretence of moral leadership, the revolt against scientific positivism undermined the progressivist logic of the evolutionary worldview. In the same way that the Copernican map of the universe displaced humankind from centre to periphery, the cultural relativism expressed by the new ethnographic conception of the world implied that western truth-claims have no legitimate universal application.

Theoretically this meant that western culture was no more advanced than any other. Yet, the majority of anthropologists in the twentieth century continued to demonstrate ethnocentric bias by adopting patronizing attitudes towards "primitives" and "savages", labelling their cultures "undeveloped" and "Third World" even as they claimed to be the advocates of subjugated peoples. While anthropologists assured themselves that their relativist attitudes and allegedly neutral practices would promote an appreciation of non-western societies and combat racism, the scientific disciplines of anthropology, ethnology and ethnography were, in fact, complicit with western imperialism and colonialism—whether directly through the mediation of colonial authorities, or indirectly, through the epistemological constraints of a discipline traditionally based on Self–Other and Us–Them dichotomies. By the 1960s, cultural relativism was exposed as an ideology that reinforced the status quo: instead of acknowledging differences, it paradoxically erased them under the banner of pluralism. Ethnography entered a reflexive phase so that the economic, political and ideological relationship of the fieldworker to his "native informants" could no longer be taken for granted.

The "predicament" faced by anthropologists and ethnographers today is related to the national struggles for self-determination that began in the post-World War II period and intensified after 1957 with the liberationist movement in Ghana, Congo and Algeria. These political struggles for self-determination continue to play a leading role in the global environment in spite of the homogenizing effects of consumer culture and the recuperative power of neo-colonial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Due to advances in means of communication and transportation as well as the expansion of traditional trade routes, it is less possible than ever to speak of independent cultures with clearly demarcated boundaries. Given the proliferation of diasporic cultures, not to mention the influence of deconstructionist philosophy, we are forced to acknowledge that "identity is conjunctural, not essential".2 The "post-colonial crisis of ethnographic authority" is therefore reflected in the following questions: "Who has the authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture?"3


In a survey of "Ethnographic film and museums", Asen Balikci, a professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal and an ethnographic filmmaker, argues that five criteria "make some films more ethnographic than others".4 Noting the wide variety of styles (observational, reflexive, didactic-expositionary and documentary) used in the genre, Balikci writes that "serious" ethnographic films incorporate the following conventions: 1. a direct filming technique showing spontaneous actions in "natura" settings as they occur over real time; 2. the participation of a professionally-trained ethnographer; 3. a preference for "exotic" non-western subjects and locations; 4. pedagogical utility in the classroom; and, lastly, 5. the supporting corroboration of professional research. Balikci recommends straightforward documentary realism as the most appropriate style for salvaging cultures through visual representations. For reasons that will soon become apparent, this prescriptive attitude towards ethnographic media is theoretically problematic and politically dubious.
According to Balikci, "the levelling tide of modernity threatens with obliteration a number of traditional cultures and their original lifestyles. Modern audio-visual recording techniques can help preserve, in images at least, certain of those irreplaceable qualities of vanishing cultures."5 Ethnographic media is here conceived solely in terms of a salvage operation, to record all the remaining "authentic" traces of the traditional culture. The inexorable narrative of cultural decay, familiar to readers of Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques (1955), is now recognized as something of a racist fiction which denies subalterns any political agency in shaping history. The triumph of the West is thus a fait accompli for anthropologists subscribing to the "salvage paradigm".6 In emphasizing cultural decay, and the backwardness and timelessness of an "exotic" culture, they neglect to draw any conclusions from the positive and constructive histories in other countries.


Balikci credits Margaret Mead (and Gregory Bateson) for being the first to systematically integrate visual recording devices in their ethnographic research, in films about Bali and Papua New Guinea, beginning in the late 1930s: "She had an inspiring influence on most cinematographers of the younger generation. The important developments in the United States during the 1960s were directly related to her contagious belief in the methodological validity of ethnographic film."7 While Mead undoubtedly influenced younger anthropologists, the following generation also questioned the "methodological validity" of their ethnographic fieldwork by confronting the history of their discipline and its complicity in empire-building. The notion of the "return gaze", as articulated in Barbara Holecek's film, Anthropology on Trial (1984)—which begins by criticizing Mead's work in Papua New Guinea—has been an important influence on Grimonprez and other individuals engaged in ethnographic media.
Nevertheless, as recently as the 11th Margaret Mead Film Festival, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (1987), there was a hegemony of "classic" film documentary: "no video, no fiction, no serious tampering with the authoritative point of view that became the hallmark of the documentary as long ago as 1922, when Robert Flaherty assembled his ethnographic epic Nanook of the North. The message of anthropology as it appeared (at the festival) was the humanism and emphasis on everyday life that suffused the ethnographhy of Margaret Mead."8


The moral and ethical dilemma confronting ethnographers is whether their efforts to represent cultural diversity can be achieved without ethnocentric bias. Given the risks involved, many individuals simply back off and refuse to get involved in the debates. As Faye Ginsburg writes, in her article "Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?", "much of the current postmodern theory, while raising important points about the politics of representation, is so critical of all 'gazes' at the so-called 'other' that to follow the programme set forth by some, we would all be paralysed into an alienated universe, with no engagement across the boundaries of difference that for better or worse exist".9 How does one distinguish between, on the one hand, the political refusal to "objectify" the Other and, on the other hand, the disavowal of cultural difference? While much has been written on the "political correctness" of representing other cultures, successful communication always involves the necessity of representation. More pertinent is whether this representation is accompanied by a colonial mindset, or motivated by political solidarity with the anti-imperialist struggles of subjugated peoples.

Three major influences (specific to ethnography) have informed Johan Grimonprez's projects and installations. First, there is the tradition of anthropological filmmakers from Robert Flaherty to Jean Rouch to more recent filmmakers like Dennis O'Rourke. The second influence on Grimonprez has been the development of indigenous media, such as, Terence Turner and the Kayapo, the Hopi filmmaker Victor Mayasesva Jr. and Francis Juppurrurla of the Walpiri Media Association in Central Australia. Finally, Grimonprez's ethnographic practice can be related to avant-garde film and video-makers currently working in the United States, including Yvonne Rainer, Leslie Thornton, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Ken Feingold, Su Friedrich, among others, whose works centre on the encounter with the "Other". In Trinh's films, for example, "documentary 'objectivity'" is revealed to be "more a matter of unacknowledged voyeurism than scientific fact-finding... What we see and hear is a questioning of the anthropological desire to know the Other."10 Similar motivations are behind Grimonprez's efforts to undermine and subvert ethnographic authority.


Grimonprez's most widely-screened work, a twenty-five-minute videotape, "Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter?" (1992) was made after a 1987 trip to the Ok-Bon Valley in Irian Jaya, formerly Dutch New Guinea. A montage of found footage, the video is intentionally reflexive in its construction; rather than exoticizing the indigenous people, the tape concerns the ethnography of ethnography through a dialectical-dialogical process. Fraught with ambiguities, lacking any sense of closure that might give a hint of mastery, combining the testimony of indigenous populations with personal history, Kobarweng conveys the artist's sense of dislocation and disorientation as he finds himself in the predicament of "being in culture while looking at culture". Incorporating strategies historically associated with Eisenstein's cinema (rapid editing to foreground the formal devices), Brechtian theatre (alienation effects), and Surrealism (e.g. Luis Bunuel's parody of the documentary genre in Land Without Bread, 1932), Grimonprez rejects the authoritative underpinnings of mimetic realism, as used in traditional documentary practices, in an attempt to subvert western forms of "Othering". What emerges is a materialist poetics, a blending of ethnographic surrealism and "impure cinevideo".11

According to Hal Foster, two sets of primal scene recur in modernism: the encounter with the primitive and the machine.12 Kobarweng is about the first contact between whites and Papuans, and the representation of that encounter. The tape also concerns the arrival of airstrips, airplanes and helicopters in a remote part of the world. For an island, these flying machines have special significance since they transgress the island's physical boundaries and undermine the concept of nationhood.13 One of the last areas on Earth to be colonized by white people, the island of New Guinea or Papua is situated in the Pacific Ocean, separated from Australia by the Coral Reef. Sighted by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the island was colonized by the Dutch, the British, and the Germans in the nineteenth century; even earlier, trade was established with Malaysian and Chinese sailors, who eventually called it the island of the "Papuwah" (the fuzzy haired). Under Australian administration since 1949, the eastern half became the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, while the former Dutch territories became West Irian under Indonesian rule.

In the 1920s, Australians, including gold prospectors and missionaries, colonized the coastal areas, but nothing was known about the interior of the island, with its tropical jungle and mountain ranges, until the 1930s. Among the earliest explorers of the interior were the Australian Leahy brothers whose gold-prospecting expeditions are documented in the film First Contact (1980), directed by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, and later issued as a book (1987). The first Highland people who met the Leahy brothers imagined that they were supernatural beings or ghosts of their ancestors.14 During the Pacific War, when the Japanese and Americans invaded the island, Papuans living in even more remote areas had their first exposure to the outside world when low-flying airplanes flew overhead or crashed in the forest. As late as 1958–9, the villagers of Nimdol (now Pepera) encountered westerners when helicopters dropped supplies for a scientific team, including anthropologists, biologists and geologists associated with the Dutch Starmountains Expedition whose journeys are recorded in the book To the Mountains of the Stars.15 Nowadays, some areas are increasingly inundated with camera-toting tourists, including westerners, whose crass exploitation of the indigenous people is documented in the film Cannibal Tours (1987) by Dennis O'Rourke ("I'm an exponent of primitive art," says one). In Irian Jaya, tourism is limited, since Indonesians want to hide their military policies against the indigenous people who are dispossessed of their lands by Javanese transmigration projects in a lot of the areas.

Since cultural difference is a negotiated, two-way process, Kobarweng explores the element of dialogical reciprocity in the encounter between cultural systems. In Sibil language, Kobarweng literally means, "the language of the airplane or the sound of the airplane". When Grimonprez visited the Pepera area in 1987 and gathered oral testimonies, one of the "natives", Kaiang Tapior, asked him, "Where is your helicopter?", alluding to the arrival of the anthropologists thirty years earlier, hence the full title of the video, "Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter?" (The question was also highly ironic since Grimonprez had reached Nimdol, exhausted, after a three-day hike over difficult terrain.) When the highland people of the island of New Guinea first heard the sounds of airplane engines and propellers, we learn through the video, they were confused, variously identifying them as the cry of a cassowary, a ruru frog, a growling marsupial, floodwaters or an earthquake. Some, thinking that the sounds were coming from the forest floor, started digging to determine their origin. Still others understood the sounds in terms of their spiritual cosmology, attributing the unfamiliar noises to returning dead ancestors.

The soundtrack to Kobarweng is scored so that most of the video passes in a loaded silence, punctuated at intervals by the sound of a helicopter, roar of airplanes, running water from a tap, a film projector, and other decontextualized noises that appear out of sync, though recontextualized in a displaced (metaphorical) relation to the images on the screen: the film projector versus landscape imagery, the screeching of a cockatoo connected to the image of an airplane or even the abrupt abscence of sound precisely there where classicaly dramatic ambience would be added. One of the themes of the tape is the different emphasis that westerners and Papuans give to the senses. In the ocular-centric West, as Michel Foucault has shown in several of his books (most notably, Discipline and Punish, 1975), vision has a privileged status in the hierarchy of the senses, and other sense organs become atrophied as a consequence. By contrast, the Papuans who live in the tropical rainforest are attuned to a wide variety of sounds; the Kaluli people, for example, are able to clearly differentiate over a hundred species of birds by their sonos rather than their visual appearance. Westerners, on the other hand, have developed ornithological taxonomies organized according to morphological descriptions based on sight.16

Whereas the film First Contact adopts the conventional techniques of the documentary, and avoids drawing attention to its own framing devices, Kobarweng goes in the opposite direction: some of the original location footage, including some "jungle" foliage, was shot in New York. The video begins with a tracking sequence along a hallway, until the camera arrives inside a room of New York's Greystone Hotel, where the artist temporarily resided—the image of the hotel signifying transience.17 As the first contact narratives, oral testimonies and details of New Guinea's colonial past scroll across the monitor, viewers are presented with the choice of focusing on the textual or the visual register. While "TV ethnography" (e.g. Granada TV's Disappearing World series in Britain) remains heavily dependent upon narrative voice-overs, Grimonprez uses text in order to break away from the tradition of ethnographic film as "an evolutionary adaptation of the lecture format". As Eric Michaels has written, ethnographic documentary films descend from slide lectures and travelogues, in which the omnipresent narrator "acts like a priest, mediating images and reducing the potential richness, complexity and provocative ambiguity of the images [and text] to a linear, doctrinaire message".18

The heterogeneous images in Kobarweng include visuals appropiated from secondhand sources such as World War II newsreels, television and anthropological film footage attained from the Starmountains Expedition members. The preponderance of appropriated imagery from mass-media sources—copies without origins—parallels the idea that there is no essential identity. Although there are narrative components in the video, its overall structure coheres through the repetition of several shifting signifiers that seem poetically loaded—among them, a kettle, a running tap, airplanes and parachutes. Instead of exoticizing tribal artefacts, Grimonprez isolates these taken-for-granted everyday objects and machines, and makes them appear strange, or defamiliarized through a strategy of "mimetic excess". As described by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity (1993): "Mastery is mocked as First World and Other Worlds now mirror, interlock, and rupture each other's alterity to such a degree that all that is left is excess—the self-consciousness as to the need for an identity, sexual, racial, ethnic, and national, and the roller-coastering of violence and enjoyment of this state of affairs."19" It will be all right if you come again, only next time don't bring any gear, except a tea kettle..."20 A Landscape of Mimetic Excess;—Nimdol June 1950—Nimdol July 1987 (1994) is the title of Grimonprez's site-specific installation for the Palais des Beaux-Arts. A multi-channel installation, A Landscape of Mimetic Excess further develops the themes of cultural difference and (post-)colonialism using a sequence of landscape footage from the Kobarweng tape intercut with new sequences, including scenes appropriated from the Hollywood musical The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews. If Kobarweng explores cultural difference through the vehicle of flight, A Landscape of Mimetic Excess is more directly related to representation per se, since it concerns the arrival of outdoor cinemas and films, as well as the role of anthropologists and missionaries, in Irian Jaya/Papua New Guinea; during the Pacific War in August 1944, 200 open-air cinemas descended from the sky (in Hollandia, the previous capital of the province, nowadays named Jayapura).

There is a constant interplay between the strange and the familiar in Grimonprez's video editing, enacting a sense of ethnographic displacement. Midway through a camera pan of the Ok-Bon Valley, filmed by Derk Jan Dragt of the Starmountains Expedition, there is an unexpected transition to a similar landscape zoom appropriated from The Sound of Music. When Grimonprez visited the Pepera region in 1987, the indigenous locals associated him with the European landscapes and urban environments—as depicted in films—which a missionary had shown them. Having travelled such a long distance with the expectation of encountering the unknown, the irony of being confronted with the most banal example of western culture, but also with the most familiar images of his childhood (his mother's favourite film), demonstrated to the artist that he, too, was subject to a process of stereotypical objectification.

Is the project overdetermined and Oedipalized as a consequence? Typically, ethnographers censor personal matters from their fieldwork reports, which are meant to be "objective" accounts of individual societies. When Bronislaw Malinowski's intimate Trobriand diaries of 1914–18 were posthumously published as A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (1967), the contrast between the private journal, in which he often expressed feelings of contempt for the "natives", and his pioneering book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) sent seismic shock waves through the discipline of anthropology. Whereas most ethnographers followed Malinowski's self-censorship in writing up their fieldwork, an exception was Michel Leiris whose "self-ethnography—not autobiography but an act of writing his existence in a present of memories, dreams, politics, daily life" can be seen as a precursor of Grimonprez's work in video.21Aside from autobiographical notes, Grimonprez researched accounts of a number of his friends and associates to relate about The Sound of Music, including the Trinidad-born artist Todd Ayoung, who during his childhood, in the condition of never having been exposed to TV nor film before, confused reality with the space in the film, and Onome Ekeh, who saw the film over 300 times while growing up in Nigeria—these interviews form partly textual components of the video.

A recurring image in the video is the anthropologist's writing table, restaged by the artist to signify the discursive nature of fieldwork, since "ethnography is enmeshed in writing".22 A great proportion of the text utilized in the video was derived from anthropological sources. We learn of rivalry between villages to acquire an anthropologist, as members of one village loudly complain that their neighbours already have two! (Economically dependent on the anthropologists as a major source of income, the informants now expect something in return for their collaboration and trade local legends as if they were commodities, which they are.) One anthropologist is told by an informant that they always save something for the next anthropologist, rendering futile any hopes of achieving a totalizing account of a soci-ety, while another anthropologist is surprised and undoubtedly amused when he encounters a native named Malinowski.

Some of the anecdotes told in the video, while disquieting, are also extremely funny. These often involve indigenous peoples mimicking the behaviours that westerners believe they do "naturally" as a matter of course. When westerners arrive in a village, the ghettoblasters are hidden, and the people "go primitive", entertaining the visitors by fingerpainting on tree bark, making fire with bamboo, and chopping wood with a stone axe—all very photogenic activities for the tourist to capture on film. Then, there are stories which relate the exact opposite: how one intrepid anthropologist, for instance, encountered the "wild" mountain Cuna Indians, only to be greeted by the chief, calling out, in perfect English: "How are you boys? Glad to see you." The chief, it turned out, had worked on sailing boats for twenty years, and had travelled from one cosmopolitan city to the next.




First published as: Taylor, S., "The 'Exotic' is Uncannily Close", in Johan Grimonprez: It will be all right if you come again, only next time don't bring any gear, except a tea kettle..., ed. D. Snauwaert (Brussels: Les Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts, 1994), 9–17.