Diamond: Memories Revisited, History Retold (Ottawa: National
Gallery of Canada, 1992) 45-64.
permission from the National Gallery of Canada.
Since the early
1980s, Sara Diamond has produced
a number of videotapes and video installations dealing with the
past and memory; in short, with history. Of all these works, the
installation Patternity (1991) and the four-part tape The Lull
Before the Storm (1990)1 undoubtedly illustrate in
the most artistic and detailed manner the artist's objective, namely:
the reconstruction of the history of women's work - both in the
personal and social spheres - and the affirmation of the feminine
subject, which has been largely neglected within the framework of
a patriarchal interpretation of history.
pages will examine the video installations in greater detail, and
describe how they articulate an historical conscience. We will see
how these works show the viewer the historical present. The works
of Sara Diamond cause us to re-examine our concept of historical
"truth" and reveal that historical knowledge, far from being objective,
is actually remodeled by memory and imagination; it is a cognitive
structure wherein fiction and history overlap to create human time.2
of the Past
works, historical knowledge is sought in order to determine what
parts of the past are still reflected in the present; it is simultaneously
called into question because the past, strictly speaking, remains
unknowable, albeit inescapable. This knowledge emerges through a
process of recognition, described by Jacques Lacan as the recognition
of a child in a mirror in relation to the desire for the Other,
the mother, and a recognition of the influence of preceding generations.
It is thus an imaginary recognition, characterized by its realization
in the Symbolic, and by the shaping of the subject by its
language and social structures, which Lacan calls the Name of
In The Influences
of My Mother (1982), Diamond explores her relationship with
her mother, who died when Diamond was ten years old. Through family
snapshots of her mother, to whom she bears a striking resemblance,
the artist confronts both her mother, who is physically absent and
made "doubly" absent by the iconic "presence" of the photographs,
and her own identity. In this work, she takes a number of different
positions regarding her missing mother: denial, the first moment
of desire, which dares not affirm itself; next judgment; then ambiguous
feelings of familiarity, expressed in popular songs of the sixties,
and critical distance, which is the work itself; followed by definition;
and finally the Heroic Mother, succeeding in a reconstruction of
their common identity despite the distance between mother and daughter.
In this tape,
Sara Diamond is both narrator and director; her tone is at times
tender and at times filled with rage toward this absent mother.
Some sequences are subtly violent, such as when Diamond tramples
on pictures of her mother. Both tone and gestures clearly show that
the relationship with one's mother is formed before language, before
the entry into the symbolic realm; which indicates that the mother,
and consequently all emotions and urges, must be sublimated and
fixed within patriarchal linguistic structures. Through the process
of the work itself, Sara Diamond discovers that in order to realize
oneself, as Lacan would have it, one must reject that which
is the same (or too similar) and compensate for the loss through
the desire for the Other.
Toward the end
of the tape, in the section dealing with the Heroic Mother, Diamond
makes known her mother's political involvement with New York labour
unions. As she leafs through books with photographs showing the
New York neighbourhoods where her mother once lived, we hear the
artist wondering aloud whether the people in those pictures might
have met her mother. A new absence is revealed here, the absence
of the past itself, which, as Paul Ricoeur states, "is what must
be re-created in the identifying mode: but only to the extent that
it is also the absence of all our constructions."4 It
is by means of photographs - which reveal the absence of the mother
and of the past - and through her own words that Diamond measures
Sameness and defines Otherness.
In The Influences of My Mother, Diamond herself states:
"I discovered the power of mnemonic devices in triggering historical
memory… I learned that there is no neutral evidence in history."
In a certain sense, this is the beginning of an investigation that
she will pursue in her later works, through interconnected structures
in which traces of the past can revive memory and encourage structures
in which traces of the past can revive memory and encourage personal
testimony, narration, and the recounting of the told past.
Diamond had produced another major installation entitled Heroics:
A Quest (1984) in which she explored the concept of heroism,
seeking to cut through the ideological trappings attached to it,
which usually present the hero as an individualistic male detached
from other individuals and the social context. Heroics puts
forward an opposing notion of heroism - and of the heroine - outside
the system of masculine values in which strength, competition, and
individualism predominate. In this installation, the testimony of
women, which is varied and multi-voiced, allows the feminine subject
to emerge through cracks in the masculine value system attached
to the hero. We discover a multitude of paths toward heroism as
expressed by women, paths which are not part of the dominant ideology.
In her installations,
Diamond creates what we term "oral spaces," spaces in which she
allows people to speak. In Heroics, three distinct spaces
are recreated: kitchen, livingroom, and "performance space;" and
in each space, a television screen presents the testimony and portraits
of women, interspersed with archival footage that counterpoints
of reinforces what they are saying. In Patternity, there
is a central island made up of sofas slipcovered with fabric printed
with maps of New York City, and decorated with texts covered cushions.
It is surrounded by eight television screens suspended from the
ceiling, while on the walls of the room hang curtains on which black-and-white
photographs of scenes from New York neighbourhoods are printed.
As we scan the television screens, we see: a portrait of the artist's
father, Jerome Diamond, who is an excellent storyteller; gestures
of the artist's hands - simple, communicative gestures of the kind
used in conversation, in relationships; and quotations by various
people including Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and the artist's
grandmother Rose Diamond.
These two installations
are mimetic re-creations of the situation of the TV viewer, whether
in the kitchen, in the livingroom, or on the sofa. They are part
of a tradition of video installations by women artists, in which
the relationship to the image and the positioning of the viewer/listener
imitate and illustrate the common problems of the domestic reality
as regards television. One is reminded in particular of Album
(1984) by Marsahlore, where the viewer was also seated on a sofa,
listening in on the private conversations of three people. The reference
to television is not accidental, and it is reinforced by the use
of "close-ups" (portraits) and "eye-witness accounts" (oral testimony).
As Margaret Morse very aptly puts it, "Our relation to television
can be summarized as one in which a medium structured to prevent
dialogue with the other in our society has developed a fictional
form of dialogue; television cannot satisfy our desire for subjectivity,
but it can displace it."5
in its discursive modes, establishes a sort of mock dialogue, in
which the viewer is referred to as a direct participant - being
addressed directly as "you" - and at the same time is brought "face
to face" with authority figures such as politicians, experts, announcers,
newsreaders, celebrities, and so on. Television, as both a familiar
piece of furniture within the domestic environment and as a system
of discourse, creates and illusory, intimate familiarity with television
personalities; this relationship between viewers and television
personalities has been described as "para-social."6 In
addition, drama series and soap operas, television formats directed
mainly toward a female audience, are peppered with confidential
conversations between characters, convincing the viewer that he
or she is privy to the secrets of the gods. These intimate conversations
deal almost exclusively with the "conduct of personal life,"7
so that the viewer becomes an ipso facto participant in the
web of dialogue that the series spins from week to week.
work, the role of the viewer is reformulated. She uses certain elements
inherent in television's system of discourse, such as addressing
the viewer directly and an oral recounting of events or stories,
to decentralize discourse. In Heroics, the multiplicity of
individual points of view that centre around notions of heroism
and the heroine serve to diversify discourse; and the viewer/listener,
sitting in front of images of women and listening to them tell their
story, participates in a sort of "television conviviality." In contrast
to the mock dialogue of TV, which masks the isolation of television
watching, the personal narrative mode and the many different faces
telling the narrative lead the viewer to feel empathy toward, rather
that to identify with, the people he or she is seeing. This process
creates the participatory structure of the installation, through
which the viewer becomes personally involved in "the conversation."
The viewer is not faced with the centralized discourse of TV, which
is designed only to simulate dialogue, but is rather cordially invited
to listen in on a conversation without authority figures, which
consequently breaks down the monolithic ideology that popular media
culture attaches to the idea of heroism and the hero. The installation
involves a further decentring, in that the viewer, in passing from
the kitchen to the livingroom, that is, by virtue of a physical
movement in space, experiences a sense of place which connotes the
domesticity of television.
Space of Experience
developed the concept of space of experience, which he defines in
a way that we feel is appropriate to contextualize the idea of oral
space. Ricoeur states that the space of experience, "whether it
involves a private experience or an experience transmitted by earlier
generations or current institutions, always [involves] a strangeness
which has been overcome, an acquired trait which has become a habit.
Moreover," he continues, "the term space evokes the possibility
of travel using a variety of itineraries, and in particular, of
coming together and forming layers within a multi-level structure,
thus making it impossible to describe the past accumulated in this
fashion through mere chronology."8 The concept of a space
of experience is accompanied, according to Ricoeur, by a horizon
of expectations, an idea borrowed from Hans Robert Jauss's aesthetics
of reception, and which denotes the power of moving outward and
onward suggested by expectation. Ricoeur posits that it is at this
location, in this space, that the "complex game of interrelated
meaning which goes on between our expectations for the future and
our interpretations of the past" is played out.9
recent installation, Patternity, is an example of this complex
location, where the externalization of memory through oral messages
on display and the motif of the portrait of the father overlap with
various quotation within a structure that is not only "multi-level,"
but expanded through decentring. Patternity also creates
a hybrid space, somewhere between a livingroom with its sofas and
a train station or transit lounge with television screens suspended
from the ceiling and maps and photographs of New York; its topography
is at once personal and social. This place is alive with the tension
between the focal spatial elements within it - household furniture
and the sensory images created by the TV - and the horizon, where
the active elements of space and presence are revealed, among them
the portrait of the father, stories told and heard, and archival
The father introduces
his own version of the world, society, and the continuity of successive
generations, thereby making this work a less personal expression
of the artist than The Influences of My Mother. Because of
the involvement of Diamond's mother and father in the labour union
movement in New York and their difficulties during the McCarthy
era, which led them to leave the United States and move to Toronto,
the father often refers to the field of social and political action.
The space of experience of the historical present in the installations
is thus characterized by the initiatives described and recounted
by Jerome Diamond, small actions and trivial anecdotes from childhood
and private life, and political and social actions from public life.
The act of speaking, of telling a story, is an initiative itself,
when it becomes an opportunity to testify. "The present is
no longer just the presence, and thus no longer a category of seeing,
but of human action and suffering."10 For Sara Diamond
as for Paul Ricoeur, human time is time that is told, rooted in
the actions and suffering of men and women, with memory pushing
its boundaries toward the past in order to nurture the historical
present as a common space of experience; and television becomes
a means of bringing people together.
The oral aspect
of Sara Diamond's installations and the motif of the portrait, in
both Heroics and Patternity, are what draw the viewer
to the work. The installation is presented first and foremost as
a reception of the historical past by the present awareness. Within
this space structured by the artist, oral elements and a multitude
of faces and voices - Heroics is really a gallery of portraits
- generate empathy on the part of the viewer/listener. However,
unlike popular Hollywood movies, this is not a case of identifying
with an idealized version of oneself or projecting oneself onto
this idealized version, but a process of recognizing oneself by
means of and in the face and expression of another person; it is
an active reminiscing by the viewer, which is triggered by the memory
related by the other.
The human face
and its features are extremely significant here, even though their
message remains enigmatic as there is no code with which to interpret
them; this lends an extra fascination. Facial expressions, coupled
with tones of voice, thus become a sort of "micro-performance,"
with minuscule facial movements marking the presence and the present
of what is said. The performance aspect of oral communication11
contributes to the persuasiveness of the persons speaking in the
installations. These utterances are not dry or scientific, the discourse
and narrative of the women in Heroics and the father in Patternity
derive their "validity and [their] persuasive force less from what
[they] say than from the testimony that they constitute." According
to Paul Zumthor, oral communications is "supple, malleable, nomadic
memory," and it is made universal by the presence of the faces and
supported by the gestures of the artist in Patternity. Moreover,
the voice does not merely describe, but rather acts in conjunction
with the expressive quality of the face.12
these installations, through the methods we have just examined,
repossess and re-create tradition, in the most noble sense
of the word, and they affirm the presence of the feminine subject
in reconstructed history. The use of memory and the triggering of
the viewer's/listener's memories engage that which has been left
to us by previous generations and traced by the past. Traditions
constitute those elements of the past that activate the present
in anticipation of the future. As things which have been told in
the past or are retold in the present, traditions are transmitted
to us through a series of written or oral interpretations and re-interpretations.
They comprise Zumthor's "mediatized oral expression," as understood
in the context of our culture of the written word. And it is within
this context that Diamond's installations represent an even more
significant process of decentring: between tradition as it is told
and as it is received in the historical present; between distancing
induced by time and distancing induced by the work; between familiarization
and defamiliarization which act upon the work and the viewer/listener
in turn; and finally, the decentring of television as a domestic
conscience that emerges from Sara Diamond's installations also calls
into question the finality of history. Ricoeur states that other
"collective singulars"14 exist alongside History, such
as Liberty, Justice, Progress, and Revolution. Jean-François Lyotard
calls these concepts the Metanarratives, whose demise he
announces in La condition postmoderne.15 It would
be difficult to see Diamond's work as an actual teleology of history;
on the contrary, she views the processes of revealing women's history
and fostering the emergence of the feminine subject in history and
fostering the emergence of the feminine subject in history as an
opportunity to assert a history made up of many voices and characterized
by an opening of horizons. In this alternate history, the Other
is not reduced to the Same, and self-realization is affirmed outside
the dominant, male Sameness - outside the single-voice patriarchy.
has been the Director of Programs at the Daniel Langlois Foundation
for Art, Science, and Technology since February 1998. Prior to that,
he was Associate Curator of Media Arts at the National Gallery of
Canada between 1991 and 1998, where he was responsible for the programming
and acquiring works for the collection in cinema, video art, and
new media. Exhibitions curated by him include: The Body of the
Line: Eisenstein's Drawings, Daniel Dion: Path, Vera Frenkel ...From
the Transit Bar, Video and Orality, Video Sonority: Video Born of
Noise, Lynn Hershman: Virtually Yours and Luc Courchesne:
Interactive Portraits. His critical essays have been published
in Canada and abroad in exhibition catalogues and major publications
such as Artintact 2 (Cantz Verlag and ZKM, Germany) and
Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture (Seattle: Bay Press),
1. This work
was a co-production with the Knowledge Network educational channel
in British Columbia. See Karen Knights' text for a more detailed
discussion of this tape.
Ricoeur states that human time is both a fictional rewriting of
history and an historical rewriting of fiction. See Temps et
Récit, 3 vols., Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1982-85.
Jacques Lacan, Écrits I and Écrits II, Paris: Éditions du
Ricoeur, vol. 3, p. 226.
Margaret Morse, "Talk, Talk, Talk" Screen, 26:2 (Mar./Apr.
1985), p. 15.
Horton and Richard R. Wohl, "Mass Communications and Parasocial
Interaction: Observation on Intimacy at a Distance," in Inter/Media,
Oxford University Press, 1979, pp.32-55.
Grundson, "Crossroads: Notes on Soap Opera," in Regarding
Television, The American Film Institute, 1983, pp. 77-83.
vol. 3, pp. 300s01, in the chapter entitled Vers une herméneutique
de la conscience historique.
Ricoeur, vol. 3, p. 301.
vol. 3, p. 332.
Paul Zumthor, Introduction à la poésie orale, Paris: Éditions
du Seuil, 1983.
vol. 3, p. 322.
vol. 3, p. 303.
Lyotard, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir,
Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979, p.7.
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