Anabases 7: Jumping the Gun since 1968

Today is my last post on Eric Baudelaire’s Anabases book and so it seems fitting at this end point to return to the beginning (which, as we now know, in any anabasis, is no longer where we started). A few weeks ago, after returning from New York on seeing the Whitney Biennial and attending a screening of my friend and OSU colleague Dani Leventhal, I was flipping through the catalogue, writing notes on artists that could be the subject of a Minus Plato post, when I came across the entry on Eric Baudelaire, with its focus on the Anabasis theme in his work. (Little did I that I was in town during the days of Baudelaire’s screenings, as well as his talk, but as I didn’t know about his work then, I missed out).

This morning, on finishing Anabases over breakfast, I was set on writing this post about the subtle interplay of still-images from The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images that illustrate Jean-Pierre Rehm’s essay “Here is Nowhere”.

These small pictures alternate between the two sides of the spread, printed in purple alongside the purple English text and in black and white to accompany the black French text. (Here I should acknowledge the beautiful work of the graphic designer Jean-Marie Courant (Regular) who also worked with Baudelaire on the librettos for the first Anabasis exhibition and for the The Anabasis…).

I loved the way this decision to align the colored text with colored stills offered a fitting culmination to this bilingual book about an artist who I now know is so careful to direct the interrelation between words and images. However, when I turned back to the Whitney catalogue (perhaps to compare the design of the two books) I noted for the first time something that I had been blind to throughout this whole week of working on Eric Baudelaire’s work.

There it was, at the top of the page:

All this time I had jumped the gun, assuming that Baudelaire was a French artist and to suddenly discover that he was born in Utah! In addition, with some extra digging online, I discovered that he graduated from Brown University in 1994 and then moved to Paris where he now lives. This was all of the biography that I could discover, until I read the following reference to his parents from an interview with Anthony Downey:

AD: It also seems to be about disillusionment and, in a sense, failure. If we look at Masao Adachi and terrorism in the 1970s, there was this idealism, and you have captured that certain narrative around the event. What has happened is this utopian idealism has degenerated into a conflict over events and images and their representation; perhaps even the bankruptcy of images themselves. It seems increasingly difficult for a narrative to emerge, especially from the Middle East, that captures any singular political event or any particular political will to achieve a degree of resolution. And that disillusionment seems to override Anabasis and The Ugly One to a certain extent, would you agree?

EB: It has been a very important thing for me – I’m from the post-1968 generation. I’ve lived in a world that I’ve inherited from my parents’ generation, and they were a generation for whom there was great promise of a new manner of organizing society. The world that they handed over to us was significantly different to the world they probably hoped to construct. So I have always been very interested in the forefront, or the vanguard, of the most radical expressions of a desire for transformation. This is why I’ve enjoyed working with Masao Adachi. And yet, I don’t want to characterize the work as being about disillusion. I don’t think that is how Adachi sees it and I don’t think that disillusion is the scope through which I want to see this history.

There are many ways in which former radicals have transitioned into today’s society. But Masao Adachi’s way is quite interesting. He says a number of different things – for example, he says society considers him an ex-terrorist, but that he doesn’t believe the prefix ‘ex’ applies to terrorism. He accepts that he is a terrorist although many people in his generation would refuse this label – he says, ‘if society labels me this way then this is what I am.’ But at the same time he says, ‘regret is only interesting if it’s turned toward the future.’ And this is a position that I like very much because he says that his generation made a big fire and they did not anticipate the brilliance of it. Today he notices that perhaps this fire has burned those in the following generations because it shone so brightly. But at the same time, there is no reason to regret this; the intent of this fire was hopeful. And the consequences of it are what they are. Regret wouldn’t be productive unless it is about the future and, perhaps for Adachi and I, the nature of our relationship is this cross-generational manner of approaching the discussion of the future.

On encounter Baudelaire’s description of his parents as being part of the 1968 generation, I was not only brought back to my original assumption that the artist was French, but also how there was a story waiting to be told about his own anabasis, especially given the connections now emerging between himself and May Schigenobu. Both were born away from one or two of their parents’ native land and both would return. At the same time, this reference to 1968 makes a more direct parallel with Masao Adachi, the filmmaker whose footsteps Baudelaire was following.

In his essay, Jean-Pierre Rehm lists six ways to interpret a scene on The Anabasis… in which a film crew in Beirut are captured from a distance. The options are that (i) it is the film in May’s mind, (ii) it is an adaptation of the book her mother wrote (I Decided to Give Birth to You Under an Apple Tree); (iii) it is a transposition of her activist mother’s planning and projecting a future world through her operations with the Red Army; (iv) it harks back to Masao Adachi’s real shoots in the same locations, now lost, but here recovered and then, as a result (v) a concrete connection between May (speaking the voice over) and Adachi (the filmmaker), making clear their personal relationship that has only been intimated in passing (“I raised May Shigenobu until she was ten years old”). Rhem’s sixth and final option takes us far away from what he dubs ‘all family matters’ and sees them as part of the film’s own internal discourse of images:

These shots of a shoot have a mirror effect, like others we encounter in the film: immense billboards filling the whole frame, cameras, etc. These shots testify to the difference between a kind of conquering display and the display that we are watching: two types of organisation, two modes of representation, two kinds of politics.

At that moment Rehm stops himself and interjects:

But maybe we’re jumping the gun. We might need to back up a little, to the late 1960s…

He proceeds to discuss ‘landscape-theory’ (fukeiron) and Adachi’s film AKA Serial Killer (1969). Turning back to Baudelaire’s A Chronology, we are told that this film opens with the voiceover of Adachi uttering the following words:

In the fall of 1968, four murders took place in four cities. In all four, the same gun was used. In the spring of 1969, a nineteen-year old boy was arrested. He became known as “serial killer”.

Taken together, Baudelaire’s reference to his parents as part of the 1968 generation and his work intimately grounded in a documentary technique that originated in recounting events of the same year, are both sides that make up this artist’s determined focus on the Anabasis theme. His generation can no longer be the fire-starters of 1968, whether in Paris or elsewhere. Cyrus is dead and we need to find out own way back to the future we now must make for ourselves. Of course, in activism today we still tend to jump the gun i.e. we get ahead of ourselves, push for rapid results, get lost, fail and wander. At the same time, the politics of an artist and filmmaker like Eric Baudelaire, through the stories he retells, the footage he re-shoots and the Classical text he re-imagines (Xenophon’s  Anabasis), offers a cross-generational manner of approaching the discussion of the future. In short, we must ask ourselves whether reading Anabases today we somehow find ourselves in the position of picking up a strange work with the title Ἀλεξάνδρου Ἀνάβασις composed by one Arrian of Nicomedia, a student of a new Socrates (Epictetus) and a self-professed new Xenophon. Or, better still, imagine someone here in Trump’s America, an artist in Salt Lake City, stumbling upon a book called Anabases  and being inspired to join the revolution.

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