Drawing together footage, photographs and texts from archival sources as well as the artist’s personal collection of materials, Yto Barrada’s new film is as much a poetic enigma as it is a portrait of identity. Ether Reveries (Suite for Thérèse Rivière no.2) takes as its starting point the work and life of Thérèse Rivière (1901–1970), a French anthropologist whose remarkable working life was cut short following her confinement in psychiatric institutions.
(2017, 16mm transferred to video)
Hallucinating the City and the Self
“A montage,” said filmmaker Harun Farocki, “must hold together with invisible forces the things that would otherwise become muddled.” As a filmmaker, writer, activist, and teacher dedicated to exposing media habits and its effect on everyday lives, Farocki was especially conscious of montage as a route to narrative seduction or, in other words, the ways in which moving images might be a coercive force stronger than the “muddled” subjects depicted. The “invisible forces” Farocki speaks of are the editor’s primary tools: the cut, sequencing and pacing or, rather, the tools of omission. It is omission that gives meaning and structure to shots, counter-shots, and reactions. And it is the orchestration of omission that gives a film its character, identity, and power.
Most often used by filmmakers to indicate the passage of time, montage seeks to reduce complex actions into a single (and often symbolic) meaning: the sporting montage shows a subject swiftly training to triumph, for example, while a war montage might aggregate moments of individualized suffering and death to depict the pain of a nation. But the use of montage for the representation of dreams presents a number of paradoxes, not least that dreams already have the capacity to disregard sensible, linear time. And so the idea of cutting or sequencing chronologies must therefore follow a different logic. Dreams, after all, are about the surfacing of fantasy, not omitting them from view.
It is this contradictory form of the dream montage that Yto Barrada’s new film Ether Reveries (Suite for Thérèse Rivière no.2) inhabits. Drawing together an array of film footage from the artist’s hometown of Tangier (a city Barrada focused on in her 2013 Walker exhibition, and the home of Cinema Rif), Barrada subjects her images to unlikely close-ups, reversals, accelerations, and loops that refuse the naturalism and distance of documentary. Plants, dyed baby chicks, snails, and pairs of jeans are transformed from objects of commodity to forms of equivalence and abstraction. Slowed down or sped up, the film gathers passing moments into a surrealist grammar that owes less to the style of documentary than it does that of a film like René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924).
To dream of Tangier is nothing new. The city and indeed Morocco has been subjected to an entire genre of hypermasculine Western literature that has sought to project its fantasies and morals (or lack of them) upon this site. Acutely aware of such desires, there is a certain wryness in the fantasy Barrada applies to her own depiction of Tangier. The artist has described the quality of camera moving around the marketplace as a kind of “scavenger hunt,” not necessarily in relation to the objects on sale, but rather for images that depict social transactions. Her roaming lens recalls the simplicity of Farocki’s early 16mm film The Taste of Life (1979), wherein Farocki spent two and a half weeks wandering the Berlin streets with his camera, collecting images that he recalls as capturing “everyday life just as it is perceived through a glance from the street.”
But just as Farocki was attentive to the systems of social engagement that allowed to arise within the economic and spatial conditions of the city street, so too the appearance of the amateur or the casual street shot is something to be regarded with caution within Barrada’s film. Captured on 16mm and Super-8 film, her scenes evoke the grainy nostalgia of the home movie, but these are not casual glances of a city market in full swing. Rather, they are documentation of the artist’s own elaborate reconstruction of the historic 20th-century Grand Socco flower market. (The market square where the flower market originally took place was turned into a car park and, in a redoubling fitting to Barrada’s film has, more recently, been returned to a garden square). The artifice of Barrada’s editorial montage is thus buttressed by the artifice of the very scenarios depicted. And while exotic dream space is constantly undermined by the artist’s tongue-in-cheek and occasionally slapstick humor in the editing room, the film is also girded by a more complex relationship to techniques of observation and the associated violences of projection—namely, the person to whom this dream attaches: Thérèse Rivière.
Thérèse Rivière’s name appears twice within Barrada’s title: firstly, concealed as an anagram that references the 19th-century anesthetic and dreamy recreational properties of diethyl ether; and, secondly, as someone to whom this silent film (which is, in turn, described musically as a “suite”) is dedicated. Born in Paris, Rivière (1901–1970) studied under renowned sociologist and structural anthropologist Marcel Mauss at the Institute of Ethnology, where she went on forge an exceptional professional career in a male-dominated field. She spent much of her working life assisting her elder brother Georges-Henri Rivière, the director of the Museum of Ethnography, and later turned her specialism to working as a field ethnographer in North Africa. Her extensive notes, photographs, and drawings, as well as L’Aurès (1934)—a film made in collaboration with her female colleague, Germaine Tillion—traced the use of local tools, agricultural customs, children’s games, and witchcraft in the region. Her professional life was, however, cut short. During the development of an exhibition of her research at the the Musée de L’Homme, Rivière was sent to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. From there, she was continually confined to a series of psychiatric intuitions, and remained interned until her death at the age of 68.
It is Rivière’s life and her huge collection of materials—one that straddles both scientific and autobiographical knowledges—that has been of key interest to Yto Barrada in recent years. Unreliable narrators have been a common theme throughout Barrada’s work, and through its montage, staged casualness, and in titular character, too, Ether Reveries is no exception. Surmising a possible love affair between Rivière and Tillion in her own research of the former’s journals and letters, Barrada notes the cruel doubling of tragedies in Rivière’s biography: an agent of a national civilizing institution sent out to document otherness who returns home only to be subjected to and imprisoned by another type of civilizing institution herself. Barrada’s project—of which the film’s title indicates that this is the second installment—questions the role of the individual within the institution, a site where the personal and the professional mask one another. So, too, it points to the omissions within the history of those who developed anthropology, and its murky relationship to mental health, gender, criminalization, and sexuality.
Despite the extensive and rich records that inform this film, Barrada turns away from the format of the archival document and the anthropological record and instead moves towards something closer to the space of freedom—one which seeks out the quality of rebus, rather than portrait. In its dream-like inversions of Tangier’s cityscapes and interiors, Ether Reveries is conscious that the process of documenting sites always participates in a history of violence. No camera is neutral, no document is a mere description. And with its hallucinatory montage, Ether Reveries explicitly seeks to operate outside of the logic of neutrality. While has Barrada acknowledged her own identification with Rivière (in early notes on the film, she wrote of her subject “elle – moi, moi – elle.”), the artist ventured that the film in fact pose the question: “When can one afford to be oneself?”