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Sensory Worlds. Rosalind Nashashibi’s Proxemic Lens

Rosalind Nashashibi, Bachelor Machines Pt.1, 2007, 16mm, colour, sound, 30min, stills. Courtesy the artist and LUX, London
Curator and Afterall editor Nav Haq provides a panoramic account of Rosalind Nashashibi’s early practice. In her pieces from the beginning of the 2000s, the artist portrays individuals and their behaviour and interactions with other people or with objects in seemingly banal social and spatial settings. If Nashashibi’s aesthetics appears at first unspectacular, for Haq, its force lies in its capacity to capture and create reticulations between humans, non-humans and the various phenomena that surround them in a process of co-construction with the situations they are in, an approach that – following anthropologist Edward T. Hall – Haq characterises as ‘proxemic’.
Rosalind Nashashibi, Bachelor Machines Pt.1, 2007, 16mm, colour, sound, 30min, stills. Courtesy the artist and LUX, London

The artist, trained to be aware of the visual field, makes explicit the patterns governing his [sic] behavior. For this reason, the artist is not only a commentator on the larger values of the culture but on the microcultural events that go to make up larger values.01

Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension

Rosalind Nashashibi became renowned after receiving the Beck’s Futures Prize in 2003. In the immediate post-Young British Artists moment in London, and as the Glasgow scene flourished, her film works stood out as a different kind of image-making. The end of the 1990s through the 2000s mark the first decade of her practice, during which she laid the ground for her investigation into humans and their behaviour. Looking specifically at the first half of her period of practice until now, having reached what is typically described as ‘mid-career’, it is inaccurate, and even diminishing, to describe her works from this period as being ‘formative’ as they are some of her defining, standout works alongside recent examples such as Vivian’s Garden (2017) and Part One and Part Two (2019). Her films from this period portray a range of social and behavioural phenomena – our relation to space, perception, interaction and proximity between people, as well as forms of communication. Working with 16mm Bolex camera and video, Nashashibi approaches her subjects, human and non-human alike, through a certain lens. These technologies capture ambient noise, voices and samples indiscriminately through which we witness an uncanny world. What kind of lens is this?

The artist is also known for her collaborative work with Lucy Skaer, itself multifaceted and with its own characteristics. But this body of work represents a different tack in Nashashibi’s oeuvre, which requires its own appraisal. Instead, this essay looks to provide an overview, as well as interpret and analyse Nashashibi’s first decade of solo practice. Enticing for many, her film works are beguiling to others, particularly for those that perceive them purely formalistically, or are frustrated by the absence of narrative structure, or else, mistakenly see them as ethnographic. It is simply not that kind of film-making. The old mantra of cinema criticism – that the important part, the movement, is between the frames – finds a social translation here, as the real emphasis in the artist’s films is in the relations between individual and group, and individual and environment, and also between individual and power. It is perhaps to this ‘in-between’ that we should be directing our attention. The in-between that shapes the inner world of individual subjectivity and our experience of the outer world. In this regard, I would argue that Nashashibi’s films could be seen as studies in human ‘proxemics’, a field pioneered by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, which he defined at the very beginning of his book The Hidden Dimension:

Proxemics is the term I have coined for the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.02

Looking at the structures of experience between individuals and in relation to their environment, proxemics considers how these factors shape reality and our perception of it. There are, according to Hall, ‘hidden’ phenomenological and linguistic relations that are rooted in cultural specificity, based on which, he contends, ‘[…] people from different cultures not only speak different languages but, what is possibly more important, inhabit different sensory worlds’. 03 This understanding of culture seems particularly pertinent to revisit, as some of the core issues society faces today – such as its polarisation into different identity constituencies and thus different sensory worlds, divergent perceptions on the subjects of migration, freedom of expression and nationalism – have supposedly provoked the so-called ‘culture wars’. From this perspective, ‘culture’ has the potential of becoming divisive and dangerous. 04

Despite some of its limitations and the criticism levelled at his work – a static conception of ‘culture’ aligned with positivist notions of national identity – Hall nevertheless offered a significant new contribution to cultural anthropology for reflecting on social, behavioural and perceptual patterns, that should rather be utilised to discuss cultural complexity, affect and transformation. His analyses also consider proxemics as a factor in conditions for the production of artistic work. The work of artists was analysed by Hall for considering the environmental and cultural specificities that lead to particular aesthetic practice within given regional contexts. For example, according to Hall, in the case of the Aivilik Inuit people, their art was a product of the perceptual possibilities afforded by life in the arctic where there is often no horizon to distinguish earth from sky. 05 Yet conversely, contemporary artists themselves investigate environmental and behavioural conditions within their practice. One could hypothesise that over time, contemporary art has also developed its own aesthetic proxemics. We might, for example, think about historical movements such as ‘institutional critique’ that sought to elucidate the position of art and artists in the context of institutional power relations or Euro-centricity. We may additionally consider such ideas as writer André Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire (1947, translated to English as The Museum Without Walls) as another kind of perceptual proxemics, which describes an inherently modernist model to rethink the museum as an influx and juxtaposition of images leading to new associations between works of art. To some extent, these ideas have been integrated by institutions and artists, structuring both our experience of art and exhibitions and shaping the interpretation of works and their narratives. But with artists having increasingly looked at the inter-human and inter-cultural sphere, as well as their spatial dynamics, one can observe a shift or a different sensibility towards a clear interest in social engagement and in how affect traverses the social. In this regard, the intelligence of this art lies in its ability to observe subjects whilst transcending ideological patronage.

Nashashibi’s film works adopt a philosophical lens and establish sets of relationships through which the artist performs the observation of the habitat and behaviour of particular groups, some long-existing and some temporary, including their interactions and their forms of communication. From early stages in her career, her interest in the pre-verbal as well as the non-verbal is noticeable – marked often by the absence of oral language, and rather by gaze, gesture, intent and voice. For Nashashibi, the practice of art seems to be a pre- and non-verbal form of communication – a paralanguage structured by pictorial, spatial and gestalt consciousness. Yet these works are not about the artist’s introspection, and it is in no way necessary to read the works in this way. (Though they consistently demand from the viewer the answer to the question of how to view them.) The gaze of her films unfolds through the lens as a medium of study. Spaces are ‘captured’ within specific cultural settings along the lines of specimens or reports and yet, simultaneously, they portray intimate relationalities. The seemingly mundane situations depicted draw us towards the proxemics of particular groups and their spaces, from family households and suburban neighbourhoods to public arena spaces and sites of labour.

The State of Things (2000) is an early example of when the artist started to adopt what I call her proxemic lens. We watch a Salvation Army jumble sale filmed in Glasgow in grainy black and white footage. In an unadorned environment – utilitarian and for leisurely activities – for a particular demographic, that of local working class families and individuals, people from the community ply through the mass of second-hand clothing – fungible goods traded for low costs – and elderly volunteers man the stalls. It is a municipal community space, and people, focussing on finding suitable items, keep in close and vying proximity. We note also that non-verbal communication passes through clothing; in this sense, we witness a situation in which registers of communication expand between social actors. The audio track adds another layer to the film, which initially sits at odds with the imagery. It is in fact the classic 1926 love song ‘Ana Hali Fi Hawaha Agab’ by the Egyptian songstress Umm Kulthum. This element that comes from a foreign place brings an important characteristic. It demonstrates Nashashibi’s approach of seeing reality as something that is relative, and thus ultimately mutable. By juxtaposing an external sonic dimension rather than recording sound on site, she creates an alternative sense of place and estranges its nature.

Rosalind Nashashibi, Midwest, 2002, 16mm, colour, sound, 12min, stills. Courtesy the artist and LUX, London


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