Answerability - A few thoughts about the practice of Knutte Wester in the light of Mikhail Bakhtin
‘ANSWERABILITY’ IS A TERM coined 1919, in a short essay by Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literature theorist; with it he announces the relation b
etween a literary form and the world external to the context of literature itself. In other words, it is an attempt to put the relation between art and responsibility into theory. Answerability is a part of his larger ethical concept of dialogism, through which he acknowledges the possibilities of our relationship to others. Although mainly addressed to the field of literature, his writings are a courageous and largely philosophical inquiry of the positioning of oneself towards others. Bakhtin writes:
“But what guarantees the inner connection of the constituent elements of the person? Only the unity of answerability. I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life. But answerability entails guilt, or liability to blame. It is not only mutual answerability that art and life must assume, but also mutual liability to blame. The poet must remember that it is his poetry which bears the guilt for the vulgar prose of life, whereas the man of everyday life ought to know that the fruitfulness of art is due to his willingness to be unexacting and to the seriousness of the concerns in his life. The individual must become answerable through and through: all of his constituent moments must not only fit next to each other in the temporal sequence of his life, but must also interpenetrate each other in the unity of guilt and answerability.”
I AM TURNING TO BAKHTIN and the ‘unity of answerability’ at the time of understanding engagement through art, as direct and confrontational political action. These are also times in which cultural policies across Europe demand and control desirable forms of engagement. Neither of them being effective or long-standing. We can clearly observe the tension between the conflicting nature of political disagreement and the pragmatics of political acts, between empirical discontent and the representation of it.
KNUTTE WESTER has taken on an extremely chal- lenging field for his practice, as it opens up uncomfortable questions: How can one be compassionate and insightful? How can we be truthful to ourselves and the art form? How can it be presented and distributed through the means of the circulation of art? How are we to be compassionate in times of antagonistic rhetoric? Although Wester focuses on individual stories rather than observing the mechanisms which caused them, it is clear that he, at all times, bears in mind that we no longer can tick the boxes of our affilia- tions of being in the field of art, or being with people, or having another type of profession, mode of conduct and methodology of acting. We are living in the times of tres- passing such boundaries.
IT SEEMS THAT a decisive moment in Wester’s practice was a year he spent in, what for a ‘legal citizen’ ii are unusual circumstances, at a refugee camp in Boliden, in northern Sweden. There, he set up his studio and worked creatively together with the asylum seekers. Such a camp offers not only a temporary living condition for the ‘illegal’ in a controlled environment; they offer a promise of the pos- sibilities of political and physical safety, and a better future. All while the inhabitants learn of their new prospective reality, the language and the values, as if their stay is guaranteed. This is where Wester was running workshops with newcomers of all ages, from different countries. It was more than what the artist today refers to as a ‘naive project’, rather it was a deep, transformative experience in the everyday life they shared temporarily, which has become so defining for Wester’s practice.
AMONG THE PEOPLE he has worked with, there was one who was special. A young boy, Gzim, now a teenager. He lives in Kosovo, but spent a significant part of his early life in the refugee camps in Norway and Sweden. His family, the survivors of massacres, failed to get a permanent asylum in several countries, with Sweden being their last try. Rejected, they tried escaping but were caught and eventually deported. It is hard to say where Gzim belongs, as he speaks a mixture of the languages he encountered in his youth. What would give him a sense of belonging and security? In the earliest footage from Boliden, we see the little Gzim playing the drums, singing, skating, filming, and playing hockey. During Wester’s visits to the Dervishi family back in Kosovo, Knutte and Gzim someti- mes manage to revive the spirit of their creative companion- ship. They were once close friends, but their bonds have been torn by distance, time and lost hopes. In the movie ‘Gzim Rewind’, Gzim’s story is told in backward intervals, revea- ling how the hopes, stamina, creativity and prospects of the boy have fallen short by all the unfair circumstances. Wester focuses on the loss. Not only the loss of safety and prospect of a Swedish citizenship, but Gzim losing his hope and joy, and both friends losing the bond between them, being parted by time, space and immigration policy.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT in their encounters is that it is not only Knutte who is filming; Gzim too is holding the camera, filming Knutte and the other members of the Der- vishi family. The artist and the societal outcasts he embraces, use different techniques in their shared creative practice. As I go through Wester’s films, in which Gzim has also contri- buted in filming, and look at the drawings and sculptures, I recall the times he spent at the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk, where he worked together with children and their single mothers from a homeless shelter. I remember the animations they made together. Wester always treats children as equal partners in the creative process, showing them new techniques. Like many of the artists today, he orchestrates a dialogue, encourages collaboration and operates by shifting between visual arts and film-making. However, since I met Knutte Wester in Umeå years ago, my thoughts on him have centred on certain themes. What is highly interesting is that he is not only using his medium of documentary video, but also combines it with other art forms, such as sculpture and drawing. Instead of the expected unearthing components, provided by research practice, he rather focuses on the truth of the story and on how a story can be told in a variety of mediums. In his films, besides the actual docu- mentary footage, Wester uses both drawings and animations. They resemble storyboards, but instead of being sketches for future film frames; they are notations of scenes which the camera did not dare to capture, or depictions of the artist’s own memories.
WESTER’S FILMS are not pure documentaries. It is as if the documentary format is not fully capable of carrying the layers of emotions and unexpressed pains which must be expelled from, or are unfitting to, the documentary itself. Here, the crossing of such a form brings us much closer to what the people in the film never express out loud. There is a hesitance about what can be filmed, and what can only be drawn or sculpted. With sculptures, drawings and animations, Wester seems to offer us a return to the aesthetic regime. He returns to the pictorial, as if regaining a belief in the pragmatic impact of the artistic representation. The despair of Gzim and the powerlessness in Knutte is over- whelming. Still, Wester is not seeking direct action, at least not on screen, but he is reclaiming the siding of art with those whose voices are usually not heard in artistic circula- tion, and he does so by creating something together with them. And so, he is bringing back questions of with whom the artist should be sided, why and how it can be conducted.
KNUTTE WESTER has created strong osmotic dilution between his life and his art, in which being answerable is playing a key role. As Bakhtin stated “Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself – in the unity of my answerablity”iii. In other words, he is trying to realize our capability to actualize ourselves in relation to other human beings.
Gdansk, August 2013