Rachel Garfield is an artist whose work often deals with disjunctions of narrative to explore the idea of the incoherent subject and the formation of subjectivity. Although primarily her work would be regarded as video-based fine art shown in gallery contexts, the work has an ongoing relationship with the traditions and concerns of avant garde documentary film.

In addition to her art practice, Rachel Garfield’s published writing typically explores the positioning of artists, processes of exclusion, heirarchies of victimhood, documentary practices and the politics of the subject, the encounter and the look; indeterminacy in the visual field often through the example of Diasporic communites; Landscape painting and the formation of Englishness in the 20th Century; Research Methodology in practice led PhD in Fine Art.

The following text was published in the catalogue for the touring Arts Council Funded exhibition by the University of Hertfordshire Press, The Undecidability of Difference: The Work of Rachel Garfield, Amelia Jones, Rachel Garfield catalogue touring show, UH Press, 2005, pp. 19-34, ISBN:190531310 1
The Undecidability of Difference: The Work of Rachel Garfield

… who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never identical, never exactly in the same place. Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation…. Of course the ‘I’ who writes here must also be thought of as, itself, ‘enunciated.’ We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always “in context”, positioned. Stuart Hall, 1990

Rachel Garfield’s photographic and video installation works interrogate the vicissitudes of diasporic identities – those hybrid identifications through which the subjects of rapidly shifting global cultures are positioned in the world. This is an understanding of identities as part of what Stuart Hall, in his influential 1990 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” cited above, called the “production” that is “never complete” and that is “constituted within… representation”. This project in itself is no small accomplishment given that these shifting cultures characterize profoundly new ways of conceptualizing the existence of humans on this beleaguered planet. In fact, one could argue that it is the most important project anyone producing representations could take on at this moment and place in time (early twenty-first century Britain, itself a node in the diasporic web of networked first world cultures conditioned by the complexities of the postcolonial situation). Following Hall’s observations, which brilliantly pinpoint the absolutely central role of culture – and representation in particular – in constituting identities-in-process, far from assuming a direct or simple relationship between what we think we perceive and what we think we know about people, Garfield’s works interrogate the structures and effects of representation. The faces and stories that emerge on screen or in the images are never presented “factually” – never simply “made visible” or “given a voice” as earlier work driven by identity politics might have tended to attempt to do. Rather, the faces and stories are themselves rendered as opaque. The subjects in fact perform their own radical undecidability – their co-dependence on the desires and beliefs of those who engage them within or as viewers of the work. As Hall concludes later on in his essay, “[c]ultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning.” Garfield’s work, I would like to suggest, offers just the kind of thoughtful exploration of this positioning (the kind that Hall argues is effected by the Black cinema) – an exploration that involves encouraging viewers “to see and recognize the different parts and histories of ourselves, to construct those points of identification, those positionalities we call in retrospect our ‘cultural identities’.” In order to achieve this Garfield engages extensively and deeply with the stereotype, as well as with the complexities of how visibility – or what we “think we see” (as Garfield might put it) affects our assumptions about who someone “is”. It is, in fact, the “is” that is never allowed to congeal. There is no present tense of identity that secures how the person is socially positioned in the always imminent future.

Stereotypes: You’re Joking

Stereotyping is not the setting up of a false image which becomes the scapegoat of discriminatory practices. It is a much more ambivalent text of projection and introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity… Homi Bhabha, 1990
In 1986 Adrian Piper, a self-identified African-American woman artist, produced a “calling card,” which she would hand out to white people in social settings who had made offensive racist comments not realizing Piper identifies herself as black. The card reads, in part, “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark….I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.” Through the act of handing out Calling Card, Piper puts into play an exchange in which the determination of identity is both assumed to be fixed (she does not question what “black” means and claims the label unquestioningly, for example) and yet simultaneously rendered reciprocal. As an artistic act, the piece interpellates the racist “spectator” as being complicit in the assignation of racial identity (one assumes reinforcing negative stereotypes about black people). At the same time, Piper acknowledges that the behavior of the racist person has affected her, causing her discomfort (and perhaps, by extension, conditioning what she experiences as her blackness – thus contradicting her own assumption that this blackness is self-contained). Calling Card is a piece of epochal importance in that it draws on the simple tools of conceptual art (with the “serious” and “masculine” pedigree attached to this quintessentially white Euro-American artworld phenomenon) to enact a crucial point about both artistic meaning and identity – both of which rest on profoundly reciprocal exchanges of value. All the same, Piper, I would argue, fails to see that her claiming of “black” is contradictory to her insistence that racial identity (at least its social meanings and values) is determined through processes of intersubjective exchange (including institutionalized forms of discrimination or privilege). Calling Card, like much of her work in the 1970s and 1980s, both rests on and resists the fact that value and identity are reciprocal; the piece begins from an assumption that Piper’s blackness is a stable and self-evident (if invisible) quality. I dwell on this work because it crystallizes some of the central issues interrogated by Rachel Garfield in her various projects. Garfield, benefiting of course from historic work on race and gender from the 1970s and 1980s by artists such as Piper, refuses to take identity or for that matter representation at face value. Rather than, as Piper does, combating the racial stereotype as a “false” representation – in a dynamic Homi Bhabha claims is based on a misconception of how stereotypes actually function – Garfield explores racial identity as, first, deeply implicated in sexual and gendered identity as well as the class and cultural specificity of the social spaces occupied by the subjects in question; and, second, as profoundly unstable and reliant on complex exchanges of meaning and value based as often as not on misreadings of the codes “intended” to be conveyed by the subject. In You’re Joking, for example, we see on different monitors, each provided with headphones, a black man in different spaces, with different clothing, telling stories about racial encounters. One story, reminiscent of the famous tale rendered by Frantz Fanon in his Black Skin White Masks, wherein he finds himself profoundly othered by a white girl’s public comments to the effect that he (as a black man) is frightening her, involves a lengthy rendition of the black man’s encounter with a child who calls him “nigger,” which he tells while standing in a kitchen. Another, with the man alternately seated in an easy chair and standing, retells an engagement with a Portuguese woman, who, in conspiratorial fashion, notes to him that the dilemma of Africa (presumably the extensive poverty and unrest associated with the myriad nations of the continent) is due to the fault of the Jews. A third vignette shows the same man in a sporty jacket in front of a red wall, describing seeing an “Eastern European beggar” in London and being accosted by a black woman who shares her thought that the gypsies should be “sent back” to where they came from, since they are the source of all current troubles. He notes to the camera, wryly, that these would have been the same kinds of comments made regarding her parents when they arrived in Britain. In each case, as with Piper’s Calling Card, viewers of the piece are sutured into a reciprocal relationship of identity formation – the man speaks to us, facing the camera, sometimes in blurry close-up (just as he would look if we were standing a bit too close in front of him), at other times as a proper “talking head,” positioned about 6 feet from the camera. As he tells us these stories, we are either drawn in or repelled by the various racialised bodies he describes; we are acutely aware of our relationship to his racialised body (a body racialised, it must be stressed, in the context of the mainstream artworld, where black bodies are still marked in their difference from the norm). To return to Bhabha’s insights, Garfield delivers us stereotypes in the process of their formation via their narrative reiteration, positioning us within the very matrix through which they would conventionally come to gel and have social power. But due to the abrupt editing from close-up to distanced view, the combination of stories (which render different kinds of racialised bodies through verbal constructions), and our position as it were in between the three different stories/sets of stereotypes we cannot view the stereotypes as fixed (as Piper’s piece tends to emcourage). Here, rather, we are ourselves displaced within the uncertainty unleashed by the friction between or within the visual and verbal registers. We are potentially made aware both of our own participation in the formation of stereotypes and of our own undecidability as we, too, seek continually to produce a viable “positive” image of ourselves in relation to those we encounter.

Are You White or Black? So You Think You Can Tell?

Depending on the context, Jews (assuming we know what a “Jew” is) are perceived as white or as “ethnic.” I grew up in the American South and there were only two kinds of ethnicity in the Southern imaginary – white or black. Although the two Jewish kids at my state-funded school were hauled out every December to give presentations on Hannukah they were for all intents and purposes viewed as identical to the non-Jewish white kids. Once I moved to the Northeast, however, Jewishness began to emerge in my consciousness as a separate cultural identity with its own ethnic specificity and own (and recently tragic) history. Working from a British context, Garfield explicitly opens out the undecidability of Jewish and black ethnic identity, incisively exploring their interdependence and yet the ways in which they occupy potentially different (if not in some cases oppositional) cultural and social and psychological spaces as well. The most important piece of hers in this regard is So You Think you Can Tell? (2000), a two channel video work posing two women, and their two seemingly diametrically opposed stories, in relation to each other. One woman, black with a middle class London accent, her entire head and torso visible, explains her attachment to “whiteness” to Garfield, whose voice is audible interviewing the woman. The other woman, her face severely cropped so that all we see is her mouth and nose, appears to be white and describes her position, as a lapsed Orthodox Jew (her father is a conservative, or ultra orthodox rabbi) with a black male partner, within the black community. For the woman who appears to be black (one must describe her this way because it’s precisely the effect of this piece to throw into question our assumptions that appearance guarantees identification), her background being raised by a white middle class English family leads her to position herself within the Jewish community, which embraces her. Admitting that she always wanted to marry someone white because “That’s where I belong,” the woman, who admits that she was anti-religious until embracing Judaism, performs herself within communities that are at odds with her apparent “visible” identity. At the same time, the white woman (abstracted as a pair of lips and a nose) articulates herself within the black community against the grain of her whiteness and deeply experienced cultural Jewishness. So you think you can tell? Garfield’s question is not rhetorical but gets at the deepest levels of how we tend to identify those around us. By creating a dialogue between the two women as they articulate how they experience themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, cultural, social, and gendered identity, Garfield catches up the viewer/listener as a participant in this dialectic of identities. Articulating themselves in ways that are completely at odds with what we would tend to expect, these women begin to confound our own positionality. As we listen to each describe her upbringing and subsequent choices we realize either how entrenched or how precarious is our own navigation of the codes of identity inculcated in us or offered by new communities with which we might engage. We have a choice in the microcosmic world that Garfield offers us in the installation: either entrench ourselves further by re-fixing each woman, and thus correlatively re-establishing our own stasis in relation to who we decide they “really” are; or embrace the radical uncertainty the disjunction between their appearance and self-narration opens up.

Finding Myself through You?: What Am I To You?

If Garfield opens out the functioning of the stereotype, making us acutely aware of how we attempt to re-fix identities that are unknown or confusing by fitting them back into recognizable categories, she also specifically interrogates the ugly vicissitudes of European anti-semitism. Using her own navigation of social space as a Jew who is culturally British, in her photographic project What Am I to You? (2000 and following) Garfield poses her body coyly before the camera, juxtaposing her friendly or flirtatious availability with cutting narratives of the offensive encounters she has experienced in various public venues across Europe. In one image from the project, Garfield poses in front of a mural , her face friendly and open, with the following disturbing narrative juxtaposed beneath:
There I was in a bar in Bremmerhaven, having a drink with the ‘Sparks’ from the site. Twelve hours painting murals and you need a drink. A man came up to me – middle aged and nondescript. “Where are you from?”, he asked, “London”, I responded. “Oh no you’re not!” I looked at him quizzically, “Yes I am!” He then looked around at my drinking companions, made himself tall and boomed out, smirking, “A few years ago we would have gassed you.” Germany 1992
There is no way to engage with this image/text combination comfortably. There might be a viewer who could embrace the racist sentiments of the man in the bar; but after Hitler, most would know better or at least wouldn’t publickly admit to sharing his views. At the very least, the overt expression of such blatantly anti-Semitic views, and their alignment with the Holocaust, would force this person’s racism to the surface. At the same time, the piece is hardly only about exposing racism in a direct way. It also deliberately courts the perennial victimology that contemporary Jews take on willingly and/or are forced to bear as signs of their beleaguered social and political identity in the post-Hitlerian era – as the sign of their brutal persecution as a people in the Holocaust. The Jew, Garfield points out (using her own “presence” in the image) is both desired and feared in the European imaginary. How to negotiate the precarious ground between the image/experience of Jew as victim and the image/experience of the Jew as all-powerful Zionist that haunts the fantasy world of the anti-Semite? Garfield tackles this thorny and precarious ground through reiterations of others’ views of her Jewishness, each one of which both expresses an obvious stereotype (one black man is quoted underneath one of the photographs as having said “Oooh I do love Jewish women…. They’re soooo good in bed…”) and yet slightly contradicts the others. In this way the contradictory nature of the stereotype (the Jew as both impecunious and money-grubbing, for example, or as both hyper-sexed and effeminately nonsexual) is completely exposed, and the meaning of Jewishness is shown to reside precariously in a state of indeterminacy. Jewishness hovers between the projections that have sought to fix and annihilate the power imagined to reside in the bodies that are perceived to perform or inhabit it, and the internalized experiences of those who identify as Jewish. It is what Benedict Anderson noted to be an “imagined community” – one constituted ideologically and phantasmagorically rather than through literal territory and institutions (though of course it overlaps with the latter through the state of Israel, which is not to be conflated with Jewishness tout court). Ultimately, Who Am I to You? points to the way in which each of us experiences our own identity as deeply conditioned by the projections of those around us. We can never fully erase the effects of these projections but perhaps through raising our consciousness about how they function we can avoid internalizing them. Not only raising our consciousness through didactic example (the text image format is clear in its exhortations), Garfield’s project strategically throws the projections back out at those engaging with her image and the narratives that accompany it. Whether we share the opinions cited in the narratives or disavow them, we must look Garfield’s image in the face as we position ourselves in relation to the stereotype and the face and body that prompted its projection. The visibility of the stereotyped body in relation to the spoken racist comment (like the visibility and physical presence of Piper as she hands out her Calling Cards) at the very least makes us aware of the vast discrepancy between “seeing” and “knowing” – a discrepancy that, Garfield’s project makes clear, can never be fully resolved. The gift that Garfield gives us through her work is to point to the potential of embracing rather than disavowing the impossibility of knowing what we see. In the current world of globalised late capitalism – simultaneously brought together through increasingly rapid circuits of information, money, and travel and explosively ripped apart by intra- as well as inter- national violence based on identifications-gone-awry – nothing could be more important.


Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 392-401 ( originally published in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990). Hall, 395. Hall, 402. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism,” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 85. Piper has mixed ethnic roots, including a Hindu grandmother and African and Anglo ancestors, but generally positions herself, and is positioned by the artworld, as simply African-American – a positioning that points precisely to the way in which the process of identification is ongoing and relatively arbitrary, informed by political and personal pressures at that time and place. Maurice Berger tries to draw Piper out on this internal contradiction in his interview…. Extending from the quotation at the head of this section, Bhabha argues that the stereotype is not simply a false reprsentation of some “true” indigenous culture but, rather, is based on a complex circuit of interpretations exchanged between colonizer and colonized that is ultimately productive of a subordinated colonized population. Bhabha, “The Other Question,” 86. The version I saw was incomplete, and had three components; the final version will include these and two additional vignettes. This blaming of “the Jews” is particularly ironic in this case since it was, in fact, the Portuguese who first colonized the West coast of Africa in the 16th century. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991). See also Carol Zemel’s powerful discussion of European Jewish identity in her essay “Imagining the Shtetl: diaspora culture, photography and eastern European Jews,” in Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 193-206.