Anne Charlotte Robertson at Squeaky Wheel

by Bernie Roddy

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At the end of Anne Charlotte Robertson's residency at Squeaky Wheel, conducted between November 16 and 28, 2001, she screened a diary tape produced in the course of her stay. In Artist's Residency, running approximately 30 minutes, Robertson speaks into the camera and reviews the circumstances of her visit to Buffalo. The experience of this tape in the context of a residency screening achieved the effect of a hoax or mistake, a residency gone wrong, an abuse of artistic resources for a kind of medical relief. She learns the use of the digital camera, remarks on her hotel accommodations, and documents an exchange of applauses she requests from the staff and produces for the screening audience. There is no sense of a creative mediation between artist and audience. Robertson's presence is palpable, and her address to us in the audience virtually indistinguishable from one she might make in person.

In the tape she returns to the themes of vegetarianism, food, God, and her own sexual desirability examined in the course of her electronic diary, Five Year Diary, reports of continual physical pain, relates her hopes and dreams for finding love during the residency, and shares what she calls the two fantasies of filmmakers. These are a departure from a fantasy recorded over ten years earlier in her diary in which her “true love” is found and discovered to have made a diary that synchronizes with her own. She relates these new fantasies in video this time, a medium unfamiliar to her. With the camera directed at her speaking face, she requests us to attend to for the thoughts that might cross it rather than the beauty missing from it. In the first, she says, she wakes up and the camera is alive, with its own needs and desires. The longing she has often expressed in the earlier diary material for becoming a wife and mother is here gratified through a transformation of the recording apparatus itself, but it is a fantasy with all the qualities of a child-rearing nightmare. In the second, she is on a beautiful cliff with rolling hills and singing sheep behind her. She contemplates these, camera in hand, and proceeds to throw the camera to the rocks below. In the context of a dozen years of autobiographical recording, struggling with mental illness and the psychiatric establishment, this represents a drop in her usual pretense to hope, an abandonment of an hitherto unshaken faith in the prospect of rescue.

What this suggests is a shift in the relation Robertson has with the camera, one parallel to that which psychoanalytic technique underwent subsequent to Sandor Ferenczi's challenges to the Freudian reliance on transference. Transference for Freud's followers names the method by which the patient responds to the analyst in ways appropriate to past figures of the patient's life. The emotional force of the response is not explained by the analyst's behavior. Such transference provides the analyst the opportunity to guide the patient back into emotional circumstances ripe for analysis. Ferenczi was a close friend of Freud's and a highly regarded contributor to the psychoanalytic theory. In his last years he began to advocate consolation during analysis, dropping the guise of insight in favor of motherly expressions of love.

These developments in psychoanalytic technique suggest a corresponding shift in video spectatorship where the diaristic urge is evident. If one teaches video production to children, one will be struck by the constant urge, even in small children, to approach the lens and look into it, without any anticipation of what the visual record will be like. The camera seems to draw out infantile identifications with some imaginary audience or camera operator. But it also raises the camera subject's capacity to sense the spectator's desires. For Ferenczi there is a sensitivity and responsiveness on the part of the victim of a childhood rape that is directed at an original seducer during analysis and bears the qualities of an anxiety-ridden clairvoyance. The object of free association is no longer any sort of benefits to the speaker's health.

All of Robertson's electronic diaries have her speaking for the adult world to the world of children. It is as if she regresses to the creative equivalent of the oral stage, that at which bare recording has a nourishing or comforting effect and at which reiterating the objectives she falls short of brings a sense of, however limited, of well-being. This is particularly evident in her residency tape, where she has regressed to a fixation on this first experience with recording equipment. The equivalent of the genital stage for the filmmaker would be narrative film production. Robertson's tape, by contrast, has the transparent purpose of serving as a personals ad, putting on display the degree to which her life falls short of what, she seems to suggest, everyone has a right to enjoy, in the hope of drawing the benevolent attention of a greater power. Her resignation at having been handed this fate is rehearsed again and again in the form of various mystical and fore-ordained outcomes. She reviews Chinese fortune cookie, for example, in the context of settling for more food in place of sex. Thus, Robertson depends upon the bathos of her life to obtain whatever satisfaction she obtains from others. The whinny, drugged quality of her voice throughout her diary work continually reminds us of the suckling she receives from the camera. Much of her Super 8 material had accumulated for years before she processed it, again suggesting that the camera itself, rather than the record it inscribes, is what brings satisfaction. The editing impulse is very weak in her. And the lessons she fails to implement (to practice vegetarianism, for example, or to stop smoking) serve as strategies for returning her to this period of teething. Her residency video, Artist's Residency, places great pressure on viewers to adopt an attitude of compassion, but the level of calculation she reaches undermines its effectiveness.