Benjamin Tiven: A Third Version of the Imaginary

In Swahili, the voiceover tells us, no “naturally occurring” word actually exists for “image.” “Kuchora,” it says, means drawing, and “picha,” picture; “sinema,” cinema and video just that. But interestingly “image” in Swahili is a foreigner’s concept. An “image” cannot exist on its own, without something attached to it. What does it mean to make an image in a language that lacks a word for one? How then do we archive, remember, and hold onto images? How are images manufactured and who is manufacturing them if their very definition eludes us?

Benjamin Tiven, Diptych: Daniel Arap Moi at a Public Presentation, Unknown Date, 2013, Inkjet prints; 20 x 25 inches, each Courtesy of the artist

Benjamin Tiven, Diptych: Daniel Arap Moi at a Public Presentation, Unknown Date, 2013, Inkjet prints; 20 x 25 inches, each
Courtesy of the artist

Such are the concerns of the Swahili voiceover in Benjamin Tiven’s remarkable short film “A Third Version of the Imaginary” (2012) recently on view at the Bemis Center for the Arts. In some sense, very little happens over the course of the film. It opens in black with the voiceover in Swahili that continues throughout. For most of the film, while the voiceover ponders the image, we watch the station librarian of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation searching for footage in the library’s cramped archives. He appears determined, but also un-rushed and somewhat resigned. The fixed camera never follows the librarian, but simply waits for him as he wanders the aisles of the library, entering in and out of the frame. While looking through the archives his expression is one of both calm and skepticism, almost a quiet awareness of the futility of his actions. The wall text accompanying the film only reiterates what one senses while watching—that despite being the video and film library of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, little cataloguing organization exists. The voiceover (as well as the wall text) also informs us that on top of poor organization, many images in the archive deemed “less remarkable” were erased, making way for other footage. In essence, what we have is a library of lacunae, of holes, and disappearances.

These holes are accentuated as the voiceover introduces us to the word “taswira.” According to the voiceover, the meaning of this word perhaps comes closest to “image.” The multi-faceted word connotes a number of things. Taswira “can mean the sense of vision itself, or a glimmering mirage one sees but doesn’t believe.” It can also mean “the mise-en-scène of a drama as understood by the audience.” Even beyond that it can also refer to the “impulse towards violence” that unites a crowd before it “erupts in a riot.” A sense of collectivity unites all these definitions; also a collective meditation. “Taswira,” as the voiceover says, “is an image whose technology is in the mind.”

Benjamin Tiven, A Third Version of the Imaginary, 2012, HD video, stereo, color. Runtime: 12:00 In Swahili, with English subtitles Courtesy of the artist

Benjamin Tiven, A Third Version of the Imaginary, 2012, HD video, stereo, color. Runtime: 12:00 In Swahili, with English subtitles
Courtesy of the artist

We begin to experience some of the mystery surrounding this word as the film progresses, but it’s not until the final scene that we experience the word’s full gamut. The camera’s dazzling penultimate shot is a long take in which the eye of the camera stares directly at the eye of the projector and the librarian attempts to feed, somewhat unsuccessfully, a 16 mm film into the projector. The projector’s eye blinks on intermittently as parts of the film go through. After a brief third blackout, the film ends with a poetic re-filming of the pinkish 16 mm film as it fails to work. Struggling to advance, fluttering and caught between frames, the film only once or twice moves quickly enough to render a small amount of motion in the archival footage.

On several levels, this sequence perfectly embodies the tension surrounding the “technology of the mind,” and who and what administer that. Firstly, when filming, Tiven was forbidden to capture any image directly by the KBC; so instead of directly editing in footage from the archive into the final sequence, Tiven films the inability to capture—the ethereal projector light and the strained 16mm reel from an angle. The KBC’s injunction leads to a poetic reconfiguration of the space surrounding these images; their ban is ironically superfluous when the archive fails. Also, the faulty 16mm film the state forbid Tiven to use depicts Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta giving a speech at the independence parade of 1973. How strange to see the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s attempt at statecraft and control complicated (to say the least) by the broken record of its dissemination. 

All of this brings us back to the prescient opening lines the voiceover speaks at the film’s start: “Behind each image is another and behind that one, another.” It also raises questions about preservation—that moment, the inability to capture the image, when we almost have it within our grasp but it evades us nonetheless. The image escapes our memory, or history; lost to an endless, unorganized archive. Where do all our images go? How do we store them? And more and more, how do account for our obsolete technologies and the pace at which so many of our recordings, videos, sounds, etc. become extinct? 

The film’s final scene has a generosity about it—the failure of the state image to perform its function dispels with the “mirage,” making room for other histories, other stories buried beneath the state control. Essentially, the failure of the archive allows for other archives. As all of our tired technologies decay, as the very tools of the state apparatus begin to crumble, one wonders what other sorts of images will emerge. And in 100 years, what will be done with all of our then dated technologies—our decaying drone footage, our chip cards, and our inflated news broadcasts.