Speaking into Being: The Ethnographic Fictions of Laura Huertas Millán

Erika Balsom

Our speech is not our own: we live inside language, consigned to operate within its system. And yet it is through our speech that we call ourselves into being, that we articulate a sense of ourselves and test it in the world. It is a matter of manoeuvring within constraint, of finding ways to engage in a bricolage of the pre-given that will somehow yield the singular out of the shared and make sharable the singular. We draw not only on the stability of words, but on grammars and narrative codes to shepherd the idiosyncrasy of experience into the realm of the communicable—a prerequisite for any community. 

To record others as they undertake this constitution of the self through speech, as Laura Huertas Millán does in works she terms “ethnographic fictions,” is to engage in a meta-discourse. Huertas Millán’s films speak about speech—about who can speak, of what, and how. She listens, creating scenarios in which her subjects relay thoughts and experiences. She asks how speech—whether linguistic or filmic—creates reality and subjectivity. The inquiry is fitting given the artist’s longstanding interest in ethnography: both ethnography and speech are, after all, forms of encounter between identity and alterity. In the works Huertas Millán has assembled for “the spring song,” the expressions of the films’ subjects and the expressions of the films themselves—each existing only by virtue of the other—mutually generate a space of fabulation and reflection. They create a forum of voicing while knowing that speech is not free; it may be more or less so, but never purely, always informed by convention, history, struggle. 

Speech (2018), a found-footage work comprised of actors’ acceptance speeches from Academy Awards ceremonies held between 2000 to 2015, initially seems anomalous in Huertas Millán’s oeuvre. Unlike so many of the artist’s films, here there is no engagement with Latin America, no probing of the legacies of colonialism, no trace of the subaltern. Instead, Huertas Millán plays with the form of the supercut, collaging together dozens of speeches into one single, stuttering flow, denaturalizing the viewer’s apprehension of this familiar ritual. In place of one actor announcing the winning actress, we encounter fragments of nine. 

Speech uses discontinuity and repetition to anatomize the genre of the acceptance speech, showing how what is framed as a personal and spontaneous moment is in fact rigorously codified. The work deflates the promise of awards shows to deliver the “true” individual behind the performance, demonstrating the extent to which these apparently candid moments are governed by convention. And yet, this does not foreclose the possibility that such utterances might figure as sites of genuine affective and political articulation. Speech confronts striking unoriginality and artifice, but equally excavates contestations of racial and gendered injustice. Performance and truth are far from opposed terms within a field of enunciation forever marked by shifting power relations. 

Understood in this way, Speech ceases to appear so anomalous vis-à-vis Huertas Millán’s other work. Rather than any departure, it figures as a tutor-text: the artist undertakes an explicit, critical dissection of dominant discourse, probing questions of rhetoric and performance, self-expression and power. These concerns recur implicitly in the other films included in “the spring song,” where the analytical negation of Speech gives way to the creation of reparative alternatives, to the act of making space for self-determination. Rather than gesturing to the silences and conventions of the mainstream, in the exhibition’s other three works Huertas Millán turns her attention to voices and narratives far outside it, at the margins, using documentary strategies to record her subjects’ first-person accounts of their lived experiences and represent them in ways that foreground imagination, self-fashioning, and autonomy.

jeny303 (2018), for instance, consists of two portraits entangled on a single roll of film: one of Jeny, a young transgender woman, and the other of 303, an abandoned university building in Bogotá, about to be demolished. Jeny’s voice occupies the soundtrack, relaying a story of drug use, sex work, and criminality that is mostly accompanied by images of the vacant 303; when Jeny does appear, relatively briefly, sound remains unsynced with the image. The voiceover does not explain or anchor the visual field, but summons unseen mental pictures. Unlike typical documentary representations of testimony, in which the subject speaks in full view of the camera, yoking body to voice as if to guarantee the truth of discourse, in jeny303, the speaking subject is released from this burden, set free from such policed visibility to enjoy opacity and anonymity. It is a strategy that chimes with Jeny’s articulated desire to escape categorization: “Like I was telling you, I’m neither victimizer nor victim. I’m a living work of art.” 

The formal components of jeny303 are in a restless relation, producing the new through the powers of combination and juxtaposition. Whereas Huertas Millán’s earlier films Aequador (2012) and Journey to a Land Otherwise Known (2011) engage in overt forms of fictionalization, such as the placement of palpably artificial computer-generated images within a jungle environment or monstrous figures within a darkened greenhouse, here, as in elsewhere in “the spring song,” such gestures are absent. Fiction resides in these works in subtler form, as Huertas Millán captures people performing their stories and deploys fragments of these oral narratives within cinematic constellations marked by an uncertain relation between heterogeneous elements. 

Such combinatory fabulation structures Le Labyrinthe (2018), in which we once more encounter a rarely-seen narrator, a man who tells of his experiences with the drug trafficker Evaristo Porras, a cartel king who constructed a replica of the mansion from the television show Dynasty in southern Colombia before being busted and reduced to poverty. He and his dream house fell into ruin. As in jeny303, living speech informs a portrait of a decrepit building. The man’s narration occurs intermittently over alternating images of the dilapidated structure—now adorned with garbage, vegetation, and graffiti—and bright clips from Dynasty that picture the lifestyle Porras wished to emulate. Between Colombia and the United States, cocaine and oil, reality and television, multiple narratives intersect in a nexus of affluence, aspiration, and violence. In the absence of images of Porras and his activities, Dynasty’s gated houses, cars, planes, and flashy women come to obliquely figure the past with avowed inauthenticity. The television spectacle, though easily datable to the 1980s, remains frozen in its perfection, protected from the degradation that has overtaken its Colombian simulacrum. To underline the incompossibility of these two worlds, Huertas Millán uses sound to stage their collision, at times playing the Dynasty soundtrack over the images of the ruin and vice versa, in an act of contrapuntal dissonance. 

As Le Labyrinthe proceeds, it embraces the promise of its title, taking a twisting path into an account of the narrator’s hallucinatory near-death experience. The Dynasty footage gradually ceases to appear, leaving the second half of the film to the ruined house, the moon at night, the jungle, and the narrator traveling downriver on a small boat with two other men. The putrescent glamour of drug trafficking disappears and we enter another Colombia, one perhaps more ancient and yet equally of the present. The narrator recalls the earth opening, hearing his grandfather speak, and seeing an anaconda that wanted to swallow him. Now, he knows, he has “seen Death and Death is very beautiful.” 

Through the incorporation of the narrator’s encounter with Death, Huertas Millán reflects on the limits of what is representable and communicable. Unlike the phenomenal world, which can be the object of a shared gaze, hallucinatory visions can be seen by but one, and known to others only through the second-hand practice of telling and listening. Moreover, these psychedelic phantasms have a paradoxical relationship to truth: by some standards, they are dismissed as decidedly “unreal,” but by others—for instance, according to indigenous epistemologies that predate the conquest of the Americas and which survive today—such episodes constitute a most profound and meaningful reality. 

By putting the narrator’s hallucinations into relation with his river journey and work for Porras, the abandoned house no longer figures solely as a testimony to the folly of drug trafficking. In addition to this evocation, the ruins—filmed in roaming, disorienting handheld shots—become a psychic landscape, thick with time, that summons the spectre of finitude. Le Labyrinthe speaks to the syncretism of contemporary Colombia, where the disaster of narcocapitalism coexists with enduring precolonial relations to the world, creating an accord between the violence of the drug wars, the violence of European conquest, and possibilities of survival and resistance against both. Le Labyrinthe ends in darkness, far from Dynasty, with men building a fire, setting muddied rain boots out to dry. In this most elemental of scenes, grounded by the animistic vitality of the flames, another relation to the land emerges, one that refuses the aspirational imitation of US television to cultivate a different way of being and knowing. 

A reparative attentiveness to indigenous knowledges and practices is the cornerstone of La Libertad (2017). In this collective portrait of the Navarros, a matriarchal family of weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico, Huertas Millán takes a comparatively observational approach. The film opens with nearly seven minutes without dialogue, patiently immersing the viewer in the preparation of food and the work of the backstrap loom, a pre-Hispanic technique. The film lacks the provocative juxtapositions that characterise jeny303 and Le Labyrinthe, and departs formally from those works in its use of a frequently static camera and synchronized sound to record the family as they speak about their work and way of life. They relay their thoughts about labour, marriage, money, and fulfilment, frequently circling back to the titular question of freedom. What is it? How does one attain it? Avoiding marriage and its prescribed gender roles offers a start, as does forging a life devoted to a creative vocation rather than to the accumulation of material possessions. 

The Navarro family evades patriarchy and alienated labour alike, offering an example of how care for the self and care for others can exist in a reciprocal harmony. If the three other films of “the spring song” forge spaces for self-actualization within and despite forms of violence and constraint, approaching subjective speech always in relation to what might silence or limit it, La Libertad, by contrast and true to its title, offers a quasi-utopia of expression and belonging. The Navarros’ small collective has carved out a space to live more liveable lives at a time when this seems increasingly less possible, with Huertas Millán’s camera there as calm witness. 

Erika Balsom is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London.
Text written for the individual exhibition The spring song. le chant du printemps
Maison des Arts, Centre d´art contemporain de Malakoff
April 5 to May 27, 2018
105, avenue du 12 février 1934 - 92240 Malakoff