Kimburley Choi

Video stills from Linda Lai's...

 

Trespassing and a tale of cities…

Trespassing world cities 《搖擺過路人》(2005) is a composite of Linda Lai’s tourist-video-style travelogues. The opening is a low angle shot showing a woman walking, and the camera seems to be in a bag; then it cuts to the tile of New Delhi in 2004, the pan shot of the bridge in New York City in 2001, the tracking shots of Frankfurt city space in 2001, Taipei in 2003, and New Delhi in 2004. The intercuts between tracking shots of these three cities and the following elevators shots of different cities indicate the similarities of these “modern” cities and we (the videomaker and the audiences) cannot easily recognize their differences.

Although ethnographers nowadays acknowledge the constructedness of ethnographic fields, Schneider (2008) argues that fieldwork as a method “still

"Trespassing World Cities" (2005)

 

retains its defining position at the center of contemporary social and cultural anthropology” (173), and Clifford (1997) recommends fieldwork should be a multi-site analysis in a globalized world. The “field” in Trespassing is the city space: the floors, elevators, staircase, shores, alleys, and landmarks of different cities. These swinging or static images keep appearing in front of our eyes. The field is clearly defined–the cityscape, and yet Lai rejects to interpret the meanings of these images in these cities. As Lai writes in Trespassing: “The totality of events in a city forms a thick collage that rejects systematic reading nor individuated signification”.

As other works of Lai, with images and written words, Lai self-consciously does not offer audiences a realist and transparent tale of each place–how people live in a certain place at a certain period of time. In Trespassing, we do not see the usual image of an ethnographer describing a place and its people. The video does not allow us to immerse ourselves in the field, pretending the videomaker (and the audiences) can immerse, understand, and interpret other cultures. Rather, we are encouraged to question a walker’s power in understanding city life.

A critique of flâneuse in Trespassing:

Obviously, Trespassing depicts the filmmaker walking various cities in the world and encourages audiences to link the video with the practice of female flânerie, a term from the French masculine word flâneur. Baudelaire’s flâneur depicts a man who walks the city to experience, observe, understand, and portray city life through both of his participation and detached observation. Therefore, flâneur is both an active participant and critical voyeur to portray and examine city life in sociological, anthropological, literary and historical aspects. However, the concept of flâneur excludes women from the spaces of modernity. As Wolff comments, “The influential writing of Baudelaire, Simmel, Benjamin and, more recently, Richard Sennett and Marshall Berman, by equating the modern with the public, thus fail to describe women’s experience of modernity. The central figure of the flâneur in the literature of modernity can only be male” (1985: abstract). It is because sexual differences were expressed through the segregation of space of public and private, and women were often defined in the private sphere. The experience of walks in the city mainly accounts for the experiences of men. The exceptions are the “non-respectable”, the prostitute (D’Souza & McDonough 2006:19).

In Trespassing, Lai further comments that although women nowadays are less bounded by the private spheres than women in the mid-nineteenth century, and they can navigate around the world as what Lai does in the video, street crimes undermine such bourgeois practice. At the end of the video, Lai told us that her beloved student Joey was murdered while taking a brief walk in Moscow in transit for a flight back to Hong Kong. Women walking in the city still face various kinds of danger that flâneur may not experience. In my interview with Lai, Lai openly criticized the male-oriented ethnocentric world view under the concept of flâneur.

Lai: Joey left us. At that time, Hector (Lai’s husband) and I had sharing, that in class, we often talked about drifting, and a student drifted in Moscow. Joey intended to have that drifting. If she’s still alive, she’s studying travel literature in Belgium. Her death affected us a lot.

Kim: Drifting somehow is an activity for men.

Lai: Drifting is dangerous to women. Drifting is a dangerous activity; most critical theories romanticize drifting.

Kim: Critical theories in one sense are gender blinded.

Lai: And these theories always present drifting as productive academically and epistemologically. In fact, drifting is a male-oriented practice.

In summary, as a visual experimentation, Trespassing pushes the boundary of tourist video. Lai as a frequent world cities’ traveler brings the audiences the sensuous experiences of the fleeting and ephemeral encounters of city life. At the same time, Lai plays against and critiques the “culture” ethnographers inhabit. Culture in any sense is not transparent but interpretative. (Kimburley Choi)

 
References:
D’Souza and T. McDonough. 2006. The invisible flâneuse? Gender, public space, and visual culture in nineteenth-century Paris. Manchester & NY: Manchester University Press.
Schneider, A. 2008. Three modes of experimentation with art and ethnography. Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 14: 171-194.

Wolff, J. 1985. The invisible flâneuse: women and the literature of modernity. Theory, Culture & Society 2(3): 37-46.

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| Original source of article – Kimburley Choi’s personal blog on cultural studies [] with video clips from Linda Lai’s work and Lai’s response.

| Synopsis + artist statement for Trespassing on Linda’s web-archive []

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Trespassing World Cities《搖擺過路人》(Linda Lai / 2005 /  28 minutes) – shown at “Archiving Fingers, Hands, Faces and Anonymities,” FPC’s inaugural exhibition, May 23-June 13, 2010