The Making of Americans

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The Making of Americans, 2004
Color & sound video, 18 min.
© Caecilia Tripp & Zeuxis Films LLC NY
(Videostills: Jason G. Lewis)

Book publication by One Star Press, 2005

While the title of Getrude Stein’s book The Making of Americans (written in 1908-09 and published in 1925) is a genealogical approach to American culture, presenting creation’s infinite possibilities, Caecilia Tripp’s interpretation is a real opening up of this musical and visual work. Although repetition is the very essence of Gertrude Stein’s work, this repetition allows for precisely the juxtaposition of the sounds and images in the film, as though the desire to take the very notion of repetition literally should generate a multitude of dualities starting with reality and representation, images and copies, music and recording, voice and rhythm. The importance of African-American culture in the United States has always been defined by the recognition given to its music, performance and oral narration. These elements are also brought together in Stein’s opera, but it is their concrete application in the context of black vernacular performance that Caecilia Tripp chooses to show. Starting with a history (and from its start), she proposes back-and-forth movements in form and sound that suggest at once the incessant passage between the individual and the collective and also between scream and monologue, between interior and exterior space. This duality is further reinforced as the venues are evoked through nocturnal and luminous images of the Apollo Theater. The scene in which the meeting or splitting in two of the identity is played out is the one with the marionette manipulated by the magician in the smooth suit, the one with the little twin girls who add to the turmoil with their reflections in the mirror. "Any one is one" emphasizes the text, and one also hears "it is always a question of being". While the Diva travels the streets of New York in a limousine which accentuates the quick horizontal movement of the image, the Poet affronts the viewer in a vertical scene reinforced by the walls covered with posters which seem to hold him up and maintain him in a most intransigent urban reality.

"In black culture, repetition means that the thing circulates (exactly in the manner of any flow) (…). In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it’. If there is a goal in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually ‘cuts’ back to the start, in the musical meaning of ‘cut’ as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break (...) with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series.(…) Black culture, in the ‘cut’ builds ‘accidents’ into its coverage, almost as if to control their unpredictability. Itself a kind of cultural coverage, this magic of the cut attempts to confront accident and rupture not by covering them but by making room for them inside the system itself" (James A. Snead, «Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture», in Out There, Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures; New York, Cambridge, The New Museum of Contemporary, The MIT Press, 1990, p. 220).

The editing in Caecilia Tripp’s film is at once a construction of and a reflection on repetition. The Making of Americans does not seem to have a beginning or end, like a long improvised conversation that one stumbles into the middle of, and yet it is within this fluidity that the ruptures of voice and sound take place. Oral narration and music mixed by DJ Spooky become as many ways to construct a different history: A different story, A different history.

Elvan Zabunyan

The Making Of Americans, 2004
C-Print 105 x 155 cm

Twosome / The Making Of Americans, 2004
C-Print 105 x 155 cm

The Storyteller / The Making Of Americans, 2004
C-Print 155 x 105 cm

The Worldspectators / The Making Of Americans, 2004
C-Print 105 x 155 cm

Free Style! (Caecilia Tripp by Anne Dressen)

Exploring the question of creolization in the contexts of post-colonialization and of globalization (le Tout-Monde to quote Glissant), Caecilia Tripp, recently invited for a residence at PS 1 in New York, directed a fi lm, The Making of Americans, a «free-style opera» version of Gertrude Stein’s book. Written in 1908 and published in 1926, The Making of Americans tells in a non-linear fashion the genealogy of American culture, founded on the principles of immigration and diversity. Stein’s writing – she co-authored with Virgil Thompson in 1934 Four Saints and three acts, an opera that played on Broadway at the time when African Americans were segregated–incorporates the ideas of accident, rupture and repetition and anticipates slam and hip hop.

With a soundtrack by DJ Spooky ‘the History maker’ playing notably Not in our names by Saul Williams – Caecilia Tripp filmed the rap ‘Diva’ Jean Grae cruising New York in a limo, and the slammer Postell as a street ‘Poet’ preacher, appropriating passages from Stein on the means of variation and digression of spoken word poetry. Another protagonist, the ‘Magician’, animates a marionette before performing a matrix laser show in front of closed theater curtains while two ‘twins’ tap and dance in the tradition of musicals. The characters, each incarnating an idea of spectacle as a metaphor for the construction of the American identity, moving around without ever meeting, in emblematic places of New York: the Apollo Theater ("where stars are born and legends are made"), Times Square, Harlem, the Brooklyn Bridge, Ground Zero…

"Anyone is one"… but at the same time one notices that each character of the film posseses a doppelgänger, a complementary reflection, in a game of back and forth between the individual and the collective, the plenty and the void (the ‘Twins’, but also the absent Twin Towers, the ‘Diva’ and her fans, the ‘Magician’ and his marionette, the ‘DJ’ and the ‘Poet’); the image doubles, splits and mirrors sometimes, the words are repeated, the sounds reverberate in echo, evoking in some way the two turntables of a scratching DJ, replaying history backwards and forwards, in the fashion of Caecilia Tripp’s film based on sampling and mixing, between story and history telling.