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Jump-starting a global conversation
Artist-scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha is in dialogue with the world on issues of marginalization, 'radical impurity,' and 'still speed'

| 15 February 2006

Next Thursday, Professor Trinh T. Minh-ha will receive a prestigious Achievement Award at the College Art Association's annual meeting in Boston. Five days later she'll be at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive to sign copies of her latest book, The Digital Film Event, and comment on a selection of digital works. She is also at work on a large multimedia installation that she and Professor of Architecture Jean-Paul Bourdier, her collaborator and long-time partner, are creating for a major new Paris museum.


Artist-scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha (Deborah Stalford photo)
 

These are some of February's highlights - on top of a full teaching schedule and speaking engagements in the Philippines, Canada, Wisconsin, and London (where the Tate Modern is having a retrospective of her films) - for the Berkeley professor of Rhetoric and of Gender and Women Studies, a 21st-century public intellectual whose interests span the arts, humanities, and social sciences and whose travels and public span the globe.

From her 39-page curriculum vitae, one can trace Trinh's career and the growth of her international following - her education in Saigon, Paris, and Urbana-Champaign (in French, Francophone literatures, and music composition), her seven films, her published works of poetry and poetry-inflected prose on film theory, aesthetics, and culture. Teaching engagements (in Europe, Africa, the U.S., and Asia) are enumerated, as are her film retrospectives (more than 30), TV and radio appearances, service on national boards, her many honors (NEA grants, a Guggenheim fellowship, film-festival prizes.). You'll learn that Trinh speaks fluent French, English, and Vietnamese, has a fair mastery of Spanish and German, and a working knowledge of Wolof.

A digital film event at PFA
To mark the publication of her most recent book, The Digital Film Event, Trinh T. Minh-ha will be at the Pacific Film Archive at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28, for a book signing and presentation of recent digital works - among them The Fourth Dimension (2001), her exploration of the cultural landscapes of Japan.

Bulging dossier and dizzying schedule notwithstanding, Trinh is "quiet, thoughtful, not arrogant or verbally aggressive," says the chair of gender and women's studies, Professor Barrie Thorne, and adept at "helping students read texts closely, in depth and from multiple vantage points." The filmmaker and theorist is interested in notions of "emptiness" and bare attention explored in Eastern philosophy. With her multimedia installation along the winding aerial ramp giving access to the Musée du Quai Branly, an art and anthropology museum set to open in June near the Eiffel Tower, she hopes to create an experience that makes visitors more attentively receptive to other cultures. ("With every step, the world comes toward you, with every step, a flower blooms under your feet," are words she uses to describe the first phases of the walk.) Trinh speaks of a realization brought home to many by 9/11 - that "the time that you spend with your friends or loved ones is something invaluable; if you do not create space for it, you cannot have it again." In The Digital Film Event (Routledge Press, 2005) she considers new technology and its implications for cinema and daily existence - the potential of the Internet, for instance, to transport us, while stationary, at lightning-fast speed across the globe. She calls this paradox "still speed."

"One has to know how to slow down within speed, within the speed of life, of technology today," she says.

From a transcultural place

Trinh herself is on the move, fueled by a calling ("my tasks" is the wording she uses) to arm the "marginalized" with intellectual tools for liberation - tools like the reclamation of language, when it serves as an instrument of domination, and a movement toward, not away from, "radical impurity" and "hybrid" or "transcultural" identities."

She traces her affinity for these notions to her upbringing in Saigon in the 1950s and '60s, where she was exposed to both Vietnamese and French cultural influences. "One of the feelings I have is that I've never fit squarely as belonging in one group, one category, one discipline, or even one language," Trinh says. "My attitude in life is that there's not one but many centers" - and that all relationships of domination and subordination (colonizer/colonized, male/female, filmmaker/subject, to name a few) should be questioned.

Trinh learned filmmaking in the early 1980s, while marooned in Oklahoma without a job - a "dark moment" in her life "out of which something new happened." Film proved to be a good fit; it allowed her to combine her varied interests (in poetry, music, visual imagery, and anthropology), albeit in nonlinear ways that defied traditional categories and confounded film juries. Her early writings followed a similar course. It took six years, she recalls, and 33 rejections, before Indiana University Press agreed to publish Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989), an unconventionally constructed book of cultural and literary criticism.

"The publishers said there was no market for such a book," and its reception took them completely by surprise, she recalls. "The circulation was so huge, they were totally astounded. People were really ready for it."

The impact of one drop

Her writing and films have found an enthusiastic audience among students and scholars throughout the developing world. Aparajita Nanda, a visiting scholar doing research and writing on Trinh, says that in India "we all know her work. Anyone in the field knows Trinh Minh-ha, if they've ever touched post-colonial feminist criticism." (Nanda is personally taken by Trinh's ability, in the classroom, to speak lucidly and easily "about high-powered concepts, in a way that anybody can understand. I can lose a sense of time listening to her," she says.)

Post-colonial feminist theory was in its infancy when Trinh began her work in the field two decades ago. "At the time that I wrote Woman, Native, Other, there were maybe a few of us, that you could count on the fingers of your hand," she recalls. The growth of the field is still a bit astounding to Trinh. "Today, books on post-colonialism abound; there's a whole section of them in university bookstores and in libraries."

Yet she has mixed feelings when entering that section of the bookstore, she confesses. On the one hand she worries that "post-colonial" has come to be too narrowly defined, to the exclusion of many who continue to suffer its after-effects. And, at the same time, she's conscious of her role as an early initiator of the movement, the power of each individual to effect change. She uses the analogy of a drop of ink changing the composition of a glass of water - or the ocean - even if that change is not visible to the human eye.
"I travel all around, to speak to audiences in all areas of life," she says, "precisely because I feel very strongly the impact of that drop."

In New Zealand, she was amazed to learn that Maori students and organizers were circulating photocopies of Woman, Native, Other and When the Moon Waxes Red (Routledge, 1991) using them to further their struggle (while rejecting a geographically determined notion of post-colonialism, she's pleased to note.)

The Maori enthusiasm for her work "is something that I had not at all anticipated," she reports. "Except that I'm very confident that the drop can change the whole ocean." An optimistic notion, to be sure, but one that Trinh believes very strongly. Without that conviction "I would be totally unable to travel around and do the work that I do," she says. "Because I value the time that I have with people close to me, and sometimes traveling really takes away from that."

This spring she's focused on Paris, where she faces unfamiliar aesthetic and bureaucratic challenges at the Musée du Quai Branly. The new museum was "born out of a huge controversy" in France, stemming from the fact that the Musée de L'Homme (Museum of Man) was separate from the Paris museums dedicated to African and Oceanic cultures. Now the collections are to be consolidated, and Trinh was selected, in an invited international competition, to set the stage for visitors' experience. She's collaborating with Bourdier, whose skills as an architect and artist are helping to solve the project's many spacial challenges.

The 165-yard-long ramp in question, for one, "is neither entirely indoor nor entirely outdoor," but both. "It has places that are dark, almost like indoors," she says, "and others that are lit by daylight."

She plans to project video images from many countries onto a variety of surfaces - keeping in mind, all the while that it's a passageway, "so you cannot have anything that would create an obstruction. What an irony for a filmmaker!" she laughs. "We do everything in order to get interesting images. But here they tell me 'don't do something so interesting that people would stop and look at it and they wouldn't move.'"