Bad Taste: Risk, Failure, and the Ob/seen Moving Image

Rebecca Ora: Three Questions

Rebecca Ora has paid strangers on the street to heil Hitler for her video camera. She has sold a pound of her flesh on ebay. She has used her own prestigious fellowship winnings to institute the Rebecca Ora Award for Risktaking in the Arts. Over the past decade, Ora has produced a significant and challenging body of work at the intersection of social practice, anthropology, and fine art. Initially trained as a painter, her oeuvre has evolved to include elements of performance art, new media, and filmmaking that range from hand-sewn Stars of David to glitch art that recodes digital photographs to create new meanings. Across media, Ora irreverently returns to charged questions of belonging, identification, and the limits of the speakable in our increasingly mediated global context.

Rebecca Ora, Sherrif Shirt, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

I think of as Ora’s signature style as an ironic, tongue-in-cheek provocation that elicits a critical uneasiness in her audience. This effect of uneasiness reflects the emotional and critical orientation of the work. Ora uses humor to engage difficult subject matter, continually reworking core themes of identity, taboo, and mediation in her prodigious practice that clearly values risk, messiness, and complexity over safety, aestheticized order, and consensus. There are echoes of feminist artists such as Barbara DeGenevieve and Shirley Clarke in her explorations of the boundaries of empathy and ethics; Ora gives us no more easy answers than they did.

Much of her work engages questions of personal identity and cultural memory in the highly politicized context of contemporary Israel. In the current political climate, in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marks ideological positions in United States politics, Ora’s ongoing explorations of the signs of Judaism and the myth of Israel toy with audience expectations shaped by films about the Holocaust and the nightly news cycle alike. Ora prides herself on making people uncomfortable and her work has confounded commentators across the political spectrum. Indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that almost none of her work deals directly with Palestine, audiences may become anxious when they cannot easily locate the politics of the artist. But trying to locate a political position to ascribe to Ora through her texts would be to miss her point entirely.

Rebecca Ora
Rebecca Ora, Tips For the Beginning Ambassador, 2014. Screenshot used with permission.

In the quagmire of The Intifada-ing, news footage of Ora’s former teacher making incendiary statements on the Temple Mount collides with the artist’s memory of the nice lady who taught them “a preposition is something an airplane could do to a cloud.” In The Melody Returns Zionist found footage is transformed into a kaleidoscopic music video as text written in the first person narrates a romantic relationship seeming to fall apart. First Person Shooter Marathon 2012, I Run Jerusalem, No Land, and the superb Tips for the Beginning Ambassador each explore questions of embodiment, endurance, power, and mediation in relation to the state of Israel. Throughout, the personal and the political bleed into one another indiscriminately; Israel is also Ora’s father’s name. In Affect and Empathy, Ora appears on camera directing two amateur actors as they perform a g-chat between Ora and her sister talking about their family dysfunction within the affluent Jewish community in which she always felt like an outsider.

An atheist raised in a large, close-knit, Orthodox Jewish family in Los Angeles, Ora’s queered, feminist work is the antithesis of Hollywood mythmaking. Hollywood was in the background of the insular Jewish community in which she grew up, creating what she describes as a bizarre juxtaposition that has nothing to do with the typical stereotypes of Jews in Hollywood. Her mother wrote screenplays that never sold, and as a teenager Ora went regularly to the preview screenings that are a regular staple of tinsel-town. While she doesn’t consider herself a filmmaker per se, Ora’s work deeply engages “the strange talent, interest, and failures” of the Hollywood myth along with other modes of representation that range from feminist performance art to embedded journalism.

Ora’s formal engagement, or disengagement really, with classical narrative structure is most visible in her award winning featurette Watching Lillian, which J.D. Beltran of The San Francisco Gate praised as a poignant and sobering psychological study. The title character, Lillian, is derisively described as Chinese, mentally ill, attracted to women but not really a lesbian, and as having “a sleep disorder and almost no teeth.” But, as the title implies, the video isn’t really about Lillian at all. It is about how others view Lillian, about the possibilities and limits of empathy, and about the artist’s relationship to her subject and her medium. Ora’s work is filled with wordplay, metaphor, and allegory, so it is no surprise that one of the main figures in the piece is a psychic, “a medium.”

The "Medium" in Rebecca Ora's Watching Lillian
Rebecca Ora, Watching Lillian, 2010. Screenshot used with permission.

The medium tells Ora “the best way you can help Lillian is by telling her story.” But Ora is not actually interested in telling Lillian’s story or in helping her: she is interested in refusing the feel-good redemption narrative that structures traditional documentaries, narrative films, and many exploitative personal relationships as well. Playfully beginning with “Part 7: Embodiment,” Watching Lillian develops non-chronology through a series of segments that foreground performance and point of view. In the fourth segment, “Part 9: Rehearsal,” Ora asks, “What do you think is going to happen to Lillian? I mean I’ll be totally honest, I want to make a movie about Lillian, but there’s no arc. There’s no change. So then I wanted to make a movie about everyone [around her] and their relationship with her, but that doesn’t change either.” She comes to the conclusion that “we want the world to conform to our narrative structures, to which we’re accustomed based on movies.” Finally, she leaves us with the question, “how are you supposed to deal with relationships where the power dynamics will never be even?” This is the crux of her work: the relationship between structure and power.

Ora describes her interest in the limits, the liminal, and the unspeakable in relationship to perversity. Spryly describing this aspect of her work as pro-nography and a staging of the Ob/seen, she cites the definition of perversity as “something wrong-headed and illogical; it is going about things the wrong way,” rather than being related to the sexually explicit. Through her work as well as her words, Ora passionately insists that “doing things the wrong way is sometimes really important.” Ora engages this thread of inquiry across multiple media and bodies of work. In the recent Porn for the Blind, she juxtaposes audio from, (a not-for-profit organization that produces crowd-sourced audio descriptions of videos from adult web sites) with close-up, abstracted images of her own hands, yielding a meditation on erotic intimacy.

Ora’s investigations into the Ob/seen weave throughout her body of work. In Habibibuah, Ora queers the climactic embrace between the star-crossed lovers in Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s popular film The Bubble (Habuah). What does it mean for a self-described atheist Jew and queer-straight woman to to queer the work of a gay Israeli filmmaker? Ora formally “saves” the couple by indefinitely looping the embrace that results in their death, but locks them forever in what she calls “this love-adversarial moment.”  I read this intervention in narrative causality as a critical engagement with the question of pink-washing which dogged the film. Ora, of course, locates her own critique within the language of film form.  Lady+Gaga+Fail continues this formal examination of narrative and desire, using extreme slow-motion to examine the sadistic side of spectatorship. Tapestry Shower Curtain is a part of Ora’s absurd and provocative object series that skewers the commercial appropriation of trauma and condemns the aesthetic emptiness that Susan Sontag described as “the fascist longings in our midst.”*

Rebecca Ora, Tapestry Shower Curtain, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

The themes and questions that Ora has been developing across her short works, objects, and photographs culminate in her current work in progress, Wandering Stars. In this allegorical travelogue Ora is embedded with a group of Israeli tourists traveling through Kyrgyzstan during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014.

Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Ora’s growing body of work reveals her as an astute observer of human foibles. I am certainly looking curiously forward to seeing what comes next.

K: First, thanks for taking the time to think and talk together, it is always a pleasure. As you know, I’m interested in thinking through the idea of the “moving image” in relation to history, memory, and imagination. In your work you mobilize, and perhaps also debase, some of the twentieth century’s most defining moving images, including the Holocaust and September 11th (which one might consider the end of the twentieth century). What do you consider a moving image and what do you want to reveal through moving images in your work?

RO: I think I’ve come to terms with not actually being a filmmaker, which is strange for someone currently pursuing a degree in a (partially) film department; I’m an artist, performance artist, video artist, writer, scholar and provocateur. I am certainly interested in the interplay among moving images, memory and sentimental objects, and my bag of tricks definitely includes a history of cinema and the moving image as vocabulary, as backdrop, as fodder. I have been working through re- and re- and re-framings of these catastrophic moments across media because I think none quite captures any traumatic event in its fullness, which is appropriate, because creeping time keeps recontextualizing the past. They feed off constant renewal both to ‘never forget’ as well as to try to show distance and forgetting.

I think I should try someday to make a film with a happy ending, whatever that might mean. There is something about the moving image that we expect to take us somewhere, often to a better place. Until now, I haven’t done that, though I see it everywhere. I’m not trying to teach or to learn, but rather to unravel, sometimes to reveal but also sometimes to obscure. I come from a painting background–oils. The reason I had to be an oil painter is because you could both add and subtract with oils, but with acrylics and watercolors, which are additive processes, you can’t move backward. I use the moving image to move in all directions. I recently wrote an article about the work of Jeanne Finley and John Muse called “All that has existed, will exist, has never existed and will never exist;” all of these elements can be teased out in film, but also through performances and speculative objects. Film, which we associate with storytelling, is very conducive to this.

K: Tell me about the film you’re working on now, Wandering Stars. The rough cut I viewed reminded me of Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands, along with certain works by Ulrike Ottinger and Sharon Lockhart. (Not to mention Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot.) It is a slow and difficult piece, but very rich and rewarding to an attentive viewing. I would call it a feature film, an experimental feature in the vein that Jonas Mekas calls “boring masterpieces.” You’ve told me it is not a movie, but a durational art piece. What do you see as the difference and what do you want to reveal or obscure with Wandering Stars?

RO: Wandering Stars is so much about an obsession with watching that, I think, comes out full-blown during tourist travel. Watching Lillian talks about that, too–most of my films do, the way it’s hard to look away from horrible things. There’s a lot of direct (sometimes, I think, too-direct) influence from Fatimah Tobing-Rony in there, what she says in The Third Eye about the colonizing gaze and the defiant gaze back. I set myself up as an antagonist to these arguably pushy and privileged tourists, who are basically set up to play out these stereotypes of aggression associated with Israelis, to take some of the blame from them. And they oblige! I am basically asking for someone to look back at me, to stare me down, to implicate me as a prurient spectator. That’s where the end of the film comes in, with the long takes of the indigenous people looking back.

I shot this thinking I would spend years attaching myself to Israeli tourists and coming up with some longer patchwork of moments from multiple international locations, but then the war gave this film this automatic fake narrative; I couldn’t resist, and the film came together with these categories of scenes.

My favorite moments are the musical numbers–the best being the one when the Israelis strike gold and sing about it (because there are some things Jews should never say in public, and “I’ve struck gold!” is one of them)–and the shots of them walking in the snow. I feel like that scene (though I’m still playing with it) makes my heart beat at a different pace, slower, and indicates to the viewer, “oh shit, she’s not kidding–I’m going to have to settle in, aren’t I?” But it is a very boring film, and it is hard to sit through, which I think it should be. War and privilege and gender and conflict aren’t easy for anyone, and there is no reason a film about these things should be easy.

My favorite author, though it’s probably hokey and almost precious now, is Faulkner. I remember the first time I read Absalom! Absalom! in high school. It took me 2 weeks over spring break, and I cursed it every day. When I was finished with the book, I threw it down on the couch next to me and announced to no one: “I think that is the greatest thing I have ever read.” Someday, I hope someone sits through my work and hates every second of it, and then, at the end, cries and says “thank you.”

K:  You describe yourself as the antagonist to the tourists, but are you not also one of them?  I am interested in how you think about difference and power in your in your work, in how you position yourself in relation to difference and power.  The “looking back” you desire and highlight takes place largely in a space of commerce. For me the most uncomfortable scene in the film was the commercial transaction that takes place in the domestic space: a young mother is demonstrating what looks like a milk churn to the tourists, who photograph her and make disparaging comments about her children. There is a triangulation happening in the film: the Israeli tourist’s are continually denaturalized in relation to the landscape, the Kyrgyz self-consciously perform or refuse to perform for the tourists’ gaze, including your camera, and the video’s spectators are both forced and allowed to observe these dynamics over time. Across your work there is a self-inscription in the tradition of feminist reflexivity. In Wandering Stars that self-inscription is evolving in a subtle and I think exciting way. You are appropriating the language of embedded journalism, of our present imperialism, as a part of a subjective practice of observation.   Who do you want to look back at you and stare you down?  What are the power dynamics at play in that desire? Are you a stand in for the spectator or an antagonist to us?

RO: Once, when I was bored, I read Job in its original Hebrew. It’s so dark, they never had us read that in Hebrew school. It’s a text that has a lot of debate, all this conversation between god and this other character: in Hebrew, the kategor. The word is the root of “category.” It’s all about division, antagonism. Kategor translates as either the adversary or the prosecutor, the accuser. But of course, in casual terms, this is Satan. I think of that character a lot. The other archetypal figure, of course, is the Greek Chorus, which is not dissimilar to the clown. I try to embed myself in situations in which I can play these types out to a degree. It doesn’t mean I’m above it all, oh no! In fact, I think I implicate myself all the time. The accuser is just god, being a total asshole and blaming something external for it. I hope I never do that, that would be terrible.

One of the things about Kyrgyzstan is that it’s still a fairly new tourist destination. There’s a lot less hamming for the camera or pandering to tourism than I’ve seen elsewhere. I think this isn’t one of the ideas in the forefront of this film, but the camera is a constant site of genuine negotiation for this reason. I think my refusal of the suture is important here, as is my really long attention span. Without the durational elements and the excruciating self-consciousness that elicits, this would just be a tourist film. You have to get to that uncomfortable place over time. This is definitely the story of a time-based medium. I studied ethnographic film, which has this whole other set of discursive objects orbiting in a different constellation, so whenever I strike some ethnographic pose, I cannot help but become a character myself because I’m not an anthropologist, and I’m not a journalist. I’m something else, embedded in these surroundings, feigning professionalism. I’m performing in these films, but I’m often performing behind (or as) the camera.

I feel both powerful in that I hold the camera, I see everything, I’m creating all the time, but I’m also completely powerless in that I so badly need people to perform for/with me or I have nothing. I think I take the former position, but what excites me is when the cracks become visible and it’s completely blown away by, for instance, those shrewd kids in the marketplace who just casually take out their cellphones and film me filming them. That destroyed me!

There’s that great Neo Bustamante piece where she’s dressed as some indigenous dominatrix with a headdress and a strap-on, and in the harness is a big fat juicy burrito. She invites any white men in the audience to come do penance for colonialism by kneeling before her and eating from the burrito. It’s hilarious! But in the video, when she announces the performance and the invitation, despite all the leather and the heels, when no one seems immediately interested in engaging, the whole thing is–well–flaccid. There is an air of panic, of failure. That tension is what I feel when I’m shooting. It’s all so fragile, the relationships, and they reveal themselves when they turn or rupture. So, as regards feminism: in addition to all that suture work, and the gaze being subverted and reinforced self-reflexively… insofar as this is all about levels and transferences of power, and insofar as I am constructing myself as a very bad female, yes, this is all feminist work. It can’t not be.


Rebecca Ora is a visual artist, performer, filmmaker and scholar based in California. Her work has been exhibited internationally from Göteborg, Sweden to New Delhi, India and has been supported by numerous fellowships and awards.  Ora holds an MFA in Social Practice from California College of the Arts and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the practice-based film and digital media program at University of California Santa Cruz.

*Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn [1980]. (New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1991), 97.