first published in
Three Films/ Three Photographs
Fotohof edition Vol. 181, Salzburg, 2013.
What Key Be to Lock: On Untitled [“Two Guys”]
Michael Ned Holte
It is difficult to say whether a lot happens or, conversely, not much happens in these seven minutes.
Who is watching? Who is “reading?”
Two guys—not yet men, but no longer boys, one can assume from clothing and appearance—standing outside an entrance to a building tagged with graffiti. One guy, hooded in a red sweatshirt, leaning fully against the wall, yawning; the other, who is taller and close cropped, in an oversize black t-shirt, stands with one extended arm against the wall, propped, looking at his friend. We assume they are friends. They might even be brothers, at least at first glance.
They smile, rather unexpectedly, exchange a few silent words, then enter the building. We can see it’s a vast space—a gymnasium, we’ll soon discover. They turn left and exit the frame.
Then we enter the building too, via the camera, which glides through the empty gymnasium past bleachers and benches to a door on the far left, unhurried, methodically. This is an institutional space, a school— their school, we will assume. We are led through a series of hallways, camera still moving, and arrive at another door to the exterior, as well as the two teenagers who stand with their backs to the camera.
The taller guy, standing on the right side, is now wearing a hoodie too, in gray. Both are wearing baseball caps. Nothing accounts for this modest, off-screen clothing update: the image has been continuous, even as our relationship with the subjects became disconnected. We reconnect as they are making final adjustments to the revised garments.
The guys talk, conspiratorially—we can’t quite overhear them. The guy on the left holds up a small device, a phone perhaps, and we hear music: a hip-hop beat, with the lyrics, “We be to rap what key be to lock,” repeated over and over. The taller guy nods along to the beat then places his hand on his friend’s back, gently nudging him forward.
They walk down a landscaped path, their music commingling with sounds of birds, traffic, with the red and gray sweatshirts consuming much of the frame. Then, the camera veers right, seemingly unprompted, and we look into the dense bush along the path. The music fades—or does it stop? (Perhaps we’re too busy watching to note the moment.) The camera drifts back to the path, our gaze along with it. The path is empty; our guys have once again disappeared. We stare into the distance. A few cars and a pedestrian cross the frame, then the image cuts.
The word “dislocation” comes to mind in thinking about the detach-ment of camera and its presumptive subjects, or in the weave of exterior to interior to exterior again.
But who, exactly, is dislocated?
Is it these two guys?
After the cut we are relocated: a dark tenement hallway. We enter and see an emptied apartment—a bedroom with an open window, a living room with an open door. Beyond the windows we see the lights of houses on the hills, and on the glass an intermittent flickering of blue light (the flickering of blue light from a television that remains unseen?). A fade, as the flickering gives way to an intense digital blue that floods the frame.
A corner, outside—we are cued by the sound of urbanity—bathed in blue. The guys reemerge, one after the other, on either side of the corner, eventually together. The taller teen holds up his hands, as if to ask, “What are you looking at?” He removes his hat and places it on the ground, out of frame. They stare into the camera, incredulously. Or maybe I am reading incredulity into the image. There is a moment of potential conflict—but with whom? Us? The two guys exit the frame and we follow them around several turns of a narrow walkway around the top of this building cloaked in blue—one turn, two turns, three, four—until they disappear, once more.
Fight or flight.
Cat and mice.
Another cut and we are confronted with our guys, still in blue, in some unknowable interior. They wear tank tops, and face the camera.
Both throw their arms and pop their chests forward, rhythmic and nearly violent, but spasmodic in a manner that appears less choreographed than organized. It’s dance, but without the accompaniment of music. And not silent: we hear their feet shuffling on the concrete ground; we hear their heavy breathing.
Their movements are idiosyncratic, yet somehow synchronized. They intersect, physically, and become a single force, if only momentarily.
“Not much” happens in these seven minutes, yet there is so much to be read here: an accumulation of so many small cues, all potentially significant, all asking to be read.
We cannot possibly read them all in one viewing— or, returning to the specific, singular voice of this individual viewer— i cannot read them all upon first or even second viewing. There are too many details, subtle gestures, silent conversations to absorb. Eventually I note layers of additional detail: the cry of a baby over the opening moments, a clock in the gymnasium indicating it’s half past four, the phosphorescent glow of their faces in the final sequence, and so on.
But which of these signs are meant to be read? And, more urgently, who are these two guys? What are they communicating to us?
This essay marks—“performs”—my confusion in first viewing Mario Pfeifer’s 2008 video, Untitled [“Two Guys”], a viewing conducted with little external information. Some of my rhetorical questions have been answered through repeated viewing, if not through supplemental information gathered from the artist or by related means. Other questions remain unanswered, if not unanswerable.
The two guys are named Sami and Yeisen, but to know this is not to know them. Are they actors or documentary subjects? Both? (Godard once noted that every film is a document of its actors, and the inverse of that might prove true as well: Every document turns its subject into an actor, performing as “himself” or “herself.”)
The camera plays a substantial role here, too—perhaps becomes the third “guy,” with a mind of its own—but who (or perhaps what) does it represent ? Are we simply passive viewers or are we implicated in the image under construction?
In this cat and mouse game, it is not clear whether the camera is following the two guys or if they are being propelled forward by its ceaseless image-production? At times it frames them, voyeuristically; at other times they acknowledge it, play to it, dis(miss) it. In the always-already imaginary of the image (as Christian Metz has defined it) how do we differentiate between what is scripted and what is witnessed?1
But perhaps it is not so important to hold the video (or its subjects) accountable to categorical imperatives— i.e. is this “fiction” or a “documentary?” Such categories are limited, and tend to circumscribe and reinforce familiar codes. Over and over, the video presents binaries, two-ness—day and night, interior and exterior, “document” and “fiction,” costume changes—but embodies them in the subjects (Sami and Yeisen) rather than seeking to resolve them.2
A photograph of the two guys, taken by Pfeifer, has accompanied the video in an exhibition. On Yeisen’s t-shirt— it’s the t-shirt he’s wearing at the beginning of the video—there are two guys, apparently a hip-hop duo, en abyme.
The two guys are named Sami and Yeisen, but I have yet to say anything about their ethnicity ( I learn they are migrants in Berlin, but their ethnicity is not immediately clear to me) or their class (the apartment building could be low-income housing). Of all the available signs, I am perhaps most curious about their interest in hip-hop—the clearest, or most emphatic constellation of signs offered up—or, more gener-ally, American culture (a cap with the official Major League Baseball logo, Nike brand sweatshirt, a rap song in American English, and so on). The video ends with the two guys krumping, a dance style (often including the use of face paint) that originated and evolved in the low-income, African-American communities of South Los Angeles. Why have they chosen these specific signs, among all other possibilities?3
There is little doubt that hip-hop—a subculture that includes rap music, but also clothing and style—has become a global phenomenon,
expanding far beyond its source in an African-American neighborhood in the Bronx and eventual epicenters in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and elsewhere, with many of its familiar signs fully assimilated into the brands of corporate capitalism, which is also to say the dominant culture. On the other hand, krumping is a dance style that emerged from the larger hip-hop culture in the early years of this century, a descendant of breaking and popping that remains most closely associated with a specific location and subculture—namely, the economically depressed, African-American neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. It is generally understood as an outgrowth of “clowning,” a dance style intended as an alternate to gang activity and inaugurated by Tommy the Clown (Thomas Johnson), an earnest gangbanger-turned-entertainer and dance ambassador.4
In Rize, the dancers who claim the style as their own (with defining monikers such as Dragon, Tight Eyez, Miss Prissy) emphasize that krumping is a style of constant evolution, changing on a daily basis— an evolution clearly visible to those who are “inside,” the practitioners. Ironically, Rize, which was released in 2005 and filmed a year or so earlier, freezes the style in time, even as it brings it new visibility. While popularized in music videos (by Christina Aguilera, Madonna, and so on) and documented in LaChapelle’s feature-length Rize, krump-ing still seems an incongruent fit in an immigrant tenement in Berlin.
From my distant vantage as a white critic in Los Angeles, I’m wondering if these two guys are part of a larger subculture—one transposed and adapted to the specificity of Berlin—or are they simply two isolated fans of a particular constellation of signs seen from a distance and not wholly their own?
And then: what does it mean to “own” a style?
We be to rap what key be to lock.
We be to rap what key be to lock.
We be to rap what key be to lock.
We be to rap what key be to lock…
Pfeifer’s Untitled [“Two Guys”] is as subdued, even muted, ambient, as Rize is vibrant, frenetic, loud. The makeup worn by Sami and Yeisen points back to its origins in South Los Angeles and Tommy the Clown’s genetic coding, but is rendered nearly invisible—a faint glow— in the insistent blue light of the tenement.
Style is a recognizable accumulation of signs, more or less legible to both an internal and external audience of sign readers. “Subcultural styles are more usefully regarded as mutations and extensions of exist-ing codes rather than as the ‘pure’ expression of creative drives, and above all they should be seen as meaningful mutations,” notes Dick Hebdige in his important book-length study of music-based sub-cultures such as punk and reggae, written in 19795. Sami and Yeisen’s look and gestures will be familiar to other fans of hip-hop, whether or not they pass the purity test. They are nothing if not meaningful.
Of course, hip-hop has been a contested style for decades, long before the subjects in Pfeifer’s video adopted its signs; krumping emerged, somewhat acrimoniously, from dancers who ran afoul of Tommy the Clown and his “school,” before finding a “meaningful muta-tion,” dislocated by and through these young men eager to establish an identity in Berlin. In his study of subculture, Hebdige notes, “Some groups have more say, more opportunity to make the rules, to organize meaning, while others are less favorably placed, have less power to produce and impose their definitions of the world on the world.” 6 Difficult as it may be to know these two guys, Sami and Yeisen, we can safely assume that they are not the rule makers. Their definitions of the world are borrowed, adapted, only provisionally made their own, much like the camera that follows them and then lets them escape from view.
1 See Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University
2 There is a curious cut shortly after Yeisen drops his hat on the ground—
already an ambiguous gesture. Immediately after the cut, Sami picks up the hat and puts it on. One might take this to imply a kind of interchangeability between the two guys, another sign of their two-ness, or in a more political sense, their demographic sameness: their individual traits might not be immediately recognized by someone from a different cultural background. The exchange also calls attention to the potential for constructing meaning— or even greater ambiguity— in the juxtaposition of two shots.
3 It is impossible for me to watch this video in 2012, and not think of Trayvon
Martin when I see Sami’s red hooded sweatshirt. Martin, an African- American teenager was murdered in Sanford, Florida earlier this year, while wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. The belated prosecution of George Zimmerman, who admitted to killing Martin, led to the frequent use of the hoodie as a visible sign of protest (against Zimmerman and the Sanford Police Department) or support (for Martin).
4 Much of my knowledge of krumping comes from the book on the subject sent to me by Pfeifer, consisting primarily of “articles available from Wikipedia or other free sources online.” See Jordan Naoum (ed.), Krumping: Street dance, Compton, California, Poetry slam, edited by Jordan Naoum (Mauritius: International Book Market Service Ltd., 2011). The book is a curious object, though it reminds me that the emergence of Wikipedia—and the internet, more generally—coincides with the global spread of hip-hop (sub)culture. Widespread sharing or repurposing of information—e.g. in sampling and remixing— is central to both enterprises. This history is discussed in David LaChapelle’s film, Rize, 2005.
5 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 131.
6 Ibid, p. 14.