Ben Neufeld is a writer, editor, and videomaker living in Los Angeles, California. He works in collage, layering and mixing found and created footage. His work tends to focus on the relationship between memory and history. Ben has exhibited domestically and internationally in galleries, museums, TV broadcasts and a barge on the Daugava river. He is currently a candidate for an MFA in Film + Video at CalArts in Valencia, CA.
Work title: The Deaf Lumberjack, The Blind Potboiler, 2015, 25:25
A tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, but a watched pot never boils. The Deaf Lumberjack, The Blind Potboiler is a video assembly of interviews with witnesses of the holocaust appropriated from the USC Shoah Visual History archive, subtitled with the written accounts of other people’s dreams. This video asks the question, what is the difference between the narrated memory of an actual experience and the narrated memory of a dreamed experience for someone who hasn’t experienced either firsthand?
Following artists statement is representing an essential addition for a better understanding:
“If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
– Philosophical thought experiment
“A watched pot never boils.”
– English Proverb
The Deaf Lumberjack, The Blind Potboiler is a video assembly of interviews with witnesses of the holocaust appropriated from the USC Shoah Visual History archive, a project which recorded the video testimony of tens of thousands of individuals who experienced the events of the holocaust firsthand. In constructing this video, I selected portions of testimonies, which were recorded in a variety of languages but had never been subtitled, and created subtitles of my own. I do not understand most of the languages spoken and the subtitles are in no way a translation of the subjects’ speech. I invited friends to write down the accounts of dreams that they had, which I took along with my own, as well as one of my grandmother’s (written in a diary in 1944 at a labor camp in Germany, and paired with her own video testimony in the final section of the piece) and moulded these dream texts into subtitles that fit the rhythm and gesticulation of the original speakers narration. Sometimes I changed words, or rearranged sentences, and downgraded image resolution of the subtitles to better blend with the original video testimony. I intended for these subtitles to be plausible as the subtitles of the speakers’ speech.
The effect of this process is both deceptive and manipulative, and this is intentional. There are hints throughout the piece that the subtitles are inaccurate (e.g. an anachronistic reference to internet video, a watermark in the corner of the screen, a Ukrainian dreaming of a building shaped like Texas), but even if a viewer notices these discrepancies, she still won’t be fully aware of the meaning of the testimonies until she reaches a section recorded in a language in which she is fluent.
With this video, I am asking a simple question, which is: what is the difference between the narrated memory of a physical experience and the narrated memory of a dreamed experience for someone who hasn’t experienced either firsthand? This question is the reason for the piece’s textual deception and in the plausibility of the subtitled video, I attempt to give the viewer the experience of the question rather than its mere proposition.
In The Deaf Lumberjack, The Blind Potboiler, the viewer is in the position of a deaf lumberjack in the old philosophical query of whether an event happens if no one perceives it happening. By believing the meaning of the subtitle text in the video, the viewer ‘makes it happen’, just as the lumberjack makes the tree fall by chopping it down. However, in a literal reading of the original philosophical question, for a deaf lumberjack who may have chopped down the tree but can’t hear the tree fall, the event may not take place. And so for the viewer who is deaf to the spoken meaning of the witnesses in the archival footage, but believes in the plausibility of their artificial subtitles and in believing so, ‘makes them happen’, what is the event which happened?
In 1902 Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, wrote, “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen,” words which were later popularized by the singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, and memorized by many Jewish school children as the Hebrew lyrics to Im Tirtzu. In English, Friedman’s lyrics are translated as,
“If you will it, it is no dream;
To be a free people in our land,
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem”
The belief in the plausibility of dreams has a deep history in the Zionist tradition. In Alneuland [Old New Land], the same text in which Herzl wrote the above quote, he also wrote, “Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think. All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first. And in the end, their Deeds dissolve into Dreams.” Herzl demonstrates that the ideology of Zionism is also a query into the ontology of the dream.
I believe that the original testimony of the witnesses and survivors of the holocaust is of utmost significance. For those of us who did not experience an event first hand, we have only transmitted narratives through which to imagine it, but those narratives will always be shaped by their remembrance, telling and reading. A rememberer remembers facts of an event, but it is never a neutral act as he strings them together into a narrative he finds meaningful. The call to ‘Never Forget’ isn’t as simple an imperative as it appears–it begs the question, “how should I remember?” The statement of “Never Again” is a call to arms for all those who hate genocide, but it is also the foundation of a justification for any means necessary.*
There is an aura of sacredness which surrounds the testimony of those who survived the holocaust. This sacredness has a tendency to preclude any interpretation which is not equally sacred and favor those interpretations which are, such as the justification for a sacred right to a Holy Land. By manipulating this testimony I understand that I could be seen as bringing an element of profanity to the material, but I would argue that in order to not limit interpretations of meaning, one shouldn’t look at this material in terms of the sacred and the profane, but rather as mundane (meaning “of this world”).
With this video, I am using the original material to further my own agenda. But I am not the first to approach the representation of this material with an agenda, and I won’t be the last. Stated plainly, my agenda is only: to encourage a skepticism of agendas; to never forget but also to consider how an event is remembered; to strive for a world that makes the words ‘Never Again’ a reality, but never to do so by causing more suffering.
* “Hatred of the Jews has changed form but it still remains. If not racial superiority, then religious superiority is the order of the day. The world’s indifference in light of this hatred has also remained. The world has very quickly become accustomed to hearing declarations only 65 years after the Holocaust, declarations of intent to annihilate millions of Jews – and the world continues to act in the same manner. The hesitancy of enlightened countries to act against extreme regimes which threaten us and threaten world peace – this too has not changed. The only thing that has truly changed is our ability and our determination to act to defend ourselves and prevent another Holocaust. This truth is a source of heavy and constant responsibility –to ensure by any means necessary – the future and security of the State of Israel against those who seek our destruction. This is the last will and testament of the six million, our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust and it is our duty – and we will carry it out.” Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 2013