“I’d do anything… hug them, shout at them, beat them… Anything just so they’d win.”
The muffled voice trails over the image of a male body stretched out on a dormitory bed. His muscled back swoops down into an enviable cleft, crowned by a tuft of blonde hair only just visible under the elastic band of his swimsuit. A woman in a black spandex one-piece hovers over him, holding her torso just above his in a double odalisque. She sinks an elbow first into the spaces between his ribs, then along his spine. The cameras cut to her fingers, thick and glistening with oil, driving ridges of skin up his forearm or slipping around the backs of his heels.
The sequence is saturated with an erotic charge, but the intimacy of the exercise is undercut by the massage’s overt choreography. Even in his relaxed state, the man is aware of the camera, instructing the woman as to how to use her full weight when walking across his back: “Then you can see how it looks on camera.” She mounts him carefully, then pirouettes a big toe underneath his shoulder blade. He grunts in response: “Oh, that’s good… Oh, that’s very good…”
On the next mattress over, a young man, skinny and shirtless, turns off the television and burrows under his sheets, trying not to pay heed to the soft acrobatics in the bed beside him. He isn’t sure what to make of what’s going on in this dorm room.
This exchange constitutes the bulk of Jumana Manna’s The Umpire Whispers (2010). The fifteen-minute film follows the then-twenty-two-year-old artist as she visits her former swim coach “Dima,” five years after her last competition. By his own admission, the one-time Ukrainian champion would have done “anything” to help the teenage girls swim their best; this “anything” included post-swim full-body massages, which he considered essential to improved performance. This “anything” also seems to have included knowingly harnessing the spoils of adolescent sexuality, stirring up tension with the girls only to channel it into their competitive swimming. The film opens with an unseen conversation between Manna and her former teammate. Their voices jump up an octave as they reminisce about just how fervently they coveted their coach’s attention, how he made his swimmers feel more attractive and more desirable: “That’s the thing about him — it wouldn’t feel wrong. Like, literally, he could do whatever he wanted to me… and I was fine with it. I was happy for it.”
For their reunion, Manna reconfigures the power dynamic by insisting that this time the massages be mutual. “I wanted to talk a little bit,” she begins, her tone slightly quavering. “In relation to you as a coach and me as a swimmer.” He curtly reminds her: “There is almost no talking involved in a massage.” There is in this one, however. The conversation flits ambiguously between instruction, flirtation, and confession, as in between grunts, Manna and her coach discuss the peculiarities of their intimacy. “We would obey anything you’d ask us to do,” she protests. “Yes, but that’s not exactly how it is,” he counters. He later confesses the danger of working with “younger girls,” admitting how easy it is “to make mistakes.” If he elaborates on this point, Manna doesn’t include it in the film.
The two-channel documentation of the massage contrasts with footage of a more conventional conversation on a couch. Manna is curled up coquettishly on one corner, her legs cocked and folded beneath her, while the coach sits back in his swimsuit, legs splayed, his arm draped over his lap. His body is bulky, with a tattoo around his forearm and a gold chain around his neck. The shots of this “clothed” conversation play out as a different type of courtship; Manna smiles reassuringly at him, her attempts at cultivating a feminine mystique undermined by the cloying girlishness of her voice. Dima bluntly tells her that she lacked a natural feel for the water, but that, to her credit, instead of talent, she had determination. She wanted it, and so he wanted it for her. The image switches to a swimmer working her way across the pool. Under the water, the body moves according to different rules; the swimmer pointedly makes her body available for the camera, her hips swiveling in a way that’s as much about sex as it is about sport.
The film’s title hails from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which the tennis-playing protagonist suffers from a recurring dream where he suddenly cannot understand the rules of the game that he knows best. Where there was once intimate mastery, there is only anxiety:
The court is about the size of a football field, though, maybe, it seems. It’s hard to tell. But mainly the court’s complex. The lines that bound and define play are on this court as complex and convolved as a sculpture of string. There are lines going every which way, and they run oblique or meet and form relationships and boxes and rivers and tributaries and systems inside systems: lines, corners, alleys, and angles deliquesce into a blur at the horizon of the distant net.
The protagonist stands stunned, at a loss of where to serve. At the umpire’s prodding, his body remembers what his mind cannot:
The umpire whispers “Please Play.”
We sort of play. But it’s all hypothetical, somehow. Even the ‘we’ is theory: I never get quite to see the distant opponent, for all the apparatus of the game.
In understanding the apparatus of her games, Manna likewise returns to the gesture. Here, the touch of her swim coach’s hand can stand in for all the sexual slippage of a woman coming of age in water. The attention to male fingers at work is even more prominent in Blessed Blessed Oblivion (2010). In this piece, made at about the same time as The Umpire Whispers, the artist attempts to catalogue the thug culture of East Jerusalem by infiltrating its most sacred spaces — the car-body repair shop, the barbershop, the gym — with her camera. The twenty-three-minute video makes clear references to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), but departs occasionally into snatches of dialogue. Her leading men boast of mistreating the women who love them almost as proudly as they discuss the specifics of their car wash and its mysterious, better-than-wax finish. Here, as in The Umpire Whispers, Manna solicits confessions from the men by trading on her own half-formed femininity, affecting a sort of tomboyishness that structures the work even if Manna herself never appears. And so her subjects perform for her: from jokes about sex-starved old women and their toothy vaginas to sacred poems celebrating martyrdom to conspicuous bulges, resituating their tracksuits. In a nod to Anger, the various rituals — car waxes, close shaves, bicep curls — play out to a soundtrack of Syrian, Egyptian, and Lebanese pop music. Manna makes aggressive use of the camera, punctuating the images of hands at work with intrusions into the small spaces and overlooked nooks of the male body.
The erotic unpacking of constructions of masculinity is something of a ritual in itself for Manna. For her earlier body of photographs The Shabab Series (2006–2008), she snuck into boys’ bedrooms or lured them to her car window. But the artist isn’t interested in talking about this. As in, explicitly not interested. “I’m not just the girl who makes everything about masculinity and intimacy,” she argues (a claim which may or may not be influenced by her recent enrollment in the CalArts Master’s Program in Aesthetics and Politics.) “Right now, I’m actually really interested in history, in ideological narration, in finding those precise moments that alter the way we imagine things… You know?”
One of those moments just happens to revolve around another set of hand gestures from another set of men. The gestures in question derive from a widely disseminated photograph taken on September 13, 1993, in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the official signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. In the photo, Yitzhak Rabin reaches across the podium to grasp the hand of a beaming Yasser Arafat, while Bill Clinton stands in the background grinning, his arms goofily outstretched in imitation of achievement. The silliness of the staging is brought into relief by the (only recently revealed) history leading up to that moment. The agreement had not been the product of the long ongoing “official” sessions in Washington, DC, but rather, had been secretly negotiated over what political historian Deiniol Jones has famously called “the radical intimacy of the hearth,” in a secluded spot in Norway — what would become known as the Oslo Back Channel. Despite Clinton’s prominent positioning (“almost like a feudal king,” Manna muses), the United States had only been briefed on the negotiations a month or so before the signing. The picture-perfect presentation of “Peace in the Middle East” was actually just a photo-op for an interim agreement, largely symbolic.
Manna’s interest in the event was triggered by reading the articles of historian Hilde Henriksen Waage (author of articles such as “Norwegians? Who Needs Norwegians?” and — perhaps most pertinently — “How Norway Became One of Israel’s Best Friends”). The backstory to this symbolic agreement is as fraught with secrecies and insecurities as the confessions of The Umpire Whispers’s teenage swim team, with Norway trying to play BFF to Israel, the PLO, and the United States all at once.
“As a Palestinian-Israeli with American citizenship who has spent time living in Oslo, obviously this topic appeals to me on multiple levels,” Manna says. “But overall, I’ve been thinking about how you can deal with politics without just looking at the Other.”
Manna found a like-minded observer in a fellow CalArts student, the Norwegian artist Sille Storihle. Together the artists began to research the Back Channel, a particularly difficult undertaking given — as Waage discovered — most of the documentation of the proceedings has mysteriously vanished from the archives. Whatever it was that did happen, the Back Channel allowed Norway to rebrand itself as the world’s peacemaker. The artists use this idea as a starting point for a film currently in progress, which will attempt not so much to fill in the gaps around the Accords as to think through the manufacturing of a Norwegian national myth.
Prior to the Accords, Norway had existed on the fringe of the international consciousness, not just geographically, but as a generally self-sufficient nation (that pesky entanglement with the Swedes aside) without the ideological burden of a colonial past. The country had made nods toward peace activism with its Nobel Prize (though one should not forget that this award was endowed by the inventor of dynamite.) While clearly any small, independent country benefits from the peace of its neighbors, Waage also attributes the particular appeal of high-profile peacemaking to Norway’s deeper need for recognition, “a need to be actively involved in international affairs, which was built on a strong humanitarian tradition, a bulging wallet, and a self-image that cried, ‘Norway saves the world, therefore Norway exists.’”
To canonize its ideological affiliation with peace, in 1938, Norway commissioned Henrik Sørensen to create colorful commemorative murals all around Oslo’s City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. These murals make a mediated appearance in Manna and Storihle’s film as the inspiration for the backdrops of a children’s play that the artists stage. In stills from the play, costumed kids pose in storied moments of state-building, pointing to the historical narratives that have recently been rewritten to cement Norway’s heroic role. These are spliced with scenes of the countryside — a` la Nordic nature porn — that silence the idea of “the State” and instead allow the country to speak for itself.
While this film is still in process, the interest in staging and ideological narration carries over into another collaborative project with a CalArts connection: this time, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, by faculty member Norman Klein, which explores the social imaginary of the city. “Los Angeles is sort of the West of the West,” as Manna puts it. “A type of promised land.” In her research on the city, the artist has found some unlikely parallels with Jerusalem. “Before 1948, Jerusalem was a very different city — very cosmopolitan and multicultural. There was a bohemian and even hedonistic culture that’s all been lost.” Manna envisions the project taking the form of a script following a character who moves from Jerusalem to Los Angeles. “The starting point is looking at Los Angeles and Jerusalem as two of the most imagined and mythologized, but contrasting, cities in the world. I’m thinking, if these two cities had to meet, how would it be?”
After a moment’s pause, she adds: “I don’t just want to fetishize the lost details of history, though. Somehow, I want this to still investigate the present.” After another moment, she qualifies this statement: “But there are a lot of options I’m playing with at the moment.”
One thing is clear: Manna prefers her court complex. Please play?