Notes for the script (November 2020)
Gabriel Villota Toyos
"Close your eyes and observe what you see"
Najm ud din Kubra. [Persia SXII]
Scene 1. INTRODUCTION
Last spring, a year and a half ago now, Toni Serra and I corresponded briefly for the last time.
We’d known each other for a long time: our paths had crossed countless times, especially during the first half of the nineties when we were both in the trenches of video art. Indeed, Toni was a video artist, as well as editor of the magazine De Calor, co-founder of the group La 12 Visual, and co-director of the OVNI Archives… among many other things. But above all he was a being of light, inspired, touched by grace.
We hadn’t seen each other for years, but we were back in touch remotely, through Messenger. I was fascinated by his latest videos, steeped in Sufi mysticism, which he would send me links to. As for me, I had sent him my books of poems and drawings.
During one of these exchanges he told me that some friends had taken one of my books down to him in the Maghreb. He said it had pleased him to see my drawings of trees, because he always started his “invisible workshops” asking participants to draw a tree. To draw trees “from memory”, as we say in Spanish, “by heart”, in English. Because it’s not necessary to “look” with the eyes in order to “see”; the heart is sufficient…. (“Close your eyes and observe what you see,” wrote Persian philosopher and mystic Najm ud din Kubra).
The last time we exchanged messages, back in the spring of 2019, Toni told me that he was in Iran doing fieldwork in preparation for filming what would be his new work, funded by a Multiverso grant. He sent me some compelling photographs and spoke to me of being immersed in “a world of visions”, in which he was “asking to see” and “following the light”. We now know that his wish was granted…
What follows is a modest account of his journey towards that light, by revisiting his videos (the etymology of “video” is the Latin “I see”) and his words, taken from here and there, a mix of published texts and interviews.
Retracing some of the key ideas from his seminal text “Abrir la vision” (The Opening of Vision, 2016), this programme will try to chart a path through some images—images of great power—taken from his audio-visual works. I have organised them into thematic blocks that address some of Toni’s main aesthetic, personal, and spiritual interests.
Indeed, the path of Toni’s life runs parallel to the evolution of his artistic work. We could see both as an initiatory journey in which each stage inexorably leads to the next, eventually arriving at the “path of return”, which is the title he prophetically gave to the last programme that he organised with the OVNI Sisterhood, in late winter 2018. In retrospect, it all seems full of meaning…
Scene 2. THE IMAGE AS A VEIL
Toni often used the image of a veil to explain the impossibility of “seeing” in a society like ours, exponentially made up of thousands or millions of images surrounding us on, around, and through screens and devices of all kinds. The “iconosphere” in which we live is a product of what Debord called the “spectacle”, which turns our sight “into a kind of blindness”. This blindness does not just entail the impossibility of “seeing”, it also reduces our capacity for direct experience of the world, gradually replacing that experience with other kinds of media/mediated pseudo-realities that have colonised “our realities and our dreams”.
Today, these ubiquitous images constitute the World, or Reality, which appears before us as a convention resulting from language and from the technology developed within its framework: this is the veil that Toni draws our attention to.
But the veil can be torn, cracks can appear: in traditional societies, this happens by entering trance states, journeys that enable processes of transformation, initiatory journeys, journeys of knowledge consisting of many successive veils of light and shadows. Journeys like that of Sri Ramana Maharshi, the mystic for whom travelling the 70 kilometres from his home to Arunachal Hill turned out to be a true, astral, cosmic journey.
These moments of rupture bring us into contact with other hidden dimensions of Reality, and they sometimes came about as a result of exploring the OVNI archives, or Toni’s own work. The veil is concealment and it is also the precondition that makes vision possible. Thus, it allows us to experience beauty and Reality itself.
Scene 3. THE MASTER FILM
We must leverage the cracks that appear in the outer layer of Reality and learn to “see them”: the doorway is always open, it is just a matter of being able to stop what Toni called “the master film”.
Toni’s audio-visual work always oscillated between the search for inner light and an activist critique of the mass media. Not as contradictory opposites but, on the contrary, with a keen awareness of their profound complementarity. This is why his body of work now shines through: an exceptional beacon illuminating the bleak landscape of images and the modern world.
Based on an awareness of our being trapped in the contemporary iconosphere resulting from the “great audio-visual production machine” that is all around us, Toni shows how the conglomerate of private and public corporations—the powers that be in the capitalist world—continuously builds a shared imaginary in the form of a “master film” that is sold to us as “reality”. In this context, he alerts us to the transformation of images into a veil: images that hide more than they show and come together, generating a master film “that spreads out, covering the entire field of vision,” like a “social instrument of blindness”. But while the “logic of the market” has played a major part in this master film through the exponential proliferation of devices for capturing, editing, and disseminating images, the same logic has allowed unprecedented access to images. This in turn enables a kind of “tearing of the veil”, or, to put it in different terms also used by Toni, it enables the “hacking of the master film.” This is the task of independent audio-visual production.
Scene 4. THE ARCHIPELAGO-IMAGE
Once the veil has been torn, once the master film has been stopped by means of independent practices, we can talk about a process of “decolonising vision”, which Toni associates with the emergence of a “rhizome of diverse imaginaries” through which it becomes possible to embark on the process of the “opening of vision”. In other words, “recovering the awareness of the transformative and visionary, oracular, and healing power of vision; restoring it to the body and to the spirit, beyond the realm of optics.”
Perhaps it is these imaginaries arising from the rhizome that Toni invited us to imagine as a kind of “archipelago of island-imaginaries”. We can sail amongst them, knowing that under the water we are supported by the hidden structure of the rhizome, as part of the “hidden world of the silent and invisible realm from which everything springs.”
It is worth noting that Toni played a very active role in a generation of video artists that emerged in the early nineties—which I have elsewhere referred to as the “independent video sphere”—, characterised by an ongoing struggle to be recognised by the Spanish art world, which had systematically overlooked and even eradicated experimental visual arts. Crucially, Toni dedicated much of his energy to collaborative, horizontal, networked practices in which the role of the artist was necessarily that of “producer”, in Walter Benjamin’s terms. From his time in La 12 Visual in the mid-nineties to the founding of the OVNI collective a few years later (with which he continued to work, organising OVNI festivals and numerous other projects that continue to this day), Toni Serra, like many of his generational peers, assembled programmes, generated festivals, distributed works, wrote texts, edited publications, and also produced a beautiful collection of video works.
Scene 5. PATH OF RETURN. ENDING
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill, where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.
"The Breeze of Dawn”, Rumi.
The last OVNI programme that Toni presented with his fellow members of the OVNI Sisterhood took place in March 2018. As mentioned earlier, it had a strange, premonitory title: “path of return”. A path that was, as the subtitle stated, populated by “visions, silence, darkness”. The introductory text written by Toni directly addressed death through the “middle world” of Sufi mysticism, and referred both to “the experience of physical death and the deaths of the ego”. Trance states had by then led us into a neighbouring territory, as had the states that occur during sleep, specifically at the precise moment of falling asleep.
The presence of figures such as Al Khidr (The Green Man) were also a reference to those who dwell between worlds: Al Khidr is a guide, an incorporeal master who accompanies us on these crossings. Other familiar moments of transition between the two worlds are dawn and dusk, when the other world fleetingly appears, allowing us a momentary glimpse of its presence.
After that OVNI programme, Toni probably began to focus on the final project, for which he had received a Multiverso grant from the BBVA Foundation. He was especially excited about travelling to Iran, where he was to encounter the roots of classical Persian Sufism. He filmed images in the spring of 2019, and planned to go back in the autumn, but by then he could not travel. The “path of return” prevailed.
Thanks to Rosa Llop, Laura Baigorri, Alex Muñoz, Toni Cots, and Barbara Held, we now have at least some of the images that he left; raw footage that gives us an idea of what he was able to discern along the way.
Images that allow us to embark on "the opening of vision".