The Art of Failure: On the Films of Chris Kraus

The Art of Failure: On the Films of Chris Kraus
(Portrait of Chris Kraus by Reynaldo Rivera)

In 2011, Brooklyn’s Real Fine Arts presented an exhibition of rarely-screened films by artist, critic, and novelist Chris Kraus. As Kraus wrote in the show’s accompanying essay: “These films have nothing to do with me now. Their exhibition comes too late to feel like a vindication. Nevertheless it’s a pleasure — an abstract affirmation of a practice I’m no longer involved in but will never recant.”

Kraus has publicly and frequently labeled her films — eight in total made between 1983 and 1996 — as failures. Roughly produced on shoestring budgets and often concerned with complex political and theoretical issues, Kraus’s films don’t subscribe to cathartic emotionalism, rigorous formalism, or pure visual pleasure. They’re not quite at home in conceptual, documentary, or narrative genres; they work with a wide aesthetic palette that accommodates stagy performativity, pointed gender critique, and highbrow textual sources. In “Foolproof Illusion” (1986), Kraus interjects footage of herself complaining about her violent husband and building a snowman in her underwear with readings of work by French playwright Antonin Artaud. For “How to Shoot a Crime,” 1987, Kraus collaborated with her then-husband, literary theorist Sylvère Lotringer, to create a film consisting of both gruesome crime-scene footage and Lotringer’s interviews with dominatrices. Her films promise cerebral complexity without strictly catering to a theoretical mindset — they’re funny, disconcerting, and at times, outraged.


Yet Kraus’s films found audiences only in fellow artists or friends, where curators and critics ignored them. And Kraus’s later repudiation of her film work marked a split in her career. In 1997, Kraus published her well-known autobiographical epistolary novel "I Love Dick," and from that point on, sculpted out a niche as a fiction writer and art critic, with an expanding, devoted fanbase and increasingly influential body of work. In novels like "Summer of Hate" (2012) and "Torpor" (2006), or criticism anthologies "Video Green" (2004) and "Where Art Belongs" (2011), Kraus established an authorial voice that nimbly navigates genres of confessional autobiography, academic essay, and savvy art writing. Kraus’s fiction has arguably overshadowed her criticism, yet in her work on modern and contemporary art, Kraus established a writerly paradigm that took as its starting point the interweaving of personal experience, aesthetic evaluation, and sociopolitical history. The interest in Kraus’s writing in turn nourished a rekindled interest in her film work: since 2008, her films have (officially) been shown in Berlin, Vienna, London, Melbourne, and New York.

Last week, Montreal’s Centre des arts actuels Skol held a screening of “Gravity and Grace” — a film titled after the mystical screed of French philosopher Simone Weil — as part of summer programming curated by Centre for Feminist Pedagogy (CFP), a mobile collective led by writers Jen Kennedy and Ania Wroblewski. Weil features prominently in Kraus’s autobiographical and ambitiously intertextual chronicle “Aliens & Anorexia,” in which the production of “Gravity and Grace” is woven in with stories of the lives and deaths of artists Paul Thek and Ulrike Meinhof, alongside a re-telling of “Gravity” itself. In the book, Kraus writes on her earlier film: “But ‘Gravity and Grace’ was just so unappealing. It was an amateur intellectual’s home-video expanded to bulimic lengths’.” Skol and the CFP’s challenge was to make palatable a film that until recently had only been regarded by critics and its creator, alike, as a failure to be forgotten.

It’s easy to take either position, to see “Gravity and Grace” as the washed-up finale of a stunted career move, or as the early exploration in a body of work that too quickly dropped off. In “Aliens,” Krauss documents in painful detail the catastrophic filming process and funding situation behind “Gravity,”­ Kraus’s own relative lack of training joined with an erratic co-producer and inflated budget. And it shows: shots careen in and out of focus, questionable dubbing replaces much of the recorded dialogue, and the acting at times remains ambiguously convincing.

Yet the film's appeal is arguably found precisely in the layers of failure operating throughout: it’s an unsucessful film about failure in a book largely about failing. Or, to gloss the film’s plot: Gravity and Grace are two college students in New Zealand (where Kraus grew up), turning tricks with wealthy tourists for both titillation and profit. Grace comes across a group of average-yet-slightly-pathetic suburban New Zealanders, who effectively operate as a cult. They're holding out for messages from a mysterious deity, who will rescue them from an immanently approaching apocalyptic flood. Gravity remains skeptical, while Grace ingratiates herself.

On the prophesized night of reckoning, the group, already taunted by neighbors and having quit all real-life obligations, notices their devotion has come to naught. Initially devastated, they then believe that they have in fact saved the world, redeeming themselves as the deity's champions. They burst into ecstatic cheer, Grace included. Disgusted with the group's delusion, Gravity flees New Zealand to make it as an artist in New York, where she soon finds herself teaching English while trying to show work. The film ends after a disappointing meeting with a caricaturish New Museum curator, played by Kraus herself, who excessively spouts so much empty art theory (“The sublime has always been on the side of shit. Face it, Gravity, your work just isn’t shitty enough. It’s illustrative of the peripheral conditions of shit.”). The film ends with the curator’s rejection of Gravity’s exhibition, who leaves and looks into a desolate New York skyline as credits roll.    

As Kraus herself noted, the film’s length overstays its welcome. The two sections feel like two separate conjoined films, harsh in their contrast of tone and style. Yet the lingering ending opens up the film’s thematic concerns. As Gravity receives more bad career news, the film poses the question: when faced with the collapse of your hopes, better to spin failure into more naïve fantasy or come to terms with its deadening consequences? Despite the halted doomsday, Gravity perpetually hears of Grace’s career successes as the former toils in her studio; Gravity’s realism earns her no more than Grace’s optimism. Kraus equates the cult’s blind faith with the New York artworld’s narcissistic cluelessness. Yet the film is never moralizing or entirely resentful: when the New Zealanders cheer their new status as saviors on the thwarted night of destruction, Ceal, the group’s privileged communicator to their deity and recent recruit, walks away in stunned desolation, her hopes in a genuinely new form of living shattered. Failure and success replace each other with confusing alacrity.

Such a dynamic has long motivated Kraus’s work both on the page and screen. Critics in both Artforum and the New York Times praised the 2011 Brooklyn exhibition, acknowledging but refusing the artist’s self-deprecatory evaluation. But to identify the film’s technical holdups seems besides the point: “Gravity and Grace” places its flaws on center stage not simply for practical reasons, but also to dramatize the act of failing itself. The films blurs and confuses the binary of “success” and “failure,” opening up an art-making that is personal without being indulgent, and risky without being sensationalist. 

In this sense, Kraus’s filmmaking mirrors her criticism, which has gained so much currency among a younger generation precisely because it disavows a clinically evaluative way of looking at art. As CFP's Jen Kennedy told ARTINFO CanadaIn many ways, Kraus's films are a first attempt to do what she later accomplishes in her writing: to actualize a mode of performative criticism that breaks down the separation between ideas and emotions. This is a powerful mode of operating and it's what made us want to show 'Gravity and Grace' in the context of the CFP.” Kraus's work confuses, trips-up, and confounds the attempts we make to separate art from the personal and the political. Art, in “Gravity and Grace,” “Aliens & Anorexia,” and the rest of Kraus’s output, seems to mirror such a perspective, claiming responsibility for articulating, answering, and accelerating the oscillations of success and failure.