Courtesy of Amnesty International, a pair of images has been published in various news platforms depicting the recent Boko Haram atrocities in two Nigerian towns. Amnesty website notes “provide indisputable and shocking evidence of the scale of last week’s attack on the towns of Baga and Doron Baga by Boko Haram militants.”
These images support the news story of large-scale destruction and slaughter of up to 2000 civilians according to various sources including the BBC, Guardian, NPR, etc, however Nigerian government disputes this figure. What is more or less agreed upon, is significant destruction and death and images (paired with witness/survivor testimony) that support this claim.
What is striking about these images, is a spread of red tinted spots of various sizes that cover the images. Due to the images’ context, one can immediately make associations between the color of the spots and blood of the victims. One can imagine that red spots in fact represent the position of the victims and their size represent the number of casualties at each different site, which could be houses in the village, etc.
A closer look at the caption however tells us that in fact the red spots do not represent carnage, but rather show the vegetation courtesy of the infrared technology used to produce the images. It is the claim to indexicality of a scientific image used as evidence in a news report that renders the foliage of the destroyed villages the color of bloodshed. Researchers, including Guy Deutscher note how the development of language affects our perception of the world, by looking at the Homeric eye and the ancient Greek’s inability to see the color of the sky before naming it. It was the medium of language that painted the sky blue. This is similar to how theorists such as Kittler relate the development of media to human’s understanding of the world. Similarly these images show how our eyes are being transformed by the technologies of seeing and conditions of visibility. Such images complicate the relationship between language and image where the word green could signify the color red and red could be described as green. How long before we look at an image of red foliage and see trees?
The film is movie within a movie, showing a group of Indonesian former executioners and current members of the paramilitary group Pancasila Youth reenact the killing of communist, and socialist affiliated civilian population. The killings were carried out by direct support of western governments and US in particular and an estimated number of 500,000 to 2,500,000 people were killed between 1956-66 after the failed military coup that eventually lead to the fall of Sukarno and the commencement of Suharto’s thirty-year military dictatorship. The people responsible for these acts were never prosecuted, Pancasila runs strong with more than three million members and many of the killers enjoy political or economical positions in the military government and the governments that followed after the resignation of Suharto.
Co-directors Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian director, interviewed a few dozen of executioners who boasted about the killings and most offered to take the directorial team to the locations where these acts were carried out. The movie follows the acts of one of the most prominent killers and a forefathers of Pancasila Youth, Anwar Congo who was also a member of the movie house gangsters, a group of thugs that gathered around movie theaters, scalping tickets as a side-gig – their main gigs being illegal gambling, running prostitution rings, smuggling, etc.
Oppenheimer mentions that his initial intention was to tell the stories of the victims which was faced with restrictions, arrests and compensation of tapes by the military and secret police. Given the boastfulness of the perpetrates, he was suggested by one [or relative of] of the survivors to let the killers explain what happened.
The movie theater gangsters, or preman in Indonesian, where recruited by the army to carry out the killings in the northern region of Sumatra. They were doubly motivated by the ban of American movies by the Sukarno government as it caused “dinner to miss the belly,” as explained by one of the thugs in the movie.
Anwar, inspired by American movies that he related to, comes up with elaborate sets and costumes to recreate and reenact the acts of killing carried out by him and his fellow preman. The movie shows the production of Anwar’s movie, with documentary footage interspersed with clips from the movie and behind the scene footage. [the movie is released and plot and descriptions are available online]
1- Act of killing, the deed, the taking of another human beings life, murder. The act of killing, acting and performing of the taking of another human being, acting as in theater and in film; the image of murder.
2- The American movie hero, the outlaw, the fugitive, the rebel. The image of freedom. Preman comes from the Dutch word for “free man.” The movie theater gangsters are/were free man, wanted to do whatever they wanted, similar to their film stars, “Al Pacino, Brando, Wayne” who portrayed the image of the free subject of neo-liberalism.
3- Image wars—the ban of American movies, motivated the movie theater thugs to join the killing squads. They walked across the street from the theater, intoxicated by the silver screen and carried out their deeds on the upper level of the newspaper office, they killed “happily.” The image of freedom against the image of equality, the image of capitalism against the image of socialism—In one of the interrogation scenes Anwar ironically tries to stuff a “neo-colonial” cigar between the lips of the victim.
4- The image of the perpetrator—In one of the scenes a fellow executioner, following the scene of interrogation and killing of a communist notes how this movie, if successful is bad for our “image,” meaning the image of those in power with direct links to the purge. While it is true that “we were the cruel ones,” if the movie is a success, it will contradict the claims of likes of Anwar that the communists were cruel. Image and counter image.
5- The spectator— the movie, does not deliver the victim testimony, the images of the victim reliving the horror of genocide, the new media footage, the image that re-victimizes the survivors. The survivors, who in fact solicited the documentation of the perpetrators, remove themselves from the field of representation and let the killers speak of their deeds. It is the labor of the spectator that imagines, and goes through the horror, not the survivor, not the victim, the viewer is required to participate in imagining what went on in the torture and execution chambers, the spectator is invited to suffer.
6- Executioner as artist? What about the notion that the movie posits the killer as a filmmaker, as an artist. To this, I will end with Thierry de Duve’s conclusion in Art in the Face of Radical Evil. To call Anwar an artist, “testifies to the impossibility of claiming to speak on behalf of all of us without speaking for the evil part of humankind as well s for the peaceful and civilized.” Anwar speaks for the evil, while it is up to the spectator to address the victims.
Akram Zaatari’s two channel installation On Photography People and Modern Times presents a “subjective story of the Arab Image Foundation” in Beirut. Co-founded by Zaatari, the foundation is a non-profit organization established in Beirut in 1997 with the mission “to collect, preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora.” The foundation is an expanding archive with over 600,000 photographs.
A lo-fi version of the piece is available at:
On Photography… features a two-channel installation of interviews with a number of image donors to the AIF, conducted by Zaatari. One screen shows a plot image of a table that includes tapes of interviews, a video camera with the display facing up, a fraction of a monitor display, and images of the photographs donated to AIF by the interviewee. The screen on the right features an eye level image of the same table, where we can now see the monitor, the interviewee, the video camera from the side (but not the display) and the torso of the archivist, whose gloved hands we can also see in the left side image.
The image in the monitor and the display unit of the video camera is a moving image, a video of the interview. The archivist however is rendered as a time-lapse video, where the archivist presents photographs in split frames, a different temporal logic that the image that occupies the same surface. At times we can even see the interviewee sitting behind the archive table. A subtitle appears above the image, overlapping the two split screens. The end result is a video, that includes three different temporal logic of the photograph, video and time-lapse video. The piece further includes the linguistic dimension, both oral and textual—in form of subtitles.
The piece analyzes a combination of visual and archival temporalities simultaneously and within a single split screen. It examines the archival apparatus of conservation (note the gloved hands of the archivist), presentation, narration and also the desire of the archivist him/herself. Why to collect, “we lived in a country in which everything was being destroyed and falling apart, and photographed presented a totally different reality,” an interviewee notes and says how in the face of destruction, by collecting photographs “he could reconstruct the past and the present.
The piece concerns how we respond to different modes of engagement with archival material—splinters of historical time’s inscription on technologies of representation and narration. At the heart of the work lies the photograph, and the institution (AIF), the story (the donor’s account), the work (On Photography People and Modern Times), all present various modes of approaching and interpreting the photographic image, which itself points to a particular moment in time. Zaatari points to the slit between these various modes of engagement, starting from splitting the work itself into two screens. The split between the image—both moving and still—and word, the photograph and video, the still frame and natural frame rate (which itself now varies depending on the technology). The slit between the camera and the display, between the narrator and the narrated. The construction of memory via, archival modes of conservation and presentation, by technologies of memory and recollection. This presents the then of now, the recognition of the past in the present moment, as Benjamin suggests. The image, in Nancy’s formulation, gives presence to an absence. The archive in turn, makes the absence visible.
In the afternoon hours of May 1, 2011, president Obama and his national security team were watching the livestream of operation Neptune Spear. The Situation Room, a photograph of the group of insiders who had direct, immediate access to this footage, shows the VIPs gathered around a table covered with laptops, paper cups and files staring at some kind of display unit, as football fans would be watching the super bowl. Instead they are watching the live broadcast of the execution of the top most wanted man in the world. At the time of this elite group’s gathering in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, the rest of the world is unaware of the hunt of the top most wanted man in the world in the city of Abbottabad in Pakistan. In other words, at the moment that this highly mediated event of near future was livestreamed and documented, outside of a certain security clearance, the present had not yet arrived. The people in this photograph were posing for the future, they were living in the near future.
The total fragmentation of presence, provided/facilitated by the mediatization of life and distributed according accessibility creates a new temporal topography. As such the presence can be managed and future designed. Bin Laden was executed in the future and dumped on the present and thus its not surprising that his body was never recovered. Its recovery requires an archeology of the future. Had the operation failed, the event had never taken place.
In Fate of Art in the Age of Terror, Boris Groys notes how the contemporary terrorist/warrior exhausts the media possibilities at hand and produces images—of shock and awe— that have “an uncanny aesthetic similarity with alternative, subversive European and American art and filmmaking of the 60-and 70s.” In particular Groys compares the gory photographs of Abu Ghraib for instance to Viennese Actionism, Pasolini etc. Yet, he notes that although there might be a similar subversive underpinnings to both types of imagery they follow two complete different trajectories: while the modern art tendencies to “be radical, daring, taboobreaking, going beyond all the limitations and borders,” is iconoclastic at large, terrorists in contrary want to produce icons. While the former is concerned with critique of the representational qualities of the image and its relationship to the real, the later in turn desires to show the real and to be taken as representation of the real. Groys opens the article by noting how before the age of mechanical reproduction, the warrior was dependent on the artist to be mounumentalized and for his heroic actions to be narrativized and depicted. But now, the fighter is free from this dependency and has full control over the documentation and dissemination of his actions.
Still, these acts of terror, from the most common depictions of atrocities to the most choreographed examples are carried out in battlefields, public urban or rural spaces or terrorist hideouts. As such, while the visual strategies of these actions might share some attributes with the avant-garde, the venues of presentation is essentially different from that of designated space of art. Even public executions, however meticulously planned are—rather strategically—staged in busy public squares and intersections.
Yet recently on January 20th 2013, a group of “thugs” or “outlaws,” were executed in front of “Khaneh Honarmandan,” (Artist’s House), an arts and cultural center in downtown Tehran with exhibition and performance spaces. It created an uproar in social media spaces and also the news media. The highly choreographed event was widely documented and photographs of the event from the start to conclusion were distributed over the internet and beyond. To go back to Groy’s analogy, what makes this event significant (not in an ethical and moral point of view, which is obvious and widely discussed on the net) is again this intersection of art and terror or bare power of state in this instance. Here, the exhibition space is appropriated by the state to display its force and as such the state also displays the desire to become art. As such, government and judiciary also become components of the art of the state as performances, exhibitions, and events. If the forces of power, terror and war have the capability to utilize media similar to the artist, they also share the desire to exhibit their aesthetic productions. While of course the spaces of art—for the most part—have far less capacity than mass media, internet, public squares, parks or stadiums, but they do present certain aesthetic and symbolic possibilities that such venues cannot offer. The state as icon finds its last resort in the exhibition space, which nevertheless follows certain ontology and a historical movement as Groys also notes in his essay. By inhabiting the space of art, the state opens itself to critique.
We did what many others were doing. We made images and we turned the volume up too high. With any image: Vietnam. Always the same sound, always too loud, Prague, Montevideo, May ’68 in France, Italy, Chinese Cultural Revolution, strikes in Poland, torture in Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Chile, Palestine, the sound so loud that it ended up drowning out the voice that it wanted to get out of the image. Here and Elsewhere, 1976, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville
Eyal Weizman differentiates between pedagogical violence and total or absolute violence. While the former functions linguistically where in addition to eliminating the intended targets it communicates with the survivors, the latter is exercised to wipe out the subject completely, and/or to produce a new subject—and as such introduce a new language. Yet, the pedagogical violence functions as long as a gap between the actual and possible violence is maintained and thus it is a discursive form that manages this space that it first defines and then opens it for negotiations. The form of violence exercised by the Israeli military in Gaza belongs to the first order of violence but it is to achieve the results of the second order (one can of course imagine any form of pedagogical violence an absolute form if it is exercised systematically in a large-scale to produce new subjects. As for instance penal violence is expected to transform the subject).
The total elimination of the subject, in this case the Palestinians, is not solely a military job, but rather it is a media operation that manages and supports the military to achieve its goals. It functions on two separate layers: the image and the voice. The media simultaneously presents and distributes the mute images of Palestinian dead and wounded and the voice of Israeli officials and pundits who frame the invasion as retaliation, a response to a rocket strike by Hamas militants. The Palestinians, the victims of the mortars are revictimized in the image—the mute dead, traumatized or severely injured subject. We see dead Palestinians and hear living Israelis. The words belong to the living and the images to the dead, and as we know the dead cannot talk unless summoned from the underworld.