The Right to One’s Self-Image

July 8, 2016 Comments off

First published in:  Documentary Across Disciplines, Edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg

 

 

As you remember, nitrocellulose can be used to make either bombs, like the anarchists, or roll film, like the Viennese police. Between these two barrages, the anarchistic and the photographic, the human as collective individual explodes.

Friedrich Kittler[1]

 

This essay is a proposition. It is located between the two concepts of privacy and publicity rights – every individual’s right to their own image and their protection against its commercial use. Its main focus is on the image economy of photojournalism and the position of the photographed subject therein. Does the subject have any rights over his or her image? How do these rights affect the production, exchange, and circulation of a person’s image? In response to the photograph’s universal claim to show the plight and joy of humans to humans, is it possible to imagine an economy administered and regulated by a universal legal structure? How can such a “law of images” contribute to creating a more just visual culture vis-à-vis the common image of humanity?

 

***

 

Every image has a material foundation, and so every image is matter. Aesthetics discusses the surplus of the image, that which makes it beautiful or sublime, or which makes it cute, interesting, poignant, affecting, chilling, or any other kind of adjective used to describe how an image generates an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer. But an image is also a point in a series of material relations and is a part of an economy – what we can call an image economy. This includes an interconnected and diverse network of producers and consumers, distributors and mediators. From paintings and drawings to etchings, photographs, and digital images, all rely on a material infrastructure that is propelled by an industry, economically sustained and managed. In the case of painting, we can think of a chain of materials including the canvas, the pigments, the finish, the paintbrush, the stretcher, the frame, etc.; all those who manufacture, distribute, and sell these products; and also the painting itself as an object that is produced and traded in a marketplace with its own infrastructure and material foundation. This notion of the material foundation of the image goes back to the birth of art history and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Writing in 77 A.D., Pliny, as Georges Didi-Huberman explains, proposes a juridical and material conception of the image. Painting was no more than a “material process to be used in finishing the wax molds of the faces of the ‘ancestors.’” This process was to achieve extreme likeness. The image also, in advance of any art historical notion, was understood as a “molding of resemblance destined to legitimize the position of the individual in the genealogical institution of the Roman gens.[2] The materiality of painting as a process to create likeness was paired with a ritual of private law that maintained the legitimacy of the halls of ancestors.

Photography also has an expansive material and industrial foundation, one that ranges from the producers of silver emulsion and celluloid to all the minerals extracted from mines; from the chemicals used to develop and fix the image to all the devices and machines used in the lab; from the paper to all that is required to produce and make it available; and, of course, the camera itself. Photography was enabled by the industrial mode of production and came of age as the economic condition of industrialism became the dominant mode for the production and distribution of goods. Photography is, then, perhaps both a symptom of and metonym for the commodity form. Théodore Maurisset’s lithograph La daguerreotypomanie (Daguerrotypomania, 1839), created only two years after the invention of the technology, shows how a whole economy and way of life was set in motion by the heliocentric image industry of photography. Every human activity is subsumed under the photographic image: every store becomes an image store, every spectacle becomes a photographic subject. All performers, from the tightrope walker to the juggler, become images of themselves. As historian of photography Roberta McGrath suggests, Maurisset “depicts photography as a commercial product and a microcosm of industrialisation itself.”[3] With photography, mechanical production expanded beyond the walls of factories and became available to consumers en masse. In the center of the image stands the Susse Frères’ commercial showroom. Cutting the image in half, it suggests that the photographic studio has become a site of production, situated at the Human actions, the lithograph suggests, are seemingly performed for the photographic image. William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograph Carpenter and Apprentice (1844), which shows two men sawing, paused mid-action, serves as a great example of how the world posed for photography and, as image production accelerated, started to spin to its pace. The camera on top of the studio in Maurisset’s lithograph is also a clock, perhaps commenting on the synchronization of time, life, and labor that occurred with the introduction of the camera.

The image is a site of convergence for all these vectors. It is what becomes visible to the eye – an opening, a window to the world, but one that is built out of its own material architecture. It is said that an image covers or conceals what it is made of, but no more than any other commodity, no more than a table conceals a tree. It is clear that there is a vast network of economic and social relations that inhere in the production of an image. The photographer is only one of the many parties involved in this economy, all of whom possess various degrees of investment and profit. The photographer is a consumer and a producer at the same time, similar to the workers in the silver factory or the owners of the photo lab. All parties consume images, as well as other commodities that contribute to the production and delivery of photography. Thus regardless of the aesthetic discourse, which analyzes the perception of the image by the senses and the mind, every image is a metonym of economic and social networks of production.

As Talbot’s Carpenter and Apprentice and Maurisset’s La daguerrotypomanie suggest, from the outset one of photography’s main concerns was the depiction of everyday life. While the technology at first required the staging of human life for the camera due to extensive processing time, with the arrival of the Kodak box camera in 1888, life’s fleeting moments were captured instantly. The camera penetrated all aspects of life from the living room to the battlefield, from farmlands to mortuaries. It was the camera that placed death back into the stream of life, at a time when modern institutions were sweeping it away from the everyday.

Photography’s ability to capture moments of danger gave rise to the discipline of photojournalism, which captures and distributes images of people in the face of natural and manmade disasters. Included are those photographed knowingly or unknowingly, whose lives are threatened by outside forces, who are about to vanish, or who are stripped of the material, cultural, social, and political layers that protect the lives of human beings. They are exposed to the gaze of strangers. These images use the photographic claim to objectivity to communicate to viewers something that they would otherwise not know about – that is, the pain and suffering of other human beings in another place and another context. Yet, in addition to the dire living conditions depicted, many such photographs represent economic deprivation, a condition outside or on the margins of the economy. Starving children or encamped asylum seekers are not only deprived of many basic human needs such as food, clean water, and shelter; they are further deprived of the possibility to decide how they are to be represented. These people are, in the etymological sense of the word, “exposed”: they are left without shelter or defense, while also being exposed to the camera. The moral and ethical conditions of photojournalism have been discussed at length by scholars and academics: what are the respective roles of the photographer and the viewer in this scenario? What are their moral obligations and what are their responsibilities? What are the rights to one’s image and how can these rights be established, protected, and, if necessary, defended?

Legally, the protection of one’s image or likeness falls under the categories of privacy and publicity law. As Susanne Bergmann explains, the latter is a concept originally rooted in the right to privacy and developed to protect the commercial interests of celebrities. The right to privacy safeguards against “injuries to a person’s dignity and state of mind, measured by mental distress damages,” while the right to publicity aims to protect the potential commercial exploitation of a person’s identity, image, and likeness and thus can be compared to property rights.[4] In the United States, the first to discuss the notion of a right to privacy were Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, in their seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right To Privacy.” Chronicling various laws put in place to protect the individual – from the right to life and property to the regulation of nuisance and libel – they discuss “the right to be left alone,” particularly in the face of rapid technological developments. They write, “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life[…]. For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.”[5] Similar discussions take place around the same time in different parts of the world. Friedrich Kittler, for instance, talks about a 1902 German Reich law granting citizens rights to their own image that “protects them against the misuse of photography.”[6]

Yet cases concerning the right to self-representation are mainly considered through publicity rights. In the United States and elsewhere, such cases focus mainly on the financial interests of the photographer or publisher and whether the subject has any rights to profits incurred by virtue of being depicted in the image. The subject’s property – his or her image, likeness, or personality – is not by default protected by a governing legal body that has established a distribution model for such profits gained; rather, it is only upon filing suit that the court will decide if any violation has occurred and, if so, what kind of remuneration will be awarded.

The first publicity rights case that was brought to the United States Supreme Court involved the 1972 television broadcast of a performance by Hugo Zacchini, a “human cannonball,” at the Geauga County Fair in Burton, Ohio. Zacchini’s fifteen-second act aired in its entirety on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, a subsidiary of Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company[1]. Zacchini sued Scripps-Howard, alleging that the local reporter “showed and commercialized the film of his act without his consent,” and that such conduct was an “unlawful appropriation of plaintiff’s professional property.”[7] He argued that airing the performance in its entirety would reduce attendance and result in a loss of revenue. In 1977, the Court reversed the Ohio State Court’s initial decision in favor of the broadcasting company, referring to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, and citing that, “Amendments do not immunize the news media when they broadcast a performer’s entire act without his consent.”[8] Yet, in most cases, the two mentioned amendments generally grant immunity to the defendants in suits concerning privacy and publicity rights. The protection of freedom of speech and thus of artistic expression makes it difficult for plaintiffs to claim any rights to their images. Therefore, the right to privacy stands in conflict with the right to expression and is generally considered a less defensible kind of freedom unless it involves a large enough commercial violation for it to be considered by the higher courts. For example, in the case brought by Erno Nussenzweig, a retired diamond seller, against photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia after appearing without consent in one of the latter’s images, the New York Supreme Court held that the photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of his subjects. Nussenzweig claimed that the photographer had violated his right to privacy – as his lawyer put it, his client “ha[d] lost control over his own image” – but the court sided with the defense’s argument that freedom of artistic expression is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.[9] Thus, as Warren and Brandeis noted more than a century ago, unless there is a legal injury, unlike Roman law our system does not account for mental and emotional injuries: “However painful the mental effects upon another of an act, though purely wanton or even malicious, yet if the act itself is otherwise lawful, the suffering inflicted is dannum absque injuria [loss without injury].[10]

While Nussenzweig’s “dignity” was invaded, Florence Owens Thompson felt ashamed by the photograph of her that was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression.[11] Hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Lange travelled across derelict American landscapes to document the plight of the poor and displaced. In March 1936, Thompson and her family set up a temporary camp in the Imperial Valley in southeastern California after their car broke down near a pea-pickers’ camp. Lange visited the camp and took a number of photographs, one of which became the Migrant Mother (1936), an iconic image of the Great Depression. Yet, years later, in a story reported by the Associated Press in 1978, Thompson expressed how she was exploited by Lange’s portrait: “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture[…]. I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”[12] In a CNN interview, her daughter Katherine McIntosh said of the photo, “We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.”[13] This is yet another example of unaccounted for commercial and emotional injuries suffered by a photographed subject with no rights over her image’s circulation and exchange.

Departing from Warren and Brandeis, in 1964’s “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Edward J. Bloustein proposes that the issue of privacy should be regarded as a dignity tort. He argues that,

 

the harm caused [by the violation of privacy] is not one which may be repaired and the loss suffered is not one which may be made good by an award of damages. The injury is to our individuality, to our dignity as individuals, and the legal remedy represents a social vindication of the human spirit thus threatened rather than a recompense for the loss suffered.[14]

 

Bloustein argues that if the Fourth Amendment protects the privacy and thus the emotional and mental tranquility of the individual against government intrusion, the United States does have the legal tradition to protect such rights in civil cases involving similar issues.

Yet every day, the industry of photojournalism produces numerous images documenting human life and distributes them across the globe in newspapers, websites, and other news media outlets. Most of these images are produced without the consent of their subjects by professional photographers and, with the rise of citizen journalism, an increasing number of amateurs. The claims that these photographs make are similar to those made by The Family of Man, the 1955 exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Edward Steichen, the exhibition featured “subjects pertinent to all cultures, such as love, children, and death.” It “focused on the commonalties that bind people and cultures around the world” and served “as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.”[15] In the words of Dorothea Lange’s open letter to photographers of the world, this exhibition attempted to “show Man to Man across the world[…] to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man. Nothing short of that will do.”[16] The same appeal to human dignity is used both in defense of and against photography’s depiction of the individual in the face of life and, ultimately, death. For instance, in “One Image Right Can Sweep Away Another,” Jacques Rancière notes that genocide and other kinds of human atrocity deny a “primary ‘right to the image,’ prior to any individual’s ownership of his/her image” which he calls “the right to be included in the image of common humanity.”[17] Referring to two proposed bills in France – one prohibiting the publication of images of crime suspects wearing handcuffs and the second prohibiting the publication of image of individuals in “situations that undermine their dignity” – Rancière laments the commercialization of the human image via the proposed publicity laws.[18] He argues that this direction of the law will eventually restrict the representation of the underprivileged who are already lacking representation in the political sphere and as such will also become less visible in the visual sphere. But the question still remains as to whether or not the representation of those in “undignified” conditions improves the “image of common humanity.”[19] This image, which represents all humans regardless of their race, ethnicity, class and geographical location, is an abstract and impersonal construction, independent of any particular representation of a human being under inhumane conditions. It appears that the suffering and the most vulnerable are also the most immediate candidates to represent humanity as an abstraction, while the better off have more power over their representation. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions the construction of this common image on the back of the underprivileged and interrogates how all but a privileged few are subsumed under this image as representatives of their occupations, ethnicities, and plights.[20] The image of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy washed ashore at the threshold of the fortress of Europe in September 2015, is not a mere contribution to the common image of humanity. Kurdi’s image, like thousands of similar photographs, needs to be measured against this common image, as it represents what needs to be prevented at all costs.

Everyday, as Maurisset anticipated, millions of images are produced, circulated, and exchanged. Recent technological advancements have shortened the gap between the production and reception of the image, rendering it nearly immediate, in what seems to be the livestreaming of life. New media, with its accelerated rate of transmission and its real-time immediacy, has created a new visual landscape in which image-making carries some of the attributes of speech, as the subject and its photographic representation can occupy the same physical and temporal space. We have arguably entered an age of photographic literacy, as virtually everyone – from a boatful of refugees to tourists in world financial capitals – carries a device that is able to document every fleeting moment.[21] Yet, we still lack a legal infrastructure – beyond copyright – that defines and distributes the rights of the various agents involved in producing and distributing journalistic images. How can one define one’s own conditions of representation in the image economy of a visually saturated post-digital world?

Bloustein notes that we have the legal tools to resolve the notion of the individual’s privacy rights, including the right to one’s image. The question then becomes: what kind of framework, internationally and locally, needs to be developed to implement such a legislative body?[22] Tracking down and identifying every person photographed seems draconian and perhaps impossible. Yet if such rights were chartered and defined, photographic subjects would have the possibility to refer to the legal system and make claims. These claims could be evaluated in a court of law, via clearly defined channels and according to regulations that are agreed upon in international legal systems. What is the subject’s share in the image economy of photojournalism, and how can his or her image be legally circulated? How can the subject (or their legal guardians or heirs) as the owner of their image be legally remunerated proportionate to the commercial value of the photograph? How can one imagine a “law of images” as a “juridical space on the boundary of public and private law?”[23] This is Pliny’s concept of the image, explained by Didi-Huberman as “evaluat[ing] images as just or unjust, legal or illegal.”[24] This concept of the image is one prior to the separation of ethics and aesthetics, unlike the modern discourse on images that insists on such boundaries. A law of images and the subsequent judicial space can provide a legal framework for the representation of every individual, even if it is defined and operates within capitalist social conditions. These laws will regulate the production and circulation of images and provide a pathway for the photographic subject to pursue rights to their own image and its conditions of representation. The sphere of representation is one that operates within the totalizing apparatus of the spectacle. In this sphere, to divert Pliny’s discourse, the concept of the image is one of material and juridical foundation. Therefore, the struggle for representation is guided by and relies on this foundation to be operative. The negation of this sphere as a whole due to its total recuperation under the current dominant social and economic condition does not dismantle it, but rather contributes to the elimination of the underrepresented.

But the image, following Giorgio Agamben’s formulation in the essay “On Potentiality,” becomes visible against its absence; it puts itself forth through darkness into visibility. We can imagine representation and spectatorship as potentiality. “If potentiality were, for example, only the potentiality for vision and if it existed only as such in the actuality of light, we could never experience darkness”; but since we experience darkness, we therefore have the “potential not to see, the possibility of privation.[25] The image economy of photojournalism belongs to the potentiality for vision; it is in the scope of the visible and representable. It falls and functions under the spectacle and is governed by the latter’s rules of production, exchange, and circulation. The common image of humanity is an invisible, negative image, but one that is measured against the visible, against images of the pained and the suffering. Yet, this does not imply that the rights of the latter need to remain unrecognized and unaccounted for. It does not mean that we can abandon the conditions of representation within the current legal and economic apparatus. The subject needs to be redeemed from representation, yet occupy its position within it. It needs to surpass being reduced to an example or mere evidence of human suffering, while at the same time interrogating the conditions that create such states of agony and pain. The image violates that which it represents, existing as a battleground through which the subject becomes visible and simultaneously turns into an abstraction.

Perhaps one can think of privacy rights as the negative double of publicity rights in the totalizing movement of the spectacle: if one can imagine publicity rights as every individual’s rights to their image within the contemporary image economy, the right to privacy is the right not to be represented as such, the right to belong to oneself, to be left alone, set apart, to not belong to the state or the market. It is, to borrow from Agamben, a right to privation. This right to privation is what makes up that abstract common image of humanity and belongs to the aspect of the image that Pliny calls dignitas. This common image needs to be uncompromisingly and constantly constructed, reviewed, and re-imagined – against its totalizing other.

 

[1] I first learned about this case from artist Kobe Matthys

[1] Friedrich A. Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010, p. 145.

[2] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image: Genealogy and the Truth of Resembelance in Pliny’s Natural History, Book 35, I-7,” Costas Douzinas and Lynda Nead, eds., Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law. transl. Peter Goodrich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 78.

 

[3] Roberta McGrath, Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 148.

[4] Susanne Bergmann, Publicity Rights in the United States and Germany: A Comparative Analysis. 19 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 479 (1999). http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/elr/vol19/iss3/1

[5] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy [The Implicit Made Explicit],” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 76.

[6] Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, p. 144.

[7] Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company, 433 U.S. 562 (1977). http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/communications/zacchini.html.

[8] The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly, and right to petition. The Fourteenth Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War.

[9] Philip Gefter. “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?” New York Times, March 17, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/17/arts/17iht-lorca.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[10] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” p. 78.

[11] Philip Gefter, “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?”

[12]It is important to note that in 1983 Thompson’s cancer fund (the Migrant Mother Fund) was filled with donations from across the country due to the photograph. Further, the wide circulation of the image at the time of its publication did result in delivering food and care to the camp, albeit after Thompson family’s departure. Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” New Times, accessed November 16, 2015. http://web.archive.org/web/20020602103656/http://www.newtimes-slo.com/archives/cov_stories_2002/cov_01172002.html#top.

[13] Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash, “Girl from Iconic Great Depression Photo: ‘We Were Ashamed,’” CNN, accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/12/02/dustbowl.photo/.

[14] Edward J. Bloustein, “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007 p. 188.

[15] Museum of Modern Art, “Edward Steichen at The Family of Man, 1955,” http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/archives/archives_highlights_06_1955

[16] Dorothea Lange’s letter written January 16, 1953 is quoted in John Szarkowski, “The Family of Man,” The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century at Home and Abroad. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 24.

[17] Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times, transl. Steven Corcoran, London: Continuum, 2010, p. 51.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200, pp. 78-79.

[21] In his “A Little History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin notes how the illiterates of the future will be those who are ignorant of photography; Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, eds., Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 1931-1934, Volume 2, Part 2, transl. Rodney Livingstone and Others, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 527.

[22] Admittedly Bloustein’s argument is rooted in the American legal tradition, and this essay comes far short of a comparative study of the image’s rights internationally. Yet photojournalism, with its global distribution and its multinational media channels, makes universal claims. As such, establishing an international body that protects the rights of photographed subjects seems urgent.

[23] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image,” p. 79.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Roazen, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 181.

Red foliage

January 19, 2015 Comments off

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.

Doro Gowon Satellite view on 2 Jan 2015 and 7 Jan 2015

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?

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Class politics of the Twitter revolution

August 15, 2013 Comments off

During the February revolution in 2011 in Egypt, social media platforms were among the major sources of news and information for the uprising. So much so that many analysts went as far as calling the events, that lead to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and his thirty year rule as the Facebook or Twitter revolution and the citizen journalist became the protagonist of this new, 21st century form of activism. It was difficult to catch up with the Twitter and Facebook feeds and posts were shared and re-posted across the networks in an unprecedented rate. Buzzwords of this new media landscape were hashtags and push-notifications and many experts surmised the dawn of a new era for human rights where under the watchful gaze of digital cameras and cellphones that fed the networks in real time, concealing the atrocities became much more challenging for the perpetrators.

The coup that ousted Morsi was also vastly celebrated on Facebook, sympathizers questioned how news outlets such as Al Jazeera were not fully behind the military take over as much as they stood behind the February revolution.

 

Yet the recent massacre and the killings of Muslim Brotherhood members, supporters and sympathizers are not covered as fervently as the events of the past two years. While the beating and the killing of civilians during the revolution—that hardly came close to the body count of the recent days— was vastly covered by the social media, the events of the past few days did not share the same coverage, likes and shares on online platforms.

While these lines are definitely flawed with over generalizations, as they only rely on my personal social media network (which for the most part does not include Brotherhood sympathizers) one wonders if there is a class dimension to the notion of Facebook/Twitter revolution? Is there a certain liberal, left-leaning conception of what defined the social media framing of the revolution, which does not account for the body count and the universal rights of the Muslim leaning parties? Is there a relationship between a certain notion of freedom that is more in line with the individual freedoms of liberal democracy that does not account for the rights of others with conflicting and antagonistic positions? To repeat, does class play a role in the Twitter revolution?

(what comes above is solely based on my personal social media network and this piece remains ignorant of possible other online coverage of the recent events on other networks. Yet as I assume that for the most part my network could be probably described as middle class, educated class and such, the above-mentioned questions remain pertinent)

The Act of Killing

August 4, 2013 Comments off

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]

The Act of Killing

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.

On Photography People and Modern Times

July 15, 2013 Comments off

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:

http://vimeo.com/19680810

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.

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

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.

Posing in the future

February 23, 2013 Comments off

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.

situation-room

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.

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The State as Art

January 26, 2013 Comments off

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.

Spectators watching the execution in front of Khaneh Honarmandan. Fars News Agency

Spectators watching the execution in front of Khaneh Honarmandan. Photo: Fars News Agency

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.

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