Archive for March, 2012

contextual contingency to medium specificity

March 30, 2012 Comments off

The move to the intersection of contextual contingency and medium specificity of photography in the arts could be from either end of the meeting point. On the one hand artists take on the task of archiving, analyzing and presenting material that either support or disregard the photographic indexical claim to truth. While on the other hand, it is a formal movement that gives shape to the questioned photographic context. The former is a scientific method concerning truth while the latter is a phenomenological one. There are no doubt variety of departure points within this spectrum and variation of methodological approaches.

Cruise Ship in Godard's Film Socialisme, (2010)

Historically the first trope ties the history of photography to that of industrialization, as a medium that lends itself to capitalist modes of production and that gives form to an ideology of value circulation specific to it. It was used to identify, to categorize and analyze to capture, dominate and possess. It turns consumers into producers that circulate and re-circulate the archetypical images that are fed into the visual repertoire of capitalism. This is the Mediterranean cruise ship in Godard’s Film Socialisme, the act of photographing and the images produced propel the movement of the ship’s mode of value production, one is inseparable from the other. One can see this same mode of critique of the medium and the visual ideology that it supports in the works of Allan Sekula. This mode of image making always carries an internal negation as it is cognizant of the exchange value of visualization of critique and it is this very consciousness at work that propels the work’s movement toward formalism and construction of aesthetic impediments that require a laborious process of meaning production in order to access the work. The eureka moment is constantly postponed or at times disregarded as the process of understanding is one of theoretical alignment that is not instantaneous but rather pre-established.

Untitled, Sharon Lockhart, C-print, (2005)

The second trope—considering an assumed consistency in this text—ties the history of photography to that of art history and looks at the medium within the aesthetic canonical movement that propels the institution of art. It questions the external referentiality of photography in favor of an internal one. Context becomes here an external redundancy, and the image rather needs to be examined within the aesthetic conditions of meaning production. Here the form of criticality becomes a linguistic one as the reading of the image implies an understanding of an institutional lexicon. Nevertheless any question of ontology is consequently a question concerning truth a la deconstruction. Looking from this position, in photography (technical image) the context becomes form. Not surprisingly, this is the concern of the second half of Film Socialisme. A noting example could be the photographic and film work of Sharon Lockhart. Here, while taking the liberty of a possible inverted reading of the work (as it could easily be argued that the work departs from a concerned position), the formal movement of the work gives form to the context that otherwise could be deemed redundant in aesthetic readings of the work. This might be the result of the work’s concern with regards the becoming form of labor within the properties of the medium. It is the form of the concern that propels the medium specificity of the work, the movement of context to form is visualized in the work. Here the labor of meaning production is derived from an aesthetic position. What becomes astonishing is the theoretical alignment of the abovementioned movement towards the intersection of the contextual contingency and medium specificity.

as authentic as a photograph

March 28, 2012 Comments off

At some point in October 1833, while visiting Lake Como in Italy with his wife, Fox Talbot’s “frustrations with pencil come to a head.” Superimposing the image on the back of a camera lucida he “found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold,” as he recounted in his book The Pencil of Nature.

In Burning with Desire, photography historian Geoffrey Batchen writes on the epistemological shift that occurs towards the end of 18th and the first half of 19th century that created the conditions of possibility within which photography came to life. He mentions how amongst photography historians there is a genre of origin stories, each trying to determine when exactly the new medium was born. He brings together an almost encyclopedic collection of the stories of proto-photographers. The book’s title refers to a letter sent from Daguerre to Niepce in 1828 in which the former expresses how he is “burning with desire to see your experiments with nature.” Batchen shows how in the period that he is examining, there is a desire to permanently “fix” the fleeting world, the images on the back of a camera lucida, experiences of the observing subject.

The Head of Christ from a Painting on Glass, William Henry Fox Talbot, Iodide-fixed photogenic drawing negative,1839

One might be able to trace back this “desire” further back in time that the period that Batchen is examining. A telling example of the attempt to fix an ephemeral image can be traced back to the Holy Mandylion and the Veronica image, both carrying an imprint of the features of Christ on a piece of cloth. According to the legend of the former, King Abgar of Edessa’s painter, instead of coming back with a drawing of Jesus, brings a cloth with which he wiped his face and thus imprinted it on the cloth the sight of which instantly cured the kind. The Veronica image is on a cloth that was offered to Christ to wipe his face as he was climbing the Mount of Olives. Both these images one can say carry the same “desire” that Batchen mentions in his book on photography. Images did not rely on artistic imitations of the “faithless pencil,” but are created in direct contact with the subject testifying to historicity and the presence of the subject at some point in time. Thus the desire to fix the fleeing moments of time for the future, is not necessarily limited to the modern period discussed in Burning with Desire. About the Veronica image Hans Belting writes “it was as authentic as a photograph… It ranked as a touch relic (brandea), as it had been in physical contact with the Original—Christ himself.” He follows by saying that the idea of a “true portrait initiated a development that would have long-term consequences in Western art.” The images of Veronica, similar to photographs, were reproduced in thousands bearing the inscription Copie authentique de la Sainte Face de Notre Seigneur.

violence as quotation

March 26, 2012 Comments off

Watching the videos coming out of Syria is to say the least, extremely disturbing. It is not that the regime is only wiping out the opposition, but rather it is wiping out the opposition in forms of most gruesome imagery of violence. Rather than images creating a “ghastly distanciation”, these images block any possibility of reflection, they are messages that the perpetrators are sending out to the world, both the local audience and those who watch these videos online. One cannot dispute these images on the basis of the violent acts that were conducted, there is no discretion, no concern for accusations of human rights violations by the international community.

In the Ground of the Image, Jean-Luc Nancy describes how the image is the battle ground between the violence of truth and the truth of violence. Violence wants to leave a mark, wants to erupt into the field of vision and reveal itself in form of an image. Similarly, truth also wants to become visible, it also wants to display itself on the picture plane, it wants to unfold into an image. “The difference is that the true truth is violent because it is true, whereas the other type, its thick double, is ‘‘true’’ only insofar as it is violent. In the second case, truth is reduced to the mode of violence and exhausted in that mode, whereas in the first case, violence is unleashed in truth itself, and thus contained in it.”

Following this description what if we consider violence as a quotation, as a direct enactment of language where the message needs no further translation, the closure of all possibilities for interpretation. Violence as the “ground zero of language, the complete erasure of misunderstanding in form of total domination. That is in order to fully and completely make ourselves understood, for there to be no more “in other words” but “no words” or rather “one word”, no need for translation, no delay or postponement of meaning into the future we wipe out the addressee. Here we reach out for the other pure language, where there is only us and no more of them and all the avenues of misunderstanding are blocked and there’s nothing left to talk about. Silent. Dead. Kaput (SM, That’s The Way We Do It exhibition catalogue, Kunsthaus Bregenz).”

After Reformation, in some Catholic churches, the “image” became a quotation. The church found the need to reinterpret the role of images in the faith, thus in some instances, instead of commissioning new images, painters were called to ornament around images that were considered holy by the believers throughout centuries. The image carried its meaning with itself, while its presentation changed shape. Similarly in Syria the images are true only insofar as they are violent, as visual quotations of a message that does not carry the burden of [mis]understanding. Here violence becomes the form of the photographic index.


March 25, 2012 Comments off

In his cartoon La Daguerreotypomanie (1839), Théodore Maurisset shows how the industrialization of photography and its mass availability transformed people’s lives in Paris. The camera has turned the city into a spectacle that is simultaneously being captured by it. Maurisset’s image suggests that from then on “life will never be the same.” The engravers are hanging from the gallows—they might as well—and their tools, inks, pens and paper, are thrown on the ground on the front right side of the picture. The train in the back is carrying cameras in place of its cars, horses are loaded with them, people are schlepping them on carts and everywhere itinerant photographers have set up their tripods. There is a group of people dancing around a large smoking camera. Businesses have all put cameras on their rooftops, balloons are flying over the city taking photographs, and loads of cameras are being shipped overseas. The city is has become a set that is posing for the cameras, everything and everyone is waiting to be photographed and photograph others. The sun has turned into the watcher, the ever-present, all-seeing eye that draws the images of life on the sensitive plates of the camera. The image suggests that the mania for representation is inseparable from the phantom of surveillance, seeing and being seen are two sides of the same coin. Maurisset “depicts photography as a commercial product and a microcosm of industrialization itself” suggests Roberta McGrath. It is with the mass availability of photography that industrialization becomes integrated into everyday life. The camera, unlike other commodities, turned the consumer into a producer whose production expands the margins of industry and the market. Mechanical production now expanded beyond the walls of factories and became a tool in the hands of citizens. In the center of the image stands the Susse Frères’ commercial studio/showroom, that cuts the image in half, it suggests that the studio has become a site of production, at the “center of the cartoon and at the heart of modern life” in McGrath’s words. The camera on top of the studio is also a clock that tells the time, perhaps commenting on the synchronization of the time of the life and that of labor with the introduction of the cameras.

La Daguerreotypomanie, Theodore Maurisset, December 1839, Lithograph

In Johannes David’s Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem (1601), crucifixion, its representation and dispersion are concurrent and form a single entity, similarly, La Daugerrotypomanie sets the urban life, its documentation and representation as parts of a single body.

March 20, 2012 Comments off


Today, with the development of digital technologies of representation, the gap between the production and reception of the image has shortened, and image production has become an instantaneous act. Not a “having-been-there,”[1] (as Barthes puts it) but a “being here,” an assurance and reassurance of being present in time. The camera is no longer only a device that would freeze a moment in time for the future, but a device that freezes every passing moment into fragments of now. It is as if we are living and experiencing life with a short delay and the instant image is a visual echo of the present. From dinner tables to mass demonstrations, through this visual echo of the livestreaming of life, we instantaneously review the living moments, or we live through the instantaneous broadcasting of life. While before the kind of absence that the mechanically produced image represented was more similar to that of the text, this livestreaming of life has given the image some of the properties of speech. This is a fleeting moment, and then becomes the “having-been-there”again, but this momentary cohabitation of the image and the image-image maker, as they share a temporal and spatial coordinates between “being-here”and “having-been-there,” opens a new performative space. As such the relationships between participation and spectatorship are redefined as they become parts of a single entity constituting a subject that is the product of the real-time streaming of the event that the very same subject is participating in. It is the product of a new form of self-consciousness constituted by the real-time representation of the self within the event via the means of instantaneous image-making provided by digital technologies. While Roland Barthes talks about the “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority of the photograph,” today—even if for a brief passing moment—the instantaneity of image making has brought together the space and time of the image with space and time of life.

But it is in response to this acceleration of data transmission and this instantaneous televisual connectivity, that Paul Virilio warns us from the visual crash. The dawn of a planetary panopticon that has put on display “even our most private activities”, and a new “market of vision” that renders visible whatever is “happening in the world in the present instant.” It is along the same lines that he declares the end of politics at the scale of speed of light, where there is no room for reflection. But has this supposedly global tele-surveillance abolished the historical primacy of local time in favor of a global temporality as Virilio claims? If in the age of live television, the event was transmitted to receivers across the planet to supposedly passive observers, now the circle of spectatorship is finally complete, as the subject is also the recipient of the same image. The subject is participating, documenting, transmitting, and watching at the same time, while previously s/he was a subject to a process of mediation and representation, and left out from the circle of live spectators. As such, the global time is now re-synchronized with the local time. In February 2011, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protestors set up a screen and watched the projection of Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian revolution. The images were broadcasted in real-time from the square to the square and the participants could see themselves as they formed the revolutionary crowd.

Between a global televisual panopticon and an agora of spectators, there seems to be a window, or a revolving door, for the practice of visual parrhesia in the age of planetary live broadcast.

[1] The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. (Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image)

March 15, 2012 Comments off

In 1955, in spite of the sheriff’s opposition, Mamie Till Bradley, opened the casket of her son Emmet Till as soon as it arrived in Illinois Central Terminal in Chicago. Bradley announced that she was going to hold an open casket funeral so that everyone could “see what they did to my boy.” Ten thousand people saw the casket of the lynching victim the first day that it was open for viewing and later on the funeral day about two thousand mourners stood outside the church. Despite the controversial court case—the accused were acquitted and protected by double jeopardy— Till’s case is considered among the transformative moments that motivated the Civil Rights Movement. Bradley wanted to share the truth with her community and in order for them to see the victim’s body, she opened the casket for viewing. It was not enough for her to tell the story, testify in court, and to leave her son’s body as a piece of evidence for the proceedings, but rather she wanted to put the truth on display for everyone to see. Here the visualization of truth, the making visible of the victim’s body, proved the act of showing as integral to truth itself.

On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc stepped out of a car at a central intersection in Saigon, sat in the lotus position on a cushion and set himself ablaze. His self-immolation was an act of protest against oppressive measures set by President Ngo Dinh Diem against the Buddhist population of South Vietnam. It is widely believed that his act of self-sacrifice was a turning point in a series of incidents that lead to the fall of Diem in November of the same year. A similar incident occurred in 2010, when on December 17th, Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, triggered a wave of uprisings in the Middle East, now known as the Arab Springs.

Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Centre where Bouazizi died

When all the avenues of discussion are closed and language ceases to communicate, self-immolation is the ultimate visualization of death as communication. It is at this moment when the word and the image become one entity conjugated in death. If parrhesia is concerned with the duty of telling the truth for the good of the community despite all the dangers and risks involved, political self-immolation is the ultimate parrhesiastic act in its utmost visualization.

Visual Parrhesia

March 14, 2012 Comments off

Visual Parrhesia


Faced with the complexities of the Benjaminian concept of the dialectical image (earlier posts), and the difficulties in imagining such technical image, here I would like to use Foucault’s concept of Parrhesia to think of a set of conditions for images concerning truth. In his series of six lectures, at the University of Berkeley, California, Foucault talks about the essential properties of parrhesia as a “verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” Could there be a visual component to parrhesia? Could it be a visual activity instead of solely a verbal one?

While this concept includes the notion of danger, discussed above, but also sets a few other conditions that might prove useful in imagining possibilities to go beyond the formal indexicality of the photograph.

The first condition that Foucault mention is frankness, the notion that the speaker does not use any form of rhetorical maneuvering to persuade the listeners. The second condition is the notion of truth, and here according to Foucault, the speaker has established a ‘personal relationship’ with truth and believes what he is saying is true. It is important to note that not anyone could be considered a truth-teller, and the practice of parrhesia was held for male citizens of the Athens democracy, a notion that further ties the parrhesia to citizenship. The third condition is danger, for not any kind of truth-telling is a practice of parrhesia, for instance a grammar teacher tells the truth, but does not take any risks in telling so. The other condition of such speech activity is the notion of criticism, Foucault writes, “parrhesia is a form of criticism, either towards another or towards oneself, but always in a situation where the speaker or confessor is in a position of inferiority with respect to the interlocutor. The parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom he or she speaks. The parrhesia comes from ‘below’, as it were, and is directed towards ‘above’.” For instance when a philosopher criticizes a tyrant, or a citizen the majority, etc. This notion of criticism, is tied the notion of duty, the last condition that Foucault ascribes to parrhesia. Tied to the notion of citizenship, the speaker takes it as a duty to say what s/he is saying to enhance the living conditions of the community.

Thích Quảng Đức's heart remained intact after his self-immolation

The question is if and how can these conditions be applied to images, and the practice of image making? For the most part, one can argue that there are images that could meet these conditions of production. Take the surviving photographs of Auschwitz, they were produced under precarious conditions, they were not in any ways, and by any means manipulated and could be considered “frank”, they made visible the inhumane practice of the perpetrators, and by doing so they performed a form of critique. However, the practice of parrhesia is a public practice, it happened in the agora, it was directed toward the king, the tyrant or the democratic elected representative government. These photographs show “moments of truth” for the future, they are historical documents and like all images, they represent an absent. Parrhesia as a figure of speech requires the presence of the speaker at the moment an utterance is being made. The question here would be if the image-maker can share the same spatial and temporal coordinates with the image at the instance of visualization. Therefore, visual parrhesia requires an agora of spectatorship, where the images are produced, distributed and viewed at the same time. It is when the event and its representation form a single entity, where one would not exist without the other. Under these conditions, a certain degree of risk and danger creates an umbilical cord between what is being shown and the image-maker who is present where such an act of presentation is taking place.


the day nobody died

March 12, 2012 Comments off

In the Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, exposed rolls of photography paper in the Helmand Province as they traveled embedded with British forces on their 2008 trip to Iraq. The photos are colorful non-figurative abstractions produced in one of the deadliest months of the war. According to text on their website about the project, “On the first day of their visit a BBC fixer was dragged from his car and executed and nine Afghan soldiers were killed in a suicide attack. The following day, three British soldiers died, pushing the number of British combat fatalities to 100. Casualties continued until the fifth day when nobody died.”

Geoffrey Batchen writes about the two parallel histographies of photography, one that maintains that photography does not have a history of itself, but rather its contingent on what broadly we can call the [photographic] “context”, while the other troupe argues for medium specificity of photography as an art.

While the project might easily come off as a contemporary art gimmick, it does point to an intersection of two histories of photography. Taking the first argument to its extreme, in the example of these photographs, the image is stripped from its representational claims, and is solely dependent on the context of production. It is an image of a day in Iraq where no body died, as much as the discursive setting that it is included in claims to be. It could easily change its meaning, if there are other contextual developments, changes in policies, negotiations, positions etc.

The Day Nobody Died, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, 2008

If we think of this image within the second troupe it is a perfect example of the specificity of the medium that its mode of production is that of the effect of light on sensitive emulsion. If photography is drawing with light, then this is the degree zero of it. The context is redundant, it does not have any effect on the image and does not infuse it with external meaning, rather [meaning] is arrived at through an ontological movement that defines the photograph within a set of aesthetic relations contingent upon history of art.

However, with regards to these photographs, it is the indexicality of the image that both gives it meaning, and takes meaning away from it. The first approach maintains that the index is contested, if we want to describe the photograph, we need to look where, how, within what social/political relations it was produced. The second approach will argue that the index does not produce meaning, but rather the meaning is produced ontologically. It is the history of art that give the image meaning, not the indexicality of the photograph. The indexicality at best provides the conditions of the photographic production: the trace of light on paper.