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Reduced to evidenece?

June 15, 2012 Comments off

In an undergraduate seminar in Tehran, late Bahman Jalali recounted his experience of photographing the Zoroastrian Dakhmas, “towers or silence,” where the practitioners of the faith laid their dead on atop of these towers, exposed to the sun and birds of prey. Jalali managed to document these facilities while still in operation, as this tradition has since been abandoned and now Zoroastrians bury their dead in cemeteries. Without permission, the photographer climbs one of these towers in the black of night and stays there until the break of dusk. Suddenly he finds himself surrounded by human remains, from skulls and bones to carcasses mutilated by vultures, horrified to death, Jajali manages to pick up his camera and starts photographing the scenery. He mentioned that gradually he even started arranging the human remains to meet his compositional demands. It was the lens that turned the mutilated bodies into objects and established an optical distance that overcome fear. Ernst Jünger refers to this as a “second cold consciousness,” that humans developed through the camera, which “shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object . . . the second consciousness is focused on the person who stands outside the sphere of pain.” One can say that by looking through the camera, Jalali stood outside of the sphere of death, as he no longer anthropomorphized the dead and did not conceive of them as the final state of the self, while the reverse also could be true and the photographer ceased to looked at the carcasses from the point of view of a human being. Kevin Carter observed the scene of the child being approached by a vulture through a similar optical divide that maintains the practice of photojournalism.

Dakhma in Yazd, Iran

It could be argued that the same divide is in operation when citizen journalists photograph unfolding events in the face of authoritarian onslaught, shelling of houses and massacres, slaughter of friends and families. The same cold consciousness enables citizens to stand by the rubble of what used to be their home and photograph it. But on the other hand, maybe it is this optical divide that postpones the traumatic experience, and it is in fact through this act of documentation that the event is suspended due to “photography’s ability to confront the viewer with a moment that had the potential to be experienced but perhaps was not,” in the words of Ulrich Baer and in “viewing such photographs we are witnessing a mechanically recorded instant that was not necessarily registered by the subject’s own consciousness.” Thus, in taping what remains of his house, the child is registering that which escaped his memory at the moment of traumatic experience, in an attempt to bridge the “rift between [himself] and the experience.” Therefore unlike video advocacy tutorials that offer how to record the human rights violations guides (one wonders if the producers of such tutorial in front of the Atlantic tower in Brooklyn can really take themselves seriously), the citizen journalists’ documentation of the event is not responding to a mere desire to be reduced to evidence as WITNESS seems to suggest.

June 14, 2012 Comments off

There is a series of photographs on AmnestySE Flickr page showing smiling middle class, pretty people holding a sign that simply reads Syria. These pictures are taken in various locations, from streets to offices to bedrooms, some digitally modified, a few show couples, some are more artistic than others, but all share the simple sign-plus-portrait setting. One assumes that what these photographs mean is that these people unite over the Syrian cause (whatever that is), they know that something is happening there which is not “right,” they are conscious about it. The pictures could also imply that the person in the picture is a supporter of Syria. These pictures are also quite similar to mug shots, so they could also imply that the person in the picture is Syria. The pictures could also imply that “we,” people holding the sign that reads Syria, are complicit and acknowledge that we are responsible for what is happening in Syria, it is our lifestyle or our elected government, or the politics that we benefit from, etc, is somehow by some degree responsible for the mass murder of civilians in Syria.

In an inverted way, these images bring to mind a photo collages by artist Martha Rosler that put together interiors of American middle class houses with images from Vietnam war (in the first series) and the war in Iraq in the 2004 series. These images imply that the lifestyle of the American middle class is maintained by a machinery of war and imperial interventions that pave the way for the circulation of goods and resources that support and sustain that given way of life. The images are collected from lifestyle magazines and the war images are inserted into windows and TV screens, juxtaposing these two seemingly unrelated pictures in a single image. But what do these images say and who are they intended for. These so-called “subversive” strategies take existing imagery, usually mass-produced and insert into them a different and often contradictory images and/or messages with the aim to detourn these images/messages and deliver them to their original receivers. But to paraphrase Rancière’s discussion of these kind of strategies, the problem lies in the fact that the intended message is only received by those who already in agreement with the sender, and those who are not conscious of the interrelated nature of the juxtaposed seeming opposition e.g. the reliance of a certain lifestyle on expansionist politics, will miss the message all together. Thus, what these kind of works at best achieve is the affirmative chuckle of the gallery goer and what these gestures lack is a degree of self-reflexivity that acknowledges the position of the producer within the conditions of production and not vis-à-vis such conditions. These images are immediately consumed by those portrayed in the AmnsetySE’s Flickr page, but unlike the work of a distant supporter of a cause, the work of the artist, in the words of Adorno pay “tribute to a hideous affirmation.”

Looking through the window

June 8, 2012 Comments off

There is a genre of videos coming out of Syria that could be called “looking through the window” video, where people pull the curtains and record what is happening right outside of their window. There have been similar videos from other recent uprisings, showing the treatment of the protestors by the police in quiet streets and alleyways etc. In Syria, tanks are roaming through the streets, massacres are happening right across the sidewalk. In the tradition of news reportage, most of these videos provide a voice over that aims to contextualize the image. In Areeha | Idlib | FSA Destroys Regime Tank, a recent post on SyrianDaysOfRage’s youtube channel we can see the explosion of a tank captured on the camera of a citizen reporter. First we see the street through the window, a tank enters the frame from the right side and is hit by a missile. It immediately catches fire and accelerates, while the civilian reporter stops the narration and repeatedly chants allahu akbar.

Areeha | Idlib | FSA Destroys Regime Tank, youtube stil frame

The tank goes behind a tree and explodes right outside of the window, over-exposes, pixelates and wipes out the image briefly at the moment of explosion. Shattered pieces of the tank scatter over the rooftops, and fall right outside the window, the camera [man] is moved by the shockwaves and the video ends with the image of red drapes at the corner of the window, while the man still chants allahu akbar. This is one of the most dramatic and intense videos of this kind, showing a city turned into a war zone. This form of newscast, unmediated by the figure of the reporter in front of the camera, with his/her back to the event, has become an accepted format in journalism. Now there is nothing between the journalist and the event, and all Syrian buildings and interiors have become news headquarters, and all civilians war correspondences. Syrian windows have become screens opening to a theatre of destruction.

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Hiding from machines

June 7, 2012 Comments off

Will the increased time spent under the gaze of cameras, surveillance (it is said that there is over five minutes of footage of each Londoner per day), commercial, amateur or otherwise change the way people look in the years to come? While such prophesies might later become parody material, a recent project called CV Dazzle seems to suggest that lens evasion might instigate new looks. While Dazzle camouflage painting schemes were used on battleships in WWI to avoid recognition through optical devices of the enemy, CV Dazzle aims to avoid digital facial recognition in the age of global surveillance. It is a form of “expressive interference that combines makeup and hair styling with face-detection thwarting designs” according to the project’s webpage and it makes the face undetectable by face-recognition algorithms used in cameras and online environments such as social networks and image sharing websites. It operates through aesthetic devices that disrupt the function of face-detection algorithms that look for certain rectangular relations that suggest the existence of a human face in the field covered by the lens. CV Dazzle suggest that, for instance, as upper cheeks and nosebridge are the lighter areas on the face, darkening and obscuring those areas will disrupt the program, while most traditional forms of makeup such as emphasizing the darkness around the eyes with eye shadow or eyeliner makes the face more perceptible to face detection.

An article on the project provides the following guidelines below to deceive digital face recognition:

“1. Avoid enhancers – They amplify key facial features.

2. Partially obscure the nosebridge area – The region where the nose, eyes, and forehead intersect is a key facial feature.

3. Partially obscure the ocular region – The position and darkness of eyes is a key facial feature.

4. Remain inconspicuous – For camouflage to function, it must not be perceived as a mask or disguise.”

Adam Harvey, Collaboration with DIS Magazine

Similar to the countershading effect in the animals, the idea is to inverse the face, turning the face into an anti-face. The project is an instance of how computer vernaculars affect the body and our living environments at large. One might conclude that to avoid machine recognition, one needs to become anti-human.

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June 5, 2012 Comments off

In Pictures and punishment: art and criminal prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance, Samuel Edgerton writes about the genre of pittura infamante, the practice of defamatory images picturing [fled] criminals suffering desired punishment for their committed crimes. Ordered by the court and displayed in public spaces, these images, of which no samples have survived, were a form of municipal justice, rooted in the belief that punishing one’s image will affect one’s person, and thus it was an official form of justice when no other means were possible. Edgerton also notes that this was also a form of public shaming of traitors, fraud and bankruptcy and it was not a private practice. Edgerton further notes “in pitture infamantes the figures hanging from one foot are the criminals who are still alive and not punished by law. Those brought to justice are painted hanging from the neck.”

 

While this particular practice fell out of favor by the end of Florentine Renaissance, a modern incarnation of it is the political cartoon. The latter is propelled by irony, whereas the former was a form of justice. Looking at Syrian cartoons of Bashar Assad, there are numerous examples of ironic political cartoons, and behind irony lies a horrifying sense of despair. It is rare to see the figure of the president being punished for the committed atrocities. While this reflects the modern belief in international laws and fair representation before the court, but it also shows how the notion of justice in current political climate is tied to that of irony. There is a photograph of Syrian activists marching in Turkey carrying a figurine of Assad hanging from the gallows pole, one of the very few images emptied from irony, but representing the violence deflected by it.

In plainclothes

June 4, 2012 Comments off

In early 20th century, and in the wake of WWI, khaki uniforms were adopted by world armies to merge with the earth and the forest, to hide from the lens of enemy’s enhanced optical devices, and overhead reconnaissance. Kittler writes about the unforgettable moment when in the seemingly empty unknown land before us we are suddenly confronted with the enemy in camouflage coats and “faces covered in mud like a ghostly apparition.” Thus disappearance from the field of representation is the privilege of the winning army. While before the WWI, it was the presence in front of the enemy that represented superiority and courage and disappearance from combat was sign of cowardice, or death. Now with the “new ability to deliver death precisely and from a safe distance required the fashioning of panoptic closets into which the soldier and his machines could slip undetected,” as suggested by Gina Nicole Giotta.

But while the use of optical media changed the aesthetics of battlefields, similar tactics are used by security forces in the face of civil unrest. Recent examples include the Iranian plainclothes officers, Mubarak thugs during the Egyptian revolution and the Shabiha forces in Syria. While in the national battles, camouflage techniques were adopted to hide from enemy’s optical warfare, security forces in civilian cloths are deployed by regimes to disclaim the conduct of atrocities and massacres in the face of global observers and citizens. This figure has gained a more prominent position in the omnipresence of [civilian] digital optical devices as the dirty deeds are all carried out now in front of cameras. This is a sheer aesthetic technique as its devised only to function within the picture plane. These agents are to be seen, but not to be distinguished, and attributed to the authorities. While the soldiers in the battlefield become earth, become trees, the security forces become civilians, or rather ghosts [of civilians] as the word Shabiha means in Arabic.