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June 14, 2012

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.”

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