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Looking from a distance

July 31, 2012 Comments off

Reiterating a fact: everything is equal before the lens. A burned body of a child, an impressionist painting, a mobile phone, a tropical landscape, a tank, anyone, anything, anywhere, the lens captures it all without discrimination. Looking through the camera, humans see the whole world as subjects, they “see but not touch,” as Benjamin puts it, or have developed a second “cold consciousness” in words of Ernst Jünger, a mode of distant [non]engagement with their surroundings. The human ability to scan the world indiscriminately, to assume the position of a sole observer, the true objective unethical eye of man, is nurtured through the viewfinder and assumed a seemingly camouflaged position, an illusion of a “democratic eye,” while at the heart of democracy lies a notion of agency, a form of commitment that ensues action. Thus the search for an interior image that illustrates the position of the person behind the camera within the image’s coordinates, a desire to challenge the exteriority of the lens.

In a parenthesis on Bob Adelman’s Down Home, Susan Sontag writes about the characteristics of the liberal sympathies that purport to have no point of view at all, “that is, to be an entirely impartial, non-empathic look at its subjects.” One wonders whether that the liberal sympathies that Sontag talks about are themselves in fact the direct effect of the camera and the kind of phenomenological relations that it ensues? Assuming one of the fundamental conditions of the critical position is establishing a distance between the subject of study and the observer, this distance is not unsimilar to that of the eye behind the camera and the photographed subject. It is the difference between being a part of a performance, or stepping outside of it and analyzing it/photographing it. The position that the liberal media wants to assume, to provide the whole picture, form all sides, without passing judgment, letting the audience to take their own position, the desire to look at an event from all possible sides, to capture a panoramic view that represents the whole of the event in its entirely, is the position of the lens.

The interior image?

July 19, 2012 Comments off

In Trauma TV, her complex analysis of the Rodney King video, Avital Ronell notes how the image’s flatness and lack of interiority was compensated by witness testimony in the courtroom. It is this position of interiority that is sought for in the works of Dziga Vertov Group, and other films by Jean Luc-Godard. If the exteriority of the image, purported by the position of the lens and consequently the figure looking through it, could be transformed into its opposite, then the positions of the activist and filmmaker could potentially align. This interior position is supported theoretically by a mode of Marxist self-reflexivity, constantly conscious of the producers position within the conditions of production.

British Sounds, Dziga Vertov Group, 1969, vimeo still frame

In the final section of British Sounds – a film that intersperses chronicles of the worker’s struggles, together with separate Marxist and Feminist voice-overs, mixed with footage from Marxist workers discussions, activist students, etc – we see a bloody hand gripping a red flag, this is followed by a set of shots that show a fist penetrating the British flag, and each time the flag is torn by the fist, the voice over names another solidarity front e.g. the squatters, the artists’ offensive, the Workers New Daily, etc. This scene is then followed by a shot of a red flag waving in the cloudy grey sky by the branches of a leafless tree. Watched closely, it becomes clear that rather that the camera shooting the flag from a fixed position, the camera itself is waving together with the flag, the flag is not moving within the fixed frame of the film, the film is framed by the movement of the flag. The camera suddenly reveals its own position vis-a-vis the action that it is set to capture, and represent, and exposes how it is in fact captured by it. This scene is an instant of the mentioned interiority sought by the filmmaker, an interior image that is not propelled by an exterior positioning, ideologically, aesthetically or otherwise. This is also the position that possibly the Rodney King video lacks and thus is reduced to evidence. It aspires to be a witness, but it is caught by its own flatness, it becomes its own gag.

Could it be that the contemporary modes of digital image production, with its unprecedented immediacy, economy of access and mobility, allows for a visual interiority, previously unavailable? While, the video incursion into television that Ronlell talks about still holds, and this form of image making has been recuperated by the news media, nevertheless an outstanding number of indigenous footage is disseminated over the web daily. However, it could be argued that this footage is nonetheless defined by the technological restrains and possibilities that give rise to it and potentially follows pre-defined modes of visual articulation. Yet, one wonders if the Flusserian shift from linear/textual articulation to the visual dimension is gradually taking shape.

Caring from distance

July 18, 2012 Comments off

Ethics has been largely confined to the domains of doing, which include performative acts of a linguistic nature. While we have understood that there is no decision which has not passed through the crucible of undesirability, ethics still engages, in the largest possible terms, a reflection on doing. Now what about the wasted, condemned bodies that crumble before a television? Avital Ronell

Could there be a surveillance rooted in a desire to communicate, to care, to love? And if such for of observation could be called surveillance? The online etymology dictionary suggests that the word comes from the Latin vigil, that in early 13c implied “eve of a religious festival” (an occasion for devotional watching or observance), and “occasion of keeping awake for some purpose” is recorded from 1711. What we call surveillance is “keeping awake for some purpose” devoid of devotion, it is watching without caring, it is looking at the enemy at all times. The same technological devices, the same lenses and screens, once looking at a loved one potentially become instruments of care. But yet, this implies a delegation of care, a form of displacement that allows one to go about everyday tasks, while caring from a distance. Watching over a sleeping baby, while filling-in excel sheets, caring for an ailing parent, form another country in another continent. A form of micro managing compatible with work regime of global market place (I don’t call the enemy by name, as naming it is its deferral). An unresolved, unfinished, work-in-progress of an artist (who thus is left unnamed), incorporated footage of an IP Camera, installed at the artist’s grandparent’s residence in Tehran, for her mother to watch her parent’s house from California. The ailing parents on a bed at the end of the living room, are under 24 hour surveillance. The camera is controlled via computer and can survey the room, scanning over the furniture, photographs on the buffet table, AC duck on the roof and the cracks on the wall. The household, for most part, is oblivious to the camera, or maybe has completely internalized it. The old ailing parents do not register it and the nurse is probably unaware, but could be at times caught by surprise. This camera chronicles the withering away of cared ones and registers their ultimate death, while the observer on the other end of the line is washing the dishes. And as the presence of the camera cannot postpone the moment of death, the live footage of the sleeping baby on a smartphone cannot prevent her from falling off the crib. But is this desire nothing more a mere internalization of the news media and the dramatization of everyday life? While acknowledging the care for ailing parents or a mother for a baby, with or without video cameras, the notion of caring from distance that purported by such lens based instruments only function within the logics of global commerce where a number is attributed to a contribution to a cause, child in Africa $20, victims of tsunami $10, sexual assaults against women in Afghanistan $25, etc, while one encounters the surprisingly shocking inefficiency of such contributions in the live demise of a loved one on CCTV.

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Over the ruins of Google Earth

July 16, 2012 Comments off

Some previous posts discussed the notion of removal from representation, a desire that in some ways stands in contrast with what in political theory is often described as the initial step towards the political and the construction of the subject (this notion in a way points to a possible fissure between media theory and critical theory, which required further investigation). While the former involves a constant obsession with producing the conditions of representation, or utterance, making the silent subject speak and the not visible subject seen, the latter is more concerned with how the position behind the lens is left invisible. Curiously, humanitarian advocacy groups send containerfuls of cameras and recording devices to the oppressed so they themselves can look at themselves as anthropological subjects and to capture, recapture and constantly distribute their subalternated position. However as many indigenous journalists’ footage suggest, the human behind the lens tends to remove oneself from the rubble, the slum, the refugee camp. After all who wants to picture him/herself getting urinated on, forcefully stripped in humiliating positions, getting raped, etc? In a site of a totalizing destruction, like what we are witnessing in Syria, how many more women, children and civilians need to show themselves wandering on their own rubble and does this kind of representation empower the represented subject and turns it into a political one? It seems like there is a constant desire to see more of the same, to categorize, tag, analyze and archive the total annihilation of a group of people, to see how subjects continue their existence after their homeland has turned into a desert of man-made rubble after being bombed on for a decade, what kind of human is being created under such conditions? We need to see, and we need to give them cell phones so they can document their own decay and eradication.

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

But nevertheless, the question is to what extent is removal and hiding from representation possible, in the face of surveillance cameras at every corner of cities (there are even talks of having them installed in public restrooms), Google Earth , and ever rolling cell phones and digital recording devices, constantly generating footage of all animate and inanimate subjects. The position of power after all is not one that constantly defies representation, but rather one that defines its own condition of representation, as previously discussed. This is partially similar with Foucault’s argument in What is Critique, where he notes that critique is questioning, and redefining one’s own condition of governability; “I don’t want to be governed like that.” In addition does there exist an ethics of caring under surveillance?

Jon Rafman, "You, the World and I", 2011, screen shot from website

Jon Rafman, “You, the World and I”, 2011, screen shot from website

In a roundabout way, Jon Rafman’s You, the World and I, hints at such notion of care. The piece, deliberately inhabits a partially melodramatic space in tone and in its soundtrack, veering to irony, counterbalanced by the use of digital footage that implies a from of distance implicated within surveillance footage. The narrator, who you might thing might burst into tears any second, tells the tale of a lost romance, a lover who left him without leaving any trace. In addition, she never let anyone photograph her as she believed that a “picture could steal your soul, or something like that,” and therefore, the narrator sets to find an image of her, so he can keep her alive in his imagination, and to find a record of their time together, “proof of our love,” he says. Over footage of Egyptian pyramids and Mayan geoglyphs, Stonehenge, etc, the narrator recounts their travels together, and mentions that there is not a single photograph of her, before saying that but that is not “entirely true.” He recounts that while staying in a hotel in the coast of Italy, a Google truck went by, and he sets out to find the picture of her on Google Earth. He eventually finds the photograph, nude, like a classical Greek marble, looking into the ocean from the shore. In his mind, the image starts to animate her image in all places that they have been together, and he starts obsessively browsing all the streets that they have walked through on Google Earth, and when finally he goes back to the shore of Italy, the image is gone. Nevertheless, it was a surveillance image, that for the narrator did what an old photograph of his mother did for Roland Barthes, a digital having been there, “a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then.” A Google Earth native, at some point might be able to recover one’s past through the ruins of Google Earth. (TBC)