Posts Tagged ‘Hito Steyerl’

Exposed to elements

May 25, 2012 Comments off

Hito Steyerl writes how the over-exposed, horny, emaciated beauties of hyper capitalism save the rest of us from the burden of representation. These creatures supply the industry with the required flesh to anthropomorphize the commodities that we are applied to later on. According to the dictionary, before its post-1839 currency, the word “exposure” meant “to leave without shelter or defense,” from M.Fr. exposer “lay open, set forth,” and although it still carries this meaning in its contemporary use, not surprisingly in the early days of photography, exposing oneself to the camera was cautiously refused, in particular by philologues.

“The same Balzac who claimed to have drawn up all of his fictional figures like daguerreotypes” writes Kittler, “also said to his friend Nadar, France’s first and most famous portrait photographer, that the himself would dread being photographed. Balzac’s mystical tendencies led him to conclude that every person consists of many optical layers – like an onion peel – and every daguerreotype captures and stores the outermost layer, thus removing it from the person being photographed. With the next photograph, the next layer is lost, and so on and so on until the subject disappears of becomes a disembodied ghost (see Nadar, 1899). Edgar Allen Poe, who also wrote about photography as one of the wonders of the world, made this phantasm universal by positing the thesis that images in general are deadly for their object. Poe’s painter creates a portrait of his beloved without noticing that she grows increasingly pale the more that her oil painting acquires the color of human flesh. Painting, with its extensively discussed handicap of aging pigment, thus uses a photochemical effect against people as if it had become photography. As soon as Poe’s fictional painting is completed, the painter’s beloved drips dead.” Kittler also quotes from Photography and Revenge by Apollonius von Maltiz, “and the mother, who is photographed, is appalled: “Let to the altar from the nursery, beautifully named, deified by painters […] sculpted in marble by Thorwaldsen – now in the hands of a charlatan.”  And while Dorian’s portrait was withered by his sins, it was left unexposed as it started to blemish. Until the invention of photography, for the most of 19 centuries, Christ carried the burden of representation, before it was redistributed to all humanity. Alphonse Bertillon’s mug shot became a universal practice and the “model of criminal became part of our everyday life,” which prompted Thomas Pynchon to ask his readers: “Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell? Hence, those exposed, “left without shelter or defense,” if left with a digital camera, remove themselves from the rubble, before being pictured within it.

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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.


They Shoot Horses?

February 16, 2012 Comments off

Since the mid-1990s, artist Phil Collins has traveled zones of conflict and oppression, in order to “get closer to the event.” What initially began as a response to a mistrust of news media outlets’ coverage of the conflict in Kosovo, became a working methodology and an artistic concern for Collins. In How to Make a Refugee (1999), the artist follows the photojournalists around Kosovo, covering them covering the war. The video documents how a group of journalists choreographed a family displaced and wounded by the war. Collins meticulously documents how the journalists examined a wound on the boy’s stomach, made him take off his shirt (but put his cap back on) and covered him with flashes. All along, the boy was hiding his injured leg from the cameras, as he is obviously troubled by the process and wants it to be over with.

Phil Collins, How to Make a Refugee, 1999

The humanitarian technique of mobilization of shame is based on the belief that the perpetrators, in fear of public opinion awakened by the exposure of acts of human rights violation to the international community, will ultimately stop their violent actions. Shaming becomes a humanitarian tool based on the conviction that ‘‘if mass violations become known, the world reacts.” But doesn’t destruction ask for visibility or is it done to go unnoticed? : The destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy (Benjamin, The Destructive Character). In Mobilizing Shame, Thomas Keenan recounts how in the presence of news cameras of BBC and ITN (Independent Television Network), Serbian policemen looted and destroyed the Albanian village of Mijalic. Keenan further closely analyzes a line in the ITN video log: “looters out of house waving to cameras.” Keenan writes: “The wave announces—it performs, it enacts—that there’s no hiding here, nothing in the dark, nothing to be ashamed of. And it demonstrates this for the very instruments that are known for their revelatory abilities—the wave says, ‘expose this, this that I am exposing for you.’” The camera reveals and exposes, but it is also a call for action, it instigates performance. It is not a passive witness, it is an active participant. The camera commands: dance for me, kill for me, cry for me. Technologies of exposure have become opportunities for performance, exhibition, self-exposure. While the boy in Collins’ video wants to hide from the camera, the soldiers wave at it, the soldiers want to be him, want to take his place before the camera.

Phil Collins, They Shoot Horses, 2004

A decade later, Collins travels to Palestine, another conflict zone that has occupied decades of air time and prime visual real estate. There he stages a disco dance marathon in Ramallah for the making of the piece They Shoot Horses. After a series of auditions, Collins chose nine dancers and divided them into two groups, filmed them separately in two days. Both groups danced to the same soundtrack for eight hours without breaks, from 10am to 6pm, and received a day’s wage per hour. The camera, for the most part, is a full frame shot that holds all of the dancers, who dance against a pink wall. About it Collins writes: “In the finished film they do aerobics, they do folk dancing to Gina X. Someone starts dry-retching at Aretha Franklin. They do belly dancing to The Smiths. Later on, they fall asleep to ‘Fame’. They’ve almost had it, stumbling about like drunks, bags under their eyes as Irene Cara rattles on in the background.” In a place 24/7/365 under the gaze of cameras, from news media to aerial surveillance to citizen journalists, the piece exhausts the possibilities of human motions before a camera. For the dancers, the presence of the camera is part of living under the limelight of the occupation. In the age of live televised war, the victims are those who cannot choose not to be on camera, while the perpetrators, invite it in, wave at it, and expel it as they see fit. The victims have to keep dancing until the music is over.

In The Spam of the Earth, Hito Steyerl writes how the immaculate, horny anorexic omnipresent beauties of hyper-capitalism, are bearing the cross of representation for the rest of us, so we can live a life camera free. This visual tabloid-lumpenproletariat divide lens-attention with the other over-represented but invisible crowd who are condemned to dance for the cameras until they stop rolling. Together they divide our emotion spam between pity and envy, empathy and stimulation, charity and over-consumption.



February 10, 2012 Comments off

b) Images concerning the truth, documentary images

The new image is not a manifestation of god in visual form, rather it is in the image that truth reveals and conceals itself. God’s presence manifested in the image provided a window to truth. However, an image could not contain all of the truth, and God did not [could not] reveal its totality in one image.

But every truth needs to be analyzed according to a politics of truth, a series of rules and conditions that determine its production. Using Foucault’s notion of govermentality “as a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth”, Hito Steyerl coins the term documentality for the visual productions under the corresponding conditions of truth production[i]. Documentality according to Steyerl “describes the permeation of a specific documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations.” An example of this form of documetality is Colin Powel’s presentation before the UN Security Council, in support of the invasion on Iraq. The presentation backed up its arguments with a set of visual material such as satellite photos and aerial surveillance pictures, provided evidence that pointed to existence of weapons of mass destruction developed under Saddam. Here photography’s indexicality was used as a vehicle to displace the very semiotic category that it operates under. The concept of the photograph in and of itself is used in a constellation of devices that constitute the desired results: indexicality as form. Photography’s claim to truth becomes rhetorical device similar to expression of feeling in rock music.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Paramount Pictures, 1944

Writing on images of war, Judith Butler suggests the term field of representability, the state operates on in “order to control affect, and in anticipation of the way that affect informs and galvanizes political opposition to the war.”[ii] Similar to Steyerl’s notion of documentality this field is an active construction that delimits what can be represented, an operation of power (in Butler’s text the US government) that defines the frames of the visual. The photograph therefore not only represents the event, but it also perpetuates it. It becomes a part of the event itself. Any such operation of power [war] constitutes its field of representability and the construction of this field is an integral part of the operation itself. The kind of image that represents the reality of war therefore, is the image that documents the documentality, a photograph of the frame itself.

In order to transcend this impasse of human agency, and the possibility of functioning outside of the predefined frames of visibility, Steyerl via Benjamin’s notion of dialectic image—that “conveys the constructedness of every depiction together with the impossibility of relativizing truth that continues to persist despite this—proposes “moments of truth” and discusses the four only images of Auschwitz. What makes possible for an image inseparable from its production conditions to point to something beyond that is danger. Where danger becomes the very condition of production, the indexicality of the photograph goes beyond form, the image becomes an index of death.

[i] Steyerl, Hito. “Documentarism as Politics of Truth.” (2003).

[ii] Butler, Judith. “Torture and the ethics of photography.” Environment and Planning 25 (2007).