Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Keenan’

Violence as message

September 24, 2012 Comments off

The opposition in Syria is documenting the war from all angles and sides, creating an immense online repository of images of destruction, updated by the hour on the internet. A survey of the images from the start of the uprising in March 2011 to date show the changes in the landscape of violence and its intensification. Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman (see Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils)note about the communicative, or pedagogical dimension of violence, sustained by the gap between the actual destruction inflicted by an army and the possible destruction that an army is able to apply. “It is through the constant demonstration of the existence and size of this gap that the military communicates with the people it fights and occupies,” writes Weizman, “restraint is what allows for the possibility of further escalation.” Now with this in mind, the question is how much the documentary apparatus that is capturing the violence in Syria can define and act as a measure of the aforementioned gap, and whether the production and consumption of the visual material can also develop a capacity for resistance and a threshold for intensification of violence. That is, in each phase of this conflict, the visual material have surpassed what was considered or believed as tolerable, and yet the receivers of the violence have managed to document and distribute the atrocities. It is important to note that unlike many previous contemporary conflicts, it is the receivers of the violence who are also acting as documentarians instead of the professional journalist. Thus an analysis of the visual material can help the military to adjust the forces of destruction according to the degree of tolerance exercised in the act of documentation. But yet, there is another dimension to the war and that is total destruction, and here the gap between possible and actual violence is closed, and war becomes a “total war… stripped from semiotics.” At this level, war is not about conviction of the subjects of violence, but rather about the reconstruction of the desired subject or the total annihilation of the surplus.

The visualization of violence, on the one hand creates a public arena that acts as a vessel that communicates the representation of the actual inflicted violence and thus also opens the possibility of further violence by defining a degree of tolerance in production and viewership. The image constantly reconstitutes the subject that the violence attempts to erase. But yet through this dialectical relationship between violence and the image, a different subject is created. This subject is different from one of representational politics where the constitution or existence of the subject is contingent upon its representation. This visualized [undefined] subject is no longer completely the subject that it used to be (before reception of violence), and neither is the new subject that the inflictors of violence intend to construct. This subject is an a-historical one, existing as an image that defines the limits of representation.

from the wave to the gunshot

April 16, 2012 Comments off

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 article looks at a how shaming is used as a humanitarian instrument through revealing to the global community the atrocities of the perpetrators. There is a belief (still prevalent) that exposing the deeds that are done in the dark would put an end to them. That  ‘wave’ questions this argument notes Keenan, not by arguing against exposure all together, but that shame is a social contract that hinges on acceptance of certain conventions and will not function beyond the radius of those principles. But at the same time, the ‘wave’ needs to acknowledge the very same principles to function beyond them. If those [universally accepted] social conventions are completely dismantled, then the ‘wave’ will lose its significance entirely. Thus the wave does not function outside of the shaming principle, but rather within it, it further underlines it to reach out for an exterior space of shamelessness.

In Syria, the situation is a bit different: the cameraman and the victim have merged into one single entity, in the absence of international newscasters. The ‘wave’ is for an outsider viewer, for spectators of the global news media who receive the message in form of a ‘wave’, a gesture directed towards them, in recognition of them, catered to them. The same message to the Bosnians themselves was more than a mere gesture of the hand. In the youtube video Man Films His Own Death, a soldier shoots the cameraman down as he is filming the shelling of a neighborhood in the besieged Syrian city of Homs. There are similar incidents, including the death of citizen journalist Basil al Sayed captured on his own videocam. Arguably the social contracts of journalism are not held to be credible when it comes to citizen journalism. The professional journalists are mediators of a message that citizen journalists are the bearer of. The presence of the camera has no effect on the actions of the Syrian army, as it does not prompt them to ‘wave’ instead of shooting. Here the exposure functions outside of the category of shame (from kem “to cover”). The Syrian army is shameless, but not in the sense that the Serb soldiers were, as it is not reliant on that particular social contract at all. If the gesture hinged on the contract for it to perform, the shooting of the cameraman is unburdened by it.

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)

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.