Posts Tagged ‘Walter Benjamin’

The work of art in the age of codes and regulations

May 22, 2020 Comments off

For Rafael Domenech’s exhibition at SculptureCenter


The planetary project of a unified metrics of life is almost complete. The movement of goods in standardized units traded in stock markets and shipped in containers across the world flows more or less seamlessly. The market regimes of maximizing profit disrupt vernacular forms of exchange, dimensions of products, routes of transport, and any other obstacle to the streamlined travel of commodities. All aspects of life, from the navigation of cities to finding love, are algorithmically propagated and transported via 5G networks. Everyone is surveilled, traced, and followed as long as they carry their mobile devices, and lost, suspended, without them. Insurance companies financialize the future by issuing catastrophe bonds that investors leverage against other assets.

These procedures are governed and administered via universalized codes and regulations, a semantic architecture that is devised and imposed by legally binding contracts and treaties. This linguistic infrastructure guarantees the protocols of sameness, universalizing metrics of relatability that define the dimensions of planetary daily life. Governmental and financial institutions are the editorial staff of the semantics of globalization that maintains, monitors, and regulates these parameters, metrics, and dimensions (within which life happens).

The work of art exists and functions within institutions that are plugged into the same infrastructure. Given these conditions, the notion of the authenticity of the work of art, which has already been questioned on account of its reproducibility and monetary value, is replaced by the specificity of the work. A contemporary artwork, a genre of art that operates within the institutional context, performs and practices its presumed autonomy through its specificity. Since the advent of post-studio practices, this specificity responds to a broader network of operations and connections within which the art institution functions. In other words, the integration of the artwork in the institutional context (historical, architectural, semantic, procedural, or otherwise) finds expression in contemporary art. The work of art, once freed from its “parasitic subservience to ritual,” is now conditioned by the rituals of institutional codes and regulations defined by the free market and the semantics of globality. Art’s response and interaction with such conditions marks the horizon of contemporary art.

The specificity of the work emerges from its engagement with the various institutional metrics. These include not only the physical architecture, the neighborhood, the historical conditions, and the exhibitory protocols, but also the legal parameters that are decided by governing organizations––compliance with the ADA Act, insurance and liability policies, fire codes, security requirements. These ubiquitous metrics are not restricted to art institutions; they constitute the regulatory apparatus of all aspect of everyday life in offices, factories, live/work spaces, cafes and restaurants, airports,  subway stations, and so on. These are the spaces where city dwellers, to quote Benjamin, “relinquish their humanity in the face of the apparatus.” The work of contemporary art, to repurpose his analysis of film, asserts this humanity against the apparatus.

The work starts as a file generated on one of several platforms, whether Sketchup or Adobe. What is the status of the file? Is it the artwork or is it what the set is to a film? Benjamin notes that in film the work of art is produced only by means of montage. The components of the montage (script, set, acting, makeup, wardrobe, soundtrack, and so forth) are not the work of art in itself. Similarly, the file is not the work; nor is the email, the spreadsheet, the concept draft, or the press release. It is rather the installation and the production on site that creates the work of art. This procedure is not unique to contemporary art, as architecture is also realized from multiple supportive components that eventually congeal into a building.

The work of contemporary art is specific, temporary, and adaptable. Its specificity is discussed above. Made for display, the work is assembled and produced in situ, yet with the closing of the exhibition the work in its totality, or in large part, is disassembled, relegated to storage, or consigned to the recycle bin. The work is essentially temporary, since it will not exist post-exhibition as a whole, or at all. Therefore, the question of what is a work of contemporary art is rephrased as when is it a work of contemporary art. This also responds to how a work is considered at a future date when certain parameters integral to its creation are no longer in place. Furthermore, given obsolescence, the technological equipment intrinsic to the work doubles as an archive of material culture. The neon tubes, projectors, 8-track, magnetic tape, cathode-ray tubes, no longer commercially produced and rarely operational, contribute to the work’s temporary status as contemporary art. Yet they also show how the work overcomes the apparatus by ingesting and preserving it.

The contemporary artwork, built from a file and made with supplies off global hardware-store shelves, can appear in different sites either simultaneously or at different times. However, does the work remain the same when it is adjusted to each site, potentially given new measurements and materials? The work is adaptable and subject to change and modification. This additional temporality of the contemporary art work further distinguishes it from the eternal, universal artwork as we know it. Unlike a painting, for instance, which when it’s done is done, the contemporary work of art, in the age of codes and regulations, might either be dismantled forever or adjust itself to a fluctuating set of conditions.

Benjamin compares the painter to a magician and the filmmaker to a surgeon. The former maintains and works from a “natural distance,” from reality, while the latter “penetrates into its tissues.” The contemporary artist is like the surgeon, but unlike the filmmaker; instead of showing the workers’ class potentialities by providing an image of a communal possibility, the artists use the metrics and semantics of planetary unification toward other ends. The museumgoer responds to the everyday metrics psychologically, as these are compatible with the standards that regulate ordinary life. Yet the work can upend those standards––infect, infiltrate, de-administer, deregulate, un-prescribe them. It can further democratize the tools and strategies that it develops so that its constituents could, potentially, carry them into daily life. This takes the form of programs that transfer knowledge through tactical distribution of the work’s position vis-à-vis the infrastructure by engaging and creating its constituents. The constituents are a public formed and engaged through the infrastructural and semantic rather than the relational and immediate, or, in other words, through the abstract. Risking redundancy, the work reroutes the metrics of standardization, not only those represented by big-box hardware store impositions and architectural limitations, but also those of the legal, financial, and procedural infrastructure that administer the panoramic excavation of life.

If with photography images have been untied from specific locations, with standardization most contemporary living environments can be replicated in multiple places. The generic architecture of Shanghai, Long Island City, Vancouver, or Dubai follows this logic of homogeneity. The sameness of the image is translated into similarity in all aspects of urban and, increasingly, rural life (whatever is left of it). These generic conditions include the contemporary art space with its ubiquitous prescribed parameters, conventions, and protocols. The contemporary urban environment that implements the planetary metrics of capital becomes increasingly hostile to flâneries, the unstructured exploration of a city. Getting lost or going unseen is no longer an option. The contemporary work of art that uses these metrics to create other forms of navigation of the semantics of the standardized everyday fleetingly disrupts the regulatory forces. In the age of total algorithmic distraction that hollows all instantaneous human desires instantly in service of data exchange bonds, art articulates a different form of distraction, prompting “new tasks of apperception.” Benjamin identifies this “reception in distraction” in film with its potential of mass mobilization. In contemporary art as defined above, this reception takes place through the dislocating of the habitual metrics toward unfamiliar ends.

Benjamin notes how fascism organizes the masses by preserving property relations, while granting people expression instead of rights. Contemporary algorithmic hyper-expressionism similarly maintains existing relations, as does the work of art that articulates itself by following distractory protocols that are streamlined through regulatory platforms of anti-social media and corporate news. But the work of art that considers the infrastructure of planetary semantics finds articulation in abstraction as its mode of distractive reception and an analytical generator of new vocabularies and images. This is the politicization of aesthetics. It does not mean making political art, far from it. Rather, it insists on aesthetics as the sphere of operation that rejects the creation of beauty somewhere at the expense of ugliness in another.


* Suggested by Rafael Domenech in direct reference to Walter Benjamin, the title of this essay captures the main concerns and suggestions of the work. The essay is an attempt to elaborate on some of these concerns in light of Benjamin’s formulations. All quotations by Benjamin are from his The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008).

** The last sentence of the essay paraphrases Yuriko Saito’s formulation in his “Aesthetics of the Everyday,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy




It is what it is: the failure of culture in the face of imminent rise of fascism

July 28, 2016 Comments off

This text is a response to: Liam Gillick: Unleash the Butterflies: The Failure of Culture in the Face of Brexit


In a short text that perhaps had an air of deliberate pretention of “didn’t I tell you? Now see what happened” Liam Gillick argued how “[T]he cultural elite in Britain failed to address the real stresses of Europe and counter them with good arguments.” The text in its self-righteousness demanded a response. It was written in a tone that encouraged a reaction from the reader, that asked for a counter argument, a debate; the author, essentially asked to be attacked. Perhaps it was asking all of those cultural elite who before the Brexit vote came out with proclamations such as ““We [heart] EU”, “What is lost is lost forever”, or “We are the European family,” my personal favorite was “Baby its cold out there,” to engage in a dialogue, to come up with something more than cliché humanistic aphorisms that are only as good as the many likes they receive on social media. Perhaps we should attack Gillick and to start a debate on how we have failed and continue to fail.

It seems like the ideological inconsequentiality of the art space politics, is now defining the direction of our political and social life. While the art space is compensating for the representational politics in its designated space, without offering it any challenges whatsoever, all to the benefit of the right wing ideology through vacating the political-sphere from the burden of accountability – be it economical, racial and sexual inequalities – the right wing ideologues further attack art’s inconsequentiality in terms of quantifiable outcomes and limit its access to national and subsidized financial resources.

While the first decade of 21st century was marked by a self-reflexive turn in the arts that acknowledged the complicity of contemporary art post-globalization in the expansion of the forces of capital and global inequality which confronted the audience with their privileged neutrality by using the parameters of the art space, now we are in an era that the reflexivity has become the basin where artists and institutions merely wash their hands clean and walk to the vernissage dinner self-content. The issue nowadays is not a lack of reflexivity – there is an over abundance of it– rather what to do with it. The catchphrase of our post-reflexivity moment is “it is what it is.”

In the morning after Brexit, most progressive friends on social media were quick to point to leave voters xenophobia and fascism, bemoaning the impending disintegration of the
European Union, talking about Frexit and Oexit exit, Nexit and Italian exit, as if directly echoing and stirring the right wing media demagogues. Aggressively self-othering and insisting on their identity differences rather than on shared anxieties, fears and alliances. Calling the leavers xenophobic and racist so they could go on feeling good about their progressive cosmopolitanism. Fascism harvests and reaps the nascent racisms it to its own benefit and to further social polarization only contributes to its ascend.

As Gillick points out they did not and do not respond to the left wing critique of the EU, that “[it] is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organized crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece.” As for the art institutions, it appeared that the most significant aspect of Union was the multinational granting possibilities, that in return turns them into touring corporations that contribute to the art world star system. My limited exposure to this was how in at least two occasions we were almost bullied into collaboration with European institutions so that they could qualify for EU grants by giving us the chump change in return. Even though there were absolutely no connection between our context and project with what they had in mind for the artists.

It is hard not to see the similarities between the current moment and 2012 when the passionate seculars and educated intellectuals were quick to scream hardline Islamist, after Western media and governments’ reluctant and rather dismissive acknowledgement of the –however hastily and arguably fraud – elected government, and neutrally supported, if not rallied behind the ‘secular’ military takeover of hard won democracy. We are quick to point the finger: Islamists! Fascists!

How can we respond to the disenfranchisement of the blue-collar worker? to the outsourcing of jobs to multinational sweatshops of the monopoly corporations? to the taxdodging financial elite and the rising tax burden of the middle and lower middle class?
How can we respond to the rising Islamophobia when we are quick to shout Islamist at the elected government? The right demagogues can successfully channel the indignations of the disenfranchised Caucasians, how can the left leaning cultural elite respond to their anxieties without name-calling?

In Los Angeles two new downtown art spaces – a museum and an Institute for Contemporary Art (former Santa Monica Museum) – have announced construction plans. Ironically, while both funded by the most ferocious developers who are directly responsible for the displacement of the low-income residents of downtown LA, their preliminary programing is a line up the most progressive social practice artists. Thus underlining how the supposedly ideologically progressive wing of the art world contributes to the rampant neoliberalization of art and culture. If we are not ready to join the Verizon picket line, the least we can do is to say no to brazen gentrification, which is far more effective than making drawings of the placard holding picketers and make superficial associations between the labor of the artist’s hand the workers’ labor?

Art should fight against theory and unravel it to play out its outcomes negatively. It is not merely a space for the artist, the curator and the audience to congratulate themselves on their theoretical weightlifting, intelligence and progressive ideas. Rather it is a place for negative criticality, where theory is used not affirmatively, but as a measuring stone, where it is tested out if it can survive the blows of art. Critical art practice is a critique of critical theory. The permissive safety of art space is no longer the battleground for the avant-garde, but rather as Walter Benjamin wrote “forces which in the political sphere lead to fascism could be expected to have a beneficial function in the domain of art.” Art’s challenge is how to play out these forces and examine their functions. In other words, democracy cannot exist without art. This relationship however, is not dialectical.

The Right to One’s Self-Image

July 8, 2016 Comments off

First published in:  Documentary Across Disciplines, Edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg



As you remember, nitrocellulose can be used to make either bombs, like the anarchists, or roll film, like the Viennese police. Between these two barrages, the anarchistic and the photographic, the human as collective individual explodes.

Friedrich Kittler[1]


This essay is a proposition. It is located between the two concepts of privacy and publicity rights – every individual’s right to their own image and their protection against its commercial use. Its main focus is on the image economy of photojournalism and the position of the photographed subject therein. Does the subject have any rights over his or her image? How do these rights affect the production, exchange, and circulation of a person’s image? In response to the photograph’s universal claim to show the plight and joy of humans to humans, is it possible to imagine an economy administered and regulated by a universal legal structure? How can such a “law of images” contribute to creating a more just visual culture vis-à-vis the common image of humanity?




Every image has a material foundation, and so every image is matter. Aesthetics discusses the surplus of the image, that which makes it beautiful or sublime, or which makes it cute, interesting, poignant, affecting, chilling, or any other kind of adjective used to describe how an image generates an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer. But an image is also a point in a series of material relations and is a part of an economy – what we can call an image economy. This includes an interconnected and diverse network of producers and consumers, distributors and mediators. From paintings and drawings to etchings, photographs, and digital images, all rely on a material infrastructure that is propelled by an industry, economically sustained and managed. In the case of painting, we can think of a chain of materials including the canvas, the pigments, the finish, the paintbrush, the stretcher, the frame, etc.; all those who manufacture, distribute, and sell these products; and also the painting itself as an object that is produced and traded in a marketplace with its own infrastructure and material foundation. This notion of the material foundation of the image goes back to the birth of art history and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Writing in 77 A.D., Pliny, as Georges Didi-Huberman explains, proposes a juridical and material conception of the image. Painting was no more than a “material process to be used in finishing the wax molds of the faces of the ‘ancestors.’” This process was to achieve extreme likeness. The image also, in advance of any art historical notion, was understood as a “molding of resemblance destined to legitimize the position of the individual in the genealogical institution of the Roman gens.[2] The materiality of painting as a process to create likeness was paired with a ritual of private law that maintained the legitimacy of the halls of ancestors.

Photography also has an expansive material and industrial foundation, one that ranges from the producers of silver emulsion and celluloid to all the minerals extracted from mines; from the chemicals used to develop and fix the image to all the devices and machines used in the lab; from the paper to all that is required to produce and make it available; and, of course, the camera itself. Photography was enabled by the industrial mode of production and came of age as the economic condition of industrialism became the dominant mode for the production and distribution of goods. Photography is, then, perhaps both a symptom of and metonym for the commodity form. Théodore Maurisset’s lithograph La daguerreotypomanie (Daguerrotypomania, 1839), created only two years after the invention of the technology, shows how a whole economy and way of life was set in motion by the heliocentric image industry of photography. Every human activity is subsumed under the photographic image: every store becomes an image store, every spectacle becomes a photographic subject. All performers, from the tightrope walker to the juggler, become images of themselves. As historian of photography Roberta McGrath suggests, Maurisset “depicts photography as a commercial product and a microcosm of industrialisation itself.”[3] With photography, mechanical production expanded beyond the walls of factories and became available to consumers en masse. In the center of the image stands the Susse Frères’ commercial showroom. Cutting the image in half, it suggests that the photographic studio has become a site of production, situated at the Human actions, the lithograph suggests, are seemingly performed for the photographic image. William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograph Carpenter and Apprentice (1844), which shows two men sawing, paused mid-action, serves as a great example of how the world posed for photography and, as image production accelerated, started to spin to its pace. The camera on top of the studio in Maurisset’s lithograph is also a clock, perhaps commenting on the synchronization of time, life, and labor that occurred with the introduction of the camera.

The image is a site of convergence for all these vectors. It is what becomes visible to the eye – an opening, a window to the world, but one that is built out of its own material architecture. It is said that an image covers or conceals what it is made of, but no more than any other commodity, no more than a table conceals a tree. It is clear that there is a vast network of economic and social relations that inhere in the production of an image. The photographer is only one of the many parties involved in this economy, all of whom possess various degrees of investment and profit. The photographer is a consumer and a producer at the same time, similar to the workers in the silver factory or the owners of the photo lab. All parties consume images, as well as other commodities that contribute to the production and delivery of photography. Thus regardless of the aesthetic discourse, which analyzes the perception of the image by the senses and the mind, every image is a metonym of economic and social networks of production.

As Talbot’s Carpenter and Apprentice and Maurisset’s La daguerrotypomanie suggest, from the outset one of photography’s main concerns was the depiction of everyday life. While the technology at first required the staging of human life for the camera due to extensive processing time, with the arrival of the Kodak box camera in 1888, life’s fleeting moments were captured instantly. The camera penetrated all aspects of life from the living room to the battlefield, from farmlands to mortuaries. It was the camera that placed death back into the stream of life, at a time when modern institutions were sweeping it away from the everyday.

Photography’s ability to capture moments of danger gave rise to the discipline of photojournalism, which captures and distributes images of people in the face of natural and manmade disasters. Included are those photographed knowingly or unknowingly, whose lives are threatened by outside forces, who are about to vanish, or who are stripped of the material, cultural, social, and political layers that protect the lives of human beings. They are exposed to the gaze of strangers. These images use the photographic claim to objectivity to communicate to viewers something that they would otherwise not know about – that is, the pain and suffering of other human beings in another place and another context. Yet, in addition to the dire living conditions depicted, many such photographs represent economic deprivation, a condition outside or on the margins of the economy. Starving children or encamped asylum seekers are not only deprived of many basic human needs such as food, clean water, and shelter; they are further deprived of the possibility to decide how they are to be represented. These people are, in the etymological sense of the word, “exposed”: they are left without shelter or defense, while also being exposed to the camera. The moral and ethical conditions of photojournalism have been discussed at length by scholars and academics: what are the respective roles of the photographer and the viewer in this scenario? What are their moral obligations and what are their responsibilities? What are the rights to one’s image and how can these rights be established, protected, and, if necessary, defended?

Legally, the protection of one’s image or likeness falls under the categories of privacy and publicity law. As Susanne Bergmann explains, the latter is a concept originally rooted in the right to privacy and developed to protect the commercial interests of celebrities. The right to privacy safeguards against “injuries to a person’s dignity and state of mind, measured by mental distress damages,” while the right to publicity aims to protect the potential commercial exploitation of a person’s identity, image, and likeness and thus can be compared to property rights.[4] In the United States, the first to discuss the notion of a right to privacy were Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, in their seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right To Privacy.” Chronicling various laws put in place to protect the individual – from the right to life and property to the regulation of nuisance and libel – they discuss “the right to be left alone,” particularly in the face of rapid technological developments. They write, “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life[…]. For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.”[5] Similar discussions take place around the same time in different parts of the world. Friedrich Kittler, for instance, talks about a 1902 German Reich law granting citizens rights to their own image that “protects them against the misuse of photography.”[6]

Yet cases concerning the right to self-representation are mainly considered through publicity rights. In the United States and elsewhere, such cases focus mainly on the financial interests of the photographer or publisher and whether the subject has any rights to profits incurred by virtue of being depicted in the image. The subject’s property – his or her image, likeness, or personality – is not by default protected by a governing legal body that has established a distribution model for such profits gained; rather, it is only upon filing suit that the court will decide if any violation has occurred and, if so, what kind of remuneration will be awarded.

The first publicity rights case that was brought to the United States Supreme Court involved the 1972 television broadcast of a performance by Hugo Zacchini, a “human cannonball,” at the Geauga County Fair in Burton, Ohio. Zacchini’s fifteen-second act aired in its entirety on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, a subsidiary of Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company[1]. Zacchini sued Scripps-Howard, alleging that the local reporter “showed and commercialized the film of his act without his consent,” and that such conduct was an “unlawful appropriation of plaintiff’s professional property.”[7] He argued that airing the performance in its entirety would reduce attendance and result in a loss of revenue. In 1977, the Court reversed the Ohio State Court’s initial decision in favor of the broadcasting company, referring to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, and citing that, “Amendments do not immunize the news media when they broadcast a performer’s entire act without his consent.”[8] Yet, in most cases, the two mentioned amendments generally grant immunity to the defendants in suits concerning privacy and publicity rights. The protection of freedom of speech and thus of artistic expression makes it difficult for plaintiffs to claim any rights to their images. Therefore, the right to privacy stands in conflict with the right to expression and is generally considered a less defensible kind of freedom unless it involves a large enough commercial violation for it to be considered by the higher courts. For example, in the case brought by Erno Nussenzweig, a retired diamond seller, against photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia after appearing without consent in one of the latter’s images, the New York Supreme Court held that the photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of his subjects. Nussenzweig claimed that the photographer had violated his right to privacy – as his lawyer put it, his client “ha[d] lost control over his own image” – but the court sided with the defense’s argument that freedom of artistic expression is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.[9] Thus, as Warren and Brandeis noted more than a century ago, unless there is a legal injury, unlike Roman law our system does not account for mental and emotional injuries: “However painful the mental effects upon another of an act, though purely wanton or even malicious, yet if the act itself is otherwise lawful, the suffering inflicted is dannum absque injuria [loss without injury].[10]

While Nussenzweig’s “dignity” was invaded, Florence Owens Thompson felt ashamed by the photograph of her that was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression.[11] Hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Lange travelled across derelict American landscapes to document the plight of the poor and displaced. In March 1936, Thompson and her family set up a temporary camp in the Imperial Valley in southeastern California after their car broke down near a pea-pickers’ camp. Lange visited the camp and took a number of photographs, one of which became the Migrant Mother (1936), an iconic image of the Great Depression. Yet, years later, in a story reported by the Associated Press in 1978, Thompson expressed how she was exploited by Lange’s portrait: “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture[…]. I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”[12] In a CNN interview, her daughter Katherine McIntosh said of the photo, “We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.”[13] This is yet another example of unaccounted for commercial and emotional injuries suffered by a photographed subject with no rights over her image’s circulation and exchange.

Departing from Warren and Brandeis, in 1964’s “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Edward J. Bloustein proposes that the issue of privacy should be regarded as a dignity tort. He argues that,


the harm caused [by the violation of privacy] is not one which may be repaired and the loss suffered is not one which may be made good by an award of damages. The injury is to our individuality, to our dignity as individuals, and the legal remedy represents a social vindication of the human spirit thus threatened rather than a recompense for the loss suffered.[14]


Bloustein argues that if the Fourth Amendment protects the privacy and thus the emotional and mental tranquility of the individual against government intrusion, the United States does have the legal tradition to protect such rights in civil cases involving similar issues.

Yet every day, the industry of photojournalism produces numerous images documenting human life and distributes them across the globe in newspapers, websites, and other news media outlets. Most of these images are produced without the consent of their subjects by professional photographers and, with the rise of citizen journalism, an increasing number of amateurs. The claims that these photographs make are similar to those made by The Family of Man, the 1955 exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Edward Steichen, the exhibition featured “subjects pertinent to all cultures, such as love, children, and death.” It “focused on the commonalties that bind people and cultures around the world” and served “as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.”[15] In the words of Dorothea Lange’s open letter to photographers of the world, this exhibition attempted to “show Man to Man across the world[…] to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man. Nothing short of that will do.”[16] The same appeal to human dignity is used both in defense of and against photography’s depiction of the individual in the face of life and, ultimately, death. For instance, in “One Image Right Can Sweep Away Another,” Jacques Rancière notes that genocide and other kinds of human atrocity deny a “primary ‘right to the image,’ prior to any individual’s ownership of his/her image” which he calls “the right to be included in the image of common humanity.”[17] Referring to two proposed bills in France – one prohibiting the publication of images of crime suspects wearing handcuffs and the second prohibiting the publication of image of individuals in “situations that undermine their dignity” – Rancière laments the commercialization of the human image via the proposed publicity laws.[18] He argues that this direction of the law will eventually restrict the representation of the underprivileged who are already lacking representation in the political sphere and as such will also become less visible in the visual sphere. But the question still remains as to whether or not the representation of those in “undignified” conditions improves the “image of common humanity.”[19] This image, which represents all humans regardless of their race, ethnicity, class and geographical location, is an abstract and impersonal construction, independent of any particular representation of a human being under inhumane conditions. It appears that the suffering and the most vulnerable are also the most immediate candidates to represent humanity as an abstraction, while the better off have more power over their representation. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions the construction of this common image on the back of the underprivileged and interrogates how all but a privileged few are subsumed under this image as representatives of their occupations, ethnicities, and plights.[20] The image of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy washed ashore at the threshold of the fortress of Europe in September 2015, is not a mere contribution to the common image of humanity. Kurdi’s image, like thousands of similar photographs, needs to be measured against this common image, as it represents what needs to be prevented at all costs.

Everyday, as Maurisset anticipated, millions of images are produced, circulated, and exchanged. Recent technological advancements have shortened the gap between the production and reception of the image, rendering it nearly immediate, in what seems to be the livestreaming of life. New media, with its accelerated rate of transmission and its real-time immediacy, has created a new visual landscape in which image-making carries some of the attributes of speech, as the subject and its photographic representation can occupy the same physical and temporal space. We have arguably entered an age of photographic literacy, as virtually everyone – from a boatful of refugees to tourists in world financial capitals – carries a device that is able to document every fleeting moment.[21] Yet, we still lack a legal infrastructure – beyond copyright – that defines and distributes the rights of the various agents involved in producing and distributing journalistic images. How can one define one’s own conditions of representation in the image economy of a visually saturated post-digital world?

Bloustein notes that we have the legal tools to resolve the notion of the individual’s privacy rights, including the right to one’s image. The question then becomes: what kind of framework, internationally and locally, needs to be developed to implement such a legislative body?[22] Tracking down and identifying every person photographed seems draconian and perhaps impossible. Yet if such rights were chartered and defined, photographic subjects would have the possibility to refer to the legal system and make claims. These claims could be evaluated in a court of law, via clearly defined channels and according to regulations that are agreed upon in international legal systems. What is the subject’s share in the image economy of photojournalism, and how can his or her image be legally circulated? How can the subject (or their legal guardians or heirs) as the owner of their image be legally remunerated proportionate to the commercial value of the photograph? How can one imagine a “law of images” as a “juridical space on the boundary of public and private law?”[23] This is Pliny’s concept of the image, explained by Didi-Huberman as “evaluat[ing] images as just or unjust, legal or illegal.”[24] This concept of the image is one prior to the separation of ethics and aesthetics, unlike the modern discourse on images that insists on such boundaries. A law of images and the subsequent judicial space can provide a legal framework for the representation of every individual, even if it is defined and operates within capitalist social conditions. These laws will regulate the production and circulation of images and provide a pathway for the photographic subject to pursue rights to their own image and its conditions of representation. The sphere of representation is one that operates within the totalizing apparatus of the spectacle. In this sphere, to divert Pliny’s discourse, the concept of the image is one of material and juridical foundation. Therefore, the struggle for representation is guided by and relies on this foundation to be operative. The negation of this sphere as a whole due to its total recuperation under the current dominant social and economic condition does not dismantle it, but rather contributes to the elimination of the underrepresented.

But the image, following Giorgio Agamben’s formulation in the essay “On Potentiality,” becomes visible against its absence; it puts itself forth through darkness into visibility. We can imagine representation and spectatorship as potentiality. “If potentiality were, for example, only the potentiality for vision and if it existed only as such in the actuality of light, we could never experience darkness”; but since we experience darkness, we therefore have the “potential not to see, the possibility of privation.[25] The image economy of photojournalism belongs to the potentiality for vision; it is in the scope of the visible and representable. It falls and functions under the spectacle and is governed by the latter’s rules of production, exchange, and circulation. The common image of humanity is an invisible, negative image, but one that is measured against the visible, against images of the pained and the suffering. Yet, this does not imply that the rights of the latter need to remain unrecognized and unaccounted for. It does not mean that we can abandon the conditions of representation within the current legal and economic apparatus. The subject needs to be redeemed from representation, yet occupy its position within it. It needs to surpass being reduced to an example or mere evidence of human suffering, while at the same time interrogating the conditions that create such states of agony and pain. The image violates that which it represents, existing as a battleground through which the subject becomes visible and simultaneously turns into an abstraction.

Perhaps one can think of privacy rights as the negative double of publicity rights in the totalizing movement of the spectacle: if one can imagine publicity rights as every individual’s rights to their image within the contemporary image economy, the right to privacy is the right not to be represented as such, the right to belong to oneself, to be left alone, set apart, to not belong to the state or the market. It is, to borrow from Agamben, a right to privation. This right to privation is what makes up that abstract common image of humanity and belongs to the aspect of the image that Pliny calls dignitas. This common image needs to be uncompromisingly and constantly constructed, reviewed, and re-imagined – against its totalizing other.


[1] I first learned about this case from artist Kobe Matthys

[1] Friedrich A. Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010, p. 145.

[2] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image: Genealogy and the Truth of Resembelance in Pliny’s Natural History, Book 35, I-7,” Costas Douzinas and Lynda Nead, eds., Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law. transl. Peter Goodrich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 78.


[3] Roberta McGrath, Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 148.

[4] Susanne Bergmann, Publicity Rights in the United States and Germany: A Comparative Analysis. 19 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 479 (1999).

[5] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy [The Implicit Made Explicit],” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 76.

[6] Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, p. 144.

[7] Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company, 433 U.S. 562 (1977).

[8] The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly, and right to petition. The Fourteenth Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War.

[9] Philip Gefter. “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?” New York Times, March 17, 2006.

[10] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” p. 78.

[11] Philip Gefter, “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?”

[12]It is important to note that in 1983 Thompson’s cancer fund (the Migrant Mother Fund) was filled with donations from across the country due to the photograph. Further, the wide circulation of the image at the time of its publication did result in delivering food and care to the camp, albeit after Thompson family’s departure. Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” New Times, accessed November 16, 2015.

[13] Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash, “Girl from Iconic Great Depression Photo: ‘We Were Ashamed,’” CNN, accessed November 14, 2015.

[14] Edward J. Bloustein, “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007 p. 188.

[15] Museum of Modern Art, “Edward Steichen at The Family of Man, 1955,”

[16] Dorothea Lange’s letter written January 16, 1953 is quoted in John Szarkowski, “The Family of Man,” The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century at Home and Abroad. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 24.

[17] Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times, transl. Steven Corcoran, London: Continuum, 2010, p. 51.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200, pp. 78-79.

[21] In his “A Little History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin notes how the illiterates of the future will be those who are ignorant of photography; Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, eds., Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 1931-1934, Volume 2, Part 2, transl. Rodney Livingstone and Others, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 527.

[22] Admittedly Bloustein’s argument is rooted in the American legal tradition, and this essay comes far short of a comparative study of the image’s rights internationally. Yet photojournalism, with its global distribution and its multinational media channels, makes universal claims. As such, establishing an international body that protects the rights of photographed subjects seems urgent.

[23] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image,” p. 79.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Roazen, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 181.

On Photography People and Modern Times

July 15, 2013 Comments off

Akram Zaatari’s two channel installation On Photography People and Modern Times presents a “subjective story of the Arab Image Foundation” in Beirut. Co-founded by Zaatari, the foundation is a non-profit organization established in Beirut in 1997 with the mission “to collect, preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora.” The foundation is an expanding archive with over 600,000 photographs.

A lo-fi version of the piece is available at:

On Photography… features a two-channel installation of interviews with a number of image donors to the AIF, conducted by Zaatari. One screen shows a plot image of a table that includes tapes of interviews, a video camera with the display facing up, a fraction of a monitor display, and images of the photographs donated to AIF by the interviewee. The screen on the right features an eye level image of the same table, where we can now see the monitor, the interviewee, the video camera from the side (but not the display) and the torso of the archivist, whose gloved hands we can also see in the left side image.

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

The image in the monitor and the display unit of the video camera is a moving image, a video of the interview. The archivist however is rendered as a time-lapse video, where the archivist presents photographs in split frames, a different temporal logic that the image that occupies the same surface. At times we can even see the interviewee sitting behind the archive table. A subtitle appears above the image, overlapping the two split screens. The end result is a video, that includes three different temporal logic of the photograph, video and time-lapse video. The piece further includes the linguistic dimension, both oral and textual—in form of subtitles.

The piece analyzes a combination of visual and archival temporalities simultaneously and within a single split screen. It examines the archival apparatus of conservation (note the gloved hands of the archivist), presentation, narration and also the desire of the archivist him/herself. Why to collect, “we lived in a country in which everything was being destroyed and falling apart, and photographed presented a totally different reality,” an interviewee notes and says how in the face of destruction, by collecting photographs “he could reconstruct the past and the present.

The piece concerns how we respond to different modes of engagement with archival material—splinters of historical time’s inscription on technologies of representation and narration. At the heart of the work lies the photograph, and the institution (AIF), the story (the donor’s account), the work (On Photography People and Modern Times), all present various modes of approaching and interpreting  the photographic image, which itself points to a particular moment in time. Zaatari points to the slit between these various modes of engagement, starting from splitting the work itself into two screens. The split between the image—both moving and still—and word, the photograph and video, the still frame and natural frame rate (which itself now varies depending on the technology). The slit between the camera and the display, between the narrator and the narrated. The construction of memory via, archival modes of conservation and presentation, by technologies of memory and recollection. This presents the then of now, the recognition of the past in the present moment, as Benjamin suggests. The image, in Nancy’s formulation, gives presence to an absence. The archive in turn, makes the absence visible.

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.

script as score

May 17, 2012 Comments off

In Optical Media, Friedrich Kittler quotes Georges Méliès cameraman Guidio Seeber: “the screenwriter of the future, will have to write like a musician writes his score.”

The defeat of Barack Hussein Obama, internet screenshot from

This morning, May 17, 2012, the New York Times published a storyboard for a five-minute film “obtained” by the paper. According to the Times “The film, titled “Next,” was proposed by Strategic Perception, a political public relations firm founded by Fred Davis. The storyboard provides a rough outline for a film highly critical of President Obama’s background and policies.” Notwithstanding the content of the film, featuring such particularly technical document on a morning paper is significant, as it suggests that reading of a storyboard is not restricted to filmschool graduates and the industry at large. Although, this might not be quite what Guidio anticipated from the screenwriter of the future, but the featured storyboard is production-ready and anyone familiar with the profession’s basics, could potentially imagine, and produce the film. “It is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography, who will be the illiterate of future,” writes Benjamin in Short History of Photography and here the Times confirms what Benjamin’s predicted in 1931. What used to be the under the hood nuts and bolts of the industry is now a common lexicon available and decipherable by the larger populace and thus it’s become evermore clear that the function of media criticism has [long] shifted from the mere exposure of the underlying apparatus. The apparatus has already mooned the audiences and moved on, and so writes David Foster Wallace: “what explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become unture, but that they’ve become deeply irrelevant. It’s that such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself…Today’s mega-Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed (real life). A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.” Thus one does not look for truth in the media, but rather for entertaining affirmations, divided into political comedy on the left and propaganda on the right spectrum of the [American] media.

Botany Bay of photography

April 2, 2012 Comments off

Benjamin quotes Nadar’s self-characterization in The Arcades Project: “Formerly a maker of caricatures …, ultimately a refugee in the Botany Bay of photography.” A penal colony where convicts were sent from Britain, but also an unknown place (for the new settlers), a place open for definition and interpretation and colonization conceptual and perceptual. In another passage, in Little History of Photography, Benjamin asks: “Isn’t the task of the photographer—the descendant of the augurs and haruspices—to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?” Benjamin compares the photographer to the reader of signs of nature—the flight of the birds and the entrails of sacrificed animals—who reveal the unknown, who shed light to obscurities, just as the traces of light on the sensitive emulsion.

Johannes David’s Orbita probitatis ad Christi imitationem, shows Christ carrying the cross over the mound surrounded by nine painters seated at their easels each depicting the event as it is talking place. Photography redistributed this burden of representation and extended it to a greater populace, thus maybe Nadar’s Botany Bay alludes to the Mount of Olives as a site of representation and visual dissemination. While the painters in David’s drawing are all looking at the same event, each draws a different interpretation of it, with only the one who occupies the central view-point, the vantage point of linear perspective, draws the most loyal representation of the event. However, simultaneously the depicted multiplicity further comments on the primary diffusion of semiotics of the visual from an ontological position, where image functions similar to the word, and meaning is produced through the continuous process of ‘difference.’

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.


February 15, 2012 Comments off

[continued] When will the photographic window open to the landscape of truth?[i] It is in a moment of danger that the indexicality of the photograph goes beyond form, the image becomes an index of death. It is this shadow of death, looming over the event, that binds the image maker and the subject in the instance that the camera shutter clicks. Every portrait, or rather, every image produced under such conditions, needs to be also an image of the self, a self-portrait. It is only when the photographer and the subject share the same position within (and not vis à vis) the event that the distance between spectatorship and participation would elapse and the picture taken will be also the picture of the photographer him/herself. The photographer is commonly known to bear witness to the event, but this act of witnessing carries with itself the now-forgotten meaning of the word witness: martyr. In Waiting for Tear Gas, referring to similar concerns Allen Sekula writes “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence. ” The photographer becomes a part of the crowd, moves with the crowd and shares their position. The image and the event become parts of a single entity, not one the documentation of the other. The photograph becomes the event.

Henry Fox Talbot, "Latticed window in Lacock Abbey", 1835

The moment of danger, seized in the photographic frame, also severs the ties between the photograph and the history of photography. As such the image does not signify a canonic progression of a formal dialectic, it will be a primal image, stripped from ontology, an image (as Benjamin puts it) “identical with the historical object.” In the period between the invention of photography and the introduction of snapshot, photography appropriated painterly aesthetics and established its position regarding the history of art. It is within these aesthetic conditions that the notion of a defining image [of an event] was produced. This defining image lends itself to the established aesthetic categories and systems of evaluation that preside over art history.

It is only through a rupture between the photograph and its history that the historical moment could be seized and preserved in one unique image. This image, unburdened by the history of its medium becomes free from the chain of signification, the image ceases to be a text, and without the mediation of meaning, the subject and object will coincide in a “dialectical image.” Here, the photograph (technical image) becomes an image, as in the image before the era of art, an image emptied of words.


[i] Here I am not considering the indexicaliy of images of exchange, e.g. online shopping catalogues that provide an image of what the costumer receives in the mail.