pieter van bogaert
pieter@amarona.be

 

Turning the image into a place

Paper for spacecowboys (2009)

 


Our digital era often seems to be synonymous with infinite, both geographically and technologically: it seems as though everything everywhere is accessible and therefore also imaginable. A question we could pose in this is whether anything could still exist which is unimaginable - if anything exists which today could not be captured in an image. Whether there are still things which either cannot occur so that we are unable to record them, or things which we cannot imagine and thus are unable to represent? Perhaps we have too little patience. Perhaps we do not dare enough. Perhaps we need to learn how to exaggerate when we make our own images or try to imagine things? Or perhaps we need to make more of an effort to imagine - to step into the image and thus to create a space within the image.

 

The hypervisible and the quasi-invisible

Many of the images which confront us in this budding twenty-first century, nevertheless verge on what we would previously have classified as unimaginable. These are what are called 'extravagant times'. It seems as though nothing can happen anymore without there being images of them created. What was formerly censored on television - the most detached and/or the most personal images - now passes freely via the internet. And those images, new and typifying the digital era and its media, inevitably also seep through to the older and more traditional media. We are overrun with them, from early morning in the newspaper until late in the evening on television.

Or is that just an impression? We could also ask ourselves the question whether, instead of too many images, we actually see enough images. That becomes clear when, among other things, we see the image of the twenty-first century - the two planes striking the Twin Towers in New York on 11th September 2001 and position it alongside the event of the same period: the resistance to the war in Iraq, which brought millions of people out on to the street throughout the world on 15th February 2003.(1) The movement of that image towards that event is one of hypervisibility - the attacks, as if we were there, on that very concrete spot in New York - to the quasi-invisible - the resistance, visible only to those who were there themselves, in all those locations spread throughout the world, and thus were personally part of the image. The same question and the same movement provided the basis for an exhibition which I had the privilege to compile for Z33. The name of the exhibition - EXCESS - refers both to the excesses expressed in an image as well as to the excessive flow of images in which they reach us.(2) The starting point encompasses both the disgusting and the attractive images confronting us every day in this digital era - the images of repugnance and those of desire, which in many cases overlap.

Central in the exhibition were the two large unknowns in the present-day image stream, which I called the x and y-axes, the variables we need, just as in mathematics, to complete a comparison. On the one hand I searched for the images which were made, but were never or too seldom to be seen in the traditional media: subjective images of those involved and passers-by, for the sake of convenience arranged under the heading 'diaries' or 'journals'.(3) I found these images principally via the internet or via a parallel circuit of independent film-makers and other image producers (painters, photographers, etc…) a circuit of professionals and amateurs in the field. On the other hand, it concerns images that were never made - and that is, to say the least, a shocking statement in this digital era: the fact that there are still events, important or otherwise, which are not recorded visually. At a moment like this it is clear that there is not only a shortage of images, but even more a shortage of imagination. That was primarily illustrated with work by artists in their studios.(4)

 

The strategic space

Images fulfil a strategic function. The Nazi’s enlisted the cinema on many occasions in the propaganda for their developing Third Reich and for the war which was to come - with this they followed in Soviet footsteps who had made the cinema their partner in the communist revolution a few years earlier. The Vietnam war was lost in the mid-sixties by the arrival of colour television which brought the horror to the viewers in their living room. In the seventies German, Italian or Palestinian terrorists made use of the same mass media to make viewers part of their actions and demand attention for their ideas. These images show an evolution in the course of history in which the event detaches itself from its surroundings. The event shifts from the locality to the media and more recently: from television to the internet. These images show how events are staged in function of the media. The image no longer serves only to record, but itself becomes the event. We see images functioning as places. The media are part of the battlefield. They function as a strategic space.

A technique to involve the viewer in an image is to make an icon of it; an image that represents an entirety, which erases all other images and threatens to reduce the reality to one single image. Or one single idea. Because most of these icons make use of a very recognizable visual image, which refers to other icons, which are part of the public domain - of our collective (sub-) consciousness. When the photos of the torture in Abu Ghraib prison appeared in the media, immediate reference was made to religious icons such as the crucified and tortured Christ or to sado-masochistic scenes in porno or cinema films.(5) 'Salo', the film in which Pier Paolo Pasolini shifts the excesses of the marquis of Sade to the final days of Italian fascism, was mentioned in this connection more than once.(6) These are references to other places (7), to a possible yonder driven by fear and longing.

There are two ways to react to this kind of reduction - to these shifts which are really 'moves' of and within the image. Either we ensure that these images are not distributed and thus not seen either, and paralyze them - because an image which is not seen, does not exist. Or we ensure they are seen but that in addition there are a sufficient number of other images available which put these icons into perspective. The first - which equates with censorship - is in this digital age, in which every image producer who, by pressing a button not only creates the images but also instantly sends them across the world, more or less impossible. The second is equally impossible, because it is a quasi-infinite project, which only becomes watertight when we are able to see so many images that they coincide with reality. A project that, in other words, is only going to work at a moment when the images show so much reality that they make themselves superfluous.

A few years ago there was a major debate surrounding this fact, waged by two French film-makers. The first, Claude Lanzmann, had just finished an eight-hour documentary about the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War: 'Shoah'. The other was Jean-Luc Godard, who at that time was working on 'Histoire(s) du Cinéma', a video in four times two parts in which the same excesses of the concentration camps and World War II occupied a central position. Lanzmann refused, in his monumental documentary, to show images of the happenings in the camps because by definition they failed to do justice to the truth: according to Lanzmann the reality was always more barbaric than is revealed by the images. Instead of showing archive images, he travels the world and constructs his film completely around interviews with those immediately involved and witnesses of the time. From his side, Godard clears Lanzmann's project off the table with an apt 'il n'y a rien montré'.(8) His strategy consists precisely of searching for as many images as possible: all the images which were made and even more: all the images which were never made. While Lanzmann makes the film on site, searching for what remains of the events, Godard withdraws into the archive and at the montage table to move towards and within the image.

 

Outside the image

This leads us to a possible alternative to create completeness for 'the unimaginable', namely: 'the invisible'. And that leads us to the most significant part of the image, namely: what remains outside of the image. Both Lanzmann and Godard have, each in his own way, understood the power of the invisible, of that which is kept outside the image. They understood, each in his own way, how the invisible (censored) images can be more powerful than the visible. Lanzmann wants to keep it that way by keeping the 'unimaginable' invisible; Godard wants to do something about it by making visible what is invisible - by allowing the creation of new images between the images: he tries to bring what is outside the image back in again via the mental 'third' image that is created in the editing. Both Lanzmann and Godard want to set the viewers' imagination into action - the first by keeping images back and, just by speaking about them, to make them more powerful than they actually are; the second by positioning various images over and alongside each other and thus, by way of subtle distinction, to put them into perspective. We are faced with a kind of paradox which states that the fewer images we show, the stronger they become, and the more images, the weaker their power.

In compiling EXCESS I have allowed myself to be inspired by Godard's work and his discussion with Lanzmann. 'Histoire(s) du Cinéma' is a film history which aims equally to take account of the 'visible' films, which were actually made and also with all those 'invisible' images, which were never made or never shown. The major difference between Godard's century and today's - between the century of the film and the century in which various media, such as film, video, tv, internet, games, etc. intersect and meet in the multimedia computer - is that the boundary between fiction and reality becomes increasingly fine. In Godard's history there was still a distinction between the (fiction) film and the (cinematic) news - even though that news was constructed so that it became fiction. Today all those categories intersect each other and each image is a construction.

The Dutch media critic, Arjen Mulder, categorized a few years ago many of the new digital images under the most important images of our time.(9) They are cool images. Mulder talks about family snapshots, medical photos of unborn babies or malignant tumours, monitoring images from security cameras in stations or shopping centres, personal images on webcams and in weblogs and other images which are only significant to their makers and those directly involved. They are low-definition images, with many hazy, thus invisible, elements. They are images which require some effort on our part - not only to find them, but also to look at them. They put our imagination to work, filling in the missing information. They are images which require greater participation from the observer. Cool, then, in the way that Marshall McLuhan means when he makes a distinction between "media, cool and hot".(10) The first are of such low definition that observers need to fill in the gaps themselves and thus have to (re)construct the image; it results in, as it were, putting oneself into the image. The second give so much information that nothing is left to the imagination; they are images which draw in the observer such that they function as a new space (what McLuhan will refer to elsewhere as an "acoustic space").

It is remarkably odd that today it is precisely those cool images which ensure that the Americans are unable to win the war: the images of bloggers and other internet activists. In Vietnam - the war with which the current débâcle in Iraq is increasingly compared - it was the exact opposite: then it was the hot images of colour television which left nothing to the imagination, which brought the war into the living room and forced the population out onto the street in protest against the war. What both images have in common - today's cool images and the hot ones of the time - is that they show that such a thing still exists as what is outside the image - that they make it clear that we have not yet seen everything and have not been everywhere; that there is still another reality that is still invisible (or not entirely visible).

 

Devenir imperceptible

Learning to live with the current (image) excess means, in the first instance, learning to get along with the unstaunchable flow of images which confronts us every day. It means not shutting ourselves off but instead surrendering to the images; that we make our own selection and choices and do not leave that task to others. But in addition it means keeping an alert eye and actively looking for the empty spaces between the images, for the images which are missing, the images we do not (can not) see. That means asking for more images but also making more images, literally constructing them; going to the events and ensuring that they are seen. It is not only a question of making the images work but also of creating space for the imagination. That art fulfils an important function in achieving this, is proven efficiently in PLACE@SPACE, the exhibition at Z33. The first significant space in this exhibition - the museum itself - was immediately concealed; erased by a new place. For the duration of the exhibition, the central hall of the museum was changed from a semi-public space into a privatized place taken over by artist Marthe Van Dessel. During the exhibition she remained there to eat, sleep and work in the kitchen, the bedroom and the studio, which were part of that place within the space.

The first image in the exhibition was, in other words, a building in the building that according to the artist had to transform the 'nowhere' into a 'NowHere'. It was an image for literally stepping into and exploring. In this way, Van Dessel gave a powerful illustration of what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they speak about "devenir imperceptible".(12) It is not becoming invisible but imperceptible; not erasing but becoming part. It is an ongoing sharing and becoming as everyone. "C'est en ce sens que devenir tout le monde, faire du monde un devenir, c'est faire du monde, c'est faire un monde, des mondes, c'est-à-dire trouver ses voisinages et ses zones d'indiscernabilité".(13) Creating a world in which every distinction disappears, discovering zones of proximity in other worlds which she involved in hers, that is precisely what Van Dessel did with this temporary spatial image. The artist, in her shared omni-presence, imperceptible herself, thus became the ultimate consequence of being part of the image.

Here, the image became a process, een 'devenir' (becoming), a verb: "Devenir n'est pas progresser ni régresser suivant une série. Et surtout devenir ne se fait pas dans l'imagination, même quand l'imagination atteint au niveau cosmique ou dynamique le plus élevé, comme chez Jung ou Bachelard. Les devenirs-animaux ne sont pas des rêves ni des fantasmes. Ils sont parfaitement réels. […] Le devenir ne produit pas autre chose que lui-même." The only genuine reality here is that of becoming; becoming - or producing - oneself (lui-même). The first condition for this is stepping out of the image, into the invisible space which is outside the image. And that really means, quite simply, stepping into the world; clearing a space in the world and tackling the confrontation with the now-here, the atopic now-here that Deleuze and Guattari position opposite the utopic no-where in 'Qu'est-ce que la philosophie?'. Not being immersed in the other, as a person, but rather being immersed in the other, as a place, is then the highest form of imagination, of becoming-image.

 

(1) Gene Youngblood, 2007. What we must do. In: Janine Marchessault & Susan Lord (eds.). Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema. University of Toronto Press.

(2) EXCESS – images and bodies in times of excess.12th of February until 21st of May 2006 Z33, Hasselt. www.squarevzw.be/XS

(3) These were the images that formed the X_Zone in the exhibition: http://www.squarevzw.be/XS/X_ZONE.htm

(4) These were a.o. the images in the Y_Zone; http://www.squarevzw.be/XS/Y_ZONE.htm

(5) Stephen F. Eisenman, 2007. The Abu Ghraib Effect. Reaktion Books, London.

(6) Susan Sontag, 2004. Regarding the Torture of Others. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/23PRISONS.html?ex=1400644800&en=a2cb6ea6bd297c8f&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND

(7) Michel Foucault, 1984. Des espaces autres. In: Dits et écrits II, 1976-1988. Quarto Gallimard, Paris: p. 1571

(8) Jean-Luc Godard, 1998. Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard. Tome 2. 1984-1998. Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris: p. 146

(9) Arjen Mulder, 2004. Over mediatheorie. V2_/NAi Uitgevers, Rotterdam.

(10) Marshall McLuhan, 1964. Understanding Media. Gingko Press, Corte Madeira, CA.

(11) I think for example of a player as Salaam Pax during the war in Iraq; or about the role of the internet in the war in Kosov@ in 1999 or the resistance of the Zapatista movement a few years earlier.

(12) Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, 1980. Mille Plateaux. Les éditions de Minuit, Paris.

(13) Rosi Braidotti, 2006. Transpositions. Polity, Cambridge, UK. Deleuze & Guattari, 1980: 343 ibid: 291, my italics Deleuze & Guattari, 1991. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?: p. 95/6; Henk Oosterling, 1996. Door schijn bewogen. Kok Agora, Kampen: p. 649; Braidotti, 2006: p. 253