Francis Frascina revisits Lament of the Images

Alfredo Jaar’s Lament of the Images, 2002, is a critique of contemporary visual communication as a ‘regime to be managed’. Absent images are mourned in his installation, an outcome of the artist becoming overwhelmed by the ethical dilemma of looking at and displaying his photographs of survivors of genocide in Rwanda, 1994. As Johanna Drucker argues (Cultural Politics, March 2008), Jaar lost faith in photographic documentation because it seemed complicit with media bids for attention in image-saturated cultures. This dilemma is compounded by powerful nation states attempting to control the flow of photographs and video, particularly during military operations: in Lament of the Images one focus is the American bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001. More recently, similar issues of power and permissibility are at the forefront of contested representations of attacks on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Jean Baudrillard offers a compelling but pessimistic analysis of conditions since September 11, 2001. Looking back to the Gulf War of 1990-91 he argues that images, including those of disaster, violence and war, are the product of totalising image cultures that are consensual and ‘televisual’ (‘Pornographie de la guerre’, 2004). Contemporary cultures are increasingly dominated by regimes of high-speed visualisation that provoke feelings of, for example, abjection with the photographs of US abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. However, for Baudrillard such feelings are only virtual responses to representations: the lived and the represented are identical. These images are ‘war porn’ in the ‘prevailing rule of the world of making everything visible’ in a ‘desperate simulacrum of power’. Compliant viewers are addicted to spectacle.

Retort, which is a gathering of writers, artists, artisans and activists based in the San Francisco Bay Area, produced analyses of similar conditions with different conclusions to Baudrillard, and in 2006 made an artwork that is the antithesis of Jaar’s lament. Retort’s installation, titled Afflicted Powers, is full of images, including barbaric acts of war from the dropping of US napalm on Vietnam, to dead Lebanese children wrapped in plastic. Both Jaar and Retort engage with the symbolic economy, the image-war characteristic of media-saturated and militarised cultures.

The contrast between absence, in Lament of the Images, and presence, in Afflicted Powers, constitutes a dialectic thought (from Walter Benjamin): ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ If works of art, with these installations as examples, are documents of both civilisation and barbarism, how do we think about the two identities together in experiences that engender critical judgments about representations and human agency in ways different from Baudrillard’s view of addiction to the present and to spectacle?

These issues have a renewed relevance given that images of the recent bombardment of Gaza are regarded by the IDF as a visual regime to be managed in order to neutralise morally those ‘pasts’ that prompt critical assessments of the present. In 2006 horrific stills and video footage of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon raised ethical questions about the production, dissemination and viewing of photographs of dead and mutilated bodies. Many of these questions have deep historical roots in debates about photography, representations of war and, more recently, the role of digital communications as sources of knowledge and evidence, which includes not only material transmitted by civilian victims of violence but also text and picture messages sent by members of the IDF from Lebanon. Because these communications were subsequently regarded as undermining official propaganda, Israel removed mobile phones from soldiers invading Gaza on January 3, 2009, after a week of aerial bombing. Such acts refocus attention on relationships between the practices of looking and attempts by the state to control the availability of imagery.

Some journalists and media staff, mostly from Arab networks, were in Gaza when bombing began on December 27, 2008. However, the IDF refused journalists and photographers entry into the territory in defiance of their own Supreme Court ruling that international media should be allowed into Gaza to report on the effect of air strikes on Palestinians. Further, to obtain an accredited Israeli press pass, journalists had to accept extensive printed propaganda material on the IDF’s actions and provide their mobile phone numbers to enable a stream of text messages to be sent from the Israeli military communications unit. Western media with their mobile satellite dishes were forced to park on what became known as the ‘hill of shame’, looking from Israel far into the distance at the Gaza strip. Denied independence, these journalists were – in their own jargon – condemned to be ‘dish monkeys’. At the same time, the IDF bombed media targets in Gaza, including the Al-Shorouq tower that contained offices of satellite channels, further curtailing reports, and uploaded more than 30,000 of their own ‘action clips’ onto YouTube and elsewhere. Here was a mixed strategy of media control by the IDF: refusing access to Gaza; bombardment of digital communications, such as text messaging journalists and targeting internet video-sharing sites; constant availability of state-approved commentators to news corporations; full access to sites of Hamas rocket strikes on Israel; and what many commentators described as orchestrated disinformation.

Western media had to rely primarily on edited footage from Reuters and Associated Press. Those frustrated by these constraints or wishing to test the veracity of broadcasts and illustrated reports sought alternative sources, including Arab television networks and internet sources, many displaying images and footage that bypassed conventional news agencies and editorial codes. Here, too, there is a further process of negotiation between printed reports and internet sources. For better or worse, newspapers rely on editorial agendas and decisions about lead stories and images. Internet news sites often highlight images and stories in relation to the number of user hits, thus altering conventional editorial choices in response to audience demands.

There are several issues here. Who has access to information and images? What are the contexts of access, mediation and the editorial agendas of suppliers? What are the ethical and political dilemmas of looking at images of dead or mutilated bodies? What are the consequences of looking away? On the one hand, there is the need to respect human dignity and rights, as well as the need to address the issues of complicity, voyeurism and hybridity that have been central to discussions of colonialist imagery and objectified bodies. On the other hand, there are requirements to look at the full horrors of brutal violence in order to awaken critical and historical understanding of media rhetoric and representation.

In Jaar’s installation visitors enter a darkened room with three illuminated texts describing particular examples of visual communication as ‘a regime to be managed’. The third one is titled Kabul, Afghanistan, October 7, 2001. Just before the carpet bombing of Afghanistan, the US Defense Department entered into a contract with Space Imaging Inc to purchase exclusive rights to all available satellite images of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. In doing so, western media were prevented not only from seeing the effects of the bombing but also from independent verification or refutation of government claims. As is well known, one of the first targets for US missiles was the Kabul office and satellite transmission dish of Al Jazeera, the Arabic television company based in Qatar and partly staffed by ex-BBC World Service personnel. Jaar’s text panel ends with a quote from the CEO of Space Imaging Inc on the US Defense Department buying ‘all the imagery that is available’ and concluding that there is ‘nothing left to see’. After reading these texts visitors follow a faintly lit narrow corridor leading to another darkened space, only to be confronted by a painfully dazzling blank, white screen. Any image is absent, withdrawn, withheld. There is nothing left to see.

Attempts to manipulate the flow of imagery and mediate visual communication are consistent with cultures of reception dependent upon instant gratification, mobilising particular pasts and a lack of empathy with depicted bodies. This has continued with representations of Afghanistan. For example, US military reports of their air strike on Azizabad on August 22, 2008, claimed that 30 to 35 Taliban militants and ‘only’ five to seven civilians had been killed. However, alternative sources provided a different account. A mobile phone video recorded palpable shock and grief over at least 11 dead children among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. In the light of this and other images, the UN backed up villagers’ accounts that more than 90 civilians, the majority being women and children, had been killed, though the US disputes the accuracy of these figures. The policy of image control, military attack and denial of alternative evidence has been adopted by client states such as Israel. Active resistance to and refutation of representations produced by this policy have relied on sources often described as ‘unverifiable’ by embedded journalists and led to a loss of faith in established conventions of documentary photography corrupted by media agendas.

Drucker argues that Jaar’s Lament of the Images ‘registers clearly that traditions of activism have become impotent. The overwhelming effects of image culture seem to have crushed the avant-garde impulse’. Artists have lost belief in the effect of de-familiarisation that was central to the self-critical historic Avant Garde: the very identity of art was in part linked to its capacity for making strange. Artists used to have the capacity to disturb ideological beliefs and values, to reveal how representations in society served particular interests and powers.

However, Drucker believes that ‘Jaar’s Lament shows the need for refamiliarization, an act of connection and association that takes full account of the gap between image and referent, between images and systems of belief’. To resist the dystopian vision of a totalising virtuality, she asks: can ‘art objects reveal the conditions of belief that produce them? Can they function as image-events, documents of relations?’ For Drucker, ‘Jaar despairs of documentary efficacy, but not of the space made by art, so we can have space to imagine’. She argues that the space made by image-events is that space of interpretative activity.

Retort’s installation at the Second International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Seville includes a wall-sized video projection (by Gail Wight) that, in both technique and content, runs counter to corporate news reports of war and dissent on millions of flickering television screens. The video begins with footage of mass Republican demonstrations during the Spanish Civil War merging into images of protests against the US-led invasion of Iraq with chanting marchers holding a large banner of Picasso’s Guernica. Documentary film of the banner becomes a full screen image of Picasso’s painting, still a sign of creative antithesis to propaganda. At the US’s insistence a tapestry version of Guernica at the UN in New York was covered up when, in February 2003, Colin Powell presented dubious evidence for war against Iraq.

Members of Retort argue that corporate news networks operate under conditions of spectacle, which is an exertion of social power. No one, they claim, ‘who witnessed the moral bankruptcy of the media during the Iraq campaign can be left with the least illusion about the world the networks show us’. The first minute of Retort’s video emphasises the ‘speech’ of a mass march where ‘the centrifuge of voices, rhythms, and banners, not the hectoring of stale celebrities’ could act as a fleeting and artificial reminder of what ‘the public realm could be’. Over the next five minutes, sections of Picasso’s painting are gradually replaced by a series of images and footage, including aerial bombing of Guernica by Fascist planes in 1937, Vietnamese jungle exploding in fire from US napalm dropped from the air in the 60s and 70s, bombs and explosions during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and civilian deaths resulting from Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006.

Retort’s installation includes its broadsheets Neither Their War Nor Their Peace, written for anti-war demonstrations in February 2003, and All Quiet on the Eastern Front, produced at the time of protests against the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006. The latter begins with a photograph of bodies wrapped in makeshift plastic body bags at a Lebanese hospital following an Israeli air strike at Qana, Lebanon, on July 30, 2006, which killed dozens of civilians. The photograph by Tyler Hicks, which also appears in the video projection filling the screen as Guernica fragments, is a reminder of another image by Hicks used by the New York Times (July 31, 2006) to report the attack on Qana: a close-up of two dead children wrapped in plastic. Ten years earlier, in 1996, Qana was a site of horrific images when more than a hundred civilians taking refuge in a UN compound were killed by IDF artillery.

Retort’s juxtaposition of images and texts is the product of a series of analyses and questions. Here is one: given the horror of the present, what would an effective political intervention in the field of imagery be like? As installations by Jaar and Retort exemplify, there are no straightforward answers.

Four members of Retort are co-authors of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, published in 2005. They ask what ‘politically and strategically, took place on September 11, 2001?’ They argue that this atrocity, one among many, was also an ‘image-event’ in which the US state suffered an ‘image defeat’. The hijackers caused actual deaths and a symbolic destruction such that years later the state is still ‘trying desperately to convert the defeat back into terms it can respond to’. With US-supplied weapons, Israel used massive force against Gaza together with techniques of media manipulation to exorcize its own image defeats by attempting to control representations in terms the state could respond to. However, hubris contains the seeds of its own critique. In the first 24 hours of the IDF’s carefully mediated campaign of ‘death from above’ at least 290 people were killed. Reports of the horror led Mustafa Barghouthi, a leading advocate of non-violent response to Israeli occupation, to call this ‘Palestine’s Guernica’, creating an image still redolent of Powell at the UN and the discredited narrative of the US-led war on Iraq.

To look at photographs such as the wrapped bodies of five young daughters of one Gaza family, killed as they slept by an Israeli air strike on December 30, 2008, is to return to those taken by Tyler Hicks of similar civilian victims of the IDF’s bombardment of Lebanon in 2006. In Gaza, however, photographers from western newspapers, including the New York Times, were barred. Images of state actions have to be obtained from a range of sources to ensure the possibility of a critical awareness of relationships between images of death and mutilation and systems of belief that justify their barbarity. This possibility is central to Jaar’s and Retort’s installations which, together, are reminders that art can be a powerful space for imagining, for engendering a resistance to visual communication as a regime to be managed.

Francis Frascina is the author of Modern Art Culture: A Reader published by Routledge in December 2008.

First published in Art Monthly 325: April 2009.

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