No singular observer, after Marie-José Mondzain’s ‘Can images Kill?’

Knowing about my fixation with the ethics of photography, particularly when it comes to documentary images, a friend suggested I might be interested in a portuguese edition of Marie-José Mondzain‘s ‘Can images Kill’. As I went searching online, I came across an article, with the same title, that she had published back in 2009, @ Critical Inquiry. As I started to read, it took me a while to understand where she was going. She takes her time. She speaks about the crisis of the visible and traces links between capitalism and the passive role we, as consumers, assume, when we enter the sphere of visual language (in our daily narratives and in the fictional arena). Mondzain also evokes the importance of religious icons, in order for us to better understand what she means about the gaze being the agent that gives visibility to an image, in the sense that the gaze “has” the desire and the passion that empowers images to come into their own. Let me quote from her:

…today there is an additional strange anxiety: the power of images consists in pushing us to imitate them, and the narrative content of images could commit direct violence by pushing us to enact it. Images were once accused of making visible; now they are accused of making us do things. 

However, as she astutely notes, the existence of violence implies the existence of subjects. Without these, there is nothing to gain/nothing to lose. Then when she finally formulates THE question, what I understand is that what puzzles her is who is the agent in an image? Are images subjects or objects? Are they autonomous? Do they act on their own? Who is responsible for what happens when they get to the observer: the maker, the photograph or the viewer? Can images kill? Do images make us killers? she finally asks…

As an object without body, hand, or will, can it [an image] act as a magical influence?” It’s a tricky question, as we all know. I’d say it’s difficult to define the autonomy of an image, what it can go on to do, and in that sense an image has an ethics; an image is not only a mechanism of representation, so what does it manage to create that is beyond the realm of the visibly known?; on the other hand, can its maker be responsible for its path? It’s no easy answer… To try and resolve this problem, Mondzain suggests we look at the dynamics of the images, and not at their “referential content”. In other worlds, Mondzain wants to address the power of images, not particularly in terms of the semiotic language, but in terms of their “magical” power, i.e., that which transforms them into “substitutive objects”. It’s here that I find one of her most interesting ideas: referencing the myth of Medusa and Narcissus, Mondzain states that the potential violence of images derives from identification, meaning:

The violence of the image explodes when it permits the identification of the unrepresentable within the visible; this is the same as saying that the image is only sustained through a dissimiliarity, in the space between the visible and the seeing subject.

And then comes the recipe: “Becoming one with what we see is fatal, and what can save us is the production of a liberating difference.” As I understand it, for Mondzain that critical liberation is only possible when an image incarnates, i.e., not to imitate, not to replicate, not to incorporate, not to simulate, but instead to give flesh:

To incarnate is to give flesh and not to give body. It is to act in the absence of things. The image gives flesh, that is, carnal visibility to an absence in an irreducible distance from its model […] in the incarnated image three indissociable authorities are formed: the visible, the invisible, and the gaze that establishes their relation. The image belongs to a strange logic of the included third.

[…]

The manifestation of truth entails the incarnation of the world in the flesh of images. The image becomes a human construction, and what gives value to this construction is not to be found outside of the visible but rather within it. The invisible in the image is the word itself. The image produces neither evidence nor truth and can only show what is produced by the gaze. The image awaits its visibility, which emerges from the relation established between those who produce it and those who look at it. As an image, it shows nothing. If it consciously shows something, it communicates and no longer shows its real nature, that is, the expectation of a gaze. This is why, rather than invisible, it is better to speak of an unseen, of what.

 

My allergy to any lexicon that addresses The Church has brought me some misfortunes in my academic life. It will one day be overcome, but not today. Mondzain’s constant references to the iconic power of images in a religious context keep taking away my enthusiasm for her arguments. I feel she’s on to something new, but then the references to Christ keep taking me back to a place where the gaze is fundamentally different from that of a spectator’s who’s role, in the “spectacle of visibilities” has a more immediate impact. Mondzain states that “[V]iolence within the visible concerns neither images of violence nor the violence of images as such but rather the violence committed against thought and speech in the spectacle of visibilities.

The question of responsibility is a difficult one. How can we decide if one is absolutely responsible for the images one makes for him/herself? How can we become alert and conscious about everything that constitutes that “spectacle of visibilities”? How can we control the violent actions of our gaze? Can we really choose what and how we give meaning to images? At one point, Mondzain addresses what she calls “objects that resist the murderous erosion of idolatrous appropriations” that she describes poetically with the following words:

These works are all the more authoritative because nothing can exhaust them, as if they invariably escape all fixed and definite meaning. They fully assume a kind of atopia that gives their mortality a semblance of eternity. They operate as incarnations of a dubious and endless freedom. They are real, although they are identifiable not in how they appear, nor in the program they fulfill, nor in the circumstances of their commission. They are real, but free of all conditions. Fictions, semblances, and immaterial shapes have a real goal: to satisfy desire by keeping it unsatisfied.

It’s almost cruel to resume Mondzain’s arguments (I don’t even mention her reflection about ‘the screen’ and I recommend reading the article, of course), but as I understand it, her conclusion regarding violence and responsibility indicates that context is the key and, in that sense, an inclusive and collective effort to address images and meaning as something that is constantly being transformed by the way we relate to them, might be an answer. That’s not to say a singular observer is no longer responsible for not having a critical eye, but, instead, that one’s lack of responsibility in this communal space of images is always our responsibility. In her own words:

Every image signifies a dangerous storm, where we must know how to govern.Weare all responsible for the visibilities that we make available and want to share. In a politics of the visible it is not a question of counting voices but of giving each voice a place where it can be heard and of giving each spectator a place where he or she can respond and be heard. The violence of the visible is no more than the disappearance of such a place and thereby the annihilation of the voice.

Marco Breuer: brightness can fool you

© Marco Breuer, ‘Early Light/Radiant AG-1B (C-902)’.

Breuer has been making abstract photographs since the early 1990s. However, in contrast to Aaron Siskind, whose black-and-white photographs of walls were linked to the gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly those of his friend Franz Kline, Breuer works with sheets of chromogenic paper, which, as the label for “Untitled (C-1773)” (2016) informs us, has been “exposed/ embossed/ scraped.” Ordinarily when it comes to photographs, we tend to look at the image and ignore the surface. […] Conventional photographs might be able to halt time and preserve a particular moment, but Breuer is having no part of it. His photographs are — as Rosenberg would say — the aftermath of an event. 

excerpt from: After the Storm, and Before, by John Yau @ Hyperallergic

© Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1379), 2013
Chromogenic Paper, burned/scraped
20″ × 16″ (50.8 × 40.6 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, “Untitled (C-1178)” (2012)
chromogenic paper, burned
31 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches. Unique.
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (Fuse), 1995
Gelatin Silver Paper, burned
18″ × 14″ (45.7 × 35.6 cm)
Unique

excerpts from a conversation  between Vanessa Kauffman and Marco Breuer, from 2016. More @ www.artjournal.collegeart.org

Kauffman: Your work is full of gesture, which removes it from any specific place but also gives it intimacy. The marks in your images could represent any moment, any place.
Breuer: The work has become gestural over time. I used to work with self-recording phenomena, photograms, and that was tied to objects. In these current projects, the work is much more about line and color. When you’re starting out after school, you’re trying to claim some space for yourself, and you’re trying to define who you are as an artist. If you have a contrarian personality, like I do, you do it by deciding who you’re not. But that’s not a sustainable mode—you can’t work in opposition for thirty years. Eventually you realize it doesn’t matter what other people do—what matters is what you do and the choices you make—and you have to own those choices. For me, that meant moving away from more automatic or chance-driven work to making concrete decisions: to put a certain type of line in a certain place because that’s what I want to do.

[…]

Kauffman: You’ve talked a lot about collaborations with writers. Is language an important aspect of your work, or an entry point into it, for you?
Breuer: As an artist, you write about your work on a regular basis, and you work on press releases and other texts, so language is a necessary crutch. But it’s certainly not how I get into the work. I do have a complicated relationship with language because English is not my first language. Halfway through my life I switched from German to English, which has changed things. There are different cultural concepts that can be expressed in certain languages, and you quickly become aware of them when you start speaking another language. At this point, I can barely talk about my work in German anymore because I don’t have the conceptual vocabulary — I developed it in English. I speak German, just not that particular slice of it.

Kauffman: The experience of the work can too easily become about the words and the description of it. Your work has a visual vernacular, but that vernacular is elusive in a delightful way—you see the impulses of a language, but there is not a particular semiotics.
Breuer: Every time you do attach words to artwork, you limit it. Obviously when visual work is written about, everyone’s looking for a hook—one sentence that describes what the work is about. I’ve always thought that’s a problem. If you can describe someone’s work in one sentence, there’s not enough happening. I try to point this out when I talk about the work. I make it clear that the verbal discussion is a secondary stage, and what we should be doing is looking at the work. When reproductions are involved—whether they are projections, slides, or reproductions in a book—there is loss in that translation too. I try to play this up, rather than pretend it’s not
there. The ideal scenario is somebody encountering your work without preconceived notions in the original piece, seeing all the surface violations and the actual marks on the paper. The reality is that much of the work is consumed online, encountered either in some dematerialized form, or described in words, and none of these ways are ideal.
I gave a lecture at California College of the Arts on April 21, 2016, and the question of language is a big question I consider every time I speak. My work is not based in language, but I prepare to talk about my work for an hour. Lectures are also an opportunity to think about different aspects of your. I built this lecture in five different loops. The reason that I chose the loop is that I don’t believe in linear progression—I always return to things I’ve done before, or some variation of them. There’s a circular element in the forward motion of everything.

© Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-659), 2006
Chromogenic Paper, exposed/embossed/scratched
14 11/16″ × 11 3/8″ (37.3 × 28.9 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (Clean), 1999
Gelatin Silver Paper, exposed
10 3/8″ × 6 5/8″ (26.4 × 16.8 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (E-87), 2005
Gum Bichromate on Fabriano Paper (640 gsm), abraded
17 11/16″ × 13 5/8″ (44.9 × 34.6 cm)
Unique
© Mrco Breuer, Untitled (C-1469), 2014
Chromogenic Paper, exposed/embossed/folded/burned/scraped
20 1/8″ × 14 1/8″ (51.1 × 35.9 cm) . Unique.

┐ Eiffel Chong └

016015013© Eiffel Chong, Untitled, from the series Royal Malaysia Police

“I came across an abandoned police station and found identity photographs of the police personnel being scattered around. Most of them still look good, except for a layer of dust on top of the photographs. However, there were some that have been destroyed by the harsh weather in Malaysia. I found them to be interesting. Some look uncanny. It made me wonder why would these photographs being abandoned seeing that they are photographs used for identification.


Looking at these photographs, it reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s fiction ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’. The photographs had aged. It serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon its soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement, or through a sign of aging.


Royal Malaysia Police is a series of work about re-photographing the identity photographs of the police personnel.” Eiffel’s statement

More of Eiffel’s work here

┐ Gazing through the hole I – Julie Schachter └

ablutionx20PowderPuff© Julie Schachter, Powder Obscura Camera & Absolution (20), 2009

OutoftheWOODS© Julie Schachter, Not out of the woods yet

whosWhoWcam© Julie Schachter, Who’s Who 1980 Book on Tripod

more of julie’s work here

┐ roots & fruits #10 – Cláudio Ferreira └

© Cláudio Ferreira, all Untitled, from the series Space Project nº 1 – Galaxies, 2012

“And yet, the absence of the subject does not have to be interpreted as a deficiency. Quite the opposite, it could indicate a new quality in the revolution, in a henceforth molecular revolution, and the primacy of multiplicity within it. When the subject is missing, it has not just gone amiss, as a gap (still) gaping and begging to get closed. In view of the composition of the molecular revolution there is no need for unification, or for the representation of a unified (class) subject by leaders, party and vanguard. The rejection of the primacy of the class, or of a specific class (be it the proletariat, or a middle-class threatened by decline) does not in any way imply tuning out the hierarchizing differentiation that takes place more radically than ever in current capitalist production. Differential capitalism striates the differences, hierarchizes and valorizes them. And yet molecular multiplicity raises no hopes in any of the imaginings of resistance against this machinic-differentiating capitalism that undertake to homogenize and totalize differences. Even in their negative manifestation there is no way back ahead of multiplicity, but only its dis/continuous unfolding.

But even the subject, the one, the whole, where it is no longer absent, is not the consequence of a process of collecting, forming, unifying the many, the singular, the dispersed, to be composed into a molar block. It does not follow a logic of addition, but one of subtraction. It must first be extracted from the uncountable multiplicity, detached, dis-counted in order to be one. The one emerges only when the logic of counting, classifying and identifying lays its grids on the multiplicity; when the uncountable is domesticated in the process of counting.

The subject can appear only through subtraction from the multiple.”

excerpt from Making Multiplicity: A Philosophical Manifesto, by Gerald Raunig. continue reading here

More of Cláudio‘s work here

┐ Bill Durgin └

© Bill Durhin, Untitked, from the series Nudes and Still Lifes

© Bill Durhin, Untitked, from the series Nudes and Still Lifes

“Nudes and Still Lifes is a series of photographs that reverberate between the languages of attraction and abjection, painting and performance, photography and sculpture. While specific poses riff on gestures and peripheral details from the works of Lehman, Corbet, Gerome, Belmer, and Bacon, the exquisite distortion of the figures attempts an undoing of recognizable form.
For the Nudes images I work with dancers, models, and my own body to choreograph shapes through contortion and perspective. Resisting traditional views of figuration, I reduce the figure into an abstracted form of muscle, fat, and bone. I then compose a Still Life and connect the images through composition and location. I arrange flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat, delicately intertwined with wig hair traces from the figure to sculpt a Still Life that is both subtly grotesque and elegant.”

More of Bill’s work here