When is a picture of atrocity “needed”?

This past March, a painting by white american author Dana Schutz triggered an interesting discussion that ultimately lead to a debate about freedom of expression. The painting in question (featured below) is titled Open Casket and was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, sparking protests (in front of the artwork) and a particular letter, who a particular black artist, named Hannah Black addressed to the curators of the Biennial (and co-signed by other artists), in which she stated the following:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
[…]
In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.

© Dana Schutz, ‘Open Casket’, 2016. Oil on canvas.
Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket’. © Scott W. H. Young (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

Dana’s painting, in her tarnished geometric style, evokes Emmett Till‘s disfigured face in his coffin. I won’t pretend to know Emmett’s story, but it was the original photograph of his mutilated body and the story of his mother’s insistence on having an open casket – “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son” -, that brought me to this post. Emmett was fourteen-years-old when he was tortured and murdered by white Mississippi racists, back in 1955. But that’s not the full story, for Emmett was lynched because of a white woman’s lies (years latter she admitted that her claims about he sexually assaulting her were false). For what I understood, Emmett’s killers were never punished.

The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins wrote a long article profiling Dana Schutz, where he shares some conversations he had with the artist regarding this particular artwork. According to him, Dana had been interested in Emmett Till’s story for quite some time and she kept questioning herself:

“How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Calvin Tomkins describes the painting, after his first contact with it:

Measuring thirty-nine by fifty-three inches, it is smaller than most of her recent paintings, and more abstract. The buildup of paint on the face is a couple of inches thick in the area where Till’s mouth would be. Although there are no recognizable features, a deep trough carved into the heavy impasto conveys a sense of savage disfigurement, which is heightened by the whiteness of the boy’s smoothly ironed dress shirt. His head rests on an ochre-yellow fabric, and deftly brushed colors at the top suggest banked flowers.

to which he added:

Emmett Till’s murder was implacably real. Trying to deal with this atrocity in visual terms had seemed almost beyond imagining, and “Open Casket” is a very dark picture—but it’s not grotesque. The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled. “There was so much uncertainty with this painting,” Schutz said, quietly. “You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done.”

Two things interest me in this case: 1) the absolutist moral stance taken by sooooooo many artists, who wanted ‘Open Casket’ to be destroyed or burnt (a very distressful idea); 2) and the original event of the death of this young boy (who I knew little about) and that lead to a magazine publishing very violent photographs of his mutilated face. This event and the reproduction of these images fueled the Civil Rights Movement, so there is no doubt that if there was a “purpose” for the publication of the images of this atrocity, namely to let the world know what had been done to Emmett Till, such a decision was able to create its own legacy.

Edition of ‘Jet magazine’, which featured photographs of the murdered Emmett Till.

This is such a difficult subject… but is there anything more important than ethics? Is there ever a moment when pictures of atrocity are “needed”? I would say yes, and I would say the original publishing of Emmett Till’s photographs of his open casket fit that category. My thinking, regarding those, is that their exposure was made with the intentions to expose racism (that was his mother’s intention in exposing the body of her mutilated son, wasn’t it?). But, on the other hand, are we exploiting his existence when we turn this into an icon? Is there ever a ‘need’ for that? Maybe so. Because racism and whitewashing are still a reality, these photographs seem to still carry their powerful message and that’s why I show them here. Still, I have my reserves.

Regarding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket the story is very different. Is there a “need” for her to address the issue in that manner? Maybe not. Is she exploiting Emmett Till’s tragic story for her profit? I don’t think that’s the case. Is her artwork a ‘picture of atrocity’? I wouldn’t say so. So why were so many artists outraged about this? Performance artist Coco Fusco, @ Hyperallergic, addressed the issue, condemning that sort of censorship:

On many occasions I have had to contend with self-righteous people — of all of ethnic backgrounds — who have declared with conviction that this or that can’t be art or shouldn’t be seen. There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.  […] I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. Hannah Black and company are placing themselves on the wrong side of history, together with Phalangists who burned books, authoritarian regimes that censor culture and imprison artists, and religious fundamentalists who ban artworks in the name of their god.

One thing that is clear for me is that in our representation of other people’s suffering we often presume to understand what that pain feels like and that may be problematic, for we might end up giving the wrong message: either telling the viewer that looking at a given image equates with empathizing with the events depicted; either because this sort of exposure may well potentiate people’s passiveness towards the harm we do to each other, for often when people look at ‘pictures of atrocity’ they are addressing their own guilt and they may get the sense that by looking at the events they “know about them” and then “knowing about something” is easily equated with “acting on it”.

Fusco keeps addressing the outrage against Schultz artwork and he makes excellent points, so I’ll finish with his own words:

[Hannah] Black makes claims that are not based in fact; she relies on problematic notions of cultural property and imputes malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race. She presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism that has rarely served black women, and that once upon a time was levied to keep black British artists out of conversations about black culture in America. Her argument is laced with an economically reductionist view of artistic practice and completely avoids consideration of the visual strategies employed by Schutz. Some of her supporters assert (without explanation) that abstraction in and of itself is illegitimate for representing a traumatic figure, a claim that ignores key 20th-century aesthetic debates about the problems with realistic depictions of extreme violence.

[…]

In citing these examples, I do not mean to suggest that all artistic representations of black oppression by white artists and all curatorial efforts to address race are well intentioned, or that they are all good. However, the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness. There are better ways to arrive at cultural equity than policing art production and resorting to moralistic pieties in order to intimidate individuals into silence.

How Souvid Datta’s unethical behavior is exposing photojournalism’s lack of ethics

For me, it all started last Monday, when I came across a post, by BENJAMIN CHESTERTON, entitled LENSCULTURE AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF RAPE, in which the author addressed a photo-contest created by Magnum Photos and LensCulture. The core of the problem was, as the title put forward, the photograph chosen to promote that competition. After shit hit the fan (we’ll get there in a moment), LensCulture published an apology in which they state that 1) Magnum Photos had nothing to do with the choice of that image (although they promoted the author in their page and had previously awarded him); 2) They claim it was clearly inappropriate and thoughtless on [their] part

The photograph in question was taken by Souvid Datta (b. India 1990) and depicts a “trafficked child sex slave being raped”, as Chesterton puts it. Chesterton chose not to publish the photograph and I’ll follow his steps, for I think that’s the only ethical take on this. To sum it up, the photograph shows a view above a bed, where we see the back of the rapist on top of the child, who is looking away. So not only is the girl being exploited in real life, now she’s also exploited through the photographer’s gaze and, as a consequence, through everyone else’s gaze. It’s Chesterton’s opinion that if it weren’t for “human rights activist (formerly of Amnesty) Rob Godden [who] pointed out how indecent the use of the image was, it would still be being shared on Facebook”. And then again, Chesterton resumes:

This is a horrific case where one abuse, one exploitation has been heaped on another. Where a real human, with a real story, real children and real feelings is reduced to clickbait for a shitty competition in which you can trade your soul for exposure.All for $60.

Although, initially, LensCulture issued an apology in which they were still justifying the photographer’s approach, stating they believed the work of the photographer to have been carried out with great ethical care and in close collaboration with the subject portrayed, they then reviewed their position (under a lot of pressure, of course) and editor-in-chief Jim Casper wrote the following:

LensCulture staff are reviewing international guidelines for ethical reporting and photojournalism, and we will be applying a much more rigorous editorial review process before publishing material of this nature in the future.
We are sorry for our several errors in this matter, and we apologize.

But then, what looked like a common ethical problemhow often do we see victims being objectified by photojournalists? – turned into an even bigger scandal. In the National Press Photographers Association‘s website, Melissa Lyttle wrote about the following events regarding Souvid Datta’s work. Let me try and sum it up:

1. Following the LensCulture/Magnum Photos usage of Datta’s image, Shreya Bhat, a social worker who once worked with the same sex workers Datta claims to have photographed, exposed his plagiarism of a Mary Ellen Mark photograph, sharing her story with Chesterton and PetaPixel, by email. Now, when I look at this particular image, I can’t help but wonder about the attention it got, when it first started to circulate and enter competitions in the context of a series entitled “In the Shadows of Kolkata”. Wasn’t it obvious? Doesn’t the figure on the back look like a spectrum?

2. Because that photograph was part of a series that had earned Datta an award of excellence in the College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) Documentary category in 2013, it triggered a bigger wave of indignation and consequently the CPOY published a statement justifying the rescission of that award. There, the CPOY calls for younger generations to be more responsible, stating that: Now, more than ever, the integrity of our profession demands adherence to journalistic ethics. CPOY calls on you, as student photographers, to put ethics at the core of your being and your work. What CPOY does not explain is how they failed to notice this very poor manipulation and this raises subsequent questions, namely: How carefully do these judges look at photographs? As MICHAEL ZHANG, from PetaPixel, concludes: “Over the past several years, Datta has collected a number of prestigious awards and grants in photography. They include the PDN 30 in 2017, the Pulitzer Centre Grant in 2016, the Getty Grant for Editorial Photography in 2015, PDN Annual in 2015, and Magnum Photos 30 Under 30 Award in 2015. He’s also one of the 12 contestants on this year’s “Masters of Photography” reality TV show, by Sky Arts.” 

And this is where things get really complicated, because can the same industry that promotes a certain kind of photographic approach now behave like this is a scandal, only because manipulation and appropriation are clearly recognized as ethical transgressions? Besides all that, why were his works worth awarding and promoting in the first place? What is his originality? What is it that we need to see about the violent abuses of sex workers in Kolkata that Datta had managed to expose? Take, as another example, Datta’s project China: The Human Price of Pollution, which was chosen by Magnum Photos for their 30 under 30 award: what is it about this project that is truthful, original and worth seeing?

3. Daniele Volpe, a photographer based in Guatemala, wrote a Facebook post exposing Datta’s appropriation of some of his photographs. Nothing is simple in this story, for Daniele, himself, acknowledged he had known about this since last November and had failed to act accordingly. How can this be? Why did the photographer hesitated to expose this appropriation? Would it be an error to assume that this relativism, this individualism, is also part of the problem. Why do people forget that when it comes to human rights (and labor related issues, for that matter), one person’s action is always consequent?

4. Datta agreed to talk to Olivier Laurent, from Time, and there he confessed:

The first thing I want to do is take responsibility. In 2013-15, [when I was] aged 22-24, I foolishly doctored images, inexcusably lied about others’ work being my own and then buried these wrongdoings in the years that followed. Now these images are resurfacing, they threaten to undermine any work I have legitimately pursued since and, crucially, all the trust that the people in my photos, my collaborators and supporting institutions placed in me. I am so profusely sorry for this. I hope to begin making amends…

But what I find most surprising about this interview is why Olivier Laurent chooses to pose the following question: “Can we still trust that work?” Is it really something the author should answer? Doesn’t this question expose something else that is corrupting the idea of truth in photojournalism? Let me try and explain. In answering that questions, Datta says the following:

From here on, I do not know what will happen to me or the stories I have followed. I fear above all that they may remain untold. My credibility has been fundamentally challenged, and I understand the serious implications of that in an industry where credibility counts for everything.

I want to suggest that maybe Laurent and Datta are missing one point, that is: 1) we don’t need to see the face of the victims exploited in a photograph to know about sex-trafficking; if a photographer goes on to do that, then he better level with the victims and show us the place he occupies in that framing. If there is truth, I have little doubts it is “in” the author’s approach and no ethics is more important than his. The credibility will derive from there, from that truth. Unfortunately, the photojournalism industry has allowed the nominal value to become a bigger value than it should be. If photojournalism wants to be ruled by ethics and truth, it can’t really abide by the art market’s rules at the same time. They are not compatible, as everyone in either field knows. 

And we’ll go back to the beginning and to Chesterton’s words. In a conversation with Diane Smyth, from British Journal of Photography, Chesterton argues against “the need” to see the sort of imagery Datta was first and foremost, doing and, secondly, being awarded for:

There’s this idea you should be able to photograph anything, but this photography doesn’t threaten people who work in [and control] this industry, there’s no argument for people who want to make a difference… These pictures don’t do anything, how can I do anything for this child to make her better off? There are people work in these slums, wonderful people [who try to help victims of sex trafficking]. Give agency to them.

On a final note, I should say that, again following Chesterton’s note, I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another tragic story, like that of Kevin Carter’s (both were awarded Pultizer’s, Carter in 1994 and Datta in 2016). Datta needs to change profession, I think that is pretty clear, and then forgive himself, maybe go on to do some therapy and carry on a different and better life.

On another note, this should be enough to open the industry’s eyes to the need to follow their own code of ethics. But, then again, it’s never enough. The problem seams to be an overall lack of seriousness. They set a code of ethics and some guidelines to help them highlight some authors and photographs, in detriment of others, but they end up just glimpsing at the images, not taking into account their own rules. 

Cha Cha, Bang Bang

I’ve been meaning to watch this for some time, but was lacking the courage, until today. I knew I would be troubled and conflicted about the project, so I was struggling to decide whether I should even see it, to begin with. A friend’s description of the movie was what made me sit still, for 2 hours, and finally watch it. 

The project in question is The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer and a crew that, in part, needs to stay anonymous, for safety reasons. Legends like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris were part of the producers’ crew. I knew little about Indonesia’s history and, in that sense, this movie was very successful in helping me connect the dots between some of the most violent acts done by men in the 20th century, where the presence of capitalism, and the USA’s standards of entertainment and consumerism, in particular, have been highly influential. Alex Woodson’s review of The Act of Killing manages to give us a clear portrait of the historical context that paved the way for what we now see as contemporary Indonesia. A brief resumes follows:

The Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 is perhaps the least-studied and talked-about political genocide of the 20th century. The killings began after a failed left-wing coup in 1965, when members of the so-called 30 September Movement assassinated six Indonesian army generals and announced that they had taken President Sukarno “under their protection.” The army quickly suppressed the coup and launched a killing spree of alleged communists, whom they blamed for the coup (…) The army outsourced the work to local gangs and militias, including the massive and still-active Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization, and within a year, at least 500,000 people (with some estimates placing the number up to 3 million) had been murdered and more than 1 million more were imprisoned.

To tell the stories of the death squads, the director had the executioners and their younger sidekicks reenact some of their murders in whatever way they wanted. As the gangsters are big fans of American movies (they were actually called “movie theater gangsters” in the 1960s and ran a business scalping tickets to American films), the stories were told using Western, mafia, and horror movie motifs—each set more ridiculous than the next. (…)

Anwar Congo, the main storyteller of The Act of Killing, not only reenacts some of his killings, he also analyses some of the footage that Oppenheimer shows him, then commenting on what he thinks should be done to make the movie “more realistic”. At some point, Congo says that as a young man he was very influenced by american cinema, by a particular kind of gruesome gender and that when committing the murders they tried to be even more cruel. When reading about the movie, I’ve often come across reviews that describe Congo as a sympathetic character, that feels guilt and repents, but I can’t really support that. We, as spectators, have the responsibility to help the movie go on to do what it is supposed to do. We’re not passive, neither should we think of Congo as a character, because he is not. Is he sincere when he acknowledges the guilt? Isn’t that but a word? Can we really discern between the man and the character? What we know as a fact is that he is a mass murderer, who has been able to distance himself from his doings to a point that he now talks about the killings as if they were just another scene in a plot where he plays the main character. Does this mean Oppenheimer shouldn’t have done the movie? Not in my view.

I think is when Congo criticizes his performance as an actor that we have a glimpse of a conscious. When he says things like “My acting has to be violent” or “I shouldn’t be laughing” I’m reminded of another scene, from Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Human, where we hear a former american soldier named Peter say that killing is addictive. In his own words:

One of the most impactful things that will occur, after being in combat, is the feeling of killing another human being. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll see that it’s not like anything else that you’ve experienced before. And unfortunately, that feeling, your body will want to experience again. (…) I yearn or desire for someone to try to hurt me or to break in or to give me an excuse to use that violence against somebody else again.

Humanists would likely describe this sort of doing as “lacking humanity”, but is that the only way to understand this? Couldn’t that choice be reproducing the same exact failures that we identify in those who kill? Maybe humans like Congo “lack humanity” because when they go on to take their neighbor’s life they are rejecting some of the qualities that make them human: namely conscious and reason. But could we really say they lack reason and conscious if they still make choices and decide who to kill and who not to kill, if they discuss what is fair and what’s right? Doesn’t Peter, apart from his willing to kill again, still waits for “a reason”? Congo describes the time when he did the killings as a time when he was free, so maybe freedom for him is about acting on his instincts and denying responsibility for the consequences his actions have on others. In that sense, could the consequences of being haunted by his past be imprisonment enough?

Talking with Christopher Campbell, director Joshua Oppenheimer tells about some of the ethical dilemmas that challenged the making of this movie:

My biggest dilemma, in fact, was ensuring that Anwar does not look like a lone psychopath. Such that he would be scapegoated and become a vessel for the much bigger regime. In so far as I couldn’t go into the details of how the United States was complicit with all of this, because fundamentally to do would involve having experts and countering people’s denials and turn the film overall into a historical film as opposed to an expose about the present, which is what it is.

Somehow it was really important therefore to ensure that America and consumerism and the global capitalism of which this is the underbelly — this isn’t a distant reality separate from us — this shows the violence and fear and impunity underneath everything we buy and produce, every article of clothing we’re wearing. Given that I couldn’t get into the role of the United States in all of this I had to make globalization, consumerism, alienation, the transforming of everybody, even our human relationships, into objects to be consumed — you see it in the way they treat the women, the paramilitary leader treats women — that that would be a kind of haunting the whole film.

Still about Congo, Oppenheimer also states:

Anwar was the 41st killer I met. Every perpetrator I found, everyone I met was boasting about what they had done and offering to take me to the places where they killed, whereupon they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of who they killed. So what I was saying is, look you have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your lives are shaped by it, you want to show me what you’ve done, I want to understand what it means to you, what it means to your society, how you want it to be seen, how you see it, how you really see yourself, so show me what you’ve done, in whatever way you wish, whatever process, and I’ll film the reenactments and make a film out of that.

Therein lies the paradox of the whole film in a way; what appears to be a sign of lack of remorse — boasting, the celebration of killing seems to be a sign of lack of remorse, at least in the beginning — is not necessarily so. In fact it can be the opposite. It can be a desperate effort to reassure yourself and to insist to the whole society that what you did was right.

(…) 

Of course, that’s what Anwar and all the men are desperate to avoid doing, admitting that what they’ve done is wrong. And in that sense every reenactment is a kind of insistence that what they’ve done is right. To reenact, to make a scene about the killings is to deny the moral meaning of it being in bad taste, and it is an outrage. I film it as a symptom of impunity. But every reenactment therefore is a sort of insistence on that denial, that this is not what it was. This is not what it means. It’s only a movie. It’s not so bad. It was justified. The method was to shoot a scene, show Anwar the scene, he would respond, shoot the next scene.

It’s not to say that Oppenheimer’s statement makes all my doubts go away. It doesn’t, but I do understand his point and I don’t see any ethical reason why this shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, aesthetically, I find this absurd. I’m not a fan of parody, of typifying cultural genres, nor do I particularly enjoy carnivalesque non-sense and exuberant staging. Having said this, I do recognize the power of exposing absurdity, through repetition. I understand truth can arise from there. Still, I didn’t watch 90% of the reenactment scenes, for this type of blending of entertainment with historical facts really disgusts me and I also feel there’s no denying that while watching that scenes we, as spectators, are in some sense allowing them to fulfill their dreams to be stars and actors. 

Fortunately, the movie has some jaw dropping dialogues (if you’re a sucker for ethical discussions, like me). When we’re already a third into the movie, a decisive figure enters the plot: Adi Zulkdry, another executioner. When we reach the middle of the movie, Adi has a conversation with Anonymoys (I imagine that voice is his) in the car that I think pretty much resumes the big quest of the movie: a quest for justice, on the part of Oppenheimer, and a quest for stardom, for the killers. 

Anonymous: I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but I have to ask… By telling yourself it was ‘war’, you’re not haunted like Anwar. But the Geneva Conventions define what you did as ‘war crimes’.

Adi: I don’t necessarily agree with those international laws. When Bush was in power Guantanamo was right. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right according to Bush, but now it’s wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be 

Anonymous: But for millions of victims’ families if the truth comes out, it’s good.

Adi: Fine, but start with the first murder Cain and Abel. Why focus on killing the communists? Americans killed the Indians. Has anybody been punished for that? Punish them! For me, re-opening this case is a provocation to fight. I’m ready! If the world wants continuous war, I’m ready if you wanna make  us fight, I’m ready!

Anonymous: What if you were brought to the international court in the Hague?

Adi: Now?

Anonymous: Yes.

Adi: I’d go! I don’t feel guilty so why would I go? Because I’d be famous. I’m ready! Please, get me called to the Hague!

It’s undeniable: the movie had consequences; Oppenheimer’s choices had very real consequences. Apparently, The Act of Killing managed to expose some of the fallacies of the regime and, at the same time, tell youths a different story, give them the power to come into their own critical conscious. Mette Bjerregaard screened the movie at a university in Yogyakarta and recounts how the film provoked anger and frustration among the audience:

Their feelings were not only directed towards the Indonesian power structure, but also at the spectacle on screen. The killers – fans of film noir gangster movies and Hollywood musicals – choose to re-enact their crimes by juxtaposing killing and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. The film becomes ludicrous as well as scary. It could be described as amusing, albeit with a macabre undertone. Indeed some moviegoers outside Indonesia have laughed at the sheer absurdity – a markedly different reaction to that of the Indonesian audience.

An artist at work: here’s what no hypocrisy looks like

Sometimes we have to criticize with no solution in sight. Sometimes we have to promote change because the contrary just doesn’t fit our ethical frame. It’s not an easy thing to do when, in a social context, an artist’s work is expected to promote change, have “real” impact. In Renzo Martens‘ documentary Episode III. Enjoy Poverty (2008) the author sets out to explore the idea of poverty as a natural resource and as a possible commodity. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an article entitled Porn Poverty: The Emancipatory Power of Enjoy Poverty, author Sofia Gallarate describes the artwork as a critic of “the western mass media’s obsession with images of poverty and the misery of so called ‘Third World’ countries, exploring how that precise system of production creates economic and social inequality.” As I see it, Martens essay is a brilliant work: sharp, committed, sometimes chaotic, sometimes difficult to watch, but never does Martens forget he is very much part of the system he questions; never does he try to make it easier on him or on us. There’s no way out of this structure, meaning: there’s no way we aren’t all compromised, guilty, hurt by this never ending violence. 

The documentary raises particularly relevant questions towards the responsibility of the photographic medium in the relations between power structures. On that note, it succeeds in giving us some of the most complex examples for an ethical debate. For instances, one of the episodes showed in the first 20 minutes of the film depicts viewers in an exhibition in Kinshasa regarding black and white photographs or plantation workers. When Martens starts to interview the public, we rapidly see how things are going to unfold, because the paradox is right in front of us: although the photographs represent the struggle of the poor men who worked in the plantations, the public connects to the images in a romantic way, almost nostalgic. They are contemplating. They say: they’re beautiful! But are they? When Martens asks a woman if she thinks the people in the photographs are rich or poor, she pauses, then she realizes what he is trying to imply and answers with an heavy conscious: “poor”.

vlcsnap-2017-03-03-19h32m58s767

As Gallarate writes, “[a]ccording to Martens, documentary and photographs do not only work as a medium that exploits poverty to create profit, they can also transform it into a possible artistic and fetishized subject which comes from the saturation of those images within the western media.” As every Nihilsentimentalgia follower knows by now, this hypocrisy and exploitation of the other’s differences through photography is something that interests me a lot. I think this dilemma highlights two major things: 1) that human nature is profoundly complex (see for example how Martens is able to relate and empathize to the people he interviews, but at the same time he never ceases to distance himself from his role as a producer of content; 2) that image workers (photographers, film-makers, etc) cannot avoid beautifying everything, thus flattening that complexity. 

But here too Martens does it differently, for the way he exploits the camera’s relation to suffering is so inherently critical (I remembered Lars Von Trier‘s The five obstructions), that one sees precisely how superficial photographies can be. In an interview with Joe Penney, published on Africa is a Country, Martens explains the phenomena: 

“(…)Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves. So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its autoreferential.

Being from a country that has a complex colonial history and, consequently, an endemic problem in addressing that very same question, I can understand Martens’ perspective too well, particularly when he says that it is impossible for him to be an agent of change. How can we forget where we came from? How can we forget our inheritance? As Martens says: “(…) I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with […] I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich.” 

vlcsnap-2017-03-03-19h05m28s875 vlcsnap-2017-03-03-19h05m18s862

As is expected, both Penney and Gallarate bring Sontag to the debate and evoke the idea of the aesthetization of suffering. We’ve talk about it often here: the idea of inauthentic beauty, of making something neat, harmonious, pleasurable, from something that is profoundly violent an unethical. There’s another crucial moment right in the middle of the film, when Martens asks one of the European photojournalist he is accompanying (and just after we see them photographing dead bodies): “Who is the owner of these pictures?” The following dialogue unfolds:

Photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say?
Martens: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
P: No.
M: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures they own nothing?
P: No, because I took the pictures…
M: You took the pictures…
P: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture.
M: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture. They have organize everything.
P: What do you mean “organized?”?
M: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
P: But not due to me …
M: No, not because of you…
P: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture…
M: Right.
P: There is thousands of situations here. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine.
M: OK.

As Gallarate concludes, evoking Benjamin‘s The Author as Producer, “Renzo Martens acts more as a producer of a political discourse rather than as a defender of the Congolese people.” But is his production unethical? I think the clear answer is “NO“. Although it may be difficult for the viewer to sit and watch Martens convincing Congolese photographers (who work on photographing celebrations such as weddings) how to photograph extreme suffering, exploiting the kids’ exposed ribs, truth is the image of a poor African child “starving to death” has long been a commodity – don’t we all remember Kevin Carter’s controversial image of the vulture and the little Sudanese girl that wan him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994? Martens argues that the Congolese should take advantage of their situation and instead of letting outsiders come and photograph their really, take the matter in their own hands and put a price on that poverty. Chocking? Of course it is, but a conversation between him and an MSF doctor reveals how tricky the subject is. Gallarte resumes the situation: 

“The scene develops and the artist walks with the two photographers to a Médecins sans Frontier temporary hospital, where they plan to talk with the director and ask for the permission to let the two young men photograph their patients. It is precisely here that the provocation, as well as the controversy of Martens’ work reaches its peak; the MSF’s doctor refuses his proposal, stating that the idea of permitting photography for commercial purposes is legitimately unacceptable.”

The doctor also says that the difference between these photographers going into the hospital and taking pictures and letting a western photojournalist do the same is that the latter has the purpose to produce news, not “to exhibit suffering”. And this is the central argument of Martens’ film: does the media agents have such good intentions or are they actually exploiting their pain?

Photographers as Enterprises: McCurry vs Mapplethorpe

While there’s little in McCurry’s work that I appreciate, I love Mapplethorpe’s work. so why bring them together?

Recently, due to McCurry‘s huge exibition at Le Venaria Reale,  in Italy, a discussion arouse about “his” use of Photoshop. The story is as follows: while visiting the exhibition, photographer Paolo Viglione noticed something odd in one photograph and decided to share his thoughts with the world. What that photograph denounces is not Photoshop overuse but, instead, its misuse. The editing error made me think of how disconnected McCurry must be to his own work and how his enterprise came about.

Schermata-kP3H-U108010222823zfC-1024x576@LaStampa.it
Avana, Cuba, 2014. Photogaph shared by Viglione.

There are several paradigms at issue here, one of them being the circumstances that made this error possible. Yesterday I watched the latest documentary about Mapplethorpe (Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, 2016) and, I have to confess, it caught me of my guard. I had never thought about the enterprise around him. Does it change the way I look at his pictures or how they affect me? No way. But it does make me think of how an author’s success may trigger a less honest modus operandi.

The source of the making, affects it product. In McCurry‘s case, his lack of care and attention ended up allowing photographs such as the above to be seen by millions; in Mapplethorpe‘s case, his hunger for success made him compromise his more subversive attitude, towards the end. He wanted to photograph as much as he could, but the images were becoming ever more sterile, THE THING that the locus of his work was not.

In both cases there’s a team in charge of processing, retouching and printing, but Mapplethorpe would never apologize for his creative freedom and would never allow something to be showed without his approval. After the storm about McCurry’s use of Photoshop hit the fan, people started to search for more Photoshop atrocities in his work and there they were…

As PetaPixel published the story, McCurry finally gave a statement, that goes as follows:

My career started almost forty years ago when I left home to travel and photograph throughout South Asia. I went into Afghanistan with a group of Mujahideen in 1979, and thus became a photojournalist when news magazines and newspapers picked up my pictures, published them around the world, and gave me assignments to provide more images of the war.
Later on, I covered other wars and civil conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and produced photo essays for magazines, but like other artists, my career has gone through many stages.
Today I would define my work as visual storytelling, because the pictures have been shot in many places, for many reasons, and in many situations. Much of my recent work has been shot for my own enjoyment in places I wanted to visit to satisfy my curiosity about the people and the culture. For example, my Cuba work was taken during four personal trips.
My photography is my art, and it’s gratifying when people enjoy and appreciate it. I have been fortunate to be able to share my work with people around the world.
I try to be as involved as much as I can in reviewing and supervising the printing of my work, but many times the prints are printed and shipped when I am away. That is what happened in this case. It goes without saying that what happened with this image was a mistake for which I have to take responsibility.
I have taken steps to change procedures at my studio which will prevent something like this from happening again.

Although he takes responsibility for this one mistake, he doesn’t explain if the changes in the other images are also mistakes, or if they are intentional. He also states that the lab technician(s) responsible for the mistake has been fired. But how is it possible that his team feels like they have the creative freedom to make such changes without him ever having consent to them? Is that even a possibility?

I’d like to reinforce that my question here has nothing to do with Photoshop retouching. As Jeremy Gray writes, at imaging-resource.comthere is a difference between doing work for photojournalistic purposes, such as for National Geographic, and doing work for personal artistic reasons. A photographer should not be held to the same standard of editing for their personal work as they should be when presenting images for journalistic purposes. Reporting a news story and telling your own tale are not the same thing, and Steve McCurry ought to be allowed to do both, supposing that he in fact is responsible for the removing elements in any of his images.” Unless we’re talking about photojournalism I really don’t care about what image-makers such as McCurry do with saturation and what not. The question is the ethos of a man who acts as if he is the CEO of an enterprise, but then wants people to see him as an artist, a visual storyteller.

Two blocks from my house, a gallery (Barbado), is exhibiting a series of McCurry‘s work on India. Because he was in Portugal for the opening, several newspapers went for an interview with “the guy who shot the afghan girl”. I’m always amazed at the lack of critical awareness in the portuguese media. It’s just astonishing. Because a famous photographer comes to Lisbon to exhibit, no one will dare take a critical look at the photographs?

In the NYT mag, Teju Cole dared a critical approach to McCurry’s work, arguing that his work is full of clichés, his pictures “astonishingly boring”. Cole argues that “the photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators. […] The men are real, of course, but they have also been chosen for how well they work as types.As Pete Brook, from Prison Photography, states: “in a world replete with images made by folks in every corner of the globe, is there any defense for the space taken up by McCurry?

Mapplethorpe didn’t even know how to process his films, and he was no less of a photographer because of that. He was present everywhere, at all times. He lived for his work. Of course that has consequences, at a more human level, but that’s not the issue here. Mapplethorpe had a vision and he was true to it, even when he got greedier, his photographs follow that greed. The images got sharper, color came into play, the New York star system wanted its share of the pie…

Mapplethorpe7
© Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit (1980).
Mapplethorpe5
© Robert Mapplethorpe. Mark Stevens (Mr. 10 1/2), 1976.

By the end of Mapplethorpe’s documentary, something grabbed my attention: as we see people preparing for Mapplethorpe’s last exhibition – The Perfect Moment, 1988,  at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia – (which he was unable to attend), curator Janet Kardon states: “I think you can tell whether a show is successful by the sound in the gallery. If people are talking a lot, you know, somehow the show just doesn’t have it. In the Mapplethorpe show, there was silence. You could hear a pin drop.”  

≡ Refugee chic? Oh, my! Here we go again… ≡

CQnsj9UUEAA_7Dr

Inspired by the echos of the migrant crisis in his home country, hungarian photographer Norbert Baska has made a fashion shoot called “Der Migrant” with models in luxurious clothes posing as refugees in fake camp set-ups with barbed wire. ‘Lovely‘, some say. ‘What’s the problem‘, others ask. But the majority of us will immediately recognize it as being essentially wrong. So why?

NYT: As Nathalie Hof observed in the online journal OAI13, the images that attracted the most attention showed the model, Monika Jablonczky, pausing to “take a selfie, leaning against the border fence, in her designer clothes, with a phone which bears the distinct logo of Chanel.” That the model’s shirt is half open drew particular ire, given the cultural and faith backgrounds of many of those fleeing wars in the Middle East.

07open_hungary1-superJumbo
Baska’s response to the (apparently surprising) critic reaction of his colleagues:

I hoped people would realize that the situation is very complex and see that they are taking stands based on partial or biased information. I do not understand how people can take a clear stand (pro or con) while we are flooded with contradictory information through the media, so no one has extensive knowledge of the situation as a whole. This is exactly what we wanted to picture: you see a suffering woman, who is also beautiful and despite her situation, has some high quality pieces of outfit and a smartphone.

The shooting is not intended to glamourize this clearly bad situation, but rather… to draw the attention to the problem and make people think about it…

Why shouldn’t Baska glamourize such reality? If for some the answer is very clear, as a photography teacher I frequently testify to its complexity. For very different reasons, this generation has a very particular sense of ethics and not much respect for human values; they struggle to identify what’s wrong with “the Baska approach”. I’d rather not go back to Sontag’s idea of ‘inauthentic beauty’, which she used to describe Salgado’s work, but the truth is that the concept immediately came to my mind.

Baska’s statement that he didn’t want to glamourize, rather wanted to dignify, has no truth to it. Either he was aware that he was taking advantage of a harsh reality to move the spotlight on him, or he has just ignorant. Either way, it was a bad call. In general, there’s nothing wrong with choosing current events as themes for commercial work, but if you want to create fictions that are so closely related to reality, you’ll have to play by social reality rules and so, if you want to talk about a situation that involves the death of people fleeing the war, it’s not a good idea to make a composition that puts together in the same image this sort of symbols: Chanel, barbed wire, eastern looking model, luxurious clothes and cellphones.

It’s disrespectful in so many ways. 1) the migrant crisis has created several situations that deal with our collective unconscious, and the barbed wire being used in Hungary plays a big part on it. Women, men and children concentrated in one place, asking for help with barbed wire on the horizon will always arise the memory of World War II;

2) Chanel cellphones are products of a society that is ruled by capitalism, precisely the same society that is more concerned with the markets than with building a more just and equal way of living for us all. When you put a girl leaning on barbed wire taking a selfie with a Chanel cellphone, what it the subtitle? Syrian girl takes selfie à la mode des westerners to see if she can fit in their society???;

7A79EAB0-5E5A-46C5-9B52-EB800241A843_w640_s

3) And what about the joke with the sandwich? How can one understand such nonsense? Is it: Look at me, I’m hungry but still I’m not really going to eat it all because I want to keep my figure so that you can all love my body? Or: Look at me, I’m a refugee and I’m hungry but still I’m a sex bomb and I’ll let you take a peek under my skirt?

56158a58c3618835058b4599

After a lot of controversy, here’s Baska’s team official notice: We have experienced a lot of negative feedback since the publication of our photo series Der Migrant, although more and more people recognize the true message behind the pictures and agree with it […] Considering the heated emotions and because, despite our intentions, many unfortunately consider the pictures offending, we have decided to remove the series from our website.

٠ ‘The Dwarf Empire’ and the perversity of the ‘exotic Other’ ٠

22_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_03-222_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_12-222_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_23-222_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_24-222_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_25-222_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_2822_Sanne De Wilde_The Dwarf Empire_32© Sanne De Wilde, all photographs from The Dwarf Empire

After reading Sanne’s words about this photographic journey I was made very aware that she knew about the perversities and ethical dilemmas that would be highlighted by her choices. The cult and fascination for the ‘exotic other’, the ‘savage’, the ‘outsider’ has been an issue for a long time, in very different cultures and through several moral turns. Human beings “can’t help” but be fascinated by what’s different. But several problems arise from this, namely that the idea of ‘being different’ gets very mixed up with other concepts, such as being original, unique, rare, authentic, etc.

I believe a concept such as ‘authenticity’ has lost his existential meaning, and the word has now only a market value, as before the Industrial Revolution the word ‘rarity’ had. Therefore, ‘authenticity’ is a word frequently used in discourses about art and, when applied to the medium of photography, it concerns both the specificities of the medium as the particularities of the subjects portrayed.

Sanne describes her project “The Dwarf Empire” by saying: In southern China, near Kunming -the city of eternal spring- exists a theme park that is home to 77 little people. The inhabitants present a song-and-dance show twice a day. This promised land was founded by a tall, rich man who was determined to ‘do something good’ for the little people. Chinese charity dressed in commercial attire. The façade of this empire, with its walls of synthetic material, permanently seems on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the empire holds its ground. / I embarked on an adventure with a handful of ethical questions about commercialising social care. Every story has two sides but in this place every question and every answer seemed contradictory. / My adventure ended up as a modern anti-fairytale, a collection of images of my making, and theirs. My own trick forced upon myself.

And although she carefully choses her words and some of the photographs are very appealing, what triggers the viewer in the end is the eccentricity of the “freaks” depicted in the photographs and, as I see it, not the mastery of the medium. Besides all the underlying questions that may be waken by this project, the photographer is playing the role of the modern hunter-gatherer searching for the most valuable treasure in today’s world: exclusivity.

٠ Israel, the first fur free nation? Yes, you’re allowed to laugh about the irony ٠

20110124 FurFreeFashion 0016webHester Vlamings, in Amsterdam’s Fur Free Exhibition, 2011

Fur free events took place this past Friday worldwide. The video below is from a “performance” (aka bleeding fashion event) that took place in Tel-Aviv. During the rally, people used slogans such as “Fur is a dead fashion,” “we don’ t want furs in Israel!” and “Unethical, Unaesthetic – Wear Synthetics!“. Apparently, Israel might become the first fur free nation in the world. If you think this is ironic, listen to the lyrics on the soundtrack (by Goldfinger) which in this context serve the animal rights purpose, but could easily be used to support human rights. Is this irony intentional? Are they aware of any symbolic meaning of this act?

“Open Your Eyes”
Open your eyes / To the millions of lies / That they tell you everyday
Open your mind / To the clever disguise / That the advertisements say
How do they know / What’s good for you?
Wake up, wake up, whoa  / Wake up, wake up, whoa
A shot to the head  / They’re better off dead  / Will you wake up, wake up, whoa
Destroy all the land  / And kill what you can  / Just to make the profits rise
Sell you from birth  / For all that you’re worth  / The money spreads like lies
[…] Don’t wanna hate you / Don’t wanna blame it all on you / I’m out of options
If you don’t look I’ll force you to  / If you don’t look I’ll force you to  / If you don’t look.. I’ll force you to
Wake up, wake up, whoa / Wake up, wake up, whoa
A shot to the head  / Just so you can be fed  / Will you wake up, wake up, whoa
Open your eyes…
Open your eye

٠ The dogness of the dog ٠

tumblr_mpdh4dNvqg1s4yg05o1_500

This came about because of the hype around Bodhi, a 4 year old shiba inu that is the star of Menswear Dog. Yes, at first it looks innocente, the dog is cute in his humanoid outfits and human-like features, posing like a model, almost flirting with the camera. But then, as you look closer and as the american marketing machine comes into play, something uncanny is revealed. Might it be that as they are trading the dog’s value as a model for men’s clothes, they are giving away the dogness of the dog?

tumblr_mo7tg2nhFZ1s4yg05o1_r1_500

Saussure advocates a synchronic approach to language as a system. Instead of etymology as the conveyor of the word’s meaning, he asserts that meaning is produced by a word’s relationship to other words occurring at a particular time, within a particular system of relationships, which are spatially determined. For instance, the contemporary word “dog” means something not because of its historical derivation from the Middle English dogge, which is in turn derived from the Old English ‘docga’, but rather because of the relationship of “dog” to other words like “puppy” and “cat.” In Saussure’s analysis, all of these terms are part of a differential system, and their meanings and significance derive synchronically from relationships with other signs within that system.

(…)

One of Saussure’s crucial insights, then, is that the meaning of the sign is fundamentally relational. On one level, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. That is, there is no ‘a priori’ relationship between a signifier and a signified. The fact that dog signifies a four-legged domestic animal in English, while ‘chien’ and ‘inu’ point to this same animal in French and Japanese respectively, is evidence that there is no necessary, predetermined relationship between the letters ‘d-o-g’ and a common pet. The word ‘dog’ is an arbitrary, culturally agreed-upon designation. We could call dogs by some other term as long as we agree culturally on that usage. There is no particular dog designated by the word, nor is some inherent quality (“dogness”) contained in or conveyed by the acoustic image ‘dog’.

excerpt of “Theory for Classics”, by Louise A. Hitchcock

tumblr_moi37bEvPT1s4yg05o1_500

The Bill of Rights protects those aspects of a human essential to their humanity: not wanting to be tortured, holding on to one’s property, believing as one chooses, and so on. Animal nature (or ‘telos’, as I have called it, following Aristotle) is clearer and easier to identify than human nature – the “pigness” of the pig, the “dogness” of the dog. Being with others of its own kind or free to forage is as important to some animals as speech or religion is to humans. So it seemed clear to me that if society wished to assure that animals used by humans lived decent lives, it would mandate legal protections for key aspects of animals’ natures.

Barnard E. Rollin, in Science and Ethics

tumblr_mpp8aryk7M1s4yg05o3_r1_1280

(…)intuitive reasoning lies behind Bernard Rollin’s claim that an animal’s well-being involves “both control of pain and suffering and allowing the animals to live their lives in a way that suits their biological natures”.6 That there is such a biological nature is a fact that Rollin thinks can hardly be denied. Rather, the belief that each organism has a nature that defines what it is and what it does, is held to be common sense:

“As ordinary people know well, animals too have natures, genetically based, physically and psychologically expressed which determine how they live in their environments. Following Aristotle, I call this the telos of an animal, the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog – ‘fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly’. (…) Social animals need to be with others of their kind; animals built to run need to run; these interests are species specific. Others are ubiquitous in all species with brains and nervous systems – the interest in avoiding pain, in food and water, and so forth.”

Curiously, this passage already indicates that Rollin, after having thrown the old Aristotelian notion of telos into the debate, is not really willing to let anything depend on it. Instead, he immediately draws back from his original claim that an animal’s well-being involves something besides the control of suffering and pain, and translates telos back into the usual talk of “needs” and “interests”. If the notion of telos – the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog – really were the basic ethical concept as which it is introduced by Rollin, then it would have been better, at any rate more to the point, if he had written that “animals built to run are meant to run,” regardless of whether they actually need to run or have an interest in running. Instead, for Rollin, the notion of telos is clearly rather a heuristic device than a genuine ethical principle. This becomes fairly obvious when, for instance, he remarks that common sense identifies sources of suffering by “comparing the life we allow the animal to live with the sort of life it was evolved (or selected) to lead. When we know that an animal is social in nature and roams over large territories, we consider keeping it alone and in a small cage as inflicting suffering upon it, albeit not necessarily physical pain. On the positive side, common sense sees an animal that is ‘doing its thing’ – fulfilling its nature –as a ‘happy’ animal”.8 Taking an animal’s telos into account thus helps us to identify possible “sources of suffering”. Apart from that, its only other ethical function, for Rollin, is to serve as a convenient hook on which to hang the claim that we actually have some moral obligations to other living beings. To say that each animal has a telos is to recognize “that animals are ‘ends in themselves’, as Kant said of humans, not just means to our ends. What we do to animals matters to them, not just to us. In this fundamental moral respect, animals are like human persons, not like tools”.9 From this Rollin draws the debatable ethical conclusion that, for instance, “research animals are entitled to a living environment that suits their natures”10 (my italics.) This, however, apparently does not mean anything more than that their environment ought to agree with their basic interests. The ‘nature’ of an animal is not conceived as something that transcends the individual animal and which ought to be protected as such. Telos is defined in terms of what needs and interests an animal actually has, rather than in terms of what needs and interests it should have in the first place, in virtue of being a pig or a dog. Hence, Rollin sees no good reason to hold that all genetic engineering is wrong, but only that which violates basic interests. Moreover, he believes that an animal’s telos can well be altered without being violated. Given the telos, one should not violate the interests constitutive thereof, but that does not entail that the telos itself could or should not be changed:11 “Telos is not sacred; what is sacred are the interests that follow from it”.12 So if we, for example, were able to identify the gene sequence that codes the drive to nest in chickens, and remove it, thereby creating a new kind of chicken which “achieves satisfaction by laying an egg in a cage,” there would, in Rollin’s view, be nothing wrong with that. Neither would there be anything wrong with decreasing the sentience and responsiveness of pigs by means of genetic engineering.13 On the contrary, if this was the only realistic way of making them suffer less – the last resort, so to speak – it would rather be our moral duty to use this device. This, of course, is a result that is contrary to that of the Banner Committee.

٠ Botched Taxidermy – ‘artists’ using animals ٠

imageMiguel Suarez, Chicken-Killing Performance, Alberta, Canada, 2013. More about it here

How does the animal function as a kind of tool for allowing humans to think through their own identities? It seems that a lot of artists you’re writing about are trying to envision a very far-out point in the dispersal of fixed identities, to the point at which identities disappear.

There are several points that are raised there. In terms of moving beyond identities, I think you’re right in saying that there doesn’t appear to be a fixed point towards which one could move. Certainly the way in which, say, Deleuze and Guattari elaborate their concept of “becoming-animal” in A Thousand Plateaus as a creative, social process in which there is a chance of liberating oneself from being bound by identities, presents the notion of becoming as something that is not a matter of moving from one identity to another identity. The becoming is itself the point, and since in their view all becomings are, in a sense, becomings-animal, this gives the animal a privileged and markedly creative place in their philosophy.

[…]

marco-evaristtiMarco Evaristti, Blenders and Goldfish, 2000. More about it here

There is an overwhelming amount of overtly sentimental imagery out there which does a certain kind of work, and that’s fine. I’m not saying that one could shift to a culture in which one simply got rid of greeting cards that had sentimental animal imagery on them. I’m talking about a different kind of work, work that uses animal imagery in a much more self-conscious way. It’s a way which I guess is broadly related to the notion of the artist that Lyotard had: the artist as someone who has particular kinds of responsibilities in the postmodern world to work against complacency, to refuse what he calls the “solace of good forms,” to continue to try to problematize things.

albagreenEduardo Kac, GFP Bunny, 2000. More about it here

To what extent do you think animals are used as passive tools by artists while they work through issues of subjectivity and identity?

There are quite a lot of dimensions to this question. I ended up devising the term “botched taxidermy” as a rather clumsy catch-all phrase for a variety of contemporary art practice that engages with the animal at some level or other. In some cases it involves taxidermy itself, but in all cases the animal, dead or alive, is present in all its awkward, pressing thing-ness. I think what many of the artists I’ve been discussing are doing in their presentation of the animal as some kind of clumsy compound of human and animal elements is to reinforce the notion that the comfortable, utopian conception of nature in which humans had unmediated access to animals and lived in some kind of unproblematic harmony with them does not look like a practical way forward, either in terms of how one thinks philosophically about them, or in terms of how on a practical level one might work for the improvement of their living conditions.

[…]

tessarolo_paintTessarolo painting with Kunda

Toward the end of The Postmodern Animal I became interested in your discussion of pets. It was partly out of selfish reasons since I have two cats. You mention Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that “anyone who likes a dog or a cat is a fool.” But you also discuss other writers who have complicated that attitude and left space open for a more complex relationship between humans and their pets. In the end I wasn’t quite clear on your own position. I know you weren’t really posing it in those terms, but how do you feel about the presence of pets?

Well, we have cats, too. And although that has probably influenced my writing in ways I don’t quite recognize, I certainly tried throughout the book to avoid taking too partisan a position. What interests me very much, though, is the idea you come across in the work of an artist like Carolee Schneemann but also, maybe more surprisingly, in Derrida’s recent philosophical writings — the idea that they might learn things from their cats that are not easily learned anywhere else.

For both of them it’s a matter of taking the time to engage with the cat’s own point of view, and then of thinking about the impact of that point of view on their own work. There’s this great statement by Schneemann where she says of Kitch, one of her cats, something along the lines of “her steady focus enabled me to consider her regard as an aperture in motion.” It’s as though the animal allows the artist to learn something new, see something differently. And Derrida says that his cat provokes a kind of “critical uneasiness” in him, and he seems to imply that this uneasiness may be the only frame of mind in which any responsible human thinking about animals can really begin.

wim-delvoye-11428_792wim-delvoye-11428_1Wim DELVOYE, “Rex” 2006. Stuffed tattooed pig.

excerpt from Where the wild things are: An interview with Steve Baker, by Gregory Williams, in Cabinet, Issue 4, Fall 2001. Continue reading here

٠ a critique about a movie I’ll never watch ٠

Today I found a new good place on the www – NATIVE APPROPRIATIONS – and having enjoyed a good amount of readings there I decided to bring it here. What follows is a brief preview of a series of posts by Adrienne K. about the latest Hollywood extravaganza featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto. Yes, I’m obviously going to follow Adrienne’s advice and am not going to watch it (not that it had ever crossed my mind to do otherwise).

marty_two_bulls_110208-615x615Why Tonto Matters

We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.

Ryan [McMahon]also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.

The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

the-lone-ranger-johnny-depp-600x337I saw The Lone Ranger so you don’t have to

The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we’re supposed to critique, but there’s no questioning of Tonto’s position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. […]

Finally we come to the end of the story. Tonto finishes telling it all to the little boy in the museum, and we see that he has put on a suit, holds a suitcase, and places a bowler hat over his crow (which he has continued to “feed” throughout the film). The boy gets momentarily distracted, turns back, and OMG again, Tonto’s gone! In return, a (live) crow flies out of the exhibit and at the screen. Then we cut to credits. Then, a few minutes later, we see Tonto wandering off into the vastness of Monument Valley, hobbling along, carrying his suitcase. He continues to walk, back to the camera, for the next 10 minutes as the credits go on, and on, and on. I guess we’re to assume his time as a “Noble Savage” has passed, and he’s returning to his unbridled wilderness, alone–but dressed as a white guy this time? This, like most of the movie, didn’t make any sense.

The-Lone-Ranger-2013-Johnny-DeppJohnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto.

The Tonto costume is a mish-mash of stereotypical Indian garb, a Plains-style breastplate with a southwest-style headband (minus the effing bird), random feathers and beads–but the face paint that makes him look evil, forlorn, and angry all at once is a nice touch. Then, the fact that the publicity photo shows the “wild” and “unruly” (ok, I’ll say it, “savage”) Tonto behind the clean, polished, (and white) Lone Ranger is a great “honoring” to Native people too, and shows how much agency Tonto has, right? (/sarcasm)”

iamcrow75procent3Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling “honored”

Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:

«I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.»

Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?

Armie Hammer apparently talked to some Natives who love Lone Ranger

Do I wish we lived in a society where Natives were more visible and it wasn’t such a freaking novelty that someone wants to make a movie with us? Do I wish we the resources and publicity to get the same amount of attention on our own media? Do I wish that we had other economic ventures on our reservations that could provide jobs without having to become a Hollywood stereotype? yes, yes, and yes. I think we deserve much more.

┐ when a cause turns into thoughtless hypocrisy* └

© Tinkebell, Brutus with Idiot, photo printed as a poster, made in collaboration with Mirjam Muller, with special thanks to the idiots

© Tinkebell, Her name is Sarah, performance

(the animal is used as a commodity article: as part of an individuals carefully build image and ego, rather then being acknowledged as a being with own needs and characteristics.)

© Tinkebell, Saving a Broiler, installation

(Saving the broiler was part of an installation in which the animal of just a few weeks old got the most perfect habitat the artist could think of.)

© The Idiots, DON’T WORRY WE’LL STRAIGHTEN HIM OUT!,2009 – taxidermy skunk, ironing board, textile, wood, felt. An interview about their work here

© William Hundley, Chihuahua on Cheeseburgers

© Jouko Lehtola, from the series Dogs (left) + © design by The Just Us Collective (right)

*may it be clear that the title of this post refers not to these artists’ provocative work but to their haters. it’s very easy to stay with what’s in front of you, much more difficult to actually stop bitching, stop being an hypocrite and actually think about what you do, what you eat, what you wear. If I were to be wrong about this judgement, all their haters would be morally irreproachable, which would mean our world should be a better place, – with all these animal lovers and environmental activists – when in fact most of them just sit and send hate mail, they wouldn’t get up and go save a pet about to die. Tinkebell already did the test.