Afterimage Vol. 39 No. 1 & 2

Afterimage Vol. 39 No. 1+2Afterimage Vol. 39 No. 1+2Afterimage Vol. 39 No. 1+2

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Introduction

THE AESTHETICS OF ATROCITY
by Karen vanMeenen [FULL ARTICLE]

Features & Essays

“INSTANTS OF TRUTH”: THE “KILL TEAM” PHOTOS AND THE DEPRAVITY OF AESTHETICS
by Henry A. Giroux [DDET (+)]

“Lacking the truth, [we] will however find instants of truth, and those instants are in fact all we have available to us to give some order to this chaos of horror.” —Hannah Arendt

Susan Sontag believed that capitalist societies require images in order to infiltrate the culture of everyday life, legitimate official power, and anaesthetize their subjects through visual spectacles. Such images also enable the circulation of information along with militaristic modes of surveillance and control. Sontag argued in her later work that war and photography have become inseparable, and as a result, representations of violence no longer compel occasions for self and social critique. Rather, shocking images increasingly emerge as a mode of entertainment—advancing the machinery of consumption and undermining democratic relations and social formations. She was particularly concerned about what I will call an aesthetics of depravity—an aesthetics that traffics in images of human suffering that are subordinated to the formal properties of beauty, design, and taste—thus serving to “bleach out a moral response to what is shown.” For Sontag and many other critical theorists, the aesthetics of depravity reveals itself when it takes as its object the misery of others, murderous displays of torture, mutilated bodies, and intense suffering while simultaneously erasing the names, histories, and voices of the victims depicted. In a meditation on the extermination of bodies and the environment from Auschwitz to Chernobyl, Paul Virilio refers to this depraved form of art as an “aesthetics of disappearance that would come to characterize the whole fin-de-siècle” of the twentieth century. An example of this mode of aesthetics was on full display in the mainstream media’s coverage of the photographs depicting the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. As Mark Reinhardt points out, the dominant media had no doubts about showing the faces of the victims—thus violating their dignity—but expressed widespread indignation over reproducing the naked bodies of the victims, claiming that it would demonstrate bad taste. In this instance, concerns of beauty and etiquette displace subject matter while sheltering the viewer from any sense of complicity in such crimes. As I will argue below, the release of the “Kill Team” photos gestures to an even darker side of the aesthetics of depravity. In this particular instance, images of death emerge in a historical conjuncture in which desire, aggression, and pleasure do more than erase the subject of suffering or potentially pose for the viewer what Roger Simon has called a “difficult encounter.” On the contrary, the kill team photos register a new kind of subject situated within a market-driven society that is less about satisfying desires than endlessly producing them, though in this case the desires and the pleasures they construct are linked to the death drive, and to modes of aggression in which pleasure finds its object in the most obscene forms of violence, i.e., the taking of the lives of others deemed as expendable, excess, and disposable.

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DOES THE DISASTER WANT TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED?: RECONSIDERING THE CAMERA’S PRESENCE AT GROUND ZERO
by Thomas Stubblefield [DDET (+)]

While the events of 9/11 may have been singed into the collective psyche by the now iconic video loops of the collision and collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC), for those who witnessed it firsthand photography would prove to be the primary medium of experience. Within minutes of the first impact, gift shops surrounding the WTC reported selling out of disposable cameras. The manager of a Duane Reade drugstore in the vicinity of the Towers claimed to have sold between sixty and one hundred cameras within the first hour of the attacks. In response to this overwhelming demand, a local deli owner even began handing them out for free. The near universality of this desire among witnesses to take pictures of the event and its aftermath is confirmed by archives such as “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs,” an overwhelmingly dense collection of over seven thousand amateur and professional photographs, which gives credence to the characterization of 9/11 as “the most photographed disaster in history.”

Admittedly, the motivations behind the impulse to take pictures in the face of the disaster are as varied as the images produced. However, it is telling to find a common thread running through the accounts of those who either found themselves reaching for the camera or witnessed this response from afar. For example, E. Ann Kaplan describes her own urge to photograph as “a desire to make real what I could barely comprehend.” David Friend similarly attributes this collective response to the realization that “only rendering this act visually would confirm its reality.” Reflecting a larger position within the critical study of 9/11, these comments attribute the resurgence of the still image to a collective need for clarity in the face of an unfathomable event, a desire to slow down and make sense of an event that happened “too fast” at the time of its occurrence.

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CODES OF EXPOSURE: IMAGING THE BODY AND SUFFERING IN HAITI
by Philip Kennicott [DDET (+)]

The earthquake in Haiti returned images of the body to the front pages of American newspapers. Three days after the January 12, 2010, disaster leveled much of Port-au-Prince and cast an already desperate nation deeper into the mires of misery, the Washington Post ran an image by staff photographer Carol Guzy, showing a man emerging from a thin gap in the rubble. Next to him a schoolgirl is seen from behind, apparently bent over and kneeling. A first, cursory reading of the image suggests that perhaps she is praying. A second glance makes it obvious that the head and upper torso of “Ruth,” a student at the Ecole St. Gerard, have been crushed by a slab of falling concrete.

The New York Times ran photographs equally gruesome, including one of a man’s body laid out on a makeshift stretcher, covered in a thin layer of chalk dust. Photographers working for the BBC and for wire and stock companies chronicled the crisis in the usual categories of disaster imagery: broken buildings, tent cities, looting, and the obligatory small dramas of search and rescue. But the wounded, the suffering, and the dead body took on surprising prominence, not just in the images emerging from Haiti, but in the photographs that made it through the filters of taste and editorial reticence at mainstream news organizations.

After almost a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, during which graphic images of the wounded and dead were often deemed too politically volatile for most audiences, the Haitian earthquake allowed a return of the raw. Images that made suffering both tactile and terrifying burst through conventions of caution and rattled a language of synecdoche and substitution that had formed during news coverage of the “war on terror.” Something about Haiti made it permissible to display human suffering without the usual fears of exploiting the victim and alienating the reader.

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WAR IN SILENCE?: PHOTOGRAPHS, SOUNDS, AND THE ETHICS OF RECEPTION
by Marta Zarzycka [DDET (+)]

As contemporary geopolitics is intrinsically linked to media-produced imagery, the mass media have emerged as the largest and most powerful vehicle for distributing the sights and sounds of war. Video footage representing sites of destruction, terrorist threats, and witness testimonies are increasingly becoming contemporary war’s medium of choice. While video, television, and online news are conspicuously full of images penetrated by sound to the point of inseparability, still photography (“still” in the sense of “free of noise or turbulence” as well as “immobile”) remains a powerful way of transmitting traumatic events. Testimonies of war and disaster, both aural and visual, are rendered only visually in photographs. The way of seeing incorporates the way of listening: the photographer must produce images in such a way that their meanings will be congruent with those produced by both sight and sound. Yet photographs of exploding buildings, screaming bystanders, and lamenting mourners are not populated by deaf and mute characters moving about in a soundless space, nor must we as viewers remain insensitive to their sonic effects. Images from war zones can suggest a variety of acoustics, from noises (the loud, irregular, and startling sounds of bombings) to tones (a lament with its specific musical quality, resonance, and pitch). How does the incorporation of sound into photographs change our comprehensive and receptive skills?

Twentieth-century criticism has paid ample attention to the visual—on the one hand questioning vision as the sole means of reliable knowledge about the external world, while on the other pointing out how our reality is constituted, disciplined, and normalized by the power of surveillance. Consequently, sound is almost without exception theorized as subordinate to the visual. For example, in cinema studies, terms like “on-screen” and “offscreen” have been applied to dialogues, monologues, and music even though these sounds were in themselves never “off-screen” (only their source was off-screen). The aural has been muted by the very words used to describe it.

Yet, sound is so well-suited to recount the traumas of war. Unlike vision, which has often been theorized as distancing the viewer from the viewed, the physics and phenomenology of sound in Western culture are frequently associated with proximity, contact, and, consequently, violent disturbance. Through the air, sound transmits to our ears and skin the agitation resulting from collisions of objects surrounding us (often against our will) at a 360-degree expanse. Sound enables/forces contact, from the bond between mother and fetus to urban noise pollution and sonic weapons. What happens if we bring the notion of sound back to the photographic rendition of war and violence? In cinema studies, a sound one hears in a film without seeing its origin is called an acousmatic sound. What would we then call sounds of which, conversely, the sources are visible (bodies, objects, explosions), but which do not reach our ears?

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AFFECTIVE AFFINITIES, EMBODIMENT, AND THE POLITICAL: YOUTH MEDIA PRACTICES IN PALESTINE AND ISRAEL
by Sanjay Asthana [DDET (+)]

Scholarship in media education has historically focused on the constructed character of media production and reception, examined politico-economic and ideological dimensions of youth media, and generally neglected those affective dimensions of children and young people’s media engagements that go beyond the ideological. Contextualized in terms of embodiment and performativity, the subjective and sensory aspects of youth agency offer substantive analytic insights into the particular ways young people engage with and produce various media forms. To understand children and young people’s media engagements in relation to their conception of the “political,” it is important to examine the subjective and sensory aspects of the experiences through which they produce various media forms. To this end, I will examine three youth media initiatives from Palestine and Israel to understand how children and young people appropriate and reconfigure old and new media in the process of creating personal and social narratives.

These youth initiatives raise several difficult geopolitical challenges wrought by neoliberal globalization and the continuing Israeli- Palestinian conflict in Haifa and Ramallah. Palestinian youth live in a constant state of emergency in refugee camps surrounded by Israeli military barricades and borders, and as minorities inside Israel. Yet remarkably, their imagination is shaped not by despair, but, to borrow Raymond Williams’s felicitous phrase, by “resources of hope.” In the face of looming violence and suffering, young people develop media forms and narratives that address everyday life in the refugee camps, recuperation of individual and collective memories, identity, and belonging. Although the youth-produced media forms take up the question of the political, this paper explores two other important elements in specific detail: the role of affect and embodiment, and the issue of translocality, which point toward potential “spaces for dialogue.”

Without delving into the extensive literature on affect, I will address the question of sensory experience by selectively drawing upon the writings of Paul Ricoeur, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Vivian Sobchack. Their analysis offers insight into the embodied nature of human subjectivity that is alert to the quotidian aspects of everyday life. “Affect” is understood in terms of a set of embodied practices and is largely defined as an unreflective and unstructured feeling and experience that cannot be realized in language. According to Jen Skattebol, “Affect theories dispute separations between mind and body; and between the individual, their communities and political contexts. Affect is a tangible, embodied force that operates between people and as such it adds complexity to the way we think about relationships in learning.” For Sobchack, the notion of “embodiment” is a “radically material condition of human being that necessarily entails both the body and consciousness, objectivity and subjectivity, in an irreducible ensemble,” where the meaning of experience is lived in context. Postcolonial scholar Chakrabarty argues that academic knowledge privileges the analytic (reason) over lived experience and the senses, pointing out that “experience is not always subjective in a psychological sense, if by psychology we refer to processes that go on only in the brain. The body also has experiences and remembers them.” Both Chakrabarty and Sobchack urge us to pay attention to the embodied nature of human subjectivity, belonging, and identity.

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SPECTACLES OF ATROCITY: MONDO VIDEO IN THE “WAR ON TERROR”
by Jason Middleton [DDET (+)]

The United States’ involvement in conflicts framed by the George W. Bush administration as the “war on terror” provoked debate and anxiety over what images were or were not appropriate for the public. Such sources of controversy included footage of 9/11 victims falling to their deaths, images of dead and mutilated soldiers and civilians, videos allegedly depicting the executions of American journalist Daniel Pearl and American businessman Nick Berg, and, of course, images of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison. More recently, the debate over whether or not Barack Obama’s administration should release the photograph documenting the corpse of Osama bin Laden further demonstrates the persistent difficulty in assessing the appropriate use and value of such images. While the Bush administration sustained a policy banning reporters from photographing even the coffins of U.S. soldiers en route to military bases, the dissemination through other outlets of material not shown in mainstream news publications and programs has raised significant questions about the ethics and political effects of representing death and suffering.

This essay examines the problematic ways in which images of atrocity in the “war on terror,” repressed by mainstream media, have circulated on websites or in compilation videos that purport to show authentic clips of bizarre or shocking footage. By contrast to mainstream news sources, these websites and videos fall under the rubric of “mondo.” The term “mondo film” can be traced to Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s Mondo Cane (1962)— often described as the first “shockumentary” and the progenitor of a cycle of quasi-ethnographic films focused on exploiting bizarre spectacles from around the world. Although mondo videos and websites ostensibly grant viewers greater access to the unrepressed “real” event, the sense of connection to the “real” event actually becomes more elusive. In other words, showing images of greater explicitness does not easily satisfy viewers’ curiosity—or “epistephilia” —and often has the opposite effect. It can provoke disbelief, skepticism, or simply an ever-greater appetite for more visual evidence.

In her 2004 essay on mondo video collections such as Faces of Death (1980) and Death Scenes (1989), which purport to show authentic footage depicting the deaths of humans and animals, Mikita Brottman suggests that “it seems inevitable that repressed material from the collapse of the World Trade Center . . . will appear as part of a mondo movie long before it becomes acceptable viewing on network television. The fact that such footage remains repressed, in fact, virtually guarantees a market for it.” Brottman points out that numerous commentators expressed fear that explicit footage from 9/11 could “make its way into the hands of evil individuals who might then exploit it for the sick pleasure of those voyeurs who collect such underground footage, or charge people to watch it on the internet.”

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CONSTRUCTED MEMORY AND THE PARADOX OF EMPATHY: RECONSIDERING AN IMAGE OF THE TRIANGLE FIRE
by Tina Margolis, Karen Keller, and Julie Rones [DDET (+)]

One of the worst industrial disasters in American history occurred just over one hundred years ago at the factory of Triangle Waist Company (often referred to as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company), located near New York City’s Washington Square Park, the hub of the downtown community at the time, on March 25, 1911. Minutes before quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the sweatshop. By the time the fire was extinguished, less than half an hour later, 146 workers— mostly young immigrant women—had perished. Many of them died publicly and in the most horrific manner imaginable—by throwing themselves, in some cases ablaze, out of the upper story windows of the burning building.

While numerous photographs document the actions of individuals during the blaze, one of the most widely disseminated of them, Triangle Fire, has long been read as a picture captured during the fire; however, upon closer consideration, Triangle Fire is most likely a staged shot taken after the conflagration was over. Recognition of this image’s constructed origin may allow historians to more effectively explore the connotations of the dramatized and aestheticized photograph within its historical and cultural context. If Triangle Fire was indeed posed, we can understand its creation and historical usage as an illustration of the paradox of empathy. Paul Slovic describes this paradox by stating that

this mechanism involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. . . . [Yet] statistics of . . . [disasters], no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to spark identification and thus fail to motivate action.

This explains why the ostensibly candid photographs of the deceased women sprawled on Greene Street after the fire, for example, are unable to evoke transference—thus exemplifying the numbing reaction to the statistics of atrocities Slovic describes. By extension, it further demonstrates that tragedies such as the Triangle fire are processed through mythmaking—therefore becoming constructed realities to satisfy the human need to distill and encompass experience.

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PHOTOGRAPHS THAT PROTEST: REPRESENTING STATE VIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA
by Anne Burke [DDET (+)]

“The photos of the gruesome killing were brought forward as evidence in the judicial process, right from the start of the investigation, and it seems that they haven’t been taken into account at all.” —Alfonso Mora Leon, father of Jenner Alfonso Mora Moncaleano

On September 10, 1996, Alfonso Mora Leon photographed the charred corpse of his son, Jenner Alfonso Mora Moncaleano—only four days after Jenner Alfonso had been kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated by members of the anti-subversive unit of Dirección de Policía Judicial e Investigación (DIJIN, the judicial and investigative branch of the National Colombian Police). I first came across the photographs of Jenner Alfonso during the 2008 May Day protest in Bogotá, Colombia. They were included in one of three commemorative posters that juxtaposed what could be termed honorific with horrific photographs of those who lost their lives at the hand of the state. The composite posters offered a direct, chilling contrast to the more popular use of honorific portraits alone, which are typically headshots—sometimes graduation-type studio portraits or portraits cropped from family photographs—images resonant with a potential for life, and offering the possibility of empathetic identification.

Leon explained that he photographed his son’s remains in the morgue of the Mosquera cemetery—where they were placed after their discovery in a rubbish dump in Alto de Mondoñedo. Alongside his son’s remains lay three more black polyethylene sacks containing the mutilated and burned bodies of his son’s friends, Arquímedes Moreno Moreno, Vladimir Zambrano Pinzón, and Juan Carlos Palacio Gómez—all of whom were abducted on the night of September 6. All four victims, together with two other friends, Federico Quesada and Martin Alonso Valdivieso Barreco—both of whom were gunned down in public as they left their homes on the morning of September 7—had informed their families that they thought they were being watched by DIJIN members. This systematic slaughtering of all six victims was the result of a false accusation made to the police by a paid informant—identifying the six young men as members of the opposition group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had carried out an attack on the Kennedy Police Barracks the previous year.

Sixteen members of the DIJIN have been implicated in these extrajudicial killings—now referred to as the Massacre of Mondoñedo—yet despite evidence showing responsibility for the events rests with the highest-ranking officials, only three lowranking officers have been brought to justice. With impunity remaining in this—as in the majority of human rights violations against ordinary Colombians—it is easy to see why Leon feels the law has not taken into account the evidence provided by the photographs of his son’s brutal murder. Implicit in his comment is his faith, on one hand, in the unequivocal indexical message of the photographs, and his lack of faith, on the other, in the political will required to ensure the Colombian justice system is fully effective. It is for this reason the family decided they needed to show the photograph of their son’s remains to the public: so that people could see for themselves not only the level of violence in which Colombia is currently embroiled, but also that this violence is entirely dependent upon the state’s strategic willingness to leave such crimes unpunished, spreading fear and panic among whoever dares dissent.

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BEING THERE AND FEELING DEATH: SENSING NEDA AND ZARMEENA
by Nina Seja [DDET (+)]

In 2009, the death of a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha- Soltan, recorded on a mobile phone, was heralded as one of the most watched deaths in history. Widely disseminated across social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as in mainstream media, Neda was designated the “YouTube Martyr.” Ten years earlier, in November of 1999, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) had clandestinely recorded the execution of a woman known as Zarmeena, clad in a burqa, a full-body veil typical in Afghanistan. Yet it was not until the events of September 11, 2001, that the global media would focus on the graphic imagery from Kabul, which by then had been used in Cassian Harrison and Saira Shah’s 2001 British television documentary Beneath the Veil. Mainstream media, critical research, and nonprofessional mediamakers have celebrated the possibilities for political change opened up by new technologies such as mobile telephony, while at the same time deploring the horror these same technologies record. As charged sources of debate in political science, gender studies, and new media theory, the Neda and Zarmeena videos and the discourse surrounding them demonstrate how the female body (particularly the Arab and Muslim body) is frequently used as a site through which to discuss the politics of military occupation, contemporary forms of Orientalism, and social change in repressive states. Critical discussion has also focused attention on visual signifiers, such as the veil, that contribute to framing both women as victims.

To this conversation, I would like to offer a return to the image. Such a return would challenge the uncritical identification of both women as victims through examination of the sensory details that contribute to victim framing. I will not only consider the visual dimensions of the image but also take into account sensuous geographies and an engagement with the “skin of the film” (to use media theorist Laura U. Marks’s term addressing embodiment, cinema, and the senses), which touches and “moves” viewers in ways not yet fully considered. I argue that a possible source of these image’s potency is their sensuous, haptic qualities that offer immediacy, intimacy, and embodied spectatorship. Suffering, in this way, gains immediacy through the affective qualities of touch. Approaching these examples through an interdisciplinary lens of geography and visual culture means the images can be read both as textual two-dimensional and spatial encounters.

Framing the essay are theories of the senses, notably those developed by phenomenologist and human geographer Paul Rodaway, and Marks, both of whom have a pronounced research interest in how the world is experienced, both visually and also beyond its visual representation. In Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place (1994), Rodaway calls for geographers to:

. . . return in some way to a kind of sensual study, both intimate in its focus on the information of the senses—touch, smell, taste, hearing, sight—and also wider ranging, inclusive not just of the visual dimension of experience, but also the other senses. . . . reasserting a return of geographical study to the fullness of a living world or everyday life as a multisensual and multidimensional situatedness in a space and in relationship to places.

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REMEMBERING TO REMEMBER: THREE PHOTOJOURNALISM ICONS OF THE BOSNIAN WAR
by Joscelyn Jurich [FULL ARTICLE]

MADNESS AND MAYHEM: THE AESTHETICS OF DARK TOURISM
by Colette Copeland [DDET (+)]

Although dark tourism studies is a relatively new academic discipline, the practice of visiting “dark” sites dates back to ancient times. British dark tourism scholar Philip Stone defines the full spectrum of dark tourism as “the act of travel to sites associated with death, suffering, and the seemingly macabre.” The field includes everything from haunted houses and museum exhibitions to battlefields and even genocide sites. A.V. Seaton describes this phenomenon as “Thanatourism,” or “travel to a location wholly or partially motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death, particularly, but not exclusively, violent death.” Laurie Beth Clark further narrows the field by focusing on trauma tourism, “visiting sites where death actually occurred.” Maria Tumarkin has coined the term “traumascapes” to describe places scarred by a legacy of traumatic violence. The theoretical issues surrounding dark tourism intersect with the fields of museum studies, sociology, consumer psychology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and visual culture. It is important to examine the dark tourism phenomenon within larger social, cultural, historical, and political contexts.

Given the vastness of the field, this essay will focus primarily on two traumascapes: genocide sites in Cambodia and Rwanda, and will explore the intersection of consumer desire with the paradoxical roles of education and economics. I will also address the role of the media in aestheticizing death as well as how kitsch and ethical controversies affect the interpretation/consumption of these genocide tourism sites.

Patrick West suggests ours is an age of mourning, and our desire to grieve death a postmodern phenomenon. Malcolm Foley and John Lennon concur, arguing that the rise of technology in our postmodern world accounts for the increase in consumer desire and demand. Yet this view does not take into account the historical precedent of pilgrimages and the nineteenth-century passion for commemoration. While scholars disagree about the reasons for the rise in dark tourism, it is evident that the number of sites and visitors has increased dramatically in recent years.

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SATIATED AND DENIED: WAR AND VISUAL REALISM
by Carolyn L. Kane [DDET (+)]

“Today realism is in any event strategic.” —Friedrich Kittler

For political, ethical, and historical reasons—as well as for pleasure—modern culture has esteemed horrific and atrocious images of war. From the earliest examples of war photography to the latest developments in media technologies, this appetite for visual realism has been both satiated and denied. However, it is not the desire to see horror and abominations that is the problem; rather, the issue is how we see and engage these images of atrocity. Who shapes these perceptual fields, for what reasons, and under what conditions? The how of seeing—which techniques and desires reveal or mask war—makes war and visual realism a question of ethics and politics.

Realism

Often associated with modernism, realism renders people, places, and things in a true-to-life “objective” fashion. Unlike literature or painting, photographic realism raised audience expectations for the genre. Once emancipated from the tripod, portable cameras gave birth to an unprecedented demand for close-up and graphic depictions of death and decay. Only cameras can capture and embalm death, Susan Sontag argued in 1977. Through photography, the twentieth century nurtured its taste for visual atrocity, which became an aesthetic norm—a testament to its truth and matter-of-fact reality. In comparison to fallible humans, a machine’s slice of reality was incontrovertible.

If the horrors and injustices of war are made visually explicit, many believe, an appropriate response of outrage will result. In 1924 Ernst Friedrich set out to accomplish this with his book War Against War!, filling its pages with numerous images of war atrocities under the guise of “shock therapy.” This notion was reinforced during the Vietnam War—the first war to receive daily television coverage—as images of death, coupled with photographs of children running from napalmed villages, shocked and horrified Western viewers. As televised images of death entered the homes and lives of those far away and safe, graphic images of war incited passionate anti-war protest and political action.

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“FACE TO FACE”: RESISTANCE, MELANCHOLY, AND REPRESENTATIONS OF ATROCITIES
by Francis Frascina [DDET (+)]

“. . . the ruthlessness of our attempts to be rid of [unconscious impulses] . . . might be one reason why illegally occupying armies, who can neither settle nor face their own conscience, become so brutalized—it is their own discomfort they are trying to erase.” —Jacqueline Rose

“To be in relation with the other face to face is to be unable to kill.” —Emmanuel Levinas

During 1970, hundreds of thousands of United States citizens marched in protest against atrocities committed in Vietnam by U.S. soldiers brutalized by a situation that rendered them victims of their government’s projections of fear and terror. In that year, the U.S. bombing of Cambodia and the shooting of protestors on college campuses by the National Guard were further rungs on the ladder of escalation. An earlier rung had been reached with the publication of horrific photographs of Vietnamese burn victims, including children, caused by the U.S. use of napalm, which provoked new forms of artists’ dissent in 1967. Then, in late 1969, color images of the My Lai Massacre reproduced in Life magazine regalvanized artists and intellectuals to utilize photographs of atrocities and their perpetrators to force members of the government and the military to face their own consciences and to mobilize support for the anti-war movement. Consider, for example, the face of Lieutenant William Calley, leader of the platoon responsible for the killings at My Lai, reprinted as masks to be worn on the back of protestors’ heads in 1970 and ’71. His eyes’ blank circles metaphorically represented him as unable to look at, to see, to be face-to-face with the Other in Vietnam. Judith Butler writes that for Emmanuel Levinas, the face “is that vocalization of agony that is not yet language or no longer language, the one by which we are wakened to the precariousness of the Other’s life, the one that rouses at once the temptation to murder and the interdiction against it.” There is a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and the fear of inflicting violence. The fear of one’s own death could be overcome by obliterating the Other, but this might require a need “to keep obliterating, especially if there are four hundred men behind him, and they all have families and friends, if not a nation or two behind them.”

The “Kill Team” Photographs

In early 2011, photographs of U.S. atrocities in Afghanistan, leaked by investigative journalists and freedom of information organizations, dominated public debates about the “war on terror” and the nature of effective dissent. Inevitably, these revelations evoked those during the Vietnam War and raised questions about responses by artists, writers, and intellectuals— then and now. In May 1971, the New York Review of Books published a letter from Robert Lowell, poet and dissenter, after President Nixon had effectively pardoned Calley. The relevance of Lowell’s letter for 2011 could be grounds for melancholy:

His atrocity is cleared by the President, public, polls, rank and file of the right and left. . . . Our nation looks up to heaven, and puts her armies above the law. No stumbling on the downward plunge from Hiroshima. Retribution is someone somewhere else and we are young. In a century perhaps no one will widen an eye at massacre, and only scattered corpses express a last histrionic concern for death.

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ATROCITY AESTHETICS: BEYOND BODIES AND COMPASSION
by Marshall Battani [DDET (+)]

A Google image search for “atrocity” yields a landscape of human bodies, but if you are after the bulldozed hills of Nazi genocide victims or a trail of Tutsi corpses, you are in for a disappointment. Of the resulting plethora of images, the most prevalent images are of latex or leather-clad bodies theatrically sexualized in the service of goth, death, and thrash metal bands. If you are after mutilated bodies produced by warfare, ethnic cleansing, or other human degradation, you will have to look carefully. A video search produces a similar result—and the same goes for iTunes. Of course, you can find the real gore if you want to. If you want real-life corpses, all you need do is name the specific atrocity and they will appear: mutilated bodies—piles of them—bloody and mangled. In fact, you will have a hard time finding an image of atrocity that features something other than a human body. Which begs an interesting, if somewhat unexpected, question: “Does an atrocity require a body?”

Our current appreciation of atrocity is anthropocentric and this is an unnecessarily narrow view that effectively blinds us to a range of atrocities—especially environmental ones—that ought to be viewed with much more urgency. Even though they are usually termed disasters, do a search for “environmental atrocity” and guess what you get? Bodies, again. This time the mangled human bodies are sprinkled among a mixed bag of not-very-dramatic images of polluted landscapes and (slightly more dramatic) oil-soaked wildlife. On a recent image search, the defiled Gulf of Mexico did not appear until page five, as a spoof of the British Petroleum (BP) logo dripping oil into the ocean—and this was only after a photograph of the My Lai Massacre on page two. Also appearing on page five was Eddie Adams’s infamous photo of the execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerilla on the streets of Saigon in 1968. (If you look hard enough you can find “rebranding” of the BP logo in which that suspected guerilla has a gas pump nozzle aimed at his head and the bright flower-like BP logo bursts from behind—echoing the fatal gunshot.)

Why is it so hard to picture an atrocity without a body? Obviously, all collateral damage is not the same. Disasters are not the same as atrocities, and pictures of environmental disasters seem trivial when compared to the defiled human bodies created by warfare and violent conflict. Maybe the video feed of the gushing mangled deepwater wellhead—so popular during the recent atrocity/disaster/crisis—is a little more compelling (but really only if, like Louisiana resident Sean Lanier, we see it as a bleeding wound: “Until they stop this leak, it’s just like getting stabbed and the knife’s still in you, and they’re moving it around”).1 Again, the focal point is wounded bodies. It is difficult to have an atrocity without one. Search for “Gulf of Mexico and BP pictures” and you will find a lot of oil-soaked animals, but you will not find Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from his latest traveling show and book titled Oil (2011). Still, his images are conspicuous only in their absence. Is the relative lack of bodies in his work to blame for this?

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AMUSEMENT DARK: “BLACK HUMOR” IN THE INSTALLATIONS OF ADEL ABIDIN
by Jillian St. Jacques [DDET (+)]

It could be said Iraqi installation artist Adel Abidin specializes in dark humor. In fact, it has been said, or something close to it: “black humor” is how New York Times art critic Carol Vogel described Abidin’s 2007 installation, “Abidin Travels,” in her review of the Nordic Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. In his fictional cut-rate travel agency, Abidin deployed images of postoccupation Baghdad in a slew of cheesy brochures, videos, and websites promoting junkets, services, and lodgings. Certainly, there was plenty of grim irony in the quixotic efforts of “Abidin Travels” to promote tourism in what is perhaps the world’s most ancient, lovely, and war-ravaged city, home of the Golden Gate Palace and Qasr al-Khalifa:

Sightseeing
1. All the beautiful places that you might have read about have either been destroyed or looted. There really are no sights left.
2. Do not walk on sidewalks, they are filled with mines.

But any pat reduction of Abidin’s work to humor amounts to critically selling it short, no matter how dark or black that humor might be. How can we define as “dark” work that sheds so much light on the dyadic force relations of East and West, patriotism and terrorism, masculinity and femininity, visibility and (mis) recognition? Indeed, it is precisely because Abidin positions so many of these elements on the same interstitial playing field that his works complicate what is defined as “humor”—which, as Julia Kristeva points out in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), is not always a prerequisite of laughter. Moreover, the fact that humor is not always present in Abidin’s work makes his pieces more rewarding, as the artist tangibly resists perpetuating a trademark aesthetic. In this manner, Abidin avoids stumbling into the pitfalls that plague agit-prop old and new: the didactic gesture, myopic scope, and intellectual peevishness of Werner Horvath’s Clash of Civilizations (2006), or the schoolboy hectoring of Banksy’s graffiti. It is Abidin’s frequent alternation—not entirely seamless—between humor, tenderness, and melancholy that keeps his political tooth sharp, and makes any irony in his works bite more keenly. I will return to this notion in a moment, but suffice it to say that a nuanced blend of humor and abjection runs through all of Abidin’s pieces. It can be detected in his “Oil Paintings” (2004), a series of three interactive plexiglass photographs slathered with axel grease, as well as more recent video installations, such as “Abidin Travels,” “Tasty” (2007), and “Foam” (2007). Any humor present in these pieces is interlaced with an ominous melancholy, while their eye to conceptual breadth ensures the work remains multifarious and evocative.

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THE UNMAKING OF THE WORLD: TRAUMA AND TESTIMONY IN TWO STORIES BY JOE SACCO
by Øyvind Vågnes [DDET (+)]

When looking at images, our experience is often profoundly marked by memories of previous visual encounters that affect us in unexpected ways. Sometimes events from intervening years have a transformative effect—shifting our perspective so that upon returning to an image, we feel something new. Confronted with one panel from comic journalist Joe Sacco’s fourth issue of Palestine, drawn and published in 1993, many readers will be reminded of a specific group of images that hold such a capacity to transform our ways of seeing. In spite of the fact that the captive is not wearing a poncho, the panel is nevertheless reminiscent of the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib. To claim that the hooded prisoner has become the emblematic figure of the “war on terror”––to the degree that it haunts images from both the near and distant past—does not seem unreasonable.

Moderate Pressure: Part Two (1993) describes how Ghassan, a Palestinian man, was captured, interrogated, and tortured by Israel’s General Security Service (GSS) in the winter of 1991– 92. Alongside Sacco’s 2006 reportage comic, Trauma on Loan, it represents an acute exploration of the political and perceptual implications of what Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain (1985), calls “the inexpressibility of physical pain.” In Trauma on Loan, two Iraqis tortured by American forces struggle to deliver testimony to the American news media. Sacco’s illustration of the set of challenges they meet in doing so lends this account a perspective absent from those of other journalists. Although these stories are set in two very specific political and historical contexts, both revolve around the crisis of witnessing embedded in the very structure of torture itself—in the severe hardship involved in what Scarry calls “the passage of pain into speech.” To paraphrase the title of Susan Sontag’s book, the distinctly verbal-visual style of Sacco’s approach enables a way of picturing the pain of others—an ethical act of the imagination that involves the triangular constellation of the victim, the artist, and the reader.

One of the most immediate and important effects of Moderate Pressure: Part Two is the way in which Sacco exposes the rationalizing gestures of euphemism by showing us how “moderate pressure” is anything but. The ironic reference is to a 1987 Israeli government report that suggested “a moderate amount of physical pressure cannot be avoided” during interrogations conducted by the GSS8; a secret second part of the report provided “operational guidelines” for permissible “moderate physical pressure.” Describing his work on a human rights report about the methods of the GSS, Stanley Cohen writes: “We wanted to undermine the function of political language.” In the same article, he also makes a reference to this quotation by George Orwell: “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Sacco’s method deliberately insists on rendering precisely those mental pictures—opening a gap between visual realities and the “phraseology” used to describe them.

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RAVISHING BEAUTY: THE AESTHETICS OF RAPE IN GRACE NDIRITU’S VIDEO DESERT STORM
by Caroline Bagenal [DDET (+)]

Desert Storm (2004) is a disturbing and powerful video by the young British artist Grace Ndiritu. In this haunting reminder of war’s female casualties, Ndiritu addresses war and rape as a tool of war, performing, filming, and editing the piece herself. The aesthetic choices made by Ndiritu in Desert Storm bear examination in relation to other artworks depicting rape and war.

In the opening sequence of Desert Storm we see Ndiritu lying on the world map, her naked body partially covered in sheer white fabric, and her arms above her head. Ndiritu’s body fills the camera frame. She is seen from above, an extreme closeup framing her writhing torso, her arms and legs at times offscreen. Along the bottom of the screen scrolls a list of recently war-torn countries in which rape has been a weapon: Sudan, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kashmir, Tibet, Eritrea, Kosovo, Chiapas, Algeria, Congo, Sri Lanka, Guinea Bissau, Indonesia.

The video is extremely intimate, brutal, and uncomfortable. There is almost no space between the viewer and Ndiritu—it is as if we are standing directly over her. Her head is covered but parts of her bare arms and legs are visible. Her movements are erotic and ambiguous. The viewer is forced into simultaneous roles of perpetrator and voyeur, thus implicating us all in this hideous crime. A soundtrack of Saharan music adds to the video’s intensity.

Through the use of various devices such as a fixed camera, still images, and an emphasis on formal beauty, Ndiritu situates this and other work within the history of painting. Desert Storm is visually stunning. The fabric rippling over Ndiritu’s lithe body is undeniably beautiful if considered in isolation from the video’s context. In Desert Storm, Ndiritu references centuries of art to create a video of seductive and provocative beauty. Though this video addresses recent wars, its subject matter is timeless and brings to mind images of rape central to the European canon of art history. From ancient Greece to the present, artists have addressed the subject of war and violence against women.

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BEYOND SUFFERING: AESTHETICS, POLITICS, AND POSTMEMORY IN A PHOTO-ESSAY BY LUCILA QUIETO
by Robert Gaunt [DDET (+)]

The vexed question of how to represent atrocity and the effects of that representation takes a turn in Lucila Quieto’s photographic account of the politically disappeared of the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976–83), which offers some innovative attempts to resolve aesthetic issues and atrocious absence. Quieto was born after her father Carlos Alberto Quieto was kidnapped by military forces on August 20, 1976. She has been a member of the Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (HIJOS, Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence). Her photography series “Arqueologia de la Ausencia” (“Archaeology of Absence,” 1999–2001) is a collection of thirty-five constructed photographs in which the adult children of the disappeared were invited to create the photograph they never had: a portrait with their missing parent. What began as a personal exercise in postmemory for Quieto and her friends has moved into the Museo de Arte y Memoria, La Plata, as part of Argentina’s uneasy commitment to memorialize the state-sponsored atrocity of the last dictatorship.

Quieto describes her work as a search to heal the absence of those who “disappeared,” and says she was inspired by her own need to have photographs of herself with her father. The photography series was created by asking each of the participants to select a photograph of their disappeared parents from their family album. Quieto projected the image onto a wall, asked the adult child to join their parents in the projected image, and recorded their interactions in a new photograph. Quieto is not trying to show absence, but rather the search for healing from that absence, and the possibility of finding an encounter with the absent parent.

Quieto’s intention appears to be a personal search for resolution, but her work may also be considered using Jacques Rancière’s concept of the political potential of art to recast the “distribution of the sensible, a reconfiguration of the given perceptual forms.” Quieto has created an experience in opposition to the accepted order of what can be seen, and who can speak about state atrocity.

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IMAG(IN)ING ABU GHRAIB: DANIEL HEYMAN’S DETAINEE PORTRAITS
by Sabrina DeTurk [DDET (+)]

“. . . there are many uses of the innumerable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” —Susan Sontag

In the spring of 2004, several American news outlets published photographs taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, photographs showing Iraqi detainees subjected to horrific actions at the hands of their captors. For most viewers of the Abu Ghraib photographs, there was no doubt the actions depicted qualified as atrocities—well beyond the bounds of what might be considered acceptable conduct in time of war. However, the unsettling nature of the images stemmed not just from the barbaric practices depicted, but also from their very existence as images. In his 2010 memoir The Ticking is the Bomb, Nick Flynn recounts a conversation in which the horror of the photographs as photographs is revealed:

On the day the photographs appear, a veteran of the Korean War is interviewed on the radio in a coffee shop in Tennessee. By now the photographs are in every newspaper in the world and it sounds as if he is thumbing through them as he speaks. “You know,” he begins slowly, searching for the words— “stuff like this happens in every war.” It’s hard to tell if he’s disgusted or merely baffled. He pauses, then his voice gets slightly more indignant—“but you don’t take pictures.”

The “you” referred to by the veteran is, of course, the soldier himself or herself—journalists might have license to photograph such atrocities as part of the historical record of war, but those committing the acts should not themselves record those actions. That the taboo role of soldier-photographer was assumed in Abu Ghraib is sometimes made apparent by what is revealed at the edges of the images. For example, the iconic photo of a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with wires attached to his arms includes at the right edge of the frame a soldier looking at the screen of his digital camera—presumably doing what most of us do after taking a digital snapshot: checking to see whether it is a “keeper” or whether to trash it and reshoot. This mundane act reiterates the ultimate power of captor over captive: not only does the soldier have the right and power to force the physical torture of his subject, he also controls the visual rendering of the act, framing and fixing the moment according to his aesthetic pleasure. Thus, the Abu Ghraib photographs occupy a space at once related to and distanced from that held by photographs of horrors such as the Nazi concentration camps, napalmed Vietnamese children, and massacred Rwandan civilians. The last images rely for their effect on their privileged role as objectively capturing the truth of war through the eyes of a third party. The Abu Ghraib photos equally record the truth of wartime actions but do so through the view of those engaged in the acts themselves.

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THE IMAGE AND THE STORY: A CONVERSATION WITH STEFANOS TSIVOPOULOS
by Stephanie Bailey [DDET (+)]

Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s gravitation toward history and the media began in 2006 with the video installation “Play,” which documents five young actors performing scenes taken from several news images, including photographs from Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Shocked by the youngsters’ often brutal response toward their improvised roles, Tsivopoulos began to further his investigation into the media. “The media has always been using ‘images’ and ‘narratives’ to tell their stories, but we should not forget that the image is an invention and product of the arts,” Tsivopoulos explains, an assertion that is clearly translated in the trilogy “The Real The Story The Storyteller” (2010)—made up of three video works: The Interview (2007), Untitled (The Remake) (2007), and Untitled (In Plato’s Cave) (2008), in which Tsivopoulos deconstructs news reporting via film works that look at the documentation of events, revealing realities brutally edited into digestible segments for mass consumption.

Tsivopoulos engages in a meticulous process of archiving and reenactment, using the original equipment and sets, while nodding to the original direction taken from news media—from dictatorship Greece to the constructed nature of a BBC interview. Through this process, film production becomes an act of sculpture. Through reenactments, Tsivopoulos turns our socially constructed notions of historical events inside out in order to better understand them. “Images, like any other systematic language, contain information as well as knowledge,” he notes as we settle down to discuss his work in an apartment in central Athens on May 13, 2011. “I’m interested in obtaining the knowledge from them rather than the information.” In doing so, Tsivopoulos reveals the dirty truth behind the stylized reality where history, war, and politics become entertainment; objectified by the constructs of representation as defined by the mediated image.

Stephanie Bailey: Has your work always reflected on how political information and conflict news is disseminated via media images?

Stefanos Tsivopoulos: Yes, with the exception of Lost Monument [which follows the journey of Harry S. Truman’s statue as it is transported through Greece and Turkey by two local farmers ignorant of its identity and political and historical significance], the only piece that focuses on history or the denial of history. But it falls outside of the core principles of my work based in the ideas of representation through the image. It has a very personal take because it was on my mind since I was a student in Athens. I bumped into Truman’s monument a couple of times. I didn’t know what it was and what it represented so I read the plaque and got the information. It worked like a caption. With the film, I wanted to create something different in terms of creating a piece that would really use cinematic vocabulary. In terms of structure, I was more interested in these sub-stories within the general story that relate to a particular period or a particular political situation or condition—[which brings] history more directly to Greek society and politics.

SB: The 1947 Truman Doctrine was a bailout package designed for Greece and Turkey and paved the way for the Marshall Plan, which introduced the reconstruction of Western Europe after the economic devastation brought on by World War II. Seeing the Truman monument as a reduction of a major historical event with roots in a violent, global conflict, it becomes an object that will inevitably become distilled to a commodity in a distracted society. This denotes our own disconnection to the narratives that often define and drive collective culture.

ST: It’s quite striking. Working on this piece I also wanted to break away from media conventions and this idea of the mediated image—which, for me, had become an institution by itself. I tried to find different ways of dealing with this notion of the image and how you can load an image with different thoughts. There is also this question of [whether] we confront an archival image in the same way we confront the Truman monument, as a kind of remnant that presents a particular event. One of the core elements in the work is how we deal with the idea of an image being a work of art, an aesthetic product, and an object—and at the same time, its political and historical connotations. Trying to separate those two is important. Next to Lost Monument, I presented a series of archives within the space. This is similar to the approach I have taken with previous works: I incorporated aspects of history and structuralism, dealing with this idea of fiction [while] at the same time juxtaposing real documents or parts related to the image or to the history of the events. I wanted to create not a platform, but an installation. There were also two monitors showing other archival footage. One is from the installation of the monument in 1963 and the unveiling of it by Prime Minister Karamanlis. The way the media works is interesting because it consists of the archives about this statue of Truman as a reference to an event.

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INSTALLING ATROCITY: THE BODY OF THE PHOTOGRAPH IN SUSAN MEISELAS’S “REFRAMING HISTORY”
by Jay Prosser [DDET (+)]

“For a long time I’ve lived with the inadequacy of that frame to tell everything I knew, and I think a lot about what is outside of the frame, what is beyond this body.” —Susan Meiselas

Photography of atrocity is often charged with failing to induce affective, or appropriately affective, bodily response. Discussing the iconic photo of the burned and naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a U.S. napalm attack in On Photography 1977), Susan Sontag observed that “images anaesthetize” and create a confusion about reality that is “analgesic morally as well as . . . sensorially stimulating,” suggesting the failure of viewers to feel properly, to experience the bodily pain often represented in the photograph. Roland Barthes, writing about an exhibition of photographs of oppression during the Guatemalan revolution, finds the problem is that “none of these photographs, all too skillful, touches us”; “someone has shuddered for us,” making contact and feeling in our stead. Likening atrocity photographs to pornography, which conversely involves too much feeling, suggests a similarly inapt bodily response. Our desirous consumption and circulation of atrocity images, as Sontag writes about the photographs of Abu Ghraib, is marked by the tropes of pornographic culture. Indeed, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Sontag holds that “All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” That our encounter with photographs of bodily violation may be unconsciously sexual is suggested by the appearance of shock photos on porn websites.

If bodily feeling is the key connection between the anesthetic and pornographic effects of atrocity photographs, it is pivotal that the motif of iconic atrocity photographs is the assaulted body. John Taylor notes that “bodies appear as a matter of routine in gruesome stories from overseas,” and Barbie Zelizer’s research uncovers how during catastrophes and conflicts more photographs appear in newspapers—photos that are larger and likely to show more of the body. The term “pornography” itself describes bodies in photographs and our relation to them, although, as with pornography itself, the connection is one of symbiotic supply and demand—not simple cause and effect. Sontag powerfully indicates and indicts a cultural context that remains mostly unconscious. In J.G. Ballard’s postmodern dystopia of spectacle culture at its emergence, The Atrocity Exhibition 1970), napalm photographs from Vietnam appear on billboards alongside pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, exhibitions are held of war wounds, and images have the effect of “sanctioning everything.” William S. Burroughs comments in the novel’s preface, “Sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image.” Photographs—of the image world (of the imaginary)—grab attention and appeal to our visual pleasure. As consumers, our viewpoint is disembodied—yet, as Barthes writes, the photograph has an embodied, haptic relationship to its referent.

The act of viewing photographs of any subject matter is an embodied experience, although rarely is that brought into the frame. Psychological research shows that “pictures evoke emotions,” that we are more likely to feel empathy for depictions of single bodies, and that we tend to mirror the affect represented “in emotional contagion”—a “primitive, automatic” response. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag is more skeptical about the power of photographs to make us feel connected or touched—saying, ultimately, we cannot imagine other people’s pain through photographs. The new technologies of war, visual pleasure, and atrocity exist in ever more addictive and dependent proximity: “Newer technology provides a nonstop feed: as many images of disaster and atrocity as we can make time to look at.” The cell phones and other small digital cameras with which the Abu Ghraib photographs were taken and disseminated via the internet threatens to make us forget the body of the photograph and our propinquity to those in the photograph, and to make capturing and sharing subjects all too virtual.

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THE ATROCITY OF ART AND VICE VERSA
by Clayton Campbell [DDET (+)]

For me, the most interesting contemporary art acknowledges the connective tissue of spiritual values. To this end, I have been deeply involved in investigating how religion can divide communities while spirituality uniting peoples. I often work with images that seek out sacred spaces where rituals of life and renewal are momentarily beheld in an eternal, difficult dance. As in every true ritual, a sacrifice must be made; the spilling of metaphorical blood becomes the most honest offering a human being can make to the numinous. Some of the images I work with, taken from real time, are appalling when encountered in their source form. They document real atrocities committed by human beings upon themselves, each other, plants, animals, the planet—anything that can be soiled and degraded. The artist who lives with such toxic material pays a price for inhabiting this lower circle of hell.

All cultures have established methodologies to rationalize notions of sin and belief systems that declare “life is suffering,” without doing the hard work of understanding what is behind those paradigms. These rationalizations are usually dysfunctional dogmas employed to justify the worst of crimes. In working with images that depict atrocity, my aim is to use them to explode these rationalizations. As a member of the Pictures Generation, I came to feel that postmodern visual arts’ strategies of hovering rear-guard actions are cowardly rationalizations in and of themselves. I still have to check myself and know when I am dodging the cruel consequences of dealing head-on with toxic imagery. So I have great respect for artists who are willing to take a hit for the rest of us. The absence of irony and cynicism in my artistic projects is the only way I can raise my voice against the reactionary impulses of our age wracked by war, anxiety, and the growing certainty that the future is in doubt.

The notion that life is full of conflict is a core theme of my work. I reason that my art seeks some kind of resolution to conflict, acting as a mediating force by setting the stage for dialogue. While it sounds simple, this strategy involves a constant challenge for me not to become part of the psychodramas I am evoking, to remain authentically receptive, above the fray, yet also down and dirty with angels and demons alike. So my art becomes a mix of distance and passion, and I leverage this tension to align myself with the existential problems of our society by forming a social compact with my audience.

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Exhibition Review

BREAKING THROUGH COMPASSION FATIGUE
“Contemporary Slavery”
Exit Art | New York City
June 3–August 5, 2011
Review by Cynthia Foo [DDET (+)]

Compassion fatigue is a common complaint when faced with the all-encompassing topic of human misery at the hands of global capitalism. Exit Art’s exhibition relies on images’ aesthetic power to reach viewers. “Contemporary Slavery” is a project of Exit Art’s “SEA (Social Environmental Aesthetics)” program and its second annual “ECOAESTHETIC” exhibition. The exhibition addresses multiple aspects of the issue of exploitation through a day-long symposium and poetry series, a month-long film screening series, and a two-month exhibition in Exit Art’s gallery, featuring slideshows of photographs by a collection of fourteen artists and photojournalists.

The photographic exhibition grapples with four main forms of slavery: prison work, domestic and migrant work, child laborers, and sex work. Perhaps the most intriguing in subject material, Bruce Jackson’s prison series presents sweeping vistas of American prisoners toiling in southern cotton fields under the watchful eyes of armed guards on horseback. Taken from the 1960s through the early 1980s, these images also include intimate portraits of inmates on Texas’ death row, haunting for their inescapable humanity.

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A LANDSCAPE OF VIOLENCE
“Miseries and Vengeance”
by Millie Chen
Albright-Knox Art Gallery | Buffalo, New York
February 18–June 5, 2011
Review by Kasia Keeley [DDET (+)]

Although the theme for “Surveyor,” the recent group exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, was the “power and indescribable beauty of the natural world in which we live,” Millie Chen’s installation, “Miseries and Vengeance,” is hardly a celebration of the land we have built around ourselves. Taken from the Rutger Kopland poem of the same title, “Surveyor” was intended as a broad interpretation of landscape, but, coincidentally, also became a survey of a highly diverse group of artworks ranging in media and concept, and even showcased texts from the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo. Chen provided a broad scope in her site-specific installation as well by connecting work from the seventeenth century to the present day.

For this show, Chen was one of five artists from the region asked not only to present their own work but also to select artwork from the gallery’s permanent collection that would create a compelling dialogue when viewed alongside their own. Although Curator Heather Pisanti chose all the other pieces from the contemporary artists on display, each of these five artists was given a space and encouraged to work freely. Chen chose a series of etchings by printmaker Jacques Callot; these were not just a complement to her work but were actually the inspiration for her installation.

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STORYTELLING AS INSTALLATION
“Angela Blakely and David Lloyd: Never Again—giving voice to survivors of the Rwanda Genocide”
Queensland Centre for Photography | Queensland, Australia
June 12–July 11, 2010
Review by Doug Spowart [DDET (+)]

Witnessing the pain of others is an experience for which we are never fully prepared—but one we are always at the edge of encountering. An exhibition of Angela Blakely and David Lloyd’s photographs at the Queensland Centre for Photography told the latest chapter in the tragic story of Rwanda. The photographers first visited Rwanda from 1994–95 and returned in 2006 and 2008. This exhibition shared stories from survivors of the Rwandan genocide, chronicling their pain. Visitors may have expected to encounter powerful documentary photography. Blakely and Lloyd’s work, however, transcends the genre by immersing viewers in an ongoing narrative of daily survival.

Upon entering the gallery, viewers were presented with seven ways of experiencing survivors’ stories. The first consisted of four life-size images of women dressed in colorful traditional clothing—each accompanied by didactic panels relating the traumatic experiences that invisibly scarred each woman. After reading the panels, the viewer’s gaze would often return to each woman’s face, their perspective transformed.

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ART OF ENGAGEMENT
“Art of War”
CEPA Gallery | Buffalo, New York
June 19–August 22, 2010
Review by Karen vanMeenen [DDET (+)]

The conceptual works by eight international artists displayed at CEPA Gallery under the auspices of the theme “Art of War” address specific wartime engagements while also providing a general examination of the means and consequences of violent human conflict. The intentional omission of the article “the” from the exhibition’s title implies a sampling of this genre of artistic production, but it is a diverse and undoubtedly important one.

Walid Ra’ad’s Notebook Volume 38: Already been in a Lake of Fire (1991–2003) is comprised of digital prints of cutout photographs representing the 145 cars (exact makes, models, and colors) used in car bombings during the Lebanese wars from 1975 to 1991. Each image is accompanied by notes handwritten in Arabic by a fictional character, Dr. Fadi Fakhouri, documenting detailed information about each bombing, including type of explosive and number of casualties. The collage effect is visually engaging as the cars float freely in space, occasionally overlapping and surrounded by florid and enigmatic script. Yet the technical banality of planning and recording such violent acts, as well as the nameless status of the victims, is shocking.

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Book Review

READING TERROR
Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present
by W. J. T. Mitchell
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011
240 pp./$22.50 (sb)
Review by Harry J. Weil [DDET (+)]

Nearly ten years after the phrase “war on terror” was coined, it continues to capture the attention and imagination of the American public. Despite being retired from the lexicon with the election of Barack Obama, who opted for the phrase “overseas contingency operation,” the struggle against nameless and faceless terrorists still conjures images of soldiers surveying desert landscapes and foreign combatants waving guns. By virtue of new media and internet technologies, such images are readily accessible and easily reproduced, parodied, and put into unintended contexts. This is the starting point of W.J.T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (2011)—an extended historical and visual analysis of the role of images in the “war on terror” including the Abu Ghraib archive and its iconic Hooded Man photograph, which, it argues, is the central image-event of the era. The text is a cultural exposé of the government’s “torture regime, and the way a ‘faith-based’ foreign policy made it into a holy war that threatened the American Constitution” (xvi–xvii).

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Video Review

BEYOND THE MIDDLE
Radical Closure
Curated by Akram Zaatrai
Video Data Bank, 2010
5-DVD box set / $1100
Review by Joanna Heatwole [DDET (+)]

Selected from the original sweeping collection of eleven thematically distinctive programs at the 2006 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen (International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany), Radical Closure is an accomplishment of scale and variety. Curator Akram Zaatari chose films “produced within—or that raise issues related to—situations of closure resulting from wars and/or political conflicts and territorial confinement.” The twenty-three films, which range in length from two minutes to almost thirty, are primarily from regions referenced in Video Data Bank (VDB) materials as both “the former Ottoman Empire” and “what is now known as the Middle East.”3 Reflecting his background as co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, Zaatari’s introductory catalog essay notes a curatorial emphasis on what he calls “artists’ study, use, interpretation, and questioning of preexisting documents.” The films frequently feature historic or found footage tracing a wide range of eras and aesthetics, from the intentionally jarring mixed-media style of video artist Marwa Arsanios’s I’ve Heard Stories, 1 (2008) to the lyrical amateur Super 8 reels by Olga Nakkas and Hassan Zbib, Mon ami Imad et le taxi (My friend Imad and the Taxi) (1985/2006). Many forays into video art collage using found footage are unself-consciously kitsch by nature, making more visually sublime combinations like video artist Samir’s emotional reflection on Gulf War-era military technology “(It Was) Just a job” (1992) stand out in clarity of form and content.

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