Artspeak: Park, Invisible Violence

Publications

Invisible Violence

Title: Invisible Violence
Category: Criticism
Artists: Rebecca Belmore, Francisco-Fernando Granados, Ken Gonzales-Day, Louise Noguchi
Writers: Liz Park
Design: Jen Eby
Publisher: Gallery TPW, Artspeak
Printer: Hemlock Printers
Year published: 2013
Edition: 200
Pages: 12pp
Cover: Printed Cardstock Sleeve
Binding: Staple Bound
Process: Digital Offset
Features: 11 colour postcards, 5 b&w postcards
Dimensions: 13 x 18.5 x 1.2 cm
Weight: 164 g
Price: sold out

Introductory essay

by

Liz Park

Invisible Violence

Invisible Violence brings together the work of four artists – Rebecca Belmore, Ken Gonzales-Day, Francisco-Fernando Granados, and Louise Noguchi – who use photography as a point of reference for histories of violence that continue to inform contemporary politics of representation. This publication is a part of a larger project that includes a series of multi-sited launches and discussions, and a web component that will archive reflections on each discursive event. The overall aim is to spark conversations about the mutable ways in which images and conditions of violence underlie the experience of the complex contemporary mediascape.

Of the many forms of communication media, this project focuses on the postcard – a humble and anachronistic object where images and written words collide, and the front and back are collapsed in an uneasy tension. Susan Sontag’s last book Regarding the Pain of Others (2004) opens with a discussion of this relationship between text and image. Sontag elaborates on Virginia Woolf’s rumination on photographs of war in Three Guineas (1938), which was written as a reply to a letter from a friend who asked, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Following Woolf’s conviction that her response as a woman cannot be the same as that of her male friend, Sontag refutes the pronoun “we,” and states, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”[i] This example highlights the spatio-temporal gulf that divides the writer and the addressee in a letter, and considers gender, race and class-based experiences that further reinforce this division. When such epistolary writing is truncated and carried on the back of a postcard, the conflation of the text and the image produces an effect that is both subjective and authoritative: subjective because the message is always informed by the particular experiences of the writer, but authoritative because that message becomes the definitive caption for the image on recto.

John Berger frames the discussion of this relationship between text and image and the problems of captioning as an effect of a spatio-temporal dissonance in looking at photographs. For Berger, “the true content of a photograph is invisible” because photographs play with time.[ii] This temporal play disrupts the continuum the viewers experience as normal time; photographs isolate moments, and draw them out in single images. To describe photographs of agony, in particular, Berger uses the adjective “arresting.”[iii] He argues that after the moment of seizure, the task of the viewer is to realize the political conditions of atrocity rather than to accept the image as a general condition of horror. Because photographs as singular images break up the continuum of time, and are not inscribed in a narrative, they have the tendency to be torn out of context. They often suffer the fate of becoming an icon and are made to stand in for the general condition.[iv] “Photographs in themselves do not narrate,” [v] Berger says, and are prone to being pinned down intermittently by various interests. Narratives, in the form of captions, letters, or curatorial texts such as this one, have the potential to facilitate a politically informed understanding of photographs as much as they can misconstrue and distort the context of the images.

The artworks in this publication collectively form a larger narrative about the politics of visual representation in a society of spectacle. David Levi Strauss proposes that there is a better chance of being seen if an image is “slowed down enough so that it drops out of the mainstream, underneath the standard frequencies” in this visually saturated world which he likens to Pandaemonium – the capital of hell in Milton’s Paradise.[vi] Gathering the work of the four artists, this project repudiates the status of singular iconic images. As one image builds on another in the sequential process of flipping through the cards, the looking time becomes elastic, expanded and contracted at different moments. This sequence draws attention to the durational qualities of experiencing the images. Furthermore, the cards are loose pages of a book waiting to be bound, but still open for re-arrangement. The project proposes that this process of critical assembly be slow, considered, and open-ended.

Rebecca Belmore’s untitled photographs of a bound aboriginal woman begin the sequence of the cards in this publication. Bent double, twisted and turned upside down, and photographed from different angles against the neutral white background of a gallery or a museum, the subject of the photograph at first appears to be a human specimen-cum- artefact denoting a particular gender, race, and age: in other words, an individual standing in for a general condition. However, upon closer inspection, the true object of scrutiny in the photographs emerges: the almost invisible white wall. The woman, front and centre in the photograph, is a reminder of the structure and the institution that holds her up as a thing to be cared for, studied, and controlled. The way a museum houses treasured materials of the conquered other, parallels the conflicted rhetoric of colonial governments that claim stewardship over colonized people by violently imposing regulations in the name of care.

Belmore’s photographs dialogue with the long history of representing aboriginal people as an exotic souvenir in the form of photographs, postcards, material cultures in museum displays and even live exhibits behind cages. The trope of a lone noble savage riding a horse into the sunset from the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, has historically represented the supposedly dying race of Indigenous Peoples in North America. In such depictions, an idealized individual bears the burden of representation for the entire race. Fully aware of such dangers, Belmore focuses on the larger structures of power relations that are difficult to represent, because they, like the white walls, take on the most neutral and invisible guise. Her photographs thus point to what remains outside of its frame – the very conditions of their production. As Ariella Azoulay states, “photographs picture atrocity by their mere coming into being in disaster conditions… when a photograph is produced in an atrocity, it is a part of the picture of atrocity.”[vii]

Following Azoulay’s argument, Belmore’s photographs can be understood as images of violence, because Canada’s colonial present is an ongoing atrocity.[viii] When an entire community of people suffer severe health effects from long term exposure to toxic drinking water, or when a drunken man is left to freeze to death in the bleak prairies winter night, how can this condition be described as anything but atrocious? Belmore’s photographs are evidence of the conditions of their production – the ongoing atrocities that systematically affect a specific group of people, Indigenous Peoples in Canada (and elsewhere).

Latent violence also characterizes Ken Gonzales-Day’s work, as he spent five years looking for something that is present but not visible. The 2006 book Lynching in the West 1850-1935 records his meticulous research and detailed analysis of lynching in California, which was perpetrated mostly against Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.[ix] To reclaim this largely forgotten history, Gonzales-Day travelled throughout the state to locate the sites of lynching he had compiled in his exhaustive research. Guided by the information he had on hand – a landmark, a street name, or a general description – he took photographs of where he thought these acts of extrajudicial punishment were committed for the series Searching for California’s Hang Tree (2002-2007). Most of the time, there was no way to tell if he was at the actual site. This inability to know and the absence of markers are at the heart of Gonzales-Day’s work. What is seen in his photographs – trees in various landscapes, some gnarled with age – signals what is absent, troubling the accuracy of historical narratives of his home state.

In a related series Erased Lynching (2002-2011), Gonzales-Day appropriates lynching postcards, which were produced and circulated as proof of the gruesome deed. By deleting the body of the victim from the scene, he leaves the image with the victim’s ghost, a strange discomfiting absence in the form of a dark void. In so doing, he conjures up other ghosts – those of the perpetrators, the photographer, the spectators, and the senders and the recipients of the postcards, including the person who wrote, “This is what he got.” The stark implication of the viewer and the reader as the witnesses who complete the ritual of violence suggests that looking at these photographs is a process that is as intensely personal as committing these acts of violence.

In Fear of Small Numbers (2006), Arjun Appadurai discusses extreme acts of violence committed on the body of an ethnic other as a way of making the unknown intelligible. [x] He argues that ethnic violence is an attempt to mobilize social uncertainty, especially in an era of mass mediated images of violence and terror that perpetuate frightful representations of the other. As perpetrators strive for the unattainable concept of purity and a homogenous collective identity, they turn to minorities who remain as “carriers of the unwanted memories of the acts of violence that produced existing states,” and therefore must be eliminated.[xi] The brutal acts of violence, Appadurai argues, indicates the perpetrators’ desire to satisfy their suspicion over the body of the unknown; “And of course such violence invariably confirms its conjecture, for the dead, disabled, or deconstructed body of the suspect always confirms the suspicion of its treachery.”[xii]  This sociological analysis can be applied broadly to the lynching victims in Gonzales-Day’s work as well as the subject of Francisco-Fernando Granados’ investigation – Omar Khadr. A Canadian national and former child combatant for Al Qaeda, Khadr was captured by the U.S. military at age fifteen in a battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002. The violence of the battlefield that marked Khadr’s body has completed his transformation from being an average teenager from a Canadian surburb into a dangerous other.

Granados’ contribution to this project stems from his latest body of work Apostrophe, an ongoing personal engagement with the narratives surrounding Khadr. Granados, writing on the back of postcards, constantly refers to a photograph of a teenage boy. The benign description of this boy takes a turn as the hand-written notes later reveal that his image is used in a human rights campaign. Granados also includes in this series the reverse side of the postcard he picked up at a vigil for this boy, a memento he has kept for over three years. He decidedly whites out the teenager’s name from the type-written message on the card. For the past decade, the portrait of this teenager, Omar Khadr, has been circulated ubiquitously, turning him into a poster child for a wide range of issues and interests. For some, Khadr is the heinous product of fanatic parents, and warns of the dangers of religious zealotry. For others, he is a sad victim of children’s rights abuse, and the incompetency of Canadian government in repatriating its citizens. Having been the lone western citizen in the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Khadr was only recently repatriated in September 2012. Now 26, he had spent all of his youth in one of the most horrific detainment and interrogation facilities known to the public.

In a related performance work from March 2012 in Toronto, Granados made a mark on a wall for every day Khadr had been held in Guantanamo, which, at the time of the performance, had been 3,438 days.[xiii] With no explicit reference to Khadr’s identity, what the audience saw was the artist marking time with a graphite stick that eventually wore down, and blistered and broke his skin. A mark that took a few seconds at most to make represented a day of suffering for Khadr. It took Granados less than two hours to finish the work. This endurance performance is a small gesture of acknowledgement for Khadr, and many other victims of interrogation and incarceration: Mohammad Ismail, age 13-14 at transfer to Guantanamo; Assad Ullah, age 13-14 at transfer to Guantanamo; Naqib Ullah, age 14-15 at transfer to Guantanamo; Mohammad el Gharani, age 15-16 at transfer to Guantanamo; Mohammed Omar, age 15-16 at transfer to Guantanamo… [xiv] The list goes on.

Only by reading the accompanying text did the audience find out that the marks corresponded to the number of days Khadr has been incarcerated. Similarly, this curatorial text confirms the identity of the boy Granados describes in his hand-written messages. The intentional withdrawal of his name operates in a similar way to Gonzales-Day’s elision of the body from the lynching postcards. Because the discursive text provides the key information of Khadr’s identity, Granados’ work also parallels the way this project intentionally leaves open the gap between the image (on the cards) and the text (presented here). This space in between is the productive space of divergence where it is important to recognize what separates Granados from Khadr, Woolf from her friend, and the writer of this text from the artists and the readers. As Sontag warns, no “we” should be taken for granted.

In engaging in a discussion about representing violence, the common desire to communicate and to understand is marked by the interlocutors’ differences in age, class, gender and race. Louise Noguchi’s series Compilation Portraits point to these differences and the difficulty in determining exactly how they affect the reading of the images. Dating from 1995-1997, these photographs are made by physically weaving together strips of two large prints: one depicting the artist, and the other a portrait of a murderer or a murder victim found in the news media. The result is a series of hybrid faces with much ambiguity in the sitters’ gender and race. Noguchi never identifies the sitters; the audience is not privy to who the perpetrators are or who the victims are. She thus affirms the impossibility of determining a person’s criminality or victimhood by looking at a portrait. Noguchi’s black and white photographs formally refer to the nineteenth century practice of cataloguing the faces of criminals and the mentally ill, a flawed exercise of building a pseudo-scientific archive of typologies. She unsettles such preconceived notions of how a person’s outward appearance can correspond to a type by unravelling such binaries as man and woman, old and young, predator and prey, the wrongdoer and the sufferer. She inhabits both categories by physically weaving her image into the portrait of others, and underscores the potential in herself, and in any viewer of these images to become the subject and the object of violence.

Given that the portraits are of murderers and victims, Roland Barthes’ discussion of the photograph of death row inmate Lewis Payne resonates with Noguchi’s portraits.[xv] Barthes observes with horror the future anterior of Payne’s image;[xvi] the viewers know he is going to die. They also know the people in Compilation Portraits are going to die. When Noguchi is looking back at the hybrid faces, she knows she too will die. But it is not out of morbid fascination that Noguchi created the (self-)portraits, but out of an awareness of time that is stilled in the photographs even as they point to the future. When the portraits are plucked out of the continuum of time, reproduced in various news media with equally variant news stories, they face the danger of becoming arrested moments, as Berger describes, appropriated in the interest of peddling news. Noguchi makes sense of the sitters’ haunting and this temporal discord by investing herself in these images –slowly entwining her representation into theirs, and their narratives into her own.  She literalizes how she embodies the images that haunt her.

Images, particularly photographs of violence, have the power to stay with the viewers. Cases in point, Granados has kept that postcard of Khadr all these years, and Gonzales-Day had spent five years searching for the site where the lynching photographs were taken. Drawing from Barthes, Levi Strauss discusses the types of images that are constructed for quick and easy consumption, ones that “do not compel us to action, but to acceptance.” As Barthes eloquently states, “someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence.” Levi Strauss argues that consuming such “news images [that] operate within a perfectly organized rhetoric of consumption,” for instance, has a palliative effect for the viewer.[xvii] However, both Barthes and Levi Strauss are not satisfied with such photographs that merely signify the horrible. Instead, they look for ways in which photographs can “disorganize.”

This project strives to disorganize that rhetoric of quick consumption by bringing together works that intentionally cover, erase, withdraw or cut apart the main subject of the photographs, delaying the moment of recognition of the structural and systemic violence underlying each image. This interruption offers the time and the space to reflect on and problematize the “we” who consume images of violence.

Invisible Violence intends to kindle discussions about representation of violence and its politicization at a series of discursive events that are also conceived as points of its distribution. Reflections on the conversations that take place at each event will be posted and archived on a website, providing multiple access points at which the readers of this publication can connect with the multifarious “we:” we, who are committed to thinking through images of violence and the political conditions of their production, circulation and consumption.

 

[i] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004), 7.

[ii] John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 217.

[iii] Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 280.

[iv] In addition to Berger, Griselda Pollock also discusses the dangers of iconicity in her analysis of photographs that associate death with the feminine. Drawing from art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, Pollock states “…images become iconic when they are made to represent the whole complexity of an event in their exceptional singularity” (68). See Griselda Pollock, “Photographing Atrocity: Becoming Iconic?” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, ed. Jay Prosser et al. (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 65-78.

[v] Berger, “Uses of Photography,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 288.

[vi] David Levi Strauss, “Can you hear me? Re-imagining Audience Under the Pandaemonium,” Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (NY: Aperture, 2003), 160.

[vii] Ariella Azoulay, “The Execution Portrait,” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, ed. Jay Prosser et al. (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 251.

[viii] I am indebted to Derek Gregory’s concept of the “colonial present,” elaborated in his book, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, (Maiden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[ix] Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West 1850-1935 (Durham: Duke UP, 2006).

[x] Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers (Durham: Duke UP, 2006).

[xi] Ibid., 42.

[xii] Ibid., 89.

[xiii] Francisco-Fernando Granados, “Apostrophe: A Performative Turn to the Expanded Aesthetic Field” (MVS diss., University of Toronto, 2012).

[xiv] “Guantanamo’s Children: The Wikileaked Testimonies,” Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, accessed October 10, 2012, http://humanrights.ucdavis.edu/reports/guantanamos-children-the-wikileaked-testimonies/guantanamos-children-the-wikileaked-testimonies.

[xv] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (NY: Hill and Wang, 1982).

[xvi] Ibid.

Here, the punctum – the accident or a detail that pricks the viewer in a photograph as Barthes describes – is time.

[xvii] David Levi Strauss, “A Sea of Griefs is Not a Proscenium,” Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (NY: Aperture, 2003), 81.

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004), 7.

[1] John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 217.

[1] Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 280.

[1] In addition to Berger, Griselda Pollock also discusses the dangers of iconicity in her analysis of photographs that associate death with the feminine. Drawing from art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, Pollock states “…images become iconic when they are made to represent the whole complexity of an event in their exceptional singularity” (68). See Griselda Pollock, “Photographing Atrocity: Becoming Iconic?” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, ed. Jay Prosser et al. (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 65-78.

[1] Berger, “Uses of Photography,” Selected Essays of John Berger, ed. Geoff Dyer (NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 288.

[1] David Levi Strauss, “Can you hear me? Re-imagining Audience Under the Pandaemonium,” Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (NY: Aperture, 2003), 160.

[1] Ariella Azoulay, “The Execution Portrait,” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, ed. Jay Prosser et al. (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 251.

[1] I am indebted to Derek Gregory’s concept of the “colonial present,” elaborated in his book, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, (Maiden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[1] Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West 1850-1935 (Durham: Duke UP, 2006).

[1] Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers (Durham: Duke UP, 2006).

[1] Ibid., 42.

[1] Ibid., 89.

[1] Francisco-Fernando Granados, “Apostrophe: A Performative Turn to the Expanded Aesthetic Field” (MVS diss., University of Toronto, 2012).

[1] “Guantanamo’s Children: The Wikileaked Testimonies,” Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, accessed October 10, 2012, http://humanrights.ucdavis.edu/reports/guantanamos-children-the-wikileaked-testimonies/guantanamos-children-the-wikileaked-testimonies.

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (NY: Hill and Wang, 1982).

[1] Ibid.

Here, the punctum – the accident or a detail that pricks the viewer in a photograph as Barthes describes – is time.

[1] David Levi Strauss, “A Sea of Griefs is Not a Proscenium,” Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (NY: Aperture, 2003), 81.

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