Features Essays Published 25 March 2012

Occupying Images: a talk at the ICA

To coincide with Dissonance and Disturbance, a retrospective of Lis Rhodes' films, the ICA held a short talk entitled The Trouble With Image Politics. Speakers were Iain Boal, a social historian of what he refers to as 'The Technics and the Commons' and Astra Taylor, co-editor of an anthology about the Occupy Movement- Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America- and director of the films Zizek! And Examined Life.
Carmel Doohan

The talk opens with a quote from Jorge Borges: ‘Control over the image is now the key to social power’ and social historian Iain Boal, speaks of the changing status of truth in a world saturated with visual and information data. He claims we can no longer believe in the ‘old enlightenment idea’ that the ‘unmasking of power’ is all that is needed to bring about change. He asks us to consider whether building slaughter houses with glass walls would still be enough to make vegetarians of us all today or whether the image has lost the power it may once have had to reveal truths and alter behavior.

This is part of the dilemma facing Astra Taylor and the other documenters in the Occupy! anthology and a problematic issue for the Occuy movement itself. The book is in part a collection of writing from the OWS gazette and the diary style of many entries both questions and assumes that truth can be found in personal, subjective accounts. Occupy is a theatrical movement: it is a dramatisation that makes a narrative by putting private lives in a public space. At its General Assemblies it makes participants thoughts audible through the A Capella of the Human Mic- comments, questions and ideas are repeated by a chorus and performed for an audience. Costumes – the zombie, Guy Fawkes via Alan Moore, or the evil banker being the most common- feature heavily. It is also a televised movement; Zuccotti Park in New York had a constant You Tube live-stream for 24 hours a day.

Like Borges’ story of the cartographers who “struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” – does this 24 hour real-time image stream also create a distorting 1:1 to cover and replace the uncapturable real of unfolding events?

Guy Debord claimed that any radical action must create what he called a ‘disruption of the realm of images…a break in the seamless fabric of spectacle.’ But does this footage, documenting the attempt to disrupt the capitalist spectacle, disrupt the spectacle- or become a spectacle in itself?

Stripping the image: dissonance and disturbance

Taylor speaks of what it might be to create an Ethical Spectacle:  in her documentary about the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, she says she felt the truth of the man would not be found in following his every move so that an off-guard – and so possibly more authentic – moment might be caught, but in creating an encounter where a ‘privileged moment’ could be glimpsed. A ‘privileged moment’ is what Proust was describing when the eating of a particular cake invoked an ‘involuntary memory,’ creating an intense feeling in the present that belonged to his past. It has also been described as a ‘moment of enigmatic ecstasy resulting from direct contact by means of one or more of the senses’ or ‘felt knowledge’. Is it possible for such a moment be captured or documented in any faithful way?

Earlier this month at LSE’s annual literary festival Dr Alex Gillespie spoke on Traveling the known and unknown: How literature and photography change the world we see. Part of his research involved questioning tourists traveling in India and asking them how they chose where they wanted to go and how they felt when they got there. Many spoke of the pictures they had seen in guide books or National Geographic and Gillespie suggests that a big part of going to these unknown places was to find this image. On encountering, say, the Taj Mahal, they were prone to gasp and exclaim- “it’s just like in the National Geographic.” It was at this moment, standing in front of the image’s reality, that they felt they had arrived. As Gillespie puts it ‘They see the fiction and feel it as the truth.”

This idea that entering an image of a place or a way of life can be the key to feeling something is real or meaningful is interesting when thinking about Occupy. The history of protest is a nostalgic and romanticized one; in ideas of what authentic and meaningful, the fictions of the sixties lie heavily. Is the invigorating feeling of being part of something ‘real’ and ‘actually happening,’ described by almost all the writers in Scenes from…. in part also a recognising of a story or image from the past and feeling this recognition as a sign of truth? Has a ‘privileged moment’ now become a bit like that feeling that feels somehow more authentic when you recognise it as something you’ve seen people experience in a film?

Rhodes’ later montages are filmed and projected on DV, yet their colouring is reminiscent of Super 8 film and they look like the mixing monitor of an old analogue editing suite. This grading creates a nostalgic mood despite the contemporary content and the old-style double exposures lend it the weight and drama of the historical. A Cold Draft (1988) is looped on one screen while In the Kettle (2010) followed by Whitehall (2012) loop on a screen beside, showing footage of protesters, police brutality and kettling at recent London protests and in Gaza. All three films share the same soundtrack of Rhodes’ reading her tangential and poetic essay- “Fragments of eye sight bought and sold… can warning warn when there is no place to go…”

The whirring of the projector in use for the eighties film adds to the uncertainty of what we are watching and how it was created, as does the digital re-creation of an end-of-reel spin and of the bulbs piercing light just before the film strip bursts into flame. The tools effect the meaning; the medium has become part of the message.


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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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