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

This constant questioning of how meaning is formed and the idea of the process being part of the message is of enormous concern to the Occupy movement. In its every interaction, it is attempting to express its bigger intentions and live out what it wants to see and be. It is in no way always successful but, like Rhodes’ work, it is through this reflexivity- the continual awareness of how and the desire to make it transparent- that it finds its power.

The choice of which tools to use at Occupy’s nightly General Assembly was a very important one. Because of their adoption of consensus, democracy as their decision making process- a slow and complicated process that allows an active rejection of hierarchical power- the meetings often became more about working through this methodology than anything else. A major issue with the movement, as highlighted by various Scenes from… writers, was that it found itself focusing more on how to be, rather than what to do; the process was becoming the purpose.

Rhodes calls her films ‘The geography of disturbance’ but her map, far from becoming a hyperreal spectacle, draws attention to how this kind of reductive mapping occurs. Her images are not attempts to represent or explain, but layers of movement and repetition- the moment fragments begin to coalesce into an understandable picture (a protesters head on the concrete beside a policeman’s boot) they blur and re-frame. She re-creates the flaws that were visible in older media- the traces left by replication, manipulation and time- and shows their Chinese whisper-like distorting effect. In clearly displaying the potential for manipulation in both the poetic and observed attempts at documentation or representation she dispels a spell at the same time as creating one. Is it in this constant return to and awareness of form and method that both the Occupy-er’s and Rhodes can avoid becoming just another reel of the spectacle?

In the introduction to a new addition of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle– re- published in response to 2008 economic crisis- Mark Jenkins writes that “contesting the Spectacular society in quotidian matters is essential in fighting the false separation of society into what is properly ‘political’ and what is not.”

Debord’s spectacle is created and enforced by removing ‘the reality of (class) struggle in the arena of everyday life,’ but perhaps by being so resolutely involved in the everyday- in issues of sanitation, eating and sleeping; of who gets to speak first and for how long- the protesters are finding a way of resisting it.

Rhodes cuts her footage into parts to reveal how they form the whole and Occupy’s breaks its political action down into step by step moments of process and participation. In doing this, something is held still or disturbed for long enough for a kind of meaning to begin to grow. In its repetitive and constant oscillation, it’s re-framing and re-describing, Occupy is finding a way to put Rhodes’ aesthetic into action.

The Lis Rhodes retrospective was on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 25th January to 25th March 2012. You can read our review of the exhibition here.


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Carmel Doohan

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

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