NGIOV: abstraction, mediation, and (dis)placed meaning

The following was presented as part of a panel presentation at the 2016 CAA Conference entitled The Aesthetics of Displacement. The panel was hosted by Cecilia Mandrile, and included some really interesting folks, like Paul Laidler, Donna Moran, Teresa JaynesDavid Sheridan ArefordAmze Emmons, and Enrique Martinez Leal.

The notion of displacement is one that all artists making lens-based work are aware of. No matter your training, no matter whether you are a member of Bresson’s cult ‘Of The Moment’, no matter whether you spend your days previsualizing every aspect of your life à la Adams, you are constantly confronting the fact that each and every image you make has become inexorably repositioned within the world. The image created has arrested a moment, the event excised and embalmed for study, for viewership.

Robert Capa, The Falling Soldier, 1936

However, some of the most powerful images with which we are confronted in our everyday lives are not made by those of us who spend our days thinking about the making, meaning, and power of those images. Many of these images are made by mere witnesses, people caught up in moments they feel the need to capture, with technology making this action more and more common. Subsequently, a portion of these images become so powerful and emblematic of a particular moment, that they displace the temporal in near entirety. The display and re-display of the image grants it a weight that the singular moment could never attain, being further empowered by that fact that each presentation of the image allows for a new audience, a new set of witnesses to the event.

Walter Scott Killing - Feidin Santana
still image from Feidin Santana’s video recording of the murder of Walter Scott, 2015

Lens-based media, split into the camps of moving video and still photographs, struggles through a problematic marriage. Photographs speak to their reality by their very framing, the literality of having edges that can be touched, their object-hood on full display. Videos, on the other hand, tend to shy away from their reality due to their lack of materiality and utter reliance on the screen. There exists a very real power struggle between the two types of recording, with the still image relying upon its focus to compensate for being but a snippet of an event, and the video image relying upon its encompassing of a moment to compensate for its reactive and choppy nature. In documentary terms we often presume a video recording to be a greater indicator of the reality of an event based upon gestalt principles – a photograph is the trace of an exceptionally finite moment, while the video is summation of hundreds or thousands or more of photographs, the accumulation of which points to the real in an altogether different fashion. (Non)Graphic Images of Violence operates with both in an effort to force viewers to confront a greater issue with all lens-based media.

gaddafi screen grabs

Taking imagery that is undeniably from within the public consciousness, I rip apart videos into their constituent parts, resulting in hundreds of still images, most of which are of what could be referred to as nonsense, or perhaps even nothing as they present to viewers no thing.

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Some, however, are easily recognizable, profound, and visually stimulating enough to hold their own against their moving counterparts, begging viewers to ask which is more, more, or less?

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These static images then are stacked upon one another chronologically and compressed into an as yet non-existent single image. The color information for each pixel of each layer is averaged together, resulting in abstract color fields, visually far removed from their originating source, all the while being comprised of the entirety of the history and data and emotion of the original document. These images truly present to the viewer no things upon which to focus and contextualize the image with an historical moment. Rather, they force viewers to confront their own associations with the moments with the visual stimulus of its memory displaced.

The Death of Gaddafi
The Death of Gaddafi

As stated, the source material for (Non)Graphic Images of Violence is pervasive. The events that are refigured and represented in the images have been seen, in some fashion, by most Western adults, disseminated by news media in television broadcasts and embedded videos in on-line news stories. They were presented ad nauseam in the temporal vicinity of their occurrence, and subsequently immortalized on the Internet through video sharing services like YouTube and LikeLeak. The constant presentation and possibility for future viewership is required by us, viewers and citizens, because we demand to feel like we are a part of things larger than ourselves. Tragedies can only be national tragedies if the hurt is spread to all, whether or not we were directly involved. Our desire to see allows us to displace the reality of terrible situations for a slightly more calming half reality in which we play a part.

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It also allows us a small catharsis, as the repetition of viewing turns the spectacle into an uncomfortable white noise. To quote Warhol, “… the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” Warhol believed that the more exposure we had to traumatic imagery, the less alarming future exposure to such imagery would be, and it was this belief that allowed him to present soup cans and car crashes as conceptually alike. How else can we muster the courage to rage when we are so far removed from the object of our ire?

(Non)Graphic Images of Violence
World Trade Center Attack

As viewers, we generally disregard our screens in relation to the news, again in the hope of feeling involved, a part of what is happening with the world. We ask each other about having seen an event when really we should ask about a particularly reformatted and singularly mediated version of the event. Looking past the literal screen of the computer/ television/iPad/whatever is the first of several dangerous steps towards disavowing the mediation that is dictating an event to us. We don’t need to ask questions about what we would see or not see if a video or photograph was captured in a different aspect ratio, we don’t need to wonder whether or not the sky was as blue as we saw it on film, we don’t need to do much other than sit back and let the event unfold and take it as more than tacit fact. In The Return of the Real, Hal Foster asserted that in order to work properly with appropriated imagery, the resulting pieces need to not only make the viewer aware of the screen at which they are gazing with the work, put provide at least the slightest tear in the screen, revealing the possibility for a deeper narrative.

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(Non)Graphic Images of Violence aims to confront and stress the nature of the literal screens through which these images were originally mediated in multiple ways, foremost in regards to the printed artifacts. Given that nearly all the source videos for this work were recorded using low-fi, or at least low-resolution, equipment, the results are always choppy and grainy. Subsequently, the videos never have the clarity of a motion picture or expertly produced documentary – and they would seem to lack credibility if they did. We expect the rough, almost textured feel of videos used in the news specifically because what is depicted looks less produced, directed, and polished. The mediating process through which the images in (Non)Graphic Images of Violence are produced removes almost every trace and blemish of the recording process, and it does this by removing the details and contours that give rise to any forms whatsoever. The readable is displaced by the color field, and meaning is displaced by mystery and possibility.

With the temporal element of the images compressed and their existence now encapsulated atop the printed page, viewers are forced to reconcile their memories of these abstracted events with new presentations of them. The displacement of intense violence by a calming and, potentially, beautiful color field directly speaks to the sublime nature of the subjects.

Napalm Girl
‘Napalm Girl’

Events appear relatively straightforward – an act of terrorism, a patriotic speech, a military response. But, as most things, appearances give way to far more complex mechanics. Take for instance what would now be considered benign amongst potential police overreach in the black community by way of a police officer shooting a dog in Hawthorne, California. A bystander’s video of the incident is given to media outlets showing a hasty and lethal reaction by a police officer, resulting in public outrage and death threats, and three police officers are taken off of street duty.

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Shortly thereafter a second bystander’s video is provided, released by the police department, showing more of the altercation leading up to the shooting and more of the officers’ interactions with the dog, and purports to exonerate the officers involved. Nearly identical in vantage point, once compressed the videos create complimentary images, swapping color families and switching tonal shifts. Most importantly, the images force viewers to try to decide which image represents guilt and which innocence. How is one to discern when given the answers but not the questions? Abstraction forces the viewer to reconcile what they know, or what they think they know, with something more complex because it provides no details on how to get to the end. No longer can someone follow along without confronting the fact that their knowledge of many of these events that are of such historic importance is comprised of images, and little else.

Hawthorne Police (Guilt & Innocence)
Hawthorne Police (Guilt & Innocence)