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Walling in the Nation State

It’s a beautiful desert image, something one might see in Arizona Highways or National Geographic. And the dark brown ridge snaking towards the horizon? It could almost be a natural formation, one exemplifying the waveform topography and severe plain surfaces of this barren environment. Close inspection reveals construction material, however, and so it could be an art installation: perhaps something by Christo that will be up for only a short time before being dismantled to return the scene to pure space and light.

Don’t be fooled by the beautiful design. You are looking at a section of the “fence”–otherwise known as a wall–that separates the US from Mexico. This massive construction project has been going on for several years now, almost completely under the radar. You will not have noticed a shortage of illegal alien labor in your city, but you can rest assured that they had to become ever more ingenious or courageous to get here.

I wish we had built the wall as an artistic work–if only to take this one photograph before tearing it down. Others will say the wall is justified, of course, even though the US once boasted that it had undefended borders. Whatever the cost-benefit ratios for various immigration restriction technologies, there is additional significance any time a nation creates a wall.

Walls are uniquely symbolic, and paradoxically so. Those erecting them are demonstrating their power, wealth, and commitment to control and order on their terms. Think of the great powers who have built walls: China, Rome, the Soviet Union, Israel, and now the US.

The same list reveals the other side of the symbol: a wall is an admission of political failure. Walls are put up precisely because the state cannot keep people out–or, with the Berlin Wall, in. They are erected because a people can’t be beaten, dominated, bought off, or otherwise managed without changing the state’s relationship with the world.

We might want to think of the wall along the border of the US later in the year. In November, 2009, there will be official and unofficial celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The media will be circulating photographs such as this one.

Such photographs should be valued. They remind us that a wall once was torn down by the power of the people. The nation is still present in this photo, signified to any German by the Brandenburg Gate in the background, but the people are in the foreground and have become the living enactment of the dissent and democratic self-assertion previously known only through the graffiti smeared across the brick barrier.

The people of Berlin could take down that wall because they were on the right side of historical change, and because it had become all too clear within East Germany that a society cannot thrive by walling itself in. In the 21st century, the US government is on the side of the builders of walls, which I’d like to think is not the right side of historical change. The first photograph above is part of the process of creating an enclaved nation: you see only an empty space and bare surfaces–no people, no dissent, nothing political at all, really, just a natural formation. The border is both secure and desolate, nothing ordinary citizens need think about. All that remains is to await the barbarians.

Photographs by David McNew/Getty Images and from the Wikipedia Commons. For another comparison of the two walls, go to the announcement for the 2009 Joint Conference on “Migration, Border, and Nation-State.”


Sight Gag: Pun Intended

Credit: Craig Damrauer/NYT

The “Sight Gag” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Terrorist Bombings: From Stopped Time to Still Life

Representation in any public art today has to include using old forms to capture what is distinctive about our time. Eventually new forms emerge, and we should ask what might become the artistic conventions of a “catastophile” society in which disaster and violence are fatal attractions and spectacular sources of energy. One image that might be on the cusp of old and new is this screen shot of a bombing in Sri Lanka:

This image is distinctive in that the television camera is recording the instant that a bomb exploded at a Muslim festival in Akuressa, killing 15 people. Whereas almost all bombing photographs are of the aftermath, here you can see the blast pattern blossoming in a single, beautiful, terrible, moment of real time. For once, the blast is there to be seen–and sovereign, fully realized in itself without any rationale or judgment. If my account is sounding like a Facist aesthetic glorifying violence, that is indeed one lineage that applies, but not the only one.

The photo is not a pure aesthetic of violence precisely because of the tension between the sheer, annihilating force of the blast and the people about to be enveloped by the shock wave radiating toward them. The fire is already roaring down the street toward the backs of their legs, someone’s destruction already evident from the shirt blown into the air in the upper left. Yet there they are, ordinary people dressed in nicely pressed shirts standing as if posed for a group portrait–Say Cheese!–and completely oblivious to the blast. What is in fact one event seems to be two very different events joined together by special effects. The photograph actually captures another distortion: what should be two separate things–the violence of war and a civic festival–are actually smashed together. Spectacular violence usurps the civic spectacle.

The photo from Sri Lanka captures something important because of its stunned suspension of temporal movement. The moment of stopped time–which is part of every photograph–here reveals the moral chasm between violence and civic life. That is not the only way to capture the reality of civil war, however.

This photograph of a burnt hotel room was taken at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The blast last September killed at least 60 people and injured more than 260. This image could be the opposite of the one above. Instead of the moment of immolation, we see the slow aftermath of loss; instead of people about to be harmed, we see a room abandoned to emptiness; instead of fire, cinders.

What most strikes me is how the picture works as a still life. The plates, glass, cup, and food could have been done by an Old Master. The play of light and shadow, and of sheen and substance, creates that timeless depiction of inevitable decomposition that was the subject of the genre. And so this tableau could be anywhere in the world, a small monument to gracious living that was instead lost to destruction. Seemingly timeless, but perhaps all too representative of our time.

Photographs by Reuters TV and Pedro UgarteAFP-Getty Images. The term “catastrophile” comes from Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 120.

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Traces of Everyday Life on Desolation Row

The following photographs were placed on a facebook page to provide continued documentation of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. The photos were taken on March 19, several weeks after the paper went out of business. This picture could be from more than one corporate office today.

You are looking at the hardware of the white collar workplace: computer, phone, other electronic paraphernalia, ergonomic chair, files, wastebasket, paper littering every surface. . . . . Welcome to my world. On the good days, a place like this is humming with energy, activity, and deadlines, and, of course, arguments, delays, and frustrations, but also coffee breaks, conversations, and jokes. Places like this becoming living communities where people spend a lot of their time, give a lot of their talents, and find an important source of meaning, identity, and self-respect.

In the days of The Organization Man, the office was thought to be the source of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. When you look at the shabby, barren, modernist decor, the label seems to apply again. But times had changed and now work looks pretty good, and the desolation comes not from the work but from business shutting down. When only the hardware is left, there’s nothing there.

Nothing there, except for a few traces of personality. I love the way that people decorate their desks and cubicles to remake the impersonal space into something richer. Usually you see signs of those other important sources of personal meaning, family and friends, and you learn something about the individual. The gaping, empty shelves in this cubicle shout out the fact that the work has been taken away, yet the little dog, the trinkets stuck on the bulletin board, the book, photograph, ball cap, and even the box of tissues remind us that a real person worked here. The unemployment statistic was created in an instant, and someone will have taken a few hours to box up some things and then walked away from the rest, but the signs of a past life linger on.

Material signs of a missing spirit–could this figurine be any more apt? She was someone’s small homage to the imagination–a fairy the same color as the impersonal office decor and yet evocative of another world. She sits precariously on the cubicle divider in front of a stack of papers, a symbol of vulnerability and crash that reveals just now fragile newspapers are today. And not only newspapers.

Though obviously an inexpensive bit of kitsch, it’s sad that the figurine was abandoned along with the old editions awaiting recycling. But perhaps it wasn’t abandoned, and left instead as a good luck charm. A promise that spirit and creativity can return to desolation row.

The photographs were taken by Dean Krakel and put up at his facebook page as What They Left Behind; the link was sent to me by photographer David Sutton.  An earlier post on the last day at the Rocky Mountain News is here.


Sight Gag: Lest We Forget

Credit: Bennett at the Chatanooga Times Free Press

The “Sight Gag” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

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War Images at Work

Today we welcome guest correspondent David Campbell.

Photojournalism’s representation of war is often standardized, familiar, even clichéd. Regardless of the time or place it can seem like we have seen it before, regularly and repeatedly. But if we always approach the problem from the same vantage point – asking how the event is represented – we run the risk of missing vital dimensions and important effects of the image, as this picture from Nepal demonstrates.

This picture comes from that country’s decade-long civil war which ended in November 2006. The passenger was among 36 killed when Maoists bombed a bus near Madi in June 2005. As one of the 15,000 people who died in this period, he was an unknown statistic in what was, for the rest of the world, a forgotten conflict, an event that had disappeared from the radar even before it could be remembered.

We could read this image, which is being recirculated through a book launched at this year’s biennial Chobi Mela festival of photography, as the making visible of something we should have known about. Or it could be another testament to lives lost, marked by hands of death. Or we could see it as a further instance of the indirect marking of mass death, preserving dignity while recording loss. While such accounts provide understanding, they do not draw our attention to the larger significance of this image. If we shift our focus from representation to enactment, from meaning to work, we can appreciate this photograph for its vitality in the present rather than merely its record of the past.

As one of the 179 photographs by 80 photographers selected from the more than 2,000 submitted for the exhibition “A People War: Images of the Nepal Conflict 1996-2006,” this picture toured Nepal throughout 2008. As a book and exhibition, “A People War” contains what individually might be regarded as unremarkable images in the global archive of war photography. Its catalogue of uniformed guerrillas, grieving widows, destroyed infrastructure, damaged individuals and mobilizing soldiers could, by themselves, have been drawn from any number of conflicts. Despite the editors desire to forgo showing unvarnished violence (hence the photograph of the bomb victim’s hand), there are pictures that shock, especially those that record the lynching of a teacher and journalist.

If, however, we view the images collectively and ask ourselves what work they are doing through the book and the exhibition, then they become something quite remarkable. Being shown within a year of the war’s end, this collection is an act of raw experience, a detailed encounter with what the conflict’s participants and victims have suffered so recently. Nepalese responded to this act in large numbers, with more than 350,000 people queuing to see it in 30 towns across the country – as in this picture from Surkhet. With thousands of free copies of the book distributed to public and school libraries across the countries, and a Nepali language budget edition made available for widespread sale, the organizers have ensured the photographs the broadest circulation possible.

People did not just look at the pictures. They engaged with the photographs. Mothers looked for evidence of missing family members, soldiers faced the consequences of their actions, and children witnessed what the future could be like if politics did not triumph over violence. To this end, the exhibition is also a warning to a fragile country. It functions as a statement in defense of the new federal republic, using the photographs to speak of a time to come, declaring that even if that future is not yet capable of being pictured, Nepalese know only too well what it could look like.

Photographs by Kumar Shrestha and Kirin Krishna Shrestha/nepa-laya. A gallery of additional images of the exhibition is available here.


The Street, a Park, and the Unseen Middle East

I am suspicious of references to “the Arab Street,” particularly when the phase is applied–as it often is–to nations and other vast swaths of territory that are not Arab or not exclusively Arab. Several years ago Christopher Hitchens declared that it was a vanquished cliche, but he was misusing it himself to justify the rush to war by the Bush administration. And he wasn’t speaking of its persistence as a visual convention.

The caption of this photograph at The Guardian says only, “Nowruz celebrations in Afghanistan.” Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated in a number of countries by people of several faiths. The baskets of dried fruits eaten during the holiday provide the only visual connection to the colorful festivities, and you have to know more than the paper tells you to see that. For many viewers, this will a thoroughly conventional image of the Middle East.

That image is one of throngs of working class men massed together in the street. What little business is there is in the open air markets lining each side of the densely packed urban space. We see small batches of everyday goods on display–probably to be bartered for, no less. The open baskets of food are a sure marker of the underdeveloped world. (Imagine how many packages it would take to wrap up that fruit for sale in the US.) Everything fits together into a single narrative, but the masses of men and boys make the scene politically significant. This is the place where collective delusions take hold, where mobs are formed, and where unrest can explode into revolutionary violence and Jihad.

Which is why I get a kick out of this photograph of another Nowruz celebration.

The caption reads, “An Iranian man skewers chicken for grilling as he picnics with his family.” My first thought when I saw the image was to check and make sure it wasn’t taken in Chicago. This also is a very familiar scene: grass, blankets, families and friends, plastic containers of food, dad getting ready to do the grilling.

What is astonishing is that I was able to see them at all. A typical summer holiday photo becomes a radical disruption of Western visual conventions when taken in Iran and shown in the US. Of course, it wasn’t shown in the US: this, too, is from the UK paper.

In this photo, there is no Arab street, and no Iranian masses dominated by Mullahs and demagogues. A middle class tableau reveals that so much of what is in fact ordinary life for many people in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East is never seen in the US. And it isn’t seen because it doesn’t fit into simplistic categories, outdated stereotypes, and a dominant ideology. All that is shown and implied in the cliches is of course also there, but it is there as part of a much more complex and varied social reality.

As evidence of how things might appear a bit different, notice how seeing the second image can affect perception of the first one. In the second, it seems evident that the family is posing for the photograph. They’re doing exactly what they would have been doing but now with the additional, amused awareness that it is, for a moment, also an act. And sure enough, if you look back to the first photo, you can see the same thing. And if you can see that, they no longer need appear as a mass, or poor, or threatening, or anything but people enjoying a holiday. Much like people in the US were doing this past weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, thronged together, in the street.

Photographs by Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images and Behrouz Mehri/AFP-Getty Images.


Ritual Violence and Accidental Symbols

I thought it was the hand of a priest:

Protestant upbringing + Lent + gold embroidery + blood + cross = mistaken perception based on murky tales of medieval cultic practices involving lurid displays of mortification. From there it’s a quick step to announcing that, once again, the church has blood on its hands.

In fact, the cross is not even a cross. And the priest is a matador. The matador’s hand is holding one of his swords, one obviously still sticky with the bull’s thick blood.

But one could say that this is not a sword. For anyone familiar with Christian iconography, the sword could very well double as a cross, and as only a cross, and particularly when smeared with blood. If the imagery seems medieval, that might say only that the medieval artists behind the allusion got it right. If so, the spectator should also be seeing the blood of Christ; if applied to the bullfight, the point would be to believe that God cares not for the supposed triumph in the ring but for the poor animal as it suffers and dies.

Those in the arena will have seen something else as they appreciated the choreography of that ritual violence. The photo captures some of that drama, beginning with the blood bonding of the ornately clad matador, embodiment of art and civilization, with the animal nature of the bull. The antique weapon, gilded clothing, and refined use of the hand together create a charmed circle of performance within which the blood can flow, again and again and again.

That is not the only example of ritualized violence, however.

It could be the hand of a penitent, or of a priest preparing to administer the Host, or of a beggar, or someone about to give a blessing. It is not a hand, however, but a dead hand. There is no blood, but someone was slaughtered in public much like any bull in a ring. There are no vestiges of the middle ages, as this is a thoroughly modern scene with plastic tarp and aluminum hardware. But it is ritualized for all that. Another terrorist bombing in Sri Lanka, an act of violence so common that they have developed little metal fixtures for managing the forensic investigation.

And not without symbolism. That number six refers to a segment of the crime scene marked for photographic identification, yet it signifies more as well: there were others, there will be others, we’re each just a number, take a number and wait and your number will come up soon. There is no blood, but this bureaucratic item is equally horrific. We are supposed to believe that although the killing continues, everything is under control. Everything is not under control. And in a world of ritualized violence, accidental symbolism may be one way to get back to the suffering.

Photographs by Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press and AFP/Getty Images.


Sight Gag: Peeps Atop a Skyskraper (c. 1932)

Photo Credit:  Diorama Creater/Washington Post

The “Sight Gag” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.