Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

Harun Farocki on DER RIESE (1983)

riese

DER RIESE, Michael Klier, 1983. Video still.

I was pleased to lend Ekrem Serdar a hand in revising a rather clunky translation of film notes written by Harun Farocki for a screening of Michael Klier’s Der Riese / The Giant (1983). Der Riese is an 80-minute compilation film of video footage taken from FRG surveillance cameras. Experimental Response Cinema screened the film earlier this spring.

Farocki was deeply inspired by Der Riese. It anticipates his sustained interest in posthuman vision.

In “Written Trailers,” translated in the 2010 exhibition catalogue, Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? (Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun, eds.), Farocki explains, “I begrudged Michael Klier his idea of making a film entirely out of surveillance-camera imagery.” (227)

In the same catalogue, Volker Pantenburg suggests that Der Riese (The Giant, 1982), “is an obvious model for Farocki’s Counter-Music.” (98)

Pantenburg continues,

When Farocki wrote about Klier’s video in 1983, he sensed that there was something genuinely new in these types of images. Something that made him think of how photographs must have appeared to the first people to behold a still image: ‘The first photographs – and this can appear over and over again – demonstrated that unimportant people, objects or events can also become the subject of images. Being images in the same way as intended and planned images, they raise the question of what hierarchy, meaning or sense are supposed to be.’ (Farocki, “Kamera in Aufsicht,” Filmkritik 9/1983, p. 416) (98)

Our revised translation of Farocki’s film notes on Der Riese can be found here, on ERCATX’s website.

(The myth of) the science of social space

I’ve just published a review of Jeanne Haffner’s lucid and interesting The View from Above: The Science of Social Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). It’s in the current issue of French Studies, accessible here.

An excerpt:

The myth of social space was invoked in France by Marxists as well as by conservatives, city commissioners, and professors. Utopian in the equilibrium it implied, ‘social space’ referred to ‘space abstracted beyond the chaos of the ground but not divorced from it; not solely geographical or social, it was […] a spatialization of complex social and economic relationships within a particular urban environment’ (p. 82).

The View From Above establishes extremely valuable connections between the high modernist use of aerial photography detailed in the research of scholars such as Paula Amad, and the late modernist disillusionment with aerial photography exemplified by Guy Debord’s texts and films during and after his participation in the Situationist International. It represents a continued invitation to contemplate our view of the city and our right to it.

Views from above in A Sixth Part of the World and The Eleventh Year

I’ve recently submitted an article examining the aerial view as a visual modality. Two more film fragments by Vertov that have inspired me to think further on the subject:

The opening of A Sixth Part of the World (1926), in which Vertov juxtaposes omniscient vision from above, the slicing legs of foxtrotters, the powerful magnet of a construction crane and the small mole on the back of a bourgeois neck.

Another aerial view from the ending of The Eleventh Year (1928), where the technological advancements of Soviet aviation link Russia to its Chinese comrades via sight and flight.

This last sequence, with its views from below, from above, and from beside a soaring plane reminds me of Paula Amad’s excellent essay published last year in History of Photography, “From God’s Eye to Camera Eye: Aerial Photography’s Post-humanist and Neo-humanist Visions of the World.” Amad thoughtfully takes on the dialectic between abstracted knowledge in views from above and embodied knowledge in views from below, arguing for a more fluid, less dogmatic understanding of our encounters with this practice of looking.