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.


Interview with Jodie Mack

Image: Jodie Mack at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Photo by Alex Inglizian. Accessed at http://incite-online.net/mack.html

What a pleasure it was to interview experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack for the “Back and Forth” series of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

You can read the interview (illustrated with some fantastic behind-the-scenes photos) here.

Harun Farocki on DER RIESE (1983)


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.

History in the present tense

I’ve written in the past on this site of my rewarding experiences at the Flaherty Film Seminar. This intense week of experimental media art and documentary film reliably delivers on its promise of thought-provoking and hotly debated film programming. In 2013, the seminar was programmed by Pablo de Ocampo, currently Exhibitions Curator at Vancouver’s Western Front. It was a fantastic week of film and video, and I wrote an extensive review of it for volume 3 issue 1 of MIRAJ, the Moving Image Review & Art Journal. An excerpt here:

A film still from the finale of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was the Seminar’s leitmotif, featuring prominently in publicity materials as a representation of the conceptual work to be accomplished at the gathering. In the wild joy of mutinous seamen greeting another battleship in solidarity with their uprising, de Ocampo indicated his intentions for the kind of history and the kind of happenings on which the week would focus. It was a history that film was continually heralding, retrieving and revising; a history of collectivities both utopian (insurgent groups and jazz collectives) and dystopian (occupied territories and people’s militias); a history of ecstatic or transgressive affect; and a history of films that struggle on two fronts, politicizing the form in which they convey political subject matter.

Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Greenhaven Prison, a video made in 1973 by the community collective, the People’s
Communication Network opened and closed the Flaherty. It operated in the Seminar as a conceptual reverse shot to Eisenstein’s seamen, a response across the decades to their call of brotherhood and revolution. In it, civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore stands at a microphone set up outside of the walls of the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Connecticut. She recounts a moment of armed resistance from her youth, in which a black audience who had gathered to hear Marcus Garvey in New Orleans successfully forced white officials to rescind their ban on his scheduled speech.

Moore asks, ‘How do you go, determined to keep the powers
that be from preventing your leader from speaking to you?’. In Moore’s Jim Crow-era South, the answer was to arrive at the lecture with guns and satchels of ammunition. Her question lingers throughout the seventeen-minute address, posed to the unseen men in the prison behind her, the group of fellow activists assembled in front of her, and to the contemporary viewers who encounter this video.

In her question is embedded the belief that the act of speaking and securing speech may be the only retribution possible in a society that does not see its own systemic crime in the histories of its individual criminals. Thieves like the ones that both Queen Mother Moore and the seamen on the Battleship Potemkin call ‘brothers’ are the product of centuries of social, political and economic theft. Speech, de Ocampo’s programming suggested, is symbolic reparation. It cannot promise actual reparation, but it is the only thing that actualizes its potential.

Harun Farocki, 1944-2014

Gif from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

GIF from “Images of the World and the Inscription of War” (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

What a loss for militant filmmaking, for art and for critical thought that Harun Farocki has died.

His fluency in working across so many different kinds of artistic media–in the art gallery and on the silver screen–was inspirational. His devotion to understanding the histories and the ideologies behind scientific and technological development was equally laudable. His insistence that sight lines and their documentation from any era must always be examined as vectors of power was unwavering.

He was a crucially important twentieth-century figure whose work consistently sought to teach its audience without pedantry. His films braid together historical materialism and media archeology without wasteful political rancor or snobby exclusivity. The cold comfort in his death is simply the numerous contemporary artists and theorists whose lives and ideas his touched.

Last night’s Farocki screening thoughtfully organized by the Experimental Response Cinema was a wonderful way to bid farewell; it contrasted the absurd humor and the mercilessness of An Image (1983) with the dense, intricate logic of Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988).

Re-viewing Images of the World, I thought of Nora M. Alter’s explication of the “political anamorphosis” Harocki performs only very fleetingly at the very end of the film. He draws an explicit but easily-missed parallel between the Allied failure to bombard the railways leading to Auschwitz in the 1940s and the need to protest nuclear power as well as nuclear stockpiling in Germany in the 1980s.

Alter suggests that the repeated use of footage taken from within a wave machine in Hannover is a further example of political anamorphosis, alluding to the potential of green energy as an alternative to nuclear energy. How easy it is (and how self-defeating) to view these sequences as representing instead the inexorable, amoral, dialectic translation of measurement to image and image to measurement over the centuries. Knowing Farocki, he clearly intended both meanings.

Here’s hoping that a pair of scholars compile a series of warm and genial conversations on Farocki’s films in the same manner that Farocki and Kaja Silverman did on Godard’s films. That would be a really fitting goodbye.

Black Moon

If only Louis Malle’s 1975 folly, Black Moon were a short film! The first twenty or thirty minutes are frightening and sublime. A young woman tears through wild and beautiful countryside in the attempt to escape a strange civil war between men and women. I began watching, and expected something like the political allegory of Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park (1971) to develop.

However, Malle is uninterested in the problems and the possibilities of something like feminist armed resistance. Like the bedridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse) later in the film who radios nonsense to some unseen master narrator, Malle relays the tone, suggestion and gesture of sexual identity instead of any cogent expression of it or any attempt at agency through it. Ultimately the film is a retrospective, Bathusian muddle, breathtakingly filmed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. I recommend the extraordinary trailer.

Paris belongs to us

A tantalizing little sequence of above-it-all from René Clair’s Paris qui dort / The Crazy Ray (1923). Entire film here. Lucky enough to have escaped the “crazy ray” of a conniving scientist who has frozen le tout Paris, the caretaker of the Eiffel Tower, four fashionable airplane passengers and their pilot cavort happily in the Trocadéro fountain and light each other’s cigarettes whilst hanging from the tower’s iron lattice. What power and liberty in the view from above, which endlessly fixes, distances and aestheticizes.

I choose my vehicle and I can cross all bridges

Happy 2013!

An apt beginning to the beginning of the new year: the first few minutes of Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977).

This sequence is an earnest but wry account of the great determination needed and the great labor involved in taking leave of colonialist oppression, cultural constraints, parochial censure, social prejudices and stigmas, and not least of all, the isolating security of the familiar. Meanwhile, Tahimik notes, established powers and their followers parade across the thoroughfare. The bridge is mediation, says Fredric Jameson in The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992). The bridge is our bridge of life, says Tahimik.

May we make all crossings–metaphorical and real, difficult and effortless–with Tahimik’s brashness, tempered in equal measure with humor and critical skepticism. We choose our vehicles and we can cross this, any, all bridges!