On the edge of the new media/world
'When a photograph is authorized by the state, levels of meaning appear to merge within it, absolutely and seamlessly, to form an ideological text. However, ideology cannot exist independently within the image, but depends upon the viewer to "activate" it. The ideological function of the photographic is contingent upon the viewer's a priori acceptance of, or faith in, the image's cultural signification, as determined "theologically" by the state. The absolution of the authoritarian state is validated by the viewer's unquestioning faith.'
–John P. Jacob, Recalling Hajas, Nightmare Works: Tibor Hajas, Steven High ed., Anderson Art Gallery, Richmond, VA, USA.
In the age of liquid modernity1 what good is an image when it is not easily reproducible and does not emerge simultaneously or in sequence across multiple sites? As mainstream fodder, image rules over news and social media as well as the streets, buildings and other permanent or transient public spaces. Image constitutes, codifies and even sanctifies these changing sites of urban origin. With narratives of the past, present and future recast in authoritarian diction, image finds itself on the threshold of interpretation, concealing the true nature of the doctored content defined by its fluidity and fecundity.
The idea of reproducibility is nothing new, but in the context of available technology and the resultant explosion of images/props of propaganda, it has been further invigorated. With the dawning of the digital age, image has become an ultimate instrument of structuring the gaze. It has proved to have rendered spaces more fluid and unstable, and as such, impenetrable – one now witnesses the state machinery, the political-cultural functionary extending their power to the public domain with ease through a new visual culture based on overload/overproduction of image.
Yet, one is aware that this new visual culture has so far fused the nation-branding gambits with the ideology of global capital order. The overproduction of image thus transfers as well as translates the ambitions of nationalist ideologies into a visual chaos, overwriting the political-social landscape, thereby effectively saturating both actual and virtual spaces. The recognizable icons as well as less-known and even unknown cultural-political figures are thus fetishized through ideological inflection and mass production, and even fabricated at times using new media tools to reinforce conviction/devotion. The digital figures and faces instituted as a new form of mass visual consumption are now watching over the multitude.
If the political-ideological motivation for transforming the nation into a set of signs is considered, one should trace its genealogy in modern Europe where racialist frames provided the basis for the rise of Nazism in Germany, where the national emblem was held out to the masses as an absolute 'nominative sign' representing the nation. In the former Eastern-bloc countries, on the other hand, socialism and political beliefs associated with it were invoked: image of the leader provided an alternative to the mythic sign of swastika. Iran had experienced the same following the so-called Islamic revolution. This was afoot in the pre-digital regime.
In a similar vein with more subtle engineering of human consciousness in mind, the capital-driven world inaugurated the idea of image presiding over the societal and the political, thus lending basis to the promotion of products and an acquisitive lifestyle since the early twentieth century. The two interdependent components of a so-called free society – industrial products and acquisitive communities -- remain constantly in flux to work out newer ways of casting its spell over the masses. Glam images from the entertainment industry can easily overlap with those of fetishized stalwarts of the political-cultural arena. In sum, what began as a political-cultural gambit has now been retooled by the advertising industry. In other words, – the logic of advertising now rules the roost, whether any particular ad is done badly or with a touch of elegance.
'Reproducibility' is currently overshadowed by 'unquestioning acceptance' of the proposed images seemingly brought into view for the mass society. Through this naturalized framework of production and reception, one can enter the problematics of 'image' in the digital age, which is anything but an epoch of overproduction as well as an impulsive but sure-fire aestheticization of the nexus between social and political 'images of consensus'. It is in this context that artists and photographers use new media to their advantage – to talk back to the propaganda schemes and to dumb down the unruly, post-ethical aesthetics of the mainstream society. However, as contemporary denizens of the no-holds-barred age of decadence, the most creatively-inclined and diversely equipped hands are producing works of immense political potential rather than sitting aloof somewhere in 'Cloud 9', unmindful of what transpires in the real world.
What is post-ethical about this new propaganda ethos needs clarification, especially in the context of massification of image that also affects the operations concerning the production of art in the digital age.
The societal and the political have now been successfully merged into the benefit of an ideology, and on its horizon empty signs (images) hover – ghostlike. As a consequence, what we get is aesthicization of politics, and in its new form it wraps the world in a blanket teeming with fossilized images. It is one way of reproducing, replicating the 'scene' (as opposed to the 'world') in one's own image or intention – and this is exactly where the question of ethics arises.
In today's accelerated marketing climate, the dynamics of the society are such that culturalism, statism and economism are unified; the borders between them have become fluid. Even if the intent behind such state-level, corporate-style recoding of the scene (instead of reconfiguring of the world) remains hidden, its manifestations become clearly visible in the intricate web of consumerist conceits/deceits that draw from material excesses and wastefulness.
To determine the axiomatics of Late Capitalism one must compare these concerns with what Louis Althusser once referred to as 'interpellation' instituted by state power, which Adorno used in another context to explain media's ability to ensure “passive submission.” Art, having the capacity to wrest itself from such state-consumer dynamics, becomes heterogeneous, fragmentary and even playfully eccentric. At times art appears alienated and aloof from the currents of time/history while at other times it remains entrenched in the problematics of a given time, no matter how much it refuses to be passive, enfranchised. If the moderns espoused alienation/displacement as a principle to remain separated from the context, the contemporary variants often plunge into the given condition showing a dual tendency to become part of the developing scenes we refer to as social reality and at the same time, to exist as a critique of the goings- on, investigating the system's elemental yet futile games for what they actually are – advertisements for state or corporate entities and the attendant nationalist/corporate narrative. By singularly focusing on the aberrant, the microscopic and the heterogenic to steer clear of the hegemonic, much of contemporary narrative staple hinges on 'impurity (of medium and thought)', 'hybridity (of voice and process)', and decoding, deconstruction and last of all, 'wry humour' or 'playful eccentricity'. Thus, contemporary art floats above the 'hegemony' of the market without severing its tie with the finance capital which it wishes to redirect towards its own locus to survive.
As for the monotheism discernible in the statist-nationalist-corporatist cultural gambits, which seems nugatory at times and conniving at others, contemporary art, in its critical complexities, usually remains divested of such instruments and logics. In fact, all forms of authentic art, by dint of its parasitic operational logic as well as illogic, stays outside the ambit of power. Art is what unfolds through de-instrumentalizing image, object and narrative, often re-purposed to new political-aesthetical ends.
The contemporary surge unhinges the artists from the 'modernist' ethos which displaces the individuals from the social and the political in the interest of one's subjective growth which is paradoxically related to the mainstream circuits of knowledge and finance, often tying them with global cultural trends. To lend greater agency to the act of 'creation', or 'co-creation' for that matter, new media art and installation,other new forms of transmission included, need to be politically-spiritually charged. Moreover, agency is mostly mediated by a self-other continuum as opposed to a cause-effect framework or a contra-causal freedom one assumes against the determinism implicit in all materialistic interpretations. To be able to dodge the 'prescriptive', and also to become contextual in one's own terms, it is necessary to straddle dangerously the line between the social and the individual, and emerge from the space between 'here' and 'nowhere'. What is commendable in the contemporary scene is that contemporaneity is expressed in understandably clear terms by foregrounding the possibilities inherent in art-life, rational-irrational and subject-object correlations rather than considering them as opposites. One should also issue a cautionary note at this stage that art is increasingly becoming enamoured of the idea of 'streamlining' (which equals 'aestheticization'), looking to settle for a comfortable perch, instead of being grounded in 'otherness'. And this is where upping one's ante to give shape to 'big ideas' often seems futile, as it is misdirected. Rather than effectuating a 'gaze shift', streamlining makes one remain fixed under the gaze of the system/order. The former seems possible only when working at the limits of one's possibilities and potentialities.
An authentic artistic act stands opposed to all kinds of schematic operation, and looks forward to an opening – a 'fissure', or a 'cut', through which to attain its new face/form in the light of an emerging agenda and re-evaluated values before everything congeals into a system. It is primarily the result of a progressive process entrenched in co-creation since 'futurity' as an 'experience' springs out of 'the condition of being caught between a past and an undetermined, open future,' to draw on Rosalyn Diprose. The process of co-creation insinuates the 'potentiality of collective life,' (Hanna Arendt). It also precedes an unconscious alignment with the Other, be that perceived as a potent alternative material force, earthy in its structure, or the unconscious/Omnipotent, or, to source Lalon Fakir's diction, 'audhora', to imply an unknown or unknowable source of inspiration.
'Historians must stop using photographs as windows onto the past and, instead, approach them in a methodical, critical, and interpretative way,' writes Paschalidis Gregory. 'Exclusive emphasis on the critical and visual skills … can, however, be construed as merely extending the methodological prescriptions of positivist historiography. Such stress fails to address the singularity of the photograph as a historical resource, in other words, its intrinsic semantic polyvalence, its unique ability to bring the complex, contradictory and perspectival nature of historical experience into relief,' he continues,2 Artists today are also working with an awareness of such polyvalence in linguistic, aesthetic as well as real life context, though the methodologies in use are undoubtedly more impulsive and process-driven.
With this insight one re-enters the 'scene' of ideological-cultural representation equipped with new critical tools, or at least with some grains of subversion acquired from encounters or achieved through retouring-detouring and non-touring in a chaotic world. Thus the world demands an eye for value judgment, or a process of adjusting to the locus from where vision emerges and helps us secure a position vis-a-vis the status quo.
'[V]alue judgments are necessary, not as a means to reinforce elite culture and police the boundaries of art and non-art, but as a way to understand and clarify our shared values at a given historical moment,' writes Clair Bishop in her celebrated book Artificial Hell: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Though creation of heaven (as opposed to hell) may not always be on the list of things artists aim for, still, for them the vision of the 'coming society' usually resides somewhere beyond the chaos of the 'present' or the 'historical' and the 'contingent'. In the continuous conflation of art with life, envisioning a future is both aesthetically and politically necessary. Thus the dislocation that a contemporary artwork institutes by going beyond the 'civic nature of art' as well as representing the current chaos, is an effort in putting behind all that holds us back from pursuing our utopia, which is the necessary psycho-narrative that stimulates the 'bodies in pain' and works as an impetus to break free of the existing condition. Contemporary art, in this sense, works in 'refusal of temporal logic of historical totalizing,' to quote Peter Osborne. Thus, art 'comes to be' out of an interstice – a place where worlds collide and things, ideas converge. Therefore, against the 'sunny' idealism of Rabindranath Tagore, where the 'self' is as separated from the world as art is from social relation, the domain of art should be of a piece with the resistance against domination and colonization (of places and selves). The flight into the future must start from the ground beneath one's feet rather than from ‘Cloud 9’.
- Liquid Modernity is a conceptual frame philosopher Zygmunt Bauman had once introduced to trump the then popular idea of postmodernity. Bauman's book of this name was released in 2012.
- Paschalidis Gregory, Images of History and the Optical Unconcious, e-journal Historein, 4, 33-44. pp. 36, 37. - 36 GREGOR/33-44elis 23-11-04 16:09 ™ÂÏ›‰•36 http://epublishing.ekt.gr | e-Publisher: EKT | Downloaded at 02/01/2016 19:26:04 |