Omer Fast, Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.), 2008, video, still

By Maria Muhle

Oh my God, they use a history that repeats itself...

- Anonymous

It is remarkable that in one way or another, more or less directly, the videos of Omer Fast all seem to deal with key historico-political topics: from the Shoah in Spielberg's List (2003) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Take a Deep Breath (2008) and the Iraq war in The Casting (2007). Even his more 'intimate' work, De Grote Boodschap (The Big Message, 2007), which looks at life within four private rooms in an apartment building in the Netherlands, touches upon questions of racism and fear in times of the 'war on terror'. But, crucially, rather than dealing with these topics, Fast adopts them as a foil against which to investigate the status of the image, and does so in a very peculiar way: his work doesn't so much address a specific historical situation, its internal tensions and its mediation by images, but instead tackles the moral issue of what images can or cannot make visible. His works propose an investigation that takes as both its focus and it starting point images understood as things, that is, images in their materiality, interfering in real life, influencing it, even transforming it. And, by addressing the image in its materiality, as an object of the world - and not as a reflection or representation of it - Fast undermines the distinction between the factual and the fictional, and reveals the equally artificial nature of both. In this sense, Fast's work exemplarily follows Jacques Rancière's dictum that 'writing history and writing stories come under the same regime of truth', so that, in order to properly understand it, we as viewers must go beyond the distinction between the truth told by history and the lies told by stories, beyond the hierarchical order established between fact and fiction.Read More...>

▴ Shoveling pirated DVDs in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China, April 20, 2008. From here.

By Hito Steyerl

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.

The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology. Not only is it often degraded to the point of being just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all. Only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.

Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores. They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images—their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism. Poor images are dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification. Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.Read More...>

Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, Agarrando pueblo, 1977, 28min, film stills

By Michèle Faguet

In the summer of 1971, while on vacation from film school at UCLA, Luis Ospina met with his childhood friend Carlos Mayolo, and together they decided to film the sixth Pan American Games taking place in their hometown of Cali, Colombia. The idea came after an earlier attempt to record Pope Paul VI's visit to Colombia that didn't happen due to a lack of economic resources. Equipped with a 16mm camera, which Mayolo had 'borrowed' (without permission) from the advertising agency in Bogotá where he worked, the two aspiring film-makers travelled to Cali, where they arrived just in time to miss the opening ceremonies and all of their pomp and political rhetoric,1 only to find that they would be excluded from all official venues without the proper permits, and that their arrival had been preceded by a film crew contracted by the Colombian state. Significantly, this official film crew was headed by Diego León Giraldo, a filmmaker iconic in Colombian film history as an early proponent of Cuban revolutionary cinema, and whose 1967 documentary Camilo Torres represented the first instance of militant cinema in Colombia.2 León Giraldo, however, had come to exemplify the ideological ambiguities and betrayals of a nascent national film industry struggling to define itself amidst the contradictory impulses of political commitment and aesthetic value, economic viability and mass visibility.

Initiated as a spontaneous exercise in simply going out to film without imposing any specific narrative, the experiment inevitably would produce a portrait of the thousands of others who had also been excluded: the majority of Cali's population, for whom admission fees were far beyond reach, and who experienced the events and festivities alongside Ospina and Mayolo from behind chain-linked fences or in stairwells of shopping centres, where precarious transmissions were visible on televisions for sale in store windows. The first part of the film consists of a series of images juxtaposed in a disorderly or impressionistic manner, much in the way one might, in real life, experience the contrasts they embody. What makes them stand out is their sense of humour, absent from the exaggerated images of opulence and poverty that became formulaic in certain examples of Third World cinema. For example, one scene shows North American baseball players clad in bright new uniforms awkwardly towering above local spectators, probably more accustomed to playing baseball with improvised materials in empty lots - like one shown earlier in the same film, of adolescents in a marginal neighbourhood engaging in a sport that simultaneously embodied US imperialism and Cuban liberation, next to a billboard that read 'Vote for the Communist Party'. Another scene captures a group of off-duty soldiers clumsily dancing salsa in their heavy boots (an image that is not so extraordinary in a tropical militarised culture), while later in the film a young man wearing just his underwear effortlessly moves to Bobby Cruz and Richie Ray's 'Amparo Arrebato' (1968)3 on the banks of the Pance River, a popular weekend recreation spot that serves as a public pool for the city's working and middle classes. Read More...>

Sevgili Mardo'cum, kendine iyi bak. Seni hep hatırlayacağız.

By Simon Sheikh

Lucy Lippard’s famous essay on activist art should need no introduction or art historical contextualization; what’s more, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” published in the seminal 1984 anthology Art After Modernism, represents but one entry point into a truly impressive body of work dedicated to the politics of art and representation from the 1960s up to today.1 As such, the essay can be situated both in an ongoing debate—making it ripe for revisitation—and in the trajectory of Lippard’s oeuvre as a whole. Indeed, the author of “Trojan Horses” has long grappled with the relationship between art and activism, both in terms of activist art and with regard to how the two categories inform each other as general forms of power and empowerment. Such efforts clearly animate the collection Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change, as well as her later, retrospective essay “Too Political? Forget It.”2

“Trojan Horses” appeared at the height of the Reagan years in the U.S., a highly charged political period that saw a heavy backlash against progressive and feminist ideas in the so-called culture wars waged by the Right. Lippard reported from the trenches, not only providing context and arguments, but also offering contemporary examples of activist art and cultural resistance. My interest here lies less in retelling those stories—for that one doesn’t need to look any further than the essay itself—than in focusing on Lippard’s central argument. Yet it should be mentioned that one aspect of the examples is particularly striking now: the sheer number of engaged practices fusing art and activism in a decade most commonly understood in art historical terms as a postmodern, object-based, commodity-oriented and even apolitical decade—and often either derided or commended for those very features. However, as Lippard’s survey and other sources point out, there is also another history, a counter-history. Moreover, the 1980s now appear to have witnessed a much larger movement of artistic activism than, say, the 1990s and its often heralded return to the social and political in art, not to mention our present decade . . . Read More...>

The project engages a less than ideal world. It does not articulate a utopia of ultimate satisfaction. Its starting point is not a resolution of the conflict and the just fulfilment of all Palestinian claims; also, the project is not, and should not be thought of, in terms of a solution. Rather it is mobilizing architecture as a tactical tool within the unfolding struggle for Palestine. It seeks to employ tactical physical interventions to open a possible horizon for further transformations.

We suggest revisiting the term of “decolonization” in order to maintain a distance from the current political terms of a “solution” to the Palestinian conflict and its respective borders. The one-, two-, and now three-state solutions seem equally entrapped in a “top-down” perspective, each with its own self-referential logic. Decolonization implies the dismantling of the existing dominant structure — financial, military, and legal — conceived for the benefit of a single national-ethnic group, and engaging a struggle for justice and equality. Decolonization does not necessarily imply the forced transfer of populations. Under the term decolonization, for example, Jewish communities could go and live in the Palestinian areas.

Whatever trajectory the conflict over Palestine takes, the possibility of further partial-or complete -evacuation of Israeli colonies and military bases must be considered. Zones of Palestine that have or will be liberated from direct Israeli presence provide a crucial laboratory to study the multiple ways in which we could imagine the reuse, re-inhabitation or recycling of the architecture of Israel’s occupation at the moment this architecture is unplugged from the military/political power that charged it.

Future Archeology, Afterall, N. 20/2009 (pdf - 1,1 MB)

Who Needs A World View?

September 12, 4-6 pm


“The idea that someone in chains, muzzled in a hole in the ground in the company of worms, might in no way be prevented from thinking whatever he likes, may well console those who see being in chains as an unalterable destiny. In reality, people muzzled by the economy can only think freely if they can free themselves in thought, that is, from the economy. And they can only do this if their thought changes the economy, in other words, makes the economy dependent on it…. The recognition that thought has to be of some use is the first stage of knowledge.”

Bertolt Brecht, “Who Needs A World View?” (c. 1930)

How should we know what to do about the world economy? How can artists and intellectuals intervene across the diverging scales of contemporary politics?

Liberal democratic society has only two measures of value, and therefore only two standards for organizing its collective decisions: profitability and popularity, calculated on the markets and in the media. This formula has given rise to extreme consumerism, predatory business elites and populist political leaders who draw on ethnic and religious identifications to pump up their individual images. What has disappeared in the spectacular splash and the aggressive national posturing is any kind of collective project, such as the industrial modernization projects on which so many Leftist artists and intellectuals collaborated in the early twentieth century. The question we face, as artists and intellectuals, is how existing forms of cultural production and distribution can be reconfigured, in order to help generate egalitarian aspirations after the current bankruptcy and collapse of the exclusionary liberal formula of market-driven, media-centered democracy. How can new values of solidarity and reciprocity become visible in thought, serving as measures and standards for vitally needed changes in reality?

This panel asks about a view of the world, which is essential to any collective project at contemporary scales. Yet this cannot be a static or univocal “world picture.” It would be futile to resurrect the industrial utopias of modernism, or to remain content with scattered snapshots of oppression and resistance, mere gestures of hope and rage. Postmodern fragmentation must be overcome, not by going back to monolithic disciplinary structures but instead by creating long-term frameworks of understanding and action. What’s lacking are ways to coordinate disparate modes of perception and expression, so that situated acts of showing and saying can become pathways into sustained processes of collaborating and doing, both within existing communities of value and across the boundaries of language, class and historical experience. Art is a way to crystallize perceptions and memories, to express desires and ideals and to open them up to transformative debates. It is a vector of denormalization and liberation, for sure: but it is also a symbolically effective arena for the negotiation between individual freedom, small-group autonomy and social planning in complex societies.

The question, therefore, is not whether art should be interventionist, but what kinds of interventions it can perform, at what scales, where and why and how and with whom. To overcome the cynical view of large exhibitions as spectacular malls for the sampling of “world flavors,” or as global popularity contests with an underlying profit motive, will require many kinds of work on the aesthetic, ideological and organizational levels. Only at this price can artists and intellectuals even aspire to contribute to collective projects, and to find more trustworthy ways of measuring their success or failure.

Over half a century ago, Brecht put the question bluntly: Who needs a world view? Today the answer could be this: Anyone who stops to think about the immense challenges that await us over the next half-century.

Participants: Meltem Ahiska, Bassam El-Baroni, Charles Esche, Marko Peljhan, Irit Rogoff; moderated by Brian Holmes