First of all a reservation. When we speak about modernity it’s hard to give a definition. That is precisely one of the characteristics of this way of thinking. Well-known is the saying ‘dare to know’ that Enlightenment scholar Immanuel Kant used as a slogan to encourage thinking beyond the top-down imposed dogmas (by church or prince). Independent thinking, that is. In a recently published essay, media theorist Nathan Jurgenson names that renewed necessity to think as the common thread through the era we call modernity. Not an easy task and moreover, it raises doubts. But that’s all in the game, according to Jurgenson; we cannot do without doubt. The sub-title of his essay is therefore: “Why are we so ready to believe that truth is over?” The question indicates that the author refuses to believe the diagnosis that we are living now in a so-called post-truth era, means that we know no more truths. These are confusing times, but that doesn’t mean that you’re exempted from the obligation to find out what is really truthful. Photographer Jos Jansen pictured in the series Universe the work of scientists who apply themselves to the research of – and come close to so-called reality. The emphasis on ‘called’ here is in my opinion justified, for a changing understanding is inherent to describing a changing reality. Conflicting scenarios caused by progressive insight and research may look like a crisis, according to Jurgenson exactly this is the characteristic experience of modernity: what is real?
As Jansen rightly points out, scientific truths tend to be easily shouted down or ignored. The image, by contrast, doesn’t have to operate according to the demands of logical argumentation and falsification and is moreover harder to reject than a text, precisely because you don’t have to read the research or words, while image is inescapable. The use of image as a rhetorical instrument appears to be Trump’s core-business, as he demonstrated last year when he pointed at the snow-covered landscape and asked himself loudly how ‘real’ global warming could be in such a cold (conveniently forgetting the difference between climate and weather). That’s why analysis of image is so important to find out how power works and where it is concentrated. When we speak about power, how a situation is represented can be motivated by wishful thinking: portraying something nicer than it in reality is. In the exhibition, Donald Webber’s work demonstrates images so free of the usual embellishment that it makes you feel uneasy. His registration of unmanned aircraft on satellite photos, standing on runways next to hangars in inhospitable areas, conveys something surreptitious because they show hidden military operations caught in the act, as you might say. The surreptitiousness is in the fact that such drones are presented as compact precision instruments (with the implicit promise of less civilian casualties) but nevertheless they are long distance murder machines. This is one-way traffic: the aircraft operate on such heights that they can only be counter-attacked with high-tech armory that is not available in these regions, of course. When we speak about a so-called clean war, what is meant is that the attacking party doesn’t get its hands dirty. The photos predominantly show what monstrous machines this are, their form resembles sleek deep-sea creatures without eyes, so for us humans without recognizable expression. A few years ago the artist James Bridle made visible how large such aircraft are, by drawing in white the circumference of these fighting drones on city sidewalks. Both Bridle and Weber make the viewers witnesses by showing the evidence, and so undo a not-knowing. As a reaction to propagandistic imaging this is an effective counter-image, as response to the promise to show only exemplary behavior.
Anesthesia – literally: sensory stimuli do not penetrate into awareness – is according to the American essayist Mark Greif the most common strategy we use to cope with the continuous overflow of images. Though everybody needs (visual) rest sometimes, Greif warns for indifference caused by that shut off from images. In the book Against Everything he proposes as a remedy the opposite of an-esthesia, that is aestheticism. Aestheticism is the also modernist objective to break the borders between art and life, by looking at everyday life with the same attention we usually reserve for looking at art. Experiencing the world is the major objective here. Because more attention strengthens the experience and so increases our sensitivity to that world. Experiencing beauty is not the ultimate aim for Greif, he is interested in enriching experience in any form. Photos as images are also part of that experience, though our senses are not independently able to see drones in the sky, for instance. Image makers come to our aid here as
the extension of experience, that through (increased) sensitivity should create more awareness.
To be more specific: the enriching of an experience can mean that it should be doubled. We see this in Eline Benjaminsen’s work, she adds to the visible reality a dimension that logically doesn’t coincides with the visible. A follower of aestheticism could recognize a certain composition in which the adding of an unusual element, a dissonant, creates friction and so an esthetically interesting image. Benjamin’s photos show a everyday, messy Belgian (city)scape. In it a transmitter mast protrudes as a dissonant, symbol of the super-sleek world of global finance. It epitomizes high frequency trading or HFT, this kind of exchange trading uses minimal exchange differences between large amounts of currencies to make money. Algorithms calculate and execute the transactions; the chance to make profit depends on the reaction time of fast data networks. This is a totally abstract world in which computers make decisions in unimaginable time dimensions. This image of hyper-capitalism seems, just as the drone images, intangible and super human. Yet these interventions in the Belgian landscape point out that the infrastructure needed to maintain this network have to adapt to the banal, everyday environment. So for those who look careful, this landscape image shows evidence of an otherwise elusive process.
Aestheticism as a means to focus awareness counters indifference and reinforces a message. Indifference is still a pitfall to the image. The trick here is to look beyond the surface and make the image penetrating. This is the mastery of the photographer. We recognize courage in how Carlos Spottorno and Guillermo Abril immerse themselves into a situation and, moreover, are able to find a form and content that successfully diverges from what we already know about photography. The makers transform how they experienced a hermetically sealed border in a graphic, and make us almost forget that it’s a truly lived through experience and part of harsh reality. Here too a simple tool is used to strengthen the image: open up to the message and compare it to your own constitutional and political views.
Ester Hovers’ series False Positives demonstrates that image can both show an oversight (as in a landscape) and an insight (as in a position). The specific position of False Positives is that of the surveillance camera. The observer shares the perspective of the equipment but not its software that analyses the images and automatically goes into full alert when it detects something that it interprets as abnormal behavior. As an individual you just see the positions of people and get an impression of how these persons are moving through a street or square. The image recognition doesn’t focus on contact but on conflict; the position is always escalation. Strikingly, when you look with a human – non-algorithmic – eye there is nothing going on, while Hovers demonstrates that the computer system points someone out as a suspect over and over again. This shows how important it is to let human experience or observation take the lead. Profiling by algorithm leads to unjustified suspicion – with real consequences. The moment we no longer see this as unusual and teach ourselves to comply to the rules imposed by a programmer, so we don’t get caught by a surveillance camera as a suspect, you can say that the image controls us instead of bringing us something. Referring to Kant’s motto, the resulting assignment is to keep seeing for yourself.