Header image: Exhibition view Who’s in Control? (photograph by: Lize Kraan)
“Power,” says one woman. “Yes,” says the other, “of course it’s always about power.” They’re sitting next to me in the train. They’re on a day out or going to visit family, and they’re in a jovial, chatty mood. The conversation begins with a review of last night’s episode of the talk show ‘De Wereld Draait Door’, and before long they’re deep in a conversation about religions – “all equally good or bad, depending on how you handle them” – politics, economic interests and wars. Not exactly light subject matter. I’m half listening. Suddenly they arrive at a conclusion, and all the subjects are boiled down to one concept: power. And I think they’ve got a point…
Power. It’s a familiar and ancient concept, yet one that’s still difficult to grasp. Power seems to express itself in every age, through all sorts of different structures. Recently at FOTODOK we’ve been taking a closer look at power – specifically, hidden power structures in contemporary society. In a time when change keeps the ground constantly shifting beneath our feet, we’ve entitled our current exhibition Who’s in Control? Where does power reside today? Which images and terms do we consciously associate with it, and where does ignorance still reign?
Out of curiosity and a need to get to grips with this complex term, I consulted a dictionary before writing this blog post. The word “power” calls forth all sorts of images, but what general image does the language give us? I looked at definitions of the English word as well as its Dutch counterpart, macht. Both are broad. Power/macht is about possessing a certain ability, being capable of action, exerting influence. The word “might” also appears in both definitions. Finally, both mention a more specific social aspect, with reference to laws and political and social authority. This makes power, in both languages, at once an abstract phenomenon and something deeply embedded in our social structures. I’m struck by the fact that the word “power”/macht seems positively charged in these definitions, while in my head it has as many or more negative connotations. Is it me, or are the dictionary definitions perhaps no longer representative in our times?
Next, I try to find an unambiguous visual language for the concept of power – a particular iconography or set of symbols used to represent it. Starting from an art historical point of view, I encountered a range of symbols that are used to express power, many of which have been placed in and on various kinds of artefacts for centuries. These include images of animals – lions, ermines, eagles. Many objects, such as crowns, swords, keys, sceptres and globes, have been depicted for the same purpose. Finally, colours tend to have symbolic meaning as well, and in this case the colour purple is often related to the meaning of power.
And with that, my quest brings me back to Who’s in Control? which also aims to make hidden contemporary power structures visible and understandable – tangible – through images. Politics, religion, wars and economic interests are all addressed in the selection of exhibited projects. For example, Donald Weber’s Geographies of Power looks at how war is waged using computer-controlled aircraft. Salvatore Vitale’s How to Secure a Country shows how Switzerland’s whole government apparatus endeavours to provide citizens with (a sense of) safety. Eline Benjaminsen’s Where the Money Is Made seeks to document the invisible but influential phenomenon of high-frequency trading – modern-day stock trading that uses superfast software and hardware. Another striking theme in the exhibition, that didn’t feature much in my quest described above yet, is the increasingly powerful role technology plays in modern society. For several decades, we’ve been handing over part of our power, influence and authority to increasingly sophisticated technological systems. When we search for symbols of power 50, 20 or 10 years from now, I wonder if icons of computers, robots and transmitter masts will come up.
Book Club #17
In keeping with the theme of the exhibition, Book Club #17 was dubbed “The Power Edition”. Jonas Bendiksen kicked off the evening by talking about his book The Last Testament, for which he photographed seven people claiming to be the new messiah. They live all over the world, and each has followers in numbers ranging from the hundreds to the millions. All seven messiahs function as authorities; they propagate power. But they also give people something to hold onto. Bendiksen observed that for many people it is helpful to have not only faith but also a physical messiah to turn to for help and advice. What is also interesting, is that there are seven such people – along with countless others besides those Bendiksen followed. “Do all seven of them know about each other?” queried Book Club host Rob Hornstra. “And if they do, isn’t there a huge power struggle going on?” Not really, Bendiksen said; some do know of others’ existence, but they don’t see it as a problem. On the contrary, they refer to the prophecy “false Messiahs will arise.” According to this interpretation, the presence of multiple messiahs does not necessitate a power struggle but confirms an individual messiah’s position of power.
The second speaker, Laia Abril, talks about her book On Abortion. In it, she portrays a subject, abortion, which she has investigated in detail from a historical as well as a contemporary perspective. Frighteningly, the book shows how scenes that would seem to belong to the past are in fact still occurring today, and much closer by than we think. Abril emphasises the amount of power the system of politics, laws, authorities and religion exerts with respect to how abortion is dealt with and the degree of rights and freedoms women have.
The role of the political system is also addressed in the third book of the night, Investigation of Love. Lilia Luganskaia made it in response to having to provide the government with evidence to prove she was in a romantic relationship with a Dutch man and therefore entitled to a residence permit. Investigation of Love expresses in minute detail the power of government and the uncertain line between public and private. At the same time, it questions the power of the image: is photography capable of serving as evidence of something as difficult to define as love? Can images create a truthful picture of the world around us? Or do they primarily create heavily biased narratives and thereby exert power over our ideas about any subject one cares to name? To conclude the evening, Guy Martin engaged with these questions, taking as a starting point his book The Parallel State, which also features in the Who’s in Control? exhibition. The Parallel State portrays modern-day Turkey and its search for identity by juxtaposing pictures of everyday street scenes and TV soap sets. However, it is not immediately clear which images are which. The ambiguity fosters doubt and a critical awareness of the powerful role images can play in a society.
Power: where to submit or resist?
After searching for the meaning of power in word and image and seeing the various examples presented in Who’s in Control? and Book Club #17, I agree with my fellow train passengers: power is present everywhere, in every era, in the smallest relationships and the largest systems. So what do we do? In my view, we must try to capture hidden expressions of power in images and words. And where particular power structures are known, it’s up to us to keep reassessing how far we want to submit and when it’s time to resist.
– Puck Barendrecht