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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Ghost 2013

Ghost 2013

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Blasts from the past

Out of the Archive: Artists, Images and History

Friday 18 November 2011, 10.30–17.30
Saturday 19 November 2011, 10.30–17.30

In collaboration with the London Consortium.
This conference was originally conceived by the Colonial Film project team, and coincides with the launch of the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire website.

I believe it was Jane Elliott who once toured America saying that white people know as much about racism as black people: and that ignorance is first a privilege and then a choice. This is certainly what sprang to mind over the two days of this conference, which seemed to have a series of absences and elisions at its heart: absences and elisions to do with audiences and cultural ownership, and to do with the protocols of archives themselves, and their meta data.

May Ann Doane, reliably rigorous in her reading of selected films, and relating her response to the colonial film archive to her research on the historical sublime, made the point through example that the colonial film makers felt no need to identify or differentiate the individuals filmed. She suggested that the narrative voice over was part of the dehumanisation process, whereby one African bushman could be substituted for another without explanation.

Yet it seemed to me that this is exactly what Filipa Cesar had done in Black balance, by taking archival footage and cutting together a range of clips of different African nations and cultures in order to make clear – to emphasise – the racism of the white colonial film makers.

This seems to me to exemplify the problematic at the core of this publishing of the archive, and of any discourse around it. When questioned about the content and the audiences for this material, Frances Gooding suggested that there are many people ignorant of the Empire’s history, and that this archive will serve as a source of historical knowledge. What this fails to address however, is the questionable politics of remobilising these images with only that imperative in mind.

First, because it ignores what I would suggest is a considerable population sufficiently visually literate to read back the racism of the original. Secondly because it makes absent the viewpoint of people from the cultures represented (in the historical moment of those cultures dispossession), either as a primary text or in its remobilisation by the artist.

In this way, it seemed to me that much of the conference ran the risk of re-presentation without sufficient critique, and without imagining what it might be like to be viewing this material not as the coloniser, but as the colonised.

Surely we have an ethical obligation to return these images to the peoples whose history they document?

By way of comparison, there has been an Australian exhibition called In living memory which has attempted to deal with precisely these issues of cultural ownership.

In Living Memory is a powerful exhibition of archival photographs from the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board taken between 1919 and 1966, combined with contemporary images of Elders, families and communities by senior Indigenous photographer Mervyn Bishop. In Living Memory first opened in September 2006 and proved to be so important to NSW Aboriginal people, international visitors and the wider community that is still remains open at State Records Gallery.”[1]

Some of the protocols for the making public of these images included consultation with those photographed, their families and their communities. No image was published without the express permission of the people represented or their families. So this archive, whilst a document to the assimilationist policies that destroyed so many aboriginal lives, became an exhibition that returned in some measure a sense of history and representation to those whose lives they picture. The photographs were remobilised in a way that didn’t only refigure the history, but allowed people to reclaim personal and community histories and represent them in the present, via public discourse authored by those communities, and by a photographer who is a member of those communities.

In this way the project became much bigger than a white masculinist paternalist discourse about the mess we’re in: it became an effective and expansive political project concerned with cultural ownership and a dialogue between communities.

What I can’t help but wonder is: what protocols are in place for the use of material in these archives; and in the effective, if partial, doubling of the archive that this online resource represents? How are they being made available to the communities from which the images were taken? Relying on the idea that the internet makes these images available to everybody is naïve in the extreme, and I would hope artists and researchers from the colonised nations represented would have privileged access to this material. Or perhaps even be consulted about its publication; of images which represent not just the point of view of Empire, but, as film and photography cannot help but do, represent something about these cultures and their history.

Because wherever those questions are being answered, that is the conference I would like to have attended.


Thursday, 25 April 2013

TV Series

Friday, 12 April 2013


Friday, 8 March 2013


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Photography contra sublime

Is there still ‘the sublime’?

If the sublime requires a conceptual mastery of the experience of terror/awe when confronted with the image, how then might we understand the operation of the sublime through the image that replaces the memory of the event?
We rely on the indexicality of photography and assume, even while aware of the ease with which we manipulate the digital image, that there remains a functional representational value to the photographic document. At the same time we conveniently forget Barthes notion of the photograph supplanting the memory it represents[1]. Barthes was describing the portrait of the face of the beloved in the first instance, but extrapolated his theory of photography and memory from that analysis. If this aura of photography still holds and can be expanded to include cultural not just personal images; and if the sublime can still be experienced through representation; then at the intersection of cultural memory & the image lies a complex process of displacement. So much so that historical images come to stand in for the trauma they document, and simultaneously cover over their complex cultural meanings. This order of representation – the historical, perhaps cultural – sublime[2], allows us to master our terror, but simultaneously, by its continued circulation, to experience an unbearable forgetting. The images become a collective stand in that allows us to master the horror for which they are the mnemonic.
If we consider the photographic image of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki A-bomb cloud; or the films from the liberation of the concentration camps amongst several others of the same order, they become through their cultural saturation a kind of shorthand for far more complex and far more frightening histories because we prioritise the experience of mastery: it makes history bearable.
The constant televisual projection of the twin towers falling is of another order I think, and the marker of a change in era. Its relentless transmission means it has entered a Western, perhaps global, domain alongside the historical sublime. This order of photography and its intensity constructs images through which we as a culture attempt to master not just our terror, but our individual and collective powerlessness, and not through an experience of the sublime, but through the replacing of the memory of the event with an image.
In this compulsion to repeat, actually or symbolically, we are served by ever more efficient 24 hour digital flows of images and information: as Wark[3] has argued these flows are not the same in all times & places, and this in turn privileges and silences, exposes and hides, just as previous forms of information circulation have done.
This sleight of hand creates a politicised hierarchy of images: and therefore a hierarchy of terror. Systems of representation, and transmission; and our consumption of images and media, mean we cannot but collude in this hierarchical structuring; attempting to keep those that are unbearable at arms length, and adjudicating their meaning in the process. It is no coincidence that this intense visuality of the event comes about at the same time as a turn in the nature of politics, whether conventional politics of the governmental kind, or the politics of representation in all its forms.

Liz Bradshaw

This précis is part of a much larger project on art & politics, and the end of postmodernity.

[1] See Barthes, R Camera Lucida trans Howard, R Vintage Books London 1981/2000
[2] See Doane, M A ‘Lost and Found Footage: The Historical Sublime’ presentation at ‘Out of the archive: artists, images & history’ Tate Modern November 18 & 19 2011
 [3] See Wark, M Telesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class Polity Press 2012

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Friday, 4 January 2013

Road trip