“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, and ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of this sleep.” — Guy Debord, 1967
In a thirty-second Techno Mobile campaign on Instagram for the Phantom 8 model of the company’s smartphone brand, a fascinating mise-en-scène unfolds. A sedan is shown driving down a street. Then, in rapid succession, the editing reveals a bizarre sequence of medium, close-up and wide-angle shots narrating the story of a day in the life of a working man. He is first shown seated in the backseat of the car busy on his phone. The sedan he is riding in comes to meet other cars held up in traffic with irritated drivers and passengers wondering what it is that is holding them up in this kind of situation. Just then this man, with the aura of a superhero, gets down from the back of the car where he alone was seated, reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the phone. He confidently wields the device in one hand while pinching the screen with thumb and index finger of the other to “super zoom” into the event eluding the vision of everyone in the picture, including himself. His implicit confidence in the device is affirmed as it reveals the comical event obscured before them: a truck carrying poultry had spilled its cargo with people frantically collecting them about the street.1 (see fig. 1) The message here is familiarly clear, the mobile phone manufacturer is promising potential customers that the phone camera, with its inbuilt functionalities, can enable us surpass limitations in natural vision— in short, augmented human ability is potentially available to anyone who can afford this commodity.
I use this public relations hyperbole to draw attention to what has become commonplace dictum that the technical function of zooming multiple times into one’s environment with a mobile device permits us to penetrate so deeply into the details of the natural world in a way that is unmatched by the naked eye. Lest we take this digital technological advancement for granted, Walter Benjamin — writing at a time of the impending Fascist regime ushered in by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany in the 1930s — apropos Paul Valéry, anticipates this radical transformation of our visual apparatus of perception in the early days of analog photography and film when he analyzed the implications of the invention of the camera on art and its relationship to politics.2For Benjamin our logistics of perception are shaped just as much by historical circumstances as they are by nature (Benjamin: 1936, p. 5). His position is a radical modernity unrooted and unbounded by Fascist identification of nationalism or ethnic property. He is of the conviction that the invention of photography (and consequently film) had the potential to transform the very nature of art itself wresting it from the “cult of beauty” into a practice based on politics.
The politics of the image factored significantly in the ideological wars of the past century therefore underlining its relevance as subject matter for our time. Since the early twentieth century there have been consistent efforts by artists, filmmakers, dramatists and intellectuals to undermine the traditional values of capitalism’s “illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations”3(Benjamin: 1936, p. 14) from the Soviet Union, through Europe, to Latin America, Asia and Africa. We owe the development of techniques and genres such as montage, collage, assemblage, jump cuts, documentary films, pamphlet films, essay films, et al to these anti-art movements since their political passion was to profanate the conventional and institutional limits of art thus changing its relations with the public.
Postwar geopolitical events of the twentieth century exposed a crisis of the image amidst liberation movements in the former colonies of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, the Cuban Revolution, etc), Civil Rights Movement in the USA, 1968 riots in France, Mexico and elsewhere around the world, the Vietnam War, Cold War geopolitics, amongst others… In 1967, a year before the student-led uprisings in Paris, Guy Debord, filmmaker, theorist and member of the Situationist International, published his philosophical treatise “The Society of the Spectacle”. His dialectical exposition critiques capitalist conditions of production by exposing its contradictions and alienatory effects on the masses. First Debord defines the spectacle as “the visual reflection of the ruling economic order”4— a unified and autonomized world of images. But at the same time that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images”, it is also “not a collection of images” but “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” His paraconsistent logic is taken a step further when he concedes that the spectacle is “not merely a matter of images, nor images plus sounds” but “an affirmation of appearances” which detaches it from pictorial dependencies and frees it up to phenomenology — that is, in terms of how things appear in the world of the sensible or realm of phenomena. In this way it simultaneously begins with a multiplicity of forms of appearances as well as modes of perception. This is the radical understanding Spectacles. Speculations… brings to the conception of images such that it becomes possible to discuss works from photography, video, film, text, sound, black box theatre, computer-aided design, installation, sculpture, and spoken word poetry in the context of images (see curatorial statement).
Read full essay here. This essay is written for the exhibition Spectacles. Speculations… To learn more about the show click here.
- See Benjamin W. (1936). The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
- Debord G. (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.bopsecrets.org