Spectacles Speculations: In Terms of Images

“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 TECNO 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(figure 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

Fig. 1: Screenshot of TECNO Mobile campaign on Instagram

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).

Even though Debord’s proposition of détournement — a self-evident, dialectical style of critiquing the spectacle that employs montage, appropriation and plagiarism as techniques of diversion, hijacking or corruption to aggressively counter “official truths” that preserve the spectacle— was eventually assimilated into capitalist processes for its own ends, his diagnosis of the phenomenon makes for compelling study today. For example, it is crucial to note that Debord considered the spectacle not merely in symbolically subversive terms but as a dialectical “materialization of ideology brought about by the concrete success of an autonomized system of economic production… which virtually identifies social reality with an ideology that has remolded all reality in[to] its own” (Debord: 1967, 212).

To demonstrate how this dialectic relates to the class struggle I will now turn my attention to third cinema/imperfect cinema filmmakers whose contentions offer another angle into such image poetics of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They utilized the camera as a political tool in response to neocolonialism, capitalist property relations and what they considered to be the reactionary model Hollywood (or first cinema) conventions proliferated in the former colonies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Two seminal manifestos — Towards a Third Cinema (1969) co-authored by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, members of the Grupo Cine Liberaciòn, and For an Imperfect Cinema (first published in Spanish in 1969 but became available in English in 1979) written by Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa — congeal the materialist decolonial ethos undergirding liberation movements across the aforementioned regions that rejected first cinema films “destined to satisfy only the ideological and economic interests of the owners of the film industry, the lords of the world film market.”5(Solanas & Getino: 1969) Towards a Third Cinema was first published as ‘Hacia un tercer cine’ in the leftist quarterly cinema journal Tricontinental founded in 1967 by the Cuban organization known as the Organization of Solidarity with People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL).

 As far as Solanas and Getino are concerned the 24 frames per second, 35mm camera standard and commercial outlets of dissemination to audiences are conventions which when taken for granted come together to further the ideology and worldview of U.S finance capital. They sum up their socialist ethos in the following way: “Third cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognizes in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point – in a word, the decolonisation of culture.” (Solanas & Getino: 1969) A notable imperative here is to uproot bourgeois modes of organizing social life and to “mobilize, agitate and politicize” sectors of the masses out of passivity and morbid consumption; in sum, to politicize images and instigate a revolutionary consciousness in public life not merely for the purpose of making spectators active but to have them become “genuine co-authors” (In this regard, Espinosa is especially optimistic that techno-scientific developments of his time, by rendering the masses more visible, could potentially initiate an abolishment of spectatorship altogether if the apparatus of filmmaking is effectively massified) (Espinosa: 1979, pp. 5, 7).

By way of positionality, Espinosa proclaims that imperfect cinema— process-oriented cinema that is opposed to elitist contemplative cinema— can neither be impartial nor uncommitted, it must be partisan, “a consciously and resolutely committed cinema” favoring the masses or dispossessed. (Espinosa: 1979, pp. 4, 9) Perhaps James Baldwin, black American civil rights activist, novelist and playwright, had this same tendency in mind earlier in 1963 when he put a more diabolical ring to it in the context of U.S racial politics. Writing a century after the Emancipation Proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln that purported to free “all persons held as slaves” in January of 1863, Baldwin sternly jolts white America to come to terms with the generational privileges they have inherited while still trampling under foot, in the middle of the twentieth century, the rights of black people. In essence he required them to perform a suicidal act against themselves by relinquishing these privileges in the name of love and unity— to betray their race to, as he put it, “consent, in effect, to become black” so as to “become a part of that suffering and dancing country” that they are so safely removed from. (Baldwin: 1993, pp. 96) Thoroughly abreast with the weight of his call to volitional action Baldwin serves an ominous rejoinder that “[t]o act is to be committed, and to be [so] committed is to be in danger” (Baldwin: 1993, pp. 9).

Equipped with such rote conviction, third cinema filmmakers see no neutral position in the anti-imperialist struggle, as in the one they perceived to be taken by auteur cineastes (or second cinema filmmakers) who sought to reform first cinema conventions by introducing their personal signatures or styles of cinematic practice. As long as they relied on the distribution outlets and market values of the existing capitalist system, their efforts were, from a third cinema perspective, impotent for any revolutionary approach to decolonize culture through filmmaking. In this sense then third cinema/imperfect cinema films are not merely moving images to be passively consumed for the sake of entertainment (normative for Hollywood films) but could become, for example, a pretext for anti-imperialist public meetings. Many of these films were didactic and documentary in style and employed extensive use of montage, text, archival and/or found footages as well as unconventional collectivist methods of filmmaking as in La Hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces) released by Solanas and Getino in 1968 amidst film suppression laws in Argentina.

Why are the masses so important in the class struggle? To briefly digress, this is the group orthodox Marxism identifies as its subject of history and in whom revolutionary potential is lodged owed to capitalist property relations. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels delivered the Communist Manifesto in 1848 they defined the proletariat as that class of society who were propertyless and who lived exclusively by renting their labor for wages and not on profit from any kind of capital, which made them vulnerable to exploitation. For Marx and Engels this class emerged in the nineteenth century because the Industrial Revolutions in England and U.S.A had introduced machines such as the steam engine, the spinning machine and the power loom which accelerated the rate at which commodities could be produced. Because these machines were expensive, only the bourgeoisie — the property-owning class or ruling elites — could afford them and this is how the factory system came into existence. Work eventually became more and more divided such that workers who were formerly producing whole articles were now making only portions of it. Although these conditions of production have evolved from localized factories into internationalized labor systems today, at base, capitalism essentially manufactures inequality between rich (aristocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, etc) and poor classes (the masses, underclass, the rest).

Analogically, in terms of images, Hito Steyerl critically extends the pre-digital theses of Espinosa, Getino and Solanas to offer a nuanced complexity into the content and character of digital images in an Internet age with what she terms “poor images”7. In the class society of images, the poor image is an underclass, an “illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image” (Steyerl: 2012, pp. 32) which has been downloaded, reedited, renamed, and recirculated on DVDs, VCDs, or online. In this system images are hierarchized based on commercial value, quality of resolution, speed, and compression. When she theorizes the poor image as “the real and contemporary imperfect cinema” which is “much more ambivalent and affective than Espinosa had anticipated”, she is intimating that if in the late 1960s Espinosa was tacitly optimistic about the revolutionary potential of using low quality images or employing unprofessional technical expertise in filmmaking as a practical method of denouncing the status quo we cannot, today, afford to take this assumption for granted that once images of this kind are used they possess, in and of themselves, emancipatory potential (Espinosa does claim that imperfect cinema “can be created equally well with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera, in a studio or in a guerrilla camp in the middle of the jungle“ (Espinosa: 1979, pp. 12). For although, according to Steyerl, the poor image enables participation, collaboration and unparalleled immediacy in distribution networks due to remix and appropriation this does not necessarily mean that these opportunities are only used for progressive ends. Privatization, hate speech, hacking, spam and other such excesses and contradictions plague digital communication at the same time. Nicolas Bourriaud writing much earlier than Steyerl in the ‘90s about such postproduction processes/techniques similarly summarizes his skepticism about the liberating power of technology when he also states that “computer science, image technology and atomic energy represent threats and tools of subjugation as much as improvements to daily life.”8

It is this paradox that I find stimulating and which I think could serve as a positive starting point for artists and curators in our production and manipulation of images today. In lieu of this I think of the exhibition as medium through which to analyze a plurality of image-making technologies through works of artists who do not take their given image-making technologies for granted and who are responding to these issues in relation to contemporary discourse on the spectacle.

 

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, writer and curator based in Kumasi, Ghana.

 

 

Notes:

  1. https://instagram.com/p/Bb_py6DFtTY/
  2. See Benjamin W. (1936). The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Debord G. (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.bopsecrets.org
  5. Solanas F. & Octavio G. (1969). Towards a Third Cinema. Retrieved from http://www.marginalutility.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Towards-a-Third-Cinema-by-Fernando-Solanas-and-Octavio-Getino.pdf
  6. Ibid.
  7. Hito Steyerl theorizes poor images as archival, low resolution, noncommercial images that cannot be assigned any value as they exist as copies of technically perfect mainstream images policed by first cinema standards. See Steyerl H. (2012, pp. 32). The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
  8. Bourriaud N. (2002, pp. 65). Relational Aesthetics. Paris, Les Presses du Réel

 

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