Extract from an article in the forthcoming Sequence 4, published by no.w.here London.
Over the last year much of my practice has come to bear on a particular picture: a facsimile copy of a photograph printed in The Australian newspaper late in 2009. Two figures are in the foreground of the composition, perched on a bank of rocks that slope into a lapping body of water. A boat can be made out in the background. Palm fronds at the top left of the frame extend into a line of bushes or trees that run diagonally behind the figures at head height, into which their faces merge; black, flat and featureless. The woman is sitting on a rock and gesturing with her left hand. The man is squatting on another rock before her and the play of light (or perhaps a flaw of image reproduction) suggests he is looking up into her face. Is he smiling? He wears a gaudy patterned shirt and holds a pair of sandals before him. She wears a long scarf that suggests the line of her neck and pulls down to brush the rocks beneath her feet.
There is little else I can distinguish in this picture, which has nevertheless occupied me for some time. It refers to a photograph I am trying to locate, a news image that is no longer available online. I found this copy in a microfilm archive, as an analogue of its former self, put aside in the rapid turnover of news images. The picture recalls the plight of a migrant known as ‘Alex’, who for a brief period of time drew global attention as a spokesperson for ethnic Tamils fleeing the atrocities of the war in Sri Lanka. No longer a newsworthy concern, his face occasionally re-appears in the media without acknowledgement or consent as a nameless representative of those without official status or political agency. It is as though the details obscured in this poor copy correspond with the process of public memory loss. For me, studying the murky image is like trying to decipher a Rorschach inkblot that prompts one to project and reflect.
In a recent essay the artist and writer Hito Steyerl proposed a notion of ‘circulationism’ as the art of ‘postproducing, launching, and accelerating’ images across networks (Steyerl 2013). In a similar vein, the art historian David Joselit asserts that in the present era of ‘image overproduction’, what is critical is not the image as content, but rather the retrieval of content from patterns of images in circulation (Joselit 2013). Images are not necessarily powerful because of what they depict but in their ability to connect and proliferate. Thus the politics of moving images are not only the ‘public relations’ that facilitate the passage of images across media platforms and social networks, but also what drives images to move off screen, to go offline, to move through forms and also to move people.
The internet has become the means by which a significant population of the world organises their lives. We use the internet to determine the ways we work, socialise, and exchange, so much so that it appears as though life is embedded in networks. No longer simply perceivers and interpreters of information flows, contemporary, contingent, mediatised subjects are prosumers, carriers and accelerators of data. Where the internet and life are inseparable, image and world blur. Steyerl claims that under these conditions world and image ‘postproduce’ one another.
At the conclusion of the civil conflict in Sri Lanka early in 2009, certain images began to circulate amongst the Tamil diaspora via social media. Photographs of villages destroyed by shelling, families mourning the death of loved ones, mutilated bodies and charred human remains passed around diaspora networks and produced a heightened awareness of civilian Tamils under attack in Government-declared ‘no fire zones’. Caught between the encroaching forces of the Sri Lankan army and the desperate actions of the separatist Tamil Tigers resistance, these scenes of trauma caused ripples of distress around the world. Jill Bennett notes that certain distressing images have the capacity to disturb and motivate, linking pictures to actions that forge communities and campaigns. She claims that when such pictures are shared and modulated they are able to ‘sustain deep social and psychological bonds’(Bennett 2012, p. 166). In this respect, one could argue that the affective force of the images from the Sri Lankan civil war powered an animating and binding social energy, moving large numbers of Tamils into the streets of cities including London, Chennai, Toronto and Sydney, urging their governments to intervene.
These distressing images accrue power, not only in what they depict—many would not care to inspect the horrors they display—but in their ability to connect and motivate. They link to other images that depict similar atrocities and together they picture a history of conflict and possible war crimes in Sri Lanka. Such pictures accompany social processes that inform communities and collectively they exert a form of image-power that connects and mobilises pictures, people and politics.
Bennett, Jill, 2012. Practical Aesthetics: events, affects and art after 9/11. I.B. Taurus, London.
Joselit, David, 2013. After Art. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Shaviro, Steven, 2009. Post-Cinematic Affect. Zero books, Winchester, UK and Washington, USA.