Yet again I find myself behind on my writing. New York has been simply overwhelming and with too much to focus on, too much to concentrate on, too much to keep up with and too much that I am already behind on. But some weeks have gone by and some new pieces and perspectives have gone public (via publications online), and I thought I would take a rare quiet morning and just share some of them here. The cold, wet, grey day outside is of course another reason to just stay at home a little longer and get this out there. So without further delay….
The ICP Infinity awards were held a couple of days ago. A reliable source – an acquaintance who was in attendance, told me that Adam Broomberg was incensed that Platon’s portrait of Vladimir Putin was on display and at some point during the proceedings secretly had it removed. I suppose this was meant to be an act of liberal political dissent. Or at least a ‘dissent’ that the moneyed patrons and participants of ICP consider to be acceptable and correct. I suspect it would not have occurred to anyone at the ICP event to remove Platon’s portraits of Barack Obama or George Bush (I do not know if any were being shown), because those celebrity leaders are our leaders, and their wars, occupations and staged elections are ‘good’ and ‘appropriate’.
In fact, this was the very argument of the recent Media Lens piece on the Afghanistan elections called ‘Hard Clay – Remaking Afghanistan In Our Image‘, where they pointed out that
Whereas all media accepted the basic legitimacy of an Iraq election conducted under extremely violent US-UK military occupation, they all rejected the legitimacy of a Crimea referendum conducted ‘at [Russian] gunpoint’. It was not difficult to guess how the same media would respond to the Afghan presidential election of April 5 under the guns of Britain and America’s occupying force.
In fact, I have written about the blinkers and propagandistic discourse that infests the ICP community some years ago when I criticised the award they gave to the French photographer Reza for his work documenting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There was something particularly hypocritical, and particularly insidious, about an institution from a country that is the current invader and occupier of Afghanistan, handing out awards for works done nearly 2 decades earlier while carefully and specifically remaining silent about the human catastrophe and brutality being inflicted upon that same nation at the very moment by the very government and country the ICP itself belongs to. I argued back then in a post called Sticking Our Heads In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan More When The Soviets Were Raping It, that:
Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavour of the champagne.
There is something culturally and politically propagandistic about the works that get celebrated at events such as the ICP Infinity awards. It is as if a certain group of moneyed people arrive and hand out trinkets to photographers who best create a veil of civility to our barbarism, and ensure that the responsibility and horrors are carefully placed on ‘their’ culture, ways of life, and backwardness, all of which we are at hand to save with our weapons, our lectures, our humanity and our benevolence. None of the works celebrated at ICP allow us to actually consider the histories and legacies of the communities being documented and shown. None allows agency to the other, and none reveal how our corporation and our machines of war and politics are largely responsible for the pathologies that seem to exist ‘over there’. Certainly none allow a strong, dissenting, politically engaged voice of the photographer to speak back to our power, our corporations, our government, our habits of invasion and occupation. There is merely a theatre of ‘social engagement’ and ‘human concern’, but no politics, no dissent, no outrage at what we have enabled and designed. So many still reek of White-guy photography and its just simply shocking and surprising that there remains little or no critical thought or analysis of them. Instead, the works seem to cleanse us of responsibility, each story acting as clear products of propaganda and obfuscation, and of course, moral absolution. Its as if the world – all and complete with its myriad new voices, its confident new insights, its remarkable new complexity and contrapuntal realities, just does not exists. Its as if the ICP Infinity awards are more about creating fiction while selling its as non-fiction because the latter is unpalatable and incomprehensible, while the former is affirming and comforting, much like a prime time sitcom that helps erase the world we have just struggled to work through and weave our way across to sit ourselves down on a sofa and tune out.
The portrait of Vladimir Putin was was removed, and a sense of feel-goodness filled the air at the events. Even my acquaintance relayed the story to me with a sense righteousness. Then I suppose they all congratulated themselves at their ‘powerful political dissent’ and went home considering themselves human rights defenders, and moral crusaders. Where is my Graham Greene?
Warscapes Magazine blog just ran a piece I wrote about Norway’s ‘human zoo’ art project. You can read it online of course, but I am re-posting it here in its entirety.
The Norwegian artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner are recreating, as part of a nationwide commemoration of 200 years of the Norwegian Constitution, a “human zoo” as a way of provoking an engagement with Norway’s colonial past. However, in their effort to engage with a brutal and violent colonial history and stimulate discussion about the prejudice, profiteering and power that allowed it to happen, the artists fail to understand how the very act of creating this “art” and inviting people to “volunteer” to be the “animals” in the “zoo” is in itself an act of privilege, power and a manifestation of the social inequalities and economic imbalances that taint our modern world.
There is, of course, the tastelessness of it all – imagine inviting Jews to participate in a modern-day reenactment of the gas chambers organized by a couple of German artists – but equally egregious is the obfuscatory nature of the attempt. The entire reenactment, one that can today be performed in a benign and “educational” manner, presumes that issues of racism, bigotry, economic inequality, political power and relationships of dependency and exploitation when it comes to Africa and Africans no longer exist or matter.
Ostensibly, it may appear to be no different from a theatre or film performance. The people participating are willing subjects who probably believe that this may actually offer a historical context to a shameful and disgusting past. The organizers of the project have put out a call for volunteers to be the “animals.” Clearly there will also be non-whites in the audience that come to gawk at them. So what historical context is actually being created? Hasn’t this entire performance already crumbled when the actual historical imbalance of power, might, greed and desire – qualities that made racial science and its associated acts of slavery the incredibly profitable and incredibly brutal enterprise that it was – is no longer present? Isn’t this, then, simply gratuitous? In what way does it help us experience what it means to simply kidnap millions of people and sell them to others for our benefit? What is the historical context? Or is it merely titillation at being able to “re-occupy” those spaces of European superiority, Black/African barbarism and “monkey-like” behavior yet again? Is it cathartic, or simply voyeuristic? One can also ask how the questioning of the benefits and privileges of slavery that European nations continue to benefit from will be challenged? What stark revelations about the existing and growing atmosphere of racism and bigotry across Europe will be revealed? Probably none.
The fundamental problem with such “performances” is not just that they fail to perform anything meaningful, but that they more egregiously fail to point out that we are not done with the past. They simplify the deep social, economic and political links that had existed, and that continue to benefit societies in Europe today. Furthermore, like Disney’s proposal to build a slave-plantation theme park in Florida – one that was much criticized – it gives the spectators a false sense of comfort that what they are dealing with is the past, something that was once, something that has nothing to do with what remains today. Racism, exploitation of African economies, the bigotry and dehumanization that underpin international development and aid – the Norwegians are the leaders in such ‘good’ works – continue to contort lives, economies and society in Africa.
All such performances attempt to play on a false idea that “shame” is the main response to the exploitative past, and to the brutal present. This is a shallow view, and one that fails to properly acknowledge how so much of the wealth of Europe today is intentionally protected and extended because of all that was violently gained before. Is this a conversation spectators are seriously willing to have? Probably not. Thus, there is no historical context, but rather a short-form accusation that seeks to provoke feelings of shame in its audience. But shame is not a sustainable response if we are serious about understanding history, nor one that provokes action against its legacies.
Another iteration of the same problematic approach is the “feel good” story predicated, ultimately, on inequity. For example, the recent one about “Somalis on ice” during the corporate production of something known as the Olympics. Yet another story of black/brown people valiantly behaving according to an imagined idea of “us.” Lets be honest: such stories also carry within them the racist prejudice which believes that black/brown people are generally too backward to indulge in what are clearly rich people’s activities. We are surprised and amused at their temerity, and their desire to belong to our world. Much of our bigoted amusement comes from the way these stories are produced and presented, because they exploit the element of shock and surprise at their efforts.
I am reminded of something that Michael-Rolph Trouillot said in Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History when criticizing the Disney proposal to build a slavery theme plantation exhibit. To be sure, there was popular disapproval of the idea. William Styron – whose family were slave owners – vehemently opposed the idea. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Styron argued: “I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery…To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.” (Op-ed, Aug 4, 1994)
But it took Trouillot to touch on something that was not said even by those who were aghast and opposed to the idea – that the danger in a Disney-made exhibit of a slave plantation, no matter how historically accurate, morally precise, or emotionally powerful, did not produce any relation to the Past, but perpetuated instead the dishonesty of that relationship as it would happen in the Present. That is, viewers would walk away with the wrong response to the exhibit – namely that issues of racism are in the past, and that today all that was over. An exhibit eliciting such a response is simply, and nothing short of, immoral.
This is a powerful critique, and one that applies here in the case of Norway’s new exhibit. No matter how well-intentioned, viewers are encouraged to walk away convinced that all is well in Europe, that the Africans are happy and belong, and that our society lives above racism and bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are many who think that parody is political dissent and criticism. Jon Stewart has made a career out of this, and many commentators have pointed out how comedy television is really the only place where political criticism and dissent can be heard loud and clear. This is a pathetic and sad state of affairs for our democracy. What people who watch these programs do not seem to realise that parody undermines dissent, and deflate it of meaning. It certainly distracts from the need for action and the venues for achieving it. The comedian John Oliver – a Jon Stewart protegé, is now also in the game. The limits of parody as journalistic criticism are well captured in this interview with the former head of the NSA Keith Alexander:
There are two tricks that Keith Alexander plays on, and both have been made concrete and possible by the Obama administration:
1: that everything that the NSA does is legal
2: those who made mistakes, have since come up and acknowledged it, and that is good enough
The first is based on the lie that federal / FISA courts approvals make things ‘legal’. But these are ‘rubber stamping’ courts, that are more real in their pretence than in their substance. You can read more about that empty process here:
Two: the idea that if someone made a mistake i.e. spied on Americans for example, they can come forward and acknowledge that mistake, and because they are ‘good people’ is a classic case of how the Obama administration has re-interpreted ‘breaking the law’ as ‘making a mistake’. It is this re-interpretation that has allowed it to 1) give immunity to telecoms that helped spy on american in violation of the law, 2) give immunity to the corrupt bankers on wall street that bought this nation’s economy to its knees while begging for public handouts and then bragging about their profits, 3) ignore the war criminals that instituted torture and rendition policies, to say nothing about sanctioning illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much more. By calling crimes simply ‘mistakes’, this clownish administration has revealed time and again its corrupt and hollow core.
To listen to this man now repeatedly use the same tactics that the Obama administration has used for years to obfuscate criminal activities is just sickening. John Oliver either does not understand what Alexander is saying, or is too keen to be a comedian and lets him off the hook too easily. Alexander is lying to his face, despite us knowing all the facts, and yet isn’t taken down on prime time television. An opportunity missed. But that is what happens when comedy is seen as a form of politics. Particularly when it seems to have become the only form politics and political discourse most people seem to want to engage in.
We now learn that hate radio had little to do with the evolution of the Rwandan genocide. See here:
The Keystone XL pipeline is getting the full marketing treatment, with online advertisements that pop up on Facebook and other social media sites. These advertisements feature They are running television ads with sincere, serious looking white men speaking to other sincere, serious and hapless looking ‘Norman Rockwellian’ white farmer types, to argue that the pipeline reflect 1) american values, and 2) offers jobs and 3) frees us from those supplying ‘conflict oil’ who do not share our values.
This is one of many.
The phrasing ‘conflict oil’ is a fabulous euphemism for our conflicts for oil of course, and our wars of influence and control. This phrasing veils that our wars are not merely about access to oil, but as much about control of them, and the need for exclusive and privileged use of it. that from africa to the middle east, the united states – an economy that refuses to change its fossil fuel dependency – needs to simply feed itself and its voracious economic and consumer appetite.
There can be no re-imagining of a new tomorrow, but merely a catatonic society simply proceeding as before and pillaging and murdering to ensure that it can do so. that the keystone will bring some temporary jobs, but certainly create massive immediate profits , possibly permanent ecological devastation, massive destruction of arable land, definite incidences of environmental pollution, further exacerbation of our carbon contributions and certainly not reduce our fossil fuel dependency, or needs for more wars is of course not up for discussion in these pathetic ads and propaganda pages.
The Tar sands of Canada, from where this oil will come, are an ecological disaster and a human tragedy. The refusal to review how we live, and what we live on, a simply intellectual and imaginative failure of a polity that is completely beholden to corporate wealth, and that has recently been made even more so by an unethical Supreme Court bent on removing all checks and balances on the rich and the corporate.
The pipeline will go through because there are no avenues for civic dissent to matter. It is there, and it is visible, but does not matter. I wonder if the ICP will make a connection between Nigeria and our environmental disasters here? I doubt it.
In the annals of the stupid, this is my entry for today.
This entire discussion is yet another nail in the ‘its about culture’ industry – the charade of ‘inter-faith’ dialogue being used to obfuscate actual politics, history and legacies of war. The ‘nice’ Moos-lims of course, always on call to ‘explain’ or ‘correct’ the use of meaningless and abstract terms like ‘Islam’ and ‘Jihad’, but never to once utter a word about a history of the world to which America too belongs, on which America too acts, and for which American too has to suffer the consequences much like the rest of the world. Commemoration becomes a cleansing of reality, a white-washing of our crimes as we wax lyrical about those of others. Out of the blue, and from cultural narratives, an entire nation will be made to further suffer in ignorance and self-pity.
Just a really good documentary about how online privacy has been carefully and systemically erased while you were sleeping: