Staring Back

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“The heart of the aporia seems to me to lie precisely in the necessity we face, and the impossibility we struggle against, of collectively inventing a new image of a people, a new image of the relation between membership in historical communities (ethnos) and the continued creation of citizenship (demos) through collective action and the acquisition of fundamental rights to existence, work, and expression, as well as civic equality and the equal dignity of languages, classes, and sexes.”
– Etienne Balibar, ‘We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship.

In a recent edition of the Oxford Art Journal I found an interesting thinking piece about Chris Marker’s Staring Back, titled ‘Towards a New Image of Politics‘, written by Vered Maimon. As in the recently published Communities of Sense – a book Maimon co-edited – the article attempts to plug into critical discourse about politics and aesthetics, put forward by Jacques Rancière (see earlier post) and Etienne Balibar, amongst others. As it happens, Rancière himself mentioned Marker’s remarkable project, consisting of a series of still black and white photographic portraits documenting his long standing engagement with political resistance and the human face, in an insightful interview with Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey (published in Art Forum, March 2007):

“If there is a circulation that should be stopped at this point, it’s this circulation of stereotypes that critique stereotypes, giant stuffed animals that denounce our infantilization, media images that denounce the media, spectacular installations that denounce the spectacle, etc. There is a whole series of forms of critical or activist art that are caught up in this police logic of the equivalence of the power of the market and the power of its denunciation. The work of dissensus is to always reexamine the boundaries between what is supposed to be normal and what is supposed to be subversive, between what is supposed to be active, and therefore political, and what is supposed to be passive or distant, and therefore apolitical.”

“(…) I was also thinking of the portfolio of images by Chris Marker published recently in these pages [‘The Revenge of the Eye,’ Artforum, Summer 2006]–pictures of French students in the spring of 2006 protesting against a law that would have made working conditions for young people less secure. By proceeding in two modes, through filming and through manipulated screen captures from the video footage, Marker created a sort of fabulous population out of groups of real protesters. I’m thinking in particular of an image of a group of young people in hooded sweatshirts. During the riots in the Parisian banlieue in the fall of 2005, these hoods, covering the heads of Arab and black youth, became a stigma: They were compared both to terrorists’ masks and to Muslim girls’ veils. The hoods became the symbol of a population locked up inside its own idiocy. Now, in ‘The Revenge of the Eye,’ they transform the young people into medieval monks, bringing to mind Saint Francis’s companions in Rossellini’s film. The protestors become a “fabulous” population in Deleuze’s sense. It’s as if the capacity of art brought to bear on the figures were actually a property of the figures themselves. That’s an example of a reversal of perspective. And I think what art can do is always a matter of the reversal of perspectives. Police consists in saying: Here is the definition of subversive art. Politics, on the other hand, says: No, there is no subversive form of art in and of itself; there is a sort of permanent guerrilla war being waged to define the potentialities of forms of art and the political potentialities of anyone at all.”

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The ‘Revenge of the Eye’ portfolio that Rancière refers to consisted of some of the most recent images in Marker’s Staring Back book and exhibition project (of which I saw a version in Antwerp in 2008). The images were taken during the tumultuous 2006 anti-CPE (‘contract première embauche’) demonstrations protesting against the French government’s employment policies. Marker wrote: “The fight isn’t any longer against a largely imaginary fascism, neither is it about changing the world. Today’s mottoes deal with unemployment, income, fears of uncertain retirement (at 20… and yet in the long run they’re right). As my lens slips inside the crowd like an inquisitive snake, what it frames is, despite the apparent cohesiveness of the groups, the everlasting face of solitude.” Staring Back also features images of other political demonstrations – most of them extracted from his films - beginning with the notorious Charonne affaire in 1962 (some rendered from his film Le Joli Mai) to the actions against the Pentagon in 1977 (La sixième face du Pentagone), to May 1968 in Paris (Le Fond de L’air est Rouge), to various demonstrations in Paris in the period 2002-2004 (Chats Perchés). But in many ways it’s really the 2006 images that are the most striking. These images are not “bona fide photographs,” as he puts it, but frame captures from his video footage, studied in slow-motion playback to stem the otherwise “inordinate flow of video and television.” Working in this “superliminal” mode (Marker: ““If subliminal refers to the object the eye doesn’t catch but the brain does, Superliminal is the REVENGE OF THE EYE . . . that on slow-motion catches one image among many others apparently identical as being THE image . . .”), Marker searches for the “one frame lost in the stream of almost identical frames … the real photogram, something nobody has perceived–not even the guy who shot it (me, in most cases).” Bill Horrigan, curator of Staring Back, notes: “the subsequent digital manipulation he has imposed, and the startlingly flattened depth of some of the compositions, results in images unlike any others he has ever exhibited; it’s as though the faces of 2006 had become the faces of 1936 and 1236, the persistence of the Popular Front no less than the medieval among us”. It’s through this encounter with these faces, writes Vered Maimo, “that one is offered the recognition that in the current age politics can only exist beyond the realm of identities, precisely in the possibility (as Balibar argues) of creating transnational forms of citizenship. It is thus through the epistemological and political move beyond identity that Staring Back proposes a new image of politics and of the people and inseparably from it a new ‘politics’ of the image”.

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Maimo builds on Barry Langford’s reading of Le Fond de L’air est Rouge throughout which, according to Langford, “Marker insists – as in all his work – upon the impossibility of an experience of the world outside of representation, and of acts in the world outside of acting; yet in the same breath he asserts the vitality and the urgent necessity of these ‘fictions of the real’ as the basis for any political struggle and any prospect of future transformation.” Elsewhere he writes: “for Marker representational forms have lost their innocence. The beau masque, the theatricality that performs the revolution without enacting it, is itself a consequence of reality’s intensified colonisation by the image. For Marker hereafter the essential question thus becomes how as a filmmaker he can render the disingenuous transparency of the image, not so much opaque, but material”. Related to this, Maimo points out Rancière’s emphasis on the fictional and imaginary aspects of political subjectivities. In Dis-agreement (La Mésentente) he argues that politics is a matter of fictions and staged appearances and that “appearance is not an illusion that subsumes the real; It is the introduction of a visible into the field of experience, which then modifies the regime of the visible. It is not opposed to reality. It splits reality and reconfigures as its double”. For him, appearance and the logic of the double it enacts are necessary for politics because they expose the inconsistencies and tensions in any form of political and social identifications. This recognition of the power of the ‘fictions of the real’, writes Maimo, sheds a light on the images he presented in Staring Back.

“It is as if it is only by extracting these stills from the video footage that something new is introduced into the realm of the visible, such that their subject appears not as a personal ‘I’ or a unified and collective ‘We’, but as a subject in the process of ‘becoming-other’, a subject that has been ‘individuated’ from the flow and mass of people but like a shadow or an echo still remains inextricably bound to them. In short, a subject that displays the double impossibility of every form of political identification: that of forming a group and of not forming a group. Thus what we ultimately encounter in these images are doubles, ghosts not because these are manipulated digital images whose supposedly ‘truth’ status has been compromised or because they present people who are real before being actual, that is, an ideal and abstract collective as in classical cinema. Rather, these are, precisely, people who are actual before being real, people who are caught within a double and ceaseless movement between what always already is, and what has yet to be realised.”

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Maimo’s ideas are informed by Deleuze’s argument in his Cinema studies that one of the main differences between classical and modern cinema is that whereas in classical cinema, the people are already there (“real before being actual, ideal without being abstract”), in modern cinema “the people no longer exist or not yet . . . the people are missing”. It is no longer possible to “represent” the people as unified because “they were no people, but always several people, an infinity of people, who remained to be united, or should not be united . . . because the people exist only in the condition of minority, which is why they are missing”. What Deleuze terms “minor cinema” is not a cinema of becoming-conscious as in classical cinema, but of becoming-other - not “a cinema of demographic minorities that are given an identity as ‘Others’, but one which struggles to articulate collective utterances that address a people who do not yet exist or whose existence is precisely what is at stake” (for Rancière, the fact that the people are internally divided is the primary condition of the exercise of politics). Modern political cinema, Deleuze argues, consists in “putting everything into a trance . . . pushing everything into a state of aberration, in order to communicate violence”. Since modern cinema can no longer constitutes itself on the basis of the possibility of a revolution, it constitutes itself on a double impossibility, “that of forming a group and that of not forming a group, the impossibility of escaping from the group and the impossibility of being satisfied with it”’. This is not only the dilemma underlining Le Fond de L’air est Rouge, argues Maimo, but also a crucial element in understanding the images in Staring Back.

“They offer an adequate response for Balibar’s call for ‘a new image of a people’ because they reveal that the condition of possibility for this kind of image lies precisely in the ability to think about political and active forms of citizenship beyond the ‘myths of identity’ and the ‘illusions about the necessary course of history’. This makes Marker’s images ‘minor images’, not because of their modesty, but because of the way they mark the horizon of the virtual beyond its immediate actualisations.”

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“Virtuality” (another Deleuzian term) thus consists in the ability to create images which present the people as missing - as a split subject that does not have a pre-given identity and is not simply just “already there”. Yet, in Staring Back, the virtual also manifests itself in the individual portraits that are part of the project. Maimo uses Deleuze’s analysis of the close up and his notion of ‘faciality’ to point out the connection between the images of demonstrations and the portraits, as a way to “show the epistemological and political move beyond identity functions as a necessary condition for a new kind of relations between politics and visual images.” “It is precisely by ‘individuating’ the flow of images”, notes Maimo, “that Marker creates an ‘affection image’ or cinematic close up in which an image of a face does not identify a person as a separate self-sufficient subject, but by presenting him/her as both present and absent opens the transformative possibility of ‘becoming-other’ and the problem of ‘belonging’ to a group. It is in this sense that Staring Back suggests to us a new image of politics and the people, and inextricably a new politics of the image.”

“Once the people are presented as divided and political agency as inseparable from the ‘fictions of the real’, the image itself as an affection image is no longer a mark of identity, ‘truth’, or resemblance, but precisely what expresses the possible beyond its delimitation in fixed identities, ‘friend’ versus ‘enemy’, and the division into binary objective or subjective forms of enunciations. That is, once politics is configured as inseparable from the realm of phantoms and doubles, images are no longer addressed as exclusively documentary or fictional, analogical, or digital, while viruality itself is not associated with a specific technology. Rather it is associated with the conceptual and aesthetic capacity to configure heterogeneous forms of subjectivity and conflicted forms of collective association by imagining something like active, rather than merely ‘representational’, transnational forms of citizenship that emerge as something new in the current political context.”

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Images:
1. Demo 18 (Paris, 2006)
2. Demo 17 (Paris, 2006)
3. Demo 15 (Paris, 2006)
4. Demo 8 (Paris, 2006)
5. Demo anti Le Pen 3 (Paris, 2004)
6. Untitled (Tehran, 1950s)


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