On Thursday, May 17, 2018, I uploaded my first piece of (audio)visual historiography (as introduced here, here, and here) – (audio)visual or, to be more specific, imaginary (in the sense proposed here) – to the video-hosting platform Vimeo. Entitled The Literal Zone: Exhibits A-J, it is the outcome of the approach (detailed here) that I have had the opportunity to develop within the framework of Critical Images, a post-master course at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Consisting of ten brief episodes (or ‘exhibits’), each focussing on a highly cicumscribed event, the piece revolves around the figure of the refugee as it has been constituted throughout modern history, juxtaposing the recent – in fact, ongoing – so-called refugee crisis with what migration scholars have tentatively begun to describe as a “forty-years’ crisis” in the beginning and middle of the 20th century (ca. 1919–59).
Uploaded – and hence, in a sense, published. At that point, however, The Literal Zone had already been made available to the public, at least to the select few who made it to the group exhibition staged by the participants of the Critical Images course at Galleri Mejan, the Institute’s own gallery on Skeppsholmen, on the evening before. For the exhibition opening, curator Lea Vene penned the following brief description of the piece:
Andrej Slávik’s film is an immersion in the restless archive of found footage, in which the images transcend their representational roles. Various spatial and temporal zones are layered together with distinctive narrations, whose lines disturb the unilinear interpretation of the visual material.
Brief – although not quite as brief (disregarding the footnotes) as my own explanatory note, published in the exhibition catalogue; the latter, in fact, turned out to be a little too lapidary for the purposes of the end-of-course examination. Fortunately, we had also been asked to prepare written replies to three questions relating to some of the key concepts underpinning the course. Since my own replies also provide a little more background to my personal approach, I decided to post them here in unabridged form:
1. In relation to the exhibition and your text: How would you describe your view on what The Right to the Image is/means? (What is a dignified image according to you? How could a dignified image production and image distribution look like?)
Question 1 actually consists of three distinct questions, each one taking us in a different direction (more or less). Since ‘the right to the image’ also figures in the second question, my focus will be on ‘the dignified image’ and how it might be conceived. As I am sure you will agree, my approach to that notion is really quite old-fashioned.
On the one hand, of course, we can probably devise a whole range of specific criteria for what would consitute a dignified image – specific, that is, dependent on who or what is represented to whom (for instance, the people of Syria to a predominantly Western audience). On the other hand, trying to think of what might consitute a dignified image more generally, the best reply that I have been able to come up with is, simply, beauty – but only in a quite particular sense. In fact, it was only with the onset of modernity (roughly, at the turn of the nineteenth century) that the concept of beauty became firmly anchored in human subjectivity and then (in the course of the nineteenth century) progressively reduced to a mere psychological fact: hence, a saying like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. In earlier times, in contrast, beauty was more commonly understood in objective terms, for instance as a conformity with some sort of higher ideal or the sensible expression of an impersonal truth.
The concept of beauty that interests me takes shape precisely at the threshold between these diametrically opposed conceptions – for instance, around the middle of the eighteenth century, in the works of the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. Here, beauty is already subjective but not yet psychologized, thoroughly relational without having become entirely arbitrary. For Baumgarten, beauty (pulchritudo) was the ultimate yardstick for what he called ‘sensitive knowledge’ (cognitio sensitiva), a register of experience that is distinct from but also, in some sense, foundational with regard to the intellectual register: demoted by philosophical tradition to a lower cognitive faculty (facultas inferior), it is actually closer to that inscrutable ‘ground of the soul’ (fundus animæ) where all human capacities would seem to meet and mingle.
More specifically – and here, I’m borrowing a few lines from another scholar – sensitive knowledge is characterized by “[its] grasp of the special, the particular, in the diversity and complexity of its relations and connections”, enabling a kind of understanding where such ‘relations and connections’ are “preserved in their respective specificity” without “conceptual reduction and concentration” (Gross, 409). This is what Baumgarten dubbed “the art of thinking beautifully” (ars pulchre cogitandi), an art that invites us “to grasp the object in a way that acknowledges its embeddedness in the various relations that constitute its specific character” (412).
Today, Baumgarten is most familiar for having coined the term aesthetics; his notion of beauty, however, is apparently not ‘aesthetic’ in our sense of the word, but rather hermenutic (cf. Makkreel), epistemic, or, indeed, even anthropological. In Baumgarten’s own writings, it was closely intertwined with the concept of “extensive clarity” (claritas extensiva), signifying a wealth of outward associations that provide a sharpness of contour independent of strictly logical definition. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we find a definite resonance of this idea in Kant’s conception of a “free play of the faculties”; another half-century on, and we arrive at Baudelaire’s notion of correspondances, “confused words […] like long echos that intermingle from afar / in a dark and profound unity […] having the expanse of infinite things” (confuses paroles […] comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent / dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité […] ayant l’expansion des choses infinies).
And what does all of this have to to with dignity, let alone with ‘the dignified image’? Quite some, I would say. To my mind, a dignified image is precisely the kind of image that is able (or at least makes an honest effort) to grasp the particular in its ‘embeddedness’, in ‘the diversity and complexity of its relations and connections’ – with the present, but also, no less important, with the past and future. To what it is, but also to what it has been and may yet become. From this vantage point, the opposite of a dignified image would be a reductive image, the kind that would subordinate the particular to one and only one relation, turning a wealth of connections into a single constraint.
In a nutshell, then, a dignified image is an insubordinate image. This, in any case, is the most succinct definition that I can come up with for the moment. Now, it is high time to move on to…
2. How did you engage with The Right to the Image through your artistic practice and/or research method?
… question 2. Luckily, this question I can answer a lot more briefly. Throughout this course, as most of you already know, I have insisted (and not only for the sake of argument) on taking on the role of the professional historian – despite the sad but predictable fact that I’m actually out of a job… In any case, it is in that capacity that I have tried to engage with ‘the right to the image’ – and, more specifically, with the right of the past to its own image, as I put it at some point in the course of our discussions, as a point of departure for my effort to develop what I call (audio)visual historiography as the historical counterpart of visual ethnography – or, to paraphrase John Berger, as another way of telling the past.
3. What did you learn from the course that you will take further in your artistic practice and/or research?
As for question 3, I can answer that one even more briefly: everything – and, at the same time, nothing. On the one hand, it is the process that I had the opportunity to set in motion here – under the impression, for instance, of Abounaddara’s approach, and inspired by the other participants in the group as well as the guest teachers and various texts in the readers – that I hope to take further in a more or less near future. On the other hand, the basic premises of that process have not changed as a result of this course, at least not as far as I am aware at the moment; rather, the course has only reinforced a conviction that I already held when I applied. Time will tell.
Finally, the references: Rudolf A. Makkreel, “The Confluence of Aesthetics and Hermeneutics in Baumgarten, Meier, and Kant”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, No. 1 (1996); and Steffen W. Gross, “The Neglected Programme of Aesthetics”, British Journal of Aesthetics 42, No. 4 (2002). Both are highly recommended.