The Militant Image

Ines Schaber, "Culture Is Our Business," 2014 (Detail). Courtesy: Agentur für Bilder zur Zeitgeschichte / Agency for Images of Contemporary History, Berlin.

In 2003 the medieval town of Graz, in lower Austria (a region famously the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger – his cardboard cutout greets you at the airport) was the European Capital of Culture. Such an honor would seem to be a gimme. Already a UNESCO world heritage site, the town is postcard-cute, with baroque red-tiled buildings all around the old center, cobble-stoned streets, and a winding staircase to the Schlossberg that towers over the Mur river. Two of the most prominent accomplishments of the 2003 events were the Vito Acconci-designed Murinsel, a torqued island-cum-café in the middle of the river that looks like a discarded beer can (but in a good way), and the Kunsthaus. Designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, the shiny, black, amorphous blob-like Kunsthaus sits on an ancient street with all the aplomb of a drag queen.

Camera Austria’s exhibition space is in the Kunsthaus and, unlike many signature museums, the gallery inhabits its building in a remarkably benign fashion. The exhibition Picturing What Is Already Going On, Or The Poetics of the Militant Image, curated by the Vancouver-Vienna team Urban Subjects (Sabine Bitter, Jeff Derksen, Helmut Weber), includes the work of eleven artists: the Canadians Raymond Boisjoly and Jayce Salloum, the Germans Harun Farocki and Ines Schaber, the Lebanese Walid Sadek and Paola Yacoub, the American Sharon Hayes; and Alfredo Jaar (Chile), Emily Jacir (Palestine), Peter Friedl (Austria), and Marine Hugonnier (Belgium). Weber described the project to me in a succinct fashion, asking “how to bring a historical image into the present to tell us something about the future?” So this is definitely political art, a political curation, but also one that asserts the importance of the contemporary museum in the digital age. For it’s in the museum or gallery that aesthetic form can still retain its noble mission.

Consider the work of Sharon Hayes, a queer artist who often re-stages protest moments with her own body (thus carrying a Civil Rights-era placard reading “I am a man”). Here she displays a photograph of 1970s anti-gay activist Anita Bryant having a cream pie pushed into her face (I Saved Her a Bullet, 2012). The image appears to be shot off a television, and now is a transparency placed onto an overhead projector. So a historical image, grainy and smeared (like Bryant’s face, presumably), is re-presented with a now-outdated technology that carries the resonance of the classroom, of didactic or pedagogic art. And it succeeds brilliantly because of this layering of history, form, and a decayed picture.

So too does Emily Jacir’s Bethlehem Street Corner (1998), which re-enacts objects that the artist once saw for sale in Palestine: a stack of Kurt Cobain T-shirts, and a stack of kaffiyahs. Thus the martyr of grunge becomes a martyr of the intifada. It’s a hanging proposal, but certainly in the way American pop culture is taken to very different ends in other parts of the world (think of the weird resonance James Cameron’s Avatar had with Palestinians and indigenous peoples), it’s effectively provocative.

Jacir’s material process, here, to stack the objects on the floor of the gallery, then brings that post-colonial appropriation of pop into dialogue with minimalist sculpture. When our bodies are brought into the space of these objects (which would themselves wrap other bodies), we cannot but think of those relationships.

A comparable concatenation of the political (or the militant) and post-conceptual strategies can be seen in Raymond Boisjoly’s Silent Trans-Forming (2014), which shows the words or slogan or poem “Where we/were is no longer/where we are/and where we will/be is not yet.” The text first of all stages the liminal or interstitial state of between for colonized people – deprived of a past, waiting on a future. But as the Haida/Québécois artist described his work (shared with me via Facebook), “the letters are digitally distressed to model a prolonged decay. The text was conceived as an articulation of the provisional means through which time and place coincide as related to migration or displacement.” So as with Jacir’s situating of Cobain in Palestine, or Hayes of Bryant in a history of the image, Boisjoly’s work mimics colonial displacement with formal and material processes. In the era of the Idlenomore protests, and Tanya Tagaq’s harrowing throat-singing performances that reference the missing/murdered aboriginal women of Canada, Boisjoly’s work is quiet, but no less insistent.

The Lebanese-Canadian artist Jayce Salloum has long been making work in which images cover the wall, or are presented in an archival format, as a double strategy. On the one hand, he seems to be arguing that we need such an abundance of imagery to understand our place in the world. On the other, that lack of self-editing or self-censorship sometimes has seemed, to my eye, like a relinquishment of discipline or focus [as though to prove this point, his new work is titled untitled: photographs (2014)]. But here Salloum’s strategy, developed over the past two decades, succeeds. Over 200 photographs are arranged on a long gallery wall. The pictures range from specific Vancouver and British Columbia scenes (especially relating to residential schools, or inner city poverty), to clay bricks in Afghanistan, a former prison in Nicaragua, and tourist sites in Mexico or Hawaii. As the eye luxuriates in the photographs’ color and composition, with a scale and detail still absent from most digital arrays, the politics of juxtaposition elbow their way in. That is, the presentation might at first sight be akin to a Google image search in its plenitude. But there is no “clicking” here to enlarge an image, no greater context other than the wall.

Similar, finally, is Ines Schaber’s Culture is Our Business (2014), which presents a large reproduction of a famous image from the 1919 revolution in Berlin. This Willy Römer photograph of street fighters, now ensconced in the Corbis collection, has suffered an anodyne fate, all the more so when it was digitized and stored in a former coal mine in Pennsylvannia. History – or its images – is literally underground, only to be excavated by the militant artist, who provides a timeline replete with copyright history, German and Nazi politics, and the fate of photography in the digital archive. Even Schaber’s tacking of a letter to Bill Gates (who owns the Corbin database) right onto the Römer picture problematizes the leftist viewer’s desire to see a political or militant image in its entirety.

In a discussion at a recent event in Graz, debate erupted over the status of the militant image, with the German critic Stefan Römer arguing that such images, in a European context of 1970s terrorism, presented more challenges than the curators were willing to acknowledge. But surely both the political viewer and the aesthete can agree that such images offer a rare opportunity for reflection and critique, and a reminder of why we need galleries and museums: for art and politics to duke it out.

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