Some quick thoughts/feelings prompted by Nicola Triscott’s post on Omer Fast and Trevor Paglen at the recent Brighton Photo Biennial…
On Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best – if you are interested in the drones issue, technology and war, biopolitics and affect, film and the possibilities of art, whatever: just watch it. It’s on Vimeo here. To be glib, it’s geopolitics as done by David Lynch, and every bit as creepy as that sounds.
Judging by the flow of people through the Lighthouse arts space, Trevor Paglen’s Geographies of Seeing, which presented some of his photographic and video work was another must-see, and I think the first exhibition of his work in the UK. Glancing at the comments book as I left, the responses were unanimous: ‘Stunning’, ‘Stunning’, ‘Stunning’, one after the other. What’s going on? What do we mean when we say or write that something’s ‘stunning’? For me, writing something is ‘striking’ or has ‘struck me’ is a short cut to saying, it made me feel a certain way that I wasn’t expecting, and which impelled me to write about it. In short, it’s about how I’m affected (this where you either tune out or read on).
To some extent, this is a familiar topic in art history as far as critical and radical art (and non- or anti-art) movements go: seeking that flash of enlightenment, the happening or the situation that will entice people in, work on their feelings (and enlist them in changing the world…). But theorists of affect broaden things beyond a single track model of enlightenment and progressive change. All kinds of affects are all around, circulating, making things happen without us even becoming aware of them and we can’t really guarantee that they’ll produce ‘good’ responses. The work of Fast and Paglen seems to allow some of those affects to crystallise out in feelings or embodied responses. Rather than the flash of enlightenment, things might be experienced as ‘weird’, ‘wow’ or ‘huh?’.
So what is going on with 5000 Feet… and Geographies? With the former, I do think it’s ‘creepy’; something’s really not right. From Fast’s talk at BPB, it’s clear that he thinks the whole drone apparatus is deeply wrong, and exerts dark psychic forces on and through its participants, as well as terrible violence on those it kills and maims. In that sense, there’s a correspondence between artistic intent, affect and effect (discuss…). I came away feeling (at least as much as thinking), in a way I didn’t before, that drone war is wrong (maybe I was a good candidate for that outcome).
With Geographies… how come everyone (OK probably not everyone) was writing that it was ‘Stunning’? Were persons 2-5 just copying person 1? Is it just the kind of thing people write in comments books? I don’t think so, mostly because that was my reaction too (before I looked at the comments). I’d seen Paglen’s pictures in books, but never on a gallery wall. But again, maybe I’m a good candidate for that reaction. Paglen’s night sky pictures are like the images in the astronomy photobooks I loved when I was a child, but with subtle extras that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, odd lines traced by satellites that don’t officially exist. Let’s admit, secret stuff is kind of cool. Surely that’s partly why there’s so much work around invisibility, covert, security stuff now. We know it’s problematic in all sorts of ways, it’s getting bigger, and hasn’t been thought through sufficiently. But it’s also a bit like the X Files and all those spy movies! You mean you didn’t know there was a new Bond flick?
It’s clear from Paglen’s writing and presentations (I’ve heard him talk at geography conferences a couple of times) that his art and photographic practice is of a piece with his journalism and research in raising deep issues about democracy, secrecy, the state of exception and the role of the military in shaping the world in ways we are often barely aware of. But that analysis isn’t really presented as part of Geographies of Seeing (or if it is, I missed it… oops). Of course, from its presentation as part of a biennial on the politics of space, with a load of other similar things, we can be expected to infer that the exhibition will raises issues in a challenging and critical way. The exhibition might also be expected to draw a savvy crowd in a place like Brighton, people who get what it’s about anyway and maybe know about Paglen’s project already. And if we Google ‘Paglen’ we get things pretty quickly (Nicola’s post also does a great job of broadening things out). Once we think ‘cool’, there’s a good chance we’ll get enrolled in the actor-network: result.
But I come back to the moment when I see those pictures and part of me just feels (then thinks), ‘wow, that’s cool’. That’s different to the feeling of ‘ugh’ or *shudders*, ‘oh no…’ and ‘????’ that I got from 5000 Feet…. What’s working, differently? And how does ‘that’s cool’ or *shudders* get connected to the critical, interesting stuff? Is part of the hooking up the >representational< stuff that surrounds (frames?) the thing you just ‘get’? How does it get entrained in the ‘controversial plot’ (Rancière) that might lead us to think or act politically (if it does at all: maybe making us aware of how surrounding we are by secret stuff that we can’t see, but which can see us, is enough… the viewer is queen). François Debrix also looked at this in his book (here) on terror, popular culture and geopolitics, in terms of the sublime. His approach looks at how the experience of the sublime is articulated ideologically. Maybe the critic has more of a role here than we’ve been encouraged to think (JJ Charlesworth has interesting things to say about the importance of criticism/subjectivity in relation to ‘critique’ here).
The literature on neuropolitics has lots of ideas on this too. One strand of neuroscience looks at how ‘affect’ is part of what makes us able to be rational/critical. There’s a risk of reiterating the mind/body, feeling/thinking dualisms that we’re meant to be getting around: ‘ugh’, ‘cool’ and ‘the military industrial complex is a problem’ are all bundled up with each other. Running with this, affect and nonrepresentational theorists think we should do more than critique and criticism, getting in there and playing with the affectual and experiential, cultivating alternative affects and dispositions (or doing it in a different way, seeing we’re already doing it anyway without realising). If so, the difference between ‘ugh’ and ‘cool’ could be important. Fast and Paglen, films and pictures, are playing with us (or me anyway) in different ways that we could work with in different ways.
For people who are more sceptical about the turn to affect, neuroscience, etc (see Clive Barnett here), there’s a big assumption here: we (the critical academic crowd) get the whole affect thing, in the right way, because we have read a load of books, we have Theory. It’s ordinary people we need to be concerned about – you know, the ones who get manipulated. And what makes us think that we know how to cultivate dispositions and affects anyway? Aren’t they inherently unruly? Even so, nonrepresentational theories suggest they are a more important part of critique, deliberation and change than we’ve liked to acknowledge. They would tip the scales towards giving experimentation a try, making an ‘ethical choice in favour of the richness of the possible’ (as Félix Guattari wrote in Chaosmosis). Tricky.