Mug Shots

As forces clash in Tripoli amidst conflicting proclamations and general confusion, it seems an opportune moment to review my friend Raoul de Lange’s photo-journalism instillation, entitled Mug Shots. Raoul’s  project, completed as the exam exhibition portion of his photojournalism degree from the Royal Art Academy in The Hague, is noteworthy for its uncompromising and provocative iconoclasm: Raoul did not himself take a single photograph for this, his graduation project in photojournalism. Despite or because of this, Raoul’s exhibition was awarded the Paul Schuitema Prijs for photography and graphic design, and has now been nominated for the Steenbergen Stipendium, awarded annually to a student from one of the five accredited photography programs in the Netherlands for general excellence. The work has undeniably hit a live nerve, and rightfully so.

Mug Shots is simple in its conception and complex in its ramifications, both aesthetic and political. Raoul co-opted images of violence from the various revolutionary uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” most of them appropriated from new technology sites such as YouTube and Twitter, and reduced these images to pixels before blowing the new, tweaked images back up. The result is a highly abstract -and strangely beautiful- grid of color blocks with no discernible relation to the original images of atrocity from which they sprung. Raoul then transferred these abstract images to t-shirts, pillow cases and coffee mugs, creating a sort of boutique emporium within the gallery in which these various commodities could be bought and sold. (Quite literally: the mugs were sold for six euros, the shirts for seventeen, and the pillowcases for fifteen.) Small tags on the commodities displayed the original, gruesome picture from which each image sprung; additionally, a video display of shifting colors could be transformed, by pushing a prominent red button, into video footage of streetside carnage in Libya and elsewhere. The result is a shockingly literal enactment of the means through which revolutionary violence from “somewhere else” is mediatized and disseminated on a global scale as, essentially, a shock commodity.

The original run of Raoul’s show has now closed, but the exhibition will be repeated from September 3rd through October 30th at the Netherlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. Meanwhile, the video portion of the instillation will be included in an exhibition at the Vrije Academia in the Hague, on the subject of “War photography and conflict ten years after 9/11,” which will run from September 10th through October 30th. I encourage anyone in the Netherlands to check it out. Meanwhile, further stills from Raoul’s show, along with the text of a short review article which I composed about it, are available after the jump. Continue reading

Riot Capitalism

As I happened to be in England this past weekend, a lot of people have been asking for my perspective on the recent U.K. riots, which seem now to be winding down. Actually, I was hiking in the Peak District in the north of Derbyshire, about as far from civilization as you can get within Great Britain, and thus have nothing like a streetside perspective on the events. (Although, if the riots really represent the societal breakdown which many English folk seem to be taking them for, I can think of few better places to wait out the end of the world than the dales and glens of Derbyshire.) Like most of us, I witnessed the unfolding drama through the 24-hour circus spectacle that is the modern mass media – an illusion of immediate access concealing all sorts of hidden filters. Nevertheless, I do have a few thoughts to offer.

First, I was genuinely shocked. Not by the riots themselves (which seem to me, indeed, entirely predictable), but by the blatantly ideological coverage of the mainstream media. The morning after the riots first hit London, I watched the intensive coverage on the BBC. In a twenty-minute special report, about three quarters of the time was spent decrying the historic loss of a 1930s Art Deco monument in highly elegiac terms. Although this loss is no doubt genuine, it seemed indicative that the BBC would focus their coverage not on the people in the streets and their feelings of anger or powerlessness, but instead on precious landmark heritage sites. This feels analogous to covering the fall of the Bastille with an in-depth report on its unique architectural features. In other words, by focusing solely on the loss of and damage to property, the BBC was already implicitly siding with the property owners against the rioters.

This partisanship was only heightened in the few moments the BBC spared for speculation about the riots themselves. Actually, “speculation” is too polite a term: the BBC spent zero air-time analyzing the rioters’ motives, nor even talking to anyone who might represent the voice of disenfranchised youth; instead, they quoted a soundbite from the Deputy Prime Minister condemning the violence as “needless and opportunistic” and then simply continued, in a pattern long-familiar to the media, to repeat and trumpet the government’s claim as if this were the voice of objective truth. If I had drank a shot of whiskey for every mention of the word “opportunism,” I would have been passed out drunk within ten minutes. Meanwhile the only person they managed to interview from the actual community, an elderly school board councilor for Tottenham, wasted no time reassuring viewers that these events had nothing in common with the infamous riots of 1985. That event was, he said, a political one; while this, apparently, was not.

As should by now be apparent, I disagree strongly with the BBC’s angle of coverage. My analysis is as equally partisan, although unlike the BBC I won’t attempt to conceal that bias beneath a veneer of neutrality. So let me come out first and say it: my reflexive tendency is, if not to side with the rioters, then at least to sympathize with them. Continue reading

Disaster Legislation & Crisis “Managance”

A few days ago Jon Walker over at FireDogLake coined the term “disaster legislating” to describe the processes through which the Republican party, while controlling only one third of the offices necessary to successfully enact legislation, is managing to force through its political agenda by mobilizing the threat of economic catastrophe as leverage (in the form of a potentially disastrous default on the debt):

By choosing to govern through threat of disaster the House Republicans have turned against the entire intent of our founding document. No longer does change need the broad agreement of the separate branches. No longer is winning all the political offices necessary. All that is needed now is one chamber to threaten economic destruction and the others to fear it enough to give into the hostage taking.

Whether the situation is as clear-cut as Walker suggests remains something of an open question. While it is clear that the Republicans are indeed playing at hostage taking, the alacrity with which Senate Democrats, and in particular the White House, have entered into the logic of abductive extortion leaves many of us wondering whether the response of the Democratic leadership is not in itself a form of kabuki theater. In other words, one would have to wonder whether Obama, in so easily acceeding to the demands of Boehner et al., is not making a show of “compromise” only in order to offer what he was all along prepared to enact. (A sort of reverse, corporatist form of Roosevelt’s “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”)

Certainly it is shocking to see a Democratic president proposing potentially drastic cuts to Medicare and Social Security, far beyond anything for which the Republicans had dared to ask. (Even more shocking, of course, is that the Republicans turned him down; the whole political process has turned into some kind of dystopian science-fiction scenario.) From a progressive perspective, the demand that any increase in the debt ceiling be matched by a corresponding cut in government spending seems patently absurd; and it is dismaying –to say the least– to see the Democrats enter into this blatantly false logic without so much as a peep of protest.

The question then would seem to become whether this is simply a case of cowardice (or confusion), or whether the Democratic establishment is in reality as eager to cut social spending as their counterparts across the aisle.¹ Yet such speculation about motive, while irresistible, is ultimately fruitless. It’s a variation on Jon Stewart’s famous “evil or stupid?” question, whose logic must now be extended, unfortunately, onto the White House itself. Whether Obama is placing the entire welfare system on the table as a misguided if well-intentioned gesture of compromise, or whether he himself is truly eager to undermine the last remnants of a social welfare system, is ultimately beside the point.

The point is that we must judge the political classes on the basis not of presumed motivation but of substantial action. And in terms of action, the two parties are now competing to see who can come up with the more extensive and extreme cuts to the government budget, in the midst of a prolonged employment slump with (already) little hope of recovery. A rudimentary knowledge of Keynesian economics shows this policy to be disastrous; slashing government spending in the amount of trillions will simply send the economy into a further tailspin. (What we need is a jobs program, aid to troubled homeowners, etc. etc… i.e., more spending, not less.) The reality is that Reid’s proposal is no more “progressive” than that of Boehner, and by any measure both will prove to be catastrophic – with the only question being how great and how deep the catastrophe. (Indeed, at this point, I’m genuinely unsure whether a budget default would be more or less catastrophic than four trillion in cuts.) It’s a hard time for the left.

In any case, while questioning aspects of Walker’s “hostage” analysis, I think his concept of “disaster legislation” merits holding onto, or holding up. This is because one of the prime places that the current crisis is playing out –the real crisis, as opposed to the utterly fabricated debt “crisis”– is on the level of ideology, and in particular on the level of language. This political process of ours is utterly spectacular, in the Debordian sense, and as Debord has shown the spectacle is won or lost, for better or worse, on the level of sign. The extreme right, while possessing no truly coherent policy platform, has been extremely successful over the last 20+ years on the rhetorical level (c.f. talk radio, et al.) and this is precisely the area where the Left has failed abysmally. Actually, progressive policy proscriptions (vis Social Security, etc.) have been proved over and over to be in keeping with what a substantial majority of Americans wants. But we’ve failed to convince them of that, because we’ve failed to develop a coherent, engaging, and consciousness-rousing rhetoric. As a result, I think one of the primary tasks of progressive activists today is to come up with a compelling language in which for us to speak, and to act. Continue reading