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.

Still Shot: Mug Shots

Mug Shots: A User’s Manual

People look, and take sight, take seeing, for life itself. We build on the basis of papers and plans. We buy on the basis of images.

                        -Henri Lefebvre

What place for art in a world which feeds off image consumption as commodity spectacle? This question, which has occupied artists and thinkers since the beginning of the twentieth century, is of particular relevance to photojournalism. In a hyper-mediatized culture which is always already transforming event into sign, sign into spectacle, and society into a collection of passive, alienated spectators, in what way can the artist still draw attention to real events without transforming these into the merely ‘hyperreal’ of endless simulation?

Mug Shots responds to this question with two paradoxical yet profoundly accurate suggestions: intimacy and iconoclasm. Intimacy, through a denial of the illusory distance between lens and event, audience and art object; iconoclasm, through the simultaneous participation in, and rejection of, the frenzied dissemination of images as immersive hypermediality. In the process, the instillation formulates both critique and auto-critique: drawing attention to the spectacularization of violence by reproducing the violence of spectacle, as spectacle.

There is no outside space. Documentary photography traditionally assumes the existence of a critical distance between camera and object, gallery-goer and documentary ‘trace.’ Mug Shots rejects this rhetorical distance as illusory, asserting our participation in the object or event under consideration, our implication as viewers. This is to deny the very notion of an objective ‘outside.’ Our consumption of the image effects the image.

Paradoxically, the greatest effect is an eradication of affect. The ever-accelerating proliferation of data, image and stimuli short-circuits our ability to process what we observe; the hyper-expansion of digital networks overloads our neural networks. As a result, both cognitive and sensible faculties shut down: we are no longer able to ‘make sense’ of images, nor to authentically sense them.

Mug Shots reacts to this dilemma, first, by rejecting visuality: obscuring immediate access to the image in order to draw attention to the processes underlying image consumption. Secondly, it responds to the rapid transformation and distribution of event as icon by itself partaking of this commodifying process. This is itself a natural consequence of the lack of an ‘outside.’ With no exterior space from which to stage critique, Mug Shots instead enacts critique by entering into and intensifying the processes it seeks to criticize–in effect, a form of mimicry.

The sensory unease with which one confronts the installation has to do with the success of this mimetic tactic. Mug Shots perfectly simulates the means through which late capitalism transforms every event into a sign to be distributed–itself already a form of simulation. By redoubling this (dis)similitude, it brings to light the ironic tension underlying the logic of commodification, becoming more real than what it real. If the current age is one of intensive hyperreality, this is intensification on steroids: hyper-hyperreal.

Mug Shots is both confrontational and claustrophobic; it does not leave us with many choices as to how to act. In effect, there are two: refusal, or complicity. Faced with the shock-tactic of violence marketed as literal commodity, the viewer can either embrace the new ‘hot’ product, or else retreat into passive isolation. But the transformation of real atrocity into a boutique emporium for consumers in search of distraction is no more than the literal enactment of what is actually already the case. And this, again, perfectly simulates the logic of late capitalism, in which ‘freedom’ is only ever the choice of what to buy.

Mug: Mug Shots

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