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Art Documents: The Politics of Visibility in Contemporary Photography

Published onApr 18, 2015
Art Documents: The Politics of Visibility in Contemporary Photography

Photography has long been regarded for its power to make visible and to document the unseen and the unknown aspects of our world. As the technological force par excellence of the past hundred and fifty years and as a medium however defined, the processes that shape what we have come to understand as the photographic universe1 challenge the ways we see and understand the world around us. Photographic representation offers a kind of deferred sight, a way to see after the fact what was not visible in the moment. Whether analogue, digital, formal, vernacular, reportage, conceptual, social or any of the wide range of forms that photography now takes, the properties of the photograph make visible, or reveal, something not seen in the first instance. This production of visibility acts as a mirage, one that simultaneously obscures and reveals the social and political relations embedded within the processes of production. In addition to the immediate relations between photographic producer, object, and viewer there are also relations that exist external to the visible image, relations that challenge its reading and interpretation. The situations and environments in which subjects are framed and depicted do not end at the edge of the photograph and these externalities demand consideration. The contingency of the image–the idea that we might interpret meaning based on our subject positions–detracts from the specificity of the environment in which the photograph was taken. The aesthetics of an image may resonate with one person while the same formal choices may deter another, causing an avoidance or negation of the very material realities that must first occur in order for the image to be produced. This is the tension with which the photographic must contend: how to use visual aesthetics while at the same time articulating what is not immediately visible but is still, of necessity, embedded within an image. What the process of photography renders opaque has as much to contribute to the meaning or import of images as what it renders visible. The paradoxical relationship between exposure and redaction, between visibility and invisibility, between the visual and the opaque, is one taken up by contemporary artists struggling to find ways to articulate the unseen or unpublicized networks of power that structure life under the state. American artists Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen both attempt to make visible networks, lineages, and systems of state power that are rarely given visual representation in contemporary media. In Simon’s photographic series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) and its follow-up project Contraband (2009), the artist examines the limits of what is publicly-permissible and therefore knowable through images and texts that reveal the often banal but hidden spaces of American jurisdiction and social life.

Figure 1. Taryn Simon. “Bureau of Engraving and Printing, US Department of the Treasury, Washington, District of Columbia. Stacks of freshly printed, uncut $100 and $20 notes totaling over $220,800,000,” 2007. Archival inkjet print, 37 1/4 x 44 1/2 inches, edition of 7 + 2 APs.

Figure 2. Taryn Simon. “The Central Intelligence Agency, Art. CIA Original Headquarters Building. Langley,Virginia” 2007. Archival inkjet print, 37 1/4 x 44 1/2 inches, edition of 7 + 2 APs.

Contraband (2009) utilizes a strategy of non-representation to depict the highly-surveilled site of customs interrogation at the American border by revealing images of items confiscated from border crossers and subsequently documented by the artist. Paglen’s series The Other Night Sky (2007–ongoing) likewise examines processes of state surveillance in a series of visually striking images of covert satellites streaking across wide expanses of the night sky. Working with amateur groups who record the movements of satellites in order to calculate and predict their paths, Paglen produces seductive, abstract images that purposefully reference works from the canons of art history and photography. The visibility of mere points of light in these images discloses little factual information and, as a result, the revelation of the apparatuses of state power serve to signify the surveillance processes we already know to be operative.

Figure 3. Trevor Paglen. KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL Near Scorpio Optical Reconnaissance Satellite USA 129, 2007, chromogenic print

Figure 4. Trevor Paglen. MILSTAR3 in Sagittarius (Inactive Communication and Targeting Satellite; USA 143), 2008, chromogenic print

For both artists, the spaces external to the photograph must be understood as invested with meaning in order to access the projects as political critique. Indeed, the work of both artists is emblematic of a type of photography that shifts between image and evidence, between seductively formal representations and the unexpected revelation of information. It is the limits and restrictions set by each artist in defining their projects–largely presented to the viewer through the detailed, factual information that accompanies the photographs–that contributes to the legibility of the projects overall. By requiring the viewer to consider what is external to the image, each artist demands that their projects be addressed as visualizations of the apparatuses of state power even while their particular visual aesthetics simultaneously obscure the networks of labour and lived experiences upon which they are constructed. As a result, the practices of both Simon and Paglen articulate a delicate dialectic between visuality and opacity, one operative in the revelation and concealment of information through visual means.

At stake in this analysis is a broader consideration of the status of the photograph and its relationship to exposure and redaction in an era that assumes information, including visual information, should be transparent and freely accessible. Paglen and Simon address this problem set in their respective practices: how can we visualize geopolitical systems of power and control when photography fails in its attempts to do so? Their projects each depend upon the lived experiences of those impacted by the hidden, covert operations of state systems (that is, all of us) and yet they are not able to visually represent such lives, reliant as they are upon a visual language that actively avoids the direct representation of human experience. Instead, each artist sets limits and restrictions to their practices in advance of production in order to dictate what will be produced visibly within the photographic frame and what will require accompanying texts in order to register what is obscured by the very light of photographic exposure. The politics of visibility in an era that privileges transparency is a paradox.2

Contraband Objects and Images

In Taryn Simon’s exhaustive series of photographs Contraband we see image after image depicting volumes of objects of every sort. The objects are, as the title indicates, all contraband items that were either seized from passengers entering the United States at JFK Airport or contained in packages intercepted at customs. Simon photographed them with a formal, almost forensic set-up during an intensive shoot where she remained on-site at the airport’s border control facility for five days. Commentaries and reviews of the project frequently mention the physical labour involved as she suffered from sleep deprivation and other physical stresses while remaining constantly attuned to the continuous, twenty-four hour flow of imported goods.3 The results of Simon’s commitment are over a thousand photographs that catalogue a hugely diverse range of items: from the ordinary and familiar, such as cigarettes, DVDs, and fruit; to the unexpected and unusual including animal body parts; to the seemingly innocent such as Snow White nesting dolls and other children’s toys; to the illicit and illegal including heroin and other drugs. All are shot against a white backdrop and use the same scale and placement within the frame.

Figure 5. Taryn Simon. “Unmarked pills, China (prohibited), PHARMACEUTICALS, MISC.,(COUNTERFEIT/ILLEGAL/PROHIBITED) [detail],” 2010

Figure 6. Taryn Simon. “Steroids, Testosterone & Sustanon, Pakistan (illegal) ANABOLIC STEROIDS (ILLEGAL) [detail],” 2010.

Figure 7. Taryn Simon. “Peppers, Capsicum spp., Ghana (prohibited) PEPPERS (PROHIBITED) [deatil],” 2010.

Figure 8. Taryn Simon. “Gold dust, India (undeclared) GOLD DUST (UNDECLARED), [detail]”, 2010.

Figure 9. Taryn Simon. “DVDs, Lost, Season 4 (pirated), TELEVISION SERIES (PIRATED), [detail],” 2010.

Objects that have been carefully hidden by their transporters are here revealed to the viewer and left for inspection in the gleaming white of the stark and seamless studio backdrop. This uniformity offers up a kind of “production-line aesthetic,”4 one that erases any difference between objects and object-carriers, creating an internally consistent visual frame for the series. Contraband presents to the viewer a carefully catalogued taxonomy of the objects deemed threatening to a neoliberal economy under globalization.

Figure 10. Taryn Simon. Installation view of “CIGARETTES & TOBACCO (ABANDONED ILLEGAL PROHIBITED),” 2010.

The miscellaneous everyday objects are themselves rarely threatening and the instances of weapons are surprisingly few. But in their arbitrary juxtaposition and overwhelming number, the magnitude of international trade and security regulations at the site of the border becomes apparent. The accidentally detained immigration papers, for example, point to the widespread screening of visible minorities and other post-9/11 human rights abuses, while the excess of various types of food collected, including even the sandwiches left from an on-board snack, become harbingers of bio-terrorism or potential outbreak. By far the largest category of items is counterfeit consumer goods, where objects grouped under the label “Branding” highlight the role of the border in defining brand protection for major international corporations, including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tommy Hilfiger and many others.

Simon’s project is an unusual form of documentary photography, one that perhaps draws heavily from her early career as a photojournalist and her familiarity with negotiating institutional hierarchies in order to gain access to concealed spaces. The results are administered, constructed, ordered installations that manage the viewer as much as they organize images. How are we to make sense of the equivalents–made implicit by the installation’s grid of images– between a leftover sandwich and a bag of cocaine, between a knock-off purse and a firearm, boxes of DVDs and an unidentified animal corpse? Whether familiar or unusual, serial or individual, each object, as both image and artwork, accumulates meanings that disassociate it from a point of origin. That is, the image is not only a representation of a particular object nor is it a document of a specific event. The images here are constructed from the residual evidence of a person, a body whose movements were restricted and challenged and whose belongings, whether legal, illegal, restricted, or counterfeit were ripped from them and confiscated. These visual remains point to the life outside the frame, a life that demands attention. By framing the objects in such a way, Simon opens the images to numerous readings, and it becomes the responsibility of the viewer to account for narratives that existed prior to the photograph, narratives that allow the photographs to exist at all. This is a contingency not based upon subject experience per se but that, in its potential multiplicity, speaks to our highly contested historical moment. In a globalized, post-9/11 environment the site of the border is an intensely controlled space, one that is political and ideological, while simultaneously tangible, physical and social.

Simon’s revelation of the interrupted flow of goods across the American border opens an argument around the politics of visibility, since it is specifically by not making visible those who populate underground, illegal or illicit networks that Simon’s work flexes between recognizing precarity and aestheticizing it. The anxiety around aestheticization, especially as it intersects with documentary photography and question of visibility, has its antecedents in the political work of artists like Martha Rosler. Her photographic project The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-5) made a pointed critique of the limitations of documentary photography by inserting captions onto photographs of the so-called “empty” streets of the Bowery. The texts confused the ways the viewer reads the image, suggesting that neither image nor text is a communication system capable of fulfilling a documentary function. In her attempt to make visible the inhabitants of those people rendered invisible by society, Rosler makes their presence troublingly real for the viewer, since the interpretation required to convert the photograph into a stereotype is based on references drawn from outside the image. Writing alongside her art practice, Rosler presented challenging critiques to the traditional forms of social documentary. Suggesting that documentary assuages the consciences of its viewers, since the viewer is not actually in the photograph and can simply leave it behind, Rosler argued that documentary can only testify to the position of the photographer, whose role is to entertain, to show us the places we never hope to go.5  For Rosler, all images retain an aesthetic that is ideological, and are simultaneously deeply rooted in the social. Aesthetic ideals change over time, and when we only attend to the visuality of certain types of images, we risk ignoring the subject participants in those images.

In Simon’s Contraband series, the role of the photographer is indeed contestable, as the project shares considerable methodologies with the types of work that Rosler critiques; Simon reveals what is unknowable to a viewer who may never experience the intensity of a body search by border officials. What the viewer is here called to witness are the asymmetrical remains of border interrogation, even while the human subjects are not visible, removing even further the viewer’s responsibility to a social subject. Unlike Rosler’s Bowery series however, Simon’s strategy is one that revels in an attempt to visualize the border space, to reveal it through the illicit objects that flow across it. But this reach towards visibility is simultaneously nullified by the highly aesthetic, formally structured images that erase the identity of the objects’ owners and fail to address their social realities. If for Rosler, the textual insertions into the frame were a means of addressing the viewer’s complicity in the objectification of marginalized populations, for Simon there is no such method. The clear, even violent, erasure of the border-crossers from the frame, the visual representation of a life as an object, and construction of false equivalents across a taxonomy of things, all suggest that in Contraband the political space of representation is highly contested. Further, by setting up a temporary studio at the border and inserting herself into the flow of goods, photographing them as they were detained by security and before being sent for destruction, Simon situated her activities in a space of policing. In the captions that accompany the images she documents nearly as many details, save biographical information, about the objects as would the state officials. In a sense, Simon became the unofficial photographer of the American customs department, if only for a short period.6  Although Simon does not image the people whose lives stand behind the objects depicted, her project does intervene in the act of policing the border, an intervention that serves to further trouble the relationship between representation and political presence. Recognizing the border as a space of traumatic experience articulates a paradox of contemporary globalization: that we seek the freeflow of goods in an open economy while at the same time build heavily secured, increasingly militarized borders to prevent the flow of people.7 This paradox finds its parallel in the images that make visible and transparent the objects caught at the border while simultaneously obscuring the thousand plus lives that are here balanced against Simon’s own.

Atmospheric Transparency

Like Taryn Simon, American artist Trevor Paglen takes up the ideology of transparency in photographic projects that address the politics of inaccessible spaces and interrogate the unseen networks that structure life under the state. He too activates questions around visibility, participation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in works that expose the representational limits of photography. While their subject matter and strategy differ in significant ways, Paglen’s work is likewise emblematic of a type of photography that shifts between image and information, between a seductive formalism and the carefully controlled revelation of evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame. For each artist, their projects inhere meaning only when the viewer is able to identify the limits and restrictions imposed, limits that are often the result of a long, careful process of research. In both cases, this is an artistic strategy that moves away from the kind of aesthetic or visual research artists might typically employ and instead re-frames aesthetics in the context of their respective backgrounds in journalism (Simon) and geography (Paglen.)8

In one of his earliest photographic projects, The Other Night Sky, Paglen presents images of classified American satellites, objects that are not officially or publicly logged but that orbit the earth to covertly track or collect data. Working with amateur groups who observe and record the movements of satellites in order to calculate and predict their paths in the sky, Paglen produces visually seductive, telescopic images of the sky at night. Often shot in remote locations, Paglen’s skies are filled with stars and light, producing the familiar sense of wonderment that comes with the contemplation of the universe. Yet of course what he is showing his viewer is much more sinister, revealing as it does the satellite systems that are not part of a transparent public record. This aestheticization of surveillance processes serves to highlight a paradox of visuality itself, since the mere presence of lights in the sky discloses very little factual information even as they signify the covert processes of state surveillance.

Figure 11. Trevor Paglen. NEMESIS Rocket Body in Orion (Discarded rocket from Satellite Data System Spacecraft; USA 179rb), 2009, chromogenic print

A similar and more recent series, Untitled (Drones), shifts his focus to observing and recording the paths of American military drones, an investigation that dovetails with the increased use of drones under the Obama administration.9 Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” operate simultaneously as automatic recording devices and weapons, looking back at us with their eyeless vision to animate a geographically indeterminate space between viewer and viewed. Such indeterminacy is matched by Paglen’s visual strategy, where his large, saturated prints utilize flat, abstract fields of colour. The viewer is thrust into a vividly atmospheric space, and with no horizon line to orient us towards either earth or sky our normal sense of spatial orientation is confused. Clouds spread wide across the picture plane, serving to reflect, colour, abstract and obscure, attracting our gaze to search for what is held within them. Often only after close scrutiny does the tiny point of the drone reveal itself, reminding us that the sky is not neutral.

Figure 12. Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010, chromogenic print.

Heaving with “the electromagnetic waves of encrypted information that pulse through the atmosphere,” the sky bears the digital information required to keep UAVs airborne.10 Paglen’s use of striking and sublime images paradoxically articulates that the sky no longer acts as a projection of our desires for limitless freedom and the fantastical unknown; it is a space that is as mapped, linked, and virtually connected as anywhere on earth.

Figure 13. Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010, chromogenic print,

Paglen’s work pivots on the tension between aesthetic representation and the documentation of specific instances of state surveillance. He probes at the limits of photography and what a photographic document is able to do: is an image of a drone or a geo-stationary satellite, even with all of the supplemental text that the artist includes, capable of telling us anything about the American military complex and its secretive, violent actions? This disjunction between what Paglen would call the relational aspects of his projects, what exists external to the image, and the highly aestheticized, historically referential qualities of the image itself, is a problem set with an established history in aerial photography. Given that Paglen’s photographs of the sky offer a kind of inversion of surveillance, a watching from below, the discourse on aerial imaging becomes compelling. In his text on the wartime photographs of Edward Steichen, Allan Sekula constructed a striking binary division between the aerial photograph as documentary evidence, an image that yields to a rationalized act of interpretation,11  and the aestheticized object, the artwork that manifests benign neutrality through its abstraction.112  Yet the binary between image and information elides the fact that aerial photographs cannot be reduced to either pure document or pure art object. In Sekula’s text, the aerial photograph enacts a dichotomy between something that can be productively interpreted as evidence and the abstraction that the process of taking a photograph necessitates. No other type of photography both reveals and conceals its limits in such a way, obscuring its objects at the same time that it reveals its process. Paglen’s work similarly disrupts the binary between document and aesthetic object. First, by capturing images of the contemporary equivalent of a cameraman in a fighter plane–covert satellites, military drones–Paglen exposes the apparatuses of surveillance and war, in what has been termed an exchange of gazes, where “the masters of surveillance are in their turn surveilled.”13 But such images only reverse the gaze in a symbolic sense and as documents they reveal little. There is no dramatic disclosure here, no unmasking of the war apparatus, no shocking military secret uncovered. In fact Paglen is quite frank and open about his work and claims he makes no attempt to hide his research from the American government or the other institutional bodies he critiques.14  Instead his work offers the viewer a means of inquiry through the process that makes visible the structures of power that seek to operate through invisibility. Paglen states that the means of achieving a particular abstraction are critical to the final image since “they imply a politics of seeing and of relations of seeing.”15  Using detailed and informative titles and texts to accompany each image, Paglen emphasizes the process required to produce his images, what he terms relational photography. In so doing he fully engages image and apparatus, where his practice encompasses the “seeing machines,” that allow a historically determined type of vision.16 Thus the image and its production are in constant tension, in an “apparent disjunction between process and visual result.”17

Theoretical critiques of aesthetics and representation stubbornly permeate both Paglen’s and Simon’s projects, as their abstracted images shift between image and document, between form and content. Contraband requires that viewers acknowledge the photographs as constructed and contested, in part as image-evidence of the often violent processes of border control and security, and in part as documents that fail to make those same processes visible. For Paglen too, the highly aesthetic images of surveillance systems, or indeed what is called the surveillance state, underscore the very limits of representational photography and to point to fundamental shift towards understanding photography as processes of production. By consciously and simultaneously redacting and exposing information, both obscuring and revealing, each artist’s work articulates itself within a complex third term that refuses visual or political representation. This requires a method of thinking beyond photographic indexicality, a challenge that photographic discourse has been reticent to yet address.

Instrumentalizing the Frame

Perhaps one of the reasons that photographic theory has seemed unable to speak to the politics of obfuscation is that the discourse of photography remains widely indebted to the poststructuralist tendency to prioritize the phenomenological, contingent relationship between image and viewer.18  Roland Barthes famously argued that photography is marked by the experience of temporality where the viewer recognizes an “anterior future” by reading into the photograph both the “this will be” and “this has been.”19 This horror at the death of the subject, the death that has not yet happened but surely will describes a relationship between the photograph and the viewer standing before it; it accounts for a moment only after the photograph was taken and does not necessarily allow for external events that may occur before or around it. But what a photograph delimits is not always contingent upon the viewer, and meanings that press upon the photograph from outside the frame are not necessarily arbitrary.20

Images of atrocity and violence are instructive in thinking through the relations a photograph produces. Susan Sontag famously articulated the ways in which a viewer comes to be impacted by photographs showing horrific imagery, and yet her accounts of image viewing do not address forms of violence that may occur either off-screen or tangentially through the relations of photographer, subject and viewer.21 Judith Butler’s brilliant and nuanced critique of Sontag takes on the exteriority of violence as its central argument, considering how the images of torture from Abu Ghraib act as catalysts for a new way of thinking about photographic representation. For Butler, it is through the articulation of the photographic frame as a permeable, shifting space that viewers might recognize what is outside of the image.22   She argues that photographs do not require interpretation because they already are interpretive objects, visually framing the objects depicted in ways that also conceptually frame the content. She states, “… the frame never quite determines precisely what it is we see, think, recognize, and apprehend. Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality.”23 The excess of the frame is troubling precisely because of its lack of visualization, but its power to determine what we see is also, paradoxically, drawn from its inability to visualize. Such excesses can never be pictured because they are always just escaping the frame, retreating from the conventions that seek to, in Butler’s terms, instrumentalize certain versions of reality while alternative versions are de-legitimated and discarded.24  The process of selection that is inherent to framing a photograph is itself violent. Images can never truly represent the scene of their taking since by virtue of having a frame, of being framed, the photograph will always, constantly, be suggesting that there is an outside, an exteriority, just to the side but ever so slightly beyond our vision.

Given Butler’s assertion that the frame delimits what is visible through an active and continuous process of inclusion and exclusion, the device of the frame itself can be considered a boundary that is always excessive, always exterior, always just retreating. The photograph inheres political potential through the relationship between what is contained and what is jettisoned from the frame, a relationship that is also one of included or excluded temporalities. For Butler this political potential arises from the existence of certain sets of norms that dictate which lives are grievable and which are not since the question of the frame is always motivated by the question of life, whose life is valued and whose is not. In this vacillation between interior and exterior–frame and subject, viewer and producer–we might acknowledge our own responsibility in viewing by questioning what is being represented, and how. The process of framing is as important as the subjects caught within. Butler thus identifies that photographic meaning and power are embedded in photographic processes, not only in photographic objects. Because frames delimit what is perceivable, what is understandable as a grievable life, “this ‘notseeing’ in the midst of seeing, this not seeing that is the condition of seeing, became the visual norm, a norm that has been a national norm, one conducted by the photographic frame in the scene of torture.”25

Outside the Image

By questioning what is made visible to the public through the actions of the frame Butler addresses how violent acts made in closed circumstances, such as the scenes of torture inside Abu Ghraib, are projected into the space of political discourse through the circulation of images in the public realm. What is rendered opaque by the instrumentalization of looking, by the fact of a frame that excludes as much as it includes, brings a political urgency to all photographic practices. Writer and theorist Ariella Azoulay advances this line of thinking in order to directly address the excluded, unrecognized lives that a photograph is capable of pointing to but is often incapable of showing. For Azoulay, photography instigates a “civil contract,” a bond of mutual responsibility between spectator, photographer, and subject.26  This bond is activated through the imprinting of an image that is always the product on an encounter, but an encounter that is without a single author, and cannot generate a single narrative for a single person exclusively.27 Because the photograph bears the traces of this confrontation but may not visualize them it is always excessive, it always shows more than you think is present. 28  As such, the photograph creates and allows for a space of “civic negotiation” between its actors, or what Azoulay terms its protagonists.29 Azoulay demands that we read photographs not as an aesthetic exercise but as a kind of watching, a reconstructing of the photographic event or situation, where viewing might become a civic skill, or responsibility.30

Here again the photograph proffers a kind of visuality that joins together a multiplicity of private or external relations existing outside the frame, a visuality that requires viewers to be active participants in such an event. Photography occurs not only at the moment of the literal or metaphorical camera shutter clicking but expands to include broad temporalities and the many moments that occur before and after the moment of image taking occurs. It is a special kind of event, one that does not have precise limits because it involves numerous protagonists–viewer, photographer, subject–interacting together in different temporal spaces.31  As Azoulay argues, photography can take place either through the mediation of the camera or the photograph.]  As Azoulay argues, photography can take place either through the mediation of the camera or the photograph.32 Her polemical call is that the viewing of images is an event on par with the taking of images, that there be no hierarchy between the within and without of the frame, and that while the event of photography is mediated through either apparatuses neither has exclusive reign on interpretation. These two modalitites of eventness–the first in relation to the camera, the second in relation to the photograph or its hypothetical existence–unfold in different places, at different times, and in many multiple possibilities such that they can never be reconciled together. 33 As such, “the event of photography is never over, it can only be suspended, caught in the anticipation of the next encounter that will allow for its actualization.”34

Transparency and Publicity

Both Butler and Azoulay provide accounts of the representational limits of photography and the political limits of public visibility. They each draw our attention to the terms that restrict visual representation and to what is at stake politically if we are not able to recognize the externalities of photography–its framing devices, its temporalities, its participants–as such. Developing a theoretical model that looks outside the image in order to construct meaning has significance not only for photographic practices but for the way we understand and consume visual information in an era that assumes data is, or should be, transparent. The “ideology of communicational transparency” is one that both Paglen and Simon take on, through recourse to the genealogies and aesthetics of photographic media.” 35 This problem has equal bearing on theories of vision, on ideas that determine how we see what we see, and on the dialectic between revelation and concealment: why do we assume that transparency is aspirational?

Political scientist Jodi Dean, writing in the early 2000s, has developed strong arguments for the critique of a transparent public sphere. For Dean, the clichéd assumption that the public has a right to know, that knowledge will come through transparent processes, and that such knowledge is a fundamental obligation of a democratic society, is a problematic assertion that veils the ideological function of the very idea of a public sphere. She points out that contemporary technoculture relies on the notion that the solution to any problem is publicity, or really, transparency, and that more information and greater access to that information is the answer 36 Her work investigates the secret–that which is purposefully kept hidden and inaccessible–as the limit of such publicity:

… democratic politics has been formatted through a dynamic of concealment and disclosure, through a primary opposition between what is hidden and what is revealed. The fantasy of a public to which democracy appeals and the ideal of publicity at its normative core require the secret as their disavowed basis. 37

Dean recognizes the need to critique assumptions that publicity is necessary for democratic political practice. But the ideology of the public sphere is incredibly strong. We think, as a public, that we should have the right to know. And at a time when a touch of the keyboard can bring incalculable amounts of data, the assumption of that right is ever increasing. Dean states that the “injunction to reveal misreads the sense that something is withheld as the public’s missing authorization. The secret can’t be told. It can’t be filled in. It’s simply the form through which the fantasy of the public takes account of its failure in advance.” 38 This is not to discount the tangible results that public revelations can bring, particularly when the effects are global, as is the case with Wikileaks’ release of classified government documents or Edward Snowden’s revelations about American spying through the National Security Agency. Dean acknowledges that the politics of the public sphere have always been based on the association between power and secrecy, and that to reveal such secrets is to grant or re-distribute that power.39   Yet such acts of revelation fail to have political impact since, as she argues, “all sorts of horrible political processes are perfectly transparent today. The problem is that people don’t seem to mind, that they are so enthralled by transparency that they have lost the will to fight.”40  If we consider that historically the development of the public sphere has required transparency, has required visibility as a key component of robust, democratic politics, what are we to make of transparency in the digital age? These are slippery terms at a time when digital tracking and surveillance happens through software and algorithms that operate on an imperceptible level. Whereas the panopticon operated as a strong model for understanding the power of looking and the vulnerability of being visible in a society of discipline41 , contemporary surveillance systems operate without the premise or requirement of such visibility. To make matter visible is not to automatically open it to visuality, and conversely, to keep something hidden is not to omit it from surveillance. Media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun takes up Dean’s call to critique transparency in our hyper-networked era of continual tracking and exposure. Chun states,

Those who know of, but are not concerned with, tracking believe they can ‘survive the light’ because they either consider the likelihood of exposure negligible, or think the standards for public interactions online different, or want their misdemeanors to be spectacular. Regardless, visibility fails to produce automatically disciplined subjects (if it ever did.)42

The endlessly visible glut of information online has not disciplined us. As online subjects we have not been afraid of being tracked, even as we become more aware of who and how our metadata is being collected, and this lack of fear has not produced disciplined subjects. Artist Hito Steyerl articulates with striking insight how relentless the drive towards online presence has become. As we increasingly produce endless amounts of visual and verbal statements to validate our digital existence, we are

… realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight; you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface43

It seems certain that even if it were possible for images to truly reveal something about their referents, the aspiration toward transparency is a trap. The Internet has wrought a kind of “opacity in broad daylight” as Steyerl claims, where anything we want to see is visible but meaningless. How then does such a critique of the assumed transparency of the public sphere press itself into artworks, and photographic practices specifically? The concern is not for artworks that attempt to visualize the invisible or hidden but that must address the problem that visibility itself is an ideology, one powerfully tied to the contemporary global order. A critique of transparency then seems possible only when artworks are considered beyond the formal, aesthetic frames of the image.

In the years following 9/11 questions around the limitations of visual representation have been widely addressed, and the role and power of images interrogated.44  However, the parameters of this inquiry seem to now be shifting. As photographs are increasingly freed from their role as representational objects and are now digital processes, images have become an important component of global networks of communication and dissemination that are operative beyond vision. Image production now happens automatically, or sometimes algorithmically. Images that we might think we have ownership over are no longer truly ours; we have relinquished our rights to images for the ease of transmission and communication offered by image-based social networks. Within a hyper-visual environment, the ways in which images are used and engaged has shifted so definitively away from the tangible, material of a printed photograph that we can no longer think of the photograph as a representation, as an index of an event or place.

The Impossibility of Representation

Addressing the limits of representational aesthetics, media theorist Alexander Galloway considers representation as it relates to sites of power within the information society, or within what he recognizes, from Deleuze, as a society of control.45 By framing the argument to ask how it is possible for something to be unrepresentable in a world saturated by data and information,46 Galloway approaches the issue of transparency and secrecy with recourse to the relative opacity of data visualization instead of through recourse to the politics of images, as Jacques Rancière, Azoulay and Butler all do. Whereas Rancière’s longstanding examination of the intersection of aesthetics and politics places him within a discourse that firmly roots questions of representation within questions of political violence,47  for Galloway the impossibility of representation is precisely that neither political nor aesthetic representation is ever possible. He identifies that “one of the key consequences of the control society is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images.”48  One camera does not produce many images, but many cameras (or computers, or smartphones) produce one image. This is a situation where photography no longer records an event but is instead a process or accumulation of many microevents; it does not track a unified point in time, it opens onto many. Photography is not the actual or metaphorical click of the shutter but is instead the instantaneous uploading, tagging, geotagging, searching, facial recognizing, networking, sharing, and filtering of images. This networked image landscape is one where innumerable machines produce not individual, varied, differentiated images but singular images, images that conform to societal codes and conventions.49  For Galloway this proves that “adequate visualizations of [the] control society have not happened. Representation has not happened. At least not yet.”50

Representation has a constitutive relationship with its mode of production, and such production is no longer based on a creator–apparatus–viewer relationship. It is increasingly evident that to make something or someone visible, to produce or make public from multiple sources a singular image is not to produce or generate power. In contrast, Galloway argues, “the point of unrepresentability is the point of power. And the point of power today is not in the image. The point of power today resides in networks, computers, algorithms, information, and data.”51

This is an unusual position since historically vision has been tied to representation through the image. But Galloway’s is an argument against the possibilities of visualization full stop. Where Butler and Azoulay might argue that the signs in the image cannot be considered in isolation from each other, that is they cannot be considered free-floating or unmoored from their referents and that they must actually mean something even if they do not appear to. For Galloway the signs, symbols and imagery that we use to attempt to make data visual, to attempt to make visual sense of so much unending, infinite data, can only appear to forge a relationship with any determined meanings. For him there seems to be little or no power in images, despite their massive proliferation. The generation of power resides in the notion that the image is a screen, which is a front for real power that exists in networks, algorithms, data sets, and relationships of information. These systems of power are yet to be made visual or visible in any meaningful way, and the attempt to make visual systems of power is indeed a pressing one. The question remains not only whether representation is possible, but also whether it can locate and visualize power at all, particularly when political and visual representation is being continually denied across many discourses.

Reading Between Image and Text

Returning to photographic art practices, it is clear that for Simon’s and Paglen’s projects to be made comprehensible in scope, there must be a way for the images to carry signification. As such, both Paglen and Simon use extended, detailed captioning to direct viewers outside the framed image by pushing against the very limitations imposed by the frame. To see one of their images without an understanding of the context of the project would be to reduce the image to aesthetics only, since the fuller and external spaces of the image would not be legible. Is one possibility for overcoming the failures of photographic representation to navigate between images and texts? Might the use of language also help to articulate questions around data, where language is once again achieving a place of primacy as users learn increasingly various coding languages in order to access different layers of digital communication software? For both Simon and Paglen, without the grounding of extended or specific captions the viewer would be speculating at the research, labour, or people that preceded the image. With the addition of the caption, the limits of each project become less abstract and more concrete. While resisting didactic meaning, both artists are navigate a line between revelation and concealment, between opacity and transparency and it is through the caption that this negotiated border becomes most discernable. Indeed, the troubling of the relationship between image and text is one that both Paglen and Simon hinge their practices on, since without the texts or captions, it would be impossible to assign meaning to these largely abstract images.

Photographic theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen claims that the “interactive combination of text and photograph is typical of Taryn Simon’s work; it, rather than photography, is her true medium.”52

The tiny texts crafted to accompany the images are intentionally placed to be read in conjunction with the image, so that the two have equal weighting. This strategy “shifts the burden of assigning that meaning from the artist to a viewer, making us all complicit in the act of signification, and indeed in the histories we are asked to witness.”53  This is no small burden for the viewer, and this is precisely the type of responsibility in viewing that Azoulay’s civil contract of photography calls upon us to acknowledge. If the viewer is, as Batchen suggests, obliged to become complicit in the act of signification, then the question of what is knowable and seeable is an urgent one. The image reveals its contingencies not because the viewer can read anything into it, but it is a contingency based in part upon an individual being able to navigate between visual and linguistic texts. What results is “a photography that proffers transparency [and the] utopian promise of liberal democracy, but then renders that transparency opaque, even reflective.”54  Paglen and Simon may both “proffer transparency” in their working methodologies, but their highly aesthetic images hypnotize us with a luminous glow, obscuring more than they are able to reveal. It is precisely this dialectic between transparency and opacity that is operative in the negotiation of image and text. The caption must bring with it the political motivation of the image.

How then can we visualize subjects as wide ranging as border policing, surveillance systems, drone attacks, economic inequality, environmental catastrophe, late capitalism, global finance? This is the overarching question with which Paglen and Simon concern themselves, in projects that interrogate the limits of photography and representation during a contemporary moment where the definition of photography, as a medium, a practice, and a process, is in continual flux. While the images of such subjects come to be largely symbolic, when we attend to the images in context, through language or texts that point to outside sources, we begin to address the contingency of the image without being didactic. The questions addressed throughout this paper may appear specific to photography as an aesthetic and artistic practice, but ultimately they have much broader implications in an era that privileges communicational transparency to the point where certain freedoms and values are being severely limited. As visual forms of communication become the most prevalent forms of social media–and the trend towards imagesharing sites like Instagram and Tumblr offer evidence of this shift–the currency of this form of exchange is the ability to store and manipulate data in ever expanding, seamless, and seemingly invisible sites. How information is presented, represented, and understood in a networked era are questions only beginning to be fully addressed.

** Images by Taryn Simon are courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery (New York). Images by Trevor Paglen are courtesy of the artist and Altman Siegel (San Francisco). The author wishes to thank John O’Brian and Jaleh Mansoor for their continued support of this project.


Jayne Wilkinson is a writer, arts administrator and emerging scholar. She holds an MA in Art History from the University of British Columbia and her research interests focus on the intersection of aesthetics and politics in contemporary photographic practices, with specific attention to the politics of visibility and obscurity in the surveillance state. She is currently director of Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art in Toronto, Canada.

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