3. Aesthetic Ruptures
Published: 18.06.2012
in the series What Can Photography Do?
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On June 20, 2012, at 7 p.m., Fotomuseum Winterthur will screen Renzo Martens’s Episode III - Enjoy Poverty (2008). For several years, I have been researching (and lecturing on) issues – related to photography and beyond – addressed in this film, which was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This has been especially the case within the framework of a research project that T.J. Demos (University College London) and I have been jointly working on. Entitled “In and Out of Brussels: Aesthetics / Histories / Politics Between Africa and Europe,” this project investigates how the figuration of Africa in films such as Episode III confronts Europe – in particular Western Europe – with the image it is keen to uphold of itself. The first chapter of the book that is the outcome of this project (forthcoming this fall) is entirely devoted to Episode III.

One of the central themes in Episode III is the desire to stimulate debate about photography’s impact and current function in society, particularly with regard to the representation of poverty. A heavy moment in the film occurs when Renzo Martens, whom we follow on an extended travel journey throughout the country, talks to the European owner of a Congolese palm oil and coffee plantation. This takes place in a commercial photography gallery context while he is cheerfully observing, accompanied by presumably his wife, photographs representing his own workers. They’ve just acquired some photos for their private collection. Martens acts out the role of the rather naive interviewer, but the general context in which the scene becomes integrated, i.e., particularly within the larger setting of the film, does not make the conversation come out as neutral. We encounter the same photographs later on in the film, when Martens and the plantation owner discuss statistical data mentioning malnourished children living on the plantation. Then, the images are qualified by their owner as “artistic.”

Episode III incites us to reflect on the commodity value of art photographs, especially in relation to the contents that they depict. The film also powerfully demonstrates how photography has become a major tool in the generalized endorsement of neoliberal hegemony. Martens directs his attention to the activities of non-governmental organizations in the region and the way they employ – or should one rather say exploit – the photographic image for the sake of maintaining the status quo in advanced industrial society rather than for the sake of solving the problem of poverty in Africa itself. He extensively films the NGOs’ omnipresence while particularly focussing on their habit to print logos on basically anything that they use―thus sharply bringing to mind Naomi Klein’s pressing analysis of this matter in her book No Logo (2000). Martens’s main point is that poverty in Africa is an increasingly globalized business in its own right: 5% of the profit from the exploitations of the Congo’s natural resources goes to the local elites, 95% is sent to the industrialized countries, and local workers are left behind poor and deprived, living off of a starvation wage.

Renzo Martens, still from Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, 2008. Color video, sound, duration: 88 minutes, English subtitles. Courtesy of the artist, Wilkinson Gallery London and Galerie Fons Welters Amsterdam.

In his film, Martens not only makes this point crystal clear but he also aspires to move beyond the sheer analysis of African misery by deconstructing the ideology of the representational systems and myths surrounding the current photographic depictions of disastrous situations in certain parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to actively dismantle the conventional relationships that determine the spectatorship of depictions of miserable situations in mass media-oriented fundraising campaigns, he engages in a fundamental dialogue with an Italian press photographer about the ownership of the images that the latter shoots in the Congo. He teaches local photographers to take photographs of starving children (sometimes with logos added), to subsequently find these snapshots dismissed in a humiliating way by a local representative of Doctors Without Borders (MSF, or Médecins sans Frontières).

While both engaging with and problematizing the photography business this way, Martens demands that we, as spectators, move beyond passive contemplation of photographic images. Like Ariella Azoulay in her famous book The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), he urges us to understand photography’s various uses and to clearly differentiate between all of them. Azoulay defines this move beyond passive contemplation in terms of civil spectatorship. This implies that we come to see our perceptual relationship towards the subject depicted in a photograph and to the artist that produces the work in legal terms: it is a triangular, contractual relation between the depicted subject, the photographer, and the spectator. A contract implies that all parties involved in signing it are entering its terms on an equal basis, having an equivalent status as subjects or individuals of free will. If a photograph creates benefits for only one or two of the parties involved, leaving behind the depicted subject matter in an unprotected or deprived state, the contractual relationship is unbalanced and null. The rationale behind Azoulay’s claim is based on the photographic depiction of human beings. But this claim can – and I want to argue, needs – to be expanded towards the protection of animals, inanimate nature, or legitimately constructed architectural settlements.

While working on location – in Congo – and immersing himself among the locals, Martens wants to visually prove the impossibility of a dismissive attitude of distancing in our current era. The film ends with the artist steering away on a raft on the Congo River, displaying the neon letters “Enjoy (please) Poverty” that he had been dragging with him in colonial boxes from the Compagnie Anversoise all along the entire trip. Its concluding message at first sight appears to come out rather cynically, leaving the Congolese behind with the tragic notice that our wealth is their poverty, and for them, contrary to us, there is no hope. But since 2008 – when the film was released – the financial crisis has also hit hard in the Western world. When seen as a holding a mirror towards the European continent, Episode III’s disappointing final frame soon may predict a future in which, for Europeans as well, hope for a better future becomes less of a certainty, and poverty a greater reality.

 While integrating photography as a key tool for engaged reflection, Martens’ film installs the kind of disruptive aesthetic experience that allows us to think through its message beyond its apparent borderline ethical attitude. By erasing the clear line between fiction and fact, Episode III challenges our consciousness, with the deliberate intention to encourage us to launch ourselves into collective action, to allow for the political and economic will to not only imagine but also make a different world in which the distribution of wealth and resources is more fairly negotiated. As Eyal Weizman powerfully writes in his latest book, The Least of All Possible Evils (2011): where there are now camps, there could be cities; where people are now policed by humanitarianism, a polis could develop.

7 comment(s)
Jörg Scheller
Posted 23.06.2012 at 10:46

We have been wondering about photography's specific task in the envisioned project of encouraging “us to launch ourselves into collective action, to allow for the political and economic will to not only imagine but also make a different world in which the distribution of wealth and resources is more fairly negotiated.“ The intention sounds quite noble, although some members of our group have stated that simply negotiating the distribution of wealth more fairly does not necessarily imply changes in the basic patterns of the distribution system as such; others have called the mission “romantic” because, according to experience, people tend to get used to any kind of visual culture and tend to be more or less immune to being “launched into collective action” through art. Moreover, it could be argued that reaching out to the underprivileged and calling for positive changes is actually part of colonial/imperialistic history and the implied asymmetrical power relations―turning camps into cities certainly was also the goal of the Jesuits in Paraguay and elsewhere…
But anyway, these are probably general, way too general issues: what is the specific, the genuine task that photography could play in such a project, in contrast or in analogy to literature, painting, music, etc.? In a way, any cultural item can be used as a “key tool for engaged reflection”, particulary in today's hybrid, globalized media culture which is characterized by the temporary or constant interaction of various techniques of communication and aesthetic experiences. Is it the so called “democratic” aspect―anyone can do it, if she or he can afford a camera―which would privilege photography over, say, poetry, video or pop music? Or is photography just one possible agent of critique among others? Precisely because it still is strongly linked to mimetic and representational practices in the public consciousness, e.g. in the clichéd contexts of criticizing exploitative practices by appealing to the viewer's emotions, and precisely because it can be more easily abused than, say, dadaist poetry in the commercial sector, photography as a tool for critique and social change remains highly problematic (this diagnosis, however, also accounts for the clip Hilde has incorporated into her text―again, what we see is black people dancing, so it must be Africa; again, a European goes to Africa to provide help, albeit a more shrewd one). So here's the question, straight pragmatic one, leaving behind purely intentional concerns: HOW to do it? HOW would a non-clichéd critical photographic practice, technique or strategy “look like”? How would it have to be performed and how would it have to be distributed and embedded in the culture of “the former West” and beyond?

(with Sofia Bempeza, Rubén Fructuosos and Martin Walther)

Daniela Janser
Posted 26.06.2012 at 11:45

This link to the trailer was my idea, not Hilde’s. I regret it now, the film is obviously much more complex than this YouTube-trailer suggests and the latter can also be misleading. Martens’ film has nothing to do with dancing Africans and the like. His intervention can probably best be described as “development aid” for white people through the use of ultimately self-effacing (this is a paradoxical claim, I know, because everybody calls him vain and a narcissist…) subversive strategies à la Sacha Baron Cohen (from the latter one’s Borat and Brüno days)... tbc below.

Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 24.06.2012 at 05:59

The question aimed at in Hilde’s latest posting is central, crucial and decisive, given any sustained engagement with issues regarding the interface of the aesthetic and the political, as well as resolutely incomplete in the sense that it addresses a topic that is bound to never be exhausted, resolved, settled. I confess to being thrilled by the topic being posed so straightforwardly and hands-on; few are the voices that undaunted work towards articulating photographic or artistic practices as tools towards a transcendent or extra-aesthetic means, whether let’s say individual self-help or collective and social change. Yet we have to be immensely cautious and forever sceptical when proposing solutions as to how art, photography, may – which is what is being asked for here – change the world. What we have to address, with the utmost precision, is exactly how that particular leap suggested in all ideas and notions of political art is articulated, substantiated; the leap from a politically acute and articulate work to a work that in some kind of specific manner reaches or poses new knowledge, new modes of knowing which, in turn, suggest and propose new ways of being. A first distinction would look at differences and divisions between being and doing, or between knowing the world and changing the world, using Chomsky’s notion of the two grand and main tasks at hand for humans (I am not commenting upon Hilde´s suggested extension of the reach of subjects for an ethics of photographic representation). Here is, indeed, one of the central points. Rather than being physical interventions, representational practices are interventions towards the “heart and minds” of the public. Photographs do not, primarily, change worlds, but they induce changes in minds and hearts that may change the world. What the photograph does is to work in the world of perception and cognition. Recognizing this urges us to reiterate – or question - intentionality. What is it that the artist wants? And what does the photograph (evoking Mitchell’s attention to the life and subjecthood of images) want? How does it travel as it inevitably evades the properties and meanings intended by its maker, and is tagged and re-tagged in its journeys through the world of images? How is the balances checked between photograph, photographic subject, photographer and viewer? Or, in a different terminology, with other discursive parameters, how do we organize the interfaces between ethics and aesthetics?

These are obviously meagre initial thoughts upon a large and complex subject. But Hilde van Gelder’s entry into this topic seems to propose rethinkings and reconsiderations, perhaps yet another urge for historicism (much of which surely is available in van Gelder’s own extended work on the topic, as she indicates). This might also be a simply a roundabout way of acknowledging scepticism towards Martens’ dialectical cynicism, a kind of trope emerging over the let’s say last 15 years, somehow analogous to something like a slacker-generation version of engagement. I find myself searching for a kind of history of poverty as representation. An immediate powerful reference point is certainly James Agee/Walker Evans Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a grandiose documentary novel played out in the impoverished South, with Evans and Agee as key protagonists. Or the work of the late Jo Spence, Chris Marker or Harun Farocki – just about any film. Or some of Alfredo Jaar’s installations, meta-works on this topic, on the modalities of addressing the other.

David Campany
Posted 25.06.2012 at 21:29

...or to put it more bluntly, have a look at Dan Fox's brilliantly withering assessment of Martens/his film:


Daniela Janser
Posted 26.06.2012 at 11:46

I disagree. Dan Fox’s review is certainly withering, but not necessarily brilliant – and it is definitely not exhaustive. Calling Martens’ film incoherent and contradictory seems to me a contradiction in itself. Of course the film is contradictory! Because Martens is very obviously performing many of the – very contradictory indeed – approaches of “the white man” to Africa, i.e. “help”, “cynicism”, “exploitation”, “compassion”, “condescension”, etc. etc…. There is no “authentic stance” in this film that could be ascribed to Martens and then be called incoherent, except for his thorough demonstration and thus dismantling of many (contradicting) stances by others.
Another reproach, repeated twice, claims that “Episode III – Enjoy Poverty” harbors unsubstantiated suggestions “that Médecins sans frontières is complicit in the exploitation by Western corporations and UN-led forces”. I am not quite sure how many evidence would be needed to convince Fox, in my opinion, Martens offers plenty.
When we showed the film at Fotomuseum Winterthur last Wednesday, quite a few veteran Africa journalists, experts and human rights workers were present. Some of them didn’t like the film at all, but most of them agreed that the “documentary bits” about the roles of the plantation owner, of Médecins sans frontières, press photographers, UN-forces etc. were not only well observed but also very astute in their criticism. Their violent rejection of “Episode III” had to do with the “art part” of the film. Interestingly enough in the comments to this blog we can observe the opposite, kind of: people from the “art side” are criticizing Martens’ for being reductive, stereotypical and incoherent – a “slacker-generation version of engagement” to quote Jan-Erik Lundström.

David Campany
Posted 26.06.2012 at 16:44

We should all demand much more evidence than Martens affords, otherwise we really are in trouble.

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 27.06.2012 at 11:23

In the film, there's ample evidence of how the photo-journalistic business in the Congo works today: no Congolese photographer has access to it, and Western photographers - at times to their own regret - are invited to exclusively look for disaster scenes, by all means if need be. MSF doesn't make a great impression in this film but its exact role in the larger story of the Congolese crisis remains equivocal, and that may be a wise decision from the artist. I can recommend reading Eyal Weizman's chapter on the Ethiopian famine of the 1980's in 'The Least of All Possible Evils' to anyone who seeks comparative, historical background information with regard to the presence of MSF in African conflict zones.

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