4. Aesthetic Equality
Published: 29.06.2012
in the series What Can Photography Do?
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In this fourth posting, I consider a sequence of photographic images and accompanying text fragments that a group of Ramallah based artists and writers - Basel Abbas, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Nahed Awwad and Inass Yassin - created together with and coordinated by Shuruq Harb and Ursula Biemann (ArtTerritories). Preceded by an introductory essay entitled "Looking Back at Today" – written by Biemann and Harb – this photo-textual work of art was published as an insert in A Prior #22 (2011). It can be downloaded free of charge via this weblink: http://www.artterritories.net/?page_id=2592.

This 22-page photo-textual sequence was the result of a workshop held at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. Together, the group studied a wide range of private family photographs that they had been able to gather from asking around in their immediate environment. The selection criterion for this "collection" of images (see: Part 2) – none of which comes from existing, institutional archives - was to include, as Biemann and Harb explain, images that “express instances in Palestinian family and social history that reflect the sense of hope and anticipation that currently blows through the collective imaginary in the region” (cf. also http://aprior.org/artist/artterritories). The work provides, they state, “unclassified but rearranged memories” of moments in the recent history of Palestinians, namely in the sixties and eighties, when “mobility, connectivity and a curiosity toward diverse cultural experiences were particularly prominent”.

It is striking that almost all of the adults that we observe in the pictures are posing for the camera while not being fully engaged in a particular task. They are standing smiling on a beach, waiting or watching at the airport jetty, looking relaxed while taking a boat tour, coming back from a voyage by air plane or posing for an amateur photo portrait during a family gathering. They seem at ease: not only within the picture but also in the situation within which they are depicted. That appears even to be the case for the people watching events taking place in 2011 on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, an impression that is strengthened by the accompanying text fragment: “We don’t have to be afraid anymore, there is no more fear, we are free, we are liberated”.

In a challenging essay, entitled "Notes on the Photographic Image" (2009), Jacques Rancière has argued, while discussing key photographs by – among others - Lewis Hine or August Sander that it is from the apparent “indifference” of the photographed subject towards the underlying circumstances that there is the most to be learnt. Rancière distinguishes the “carefree inactivity” of the “indifferent being[s]” that he encounters in such photographs from the “characters [absorbed by] their task” that Michael Fried esteems central to his theory of contemporary art photography. The former, he argues, testify for “another modernism” than the one Fried has in mind: they bear witness to “the exacerbation of a modernist project of separation”, which is a “project of severing”. Within the logic of the latter project, the artist makes photographs of characters who “are put in their place” precisely within the picture, by being so utterly absorbed in their task that they appear oblivious of the viewer. Then, the picture has been able to “resist” or “repudiate all identification by the viewer with the human subjects of [these] images”. In other words, the "absorptive viewer", as we know him, needs to – even if paradoxically – feel safely "excluded" from the harmonious world of the successful picture that he is observing.

The "indifferent subject", Rancière writes, is not to be confused with the absorptive subject. By being engaged in “an activity that consists precisely in doing nothing and not worrying about anything”, it bears witness to a modernity that blurs the opposition “between the world of work and the world of leisure, between the naked forms of life and the experiences of the aestheticized world”. This ‘doing nothing’, in his view, becomes the “exemplary subject of art”: it is an “aesthetic neutralization” of the social and artistic hierarchy, from which a different future can be imagined. “Inactivity is not laziness”, he insists. Rather is it “the suspension of the opposition between activity and passivity that aligned an idea of art with a hierarchical vision of the world”.

In a more recent interview with Frank Ruda and Jan Voelker, published in 2011 in a book edited by J. Smith and A. Weisser entitled Everything is in Everything: Jacques Rancière Between Intellectual Emancipation and Aesthetic Education, Rancière has specified that this aesthetic neutralization of the absorptive modernist regime of expressivity opens the door towards “aesthetic equality”. Aesthetic equality is also a key goal in Peter Friedl’s work, which I discussed in an earlier posting and comments. In a key essay dating back to the year 2000 and entitled "The Curse of the Iguana", Peter Friedl argues that what matters most today, is “to take the whole world seriously.” His opinion matches that of Susan Buck-Morss who, in Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), has provided advocacy for a human universalism that is shaped “from below” by the motley crew. The universalism that Buck-Morss proposes radically includes all human beings and does not factually exclude some. This “common humanity” needs to take shape through “subterranean solidarities,” which are a source of enthusiasm and hope, as they appeal to universal, moral sentiment. “Universal humanity,” she argues, “is visible at the edges.” It is encountered in “the porosity of the space between enemy sides, a space contested and precarious, to be sure, but free enough for the idea of humanity to remain in view”. Most importantly, she concludes, it implies a “radical neutrality [emphasis in original]”.

Radical, aesthetic neutrality is not to be associated with a lack of commitment or open-endedness of intentions. Quite on the contrary: it calls for active inclusion of the viewer instead of safe distancing. It defends a way of observing photographic images that claims identification with the depicted subject as a constructive force to aesthetically imagine social change. It addresses the common root of what is at stake in today’s world: true equality among all humans. Such an aesthetic act of radical neutralization produces meanings that are, to borrow Buck-Morss’ terminology once more, “lateral, additive, syncretic rather than synthetic”.

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