A. Ellis

In thinking about this week’s objects, in particular the Abounaddara conference, I am moved by Hani Syed’s work to review the words “image” and “spectacle” and how they relate to one’s right to the image and generating artwork that speaks both to activism and a collective culture.

My initial reaction to the word “spectacle” has been informed by the French word of the same spelling that is used for what in English we would consider a show. For instance, a staged play would be «un spectacle du théâtre.» So when Syed’s first video states “Stop the spectacle” I think of stopping the show and all that comes with it. The word “spectacle” implies that the audience is partaking in some form of entertainment, whether it be disgust or, as Augusto Boal states, an emotional orgy filled with pity; the mind is activated in a way that what is being viewed are characters manipulated by external forces, living, suffering, dying, or dead for the sake of someone else (the, what I call, “Sarah McLaughlin pleas” for charity). There is emotional response to what is seen, but no education, no further thinking. The “photograph” is chosen over the historical timeline and the complexities of the people.

An image, for me, is much more objective. It is a visual construction of something that is, whether it be a creation of the mind or a piece of reality. An image becomes an image once the viewer has seen. It is still as opposed to frenzied. Spectacle has frenzy, an image has stillness. Much activism, however, relies on depicting particular, what the prompt for this week calls, urgent humanitarian conditions. Of course this sense of urgency may be heightened by humanitarian organizations for the sake of receiving aid and playing into an audience’s emotions, but the harm in this is that the images projected become spectacles, and, as Syed states, the war and suffering that is shown takes away the ethical and political contexts, showing “dystopia as opposed to the cultural connections that sustain people.” The right to the image no longer belongs to those who are being shown in them because their objectivity, in the stripping away of their culture and the sustenance of their lives by the camera or whatever medium, does not show objectivity. This ultimately shapes, especially in the Western world, how we view other countries and ourselves within not just an economic hierarchy, but within a humanitarian one as well. In a spectacle, the audience becomes more human than the people being documented.

Then what would be the preventative measures an activist might take in order to avoid the image from becoming a spectacle? Is it simply showing a people’s culture? The introduction to the conference made it clear that it is not just a matter of bestowing the image, but also thinking about how the image may be claimed. How do we allow—I cannot think of a better work at the moment—an image to be claimed by those in that image, or rather to put it another way, how do we prevent, in our documenting and distribution, claiming an image as our own? Careless representation leads to spectacle—because careless representation is a performance of perceived privilege, a need to represent every suffering moment is a colonial sickness. Do we want to help or do we just want to produce? This is not to say “don’t document!,” but rather consider one’s position, human to human, as opposed to human to object.