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“‘Theory’ is not just words on a page. It’s also things that are made”: interview with Nicholas Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff, photo MTL+Nicholas Mirzoeff, photo MTL+In the midst of a debate over the memory of colonialism, triggered by Portugal’s president speech in Gorée last April that exposed the persistence of coloniality in Portuguese society, we interview Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, who is in Lisbon to teach the seminar, Decolonizing Media, within the Ph.D. program in Artistic Studies-Art and Mediations at FCSH – UNL. 

Nicholas Mirzoeff defines himself as a “visual activist working at the intersection of politics and global/digital visual culture,” and indeed he brings his scholarly (and empathic) knowledge out of the academy by engaging with such movements as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. 

As one of the founders of the field of Visual Culture his publications – now considered classics – include Introduction to Visual Culture (1999/2009) and The Visual Culture Reader (1998/2012). He has many other books published, but the The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011) is a turning point in his oeuvre. In this book, Mirzoeff unfolds a genealogy of “visuality”, understood here as “discursive practice”. So much so that, now, each time it is used, the concept must be put in quotation marks (or otherwise defined). After this in-depth work, it seems Mirzoeff felt the urge to understand an ever-shifting world in which the image plays a crucial role and published How To See The World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More (2015), a work that reaches a larger public in the best tradition of John Berger.

Concurrently, he undertook several other projects, including Occupy 2012, a sort of diary which entailed writing a post everyday for a whole year on the Occupy Wall Street movement and After Occupy: What We Learned, an open writing project on its lessons (2014). The latter resulted in his most recent book, The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, a genealogy of “visual commons”, which departs from Judith Butler’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s “space of appearance” and has just been released as a free e-book

Indeed, these recent projects constitute a step further in Mirzoeff’s endeavor to open theory and decolonize knowledge – a hot topic these days, but which very few know how or dare to do. Mirzoeff is achieving this goal not only through channels of publication and activism, but, additionally, through experimentation with digital humanities such as his recent project, How to See Palestine: An ABC of Occupation.

From Katrina to Black Lives Matter via Occupy, from Palestine to Standing Rock via the Maori, Nicholas Mirzoeff has been weaving. Weaving a field with a warp and weft of fundamental concepts, methodologies, and “tactics”, teaching us how and where to look. Above all, however, he has been weaving a two way street between the academy and the people.  

Nick Mirzoeff’s recent thoughts, provocations, and dérives can be found on his blog The Situation.


You are one of the founders of the field of Visual Culture, though you trained as an historian and art historian. In your work, you bring this foundational capital as well as the political and ethical dimensions of Cultural Studies. Therefore, in your case, the accusations of ahistoricism first made by October’s Visual Culture Questionnaire (1996), that somehow persist to this day in regards to the field, fall through. They fall through also because we are not talking of a discipline – that was never the ambition even in the moment of Visual Culture’s foundation 20 years ago – but more of a praxis. You have defined Visual Culture as “a tactic for studying the functions of a world addressed through pictures, images, and visualizations, rather than through texts and words”.  

Could you elucidate what exactly is this tactic or rather tactics – a term that seems to imply a political stance? In which way are these tactics different from the methods used by the academic disciplines concerned with the visual, such as art history or anthropology?  And is there any way in which a certain degree of ahistoricism might be productive?

In the 1970s, Stuart Hall began the project of studying popular culture at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. He was clear that the strategic goal was not the understanding of culture as such but the possibility of social transformation that might result from using it as a tactic. Likewise, Hall argued that theory is always a detour on the way to somewhere or something else. As someone who came up politically and intellectually with that project, this is what I meant when I called visual culture a “tactic.”

In disciplinary frameworks, methods are agreed on as a means of producing data about given objects. But the work I am interested in doing sets itself against such disciplinarity and in fact hopes to break it down. When the October questionnaire dropped, all those years ago, it was the disciplinary practice of modernist art history that was above all at stake for them. Their target was mostly the visual culture programme at Rochester, which included art historian Douglas Crimp, who had broken away from the group.

Today I might frame things a little differently. It’s clear that present-day culture has a massive compulsion to visualize. Snapchat users alone generate 2.5 billion Snaps a day. There are some 1.2 trillion photographs taken every year. These numbers make the project for a “history of images” as such very different. Big data analysis can break the numbers down, such as the selfiecity.net analysis of selfies by location, gender and other indicators. This, then, is the “visual culture” of our time: a capitalized circulation of data-sets, rendered into “visual” form on the screens of our devices that enables and expands the circulation of commodities of all kinds. Further, it extends the commodification of perception itself into a monetizable good. Venture capitalist Mary Meeker calls it “all visual, all the time.” CISCO Networks envisage that over 80% of social media will be video as soon as 2021. What these capitalists are setting out to do is to narrow the gap between the digital and the material world—for them, that means selling things, whether goods or services. And they’re getting much better at it, very quickly.

So my goal isn’t so much to aspire to a comprehensive mapping of these capitalized/visualized materials so much as to use them—first as a means to map change; and then to make social change. I call this visual activism, which seeks to engage with the visual culture that simply exists. Perhaps the clearest example of what I mean here is the Black Lives Matter movement. Vernacular photography and video has made it very clear that there is, in the trenchant phrase of the Movement for Black Lives, “a war against Black people.” But those pictures have also been a catalyst for change. First, the movements associated with Black Lives Matter (which is a de-centered network of autonomous chapters) sought to gain convictions of police officers using these materials as evidence. As it has become clear that no visual evidence will serve to mobilize prosecutors and jurors to convict police, the goal has become systemic.  The intent to challenge systemic racism and mass incarceration has both short-term tactical goals, often achievable with the current framework of law and regulation, and systemic transformation, such as the need to offer reparations.

The step into public space to challenge white supremacy is always and already a step “outside history,” as Benjamin put it. Because history has been the record of the defeats of the oppressed and the damnés de la terre, it is tactically important to set history aside for the moment of action. Not to forget systemic inequality but to make the taking of action possible. The burden of history as it is taught to us is that “they” always win. The possibility of history, as we can on occasion live it, is the shimmering chance to find a way to live.

“The step into public space to challenge white supremacy is always and already a step ‘outside history,’ as Benjamin put it. (…) The burden of history as it is taught to us is that ‘they’ always win. The possibility of history, as we can on occasion live it, is the shimmering chance to find a way to live.” “The step into public space to challenge white supremacy is always and already a step ‘outside history,’ as Benjamin put it. (…) The burden of history as it is taught to us is that ‘they’ always win. The possibility of history, as we can on occasion live it, is the shimmering chance to find a way to live.” In Portugal the field of Visual Culture is in an embryonic stage, with some jargon and transdisciplinarity having been appropriated by other fields or taken on, in the University, under the umbrella of the term Artistic Studies. That said, the political and ethical dimensions of Visual Culture are, in most cases, dismissed. In your own work, this political and ethical stance is crucial, and you have been taking this stance by diversifying the channels of scientific production (what McKenzie Wark has called low theory), publishing in open access platforms, participating in The Free University in NYC and the Anti-University in London, and engaging with social movements. In this way, you have been actively contributing to the vivid debate over decolonizing knowledge recently intensified by the events propelled by the students of the School of Oriental Studies in London or The Rhodes Must Fall movement, in South Africa. In this regard, you have also stressed that visual culture “is not an academic discipline; it hopes to reach beyond the traditional confines of the university to interact with peoples’ everyday lives”. At FCSH-UNL, you are giving the seminar Decolonizing Media – Change your Worldview, which has a very participative component and engages with different readings that provide a framework for these debates. In the syllabus-blog, under the item How We Work, you stress that “attending is an act of solidarity. This is not a disciplinary space but one of commitment”. 

It is clear that Visual Culture is not possible without a political and ethical dimension to it. How do you envision the actual role of the field in this movement to decolonize knowledge and the imagination or, as you have put in a recent article in The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, how to actually “empty the museum, decolonize the curriculum, and open theory”?

As I’ve just said, the question is how to develop a visual activism within the unfolding global capitalist visual culture. This connects critical work with activism inside and outside the fields of education and knowledge production. It’s not clear to me that there is yet such a thing as the “field” of visual culture within the university. When cinema studies started in the 1970s, it had a difficult time gaining a foothold as well. Once film was more widely recognized as a medium of artistic merit—due to all those great 1970s films—and film theory had come to have a much wider field of influence. In short, cinema studies had a recognized “object” and a theoretical apparatus to support it. By using the 1960s term “visual culture,” the area of our investigation has been hampered by an inevitably doomed effort to account for the culture as a whole in terms of visual materials. I see a second opportunity for it now. With the rise of vernacular digital imagery from selfies to YouTube video and especially the document of political resistance,  there is a distinct “object” that’s not art history or cinema or television but has palpable importance. If it can find theorists of importance, then this imagery—if it is not just another “blip” in the histories of digital media—can be the foundation of an area of what I call visual culture practice. Because it is possible to make such work as well as to comment on it and to use these forms to comment on and critique themselves.

Universities, however, are changing and mostly for the worse. Students are seen as consumers, albeit ones who get into massive debt as a result. Any area that is seen as “interdisciplinary” is out of fashion and out of resources. So, like Fred Moten and Stephano Harney in The Undercommons, I increasingly see the university as a potential place of refuge and an institution from which one “steals.” By the latter, they mean you use the time allocated to you to do work that extends beyond the university; that you allow university resources from space to photocopying or Wifi to be used by those who need it; and that those who have access to financial resources repurpose them to support activist needs. Rather than simple crime, this works in the grey area of universities’ commitment to public service, which is rarely defined and may very well mean activist work. Certainly, the Trump administration has pushed everyone left of center into new alliances, even if there are limits to those alliances.

That said, then, my visual activist agenda is, as you say, empty the museum, decolonize the curriculum and open theory.

“Empty the museum” means that all expropriated cultural property should be returned to its appropriate owners. The Elgin Marbles should go back to Athens, where an empty museum awaits them. In Ramallah, the Palestine Museum is similarly empty of contents. When the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind first opened, it too was empty and many people thought it was more expressive like that. One crucial item is the return of Indigenous cultural property, especially sacred objects and human remains. In the Carmo here in Lisbon, the bodies of two Amerindians sit in glass cases in the library: what better “case” can be made for the decolonization of museums? In the US, many Indigenous objects have been returned under a legal framework designed to support Native peoples’ claims. There are still plenty of objects to look at. My goal is to imagine what a “museum” would look like if it was not filled with expropriated and non-specific materials. Places like the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre or the British Museum would be very different. A collection like Tate Britain, centered around Turner’s bequest to the nation, would not change so much. The goal is not to create nationalist agendas, however. It’s already the case that the museum is a service industry, devoted to the circulation of (tourist) capital more than anything else. What if there were spaces open to local communities and artists of all kinds within these palaces of culture?

“Decolonize the curriculum” is the specific demand of the “fall” movement in South Africa that was created by the sequence #RhodesMustFall; #FeesMustFall; and more controversially still #ZumaMustFall. Here the removal of a piece of colonial art, the statue of Cecil Rhodes, empowered students to successfully resist the proposed increase of student tuition and then to even challenge the head of state. Other student activism has gone into the decolonizing movement. The goal here is not the removal of “white” scholarship so much as the re-orientation of the curriculum from an African perspective. This movement involves reconsidering how learning takes place, what formal structures of assessment are used, and how the student-teacher relationship might be reimagined. These goals affiliate with the decolonial education proposed by figures like Paolo Freire, Gloria Anzaldua, Silvia Frederici and Augusto Boal. Unlike much Euro-American educational “reform” that has concentrated solely on raising graduate income or aligning degrees with presumed needs in technology or engineering, decolonize the curriculum is centered around the human and non-human needs of the present and future biosphere. My work is to follow their lead, rather than to set direction. It makes very practical difference to how I organize learning opportunities, how I engage with others and what I consider my role to be. All this is very much ongoing and part of my daily work.

So too is “open theory.” I imagine “open” here more as a verb than an adjective: how do we open theory to those who feel excluded from it? McKenzie Wark’s “low theory” is closely affiliated. His project is about usable and actionable ideas. Open theory is an injunction to be as inclusive as possible. It’s not opposed to new forms of language. We’ve seen trans activists change our approach to pronouns, for example, and feminists push us to think “intersectionally.” These are terms that are used in ongoing activist and social debate. So open theory is not anti-theory but it is against elitism for the sake of it. By all means let’s create the best ideas we can. But if only a tiny elite of highly educated white men can understand them, are they really the best ideas? Another way to consider this is in our approach. I encourage people I’m working with to read a text like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in the manner of elite philosophy: line by line, with the presumption of many possible interpretations in each line. It is “normal” to do this for Hegel, Plato or even more recent thinkers like Derrida. But the “political” work gets read too fast and too superficially. In affiliation with decolonize the curriculum, “theory” is not just words on a page. It’s also things that are made, like the innovative map of transgenic seed use created by Pedro Neves Marques in his current exhibition. Or it could be the work done by the Visualizing Palestine collective to make the occupation comprehensible. Or the city atlases created by teams led by Rebecca Solnit, creating maps that show both gay nightclubs and monarch butterfly sites. In my own practice, I do what I call slavery dérives: I go into a cultural institution and walk at random looking for the traces of enslaved human beings. Not just their formal depiction but the presence of sugar, tea, coffee or cotton—note that painting switched to cotton canvases in the eighteenth century rather than hemp, for example, so most of the modern painting “canon” rests on the product of enslaved labor.

The collective goal for such endeavors would be alternative institutions. Some already exist like Islington Mill in Salford and Open East in Margate (both in the UK). The artist Emily Jacir has just raised money for a similar project in Bethlehem. Some will object that the state should be doing these things and in the long run I agree. Such alternatives are a means of prefiguring new approaches to learning and of putting pressure on state-funded institutions to respond.

Credit Mariojr. “In the Carmo here in Lisbon, the bodies of two Amerindians sit in glass cases in the library what better ‘case’ can be made for the decolonization of museums? (…) In my own practice, I do what I call slavery dérives: I go into a cultural institution and walk at random looking for the traces of enslaved human beings. Not just their formal depiction but the presence of sugar, tea, coffee or cotton—note that painting switched to cotton canvases in the eighteenth century rather than hemp, for example, so most of the modern painting ‘canon’ rests on the product of enslaved labor.” Credit Mariojr. “In the Carmo here in Lisbon, the bodies of two Amerindians sit in glass cases in the library what better ‘case’ can be made for the decolonization of museums? (…) In my own practice, I do what I call slavery dérives: I go into a cultural institution and walk at random looking for the traces of enslaved human beings. Not just their formal depiction but the presence of sugar, tea, coffee or cotton—note that painting switched to cotton canvases in the eighteenth century rather than hemp, for example, so most of the modern painting ‘canon’ rests on the product of enslaved labor.”

You have written a significant amount of books, but it seems that The Right to Look is a turning point in your intellectual production. In The Right to Look, you explain that, although “visuality” is a key term for visual culture, it is neither a recent term nor neutral, and cannot be used lightly to designate all that is visible (as some tend to use it). In fact, you reveal that Thomas Carlyle invented the term in 1841 to mean precisely the “visualization of history,” a history related to war – specifically the need of generals to visualize battlefields. You then defined “visuality” as a “discursive practice whereby domination imposes the sensible evidence of its legitimacy”, distinguishing three different visuality complexes across time: “plantation”, “imperial”, and “military-industrial”. I feel that the idea of a “complex” is of most interest methodologically speaking, because it highlights the epistemic and dialectical dimension of objects, subjects, and actions throughout history. 

 Can you elaborate on this “visuality complex” and the ways in which “the right to look” might constitute a countervisuality tactics in relation to “the gaze”?

Visuality is the means of visualizing a battlefield using ideas, information, images and intuition. This battlefield is not seen directly by those visualizing it, both because it is too large to be seen and because the leadership do not risk their lives in this way. Visuality is a complex because it seeks to organize human and non-human life in a variety of registers—labor, discipline, punishment, self-care—in a framework created by the practice of war. War is fought in different “theatres,” in formal and informal ways, sometimes between regular armies and often in “asymmetric” form between an army and resisters, whether colonized peoples, enslaved human beings or revolutionaries. It also simplifies by compressing all asymmetric war into what it calls “counterinsurgency” in the effort to delegitimize such conflict and end popular support for it. Already, then, in discussing military strategy it becomes necessary to think of mental forms. So the complex is also a set of ways of seeing the world, meaning to understand it.

If that means of conducting war began in the Napoleonic era, heralded in the strategic writings of Clausewitz that are still taught to soldiers today, it had long been enacted on the colonial plantation—or, as we should really say, the slave labor camp. Here the overseer wanted to convey the impression that he could in fact monitor all the activity of the enslaved, whether he could see it personally or not. The formal era of visuality as a military tactic was inaugurated by the epochal transformation of Haiti’s successful revolution against enslavement. It was, and to an extent still is, “unthinkable” in Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s term. Oversight should have prevented it. But oversight, in English, can also mean “not seeing,” or making an omission. Visuality is not, then, simply power. It reinforces power with authority, a key dimension to maintaining order from the point of view of the slaveowner, the colonizer and their offspring, the capitalist.

So there is a contradiction at the heart of visualizing. It is that moment where the law of the gaze suddenly becomes the right to look. We’ve seen this a great deal in global politics since the book was published, from Tahrir to Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall. However, gaze theory belongs to the apparatus, specifically that of cinema. The drone, which epitomizes visuality today, is not quite that apparatus. The drone renders the world into a two-dimensional abstraction. To be visible in that abstraction is to be killable. But the drone is sufficiently bad at distinguishing people that its operators target SIM cards rather than people. That is to say, they identify a SIM card as belonging to a “target” and when it is found they destroy it. It is chance as to whether that card is being carried by the target at the time or not, leading to the high civilian casualties caused by drones. The drone is a cell-phone on wings but those wings are noisy, using a cheap propeller engine, whose sound has become part of the regime of terror the drone produces.

The counter to the view from the sky is, as it always has been, that from the ground. On the ground, we endeavor to be seen, to listen and to see others. In creating a right to look, people first listen to the other, wait for what they have to say and only then respond, even and especially if they do not speak. To speak first is to name and to colonize. The selfie is, in this sense, a symptomatic response to the regime of counterinsurgent surveillance. By taking selfies, people try to register themselves as having lives that matter and can be lived. They are not the products of narcissism, as so many older people have written, but of anxiety. When a space of appearance is formed, as at Tahrir or in a Black Lives Matter action, bodies are placed in space where they are not supposed to be. For that moment, they create what Fanon called the “tabula rasa” of decolonization. All bets are off. What is then said and seen is not simply countervisuality, a response to being visualized, but the “unthinkable” alternative: a space of appearance that is not formed by war, order and authority but by the possibility of living together. We do not appear equally in that space because history does not disappear. It is in that space that structural inequality can be addressed.

“In Portugal, I’ve been struck by the visible presence of what are still referred to as the ‘explorers’ or the ‘discoveries,’ rather than ‘colonizers’ and ‘encounter.’ The depiction of African bodies in official art and monuments is often stereotyped, almost degrading.” “In Portugal, I’ve been struck by the visible presence of what are still referred to as the ‘explorers’ or the ‘discoveries,’ rather than ‘colonizers’ and ‘encounter.’ The depiction of African bodies in official art and monuments is often stereotyped, almost degrading.” In Portugal, the memory of the empire (1415-1974) lingers and, like any other memory, is partial, concealing. Official memory is still one of heroicism, with the terms “discoveries” or “expansion” prevailing over “colonialism.” The massive role of Portugal in the slave trade – condemning 5,848,266 people into slavery (almost half of the 12,500,000 total enslaved) – and the persistence of forced labor after the abolition of slavery, in 1869, until as late as the 1960s are ignored widely. Furthermore, there is no memorial to the victims of Slavery that could counter the imperial discourse that Lisbon as a city emanates, in particular in Belém, where the official memory is staged. Therefore, a “visuality” – that in my perspective was carefully synthesized, updated, (re)defined, and intensified by the fascist dictatorship (1926-1974) – survived the Carnation revolution in 1974 and has very concrete consequences in the lives of many, in particular afrodescendents. Today, this “visuality” permeates common sense, political discourses, the media, museums, and even the scientific literature that proposes to do its critique ends up conveying the same colonial and colonizing use of images. Additionally, a visual illiteracy prevails in all levels of society (which might not be indifferent to the fact that Visual Culture is in such an early stage here). I wonder to what extent the contemporary use of images and discourses of the colonial past isn’t part of the same “visuality complex” that underlied their production in the first place, constituting a way of perpetuating their necessity in the present.  

My question to you is thus (and this is not a problem exclusive to Portugal):  how to combat the predatory and recycling use of “colonial” materialities and images, in particular by the media, the museum, and, especially, the academy, which persistently racializes subjects and puts them back again into a colonial equation, where it seems they have never left?

The return of the empire, of colonial nostalgia and actually-existing (neo)colonialism is a palpable feature of the present. Throughout The Right to Look, I used the terminology of decoloniality, rather than that of postcolonialism. In short, decoloniality is a longer term project of which the historical experience of post-World War II decolonization was but a significant part. The postcolonial is more specific to the Indian subcontinent than a general or global condition. This theorizing of coloniality and decoloniality comes from the Latin American context, where half a millennium of colonial exploitation has made for caution about declaring that era to be over. 

In Europe and the United States, there is also the specific return to colonial form and nostalgia. In Portugal, I’ve been struck by the visible presence of what are still referred to as the “explorers” or the “discoveries,” rather than “colonizers” and “encounter.” The depiction of African bodies in official art and monuments is often stereotyped, almost degrading. I don’t see this, unfortunately, as an exception but as an example of the new divisions. Universities set a poor example here, with minorities and people of color being systematically underrepresented on both sides of the Atlantic.

I don’t see this as a symptom of the lack of visual literacy, whatever that means—perhaps it can be more a question of knowledge of visual references? I think it’s about the primacy of “race” as a visualized system of human hierarchy. It is clear that there is no biological or genetic basis for “race,” although different histories can of course be detected and have varying outcomes. But when a police officer looks at a suspect, if they call out “hey, you there,” as Althusser once had, it’s because they recognize that suspect as “white.” For the racialized human being, there is no such hailing, and certainly not “move on, there’s nothing to see here,” also addressed to the “white” person. Once the police “see” a person as Black or otherwise racialized, the response will be violent. “Police” means not just the uniformed officers on the streets but the entire apparatus of the society of control, noted by Deleuze. But Deleuze did not stress how that society is internally differentiated into the “zones” of self-control offered to those designated “white” and the highly-controlled and differently socialized areas where people may be killed with impunity, not as homo sacer, but as the mark of colonial, racialized hierarchy.

The agenda of decolonization is, then, that of abolition democracy—a democracy in which all people are finally accounted as fully and irrevocably human and on which there is no police.

Qalqilya checkpoint. Credit NM.  “There’s no doubt that coloniality in its neoliberal form is pernicious and life-diminishing. (…) Decolonizing media means in part recognizing those forms by which it has always already been colonized and making decolonial use of them.” Qalqilya checkpoint. Credit NM. “There’s no doubt that coloniality in its neoliberal form is pernicious and life-diminishing. (…) Decolonizing media means in part recognizing those forms by which it has always already been colonized and making decolonial use of them.”

 

Through your project “How to See Palestine: an ABC of Occupation”, you imply that Palestine is the uttermost contemporary example of colonialism: “There’s no doubt as to my first and most lasting impression: this is what it is to experience colonialism”. Typically, the past helps us to understand the present, but with this project, in a typical visual culture move, you have shown otherwise: by understanding the present – this excruciating present in Palestine – you have disclosed the past; a past that doesn’t concern Palestine alone.

Can you elaborate on your method here and the new knowledge it produced about Palestine and about the experience/practices of colonialism as a whole? Do you feel that the possibilities opened by digital humanities helped to better visualize Palestine (and colonialism, past and present)? Is this the future of Visual Culture: to visualize our present – mass migration, refugee crisis, permanent war, the Anthropocene, which are all directly related to colonialism – in order to come to terms with the past and, in doing so, rescue our futures?

These are a very intriguing set of questions. As to Palestine first, my experience was that here I experienced colonialism as such for the first time, having written about it for a long period. There’s no doubt that coloniality in its neoliberal form is pernicious and life-diminishing. It’s another thing again to see people routinely have guns pointed at them, be herded through checkpoints on a daily basis and be subject to humiliating dominance at all times. To talk to people that live forty miles from the Mediterranean and have never seen the sea—for that to be their ambition, in fact. To hear that a Muslim man has not been able to visit al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem since 2001, a few miles from his home in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. To learn from Bedouin that their camels get arrested by the Israeli “Green Patrol” for trespassing in an environmental area, as if a grazing animal could possibly know that. And then a fine of hundreds of dollars must be paid to get the animal back. All these experiences and many more made it clear to me that this was exemplary, not exceptional. Here I could see the colonial order of the present day as it really is. Yet I am not an expert and I don’t speak or read Arabic so I have no claim to academic “expertise.” I decided to engage in a performative documentation project, as I have done before. The project has rules: in this case, I would write only about things I saw and experienced, using only photographs I had taken and information I had learned on site, whether from people I talked to or from local media. I realized that I had no mental picture of Palestine, other than the repeated terror images, so I asked myself the question: “how can I see Palestine?” As a beginner, I used the ABC format, so there are 26 entries, arranged alphabetically.

Digital media allowed me to create and disseminate this project in a way that would not have been possible in print. Even if I could have found a journal or magazine interested in publishing my observations, who would support all the full color photographs, which are amateur to be sure, but do show in a naïve way what I experienced. I am not sure if this “counts” as digital humanities any more, though. DH, as it’s become known, seems to require that you build a new tool for data analysis rather than interpretation. In fact the term “interpretive humanities” is a negative call-out for DH people. Nor is there a discernible politics to most DH projects. Perhaps you might see the work I did there as an amateur version of the Forensic Architecture project directed by Eyal Weizman at Goldsmiths, which uses social media to recreate and analyze Israeli attacks in Palestine. But his work is so sophisticated and cutting-edge, whereas I was acting in the tradition of militant research, simply putting my body where it was not supposed to be and reporting on what I experienced.

I do agree with the wider assessment you make here. Rapidly changing presents require newly evaluated pasts to explain and explore them. But first they need to be understood in their own terms. This requires a certain adaptability but there is not an infinite variety of experience here. Visual culture research is well suited to moments of mass mediated anxiety, whether in its acute form like the Grenfell Tower disaster or terrorist attacks, or in the everyday experience of surveillance, policing and mediated control. An image like that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old who drowned trying to get to Europe, broke through our hardened sensibilities not from sheer pity alone but because the photograph unwittingly echoed the Christian archetype of the pietà. Whether viewers consciously made the connection or not, it allowed them to “see” this dead child in a way that thousands of others were not. Decolonizing media means in part recognizing those forms by which it has always already been colonized and making decolonial use of them.

'The Appearance of BLM (table of contents)'. “Whereas under slavery and again in the segregated futures then to come, ‘race’ had been indexed to skin tones in relation to ancestry, the [Haitian Revolution in its 1804 Constitution] disconnected it from the body. To be Black (Noir) was henceforward to be one of those who stayed in Haiti and affiliated with its revolution, regardless of past history. ‘White’ persons were those trying to own property in the country but not live there. Blackness as revolution. Certainly, the long spectre of the Haitian revolution is evidence that this reconfiguration was widely understood.” ‘The Appearance of BLM (table of contents)’. “Whereas under slavery and again in the segregated futures then to come, ‘race’ had been indexed to skin tones in relation to ancestry, the [Haitian Revolution in its 1804 Constitution] disconnected it from the body. To be Black (Noir) was henceforward to be one of those who stayed in Haiti and affiliated with its revolution, regardless of past history. ‘White’ persons were those trying to own property in the country but not live there. Blackness as revolution. Certainly, the long spectre of the Haitian revolution is evidence that this reconfiguration was widely understood.” One of the things I love most about your work is the practical use you make of other authors’ concepts, amplifying them to a whole new level, giving them a materiality, a visual form. You did this with Jacques Rancière in The Right to Look and again with Judith Butler’s reading of Hannah Arendt’s concept “space of appearance” in your new book, The Appearance of BlackLivesMatter (free download here).

What is this “space of appearance”? What does it add to “the right to look”, to “contervisuality tactics”? What about this shift from “naming” to “listening”? What promises lie therein?

It’s a good point, I do perform these appropriative acts! In part, that’s how I learned to do the work that I do and I feel its incumbent on me not to pretend to invent new ideas but to show how I have simply tweaked a chain of thought that may go back a very long way. The “space of appearance” is, as you say Hannah Arendt’s phrase for the place where politics is done. Judith Butler made fascinating use of it in her study of Tahrir Square and Gezi Park. Yet I wanted to tweak both uses. Arendt acknowledges that the space of appearance she imagines is that of the Greek city state, meaning that it by definition excludes women, enslaved human beings, minors, non-Greeks and so on. So I wanted first to imagine the space of appearance as the place in which people might perform the right to look, an exchange of looks from one to the other and back—the look into each other’s eyes—that cannot be owned or represented. The advantage of considering this as a space rather than as a claim is that it can be analyzed in specific moments and forms. Learning from Black Lives Matter and related movements, I came to see it as a “listening” first and foremost. Neither this listening nor the looking in the right to look are done with one embodied sense alone. Rather they are ways of being present. To listen is to wait for the other to make the first approach, whether verbally or not, so as not to claim the colonial privilege of naming them. In that listening the unequal ways in which people come to be in the space of appearance can be acknowledged and negotiated.

For Butler, this intersection is fleeting, what she calls the “anarchist passage.” It is with palpable relief that she returns to her familiar Foucauldian territory of norms and regulations. I saw in Black Lives Matter the possibility of a different way of being that has been called abolition, in which norms and regulations would be permanently displaced. I think here of the way that the Haitian Revolution used its 1804 Constitution to define blackness. Whereas under slavery and again in the segregated futures then to come, “race” had been indexed to skin tones in relation to ancestry, the Haitians disconnected it from the body. To be Black (Noir) was henceforward to be one of those who stayed in Haiti and affiliated with its revolution, regardless of past history. “White” persons were those trying to own property in the country but not live there. Blackness as revolution. Certainly, the long spectre of the Haitian revolution is evidence that this reconfiguration was widely understood.

The difference for me in the work I am trying to do today and what I was doing in The Right to Look is that after Tahrir, after Occupy and in the ongoing effort to say that Black Lives Matter, I no longer have to imagine the revolutionary experience of granting and claiming the right to look in a space of appearance. I’ve seen it and experienced it, as have so many others. It no longer needs the language of speculative philosophy for me to express it.

BLM Millions March (2014). Credit Anon. “To listen is to wait for the other to make the first approach, whether verbally or not, so as not to claim the colonial privilege of naming them. In that listening the unequal ways in which people come to be in the space of appearance can be acknowledged and negotiated.” BLM Millions March (2014). Credit Anon. “To listen is to wait for the other to make the first approach, whether verbally or not, so as not to claim the colonial privilege of naming them. In that listening the unequal ways in which people come to be in the space of appearance can be acknowledged and negotiated.”

 

Walter Benjamin exhorted the intellectual to consciously choose the side of the people (the “proletariat” was Benjamin’s term), exhorting him/her to build his/her own “improved apparatus”: “An author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one. What matters therefore is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first to induce other producers to produce, and second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators”.  Looking at your body of work-activism I feel that you have been assembling an “improved apparatus” at the disposal of people. Furthermore, your classes are usually collaborative spaces (in the best tradition of Paulo Freire), something that was accentuated by your engagement with social movements, and I am sure this seminar at FCHS-UNL won’t be an exception, as implicit in the syllabus-blog: “Where it goes is up to the participants. We can decide to change anything.”

Do you think visual culture, at least the one you practice, could be envisioned as an “improved apparatus” at the disposal of people, and students in particular, that should induce them to produce their own apparatus, and in that process, transforming them from consumers into producers?

Yes, I do.

Thank you so much, Nick, for the generosity of your time.

 

*This interview is part 1 of a diptych. In part 2 we will interview Marita Sturken whose work focuses on the relationship of cultural memory to national identity and issues of visual culture. Professor at NYU, Sturken has also been giving seminars within the Ph.D. in Artistic Studies at FCSH-UNL for the past three years.

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