A Refusal of Images
Adam Broomberg + Oliver Chanarin, Rehab Nazzal
Text by Vicky Moufawad-Paul
Toronto based artist Rehab Nazzal and UK based collaborative team Adam Broomberg + Oliver Chanarin are trained as photographers. In the projects presented in this exhibition the artists refuse to create easily consumable images of the violence of war. Through abstract ing and reconfiguring the notion of witnessing, the artists turn their backs on what Susan Sontag calls "the consensus of images" and instead present us with a detournement of the ways that we often see zones of conflict.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, as general strikes and occupy movements have spread across the globe, A Space Gallery is pleased to present A Refusal of Images. The works in this exhibition urge us to consider a central determinant of unfolding history-the use of mobile devices to record and transmit political events. With an immediacy that theorists of visua l culture have only recently begun to grasp, these recordings often conta in moments of abstraction : for example, the shaking camera aimed at the backs of others while the videographer flees from a tear gas attack . Those segments of not being able to see tell us as much as those that are clear; they tell us about being blocked and they tell us about power in that moment. These kinds of abstract images communicate something that might circumvent a system of images that are often trapped in meaning and over-determ ined by our viewing habits. At the same time, satellites are repeatedly taking images of the entire surface of the earth; clear, yet dangerously tota lizing, contemporary images of violence are easily accessible.
In this context, Broomberg + Chanarin and Nazzal decided to enter zones of conflict, Afghanistan and Palestine respectively, and to return without the images that have come to be expected. On exhibition are photographs and videos that interrupt our viewing practices and illustrate experiences of violence as they relate to the problems of accessibi lity and control. These projects create an opportunity for viewers to use their imagination and to call upon what they already know about the situation to fill in the image. The artists have found ways to circumvent the conventional images of war that are clogged with rationalisations that dista nce us from the event.
In The Day Nobody Died, Broomberg + Chanarin created a series of twelve images while work ing as embedded journalists on the British front lines in Afghanistan. Instead of using their cameras, when events happened that journalists would normally photograph, they would unroll their 50 meter long roll of photographic paper and expose a seven meter section of it to the light for 20 seconds. The results are abstract images caused by the light and the heat. The photographs are mounted on aluminum and named after the event that preceded their creation: The Day of 100 Dead; The Fixers Execution; The Duke of York; The Jailbreak; The Repatriation; and so on. The titles of the photographs relate to the unfolding events on the ground, however the images do not testify to their proximity to danger and instead challenge our understanding of photojournalism.
Accompanying Broomberg + Chanarin's photographs is a video. The video featu res the box that held the photographic paper as it was being transported and protected by the British military, in a kind of absurd performance through security barriers. The box recalls the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as the mysterious rectangular object that exists through pre-human and post-human environments-perhaps the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's film could have also housed a roll of film, and been 'objectively' collecting evidence. The travels of the box through the military system into and through the war zone draw attention to the very particular kind of capitalist space in which the military and the state is protecting property. As a radical mapping of military space, what they have done is not what is normally considered locative media but, rather, their geopolitical positioning is used to bore a peephole into a system of control that is normally opaque. While being unwatchable, this is the system that is used to map and watch us (GPS technology originates in and is sustained by the US military). The video opens a tiny crack through which we can watch the circulation of goods in that highly ordered and paranoid system. The absurdity of the actions in the video rub up against the seriousness of the context of war and the beauty of the abstract photographic works.
Rehab Nazzal's video Bil'in was shot in April 2010 when she attended a weekly demonstration against the Israeli wall. The demonstrators were attacked with tear gas and Nazzal began running with her camera. Watching her footage later she was mesmerized by an accidenta l moment of the camera lens against her sleeve. Nazzal intentionally created a longer sequence of abstract sleeve-out-of-focus moments and kept the audio of the demonstration intact. The resulting image incites the viewer to strive to see, to focus the image, but we are only briefly satisfied. The energy of the sound combined with the rhythm of the abstract image's movement convey the drama of the demonstration in a successful response to the exhausted images of demonstrat ions.
In A Night at Home Nazzal also presents the viewer with obscured images, but in this case what is absent attests to the proximity of the camera to the zone of danger. Nazzal was in the Jenin area of Palestine visiting her mother with her children. After midnight the house woke up to sounds of bombing. Without turning on the lights in her room she pulled out her camera and recorded the nighttime view out of her window. The image is black on black punctured by jolts of white light.
The Dead Sea Series is a series of large scale photographs of the Dead Sea: some from the Jordanian side and the rest from the Israeli side. While Nazzal was in Jordan the photographs she took of the sea are clear photojournalistic evidence. From the Israeli side no water is visible. As a Palestinian she is not allowed to get close to it or to stop her car without harassment, but is able to take quick snap shots of the coast that is peppered with military paraphernalia.
Juxtaposing the works of Broomberg + Chanarin with those of Nazzal places the work of a Palestinian artist (Nazzal) alongside the work of artists from other regions, namely, South Africa (Broomberg) and England (Chanarin). I am interested in what this juxtaposition shows about the artists' works and their respective locations in relation to zones of conf lict, and how the special considerations and constrictions associated with each particular zone transmutes their work.