241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I recently read a news article critical on the way social media is used by the public after disasters occur. It questioned whether sharing intimate tweets and photos originally posted by victims of a disaster on online social media platforms expresses genuine sympathy or is merely an act of voyeurism.

It was in response to the social media activity following disasters such as the Boston bombings of 2013 or the recent tragedy of flight MH17 in the Ukraine. In both cases graphic and intimate images and messages regarding victims emerged online and were shared en masse by the public without any accountability. Although the article's main question seems to describe an activity that can be justifiably criticized, the piece ended with a disappointing conclusion, stating: “the line between sympathy and voyeurism appears to be wafer thin.”

The problem with openly sharing photos, information, assumptions, etcetera on social media platforms isn’t necessarily that others will turn out to be misinformed – although this is still a legitimate point to make. Arguably, sharing the photo of a ‘Syrian boy’ in between his ‘dead parents’ as an illustration of the horrors resulting from the civil battle in Syria could have had a benefit. Though erroneous, when that image spread it got a reaction from the West that no longer could ignore the atrocities in Syria. The fact that the boy in question was neither Syrian nor actually orphaned (it was a Saudi boy posing for a photograph by Abdul Aziz al Otaibi) didn’t take away the fact that many Syrian children are suffering. What does this newly found awareness from Western citizens really mean? It doesn’t mean anything to the Syrians - the conflict is still raging - so does it mean anything to us?



This brings me to a different side of the story; the moment that the West is hit by catastophe. After the disastrous turn of events surrounding Malaysia Air flight MH17, social media outlets flooded with horrific images of clothing, airplane parts, and bodies strewn across a flowery field. Images of the contents of ripped open luggage. Images of stuffed animals. It appears that disasters do have the effect of luring many into the realm of voyeurism. This voyeurism isn’t a pleasurable gaze into the private space of another, but its fantasmatic, internalized counterpart.


I would like to argue that so many of us in the West live in relative safety, freedom, and prosperity that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with people affected by disasters and suffering around the world. Let me take the example of stories of monsters told to children. The older children or adults tell stories of monsters and ghosts coming to haunt you in the night. As the stories pile up you have yet to encounter your first sighting. One evening you are in bed and the pile of clothes on the chair in your room appears as a silhouette of the monster you have created in your mind. This is the type of fantasy at play. Not a yearning for the monster to be real but knowing that it, in a sense, is real without knowing what it looks like and having the need to define the monster. Seeing the monster, acknowledging it, in this way becomes a subversive duty defying the reality that there is no monster for you to see.


Sharing graphic images and messages online can express a genuine (but perhaps misplaced) feeling of sympathy. However, more likely they express a need to free oneself from the burden of living in safety and not having a real idea of what disaster and collective suffering really are. We constantly hear ghost stories so our duty becomes to seek out what our nightmares look like. In order to try and grasp the feelings of those affected by the tragedy, onlookers share intimate tweets from victims, photos of the disaster area, speculate about culprits, etc.


This digging into the world around a disaster happens immediately after the first glimmers of the news are out there. The online presence of victims or possible culprits is excavated and spread (note the circulation of false accusations directed at innocent people regarding the Boston bombings). But all of this happens in the name of sympathy for those affected. In this way the wafer thin line between sympathy and voyeurism doesn’t need to exist; sympathy requires voyeurism.

Let’s be clear; this is not a polemic engaged in a struggle to dismiss genuine grief. It is to try and show the duality in trying to remedy those suffering by freely spreading images and accounts of suffering. The harmful aspect is that this act of sharing replaces the moment of reflection immediately with a moment of activity, or rather pseudo-activity, an act that merely serves the status quo, or as Theodor Adorno put it: (..) Pseudo-activity; action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself.


The act of sharing horrific images means, “look at these atrocities! Share if you care! I care!” Implicitly leaving anybody who doesn’t share as though they don’t care. This is the pseudo-activity within burden of collective suffering; the act overdoes itself and aggravates its intention (that of offering support to victims and affected families by ‘raising awareness’). It doesn’t show support to grieving families of victims but a need to partake in their suffering – sympathy comes from the Greek words syn meaning “together” and pathos meaning “feeling”, and pity derives from piety, which comes from the Latin pietas meaning “dutifulness.”

The burden of our position of relative safety in comparison to those in grief requires us to define suffering the moment we encounter it. This implicitly makes collective suffering a duty. However, to “feel together” becomes an impossibility almost if you are not directly affected by such a tragedy. There is no line between voyeurism and sympathy. The latter depends on the former. Perhaps instead of relentlessly confirming and repeating the stories of monsters one should silently provide a flashlight for those hiding under duvet, petrified for what might happen during the night.

I collect a lot of stuff, and since two years also pictures that are made with my phone. Besides taking photographs of wrapped buildings, I began to take photos of my feet, sometimes including the feet of others. I've collected thousands now. A collection that still lacks a purpose.

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication

Besides stencilling, Özlem Altin mainly uses the copy machine to make her booklets, which occupy a middle ground between Zines and artist’s publications. In issues such as The Primitive Mentality and Zig Zag Lady, existing reproductions are freely reproduced – from wondrous photos and drawings out of various illustrated books on primitive art and art of the mentally ill, to illustrations from anthropological or biological treatises. These images are intuitively juxtaposed to create surprising visual contrasts. Any new meanings that emerge as a result are open to the viewer’s interpretation. The booklets that Altin produces frequently (making them is like breathing to her) appear in very small editions (approx. 80-150) and are sold for little more than the cost to make them. What is important is that they exist, not that they are lucrative.

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
Özlem Altin, 'Survival of an Idea'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'

Özlem Altin

Orientpress

André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey
André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011
André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2012
André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey

Is there any feeling, besides happiness, that surpasses the experience of adventure? Yes, the pleasant surprise of the new. This can happen even when well into old age and pockmarked by years bygone, if you remain open to the experience of receiving these novel encounters.

André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey

As a maker of images, with the camera as my tool, I’ve done the necessary travelling in search of adventure. Awakening in a strange bed, in a new location, and entering a new world after breakfast, full of anticipation, is always pleasantly charged.

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011

One can avoid an expensive plane ticket by veering from your usual routine. Preferentially by walking, so that you’ll be able to catch details that may seem unimportant

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011

I find it an extraordinary sensation to glimpse an intriguing mystery in the corner of your eye that makes you slow your pace.

When the two dimensional reproduction of such a mystery still conjures that same enjoyable feeling of the inscrutable in both yourself and in others, one could say that you have a successful work before you.

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2012

The images in my archive are not always of equal obscurity; some are of a more anecdotal nature. These photos are more about situations, sometimes puzzling as to why someone would leave a situation a certain way.

André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey, 2011
For editorial commissions I often delve into this part of my archive first. An image placed next to text demands a different approach: an autonomous image applied associatively results in a more exciting interaction that a servile illustration spelling all out. Editorial images don’t always need to clarify but can, as I prefer, to evoke discussion.

Approaching the subject from an unexpected angle can result in new, surprising meaning.

André Thijssen, Rincon de la Victoria, Spain 2013

http://theotherpicture.com

http://fringephenomena.com

http://nl.blurb.com/books/4531276-fringe-phenomena-3

André Thijssen, Sania, Hainan, China 2007
André Thijssen, Haarlem, Netherlands 2012
André Thijssen, Haarlem, Netherlands 2012

The camera obscura is a strange and almost magical natural phenomenon where an image is created by simply passing light through a small hole into a darkened space. Where the light is cast, an image of the outside world is projected in full colour, upside down, but with all sense of depth and perspective preserved. In the summer of 2013, Teun Verheij transformed his student room into a giant camera obscura:

In the morning, I'm sitting amidst cartoonish clouds that languidly crawl over the floor. It is surprisingly light, and silent now that the fire alarm has stopped wreaking havoc. The agricultural plastic gathers all the street's heat and focalises it, bundles it into a straight, narrow beam that makes a small hot sun in between the clouds. No wind can find me here, only its shadow, which makes the leaves quiver on the trees that hang from a concrete sky. As a consequence, I have been cooking alive now for weeks but it is worth it- I love the big yellow van that is patrolling my ceiling as we speak, the playing children, the bikers looking unbearably fragile- but no fancy pictures for your hungry eyes, because with a long exposure time anyone can make it look like quite something. It is a form of cheating, exhilarating and rewarding but ultimately unsatisfying. Photographing inside is like brain-scanning a square-skulled cyclops, or taking a picture within a picture.

Instead, stay there a while, sleep in there, wake up in there. It is like living in a theatre alone while ghosts of the outside world perform their daily haunting play, oblivious to you. Yet it is completely unlike hidden cameras or spying - what you are watching is already recycled, already filtered by the one eye before you see it. It covers up more secrets than it cares to disclose.

The camera obscura is a philosophical can of worms, yet the usual suspects of comparison (Plato's cave, the Cartesian theatre, psychoanalytical and feminist accounts of the Male Gaze, even surveillance theory's wilder excursions, let alone the entire shelves written on the more ''obscure" aspect of photography) make me feel nauseous even thinking about them. What's more, I think they miss the point somehow. The magic of the camera obscura is hardly the stuff of books, yet it isn't mere optics either.

I can see a seagull lost in the area between the couch and the bookshelves, and I think of nothing at all.