artists at war ?


It is as impossible to recapture the pain and terror of war as it is to truly remember the agony of an infected tooth. Moritz Thomsen, My Two Wars.

We instinctively understand that images are part of war. From paintings of war to the petrified Gorgon’s head on Theseus’s shield, from ancient dramatisations of surrender to Hitlerian propaganda, from Machiavellian ruses to the use of video by terrorist groups, everyone accepts that the essence of any war relies on a rapport between images at least as much as it does on the one between forces. And the same could be said about reality or life in general. Beyond appearances, mirror-play, representations, what is reality or life if not a point, a moment’s surprise, an unexpected resistance, an almost-nothing? In this sense the war image could be considered the mother of documentary images in general; in its customary uses, it testifies less to what is than to what one wants to show.

So it is not as something real, or as testimony on reality, that images essentially take part in war or life, but rather as decoys, lies, traps. Not only does an image constitute a weapon or a form of life only insofar as it is capable of showing something other than what is, but, in many respects, it cannot claim to show anything else. When appearance is everything, there are no more images of war or real battles, nor images of suffering or true love, only chromos, clichés designed to glorify or denounce by means of fantastical representations. This is not a criticism, but a problem, a war that will have to be fought by anyone who sets out to produce a true image.

The same goes for photojournalism. Whether they are excluded or embedded, war photographers show almost nothing of battles, only the damage done, only ruins or semi-abstract representations (a missile crossing the Baghdad night). At a distance or in empathy, reporters show almost nothing of life beyond scattered signs or staged performances, obscene or incomprehensible shots.

This equally applies to today’s artists who, in an effort to address the lack of comprehensive oversight, take it upon themselves to visit the areas surrounding war, or traces of it that are in danger of being erased (the before, the after, the rears and sanctuaries), and also to visit the areas surrounding life, or signs of life that are becoming objectified by discourse. Godard in Sarajevo, Sean McAllister in Baghdad or in Jerusalem; Sophie Ristelhueber taking an inventory of crater shapes in Iraq, of border lines in the West Bank and Bosnia, even those between places only recently stitched together; Eric Baudelaire, constructing a fictitious war scene in Hollywood, An-My Lê capturing American training operations. They offer nothing else: surroundings, contours, margins, traces of war, effable but invisible, or visible but not immediately legible. There’s also Bruno Serralongue when he photographs the aftermath of a demonstration; or the ex-photojournalist Gilles Saussier, when he describes the destiny of images in a dialogue between the photographer and threatened minorities; or Taysir Batniji, when he documents the crossing of a frontier, indexes non-places (a checkpoint in Rafah, blocked roads, airports, transit points), non-action (baggage queues, dozing passengers, chattering) as well as non-images (vacant or black), producing perhaps nothing else: an art made from leads and snags, respect and constriction.
In a way, photojournalists and artists are bound to overlap, and even get confused with one another in a strange chiasmus. The former seek an image that will show what they were not able to see, and in this way they tend toward art (at least in the most neutral sense: pose, dramatisation, setup). The latter seek an image that will show what they’re not able to say, and in this way they tend toward reporting (journeys, immersions, long travels or landscape panoramas, interviews), a strange kind of reporting devoid of information, without any message or meaning.
This being the case, four problems apply to images of war, and of reality in general. First, how can you use an image to describe what you can’t see directly? Second, what sort of process can be worked out so that the image manages to cheat its way into showing even that which can’t be seen? Third, how do you take your own subjective position into consideration without making this the sole subject of the image, and yet still treat it thoughtfully and produce it in such a way that it serves what you want to show? Fourth, and finally, how do you foresee-if not predict-the consequences of this kind of exposure? How do you impose upon images of the real a certain sense of their destiny, and hence of their reality?
This chantier will try to push these questions a little further or shift their emphasis. And try to answer them too. To answer is not only to close, but also to recognise, and sometimes to love.