[-empyre-] Art, Representation, Communication

paulina aroch p.aroch at gmail.com
Tue Nov 27 16:59:56 EST 2012

*Art, Representation, Communication*
 For this week’s discussion of risk on *empyre_soft_skinned_space*, we
would like to pose some questions about the relationship between risk,
representation and communication. Is it possible to aesthetically represent
risk, understood either as a foreseeable and thus anticipated event or,
conversely, as a more abstract, imagined scenario? And, if so, what are the
potential implications and responsibilities that such a representation
might bear, whether political, social, ethical, or otherwise? Insofar as
risk corresponds to a future tense (something will or will not happen), and
representation, by definition, adheres to a logic of “afterness”—are the
terms themselves conceptually and categorically incompatible? Conversely,
precisely because risk depends on imagining something that has yet to come,
in what ways could we say that it always needs a system of representation
to make such an imagining legible and meaningful? In other words, in what
ways might risk, in order to be understood, depend on representational
systems? Reciprocally, what might representation, understood as an
“after-the-fact” practice bring to bear on contemporary conceptions of

In what ways might representation serve as a constructive tool for
bridging—rather than widening— the divide between risks that remain in the
sphere of potentiality and those effectively realized? Thinking of new
communication and transportation technologies as the condition of
possibility for neoliberalism, and communication itself as both a valued
commodity and a hyper-inflated trope in today’s world, what is the relation
between representation and communication in art? And how is the
communication/representation of risk modified by those conditions?

The images presented here (see attachments) gesture toward not an
anticipation of an event, but rather the time of ongoing risk (revolution)
and the time of aftermath (disaster). We offer readings of two different
images by two different artists, operating in different mediums, cultural
contexts, and geographies. The first, a photograph of graffiti images,
features an intriguing arrangement of artistic responses to social protest
and political turmoil in a shared space in Cairo (“Tank vs. Biker”); the
second, an image from a photographic series of graffiti texts written by
victims of a common natural disaster in New Orleans(“Destroy this Memory”).

*1. “Tank vs. Biker”*

“Tank vs. Biker” is a graffiti piece sprayed on a street of Cairo in the
context of the Arab Spring; while some hold it to be anonymous, other
sources attribute it to Ganzeer. I first came across the image at a lecture
that another Egyptian street artist, Bahia Shehab, gave on September 22,
2012 at Cornell. Shehab showed a chronological photographic account of how
this wall had been successively occupied by a series of different artists,
mostly anonymous to each other yet in dialogue through the public space of
this wall. The authorities also participated in the dialogue, by
selectively black-spraying some of the elements that were successively
incorporated into this virtual public landscape. (The image you see in
attachment is at the earliest stages of the graffiti interaction, which
Ganzeer inaugurated. For a video account of the wall’s posterior stages see
Shehab’s TED lecture at

Shehab’s account of the risks involved for graffiti artists under the
present conditions in Egypt is twofold. On the one hand, there is the risk
of getting caught in the act and being arrested by the police. On the other
hand, there is, at least for Shehab herself, the persistent risk of
publicly recognizing her art as hers, of claiming authority over the
illegal action in Western public forums. The risk might be worth taking
since only by acknowledging the position from where she speaks can Shehab
communicate the information that concerns her and which is also a major
public concern. Yet there is a second reason: authorial claim is perhaps
the sine qua non for art to be able to participate in the circuits of
aesthetic and economic value production in the global art market. Shehab
needs to own her art if she is to make a living as an artist.

The catachrestic encounter between superimposed values in the same act of
authorship calls for considering the question of how risk might be
configured differently from the perspective of the global periphery.
Furthermore, I wonder how we can understand risk from the “periphery,” not
only in the sense established by world-systems theory, but also in the
disciplinary sense. In what ways do these graffiti artists question
academic imaginations of risk? Against what kind of concept is risk being
defined in the social sciences? And in the arts? What notions of stability
unfold? How does stability – as a condition of understanding or as a desire
– mark the narratives of the core geographical and disciplinary areas from
where risk itself is imagined?
Since early on risk was imagined as a thing of the sea. We can think of
Gaspar Mairal’s ongoing investigation into the word’s first appearance in
maritime insurance contracts in the Mediterranean and its dissemination in
association with the overseas realities of the New World. Risk as belonging
to a seascape is an image that takes a strong hold over the Elizabethan
imagination: think of the role and meaning of the sea and particularly of
ships in Shakespearean plays such as *The Merchant of Venice*. But if the
ship is paradigmatic figure of risk for a mercantilist society whose
(imagination of) wealth pivots around the colonies, what trope organizes
our imagination of risk in neoliberal times? What is the paradigmatic
transportation/communication technology evoking a mode of capitalist
accumulation with a logic and an aesthetics entirely different from that of
mercantilism? Ganzeer portrays a tank and a bicycle, represented on a one
to one scale, face to face. Can we imagine the tank as the mode of
transportation that is to open a new horizon for capital in the very
particular ways it has done so, at the global periphery, since Santiago de
Chile, 1973? In other words, is the tank to neoliberalism what the ship was
to the mercantilist world? And can we think of the realistic mode of
representation of this graffiti art as risking exile from the global
circuits of aesthetic value production? What is the risk involved for art
when its aim – distant from both the “the means is the message” precept
that characterizes modernism and the hyperinflation of the means as such
that characterizes postmodernism – seems to be simply the message?

Paulina Aroch p.aroch at cornell.edu

*2. “Destroy this Memory”
To say that Hurricane Katrina was a tremendous disaster, the effects of
which are still largely unfathomable and the response to which is still
largely unconscionable, is an understatement. Interestingly, it is perhaps
the word “failure”—and not “risk”—that first comes to mind when remembering
the devastation caused by Katrina along the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
There were basic infrastructure failures resulting in the collapse of
multiple floodwalls and levees surrounding New Orleans, where the greatest
damage occurred, submerging over 80% of the city under water. There were
rescue and response failures, state and government support failures,
evacuation failures, and perhaps at the root of all these, there were
systems and communication failures. In fact, few disagree that regarding
communication, the Bush administration’s response—both with preparations
beforehand and relief efforts after the storm hit— was unequivocally a
double failure of public health and public affairs.

Much of the news coverage of the disaster offered images that evoked the
feeling of failure as well. Many of us likely remember the dramatic scenes
of the overcrowded Superdome, the mesmerizing aerial shots of the fallen
levees, listless in their watery graves, or pictures of residential
wreckage—uprooted trees, toppled cars, and ravaged houses. In the weeks
after the hurricane, internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Richard
Misrach (*Desert Cantos, Cancer Alley, Petrochemical America*) traveled to
New Orleans, where he began taking photographs of Katrina’s aftermath. In
this process, he took “field notes” with a small point-and-shoot camera,
the contents of which would later prove to contain dozens of hidden
treasures that would become a project all on their own. Hundreds of the
locations that he shot as a note-taking strategy for mapping both the
disaster’s pathways and his own photographic trajectory contained textual
traces of human survival. These traces took the form of writing. Graffiti
messages became testimonials indicating the number of dead or alive, phone
numbers, and an array of emotional expressions: rage, fear, love, and
sadness. As he developed these photos, Misrach realized that the messaging
pattern shifted from practical information (i.e. names of those who had
been abandoned or rescued) to larger existential questions centered on
trauma, memory, and survival (i.e. “what now?”). Some victims wrote
messages of faith and recovery, such as the textual inscription on the
plywood scraps featured in the photograph included here, small fragments of
hope among the trashed landscape. The accumulation of these graffiti
messages by Misrach meant that they would become art, eventually published
in a book and exhibited in museums. But many of the messages had a much
simpler purpose: they were meant to inform their future readers of who had
survived and who had not. As a response to a catastrophic event, these
texts communicated something visceral and real that was being threatened to
disappear as the floodwaters remained: “I am here.”  Equally moving were
those messages that indicated that no one was present (either due to death
or evacuation), yet nonetheless promised a return harbored in messages of
belief and solidarity: “we will rebuild.”

If Rene Magritte’s paradigmatic representation of a pipe entitled “This is
not a Pipe” played, through intermediality, with representation as such,
then how might we think of Misrach’s project, where intermediality traces
the impossible yet actual transition from representation as communication
to representation as art? Does the photographic register risk the erasure
of the pragmatic dimension of the primordial semiotic act in the face of
trauma and, with it, the erasure of trauma itself? Does this artistic act
succeed in turning trauma—understood as that which cannot be put into
words—into a dialogic counterpoint? Or does it foreclose that possibility
by emptying communication out of the picture, transforming the message into
a referentless trace and allowing trauma, as the direct impact of the real,
unmediated by the symbolic, to take over the space of representation as a
whole? When natural disaster strikes the social order in the form of
trauma, when risk control fails, is communication itself at risk of erasure?

 Patty Keller pkeller at cornell.edu
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