6 Gravesend, Steve McQueen. 2007. Frame enlargements.

Steve McQueen. Gravesend,
2007. Frame enlargements.
Courtesy the artist.
Moving Images
of Globalization*
What would it mean to confront the ambivalent reality of globalization rather than live in denial of its savage effects? Steve
McQueen’s recent film Gravesend (2007) both poses and represents one response to this question. The film opens with shots
in warm golden hues of the technoscientific refinement of
columbite-tantalite in a British laboratory where faceless technicians melt down and purify the metallic ore and automated
machines process the material in an antiseptic environment.
Filmed with precision camerawork that mimics the efficient
movements of the lab’s pneumatic devices, this footage is soon
intercut with recordings of manual labor in the Congo jungle
where men are seen prospecting for the valuable mineral, digging deep holes in the earth and using their hands to hammer the
mineral from the rocks. Used commonly in consumer electronics products such as cell phones, DVD players, and computers,
and found primarily in Sub-Saharan West Africa, coltan, as
columbite-tantalite is more commonly called, has inspired an
international demand that has fueled the violent conflict in the
Congo, leaving more than five million dead over the last twenty
years.1 Assembling a geopolitical montage, Gravesend connects
technology and war, glimpsing by metonymic reference the
uneven geographies of Europe’s advanced state of economic and
scientific development and the Congo’s lag in a lawless void of
preindustrial toil.
As is well known, the term globalization calls up notorious
ambiguity, representing an empty signifier nearly meaningless
today, much like the word freedom, if used without further qualification. Emerging in the late 1970s to describe the unification
of commercial markets worldwide, globalization has since been
celebrated with unalloyed optimism by the cheerleaders of capitalism—from philosopher and Reaganite policy-maker Francis
Fukuyama to New York Times columnist and free-market ideologue Thomas Friedman—as defining our present era of planetary
integration achieved through sociocultural, political, technological, and economic forces.2 For these and other conservative
commentators, globalization holds the promise of postpolitical
democratic consensus, international economic equality, and
postnational freedom of mobility. Yet corporate globalization
may well be the more apt term for recent developments, because
Grey Room 37, Fall 2009, pp. 6–29. © 2009 Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology
it indicates the private sector’s profit-led motivation—supporting
policies of denationalization, structural adjustment, and privatization—that stands behind the grand social claims of its proponents.3 Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the
subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, a contrary enthusiasm regarding globalization—but enthusiasm nonetheless—has
mounted as well in left-wing circles. Consider postcolonial
anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s positive emphasis on the egalitarian potential of “diasporic public spheres” achieved via new
technologies and systems of “mass mobility and mass mediation”; or that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s popular book
Empire and its sanguine view toward the new purchase of global
resistance movements in the age of postnational sovereignty.4
Despite such hopes, however, the heightened visibility of today’s
worldwide, post-9/11 and credit-crunch crises—including resuscitated state and military power and violent blowback to the
imposition of Western political and economic policies, particularly in the Middle East where the rhetoric of “freedom” cloaks
domination and means merely free enterprise—has made globalization’s darker nature undeniably evident. Whether theorized as
a “new imperialism” by David Harvey or as “military neo-liberalism” by the San Francisco–based collective Retort, globalization presents us with an image that is ambivalent at best and
cataclysmic at worst.5
McQueen’s work gives powerful expression to this ambivalence,
adding historical nuance to globalization’s complex cultural
imaginary. By referring to and including images of the southeastern
English industrial port of Gravesend, the film traces the lopsided
relations between current-day Europe and Africa back to nineteenth-century colonialism, specifically via its representation in
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Conrad’s protagonist Marlow sits in
a sailboat on the Thames estuary in Gravesend while he tells his
notorious tale of journeying up the Congo River. McQueen’s film
commemorates that literary moment through an extended passage of the sun setting over the port’s factories and smoke stacks
(mirroring the crepuscular time of Marlow’s narration), a sequence
that ever so slowly dissolves and gives way to images of Congolese
laborers. The resulting palimpsest of geographies joins the normally
separated regions, a segregation that otherwise conveniently
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dissociates advanced technological procedures from the faraway
exploitation of natural resources amid conditions of brutal
lawlessness. Meditative and melancholy, the sunset’s elegiac
tones suggest not only the twilight of both industrialization and
Britain’s imperial reign but also a funereal resignation in the face
of the continuation of their deathly effects under a different
name. In his novella, Conrad uses the old colonial slogan that
runs “the sun never sets on the British empire”—its global span,
so goes the logic, insures perpetual daytime.6 Marlow’s tale of
humanity’s “heart of darkness”—lying within Europe as revealed
in its treatment of the Congolese—belies the trumpeted imperial
confidence, as does McQueen’s film. Relaying the violence
of ivory extraction from the colony, abetted by Belgian King
Leopold II’s cruel policies, Marlow leaves readers with a “choice
of nightmares”: either honestly confront the savagery of the
human condition or continue hypocritically to live beneath the
bogus veneer of European civilization.7 In posing this dilemma
anew, McQueen makes the only ethical choice: to acknowledge
the price paid for the developed world’s technologically advanced
way of life, rejecting the alternative of naively and falsely adhering to the delusion that globalization necessarily brings progress,
democracy, and freedom.
Yet while Gravesend lays waste to the myths of corporate
globalization by revealing its dark underside, the film is remarkable for its oblique approach, obviously distant from the seemingly more immediate routes of political contestation embodied,
say, in the street activism of the global justice movement’s
demonstrations.8 Similarly, the film disavows the clarity of the
photojournalistic exposure of the horror of the Congo’s conflict,
as in Guy Tillim’s Leopold and Mobutu (2004), which shows,
among other things, the horror of the conscription of children by
Congolese militias.9 Instead of depicting the country’s violence
directly, Gravesend alludes to it metaphorically, and thus tentatively, as in its recurring shots of a vice’s steel blade slowly cutting through a large hunk of rock with cringing aural effect,
which translates the pressure of the Congo’s sociopolitical situation into visceral distress. Here, geopoetics allegorizes geopolitics.10 Breaking the spell of the viewer’s contemplative passivity,
these jolting passages bring about an experiential displacement
from the complacency of perceptual habit and visual pleasure
that might otherwise transform zones of conflict into objects of
aesthetic enjoyment. But even while the film traces commercial
technology back to its roots in current-day primitive accumulation,
which appears to be reengaged today by the forces of global capital, no explanatory comment or contextual information supplements McQueen’s images.11 The film’s allusions thus remain ever
precarious, its conclusions always uncertain. Like the quasi-
Steve McQueen. Gravesend,
2007. Frame enlargement.
Courtesy the artist.
Demos | Moving Images of Globalization
documentary approach to brutal mining conditions in South Africa
presented in McQueen’s earlier tour de force, Western Deep
(2002), Gravesend’s filmic construction blurs the referential and
the allegorical, the documentary and the fictional, in order to
convey savagery through phenomenological estrangement. Yet it
does so without directing interpretation, neither including
authoritative information nor voicing explicit condemnation.
As such, Gravesend builds on what has become a significant
convergence in the art of the moving image over the last decade,
one that is remarkable for advancing political investment by
means of subtle aesthetic construction, doing so by joining documentary and fictional modes into uncertain relationship.
McQueen’s film is surely not alone, and while the work of Anri
Sala, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Amar Kanwar, Walid
Raad, and Pierre Huyghe also comes to mind, I will extend my
analysis here to the Otolith Group’s first film, Otolith (2003),
an enchanting science fiction–cum-documentary, and Hito
Steyerl’s November (2004), a video-essay that investigates
the current political economy of the documentary image
via a personal story at once subjective and political. Like
McQueen’s Gravesend, these works also challenge the myths
of globalization by representing exceptions to its triumphalist narratives. And whereas the ethical-political
exigencies of present crises would seem to demand eyewitness exposés—to show what mass media ignores, to correct
the mystifications of governmental falsehoods—their work
moves by other means. Like McQueen’s works, they are distinguished by the intertwining of the real and the imaginary,
which mobilizes a form of address—aesthetic, affective,
visual—beyond the strictly information-based correctives
of familiar documentary modes of contestation. What are
the advantages and, equally, the risks of this approach, and
how can we define its political significance? Moreover,
how might the moving image today critically engage globalization—inflecting its meanings, contesting its objectionable formulations, advancing its positive potential—from
within an artistic context, laying claim to an ambition often
discounted by those skeptical of art’s effectiveness and relevance to collective struggle and political opposition?12
By depicting laboring bodies in the Congo, Gravesend
mounts a political contestation by rendering visible those
typically excluded from globalization’s imaginary. But
the film’s “documentation” is far from traditional; rather,
McQueen’s figures are unidentified, mere shadows and
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fragmented shapes, which dismantles the epistemological presumptions of traditional documentary modes of exposure and
journalistic reportage, just as the artist’s preference for a black
box installation further distinguishes Gravesend’s phenomenological sensitivity and its open-planned, embodied space of
reception from the conditions of the theater environment. How can
we define the political stakes at the heart of such an experimental aesthetic construction? Jacques Rancière’s recent arguments
regarding the “politics of aesthetics” provide one provocative
approach to the problem. Rather than functioning to mystify the
political realm—as in Walter Benjamin’s famous condemnation
of fascist aestheticization—aesthetics, for Rancière, defines a
mode of appearance that constitutes the political by partitioning
the sensible, defining who can say and hear what, where, and
when: “[Aesthetics] is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the
visible and the invisible, or speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of
experience.”13 The aesthetic constructs the scene of politics as
much as it defines and (de)legitimates the discourses within it.
And while, for Rancière, aesthetics signifies a mode of appearance that extends beyond artistic practice—in terms of its “distribution of the sensible” within everyday life, regulated by
institutionalized and policed systems of power—it also defines
the force of the political within art, which is capable of proposing alternatives to conventional politics from outside its system.
One reservation this argument might incite concerns art’s limited
visibility compared to the mass publics of governmental representation and media discourse, a limitation that would ostensibly mitigate the effectiveness of its opposition. But while this
concern is undoubtedly credible, such political effectiveness
may also never have been the goal of artists in the first place (certainly it isn’t placed above aesthetic priorities in McQueen’s
case); nor does this acknowledgment mean that a politics is not
still at the core of aesthetics. The relation of contemporary art to
political life may be uncertain, but this may be art’s irresolvable
condition at present, one that when taken to heart may generate
its most compelling works. This is indeed the case for Rancière,
who argues that in its negotiation of the simultaneous pulls
between autonomy (art’s allegiance to its own laws of form) and
heteronomy (its bearing on life), “art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity.”14
That very ambiguity enters intriguingly into Gravesend’s formal condition, particularly in terms of the film’s provocative
interweaving of its documentary mode and its imaginative
expression when it comes to figuration. As if depicting weightless beings made of shadows and movement, Gravesend portrays
its miners as the ghostly absences of light, as voids in the visual
Guy Tillim. Leopold and Mobutu,
Series 31 (Triptych) , 2004.
Courtesy Michael Stevenson,
Cape Town.
Demos | Moving Images of Globalization
field. While fixing on the indexical marks characteristic of documentary imagery, Gravesend paradoxically depletes their substance, merely intimating the depiction of real bodies, deploying
a strategy that recalls the artist’s similar approach to miners in
Western Deep.15 This precariousness of the image can be read—
imaginatively—in two ways. First, the derealization of representation translates into visual form the political conditions on the
ground; that is, it mirrors the zone of nonrepresentation that is
the disenfranchised status of Congolese laborers (although this
mirroring—connecting image and referent via interpretation—
must remain ever insecure). Second, the depiction of emergent
figures materializes the film’s political force. By refusing to portray its subjects as victimized objects, hopelessly stuck in the
irrevocable reality of their situation and reaffirmed as such by
their representation, Gravesend shows those people to be undetermined and thus sites where the unknowable and the potential
coincide.16 Whereas Conrad’s characters, as creatures of their time,
may have been unable “to recognize that what they saw, disablingly
and disparagingly, as a non-European ‘darkness’ was in fact a
non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain
sovereignty and independence” as Said observes;17 McQueen’s
film deploys darkness strategically to define a field of possibility
resistant to the very forms of representation that would keep
those figures in their traditional place of oppression.
By drawing out the representational ambiguity of sensible
experience, Gravesend elicits the political force of appearance,
which takes on added relevance in relation to Giorgio Agamben’s
notion of the fraught status of bare life—that is, life stripped of
political being. For Agamben, today’s “task and enigma” is precisely to transform such seemingly powerless existence—the
kind we glimpse in Gravesend’s imagery—into the horizon of a
coming politics, one that exists beyond the system of sovereignty
and its oppressive states of exception from legal identity that
today threaten to become the norm. “This biopolitical body that
is bare life,” writes Agamben, “must itself instead be transformed
into the site for the constitution and installation of a form of life
that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its
own zoe.”18 In other words, bare life, deprived of political representation by the forces of sovereignty (defined as the complex
authority of executive power, not simply one man’s decisionmaking power), must be transformed into the site of its own political constitution outside conventional politics. But how can zoe
(biological existence) and bios (the qualified life of political
being) be made to converge, thus engendering a so-called formof-life—a category that joins the biological and the political into
an irreducible existence? Elsewhere Agamben suggests the answer
lies in what he terms “general intellect”—the creative power of
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thought inherent in community, which resists the division of
biological and political life: “In the face of state sovereignty,
which can affirm itself only by separating in every context naked
life from its form, [intellectuality and thought] are the power that
incessantly reunites life to its form or prevents it from being dissociated from its form.”19 Against that dissociation, Gravesend
clearly reveals bare life as a political effect of globalization. Near
its end, the film introduces a short animated sequence that traces
a snaking black form against a white background, suggesting
both the Congo river’s profile and a tortuous fiber-optic cable.
Presented alongside a soundtrack of voices speaking as if on a
thousand cell phones, the passage connects Congo’s geography
to the telecommunications industry that depends on the country’s resources, joining a circuit of causality that refuses the separation between political power and the zone of exclusion power
produces. Yet importantly, that causal link is neither totalized
nor uncontestable, for the film’s figures are invested with an
undetermined excess precisely by the rejection of representation’s realism, a resistance that the use of animation also exemplifies as a visual field beyond the documentary. One risk in this
regard may be that the film’s impressions merely reaffirm its
figures’ invisible status, reiterating their nonrepresentability in
the register of the image. However, Gravesend’s gambit is to draw
out the very ambiguity of being so that life’s separation from politics cannot disclose a simple ontological truth but rather must
be viewed as a political effect.
Even if a single film cannot solve Agamben’s “task and enigma,”
or redress the conditions of violence on the ground, McQueen’s
does transform the visual field of politics—specifically its current distribution of life into zones of legality and exception—by
extending visibility to those existing in globalization’s shadows.
As such, the insistence on bare life’s political constitution (and
thus contestable nature) may well be a move that artists—that is,
those who creatively recalibrate representational conditions,
challenging dominant orders—are uniquely equipped to make.
As such, Gravesend opens up a space of contestation where aesthetics may challenge the conventional organization of appearance—specifically, the unjust distribution of the sensible that is
neoliberal globalization—that constitutes politics today.
Also operating in the uncertain interval between aesthetic and
political commitments are the essay-films of the Otolith Group,
a collaboration founded in 2002 by London-based artists, theorists, and curators Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Building its
films from disparate visual sources, including the film and
Demos | Moving Images of Globalization
photo archives of Sagar’s family in India, recordings of scripted
events, and live-action documentary footage (such as shots of
2003 antiwar protests in London, and of Mumbai’s mega-slum),
the group also adds ambient sounds for atmospheric expression
and, most important, narrative voice-overs that are at once poetic
and analytical, political and subjective. From this filmic assemblage of material diversity, the group inquires into the disjunctions of temporality, investigations founded on the conviction
that the deepest engagement with reality necessarily verges on
the fictional. Proposing something of a temporal deconstruction
that counterpoints McQueen’s dereifying perception of the image,
the Otolith Group opens a second route to challenge the current
unfolding of globalization. In their case, they dispute its outcome
as the result of historical inevitability.20
Otolith, 2003, the group’s first film, tells its story from the
imagined perspective of Usha Adebaran-Sagar, off-world paleoanthropologist, who, in the year 2103, images our conflicted
present, a “time of ambient fear,” through the journal of her
ancestor Anjalika Sagar, focusing in particular on entries dating
from the fraught spring of 2003. Appearing in the film as its
unseen narrator, Usha muses on the protests against the American
invasion of Iraq, mixing her own speculation with Anjalika’s
observations as she explains: it is as if “the unprecedented nature”
of the massive global demonstration “could through its very
unlikeliness turn the inevitable into the possible long enough to
alter our fate.” What would it mean to turn the inevitable into the
possible—that is, into the merely possible—as opposed to the
foreordained? Rather than resignedly concede that America did
in fact invade Iraq, with disastrous results, Otolith projects a subversive charge back into the past. Resuscitating the aspirations of
socialist collectivism, the Non-Aligned Movement, and feminist
and postcolonial struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, the film
deepens the significance of early twenty-first-century political
engagement by establishing lines of continuity with—and, perhaps equally important, significant differences from—those
inspiring but now often forgotten historical episodes. On the basis
of the film’s destabilizing notion of
time, our present emerges as far less
certain than it might seem.
In its conceptualization of the
ever-unfolding nature of the event,
Otolith energizes what the group—in
a creative appropriation of Agamben’s
notion of “potentialities”—terms
“past-potential futures,” a formulation that describes their seeking
to reanimate bygone dreams of the
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Below: The Otolith Group.
Otolith, 2003. Frame enlargement. Courtesy the artists.
Opposite, top and bottom:
The Otolith Group. Otolith, 2003.
Frame enlargement. Courtesy
the artists.
future that may never yet have come to pass.21 For instance,
while ranging over several remarkable intergenerational and
cross-cultural convergences, Otolith’s central point of crystallization is a real-life meeting in 1973 in Moscow between the
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to
travel into outer space, and Sagar’s grandmother, who was president of the National Federation of Indian Women. Vintage 16
mm footage of cheering women in assembly and of Tereshkova
in parades and at official receptions is screened at different
speeds, perceptually disrupting time’s seemingly irrevocable
continuity. The meeting between Sagar’s grandmother and
Tereshkova occurred in the midst of euphoric excitement over
space travel, which mirrored burgeoning hopes for Indian socialism and its new era of women’s rights. In bringing these
moments back to life, Otolith questions the ostensible failures of
past collective struggles by resparking their potential to inspire
our political imaginary today. Consequently, history is shown to
be an open ontology, one that can never be fully written.22
History is revealed as infused with “potentiality,” which names
more than the merely possible, as in its irreducibility to the
actual. For Agamben, history also designates the capacity to not
not be.23 Here, in the space of the double negative, potentiality
touches actuality, but with a difference: its critical interval represents a source of decisiveness and imagination, in distinction
from the robotic gestures of thoughtless habit or automatic reflex.
In similar fashion, the ambition of Otolith is to coax the sleeping
vitality of former political engagements into present realization,
refusing to let them simply fade away, to not not be.
In taking up the essay-film, Otolith also reanimates the experimental filmmaking of predecessors
such as Black Audio Film Collective, Harun Farocki,
and Chris Marker. Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) is a
key point of reference because it investigates “two
extreme poles of survival” in Japan and Africa’s
Guinea Bissau, disparate geographical contexts juxtaposed by a collection of documentary shots of
everyday life, and is presented under a politically
poignant and subjective narration delivered by a
woman who reads the letters from a friend and traveling filmmaker, the fictitious Sandor Krasna.
Also significant for Otolith’s development is
Black Audio Film Collective’s Last Angel of
History (1995), a quasi-documentary film about
the formation of futuristic Afro-funk music, situated within its own sci-fi tale (in which Eshun
appears as one of several commentators).24 In
addition to the legacies of French New Wave
Demos | Moving Images of Globalization
film and New German cinema, both Marker’s and Black Audio
Film Collective’s films are crucial forerunners to Otolith’s poetic,
epistolary framework, its use of a fictional storyteller, and the
narrative’s subjective rendering of historical and political judgments.25 Acknowledging these practices as further “past-potential futures”—Marker’s in France following the events of May
1968, and Black Audio’s in the years after the race riots in
Thatcher’s Britain—deepens the Otolith Group’s engagement by
casting their practice into the longue durée of transgenerational
affiliations (challenging the posthistorical claims of the present),
while endowing its own forbearers with new critical purchase.
Such homages elucidate the group’s historiographical ethics,
revealing the reverberating affinities of Otolith’s rhetorical strategies and recovering the living potentiality of still other dreams
that would seem to have died decades ago, dreams that today
continue to defy the conservative narratives of globalization.
Throughout Otolith, space travel serves as a metaphor for temporal disequilibrium (here Marker’s postapocalyptic film made
mostly of still images, La Jetée, is not too far away). The twentyminute narrative segues enigmatically from those early shots of
antiwar marches in London in 2003 to documentation of Anjalika’s
subsequent journey to Tereshkova’s old training camp in Star
City, outside Moscow, now refitted for commercial tourism.
Taking a parabolic flight aboard a repurposed Russian military
aircraft—the kind once used to prepare cosmonauts for space
missions—Anjalika is shown entering zero gravity. According to
the film, the disorienting, magical images of her sleeping body
floating in midair foreshadow a coming reality in which human
beings will migrate to outer space. Over time, their otoliths—
motion-sensing organs in the ears that orient the body to Earth’s
gravitational field—will cease to function, effectively exiling
Homo sapiens from their home planet. This fictional conceit
reveals the film’s stakes in the potentiality of nonlinear time: the
evolution of human beings into an expatriate species signifies
both a release from the gravity of history—that is, from the notion
that time progresses implacably in only one direction—and a critical detachment from the present.
To achieve such displacements,
the group couches documentary
footage in imaginary scenarios, a
combination that approximates what
for Rancière is film’s fundamental
structure as a complex medium that
merges mechanical recording and
subjective rendering.26 Situating
Otolith within that irreducible
hybridity renders the precise divi-
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Opposite: Black Audio Film
Collective. Last Angel of History,
1995. Frame enlargement.
Courtesy the artists.
Below: The Otolith Group.
Otolith, 2003. Frame enlargement. Courtesy the artists.
sion between the actual and the imaginary impossible—or, alternately, shows how truth is reinvented on the basis of fiction.27
For Rancière, fiction (as from the Latin, fingere) means to forge,
rather than to feign, and therefore what he appropriately calls
“documentary fiction” reconfigures the real as an effect to be
produced, rather than a fact to be understood.28 “Documentary
fiction,” Rancière contends, “invents new intrigues with historical documents, and thus it touches hands with the film fable
that joins and disjoins—in the relationship between story and
character, shot and sequence—the powers of the visible, of speech,
and of movement.”29 As a result “we cannot think of ‘documentary’ film as the polar opposite of ‘fiction’ film,” Rancière
explains in his chapter dedicated to Marker.30 Far from being
opposed to fiction, documentary is actually one mode of it, joining—both in continuity and conflict—the “real” (the indexical,
contingent elements of recorded footage) and the “fabulated”
(the constructed, the edited, the narrative) in cinema. The
imagery that results—as in Otolith’s heterogeneous combinations of archival documents, live-action footage, fictional dramatizations, voice-over narration, and diverse sound tracks—
represents a radical transformation of the old Platonic opposition between real and representation, between original model
and second-order copy. In this way, Rancière argues, “thoughts
and things, exterior and interior, are captured in the same
texture, in which the sensible and the intelligible remain undistinguished.”31
What would it mean to treat the real as an effect to be produced, rather than a fact to be understood? It would not be
wrong to say that Otolith concerns the construction of memory
“created against the overabundance of information as well as
against its absence,” as Rancière writes; only the answer would
be incomplete. In defying “the reign of the informational-present”—that which “rejects as outside reality everything it cannot
assimilate to the homogeneous and indifferent process of its selfpresentation” (mass media comes to mind)—such depictions
also must resist the stultifying representation of that reality as
merely reproduction.32 The opening
lines of Otolith claim, “There is an
excess which neither image nor
memory can recover, but for which
both stand in. That excess is the
event.” That “event” is not only activated in Otolith but also sparked in
its reception. There representation
becomes a generative force, a heterogeneous assemblage of images and
sounds that in disorienting the
Demos | Moving Images of Globalization
viewer’s perceptions elicits active engagement and interpretive
agency. This is the politicizing effect of “documentary fiction,”
which occurs when the potentiality of film meets the “emancipated spectator”—that is, the one, according to Rancière, who
becomes his or her own storyteller.33 To “frame the story of a new
adventure in a new idiom,” he writes, “calls for spectators who
are active as interpreters, who try to invent their own translation
in order to appropriate the story for themselves and make their
own story out of it.”34 To become a storyteller, however, does not
entail a flight into subjective fancy. Rather, in the case of Otolith
it represents an engagement with oppositional histories that
refuses to accept the posthistorical, consensus-based politics
forced upon us by those who believe military force brings democracy, that corporate globalization represents equality, and that
there is no alternative (to invoke Margaret Thatcher’s unforgettable words) to the unfolding of events today.
Whereas the Otolith Group weaves documents into fictional scenarios in order to bring out the potentiality of history against the
ineluctability of fate, the Berlin-based video artist Hito Steyerl
reveals the creeping predominance of fiction in everyday life,
which threatens the fragmentation of collective mobilization and
the depletion of political agency. If, as Retort argues, the most
domineering global power today owes its potency to the historically unprecedented conjunction of military force and spectacle—
that is, an image economy at the service of capital, reinforced
with military might—then what possible chance do artists stand
to oppose it? Of the three projects considered in the present
essay, Steyerl’s November (2004) is perhaps the most pessimistic
because it confronts a debilitating image regime that appears
capable of neutralizing any and all opposition, whether in the
gallery or on the street. November takes as its subject the assorted
lives of the embattled German/Kurdish figure Andrea Wolf—or,
rather, the errant lives of her image. One-time best friend of
Steyerl, Wolf also evinced an early interest in filmmaking before
going through a radical political transformation that saw her end
up as a Kurdish freedom fighter, renamed Sehît Ronahî. Toward
November’s end, a short but poignant passage demonstrates the
unnerving fluidity between fact and fiction that is Wolf’s actual
fate and November’s formal condition. A clip from a feminist
martial arts movie that Steyerl made in the early 1980s features
Wolf as she plays the part of a tough, biker-jacketed heroine. This
image slowly morphs into one of Wolf in her later astonishingly
different guise as Ronahî. Wolf/Ronahî, we learn, was reportedly
killed during armed conflict with the Turkish army in 1998, and
Hito Steyerl. November, 2004.
Frame enlargements.
Courtesy the artist.
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her image—an iconic portrait shown by Steyerl as it appeared on
placards carried by Kurdish protesters in Germany—became a
symbol of martyrdom for the Kurdish resistance. Finally, Steyerl
dissolves this visage back into Wolf’s rebellious celluloid character, but this time with added valences: The parodically butch
fighter (who rides into the sunset on her motorbike) curiously
comes to reflect the “truth” of Ronahî’s real-life heroism. The
film’s resurrection of her image also alludes to the Turkish
government’s (disputed) contention that Ronahî is still alive,
operating underground as a guerrilla. As Steyerl’s voice-over narration observes, “Andrea became herself a traveling image, wandering over the globe, an image passed on from hand to hand,
copied and reproduced by printing presses, video recorders, and
the Internet.”
Wolf thus slid into the unpredictable flow of “traveling images”
that defines the historical context of November, which, according to Steyerl’s piercing video essay, comprises a broader social
landscape of unaccountable government power (the kind that
allegedly killed Ronahî), fragmented oppositional struggles (in
which Ronahî willingly participated), and representational
instability (signaled by Wolf’s proliferating identities). That
Steyerl works to uncover this situation in digital video—with all
it implies about the increased ease of reproducibility,
postproduction processing, and instantaneous distribution—only ups the ante, in that she uses the very medium
that has come to be privileged by and definitional to
November’s representational economy. To drive home the
political implications of this new image regime, Steyerl’s
video includes a short passage from Sergei Eisenstein’s
October (1927)—to which the Steyerl’s title clearly refers—
that focuses in part on the Kazakhs’ alliance with Russian
proletarians during the Bolshevik seizure of power in
1917. At the time of October, revolution could be universalized, a collective movement transcending boundaries
of ethnicity and nationality. These visions of solidarity
stand in marked contrast to November’s flux of signs,
characterized by virtual drift and endless exchange, structurally matching the spread of interconnected markets but
leaving political struggles disjointed and disempowered
(Debordian spectacle and Deleuzian dispersal are today
far more pertinent than yesterday’s conventional warfare).
And if “in November, the former heroes become madmen,”
as Steyerl’s narration intones, it is because now no truth
is safe, no identity secure, and no protest incorruptible.
The challenge for Steyerl, then, is how to pursue a documentary project that, on the one hand, avoids the
extremes of postmodern relativism (where, if all subjective
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views possess a certain validity, falsehood is seemingly impossible) and, on the other hand, refuses to ignore the opacity of the
image in the urgency to restore the right of nonsubjective truth.
Writing elsewhere about the status of the historical document
today, Steyerl outlines “the paradox of truth” that one must today
on the one side the ethically [and] absolutely necessary
insisting on [and insistence of] a historical truth, which
would still remain true, even if every evidence of it were
obliterated; [and] on the other side, the insight that the perception of it can only happen within a construction conveyed through media (society, politics), which is therefore
manipulable and opaque.35
Although Steyerl’s account forms part of an examination of
Georges Didi-Huberman’s reading of photographs of the Auschwitz
concentration camp considered in relation to Walter Benjamin’s
notion of the “dialectical image,” her comments also provide
insight into her own practice as a video-maker. Against relativism, yet in some ways sympathetic to the Otolith Group’s
notion of history as an open ontology and to McQueen’s representational opacity, Steyerl concludes, “The ‘urgency’ of the documentary is grounded in the ethical dilemma of having to give
testimony to an event that cannot be conveyed as such, but
instead contains necessary elements of truth as well as of ‘darkness.’”36 This dilemma is not only irresolvable but constitutes the
point of departure for Steyerl’s practice: because the one continuous certainty about documentary film is the uncertainty of its
truth claims, the video-essay, she concludes, must be reinvented
on that very basis.37
November consequently also discovers room for maneuvering
within this state of uncertainty and its seemingly debilitating
terms. Lamenting the passing of October’s atmosphere of possibility, the video makes the most of the cinematic tools that
remain, deploying twenty-five minutes of narration alongside a
highly entertaining montage of imagery borrowed from popular
culture—looking to media as a kind of humorous rallying cry for
real life. These include shots from Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat!
Kill! Kill! (1965), depicting an aggressive female gang (one of the
only models, however campy, of powerful women fighters that
Steyerl and Wolf found for their early effort), and scenes from
Bruce Lee’s last and unfinished film, Game of Death (released
posthumously in 1978), in which the main character stages his
own death in order to regroup secretly—a fictive plot that unexpectedly echoed the actor’s real death, an intermingling of real
and fake (the film uses footage from Lee’s actual funeral) that
relentlessly continues in the migrations and mutations of Ronahî’s
Hito Steyerl. November, 2004.
Frame enlargement.
Courtesy the artist.
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image. November also proffers a mournful reflection on the cooptation of Steyerl’s own image. While documenting a Berlin
demonstration against the Iraq war, Steyerl was spotted by a television director who knew of the artist’s video project. He quickly
placed a Kurdish flag around her neck and a torch in her hands,
told her to “look sad and meditative . . . as if you were thinking
about Andrea,” and filmed the results. Steyerl soon found herself
featured in a television documentary as “the Kurdish protester,”
the very image of a “sensitive . . . and understanding filmmaker,
who tells a personal story.” As her confession continues in
November’s voice-over, such posturing is “more hypocritical
than even the crudest propaganda.” Like Wolf, Steyerl’s image
entered November’s infinite regress, wherein “we are all part of
the story, and not I am telling the story, but the story tells me.”38
As if to gain traction against such slipperiness, November
frequently interrupts its quick-paced cutting and diegetic trajectory with self-reflexive tactics. For example, a series of shots in
the video focuses on the blinding light of a film projector (shown
precisely when a visually undocumented story—that of a reconstructed witness account of Ronahî’s death—is being told). Or
we see close-ups of a grainy TV screen replaying footage from
videotapes (as when Ronahî is interviewed in Kurdistan). One
might view these moments in the video as yet another return to
critical strategies of appropriation or even to a modernist “laying bare of the device.” November’s montage also recalls precedents from her German context, such as Kluge’s benchmark
Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978), which
mixed documentary footage and fictional dramatization within
a jigsaw-puzzle narrative. But although Steyerl’s own elegiac
work may share much with these previous efforts to come to
terms with revolution’s seeming impossibility, November does
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not deploy quotation against a regime of “truth” in order merely
to reveal the constructedness of representation. And whereas
Eisenstein’s dialectical montage offered a generative combination
of shots meant to spark the spectator’s insight and action, or
Kluge activated the intervals and dark gaps between frames as a
liberatory space for the viewer’s creative imagination, in Steyerl’s
video we now confront the dissolution of such distinct filmic elements as they succumb to the endlessly fluctuating economy of
images and flexible networks of power that constitute our new
digital milieu.
November makes clear that any attempted return to the revolutionary project of October would be an absurd proposition.
When the film describes Ronahî’s use of martial arts in Kurdistan,
for instance, Steyerl introduces shots from René Viénet’s hilarious Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973), which famously recast a
B-grade Hong Kong martial arts flick as situationist critique. In
Viénet’s account, a group of samurai-bureaucrats terrorizes a
local village, the inhabitants of which are training to fight for
freedom with the aid of stultified Marxist rhetoric. November
includes the point at which the lead antagonist loses his temper
with the proletarians’ endless talk of class struggle, warning them
to stop: “If not I’ll send in my sociologists! And if necessary my
psychiatrists! My urban planners! My architects! My Foucaults!
My Lacans! And if that’s not enough, I’ll even send my structuralists.” As critical theory becomes mere farce, the broader
implication is that avant-garde methods of subversion—from
Eisenstein’s dialectical montage to situationist détournement—
have been exhausted. Under these conditions, documentary
strategies might seem futile or obsolete. What avenues remain if
one has no recourse to preexisting “truth,” if no fact cannot be
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Opposite: Hito Steyerl.
November, 2004. Frame enlargement. Courtesy the artist.
Below: René Viénet. Can
Dialectics Break Bricks? 1973.
As seen in Hito Steyerl. November,
2004. Courtesy the artist.
revealed as subjective viewpoint? Steyerl’s conclusion is innovative: If the one certainty about documentary film is the very
uncertainty of its claim to truth, as she suggests in a passage that
resonates with Rancière’s on “documentary fiction,” then “this
uncertainty is not some shameful lack, which has to be hidden,
but instead constitutes the core quality of contemporary documentary modes as such.”39
As a result, Steyerl consequently leaves us with a paradox:
while November details German military support for Turkey’s
oppressive state, which has paradoxically led to Germany’s
crisis of Kurdish immigrants and specifically to the death of
Andrea Wolf, it does so via a subjective perspective, narrated by
Steyerl herself in a personal, idiosyncratic voice-over, delivered
without sourced authorities or other trappings of indubitable
evidence, positioned in the midst of its montage’s gaps and fissures. Moreover, the poor quality of the video, owing to multiple
generations of copies and to the recording of imagery directly off
a TV screen, tends to derealize the video’s referents. While such
pirated imagery exemplifies Steyerl’s rebellious disregard for
image rights, it also reveals the intrinsic malleability of video’s
meanings. In other words, although truth should determine
politics rather than politics determining truth—as when
weapons of mass destruction are conjured out of thin air—
Steyerl knows that whatever truth she can deliver will also be
the truth of mediation.40
This very mediation, plied by a particular formation of
aesthetics (whether Steyerl’s slippery montage, McQueen’s representation-dissolving imagery, or the Otolith Group’s past
potential futures) provides the key to this work and its political
contestation. These “documentary fictions” not only reorganize
our political image of globalization, revealing its crisis points
and providing a more equitable division of appearance, both
connective and critically comparative—as in Steyerl’s Germany
and Kurdistan, McQueen’s Britain and the Congo, and Otolith’s
London and Mumbai. Their formal presentations also share the
rejection of the rhetoric of authority—whether of governmental
propaganda, media reportage, or
activist protest—that tends to situate the viewer in the role of passive
recipient of ostensibly factual
information. The power of Steyerl’s
video-essay, like the models of
McQueen and the Otolith Group,
lies in its capacity to motivate the
creative engagement of the spectator without stultifying direction.
These essayistic documentaries do
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not position their audience as passive recipients of unquestionable information. Instead, they offer us a complex address: We
become both engrossed in the storytelling and continually implicated in the multiplicity of representations.
What does it mean, finally, to address globalization critically—
transvaluing its states of exception, challenging its historical
inevitability, defying its politics of truth—within an art context,
whether commercial gallery, museum, or biennial? Answering a
recent questionnaire about the relation between art and politics
published in the journal October, art historian and critic David
Joselit raises the seeming contradiction of discovering art that is
critical toward consumerism in the very site of the commercial
art gallery, which for him engenders only political paralysis and
expanded profits.41 A similar objection could be made that the
contestation of global inequality from within the site of economic, political, and cultural privilege plays into the very versatility of the systems of appropriation and domination that define
predatory corporate globalization, which presents an image of
humanitarian concern while perpetuating political and economic disparity. Yet while Joselit may be right in calling for the
critical infiltration of more widely trafficked networks in order to
reach larger audiences (raid the multiplexes, he writes), the
potential of the gallery as a site of critical contemplation, imaginative experimentation, and politicization cannot be dismissed,
even as the paradox he correctly names must be recognized. That
contradiction is one we can only live with for now, though not
necessarily on its terms. Rather than flatly dismiss art’s gallerybound political ambitions as a trap,42 we must instead interrogate
the very complexity of the situation, as well as its critical and
politically generative possibilities, beginning with a reconsideration of the relation between aesthetics and politics (even if that
reconsideration is conducted with a view toward artistic form
and its politics of representation). Against the caricature of the
art institution as a mere commercial enterprise, we need to avoid
the economic determinism that positions art as a passive effect of
its patronage and reduces the meaning of aesthetics to an automatic function of its commercial context. While the gallery is
doubtlessly a compromised space, it is also one of multiple pressures and determinations that cannot be unified into a totalizing
framework. To reject the kinds of reductive equivalences and
oppositions often posited between, on the one hand, the artistic
realm’s apolitical autonomy, spectatorial passivity, and selfreflexive isolation, and on the other, the street’s political vitality,
social immediacy, and real-world existence is imperative. Such
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facile identifications and binaries suggest precisely the kind of
“partition of the sensible” of which Rancière speaks, “a distribution of the places and of the capacities or the incapacities
attached to those places” that amount to so many “allegories
of inequality.”43
If defending the politics at the core of aesthetics sounds
romantic, then we should not be surprised that Rancière discovers the origins of the current “aesthetic regime” in the writings
of the German romantic poet, dramatist, and philosopher
Friedrich Schiller, according to whom art’s placement of aesthetics and politics in indeterminate relation necessitates the
creative reinvention of each.44 For Rancière, Schiller’s aesthetics
proposes an autonomy of experience (and not of objects) that
defines a space apart wherein ways of life might be reconceptualized outside the limitations of conventional modes of governance. Such a view, far from being outdated, retains its profound
relevance in today’s conflicted environment. Considering the
work of Steve McQueen, the Otolith Group, and Hito Steyerl in
light of such a proposition need not amount to a naive or foolish
privileging of art’s political claims and engagements over other
forms—whether social movements, activism, governmental or
nongovernmental politics—but it does resist those pressures to
hierarchize and police the public sphere and that dismiss all too
quickly the political engagements of artistic practice; it also
entails treating the reception of such work as ultimately radically undetermined, proposing a space of potential and immeasurable effects that may yet carry material consequences. To
suggest that globalization—as a sprawling and dispersed series
of cultural, economic, and political formations—could be adequately addressed from any one site would be unacceptable.
Although art may not possess the visibility or capacities of governmental politics, in the face of the perceived failure of such
politics people not surprisingly will turn to other forums for
alternatives, to imagine new ways to reinvent the world.
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* Sections of this essay have been published in earlier versions as “Openings:
The Otolith Group,” Artforum, September 2006, 360–362; and “Traveling Images:
Hito Steyerl,” Artforum, Summer 2008, 408–413, 473.
1. For further information about and political mobilization around the Congo
conflict, see the websites of Friends of the Congo (http://www.friendsofthecongo.org) and Congo Global Action (http://congoglobalaction.org). These
groups estimate 5.4 million dead from war-related causes since 1998, making
Congo’s the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II.
2. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1992); and Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief
History of the Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century (London: Allen
Lane, 2005). For a corrective to Friedman’s neoconservative position, see Ronald
Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, The World Is Flat? A Critical Analysis of the New
York Times Bestseller by Thomas Friedman (Tampa: Meghan-Kiffer Press, 2006).
3. On the term corporate globalization, see David Graeber, “The New
Anarchists,” New Left Review 13 (January–February 2002). Graeber also notes
that “anti-globalization” is a misleading label coined by the conservative media
and that many radical activists are in fact pro-globalization in the sense of supporting the “effacement of borders and the free movement of people, possessions and ideas” (63). The term alter-globalization is often used to distinguish
a movement that resists both a regressive, localist “anti-globalization” and a
neoliberal “corporate globalization.”
4. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); and Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
5. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2003); and Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War
(London: Verso, 2005). For further theoretical consideration of the ambivalent
and fraught nature of globalization, see Fredric Jameson, “Notes on Globalization
as a Philosophical Issue,” in The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Fredric Jameson
and Masao Miyoshi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).
6. I take my cue from Hamza Walker’s perceptive essay that introduced
McQueen’s recent show at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, September 16—
October 28, 2007. Hamza Walker, “Steve McQueen: Gravesend” (2007),
7. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Paul O’Prey (1902; Harmondsworth,
UK: Penguin, 1983), 105. Contesting the image of Conrad as a critic of colonialism, however, Edward Said points out, “Conrad was both anti-imperialist and
imperialist, progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination,
deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South America
could ever have had an independent history or culture.” Edward Said, Culture
and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), xx. For further criticism, see
Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,”
in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Doubleday, Anchor,
1989), 1–20.
8. See, for example, the politically activist documentation of the Seattle
protests in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Five Days That Shook the
World: Seattle and Beyond (London: Verso, 2000), with photographs by Allan
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9. Guy Tillim, Leopold and Mobutu (Trézélan, France: Filigranes, 2004).
10. I borrow this phrasing from Emily Apter, “The Aesthetics of Critical
Habitats,” October 99 (Winter 2002): 21–45.
11. Marx defined primitive accumulation in the following way: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and
looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist
production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive
accumulation.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, ed.
Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (London:
Lawrence and Wishart, 1970), ch. 31. For Retort, “We believe the words ‘primitive accumulation’ are the right ones to describe what is happening [today],
especially because the first word points to what is special (and for the Robert
Reichs and Thomas Friedmans of the world, scandalous) about the new situation—the overtly ‘colonial’ character of the war in the Middle East, and the
nakedness with which the unfreedom of the free wage contract is now placed
back on the footing of sheer power, sheer forced dispossession.” Retort, 11
(emphasis in original).
12. I use the hybrid and general term moving image to designate both video
and film, as well as the projected image and monitor-based presentations.
These various categories are increasingly treated as indistinct in contemporary
art: for example, McQueen’s work is often shot on film (Gravesend on 35 mm)
and then transferred to DVD for presentation; the Otolith Group works across
both film and video, showing their final pieces on video; and Hito Steyerl
works mainly in video, using projection and monitors for its presentation.
13. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the
Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 13.
14. Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New
Left Review 14 (March–April 2002): 151: Art’s unfulfilled political accomplishment, Rancière continues, means that “those who want to isolate it from
politics are somewhat beside the point” and that “those who want it to fulfill
its political promise are condemned to a certain melancholy.” We must therefore find a way to operate between these two extremes.
15. For more on this aspect of Western Deep, see my “The Art of Darkness:
On Steve McQueen,” October 114 (Fall 2005): 61–89.
16. McQueen problematizes representation when it comes to depicting the
politically exempted, which I examine further in relation to other of his works
in “Life Full of Holes,” Grey Room 24 (Fall 2006): 72–88.
17. Said, 33 (emphasis in original).
18. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans.
Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 188.
19. Giorgio Agamben, “Form-of-Life,” in Means without End: Notes on
Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 11.
20. There is a certain affinity here with the historiographic politics of Walter
Benjamin, who believed, in the midst of World War II, that “to bring about a
real state of emergency” and “improve our position in the struggle against
Fascism” it was necessary to obtain a new “conception of history.” “Theses on
the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry
Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1968), 257. The Otolith Group, in similar fashion,
contests the progressivist and linear historical basis of globalization today.
21. The reference is to Giorgio Agamben’s Potentialities: Collected Essays in
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Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1999). Also relevant here is Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the event: “An
event can be turned around, repressed, co-opted, betrayed, but there still is
something there that cannot be outdated. Only renegades would say: it’s outdated. But even if the event is ancient, it can never be outdated: it is an opening
to the possible. It goes as much inside individuals as in the depths of society.”
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “May ‘68 Did Not Take Place,” in Two Regimes
of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Amy
Hodges and Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 233.
22. That such a formulation differs radically from earlier notions of photographic representation is made clear when Otolith’s notion of the photographic
event is compared to André Bazin’s notion of the closed ontology of the photographic image. Enacting a “transfer from the thing to its reproduction,” “cinema
is objectivity in time,” Bazin explains; it “embalms” life. See André Bazin, “The
Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer 1960):
4–9. For a historical contextualization, see Michael Renov, “Introduction: The
Truth about Non-Fiction,” in Theorizing Documentary, ed. M. Renov (New
York: Routledge, 1993), 4, n. 9.
23. In his helpful introduction to Agamben’s Potentialities, Heller-Roazen
explains that although “what is potential can both be and not be,” it is also
“capable of not not being and, in this way, of granting the existence of what is
actual” (16, 18). And more: “This is why Agamben writes, in an important passage in Homo Sacer, that ‘potentiality and actuality are simply the two faces of
the sovereign self-grounding of Being,’ and that ‘at the limit, pure potentiality
and pure actuality are indistinguishable’” (18).
24. The Otolith Group also organized the recent retrospective of Black Audio
Film Collective, which opened in 2007 at Foundation for Art and Creative
Technology (FACT) in Liverpool. See also, The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art
of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–1998, ed. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika
Sagar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).
25. Compare Nora Alter’s discussion of the history of the essay-film in Chris
Marker (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 17–20. I have traced the
essay-film in relation to the video-essays of Ursula Biemann in “Sahara
Chronicle: Video’s Migrant Geography,” in Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in
the Field: The Video Works of Ursula Biemann, ed. Ursula Biemann and JanErik Lundström (Umeå, Sweden: Bildmuseet; Bristol, UK: Arnolfini Gallery
Limited, 2008), 178–190.
26. “Cinema is the combination of the gaze of the artist who decides and the
mechanical gaze that records, of constructed images and chance images.” Jacques
Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2006), 161.
27. This connects to what Gilles Deleuze calls “the powers of the false,”
which describes not so much the abandonment of truth but its reinvention as a
new post-Enlightenment paradigm of historical and cultural contingency. See
Gilles Deleuze “The Powers of the False,” in Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans.
Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989), 126–155.
Rancière dedicates a chapter of Film Fables to Deleuze’s Cinema books.
28. Rancière, Film Fables, 158.
29. Rancière, Film Fables, 18.
30. Rancière, Film Fables, 158.
31. Rancière, Film Fables, 2–3.
32. Rancière, Film Fables, 158.
33. See Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum, March
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2007: 272-280.
34. Rancière, “Emancipated Spectator,” 280.
35. Hito Steyerl, “Documentarism as Politics of Truth,” trans. Aileen Derieg
(European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 2003), http://eipcp.net/
transversal/1003/steyerl2/en. See also Hito Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,”
A Prior 15 (2007), http://www.aprior.org/articles/28.
36. Steyerl, “Documentarism as Politics of Truth.”
37. Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty.”
38. In November, Steyerl also points out the way in which fictional film has
determined real-life actions, including the testimony of German radicals who
actually employed methods of kidnapping they learned from films such as
Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966) and Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege
39. Steyerl, “Documentary Uncertainty,” 304. See also Hito Steyerl, Die
Farbe der Wahrheit (Vienna: Turia and Kant, 2008).
40. See Steyerl, “The Politics of Truth.”
41. Joselit writes, “This situation leads to a truly intractable contradiction
in which a conceptual disavowal of markets is dependent for its enunciation
and dissemination on the market system itself. . . . A certain paralysis within
political art practice results while nonetheless allowing for enormous expansion
and profits in the business of art.” David Joselit, Response to Questionnaire,
October 123 (Winter 2008): 88.
42. As Brian Holmes writes about the art gallery, “everything about this specialized aesthetic space is a trap, that it has been instituted as a form of enclosure.” Brian Holmes, “Extradisciplinary Investigations: Towards a New Critique
of Institutions,” Continental Drift (blog), 26 February 2007, http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/02/26/. Or consider Gregory Sholette’s comment
that “It is simply no longer possible to disconnect the intention of an artist’s
work, even when the content is deeply social or attempting an institutional critique, from the marketplace in which even hedgefund investors now partake.”
Gregory Sholette, Reponse to Questionnaire, October 123 (Winter 2008): 138.
43. Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” 277.
44. See Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes.”
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