The political aesthetics of subversion in photography

By Christos Panagiotou and Dimitris Yiannacou

Presented in Helsinki Photomedia 2022, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland

1 The modern axiomatic belief of quantification as the only valid truth and its aesthetic extend on photography.

1.1 Modernity and quantifiable re-construction of spatiotemporal dimension

Modernity is like a colossal, cultural-historical machine that simulates and reconstructs space and time into a series of discrete, delimited units. Mechanical clocks, a modern invention, through machinery, simulate time in successive units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Space is also divided and represented in a series of linear, delimited, measurable units. Modernity is a numerical plane of existence that constitutes a simulation of space and time. When we quantify the spatial and the temporal dimension, we restructure them as linear entities. Reality becomes the – arbitrarily – linear embodiment of otherwise dissociated temporal and spatial fragments. These fragments, are bound together through a rigid scaffold set by “machinery”. In science: simulations and scientific models, in arts: the painting as a window to the world (in Renaissance, for example), historiography, and other unified conceptions of reality arise from the idea of a linear – quantified – temporal and spatial existence; In other words, the linear perception of time and space, that exists in Modernity, presupposes a quantifiable standard; a framework of quantification.

1.2 The political importance of this project

When we delineate space and time, the conception of boundaries also begins to emerge. Boundaries separate entities spatiotemporally: they distinguish where the Self and the Other begin and end in space and time. A linear perception of the Self also occurs in the temporal dimension. For example, conceptual boundaries separate who I am, from who I am not, and from whom I want to be in a linear temporal progression. Boundaries demarcate the Self and the Other on a personal and, also, on a collective level. Thus, they are profoundly political as they demarcate collective entities, such as nations, and other collective entities based on arbitrary spatiotemporal conceptions of identity. Meanwhile, boundaries must imply the existence of entities beyond them in order to exist. Everything exists in a simultaneous reference to their opposites; a reference that is an integral part of where they initially came from. Therefore, within the conception of the delimited Self, the existence of the Other (the alterity) is inherently inscribed. This paradoxical self-referentiality exists in how Modernity represents reality; it is how Modernity projects time, memory, and place, on a collective and an individual level. The political importance of this realization is that what determines the existence of identities in the Modern edifice is nothing but a constant and perpetual self-referential reflection the identities are having on themselves. A state of being in the Modern world always reflects a constructed opposite that (in a compulsive way) needs to be verified in a reflexive manner and be sustained. In that sense, in order for an Identity to exist, a “trauma” or – at least – a problem must also be invented (fabricated) to validate a reflective existence to the Self. The Self becomes the reflexive validation of a fabricated trauma. “Trauma”, not only needs to be invented, but it also needs to be perpetuated in order to sustain the edifice that enables for an identity to exist in the first place. So an Other (the Alterity) is invented that is pretentiously thought to be the cause of the trauma. For example, nationalism thrives on this logic. For a national identity to exist, a projected “national” “Other” must also exist. Collective memory, as a temporal narrative, in nationalist discourses, is nearly always defined in reference to a collective “trauma” inflicted by an Other, the alterity. This trauma – inflicted by the Other – is sustained and preserved within the nationalist discourse, because it gives meaning to the existence of the national identity in the first place. To “heal” this trauma means that the whole collective – national-ist – memory collapses. By definition, national borders, exist in the spatial dimension because of a projected “Other” beyond these boundaries. To repeat, within the conception of the delimited Self, the existence of the Other is inherently inscribed. (slide 6) If we were to represent this logic as a geometrical form, this form would bear the topological properties of a Möbius strip.We propose that the projection of a Möbius world-view, like the one described above, is inherent in how Modernity structures the spatiotemporal dimensions as identities; as conceptualizations of reality. Our first photographs shown here, reconstruct the space as having the Möbius topological properties.

(we restructured the photographic space as a mobius topology, in that way we metaphorically reconstruct space in an alternative way). Meanwhile, the Self and the Other are not only preserved in this compulsive manner, but they are also quantified as essentialized entities. The Self and the Other are denatured from their fluid form and they become substances that their form and function is already predetermined. Essentialized identities become objects, simulacra and simulations (to refer to Jean Baudrillard) of already predetermined “essences” and modalities that repeat the loop of a Mobius topological structure.

1.3 The Photographic Medium

The political part of – our photographic work, focuses on the issue of the linear structuration of space and time in photography. As stated above, this linear conception of the spatiotemporal dimension is inherent in the way Modernity maps reality, and it is deeply political. Photography, as a representational medium, represents spaces. The spaces represented by photography, (as expected), bear an analogy to the “physical” dimensions. In other words, photography quantifies space and represents reality in accordance with the quantification of space. This logic of quantifying time and space into delimited discrete instances in photographic frames, bears the same logic of Modernity and – thus – photography is the “ultimate” form of representation within this logic. These linear, proportional-to-real-dimensions-spaces, represented by photography are not a universal ulterior motive in representational arts. It is known that not all representations in the history of art follow the rules of perspective and the measured ” proportional” re-presentation of space. For example, if we go back to Medieval art, Byzantine art, or even Modern art (Paul Klee), we will notice that space is not constructed in the rationale of representing a “proportional ” replica of physical reality. Historically, this begins with Modernity (Renaissance and beyond). The political focus of this thesis, at this point, is that the photographic analogue (analogue as derived from analogy) of reality is an ideological axiom that supports the idea that quantity, measurement, and spatial and temporal re-presentation of space in a proportional logic is fetishized as “truth.” Quantifying space and time in accurate distances, angles, and other measurable units becomes a simulation of reality no more accurate than any other re-presentation. Photography becomes the axiomatic ideological assumption of Modernity that reality as a quantified re- presentation has more value and is more valid. That axiomatic belief is evident in nearly any aspect of the way modern cultures and societies organize themselves politically, economically, and socially. For example, statistics – as the ultimate “science” of quantifying events in space and time – determine the validity of the financial regulations a state must make for its economic policies. The idea that social reality is only valid when measured in quantifiable variables is an ideological statement similar to how we perceive Modern photography as the most valid re-presentation of reality. Note that photography is used, for example, as evidence in courts and science. That structuration of space as a unified entity has been observed in representational art forms by Alois Riegl, an art historian. The unified perception of space, according to Riegl, is dating it to Renaissance. According to him, a tactile pattern prevailing in the forms in ancient paintings is absent from Renaissance paintings. The painted forms emphasize the “tactile” properties of objects represented. Also, the represented objects are painted as individual entities independent from one another in a “void,” non-unified space (Riegl, Kain, & Britt, 1999). Space as a unifying element that establishes the composition is absent in pre-Renaissance art. The “external” world is not viewed as a unified (thus delimited) entity, compelling these – mostly ancient – cultures to emphasize the “objective,” individual properties of the objects represented (Woodflield, 136 2001, p. 117). In other words, the intention is to represent the properties of the objects as individual entities, in the best possible way, by showing their individual properties through emphasizing their tactile nature instead of rendering them as part of a unified visual space (Barasch,1998, pp. 150-155). On the contrary, in Renaissance (when the Modern sensibility arises for somehistorians), the represented objects can no longer be seen as independent parts of an indefinite space, but as part of a defined space of a visual composition that is of primary importance. Note here that the Renaissance painting is regarded as a “window to the world,” while, in addition, paintings – as portable frames – are a relatively Modern phenomenon. In this sense, measurement, delimitation, and structuration replaced the volatility of reality and the fluidity of its dimensions. The highpoint of this is the quantified measurement of color in bits, light, pixels, and specific algorithmic information in digital photography. Within this Grid, a conceptualization of the “error” is also formed. An error is thus regarded as a fault in the system, a threat to the mode of quantification because it lies outside of the delimited quantification logic.

Our photographic work subverts the logic of the quantified re-presentation of reality through photography. It is an aesthetic – and simultaneously, a political statement that subverts the logic of quantifying space and time in Modernity. This subversion is a political act. In our first series, that we have already presented, we use reflection and inversion ways to restructure space as having the Möbius topological properties. In the second case, that we have presented, we are using glitch images as a subversive technique that deconstructs the linear perspective of space. These photos were opened in a text editor, manipulated there randomly, and saved. Thirdly, we use a subversive medium: a DIY pinhole camera made by instant coffee cans, an industrial product whose original purpose is disrupted, to subvert the linearity of the spatial and the temporal dimensions represented.

1.4 DIY Photography

Dimitris Yiannakou uses DIY pinhole cameras to disrupt and subvert the – otherwise, almost inherent- linearity of the photographic medium. For example, the standard practice of photography (analog and digital) – as already been said many times – it quantifies light, color, and – among others – the speed of capturing a snapshot (in shutter speed). Distance is measured in focus distance, and, as such, it quantifies the perception of space. All the elements of re-presentation in photography have a unit of measurement. Through DIY photography, Dimitris Yiannakou ignores this quantification and captures the fluidity and the infinitely complex flow of the physical world through an “organic” capture. A long duree (to quote Ferdinand Braudel), in photography. The best example is perhaps the photograph “The field” which was captured by mounting a DIY camera on a tree, for about two weeks. The camera records the physical world by being on the tree. The movement of the wind, the direction of the wind, the constant change of light and the weather in general, are random – or at least chaotic systems – that intervene and compose/represent the space in the frame of the photograph. A representation of ‘reality’ is thus captured which is the result of this organic interaction of various physical factors. In fact, the element of unpredictability is an inherent part of the photograph. The unpredictable as that which cannot be simulated and as that which cannot be quantified and reproduced as a representation; as a simulation. Through DIY photography, Dimitris Yiannakou does not deconstruct space and time, but rather, he changes their frame of reference. Quantification breaks down and gives way to osmotic fluidity and the element of the unpredictable as non-simulable.

In the case of “Movement of the Sun” photo, Yiannakou changes the frame of reference regarding the recording of a “moment”. Time is non-linear, fluid and hybrid. Summer, winter, day and night are captured in one single photographic frame. In this photo, day and night are recorded together, but also the alternation of the seasons is recorded together. In fact, the sun can be seen along with a lightning bolt. The climatic conditions in Cyprus are mostly clear in the summer and mostly rainy in the winter months. That is simultaneously captured in this photograph. At the same time, we will notice that in one building there seems to be a lit light which suggests night time; posing along with the sun above. All of these coexist in a single structuration of space and time in the photograph. No specific “measurable” moment is captured and represented here, but a non-linear temporal duration. A photographic long-durée.

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Lab for Animation Research (LAR) operates as a research centre for studying the art of animation. Specifically, LAR operates as a lab within the Department of Fine Arts of the Cyprus University of Technology and aims at studying the artistic possibilities of animation. LAR uses a wide range of digital and “traditional” technologies and artistic practices as methods to experiment, study and develop innovative expressive methods for creating animation artworks.

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