Spaces of Justice Peripheries, Passages, Appropriations
Through an analysis of the photography series Life Day – Fortunes of War by internationally renowned artist Eric Lesdema, I engage in the generation of three spaces of legality. The first is the continuum of complicity with the ubiquity of violence that exists between all bodies, human and nonhuman. The second is the space created by the act of looking away from violence, a space of potential further complicity with violence, or indeed, as I argue here, of ethical responsibility. The last is a further enclosure within the continuum, which can take either the form of an atmospheric enclosure where violence becomes invisible in its legitimation; or the form of withdrawal from the above atmosphere, offering thus the possibility of the emergence of spatial justice. These three spaces are interfolded and are not characterised by prior moral positioning (they are not good or bad per se) but are characterised ethically by the way they are being animated by other spaces and bodies.
1. We Are All Complicit
(fig. 1 [monkey ] Eric Lesdema, 'Untitled, c‐type from the series Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War' )
Where is the conflict? This is the question Eric Lesdema asks with his photographic series Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War.1 The question is asked obliquely yet relentlessly, haunting the bodies, and the spaces between those bodies. Every single image booms with the question, planting in the viewer the compulsive urge to find the conflict, folded somewhere between the material of the image and the bodies represented in it. We are all captured in this search, in our turn performing what we unconsciously do anyway: we populate space with conflict and its violence, and we position ourselves in relation to it, whether this might be in the deep end or at a distance, taking sides or blocking the conflict from our view. These images render one complicit with the conflict they capture. They set up their temporal and spatial parameters in such a way that they annul any easy hope of escaping violence. They render conflict the main ontological condition of our time, and us complicit with its emergence. This is the reason for which Lesdema’s work has stirred so much interest in terms of thinking, observation and analysis.2
Here, I would like to take advantage of my experience of working with Lesdema and employ his Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War series, not as illustrative tools but as main focal points, around which to construct and present my arguments concerning issues of spatiotemporal continuum, complicity and responsibility, engineered atmospherics and spatial justice. I would like to focus specifically on the spatiality of the series, and especially the way it captures the distribution of bodies in space. Spatiality is of course important in photography in general,3 but here, at least in my reading, it emerges as the main protagonist claiming the first locus of violence. It would seem that space itself distributes the bodies (human and nonhuman, material and immaterial) in such a way that they turn against each other, or inhabit spaces of earlier or future violence, haunting them in advance of the advent of violence. Space is saturated with a casual, quotidian and for this reason deeply entrenched and invisibilised violence. This, aided by some of the other characteristics of the photographs I will be expanding on below, generates an atmosphere so close and all‐comprising, that even the illusion of escape is ingested. This is not to say, however, that Lesdema’s spaces are without hope. It is just that whatever hope there is, it does not come from the usual avenues. This is the discussion I reserve for the final section, where spatial justice emerges.
2. Looking Away
(fig 2 [Shopping Trolley] Eric Lesdema, 'Untitled, c‐type from the series Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War' )
Despite the title of the series, there is nothing gory, battlefield‐like or even palpably aggressive in these photographs. There is, however, a feeling that somewhere next to what we are looking at, something is happening. Perhaps the main feature of the series is that the camera is looking away from any explicit moment of violence. But looking away is usually associated with indifference or fear, and often displacement of responsibility. It can be a way of putting some distance between the beholder and the thing that is proving too difficult to behold. It is often an attempt at interrupting the continuity between what we see and what we feel, inserting a chunk of denial often garnished with well‐rehearsed arguments. Looking away is politically suspicious.
Eric Lesdema makes us rethink the act of looking away. He positions it centre‐stage in what is otherwise the steep political and ethical curve of his work. The gesture remains that of turning one’s vision away from the spectacle. But here it results in a lateral looking that plunges the viewer in a continuum between herself and whatever is‐not‐to‐be‐seen. Nothing is left out of this continuum. Above all, this is a continuum brimming with responsibility. Looking away in this case is neither indifferent nor complicit; rather it is a way of confirming the need for ethical positions with regards both to what we see and, significantly, to what we do not.
The whole series is without doubt about conflict, depicting the atrocities of violence (in every conceivable form, such as military, capitalist, consumerist, gendered, racialised, and so on) in a deeply affective way. The photographs, however, are characterised by two traits that eschew the relatively narrow confines of the above category (See Fassl 2014). First, as already mentioned, they never focus on the conflict itself. Second, they feel quick, fuzzy, snappy, unstudied, so much so that they presage the era of the quick, contingent spatiality of iphoneography (this is a 1993 series). These two characteristics construct a new and very difficult language of violence which, additionally, is intensely spatialised in a way unlike the traditional spatiality of war or conflict photography. The photographs tell us this: that violence is everywhere, and that even a cursory, haphazard, indeed peripheral look reveals this. Lesdema unveils the violence of space at its most ironic: space, he tells us, is inherently violent but its violence is often dissimulated behind sunny posters, colourful packaging, representations rather than substances. Yet, there is something inalienable in our connection to space: we are all bodies vying for the same space, excluding other bodies along the way. We generate space, we are space, and we are constantly on the move, generating more space, but also more conflict with other bodies. The movement captured in the frames is always one of displacement. The camera moves along: it captures the movement of the bodies but also points away from that violence of displacement, towards the new spaces of violence that emerge with every such move.
The photographs stop and look at those peripheral spaces, and challenge us in doing the same. But we are not used to this. We never stop at these peripheries.4 We are attracted to the centrality of violence because only in this way can we bracket it and isolate it. Centring in on the violence is our way to treat it as an exception, specific instance, specific geography, at a safe distance from us. We are, however, not allowed to do this here. The Elsewhere is central in the series, while the centre remains decidedly off‐focus. Not unlike the Renaissance painting thematic technique of mixing the sublime with the quotidian, where the main story of a crucifixion, a biblical murder or a mythological rape would play second fiddle to the labours of a farmer clearing his stable, Lesdema’s imagery veils the sublime spectacle of violence behind the quotidian detail of the seemingly insignificant. But, just like a Renaissance painting, Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War opens up the possibility of a ubiquity that transcends habitual spatial boundaries. It shows how all bodies, human and non‐human, animate and inanimate, are saturated in and complicit with violence – the violence of renaissance crucifixion becomes that of war permeating all movement and rest, all actuality and virtuality. The unsuspected labours or pilgrims roaming around are not only connected to the violence of the centre but positively instigating it, making violence possible by being present in its periphery. Nicolette Barsdorff‐Liebchen (2017) talks about how the oblique is the deterritorialised elsewhere, while the main event of the territory (the “Event”) remains “hidden as it is in plain sight”. Deleuzoguattarian deterritorialisation is a way of resisting the aggressive seduction of capitalism (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) by breaking down the spatially and temporally fixed corridors of consumerist obsession, and imagining new lines of flight. And while there are lines of flight in Lesdema’s work, they are all folded in the quiet persistence of despair that comes with the ubiquity of violence.
For Jan Baetens (2017) the pictures “are not violent because of what they show, but because of what they tell or, more exactly, because of the way they tell us what we should think of what they show.” Indeed, their message is delivered with the lateral force of the affect. They often make little sense, they are decontextualised, they feel incomplete, lying unobserved next to the vanishing point of the larger but never to be seen picture, “on the margins of towns, cities, villages, in back streets, in community halls, in temporary fairs” as Jane Tormey (2017) writes. Yet, they hit the viewer from within, with the uncontrollable force of an affective deluge, where emotions, symbols and senses comingle to engineer an atmosphere of intense discomfort yet seduction (Philippopoulos‐Mihalopoulos 2015). This is the glasshouse of global consumerism. As Gerald Moore (2017) puts it, “this collection is remarkable in its capture of the persistence of advertisements, their lingering trace amidst apocalypse disturbing and reassuring in equal measure.”
How to choose where to point when deterritorialising? The main event, the Grand Reterritorialiser, is convenient in its centrality, soft in its seduction, steadfast in its persuasion. The main event is always obvious. But where is the Elsewhere? Everything that surrounds the main event is potentially elsewhere. All bodies lead to violence. Which one to choose and point at? This is perhaps one of the strongest qualities of the images, as I have already intimated: they appear accidental and of a temporality that merely floats above the event rather than contributing to it. They often include in the frame the movement that the photographer performed in his turning away from the main event. The images pulsate with a movement away‐from rather than towards. This has a terrifying outcome: wherever you point, accidentally, in panic or aversion to the main event of war, everything is saturated with violence. Obliqueness means: the Elsewhere is already here. Oblique is to space, what anterior is to time. And time is not left out of complicity either. Lesdema has written extensively about his methodology, which he calls the Ant‐Optic (Lesdema 2015). Ant‐Optic anticipates the future of conflict by rooting it into the banal everyday, itself always in the forgettable past or the unobservable present. Ant‐Optic is anterior to the conflict. It is also oblique to it. It looks to the future askance, leaving it outside the frame. The images wallow in distraction, obsession, lethargy – all conditions of forgetting that the future is already here. Anteriority is always obliqueness: there is no other way of looking at the future and not being subsumed to it. For this very reason of anteriority, the future is captured. These photographic images anticipate. We do not know what, but it feels inescapable. We do not know when, but it has already begun – or rather, it has always been here. Our complicity with the conflict ensures it. We anticipate future sadness, solitary death, ecological disaster, resource depletion; we anticipate violence, war, conflict; we have always been complicit with the waves of refugees, the unequal power distribution, the unjust emplacement of human and non‐human bodies. Future itself is made complicit to the conflict.
There are various modes of future‐capturing for photography. One of the most irreverent ones is to challenge the traditional belief, as Jan Baetens (2017) puts it, that photographs are traces of what has already been. Here instead we have the traces of what is to come, a future anterior that never exhausts itself in production but hovers, perennially peripheral, above the present. These traces open up fractally to capture the multiplicity of the future, leaving no space devoid of conflict. The anticipatory gaze unearths the archaeology of the causes of violence in their miniscule details, such as consumerist desire, faint traces of nationalism, landscapes marred by militarised semi‐presences, insignia of categorisations and exclusions; its post‐facto gaze looks at the ruins of plastic enclosures, melancholy disorder and fake sunbeams that replace the real thing, like some Benjaminian angel of history turning back upon himself. We have the before and the after but never the thing itself. Jane Tormey (2017) compares Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project with Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War, resemiologising the photographic production process. Quoting from Benjamin, Tormey (2017) writes: “in an assemblage of small constituent parts, each ‘individual moment’ has the potential to gather ‘temporal momentum’ in its confrontation with other concepts. In the course of that process a conception of history is constructed – it isn’t fixed or conclusive.” Each piece of matter opens fractally, a fan‐like gaping awning, funnelling a history yet to happen, reinstating a history that has never stopped happening. The temporal momentum is paralysing in its banality, irresistible in its familiarity, and atrocious in its relentlessly repeated resolution.
3. The Continuum
(fig 3 [Beach] Eric Lesdema, 'Untitled, c‐type from the series Life Day ‐ Fortunes of War' )
The immediate effect of this saturation is an all‐consuming spatiotemporality: not only normal everyday spaces (in their full banality) are now seen in a light that allows the violence to bubble up; not only are new spaces generated that go beyond the frame of the photograph, anticipating the violence; but, most significantly, these spaces are all joined up: the most compelling space created by the act of looking away is indeed the continuum. This continuum extends between the viewer and the thing not‐viewed, the seen and the unseen, as well as the original and the end viewer. Imagine a flat space where violence is both folded in and spread out, clamping up in densities that hide or opening up in piazzas that reveal the mechanics of violence. Imagine trying to look away from the moment of violence, and discovering that there is nowhere to look which would not be replete with the visceral coagulations of this violence.
On the continuum, the eye travels fast and far, unable to arrive at any imaginary outside that would entertain the idea of non‐violence. The continuum is the flat ontology of the indistinguishability between the human and the nonhuman, the animate and the inanimate, the material and the abstract (Bennett 2010): all contained here, whether this is Spinoza’s Nature (Spinoza 2000), Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence (Deleuze and Guattari 1988), or the flat ontology of new materialism (Bryant 2011). Looking away initiates this continuum and paradoxically, leaves nothing out. Yet, its all‐inclusive brutality is countered by its ethical positioning: I want to suggest a continuum built on the urge for seeing and respecting difference; on the necessity to show and view and feel without the risk of being co‐opted; and even on a sort of manic courage that is often the result of a revolutionary force.
This is why this continuum is not some cosy flatness of togetherness or of democratic processes and other antidotes. The continuum established here is of a brutal hyperconnectivity, full of ruptures, of high velocity and also high inequality. The stronger, more powerful bodies pull this continuum down, a body weight crunching the plane, making it fold and unfold in undulating configurations determined by the bodies themselves. We are in the presence of corporations, the 1%, the holders of legitimated violence such as the state, the police, the army, the jovial nationalism, the suburban whiteness: all strong bodies that push the one end of the continuum down in an infernal seesaw that makes the lighter bodies the obvious externalities of the move. This might be a flat continuum, but it is also tilted, unequal, biased.
This tilted continuum is also relentless. Not just because it precludes any space of rest, having us sliding constantly on the unequal distribution of power and desire; but also, and perhaps more cruelly, because it plays with our illusions. Where is the violence in a supermarket shelf, an amusement parlour, or innocuous military paraphernalia? There is no violence here, just some innocent horseplay and perhaps some sort of desire to do this, buy that, try the other. The illusion comes crashing down however, as soon as one sees that one does not see: outside the frame but seeping in through every pore of the animate and inanimate bodies captured by the lens, violence is raging, conflict is the order of the day, ruptures of any illusion one might have had indelibly cracking the surface. The wonder of the continuum is that what‐is‐ not‐to‐be‐seen is part of the affective constitution of what is seen. The illusion is the possibility of looking away and avoiding what‐is‐not‐to‐be‐seen. The end of the illusion is the realisation that, wherever one turns, there is a continuum of violence; and that we, the viewers, the readers, the frames, the bodies in the frame, the bodies outside the frame, the objects and surfaces passing through the frame, are all complicit with the emergence of violence. There is no outside to the continuum.
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Spaces of Justice Peripheries, Passages, Appropriations
Published January 26, 2017 by Routledge