War Re-Framed

(from LMCC LowDown, Summer 2003)

 

 

I would like to discuss two contrasting forms of mediation in relation to

the use of images of war: the form which occurs through over-exposure

to images via news and television, and the kind that results through

absence or long-term inaccessibility, as with government classification

and partial declassification. Much has been written about image saturation

in the media, but there has been no study that I know of to determine

the potency of secrecy as a form of mediation vis-à-vis the viewing public,

or the general psychological effects of declassification.

 

As a painter who uses media imagery as well as declassified government

photographs as primary source material, I am interested in the relationship

of these mediating forces to the myth of the photograph as "proof," since it

continues to underscore our perception of all media images. Artists take it

for granted that images are constructs; but when it comes to photographs,

people generally forget this, despite what is known about photographic

manipulation, digital or otherwise. We know that the camera is never

neutral—there is either someone holding it, or steering it remotely, or

else downloading and framing the contents of its transmission so it may

be interpreted and acted upon—and yet we still regard the photograph as

a mechanical, factual document. How might either of these two kinds of

mediation—over-abundance versus secrecy—affect this myth of

photographic objectivity?

 

I’ve been developing The Bomb Project (www.thebombproject.org), an online

nuclear resource for artists that grew out of image research for a series of

paintings.  The project raises a number of questions regarding the possible

effects of government secrecy on our perception of past events via new

knowledge from declassified imagery. For instance, how can we digest the fact

that miles of film footage and still imagery of hundreds of nuclear tests were

hidden from the public for decades, and how does that affect how we look at

these images/events now?  If we have become a viewing public that only thrills

in real-time broadcast of disaster and war, how are we to make sense of these

images of a half-century ago? Do these photographs of historical events seem

unreal because they weren’t disclosed until decades after the events they

depict? Does declassification itself become a mediating factor, dovetailing

neatly with psychic numbing and public denial?

 

Our government is as secretive as ever, but more apt to deploy a great array

of imagery in the public domain. This seeming over-abundance is itself an act

of mediation, but of a subtler order. A good example of this would be the

television transmissions from the First Gulf War—the “CNN War”—and the

illusion that we were privy to the totality of the war. Only years later were other,

less triumphalist and gruesome images declassified for public consumption. 

Of course, their meaning and impact on the viewing public at the time would

have been more significant than it is now.

 

Can creative practice offer us an alternative in the way we access and respond

to mediated image sources? By re-appropriating as creative raw material

images that have been mediated according to untold agendas, we may

stand a chance of internalizing and understanding the events they depict.

 

 

 

 

Joy Garnett participated in the recent The Future of War conference organized by our new-media

initiative Thundergulch with The New School (see LowDown, spring 2003).  She is an artist living

and working in New York and is represented by Debs & Co. Her paintings depict media images of

technology and disaster. She recently curated the traveling exhibition Night Vision, made possible

in part by the Manhattan Community Arts Fund/New York Department of Cultural Affairs, administered

by LMCC.      

 

 

 

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