In Control Of My Existence

By Reinhard Braun

‘What do pictures want?’ This, in the mid-90s, was the question that W.J.T. Mitchell’s formulation of the ‘pictorial turn’ hinged on. By raising it Mitchell did not simply seek to endorse the cultural predominance of the visual: what he was attempting to do was casting that very predominance in the role of the problem. He himself describes this question, which aims at making the ritual of the politicization of representations less predictable in its outcome, as ‘aggravating, inaccessible and perverse’ (Mitchell 1999, 163). For him, pictures are not only about representation; more importantly, being exemplary ‘faitiches’ (cf. Latour 2002), they are in Bruno Latour’s sense ‘hybrid objects oscillating on the borderline between truth and fiction, fact and belief’ (Mitchell 1999, 160); they are both autonomous and constructed, found and crafted, imitative and creative.
It will be difficult to come up with a description that is more apposite to Kristleifur Björnsson’s series than this: both autonomous and constructed, found and crafted, imitative and creative, and oscillating at the borderline between truth and fiction, fact and belief.
The phrase of the ‘pictorial turn’ was coined at a time when many of the current debates on the visual were no more than a glint at the horizon of technological progress, when simulation was a recurring topic alongside with the hyperreal, with virtual realities and the increasing replaceability of reality by pictorial worlds.
Mitchell’s intervention must be seen in the context of a debate that sought to cut pictorial representation down to size by re-establishing language as the beacon of truth, when iconoclasm in one form or another was deemed to offer an alternative of last resort to being totally dominated by images.
Alienation was seen to be acquiring a new quality, and there was the widespread impression that identity was getting lost altogether amid the vanity fair of desires that were incessantly being churned out by the machinery of Corporate Media. Visualization ruled and so did its strategies – and the strategies for positioning oneself within this domain of visualization, for offering oneself to perception. Only what is in circulation in the forms of visual representation can become relevant in societal terms.
This is neither the place to endorse or reject this interpretation nor to move on and offer a new analysis of how visual representation in general fares these days. In view of how Kristleifur Björnsson’s work focuses in a curiously obsessive manner on aspects specific to visual representation, namely its simultaneous circulation in private and public spheres, a brief account seems called for of the shift that has occurred over the last 20 years within these policies of visualization. This shift affects, as it were, the core of representation, the borders separating truth from fiction and authenticity from artifice. It is due to this shift that pictures have in fact turned into the kind of ‘faitiches’ whose existence Mitchell diagnosed as early as the mid-90s in the light of Latour’s theorizing.
Until the 1980s the critique of representation was primarily concerned with the ideological subtext of the misrepresentation of reality by the media, with the power of images to subvert reality. Today, by contrast, the authenticity of pictures is hardly ever questioned, particularly in the context of popular culture. If it is true, as Tom Holert has noted, that pictures function, ‘independently of the discourse and the medium they occur in, as communication boosters, as evidence machines’, as ‘switching devices within observation scenarios and mise-en-scènes’ (Holert 2000, 33), it follows that pictures are no longer being scanned by beholders / consumers as to their truth content or the extent to which they can be utilized as identification or connecting elements for individual projects to gain knowledge about the world. They are, on the contrary, being used as raw material for the construction of life plans in an almost complicitous manner.
Pictures function within the framework of a fairly large-scale experiment involving cultural and social roles and are analogous to fashion, consumption, sub-cultural differentiation strategies, etc. They have become artifacts that beg to be integrated into the modelling of identity, regardless of their truth content and regardless largely of their representation policy. The same thing is happening to images today that happened to the ‘realness’ gestures of early rap culture: depleted of whatever meaning they originally had, they are invoked today as attributes of coolness by Europe’s schoolchildren. 
In the pictorial theories inspired by post-structuralism the emphasis was on the processes of reading and interpreting pictures – in the sense of ‘What are pictures?’. Today it is questions relating to the contexts of their appropriation, utilization and circulation that have moved center stage, in the sense of Mitchell’s ‘What do pictures want?’. It is not a struggle between ‘correct’ versus ‘false’ representations that current pictorial policies focus on but, as we have already pointed out, questions concerning appropriation, utilization and circulation.
 ‘And notions that consider autonomous, “authentic” and non-commercial manifestations of culture to be the only valid paths to liberation demonstrate an inadequate appreciation of the multi-layered structure in the present-day world of culture on the one hand and profit orientation on the other’ (Lipsitz 1999, 219).
It is not the case that in this way all normative power, all power to generate normalcy as exemplified by Alphonse Quetelet’s homme moyen has disappeared from images. On the contrary. Yet in order for this normative power to be made visible an adapation of the theoretical as well as the pragmatic strategies would be required, a kind of ‘post-linguistic, post-semiotic rediscovery of the image as a complex interplay of visuality, apparatus, institution, discourse, corporeality and figurativity’ (Mitchell 1997, 19). This would be a rediscovery that does not primarily address issues of authenticity but above all questions relating to the performance of images and their interaction with cultural realities that cannot be exhaustively identified, decoded or critiqued within the pictures themselves.
Such a performative concept of visual representation and the role of pictures will play its part in the tension-rich field of socio-economic developments that can no longer be adequately described in terms of the aesthetization of everyday life. They can only be grasped by focusing on the pervasive, almost epidemic penetration of mechanisms of consumption into all kinds of private, social, cultural and political discourse.
The desire to consume pictures, to even incorporate them into us is something fundamentally different from reading or interpreting them. It is even different from succumbing to their temptation. In an ironic twist, pictures are part of our present-day authenticity that has non-authentic forms of cultural communication as its primary basis.
‘My Girls’ (1996 – 2005) is the title Kristleifur Björnsson has given to a series of multi-piece, large-size portraits of beautiful young women. The subjects of the portraits are the actresses Parminder Nagra, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder and Shannyn Sossamon; the latter, a friend of Gwyneth Paltrow, has, according to Wikipedia, three tattoos, including an S with a flower on her right back shoulder; she also tried her hand at television commercials, e.g. for Gap. Natalie Portman’s career took off in 1994, when she played Natalie in ‘Léon’ (The Professional), Parminder Nagra has been a member since 2004 of the ‘Emergency Room’ team. Winona Ryder, engaged to Jonny Depp in the early 90s and honoured with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as early as 2000, subsequently suffered a serious setback in her career after an arrest for shoplifting in 2001.
Obviously there is no shortage of criteria to be distilled from these pop cultural contexts that the artist might have based his selection of fictional girl friends on: their multi-ethnic background, the fact that they all belong to a new generation of female role models who position themselves between conformism and norm transgression, etc. On the other hand the artist’s selection might simply be owed to his obsessions and his personal taste, as is in fact suggested by this statement of Björnsson’s: ‘It's important that she is attractive and to my taste, my type. I had to be able to put myself in the other one's shoes, be able to fall in love like him. She also had to be charming, but could not be untouchably beautiful like a model. She had to be pretty and sweet, like a platonic original of a pretty girl that you could realistically meet on the street’ (Mörður Ingólfsson (2003)). The very mention of the artist’s obsession and his reference to the ‘platonic original of a pretty girl’ (one, in addition, who we could ‘realistically’ meet in the street) takes us straight back to our initial brief disquisition on the question whether images might not have acquired a potentially novel role within present-day visual culture.
So whose obsessions are we in fact referring to?
Bearing in mind that Björnsson downloads his (ultimately) large-scale pictures from the Internet and assembles them from DIN A4-sized inkjet prints, we will realize a few mouse clicks later that this obsession can by no means be called an individual, let alone a personal one. It is obvious that these images cater to collective interests, to the collective obsessions of an undefined number of net users. Should the pictures’ production technique be read as a hint that something resembling an individual obsession can only be construed as a pastiche of shared shards and fragments, of odds and ends retrieved from the collective subconscious? Whilst the result may be individual and authentic, it can never be personal in any strict sense. What about the transfers of observation, privacy and the contexts of publication that have entered into the series? And what are we to make of the shocking change in size that distinguishes the finished work from the ‘original’? What is it that these pictures want?
Ten years ago the series would presumably have been interpreted in terms of the transfer of representation strategies, as a playful reflection on the construction and circulation of idols on the basis of specific media representation contexts. Questions concerning fictional authenticity, the ‘realness’ of Winona Ryder and the impossibility to disentangle the ‘real’ Winona Ryder from the media construct would arguably have been touched upon. Given this circularity of make-belief, questions as to the authenticity of the work could not possibly have been raised – or raised only in terms of a mise-en-scène of authenticity.
What does this authenticity consist in?
I think authenticity is present where the image is used in a downright complicitous manner as raw material for the construction of an obsession, as an ‘as-if’, that can nevertheless be experienced as authentic because the pictures enable a performance of authenticity. (In the past this would have been referred to as a simulation of authenticity.) They are the documentation of an authenticity that is performative per se and that partakes of the pictures, appropriates, enjoys and consumes them.
‘I always feel sure that things elsewhere are more beautiful and look better. These pictures from my real life are supposed to convince me that the way I actually live is somehow more substantial, brighter and has more beautiful moments than is in fact the case’, said Jack Pierson in an interview in 1996 (Pierson 1996, 275). Pierson transformed the autobiographical project of the documentation of his life into a mise-en-scène of clichées and myths, which instead of aiming primarily at representing his real life sought to shape a visual-discursive space for its fictional reconstruction. For Pierson these images document a longing for the fulfilment of what the media machine keeps on promising. They are supposed to rise to the level of those advertising images that are soaked in beauty and the deeply meaningful moments of a ‘well-lived’ life; they are supposed to connect his life to the promised glamourization of humdrum everyday life. Pierson toys with normalcy vis-à-vis the media machine, with the visual implants that this machine puts into our heads. Yet by the very act of attempting to treat it as non-existent he draws attention to the enormous gap that separates reality from stereotype.
This gap hardly seems to matter any more in Björnsson’s work. ‘My Girls’ does not need to address a longing for these girls, as they were already appropriated at some unspecified point in the past: ‘My Girls’. Björnsson does not envisage a (potentially) better, more satisfactory, more exciting life if only he had a girlfriend such as Winona Ryder. Through images that are made available by the media Winona Ryder and, in the last series, Keira Knightley, have long become part of his life. The pictures Björnsson searches for, finds and selects on the Internet are already visual switching devices in his private life. This is why ‘My Girls’ has got nothing to do with the odious violation of private spheres by paparazzi; on the contrary, it is all about private moments in Björnsson’s own life, which he makes public in large-sized images. He makes ‘My Girls’ accessible to us as transformed private pictures that he has retrieved from the media universe, the home to millions of these pictures, all of them sites of self-presentation, all of them based on the appropriation, re-interpretation and the re-enactment of social roles, which are artificial as well as part of our everyday lives. These pictures want to be coddled like the tamagotchis of old, they want to circulate, take the stage, be involved in deception, persuasian, seduction; in a way they want to do something rather than show something. The media marketplace from which Björnsson obtains the raw material for his works is a performative place rather than a visual one. It is a site for ‘images that do not refer to anything else, that are exclusively concerned with performance’ (Rancière 2005, 9).
Confronted with the question what these pictures want, you could say: they want to show the extent to which they are involved in appropration and utilization, as part of the most diverse socio-cultural practices. They are not about the process of appropriation itself, which is undertaken as part of a strategy to authenticate one’s own life, simply because that life is already linked to these images. This is also why they are not about the – more or less widespread – obsession with celebrity pictures and/or about demonstrating how these are preyed on by obsessive fans or by a more or less curious public; what they do in fact address is the obsessive nature of visual culture as a whole. And this obsessiveness is linked in Björnsson’s case to the intimate admission of his participation in it.
It is this intimacy that makes the production process of ‘My Girls’ easier to understand: the artist uses the printer in his studio in order to produce the individual components of the pictures; they take shape, that is, in a kind of private environment, presumably because this environment helps the artist in his attempt to retain a certain power of control over the pictures, with a view perhaps to controlling the obsessive element. The colour deviations of individual prints also make it clear that these are no so-called professional, digitalized print-outs, and that objectivization and analysis are not the point of the exercise. It may even be admissible to speculate whether it is not the pictures themselves, as actors, as faitiches, that necessitate this kind of production process by their inner logic. Is the artist’s studio, his whole working style organized around the production of these pictures? Is this where the artist’s obsessions and the obsessions of the pictures meet up? Would that be more to the point as an answer to the question of what it is that pictures want?
A more recent series, ‘I don't want to know your name’ (2007), seems to contradict these speculations. It consists of images depicting an anonymous young woman on a bus or tram, photographed from behind; her hair is tied back, her profile is seen at an angle from the rear; she may conceivably be looking out of the window. Are these images, by contrast to what has been advanced earlier, about distance, about a detached perspective? Images display two sides, one that demonstrates their raw sensual presence (Roland Barthes’ punctum) and one that reveals their nature as discourse, which is the code for a story (Barthes’ studium, see Rancière 2005, 21). As punctum, these images offer direct takes on this young woman, they depict unexpected moments in which reality condenses into random images. What we get is not a document of the ‘decisive moment’, which would be evidence of someone lying in ambush for reality (by projecting a pre-existing studium on to that reality, an encoded meaning, which must now be revealed and pacified), even though there is evidence that Björnsson’s pictures also lie in ambush. It is the fact that there is a series of photos, a number of depictions with subtle differences, which evokes something like a rudimentary plot. This alerts us to the studium of the series, which is not confined to individual takes. It occurs, as it were, between the images or, to use cineastic terminology, in the intervals between individual frames. Björnsson skilfully shifts the focus of the representation issue away from the pictures themselves to the idiosyncrasies at work between image, reality and the scenarios associated with the pictures. The series could also be about someone using images as the only possibility to generate a kind of intimacy, of communciation, even though this communication consists above all in observation (an action that precedes the images and transcents them; the images owe their existence to that action yet are unable to record it as they cannot turn back their glance to the glance they owe their existence to). Does Björnsson make us participate again in a fictional as well as authentic phantasm that stresses the mise-en-scène of intimacy in pictorial terms? Is this phantasm not already evident in the observation and ‘stalking’ scenario itself that seems to have occasioned these images? After all, there is evidence of this already in the ‘My Girls’ series, ‘switiching devices within observation scenarios and mise-en-scènes’ in Tom Holert’ phrase.
‘I don't want to know your name’ seems to remind us of the extent to which everyday perception functions already in analogy to image production, of how seeing inevitably leads on to the generation of images and how even the most trivial gesture in the most everyday situation is (necessarily?) cast in the shape of an image. The ‘public sphere’ would then increasingly have to be conceived of in terms of an organisation of images, as the mise-en-scène of an incalculably vast number of lay actors, as a grandiose visual consumerist gesamtkunstwerk, which links up societal (political?) subjects by means of their mutual observation interests.
In a sense, ‘I don't want to know your name’ evokes control as the already established form of participation in the public space. The involvement of perception cannot but be thought of in terms of images. This excess of images implies (or encodes) the excessive dissolution of the private into the public sphere, a dissolution that has its basis in the performance of these pictures. Perception is seen not as a critical discourse on pictorial information but as a critical discourse of the pictures themselves.
Advertising has been making use of these mechanisms for quite some time, as is evidenced by the longstanding campaign featuring the brand ‘New Yorker’ entitled ‘Dress for the Moment’. The campaign’s subjects demonstrate that there is virtually no such thing any longer as a private sphere, that every moment of everyday life (including household activities) has to be stylized, with an image, a glance, an observation scenario in mind. Surveillance and control do not appear in this context as caused by a repressive ‘ideological state apparatus’ (Louis Althusser) but by a collective desire for images, for the performance of images designed to satisfy our desire.
In the last resort, bodies too make their exit from the picture, as in ‘this would suit her’ (2007). What remains is lingerie draped on a bed, as if it was about to be given to a lover as a present or in preparation for love-making.
The anticipation of the images to be produced results in a stringent intervention in their mise-en-scène. Björnsson apparently abandons his strategy of locating and identifying pre-existent images of his own authentic obsession and switches to creating and constructing these images. However, these images too remain beholden to a circuitous process in which they are utilized in a complicitous manner as raw material for the construction of the authenticity of an ‘as-if’. They too are a kind of mise-en-scène of authenticity, because the lingerie on display will, as is suggested by title, ‘suit’ the fictional women, it will match their personalities or their aesthetic preferences; it will basically represent a kind of substitute or surrogate. On the one hand Björnsson makes a contribution with this series to the debates on fashion and politics, fashion and pop culture, fashion and identity policies – the very absence of bodies underlines their central role in the interplay of these debates. On the other he also seems to address again the capabilities inherent in images that have already been mentioned above: ‘Dust mites floating in the sunlight, molten snow dripping on to an umbrella, a green twig in an donkey’s mouth – tropes of matter that invent love affairs to balance the total lack of reason in things with their reason’ (Rancière 2005, 55). Pictures of human beings always seem to have some sort of meaning, some kind of justification, of significance. The great narratives about the world and about love feature human beings who act, who exercise power and forbearance; they cheat; they get the action moving through their very indifference. Can the same claim be made for ‘the total lack of reason in things’? Consumer goods have after all become the fetishes of post-modernity, and objects have acquired a role as the ‘performative objects for ego-enlargement.’ ‘Objects are therefore ego-enlargement gestures, they are part of the ego’s material equipment, of its semantic economy’ (Böhme 2006, 109). By displaying (or even stressing) the raw sensual presence of objects, Björnsson at the same time displays a ‘semantic economy’ in which these objects are referred back to a body, a subject, a person. This relates ‘this would suit her’ to the mechanisms of observation and their interplay with pictorial production, to which Björnsson adds the world of objects, of consumer goods as fashion.
‘Identity scenarios have become inextricably linked to the new imaging technologies. […] One of the consequences that arises from this is that towards the end of the 20th century politics based on economic class, the predominant form of social confrontation, gave way to a number of different forms of politics based on identity‘ (Burgin 1977, 29-30). It is perhaps possible to refer to this shift within pictorial and representational politics arguably evidenced by Björnsson’s projects – the same shift that we have addressed above, whose elements we have come to understand as continually reworked forms of identity politics – as a transition ‘from a politics of representation to a politics of experience’, as Christian Höller (Höller 2001, 25) has suggested.
In any case, Björnsson’s works bear witness to an experience of images that does not merely (re)present or reflect reality but contributes to its construction – in a manner in which cultural practices in general ‘must be understood no longer as exclusively representational but as productive’ (Grossberg 2000, 59). And it is these productive practices that pictures are involved in, alongside with and indistinguishable from objects and individuals. Björnsson demonstrates that images are capable of generating emotional economies of the kind ascribed hitherto exclusively to individuals – the objects’ lack of reason invents love affairs, to paraphrase Rancière once more.
So if these identity scenarios are inextricably interwoven with imaging technologies, this does not take the form of visual representation any longer but that of a horizon of experience which constitutes and communicates itself through the performative appropriation of pictures, through a kind of performativity that makes pictures sites where the most diverse kinds of identities, obsessions, phantasmagorias as well as issues of power and control are negotiated – and they are not only present in a representational guise. To this extent it may well be the case that imagining technologies provide us with a technique to excercise control over the meaning of our lives or at least over our desire for meaning (or for our obsession with it)…



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