The Death of the Viewer & The Two-Way Mirror
A play in five acts.
This article arose out of a desire to understand not what I was seeing, but what I was not seeing in the work of the WMA Masters finalists, and why. In equal measure it grew out of my embarrassment of contributing to this publication as a European who never visited Hong Kong. I felt lacking in the surefootedness that comes with living in a place and its tongues, which would allow me to speak with confidence about e.g. local photographic practices. Not wanting to send my words into an anechoic chamber, I requested to speak with some of the shortlisted photographers, hoping to establish a place of possible resonance. The following was shaped in response to these conversations, for which I want to thank all of those involved, including Vivian Fung, who made this happen.
Upon seeing the shortlisted works, my initial impression was that of mostly conventional photographs dealing with various aspects of the transition to Chinese rule. Frustratingly enough, they didn’t manage to relate what it must feel like to live in a place like Hong Kong, given the changes that are afoot. For all their (photo)realism, they somehow lacked an element of what makes things real, or what the Chinese curator Wang Chunchen called “a reflection of how our heart truly sees the self and the world.”1
I had expected a sense of the weight that comes from being submerged in hyperinformation, and which I associate with a fracturing of vision, to have seeped into the image plane. Despite the presence of ubiquitous computing and various forms of surveillance, I wasn’t seeing work that bespoke an awareness of these conditions, or investigated the mechanisms and agents that bring them about. And although “abstract” and conceptual photography are enjoying a second or third coming in other parts of the world, I barely found a trace of this among the entries. What puzzled me most of all, was a demonstrably present, all-pervasive faith in the truth value of the photographic image, as if decades of reflections on this topic, brought about by the emergence of digital photography in the 1990s, had left no mark.
Was I wrong to have these expectations – not per se regarding contemporary photographers in Hong Kong, but about specific experiences having found their way into the work? Allowing for the possibility that this outlook resulted from the jury having pruned the longlist of submissions down to nine candidates, I wanted to check with the photographers if they deemed the nominated work representative of contemporary Hong Kong photography, and to ask them about this persistent faith in the real.
Although my conversation partners came to photography from different directions, all agreed on one thing: the shortcomings in the educational system. The existing programmes were too focused on mastering technical skills, and not enough consideration was given to the theoretical and socio-political dimensions of contemporary photography as a practice, not just as a craft. The gist of their recommendations was that in order to overcome the limitations that kept photography in Hong Kong fairly conservative, students should be taught what it takes to think critically about photography, and encouraged to explore expressive dimensions of photography beyond the direct, literal modes of narration. Given this backdrop, I found it remarkable that one of the interviewees described himself as lazy. Instead of pursuing a career with a respectable income, which would mean becoming part of the exhaustion economy, he preferred to live modestly, and have time to think “how to judge a thing” in Hong Kong society. By himself, he had discovered a vital principle of désœuvrement – or un-working – as proposed by Maurice Blancot, Jean-Luc Nancy and others.
However, no amount of educational effort dedicated to photography as a discipline among other “creative” fields of study will be able to address a much deeper seated concern that I shared about the viewer of images, whose faith in the photographic real persists in the face of the unraveling of all bonds that existed between the photographic and the haecceity, the this-here-nowness, that we let photography lay claim to for the past 150 years. That viewer still exists in us, regardless of our awareness of the possibilities that digital image manipulation offers on ever more sophisticated levels. This viewer, whom we inherited from our involuntarily shared (colonial) pasts in European thought and its rationalist programme, is also present in the work of the finalists.
There is a question, posited twenty years ago by Sarah Kember, who researches new technologies of communication at Goldsmiths in London, that continues to haunt me:
“Computer manipulated and simulated imagery appears to threaten the truth status of photography even though that has already been undermined by decades of semiotic analysis. How can this be? How can we panic about the loss of the real when we know (tacitly or otherwise) that the real is always already lost in the act of representation?”2
Kember seeks to answer her question by setting out to: “explore the paradox of photography’s apparently fading but always mythical realism, and to suggest that the panic over the loss of the real is actually a displacement or projection of a panic over the potential loss of our dominant and as yet unsuccessfully challenged investments in the photographic real.”
Current generations might no longer feel the panic that Kember registered as an undercurrent directing the discussions surrounding the first advancements in digital photography, because they themselves are now performing such manipulations on a routine basis. What hasn’t changed, is what Kember called “our investments in the photographic real”, nor has she been able to altogether disappear “the paradox of photography’s apparently fading but always mythical realism”. For no matter how many filters you apply to your selfie, you still believe it is you in the picture. What gives rise to my deep seated concern, is the mystery of why we continue to be unsuccessful in challenging our investments or this paradox, despite knowing what we know. Kember’s question “How can this be?” stands, even if the threat has shifted elsewhere.
If any transition in photography needs addressing, it is the transition of the viewer, who desperately needs to come to terms with the displacement Kember mentioned.3 In the emerging technosphere, the viewer no longer occupies the position of the empowered, disengaged, disembodied, human-centric, sovereign subject that positivism would have liked him4 to be, but he is strangely, blithely unaware how urgently he ought to reconsider his position. The traditional viewer finds himself in a situation not unlike that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are dead, yet the news of their demise has trouble reaching them. At the end of Stoppard’s play, after having learned about their deaths, they don’t die; they simply disappear from stage – a dramaturgical gesture suggesting they were ghosts all along. My question is not what would it take for the same to happen to the positivist persona of the viewer. My question is: what is actively withholding the arrival of the news of his displacement? Who or what needs this viewer to believe he is alive?
Asking again: who is looking at the photographic image? It used to be just you and me and everyone we know, but these days it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are no longer the only ones who do the watching. The socially networked, digitally enhanced, and precisely locatable photographic image has become a two-way mirror. In one side we gaze and see ourselves reflected; in the other we become the ones observed through the images we willingly share with an unknowable quantity of non-human agents, controlled by a shape-shifting conglomerate of state authorities and corporate entities with a mandate to mine, manage and sell the data we generate.
The displacement of the viewer goes even further if we consider the possibility that humans might no longer be the paramount viewers of the networked image. Sometimes we are its tools, sometimes we are its accidental consumers, its trained creators, its targets. We are the ones being seen, counted, located, surveilled through our own images and their metadata, created for the non-human viewer, which can be both an algorithm computing how much nudity our selfies contain, or a drone that studies our movements and calculates whether we can be labelled as targetable participants in a conflict zone. Something is looking back at us from the other side, and that gaze is not human, not overseeable, not controllable, not any longer. How can this not be unsettling to those who previously laid claim to “the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation”?5
When talking about digital photography, I don’t treat it as a stand-alone technology contrasted with other techniques used by creative practitioners. This has nothing to do with artistic neighbours debating their turf. Over the past decades, digital photography has become ubiquitous, and as such it has aligned itself with other emerging forms of ubiquitous computing, which include surveillance techniques as much as Amazon’s ambient intelligent home system Alexa, iPhone X’s facial recognition, or Alipay, China’s largest online payment service, which “offers its hundreds of millions of users a breakdown on their spending each year, showing everything from their environmental impact to their ranking among shoppers in their area”.6 In Kember’s words, ubiquitous computing is an invasive technology that seeks a “re-ordering of life (biological and social) under the cover of practices of media and communication that are deemed ordinary, everyday, user-based, personal, private and vernacular. The everyday then is a highly contested realm – a realm of biopower.”7
Asking again: what was I not seeing, if not the delayed news of our own deaths as traditional viewers, which dislocates all sorts of power relations? As Byung-Chul Han suggests in Psychopolitics8, this positivistic myth about the autonomous spectator is kept alive to preserve the belief that we have freedom, that we have agency, choice, power. He considers it part and parcel of the “smartpolitics” that the new surveillance society practices. What his distopic analysis of our current predicament fails to take into account, is that both the surveillance society and the autonomous spectator remain anchored in historical notions about the omnipotence and sovereignty of the human subject. Like the algorithms that dominate our lives, they are stuck together in a past that forecloses the future.9
What all this does point to, is an unresolved tension within our societies that coming decades will have to address, not just in the interest of our species, but for the sake of the entire planet of whose ecosystems we are but a part. The good news is that the death of the omnipotent viewer, with “his gaze from nowhere” (Harraway) makes space for a plurality of gazes to arrive in and reconstitute the photographic realm. New common ground can be found together, while salvaging (or collectively agreeing on) values that ought not to be lost if mankind is to retain some humanity beyond the humanistic subject.
1 Chunchen Wang, “Realism and Contemporary Chinese Art”, The Research House for Asian Art. (January 2009), http://www.xzine.org/rhaa/?p=803.
2 Sarah Kember, Virtual Anxiety: Photography, New Technologies and Subjectivity (The Critical Image) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 17.
3 For a discussion on spectatorship as a possible entry point to discuss post-humanist positions in photography, see also White, The Body and the Screen (Cambridge (Massacussets): The MIT Press, 2006), 156.
4 I’m deliberately gendering the traditional viewer as male, because he was always pictured thus by positivism and its philosophical predecessors.
5 Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges”, Feminist Studies , vol. 14, no.3, (Autumn, 1988): 581.
6 Paul Mozur, “Internet Users in China Expect to Be Tracked. Now, They Want Privacy”, The New York Times, 8 January, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/business/china-alibaba-privacy.html.
7 Sarah Kember, “Ambient Intelligent Photography”, in The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, ed. Martin Lister (London: Routledge, 2013), 58.
8 Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (London & New York: Verso, 2017).
9 “An algorithm is a snapshot of a past series of modes of humankind, like a musical score. The algorithms that dominate stock trading mean that capitalist exchange is caught in the past: no matter how fast it moves, it’s standing still, like the nightmare in which you are running as fast as you can, getting nowhere. The future is foreclosed.” Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso, 2017).
(NL, 1967) An independent author and curator specialized in contemporary photography, who maintains a strong commitment to emerging photographic practices.