‘The Syrians are Recording their Own Death’

by Nikos Papastergiadis

When the viewfinder of the gun and the lens of the camera are aligned in deadly symmetry: the ambient perspective of contemporary civil war

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Rabih Mroué, The Fall of a Hair, 2012
Part 1: The Pixelated Revolution, Room with video projection
Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/ Hamburg
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support of Sfeir-Semler Gallery
Beirut/Hamburg. Photo by Henrik Stromberg

In the contemporary war, the image has gained a status unprecedented in history. Never before has the story of war been told from so many angles, and been made to feel so close. This ambient perspective was powerfully presented in a work by Rabih Mroué installed at documenta 13 in 2012. The piece situates the archival nexus of documentation alongside the experience of complicity and mystery. It is situated in two rooms. The first contains a set of flicker books and audio recordings of riotous street scuffles and gunfire. You are given the task of trying to match sound and image. It is a mesmerising but ultimately futile act. The books sit inside blue inkpads, and your thumbs and fingers get stained. There are also four large photographic prints with ambiguous silhouettes that sway slightly and cast a strange flowing reflection at your feet. Opposite is an abstracted video image of a man who keeps falling. The closer you look the more you realise that each time there is a subtle change in the details – a different personal item also falls as he falls – cigarettes, phone, lighter.

In the second room there is a video lecture by the artist entitled The Pixelated Revolution. It commences with the comment that inspired the project: “The Syrians are recording their own death.” Mroué explains that he has been investigating the phenomenon of people recording the violence of the civil war on their mobile phones, and that he is fascinated with a perplexing instance in which the witness with the camera comes into eye contact with a person whose rifle is pointing straight at his body. The viewfinder of the gun and the lens of the camera are aligned in deadly symmetry. Remarkably, the unarmed civilian continues recording, remains stationary and is shot dead.

This dreadful event provokes many questions. Was it a futile act of sacrifice, an expression of immunity of the virtual from the real, an opportunity for photography to reveal the truth – to discover that fabled last image that was captured on the witness’s retina, can art make justice? Mroué becomes obsessed with these questions. He replays the scene countless times. He isolates the frames and analyses each detail like a scientist. He then comes to the conclusion that the exact, or what he calls the “vital” moment of the occurrence of death, is not visible to the naked eye. It can only be seen as a blank: a void. This seems like a reasonable conclusion, but then he makes a truly astonishing aesthetic proposition on the invisibility of the vital scene: “The vital moment is stretched in two dimensions simultaneously, towards life and death.”

In an ambient space, information has no clear beginning or point of termination. Data is received not just along multiple tracks of delivery, but through unpredictable and almost indiscernible sources. Where do these bits and pieces of information come from, where are they heading, when do they end? According to Scott Lash, information is assembled in “a succession of jolts as ‘nows’”. It is neither structured through the fusing of the local story within a hierarchy of known archetypes, nor is the part lifted out of its own context to confront a negative outside space. In an essay called “Being After Time: Towards a Politics of Melancholy” in Time and Value (1998), Lash argued that information now circulates in an ambience “overwhelmed by the violence of the rush of images, of events, of commodities in the city”. In the contemporary context this means that perspective needs to be grasped not from a singular position but through a mode of ambient awareness. This kind of awareness cannot be defined by a clear point of origin within prescribed boundaries. It is instead formed in the accumulation of ‘bits’ of information and through the relationships between participants and their objects in the ‘clouds’ of complex information systems.

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