Context as a form of censorship

Sometimes a catchy title can really guide me along, working on a certain topic. The title “Bildverbot – eine Handlungsanweisung”, would be such a title, but unfortunately it doesn’t really work in English. A rough translation would be “Iconoclasm – A Operator’s Manual” , but that is not a perfect translation. Nevertheless, I am currently spending a lot of time thinking about the topic of images that are taboo within certain parts of our culture.

I find it quite fascinating that our society might appear to be far more liberal than anything before – at least that is the western idea of western societies – but upon closer inspection, social norms and rules limit the use of certain types of images more and more. Sure, religious prohibitions might be part of it, but I find other aspects far more interesting. What images of race and gender can be shown or created? Nudity – especially nudity of children? Violence? Privacy? Right in one’s own image? State and corporate secrets? How to deal with the colonial acquisition of images and objects? And what about the weird world of copyrights and trademarks? All these things should be considered, when discussing iconoclasms today.

Looking at copyrights and trademarks for instance makes the issue very strange. On one hand, international brands want to become a key part of our daily environment. Press releases by them are supposed to be treated like news. Logos become quasi-iconic objects and should be visible everywhere. But if you dare to present them in a way, the company does seem fit, the wrath of being sued might come upon you. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion, that branding is just another way to create icons and therefore closely related to religious urges. One strange aspect is The News – at least here in Germany. On weekends the news programs talks a lot about the football results. Quite often for a third of the time. But once these programs are uploaded to the Internet, the part mentioning football is cut out. So on one hand, football is supposed to be considered newsworthy, but on the other hand, business interests can interact with the spread of news. I might be idealistic, but once something is “news”, access to it should not be limited.

The way you censor certain images or avoid them, can be very revealing. I did a work on that – well “work” might be a big word. For that piece I collected images from one particular event to look at the different ways this had been censored. The still came from a very short clip showing US soldiers urinating on killed Taliban fighters. The footage was taken with a shitty cellphone camera and is so grainy that it actually shows nothing. No penis can be seen, no flowing urine, and neither the faces of the soldiers nor of those killed are really recognizable. Interesting with this example is that this was considered “breaking news” all over the globe. Almost every news outlet wanted to talk about this event but everyone had only access to the same shitty footage of a few seconds. Still, even though talking about the same event by using the same material to report, the images they have used on their websites differ by quite a lot.

Remember, the footage is so grainy that almost nothing is decipherable. But some folks blur the faces of the soldiers, others those of the Taliban, quite a few times these invisible penises are covered by big black bars. A lot of the stuff becomes only somewhat visible by the use of these methods to hide them. And what does it say that one group of websites tries to hide the identity of the soldiers, while other hide those of the killed. Some even blur the entire image. Which is odd, because then the image isn’t shown, but has to be presented nevertheless. Even an image you can not show, needs to be somehow presented to make your story credible.

In general it is odd, if you use blurred images at all. If you don’t want to show something, than don’t show it. But by blurring, you might make things even more visible. In most other cases, there might have been a thousand different shots you could have presented. So why blurring?

Another strange form of censorship might be context – but that is something I am not fully sure about right now. Let me explain what I mean. Today, many images – and objects – have to be presented in a completely different context than at the moment they were created. That has to be done to be able to present them at all. Take for instance state art from the Third Reich. You couldn’t just present a Hitler portrait, no matter how well it is painted. It needs to be surrounded by a protective layer of context. The same goes for quite a few of the categories mentioned above. Photographs of naked boys from the 19th century by artists like von Gloeden might today be considered immoral and too close to child pornography to be presented in a regular exhibition. I am not arguing that this is good or bad, but my gut feeling is, that this might be somehow related to methods of censorship. You are not hiding the image itself, rather you change it to something that suits your ideas or moral standards.

ISIS Videos

In the past few months I watched many videos by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. That might not be the most tasteful of pastimes, but for me that I am extremely interested in the role images as a medium of communication play in our modern world, I consider it extremely important material. The more I look at these videos, the more details I see that are upon first notice quite baffling. I am very happy that almost all these videos are in Arab, so I am not distracted by that, plus, since their interpretation of Islam seems to be OK with slaughter shot in slow motion, but strictly opposes music, all you get on the audio spectrum is boring sounding singing. So there is little that distracts me from trying to look closely at these images.

The thing that did strike from the very beginning is that fact that these videos do exist at all. The most conservative interpretations of Islam – and ISIS definitely wants to be counted amongst them – has serious issues with the depiction of sentient beings. And some fifteen years ago, the Taliban in Afghanistan killed photographers for breaking this rule. (They also hired photographers to portrait their fighters it the most kitsch way possible – but that was supposedly for internal use only. Just google for “taliban portraits”). But ISIS wants to be oddly modern. So besides the war against the West, there is also a war amongst islamist groups that is prominently fought on social networks with the help of phones and GoPro cameras.

But the oddity of the whole situation does not stop here. Once the islamists were those who opposed the use and spread of images. Today that role is part of the western reaction to the (perceived) rising threat of terror. These videos are hard to find, sharing them is illegal and having them on your hard drive definitely causes suspicion. In the UK some kids already have been sentenced to time in jail for sharing propaganda PDFs. So the iconoclasm is turned on its head. Now these images are banned in the West.

It seems key to all sides involved in this conflict, what images are shown and what are censored. ISIS seems to have no issue with showing bodies blown to bits – even with those of their own comrades. Something western media would definitely not show. But once a boxer short is shown or – God forbid – a naked belly. ISIS propaganda kicks in and things get blurred. So quite often you’ll find that the boxer short is blurred but not the head-shot wound. And of course there are no women in ISIS videos. That is why, I guess, Germany is not so much in the focus of these propaganda videos than would normally be the case. Chancellor and defense secretary are both women – Merkel and von der Leihen – and are therefore off limits to even the most brutal film director.

But the other side – the West – censors in regard of its political and moral agenda. In fact the way ISIS produces these videos is hard to counter for the West. We have grown used to these kinds of wars being invisible. Drones and fighter planes seemed the weapons of choice and even though everything was carefully recorded on video, the results were classified top secret and hidden from view. So the audience became accustomed to the fact that there is nothing interesting going on, because nothing was to be seen. That strategy served as the basis for this whole conflict, the way the West intended to fight it. Hide the whole operation and pretend you are just after the bad guys. What better way to avoid the issue of collateral damage than to hide the whole thing?

ISIS on the other hand, does not care about collateral damage. The more the better. Shock is part of its propaganda machine. Shock might play a role in the US strategy of drone strikes, but that shock should be felt locally. “Shock and Awe” – the term used by the US military – is a local strategy. ISIS wants its shock to be felt everywhere. And of course it is intriguing to young men – maybe the most important audience group for ISIS -, to watch HD videos shot by remote controlled drone directly over some Syrian battlefield. If music were not banned by their interpretation, I am quite sure that many of these clips were set to Wagner or death metal. It does look like a video game, because these videos are directly inspired by a video game aesthetics.

I see another resemblance with video games. Might be hard to describe, but the way these videos become more and more brutal and the killings more and more “creative”, reminds me of a game sequel or the next horror movie within a certain franchise. A few months ago it might have been cool enough to shoot a poor guy in the head, but now the target audience wants more. Otherwise they are going to switch to another channel. Now you need at least a shotgun, or better still, you need to run over a guy with a tank. Or maybe shoot someone from close up with a rocket launcher.

It would be absolutely wrong to blame video games for any of that violence. Anger does not come from video games. Nor did it come through movies or books before. Media teaches us the way to express ourselves. And different mediums teach us different things. It is quite easy for someone who has never played video games or watched action movies, to blame them for the hard-to-understand way young people act. But it would be much harder for them to link the media they themselves consumed to the way they act within society. Young men are just angry and awkward and if they express this anger, they express it in a way media they have consumed taught them. Let’s forbid all video games and have young guys beat themselves to death with books instead.

Let’s Talk about Failure

If there would be a classification system on my Blog already, this should be classified under “Stuff they never talked about at art school” – but so it appears to me, would be almost everything of importance. So what would be the point then.

Failure and it’s happy little brother success are in fact rarely talked about in art academia, but they are key to the live as an artist. Maybe success is sometimes mentioned, but failure is freakishly avoided. It seems just somehow implied, that success equals financial success on the art market. That then is something almost all people who make art will never achieve – including those who spend at least five or six years to do their MFA. And including those who spend tens of thousands of Dollars on tuition in other countries (aka the US).

Maybe not talking about failure in art school would be a method to protect ones own interests. Once you start talking about it, you might end up questioning your own existence. But that leaves a huge number of young artists leaving university annually with just one semi-official way to measure their success (or lack thereof). That could explain why so many artists stop making art, a few years after finishing art school. They count themselves as failures.

But that is strange. If asked, what art is all about, almost no one would reply that it’s arts first job to provide the artist with a good income. As a matter of fact, I would expect you to fail the entrance interview to art school if that would be your frankly voiced first answer.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that we all believe that we are amongst the chosen few. And that the others might fail, but since we are most talented, we are certainly to succeed. There are these stupid casting shows in the desolate ruins of what was once the TV market, that are playing with just that. We are all special and everyone has the right to dream – or not? But being an artist is not the same as participating in a few episodes of a casting show. Well it is funny to see, that there are even casting shows, that pretend to search for the next hot new artist. Being a one-hit-wonder might bring you some limited fame for a short period of time, but besides that, it won’t prevent you from failing.

I am very angry about the fact that this topic was avoided so vehemently in art school. The question of what success as an artist is, should be addressed from the first day on. And the funny thing is that there would be not one simple answer, but the outcome would be a set of tools for the artist to advance his or her work. The measure of success should be first and foremost the artists work itself. Is it relevant? And what makes this particular work relevant? Relevant to what or to whom? If one really insists, for some people it could even be the question of relevance towards the art market. But that then is just a niche.

Most work might fail that test too, that is because there is just not enough important stuff out there worth making art about – and maybe there is a lack of talent. That might be the case as well. But that does not keep people from producing irrelevant art in bulk. My gut feeling is, that this is somewhat related to the first problem. Too many young artists look at “shit that is been sold on the art market” to judge their own work. Since you are supposed to be successful on the market to be successful as an artist, it seems to be a good idea to follow the herd. But once the market fails its promise of salvation through purchase, you end up being a mere copycat. And that most certainly neither helps your ego nor keeps you motivated to go on with your artistic struggles.

The art market seems to be driven by a keen interest in money and not by any interest in the wonders of art. So valued is the stuff that has the potential of becoming more valuable. It is somewhat like trusting hedge-fonds in their judgment to decide which parts of our culture are most important. But oddly enough that seems to happen in the art world. An artist hyped by the art market has a high chance of being granted access to important museums. Quality of the work very often seems to be not so important. But then art students go to see the museum show and take “inspiration” for their own work to the studio. The art world clones itself.