Rene — Lazzarato — To See and Be Seen: A Micropolitics of the Image

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To See and Be Seen: A Micropolitics of the Image
Maurizio Lazzarato
How to explain the failure of the project for a European constitution? That’s what everyone would like to know. But the contemporary political landscape doesn’t even offer the beginnings of an answer.
An artistic project can help us to ask the question of Europe differently, and to explore its evolution in a space that goes beyond the old dream of European Enlightenment. In fact, the projected constitution still postulated the unity and identity of the European peoples, a dream that lasted until the late nineteenth century (up to Nietzsche, for example), and was still at the foundations of European policy during the postwar period.
Timescapes presents us with an entirely different landscape. By exploring a European project that extends all the way to Tajikistan and other countries of the former Soviet Union, by way of the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, Timescapes reveals a Europe that is not frozen into nation-states, but an evolving Europe, in the process of becoming, open toward China. This project calls for the construction of highway and rail infrastructures, the construction of pipelines to bring oil, and of infrastructures to bring information, images and sounds. Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, it claims to be a “new silk road.” Lacking any such evocative power, however, it’s more prosaically called “Trans Asian Highways.”
The transportation of commodities, of raw materials, of labor power and information from China to Europe: this is an ambitiously neocolonial capitalist project that rediscovers Bismark’s idea of constructing a rail corridor from Germany to the Orient (Berlin-Baghdad) but also continues the project of the “Highway of Fraternity” constructed by Tito’s communist youth, in order to link Europe to the southeastern countries.
The project is established on the basis of macro-political policies that imply relations between the European institutions and the governments of the countries traversed by these infrastructures. Timescapes, on the contrary, explores the evolution of this geopolitical space and of the populations living there from the departure points of the micro-political dynamics of emigration, the forced displacement of populations, the “diasporic movements” that millions of people are obliged to follow, whether inside the different countries (internal emigration) or to Europe (external emigration).
Working On or With?
Timescapes is a video project: it aims to see and make visible what is happening in this space at the confines of Europe. To see and make visible what the politicians and the media don’t see and don’t make visible, by reactualizing one of the potentials that cinema has never really fulfilled: not only seeing stories and making them visible, but seeing history and making it visible (even if here, unlike Godard’s cinema, it is the “process,” what is in the midst of happening, that the camera seeks to grasp and explore).
The departure-point of the project is the “rehearsal” of the trip that Angela Melitopoulos, who is at the initiative of Timescapes, has taken every summer with her family and thousands of other immigrants (Greeks, Turks, Yugoslavs, etc.). A trip from Germany to Greece, the country of her father, by the pathways that are now the object of the Trans Asian project.
Angela Melitopoulos had two possibilities. Either produce images “on” this geopolitical space and “on” its populations, by carrying out a film with the most traditional methods: traveling around with her personal viewpoint, armed with a camera-eye, following the traces of the “diasporic movements,” exploring and filming the things and people that are involved in or excluded by the transformations shaking up these “landscapes,” etc. Or not working “on,” but working “with”: that is, confronting the choice of themes, the style of filming, the manners of linking one image to another, with the choices, styles and manners of other video-makers who live and work along these “corridors.”
Seeing reality with her own camera-eye and/or also seeing it with the camera-eyes of others implies very different productive devices (dispositifs). In the first case, the other is simply there to be observed. In this way one repeats a well-known and recurrent posture of the Western cultures toward the other: observation, meticulous description in order to catalogue and establish hierarchical orders. The observation can be both understanding and suspicious, benevolent or dominating, but that’s not what matters. Whether s/he is under the gaze of the anthropologist, the filmmaker (politicized or not), the television or the tourist, the other is always in the same position: in front of the camera, seen, observed, catalogued.
The approach of working “with” implies that the image must be “negotiated,” constructed with the “other.” It becomes the object of a confrontation, a dissensual process; it comes to form one of the stakes of the project.
Choosing this second approach, A.M. decided to involve a video artist from Belgrade (who works on the postwar situation in Serbia), a filmmaker from Athens (who uses both fiction and documentary to film a square at the base of the Acropolis that serves as a meeting-place for migrants arriving from Iran, Iraq, etc.) and a group of video activists from Ankara (who organize film projects on the forced internal migrations of the Kurds and Turks).
This is not to say that the first choice would be illegitimate or impracticable. But the second requires an openness to political and aesthetic experimentation, to the test of reality, to confrontations with heterogeneous perceptual, sensible and political experiences.
The Micro-Media Device
To explore micropolitical dynamics and to see them, one must construct a micro-media device. To explore and to see a multiplicity of forces, to confront the camera-gazes of others, one must have a device for pluralistic production and editing. The mode of production of an image is not insignificant for its results (as Walter Benjamin points out).
Timescapes is an electronic platform, a micro-network that allows both the sharing of all the images taken and the circulation of the edits done by the participants of the project. The network constitutes an electronic archive (a database) from which everyone can draw, both in order to see and to work with the images of the others.
The construction of the device is not simply a technological precondition of the project. New methods of production of the image require us to see new aspects of visible reality, and new aspects of visible reality cannot be perceived and enter our horizon of sense if there are no new means to establish them. The two things are strictly linked to each other.
In our society, technical devices are conceived and commercialized as means of communication. The Timescapes platform was not conceived and fabricated as a simple instrument for the transmission of information, images and sounds, between situation A and situation B. The relations (social, aesthetic and political) between different situations or individuals are not given in advance, fixed and immutable, but are in formation, in a continual process of change and becoming. The relations are not transmitted, but are constructed and created in and through the technical device.
The machinic assemblage must, in a sense, be reinvented, in order to bring forth the unexploited potentials of the images and their relations. The technologies and not only the images must enter a process of singularization to escape their mass-media “destiny” (standardized communication) and to open up to the construction of processes of subjectivization.
In A.M.’s view, there are a multiplicity of heterogeneous expressive materials in the image, a superimposition of semiotic layers, a co-existence of discursive and non-discursive assemblages. The image contains a plurality of strata, of affects, meanings, events: in it, several levels of reality and several “flows of consciousness” meet. These different semiotic strata are all component parts, they are all partial articulators of subjectivity.
The device allows one to see and to understand what there is in the images of the others, that is to say, what there is in their subjectivity. To read what the “other” has selected and isolated from the visible continuum, to confront his or her way of assembling images, opens up new potentials, new relations. “I feel and I see other things. But I also feel and see that I cannot read the images with my codes and my representational schemata, because I do not know their space/time, their off-screen, what comes before and what comes after, the moment and the reasons that triggered the camera, etc. The other can refuse my reading, say ‘no, that’s not it,’ and then I am obliged to confront other ways ways of feeling and seeing.”
Thus there is preliminary work to be done on “representation” and on subjectivity.
The meetings between the authors are a way of testing out different models of subjectivity, since each one is constituted by a cartography consisting of cognitive benchmarks, but also mythical, political and affective ones. They are heterogeneous. To produce a “negotiated” image means producing a new subjectivity, it means involving and mobilizing these cartographies of subjectivity, risking them and confronting them with the “gaze” of the others.
Timescapes sets up devices that include working methods and modes of being, instead of limiting itself to producing “concrete” works. It also uses the time of the experiment as a material. The “work” thereby appears as a universe and as a vector of “polyphonic” subjectivation.
Society of the Image or Society of Clichés?
We live in a world where images proliferate, but where their mode of production is not problematized. It’s just assumed as something obvious, self-evident. The fact that there are a few hundred persons producing images for millions of spectators (whether in the case of a film or a nightly news show) is serenely accepted.
In reality, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the rich, developed West find themselves in the situation of the “other.” We are all regarded by images, which in reality are “clichés,” produced by processes of filming and editing that tend toward automatization and standardization. We submit, without realizing it, to a kind of internal colonization.
One needn’t go looking for Big Brother in some system of surveillance or control. He is to be found in the average TV show and the most normal product of the movie industry, or the most up-beat commercial.
Clichés are closed images, images closed in on themselves, without margins, without virtuality, without rough edges you can hang on to. There is nothing vague, nothing problematic about them. They are images without movement, even though they flicker. They are violent images, even though they are peaceful (what’s more “innocent” than an advertising image?), since they must be entirely accepted or entirely rejected. There is nothing that overflows from them. They are perfect images – in the technical sense – produced by “the professionals of the profession.” Many of the problems that Western culture encounters in its meetings with the “others” derive from the violence of the “either-or” that these images convey: either adherence or refusal, either integration or exclusion.
But the power of the cliché doesn’t stop short at the borders of a project, even if it is a micropolitical one. In the manner of seeing and representing the other (whether in a Western gaze or in the gaze of those who do not belong to the West), the clichés crop up very quickly, and one must to work on the image to neutralize their power of totalization and closure. This is an ethical and political question whose urgency has been fully measured by Timescapes, through the confrontation with their reproduction inside the project itself.
A Device for Events
A great number of questions emerge from the experimental work of Timescapes. How to make the image a vector of subjectivation and not something passively represented? How to withdraw the preverbal and verbal expressive components of image and sound from the totalizing and universalizing closure of clichés? How to bring forth the relation, the event that constitutes them? A relation with others, a relation with the world, with memory, with time… In other words, how to explore and show the world’s potential for events, how to capture and make visible the possibilities it holds? The platform of Timescapes constitutes a device for events, to discover and use the power of event-creation that exists in the image and in the relations between images.
To give an account of the project’s working method, Angela Melitopoulos uses an idea suggested to her by the Turkish group Videa, about the Oriental way of telling stories. In the oral tradition of the Orient, the departure point of a story is given by a series of disjointed images: a tree, a well, a girl, an evil-looking man, a knife. This independent series of images calls up a story, a sequence which is an encounter (an event). But other linkages, other edits, other “worlds” are possible. We then have another series of images having nothing to do with the first: a city, a marketplace, a poor peasant, a rich merchant, etc. Their interlinkage constitutes a different series. The two series are independent, but their encounter causes the stories to advance, to diverge (this is exactly the way modern philosophers speak of the event).
The meetings of images, their relations, and their interlinkage into series are what bring about the story. It doesn’t exist beforehand, it doesn’t unfold according to a plan or a script. To tell a tale is to follow it, to be available and open to the event of an encounter between images, and between independent series of images.
For A.M. this is also the best way to make a documentary and particularly a documentary about minorities, since their way of acting doesn’t unfold according to a plan written out in advance, but by seizing possibilities, meetings, grasping the event-potential of the world.
The movement of migrants doesn’t happen in a linear way, but as events: one encounters someone or something and these meetings open up possibilities; one begins to travel, other meetings happen, the paths diverge, etc. It’s not a linear way of acting, organized in advance.
Telling a story means remaining in the flux of becoming where something happens: it means assembling, connecting images to discover unpredictable, untimely relations.
We can take another lesson from the experience of Timescapes: specific aspects of reality can only be understood in relation with specific methods that serve to express it.
Weaving and Knots
In Passing Drama A.M. had already shown that the electronic image of video is very different from the filmic image. To speak of this she used the beautiful metaphor of weaving. The electronic image is not an impression of light on a chemical medium (the film), but an interweaving of the threads (flows of light) which make up the universe. The images are the place where the different threads (relations) entangle and mingle, where they sketch out a refrain, curling in on themselves. The constitute the knots of the fabric. The work of the video artist, like that of the weaver, is to weave and reweave flows of light with a particular kind of loom (a camera and an electronic editing table).
Passing Drama was already a device that allowed for the telling of non-linear tales on the basis of an archival reserve of a multiplicity of expressive components (flows of images, sounds, words, temporalities, speeds). Here, in the installation project, she trusts even further in the dynamics of the event that brings about encounters between independent series. The relations between the different components of expression are no longer fixed by the editing. Through the installation that deploys the different components of expression in space, she lets the flows of images and sounds approach each other and withdraw into the distance, she lets the temporalities and the speeds appear and disappear. The weaving is vaguer, looser. It leaves more space for the co-creation of the viewer, the “beholder” (regardeur).
The Continuity and Discontinuity of the Universe
The geopolitical space of the project appears as a discontinuous universe. Yugoslavia’s dissolution and Serbia’s isolation, the new function of Greece in Europe – its shift from a country of emigration to a destination for Iraqi, Iranian and other immigrants – the enclosure of Turkey with its internal emigration piling up in the poorest quarters of Istanbul for want of any European exit, the conditions of second-generation immigrants torn between two cultures: all these things and more sketch out the cartography of a fractured, fragmented, discontinuous world.
The different participants in the project film these things, showing them and making the relations between them visible. But the viewpoints, the things and the relations do not partake of the same experience, of the same universe (the universe of the West, which takes itself for universal).
Timescapes suggests that there are two ways to work on composition, on being-together, on the combinations of these discontinuities. By totalization and universalization, as in the European megaproject, or by a logic that traces out lines, connections, continuities between singularities, without enclosing them in a whole.
The universe of minorities, of diasporic movements, is not a “bloc-universe” where things and beings converge on a totality, but a “mosaic-universe,” an archipelago-universe.
It is an unfinished and incomplete universe whose reality can only be known from nearby, by addition, by the collection of parts and pieces, by the interweaving of flows and knots. A universe where composition has to follow the cartography of singularities, of little worlds, and of the different degrees of unity that animate it.
An additive world whose sum total is never reached and which “grows here and there,” thanks not to the action of a universal subject, but to the scattered contributions of heterogeneous singularities. In this world of the incomplete, of the possible, where newness and knowledge appear in spots, at places, in flakes, individuals and singularities (and not only collective or universal subjects) can truly act and know.
The “absolute and complete” modes of unification and the modes of pluralist composition refer back to the majority and minority logics whereby Deleuze and Guattari define politics in the modern societies.
The project has revealed that cooperation (between the authors) in building an image is not something given in advance, but something to be constructed. Multiplicity must be asserted, but by using minor forms of knowledge and technique and by inventing junctions and disjunctions that construct combinations which are always singular, contingent and not totalizing…
The Europe of Minorities
What the European project lacks are exactly these minor knowledges of composition and rupture, of invention and repetition. It is stuck in totalizing and universalizing conceptions of politics, shared by the proponents as well as the opponents of the European constitution.
A territory is a stratification and sedimentation of movements, of flows, of semiotics. It is made of relations, of junctions and disjunctions, of arrivals and departures, of hybridization and linkage. Prolonging the textile metaphor of Angela Melitopoulos, we could say that the territory is a patchwork. European space does not escape this rule. The migratory and diasporic movements are constitutive of this space, for many many years. Europe’s constitutional dynamics ignores them, scorns them, takes no account of them. Only the minorities work on these connections, enrich these hybridizations, weave relations between singularities. Beneath the linear representation of history, one must learn to recognize the dynamics of events that constitutes minorities. This is the reality that Timescapes makes visible, at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.