EssaysFeatureThe Radical Imagination

(un-)imaging

Or: why the blank page is a lure in imagining the new

Note: the video-artwork “Foyer” by Ismail Bahri (discussed in this text) will be made available for a free online screening along with an interview of the filmmaker for two weeks, starting from the publication date on Public Seminar.

In a dark room, projected onto a wall, we see the hands of a man, dressed in black, on a wooden table. In crisp detail, we see him holding a page from a magazine, with some advertisement on it. Slowly, the page is being crumpled, we hear the whispers of a plain surface turning into a ball, only to be unfolded again, at the same pace. This folding and unfolding is calmly repeated. At each instance we see ink evaporating, progressively, floating in the air, resting on the palms. The flattened gloss and glitter of the page dwindles, becoming grainy, colors fading under the pressure of the fingers. Each unfolding shows the traces of its submission to the forces of a body, folding lines appearing like wrinkles on a face, transforming the formerly flat gloss into a landscape, with hills and valleys. We see the vanishings of ink, transmutations of color into dusty clouds with a pale dye hanging above a muddy white scenery, darker and darker stains on the palms, traces of transforming repetitions. What appeared as evident and immediate, the ad on the page, the supposedly everlasting beauty of its image, was confronted with that which it appears to negate, corporeality and time, that is, history. The almost meditative character of the hand’s pace gives Ismail Bahri’s work Revers a resting intensity, a meditative sturdiness countering the image with and through images. That which colonizes our imagination, that which stirs our desire and channels it into the given structures, is here not deconstructed in a move of exposing its falsities. Rather, it is presented with its gaps, brought into a sphere where its shortcomings are not called upon, but actively, calmly, rendered present.

On overflow

In a time of immediacy, impatience and constant imperatives to imagine (as long as the imagined stays within the given), Revers can be seen as an attempt at unimagining, a term that is the focus of this essay. For indeed, how are we to imagine, in our dystopian disjunctive present, a future different from an accelerated escalation of the already right-at-hand tendencies of our times, with sleeker surfaces and accrued injustice? Politics, as a practice shaping the future, relies to some extent on imagination, be it manifest or latent. The editors of this series draw attention to the need of a radical imagination as a means to “challenge […] dystopias” (Komporozos-Athaniasou & Bottici, 2017). Eight years ago, the book Capitalist Realism (Fisher, 2009) claimed it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Perhaps this is the less the case nowadays, after the fad of the Mayan doomsday passed in 2012 and a current US-presidency conjuring specters of nuclear destruction that might make us aware for the need to imagine anew. However, Fisher’s diagnosis points to the difficulty of channelling such imaginaries: when advertising is drawing on the aesthetics of protest to promote Pepsi, when past utopias stir up the bitter taste of blood and today’s billboards have appropriated queer aesthetics, how can we imagine a change for the better?[1] Are we to strip our imagination of its historical baggage? Is the idea of an ahistorical imagination not itself a myth tied to a notion of omnipotence?

Unimagining, I claim, is a necessary step towards re-imagining. However, it cannot simply be a cessation of imagining, but rather, a certain modality of it. If radical imaginations are complex constellations of concepts and images, unimagining must thereby behave towards them in a certain way instead of wholly refusing them, by negating specific aspects of them while retaining others. Unfortunately, however, analyzing revolts and their images might be a dead end for our conceptual endeavor, for they are not separable from the context in which they arise. In fact, the image-production is in that case not necessarily steered by the rebels, but rather fueled by a journalistic gaze aiming to obsessively depict, striving for viewership. This gaze does not refrain from the impulse to place what is captured into pictorial traditions, be they the lonely martyr, the bereft child or the crying woman. Instead of looking at empirical events and their symbolization, I suggest turning towards contemporary art instead. As a conscious practice of imagining and symbolizing within a framework that is a priori differentiated from the political, contemporary art could offer insights into what a practice of unimagining could look like and what it implies. Taking a look at contemporary art requires, however, that we clarify the meaning of the “contemporary.”

Presents and beginnings

Calling artworks “contemporary” does not, however, indicate their having been produced recently or to them being close to us chronologically. Rather, it signals a coming together of multiple times that are equally present; it is, following Peter Osborne, “the concept of the contemporary projects a single historical time of the present, as a living present: a common, albeit internally disjunctive, present historical time of human lives.” (Osborne, 2012, p. 22) In other words, we create a unity of the differing and contradictory times we live in, creating a common notion of history that unites very different historical perspectives coexisting at once. Needless to say, the notion of the contemporary is problematic because it lies beyond possible experience, it is a hypothesis, it assumes a unity not given in the moment, a claim that can only be verified a posteriori. Indeed, the “contemporary” could be considered utopian insofar as it projects a future that can only be judged as accurate in retrospect. It is a fiction wrapping something fleeting in a conjuncture, like a photographic image annihilates temporality, presenting itself instantaneously. Yet the problems of the concept of the contemporary are not just temporal, but also spatial, for the term presupposes some sort of global contemporaneity, while the meaning of the contemporary is very different depending on where it has been formulated, in a geographical sense: the US might not have the same understanding of what the contemporary is than Russia, for instance. Yet the concept of the contemporary also projects a task of bringing together differentials as differentials, of making sense of the disjunctive multiplicities in a globalized political sphere.

Thus my suggestion to turn to contemporary art is not simply an invitation for thinkers to walk into a museum and turn away from books, but, rather, to develop a critical account of the concept of the contemporary and engage with those works that can provide frames for pondering the question of our time. That means reflecting on the imaginations that fill it, imaginations that themselves imagine, spinning fictions that could provide answers to help us deal with that which ought-not-be but nevertheless, and unquestionably, is.

In times of image-saturation (“don’t forget to follow me on Instagram”), contemporary art in the critical sense acts like a suggestion for dealing with said overflow, cutting through it and, precisely in making such a cut through the images, sounds and discourses of our time, makes the conscious decision to leave something out, allowing for a space on the other side, unmarked, where a new imagination can constitute itself.

Reformulations

In Revers, the supposed timelessness of the images abounding in our societies, drawing our gazes with their ethereal gloss, the standstill they signify, is actively processed, manipulated and transformed. We are left with a grey-white landscape of paper, inviting us to make sense of it, to treat it precisely as something that calls upon our own sense-making and allows it. It shows the slow decomposition of a given suggestion, only rendered apparent in the process of its mutation, in the ink detaching from the sheet and scintillating in the air, in the creases appearing more and more on that which once was flat. The labour of the hands, along with its accomplice, time, allows us to reach a space no longer fixed and given, but full of potentialities. This space is not empty, it is not a blank slate, it bears history.

Perhaps only by acknowledging this, that not everything is always possible at any given moment, can we start to imagine something different. Here I don’t mean generally different, or different from everything, but specifically in a way that renders experimentation and action possible in a different way. The blank slate is a lure, it is equally flat, it suggests that we can do anything with it, that we could draw whichever figure. But, in a world that is precisely not blank, which bears the traces of history, could it be right?

What would unimagining mean, then, in this case? Firstly, it implies working with and through what is given, for even the given. The seemingly natural bears a history, just like we have been shaped through time. Secondly, unimagining implies the introduction of something else into the given, like the steady agency of the hands, repeatedly crumpling and unfolding. Thirdly, it requires repetition, not as mere re-instantiation, but as a progressively rendering of the past as an actual agent in the present, not through a violent repetition, but in the renewed disconcertion of the present through re-enactment.

Unimagining is therefore a creative act that frees a space in which the imagination can start anew, not on a blank slate, but on a reformulated landscape in which the formerly “given” is less probable and cannot simply be returned to, just like watching the looped Revers, in which a glance at the intact magazine page will no longer be the same. One can never completely avoid returning to what is given, but that which is given might no longer be “given” in the same way, it is enriched with the potentiality that it negates, even if that potentiality is a mere glimpse.

However, it is crucial that unimagining itself relies on something, that it leaves traces or artifacts, that it is recorded; otherwise one could not build anything upon it. As stated before, unimagining is itself an act of the imagination. Let us look at yet another video-work, Ismail Bahri’s Foyer, to emphasize certain points before turning to the relation between unimagining and imagining.

Seismometers of change

Foyer, a 31-minute video piece, was filmed in Tunis in 2014 and 2015, shortly after the country’s transition to democracy. The pace is slow and yet, one is drawn into a trance-like state of concentration — precisely because one does not see anything precise, but not nothing, one lets the eye roam across the screen and focus on the sounds, on the voices. Just like the wind is a sort of cameraman, it is up to us to make something of the voices, of the words, separated from the bodies out of which they emerge. The gaze is captured by the dances of light, instead of becoming affixed to people, suspended in mid-air, allowing for a different state of experience. The poetics of the formal experiment are equally hindered by the questioning of the artist’s position and by the questions of the point of the work. In French, says Bahri, the title can refer to a fire in a home, a place around which people dwell to speak. There is indeed a strange intimacy to the film, a surface upon which things are projected while transformed into flickerings of white, turning into a vibratory surface which allows us to look onto a place already routinely captured by news-outlets, without it being turned into a dramatic event, without it being reduced into the usual news-sections. In veiling the screen, other veilings are lifted. The camera, says Bahri, becomes sensible — a Seismometer — capturing infinitesimal vibrations where it is placed.

The screen shows a sun-drenched white. Topical, fuzzy stains of blue and clear-white abound, moving around on the screen like shimmers on water. We hear street noises, distant car horns, fading roarings. The image flickers, occasionally revealing sun and tarmac around the lower edges. A piece of paper has been placed in front of the camera. People come by, speaking Tunisian Arabic and ask the filmmaker what he’s doing. They question his role, whether he is an artist or studying for film school, they wonder what he is filming. He tells them he is studying light – a formalist experiment with paper shutters. The shades of fingers sometimes appear behind the paper, people talk about color perceptions, sometimes even mock the artist, while rhythmic pulsations abound on the screen, children come by, inquiring whether the film will be shown in a cinema, “Can you see anything? No I can’t see anything” goes their conversation as they look through the lens, before their voices disappear, the screen still flickering, street noises continuing.. “What kind of message are you trying to convey?” is a topic of discussion of the passers-by. The street noises increase, chatter in the streets crosses our field of hearing. After several conversations with people, Policemen arrive, inquiring what is being filmed. At the station, he explains his experiment to them. The screen goes black but the soundtrack goes on. They discuss the experiment, ask the artist where he lives and discuss the situation in Tunisia, their fears of a democratic spring turning into an abyss before releasing him. The screen turns white again, we are back on the streets. On the screen there is a flickering of grey, white and blue. New passers come by, and we notice we are on the shore (of a canal as we learn later). A group of friends question his position, what he does. “Facebook afterwards? Can you see this on facebook?“ asks one of them before another leans in, claiming the film is a great idea and worth exhibiting – “what is there to understand?” The discussion then centers on the artist’s position as a Tunisian, claiming he’s already too far away from the country as he is not bothered by all the questions of an unemployed youth, then plunging into the water, screaming “Action!” several times, “Action!”, and then “Cut!” We hear the sound of splashes, shadows moving on the screen, shortly revealing part of the shore in the evening light before turning black.

What is being unimagined here? A first answer might be cinema itself, a landscape for dreams, narratives and abounding colors, meticulously cut, framed and arranged. Along with it, we might unimagine that certain gaze, presenting what it captures in a matter-of-fact way, exhibiting and exposing objects to be arranged in series of images, catalogued in fleeting arrangements. Then, one might add the unimagining of the position of the artist as producer of a certain truth, a truth that is vigorously questioned by the captured voices. Then follows the position of the cameraman (the wind playing a major role) and its potential hunger to capture, a hunger so questioned by the policemen. On yet another level, one can speak of an unimagining of a social and political environment, of a news-casted spring and its aftermaths.

In Foyer, we start with a white sheet on the screen, but, as the film tells us, it cannot hold up to the world that hides behind it, sounds and noises seep in, unplanned commenters abide (influencing the light shed on the page that we see, but also outside of the frame, through their voices). The blank sheet in front of the camera negates our longing for objects and allows us to focus on the rest. Unimagining, as Foyer highlights, is not a purely unrestricted practice, in fact, it can even be methodical, as long as one grasps that no method is a manual, but rather a guideline that needs to be modified if the object requires it. Here, what started out as a formalist experiment ends up being a portrait of its time. The white sheet is a lure: by placing it in this context, we are shown how it only gains in value through its position within the world, through those things behind it. The stirring shades of white are, for a moment, the only things for the eye to latch onto. At the end of the film however, one feels as if one could shape them, as if their indefinite movement and their blurriness was just temporary – we are ready to imagine. In this sense, Foyer can be read as inviting us to unimagine, to imagine a new afterwards. Creation and cessation are here shown as intertwined: we never start from scratch, but what we have to work with might also not be enough: much like Revers, Foyer highlights the importance of practice, of manipulation, of the position one needs to place oneself in to unimagine. Foyer goes further, however. One might almost say that the white landscape that has been crumpled in Revers, is now in front of the camera, serving as a surface to both unimagine, in so far as we have nothing to latch onto, but also to imagine anew, as we can focus on what happens behind it in our own theatre of shadows. Instead of silence, we have urban white noise, instead of a story we have encounters, instead of an all-knowing artist we discover the filmmaker as a part of and subject to his practice. In doing so, the work frees itself from both delusions of grandeur: the one of the camera and its gaze, and the one of the author and his power, leaving its own journey to be unravelled before fading to black.

In English, the word “foyer” also means a space for waiting and for entering, and indeed, one might claim something becomes possible here after we accept that we won’t see anything clear on the screen — that the border of the screen becomes vibratory, sensible, skin-like — that in inhabiting this space, in doing something, its pores might let the new seep through.

Unimagining is context-dependent, it is a practice with no universal solution, for it depends on that which is to be unimagined. Unimagining is bound to history, bound to time. It tries to open up a space in the all-too probable, it switches the necessary and the contingent around until, like dancers, figures can be drawn around them. It is a careful, repeated suspension, a working-through what is for what could be. Unimagining allows us to imagine, not in general, but in a specific now, a now that, for once, refer to more than just the date on our calendar: a now-ness that might refer to the quality of contemporaneity. While this notion retains a certain fuzziness, we should attribute this to the white-noise-character of unimagining itself. White noise allows for the experience of silence as silence, precisely by not being silent. There is no manual for unimagining, but we might consider artworks such as the two discussed here as scores, as invitations to interpret, and to take part.

Pierre Schwarzer recently joined the NSSR for graduate studies in Philosophy, researching transformations of subjectivity with regards to the digital through Aesthetics, Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis. He is also curating various conceptual art projects with his collective, the latest being “warehouse”, an ethnographic archive of digital distribution.

Cited works:

Bahri, I. (Director). (2016). Foyer [Motion Picture].

Bahri, I. (Director). (2016-2017). Revers [Motion Picture].

Didi-Huberman, G. (2016). Soulèvements. Paris: Gallimard.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism. London: Zero Books.

Komporozos-Athaniasou, A., & Bottici, C. (2017, June 2). The Radical Imagination. Retrieved from Public Seminar.

Osborne, P. (2012). Anywhere or Not at All. London: Verso.

Footnotes:

[1] An excellent study on protest images can be found in (Didi-Huberman, 2016)

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Pierre Schwarzer

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