Session 4: Poor Images & Precarious Aesthetics

  • Blurred Boundaries and Precarious Mediation in Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y.

Arild Feitveit

A new blurring of documentary boundaries is over the last decades added to the much discussed, but still poorly elucidated, boundary between documentary and fiction, namely that between documentary and art. In this paper I will interrogate and compare these border zones through a critical engagement with Johan Grimonprez’ film Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y, which provided one of the watershed moments in this history as it was first shown in Documenta, Kassel, in 1997.
Theoretically this involves thinking about what fiction is as well as what art is – two realms that both combine a sense of historical continuity with an element of historical contingency and variability. Especially as it comes to the notion art, this variability has taken on monumental force with modernism and all its –isms. But also fiction is a term we need to interrogate rather than take for granted.
Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y, which will be contextualized with reference to other works of relevance, provides a particular negotiation of these blurred boundaries, by not only instantiating fictional and documentary traits successfully in a major art institution, but also by aggressively blurring its own images and sounds in momentary break downs and collapses to its mediation, rendering its mediation process uncertain and liable to fail. Thus, it does not only employ precarious mediation, but also uses this strategically in an early instantiation of what now increasingly appears as a precarious aesthetic. How then does this precarious aesthetic help articulate and negotiate the double blurring the film accomplishes of the boundaries of art and fiction, and what can we learn about the present positioning and developments of the documentary through interrogating this?
-T.J. Demos. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, Durham and London: Duke University Press
-Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York, Harcourt, 1958.
-Bill Nichols, Blurred Boundaries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
-Maria Lind, Hito Steyerl (Eds.) The Greenroom  Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1, New York: Sternberg Press, 2008.
-Johan Grimonprez, Slavoj Žižek, Don DeLillo, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Vrääth Oehner, Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. Ostfildern/Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2003.
Arild Fetveit is associate professor in the Department for Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen. He has published in the field of reception studies, reality TV, convergence, medial noise, music video and digitalization of film and photography as well as written a dissertation on the discursive possibilities between documentary and fiction film. He is currently directing the research project The Power of the Precarious Aesthetic.
  • Drone Visions: Precarious Life, Precarious Aesthetic

Øyvind Vågnes

In describing the art of the years after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, as well as the cultural moment a decade later, Hal Foster in 2009 suggested that both were characterized by a « precarious condition, » and that much contemporary art attempts to manifest, and even exacerbate, a sense of « heightened insecurity. » Echoing Judith Butler’s reflections on what she described as « precarious life » a few years earlier, Foster described the artistic response to a geopolitical condition of perpetual war.
This paper will explore how this concept of precariousness also can be said to reflect back on aesthetic and stylistic choices in a selection of recent art works that are both self-reflexive and marked by a political and ethical urgency. Trevor Paglen, Omer Fast, George Barber, James Bridle, and Tomas van Houtryve all trouble the boundaries between documentary and artistic practice; my talk will consider the various ways in which these artists have engaged critically with the rise of drones and with militarized vision and violence in their work. Armed drones are « very precise and very limited in terms of collateral damage, » then-director of the CIA Leon Panetta stated in 2009. But as John Kaag and Sarah Kreps observe, « as weaponry becomes more precise, the language of warfare has become more ambigious »: « technology itself (the physical stuff or robotic warfare) is neither smart nor dumb, moral nor immoral. It can be used more or less precisely, but precision and efficiency are not inherently morally good. »

In various ways, the works I will look at all challenge the rhetoric of precision, and pin techno-cultural concepts against ethical concepts in the way that they employ a precarious aesthetic. What Harun Farocki has described as « operative images » – « images that do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation » – are infused with moral ambiguity, as the relation between representation and represented is rendered precarious in what Derek Gregory calls « the individuation of killing », or what Butler would describe as the taking of « precarious life. »


-Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

-Grégoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone (New York: New Press, 2015). -Harun Farocki, « Phantom Images », Public, 29 (2004).

-Hal Foster, « Precarious », Art Forum, December 2009.

-Derek Gregory, The Everywhere War (forthcoming).

-John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, Drone Warfare (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

Øyvind Vågnes (PhD 2007), a writer, scholar and journal editor, currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship with the research project The Power of the Precarious Aesthetic. He has published widely on visual culture; among his most recent publications are « Lessons from the Life of an Image: Malcolm Browne’s Photograph of Thich Quang Duc’s Self-Immolation », in Frances Guerin, ed., On Not Looking: The Paradox of Contemporary Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2015), and Zaprudered: The Kennedy Assassination Film in Visual Culture (University of Texas Press, 2011), which received honorable mention at the American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in 2012.


  • Želimir Žilnik. Against status quo, an « anesthetic » idea of Cinema

Sylvie Rollet

Želimir Žilnik (who has some fifty films to his credit) practices for forty years an experimental form of politically and socially engaged cinema. His critical attitude towards the socialist regime of former Yugoslavia has continued, after its collapse, against the nationalism of the 1990s, and today against economic liberalism.
The whole Želimir Žilnik’s work rests at the junction between fiction and documentary. His “fictional realism” allows the analysis of an otherwise inaccessible reality. Based on real-life situations treated as “ready-made”, his films are not just a “status record”: they move the reality by inserting it in a fictional context (and at first, the one of the shooting). It allows him to bring out the political conflicts that recover the “status quo”. His documentary practice so associates observation and intervention. His characters – generally marginalized or outcast – (re) play their own lives, choosing to offer us the image of themselves that they wish to give as well as their point of view onto the world.
If the reality requires the fiction to appear, it is inconsistent with the purely aesthetic enjoyment, but also with the revolutionary as well as humanistic idealism. It’s the reason why Želimir Žilnik’s style is radically “anesthetic” and brutally ironic against preconceived ideas. It’s not thus a militant cinema, it does not claim to achieve “the” reality, it does not seek to mobilize the audience for a cause: it tries only to give us to think. It is up to us to turn that thought into action.

Sylvie Rollet is a Professor in Film Studies at the University of Poitiers (she previously taught at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University) and jointly responsible for « Theaters of Memory », an interuniversity research program on the relationship between moving images and memory. On filmic representation of historical traumas of the twentieth century, she has recently published Une éthique du regard : le cinéma face à la Catastrophe, d’Alain Resnais à Rithy Panh (Hermann, 2011), and co-edited two collections of essays : Paysages et Mémoire : cinéma, photographie, dispositifs (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2014) Théâtres de la mémoire, mouvement des images (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010). Her research is devoted, in particular, to the works of Hungarian, Russian, Caucasian and Balkan filmmakers.


  • Lecture by Emmanuelle Léonard

The artist Emmanuelle Leonard will present some of their photographic works which all develop documentary strategies fitted to their specific subject, capable to avoid some interdictions or to twist certain functions of the photographic image. Statistical Landscape (2004) increases the number of the authors to propose an artistic representation of the employment situation in the city of Toronto, through individual point of view. Guardia, resguárdeme (2005) causes a collision between two different devices of surveillance (a camera and a guardian), in the streets of Mexico: their function decreases to make appear scenes of the ordinary life. For Homicide, détenu vs détenu – Archives du Palais de Justice de la Ville de Québec (2010), the police-related photography and its evidence function has been subtracted for presenting a new testimony on life in prison. In La motivation (2010), students in the police school of Finland tell us why they want to become a policeman or, in La providence (2014) holy sisters from Montreal imagine the future. The both present some video portraits, created with a typological structure to make appear the specificity of everyone and the tensions between what they say and what is said.

Emmanuelle Léonard is born in 1971 in Montréal, where she lives and works. She is graduated of Concordia University and the UQAM – University of Québec in Montréal. Her work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions, such as at the MACM – Museum of Contemporary Art, Montréal;   à la Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Kunsthaus Dresden, Germany; Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, Germany; Optica, Montréal; VOX – Contemporary image center, Montréal; Mercer Union, Toronto; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Gallery 44, Toronto;  France; Le Mois de la Photo, Montréal (2001); L’Œil de Poisson, Québec City; Expression – Contemporary Art Event of St-Hyacinthe.

She took part in The Québec Triennial at the MACM – Montréal Museum of Contemporary Art (2011) and her work was included in the exhibition À Montréal, quand l’image rôde, curated by Louise Déry at Le Fresnoy – National Contemporary Arts Studio, Tourcoing, France (2013). She has been awarded residencies at Villa Arson, Nice, France; the Christoph Merian Foundation, Basel, Switzerland; the Finnish Artists’ Studio Foundation, Espoo, Finland. Emmanuelle Léonard was the recipient of the Pierre-Ayot Award (2005). She also was nominated for the Grange Prize, AGO – Art Gallery of Ontario (2012) and was a finalist for the first Contemporary Art Award of the MNBAQ – Québec National Museum of Fine Arts (2013) and for the Louis-Comtois Award (2014).

Her work is actually presented in the BNLMTL 2014 – The Montréal Biennal, curated by Peggy Gale, Gregory Burke, Lesley Johnstone and Mark Lanctôt and in the exhibition Bande à part / Kids these days, curated by Zoë Chan, Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Lennoxville. She teaches photography at Sherbrooke University.


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