Monday, 10 January 2011

Mental Images

Alt Wien 1908, © Gert Jan Kocken

During the past several decades, contemporary artists have asked critical questions about the way in which history is constructed through images, particularly those that are disseminated by the mass media. As the media has increasingly assumed the role of historiographer, there is a danger of losing the diversity of our historical narratives. Add to this the globalization of our culture, and we are faced with a potential dulling of our collective historical awareness. In reaction to this, contemporary artists are asking increasingly critical questions about the way in which the representation of the past is constructed. The attention paid to history among visual artists, photographers, filmmakers and other image producers may indeed be nothing new, but in 'Mental Images' Frank van der Stok focusses on ways in which contemporary visual artists, photographers and filmmakers construct innovative historical narratives that challenge prevailing historical narratives.

There are too many images. The good thing is that the growing visibility of so many images greatly broadens our view of the world. But whether it also deepens it is highly questionable. If we can assume that visual culture is equivalent to the passive consumption of images, the danger lurks that a broader view may also be a shallower one. In other words, the quantitative pressure to produce images threatens the quality of those images at every stage in their production. Little can be done, however, to combat the regime of visibility; an insatiable hunger for images has taken firm root in our ways of seeing, thinking, and behaving, and this hunger is an integral part of the current 'Zeitgeist', in which all social and economic patterns and models - including visual culture - are centred on consumption. But from the perspective of the individual consumer of images, it is certainly possible to develop a mindset of gradual disengagement from our over-visualized surroundings.

Personally, I have become sensitive to excessive visual stimulation, and so I try to be selective about my exposure to images of any shape or kind. I also tend to look for like-minded 'allies', whom I find mainly in the visual arts; more and more visual artists are expressing forms of dissent in their work which suggest that they share my concerns. I like to see their artistic creations as countervailing the superficial showiness of visual and consumer culture. Whether, and to what extent, these visual artists would agree with my characterization of them is of minor importance. What is important to me is for the world to recognize the existence of a mentality in which imagination is seen as a fitting response to the supremacy of the image.

I can clarify what the above has to do with history against the backdrop of a current social trend: the popularization of history. But first: What is history? There is no such thing as 'history'; history is no more than a construction in our minds. Though historians know better, most people assume for simplicity's sake that history is what it is and cannot have been any different, because it is over and can no longer change. But to remember history is, inevitably, to bring about its metamorphosis by converting it into language and images and thus diminishing it; history exists only in a mediated, and hence derivative, form. Whatever the case may be, we trust all images because they are so close to our experience, and we tend to trust our own senses. In fact, we are aware of the arbitrary nature of the dominant historical narrative, but that narrative has the same impact on us as it would if it had really happened, and that makes it difficult to remain critical, detached, or impartial. Furthermore, the media landscape is invariably a mishmash of many different interest groups and particularisms, which are not always clear or visible and which, consciously or unconsciously, tend to be kept in the shadows. Nevertheless, whenever we are confronted with the past, we cling to the assumption that there is a general, objective historical truth external to ourselves.
An important aspect of the popularization of history is that, over the past ten years, a dizzying array of analogue images from archives and other sources have been added to our ever-expanding visual reservoir - even leaving aside recent material that was born digital. The demand for visibility has strongly contributed to this rapid, large-scale expansion of accessibility, and the rise of digitization and the Internet has also led to an exponential increase in the availability of pre-existing images.

Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 2004 © Alfredo Jaar

Something similar is going on with the popularization of history in a broader sense; in the Netherlands, the adoption of a national historical canon clearly demonstrates a perceived need to present things in a simplified way. Mnemonic devices can certainly be useful and educational for everyone, but as summaries of historical highlights move into the foreground, our understanding of their historical context tends to fade into the background. The trend goes even further; 'sharing sites' such as and offer an infinite reservoir of videos and photos. Users can upload films and photos without any intermediary to regulate the process. Consequently, neither the providers nor the users of these materials are controlled or managed in any way (except for some censorship of offensive material). Topics are not presorted but determined solely through tags, the key words assigned to them by users. This new organizing principle, known as 'folksonomy', does not give users any insight into a larger scheme of things or an underlying structure. And that is precisely why it is becoming more and more difficult to perceive the possibility of coherence within historical reality (and reality in general).

All in all, the popularization of history leaves us with fewer ways of imagining and representing history in its immense and colourful variety. We cannot expect the mass media to improve the situation. On the contrary, they tend to reduce history to a simple-minded narrative, leaving no room for a more sophisticated discussion of different points of view. These tendencies, along with the devaluation resulting from the constant repetition of the same images and footage, have narrowed the image of history to a disjointed set of visual clichés. Image, perception, language, and consciousness are constantly reproducing and reinforcing one another. The more often we see the 'Zapruder tape', the '9/11' attacks, or the execution of Saddam Hussein, the harder it becomes for us to grasp their historical context.
In recent years, visual artists have responded by engaging more frequently with history. By problematizing historical issues, they have managed to express their dissatisfaction with the domineering way in which the media impose a one-dimensional or impoverished view of history upon us. They raise public awareness of the mechanisms involved in the creation of images, the workings of memory, and the role and influence of the media in the representation of aspects of the past - from today's perspective.

Isola San Giorgio, from Venice Lightboxes 2000 © David Claerbout

In short, over the past few years, the focus of interest in the art world has shifted from the reuse of images to fundamental questions about the culture in which they operate. Artists take what one might call a critical stance towards the historical image as a source of knowledge. They do this not by asking whether some particular event truly took place, but - like historians - by examining how the past is represented and what factors have influenced its representation. They seek to make their viewers aware of the static that accompanies any form of representation, in part by pointing out the one-sided way in which history is represented, and in part by revealing the political and commercial motives that have coded an image, either consciously (through manipulation) or unconsciously (as an unintended side effect of its use). They focus on the ways in which historical narratives come into being, and how they are written, rewritten, forgotten, or even erased. The pluriformity and the sometimes contradictory nature of history serves as the conceptual basis of their work, in which they aim to expose dominant media strategies and refute or break away from conventional historical representations. Some of them accomplish this through critical analysis of how images of history are formed in the media, while others create alternative historical narratives that place conventional opinions in a new light.

These contemporary artists, motivated by social engagement, manage to shed new light on history and place certain issues in a meaningful context, we, the viewers, are increasingly able to scrutinize the information presented to us in the light of our own observations, knowledge, and experience. Our visual memories are activated by encounters with provocative photos, videos, and installations like these, which run counter to conventional modes of representation. As a rule, the visual language employed by these artists is distinctly evocative in nature. They usually refrain from concrete representation of historical images. This encourages us to create our own images, without immediately falling into pre-programmed habits of looking and thinking. The only images that achieve real significance are those with the potential to set off a process of completion that involves the artist, the image, and ourselves. This is an interaction between the viewer and the work of art, in which the viewer takes personal responsibility for unravelling the representations of history and reaching his or her own conclusions. We are expected to take a receptive attitude, opening our minds without prejudice to the reassessment of our knowledge and insights. More and more, this form of visual politics displays a striking tendency to shift the responsibility for interpreting works of art from the maker to the viewer.

I see an increasing number of artists that challenge visual culture, with its pervasive cult of visibility in which images suggest a great deal but say very little. Their artworks are exhortations to all of us to harness the power of our imagination as an alternative to the dictates of our image society. In that spirit we have to take a step back from the seeming self-evidence and omnipresence of images, historical or otherwise, and make room for our own imagination. This is the only way for viewers to liberate themselves from the straitjacket of mediated perception and achieve an optimal understanding of the pluriformity of the past, a keen consciousness of the present, and an ever-critical attitude towards any and all representations of reality.

Gert Jan Kocken (Foam #25 'Traces')

This text is an excerpt of the essay 'Mental Images' in: Questioning History - Imagining the Past in contemporary Art, Nai Publishers (Rotterdam) 2008. In the full-length essay Van der Stok proceeds from an inventory of artists' mentalities, methodologies and interests that serves as an impulse for further analysis and interpretation of the theme and its modern-day relevance.

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