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Monday, May 26, 2008

Why I want to be a guerrilla girl

How can a woman in 21st Century America look at her world and not want to create art? I must here steal a page from the article that got me started thinking about this idea these past few days as I wandered through thousands of images looking for two photos that are iconic in my photojournalist memory for why a photo needs a caption. Anne Teresa Demo quotes the Guerrilla Girls in her opening. I quote her quoting them here:


Working without the pressure of success.
Not having to be in shows with men.
Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs.
Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty.
Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine.
Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.
Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.
Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood. . . .
Getting your picture in an art magazine wearing a gorilla suit.

I have been sifting through images, as I mentioned above. I've been Googling my little heart out looking for two pictures. I started with the one I thought would be easy to find--a photo of a phalanx of photographers against a wall at an intersection in Gaza (or maybe the West Bank) points at an Israeli soldier who is pointing his gun down the street at a Palestinian. It is the emptiness of the rest of the intersection I am drawn to. Regardless, after about an hour, I half-heartedly Googled for the second photo. This has a soldier with a billy club standing over a bloody teen. The photo was run in the NY Times with the wrong caption--the caption accused (and I use that term KNOWING the way newspapers work and cutlines are written) the soldier of beating the Palestinian youth on the Temple Mount.

In fact, the soldier was protecting the AMERICAN Jewish teen from a group of Palesitinian youth who had been beating him and they were no where near the Temple Mount (a point easily deduced if one looks at the gas station sign behind the soldier; there are no gas stations on the temple mount).

Point is; I found the second picture in minutes.

Buoyed by my success, I went in search of the other photo. I need both. I must have both. I spent two hours in a fruitless quest for the rest of the Al-Dura film, but Al-Dura's assassination (in my opinion by someone other than the IDF soldiers at that intersection) happened with only three cameramen in the area, and they were by the father and son's side as the shooting continued. (Interestingly, I noticed also that they were gone when the man and boy were murdered.) There is plenty on the net about the Al-Dura shooting. That man and his son have become a point of contention and so can be found everywhere. They weren't what I was looking for.

I felt beaten again, but decided to take a short break (to go buy toilet paper) and then come back to the work. Getting back to the work, I plowed ahead with another Google search, hoping I had come up with the magical phrase to garner the right pic. [I wish, here to admit that if I had simply remembered where I'd seen the photo, this would never have happened, but how much internal citation is possible in a post-modern world?--not enough for me.]

This time I somehow managed to get pictures of unhappy babies (because that's what one expects when Googling the phrase "photojournalists crowd at intersection in Israel"). Babies held by Israeli, Palestinian, Bosnian, American, every woman ever. Babies behind fences. Babies, I say meaning any child up to, oh, military age. Babies. I feel old. Worse, I feel I have failed. I am no longer interested in the search. I am staring at the outcome of all gunfights. And I'm looking at the faces of the children who will be fed hate and jingoism.

And I feel the need to go make a better picture. I feel the need to make the piece of art that will be mechanically reproduced forever and ever and make it clear to all that this pain will not go away. I want to design the tattoo others will love enough to wear boldly on their chests. I want to make the reproduction of the hell--remediated to something more liveable. But I can't. First off, I have homework to do (like finding the stinkin' photo!). Second, I have people to interact with, responsibilities to meet, and other excuses to make.

And finally, I have made the art. I make it regularly. It always comes out wrong. I have taken the photo. I have photoshopped the images into collage. I have bricoleured (excuse my poor French spelling) the ideas into essays, blogs, emails, letters, pictures, sweaters, hats, jewelry, music. . . And as always I fail. but I have decided that I have to keep doing it. Because it's the only way to vomit out the poison I keep swallowing. It's the only way to save my life--because really, the puppies give me their love, but even that's not enough.

And so I get to keep trying to be the Guerrilla Girl I will never be.

Because Googling "soldier and photographers in Gaza" doesn't seem to be cutting it.

Poemocracy: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Postcolonial Exploitation: A Review

You MUST read the Peterson review of Indie! I loved the movie & REALLY loved the truly critical review. Check it out.

Poemocracy: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Postcolonial Exploitation: A Review

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The eyes that bind

I'm not sure what was more interesting; wandering around the mall trying to find surveillance or being asked why I was taking pictures and what/whom I was surveying.

It started, of course, in the parking lot. The first thing my buddy on this trek (a PhD student in Spanish) said was, "Look!" She was pointing at a security SUV, excitedly.

As a Spanish PhD, of course, she has taken lit theory courses and was familiar with Foucault, but not with the many other theorists whose work I'd been reading.

But after I explained the concept of the panopticon as a prison in which all could be seen by the guard but none could see him--at least none of the inmates--she was familiar enough to jump in when I mentioned that the guard, after a point, is no longer necessary.

Internalizing forces of power, the inmates will "police" themselves. This is an even more interesting concept to me, considering that inmates are incarcerated because in the social panopticon in which we all live, they failed to police themselves. It is not that they didn't know there were rules (I speak here in vast generalizations), but for nearly all of them, it is simply that they didn't believe they would egt caught.

Did they start to believe there was no guard in the tower? Which tower? Many of us are raised with several towers. We have the parent tower (yes, I still believe my mother has eyes in the back of her head and spies in whatever town I live in), the teacher tower, the other authority tower. But we also have the God tower.

The God tower is the big eye in the sky (the one pictured is a nebula called the God's Eye Nebula--thanks, NASA, just what we needed). It's the after you die, eye, for some. It's the never forget there is a power bigger than you eye, for others. For some, it's the work to become the eye. For me, the eye is not so much an eye, but my eye. I must watch and thus be watched. But does it matter? Isn't it just as much an internalization? Isn't it just as powerful?

So what of the people who don't act as the social eye in the sky tells them to? What about those who are moved from the social panopticon to the physical one?

Did they simply believe they found the corner of their cells that the guard could not see into? Or is it simply a failure to work in metaphor? If you no longer work in the metaphor of the social panopticon, you will be placed in the real thing (again, here I do not assert that prisons are built on the model of the panopticon, only that they are built on the metaphoric model to create the physical reality of surveillance).

Or did they think at all? I don't even want to answer these questions. I simply want to raise them. If you don't pay attention to the eye in the sky, the eye in the mom-head, the eye in the teacher, or the eye in the cop/judge/system you are born into, you will be watched by the eye in the tower.

Of course, as a fan of the "DOC Block" on MSNBC, I can tell you that it doesn't matter. One simply learns to find the corners in the new cell. One simply learns to look back in other ways. Most especially true among juveniles, if MSNBC is to be believed, the prisoner will learn to look back more fully because looking down has failed. The juvenile prisoner will learn to look back because lightning did not strike--really--and any reality can be adjusted to (I have that on the word of an Auschwitz survivor).

Do you believe there are eyes watching you? Does it matter if you believe? Most people are mildly aware they are being watched. That is...when I took a pic of the camera at Starbucks, the Barista taking our order asked why I had wanted a picture of her menu. I answered that I hadn't. I was taking a picture of the camera. "Oh, ok. That makes sense," was actually her answer. It was her coworker who asked why. I told him I was doing a project on surveillance for school. They made my drink. In contrast, the cameras in the Verizon phone store look exactly the same so I didn't shoot them, but I was shooting and when the salesman helping me get my new crackberry asked what I was doing and got the full answer he said, "That's nothing."

He then invited me around the corner of the desk. Luckily he was stationed at the corner computer. We're all being watched all the time, he explained. Then proceeded to tell me that every keystroke of every interaction he made on his computer was being watched by another Verizon employee somewhere. I'm pretty sure it isn't literally being watched so much as it's being logged. But the question isn't my belief, it's his. "That's also why everything is in place around here," he said and made a sweeping gesture. "The space has to be clear."

I took it to mean that the view had to be uncluttered for the cameras. But did he mean that the store had to be clean? Tony also wanted me to know the camera on my phone was "really cool." I don't use my phone camera much, so I just shrugged. But his point was well taken.

We are all aware of our presence among cameras. As my students have told me (during discussions of whether one should worry about such things), "If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about." So we don't worry. But I do. Maybe because I suffer from Jewish memory. "Something Wrong" is open to interpretation and once the cameras are up, once you've signed into Panopticon Hilton, you can never leave.

We are all, also, not generally aware of the cameras' presence among us--and that's the bigger problem. Socially, though, we feel the need to respond as the family above did--we pose.

By pose, I mean we behave and "don't do something wrong," but we also pose in other ways. The mall is a perfect place to look at the gaze as complicity. There are many reasons to go to the mall. Mine was multivalent. I wanted to look at how we are looked at--that is the "project on surveillance for school" at its simplest. I wanted to go to the Verizon store and get them to sell me a Crackberry for something close to the price I could afford (nothing) so I'd have a phone that worked. Good on them the first one was just beginning to fail after two years of near constant use. I also really wanted to hang out with my PhD in Spanish friend. But some people go to get noticed, as the sign at the door to the sunglasses shop commanded. Even those who go to shop, are often going to get noticed. Their goal in buying the latest fashion is just that. To draw the gaze. The goal of the fashionist society is not to be capitalists. Capitalism is a process that helps get us noticed.

I, too, sadly, am part of this fashionist economy. I will never be fashionable. I was taught early in my teens that I was too poor, too fat, too "uncool," and too academic (read NERDY) to ever be "noticed." But I still try to look good. I still buy in and buy the latest crackberry. Heaven help me.

So, can the gaze be turned around? Of course it can. Think of the juvenile. But to what effect?

The tenement dwellers in Riis's "How the other half lives" project had little recourse--but some looked straight at him. Most notable for me, the Native American woman who smiles at the camera is looking back. The picture becomes hers. I heartily disagree that the sexuality she conveys becomes the threat inherent in the photo, though Twigg's reading is very sexually intent and so I can see how it got there. But regardless, the gaze has a decided effect.

The young woman is no longer the captive of the man who "took" her picture (possibly by surprise, as it turns out). She is the subject of the photo--she "makes" that picture. And by doing so, she has moved herself out of the position of subaltern (if only for a moment) and made herself a subject. Her race is important to the viewers--specifically to Riis's audience, but her gaze captures the viewer more than the viewer can possibly capture her representation. The mere openness to argument the photo presents has removed her from victimhood.

I think it comes to this (Sorry, but prepare for some whiplash):

The picture above is a fractal (thanks to called "Eye of the Storm."

Fractals are pictures in pictures in pictures in pictures--each a reflection and building block of the rest. We are, in the panopticon within a panopticon within a panopticon. All of us the cell dwellers, all of us the guards, all of us the wardens. We all want to be seen, want to watch, and want to control the gaze when doing either.

If I am watched for my unfashionability, my misfit body, my Jewishness, my nerdiness, I am not in control of the gaze--unless I made you look. If I am watched, am I noticed?

I began to think I was going to be noticed, and was both relieved and dismayed that I wasn't.

"You know, if someone gets pissy about me taking pictures of cameras in the mall, I might end up talking to a security guard while another one calls Homeland Defense," I joked with Jen.

"I know," she answered. "I figure that's my job here. To call a lawyer."

"ACLU," I said.
"ACLU," she answered.

Benjamin would call it a Fascist State. I think I'm going to just start calling it the Fashionist State.

(God's Eye Nebula courtesy of, Alien Eye courtesy of, hand in eye courtesy of Lions Gate film trailers "The Eye," all other images photographed at Governor's Square Mall, Tallahassee, FL)