Art, Activism and Political Consciousness

Earlier this week, I caught Molly Crabapple’s talk at the Berkman Center, where she gave a determined defense of the value of art, and particularly activist, hand-drawn art, in the midst of participatory media. In particular, I was struck by her comment that camera phones enable protestors to rob authority figures of anonymity, for example, capturing images of police officers using excessive force. At the same time, Crabapple acknowledged that video documentation is no guarantee of justice, as the horrific experiences of Oscar Grant and long before that, Rodney King, have shown. Drawing on her experiences of making art and documentation of Occupy, Gezi Park and Guantanamo, Crabapple echoed a long line of claims about the value of art in providing a distillation (or crystallization) of political consciousness that goes beyond photographic representation. In other words, hand drawn art offers a defense of (or perhaps an insistence on) subjective rather than objective (or claiming to be objective) documentation. During the Q&A, Nathan Matias asked Crabapple about connections to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a convergence I want to develop further here. It’s perhaps worth stating at the outset that 1) Susan Sontag is one of my intellectual heroes 2) there is an entire field of visual studies in which I am not at all well-versed and probably has much smarter things to say about this. In particular, if anyone feels like sending me blog posts or articles that connect Sontag’s work to participatory media, I’d love to read them.

One of Sontag’s key arguments is that photographs “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing” (p. 3). The photographic grammar and ethics of seeing takes place cumulatively for Sontag, where photographs become dangerous as a mechanism of gradual desensitization, a point she later underscores in Regarding the Pain of Others. Before bringing this point back to Crabapple, I can’t help pointing out that in re-reading On Photography this week, I was struck by how prescient her comments are in an age of Flickr and Instagram:

  • Anticipating memes: “Photography does not simply reproduce the real, it recycles it” (p. 174).
  • Fragmentation and overload: “Photography reinforces a nominalist view of social reality as consisting of small units of an apparently infinite number – as the number of photographs that could be taken of anything is unlimited. Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles … the camera makes reality atomic, manageable and opaque” (p. 22-23).
  • And again, when Sontag writes that photography “creates another habit of seeing,” and that this “photographic seeing has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision” (p. 99), it is (to me) a claim that ages well in the context of social media.

But getting back to photography, politics and violence, Sontag’s emphasis on the intertwining of political consciousness and photographs (where muckrakers instantiated a norm of political change in response to documentation) resonate with Crabapple’s observation of focus on the political efficacy of capturing images of authorities. At the same time, I was reminded of Finn Brunton’s discussion of charivari in Spam. Charivari refers to a symbolic form of collective vigilantism that hinges on public shaming, a “mode of collective surveillance and punishment for the violation of norms and mores” (p. 44). Brunton argued that charivari offered a means of collectively responding to the violation of technological norms, as when early spammers were in turn flooded with revenge spam, fax bombing and in some cases had  their personal information posted publicly.

It’s ultimately the sense of political and judicial efficacy that both exposes the weakness of charivari and demonstrates the need for art. While Sontag argued that “photography, though not an art form in itself, has the peculiar capacity to turn all its subjects into works of art” (p. 149), Crabapple posited that photography has the ability to turn all its subjects into memes. Brunton’s analysis of charivari suggests a form of responding to the violation of socio-technical norms, but frequently fails as a response that provides substantive change or institutionalized justice.  Thus, memes about John Pike can rob him of his anonymity, but they cannot guarantee jail time or monetary retribution. This is what gets us back to the value of hand-drawn art. For Sontag, photography is linked to a desire for distance from hardship, lending a troubling layer of paradox onto claims that participatory media is galvanizing. Personally, I am inclined to think that part of what endures in drawing by hand and part of what is lost in photographing with hand-held devices is precisely the body. Crabapple positioned drawing as a catalyst to interpersonal connectivity as well as psycho-social vulnerability, incidentally the same qualities that Gladwell associates with high-risk activism. If Lefebvre is right and we re-shape spaces through daily practices, it is perhaps practices of drawing rather than photography that stand to reshape space most provocatively.

{This entry is cross-posted from my personal site}