– Spring 2011

Pretexts: The Evidence of the Event

Andrew Stefan Weiner

Harun Farocki, Serious Games 3: Immersion, 2009, double-channel video, 20min. © the artist

Harun Farocki, Serious Games 3: Immersion, 2009, double-channel video, 20min. © the artist

One man is dressed in a dark suit, a second in the uniform of a high-ranking military officer. Standing before unmarked lecterns, in front of an audience, they speak gravely of impending dangers and the need for decisive action. The situation is immediately recognisable as a government press conference, but its generic staging and lack of any other informational cues leave its purpose in doubt. At times the men seem to be making a case for war, while at others they seem to be answering their critics. Although it soon becomes clear that the two men are performers citing actual speeches given recently by well-known international officials, this feeling of certainty gives way as they begin to repeat themselves and finish each other's sentences, periodically exchanging places at the lecterns. The men's statements are all variations on the same theme: the time for speeches has passed, and now we must act. But what sort of actors are they? What kind of political action do they model? And while their performance at times resembles a re-enactment, how could they be re-enacting an event that never occurred in the first place?


Two screens. On one, a man in US infantry fatigues wearing a headset with earphones and wrap-around goggles. On the other, the computer-generated scene he watches as he relates a story from a recent tour in Iraq. The contents of this screen change with his narration, depicting a desert highway … an urban marketplace … and then the explosion of a car bomb, in an ambush that kills one of his comrades. Viewers soon realise that the soldier is participating in a virtual-reality treatment of combat

  1. While these terms initially designated practices whose contingency, hybridity and marginality directly opposed institutionally sanctioned art, theatre and media, this radical valence has been eclipsed by an ongoing process of validation, which has retroactively deemed both performance and video stable artistic genres. In the case of performance, this attenuation of its possible radical character has been amplified by the ascendance of post-Fordist modes of production, which have refigured labour as the performance of regulated modes of personality. See Martha Rosler, 'Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment', in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (ed.), Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, New York: Aperture, 1991, pp.31-50; Carrie Lambert-Beatty, 'Against Performance Art', Artforum, May 2010, pp.208-12; and Sven Lütticken, 'An Arena in Which to Re-enact', in S. Lütticken (ed.), Life, Once More: Forms of Re-enactment in Contemporary Art, Rotterdam: Witte de With, 2005, pp.17-60.

  2. See, for example, Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (trans. Julie Rose), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, pp.29-30.

  3. Rancière outlines this position in 'Problems and Transformations of Critical Art', in J. Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents (trans. Steven Corcoran), Cambridge: Polity, 2009, pp.45-60.

  4. In Derrida's words, the performative 'produces or transforms a situation, it effects'. Jacques Derrida, 'Signature Event Context' (trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman), Limited Inc, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988, p.13. Without over-hastily equating the speech-act with other forms like technically reproduced images, one might recall Derrida's insistence that all forms of representation qua writing can exist only through their capacity of being repeated, and thus remain open to the possibility of citation.

  5. In doing so, they show an affinity to various philosophical critiques of representation, particularly the interrogation of the sign conducted by semiotic theorists during the 1960s. If the photograph had long been the master trope for an unproblematic account of evidence, recent event-oriented practices engage the technically reproduced image in terms similar to those deployed by the early Roland Barthes: as a site where meaning is not depicted but generated, altered and transferred. In this view, photographic images enact a peculiar slippage between denotation and connotation, such that certain values are retroactively projected onto the image, where they appear to have existed all along. See R. Barthes, 'The Photographic Message', Image Music Text (trans. Stephen Heath), New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, pp.15-31, especially pp.17-20.

  6. One thinks in this context of the historical research undertaken by John Tagg and Allan Sekula, who linked photographic portraiture to the ascendance of criminology and para-scientific fields like phrenology, along with the implementation of police databases and the surveillance of populations. Examples include J. Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993; and A. Sekula, 'The Body and the Archive', in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1989, pp.343-88.

  7. Judith Butler has provided a sustained close analysis of the relation between iterability, performativity and agency, for example, in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', London and New York: Routledge, 1993, pp.12-16.

  8. As per the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latinate etymology of the word 'evidence' links the faculty of sight to the condition of exteriority; that which is evident is literally 'out-seeing', plain for all to see.

  9. Anke Bangma, SMART Papers: Performing Evidence (exh. cat.), Amsterdam: SMART Project Space, 2009, p.3.

  10. For coverage of the former issue, see, among others, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, 'Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility', The Washington Post, 18 February 2007; for the latter, see Neil A. Lewis, 'Interrogators Cite Doctors' Aid at Guantánamo Prison Camp', The New York Times, 24 June 2005.

  11. See, for example, Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (trans. Patrick Camiller), London and New York: Verso, 1989; and P. Virilio, Speed and Politics (trans. Mark Polizzotti), Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2007.

  12. Sue Halpern reports on the program and its development in her article 'Virtual Iraq', The New Yorker, 19 May 2008, pp.32-37.

  13. Farocki elaborates on the theory behind this technique in conversation with Kaja Silverman in K. Silverman and H. Farocki, Speaking about Godard, New York: New York University Press, 1998, pp.141-43.

  14. Étienne Balibar discusses this reversal in his lecture 'Politics as War, War as Politics: Post-Clausewitzian Variations', Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 8 May 2006, available online at http://www.ciepfc.fr/spip.php?article37 (last accessed on 2 July 2010). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari address similar questions in G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (trans. Brian Massumi), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p.467.

  15. This distinction and terminology are borrowed from Rancière, who explains them in detail in J. Rancière, 'Problems and Transformations of Critical Art', op. cit.

  16. Benjamin Robinson provides legal and political analysis of these dynamics in his essay 'The Specialist on the Eichmann Precedent: Morality, Law, and Military Sovereignty', Critical Inquiry, vol.30, no.1, Autumn 2003, pp.63-97.

  17. Sivan discusses these developments in regards to The Specialist in the article 'Archive Images: Truth or Memory?: The Case of Adolf Eichmann's Trial', in Okwui Enwezor et al., Experiments with Truth, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002, pp.277-88.

  18. For an insider's perspective on these questions, see Albie Sachs, 'Different Kinds of Truth: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission', in O. Enwezor, Experiments with Truth, op. cit., pp.43-60. Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela to serve as a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and was involved in numerous important post-apartheid rulings.

  19. For a representative analysis of one response to these developments, see Karen Beckman, 'Telescopes, Transparency, and Torture: Trevor Paglen and the Politics of Exposure', Art Journal, Fall 2007, pp.62-67.

  20. A more detailed discussion of this project can be found in Ian White, 'One Script for 9 Scripts from a Nation at War', Afterall, no.18, Summer 2008, pp.100-07.

  21. An early account of these tribunals can be found in Neil Lewis, 'Guantánamo Prisoners Getting Their Day, but Hardly in Court', The New York Times, 8 November 2004.

  22. For discussion of this conjuncture see Hito Steyerl, 'A Language of Practice', in H. Steyerl and Maria Lind (ed.), The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008, pp.225-31.

  23. Such criticisms have come both from the centre-left (Rosalind Krauss) and centre-right (Peter Schjeldahl), particularly around the programming at Documenta11 in 2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor offers an insightful response in his essay 'Documentary/Verité: The Figure of "Truth" in Contemporary Art', in Mark Nash (ed.), Experiments With Truth (exh. cat.), Philadelphia: The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 2005, pp.97-104.

  24. Gilles Deleuze relates this ontological singularity of the event to what he terms its 'double structure': its articulation of a present actualisation with a neutral, indeterminate past and future. See The Logic of Sense (ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale), New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp.151-53.

  25. Maurizio Lazzarato, 'Struggle, Event, Media' (trans. Aileen Derieg), archived online at http://eipcp.net/ transversal/1003/lazzarato/en/print (last accessed on 17 June 2010).