black square_shorab mohebbi

The greatness ­­— and also the abyss — of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness1.

The mission nights were the busiest for the painters. While the fighters fought across the front lines, the paramedics wiggled amongst the tanks and artillery, back in the tents the artists were making portraits of the fallen men. A former front line painter told me once the story of a very young shahid whose picture landed on his desk in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq battle-filed. Usually the artists would contact the family of the martyr asking about his hobbies and interests, his favorite places, his heroes, so that his image will be in the company of things that were dear to him. This particular young man was obsessed with candles from a very young age, his mourning family told the artist. The painter started working later that evening, drawing carefully the outlines of his face, the contours of his eyes, his lips outlined by his short groomed beard, the collar of his uniform, his hard hat. Then he started adding the candles around his head, flying around him like angles, floating in the negative space of the paper. He meticulously works on the candles through the small hours of the night. As he was adding the finishing touches, deeply immersed in his world, the world of the painting, he notices something hitting against the picture, banging against his concentration. Back in the ‘real world’ he realized that it’s the moth that are diving into the picture, they were drew to candles, as they are attracted to the flame. It was the drops of his tears that rained down the image that drew them away.

These images that the moth, or people fly and step into, are not unique to the Iranian battlefields of the 1980s, where the cold war was hot. Birds and humans were equally drawn into images painted in a competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios around 500 BC. The former painted a cluster of grapes that attracted a flight of birds, which took it for real edible fruit. When Parrhasios presented his competitor with his work, a veil was still hanging over the painting, which Zeuxis tried to take it off only to realize the cover was the painting. This story suggests that human vision is a particular construction, and the way we see and conceive the world is conditioned by the apparatus of vision, by what makes seeing possible. That is, darkness is not the absence of light, rather it is the absence of the ability to see, which is contingent upon the technologies of seeing. For one thing, the moth have not come that far since the time of ancient Greek, and together with birds, they are still caught flying into human made images. Though we are less likely to try and pull a painted curtain from an easel, we often walk into images, live in them , burn them and at times bomb them.

The NATO intervention in Bosnia, as writer and theorist Boris Buden has shown, was authorized via a staged image published in the Daily Mail that showed Muslims behind barbed wire, pointing to an iconic image from a WWII concentration camp. A few years later, the war in Iraq was authorized after Collin Powell showed images of supposed Iraqi ammunition factories and storage units among other visual material that supported the existence of WMD related activities. Syrian rebels meticulously document their battles with multiple cameras and upload them on the internet, and show them to their backers in the US and elsewhere to secure more funding and weapons.

If the moth banging themselves against a portrait of a shahid sounds like fables of the non-moderns, the missiles that fly through images at non existent military facilities have crossed the fourth wall and exploded on the other side and shattered many times over the membrane that separated images from the real – if such boundary ever existed. It is said that the viewers ran away when they saw the train leaving the station in the first public presentation of cinema. Now, the bullets that flew into an image of a Syrian soldier shooting a rebel documenting the shooting of a rebel by the soldier, killed the rebel.  If the audience of the Lumiere brothers could not tell image from reality, many years later, a man stepped out of the screen in a showing of Batman in a theater in Colorado and went on a shooting spree, blood was shed before the audience realized that it was time to leave the theater.

The tragedy in Colorado, which is part of an ongoing failure of dealing with gun violence in the US, highlights the crisis of spectatorship in our age of image saturation ­– I am hesitant to call it saturation, as we have reached a point where the earth is covered with images. The question that we are faced with is when to leave the building and the constant failure to do so. In other words, the issue is no longer whether something is real or a representation, but rather when not to watch, when to leave the theater, when to look elsewhere, turn our head around and close our eyes. We cannot restore the pre-digital mode of spectatorship and reinstitute the traditional theater line between the actors and the viewers, as Ranceire seems to suggest, but yet still have the “emancipated spectator’s” power of “associating and dissociating.”

Perhaps ­– following Agameben’s formulation in the essay On Potentiality – we can imagine spectatorship as potentiality.

“[I]f poteniality were, for example, only the potentiality for vision and if it existed only as such in the actuality of light, we could never experience darkness,” but we experience darkness, and therefore we have the “potential not to see, the possibility of privation.2” The image, therefore becomes visible againtst its absence, it differenciates itself from its lack and puts itself forth through darkness into visibility. Here, we can imagine the “emancipated spectator” as the one who not only can refuse to watch, but considers spectatorship as the “potentiality of darkness,” the other of the image. The spectacle, not spectatorship, is totalizing, it casts over representation. The subject needs to be redeemed from representation, that is the task of the emancipated spectator.

The landscapes that airborne creatures, human made or otherwise, fly through provide the ground for an architectonic image that, in turn, provides the foundation for a discourse of spectatorship built on top of the surface of the image. It is no longer that the image renders the real flat, but rather that the image expands into time and space3. The image is thus a site of a construction that we step into as viewers, and we have to preserve the potentiality to step outside of it and watch the building from without.

Spectatorship as such is not only the passive position in front of the spectacle or the event, but it is as set of relations that as Ranciere says “link[s] what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed,” (to which we need to add heard and read, and the total knowledge of living). It is seeing the spectacle over the ground of this knowledge that spectatorship is understood as a potentiality. In Little History of Photography, Walter Benjamin calls the phtographer the decendent of augurs and haruspices and in grants him the power to predict the future, to read the outcome of a course of action and at times even decide or dictate such course4. The images of violence have revealed what they contain, the question is what futures these images can produce, and how the spectators can contribute to a production of a future where these images go beyond reducing the subject of violence to representation.

Sohrab Mohebbi is a curator and writer living in Los Angeles. Mohebbi is the recipient of 2012 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for the blog Presence Documents. He is the assistant curator at REDCAT, Los Angeles. Together with Rush Estevez, he received the 2013 The Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award for the upcoming exhibition Hotel Theory. He holds an MA in curatorial studies from Bard College and BFA in photography from Tehran Art University.

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1. Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” in Potentialities, Collected Essays in Philosophy, (Stanford, University of Stanford Press, 1999), 181.
2. ibid
3. For instance the research done by Forensic Architecture project is a good example of images that expand and turn into buildings and recount a drone strike in Wazirestan. For more info visit:
4. Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 294. I have asked the same question in Shapes of the Future, a contribution to the Flood of Rights publication. Perhaps it is notable that the augurs were part of a collegium of priests ( and agury rites were conducted as part of an assembly, therefore an interprative forum decided the validity of the operation. The task of the interpretational framework around images, or what could be called a photgraphic augurus, that eventually decides a course of action, is as Thomas Keenan suggests is “to continue to speak, to disagree, to insist on translation.