Image and Imagination
Ali Cherri in conversation with Sheyma Buali
'We need images to create history, especially in the age of photography and cinema. But we also need imagination to re-see these images, and thus, to re-think history,' is a quote by Georges Didi-Huberman, which was shared by Ali Cherri at the beginning of the following interview. The quote reflects the conflicting ideas and the crux of questions that Cherri faces in his work regarding history, politics, violence, images and their meaning and power. This interview follows the changing trajectory of Cherri's work, which explores sources, formats and platforms for historical visual documentation. Cherri discusses various factors of how imagination and image come together in defining our world, and considers the artist's interception to redefine it. The questions that arise are as follows: how are these images kept, how is the form of images changing the archive and meaning of historical visual documentation, how can we talk about violence while avoiding turning horror into showmanship, and how, with time, do these meanings change?
Sheyma Buali: Let us start out with basic definitions. Can you tell me the difference between your definitions of 'found footage' and 'archival material', and how you approach them?
Ali Cherri: Found footage is different from archival footage: the archive is an official institution that separates historical record from what might be considered, in filmic terms, an outtake. The etymology of 'found footage' suggests its ability to uncover hidden meanings in film material. 'Footage' is an archaic British imperial measure of film length, evoking a bulk of industrial product – waste, junk – within which treasures can be 'found'. The absence of official source or authorship distinguishes them from archived material.
The widespread of still and video cameras (analog and then digital) created a huge number of indexical documents outside of official archives: this situation lead to the blurring of the distinction, which was never very stable to begin with, between 'archival' and 'found' documents. With all the documents that exist, it is difficult to decide which ones should be preserved by technologies that are not always available outside of official archival institutions. I use either of them in my work the same way: as 'cited' images, and not 'quoted'.
Found-footage artists' approach is to critically investigate the history behind the images, their modes of creation, consumption and distribution. Much of the material used in experimental found-footage films is not archived, but from other sources.
As concept and as object, the archive is evolving. The idea of the interactivity of the spectaorial experience, that is, of the relationship between viewer and data, is changing. As Jaimie Baron puts it, certain appropriated audiovisual documents can produce, for the viewer, an 'archive effect', giving these documents a particular kind of authority as 'evidence'. By looking at the archival document not as an object but as an experience, we may begin to rethink how information and knowledge are constituted in today's world. Reading a film sequence is not determined by the 'inherent' and 'objective' characteristics of the footage, but by the particular kind of consciousness that it evokes in the viewer.
YouTube, as a found-footage database that accumulates at a rate of 72 hours of video uploaded per minute, calls into necessary question the whole idea of an archive: a sourced, unique and select record of history, both recent and distant.
SB: Let us look at the relationship between YouTube and archives. You have referred to YouTube as 'a promise of an infinite archive', and much of your work sources images from this 'infinite archive'. Can you tell me what you mean by this and talk about your use of it as a resource?
AC: Maybe I should begin by stating that YouTube itself is not an archive in the formal sense, since preservation is neither in its mission nor in its practice.
As found-footage artists we got used to the coexistence, without any conflict, of degraded, low-resolution images, alongside captivating high-quality media. This helped the disintegration of the fine line of what defines an archive.
It is safe to say that YouTube constitutes today the largest video database for mankind. It has been growing into an archive because of the way it is being used, and is thus evolving into a massive, heterogeneous, but for the most part 'accidental and disordered, public archive', as RickPrelinger names it.And because YouTube footage doesn't carry the weight of authenticity and authorship, nor is it subject to a curatorial authority, it liberates us from the anxiety we feel when facing an official archive. When approaching an archive, there is the excitement of interacting with a 'precious' collection, but also frustration for not having the time to view all the material, and the fear of missing out on some 'treasures'.With YouTube, none of this anxiety is present. There is no guilt in not having time to view all that is there, because most of the videos are banal anyway.
We can ask what makes YouTube so attractive, and where did archives fail and YouTube succeed?
Most archival institutions, because of their worries about copyright holders, about 'losing control' of their collections, or about the qualification of the researchers, have made the access to their archives complicated. YouTube can give the impression for users of a 'complete' collection. It's an open source platform, so anybody's video can appear on the same level as their favourite programmes and actors without any prior permission. In this aspect, it seems closer to the Wikipedia project: a massive, crowd-sourced project to index and categorize video footage.
While archives need authorizations for accessibility, YouTube offers instant access with very few limitations. YouTube offers basic social networking, and breaks from the image of the lonely researcher doing private studies. One of the important uses of YouTube is the ability to embed videos, and therefore to restore the idea of using images as a 'citation'.
The low quality of YouTube footage gives the viewer the feeling that he is not really violating any owners' rights: it's just like watching a picture of a video; like being in a permanent preview mode.
The question that we are asking ourselves now is: who will archive the archive?
SB: Interestingly then, just to complicate things, many official archives now have YouTube channels. But most are definitely digitizing their collections. However, they remain to be pictures of pictures, as they are watermarked and, depending on the footage of course, heavily copyrighted. How does that fall into your definitions and the way you work with them?
AC: YouTube left the archival institutions in a paradoxical situation: while they insist on the importance of classical archival needs, they appear to be less accommodating, less relevant than YouTube. YouTube has set the standards, and created users with the expectation that archival material should be accessible. Lots of institutions are making the effort to catch up with the new modes of accessibility: institutions have started to understand that YouTube and internet access are not the archive killers, but rather they are platforms that could be used to give a new lifecycle to their media.
SB: In your work, you re-interpret images quite a bit. You noted once the Brechtian phrase on how meaning can be ascribed to the image, but it cannot be claimed by the image itself. What is your mechanism when you do that? Is there a difference between working with archive (contextualized) versus found (without context) images?
AC: I try to link my approach to found footage as a cinematic practice, consisting of reusing and reediting archival images, to Walter Benjamin's remarks on 'historical knowledge' and its relation to montage. In Benjamin's words, historical knowledge 'has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation. […] Its theory is intimately related to that of montage'. For Benjamin, history is connected to editing practice, through which we deal with the relationship between a reminiscent present and a gone past. We can never see the past in its entirety, but only through a series of fragments, a discontinuous succession, a broken sequence of 'dialectical images'. For Benjamin, dialectical images are images that 'emerge suddenly'. These images operate in a continuous coming and going between the present and the past, and by decontextualizing them, I try to decipher how history unfolds in our visible world.
Through montage, image re-interpretation reminds us how the most benign everyday work around us is saturated with political discourse, and how our ideological baggage informs our observation of images.
SB: Images do have power; propaganda is very much based on re-contextualizing images, tweaking details, creating moods, and so on. In Pipe Dreams (2012), you work with the images of the statue of Hafez al-Assad being removed, in order to avoid the image of it being destroyed. The video of the statue being removed retains a sense of control because the government documenting this preemptive decision shot the footage. On the other hand, it was preemptively responding to a looming fear. In your film, you show it in the light of the latter, this footage as a sign of weakness. You decontextualized the meaning into the visual phrase that you created, putting the video to follow the virility of the successful space launch.
What is your crux when dealing with the malleable meaning of images, particularly in the area of history and politics?
AC: Pipe Dreams captures an historic phone call between the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Syrian military aviator and astronaut Muhammed Faris, who was part of the 1987 Soviet space programme. In this archive footage, we see the 'father of the nation' questioning the 'hero' about his impressions, as Faris looks down on Syrian lands from space. The conversation features the 'eternal leader', who, from the comforts of his office, casts a watchful eye on the children of the nation, even when they are thousands of miles away up in space. Exposing power structures that are embedded in this 5-minute conversation goes beyond the Syrian example. This was the end of the 1980s, a time when young revolutionaries – in Libya (Muammar al-Gaddafi), Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Syria (Hafez al-Assad) – had asserted themselves as the sole and eternal leaders of their countries, often taking power following coups that deposed previous governments. Power in these countries was 'founding fathers', larger-than-life billboards, speeches by the countries' leaders, and, of course, by the nations' heroes.
In a sort of mise en abyme, the installation depicts President al-Assad through a monitor, who addresses the cosmonaut in his spaceship through an identical monitor: an infinite loop of the image of the leader looking at the hero. This juxtaposition of archival government footage with amateur YouTube footage from early 2011 in the background, when Syrian unrest began: the authorities, fearing vandalism, dismantled the statues of al-Assad across the country's protesting towns, including Hama and Deraa. Haunted by the images of destroyed statues, from Stalin to Saddam Hussein, the Syrian regime tried to heed off the inevitable, sacrificing the symbol in order to safeguard the image. For me, this was a major shift in the strategies of totalitarian regimes. You know the end is imminent when power begins to lose its monuments.
This interface between two moments in recent Syrian history encapsulates the history of the entire region: the mechanisms of the construction and deconstruction of totalitarian power, the dreams and disillusions of an entire nation. It's exactly by fragmenting moments in history, reducing them to debris, that we can put them in a dialectical process, namely, montage.
SB: Your work often looks at the meaning of images, particularly of violence, catastrophe, and trauma. In a way, the last few years of so-called 'revolution' have also created a new archive of violence. The content of these images gets gruesome and dark.
In your project Bad Bad Images (2012), you work with found images that you took from the net, referencing 'bad' in a wide spectrum of the word. Technically speaking, the lower the quality or smaller the file, the farther it reaches, the more it is seen. But you are also referring to 'bad' as in 'tasteless' – or as you put it, 'flawed, nasty, unpleasant, immoral, dangerous, inefficient, inappropriate, and mainly, violent images.' Your idea breaks into two areas: the (violence of the) technical 'value' (authors of the images don't mind that the quality of their images are bad because more people will see them), and the violent content within the frame.
You also note the cycle of violence where people are enacting, witnessing, recording, viewing and reviewing violence repeatedly, in real time and on repetitive screen time. This hyper-reality has, in more ways, moved us away from reality towards a screen-protected shock, a saturated banality where these strange images are no longer strange. All the while, though, you question the possibility of representing violence.
In your work My Pain is Real (2010), which looks more directly at this, you note that images of suffering have become part of everyday life. You talk about the inevitability of them being the source from which people learn what war is, mirroring what Rancière said about images as a way to define the world.
How though can images framed with so much violence be disassociated from it?
AC: In my work I was always interested in the body as a site where violence happens. Mark Seltzer talks about the rise of a 'wound culture' that he describes as: 'public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.' The effect of being surrounded by graphic images of death and war does not create a distancing from reality, rather an excess of reality. Our 'wound culture' is unable to differentiate between the figurative and the literal, between the virtual and the real. The wound becomes then the touch-point between the inside and the outside. Violence has become not only a collective spectacle, but it's also the place where private desire and the public realm meet.
I made the video installation My Pain is Real in 2010, four years after the end of the July War. In this work, a computer cursor draws on my face wounds taken from actual people who where injured during the war between Lebanon and Israel on the summer of 2006. Despite the overtly computer-generated image, to look at my wounded face was highly disturbing.
With the beginning of the uprising in the Arab world, I was watching hours and hours of this shaky, unofficial footage, which was acting as both testimony and incitement, documenting and reconstructing reality at the same time. At the end of 2011, I put together my exhibition Bad Bad Images (2012), where I used stills from low-quality videos from the Syrian uprising, enlarged to the size of monumental classical paintings. At that size, images are no longer pixellated; they become ghostly, gaining an impressionist, painterly quality. It was an attempt to give back to these images their imagination; to give them back their poetic language, their capacity to suggest the political, not to represent it. Images from the Arab uprising should be treated as found footage, and not as documents.
After 2012, I witnessed how violence in YouTube footage was escalating; the images became more and more embedded with sudden discharge of blood and death. With the dramatic acceleration of the events in Syria, I refrain now from watching any of these clips. This level of violence in images does not procure knowledge, only fascination and stupor. I don't have any critical distance to understand or read these images.
But maybe witnessing violence has become an inevitable condition of modernity.
SB: Looking back at the work you have done surrounding violence and image, such as My Pain is Real, how have your thoughts changed in the last couple of years?
AC: In my earlier projects I was working with explicitly violent images, in an attempt to expose modes of operation of media violence. This kind graphic material is becoming less and less visible in my work. I think I don't want to produce more violence. Problematizing the dissemination of violent images can also happen in other types of representation. I think we've had enough!
SB: In your latest work, the 20' film The Disquiet (2013), you talk about tension in Lebanon based on seismic waves. You go back about 2000 years of earthquakes, and note that the time is simmering for them to happen again. You use archival images of destroyed villages, but only minimally, for instance showing how catastrophe turns into a slide show, showing images of the 1956 earthquake in a series of archive photos. Mainly, though, you create a haunting and moody feel of tension by showing images of the earth, the land, nature, and the squiggly lines of the seismometers.
How do you think we can avoid aestheticizing these events?
AC: Seismic studies are an act of writing par excellence. A seismograph embodies the relation between language and catastrophe, or the failure of being able to fully represent history, or catastrophe, as comprehensible and complete.We cannot assume to understand the full scale of a catastrophe, or the traumatic reality of historical events. Even with the use of a witness, or a text, or a photograph: catastrophe is always off-screen, beyond our grasp. With the long shots of seismometers registering on paper or on monitors the movements of tectonic plates, I wanted to highlight our position as witnesses; we observe the catastrophe in the making.
In the film, we see historical images of earthquake destructions and memorial stamps in a form of a flashing slideshow: if catastrophe annihilates speech and compels us to silence, it nevertheless produces images as emblems. These emblems can assume their own authority, and tend to overwrite historical reality. A memorial stamp is there to remind us of the importance to remember, in order not to forget; but more important still, they should remind us that remembering can itself be a form of forgetting.
In The Disquiet I wanted to shift the discussion about violence, war and destruction to a seemingly scientific discourse. What can science tell us about all this? Behind the analytical research about the seismic history of Lebanon and the region is a quest to excavate the traces of our imminent destruction.
SB: How has this change in direction affected the work you are currently producing?
AC: For my upcoming exhibition I am producing lithographic prints; poetic forms that could survive the next catastrophe. It's an Archeology of a Catastrophe: archeology not as the love of ruins, but as the excavation of what has survived. Catastrophes leave us in a landscape of dust, debris, fragments and residues, but it's also a moment of clarity.
To see the Platform 006 project produced by Ali Cherri for Ibraaz, follow this link.
 Georges Didi-Huberman, L'Œil de l'histoire - Tome 2 : Remontages du temps subi, 2010, page no. 78
 Jaimie Baron, 'The Archive Effect: Archival Footage as an Experience of Reception' in Projections, Volume 6, Issue 2, Winter 2012, p.5.
 Rick Prelinger,'The Appearance of Archives' in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars, Patrick Vonderau, National Library of Sweden, 2010, p.268.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p.473.
 Idem, page no. 473.
 Pipe Dreams (2012): 2-channel video installation (6' loop), produced by Galerie Imane Farès.
 Muhammed Faris flew as Research Cosmonaut in the Interkosmos program on Soyuz TM-3 to the Mir space station in July 1987. He was decorated Hero of the Soviet Union and Order of Lenin. In August 2012, he defected the Syrian Army and fled to Turkey.
 Mark Seltzer, 'Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere' in October (journal), Vol. 80, Spring, 1997, p.3.
 My Pain is Real, 3-channel video installation (5' loop), produced by Galerie Imane Farès, 2010.
 Bad Bad Image, solo exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès, December 2011/February 2012.
 The Disquiet, video (20'), produced by Ali Cherri with the support of AFAC, 2013.