Human body, with its capacity for memory, dream, and imagination, [is] as a living medium for images.
–Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images, 2001
In this paper, I aim to articulate an understanding of the formal operations of representation by bringing these problematics into relation with my own work. This argument can lay bare the inter-subjectivities between violence and identity. In order to do so, I will first need to establish my terms. I define representation as an order of seeing things that is a technique of meaning, and therefore of seeing. The representation that I articulate here is different from traditional notions of representation, as re-presenting what is seen or known, but presenting in such a way that a new thing is seen or known. It presents itself. In my terms, violence and identity are to be understood not as independent from each other but as a production of each other. I identify violence and identity as constitutive of one another: identity produces violence as it is a product of violence. Identity forms its meaning through absorption within or resistance to violence. The way that I think about identity is in tandem with the way that I could identify a thing by disidentifying or cutting other things around it. Consider the parable of a frame: to frame something and make it separate I first need to cut it in a way. I recognize such cutting or distinguishing as a violence/force. By violence I don’t necessarily mean that visible form of torture or suppression, but that coercion or even seduction which is so normalized beyond the point of being perceptible, and so transparent that we don’t see it anymore. In The Ground of The Image, Jean-Luc Nancy expands on the relations between the violence and image, violence and truth, and eventually, image and truth.1 In his telling, representation/image is a form of force (if not outright violence) that is distinct from its truth. So, image has a potential cut in its identity, it is not coming after a thing out of itself but it gathers itself into itself. For me, imagery of diagrams and cross-sections both present a rationalized thinking and imaging of “naturalized” functions. My personal experience, of living in a society that employs layers of filters on information, results in reciprocity between diagrammatic imagery and violence of filtering.
A few years ago, when I was in Iran, on some days the internet was so slow that I thought perhaps I was not connected at all. So, arbitrarily, I googled some other words like “fish,” “horse,” “dog,” to find out if I was connected at all, and indeed I was. I just had very limited access to some specific types of information and images.
At the time, the regime filtered everything they deemed “political.” I began searching for images (like fish, horse, dog) outside of this restriction, and was interested in the availability of cold, indifferent industrial and technical diagrams. There is an irony between these cut-away images that show the inner working of creatures and things, and the inability to see the inner political workings of the regime. So, in a way, this proliferation of the diagrammatic representation serves as another layer of obfuscation.
I was interested in the affordance of their forms: the exploded views of machines or those diagrams that come in manuals to show how to assemble a thing, or how an engine works; their explanatory aesthetic gave visibility to unobservable things or relations. However, these types of technical diagrams utilize an already existing visual vocabulary of forms, ideas, and knowledge. They try to explain appropriate functionality in structure or model as it pertains to the depicted organ or mechanism. Their explanations of the sequential causal processes or actions, in step-by-step or cyclical models, make them close to textual-pictorial narrative forms. To understand such explanatory diagrams, we need to accept their suggestive sign rules and semiotic function to be able to understand and make sense of them. Within these relationships to time and the causal sequences of processes, I use the word “narrative” to clarify such specific potentiality in the explanatory diagrams.
When I trace the diagrams in my drawings, I am utilizing their general forms. By “diagram” I mean its general meaning as a simplified drawing showing the appearance, structure, or workings of something; a schematic representation intended to be legible according to an engineering or otherwise functional gaze. Diagrams in this sense, and in the eyes of the Iranian government, are tolerable images. They have almost nothing to do with political red lines, though they are made to function as a map, to reveal and unfold information and explain how a system works mostly from the inside, where the surface is abstracted away. In order to explain these, they need to be transparent, clear, and legible. I select and isolate such imagery and repeatedly trace them on a transparent ground. Maximizing the redundancies, I propagate dense lines of the traces, while tracing goes around itself. This practice reproduces itself rather than building on new potentialities. Tracing does not require sustained thinking and planning; it has the dictatorship of a teacher or force of a model to follow without questioning it. Having that as a metaphorical image for the violence in tracing, my connection with this practice starts from a tangible experience of the violence.
My days on the internet in Iran lead to my interest in diagrams and cross-sections, accessible because of their scientific and purportedly apolitical aesthetic. Later, I recognized such unfolded information as reconstructions of things we know, rather than representations of what can be seen. I am trying to differentiate these two states from each other, while questioning the difference between things we know and what can be seen.
The fragile border between seeing and knowing is where I want to elaborate the disturbance in the pattern of habitual seeing, and therefore the seemingly “known” quality of things. Talking about the familiar and “known” quality of things, it seems that diagrams with their hybrid pictorial and textual mapping of things are a kind of visual representations of how things work; rather than representing, they present a particular form of knowledge, much like informational graphs, architectural plans, or chemical formulas. As such, they serve as suitable candidates for this project. The only thing that bonds a diagram to a reality outside itself is the interpretation of its resemblance, which I disturb and distract; first, by taking it away from its original context and function/use, and second, by folding it on the transparent ground and forcing a closure/occlusion which overrides its potential explanatory capacity.
Through disrupting the flattened representation of diagrams, in their narrations of productions and figurations of the world we “know,” I build another form of representation which is an iconoclasm. In enacting this breakage, I shed metaphorical light on how identity and violence are productive of each other. By disturbing, opening, and interrogating the capacity of the diagrammatic image, my practice seeks to define a “true” image of our contemporary moment in the form of a collapsed perspective or an implosive “window.”
My reworking of perspective as epistemology, in its fundamental role in representation (to trace the body onto a flat ground), revolves around this impassibility and occlusion by disorder, disturbance, noise, and derangement. If perspective has a commitment to clarity and transparency of glass, and if it promises the capacity for the fixed viewer to look at an infinitive space, then this promise ends up in its collapse on the ground in my work. Borrowing from Foucault, I give density and thickness “to what we do not experience as transparency,” as the domination of images by and on the internet merely presses the point of going beyond the transparency of representation on a screen.2 My position, in an attempt to disable the correlative and explanatory aspect of the representation (that window/reflection toward the outside), is to disable the figuration of the bewildering world we live in.
When I use the word “perspective,” I use its meaning as point of view in each case: the perspective which we own, the perspective within which we think, and the perspective that describes how we view the world and constitute ourselves as viewing subjects. However, as a painterly technique, perspective became an authoritative device, almost dictatorial in its circumscription of how the world is supposed to be seen: a normativity that also connects to my re-articulation of representation. It is in this sense that I have come to think about perspective beyond a merely Western kind of geometry. Perspective can be a mental state, a culture, or a nonverbal condition that predicates a visual form. Even in its more technical meaning it is hard to avoid metaphorical concepts. The way that technical perspective generates pictures is similar to the act of tracing a scene on a pane of glass. It is in this scene, depicted through a window, that we need a “point of view,” a “foreground,” and a “background.” Folding the transparent ground of the image is to collapse the point of view, to merge the foreground with the background. I instantiate this collapse by folding the 2D ground of the image in the space (in Image, Disturbance, Pattern, 2018), or by projecting the digital image through a plexiglas plinth (in Image, Disturbance, Pattern, No.2, 2018), or by injecting the image/figure into its ground (in Manual for Disturbance, 2017). These investigations resulted in sculptural forms that occupied the perspectival space of the gallery. Each of them were space-oriented in their own specific way without any preferred “point of view” to look at those works, as would be the case in a traditional, quattrocentro painterly composition.
James Elkins, in The Poetics of Perspective (1994), claims that our spaces are conditions for the existence and apprehension of objects.3 But aren’t our spaces made and conditioned by us? If a form of space can afford us a condition for the existence and apprehension of objects, can the form of a knot or tangle—with its collapsed and problematized dimensions and jumble of irreconcilable fragments—be a condition of a more just situation in which there is no hierarchy for narrative, much less a “point of view”?
As mentioned earlier, the use of the term “narrative” in regards to explanatory imagery exists within the relationships to time and the causal sequences of processes. Reciprocally, forms that disturb this relationship can be potentially defined as anti-narrative forms. In my works, I deal with the elements of the fold, the accumulation of tracings, the use of opacity and transparency to disturb the relation between figure and ground, and their ethical contestation over subjectivity.
In forming this definition of the image, I articulate the pleasure in disturbing the picture as a way of negating its representational system beyond the Western or geometric sense. In delaying and suspending the figuration/narration, I explore different forms of anti-narratives in the gesture of the iconoclast.
Images perform in the world through political gestures, and therefore how we come to perceive images is also a political act. Politics revolves around things that can be seen and things that can be said about them, that is, around who has the ability to see and who has the talent or opportunity to speak about the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. The politics of images and their performance are about the picture and not its suppressed blind ground covered by the image. Iconoclasm and the destruction of images is everywhere the solution and marker of social revolution in our age. It is a kind of celebration of an appropriation of power, a sign of power oscillating from the figure to its ground. Iconoclastic negative marks open space for the ground of the image to be seen: not only being as a support for the image but actually being a part of it, that is, revealed as both the image and the conditions of the image. Similarly, the fold can be a metaphorical form or gesture for such a revision between figure and ground. The transparency of the ground helps to trap the image within its ground and not necessarily “on” or “under” it. The fold disturbs the narrative of causal events or steps in a cycle. It stops the pleasure of looking at a flattened image, the pleasure of going with the illusion of the narrative. The fold makes a delay in the image. In other words, the fold lets the ground of the image make such a delay in the image. I find the delay is significant because it exemplifies a moment where the viewer tries to think through what they are looking at before falling into habituated visual pleasure—the viewer tries to recognize the familiar elements before being able to name things.
I force the figure into its ground and make the ground become the image/figure. There is a tension in this switch. It produces a delay at the zenith of the image, where the image ends and the ground begins (or vice versa). In this way, I am thinking about Gilles Châtelet’s explanation of the knot in his book Figuring Space (1993). The knot stands for the jumbled condition of directions and grounds in a diagram (including what is to be read as “foreground” and “background”) such that they lose their individual meanings and positions. I consider the analogy of the knot as an environment: “There is a kind of allusive gravity, a fierce resistance to any external homogenization. There is neither length, nor density, nor width: here, all dimensions are ‘equal.’”4 Châtelet elaborates that “a knot is not a trajectory: we do not master it by putting ourselves ‘in the place’ of a mobile point that would describe the curve. The knot pushes the tension between the mobile, the lateral and the density to the extreme: that is why it is impossible to grasp it by attending to only one of its components.”5
While not breaking or cutting the line, a knot or a tangle forms a delay in its flow. A tangle is irrational: it defeats the hand; it does not want to be opened, fluid, or legible; it wants disturbance in the fluidity. A tangle is an obliteration, a veiling, an obfuscation, an obstruction, a negation. To solve it is to cut it.
Ultimately, I am interested in what disturbance can afford insofar as its forms/politics comprise delay-making in our contemporary image-saturated culture; between the political acts of how images perform in the world and how we perceive images. Such disruptive delay can potentially trouble the recognition of familiar things before being able to name them, and therefore it can trouble the identification (the identity) of things. This delay, which is caused by a tangle, by “throwing” and “scattering” over and over, comes to form an anti-hierarchical politics that breaks any linear relationships and keeps the fragments in a just-simultaneous operation.
The currency of images—which often has less to do with what is in the image itself and more to do with the way it is used, how it circulates, how it is written about, and what sorts of expectations we have of it—is deeply embedded in the fabric of both social governance and everyday life. It is our task to interpret and reinterpret them, to thus make images visible instead of abstract or normative. Again, the visibility of an image is based on its medium, the thing that gives it a body. This medium body is not irrelevant to the body of the maker of the image, to his/her memories and experiences. This image is mediated through two symbolic acts which both are tied with our living bodies; the act of fabrication and the act of perception. Similar to the co-constitutive relation between violence and identity as they recursively define each other, I argue for the reciprocal trade between fabrication and perception of images. And it is in this notion that the position of the figure and ground can be troubled through representation. This unstable position of subjectivity between figure and ground, this disabled explanatory aspect of the representation, originates from the unsettling and interminable world in which I live.
–Aileen Bahmanipour, May 2019