Can Images Think?

It is perfectly legitimate to ask the following question: How can an image think?

And the answer, which should come as no surprise to the reader, is that images cannot think.

However, the power of images is such that we need to think very carefully about the many different ways in which we relate to them. For example, when we say, “that is not a picture of me,” are we claiming that the picture is not a likeness or that the image cannot contain or express the subjective sense that we have of ourselves? Do we expect the image to contain, hold or embrace who we are?


The most famous portrait of Winston Churchill.

Let's explore the following example. A photographer snaps an image of Jane and when Jane sees it, the photographer says, “I took that photo of you!” It appears as if the image can not only stand in for Jane, but will be used by the photographer to illustrate Jane’s appearance to a variety of different spectators, including her family.


This is an image found on the Internet. What does it mean to say that?

In a sense, the image separates itself from Jane and becomes an autonomous expression, a container with a label and a particular purpose. For better, or for worse, the photo speaks of Jane and often, for her.

The photograph of Jane is scanned into a computer and then placed onto a web site. It is also e-mailed to friends and family. Some of Jane’s relatives print off the image and others place it in a folder of similar photos, a virtual photographic album.

In all of these instances, Jane travels from one location to another and is viewed and reviewed in a number of different contexts. At no point does anyone say, “this is not a picture of Jane.” So, one can assume that a variety of viewers are accepting the likeness and find that the photo reinforces their subjective experience of Jane as a person, friend and relative.

The photograph of Jane becomes part of the memory that people have of her and when they look at the photo a variety of feelings are stirred up that have more to do with the viewer than Jane. Nevertheless, Jane appears to be present through the photo and for those who live far away from her, the photograph soon becomes the only way that she can be seen and remembered.

Picture this scene. The photograph is on a mantel and when Jane’s mother walks by, she stares at it and kisses it. Often, when Jane’s mother is lonely, she speaks to the image and in a variety of ways thinks that the image speaks back to her. Jane’s mother knows that the photograph cannot speak and yet, there is something about Jane’s expression that encourages the mother to transform the image from a static representation to something far more complex.

It is as if the language of description that usually accompanies a photograph cannot fully account for its mystery. It is as if the photograph exceeds the boundaries of its frame and brings forth a dialogue that encourages a break in the silence that usually surrounds it.

Where does this power come from? It cannot simply be a product of our investment in the image. To draw that conclusion would be to somehow mute the very personal manner in which the image is internalized and the many ways in which we make it relevant to ourselves.

Could it be that we see from the position of the image? Do we not have to place ourselves inside the photograph in order to transform it into something that we can believe in? Aren’t we simultaneously witnesses and participants? Don’t we gain pleasure from knowing that Jane is absent and yet so powerfully present? Isn’t this the root of a deeply nostalgic feeling that overwhelms the image and brings forth a set of emotions that cannot be located simply in memory?

What would happen if I or someone else were to tear up the photograph? The thought is a difficult one. It somehow violates a sacred trust. It also violates Jane. Yet, if the photo were simply a piece of paper with some chemicals fixed upon its surface, the violence would appear to be nothing. How does the image exceed its material base?

This question cannot be answered without reflecting upon the history of images and the growth and use of images in every facet of human life. Long before we understood why, images formed the basis upon which human beings defined their relationship to experience and to space and time. Long before there was any effort to translate information into written language, humans used images to communicate with each other and with a variety of imaginary creatures, worlds and gods. The need to externalize an internal world, to project the self and one’s thoughts into images was and is as fundamental as the act of breathing. Life would not and could not have continued without some way of creating images to bear witness to the complexities of the human experience. This wondrous ability, the magic of which surrounds us from the moment that we are born, is a universal characteristic of every culture and every social and economic formation. We know that this is the case with language. We need to fully understand and accept the degree to which it is the same with images.

Images are one of the crucial ways in which the world becomes real and it should come as no surprise to discover that words on a page are also images, although of a sort that is different from photos.

It is therefore the case that images are one of the most fundamental grounds upon which we build our notions of [embodiment]( It is for that reason that images are never simply enframed by their content. The excess is a direct result of what we do with images as we incorporate them into our identities and our emotions. Images speak to us because to see is at one and same time to be within and outside of the body. We use images as a prop to construct and maintain the legitimacy of sight. It is as if sight could not exist without the images that we surround ourselves with and as if the activities of seeing are co-dependent with the translations and representations that we produce of the world around us.

We need perhaps to consider changing the ways in which we relate to objects in general. Bruno Latour the great French writer has commented on this issue at length and will be the subject of my next blog entry.

Tactile Images

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald was decapitated in a local park in Montreal.


Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadian federalists. To make matters worse, the decapitated head was stolen. No effort was made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further. From time to time journalists have commented on the loss and some private citizens have banded together to raise funds to have a new head made. But the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor will the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply disappear when the statue is restored.

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid, from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn.

So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its underlying premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start. It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes connected levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on the context of analysis and the subjective choices of the interpretator. In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the basis for a hierarchy of interpretations, and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations.

Although headless, the statue retains all the qualities which allow it to be identified with its human predecessor. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada, it matters little whether the head is there or not. Yet, as an image, the loss of the head brings the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist, through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.


UP the new 3D animation from Pixar is at one and the same time a simple and beautiful love story and an exploration of the medium of animation. 3D is used here not as an effect but as an enhancement, a way of transforming the artifice and artificiality of animation into a narrative of an old man's love of his deceased wife. The old man struggles with modernity, with change and with urbanization. His search for a lost Eden is really a search for his lost childhood. In fact the film is about the symbols and objects that make up and give meaning to life at any age. Well worth a visit to the theater.


Photographic Fictions (2)

The average digital camera owner has over 5,000 photos in various libraries, which in the digital age is a rather quaint name for data that cannot be cataloged using conventional means. Even a Flickr library is about editing time, that is organizing sequences, blocking out events and arranging photographs so that some sort of story can be told. But, this is a different activity from creating a photo album and is closer to a scrapbook.


All this material is grist and fodder for even more complex social networks that can be accessed through mobile means and at home. Links become a crucial part of all this, but where does aesthetics end up? That perhaps is the key question because networks are only partially visible to those who use them and data is only that, information. The raw nature of information means that "editing" is now an activity of time management — the time needed to organize material and content — the development of typologies and catalogs to organize content, not only when photos were taken but superimposed Google maps to show location even though geography may not be that significant to the photograph and its look.

Photos are defined more by connections than by their individual nature, more by their virtual location on Facebook than by their links to events in real time. Photos move along a continuum from events to their classification and from there to screen-based albums, folders and projects. They are rarely printed.

Johan van der Keuken


Ron Burnett

So much of what you are trying to do in your films is a response to the history of the documentary, the way in which the documentary has tried to set up a false window/mirror on the world and presumes itself to be showing what is happening in the reality around us but never really trying to bring out the complexity of what it is showing, never self-reflexively bringing out the political, economic and social context of which it is a part. The window presumes a clarity on the part of the filmmaker, a unified view of the world, a homogeneity, a lack of contradiction--all these are perspectives which I think you are trying to work against. There are two levels at which I perceive you operating. One is at the level of the reality that you are trying to depict and show and the other is a level of discourse in which you try to comment upon and politicize the way reality is understood and seen. I would like to understand how you are affected by what you are filming and then how you feel you are, politically, influencing the images which you are show. You are trying to include two sets of complex elements simultaneously in the act of filming, does the history of representation, the history of the documentary, overwhelm the spectator's capacity to recognize the level of critique which you are trying to construct?

Van der Keuken:

In SPRINGTIME, the economist Claude Ménard plays a crucial part. The documentary for me is only part of what I am trying to do. I am trying to account for a thinking process. The portrait of Claude Ménard is a double process: my inquiry into a certain set of problems and his self-reflexive attempt to formulate an answer to these problems. Film as a finished product only presents, the strongest stages, the most effective moments, of a long process; that is, it puts together strong points, and this does not allow for insight into the whole itinerary. Claude Ménard's interview-section in the film contains moments of uncertainty, where you may feel that he is not in the right setting perhaps, but I include that uncertainty so that the spectator may see where the whole process comes from--mine and his. Everytime I watch SPRINGTIME with an audience I get tense because I don't know if it works, whether or not people will accept this intrusion on their normal viewing experience. Audiences expect results, polish, they cannot accept weak phases in a product. This is where the history and ideology of representation is so strong. To me it was important to transform the process and go through these uncertain phases and try and give the audience a place in any discussion of the film by in effect opening the text up to them, reinventing its premises, relocating the viewing experience.

Ron Burnett

Why is it so important for you to disrupt the audience's desire for a finished product?

Van der Keuken

That depends on the phase you are in yourself as a filmmaker and for me it changes from film to film. SPRINGTIME brought resistance when it was shown on T.V. and in the Cinémathèque in Holland, but my next film was well-received. All my films have breaks within them to try and alert the audience to the fact someone, in this case a filmmaker, is presenting them with a point of view but the images also have to touch the audience and ironically that may contradict what I am trying to do.

Ron Burnett:

Do you try and provide the audience with tools to unravel the ideology of the documentary? Or do you think that it is the way documentary films structure meaning, frame enunciations which determines the unraveling? In THE PALESTINIANS there are alot of events presented in terms similar to what we might see on television. How do you try and make the audience understand that what you are presenting them with is a construct--your construct--and not just an objective representation of reality? Is there a means within the film itself for understanding the woman who stands besides her bombed out house for example? (ed. note: there is a crucial scene in the film during which the camera examines a bombed out house in Lebanon; we see some older women crying and moaning, they talk of having once lived in a house that is now rubble; the shot is a relatively conventional one and seems derived from cinéma-vérité.)

Van der Keuken:

From one film to another you may even diametrically change your own point of view. I feel there is a strong theme of unity between my films. In fact I sometimes get the feeling that I am doing the same thing in all my films! Always the same story, but taken in different directions, from different viewpoints, and even different viewpoint inside my self...although each new film starts at a point opposite from the last one.


I will weave through a series of juxtapositions today drawn from a number of experiences which I have had in the "field" of ethnography and documentary film - a kind of bricolage - or as James Clifford has put it, an 'ethnographic surrealism'. (See Chapter Four of The Predicament of Culture (1988) in which Clifford argues for a redefinition of the history of surrealism in order to show the close if not parallel development of ethnography and surrealist thinking.) In retrospect these fragments are linked in ways which I could not have anticipated before I made the attempt to understand the connections. This kind of reconstruction interests me because it is a combination of personal history, field work and theoretical exploration, evidence of an effort to explore and map the relationships among subjectivity, analysis and experience. More than that it is a way of specifying and revealing the presence of 'theory' within the subjective - a strategy for talking about theory 'through' subjectivity.

The etymological origin of the term documentary is rooted in the notion of the lesson and is connected to docility, doctrine, indoctrination and didactictism. Docility suggests someone willing to be taught and also someone who is teachable and easily managed and trained. To be responsive, to be taught, to be open to the information which is presented — information which, if it is to function as document must reproduce in as great detail as possible the world being pictured so that the images can be believed.

Search a bit further into the etymology of documentary and the stronger connection is to doctrine and indoctrination which have roots not only in teaching but in notions of specialization — in the idea of a specialist able to instruct, someone whose knowledge cannot be questioned.

I bring up this tableau of origins because although a consensus has developed around the definition of "documentary" the debate at this stage pivots on questions of realism almost, though not completely, in opposition to questions of pedagogy. Documentaries however, exist as object lessons in themselves of a desire to teach and thus to enter into a system of communication (or to create one) which links images with a specific outcome or result.

The instrumental logic of the documentary is so deeply ingrained that the technology of image creation is now geared to increasing the probability of specific effects upon the viewer. I am speaking here about the hybridization of light-weight video, film and computers, a kind of postmodern brew designed to make the experience of viewing "virtual" — virtual in this case can easily be equated with real because the gap between viewing and experiencing has been short-circuited.

The ends justify the means. Effects become the standard bearer of truth.

Let me contrast the above with the work of Eric Michaels, a documentary/ethnographic imagemaker who worked in Australia with Aboriginal peoples. He died in 1988 but the impact of his undertaking will continue to be felt for a long time.

His essays and his brillant monograph entitled, Aboriginal Invention of Television (1986) reveal a sensibility closely tied to some radical innovations in documentary and ethnographic thought over the last fifty years. (I am thinking of the work of Edmund Carpenter (1970); James Clifford (1988); Jean Comaroff (1985); Vincent Crapazano (1980); Michel De Certeau (1984); Johannes Fabian (1983); Clifford Geertz (1988); George Marcus and Michael Fischer (1986); Paul Rabinow (1977).

Michaels explored the frontiers of one of my major interests, the impact of video and television on indigenous cultures. He achieved this by rethinking the notion of "effects" - the ways in which white, imperial cultures control and attempt to dominate other societies - and not positing anything like a linear model for what happens when new technologies are thrust upon indigenous peoples. Michaels worked on both sides of a complex process. He was aware of the need for indigenous peoples to take control of the media they were being exposed to. He was also very sensitive to the specific choices which they made with respect to images.

His approach interests me because he questioned the roots of instrumental thinking by looking at the way in which another culture responds to the logic of images — presumptions of viewing and understanding so basic they influence not only the documentary but the fictional image process as well.

All of this is of course a way of questioning the role of documentary images precisely as devices of teaching and learning. It is also about how to analyse the strategic choices which different cultures make in response to the influences which they have on each other. The question of vantage point - where and how these choices can be examined was a central concern of Michaels. He tried to draw upon the experiences of non print media and apply them to the process through which ethnographic knowledge is transferred and transformed into visual and oral documents. This is made very clear in his article entitled, "How to Look at Us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at Us,"(Eric Michaels 1982, this is an essay in a superb collection edited by Jay Ruby, entitled, A Crack in the Mirror 1982) in which he says: "A solution is to address the entire process of visual media as a problem of communication, more specifically in cross-cultural translation." (145)

It may be that nothing of value to indigenous cultures can be yielded in the process of translation and that the role of visual media is more important for imperial cultures than for colonised ones. But this would presume, as Michaels so often pointed out, that colonised cultures themselves have somehow escaped the influences of modern media, for example, knows is not the case.

This still doesn't lessen one of the central dilemmas of ethnographic and documentary work with film and video. For the ethnographer it may be more important to uncover both the applicability and effects of the technology than to let the technology work its way through the society in question and let that society find the measure of its own response. I think that it would not be too radical an assertion to say that the response of indigenous cultures to cultural phenomena cannot be ascertained clearly until those cultures have devised strategies of response, whatever form those responses might take.

Working its way through - what do I mean? A process perhaps which may not be open to external examination and without wanting to push the point too far a process which may produce forms of internal and culturally specific images which cannot be judged, evaluated or examined from the outside. I want to be careful here because I am not suggesting that a vantage point couldn't be found which might permit one culture to examine another, but there is the matter, and I consider it to be an important one, of how we go about understanding our own history with respect to modern media, let alone the history of other cultures.

There is a tendency, manifest in many ethnographic and documentary projects but even more so when film and video are put to use, to presume that what other cultures choose as images can actually be translated, and it is this presumption which I think needs to be contested because what is inevitably involved are complex sign systems which our own culture has had difficulty in interpreting for itself let alone for others. This is a fascinating and perplexing problem. It suggests a kind of opaqueness which the universalizing tendencies of modern film and television theory have not grappled with, nor fully understood.

The present popularity of documentary cinema is largely based on the paradox that even when the films are polemical (Michael Moore), they are nevertheless seemingly connected to the truth. Any examination of how other cultures use documentary films reveals, however, that "vantage point" is perhaps far more important than fact.

More on the issues of vantage point in my next posting…

Experimental Cinema: Maya Deren

Maya Deren was one of America's greatest experimental filmmakers. Her work which was both allusive and surreal explored the visceral and sensuous as well as the symbolic and the magical. Meshes of the Afternoon which is available through YouTube still stands as one of the most important films of the 1940's, although her reputation only took off after her death in 1961. She was a seminal figure and continues to exert a strong influence on the independent cinema of the 21st century. Her influence also extends into other artistic disciplines and her book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti continues to be read even though many of its ethnographic assumptions are naive and sometimes contradictory.

A Torn Page…Ghosts on the Computer Screen…Words…Images…Labyrinths

Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace (extracts from a longer piece)

“Poetry is liquid language" (Marcos Novak)

“As a writer of fantasy, Balzac tried to capture the world soul in a single symbol among the infinite number imaginable; but to do this he was forced to load the written word with such intensity that it would have ended by no longer referring to a world outside of its own self…. When he reached this threshold, Balzac stopped and changed his whole program: no longer intensive but extensive writing. Balzac the realist would try through writing to embrace the infinite stretch of space and time, swarming with multitudes, lives, and stories." (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino)

Is it possible to imagine a labyrinth without a defined pattern, without a center or exit point? What if we enter that labyrinth and wander through its hallways, endlessly opening doors which lead to other doors, with windows which look out over other windows? What if there is no real core to the labyrinth and it is of unknown size? This may be an apt metaphor for virtual reality, for the vast network of ideas which now float across and between the many layers of cyberspace.

“A year ago, I was halfway convinced that cyberspaces where you can experience the sensation of hefting a brick or squeezing a lemon probably won’t be feasible for another twenty or thirty years. A month ago, I saw and felt something that shook my certainty. When I tried the first prototype of a pneumatic tactile glove in inventor Jim Hennequin’s garage in Cranfield, an hour’s drive southwest of London, I began to suspect that high-resolution tactile feedback might not be so far in the future. The age of the Feelies, as Aldous Huxley predicted, might be upon us before we know what hit us." (Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 322)

Sometimes the hallways of this labyrinth narrow and we hear the distant chatter of many people and are able to ‘browse’ or ‘gopher’ into their conversations. Other times, we actually encounter fellow wanderers and exchange details about geography, the time, information gained or lost during our travels. The excitement of being in the labyrinth is tempered by the fact that as we learn more and more about its structure and about surviving within its confines, we know that we have little hope of leaving. Yet, it is a nourishing experience at one level because there are so many different elements to it, all with a life of their own, all somehow connected and for the most part available to us. In fact, even though we know that the labyrinth has borders, it seems as if an infinite number of things could go on within its hallways and rooms. It is almost as if there is too much choice, too much information at every twist and turn. Yet, this disoriented, almost chaotic world has a structure. We don’t know the designers. They may have been machines, but we continue to survive in part because we have some confidence in the idea that design means purpose, and purpose must mean that our wanderings will eventually lead to a destination. (This may be no more than a metaphysical claim, but it keeps the engines of Cyberspace running at high speed.)

In order to enter a virtual labyrinth you must be ready to travel by association. In effect, your body remains at your computer. You travel by looking, by reading, by imaging and imagining. The eyes are, so to speak, the royal road into virtuality.

“Cyberspace — The electronic frontier. A completely virtual environment: the sum total of all [BBSes], computer networks, and other [virtual communities]. Unique in that it is constantly being changed, exists only virtually, can be practically infinite in “size" communication occurs instantaneously world-wide — physical location is completely irrelevant most of the time. Some include video and telephone transmissions as part of cyberspace." (A. Hawks, Future Culture — December 31, 1992)

In the labyrinth of Cyberspace, design is the logic of the system. Cyberspace reproduces itself at so many different levels at once and in so many different ways, that the effects are like an evolutionary explosion, where all of the trace elements of weakness and strength coexist. The architecture of this space is unlike any that has preceded it and we are consequently grappling with discursive strategies to try and describe the experiences of being inside it. The implication is that there is no vantage point from which you can watch either your progress or the progress of others. There isn’t a platform upon which you can stand to view your experience or the experience of your neighbours. In other words, the entire system doesn’t come into view — how could you create a picture of the Internet? Yet, you could imagine the vast web-like structure, imagine, that is, through any number of different images, a world of microelectronic switches buzzing at high speed with the thoughts and reflections of thousands of people. The more important question is what does this imagining do to our bodies, since to some degree Cyberspace is a fiction where we are narrator and character at one and the same time? What are the implications of never knowing the shape and architecture of this technological sphere which you both use and come to depend on? What changes in the communicative process when you type a feeling onto a computer screen, as opposed to speaking about it? What does that feeling look like in print? Does the computer screen offer a space where the evocative strength of a personal letter can be communicated from one person to another?

Idris Khan + Photography's Conceit (Roland Barthes)

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor. (Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes and as a consequence the photograph established a relay between the brothers, Roland Barthes and the readers of Camera Lucida. This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of a radically different kind of history as autobiography created by Barthes in Camera Lucida through an openly self-reflexive act of imaginary reconstruction. In a sense Barthes tries to provide us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activities as a viewer. Camera Lucida is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of the photograph in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, The Psychological Imagination . Of course the title of the book is also a play on Camera Obscura and as such refers to the history of the medium, to its origins as a device which transformed the three-dimensional characteristics of objects and subjects into a flat surface. The deliberate ambiguity of the term Lucida allows Barthes to ‘look’ at photographs both for what they are, and as triggers for bringing out the ‘inner’ light of thinking and interpretation.

For Barthes the eye is only capable of seeing if the subject who is looking has mastered an inner vision as well. The eyes, as much as photographs, reflect the tensions of a relationship which cannot be defined through images.

The Guardian of September 2, 2006
has a wonderful piece by Geoff Dyer onthe photographer Idris Khan. Khan photographed every page of Camera Lucida and then digitally combined them into a composite image. It is an intriguing idea and one that Barthes would have loved. The book becomes a photograph with all of its words synthesized into one image. You can see images from the show at Victoria-Miro Gallery in London.

9/11 Photographs + Imre Kertesz

If you go to Joel Meyerowitz's epic images of Ground Zero some of which are reproduced by The Guardian Newspaper you will be able to read about Meyerowitz's incredible project. He spent nine months on the site of the former World Trade Center.

I was trying to be a historian, to read it and to interpret what I saw. I understood that my reading of this moment was deepened by my personal commitment to it. There were men whose lives I was following; firemen looking for their dead sons. One day, a guy came to me and put his arms around me and said, "I found Tommy. I carried him out in my own arms" and the two of us stood there crying together. That day, I saw everything through the eyes of that father.

(Joel Meyerowitz, quoted in the Guardian Observer, Sunday, August 27, 2006.)

(Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive by Joel Meyerowitz is published on 6 September by Phaidon Press)

I read this article after having completed a longer piece that includes an interview with Imre Kertesz, the great Hungarian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. The interview appeared in SignandSight which is an online German publication. Kertesz says the following:

We try in vain to recount reality "faithfully" - the moment we start recounting it, we alter it. We lend form to our thoughts and experiences that whirl chaotically, or contrariwise, that lurk in the hidden nooks of our consciousness. The harder we try to render them accurately, the more radically we need to interfere. In other words, everything is fiction, most of all life itself. What's more, even a person is a fiction from the time that he invents himself. Because, at that very moment, his life has been decided in a sense. In my case, that happened some time around 1955, when I decided to become a writer. This moment was the start of fiction, as I imagined myself as a writer, which at the time did not make any sense. In fact, it seemed like a downright implausible decision.

This quote links to some of my earlier comments about images on this web site, but also to what I have been saying about communities and identity. Kertesz does not mean that our lives are a fiction, rather that we construct our identities and in so doing build as much of a fictional universe as a real one. It is the balance between fiction and reality that is at the heart of a struggle within ourselves and with the communities we inhabit.

In my previous Blog entry I mentioned how communities are becoming more and more like villages with all the attendant dangers of parochialism and insularity. These villages are no longer defined by conventional boundaries which makes them all the more difficult to analyse and understand. Kertesz discusses the effects of closed communities in which individuals "do not need to interpret their own needs and life any longer." Instead they resist the "spaciousness" of freedom. This is a crucial insight and one that needs further elaboration and exploration.

Dream Worlds and Malls

Imagine, if you will, that you have been given the chance to design your own shopping mall. How would you think about the space? What services would you make available to the consumers you wanted to attract? Which stores would you highlight? How would you give the mall a character of its own? Would you make it like a long hallway or give it the qualities of a large and spacious hall? Are you looking for intimacy or anonymity? Do you want people to be able to see each other as they shop? Or would you prefer the kind of space which, similar to a shopping street, keeps consumers on the move and therefore less likely to interact with each other? Would you look for ways of encouraging if not creating a public space, somewhat like a square in the grand European tradition, where large numbers of people could congregate? How would you manage an environment in which public space might take on more importance than the shops or restaurants within the mall? Should there be parks inside malls? Are malls any different from early twentieth century music halls, places of entertainment and pleasure and voyeurism?

All of these questions circle around another and perhaps a more primary one. What analytical tools will serve us best in trying to understand the mall as fundamental part of twenty-first century life and as a representation of the way in which our culture, our society, thinks about itself?

The author, Susan Buck-Morss wrote a book in 1991 entitled, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press) which is about arcades in Europe during the late eighteenth century. She begins with a quote from from Benjamin: “We have, so says the illustrated guide to Paris from the year 1852, a complete picture of the city of the Seine and its environs, but we have repeatedly thought of the arcades as interior boulevards, like those they open onto. These passages, a new discovery of industrial luxury, are glass-covered, marble-walled walkways through entire blocks of buildings, the owners of which have joined together to engage in such a venture. Lining both sides of these walkways which receive their light from above are the most elegant of commodity shops, so that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.”

Buck-Morss talks about Benjamin's desire to examine historical phenomena and make them talk — to bring to life the ‘everyday’ not as text, but as subject for conversation and exchange. It is, so to speak, the objects of modern day consumerism which need to be given life, not to overvalue them or even confer upon them a status which they don't deserve, but to uncover in their very existence the way in which mass culture and human desire engage to produce consumerism.

Benjamin thought of cities as intensely transient places, where spatial and temporal relations undergo non-stop change. The city becomes an environment of traces and memories. No sooner have you moved from one sphere of experience than you encounter another. People are in motion as are cars and trains and buses. Destinations are merely short-term stopovers in the constant flow. This sense of movement transforms reality into a dreamscape. Yet it is a reality which nonetheless services the people who use it. It is this relationship between the functional and the imaginary which I will explore.

Though he may not have used the term, Benjamin was in fact approaching the analysis of malls and cities as an ethnography. He saw the covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century as replicas of an internal consciousness, a collective dream dependent on ‘commodity fetishism’. At the same time the malls represented all that was utopian in the projections of a culture oriented towards commodities and consumerism but also towards fantasy and desire.

It was in this context, sensitized by Benjamin’s poetic description, I spent some time at Place Montreal Trust in downtown Montreal a few years ago. The following notes reflect what I saw and experienced.

When it was first built, Abercrombie and Fitch was the prestige store of Place Montreal Trust. The store sits astride a series of escalators which open onto a cavity in the centre of the building. This large open space has a gallery at every floor which allows for and encourages viewing, watching and gazing.

There are two elevators with glass windows in the centre of the mall to reinforce the sense that this is an environment where consumers should be able to watch each other. Skylights bring in natural light at a variety of different angles. The cavity is reminiscent of large exhibition halls and many of the stores are designed around the idea of theatrical display, with some storefronts recessed differently from others and with different intensities of artificial light.

Artificial versus natural. A common theme across most of the stores are mannequins. They are meant to stand in for the spectator/consumer. They are dressed in every possible type of clothing and assume many different physical positions. It is their gaze, the stasis in their eyes which interests me most. They simulate the potential look of “everyperson  — a desire to be perfect, to be shaped and formed in a perfect manner which is offset by the consumer’s knowledge that perfection cannot ever really be achieved.

Jess Cartner-Morley, of The Guardian traces the history of mannequins. "In Manhattan in 1936, Cynthia was something of a celebrity. On the arm of the sculptor Lester Gaba, she attended the opera in the best box, and was seen at every upscale, uptown soiree. She was showered with invitations to all the chicest parties. Couturiers sent her clothes, Cartier and Tiffany loaned jewellery. But Cynthia was not your average It girl. She was a plaster mannequin, and Gaba, her creator, had fallen in love with her. As the tale of Cynthia shows, society has had a strange relationship with the mannequin, or shop dummy, ever since it first appeared a century ago in the then new department stores of Paris. Suzanne Plumb, the organiser of a new exhibition in Brighton which explores the meaning and history of dolls, traces the root of our unease to the fact that "any representation of the human form is unnerving and strange". With mannequins - life-size, fashionably-dressed women - there is another layer of unease, which stems from notions about the perfect woman as mute, beautiful and obliging. These ideas are ancient: they can be traced back to Greek myth and Pygmalion, a sculptor with an aversion to real women, who created a life like ivory woman whom he had brought to life, and married."

The window display must capture the eye before thought — engage that curiosity which comes with watching an image, which perhaps explains why more and more windows make use of television monitors and mise-en-scène. The window as screen can bring you face to face with the images you desire. The store simply becomes a quick stopover, a functional experience designed around service but not around persuasion. Of course that means less and less employees and more merchandise, racks of goods which continue from the monitor into the store, which suggests that as you try on a pair of jeans, for example, you are attempting to wear the image.

The continuity between image and consumption is not as direct however, as the above argument might suggest. Window displays are part of a continuum. Images of consumption begin in the home. The presence of television monitors slips into that continuum. It might be better to say, and following Benjamin, that we are wearing the television set having not so much internalized its values, because we can remain as resistant as we wish, as we have become dependent on it as a source of information for what is available. This electronic clothing is a sign system which we use to explain the choices we make both to others and to ourselves. These processes, images interacting with identity — simultaneous resistance to being shaped by external forces — all are part of the experience. And it would be foolish for the architect involved in the creation of a mall or the marketer selling his or her goods not to be aware of them. “This overexposure attracts our attention inasmuch as it portrays the image of a world without antipodes, without hidden sides, a world in which opacity is no longer anything but a momentary ‘interlude’. It must be noted however, that the illusion of proximity does not last very long. Where the polis once inaugurated a political theatre ,with the agora and the forum, today there remains nothing but a cathode-ray screen, with its shadows and spectators of a community in the process of disappearing. This ‘cinematism’ conveys the last appearance of urbanism, the last image of an urbanism without urbanity, where tact and contact yield to televisual impact. . .” (Paul Virilio, The Overexposed City, in Zone 1/2, page 23)

The Abercrombie and Fitch store is very conscious of the need to theatricalize and to create a visually rich environment for its products. Its windows are like a tableau vivant. In the window I happened upon there was a hammock with Teddy Bears on it surrounded by an artificial tree. There was a large picture of two wolves with the suggestion of a hunt. Then of course there was Spring clothing, what you might need to relax and be comfortable during the coming vacation. There was also a wooden croquet set along with other adult games. All of this centred on the notion that the consumer can be like the child — that play is as good as work and both are necessary for each other. The store looks as if it is trying to open its doors to the wilderness which beckons beyond the shopping centre which may explain the Teddy Bears, but not the manner in which they are depicted. The window does have a lot of hunting gear in the back but that seems to be more symbolic than real, which is in fact precisely what the window display is promoting. (The fact that Abercrombie and Fitch has now changed into a young adult fashion outlet makes the above description all the more ironic.)

Opposite Abercrombie and Fitch there used to a restaurant, Café Les Palmes which took this notion of the outside to the extreme. The kitchen was visible as were the many palm trees which sat in close proximity to a large number of false columns designed around an Egyptian motif. Thus you could sit and eat and watch the fountain in the centre of the mall as it shot water into the air. You could listen to the sound of that water and smell the trees and watch a chef prepare your meal. You could experience all the elements of an environment from which you were completely detached and if that bothered you, you could go into Abercrombie and Fitch and buy something to bring you closer to the outside.

I have been discussing the rather attractive way in which stores like Abercrombie and Fitch link the outside world to the consumer goods that they sell. Their display windows bring nature into the mall and connect the mall to nature. Now, I don't want to focus too heavily on the motif of inside/outside but as I have mentioned there is a tremendous skylight and it dominates the entire centre of Place Montreal Trust. Given the intensity and length of Montreal winters, the trees, water and natural light in the mall contribute to a feeling of well-being, which perhaps explains why the mall is designed as a series of galleries. You have to walk around the galleries to enter and exit to heighten the effect of the separation from the cold outside.

The galleries slow down the usual downtown rush and there are strategically placed seats to reinforce the idea that this is also a place of rest. Make this your second home, a place to vacation, even a place to eat. The familiar is mixed with the exotic. This explains why the kitchen of Café Les Palmes is so to speak at street level. We are at the edge of a beach. We can listen to the rush of waves even as a snowstorm batters the outside. We can, so to speak, almost make our own food as we picnic. This is also part of the mentality in the self-serve basement food emporium. Everything is fast and everything is prepared, but you still pick up your own food and can if you're lucky find a table with an umbrella to sustain the fantasy.

“The covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century were Benjamin's central image because they were the precise material replica of the internal consciousness, or rather, the unconscious of the dreaming collective. All of the errors of bourgeois consciousness could be found there (commodity fetishism, reification, the world as ‘inwardness’), as well as (in fashion, prostitution, gambling) all of its utopian dreams. Moreover, the arcades were the first international style of modern architecture, hence part of the lived experience of a worldwide, metropolitan generation.” (Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project , p. 39)

For Benjamin the new material world of the arcade led to a re-enchantment of all that was dreary about everyday life. This is perhaps one of Benjamin's most important insights. As city centres have become depopulated, the mall in the city centre has become a new public space of eating and consuming. This all takes place within the context of the televisual, within the context of images. It is not so much that the images satisfy a fantasy, as they fit into a pre-existent set of dreams about money and material wealth. Images transform architectural design into a play with surfaces where stores allow viewers to enter and experience the advertisements which they have seen elsewhere. Malls are like a forest of symbols and signs with direction markers pointing every which way. This in fact may be at the heart of their attractiveness. For as the urban landscape becomes denaturalized our culture will have to find a new way to bring back the natural configurations which it has eliminated. But this new nature will imitate not reproduce, simulate not reenact.

There is a need to see malls not as reflections of some low cultural activity that is not worthy of comment, but as the very essence of how our culture is defining itself. They are a symptomatic map, as much of conscious as unconscious needs and activities. Thus the palm trees at Montreal Trust and the ones in San Diego effectively join together. A picture is assembled which confirms a continuity between the home and the market-place, between various levels of artifice and nature and between divergent and often distinct geographic locations. “The arcades, as houses without exteriors were themselves, just like dreams. All collective architecture of the nineteenth century provides housing for the dreaming collective: arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax-figure cabinets, casinos, railroad stations, — as well as museums, apartment interiors, department stores and public spas.” Susan Buck-Morss, p. 41

The architectural becomes a scaffolding onto which the body maps itself. And this body of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century inhabits a space which is so close to a dream world that as Benjamin suggested the fantasy needs to be recounted otherwise we will never understand its effects.



Reader responses

There have been a number of responses to my recents posts and here are some samples:


I found it very interesting - There was an interview
with the actress Rene Zellweger in today's
paper and something she said caught my attention. When
asked about privacy, fame and harassment - she said
that while walking down the street people with
cellphones will photograph her - without asking her
permission - but, worst of all - without saying
hello!!This relatively new technology exists but maybe
at the expense of manners, freedom, privacy, etc. This
could be the downside. It really has nothing to do
with teaching and recognizing the new media - but it's
an interesting issue touching on a paparazzi-like
behaviour - whereby BEFORE this technology existed
people would have stopped and maybe said hello (or
asked for an autograph - how old-fashioned).

The use today of people in far-away places where
labour is cheap, or the technology exists - is
something relatively new and fascinating. I know that
when you call Montreal INFORMATION the person
answering you is no longer sitting in Montreal but in
INDIA.. Where once material and goods
were outsourced - new technologies have now created a
situation whereby customer service, telemarketing,and
information services are outsourced. The changes may
look subtle but they shift the power of the work force
from place to place and create jobs for people in
less-developped or poorer countries (and deprive jobs
for those in the wealthier countries - such as

All this has nothing to do with teaching new media and
persuading higher learning institutions to extend
their budgets for it - but it helps to prove how much
there is to learn and what potentials are out there
for people with good ideas who want to turn them into
money-making ventures. We need to understand New Media from this perspective as well.


Actually, every time I saw the phrase 'New Media' so far I have always had
a tendency to immediately challenge the author. So far there has never been
anyone who could successfully convince me that there was anything
specifically newer - i.e. newer in a different sense - in the New Media now
than in the New Media of the past.

Your current contribution to thinking about this issue is the first one
that forces me to recognize that, even though the media themselves (i.e.
the technological tools) are as such not dramatically different, the
complex environment of which both humans and the media are part has perhaps
started to take on different properties. Neither the media nor the humans
may any longer be what they used to be before that happened.


Can the study of "boundaries" between disciplines become a field in itself, is this theory, or critical theory? How does theory (from arts and humanities) create tangible connections with the sciences?
Curatorial disciplines can play an important role in helping us redefine the boundaries.