Agitating Images


Photography in critical cultural theory has consistently proven to confound interpretation as a generic category. It is apprehended along a spectrum of positions that see it alternately as a transparent representational document and a fabricated cultural text. As I have shown in this book, whatever its ontological status, the photograph is implicated in historical discourses as a significant document. As a resource in the production of historical narrative it is much like any other document. A photograph, however, is an unstable element when reproduced as a component of historiography. I argue that photographs work along the same principal as archives and they undermine the rules of historical narrative by way of their bald disclosure of alternative historical readings, blind spots, and the seams of knowledge production itself. Image agitators are dangerous communications to the integrity of conventional historiography.


The idea of photographs as dangerous communications is borrowed from Odilon Redon, the French symbolist painter who was fascinated by obscurity, mysticism, and ambiguity. He once wrote that the photographer


directly and shamefully uses photography in order to convey truth. He believes...that this result is sufficient when it can merely provide him with a fortuitous accident of a crude phenomenon. The negative only conveys death. The emotion felt in the presence of nature itself will always supply him with an equally authentic amount of truth, the only truth, which he himself controls. The other is a dangerous communication.

Odilon Redon

According to Redon photographs that are used as reference for painters are 'dangerous communications' because they support an illusion of presence or witness and truth as a commodity. In this case the mediating role of the photograph is an invisible buffer between the world as it is experienced and the world as it is represented. The advent of photography sparked a burgeoning crisis in the art world. This was not only a crisis of representation but of the location of the author in the production of knowledge. The status of truth and the real is associated by Redon with artist's 'emotional' experience; it is a statement of positionality, an ethics of presence. Redon's 'dangerous communication' is relevant here for noting the role of the photograph as a prosthesis for experience. The danger in this communication reveals consternation over practices of representation and the status of knowledge that is something gained from direct experience. The photograph in this sense is a doppelganger of the real, of situated knowledge. Not only does it double the real through a sensuously convincing copy but it threatens to overwhelm and diminish it.


Impossible illustration [20 minutes]

A seemingly endless flow of images flashes by without the possibility of full recognition: a delirious archive of detail. What should have been ephemeral elements of everyday life slip past the archons when photographs are accessioned into the archive. The full sensuous excess of the photographic image carries both its illustrative power and its capacity to refuse illustration. This video is crafted as a kind of slide show with a variable rate of duration for each slide. The confoundingly short duration is offset by the occasional lingering pause, which is meant to invite examination, only to be thwarted by a persistent forward movement through hundreds of images.


The role of dangerous communications in this book is to highlight the (de)generative and unwieldy power of the image and to engage with the increasingly dislocated character of the archive. I mean to use these effects to develop my historiography of socialist colonialism as necessarily partial, contingent, and embodied. By this I mean it to work as an invitation to further research, query, and challenge. The various photographs and videos are meant to function as interventions that simultaneously supplement and supplant the historical narratives I have established in the rest of the book. In this section I take photography and archives as interchangeable concepts; similarly governed and similarly appropriated. They are also apprehended as communicative models: sources (though not necessarily originary) from which meaning issues forth. It is shown in this section that the emanations from these queer inventions have unpredictable consequences.

The various photographs and videos included on this website are meant to function as interventions that simultaneously supplement and supplant the historical narratives I have established in the print publication. The digital supplement is structured around four different themes:

An orientation to concepts is more or less essential to make sense of this section. I take for granted a common undertanding of sovietization, the Culture Base, and other contextual elements that help to situate the history of socialism in the central Siberian North. This can be gleaned from the print publication.




image source: kkkm_077-006