A Tale Of A Tub

Article Extra Mural

Jack Segbars reflects on Sander Breure & Witte van Hulzen’s video installation The Shores of an Island I Only Skirted

The Shores of an Island I Only Skirted by Sander Breure and Witte van Hulzen presented at The Migrant (Moving) Image

By dialectically juxtaposing two harrowing narratives that by themselves already contain loads of material for contemplation, Sander Breure en Witte van Hulzen recombine these separate narratives into one powerful issue: that of image-politics within the artistic realm.

In our highly mediated condition a constant appeal is exercised on our emotions and sense of ethics that more than often get frustrated by the sheer volume of produced imagery, and that are emptied out by the subsequent inability to act accordingly. Facts may be known and they may be perceived but they are not the logic causes for our actions. Cause and effect are short-circuited. It produces a sense of inertia.

The artists address in this work two pertinent cases of our historic times that are intimately connected: mass-emigration from war and economic impoverishment and the nationalistic and populist response to that. In this case illustrated by the Mediterranean refugee-crisis from the war-torn Middle-East and Africa to Europe; and the warped and hyperbolic terroristic reaction of Lars Breivik in Stockholm and the mass-slaughter on Utøya. Both were (and the refugee crisis still is) highly mediated.

We could follow the events in Norway almost instantaneously as they happened in time. Live audio and visual accounts of the victims from the scene were given by mobile phone that were immediately broadcasted. The accounts from the island were complemented by the external viewpoint from the shore and from the air. We were there both in the scene as we were witnessing it from a distance with our media-apparatus in between as mediator. The subsequent reconstructions the following days, offered an even more detailed and immediate account of these horrific events.

The imagery that accompanies the plight of refugees that travel over sea and land to Europe produces the same kind of impotence in the minds of the spectator. Real-time accounts of crossings by boats are mixed with accounts of their sometimes disastrous endings, as well as the conditions at border-crossings and refugee-camps.

Our over-mediated condition has shortened the link between our sense of time and our representation, we are represented before we can asses the situation or alter it, time has become short in our mediated cosmology, we are –so to speak- in continued immediacy. So we collectively fall through the gap that mediation and representation constitute, leaving the agency of our narratives empty, and without the chance of these becoming history. We are under a permanence, a regime of distanced perspective. We are within an impoverished self-observance.

Walter Benjamin introduced and familiarized us with the idea of the dialectical image. It is this powerful notion of recovery of what is kept from vision and to disclose that what is obscure, in order to retrieve the oppressed narrative that is kept under by power. It thus not only discloses that what is oppressed, but at the same time -and more importantly- shows the mechanisms and nature of the powers that oppress. A potential of resistance arises, by recognition of what constitutes this mechanism.
This image can only pop up in a moment of danger for we must recognize how we ourselves are implicated in it.

This method of the dialectical image may by now be our most familiarized artistic framework. As trained aestheticists we know of the hidden image that we are to retrieve from lost histories and narratives for which we look, that will present themselves. That are from the world but that are kept from sight.

Now in our condition of the ever present image, and the transparency of history, the potential of this method has become difficult, maybe even depleted. There arguably is no space left to ‘rediscover’ and to disclose. It is not only the ‘guilty landscape’ that pushes upon us, that pushes our sense of
responsibility and our sense of ethics. We are also confronted with a structural emptiness of agency by transparency. The acknowledgment of this depleted status –an assessment of our condition- must be the new departure point.

Now how to act with this? In this work the artists adapt a strategy of indirectness. Apart from the openings-shot in which we are given a a direct account of a victim in Utøya at the time of the events, we are taken along the scene by the artists ‘skirting’ the location after the facts. In an almost detached and registering fashion the island is mapped as the locus of the events that have passed. The site is scanned with an almost alien and unfamiliar perspective, maybe to verify what has been mediated earlier, and to check and probe the validity of this account.

With the same tension and unease between detachment and attachment we are presented, on the reverse side of the screening with accounts of refugees and of immigration, of travel as such, by found-footage mostly from the internet, dating from before media awareness about the situation kicked in. These are not the detailed, and spectacular accounts we usually receive from news-media that through their professional capacity show all dramatic details. The materiality of the imagery produced by the unofficial media, that itself is quite often necessarily of low-quality and grainy is kept intact as witness to the conditions in which they are produced and recorded. And since they were not intended as broadcast material, the duration of the material often is unformatted: too long, too short, and sketchy in focus. It produces an often subdued, intimate and almost poetic imagery. We are the unintended witnesses of unfamiliar events in unfamiliar time and space.

Both sides of the screen convey a lateral, sideways approach though each with a different technique: the hint of the ‘real’ –as witness to situation in Utøya, and of the abstractions of migration as generic theme, as an aesthetic. The topic for each narrative is definitely present, but the choice of material generates a divergence, a threshold to direct access to it. The threshold as statement acts as a symbolic expression. It is the presentation of the limits of the artistic gaze. And as an acknowledgment of its relative inadequacy as herald to future action. It stops. It halts. It is in this stoppage, that produced itself as non-time and non-space that we have to look further. For a(ny) possible futurity.

– Jack Segbars

Photo: Robert Glas