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Seeing Witness

Seeing Witness: Visuality and the Ethics of Testimony

Jane Blocker
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Seeing Witness
    Book Description:

    In Seeing Witness, Jane Blocker challenges the implicit authority of witnessing through the examination of a series of contemporary artworks, all of which make the act of witnessing visible, open to inspection and critique. Going beyond particular traumatic or sensational events, Blocker contemplates the politics of witnessing and argues that the witness represents a morally unique—and even problematic—position of privilege.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6804-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Imagery Specialists
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the United Nations Security Council, laying the groundwork with satellite photographs of chemical weapons facilities for the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq. About the satellite images, Powell explained:

    The photos I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me. The painstaking work of photo analysis takes experts with years and years of experience, poring for hours and hours over light tables. But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they...

  6. I. History

    • 1. A Promise Always Disappearing: The Ethics of History in Ulay and Abramović’s The Lovers
      (pp. 3-12)

      My first book was an examination of the work of Cuban-­born performance artist Ana Mendieta and the historiography that surrounds her. A significant concern of that project was to consider the ways in which the historian works to locate and fix historical events and actors temporally, geographical, categorically, and ideologically. In this context I asked, “What kind of history is it that does not save?”¹ The question was meant critically as a means to envision a new kind of history writing, one based on performance rather than on the preservation-driven logic of the archive. It was there that I began...

    • 2. Peoples of Memory: James Luna and the Production of History
      (pp. 13-28)

      Consider Pierre Nora’s claim that today history is replacing memory. Nora, editor of the seven-volume opus on French historyLes lieux de mémoire (Realms of Memory),claims that history, embodied in the coldly official text, datum, and archive, eradicates memory, which is not embodied because it is body, cannot be written because it is lived. Memory’s body is, for Nora, “displaced under the pressure of a fundamentally historical sensibility.” It “has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’sinherent self-­knowledge,in unstudied reflexes.”¹ Because we are products of Western civilization, citizens...

    • 3. Binding to Another’s Wound: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ross McElwee on Weddings
      (pp. 29-48)

      My parents were married in 1954. Their friends made a home movie of the wedding that shows a funny scene outside the church where my great-aunt Josephine clowns for the camera. The film, in those juicy Super 8 colors, stutteringly pans the guests milling about in front of the church steps and then focuses in on Jo, who first waves exuberantly, then impishly presents her camera to take a picture of the amateur moviemakers. These dueling lenses trained on each other always get a laugh, not only because we remember Jo was funny and childlike, but also because we recognize...

  7. II. Technology

    • 4. A Cemetery of Images: Photography and Witness in the Work of Gilles Peress and Alfredo Jaar
      (pp. 51-60)

      Thirteen months after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, journalist Philip Gourevitch visited the church at Nyarubuye where some one hundred Tutsis had sought refuge, only to be hacked to death by Hutus. This church had become a rotting memorial; the Tutsis did not bury their dead at Nyarubuye or at many other such sites, but left them untouched as a testament to the atrocities that had taken place there. When Gourevitch gazed upon these putrefying corpses, he remarked, “The dead looked likepicturesof the dead.”¹ Because the bodies seemed unreal in spite of his knowledge of the slaughter and...

    • 5. Machine Memory: Digital Witness in Dumb Type’s memorandum
      (pp. 61-84)

      In 1945, Sicilian-born artist Alfred Crimi produced an intriguing pencil drawing for Vannevar Bush’s now famous essay “As We May Think,” which was first published inAtlantic Monthlyand then later reprinted inLifewith Crimi’s illustrations. An engineering researcher at MIT during the war, Bush served as director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, where, according to the editor ofAtlantic Monthly,he “coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare.”¹ Thus, he played an early and active role in the establishment of contemporary geopolitics, which combines industry,...

  8. III. Biopower

    • 6. This Being You Must Create: Transgenics, Witness, and Selfhood in the Work of Eduardo Kac and Christine Borland
      (pp. 87-102)

      This chapter is written by a monster in pursuit of monsters. Its voice is that of a transgenic cyborg, a hybrid who is disfigured within contemporary discourse on the body, reproductivity, genetics, identity, inheritance, and subjectivity. It seeks a being that, while similarly deformed, must still be created, one that, whether genetically engineered or crudely stitched, can be put to work in that place where biotechnology and identity politics meet.

      In that regard, this chapter mimics the monster in Mary Shelley’s famous novelFrankenstein(1818), who pleads with his creator to fashion a companion, a being of the same species...

    • 7. The Shame of Biological Being: Microbiology and Theories of Subjectivity in a Project by Ann Hamilton and Ben Rubin
      (pp. 103-120)

      As I have already noted, Kelly Oliver writes that understanding subjectivity and subject positions is central to the ethics of witness. “To conceive of oneself as a subject,” she remarks, “is to have the ability to address oneself in another, real or imaginary, actual or potential. Subjectivity is the result of, and depends on, the process of witnessing—address-ability and response-ability.”¹ For Oliver, as we’ve said, the subject is defined by witness, because witnessing requires telling one’s story, speaking from the place that “I” designates. To witness is to occupy a position from which one is able to address another,...

  9. Conclusion: A Mysterious Picture of God
    (pp. 121-128)

    Adrian McElwee, son of independent documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, displays a colorful painting to his father’s camera in the film SixO’Clock News(1997) and announces unexpectedly, “This is a mysterious picture of God.” In a voice-over his father observes, “God sort of looks like a movie camera here.” Indeed, on the left side of the painting, a broad dark outline suggests the shape of a camera lens. Ross McElwee guesses that Adrian’s exuberantly colorful image, the product of his then four-year-old imagination, unconsciously bears the effect of his being the son of two documentary filmmakers. It is no wonder...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 129-138)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 139-146)
  12. Index
    (pp. 147-154)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 155-155)