'I am registered, therefore I am', an existential motto of our time might read like this.
I am not only observed, but also recorded and I am included in existence in precisely this way. Precisely in this way do I, do others know that I live. Diverse media continually ‘record’ me, confirm my life and turn it into visibility.
The dictatorship of visibility controls both the private and in the public domain, in which the image/ representation functions as crucial proof. The camera is everywhere, for the most intimate and most public events. Our answer to that is not to avoid the camera’s gaze, but on the contrary to seek it. As if we have nothing to hide or we surrender en masse – to whom or what remains a mystery.
In this mediation between being and non-being we can do nothing else than continually behave as camera-genic as possible. See and be seen via the image has become a cultural and existential duty. This primacy of image and visibility however is no universal, natural condition: Islam’s interdict on images originally, according to the second commandment, also applied to Christendom.1
1Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children into the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
Connected to this theological diktat, codes about visibility and invisibility of an entirely different order lie dormant in our culture.
Some of the complications of this are revealed in the magnetic video projection Untitled 2003 by Arnoud Holleman. Holleman draws on documentary, black and white archive pictures dating from the late fifties and filmed in the village of Staphorst, renowned for its inflexible, religious community. He selected and isolated a number of specific fragments, and slowed them down in part, presenting them without sound. You see short street scenes in which a group of Staphorsters, women or children in traditional dress, continually flee from the film camera: those ‘under fire’ from the camera, turn, dive or run away, cover their faces; they do anything to get out of view as quickly as possible.
As an onlooker you are a witness, or voyeur, of obscene aggressive attempts to make visible that which wishes to remain hidden, which will not reveal itself. You likewise see a radical rejection of representation that differs fundamentally from present-day attitudes to image and the camera. The ‘secret’ of the Staphorsters is as illusive as comprehending what has been actually relinquished.
These scenes seem miles away from us and are acted out in a strange alternative reality, in spite of the unmistakably proto-Dutch scenes, bicycles, farms and clogs. Yet the ban on illustrating, seeing, or being illustrated, seen is now very topical - the ‘headscarf discussion’ concerning Islamic women and girls in the Netherlands for example. The profane logic of a visibility culture maintains that those who cannot or will not be (wholly) seen may not exist. This sidesteps the recognition that in our culture, the visible remains as empty and mysterious as the invisible.
Translation Helen-Anne Ross