“With whose blood were my eyes crafted?” (Donna Haraway, 1998)
It’s my fourth day at the Listhus Artists Residency in Ólafsfjörður and now that I’ve had a chance to get my bearings, a few thoughts are taking shape around my project here. An experiment in research-creation, Pedestrian Conflict aims to explore histories of social conflict, nation-building and globalization through people’s intimate connections to landscape. Research-creation is a jargon-y academic term, so I’m simply thinking of it as a practice that situates aesthetic creativity – in this case photography and narrative writing – within research activity. Using visual representation and shared dialogue as ways to engage with inhabitants and visitors to the Fjallabyggð region, I hope to explore how individuals perceive their connection to the local landscape. I’m particularly interested in how residents of Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður have re-imagined their lives and livelihoods after the collapse of the herring industry in the 1960’s.
Pedestrian Conflict: thoughts about a title
Conflict can describe the violent traumas and social ruptures in the world around us that result from ongoing, transnational processes of militarization, environmental destruction, capital accumulation and colonialisms – for example, the traumas inflicted upon displaced persons and refugees. But conflict can also refer to one’s emotional and practical responses to such crises, whether our own lived experience or that of others. An example of this is the current debate on social media about the posting of graphic images of Alyan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish child who drowned while his fleeing family were attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos. Over the past few days, my Facebook feed has been filled with passionate pleas for and against the ethics of posting and viewing the disturbing photographs of Alyan’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach.
Such arguments about the representation of human suffering and death are not new. Indeed, a range of commentators has elucidated the ethics of looking at difficult images (see, for example, Susan Sontag’s canonical text Regarding the Pain of Others). Pedestrian Conflict aims to enter into this debate by posing the question of what it means to look as an ethics of encounter. If ethics is concerned with the question of what constitutes a good enough practice of human relationality, then an ethics of encounter considers how practices of seeing and of representation work through or repeat the traumatic and/or painful elements of how we understand each another as human. At the same time, this project challenges the notion that there is any singular authentic point of view. As Donna Haraway suggests (Situated Knowledges, 1998), “Vision is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood”, she asks, “were my eyes crafted”?
For Haraway the question of blood, embodiment and vision refers not only to the work of constituting oneself in relation to a violent and oppressive world, but also to the ways in which one enters into that being via encounters with others. How can the practice of looking help us to think about our fantasies of ourselves and of others, and to craft more nuanced and thoughtful ways of relating across difference? This may seem like a big ask, but given recent conversations about how to respond to an image of a small child lying dead on a Turkish shoreline, it is clear that certain images push us to consider this demand. Some questions can be raised: Who or what do we see? What do we not see? What underlies the structures of vision? Whose lives count? Who is complicit? And finally, how is one to respond? The premise of Pedestrian Conflict is that looking is already an encounter between the self and another that is imbued with historical relations of power. Pictures don’t stage that relation; rather, they illuminate the traces of what one cannot or will not see – the shadow side of our presumed knowledge about ourselves and others. The responsibility is then to take up visual image not as an answer to a question, but as a question itself. What I’m hoping to explore with this project is how visual representations help us to think through the ethics of human response to painful realities of social survival and difference.
The word ‘pedestrian’ has two connotations for this study: the first refers to the commonplace or ordinary aspects of social conflict that are often overlooked in mainstream representations. The second describes the method of research that is used in this project – walking. Pedestrian Conflict explores the mobility of walking for its ability to reflect how landscape acts as “a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other” (Mitchell 1994, 5). As a visitor to the Fjallabyggð region, I am interested in the productive tensions between how outsiders and local inhabitants ‘see’ the social history of the Icelandic landscape. To this end, I have invited people to take me on walks to a place in the local landscape that is meaningful to them. The walks will allow me to explore the area in a more relational manner and to produce a shared interpretation of experience. Working together with participants to produce a collective dialogue about our walks, I also aim to visually document the experience using still photography. The ensuing narratives and photographs are not so much “data” as they are opportunities to generate shared conversations about the politics of looking and of representation.
W.J.T. Mitchell (1994), in his book Landscape and Power, “asks that we think of landscape, not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed” (p.1). The photographs I create as part of this project are meant as prompts to explore how participants see themselves and others in relation to place. Multiple interpretations, and hopefully questions, are therefore raised. They also allow me to represent research as an encounter with others in which my own ways of seeing (and not seeing) are part to the process of coming to know. Because visual images are often perceived as documenting some kind of essential truth, I’m very interested in how such structures of seeing might be disrupted. I’ve written elsewhere about the potential for images to teach us about the world of our own desires. Pedestrian Conflict is an experiment in bringing this conjecture into practice.
A further aim of this project is to think about walking as a mobility that is itself inflected with social, historical and political dynamics. Responding to romantic ideals of walking as an enlightenment practice of “freedom” from capital and its’ constraints (see Thoreau and Gros, for example ), Pedestrian Conflict hopes to raise questions about who, under the conditions of contemporary surveillance that characterize late modernity, is able to walk, for what purpose and where. Walking is not a neutral practice, as is clear by the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin, who met a violent death because he dared to walk where he was perceived as to not belong. A similar danger exists for those who move in ways that challenge the normative social landscape.
I’m ending this blog post with a photograph of a house here in Ólafsfjörður – one of the first images I took the morning of my arrival in the village. I found the mural compelling because of my interest the collapse of the herring industry here, and its meaning for current residents. The aesthetic value of the image is not what is at stake. Instead, what I find curious is the dialogue that the photograph provoked when I later showed it to the group of artists gathered at the residency, some who had been here for several weeks already. It was immediately recognizable – a sounding point of sorts. For what, remains to be seen…