Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: Systems of Making and Distribution

This is part nine in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.

Up to this point, I have argued and demonstrated that the way images are created and distributed involves a series of pressures, mostly economic and ideological, that are exerted upon the process to influence the images' performance before and the pressure exerted upon audiences. If we are to conceive of new means of exerting political impact through images, we must get beyond the critique and potential of the images themselves and look into the logics and purposes of their creation and distribution systems. In almost every case, a decisive variable in the ultimate political outcome will be the economic platform upon which image distribution systems are built.

This holds to be true from the most tawdry forms of tabloid photojournalism through the most well regarded documentary work and into book publishing and gallery and museum exhibitions. Nothing achieves distribution without performing within or establishing itself in opposition to an economy or economies. Work that does not perform well within an economy will either have to wait until the cultural and economic models are ready to receive it, or will have to create its own distribution systems with the full knowledge that these sytems are as much a part of the work as the images themselves.

To these ends I propose a basic outline that demonstrates how images are made and identifies the key variables in assessing the pressures exerted on those images from their conception to their final format and presentation in front of an audience. Projects whose goal it is to create realized political effect will have to address each of the variables in the process and identify the economic and political goals at each stage of the way in order to maximize their overall influence over the final outcome.

At the beginning is the identification of a subject and the decision that it is worthwhile depicting that subject photographically in some fashion for an audience.

The goal is create a body of images…

…that will then perform in front of and exert a kind of political pressure upon an audience or audiences.

In investigating the subject, an interrogating agency is employed whose purpose is to interrogate the subject and to translate it in a meaningful and accessible fashion. This is an organization(s) or individuals who are seeking to understand and interpret the subject. The interaction between this interrogating agency and the subject will shape the entire potential of any media outcome. This is the most important interaction because without it little understanding or access is possible.

Within the subject, targeted points of entry, depiction and potential political pressure are identified. These are points that have the potential to be both meaningful in communicating the subject to an audience and useful in achieving political effect if pressure is exerted upon them from the audience in response.

A photographer, photographers or some other form of media agency identifies the subject and begins the process of depiction. This agency frequently differs from the interrogating agency and often relies on information acquired from this authoritative body.

Once created by the photographer or media agency, the images must pass through a distribution channel, which will select and distribute images that are specifically in support of its own political and economic goals. This involves editing and sequencing in ways that follow the logic and ideologies of the distribution mechanism itself, with the goal of creating an effect on the audience that is at once desired and in keeping with the political and economic goals of the corporate entities handling the distribution. This is equally true of new media distribution systems as well as old. Nothing enters into distribution that is not in keeping with the economies and fundamental missions of the distribution channels themselves. The difficulty with this is that the channels tend to shape the viewer experience in ways that are self-serving and limiting.

At this point a viewing experience has been constructed and arrives at the audience, having passed through all of the shaping pressures in each part of the process. From interrogating agency to distribution channel, each will have exerted political pressure on the final media experience in service to the aims of each contributing organization.

A remote audience far removed from the subject will receive the media experience as its primary means of picturing the subject. Audience members will also have other media experiences with which to compare and the images will create shared or competing experiences that either reinforce and repeat, or challenge and defeat audience expectations of the media experience as a whole.

The ongoing success of periodical publications, whether they are newspaper, magazines, or internet-based media, depends on fulfilling audience expectations from that distribution channel. The tolerance for challenging and defeating audience expectations is severely limited by the economic goals of the channel, and those challenging and defeating effects on the audience will be regulated carefully by the distribution channels themselves.

Political change often involves a restructuring of information and the architecture and forms that information takes as it achieves an impact on the audience. Change must achieve some sort of disharmony from the other media with which it is competing if new action is to be achieved. Since this is frequently an undesirable outcome for existing distribution channels disharmony is resisted.

Ultimately the audience then has a response to the media experience that directs a kind of political action back towards the targeted points within the subject at which they have been pointed. The project is successful in so far as it drives realized political pressure from the audience back towards the targeted fulcrums within the subject where political pressure will hopefully achieve the maximum realized effect.

To achieve this we need to recognize that the medium of photography itself is political in that pictures are assigned, created, edited, distributed and received by and within corporate bodies that have specific political aims that shape the end experience. Where they direct the viewer ultimately determines a net political effect. This can be in a wide variety of directions, from a general emotional experience to targeted political action.

Work that disrupts or makes more apparent these political exchanges leads us away from the general and back into the specific, where political solutions can be created. Images that defeat viewer expectations make the latent expectations more apparent and by doing so make their political implications more consciously apparent. For the broader audience there must be a recognition that the very act of making and viewing a photograph has political implications, and that the viewer is not a passive recipient of the image but in fact participates in a broad exchange of affect and information that has real political impact, both for themselves and for specific political realities throughout the world. Targeting and locating where the viewer is placed in a relationship to the subject has everything to do with understand or identifying how the images exert actual political pressure.

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