Magazine article Artforum International

Remote Control: Abigail Solomon-Godeau's Dispatches from the Image Wars

Magazine article Artforum International

Remote Control: Abigail Solomon-Godeau's Dispatches from the Image Wars

Article excerpt

LIKE A MINIATURE GUILLOTINE, a camera shutter slices an image from the world into which it may or may not be subsequently launched. But if it is launched--printed, transmitted, broadcast, or reproduced--it may function as an event in its own right. This has occurred over the past several months, as issues of representation have themselves become a topic in the mass media--nowhere more evident than in recent cases of censorship, whether self-or officially imposed. On February 1, Janet Jackson's ornamented nipple was digitally effaced in news broadcasts after its initial exposure during the Super Bowl, its primal scene, so to speak. Thirteen of the photos depicting the killing of four American contractors in Fallujah on March 31, posted on the CNN website, were quickly removed. In certain newspapers and newscasts, footage of this event was digitally altered to obscure its more gruesome elements. And while these examples attest to censorship apres coup, the photographs of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers, previously withheld from the public, have recently appeared in the nation's newspapers, explicitly attesting to their prior censorship.

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The withdrawal of what was previously offered to sight suggests the intractability of what is so often subject to censorship. In these cases, censorship mechanisms pivoted on the lawless exhibition of the female body and the sight of burned and mutilated American corpses. Thematically, the exposure of the sexualized female body and the desecrated corpse are both instances of venerable taboos marking the contingent boundaries between what should or should not be seen in public. Historically speaking, censorship and bodily exposure have long been linked, although it must be said that sexualized female bodies are everywhere to be seen on network television (albeit with nipples well concealed). As for slaughtered bodies, the media tends to represent enemy casualties far more frequently than our own. In any case, discretion is the rule in news journalism, even in the tabloids. This is because the serving up of the (visually) horrific--blood, gore, mutilation, and so forth--is the task of the entertainment industry, not the news media. In reality, however, taboos about the body or about the dead both belong to that segregated domain designated as obscene--etymologically defined as what is, or should be, off-scene.

As my examples indicate, the image is by definition always considered more volatile, dangerous, and uncontrollable than written or verbal descriptions, even detailed ones, and so it has always been. In most of these recent cases of visual transgression someone or something--an event or a sight--was released and disseminated, and then quickly withdrawn from view. The eruption of "unlicensed" images into the virtual space of the "news," coupled with the attendant apparatuses of censorship, raises interesting questions about the nature and terms of transgressive imagery and its relationship to actuality.

To think about image wars in the age of digital and analog representation is not only to consider the vicissitudes of censorship, whether post-event or prior (the coffins), but also to reflect on the staging of images. Consider, for example, the Hollywoodian dimensions of the photograph of a flak-jacketed President Bush, pilot's helmet under his arm, strutting the deck of the USS Lincoln, a much-reproduced image from a year ago. Staging and posing here is so blatant as to border on the comic (despite its presentation by the media as "news," the category in which photo ops are routinely inserted and framed). But this choreographed--and very expensive--photo op may yet generate new meanings hardly anticipated by the White House and its imagemakers. For like the draped caskets, photographed with pious intention by the hapless Tami Silicio (promptly fired, along with her husband, by the military contractor for which they worked), the image can and does have a life of its own. …

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