PRINT January 2004


the televised war in Iraq

THE STRANGEST IMAGE of combat in Iraq was also the most normal: the virtually unchanging view of a Baghdad streetscape recorded from the hotel where most Western journalists were headquartered. As an image of war, this bland prospect could hardly compete with the pyrotechnic graphics and rousing martial music of the network news reports in which it was broadcast, and yet for me it was profoundly unsettling. How can one not marvel at the temerity of an invading force’s media horde checking into one of the best hotels in a city under siege to monitor its bombardment? To be fair, fighting did not always remain at a safe distance—I particularly remember the report of one correspondent who was hunkered down in her closet or bathroom—but for much of the official war, the camera’s unblinking eye surveyed the street outside, registering little more than an occasional flash in the sky. Here was a reenactment of Warhol’s Empire (1964)—the eight-hour film in which a stationary camera records the Empire State Building nearly from dusk to dawn—but without the ostensible irony of the artist’s title. For indeed, blank vision, in which little knowledge is gained but where time accumulates ad nauseum, is one of the most virulent tactics of contemporary imperialism—what better way of thinking, for instance, of the globalization of Hollywood’s televisual and cinematic codes? Such endless circulation of the commercial genres of American media is what, in discussing the advent of recorded music, French political economist Jacques Attali calls “stock-piling,” in which the consumer buys more music than she or he can ever listen to in order to experience the privilege of possession with regard to a “substance” like time that would seem to be beyond appropriation.

In the most literal sense, then, the reporters housed in Baghdad hotels, like their colleagues on the battlefield, were embedded. And indeed, given that the latter were unable to disclose their positions or anything at all about the substance of “their” units’ activities, the reporters in the field, just like their counterparts in Baghdad, showed us nothing. But this is not quite right: They showed us ourselves. The prospect of the Baghdad street was not so different from the view I saw out a Holiday Inn window in Cleveland during a recent cross-country trip, and certainly the reporters embedded in the field were showing us little more than the soldiers themselves, endowing them with the unpolished glamour of reality TV. This sort of panoptic vision, which sees only itself wherever it goes, is one of imperialism’s premier methods of neutralizing resistance, by wishing otherness away. As the new-media theorist Lev Manovich has brilliantly observed, in a world structured by the navigational protocols of the Internet, seeing is acting. The embedded eyes that broadcast this war deployed a type of violence just as real as the bombs they so often didn’t record.

Why should any of this be discussed in the pages of an art magazine? Formalism has a pretty bad name among socially concerned and left-oriented artists and art historians, yet we live in a world structured by a rigorous discipline of form. We’re haunted by a sense of our own irrelevance as critical or aesthetic practitioners, afraid that our whole enterprise is little more than a fancy mode of retailing. And yet all around us, political speech, in which I include coverage of the Iraq war, is conducted in terms that would be familiar to many a viewer of video installations or underground films from the 1960s to the present day. To take up the comparison I’ve already made, Warhol’s early monocular films, like Empire, introduce the unblinking eye in order to distinguish machine vision from human sight. As artist Stephen Prina has remarked, Empire demands a new kind of spectatorship: Each viewer must learn how to “see” it. In that impossibly long film, the camera’s unwavering gaze is something alien that must be accommodated (or contested) by a viewer who is provoked through anger or boredom. On the other hand, the implacability of what Soviet revolutionary filmmaker Dziga Vertov called the Kino-Eye, the endlessly restless and perfectible mechanical vision of the camera, is made palatable to the contemporary American consumer of war coverage by becoming a perversely reassuring proof that “we” are there and “we” are all there is to see or, pace Manovich, that seeing is commanding. As critics and artists, let’s not assume the political irrelevance of our practices on the one hand or dispense with visual analysis on the other. Rather, let’s demonstrate the centrality of rigorous formalism to any demand for a different kind of public vision. Two models presented themselves recently in Chelsea: at Dia, Pierre Huyghe’s brilliant Streamside Day Follies, 2003, in which a theater for his video projection of a suburban-cum-pagan celebration is constituted through moving walls, and at Metro Pictures, Isaac Julien’s three-screen work Baltimore, 2003, in which characterization and spatial positioning are radically denaturalized through their refraction across three shifting surfaces and multiple camera angles. Both works insist on the particularity and contingency of the camera’s position at the moment of recording and the projector’s location at the moment of presentation. Let’s demand that the media’s embedded eyes wake up and get out a bit. Maybe if we had seen a few Iraqis on the screen, or even a blink of the eye, complacency around this immoral war would have begun to erode sooner.

David Joselit, professor of art history at Yale University, is the author of Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910–1941 and American Art Since 1945.