Sean Snyder

Because his works often deal with globalization and contemporary urbanism, Sean Snyder is sometimes expected to come up with clear-cut statements and slogans. His latest solo exhibition demonstrated his determination to frustrate such hopes. Analepsis, 2004, is a silent montage of re-establishing shots and sequence shots from TV news programs; static takes, pans, zooms, and aerial shots pass in a strange parade, with no clues as to the stories the footage was meant to illustrate. The triumph of visibility creates blankness, a database of visual clichés lacking the semblance of meaning usually added to such footage in the form of verbal rhetoric.

Some of the works shown at De Appel were fragments of larger projects, such as the two-sided video projection that is part of the series “Bucharest—Pyongyang,” 2001–. On one side of the screen, images taken from official North Korean films about Pyongyang are projected, while the other side presents amateur footage shot in 1995 by an American hydroengineer who was working, curiously enough, on a North Korean nuclear plant. Whereas Snyder has turned the official material into a series of still images that fade into each other à la Fischli and Weiss, turning Pyongyang into a series of picture-perfect views of a modern capital, the engineer’s footage was clearly shot with a handheld video camera and comes with a sound track, including commentary. Ironically (but, given the close track North Korea keeps of foreign visitors, not surprisingly) his footage largely has a certain “official” aura as well: For much of the time we see images of enormous parades and rallies that look as if Griffith, Riefenstahl, and Disney had teamed up to celebrate Stalin’s birthday. Showing little of the country’s underside, Snyder’s juxtaposition of two controlled forms of image production—detached panoramas and hysterically moving mass ornaments—is nevertheless more instructive and more fascinating than a journalistic exposé made with clandestine footage might have been.

Another project that has preoccupied Snyder for some time involves American military installations abroad, especially in Japan; here, a series of photographs shows the seedy nightspots outside the Marine base in Okinawa, while the video Gate 2 Street (Kadena Air Base), Okinawa City, Japan 2004 shows similar establishments catering to the air base there. Shot in infrared mode, this video turns the area into a strangely light, black-and-white ghost town largely devoid of people. One is oddly reminded of Doug Aitken’s McLuhanesque celebration of electricity and light—illuminated billboards become white blanks, a streetlight blinks, the city noise buzzes in the background. However, in using the language of techno-romanticism, Snyder raises the question of who is behind the camera gaze—if anyone. The nonnarrative succession of shots suggests surveillance, but by whom and for what purpose remains unclear.

Snyder’s work is political in a more fundamental sense than that of a mere representation of politics. Rather, he investigates the uses and limitations of representation. Some of his work provides a glimpse of a kind of universal, all-seeing surveillance that results in a meaningless database, an image library of Babel, which has to be activated and manipulated in order to make some sense. Repeatedly focusing on areas that are to a greater or lesser degree inaccessible to the camera eye, Snyder reinforces the suggestion that in the era of embedded journalism, techniques of visibility may above all be employed to keep things hidden.

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