IN 1970, the Japanese photographer Takuma Nakahira was asked by a publication to respond to the topic of “urban rebellion.” He took the assignment literally, relaying the successive images that took shape in his mind:
Urban and rebellion, somehow these words stir up an image within me that must be at night, where a fire burns bright red, as if to make the night exist all the darker. In addition, it must be filled with terror and disquiet. Described in this manner, my image of urban rebellion is very commonplace, something that can all too easily be related to any of the spectacles like that of the Shinjuku riot on October 21, 1968, from ten to twelve PM, and the scene around Kamata Station on the evening of November 16, 1969. Even so, why do I always imagine a fire? And why night?
I’ve been thinking about his response for a while now, coming back to it over and over again this past year and especially in these past few days. It’s those doubtful and ambiguous questions that still seem crucial, that I find myself asking too: Even so, why do I always imagine a fire? And why night?
One of the implicit forces driving those questions is a total frustration with the role of familiar images, informing a wider sequence of experimentation within Japanese militant film, organizing, and critique in those years. (And at least partially contributing to Nakahira’s decision later that decade to burn most of his negatives and prints, torching proxies of Tokyo in lieu of what always seemed to put out the flames in time.) The frustration came from an obvious gap between the messy, expansive process of revolt and the still images used to frame it, whether literal photographs or the stilted historical categories that try and define what is political in the first place. That gap is never neutral, and it isn’t a problem of simply not enough images or too few photographers, although it certainly involves too few of them willing to put down the camera to intervene in what is happening directly in front of them. What the gap marks instead is the way that both our readily available images—that ample archive of fire, night, barricade, riot cops, burning dumpsters, clouds of gas, a dog stalking the periphery who barks and barks…—and the conventions that shape what new ones get taken or formed tend to reiterate well-worn tropes, crowding out other possibilities. And as Nakahira makes clear, almost apologetically, this fire and night is indeed “an old fashioned image”—but one that just keeps coming back all the same. “[W]hen I envision urban rebellion,” he writes, “this is the scene I always imagine.”
Here, on the eve of the coronation of one who dreams of being an emperor—of increasingly explicit attempts to plunge millions further into sickness and debt, to coddle the fascists and decimate the vulnerable, to further criminalize and expel any threat to the coherence of racial capitalism—we’re coming into weeks and months of open rage, refusal, and planning. Part of this surely means that night comes to mean fire, that as has been the case for so long, night is a time for conspiracy, for being ungovernable, and for changing what the ground of the next day looks like. This is part of the answer Nakahira gives to his recurring fantasy: He can only imagine this way, this flame and chaos, because the very spaces where he lives and fights have frozen into a material image of what allows no way in, an impossibly smooth network of function, circulation, and profit where every element, from highway to cafe, verifies the legitimacy of the order that the cops kill to protect. So any revolt against that order means that it will have to lash out everywhere and must refuse to accept the sites, actions, and channels that have been already sanctioned as adequately political.
What lingers unanswered in Nakahira’s essay yet seems to drive the doubt of those questions is the other side of this: the day that comes before the night, the night that the cameras don’t bother with. Asking why do we imagine fire, why night also means asking what else we don’t imagine, asking if rebellion ever really happens within so narrow a scope. To limit its range like that, to restrict the articulation of absolute dissent to just what we’ve gotten used to thinking of as revolt, reinforces something that needs to be ruined in full: a politics of public presence, national belonging, and civic representation. Because that is the understanding that has historically been used to dictate who gets to count and be counted, cutting from the scene any considered anathema to the spheres of liberal society constructed around their ongoing exclusion, use, and abuse.
Against that, it seems we need to keep asking why only fire, why only night? What about the other work that lays the tinder and weaves fuses into the bales, even if it doesn’t strike the match on camera? What about what happens unseen, not because it is clandestine and we’ve already taken out all the streetlights, but because it takes place at noon, at dawn, all through the day and night continually without rest, in forms that don’t get the opportunity for grand revolt or that refuse to show themselves and be named? Who chooses night? What is never seen to burn because its fire is expected to always be lit, always ready to warm those who need it most?
Evan Calder Williams is a writer and artist who lives in upstate New York. He is a founding member of the collective Thirteen Black Cats and teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.