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Making visible: Visual Art and Political Thought in a Global Age

Philipp Jeandre

This paper explores the relationship between artistic forms of image production and tropes of
political thinking at a time when traditional ideas of social order undergo profound
conceptual transformations and require new forms of self-description. Suggesting that art
practice can provide alternative approaches to world politics taking into account speculative,
aesthetic and imaginary dimensions of meaning production, I will interpret the genre of the
video essay as a form of visual political thinking which depicts the event of global crisis as an
encounter with contingency. In reference to the political philosophy of Claude Lefort and
Jacques Rancire I will emphasise the political relevance of visual representation and show,
by example of the work of Swiss artist Ursula Biemann, its potential to critically reflect the
epistemological and ontological assumptions upon which our understanding of a globalised
world is based.

Politics, before all else, is an intervention in the visible and the sayable. 1
Jacques Rancire


Our perception of the contemporary, so called globalised2 , world where the complex and
conflictive fabric of economic, cultural and social interdependency becomes increasingly
visible, is strongly influenced by an endless torrent of mediated visual images. The rising
awareness of the conflictive nature of our systems of social order such as sovereignty,
autonomy and territoriality is mostly conveyed through visual media. The experience of what
we may call global crisis, however, is not a necessarily new phenomenon but foregrounds an
experience of contingency which has penetrated almost every section of social life and can no
longer be convincingly denied or ignored. The starting point of my considerations is thus an
encounter with a world which is experienced as conflictive and contingent and where images
play an increasingly important role for the construction of social meaning. In this regard the
act of seeing and making visible, the realm of the image and the visible, becomes of ever
greater political importance. The increasing academic attention that has been drawn to the

relationship between the visual and the political can be traced back to two important
developments in political and cultural theory that have emerged since the 1980s. The first one
is a growing interest in the imaginary and its considerable impact on social theory.3 In the
course of this paper I will elaborate further on the role the imaginary plays for modern
political theory. The interest in the imaginary has lead to the insight that imagination functions
not only as a substitute for what exceeds empirical experience but also as the theorists
means for understanding a world he can never know in an intimate way. 4 The second
development I am referring to builds on the fast progress and proliferation of communication
technologies facilitating the visual self-representation of society through popular culture, art
practice and mass media in a historically unprecedented manner. The ubiquity of visual
images has contributed to an epistemological and cognitive shift which has revealed that the
image has become an autonomous agent for the construction of social meaning.5 Both
developments are closely intertwined and have thus to be analysed as interdependent

The crucial questions that arise from these developments are twofold. First we have to ask
whether conventional political theory is sufficiently equipped to analyse the complex and
contingent dynamics of global processes considering the cognitive significance of the image
and whether or not extended forms of political interrogation are required; forms of thinking,
which not only build on empirical and analytical methods but which also take into account
aesthetic and speculative approaches in order to interpret global complexities. The second
question is whether at a time when visual media seem to dominate our perception of a
globalised world, a more aesthetic form of political thinking in images can take place in the
realm of artistic practice which lies outside of, but which is not entirely detached from, a
mainly text-based disciplinary configuration of political science. Being aware of the
undeniable importance of pop cultural image production for the global imaginary such as
cinema, television, advertisements, etc., the present paper focuses on artistic practices mainly
because of their greater formal freedom and more experimental use of images. Finally, I will
ask whether artistic image strategies can potentially qualify as an extended form of political
thinking by reflecting and elucidating the aesthetic core of our understanding of the political
in general and world politics in particular.

In search of a tentative answer, the present paper contributes to a growing academic debate
which emphasises the intellectual possibilities of aesthetic approaches to World Politics and
the theory of International Relations (IR). Roland Bleiker has pointed out that the term
aesthetic, in this context, indicates a reflection on the modes of representations used to
investigate the discursive practices of the social. According to Bleiker, aesthetic approaches to
International Relations embank on a direct political encounter, for they engage the gap that
inevitably opens up between a form of representation and the object it seeks to represent.6
Therefore, visual-aesthetic practice can contribute to an awareness of the languages
deployed to make sense of the world and the forms through which the social is represented
emphasising the epistemological dimension of IR theory. Bleiker suggests to judge insights
into world politics by their aesthetic qualities, that is, by their ability to project a form of truth
that is not linked to an exclusive mode of representation, a form of truth that opens up an open
place.7 In a similar way, Vivienne Jabri problematises the modernist concept of knowledge in
IR theory and addresses the problems which accompany the Cartesian and Kantian moments
in IR8. In this regard the aesthetic approach to political theory is characterised by a concern
about the epistemological constraints and limitations of traditional forms of political thinking
and a critical reflection of their ontological assumptions. Following Michel Foucault, Jabri
defines the Cartesian moment as the moment that identifies modernitys reification of
knowledge over the relationship of the subject, indeed the subjects being, to truth. Such
reification is built upon a distinct modern ontology, that of the rational, unproblematic and
unproblematised subject, one that not only has possession of knowledge, but access to such
knowledge through the vehicles of science.9 I will show in the second part of this paper that
the Cartesian moment, visually reflected in the formal construction of Renaissance
perspective, is still the dominating form of visual representation.

Aesthetic approaches to IR theory are increasing considering the visual as the politics of the
every day and particularly television and cinema have become the centre of growing
theoretical attention. Cynthia Weber has interpreted the image strategies of the every day as
forms of global communication claiming that popular visual language is increasingly the
language that amateurs and experts rely upon in order to claim contemporary literacy and,
(...), that much politics is conducted through popular visual culture.10 I follow Weber in her
demand to take visual language as the language of contemporary popular culture seriously

and to consider it vital for understanding global politics. However, I will approach visual
culture, and in particular artistic image strategies, not only as an object of study, as the inside
of the everyday, but rather as a form of thinking in images which problematises and
questions the processes of representations through which, as Frank Ankersmit has aptly
pointed out, political reality comes into existence.11 Michael J. Shapiro has analysed films
from a Deleuzian perspective engaging in cinemas contribution to sympathetic as well as
critical political thinking about the modern world. According to Shapiro, thinking means in
the present context resistance to the dominant modes of representing the world, whether
those representational practices function as mere unreflective habit or as intentionally
organized, systematic observation.12 Following Deleuze, Shapiro argues that cinemas
critical capacity emerges from de-privileging the directionality of centred commanding
perception and it allows the disorganised multiplicity that is the world to emerge.13 If
cinemas critical ability is to show the limitations of a single locus of perception, visual
forms of communication can be used to address and problematise the epistemological
assumptions underlying the models and concepts of social meaning production. In the present
essay, however, I will try to go one step further. If we are to take visual forms of
communications not only serious as fields of political investigations but also as a form of
political thinking in its own right, categories are needed through which the political (or
critical) quality of a given trope of visual representation can be assessed. Or to put it
differently: What can qualify a given form of visual representation as political? Being aware
of the too general formulation of the problem at hand, I will make a tentative suggestion of
how the political can be defined in visual terms and be used as an analytical tool for further
investigations into the representations of world politics.

My research follows the question whether visual art practice can qualify as a form of political
thinking in images that is able to critically reflect the close relationship between hegemonic
forms of visuality and political science as an academic discipline and eventually use
multilayered approaches to understand the imaginary, aesthetic and speculative dimensions
which constitute the political in contemporary global developments. In a sense, this endeavour
ties in with, and can be regarded as an extension of, Claude Leforts project to understand
the political dimension of modern society 14. Lefort suggests that if we are to reinterpret the
political, we must break with scientific points of view in general and with the point of view

that has come to dominate what are known as the political sciences (...). 15 Even though I
hesitate to follow Leforts ambitious task all the way, I will try to advocate the
acknowledgement and importance of visual-aesthetic forms of political thinking situated
outside text-based academic discourses. In the following I will first outline the theoretical
implications of conceptualising the political in visual terms and secondly, following Shapiro, I
will examine the problems and opportunities of artistic image production which emerge from
any attempt to resist the dominant modes of representing the world.

The imagination of the social and the distribution of the sensible

The image as a medium of political representation and a mode of social imagination is a key
element of modern political thought since early modern times when social structures were no
longer perceived as a fixed model of a divine cosmological order. In this regard the thought of
Niccol Machiavelli constitutes a turning point in the theoretical understanding of the
political in modern terms. Recognising conflict as the nature of the social and the driving
force behind all forms of political thinking, Machiavelli realised that the transformation from
a civil society into a political society is performed by processes of representation and
imagination, subsuming the populace under the unifying image of a sovereign ruler. However,
from a democratic point of view the role of the image in political thinking is no longer a
merely unifying one. In his interpretation of Machiavellis work, Claude Lefort points out that
Machiavelli has conceptualised for the first time the political in a modern sense that is to say
as a field of conflicting interests that can not be grounded on a theological foundation. As we
will see, the image of the sovereign (the people), which is the constant self-representation of
society to itself, becomes crucial for democratic society which is according to Lefort a
society without a body, (...) a society which undermines the representation of an organic
totality.16 A society which lacks an ultimate metaphysical basis is no longer identical with
itself and thus has to be constituted upon its own self-reflection. In modern democracy, where
the locus of power becomes an empty space17, the image of the people becomes an essential
and necessary substitute to fill an institutionalised void. From democracys self-understanding
as deficient being which is in constant need of its own imagination as complementary selfrepresentation we can derive a strong ethical position emphasising the essential necessity of
discursive openness. The acceptance of the social as contingent and conflictive field, is not

only the condition for the necessity of societys symbolic self-representation but for political
thinking in general. As a mental concept of the social, which is the imaginary identity of the
body politic, the image of the people finds its correspondence in the countless variations of
material image production of the mass media, fine arts and popular culture which all share in
the symbolic formation of society. The role of the various image strategies in modern
democracy is not the display of a given authority but the constant reminder that the
negotiation of its appearance is its very essence.

The task of modern (that is secular) politics and political thinking is thus to constantly
compensate for the missing ground of the social substituting the former transcendent identity
of the body politic with the speculative certainties of the social imaginary. Cornelius
Castoriadis has suggested that the social imaginary provides the necessary answer to the
questions of collective identity and agency without which no human world, no society, no
culture18 would be possible. Hence the social imaginary is capable of providing an answer to
the question of collective identity which cannot be provided by empiricism or rationality
alone. Social imaginary significations are described by Castoriadis not as mere individual
imaginations but as social imaginaries for they are a creation of the social imaginary and
amount to naught if they are not shared, partaken of by that anonymous, impersonal collective
which is what society also always is.19 For our purposes it is important to emphasise the
discursive immanence of those significations for they do not belong to something outside of
society, neither are they given, nor immutable but a social construct made of shared ideas and
images. The social imaginary is thus a way of thinking the self-institution of society and all its
systems of order. This self-institution of society bestows an autonomous character to it by
preventing its absolute closure. The dynamic and erratic character of the social imaginary
enables a constant negotiation of societys institution(s) and thus unfolds, according to
Castoriadis, its democratic potential. Calling into question the institution of society, the
representation of the world and the social imaginary significations it bears is tantamount to
creating what we call democracy and philosophy.20 Therefore I consider the concept of the
social imaginary a core concept when discussing the critical potential of political thinking in
images. The social imaginary has not only a pivotal function for the creation of the social and
thus provides not only constructive means by which social institutions are created, but it
simultaneously provides the means by which they can be questioned and challenged.

Similar to Castoriadis, Charles Taylor defines the social imaginary as essential praxis for the
construction of the social and describes it as something much broader and deeper than the
intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality. For our
purpose it is vital, however, that the social imaginary is often not expressed in theoretical
terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends.21 The image can thus be identified as a
central mode of social self-definition, permitting us to perceive society as imagined totality
and thus to bridge in an operational manner its unfinished and processual character.
On a global scale Arjun Appadurai describes the social imagination as social practice which
plays a key role for all global cultural processes. Appadurai has pointed out that the
imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (...), and a form
of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of
possibilities.22 Even though I am not sharing Appadurais overall optimistic evaluation of the
egalitarian potential of new technologies in a globalised world, I will adopt his idea of
disjunct landscapes - image strategies and perspectival constructs that characterise the
global imagination as social practice. Social imagination is thus not only a means to support
the operational concept of society but also an important tool for the creation of social meaning
and the perpetual reconstitution of society in a global age. Appadurai puts it: The
imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key
component of the new global order.23 If we connect the idea of social imagination to Leforts
concept of the missing ground of the social, the conceptual forms of the political can be
complemented with the dimension of social imagination: both concepts are not only unified in
the contemporary grounding of the social and the partial fixation of the endless possibilities of
discursive practices, but also in the provisional character and the ultimate failure of their
endeavours. Important for my argument is that global imagination, which means the visual
conception of the world and its ordering structures as totality, is able to partially bridge the
conceptual impossibility of society and that social imagination is able to open up continuously
changing fields of agency. If we acknowledge that the social imaginary opens up dimensions
of political contestation and agency we have to specify what the conditions for those forms of
agency are, or to put it differently: what are the conditions for participating in the practice of

social imagination? A tentative answer can be found in the thought of Jacques Rancire whose
work has significantly contributed to the acknowledgement of the aesthetic nature of politics.

Famously, Rancire characterises politics as a distribution of the sensible24 tracing political

participation and exclusion back to individual sensual perception: The distribution of the
sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what
they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed.25 The conflictive
nature of the social which for Lefort is the source of all political activity and the cause for a
constant rearrangement of societys symbolic order, is thus reflected in individual sensual
perception and not least in the realm of the visual. If according to Lefort democracy has to be
understood as a political phenomenon characterised by the institutionalisation of conflict,
we also have to be aware of this conflict within existing forms of visuality and modes of
representation. The conflictive potential of the visual results from the attempt of the police
in the Rancirian sense (which can take on the guise of mass media, news coverage,
commercial entertainment, etc.) to render visual perception natural whereas the political can
be understood as an interruptive moment which distorts conventional forms of representation
and modes of visibility. If critical political thinking in images means to contest dominant
forms of representing the world, in the next step I will point at the challenges of visual forms
of contestation and interruption and will make a suggestion about how the political dimension
of visual representation can be defined.

The politics of vision:

Scopic Regimes, Cartesian Perspectivalism and the World as Picture

In the following I will limit my interpretation of Rancires concept of the distribution of the
sensible to the distribution of the visible which I will refer to as the politics of vision. It is
important to state that the distribution of the visible, of what can be seen and what remains
invisible, does not only describe an ethical condition of exclusion and participation but just as
much an epistemological disposition. In order to clarify the epistemological dimension of the
politics of vision, I would like to introduce two related terms which seem to be essential in
this context. The first one is coined by semiologist and film critic Christian Metz. Metz has
addressed the way in which we visually perceive and represent our world at any given time as

scopic regime26 referring to hegemonic forms of vision and dominant configurations of the
distribution of the visible. Important for the analysis of the impact of images on political
thought is thus to identify the dominant scopic regime(s) at a certain point of time, to disclose
their historic conditions (including the historicity of our current concepts of vision) and to
conceptualise alternative forms of perception and representation. The second term was
conceived by art historian Hal Foster who described the hegemonic scopic regime of
modernity as Cartesian perspectivalism, a combination of Cartesian rationality and
Renaissance perspective.27

I consider it useful to discuss the latter concept in some length here, since it has a significant
impact on the visual cultures of modernity and, as I will try to show, on the social sciences as
an academic discipline. The construction of perspective as one of the core features of modern
vision has notable consequences not only on how we see the world but also on how we make
sense of it: Perspective is not important because it shows how we really see, (...), but
because it allows us to order and control what we see.28 The concept of a distant observer
who establishes himself as a perceptive subject in opposition to an inert and fixed object turns
the world into a picture corresponding to a subject willed to mastery.29 Martin Jay rightly
points out that the emergence of Cartesian perspectivalism marks a point in the history of
thought when the natural world was transformed through the technological world view into a
standing reserve for the surveillance and manipulation of a dominating subject. 30 In The
Age of the World Picture Martin Heidegger famously defines this conquest of the world as
picture as the fundamental event of modernity.31 But what impact does the construction of
visual perspective have on modern political thinking?

Let us first clarify the political implications of Cartesian perspectivalism before we discuss its
critique and eventually look at alternative forms of vision by example of artistic strategies. In
the context of political thinking Cartesian perspectivalism is not only associated with
practices of surveillance and manipulation but also with the attempt to conceal existing
configurations of power. That means that social visibility and invisibility, social participation
and exclusion, is predominantly not represented in the context of its socio-historical
conditions but rather as an order that appears to correspond to a natural vision. This
assumption indicates, however, that the main task for political examination regarding the use

of images would be to reveal the workings of power underneath a surface of the visible and to
separate the regimes of visuality from the conditions of political thinking. But if we assume
an intrinsic proximity between seeing and thinking the political in contemporary times, we
have to find a different approach to this problem.

Martin Jay articulates the ambiguity of Cartesian perspectivalism regarding the political by
outlining its two main implications. The first implication is based on Heideggers argument
which parallels the modern transformation of the world into an image and the emergence of a
worldview (Weltbild) with the birth of the individual subject that strives to master a world of
objects. Thus the perspectivalist regime became associated with a certain notion of an
isolated bourgeois subject, a subject that fails to recognise its corporality, its intersubjectivity,
its embeddedness in the flesh of the world.32 This association includes a strong critique of
(positivist) science reflecting a way of thinking which depends on the illusion of an objective
distance between world and autonomous subject. However, the political implications of
Cartesian perspectivalism reach further. Martin Jay points out that there is also a certain
emancipatory moment in the modern perspectival regime which appears as multi-perspectival
view of the world in which the beholder experiences him- or herself as individual perceptive
subject. In summary it can be said, therefore, that the political implications of Cartesian
perspectivalism reach, on the one side, from the detached and self-contained individual trying
to found its own existence on a positivistic worldview, to the free floating multi-perspectival
approaches of relativism on the other. What kind of alternative modes of representation can
then be derived from the concept of Cartesian perspectivalism and how can both the closure
of positivism as well as the arbitrariness of relativism be avoided?

Cartesian perspectivalism has been much criticised during the course of the 20th century not
only on epistemological grounds for its proximity to positivist science, but also in aesthetic
terms by various avant-garde movements (since the emergence of Cubism, Constructivism,
Futurism, Dada, etc.). However, Jonathan Crary has shown that it is aesthetically almost
impossible to aesthetically overcome the concept of Cartesian perspectivalism since it
basically builds the backdrop before which avant-garde practises are possible. Crary writes:
(...) the essential continuity of mimetic codes is a necessary condition for the affirmation of
an avant-garde breakthrough.33 That means that every visual form of representation which

tries to contest the scopic regime of modernity already accepts its normative aspiration ex
negativo - either consciously or unconsciously. Avant-garde techniques aiming at the
denigration of perspective and the contestation of its epistemological assumptions are only
noticeable against the backdrop of normalised modes of vision. That is to say that even the
challengers of perspectivalism cannot entirely escape its logic. We have thus to be aware of
the enmeshment of the still dominant regime of Cartesian perspectivalism with most
variations of visual contestation and avant-garde practice demonstrating the difficulties that
characterise the attempt to change any scopic regime. But how can the political as a distorting
or interruptive moment be defined in visual terms if we are to accept that visual avant-garde
practices are just a reaffirming gesture towards a hegemonic regime of vision? Is it really
necessary to abandon Cartesian perspectivalism altogether or can it be used in a constructive
way to offer new perspectives for contemporary political thinking?

I do not want to argue here in favour of a naive reconstitution of the perspectivalist regime but
I also pointed out the difficulties accompanying the attempt to abandon it altogether. A
possible solution could thus be found in the emancipatory character of the perspectivalist
regime. Even if Martin Jay does not elaborate further on this point I would like to make two
suggestions of how the still dominant perspectivalist regime can be used to interrogate global
phenomena in visual terms. The first suggestion is a diversification and multiplication of
existing perspectival fields of vision. In a Rancirian sense that would mean to extent the
possibilities of what can be seen, whose voice is heard and whose story told. This can be
regarded as the democratic potential of perspectivalisms emancipatory character. The second
possibility is the operative use of the perspectival regime under the awareness of its historical
conditions and contingent nature. This self-reflexive potential of Cartesian perspectivalism is
useful for a distanced and ordering way of political thinking but one that does not claim any
form of natural representation as a point of reference.

My tentative suggestion here is that aesthetic practices can contribute to such an alternative
form of political thinking by problematising the processes of representation and by
acknowledging that a political event cannot determine from what perspective and in what
context it is seen.34 By reflecting on its modes of representation art practice can offer such an
alternative visual access to the social world and thus approaching a truth in the Heideggerian

sense which is neither instrumental nor appropriating. But unlike Heidegger one could argue
that it is the aesthetic quality of art which offers a different epistemological truth in the
attempt to represent society to itself. Contemporary art practice and self-reflexive forms of
documentation contribute to alternative forms of political thought. They offer a form of
thinking which recognises the central role of the image for thinking the political, the forms
and structures of the symbolic order that characterise the social in modern terms. Artistic
practice as methodology for social research can offer additional dimensions of knowledge
production which add to empirical-analytical concepts dimensions of aesthetic, imaginary and
speculative approaches to the world. All these layers of knowledge are essential for an
adequate understanding of the complex interdependencies of a globalised world that exceeds
to a great extent the possibilities of empirical or quantifiable knowledge. Therefore the
political quality of contemporary image strategies is not only a matter of content but also one
of aesthetic form critically reflecting ontological assumptions and concepts of epistemology.
These image strategies lie beyond the image as appropriating tool of mastery and perspectival
relativism. Rather, their aesthetic form points at the contingent nature of the social and thus
offers a democratic multi-perspectival form of vision and an awareness of its own symbolic
disposition. Contemporary visual art reveals its political character through a form of selfquestioning about the role of the artistic or scientific observer and its impact on the
distribution of the sensible, on what can be seen and how it is depicted.

In the following, I will try to illustrate my theoretical considerations with the video essays of
Swiss artist Ursula Biemann35 interpreting her work through the lens of political theory. This
interpretation, so I hope, can show the shared theoretical and philosophical basis between so
called post-foundational political thought36 and the image strategies of the video essay and
help to clarify the notion of the political in a visual context. The video essay is a form of
visual art which is at the same time artistic, theoretical and political. As I will show the
strength of this genre lies in its distinct aesthetic strategy which stems from a strong
involvement in theoretical concerns and their mediation through a visual language.


The Video Essay as Artistic Strategy or Critical Political Thinking in Images

The video essay is a type of film which is simultaneously motivated by artistic, theoretical
and political considerations and which has developed autonomous aesthetic strategies for the
visual mediation of social complexity. The video essay seems to be a promising genre for
investigating the relationship between the political and the visible because it reflects many
problems we encounter in contemporary political thought: it refers to a reality that is
constructed rather than given, it hints to the abundance of social meaning and the absence of
an ultimate ground and finally it constitutes an imaginary space which reflects a mediated
perception of the world and its social orders. In an era of global dynamics where great parts of
the social imaginary are based on a shared visual experience through the consumption of
mediated images, the video essay constitutes a form of visual political theory questioning and
analysing the thinking of a world which is perceived through a great extent through media
images. Therefore, I treat the video essay in my research as a visual method of interrogation, a
form of political thinking in images drawing attention to the use of images in the media and
the political potential of alternative (artistic) image strategies.

The origin of the literary form of the essay can be traced back to 16th century France. In her
writings on Chris Marker, Nora Alter notes that the term essay refers to a tradition of
personal reflection and investigation prominently represented in the work of French writer
Michel de Montaigne. She writes: To essay, within the French tradition at the time, meant to
assay, to weigh, as well as to attempt, suggesting an open-ended, evaluative, and
speculative search. 37 In a Montaignian sense the word essay means thus a testing of ideas
and to fathom ones own subjectivity against the backdrop of a social structure. The
Montaignian essay was a wide-ranging form of cognitive perambulation and meditation that
reflected upon fundamental questions of life and human frailty, tensions, and overlaps
between fact and fiction and their consequences for social order and disorder.38 The essay
constitutes a form of thinking which is at the same time aesthetic and political and derives its
critical potential from a fine-tuned interplay between form and content.

The video essay as aesthetic form emerged at the beginning of the 1980s as post-structuralist
cinematographic practice and continues the literary tradition with visual means. However, the

video essay as an in-between genre (Biemann) situates itself somewhere between

documentary video and video art and falls through conventional categories of film: For a
documentary they are seen as too experimental, self-reflexive and subjective, and for an art
video they stand out for being socially involved or explicitly political. 39 However, what
exactly constitutes the political character of the essay in its visual form has not yet been made
explicit and needs further clarification. I will use Biemanns films to illustrate the role that
visual artistic practice plays for the imagination of the global condition and how the work of
the social imaginary has to be considered highly political in a world where the conflictive
nature of the political is so closely linked to its visibility. In this regard the work of Ursula
Biemann has to be located in the grey area between artistic practice and theoretical analysis
and thus functions as a visual form of political theory. Her films address the underbelly of
globalisation and focus on political issues regarding migration, free trade zones, virtual
communication and borders. My argument here is that the political character of Biemanns
work does not stem exclusively from her occupation with topics which are conventionally
associated with politics such as territoriality, sovereignty or citizenship but just as much
emerge from a certain visual language as an act of making visible. To illustrate my argument, I
will now briefly discuss Biemanns video installation Sahara Chronicle from 2006/07.

Sahara Chronicle encompasses twelve short videos documenting the present subsaharan
migration to Europe. The work is conceptualised as a video installation consisting of a dozen
of monitors and screens. The onlooker is not able to see all the films and monitors
simultaneously, since any decision in favour of one film and any focus on one aspect, implies
the inevitable invisibility and unawareness of another. The beholder is left with a confusing
complexity which purposefully reflects the topic at hand. Biemann tries to contrast
conventional media coverage of the topic migration that aims at the reduction of complexity
rather than at its increase. The visual representations of African European migration is mainly
confined to images of people in crammed boats washed ashore on a European beach in the
Mediterranean blanking out the troublesome journey that lies behind them. Equally complex
as the odyssey migrants from subsaharan Africa have to endure are the circumstances which
forced them to leave their homeland in the first place. From the threats of civil war, to
personal aspiration, to EU fishing policies off the African coast destroying traditional fishing


grounds of local fishermen, the reasons why people take on the burden of trans-saharan
migration are as versatile as their personal fates.

Being a visual research project Sahara Chronicle draws on footage material gathered during
three field trips to Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Niger focusing on the modalities and
logistics40 of the complex arrangements and connections which constitute the phenomenon
of trans-African migration. Biemanns research interest is the examination of what she refers
to as the politics of mobility, visibility and containment, problematising migration in a
kaleidoscopic view that creates a fractured image of current global politics. The relevant
aspect for my argument here is this interrelationship between content and form, the
phenomenon of trans-saharan migration and its aesthetic forms of visual representation. The
various stories told in Sahara Chronicle are not subsumed under one overarching narration
but presented to the viewer as collection of loosely inter-related fragments. In order to make
sense of the installation, the viewer has to read between the lines of the documentary text and
use his or her imagination to fill semantic gaps. Thus, the dominant mode of visual depiction
in Sahara Chronicle is fragmentation and disassembly. The short videos show different
aspects of the invisible migratory system of the Sahara. Video documents include the transit
migration hubs of Niger, Tuareg guides in the Libyan desert, military patrols along the
Algero-Maroccan frontier, a deportation prison in Western Sahara, the surveillance flight of
an unmanned drone over the Libyan desert and so on. Biemanns preferred way of showing
those videos is in form of installation, whereby some videos are projected and others can be
viewed on monitors, creating a multi-perspective audiovisual environment that can be
inhabited by viewers, in much the same way that migration space is inhabited by the actors

The highly complex subject matter of the sub-Saharan migration system is reflected in the
distinct aesthetic character of the installation which is based on non-linear, fragmented and
associative forms of narration drawing on many different sources of knowledge and
perception. In particular the constant play of distance and proximity characterises the
multilayered narrative of Biemanns work that intertwines visual, textual and audial
components into a complex fabric of social imagination. In this regard her video essay does
not primarily aim at documenting any kind of given global reality but rather at the self15

conscious organisation of complexities pointing at the incomprehensible abundance of

possibilities of social meaning. It is this form of self-reflexivity, constantly reconsidering the
act of image-making and the desire to produce meaning, that enables the film to approach the
contingent and intangible processes of social and cultural transitions.

With my interpretation of Biemanns installation I want to tie in with the work of art critic
T. J. Demos and his analysis of artistic documentary strategies dealing with the experiences of
modern globalisation. In his article Moving Images of Globalization he discusses the critical
potential and political significance of modes of documentation and the possibilities of
contestation for the moving image. Demos asks: Moreover, how might the moving image
today critically engage globalisation - inflecting its meanings, contesting its objectionable
formulations, advancing its positive potential - from within an artistic context, laying claim to
an ambition often discounted by those skeptical of arts effectiveness and relevance to
collective struggle and political opposition?41 I consider this question crucial and hope to
find a tentative answer in the concept of discourse theory which can help to reveal the
political significance of the moving image not only regarding its content but just as much in
its aesthetic form. The artistic context is understood here as a realm of visual freedom and
creativity which is not restricted to the formal limits of mass media and thus capable of
developing more reflexive forms of representation and eventually alternative forms of visual
thinking. The image strategies of the mass media convey quite often a positivistic necessity of
social order against which artistic images can pitch the visuality of contingency. It is this
aesthetic potential to point at the contingent nature of the social, so I will argue, that
characterises the political significance of the moving image.

The theoretical examination of the video essay in order to articulate a political language of the
visual and to reveal the political qualities of image strategies can be conducted from various
starting points. T. J. Demos refers in his compelling analysis to the thought of Jacques
Rancire and his concept of the politics of aesthetics as already discussed in the first part of
this paper. Demos uses Rancire to approach a possible answer to the question of how the
political stakes can be defined which are at the heart of the aesthetic construction of video
essayistic modes of documentation. I think, however, that the explanation of the distribution
of the sensible does not go far enough and for a clearer understanding of the political stakes

of image strategies we have to go back to the initial post-foundational distinction between

politics and the political.

Rancire too makes the distinction between la police and la politique: la police stands for the
organisation of power, the distribution of the sensible and the creation of consensus; la
politique on the other side is the emancipatory element, the disturbance or interruption that
points at the contingent nature of the police order. That means the simple act of making
visible is a mere act of the police, of shifting the potentialities of experiences from one group
to another, but it is the mode of visibility which can demonstrate the contingency of all forms
of social order and its provisional character. It is the mode of visibility which indicates an
epistemological paradigm shift. La politique as political moment in image strategies and
therefore as indicator of social contingency functions through aesthetic form, such as
montage, collage, split screen, multi-perspectivity, etc. The aesthetic moment of the political
demands a rearrangement of the social order, a new distribution of the sensible. It is a form of
dissensus pointing at the endless possibilities of empirical experiences on the ontic level of
the social and at the same time at the absent ground on the ontological level. Visual art
practice can thus help the onlooker to draw attention to the aesthetic dimension of political
thinking and its intimate relationship with visual perception and modes of vision. In this task
lies the ethical potential of artistic practice as an aesthetic form of political thinking as I will
briefly point out in the following conclusion.


In the course of this paper I have shown that contemporary artistic practice in general and the
genre of the video essay in particular can be understood as a form of political thinking in
images. The strength of aesthetic image strategies is to problematise the depiction of social
phenomena and to challenge not only established forms of visual perception and
representation but also the epistemological assumptions on which they are based. Thus the
video essay is a genre which critically reflects the interrelationship between seeing and
thinking social realities. Biemanns mode of investigating current geopolitics offers a visual
account of political thinking which does not attempt to apply any kind positivistic or scientific
approach to the analysis and interpretation of the social. Her work shows that visual art

practice can elucidate societys need for self-representation and the necessity for negotiating
its symbolic self-description. In this regard, arts aesthetic and political strength emerges from
its ability to question hegemonic forms of vision. This inevitable necessity for a perpetual
process of social self-description makes clear that the concept of society cannot be founded
on any ground outside its own discursive practices. Aesthetic modes of representation and
depiction (e.g. in the form of montage and collage) can point to the contingent ground of the
social; it is this acknowledgement of the general discursive openness of societys selfrepresentation where its democratic and ethical potential can be located. However, this does
not simply mean that visual art can pose alternatives to conventional political discourses
from outside its system. Rather, the discursive dispositions in which political thinking takes
place have to be redefined through the acknowledgement that the relationship between the
visual and the intellectual, the way in which we visually perceive, depict and think of the
world, are inextricably intertwined. Artistic approaches offer thus important extensions to the
methodological toolbox of the social sciences pointing out that the complexities and
uncertainties of global developments require additional forms of knowledge production.
Artistic practices such as video essays have developed forms of political thinking that do
justice to the aesthetic, speculative and imaginary dimensions without which it seems
impossible to make sense of the current dynamics of global geopolitics.

The political and ultimately ethical significance of artistic visual representation does not only
result from rendering visible those typically excluded from globalisations imaginary but
also from the mode of representation itself. Avoiding to regress to a merely formalistic
argument, I have argued that it is the aesthetic form of representation which can contribute to
a democratic understanding of vision pointing beyond conventional forms of symbolic
signification and hinting at the challenges of conceptualising the social under the conditions
of globalisation. The self-reflexive contestation of Cartesian perspectivalism and the
recognition of the viewers enmeshment with his or her environment generates a notion of
solidarity on the part of the beholder who does not perceive himself as a distant observer but
as embedded in the flesh of the world. This interdependence between the seer and the seen
shows that the global imaginary is a delicate fabric which to a great extent depends on shared
perception, common expectations and collective practice. Artistic image strategies critically
reflect conventional forms of shared visual perceptions (e.g. popular cultures, mass media,

etc.) and elucidate the necessity to arrange epistemological complexities into tangible
patterns. Simultaneously, they demonstrate the interdependency between the image and the
beholder by reflecting his or her position within any given socio-historical environment. The
contradictions and difficulties of global dynamics do not just appear as remote events on a
screen but are closely linked to the actions of the beholder and the political arrangements he
or she is part of. The political dimension of political thinking in images emerges from the
acceptance of social contingency and the structural insight that the processes of societys selfdescription can not ultimately be accomplished. However, the attempt to establish artistic
image strategies as a form of political thinking is not an attempt to conflate the terms visual
political theory, aesthetics and political philosophy. Rather, aesthetic practices can contribute
to a way of thinking which problematises its own modes of representation and
epistemological premises and thus to reveal the strategies that are deployed to make
phenomena appear natural or universal. Aesthetic approaches to world politics can be
considered as a method drawing attention to the normative framework behind every form of
representation thus extending and intensifying our understanding of the political.



Rancire, Jacques: Ten Theses on Politics, in: Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics, London; New York
2010, p. 37.
2 It shall suffice here to use a textbook definition of the term globalisation: A historical process involving a
fundamental shift or transformation in the spatial scale of human social organization that links distant
communities and expands the reach of power relations across regions and continents. See: Anthony McGrew:
Globalization and global politics, in: John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens (eds.): The Globalizations of
World Politics. An Introduction to international relations, 5th ed., Oxford, 2011, p. 19. However, the main focus
of this paper is the way how these processes of transformation are visually represented and perceived and how
the political dimension of these modes of representation and image making can be defined.
3 In contemporary political thought we encounter the central role of the image and the imaginary in various
forms: from Cornelius Castoriadis social imaginaries, Arjun Appadurais global imaginaries, Benedict
Andersons imagined communities, Claude Leforts emphasis on the symbolic dimension of the social (the mise
en sens and mise en scne which gives society its form) to Jacques Rancires concept of the distribution of the
sensible which links the possibility of political participation to the ability of sensual perception.
4 Wolin, Sheldon S.: Politics and Vision. Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded
edition, Princeton University Press 2004, p. 19.
5 A discussion of the political importance of the image has to depart from the conceptualisation of the so called
pictorial (Mitchell) or iconic (Boehm) turn (ikonische Wendung) which was proclaimed in the humanities almost
twenty years ago emphasising, in response to Rortys linguistic turn in the 1970s, the constitutive role images
play in the process of creating social meaning. According to Mitchell and Boehm, the image has taken over from
language as the main structuring agent of social realities and constitutes now the predominant signification
system for social meaning. Even if one hesitates to subscribe to this argument, one has to acknowledge the
increasing importance and influence of the visual on the way we perceive, imagine, structure and think of the
world. See: Mitchell, William J. T.: Picture Theory. Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, Chicago 1994,
pp. 11 - 34; Gottfried Boehm introduces the concept of the iconic turn (ikonische Wendung) in his seminal essay
The return of images (Die Wiederkehr der Bilder), in: Gottfried Boehm (ed.): Was ist ein Bild?, Munich 1994,
pp. 11 - 38, p. 13.
6 Bleiker, Roland: Aesthetics and World Politics, Basingstoke/New York, 2009, p. 21.
7 ibid., p. 47.
8 Jabri, Vivienne: Shock and Awe. Power and Resistance of Art, Millenium - Journal of International Studies, 34,
pp. 819-839, p. 828.
9 ibid., p. 826.
10 Weber, Cynthia: Popular visual language as global communication: the remediation of United Airlines Flight
93, Review of International Studies, 34, 2008, pp. 137-153, p. 137.
11 For an elaborate discussion of the political implications between mimetic and aesthetic forms of representation
see: Frank R. Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics. Political Philosophy Beyond Fact and Value, Stanford, CA, 1996.
12 Shapiro, Michael J.: Cinematic Geopolitics, London/New York 2009, p. 5.
13 ibid.
14 Flynn, Bernard: The Philosophy of Claude Lefort. Interpreting the Political, Northwestern University Press
2005, p. 6.
15 Lefort, Claude: The Question of Democracy, in: Democracy and Political Theory, University of Minnesota
Press 1988, p. 10.
16 Lefort, Claude: The Question of Democracy, in: Democracy and Political Theory, University of Minnesota
Press 1988, p.18.
17 ibid., p.17.
18 Castoriadis, Cornelius: The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cambridge 1987, p. 146.
19 Castoriadis, Cornelius: Imaginary Significations, in: Enrique Escobar, Myrto Gondicas, and Pascal Varnay
(eds.): Cornelius Castoriadis. A Society Adrift. Interviews and Debates, 1974 - 1997, New York 2010, p. 48.
20 ibid., p. 60.
21 Taylor, Charles: Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, 2004, p. 23.
22 Appadurai, Arjun: Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press
1996, p. 31.
23 ibid.



Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the
talent to sp eak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time. Rancire, Jacques: The Politics of
Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum 2006, p. 13.
25 ibid., p. 12.
26 Even though Metz is using the term scopic regime in a cinematographic context it can be fruitfully
transferred to the realm of the political. See: Metz, Christian: The Imaginary Signifier. Psychoanalysis and the
Cinema, Indiana University Press, 1982, p. 61.
27 For Hal Foster, Cartesian perspectivalism, or what he defines as the dominant, even totally hegemonic, visual
model of the modern era is characterised by Renaissance notions of perspective in the visual arts and
Cartesian ideas of subjective rationality in philosophy. Foster, Hal (ed.): Vision and Visuality, Seattle 1988, p. 4.
28 Mirzoeff, Nicholas: An Introduction to Visual Culture, 2nd ed., Routledge 2009, p. 29.
29 Foster, Hal, p. xiv
30 Jay, Martin: The scopic regime of modernity, in: Hal Foster (ed.): Vision and Visuality, Seattle 1988, p. 10.
31 Heidegger writes: From now on the word picture means: the collective image of representing production
[das Gebild des vorstellenden Herstellens]. Within this, man fights for the position in which he can be that being
who gives to every being the measure and draws up the guidelines. Heidegger, Martin: The Age of the World
Picture, in: The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, New York 1977, p. 71. A similar critique of
perspectivalism can be found in: Erwin Panofsky: Perspective as Symbolic Form, London, 1997.
32 Foster, Hal (ed.): Vision and Visuality, Seattle 1988. See Martin Jays contribution in the discussion with Hal
Foster, Jacqueline Rose and Norman Bryson, p. 24.
33 Crary, Jonathan: Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century, MIT Press, 1992,
p. 4
34 Bleiker 2009 (as note 6), p. 21.
35 Similar conceptions of video essayistic forms of political thinking which try to interpret global dynamics
through artistic and speculative approaches can be found in the work of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, Steve
McQueen, The Otholith Group and Hito Steyerl.
36 See: Marchart, Oliver: Post-foundational Political Thought. Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and
Laclau, Edinburgh University Press 2007.
37 Alter, Nora: Chris Marker, Chicago 2006, p. 18.
38 ibid.
39 Biemann, Ursula: The Video Essay in the Digital Age, in: Ursula Biemann (ed.): Stuff it - the video essay in
the digital age, Vienna; New York 2003, pp. 8 - 11, p. 11.
40 See: Ursula Biemann: Sahara Chronicle, DVD, 78 min., 2006-2009, (www.geobodies.org).
41 Demos, T. J.: Moving Images of Globalization, in: Grey Room, 37, Fall 2009, MIT Press 2009,
pp. 6 - 29, p. 10.