Bill Kouwenhoven is an essayist on photography and International Editor of HotShoe magazine. He is the author of several monographs, and a major survey of contemporary Spanish Photography, Nuevas Historias. From 1996 to 2001 he was editor of San Francisco based Photo Metro magazine.
It is taken as gospel truth that there is an ancient Chinese curse, perhaps dating to the era of Warring States of about 475 BC to 221 BC, that goes, “May you live in interesting times!” Implied, of course, is the wish that you live in a period of chaos and violence, as one might curse one’s enemies.
Like many things purporting to date back to antiquity, the phrase appears rooted in myth, and a modern myth at that. An early citation dates to another period of “warring states,” the interwar years of the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, and it is attributed to Frederic R. Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 1939:
Some years ago, in 1936, I had to write to a very dear and honored friend of mine, who has since died, Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of the present Prime Minister, and I concluded my letter with a rather banal remark, “that we were living in an interesting age.” Evidently he read the whole letter, because by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: “Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, ‘May you live in an interesting age.’” “Surely,” he said, “no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time.” That was three years ago.[i]
Despite sounding authentic to Western ears, the phrase seems not to be of Chinese origin. The nearest approximation, “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period,” seems weak in comparison.[ii]
Although no one has ever been able to find an actual “ancient Chinese proverb” that authenticates the phrase, this has not robbed it of its currency, nor of its utility. A remark by Robert Kennedy, Jr. transported the phrase into our present age in a speech in Cape Town in June 1966, another particularly “interesting age,” not just for the West but also for the East (not to mention the North and South). He said: “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”[iii]
The fact that this phrase crops up in moments of chaos and political violence is telling, however, and it is perfectly appropriate to our present day and age which, if recent events are any evidence, seems to be more fraught with danger and confusion and the potential for disaster than any time since the height of the Cold War. Indeed, with storms of the century striking at unheard-of frequency, global warming, and nuclear disasters—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima—threatening to render much of their surrounding zones permanently uninhabitable, communitarian violence in Asia and Africa rivaling that of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, spy agencies out of control, computers running our lives as they (and we) run amok, financial panic, and political gridlock, today’s crises add a few more horses to the famous four apocalyptic steeds, Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Thomas Hobbes cautioned in his 1651 treatise Leviathan that without order, the life of man will be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”[iv] He is now seen as a visionary. Artists’ responses to turmoil strike us as especially powerful. Bruegel, Bosch, and Goya come immediately to mind with their depictions of man’s violence against man in a world humans vainly think they can control. In the twentieth century the inventions of the automobile and the airplane gave rise to Italian Futurism, and German Expressionism emerged as a response to the horrors of the euphemistically named War to End All Wars. The Spanish Civil War saw the creation of Picasso’s Guernica. The atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 led to a spate of disaster movies featuring Godzilla and all manner of other monsters. The Cold War begat the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and writers such as William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. Not surprisingly, these movements pace a teleology of rampant technological advancement, the trajectory of which seems to have eclipsed our ability to understand it, much less control, it.
Some philosophers of our present age, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek, among others, have attempted to make sense of this mad world of our own creation. They have variously attributed the present chaotic state to an acceleration of technological change that has exceeded our all too human inability to adapt to such speed biologically, culturally, and politically. Marked by his experience in France at the time of the German blitzkrieg, Virilio, especially, concludes “History progresses at the speed of its weapons systems.” Given that our digital age functions at the speed of light, and that we humans are, essentially, still bound by the force of gravity to a much slower pace, is it any wonder that our systems seem so radically out of balance?
Obviously, there have been other philosopher-pundits; Frances Fukujama and Thomas Friedman come to mind. Only a few years ago they proclaimed “the end of history” and “the world is flat.” Nowadays their manifestos seem utterly naïve in light of the events sweeping our planet. If philosophy can only provide a vague means of making sense of a world in flux, what of artists? To circle back to the writers Burroughs and Ballard, Burroughs writes in his forward to Ballard’s 1972 work of experimental fiction The Atrocity Exhibition:
The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments: “In a waste lot of wrecked cars he found the burnt body of the white Pontiac, the nasal prepuce of LBJ, crashed helicopters, Eichmann in drag, a dead child . . .” The human body becomes landscape: “A hundred-foot-long panel that seemed to represent a section of sand dune . . . looking at it more closely Doctor Nathan realized that it was an immensely magnified portion of the skin over the iliac crest . . .” This magnification of the image to the point where it becomes unrecognizable is a keynote of The Atrocity Exhibition. This is what Bob Rauschenberg is doing in art—literally blowing up the image. Since people are made of image, this is literally an expensive book. The human image explodes into rocks and stones and trees: “The porous rock towers of Tenerife exposed the first spinal landscape . . . clinker-like rock towers suspended above the silent swamp. In the mirror of this swamp there are no reflections. Time makes no concessions.”[v]
Here is the key to a prescient artist’s approach to understanding and analyzing his world. In this case Burroughs compares the literary metaphors derived from media images and Ballard’s fervid imagination with Rauschenberg’s collage works called Combines, which incorporated media images, texts, and found objects rendered into a single image through a silkscreen process. Rauschenberg extracted the violent ephemera of the mid-twentieth-century media landscape: the car crashes, assassination photos, war imagery, celebrity imagery, and the like swirling around him in a never-ending tornado that seemed then, as now, incomprehensible but ubiquitous.
Fast forward to 2013: the analogue world of print media has been supplanted by the digital. Multiple streams of data combine at the speed of light across our computer screens and handheld devices. Man approaches machine, and the combination, the “singularity” previsioned by John von Neumann and Ray Kurzweil, seems just around the corner but offers no salvation. The amount of data available is constantly expanding at an accelerating rate, yet despite the greater availability of information, we humans seem to be less able to make sense of the world of our own creation. It appears that the words of Psalm 106:39 of the King James version of the Bible present a rational take on the seeming inevitability of our predicament, “Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions.” As Burroughs wrote, “time makes no concessions.” In other words, to cite the Bible again, this time from Hosea 8:7, “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Or, as the photo-artist Max de Esteban titled his own response to our present circumstances:
Heads Will Roll.
Heads Will Roll is a collection of apocalyptic digital “combines” that reflect upon the state of the world and technology, while partaking in a kind of digital image manipulation of which Rauschenberg could only dream. With images sourced from the Internet and from his own library, de Esteban selects, sizes, layers, and then flattens images into a dense but clearly readable final product. The clarity of the manipulation, the sharp edges that demarcate the various strata, are directly related to the crystalline nature of digital technologies that themselves break down information—images, text, sounds—into discrete elements determined by electrical values, “on” or “off” represented as 0 or 1. This precision allows the artist to combine elements with perfect control, another reflection of the technologies at play, which permit him to manipulate the opacity of an image—when wishing to show how various images interact symbolically, such as a car crash and images from Cambodia in the era of the Khmer Rouge, for example—while retaining its legibility.
In his writings on photography de Esteban notes, “Photography today is in a state of flux. The digital is calling everything into question: the production, distribution, and use of photographic images. Equally important, it challenges three key tenets of photography: transparency, monocular perspective, and documentary referentiality.” He continues: “The digital file is invisible. It is a text. Each image is the visualization of the invisible. The original (the file) is invisible. The copy (the image) is a highly mediated interpretation of the invisible original. There is no reference that unquestionably matches original and copy.”[vi]
As de Esteban indicates, his artistic praxis is a direct reflection of and commentary on our world and the very tools and means of production that rule our lives today.
Many of his digital combines also reveal the process of their making, not just through their layering but also through images that replicate older forms of combining images—traces of tape, for example, that would be used more traditionally to place images on top of one another or alongside other images (or in the case of collage) or objects. Where he shows these traces of tape or glue, he comments on the process of combination, and where there is only the residue, he is addressing the fleeting nature of (analogue) images that are often lost to time.
Some of the combines are more easily readable than others. One that brings together an image of Theodor Adorno and a photo of Al Jolson from The Jazz Singer, the first “Talkie,” or motion picture with sound, is a playful confrontation between the musically conservative philosopher and the exuberant performer. Another image makes use of the famous image of the Hindenburg burning as it arrived in New Jersey and combines it with one of a Labrador retriever—the black dog of melancholy?—in addition to excerpts from financial reports describing a stock market crash.
Still other images reference in various ways the implied violence of political and economic control, invoking—creating—the “permanent state of emergency” which the powers that be seem to have decreed to maintain their power. Examples include excerpts of the infamous “torture memo” that George W. Bush’s legal advisors concocted to allow the inhuman treatment of suspected terrorists and “enemy combatants.” There are also sections of the architectural plans of the notorious Camp Delta in the extraterritorial American military base in Guantanamo, Cuba, where many of those rounded up in the course of the “Global War on Terror” were imprisoned in a process euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition.”
Many other images were excerpted from movie posters or from magazines for fetishists.
If pornography once was, literally, “the writing of harlots,” then its ubiquity and availability makes us all implicitly harlots as well. Of human bondage, indeed. Or in a counter stroke, as Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon sang, “Oh bondage. Up yours.” The violent imagery in Heads Will Roll is a cri du coeur about the state of things and the numbing effect that the very-Ballardian intersection of violence and pornography has on our society. The technological mash-up of symbolically charged crashes, explosions, celebrity photos, and the like describes our times just as Rauschenberg and Warhol did from the fifties onward, and as did Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoech, and John Heartfield a generation earlier back, in the nineteen thirties.
De Esteban alludes to this by citing the cultural philosopher and visual arts professor Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2001): “The ‘user’ of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records . . . . An interactive narrative . . . can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one among many other possible trajectories, that is, a particular choice made within a hypernarrative.”[vii] This is exactly what de Esteban does with his digital combines in Heads Will Roll.
To return to Burroughs on Ballard, de Esteban is also “literally blowing up the image” by ripping it out of any original context and subjecting it to the multiple trajectories described by Manovich. The end product, a single image in a series of images, this book, or an exhibition, is not so much a traditional collage or collision montage, but rather a combine that builds on its layers, contradictions, and allusions. There is no “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” at work in de Esteban’s images. The results of his digital combines are a defiant statement that reflects and replicates the way we interact with technology today, both personally and in our politics. Heads Will Roll functions in its own way, just as J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition did years ago. As much as it shocked and provoked—and visitors to the actual exhibition turned violent—it was a viscerally powerful statement on the human condition in the “developed world” and the era’s version of late capitalism. Max de Esteban’s updated take is sure to provoke. Yet it certainly leads the viewers of these images to examine the world we have made.
Our digital age has left us almost totally out of balance. Heads Will Roll, Max de Esteban’s cri du coeur, is both a warning and a collection of forensic evidence of the mess we have gotten ourselves into through devices of our own invention.
Seen through his eyes, these visual statements of our “interesting times,” the result of the worship of technology running amok, should be a wake-up call for all of us to regain some awareness of the consequences of our actions before it is too late. We must take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of our own technologies and realize, as that alternative philosopher, the late Walt Kelly, wrote: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Otherwise, heads may well roll.
[i] See www.phrases.org.uk
[ii] See www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/07/interesting-times.html
[iii] See www.phrases.org.uk
[iv] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, 1997), p. 100
[v] See www.ballardian.com/atrocity-exhibition-williamburroughs-preface
[vi] From an unpublished text by Max de Esteban sent to the author
[vii] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 227