(On the occasion of the death anniversary of Neda Agha Soltan, killed during the demonstrations following the contested re-election of M. Ahmadinejad, on June 20 2009)
The image of Neda’s death compulsively pervades the arachnoid villi in our brains. The eye, cannibalistic and hungry accomplice, watches death through the decongestive satellite-like awareness that, for days, we had expected to be switched off as it had happened to the surrounding buildings. CNN keeps on broadcasting the images of Neda’s face. The big cathode-ray eye smells the blood, knows its bulimic, vampiric adepts, and squeezes them out, until the fiery red becomes invisible, and the moment of death, of passing away, becomes a dream. Just like the chocking game, a bizarre ritual for American teenagers, in which they choke each other until they gasp for air, fainting for a few seconds, and then wake up again, while their friends laugh, without understanding where they are, or what just happened.
I think that what the choking game and Neda have in common is the act of filming, of recording death, of which the choking game provides a sample of reversibility. I wonder if the experience of the chocking game would have the same impact on American youngsters without being filmed, reproduced infinitely, then shared online, allowing the victims to watch those moments when they weren’t there or, at least, weren’t there for themselves.
I wonder how cynical and puzzlingly ludicrous is the attempt of telling events such as this one, trying to historicize them, analyzing and dissecting them like corpses at a morgue, even though the immersive format of digital citizenship suggests a different approach. Maybe autopsies start there, from TV screens.
Yet, something is missing in this babel of images. In the collective unconscious of a population, these images work as detonator of an unpredictable series of micro-events ready to surface and reverberate in a jarring and unfathomable glossolalia of unintentional and shared gestures, in a rash act reabsorbing the concept, amplifying and questioning it, bringing it to its own limits of self-definition, rather than of self-doubting, as anambiguous, noble residual of the action.
Neda is already a symbol, an icon, a thumbnail, a Facebook profile picture of each one of those Iranians involved in the revolt. The shock of that image has already been rationalized in the conscience that anyone could be Neda, and this conscience takes away visibility and concreteness from that image, turning it into an icon. I wonder if CNN is already suggesting this perceptive approach to justify the compulsive repetition of her image, through a vocal counterpoints, that proposes Neda as the symbol of the revolt.
She is beautiful while she’s dying, even more so than in pictures that portray her alive or, more precisely, dead-like, motionless, not breathing, as she appeared in those school forms. How weird it is to see her in those artificial poses, right after the vibrant images in motion of her death, so paradoxically alive, greedy for life, during the sudden and silent backwash of the end, amid the onlookers’ screams. Neda is more beautiful while she’s dying, but none says it out of respect. Is it maybe this element, that televisions do not mention, that feeds our morbid projective desire?
But there is something else in this convulsive, baroque death, there is something more in the fleshly, porcelain quality of her face merging with the ineffable Other. This pixellated, grainy death realizes it’s being watched. And it watches, in turn. Neda enters the camera, she breaks through it, she shatters its grain. Neda watches us. Neda becomes aware that she’s being filmed while she’s dying, and death breaks into the image, not vice versa, at least once. Reproducibility and death yell the same iconic scream, that of a symbol in its pure state, of an image beyond itself, of a vision becoming language and word. In that gaze, probably not reciprocated by the person filming her (except through the filter of the camera), Neda finds herself as an icon.
Her death, in her look into the camera, is a sublime example of the mystery of the displaying of a body. In that moment, in that look, death is forever in stand-by, as in a shroud, evolving to the status of digital icon, losing its aura, but gaining in repetition. Neda’s eyes inevitably turn upward and stare for several thousandths of a second into the electronic gaze of the cell phone filming her, in which the eye that watches her is probably engrossed. In that moment, the climax of reversibility of the gaze is underway, at the same time forever and never again. In the digital eye triggering the iconic process, Neda, while watching, is both seeing and (in)visible.
I wonder what happened to Neda while she was both dying and simultaneously aware of being filmed. The icy alienation of the medium focuses in Neda’s eye, who experiences a double intrusion – that of the backwash of death, and that of perceiving herself in the others’ looks. Funerals as public events probably originated from the channeling of this forced display of the body which, in death, we rather wished it were removed from the gaze, but which, nevertheless, is exposed to it again, one by one, orderly, as in a mortuary. It’s like procrastinating the cancellation of the principle of the vision for just one more moment, till the very last, prompting, in this way, the narrative and photographic altering process of memory.
The apparently neutral digital medium, fixing the extreme vitality of death, its unrelenting dispossession and definitive intrusion, does not avoid the eroticism of its gaze. Death crystallizes or, better, pixelizes in Neda’s gaze. In that gaze, death coexists with life, it fucks life. And Neda, by sheer coincidence the result of a short circuit, the product of a series of involuntary physical and geographical overlooks, notices a presence, and projects this convulsive orgy in the blaze of a gaze which switches on for a last flare. Neda doesn’t watch the person filming. She watches into the camera, the cell phone trying to film her. The unconscious of death is thus exposed and bound to endlessly repeat itself, chilled by its potential reiteration, penetrated by Neda’s eye, recorded by the camera eye. In that gaze, death is at its own limits: invincible, ineffable, invisible, now staring at us, proud, coming out of itself and those who experience it. What does Neda think in that gaze, if she really realizes she’s being filmed?
Death transcends the image and, in that look, the intrusion of death is everted. The camera immortalizes this passing away without interruption, between the ‘internal’ of death and the ‘external’ of its becoming endlessly and mediatically shareable. Neda’s gaze passes through the digital eye and places itself next to those watching, where the gaze of the filming person ends or extends. I wonder how much the medium can absorb who’s filming in the filmed image, letting them forget that this is the real world, not a simple shot. Yet, who suggests the shots in these extreme moments of reality? What moves the body of the young man filming, so that the gaze of Neda falls precisely into the camera eye?
The medium itself is unaware, yet it has its own place as well, and a sort of conscience, or unconscious, and it asks us how we should use it and see it, it suggests us how to do that. The way we can get it and check it is already a way of talking to us, of its sensuous independence. Image is the ratio between eye and hand: paradoxically, even with digital media, it is still the hand that creates images, as in painting. Image is gestural, performative, all the more so when technologies are reduced in size, and the gesture’s constant impact-positioning emerges clearer, as a form of linguistic-perceptive tuning between my living the world and the ways of telling it, suggested by the medium involved which, in the case of Neda, was a cell phone with a camera.
As in a choreography, the convulsion of death is tuned with Neda’s body and with the body of the person filming in the moment of an instanteneous look into the camera: there is someone looking, off-screen, at a minimal yet unbridgeable, deeply cold distance. There is someone behind the digital armour of an act that is both appropriation and hypertrophic will of the glance on the world, in this case, on death.
I have the impression that in those moments a common principle of belonging to the world makes a series of unreflective movements part of a common tissue, resulting from the emergence of reality. Reality, on these occasions, calls for the postures of our bodies and the images of our tools, as well as their collocation vis-à-vis us and the others, between us and the others. In those moments, it’s difficult to see this kind of media as extensions. They suck us into them, absorbing the real world around in a monadic replica of a reproducible eye, of a unique gestuality.
Reality outside the shot, similar to the one inside it, loses its empathic qualities to benefit an involuntary principle of shape and composition that pushes the body of the one filming to partake, driven by reality that leads him to choose a shot, while trying to bring both body and medium back to controlling themselves. The eye of the one looking seems to experience a cooling off, a distancing. The world is reduced to a frame that amplifies its aesthetic-formal qualities, depriving them, for just one moment, of its empathic qualities, whereas paradoxically, in that search for the image’s form and balance, the one filming really wishes to tell that empathy which he was unable to feel while filming.
There is a sort of rationalistic violence in the attempt to reduce reality to a controlled frame, in the attempt to possess it and make it reproducible, thus stealing it from the time of the moment and giving it a façade of eternity through the filter of a binary image. Filming is therefore a form of mnemonic grip making us believe we have control on the time arrow, confirming the nostalgic-symbolic nature of memory and its need to exteriorize. Nevertheless, filming becomes an involuntary reflex of our contemporaneity, ever eluding the subject’s conscious analysis performing it, turning recorded images into pockets of involuntary memory.
Taking possession of reality has a deeply political significance in Iran, and digitalizing the world becomes the only way to communicate to the outside world what is happening inside the country. In this context of violent repression, low-cost new technologies seem to give back to image the witnessing value it once held, the proof of a collective event, as in family pictures. Yet, not even in this case are images merely reproducing an event. On the contrary, in a context in which no official images seem to come out of the country, the few pictures that do can generate an autonomous reality principle, i.e. establish themselves as images-world, autonomous pockets of reality in relation to the referent to which they wish to be linked.
This image claims the presence of a thing, it doesn’t merely imitate it. It asserts the presence of death, but doesn’t represent it, despite death being ever and only metaphorically present as a sign of itself, an internal dysfunction, consumption, ageing, a necessary detour. The image ground is death as its internal reversal, a process of objectification suspended in the look-into-camera, as it is in Narcissus’ gaze into the pond. We live in a society of screamed death as a negative of the gaze, beyond Icarus’ taboo, beyond Narcissus, killed by the nihilism of being seen without being able to see himself, unless in a reflection.
Death opens to presence-absence, to the image’s working principle in itself, in the vision’s moment, as in that of memory. A camera is a digital mirror, a projector as well as a recorder, able to fix an image when the original is missing, thus showing its arrogance, ever redundant in competing with the original, ever unsatisfied of its byproduct status of copy. The image shamelessly shows its own nature in the digital medium, the place of its own infinite reproducibility, and of its own genesis as autonomous referent, as well as a sign of it.
I consider the notion of parallax, trying to apply it to Neda’s death to observe closer the links between the perceptive elements that compose it. I have the impression that – between the singular and incarnate death of Neda, and its becoming im(media)tely public and reproducible – something happened, which is more than a simple shift. On the contrary, it seems that the elements involved are not aligned anymore along a beeline, but rather they are slightly displaced from their original starting point, breaking their biunivocal relationship, and adding a derived factor of variation, or deviation.
The parallax, already occurring between the subject and the moment of her death, slightly but infinitely displaced in relation to those living it – indeed never completely experiencing it – is similarly displaced from its axis between the look of Neda’s death, and that of the camera and the person filming, as acted by an agent of distortion. In the passage between a singular and a reproducible death, there is the passage between a singular, incarnated, potential – in the sense of never present for those who live it – infinite, and a becoming infinite – from the point of view of those filming it and looking at it. In the achievement of repetition, infinite is exteriorized and disembodied.
Il centro fittizio di queste relazioni è la camera, nella quale convergono gli occhi dei personaggi coinvolti, nella quale avviene la staffetta della morte con la vita e, in microscala, la visione della distruzione totale nella sincrona immortalità. Due infiniti si scontrano a duello, e lo strumento veicola la distorsione, l’angolo di parallasse tra la morte singolare e quella riproducibile. L’occhio di Neda che vive la morte e quello filmato in cosa differiscono, se non nel trapasso di un infinito nell’altro? L’occhio di Neda in camera diventa immortale e affronta l’occhio di chi la guarda, singolarità assoluta che si incarna nella gestualità primitiva a fuoco sul viso di Neda, rivendicando l’attimo della sintonizzazione come singolarità derivata, da subito intrappolata nel meccanismo di un infinito a posteriori.
L’occhio della mano che filma cerca il punctum in divenire dell’immagine di fronte, e non più intorno, come nel mondo delle immagini al di fuori dell’inquadratura, e si estranea, guadagnando in immortalità anempatica ciò che perde in singolarità, e trasformando la singolarità incarnata che ha di fronte in infinito riproducibile. La morte in camera paga il prezzo della carne, per diventare tessuto e icona.”
The text is an adapted fragment of Iran vs Iran. Elections and revolt in Tehran, Mitra Azar 2011, pp. 135 (http://www.mimesisedizioni.it/archives/001787.html).