May 17, 2007

Aernout Mik: Simulation

Filed under: Simulation — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 4:14 pm

Aernout Mik, Scapegoates, 2006

Aernout Mik’s videos are resolutely anti-narrative, they are tableaux vivant, mises-en-scène that deliberately dispense with any sense of narrative progression or reward for narrative expectation. They operate in the interstice between still photography and film; they are, essentially, still photographs that move. His work is partially comparable to instances of ‘still-moving’ video art such as Sam Taylor Wood’s video portrait of the British celebrity footballer David Beckham filmed when he was asleep in a hotel room.[1]

Yet, although Mik’s work fits into the category of still-moving video there is in fact an implicit narrative. His work often concerns people in positions of authority, often in uniform, mixed with people who do not possess authority and sometimes counter authority. We see videos for example of combined services dealing with a road accident; a training ground for border police; armed military personnel herding civilians into an auditorium for an unspecified purpose; what appears to be a parliament with men and women in suits combined with what appeared to be passive protesters in casual clothes carrying out antiauthoritarian action such as pulling T-shirts over the head and disgorging food. If there is a ‘narrative’ theme, and there does appear to be one, then it seems to concern what the Frankfurt School thinkers referred to as the ‘administered world’.

All Mik’s video tableaux were exercises in simulation until 2006when in ‘Raw Footage’ he decided to use raw footage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia obtained from Reuters and ITN. The problem for the viewer confronting such footage in the context of an exhibition of Mik’s work is that there is no perceivabledifference between real, raw, footage and simulated footage. It is easy to see the plumes of smoke billowing over a large neo-brutalist building as fake and the sound as foley effects. Similarly soldiers who are shooting, drinking Coca Cola and launching mortar shells could easily be actors.

One is reminded here of Georgina Starr’s video Crying.The story behind Crying is that Starr was working on an art project with a video camera running, she felt depressed, forgot about the camera and began to cry. She kept the footage for some time until friends suggested that she use it for an art work. From the viewer’s point of view what is interesting about crying is in even when we know that the footage is ‘real’ there is no significant difference.

The fundamental problem with the current means of visual reproduction that we have at our disposal is that we cannot tell the difference between reality and simulation. The point of Mik’s work appears to be to draw our attention to the highly simulacral status of the illusion of life that is film.

One can consider the two aspects of mediatised simulation :firstly, the epistemological-ontological ramifications; and, secondly, the social implications. From a social perspective, for example, one can point to in the manner in which social documentation by photography and film has contributed to an extension of human social consciousness; from anepistemological-ontological point of view, one can point out that photography and film by no means offer a guarantee of truth. Recall, for example, RenéMagritte’s painting This is Not a Pipe which is a painting of a smoker’spipe together with the caption ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. One of the points Magritte is making is that although it is self-evident that the painting of a pipe is not an actual pipe the role of imagination in cognition is such that weoften accept the sign as a substitute for the real.

It was the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume who first pointed to the importance of the role of imagination in human cognition. Indeed Hume argued that imagination was the principal faculty of human cognition, which is quite a revolutionary claim to have made within a period in history when reason was seen as the highest human faculty.[1] The power of imagination is the power of abstraction, the ability to create models of the world within the mind that can be manipulated outside of the dangers associated with actual reality (Dennett 1996). There is obvious survival value in our capacity for imagination but it is also the case that we often accept the model of reality as actual reality. The phenomenon of the “suspension of disbelief” is not limited to our experience of theatre and film, it actually pervades all of our experience. Human beings possess a remarkable capacity for self-deception, we can believe in God, we can continue smoking in full knowledge it is seriously damaging our health, we can blithely ignore the fact that we are destroying the planet and exploiting the Third World. Such are the everyday instances of the abstractness, the virtual autism of human consciousness.

The philosophical ramifications of Mik’s focus on simulation are of interest because they point to the fact that mass media are not contributing to an expansion of social imagination and social consciousness that early media theorists such as Walter Benjamin would have desired. Thetechnology that promised mass awareness of global events is also the technology that provides mass illusion.

Is too easy however to accept Baudrillard’s thesis that reality has been superseded by simulation. One can, instead, picture a more complex situation in which mass media both masks and reveals the manifold of social realities. One can cite the instance of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the role that West German television broadcasts played in providing East Germans with knowledge about life on the other side of the wall.

The fact that imagination offers no more than a diagram of the experience of others whom we do not know personally means that it is possible to inflict suffering without any overbearing qualms of conscience. The fact that there are 800 million people in the world who are starving and a similar number who are overeating is, similarly, merely a diagram in our consciousness; such figures do not excite our conscience sufficiently to make us want to do much about this problem.

In Mik’s work the human capacity to casually collude in inflicting pain and death on distant others is figured in his depictions of authority: the people who wear uniforms or suits. The fact that his narratives go nowhere appears to indicate that the paucity of human conscience is intimately interconnected with the dominance of simulation in mass media. In particular, his work points to the fact that even the considerable power of contemporary technologies of visual reproduction are incapable of expanding human collective conscience; in fact they are largely used to contract it. Documentary films are considered to be boring and/or depressing, and most people would much rather watch something entertaining.

Marxism tried to place the blame on an all-powerful capitalist hierarchy who brainwashed the masses, but this is no longer convincing. The fact of thematter is that human conscience is fundamentally tribal. According to social anthropologists human imagination cannot stretch beyond a social configuration greater than one hundred and fifty people.

Aernout Mik, Scapegoates, 2006

Mik’s work characterises the mediatised window onto the real as being mostly blurred or rose tinted in order to protect our sanity from the collective violence we all collude in, violence against the Third World, violence against nature. Looking at a photograph or a video of warfare is a million miles away from being there. And what is interesting about Mik’s Raw Footage is the everydayness of being there, the everydayness of slaughter. The Serbian soldiers who casually launch mortars at their foe smile to the camera puff on a cigarette and drink Coca Cola. It almost becomes an allegory for our everyday violence.

And in this sense Mik’s work is more subtle and sophisticated than the overtly political ouevre of Thomas Hirschhorn who rams a message we are already only too well aware of down our throats giving us the impression that his principal ambition is to ride to aristic fame on the moral bandwagon. Whereas Hirschhorn purveys radical-grunge-chic Mik’s work is genuinely thought provoking. Ultimately Hirschorn’s overtly political messages are cardboard cutouts framedby the up-market shop window of the art gallery or the art fair, the brillianceof Mik’s work is that he foregrounds the problem of our cardboard cut-out conscience and consciousness.


[1] In her Beckham video Taylor-Wood consciously referenced Andy Warhol’s debut film Sleep, 1963, which is a five-hour film of John Giorno sleeping. Warhol is, accordingly, the father of the still-moving image.

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