Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Sean Snyder, decoding filmic illusions

“There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won’t see.”

Donald Rumsfeld

Video installations of Sean Snyder are currently screened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts until 19 April. As part of a project entitled Index, they offer a stimulating reflexion about war images and representation. Crossing over recent history and popular culture, these images - mix of archives, pictures, video boxes and tapes - blur the frontiers between allegedly far-away battlefields and the apolitical comfort of television viewers’ sofas.

This accumulation of images, in particular through TV and advertising, creates a surrounding narrative which first effect is to dispossess the viewer of any judgement and capacity to understand what is actually viewed. Snyder, who is both a video director and a theorist, calls “visual rhetoric” the sensitive form ideology takes. Indeed, “War on Terror” started on two fronts: the military one and the visual one.

Nevertheless, the artist does not please himself in this easy - even though legitimate - denunciation of propaganda. His work is also a reflection about technology and its wide use that prevents official propaganda from being the only source of representation. In a paper entitled Optics. Compression. Propaganda., he writes: “The use of digital photography among members of the US military was made infamously known through the public disclosure of images of incidents at Abu Ghraib detention”.
What is called with a disgusting sense of modesty “Abu Ghraib incident” is not an isolated event. Also in the private sphere, soldiers were sending digital pictures via mails to their families and friends. Snyder mentions some of the captions: “Today’s youth... Tomorrow’s terrorists”, “Sure the sunset looks great, but look at the rest of the picture - that’s still Iraq”, etc. Taking pictures is truly “shooting”.

At that point, technological products cannot be used without taking in consideration the ideological consequences they imply. Quoting the French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry, Snyder explains how the scientific base of new media does not automatically ensure them a neutrality.

The part business played in this visual rhetoric of war is not ignored. The last video shows how brands accompanied both invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Snyder writes that “Saddam Hussein’s personal tastes have been subjected to paparazzi-like scrutinity. The media particularly enjoyed cataloging the contents of Saddam Hussein’s hideout after he was captured.”
Snyder mentions some of the brand names - 7 Up, Mars bars, Palmolive natural soap, Lacoste eau de Cologne, etc. And concludes his paper with Saddam Hussein’s comment during the trial: “This is all theater...”

But the strongest video among these installations is probably the one entitled Afghanistan circa 1985, which is not related to any theory. This work is truly a gem, a “pure” moment when archives and sounds take the high risk of not relying on any comment.

It is a fascinating footage shot during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan where occupying troops join the villagers in a traditional Afghani dance. This very bizarre scene shows an interaction that cannot be easily described because it is mixing music, war, folklore, in a choregraphy filled with extreme implicit violence. Soldiers are clapping their hands with smiles, but machine guns are still slung over their shoulder.

Sean Snyder Index - 12 February to 19 April 2009
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall
London SW1Y 5AH

A version of this review was first published in City Online Magazine