Mexico 68

Mexico 68 refers to a series of student protests starting around the time of the 1968 Summer Olympics hosted in Mexico City. Mexico had recently experienced a period of economic growth that it wanted to showcase with the Olympic games; however, the growth was not evenly spread throughout the country and students decided to organize and stage a series of protests against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), demanding the removal of certain officials and the tactical police force. During one of the protests, 10 days before the start of the olympics, the government opted to use military force and killed 300 to 400 students in what came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre.


This image above is from military tanks stationed at Zocalo square in Mexico city in 1968, the same year as the massacre. This image has been iconized through the Mexico 68 protests as well the larger global protests of 1968. I think this image in particular has become an icon of these protests because it displays the striking difference in forces between the protestors and the military/government.

This image is important because there continues to be corruption and abuse of power in the Mexican government. For instance, in September of 2014, 43 male students went missing on their way to commemorate the Tlatelolco massacre after they were intercepted by police. It’s believed that police handed the students over to members of a cartel that then murdered them.


Man vs Tank

The iconic image I want to talk about is the “Man vs. Tank” in the pro-democracy protest took place in Tiananmen in 1989. In April of 1989, after the death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, who supported a more open political system, students gathered and marched in Tiananmen Square for anti-corruption protest and calling for a more democratic government. As the protest escalated and drew millions of people, the government ordered military interventions, and the troops fired on civilians and students. The iconic image shows an unidentified man confronting a troops of tank.


All images and news associate with this event are banned from Chinese media. One of the reasons that Google, Facebook and other search engines and social media are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China” is because of the wide circulation of this image and related content.

A quick comparison of the Chinese search engine Baidu with Google shows that they are not neutral tools but have been manipulated. If one types “Tiananmen Square” in Chinese in the search bar of Baidu, all the images show the iconic architecture with Mao’s portrait and the propaganda slogan in juxtaposition with national flags, flower beds or swarms of tourists. Although the image renders the place as a popular tourist site to mute its political implication, anyone who has been to the Square knows the strict security checks and unspoken rules when one passes by. The street lights are installed with surveillance cameras. Police patrols every corner of the Square. Even actions like pulling down windows of cars will call attention of the police. The search of the same word in Google brings up a completely different set of the images. The presence of the tanks appear in half of the images, and other suggested key words all mention the word “man” and “tank”. The subject and composition of the photographs show the essence of protest, the confrontation of the body with the weapon.

Image Result from Baidu Search “天安门”

Screenshot 2017-10-18 15.24.12

Image Result from Tiananmen Square

Screenshot 2017-10-18 15.23.28

The interesting fact is that this image is a still from a video that shows the man’s effort and struggle to stop the tank. Why does the cropped image instead of the footage become iconic? The iconic image, with certain ambiguity, has a narrative framework that allows different interpretations to transform it into a symbol.

Reading Response 10/17

The three articles are not like what I read every day. The three worked together and provided me a good introduction to the world of archiving.

The article by Jacques Derrida discussed, from his and Freud’s perspective, the drive of archiving. Why do people do this. Derrida talked about it from a psychological perspective, and stressed on “death drive “, which I cannot quite understand. It is true that everything is going towards death and so, but the point of living and doing stuff is not all “death drive”. Well, maybe archiving can live beyond death. Just like the Greek statues, and the Terracotta Army, they lived beyond life form because of their death.

Foucault discussed the distinction of archiving: a construction of a system with inter-relations, historical a priori. It makes more sense to describe an archive as a collection of things that has the inner skeleton, inner relation, and serves some purposes. It may not be obvious and direct. People may have different understanding from different perspective, different background, culture and so on. But that’s the point of it.

Allan Sekula discussed this from a more practical point of view. Reading, using and form a new understanding, a more specific purpose.


Reading Response 10/17

Foucault describes the archive as being constructed. Archive is not defined by a set of fixed things but a set of relations. In his analysis of the act of constructing and archiving, history is transformed from a set of static fact to a set of statements that are constantly modified. Derrida illustrates the notion of archive fever in Freud’s obsessive documentation of exceptions which are actually universal to the human psyche. He examines the motive of archiving, and attributes it to “an aggression and a destruction drive”. I did not fully understand this statement but I associate it with Foucault’s study of the abnormality, of what is not being said or included in the history. As Allan Sekula notes, “archives are not neutral: they embody the power inherent in accumulation, collection, and hoarding…and the philosophical basis lies in an aggressive empiricism”. If we think about the origin of museum in Western culture, it is is an act of collecting that associate with power. Things included in the collections are exotic objects, curiosities and images of indigenous people. The archive objectifies them for ownership, and to some extent facilitates the legitimization of colonization. We can also think about the archives in traditional museums, and how institutes have the power to formulate our collective cultural memory and how it can be constructed and manipulated.

In response to Allan Sekula’s analysis of the archive of Leslie Shedden’s photography, I want to introduce the case of Vivian Maier to think about several issues.

By constructing exhibitions from an archive which author has very little control, is it possible to preserve an “authorial voice”? Or simply treating them as “found objects”, and meanings can only be constructed in the intersected fields of “the subjectivity of the collector, connoisseur, and viewer over that of any specific author”?

Another interesting case is artist Gerhard Richter’s archive, Atlas, which is a collection of pictures, both historical and personal that the artist has accumulated from 1962-2013. The archive includes images of landscapes, people, newspaper and magazine clips, objects, urban and interior.

Giuliana Bruno characterizes the work as “an archive that works against its own principles”, if we think of archive as a device of constructing narratives of collective cultural memory. He states that Richter’s archive “is not designed to give categoric form to the knowledge it presents; rather, it conveys a material work of mourning”. I really like this interpretation because the uselessness of this archive reveals the normality that how archives have been perceived as an instrument.

10/17 readings

Reading an Archive

Allan Sekula was an American writer, photographer, filmmaker, theorist, and critic. This text was published in The Photography Reader, itself an archive of 20th century writings on photographic theory. Sekula was generally interested in writing about large economic systems and “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.” In this essay, Sekula tried to “understand something of the relationship between photographic culture and economic life.” He argues that archives are the property of the bourgeois who claim some objectivism yet perpetuate mystified ideas about photography as “high art” to exclude the people from its field. He says that to archive photography is to strip photos of their contexts, uses, and meaning. The liberates the photos to be used as the archiver wishes; they become “sovereign images.” The photos become more ambiguous, often purely aesthetic. As more ambiguous objects they are able to be propagated to a wider audience, serving a capitalistic function. Once stripped, they can be used for the archiver’s means. Common organizational themes of archives are historical presentations, purely aesthetic,

He argues also that photographs make claims to authority by claiming some objective historicism but are incorrectly read as a representation of the past rather than as an interpretation of the past.

He states “the institutional promotion of photography as a fine art serves to redeem technology by suggesting that subjectivity and the machine are easily compatible.” Are they? How do human subjectivities and machines interact? What do they produce?


Archive Fever (1995)

Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher particularly interested in analysis through destruction.  This text considers how Freud approaches his own archive of theory. Derrida argues that in approaching this archive for edit, Freud’s action is inherently self-destructive. He calls this action the death drive. The death drive works to edit and remove from an archive, working silently, leaving no trace, or archive of its own. He argues that archives remove things from the sphere of memory. He argues that archiving is inherently self destructive.

Is the process of editing self-destructive? Is it always self destructive?


Against the Camera, For the Photographic Archive (1994)

Margarita Tupitsyn is a Russian scholar and independent curator. She details Russia’s relatively distant relationship to photography. In the late 1920’s/early 1930’s documentary photography was most used in Russia because the quick reproduction of images lent itself to the proletariat’s “urgent political agenda.” She quotes “in the USSR, photography is one of the weapons of the class struggle and of socialist construction.” She states that photographs try to “reflect Soviet reality in the most instantaneous and truthful way.”

Compared to Sekula’s argument that photography is the tool of the bourgeois, Tupitsyn argues for a view of photography as more democratic, rooted more in the proletariat. Can photography be a tool of both peoples?


Historical a priori and the Archive (1969)

Foucault was a French philosopher primarily interested in the relationship between power and knowledge. I found this text very difficult to understand. He speaks of the historical a priori, meaning the order underlying a given culture at a given historical moment. He says these rules cannot be exhaustively described and are not all of the rules of the society. The archive is compared to this, both collective, and not a total collection. It allows both survival and regular modification. He states that we must be outside an archive to define it because archives are constructed via our historical a priori which are assumed and thus invisible to us.


Finally, I repeat Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s quoted text from the beginning of Reading an Archive:

“The invention of photography. For whom? Against whom?”

Who does this tool most serve and who does it most harm? Do cameras shoot people or do people shoot people?



Famous photo composition

The first photo I chose was “The Tetons and Snake River” by Ansel Adams:

The Tetons and the Snake River.png

In this photo, the eyes are first drawn to the river, which leads the viewer to the Teton mountains in the distance. Lastly we notice the details in the forest and the clouds.

The second photo is “Situation room” by Pete Souza:

the situation room.png

I’m not really sure what to make of the composition here. The main subject, Obama, is not in a central position nor do any of the lines in the photo lead to him. I think this one is impactful mostly because it captures the gravity of the scene in the people’s expressions.

The third is “Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém” by Eddie Adams:

vietname execution.png

In this photo, the eyes are first drawn to the face of Nguyễn Văn Lém with the gun pointed at his face. The viewers are then led to the facial expressions of the general and the soldier next to him. Finally we take in the mostly empty street and buildings behind the subjects.

a people’s history of art

Art history is often represented as a series of overlapping artists – E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art begins “There is no such thing and Art. There are only artists.” He means that Art as a concept is elusive and ever changing, impossible to pin down. All we can identify with confidence are the individuals who advanced and changed the way we construct and view visual images. And we can make sense of great works of art only by understanding the artist’s style, influences, motivations, and historical context.

What is unappealing about this approach is that it echoes of certain repudiated views of conventional history. Thomas Carlyle’s theory of history as “the biographies of great men” has been discarded for a more sociologically and economically concerned paradigm – a people’s history. But this shift cannot be made to the same extent in art history.

The history of art is intrinsically bound to artists in a way the history of empires is not bound to its leaders – or rather, it is disconnected from non-artists to an extent that political history is not severed from the common people. For although the masses influence artistic trends, and by extension artists, they are always once removed from the object of study itself. The masses may stage revolutions, but they don’t paint altarpieces.

However, the democratization of photography and the ease of reproduction of images seem to be dissolving some of this boundary. With the rise of citizen journalism, the most impactful images in contemporary society are taken by nobodies. And they are seen by and felt by and reacted to by everybody.

Most of these images are not extraordinary in their artistic composition or use of color or form; they are remarkable in their immanence. For these photographs do not reimagine and interpret events – they capture them as they unfold. Even when cleverly framed or opportunistically taken, a photograph shows something that happened, something that was undeniably there. And that means something.

Today’s most famous artists deal directly with contemporary issues. Globalization has made us more engaged with the world around us, not the least because that world can now be brought to us. This ease of making, reproducing, and sharing pictures and the resulting barrages of images this has created a certain visual numbness, to be sure. But it has also created a new class of artistic objects unbound to any group of specialized individuals working within defined tradition; a class of anonymously produced images whose significance is entirely determined by their social-political context and the will of the masses, images every bit as influential as masterpieces. Citizen journalism may have initiated a new chapter in the history of art, one that embodies the globalized and globally minded world we live in.

Learning lines and composition

I chose three images from Herbert List (1903 – 1975). He was a German photographer and a member of Magnum.

According to List’s Magnum biography “….List was a classically educated artist who combined a love of photography with a fascination for surrealism and classicism. List photographed still life and his friends, developing his own style. He has described his images as ‘composed visions where [my] arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances’.”

Later “his work became more spontaneous and was influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Italian Neo-Realism film movement. List more or less gave up photography in the early 1960s. Despite his earlier fame throughout Europe, his particular style was no longer fashionable.”

After choosing the photographs I tried to find similar compositions in my apartment and from the neighborhood. I shot them with an iPhone.

line map

Readings 12/10

This week’s readings were mostly discussing the democratisation of photography, where the tools for taking photos are so readily available now that social media, where anyone can participate, becomes the new medium for news. Given the sheer volume of media generated during any significant event such as the Egyptian demonstrations in 2011, we now often have enough angles of an event such the the traditional thought that photography is subjective in its selection becomes less valid since viewers can view all sides. This ties into the recent popularisation of 360 degree cameras, which are often portable fisheye lenses mounted on a small sensor that takes 2-3 shots and stitches them for a “complete” picture that one can manipulate in a viewing software (Google sphere) or in VR. With future advances in resolution, will it be possible that we can crop these ultra-ultra wide angle views at a sufficient resolution to generate art in its own right?

“Software and Sovereignty”

“People begin to participate in power” as they “no longer allow themselves to be represented and depicted in pictures by others, but represent themselves through their own pictures” (Power to the People, 3)

I think this statement is interesting, but I would argue that perhaps the ‘people’ are also losing the power or control of their own images as they are distributed online, they can be transformed, they can be tagged to an individual that may not want to participate but can only unilaterally untag him or herself from images attributed to him/her. How these pictures are published is also a concern, because I believe that platforms are political, and our freedom to distribute images is not something we should take for granted.


“Perhaps the most unique and important implication of this mass self-communication is the ability to develop and engage in “autonomous projects” that are beyond the control of traditional power structures. The noosphere then serves as an information-based ecology that enables disparate individuals and groups to cut through other dominant systems to create communities undertaking autonomous projects based in collective engagement” (Occupying the Noosphere, 4)

I a bit skeptical of the claims made in the noosphere reading – though the internet can be a source of bottom-up, decentralized, organization and protest, it is at the same time extremely centralized. Facebook, itself is a corporation which allows and can disallow participation through its own internal and centralized judgement. I am skeptical of the “autonomy” of the projects that can be developed through collective engagement, though I agree that these projects are autonomous of the nation state traditional power structure. Facebook is not a traditional power structure, but it is also one that, as it allows communication across the world, it also has become a power structure that spans across the world. It does not have citizens but has users instead, the politics of these users and freedoms and restrictions of the “citizenship” to Facebook is one we are yet to discover.  Beyond these statements, I cannot disagree that the power of social media and Facebook has exposed a lot of problematic political situations and has allowed people to form communities to try to hold government accountable, to protest and to overthrow government. At the same time, I Facebook does not incite in me a feeling of freedom.