How Many people Does it Take to Screw in a Lightbulb? On the Ownership of Experience, or Who Can say What to Whom, When?

Art Papers March/April 1997 Issue 2

The following article and the relay of responses and rebuttals it inspired first appeared in Art Monthly, a contemporary art journal based in England. Although these writings originally dealt with primarily with permissibility and control and investigated incidents of censorship, the Art papers staff was struck by their underlying debate of on the "ownership" of the cultural symbols in question. These excerpts raise important questions regarding an artist's use of images based in his personal, cultural history that were objectionable to viewers from outside that culture.

A Case History: Social Control and Permissibility (1) By Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris.

(In) an exhibition of work produced by staff from the Department of Visual arts, titled 'Multiaccentuality,' held in Keele University Art Gallery recently╝Alan Schechner intended to include two works. Taste of a Generation, computer animation and video explores connections between the Holocaust and mass Industrialization. Main themes are Adolf Hitler's admiration of Henry Ford and the role of Nazi propaganda films and advertisements. By making extensive use of the computer's ability to morph objects and images. This animation draws a link between the means of mass production as developed by Ford to assemble millions of motor cars, and the means of mass destruction implemented by the nazis to exterminate millions of people in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald and Treblinka. Schechner's video raises important questions about modernity, modernization, and ideology. The second related work, a photomontage called "Self-Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing" was prompted by a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Visitors walk around the silent, sacred rooms of the museum, viewing evidence of Nazi atrocities visited on a previous generation, while less than fifteen miles away Palestinian children play in open sewers. Behind barbed wire armed Israeli soldiers from a present generation of Jews look on. Schechner's two works were intended to be part of an installation to include a 6x 4ft. Print of called "Self-Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing", a conveyor belt and the video/animation Taste of a generation. With less than a week go to the opening of the exhibition, Schechner received a phone call from a representative of RS Laboratories, Manchester╝ informing him that the Laboratories could not proceed with what they described as the advertisement without the explicit approval of Coca-Cola plc. Schechner had montaged his self-portrait, holding a can of Diet Coke, in front t of a photograph of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. Bewildered, Schechner attempted to explain that this was an artwork, not an advertisement. He also tried to clarify the ideas behind the photomontage and to describe the context in which it was to be shown, only to be told that the photo processing company did not share his "artistic sensibilities." Finally, he asked if it was actually the Holocaust image that was the reason for their unwilling ness to print the photomontage and not, as they had claimed, simply the use of the Coca-Cola logo. He was informed that the photomontage had been passed around the office, was deemed to be "sick" and "disturbing" and that there had been an "office decision" not to print. Clearly this decision had been taken at a very late stage. Was this a collective democratic decision about the morality of acceptable images to be printed in the workplace or an act of suppression on the grounds of unconscious or conscious fears about politicized images? Clearly, one vital issue here is the distinction between the role and functions of visual representations and actual events The two are not synonymous nor necessarily casually linked. We must in all this remember that representations - visual, verbal, oral - retain the possibility of transgression; the possibility of providing critical knowledge, awareness and insights about, and interventions in, the conditions that produce social, political and psychological marginalization and repression.

A Reply: Whose Image is it Anyway? (2) By Valerie Reardon

More relevant to the debate is the question of ownership of photographic images of ourselves - alive or dead - and the meanings which those images can be made to serve. Who has the right arbitrarily to exploit another person's image, which is by its very nature as an image disallows subjective enunciation? I agree with the author's statement that Alan Schechner's work "raises important questions about modernity, modernization and ideology" and it is on this precise terrain that I intend to challenge its rectitude. Schechner's photomontage shows us the image of a round-faced man (whom I assume to be the artist) dressed in a striped shirt and holding a Diet Coke can. He is positioned as if included within a group of male prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. A barbed wire X crosses the entire surface and the words -"Without Artistic Sensibilities" in gothic (Nazi lettering (- are written across the top. The conjunction of text and image implies some related meaning but to whom does the text refer? The artist? The prisoners? The Nazis? The central presence of the Diet coke disturbs me. As the icon of weight-conscious Westerners, its juxtaposition with the gaunt faces of the prisoners reinforces ambiguity and signals the artist's ironic stance. It is explained that the work "was prompted by a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Visitors walk around the silent, sacred rooms of the museum, viewing evidence of Nazi atrocities visited on a previous generation, while less than fifteen miles away Palestinian children play in open sewers. Behind barbed wire armed Israeli soldiers from a present generation of Jews look on." This statement confirms the dangerous paradox inherent in photography which is that that, while its transparent nature stands in for the "real", it's nature as an image/object facilitates emotional distance by consistently maintaining the people or events depicted as always positioned in the (forgettable) past. For the artist, the children in the sewer occupied real time and space thus producing in him and emotional charge, which triggered the latent anti-Semitism evident in the montage (3). Schechner "handles" his feelings about the Holocaust by inserting himself in the picture while at the same time asserting his difference with the symbol of coke [sic] can. The implications for our society of the Holocaust as perpetuated by educated and civilized men in a systematic and bureaucratic manner have yet to be fully elaborated and facile images such as Schechner's only help to reinforce the cultural suppression of its meaning. Furthermore, the appropriation of Holocaust imagery with it's absence of names or stories not only decontextualizes the image, thus opening it to ambiguous meanings, but also confers the power of ownership onto the appropriator by self association with the maker of the image. And it is doubtful that it was a prisoner who had the camera. The work of art now has new meaning. It is no longer about the freedom of the gaunt-faced prisoners (if it ever was); it is now about Alan Schechner and his freedom to use whatever image he desires for whatever uses he desires it to serve.

A Retort: Power and Responsibility (4) By Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris

Reardon appears to be caught in an understandable wish for a cogent debate about truth and ethics in the production of specific images and their meanings. Reardon's question about who has the (abstract) right to exploit another person's image is an interesting intellectual one╝ Reardon's claim for a 'latent anti-Semitism' is entirely her own invention, her "reading" Representations do not "contain" their own meanings, they are produced by specific readers who do the looking and interpreting. Reardon also makes the classic error of interpretation: she takes one image out of the context of Schechner's series of images and texts (and intended installation) and "reads" it with little, if any, specific information. Has she, for instance viewed Schechner's Taste of a generation, the computer animation from which this image is sourced? Clearly not, as it is dedicated to a member of Schechner's Jewish family exterminated in the Holocaust.

Anyway it is my image (5) By Alan Schechner

I have only recently returned from a research trip in Israel funded by the Anglo-Israel association. I writ this not as an opportunity to boast of my research prowess nor at an attempt at name dropping, but as a way of putting Reardon's attack on me as being a "latent anti-Semite" into some sort of context. I am a Jewish artists who has lived both in England and Israel, who holds dual English/Israeli citizenship and who in his work has attempted to address a number of issues of Jewish interest. This work includes a number of projects on the Holocaust, as well as more contemporary subject matter. These works have been funded by Jewish as well as non-Jewish organizations and have been exhibited throughout the world. My video The Taste of a Generation, in which I explore Henry Fords relationship with Adolf Hitler and the links between mass industrialization and genocide, and which incidentally includes the image to which Reardon so strongly objected, was recently awarded a prize at the 2nd Jewish Video festival at Berkeley, California. I am currently working on a photographic installation for the Hong Kong Jewish Art Fair. I have outlined the support I have received from sectors of the Jewish community to raise this question: If Jewish panels deem this Jew's commentary on his own people's politics not only acceptable but valuable, who is Reardon to suggest that I am anti-Semitic? The work to which Reardon objected in her article is a part of a series of photomontages in which I explore how images of the Holocaust are used for ideological reasons when shown in museums, memorials and books. Reardon talked about the "ownership of the photographic images and the measures which those images can be made to serve" and it was precisely this issue that I sought to address in these works. Anyone who has visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem will be aware that towards the end of the main exhibition, images of mass graves and torture chambers slip seamlessly into images of Zionist Pioneers, implying an almost organic link between the Zionist enterprise and the Holocaust. Throughout my time in Israel I became acutely aware of how the Holocaust was used to justify some of the more unsavory aspects of Israeli policy. I was told more than once how: "Whatever we do to them (the Palestinians) can never be as bad as what they (the Germans) did to us." The first stop of all foreign diplomats on arrival in Israel is Yad Vashem, before the diplomacy, before the state dinners and the visits these images are being used to serve narrow political agendas. At the same time however as these images are being used for clearly ideological and political aims they are also imbued with a sort of false religiosity; they become sacred, untouchable, images to be contemplated silently, images that cannot be touched, that must not be used. They speak a silent, powerful an, unquestionable truth; they are out of bounds. As someone who had recently finished his army service in the Israeli defense Forces which included a stay in Lebanon and the Occupied West Bank and as someone who was working in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel I found this hypocrisy unacceptable. My response as an artist who was deeply disturbed by much of what was happening in Israel was to attempt to reclaim these images and to use them as a way of putting forward alternative lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. The image to which both Ms Reardon and RS Color laboratories in Manchester so strongly objected is part of that series. By placing my well-fed self with a Diet Coke amongst the emaciated survivors of Buchenwald I was not only attacking Israeli society with it's fetishistic fascination with all fads American, but also more importantly, saying that we (the Jewish people) need to put ourselves back in the shoes of those survivors. We need to learn that the lesson of the Holocaust is not just that this must never happens to Jews again, but that this must never happen to anyone again. It is important to note that the image I use is one of people who survived the Nazi death camps, this is an image of survivors of the Buchenwald camp taken on the day of the camp's liberation. These are not images of the dead and lost, but of people, some of who are still alive from whom we can and must still learn. By placing myself in the image I was not attempting to "handle my feelings about the Holocaust" as Reardon suggests but rather to reclaim this image and its potential ideological uses for a new generation of Jews. As such I feel my action was totally appropriate. For this is my history, these are my people, members of my own family. I remember now with a shudder, how as I put the collage together, it suddenly occurred to me how well I fitted into that picture. Whose image is it anyway? It belongs in part at least to those who are prepared to fight for its meaning.