...what, when, why, how...
"His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which unceasingly piles rubble upon rubble and hurls it in before of his feet."
The Angel of History, Walter Benjamin*1
"We are not the Angel. We are the rubble."
A “hole in the sky”3 is how John Smith described his black tower. In his film made in 1987 of the same name, it was a reference to its matt-blackness as it appeared to carve a shape out of the sky. This ‘present absence in the sky’ is a symbolic connection to Grenfell Tower’s tragedy, which has often been referred to as a “tomb in the sky”4.
This project sets out to ask about the possibility of an encounter with this traumatic event by interrogating the troubled image. We perceived the appearance of the fire through the prism of mainstream and social media, constituting a voyeuristic gaze that underlies our engagement with spectacles of suffering. To politicise collective trauma is to attempt to interrogate ideological memory by working through the aesthetic and political conditions that made this media-borne disaster possible. Engaging with the traumatic image is to see how art - as a way of seeing and doing - can offer up valuable critique to the ethics and the politics of this impossible image.
The methodology is to lift the image out of the mainstream and social media space and place it into an aesthetic space. This is a re-make of The Black Tower which is a story about story telling. The original film critiques narrative construction and modes of perception.
How are we to sense this present absence in the metropolis? The wound in the heart of Kensington, led to an unconscionable loss of life, leaving behind a visual anomaly. In a theatrics of visibilities, we watched Londoners perish on real time TV. Residents have been let down by ‘Politics Proper,’ by a limited inquiry and a coarsened discourse that misrepresents political agency. Narratives of social housing serve to trap the conversation between those perceived to be deserving and undeserving, which individualises responsibility and accountability. When questions of amnesty for the ‘illegal immigrants’ of Grenfell causes circuits in the media-industrial-complex to light up, this serves to transfix eyes. This shuts down thinking while conversations feed productively into the broader discourse of the crisis in national identity. It displaces culpability and accountability while obscuring the urgent, structural issues that affect society at large - given hundreds of buildings are still considered unsafe.5 In this sense, the hostile environment is not limited to architecture, but is an ecosystem that announces danger and produces distance. It is an agenda that leads to biopolitical terror across socio-political and historical processes.6 The Tower stands at a nexus of institutional racism, neoliberal governance and British history. Given how the fire was foreseen and there is a “Grenfell two in the post”7 makes this not just a monumental, historical event but one that exists in the present and future day. What is at stake with its magnitude, is human integrity itself as we are forced to ask how global interrelations produce subjectivities through the fecundity of capitalist crises. As viewers, consumers and prosumers of information, we are steeped in the visual codes which render some citizens intelligible as bare life.8
Close-ups of the remains have become part of our ‘objective’ reality. As the camera points, it polices our perceptive apparatus. Power becomes democratised in our society of control as the peripatetic Tower travels through its coils as a pocket-size image-body with iconic status. And yet, did we see it? Residents are subjected to various scopic regimes oscillating between exclusion, invisibility and hyper-visibility. The gaze constitutes yet another burden. Inside the panopticon, the monument stands on a plinth where the privilege of circular viewing is re-enacted as a power relation.9
Yet, to see the invisible hand naked in the ‘developed’ West is to threaten the dominant biopolitical reality whereby “power literally ignores death.”10 Ideological censorship functioned to (re)present the fire as a filmic event as spectacular images were thrust upon us for public consumption. This ‘de- realised’ the event - as if it never happened.11 Offering thoughts and prayers does not alter the blindness nor the silencing - these constitute politico- aesthetic choices.12 We can call this failure of representation an erasure of an erasure. As the real of Grenfell appears and disappears through the power of images, its monumentality hides in plain sight.
The main concern here is that the tragedy will vanish from public discourse to be indistinguishable from any other tragedy; a myth, imperceptible as the death-politics which exposes some bodies to premature death in affluent and ‘post-racial’ Kensington.13 This work came about after seeing the Tower metamorphosize from presence to absence overnight - and then, again when reported ad nauseam. Like 9/11, the fire caused a temporal collapse of event and representation.
Putting the image under scrutiny is important because the Tower represented a social and architectural anachronism. If the cladding was there to appease aesthetic sensibilities, it points to an obscene reality. The facade disrupted the idyllic social reality of Kensington.14 Fictional towers spontaneously combust on TV all the time, but what erupted that day was not reality itself - but the pre-existing fabric of fiction that constructs the social reality of apartheid. This compels us to examine how we myth-make.
It was crucial that all images for the film came from ordinary Londoners who had documented the Tower after the fire. Finding them in an accelerated visual culture, was looking for the proverbial needle in a digital corpus of images. It is important to consider this figure of the witness given we experience our world in this heavily mediated way. Photos indicate both a kind of embodied presence and a distancing effect. Could this produce an affective, relational dynamic where a networked connectivity links individual consciousness to cultural memory? Images were submitted by local residents and Londoners (people from Australia and Cyprus) with different connections to the Tower and fire. From the reflex of a snapshot, to a practice of meaningful exchange, the image is inserted into a medium that demands slower attention.
In the film, we enter the reality of a notional character. The original looks towards the medium of 16mm film to expose truths about the filmic apparatus. This project asks how a 21st century digital remake can look through John Smith’s eyes and then outwards towards the construct of Grenfell Tower. This mediation is to see how the image in fiction and reality co-exist. The honesty of the digital medium might offer ways of seeing to consider notions of aura, authenticity, and authorship while paying homage to Smith’s masterpiece. Film can effect border crossings of seemingly strange elements.
The research can be situated within the discourse of trauma studies which is based on the understanding that we live in a post-Grenfell society. It does not involve testimonial art to indicate subjective ownership of memory. The project explores how an affective encounter with the event is registered and transmitted. Can an affective flow be sustained in the present moment to trigger critical inquiry? Can a relational mode of inquiry blur borders between art and the political thought? The intention is to consider this complex relation between witness and spectator in our networked culture that responds to the ethics and politics that burden this ubiquitous, traumatic image.
The image of the ruin sits in the tradition of aftermath photography where this towering ‘present absence’ appears as a “trace of a trace of the event.”15 Memory gets processed to appear within various temporalities of the image. There are overlaps with the paradigm of the counter-memorial as memory is slippery and radically opened up because Grenfell didn’t occur in a vacuum. “Counter memory splinters the monolithic into heterogeneity.”16 It addresses the complex, seemingly strange elements in global interrelations to see an expanded field of history, space and time in contemporaneity to expose antagonisms in the image.17
The question was how different layers and points of entry can open the film up to diverse audiences in both cinema and gallery contexts - but significantly, for guerrilla projections in London. Projections would question how the spatio-temporality of mediated trauma can disrupt urban code as the image slips across material platforms. Could the projections bring viewers closer, given how some media representations render the real of Grenfell inscrutable?
The monument exposes a colossal failure of the neoliberal revolution in the metropolitan milieu. Yet, the state of exception persists in the ‘corporate coup d’etat’ that divides and rules through the destruction of building regulation and the dereliction of duty of care. Can we create memorials that are not memory traps - that do not ‘believe for us’ so we don’t have to? Damel Carayol’s counter-memorial was not just a painting of the blackened remains - it was the gift to the Prime Minister she could neither accept nor refuse. Its truth lies in the evocation of a kind of impossibility in which traumatic memory resists closure and cannot be deleted.18 The intention here is to interrogate the fidelity of memory, as well as the avowal and disavowal of affective witnessing at the level of the image - so that art itself does not make Grenfell invisible again.
It was around the time of the first anniversary, so the intention was not to approach survivors directly - although the fire had blurred these boundaries. I contacted as many Grenfell campaign and art organisations as possible with an invitation to meet and talk, and met with everyone who responded. The project is shaped by these initial conversations with individual Grenfell activists and academic researchers, including artists who have worked with Holocaust memory.
The Open Call had strict rules. Everyone I approached online responded positively. Flyers led contributors to the website to upload. The Open Call leaked into online territory which generated some angry responses. I was able to speak with some bereaved family members over the phone and in person and they generously offered a point of contact. It became necessary to think about visibility and presence. The project has no repeatable messages for maximum communication as there are in activism. To explain the project before it was made seemed to nullify the process of making it and yet the obligation of the image is loaded. This ongoing tension between thinking and praxis resulted in taking the active advert down on social media as it lacked presence, and focusing on walking around to distribute flyers. I hope that the conversations that ensued have been incorporated into the project to fulfil its objectives and prevent Grenfell from dropping out of the conversation. A long-term objective is to sustain an archive and connect with trusted organisations.
As contributors began uploading, it became necessary to keep the pile of printed images out of biological sight at the end of each working day. It is difficult to rationally understand, but they seem to transmit a charge. I was immediately confronted with this ethical question about how to reflect the trauma in ways that might honour the dead and those who suffered. This resurrects the assertion that “Art after Auschwitz is barbaric.”19 How is it possible to represent the unrepresentable when the impossible had already been imagined by Grenfell activists?20
In our post-truth era where images circulate without a referent, both hegemony and suspicion prevail. Images in traumatic art are burdened with a demand for the truth.21 Truth is seen here to be an effect of discourse and a historical construct. In the Rwandan Project, Alfredo Jaar22 processes images of the genocide in a way that encourages the viewer to engage with the textual descriptions of the image. Voyeuristic urges are triggered but the “intolerable image”23 within a constructed space appears negatively and sometimes buried, opening up different spaces for visualisation.
This project has resisted the urge of prohibition in order to research the possibilities and ambivalences of bearing witness through the performative - rather than representational aspects - of the networked image. So, what can an image-body do?24 As with Jaar’s work, it is about how spectators can build a relationship with the image of violence, and what kind of attention called is for.
Walking around seemed to re-enact and embody the mediated memory of photos. This kind of aggressive, social eugenics is reflected in Kensington’s aesthetics.25 The obscene excess manifested in ghost mansions26 seems to haunt the area like apparitions. Walking around also seemed to reenact an engagement with the city as the haunting figure of the flâneur.27 We find traces of this figure in the original as Smith’s narrator appears to casually report banal facts about everyday city life. This practice produces a spatiotemporal distortion as the figure lives in various dream (and film) scapes - but whose face is turned to the past image of the city.28 The flâneur is present where the imagined and the material city collide, offering depth of history and breadth of perceptive experience. The collection of mental notes opens up a possibility for how everyday objects of perception can sear through states of consciousness. This figure becomes a layer of invisible presence in the remake too, as I walk between the ‘official stories’ of Notting Hill and ‘Grove’29. Psychogeography resurfaces in the guerrilla projections where these digital portals reveal the soul of the city in dark spaces. The guerrilla projections recreate architectural space to experience space-time differently. The peripatetic tower reappears in these happenings to leave open various border crossings as memory becomes de-territorialised in the immersive experience.30 As the fleeting image appears on the brick walls of a housing estate under the gaze of the Shard, something gets inscribed onto physical space with a sense that the city becomes foreign. The image has a kind of promiscuity, as it converges with and is resisted by the material canvases of iconic London producing yet another image that resists capture. This might be a stain, or a space where world and myth collide. It changes the perception of space as both interiority and exteriority are troubled.
The film is a reenactment of the original - as the form attempts to subvert the narrative. Temporal resisters are reenacted and embodied, lending itself to various ways of exhibition. Benjamin’s ‘dialectical image’31 is an idea of history akin to a palimpsest as layers of trauma appear ‘in a flash.’ The ‘return of the repressed’ is allowed for here, sensitising us to historical trauma long after the referent disappears. Counter-memorial aesthetics may be a way of staying present with this relational complexity and the temporalities of trauma - and therefore, how we generally perceive suffering in our world. As in Jaar’s work, the voyeuristic position of unified, stable vision is disrupted. Collapsing this subject-object dualism is to foster sensory awareness to challenge notions of subjectivity - and see the world anew.
Aftermath photography evokes the temporality of after-effectiveness32 which is a form of negative representation to mark the processes of memory. Grenfell’s image causes a visceral response precisely because it forces our attention onto the present absence of its people. It testifies to its own violence33 forcing critical inquiry. This echoes Resnais’ focus on the architecture of Auschvitz in Night and Fog.34 The fate of its people is inscribed on the body of the ruin and this temporality opens an affective link between private and cultural memory.
Trauma marks that limit of what is possible to assimilate into the psyche as a rip which arrives belatedly. It is a “missed encounter with the real.”35 The capitalist subject is enmeshed in power relations and yet, protected from the traumatic encounter. This abstraction of aftermath photography can provide possibilities to foster ethical engagement with trauma to release thought, as opposed to shutting it down: it “...does not allow us to interpret it with reference to what is depicted.”36
This film can be situated within the discourse of the contemporary traumatic sublime as the hit becomes the impact of capitalist modernity on the vulnerable, human psyche. Consciously invoking the crime this way hinges on the quality of questions raised.37 Night and Fog offers no explicit questions but unleashes a space of disorienting questions. Aesthetics is seen here as a discipline not indistinct from politics - but fundamental in instituting politics because politics revolves around how we sense the world. The idea is to recalibrate our perceptions by disrupting the “distribution of the sensible” - the shared, socio-political realm of experience which orders the way we see, speak and do, and the horizon of understanding from which this happens.38
The filmic apparatus can expose this constitutive role of our political subjectivity, therefore marking the gaze as a point at which our disruption in the field becomes visible as an absent presence.39 When excess spills into view as it did in Kensington, the real erupts compelling spectators to mis-recognise.
That there are clearly, identifiable agents and invisible structures is what makes this an atrocity - state and corporate culpability seem blatantly obvious.40 This absence of law exposed the juridical as a construct to residents. If the real erupts when the symbolic order breaks down, the gaze looks back to locate the presence of the spectator in the field of vision. This sort of disruption in the scopic field could lead to a ‘disappearance of the self.’ Sustaining it in film could summon a diverse spectatorship41 by evoking the notion of the unconscious subject for political disruption. If the gaze is domesticated in the everyday, then exposing these limits to consciousness could be traumatic to the order.42 Far from emancipating a deluded spectator, this obliterating look addresses a subject of loss. What is being obliterated is also the space that is obscured: the disavowal of how our perception affects and is affected. This ‘missed encounter’ is society’s abject failure to properly engage with what happened while exposing the viewer’s position in the power relation to confront the intolerability of human disposability.
If a rupture can institute a kind of transformational politics, it is to engender a view that subjectivity and traumatic experience are contingent. Media has become significant in how we relate to the world. So, it’s about how we participate in the life of the digital image.43 It is not only how Grenfell is captured in the texture of the image, but how the image captures us.
If we can accept the image, it is to chart individual experience into an event in the collective realm. This is not to perform the remembering for us, but to perform a critique into the act of seeing and the processes which sustain perception and occlude culpability. It is an attempt to do justice to the complexity of Grenfell in a way which exceeds the rectangular frame of the digital image. This is to inspire a kind of consciousness and an ethical presence with people who happen to be on this side of the power relation.
The remake splits the original from its copy to consider how - in conversation with the original - the authority of the aura changes. The dialectical image folds time and space - and collapses presence and absence. It fractures history to expose the divide in the subject, and the divide in the spatial biopolitics of Grenfell. The original film unveils the deception in the illusory effects of film. Smith’s empty signifier absorbed meaning through the power of his voice and by re-enchanting us to story-telling. The original is a whimsical story that points to the construct of film convention by perturbing code with implicit jokes as the narrator becomes haunted to oblivion. We can think about what persists from one remake to another and if the story can have a life of its own.
The research project won the Alan Little Award.
As the word piece is part of how the film circulates, the film will be submitted to national and international film festivals and details of screenings will be published online.
The film is completely self-funded and not available for sale.
1 Benjamin, W Concept of History IX. The 'Angel of History' is a concept about historical progression that Benjamin developed to interpret Paul Klee's painting 'Angelus Novus.’
2 Hito Steyerl (2012) p56 Steyerl responds to Benjamin's interpretation of the Angelus Novus.
5 Not only do these narratives misrepresent lived experience but survivors and locals are left to fill the gap, fighting an articulate struggle to expose how others up and down the country live in unsafe buildings.
6 The Windrush scandal is but one political ecosystem that induces biopolitical terror among British citizens
7 It was the callousness in how the fire was so easily avoidable that makes this a present issue
8 This is Agamben’s Homo Sacer who is included in being excluded. The recklessness that caused this avoidable disaster is also reflected in its sheer productivity: the forensic attention to detail in the inquiry and the mediatised event that commodified grief. One could ask why a fraction of this kind of attention wasn’t afforded to residents before the fire.
9 At the entrance to London, even the respectful draping re-enacts a Christo and Jeanne-Claude paradox of appearances.
10 Foucault (2004) p248 This mode of power makes life and let's die - or in the case of Grenfell, makes life and makes die.
11 Žižek, S (2002) p13 Žižek links the event of 9/11 to a 'passion for the real' and theorises fantasmatic reality in relation to movie culture.
12 Roy, A (2004) Arundhati Roy says “There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”
13 Using ‘body' here describes how some people are reduced to bare life in a biopolitics that ‘makes life’ for some at the expense of letting others die - as evidenced in the social apartheid of London.
14 We can take inspiration from Lacan to relate the cladding to the anamorphic scull in the ‘Ambassadors’ painting as a blindspot that looks back to locate the spectator.
15 Tello,V (2016) p81 Tello quotes David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Problems of “Late Photography" (2003), in The Cinematic, ed. David Campany (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2007), 185-6.
16 Tello, V (2016) p16
17 Ibid page 13 Tello theorises Foucault’s idea of counter-memory in relation to Agamben’s ‘being presentness’ as the temporality of contemporaneity which defines our era given the ongoing state of exception. We can see how aggressive gentrification is linked to the divide and rule tactics of Colonialism which functions via a ‘caesura’ or ‘break’ within the population.
18 A kind ‘Shrödingers cat’ experiment comes to mind given the impossibility of knowing.
19 Adorno’s misinterpreted phrase. He developed this assertion in the years after the Holocaust.
21 Guerin, F and Hallas R (2007) p2 Images are linked to the demand for ‘evidentiary truth.’
22 Rancière, J (2014) Referring to Real Pictures and other works p 95-100
23 Rancière (2014) p83 I borrowed this phrase from Rancière.
24Deleuze,G p217 A Deleuzian phrase that is inspired by Spinoza: "What can a body do?"
25Foucault, M (2004) p255 Foucault writes how state racism is a form of eugenics where a healthy, productive life for some - and not just a guarantee of safety - hinges on the death of other
28 Kirsten Seale This reminds Seale of Benjamin’s Angel of History
29 The area is known as ‘Grove’ to locals.
30Žižek describes inter-passivity as a form of outsourcing of our belief which we can relate to monuments that remember for us so that we don’t have to
31 Tello, V (2016) p79-80 History appears in a flash as opposed to a chain of progression.
32 Gene, R (2005) Ray re-articulates Freud’s theory of after-effectiveness in trauma studies.
33 Gene, R (2005) p89 Ray elegantly theorises how the image of a relic of a watch in the aftermath of Hiroshima forces our attention onto the person who wore it before the bomb was dropped.
35 Gene, R (2005) page 1 Quoting Lacan
36 Tello, V (2016) pp 85 Quote by Briony Fer in Godfrey, M Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven and London:Yale University Press, 2007,p4
37 I am thinking of “Our Boat’ at the Venice Biennale which has whipped up conversation about the spectacularisation and commodification of a monument of trauma, and scepticism over its status as art object. The hit of the sublime needs the sustained force of shock.
38 Rancière, J (2013) p7
39 McGovern, T (2013) p 11 McGovern theorises and updates Lacanian film theory.
40 We could take inspiration from Engels and call it ‘social murder’ as it would be difficult to argue with a straight face that what happened was just a story about a fire.
41 Cinema 2(2005) p216 I am thinking of Deleuze’s idea that the ‘people are missing’ and how a work of art can summon the missing people.
42 Gene, Ray (2005) page 2
43 Steyerl, H (2012) p52 Hito Steyerl offers an analysis in objectification as a kind of liberation. Identifying with the loaded image-object may sensitise us to forces of the past as they flash in the ‘Now’. We can link this how Benjamin’s historical time is broken up to consider ethico-political time