“Image Counter Image” What’s left over from War

Radenko Milak: „What Else Did You See? I Couldn’t See Everything!“
Radenko Milak: „What Else Did You See? I Couldn’t See Everything!“ | Photo (detail): © Radenko Milak/Haus der Kunst

Almost every event or incident that takes place these days is captured in picture format, and anyone with a camera is now an image source. How does this influence our perception of war and conflicts around the world? We visited the “Image Counter Image” exhibition in Munich to find out.

Exactly 151 front pages from various international newspapers fill the entire wall. There is no accompanying commentary. They are all from the same day – September 12, 2001 – and it is spooky how similar they all are. Nearly every one of them shows the same motif: smoke above the World Trade Center in New York City. It is an image that has become an icon in and of itself. It no longer needs a caption to explain what is happening – the text is generated automatically in the mind of the viewer. Still, just like the abbreviated term “9/11” evokes these very images, one can’t help but think that there was only one editorial staff responsible for all 151 of these front pages, especially when they are all hanging there side by side on the wall.

Hans-Peter Feldman’s installation, 9/12 Frontpage, takes a closer look at the question: Why do we always see the same images of this particular event? The exhibition’s brochure provides a few theories. “On the one hand it could have been due to the monopoly broadcasting rights of US-based television stations. On the other hand, the channeling and selection of images among news agencies also plays a significant role here. These days, a very small number of companies owns the majority of our newspapers, magazines, TV stations, radio stations, publishing houses, film studios and Internet services. As a result, they share among themselves almost all of the world’s media might.”

Dirty terrorism, clean war

“In reality, every story consists of two stories,” wrote American art historian William J.T. Mitchell. “There is the story that actually happened, and there is the story of how the incidents are perceived. The first type of story focuses on the facts and figures. The second type concentrates on images and words, which form the framework in which the facts and figures initially attain their meaning.” The Image Counter Image exhibit chooses to steer viewers’ attention to the second type of story. How do images influence our perception? Which, and whose, values do they communicate? What do they reveal? What do they hide? How reliable are they? Do events first become events once there are pictures of it?

Indeed, they are questions that we should be constantly asking in this media-driven world, particularly when the subject is war. The interplay of war and images is the central topic of the exhibit at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, which itself was misused as a gallery of propaganda by the Nazis in its early years. In the first room, panels document year-by-year the innovations in war and communications technologies between 1992 and 2012 – that is, between the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and the Arab Spring (2011). The installations address the events and developments of that period.

The Gulf War, as the exhibition’s introduction explains, represents a vital turning point. The type and selection of the images were as new as the statements they made. “Night-vision images dominate, and people are conspicuously absent from nearly all of the pictures. This served to portray the conflict as a ‘war of machines’.” Like a computer game in which no people are harmed.

Blurred images, blurred impressions

The works of art here expose the lies and secrecy of the warmongers and their partners in the media. They show how the grand manipulation functions, but the installations remain thoroughly subtle and candid. Thomas Ruff photographed deserted buildings, streets and landscapes through a night-vision camera. That is where the green effect comes from in the TV images of the bombing of Baghdad. Through their association with the war photos, the deliberately haphazard motifs feel like targets, as if someone had placed them in crosshairs.

Monika Huber’s project Einsdreißig (One-Thirty) was created during the Arab Spring. It questions the sources of information that formed the basis for opinions among people in the West. The title of the collection of photos is the typical length of a TV news report: 1 minute, 30 seconds. Huber photographed actual TV segments and then covered bits of them so that they can no longer be associated with a precise event (time and place). Still, the viewer intuitively associates them with war or revolution, and even connects a geographical location with them, in this case North Africa or the Middle East. The images become interchangeable symbols of war and conflict in crisis regions around the world. But what diagnostic value do interchangeable images have? Does an abstract conflict really move us? Image Counter Image is a fascinating exhibition that challenges routine media consumption and gives us a lesson in perception.