Handling Images and Relational Meaning
By Irmgard Emmelhainz
Image: Oraib Toukan, Via Dolorosa, 2021. Image study in a single-channel video (colour, sound). Courtesy the artist.
Historically, the main issue of the representation of Palestinians has been their alleged absence from their land and thus therefore from their own image. This means, that their representation has been determined by their struggle for liberation. Palestinians have thus been predominantly represented as either freedom fighters, victims, terrorists, or refugees. At times, they have appeared as culturally specific and as differentiated from other Arab cultures, while seeking to present their cohesive national identity. In late modernity, secular images have been bestowed with emancipatory potential. Because of this, a politicized, militant cinema was linked to the revolution and to the emancipatory potential of the media as counter-information, self-representation as well as to the capacity of images to bear witness to the intolerable. These images have been delivered through photojournalistic, documentary, or militant images, presupposing that seeing them would galvanize people into ethico-political action. This is how, since the 1930s, Palestine has become an archive of moments of its own destruction, uprising, loss, death, life—as it exists as a flow of images of colonization, occupation and resistance that keeps on repeating itself.
This flow of images, however, is inextricable from violence, because “cruel images” transcend the possibility of language altogether, as Oraib Toukan has argued. If the meaning produced by this archive of cruel images as well as the sense that what we share is imbued with violence—telling us stories of endless wars, ethnic, religious, and political strife, occupation, and neocolonialism—can this regime still be a site for emancipation? How have the ethico-political stakes of cruel images been raised during the transition of the mass media/film regime to that of the digital image, which now circulates on social media? What does it mean when the local is the subject of, and subjected to the gaze of, the cruel image? What does it mean to grow up with cruel images and, at the same time, be their subject—to identify with cruel images? Is it first and foremost a matter of form or content?
Bearing in mind that Oraib’s “cruel images” pertain to all subjects undergoing situations of violence or vulnerability, the Palestinian case is nevertheless an extraordinary example of an archive of cruel images. If Toukan meditates on the implications of being a marginal subject framed by a cruel image. This, then, raises a paradox: In as far as we believe an image depicting of subjects in vulnerable situations is to be emancipatory, can the subject emancipate herself from that frame?
These are some of the questions tackled by Oraib Toukan in her complex practice of theory and the moving image, of uncovering the substrata of images from the past, and exploring whether the traces of resistance embedded in revolutionary images can be brought back to life in the present. What is the contemporary meaning of these images? What is at stake in their current actualization within the frame of activist or ‘artivist’ images—and in the passage from militancy to ‘artivism’? What memories do militant images conceal and reveal? Could exploration of the archive of images of suffering provide us with an understanding of what it means to scroll through the situation of someone immersed in violence? Can the moving image be a site of mobilization, for instance, of ways of speech that could ignite faculty of imagination? By asking these questions, we could move towards the possibility of mobilizing the capacity of making sense together. This does not mean repoliticizing the cruel image but to make sense of the cruel image relationally, at the pre-political level, to open ourselves up to the possibility of solidarity and politics.
We must bear in mind that, for Toukan, “cruelty” is not the signifier of images but refers to how we treat or handle images of violence. She has therefore given herself the task to broaden the practice of art to study ideas around ‘scholarship’, and vice versa, and to explore cruel images from various angles. The digital transformation has given her the means to work through and across images, enabling her to see something more and go beyond the archive. For her, treading across the image and handling it on a deeper level is a practice that could enable us to better understand them and to do so from a different perspective. By processing images in this way, she does not necessarily add visibility to the intolerable (an ethico-political task). Instead, her practice is an exploration of what is shown and how to enunciate through the construction of a voice and montage. And how to do so in relation to the other subjects she implicates in her relational image-making process.
Toukan’s practice of handling images is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s work as Sonimage, their production company, which they founded in 1973. In the Sonimage videos, Godard and Miéville pursue what they call a “journalism of the audiovisual” in which they explore the how of images: how they reach us, which networks do they circulate in, how they hide. While showing certain states of affairs, they aimed at deconstructing the discourse of objectivity embedded in mass media images, the reporting of political processes that happens elsewhere, and the becoming-information of images. To do so, in the Sonimage videos, they devote considerable screen time to simply showing still images, discussing them in the voice-over, zooming in and out, and literally going over them with a lens. You will find instances of this practice in Letter to Jane (1972), Ici et ailleurs (1974), and Comment ça va? (1975).
Unlike Sonimage’s videos, however, Toukan looks at the Palestinians not only as subjects of their image but as producers of their own image. Her practice is similar to Sonimage’s “audiovisual journalism” in the sense that her moving-image practice is based on the medium of post-production. This implies directly handling the archive, where knowledge can be produced. Post-production, here, is a study of representations of violence in all their complexity, mobilizing images through text and speech, juxtaposing images of the banal with images of care and of horror, exploring the outside of the frame of suffering. In this way, hers is an artistic practice that lends itself to theory and that creates space to reflect upon images. For instance, in her video Via Dolorosa (2021), she takes up the early cinematography of Hani Jawharieh, a Palestinian filmmaker who was active in the 1960s and 70s. Toukan works with reframing Jawharieh and freezing images to inquire about the origin of the practice of a Palestinian being gazed on by another Palestinian. Via Dolorosa thus engages with the pre-history and history of the militant image of the Palestinian resistance movement from the 1960s–70s, represented by the historical figure of filmmaker Hani Jawharieh. Toukan reflects on the meaning of that historical moment when Jawharieh begins filming Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Who were the Palestinians, and, with them, Jawharieh himself, before the promise of ‘emancipation’ by the revolution? What happened since that moment when Jawharieh (and Sulafah Jadallah) first panned their camera from the smiling children’s faces down to their muddy feet?
According to the masterful commentary of Palestinian cultural studies scholar Nadia Yaqub in the film’s voice over, Jawharieh’s politics of filming implied bringing the camera as close to the event as possible, seeking the truth by conflating truth and revolution. In the 1960s, she argues, cinema was considered a utopian site to bring about something wholly new and different, as a vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the world. For Yaqub, this means encounters with violence. We know that images, especially images of violence, are opaque, which hinders our capacity to read beyond the violence depicted by them. This raises several questions: Can meaning be created out of the ghosts haunting cruel images? How can we mobilize our eye, our capacity to see beyond and through the violence? How to bring in the out-of-field of the image?
In Via Dolorosa, Oraib provides us with a tour of at least a portion of Jawharieh’s archive of cruel images as if it were an archeological ruin, liberated from the weight of history and from the weight of their signifier as militant and humanitarian images. Toukan takes reels shot by Jawharieh that once belonged to Soviet cultural centers in Jordan, a found collection that included international Communist solidarity films, propaganda for children as well as early Palestinian films produced by the Jordan Ministry of Information and Culture. In this manner, she brings forth a shared sensible regime comprised of solidarity militant films that also functions as abstract and ludic interventions and that liberates cruel images from being read by the colonial gaze. In other words, Toukan freely intervenes in the Soviet cultural center’s footage, associating colors, sounds, and forms, which are woven into images of a wounded woman and debris, a colorful sequence of a bronze bird standing on an egg, a fish in a porcelain vase dying and coming to life again, men in hospital beds with severe burns, Jawharieh’s invisible dead body, the sequence of a funeral procession in Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa that Jawharieh, too, has filmed. The Via Dolorosa is one of the most sacred sites for Christians, leading to the Holy Sepulcher. Historically, the Via Dolorosa was the road through which Christ carried the cross on his way to crucifixion; the road bore witness to the pain Christ underwent before his death. The Via Dolorosa as the quintessential image of suffering contains and bears traces of mourning and dead bodies and, most importantly, also bears witnesses to the plurality of Palestine.
The procession as an aesthetic and allegorical device was taken up by Jean-Luc Godard in films such as Ici et ailleurs (1974) about the Palestinian revolution, Grandeur et décadence d’un petite commerce du cinema (1986), and in his Girbaud short videos. In these works, processions of bodies before the camera allegorize the projection of photograms in the cinematic apparatus. By using this device, Godard is highlighting the becoming visible, the utterable of the visible, and the sayable of bodies. What can be seen in, or said in and about Jawharieh’s footage of the procession at the Via Dolorosa? It is the literal passage of anguish and pain before the camera—is this something that can neither be seen nor said? In another short video by Godard, Changer d’image (1982), Anne-Marie Miéville posits that all images as well as images of human affection are like the shell of an egg: You can see its surface, but you cannot make legible or visible what is going on “inside” the eggshell. Bearing this in mind, according to Toukan, images need to be approached beyond the illusion of the transparency that came with the alleged emancipatory power of the image. Rather, they need to be approached with an awareness of their opaqueness, with humility, and in acknowledgment of the images’ status as an Other.
With this in mind, Toukan edits shots of children playing barefoot on the mud into this chain of images and sets them against Nadia Yaqub’s voice, reminding us that early Palestinian images were filmed for fund-raising purposes, including for the promotion of the work of UNRWA itself. The meaning of such images, she argues, was crystallized through the humanitarian gaze: They are thus seen as depictions of the misery refugees must endure living in indefensible conditions. This transparent, depoliticized reading, she adds, hinders us from mobilizing the image’s meaning beyond the humanitarian signifier and also from seeing that the children are indeed having a blast chasing a chicken, probably quite unaware that they are barefoot. Evidently, Jawharieh’s documentation of these goings-on of daily life go beyond the humanitarian gaze.
As such, Toukan mobilizes Jawharieh’s images beyond the discourses that are crystallized in them as fixed, unmovable signifiers and moves them toward the possibility of creating collective meaning in dialogue. Toukan’s practice of including interlocutors in her films as well as dissecting images by enlarging them, reframing them, showing us their details, blurring or pixelating them is very much in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miévilles’s Sonimage work from the 1970s and early 1980s. It could be argued that Toukan, by weaving different “regimes of the sensible” together—archives, juxtaposing layers of meaning, evoking the ghosts haunting the archive, together with different interlocutors in the voice overs, and Oraib’s montage/gaze—she actualizes the Sonimage project in this era of digital images, which are scrolled, hurried through, skipped, and shared on social media. With digital media, the viewing experience has radically changed:
What is this place that goes through THIS ➵ (this is my index finger scrolling down from Berlin, at this never-ever-ending parade of images of total anguish and loss, of bodies lifted and wheeled, mouths open, frozen in time, with smoke that obscures this tiny Mediterranean city all the more). These are not pictures of war. It is an onslaught on a dignified hero of the Palestinian Catastrophe called: Gaza.
Toukan thus asks what it means to think and work with images that come out of Gaza and onto her screen, the matter being, that she herself does not know Gaza beyond cruel images? How is it possible to go beyond the dead images Gaza exports of itself? Her video When Things Occur (2017) explores this matter. It is based on Skype conversations with Gazans who made images that were shared on the internet in the summer of 2014, representing the digital embodiment of their mourning and grief. Through conversations with the photographers, Oraib raises the issue of representation and of the political economy of images of war from the point of view of the local.
While her film Offing (2021) is a conversation between Berlin with Gaza, this time it is a Zoom call with artist Salaman Nawati in the context of the 2021 War on Gaza. In the video, we hear Nawati’s voice describing both the hardship and mundanity of daily life under the conditions of war against footage shot by Oraib outside of Gaza. The film begins with the brittle sound of a recording device and fluorescent lights on a black background. Yellow and pink lights glow in front of the camera while we hear a child’s voice trying to film with a camera for the first time. We hear a horse’s hoof banging on the ground and the buzzing of a fly become muffled. We then see cacti twisting in the sun, and a close up of silver white hair on an arm. The sequence ends with the bending of a photographic print of a sculpture that unfolds into a blur, intercepted by the sound of bombs from a mobile screen device. In the voice over, we hear Salaman Nawati: Night and sound are among the hardest things to endure in the condition of war; you can drain out sounds by turning up the volume of a TV, but it is impossible to choose not to hear the sound of bombardment, or the sound of a drone, which “feels like something was planted in your brain and is constantly buzzing.” Images of sculptures from the Warburg Institute archive are interspersed throughout the first part of the film. The images are only classified later in the closing credits as “Gestures” from the Warburg folders Killing, Dying, Fleeing, and Fighting.
Nawati’s description of life under siege evokes Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, a chronicle by the poet of his time under the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. Darwish conveys the anguish of incertitude, the terrifying sound of falling bombs, the sounds of death. A mystical passage on yearning for coffee and the difficulties of satisfying basic needs under siege also come through in Nawati’s narration. He also brings children into the equation. For him, taking a mere shower is a debacle. When families come under siege, he describes how disaster makes every family member choose to stick together in the same room. We are confronted with the minute details that humanize that social unit despite the “feeling of being partially dead, as overdue martyrs, passing time until it is our turn.” We see many images of nature a ‘majnuneh’ flower bush (Arabic for Bougainvillea), edited against the sound of fire. We see the sky, a palm tree, black screens, the Mediterranean. We are repeatedly interrupted by a framer mounting photographs of Abu Mazen (a picture that sometimes hangs in shops, restaurants, car workshops in Palestine). The picture here is double-sided, however, with Abu Amar on the flipside, being mounted and framed for distribution. The act of framing images of political leaders, who end up wrapped in plastic waiting to be delivered, is evocative of how these figures stand isolated from the narrative of the reality of occupation and siege. Wrapped in plastic, realpolitik is severed from the facts on the ground. The mounting of the portraits is interrupted by a sequence of images filmed in an empty amusement park, bringing color and a degree of lightness to the other images. This is also the function of images of various types of cacti (which are in themselves, repeated symbols, and signs in Palestinian art history), interrupted by the soundtrack of Inn Ann by Daboor and Shabjeed on a screen device as well as images from demonstrations elsewhere on a screen device. This sequence of apparently disparate images is also reminiscent of how, while browsing through our screens, we jump from sensible regime to sensible regime.
The urgency of the moment under siege, here and elsewhere; the binarity of “we” spectators against a suffering “them,” is broken by the proximity of Nawati’s narration, resulting in a possibility for making sense of this, together. In our shared world, we share cruel images believing that cruel images may be capable of changing the same reality they depict. The principle of activism is, after all, exercising the power of making visible and actionable. Instead, Oraib Toukan invites us to turn to the disquiet of the past that shapes our shared world, pointing at a key shift from cruelty to humanity. She does this by highlighting relationality, which means, the support structures behind humanity, as opposed to the power structures that are behind the cruelty. Toukan therefore signals the possibility of a new pre-political, a shift from consuming images in hoping for change to actually making sense of them together—changing reality relationally “toward lives we can project with others”.
Mexico City, March 2022
 Oraib Toukan “Touring” in (W)archives: Archival Imaginiaries, War, and Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press (p. 268, 2021)
 Oraib Toukan, “Escaping Virginia” Letter 25.5.21, excerpt of correspondence between writer and poet Mahmoud Al-Shaer based in Gaza and Oraib Toukan based in Berlin, written during the 2021 War on Gaza, Journal of Visual Culture 20.2 (September 2021), p. 299.
 As Toukan puts it, referencing Judith Butler in the leaflet of the KW show What Then.