Visible Evidence 2021

Critical Immersive

Neta Alexander
Kareem Estefan
Rebecca Boguska
Chair: Alexandra Schneider
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 1), Online
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Obsolescence, Forgotten: “Survivor Holograms,” Virtual Reality, and the Future of Holocaust Commemoration

“Survivor holograms” and a VR rendition of the Majdanek concentration camp are two recent examples of the urgent effort to preserve the experience of Holocaust survivors in the “post-witness era.” These innovations, however, deny the tension between the premise of immortality associated with immersive technologies and their inherent planned obsolescence. By closely studying the USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony, this presentation explores how 3D digital projections and room-scale VR construct new regimes of mediation and immersion. This is achieved by developing an understanding of obsolescence as physical (the fragile body of the survivor), technological (non-compatible hardware, software, and algorithms), and narratological (turning testimonies into fragmented soundbites). Taken together, these categories demonstrate that technological solutionism cannot prevent embodied testimonies from sinking into oblivion.

Situating both works as part of a growing number of immersive works focusing on historical and personal traumas – such as Testimony, which uses VR to explore the stories of sexual abuse survivors, or Nonny de la Peña’s Project Syria – I will move behind the critical studies of these works as empathy machines and tools of “global humanitarianism”. Instead, I read them as affective archives. Based on a series of interviews with the creative team behind the VR work The Last Goodbye, I compare these two approaches – algorithmic-based hologram and virtual reality – in order to ask what kind of archives these works make possible? How do they change our understating of Holocaust remembrance? And what could be the limitations or dangers of Holocaust “gamification”?

Neta Alexander

Neta Alexander is Assistant Professor of Film and Media at Colgate University, New York, and an Assistant Editor at JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. She has published articles in Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, Media Fields Journal, and Flow Journal, among other publications. Her first book, Failure (2020; cowritten with Arjun Appadurai), studies how Silicon Valley and Wall Street monetize failure and forgetfulness.

Opaque Witnessing: Figures of Palestinian Fugitivity in Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s "At Those Terrifying Frontiers…"

Through a close reading of a recent video by Palestinian artist duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abourahme, this paper analyzes refusals of humanitarian documentary modes of representing Palestinians, and more broadly, those crises of (neo)colonialism and imperialism often referred to as “refugee crises” or “conflicts in the Middle East.” Abbas and Abourahme’s videos resist forms of legibility and visibility demanded of Palestinian and Arab moving-image works, from Western funders and audiences trained to expect humanistic documentaries of suffering as well as Arab publics seeking iconic representations of righteous resistance. Their 2019 video At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade Into Each Other employs software that generates avatars corresponding to Palestinians who have participated in Gaza’s Great March of Return. The video transmutes excerpts from Edward Said’s poetic text After the Last Sky into a mournful song sung (in Arabic) by these avatars, creating a virtual, transhistorical collectivity that reflects on what it is to be Palestinian, to be labeled “illegal,” and to dream of returning home.

I contend that these avatars from Gaza and other fugitive figures in Abbas and Abourahme’s works are “opaque witnesses,” personae that register the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians while refusing assimilation into human-rights frameworks of victimhood. As with the “right to opacity” claimed by Édouard Glissant, such a refusal does not have obscurity as its end, but rather relation—an intersubjectivity in which the West learns to see and listen to testimonies without reducing them through translation to an alleged “universal.” The opacity of Abbas and Abourahme’s “figures” challenges viewers to participate in a relational mode of witnessing as worldbuilding, soliciting their solidarity with subjects who refuse both the settler-colonial desire that they disappear and the neocolonial demand that they appear only as victims.

Kareem Estefan

Kareem Estefan is a PhD candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. His dissertation, Witnessing as Worldbuilding: Imagining Decolonization and Repair in Palestinian Visual Culture, examines the poetics and politics of opaque and speculative modes of witnessing among contemporary Palestinian artists and filmmakers. Kareem is co-editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017), an anthology of essays on artists’ activism, cultural boycotts, and transnational solidarity. His writing been published in magazines and journals including Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, the Journal of Palestine Studies, The New Inquiry, and Third Text, among others.

Virtual Visits at the Guantánamo Detention Camp

As early as 2002, only shortly after the arrival of the first detainees at Guantánamo, the detention camp “turned… essentially into a national-security tourism hotspot” (Greenberg 2009, 90). While the association of Guantánamo with tourism might appear strange, it feels highly accurate when considering the large number of guided tours provided by the Joint Task Force Guantánamo for media representatives, military officials and politicians. At the same time, online videos of virtual visits at the camp shot by military personnel have made Guantánamo visually accessible, albeit in a restricted form, also to the broader public.

This paper discusses two of such virtual visits published on YouTube in 2008 and how they comply with the broad range of restrictions imposed by the Joint Task Force Guantánamo on external visitors, and, most importantly, with the prohibition of capturing “[f]rontal facial views, profiles, 3⁄4 views, or any view revealing a detainee’s identity” (US Department of Defense 2010, 4). Hence, what these videos actually reveal to the viewers are the abandoned or ‘emptied out` detention infrastructures of the various camps. Nevertheless, despite the US Department of Defense’s denial of visibility to the detainees, the videos themselves actually indicate and emphasize the opposite: namely, the haunting phenomenological presence of the detainees in their visual absence. This paper shows how by shifting from a mode of reading traces to a mode of listening to traces while watching these videos, the images suddenly become populated, or even inhabited, by the now-absent detainees, as well as by their histories and stories, enabling ethical encounters between the viewers and the detained men.

Rebecca Boguska

Rebecca Boguska is an Assistant Professor in Film Studies at the Institute for Film, Theater, Media and Cultural Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Her forthcoming book Guantánamo Frames (meson press 2022) is based on her dissertation with the same title that she has completed at the “Configurations of Film” research training program in Frankfurt from 2017 to 2020. Currently, the focus of her research lies on images, techniques and experimental environments of coastal research.

Chair: Alexandra Schneider

Alexandra Schneider is professor of film studies and the director of the Gutenberg Graduate School of the Huamnities and Social Sciene at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. She is a principal investigator in the Graduate Research Training Program “Configurations of Film” and “DICI-Hub – A Research Hub for Digital Film Studies.”

She recently co-edited: Format Matters. Standards, Practices and Politics in Media Cultures (with Marek Jancovic and Axel Volmar), Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2020; her work has been published in: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, Necsus, Film History and montage/av.