VISUAL GAPS. LOW DEFINITION FOR AN ETHICS OF BEARING WITNESS. Conclusions: Three Paradigmatic Examples For an Aesthetic of Opacity

Cecilia BimaUniversità Iuav di Venezia Corso di Laurea Magistrale in Arti Visive Dipartimento di Culture del Progetto 2019/2020...

By Cecilia Bima


p.111 extract:

The analysis of the three documentaries is a close-up exploration of visual strategies, as well as the place where aesthetic choices and related effects of meaning materialize. Particularly crucial are the various modulations of the low film definition, a quality common to all three objects: lack of focus, graininess, disintegration and blurring appear like a patina of opacification before the viewer’s eyes, although each entails a specific use of low definition and has specific effects of meaning.


It is, in fact, temporariness that pertains to the three objects under analysis; Waddington experiments and manipulates the images, giving the documentary a layer of undecidability, which goes on to produce specific effects of meaning. In each of the three, however, a widespread feeling of lack appears in different terms, like a central void around which the camera moves. It is not possible to grasp the totality of what appears on the screen and, on the contrary, there remain elements that escape incomprehensible connections and ambiguity.

In ZONE the various forms of blurring confirm the futility of a search whose object is unknown, where a missing piece constantly remains: a futile wandering around the ship’s deck. The unhinging of the basic principles of filmmaking, moreover, help to sustain a narration that is continually interrupted, a confusion and a dissociation between appearance and reality in a game of adherences and detachments. Put another way, the modalities of disintegration of the image in this first documentary confer an acceptance of uncertainty, as Hito Steyerl defines it.3 Notions of reality and fiction suddenly lose value, and the traditional boundary that keeps them separate shrinks until it disappears. The narration that develops through the apparatus of subtitles reveals an impossibility of total comprehension on the part of the observer, but only a timid attempt to draw near the obscured state of the narrator. A continuous effort that is not rewarded, not even with the almost epiphanic final image of the Filipino sailor. The ambiguous smile, while clearly higher in definition compared to the rest of the video, preserves a halo of mystery that not only does not resolve the series of questions that the documentary raises, but stokes the feeling of incomprehension to which the observer is subjected.

The impossibility of total involvement and thus of identification appears, instead, in CARGO through the distance of gazes. Here, the lack of focus is an emblem of the asymmetry of the gazes between she who observes and they who are being observed. this obliges Laura Waddington to always place herself, while in the act of filming, behind a barrier, a parapet or a railing. The unknowability of certain dynamics and human conditions in fact prevent her, like the observer, from having real proximity. Thus, the documentary is presented as an attempt at focusing, observation and tacit acceptance of an asymmetry4 intrinsic to the different conditions, of the sailors and the director. In this case the camera is the gaze of the stranger — what Brecht calls the “gaze of the dissimilar” — which intercepts movements and situations from a detached perspective and thus in certain ways out of focus, but which makes it possible to assume a critical vision. The graininess of the images themselves, therefore, gives rise to intervals in vision, which in turn produce a slowdown, an attrition, in the adhesion to the reality of the image. Low definition is a response, even if never exhaustive, to Waddington’s question, “What did the periphery tell us about our over lit centre and all of us who inhabit it?” What can be seen, observed and understood from an irreducible and unbridgeable distance between those who find themselves in a position of privilege and those who don’t? What appears is out of focus, less defined and limited, and the numerous zooms are of little use; the intention is to get as close as possible to the scene being filmed, without further crumbling the integrity of the image and revealing the impossibility of assimilating the two points of view.

The value of the low resolution in Border is yet again different, where the blurring is a reproduction of a vision and a condition. The migrants of the Sangatte camp, forced to move, avoiding the range of action of the security cameras, the x-rays and infrared rays of the examinations, see the world around them always wrapped in shadows. Thus, the video camera, reproducing the gestures and gaze of the migrants, generates grainy and slow-downed images that offer the observer a disjointed and confused panorama, in which the director herself finds herself involved. At the same time, however, the thick grain and the intermittency with which bodies appear on the screen emphasize the manner in which she and the illegal immigrants are seen; the ambiguous figure of the refugee is, in fact, an anomaly, at the same time included and excluded, due to laws of the State. The migrant in turn embodies a place and a peculiar condition, that of the margin, the blank spots, namely the blind interstices outside surveillance range of Institutions. Unlike CARGO, Border reduces the physical distance between observer and observed; indeed, the director totally identifies with the condition of the migrants, attempts with them to traverse the space that separates the camp from the train station; like them, she hides amid the tall grass and avoids being intercepted by the police. She lives in her own skin the experience of fear, precariousness and the extreme conditions to which refugees are subjected, she follows in their tracks and summons them up for the observer. However, the documentary maintains its character of aesthetic indeterminacy. Compared to CARGO, physical proximity is reduced, it is true, but the choice of low-definition is also and above all an ethical choice, and herein lies the will to not present the Story of migrant peoples, but rather a fragment of the innumerable experiences of those who find themselves refugees in a land where they are not acknowledged and face an illegal and clandestine existence. The peuples-lucioles, the firefly-people, make their intermittent but resistant presences, the knowability of which will always be partial, personal and fragmentary and never totally in focus.

In other words, the image is stimulated, in order to activate its power to bear witness and to induce the observer to bridge the gap that runs between the document and its transformation into visual experience. In the manifestation of an opaque patina, a limited process is thus triggered, overtly incomplete, provisional and revisable, with the crucial goal of restoring the referential performance of the image. The operation of authentication, in fact — as Montani defines it — is possible only by virtue of an additional mediation of the visual text; that is to say, the low definition of ZONE, CARGO and Border necessitate a further elaboration, thanks to an imaginative process that acts to “work the interface between the perceptible and the intelligible, between what is visible and what is not, between what our senses receive and what has a “significance.“5 In the choice to present different types of blurriness, the capacity for pro-vocation is activated, specific to the image. It is precisely in this specific power that the dual reproductive and constructive action of the image resides, namely the compresence of both the dimension that is faithful to and mimetic of reality, and its productive dimension — the ability, namely, to show. It is in this process that it is possible to observe the emersion of “elements that are reluctant to reveal themselves“6 and are otherwise indiscernible. In ZONE, “again the voice over sets the tone — a meditation on longing and loss. The voyage as search for identity is a thread linking all of Waddington’s works.”7 “The meditation on desire and loss” is a feature that emerges thanks to the work of re-mediation, which includes the act of re-filming the initial footage, along with the addition of the device of subtitles; thus a narration arises that would have been reluctant to appear, the singular story of the search for someone, but above all for an identity that, analogously but with different implications, emerges in CARGO and Border. In both, the conditions of the “irregular,” the sailor without documents or the refugee retain a character of a gap or lacuna. That is to say, the director observes and conveys the experience of the journey in CARGO from a distance that prevents her from penetrating the intrinsic barrier between herself and those who are observed. An obfuscated filter is left around the figures of the sailors, consequently abandoning any presumption of total comprehension, as in Border. In the case of the Sangatte migrants, although the footage appears less timid, closer to the subjects, it preserves a radical void; indeed, Waddington’s camera is always kept outside the camp.

It is the work about the meaning of a lack, translated into effects of flou, fuzziness and graininess, that shows with clear discretion the conditions in which wandering beings pause in places that, like “blind interstices” in the system, suspend and undermine the concept of identity. The feeling of void and opacity slowly appears and emerges thanks to the succession of images whose low definition is, yes, an obstacle to vision, but allows the preservation of the otherness of the gaze between observer/enunciator and those who are filmed. Thus, the preservation of inaccessibility is preferred to unveiling, replaces the opacity of an incomplete and limited gaze. In a certain way the image is allowed the power and the possibility to disclose buried meanings, thanks to a process of intermediation.

In The Transparency Society, Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han reveals the tendency to eliminate otherness and to smooth over differences as a peculiar aspect of contemporary life. In this regard he writes:

Transparent communication is communication that has a smoothing and levelling effect. It leads to synchronization and uniformity. It eliminates Otherness. Compulsive conformity proceeds from transparency.8

No space is left for the asymmetry of gazes and perspectives, but rather it is homologation that is the force that feeds the regulatory mechanisms of society. Things appear as transparent, lucid and clear, precisely when they hide any form of negativity or are diluted and flattened out: “Actions prove transparent when they are made operational — subordinate to a calculable, steerable, and controllable process.”9 So the society Han describes favors a dismantling of the negative in favor of the positive, of evidence and clarity; this is why one of the most significant aspects of the society of transparence is being a society of the positive.

It is precisely on this conceptual level that it is possible to compare the images of the three documentaries under examination here: there appears, in the expressive choices and in the perspectives adopted, a will to preserve the shadow, the negative, which underpins any existence; Laura Waddington allows the impermeability of certain conditions to remain that way, and observers, along with her, are lead, after being subjected to a cognitive effort, to consider the otherness to which they are witnesses and the distance that cannot be covered. In Dinoi’s discourse,10 this modality is posed in clear opposition to the modus operandi of television, where the status of visibility assumes a completely different significance compared to cinema. Cinema, on the one hand, has the possibility to confront the problem of visibility, playing precisely on the very limits it imposes on the gaze. It is the example conveyed by the film by Joris Evens, Histoire du vent (1989), namely the attempt to stage the paradigmatic invisibility of the wind. In this case, the filmmaker chooses to show the effects the wind provokes, circumventing and at the same time revealing the limits of visibility that the wind itself imposes. On the contrary, television, particularly images that bear witness to events having great media impact, declares itself to be “omnipresent and perpetual,” extending the limits of the gaze as far as the “molecular dimension.”

In other words, the optical experience assumes ethical characteristics when it concedes the possibility of considering the perspective of the other. A totalizing image, like the one Dinoi recognizes in television, leaves no waste or excess, but rather convinces the viewer that the “visible” coincides with the “seen”; what appears on the screen is everything there is to see. The media mechanism of control annuls any relational factor, of doubling and identification with the other-than-me, and takes the gaze hostage, “absorbing it and spitting it back metabolized, neutralized by its subjectivity.”11

The desire to bear witness thus must, of necessity, consider the value of opacity. This does not mean renouncing the story, but rather bearing witness to it, focusing attention on the areas of shadow, taking charge and giving back the irreducible asymmetry that is established among the various human conditions. This is not about negation or aberration of meaning, but of an awareness of an impossibility of univocal meaning.

Hence another strategy of resistance […] a poetics of interference, the insertion of a disturbance into the continuous and smooth perception of the television image that drains seamlessly into the imaginary, the introduction of a grain of sand into the automatism that acts as a snag in the virtual space of planetary information.

In implementing a poetics of interference, there is thus an interruption of the regularity with which the fabric of the image appears, disrupting the conventional modalities of perception. Indeed, in the media, what appears to the eye does not always constitute the totality of what there really is to see, but, on the contrary, often coincides with a univocal and dominant vision. This is how the aesthetic choices of Laura Waddington respond, instead, to a need to generate a counter-narration, or, in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s terms, a countervisuality.12 A change of paradigm and a redefinition of the gaze consequently imply a different way of “organizing” the world; if, in fact, the concept of visuality corresponds to the ruling modality of experiencing an image, then it becomes necessary, not only to conceive different forms of looking, but also and above all dismantling traditional visual strategies, to redefine reality.

Translated by Marguerite Shore


1 S. Kracauer, la fotografia (1927), in La massa come ornamento, introduction by R. Bodei, Naples, Prismi, 1982, p. 114.

2 A. Pinotti, A. Somaini, Cultura Visuale, op.cit., p. 202.

3 H. Steyerl, Documentary Uncertainty, op.cit.

4 P. Montani, Bioestetica, senso comune, tecnica e arte nell’età della globalizzazione, op.cit.

5 Ibid., p. XII.

6 P. Montani, Limmaginazione intermediale, Perlustrare, rifigurare, testimoniare il mondo visibile, op.cit., p. 18.

7 O. Rahayel, Too much beauty. Oberhausen 2005: Filmische “Grenzüberschrei tungen” mit Laura Waddington, in “Film Dienst Magazine,” Germany, April 28, 2005 [online, access December 2020].

8 B-C. Han, The Transparent Society, Stanford, California, Stanford briefs, 2015, p. VII-VIII.

9 Ibid., p. 1.

10 M. Dinoi, Lo sguardo e l’evento. I media, la memoria, il cinema, op.cit.

11 Ibid., p. 295.

12 N. Mirzoeff, The right to look, a counterhistory of visuality, Durhan, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011.