Distorting the Pain of Others

Curator's Note

This video of two Syrian protesters being beaten up by pro-regime thugs in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, on 18 March 2011 demands our attention, both as the document of a crime, and as an accidental aesthetic artefact. The reiteration of successive data compressions (in camera, and again following upload) has here produced a weirdly distinctive audio environment, that seems less a simple degradation of the original, than a parallel re-creation - a point of view in its own right.

The loss of audio information generates a wheeling, almost abstract soundscape, that often seems to have little or nothing to do with the images we see. What should have been an unremarkable (if intolerable) ambient field recording is unintentionally transformed into a narrow skein of keening, other-worldly harmonics, interrupted apparently at random by violent, inarticulate voicings of human fear and pain, or equally human hatred and contempt.

What does it mean for this brief, sun-filled nightmare, to circulate in this way as video? How does watching - and listening to - such videos form and frame a people's sense of themselves as agents of their own collective destiny? How is resistance and rebellion written into these images and sounds, not only in the decision by the video maker to film, at the risk of her or himself becoming in turn a target of violence, but also in the very texture of the video itself?

The identity of the thugs we see here is unclear. Since 2011, the Assad regime has increasingly delegated such dirty work to shabihah -- members of long-standing criminal gangs that rapidly metamorphosed into informal militias operating under the direction of the security services. They are called shabihah after the large silent Mercedes in which they used to patrol up and down the Mediterranean coast in their mafioso days, and which the people had nicknamed shabah -- ghosts.

This video documents a criminal act of violence. But in its arbitrary defacing of reality, it does not simply challenge us to try and imagine the real sounds, even the real suffering, that made up this moment of horror. Through one of those unpredictable allegories that precipitate when inadequate technology and imperfect human intention collide, it also invites us to ask: What does it mean to be "real", in a world in which "ghosts" have so much power?

With thanks to Saraa Saleh and Hervé Birolini.


Peter, I love this, especially as a wrap-up to a week which has seen our curators call into question the ethics of viewing violence, the mythologizing of "reality" even when the object we are seeking may not exist, and the widespread circulation of violent images throughout the world and well outside their generative locale, thanks to the development of technologies of recording and sharing files digitally, cheaply, and through the internet on sites such as LiveLeak and many others, some even official, as with the MMA phantom cam videos. I am interested in the question of distortion you raise here as it relates to April's post from Monday, especially in the details of the Steubenville case, particularly the leaked video and the public's reaction to it, as well as the role it eventually played in the verdict from the court. I'm not necessarily asking you about that case, but one of the details the defendants were pushing was the distorted nature of that video - arguing that you couldn't tell who was saying what and when - even though if you watch it, that argument is quite absurd. I'm wondering if you have thoughts on the larger implications of calling into question the viability of information we are able to see and hear in amateur recordings like the one you have presented from Syria, which become more problematic the greater the offense is against an individual, or perhaps more adequately put, from a more powerful regime of offenders? And, what does the role of imagined suffering play in the viewer's reaction to a video's veracity? Have you come across any of this type of response in your work with this video or others?

Matt, thanks for these questions. I'll just address one for now: the way in which the most powerfully moving documents may also be the least documentary (cf what Tanya says below about affect as a property of form, not content). In the case of Syria, it's clear that over time a protocol has been developed which has progressively transformed the videos coming from there. This clip dates from the very first Friday of the uprising, and this is reflected in its informality, its spontaneity, and what is - by some lights - its technical incompetence. Many commentators have described the process by which the current protocols developed in response to the Assad regime's attempts to discredit the opposition's videos, and the desire to convince a wider (Arab/global) audience of the veracity of their cllaims. This led to a recognisable rhetoric, and even style, which aimed at an almost didactic clarity. Video makers would state clearly - orally or by holding up a written text to the camera - the place and date of the scene, and this went hand in hand with a tendency towards a less personal use of the camera, a determination to get 'clear' shots, sounds, etc. How far this was a spontaneous evolution, and how far it was organised by the Syrian Free Army and the local committees, is unclear to me. Rabih Mroué has a very good section on this in his "non-academic lecture", The Pixellated Revolution. The (political) problem with this evolution is that, in my opinion, the forensic value of the videos remains very low. They assert, but cannot prove. So the result has been that they have gained a spurious clarity, which may have raised hopes ot their exerting more influence on people who demand 'evidence' as a pre-condition for intervention or support, while losing much of the emotive power generated by the earlier, less formulaic videos produced in the first 3-4 months of the revolution.

Peter – this is very powerful. I found it difficult to watch – though obviously in a different way to the Steubenville clip. I was disoriented by it and was really straining to try to see what was going on, with the unsettling soundscape heightening its intensity. I like that turn of phrase the ‘arbitrary defacing of reality’ and I am interested in the form of the clip and how that relates to the idea of imagined suffering. I am also intrigued by this idea of resistance being written into the very 'texture of the video itself'. I'm currently reading Eugenie Brinkema's new book 'The Forms of Affect' and it has me thinking about the affect of form and the idea of 'treating affects as structures that work through formal means, as consisting in their formal dimensions (as line, light, color, rhythm, and so on)' (37).

Tanya, thanks for making the connection with Brinkema's ideas about the "affect of form". That's something I should definitely look into. When I talk about resistance as part of the 'texture' of the video, I'm thinking of how it resists what Laura Marks would call 'the control of vision', and which here seems to embrace the control of hearing too. The flip side of the point raised by Matt is that, the less forensic value the video has, the less value it has as distributed surveillance, too. Though unfortunately this is not a direct relationship. A video that would not suffice to prove who committed a crime before a court of law, can be quite sufficient to ID citizens who can then be singled out for persecution. Resistance here, then, is multiple: to the legibility of video as a regime of control; to the idea of public space as rational, governable, and pre-existing our personal paths through it; and to the idea that we, as distant viewers, can in any direct or simple way identify or empathize with what these people are going through.

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