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Tuesday
21Apr

Objectifying Difficult Knowledge

Last Thursday night in the D.B Clarke Theatre at Concordia University, Montreal, Prof. Roger I. Simon of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, delivered the keynote address to the "Curating Difficult Knowledge" conference.  His talk was entitled, "A Shock to Thought: Confronting Photographs of Lynching (and other 'difficult knowledge')."

The conference itself was devoted to how "difficult knowledge" is curated in academia, in museums, and in the world of art.  The subject of "difficult knowledge" is an interesting one, and can be defined pretty simply as knowledge arising from atrocity worldwide.  For his part, Prof. Simon was interested in how difficult knowledge is curated and displayed at museums worldwide.  In particular, he looked at an American exhibit entitled, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which was a variable travelling exhibit of photos taken at lynchings of African Americans in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Simon was especially interested in exhibits of Without Sanctuary at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and at the Chicago Historical Society.

Amongst other things, Simon examined the manner in which the photographs were displayed at the Warhol and at the CHS.  Methodologically, what interested me was Simon's exploration of curatorial decisions made in terms of displaying the photos.  At the Warhol, a museum dedicated to exploring American culture and society, the photos were left to speak for themselves, at least to a good degree.  In Chicago, however, the CHS chose to place long, descriptive (and editorial) captions next to each photograph.  In other words, whereas the Warhol trusted the viewer to make her own conclusions about the photographs, to experience her own affect in light of the information acquired in this process, the historians at the CHS felt it necessary to guide the viewers' thought process and affect.  Despite being an historian, I found myself wondering why it was that the CHS felt it necessary to filter the viewers' experience in such a manner.

Simon also talked about a travelling exhibit of photos from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, better known as S-21.  Prisoners of Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge régime were photographed upon their arrival at S-21.  Most of them were killed.  The photos from S-21 are disturbing, shocking, and slightly frightening.  They cause immediate and deep affect on the part of the viewer.  They are also close to impossible to get out of one's mind, the viewer can see the terror in the eyes of the prisoners.  In many ways, the S-21 photos are the very definition of "difficult knowledge."  

So how to curate and display the S-21 photos?  It is not an easy question to answer, and there is no correct answer.  But there is the matter of how much information should be supplied to the viewer.  How much should be left to the ontological process on the part of the viewer, what is called "affect"?  

Questions also lie around issues of value, as in what is the intrinsic value of the photograph?  Does its value lie in its ability to shock and provoke, to make the viewer ponder his relationship to the photograph and to the wider world?  One example Simon gave in his talk was from the guestbook at the Warhol in response to Without Sanctuary.  The viewer was almost stupefied in response to the photos of the lynchings. Not necessarily just because of the horrific nature of the violence, or rather, the aftermath of the violence displayed in the photos.  There was more to it, these photos were made into postcards, they were part of the quotidian life of people, they travelled through the mail service.  Lynchings were community events, white people brought their children to watch, or at least to see the end result.  The visitor to the Warhol wondered how she was going to go back into the world.  She saw people who looked like members of her community, her friends, her neighbours, and so on hanging from trees.  She saw people who looked like members of her community, her friends, her neighbours, etc., in the audience watching.  How could she return to life outside of the museum with this knowledge, she demanded to know.

This is the core of the issue: the knowledge of atrocity.  How are we supposed to react?  How is this knowledge to be curated, to be presented.  And this brings me back to Simon juxtaposing the Warhol and the CHS with respect to Without Sanctuary.  What is gained by the heavy-handed historicisation, description, and editorialisation that the CHS provided is a clear and concise understanding of what the photos meant.  But it is also a knowledge that is closely curated and directed by the museum itself.  On the other hand, the Warhol left viewers to, by and large, come to their own conclusions.  Descriptions there tended to be spartan, and technical.  Context was provided separate from the photos.  In many ways, the Warhol felt that the photos could speak for themselves.  This, though, means that the viewer has to do the interpretive work.  

A similar dilemma was faced by the curators of the S-21 photos in various museums around North America.  I had the opportunity to view one of these shows at the Canadian Museum for Contemporary Photography in Ottawa in 2000.  There, the 100 photos were displayed without much in the way of interpretation.  In this case, though, interpretation isn't really all that necessary.  Affect is clear.  Curators of the S-21 photos were less concerned, then, with interpretation and editorialisation than with display, how to present the pictures to the viewers in order to maximise their effect.  

This is just the most obvious example of the art of curating, in a museum, with items on display, the photos serve as text for the viewer.  But it is not the only example of curating difficult knowledge.  In a subsequent post, I will take up other issues raised over the weekend at the conference.

I found myself wondering about this time and again throughout the conference: what am I supposed to do with difficult knowledge when I come across it?  I thought of a photo essay I looked at on Mother Jones' website a few years ago.  It's a series of photos from Darfur during the worst of the atrocities there.  Certainly, I was affected by the site of atrocity, or the threat, or the aftermath of atrocity.   

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