On January 20 this year, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, thus called at the time) uploaded a video titled, ‘A Message to the Government and People of Japan’. Jihadi John stands masked and dressed in black. Kneeling either side are Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto and fellow countryman Haruna Yukawa. They are dressed in bright orange nylon sack-tops. Jihadi John demands that the Japanese government pay USD$200,000,000 or Yukawa will be killed. A pale desert rock expanse slopes upward to the right behind them; a baby blue sky with hints of low cloud rises behind the hill. Already, Hollywood is silently intoned through these visuals, contrasting Mission Impossible black op gear against Guantanamo Bay detainees. The prosumer, HD imagery similarly evokes Hollywood’s post-millennial pursuit of digital grain, news cam footage and photogenic texturing. You squint at the small YouTube screen, unable to tell whether the landscape is real, or whether all three bodies are there at the one time. Depth in the image dissolves before your gaze; the body shapes resemble vector coordinates filled with texture.
This is how images work now. The image detaches itself from its own imagery, appearing as realistic as it does unreal. Its artifice is embedded within its realism, and modulates your digestion and assessment of what’s happening on the small YouTube screen. Partly this is to do with the heady collusion between pixels, which now govern the terrain of image encoding and transcoding, but more so it’s to do with how transitional this type of image is, in a realm well past the parsing of signifier from signified. It occurs as reality TV shows, film mockumentaries, contemporary art interventions, covert documentaries, Wikileaked data, prankster QuickTimes, amateur porn uploading and mass illegal downloading, collectively razing the notion of all image veracity through their saturation, repetition and atomisation. Each references the other, dialogues with the other, reworks the other, creating a fabric of interlaced imagery that is simultaneously itself and its apparitions. This is the ‘unreality’ of the ISIS internet videos: it’s the state not of data or information, but of how imagery resonates and interpolates image modes and codes in the current mediasphere. They engage in the voiding of effects.
On January 24, a different video is uploaded, titled ‘This Message was Received by the Family of Kenji Goto Jogo and the Government of Japan’. You hear the voice of Goto announcing that Yukawa has been executed, but this isn’t even a video: it’s a still image. Goto is standing in a white void, holding an A4 print, bearing a digital diptych. The right image is Yukawa kneeling on ploughed ground. The left image is his prone body, atop of which sits his severed head. Here’s the rough math of the screen real estate: YouTube video screen – 25 per cent of one’s computer screen; Goto’s image within the YouTube screen – 10 per cent; Yukawa’s body on the digital print – 2 per cent. On a 1440 x 900 pixel display at 72dpi, that’s about a 100-pixel square. This digital snuff postage stamp thus becomes a frightening example of terrorised language delivered care of ‘the world’. If the first ISIS internet video cited above inaugurates doubt in the face of verisimilitude, the second one establishes the futility of querying its veracity.
This video’s employment of an image of someone holding an image is a decisive tactic. It’s aligned with two clear trajectories. The first deals with late 19th century photographic documents, either of the bereaved bearing a framed photograph of the dearly departed, or the memorial portraiture of a dressed corpse staged prior to burial. The advent of photography saw new ways to stage life and death in equal measure. The second trajectory is aligned with acts of verification in depicting the unrepresentable. The matrix of Middle Eastern crises over the last quarter century abounds with outcries over civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate bombing, announced by family members holding photos of their dead relatives. Perceived within the rhetoric of neo-McLuhanist journalism (the still-favoured notion that the media formidably affects viewers), these victims address unspeakable, unnameable, unseeable and unimaginable acts. Judeo-Christian thought continues to intellectualise the moral quandary of whether to show these images, as if ‘images themselves’ should ideally be free. The West’s consequent unbridled democracy of image production and broadcast is championed until it transgresses through content, ownership or purpose. It’s a naïve and contradictory stance. It also blithely ignores (among many things) Islamic aniconism that actively limits rather than liberates image, via its edicts that ban representing nature or actualising Allah in representational form. This second video’s awkward reversal of the HD actuality of the first video is not so strange when one considers how it might be grappling with these tensions between what two opposed cultures regard as acceptable and unacceptable in the representation of images. This is the start of ISIS trading in representing the obverse of Western democratic image codes.
Yet this dichotomy of Judeo-Christianity’s prom-iscuous acceptance of representation and Islamic legislative suppression of representation is limited, despite its value in outlining the zones within which imagery is allowed or refused. So while the truth value of the second ISIS video cited has thrown investigative journalists and government agencies into analytic quandary, the still of Goto holding the before-and-after print of Yukawa is best read as a pointer to other images. Delving into history, Nassar Rabbat’s article, ‘The Innocence of the Image’ in Artforum’s April issue this year, politely pointed out ways in which artists have grappled with representing Allah, humans and nature since the late seventh century, but more recent memory points to the sequence of photos of soldier guards abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, first broadcast by 60 Minutes in 2004. While they depict unimaginable acts occurring behind walled domains, they crucially document the guards spatially framing and metaphorically ‘holding’ images of the humiliated prisoners. Considered at the trembling axis of Judeo-Christian/Muslim representation, these mortal guards are pointing to their acts of creation by exploiting their godly freedom to represent their own actions. The transgression contained within these photographs is manifold. The ISIS internet videos speak a US-imported vernacular to transmute images of terror into terrorised language.
As the world debated the reality of the aforementioned ISIS internet videos, the extortion deadline passed. A video of Goto’s death at the hands of Jihadi John is uploaded on January 31. It virtually ‘animates’ the space between the other two videos. The first has its three performers static and held in place; the second is frozen into a corridor of photos within photos. This third video frames action: Jihadi John brings a knife to Goto’s throat just as the image fades to black. Again, the HD grain of the footage speaks equally of FX-adoption and reality-delivery. Again, the notion of effects pretending to be the absence of effects is raised, as the image is electrified by the awful content one feels is about to happen. After the fade-to-black, Goto’s body appears as Yukawa’s did in the second video. This time it is unclear whether the camera is panning across a photo, a freeze frame of video, or the in-frame body of Goto and his severed head.
While these three internet videos occupied a vague under-interrogated space in the global media (particularly as Japan seemed disconnected from Middle East conflicts), it is the fourth, titled ‘Healing the Believers’ Chests’, which escalates the act of voiding effects and terrorising language as discussed above. This is possibly the most notorious video – partly due its onscreen burning of a Jordanian Air Force pilot inside a cage, its direct attack on Zionist-aligned concerns, and its high production values designed to spectacularise an onscreen death, be it actual, theatrical, digital or immaterial. Notably, this video uploaded on February 2 in its twenty-two minute entirety, is extremely hard to track down online. Consequently, the lack of critical discussion about the oeuvre of ISIS internet videos is compounded by the excess of imprecise journalistic summaries of this ‘unwatchable’ video. The spectre of its content perfectly demonstrates the platform upon which ‘image detaches itself from its own imagery’. While Healing concludes with a disturbing capture/rendition of the pilot’s caged immolation, the video is far more complex and multi-layered than outraged news reports would have one believe. My reading here divides it into five parts.
The first deals with movie image appropriation. This long preamble constitutes a ‘vertical/horizontal’ axis of reference and context in order to provide background on the Iraqi conflict. Specifically, this HD collage of Hollywood movie, television and cable scenarios showing images from the first two world wars and beyond, maps a global anti-Arab/Muslim conspiracy. The so-called ‘free world’ has seen this a thousand times in reverse; here, ISIS reroutes cinema and television’s war spectacles to create an ulterior perspective. All the images have a digitally simulated scan-line texture overlay, as if we are seeing everything played on old 80s CRT monitors – itself an ‘artefact of artificiality’ which western movies employ to parenthesise ‘real information’ within a fictional narrative. Ironically, this section flagrantly dresses its fictional elements in the attire of reality reportage.
The second part switches to media evidence of collaboration. Here we get a series of incriminating portraits of Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Lieutenant General Mashal Mohammad Al Zaben of the Jordanian Armed Forces. They’re seen courting Western democratic super powers, smiling and shaking hands, proudly surveying troops and armaments likely paid for by foreign international backing. This section is like watching cut-ups of the nightly news on television, and together with the first section, it methodically outlines the ISIS-termed ‘Crusader Coalition’ of Canada, France, US, Britain, Australia, Jordan, the Emirates, Saudi, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Morocco.
Gradually, the linear editing is matrixed into a type of spatial editing: multiple screens become resized as they are distributed within the video frame as if on a 3D plane of receding data screens. This third part deals with constructing a dataspace. Through standard XYZ-axis depth simulation, the post-production of the collaged televisual snippets are ordered into a Cartesian coordinate plane, receding into the distance and by implication placing ‘the viewer’ at the head of this data flow. It evokes not merely the ‘looking at the world through a window’ metaphor articulated through Renaissance perspective, but a penetrative journey into an assembled world. It’s a deft sleight of hand: the dataspace is one where all information is pre-ordered and aligned in a spatio-temporal sequence, to simulate the viewer’s omnipotent digestion of the surveyed data as if you are somehow controlling the data through your digestion.
While this has been an algorithmic staple of all CGI animation software – visible in the hysterical proliferation of walk-throughs, fly-bys, tunnel-trips, pseudo-endoscopes and faux-trajectories – there are intriguing implications when an anti-Western terrorist media unit employs this device. Anywhere else, the shooting forward into dataspace is aligned with the thrill of either uncovering secrets or being overwhelmed by discoveries of sensation. Even bland corporate logos perform this simulation by making their logos dance in tizzy Tinkerbell choreography to dazzle one with their numbing predictability. But in this third part of Healing, a precise spatial domain is being constructed: a court of law for the Sharia-aligned trial of the Jordanian pilot Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh. The dataspace of receding screens eventually parts and creates a theatre of denouncement: jet fighter al-Kaseasbeh fades up from the blurred darkness to occupy this central space, figuratively surrounded by images which locate him as a cog within a war machine. By virtue of his assigned job to bomb allotted targets in the act of warfare, he accrues the legal, national, religious and moral baggage of the barrage of images in the previous sections of this extended video.
For Healing isn’t simply a death video: it’s a court of law, trialled through images, and resulting in an execution rendered as image. Watching this slowly unfold as the screens created the space for al-Kaseasbeh’s condemnation, I pondered whether there could be a logic to the precise deployment of image codes across the first three parts of Healing. As I travel on MetLink privatised public transport in trams wholly covered with digital print vinyl sticker-sheets, I perceive myself as embodied in this type of dataspace. Like al-Kaseasbeh’s insertion into a streaming of incriminating imagery, might I not be an enabling vessel of corrupt and amoral image production – especially if the tram is plastered with advertising for insurance companies, banks, fast food chains, morning radio jocks, or television news programs. I find them all disreputable enterprises, yet I am technically funding MetLink’s administration of securing advertising contracts. In a Healing-style court of law, embroiled by association with images, I wouldn’t have much of a chance.
Back to Healing for the fourth part: al-Kaseasbeh now takes centre stage; the media screens blur and dissolve into darkness. Seated at a wooden table, he addresses us as if we are interrogating him. Talking straight to the camera, he details in exacting detail his flight plan and assigned targets that led to his bombing runs and his eventual capture after been shot down. It amounts to a tribunal confession. Throughout, myriad CGI visualisations of data (statistics, maps, blueprints, card scans) are inlaid and overlaid across his corpus. This intensifies his being gridlocked in the video’s constructed dataspace. Then, as he is framed in a tighter mid-shot, his face digitally decomposes into a granular spread of bright blue pixels. It’s like he’s being turned into 90s computer pixie dust. Tellingly, as this scanning of his face moves across his facial contours, it sears the flesh with burning flames. It looks like a sheet of paper being burnt, with the incremental browning of the paper into dust preceded by a moving crackling flame line. This is special effects atomisation.
Rather than perform quaint Méliès-like stage magic (usually generated by spatio-temporal edits or super-impositions to create composites, ghosts or combinations), special effects atomisation reveals the ‘real’ to be nothing more than an assemblage of data. This particle diffusion effect is a standard algorithm in hi-end software employed in advertising phantasmagoria: cars transform into smoke, female bodies contort into ‘ink in water’, buildings collapse into watery shape, appliances dissolve into sandy shape. The ‘real’ is pre-mapped, converted to vector data, then reconstituted as a re-rendered construction of the ‘real’ with an opposite yet ‘realistic’ texture. This is the state of unreality in which the world currently exists: these ‘unrealities’ are more pervasive and affecting than the pseudo-constructions of ‘realities’. If you can make anything burn up in flames in a frighteningly convincing way, you can terrorise through visual language. Initially, this might be misread as ISIS media aping hi-end effects with the same modish drive as any corporate ad campaign. But just as al-Kaseasbeh is being tried in a court architecturally composed of incriminating images, so is he now – in the logic of ISIS’s condemnation – no longer a living body, but an aggregation of information. It’s a ruthless reading of spy agency in wartime.
From this point on, Healing moves into a dense combination of the previous four parts: movie image appropriation, media evidence of collaboration, dataspace construction, and special effects atomisation. With increasing frequency, al-Kaseasbeh is linked and associated with his military data to the extent that it starts to entomb him. His image as prisoner keeps flaming out into his image as ghostly avatar in premonition of his own death. As such, he is shuttled in these transitions from the figural to the abstract. It’s eerily in keeping with Islamic precepts – or at least, perceptual parameters – of representation. A coda to this section is a series of still images of casualties from Jordanian bombing raids, mostly children charred and maimed, lying in hospital beds. Each image is suddenly overlaid with a digital flame ball explosion: the video recreates through artifice the effect of destruction. The digital flames as such are neither metaphor nor symbol, but legal assertion in ISIS’s Sharia court.
Part five of Healing is of course its most contentious and offensive section: the execution of al-Kaseasbeh. The viewer is suddenly ejected from the previous simulacra of image libraries, surveillance footage, GPS-data records, design blueprints and digital processing. Now you are in the type of cine-fictive space you know too well: it looks like a Hollywood production, replete with stunning locations of devastation, multi-camera set-ups, professional focal shifting and lens crafting, voguish digital colour correction in post-production. al-Kaseasbeh wanders seemingly shell-shocked through the rubble of what might be the areas he bombed. Numerous close-ups capture his ‘face of war’, linking to the traumatised portraiture first established in Eugene S Jones’s 1968 documentary, A Face of War.
Watching this fifth part of Healing, one might wonder: Did Kathryn Bigelow direct this? Or are wannabe-directors at CNN pumping lurid visual drama into their report? No: this is a terrorist internet video, perfectly crafting the type of scenario that the ‘Crusader Coalition’ entertainment industries have pumped out to visually demonise Islamic radical militant groups. This is no rabble-rousing lo-end videotape – the kind that Hollywood consistently associates with the capabilities of crazed radicals
or psychopathic loners – this fifth part realises a most disturbing stratagem: ISIS glorifies the spectacle of execution with the exact image codes and modes Hollywood and its allies have employed to spectacularise Middle East crises for decades. But Healing has to be the first instance of visually encoding this perspective within its formal construction. As such, it gives rise to a hitherto unexpected and unprepared realisation of how to communicate in ways counter to the dominant means by which visual language persuades audiences. Tragically, this is the very thing utopian positivist media reveries promote: the reversal of dominant discourses, the enabling of counter perspectives, the indigenously idiomatic framing of perspective. Maybe this is why the ISIS internet videos have received scant semiotic or materialist critical analysis by the global intelligentsia.
In its own horrifying way, Healing entails the logistics of documenting the death of a human in order to make it appear unreal, in opposition to the reality FX salaciously employed by fictitious assertions of reality which trumpet their ‘realism’ from outside the walls of Hollywood’s image regime. As al-Kaseasbeh’s body burns – in a heady mix of multiple camera angles undercut with long-takes and close-ups, all of which confuse the incident’s spatio-temporal occurrence – your mind goes into accelerated flipbook mode, charging through a thousand and one images of simulated death, war reportage, cartoony violence, Grand Guignol staging, haunted house fabrication, biblical illustration, SPFX make-up. To be sure: watching the footage implicates one beyond one’s hitherto sense of engagement with depictions of the world. Even if one vehemently denies the footage, one still has to contend with its effect on one’s sensibilities and sensitivities. Indeed, the ‘unreality’ of ISIS’s productions results not simply from the dissolution of fiction and reality as categories, but from the sensation of doubting the empirical logic of such categorisation.
This essay is excerpted from a five-part PowerPoint presentation given across two evenings in July this year as a Discipline lecture at The Wheeler Centre and the West Space Gallery. Special thanks to Helen Hughes (Discipline), Amita Kirpalani (The Wheeler Centre), Liang Luscombe (West Space) and Anthony Kitchener.