2016 | Safe Distance | Hester Keijser

The images you are about to see in Safe Distance are weirdly frustrating. That’s not your subjective opinion, it’s what they are meant to be. You need not ask yourself: ‘Should I find them beautiful? Am I, once again, not getting the point of a contemporary artwork? Do I really need to read the accompanying text before I can truly appreciate its relevance and acuity?’ – Ah, if only it were that simple! But please, by all means, keep reading.

Consider this. You are in an art gallery, alone or with a few other visitors. You hardly expected a crowd. The arrangement is that of a classic picture show: austere, museum grade grey walls on which photographs are mounted in an orderly fashion. The stage is set, but your expectations are disappointed: you do not feel moved, dazzled or awed in the face of great beauty or sharp wit. Maybe you are even a little bored. All is as it should be. Vague unease settles in, but you push it away to the back of your mind, routinely. Perhaps you try again to engage with the images, but your mind trails off, distracted. You check your phone for messages, and you wonder if you should post a Facebook update. You feel safe. You are the viewer this work has been waiting for.

“Why and for whom is contemporary art so attractive”, asks German filmmaker, visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl, and we may add: spectacular, shiny, grandiose, entertaining? She answers: “One guess: the production of art presents a mirror image of post-democratic forms of hypercapitalism that look set to become the dominant political post-Cold War paradigm. It seems unpredictable, unaccountable, brilliant, mercurial, moody, guided by inspiration and genius. Just as any oligarch aspiring to dictatorship might want to see himself.” I’m quoting Steyerl from an article in which she explores the relationship between art and politics. In Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy¹ she flips the question by not asking how the political is represented in the arts – and Peitersen’s series Safe Distance is undeniably linked to contemporary political events with its appropriation of images shared on social media of war, drone strikes, revolution and destruction of lives and property – but by inviting us to observe how politics are at work in the field of the arts. Steyerl, who likes to be direct, posits: “Amongst all other forms of art, fine art has been most closely linked to post-Fordist speculation, with bling, boom, and bust. Contemporary art is no unworldly discipline nestled away in some remote ivory tower. On the contrary, it is squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things.” Whether we like it or not, this also relates to Peitersen’s exhibition and to us as its viewers. Superficially – and that superficiality is a quality, not a defect – Safe Distance engages with events that Peitersen finds himself observing eagerly. Events that take place elsewhere, in Turkey, Palestine, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan. He observes them with “mixed feelings of admiration, powerlessness, shame and curiosity”, and asks what role he has in all this – and I take this to mean both as a compassionate human being, a citizen and an artist. Engrossed in the violence unfolding on his computer screen, he feels compelled to ask where he stands, how he is implicated, if at all, and how he can he act. These are common sentiments, shared by many in the Western world, often accompanied by feelings of being overwhelmed and deprived of any real agency. Peitersen decides to insert reconfigured screen captures of the online footage into the spaces occupied by the art world. But he avoids the seduction of glorifying the horrors to make them palatable, fit for consumption, nor does he solicit our outrage or compassion for the subjects under attack.

Instead, he creates images that vex. He suspends the eagerly observed course of events as paused moments floating in featureless panoramic landscapes that reference the history of painting as much as they call to mind cinematic dystopia’s about the future of our planet or the bland artificial environments in cheap virtual reality games. In a willful act of sabotage, Peitersen substitutes the traditional art work as a stable resting point for our gaze with images that never seem to fully arrive from the dimension where they originated. Instead, they pull us back into the shared online reality of endless distractions offered by competing news channels, conspiracy theories, casual dating sites and cute animal videos, where we suffer from the fragmentation of our time and attention, and where we are triggered to form opinions about everything and nothing. In the back of our minds, we register how exhausted we are from all this.

Asked about what informed his thinking while developing Safe Distance, Peitersen pointed to James Bridle, a British writer, artist, publisher and technologist, whose work covers the intersection of literature, culture and the network. In New Aesthetics², Bridle speaks about his approach and points out: “just as my drone works are not about the objects themselves, but about the systems – technological, spatial, legal and political – which permit, shape and produce them, and about the wider implications of seeing and not seeing such technological, systematic, operations; so the New Aesthetic is concerned with everything that is not visible in these images and quotes, but that is inseparable from them, and without which they would not exist.”

For me, this is an essential characteristic of art in the age of networked technology: instead of offering a place to rest our eyes, artworks, and in particular photographic images, function like entry points to the systems in which they are situated. This is why Bridle asks us to “think about not what they look like, but how they came to be and what they become: the processes of capture, storage, and distribution; the actions of filters, codecs, algorithms, processes, databases, and transfer protocols; the weight of data centers, servers, satellites, cables, routers, switches, modems, infrastructures physical and virtual; and the biases and articulations of disposition and intent encoded in all of these things, and our comprehension of them.”

With regard to Peitersen’s work, this means to think about the position of the observer as he finds himself absorbed by socially mediated violence. Yes, there is also an angle of interest in the moral and political implications of drone warfare, or in the maddening inability to come to any verifiable conclusion about political content disseminated through networked media with its own labyrinth of hyperlinks, Photoshop manipulations, questionable
authorship and hidden agendas. The work also reflects on questions regarding the value of the photographic image in the age of social media, of which Bridle remarks that they “make the shift from representation to participation very clear: people participate in the launch and life span of images, and indeed their life span, spread and potential is defined by participation.”

Peitersen’s recurring question about his role in the events is a question about participation – what can we do from this safe distance? Ultimately, his prime concern has always been with the observer, with us as viewers and with what we are seeing and not seeing when looking at the world – concerns that also guided his previous body of work Saccadic Sightings, which was based on research about eye-tracking and the creation of a unified field of view from the imperfect, binocular vision of our eyes.

Strangely enough, Safe Distance is neither here nor there: it is partly about representing the political situation elsewhere in the space of the arts, but this is driven by a deeper urge to understand his own position within the arts as a political one. One way Peitersen has been acting on this urge, is to co-found and chair the Platform BK, an artistic workforce organization advocating for the improvement of the conditions of production, display, distribution and reception of the arts as they operate within the ‘neoliberal thick of things.’ Another way he found is by inserting the images collected under the title Safe Distance into the realm of the visual arts, because by doing so he can draw attention to the fact that the element of the political has been evacuated from the arts, at least in the Netherlands. Even outright activistic artist such as Jonas Staal or Renzo Martens have taken their refuge elsewhere, to Congo, Kurdish Syria, Chechnya, where their political interventions and reflections on the conditions of artistic labor are deemed newsworthy enough to be covered and often ostensibly applauded by the Dutch national press.

In the end, Safe Distance asks what it means for us as observers to feel so safe while eagerly following violence erupting elsewhere. Should we feel safe? Does this feeling of safety result from the evacuation of the political from our lives? Bridle posits that “technology is political. Everything is political. If you cannot perceive the politics, the politics are being done to you.” The fact that it even needs asking what our role could be, is an indication how little we understand to what extent we are already implicated in the political processes that govern our world. This is what we are not seeing, what we are kept from seeing. It is on each of us to explore wherein the limits of our blindness lie. From that onus no artwork can give any reprieve, which is indeed most vexing.

1. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-art-contemporary-art-and-the-transitionto-post-democracy/
2. http://booktwo.org/notebook/new-aesthetic-politics/

Hester Keijser / Stead Bureau