2016 | Safe Distance | Vincent van Velsen

There are at least two sides to every story. A brief outline of a narrative would show an exchange between the object(ive) and the subject(ive). The latter being the watcher, the executioner or the actor; the preceding equals the one undergoing an action, a passive recipient or the direct object. They are entangled, as the one always implies the other. These two positions are united in the spectator. As the spectator actively watches, judges and demands action; at the same time he/she is on the receiving consumer side of a spectacle.

In Safe Distance this double sided position of the spectator is of main importance. On the one hand, it addresses a consumerist passivity; while on the other it appeals to one’s ethical standards – demanding morally induced action. The subject matter of the overarching Safe Distance series by Rune Peitersen – which now consists of four parts in total – deals with our daily feed of news updates by ways of pictures. The series reflects on what is provided to us and highlights certain important, frequently featured imagery. News has become a form of entertainment, and thereby is highly aestheticized. This tendency includes turning up the shock value of images, instigating fear and excitement at the same time. As a logical outcome, the process simultaneously made us – the viewers – increasingly familiar and numbed. Boundaries of awe have to be continuously increased to still remain attractive and relevant to the viewer, and to remain able to stand out in the daily stream of images; turning the news into a visual spectacle for the masses. In this process, we – the average citizen – have the ‘privilege of being a spectator’, as Susan Sontag calls it. Safe behind the well secured walls of ‘Fortress Europe’ we are direct, although mostly passive, accomplices to turning near parts of the globe into vivid war zones, signless cemeteries and instant ruins. Exactly this framework, its consequences and the human position, form the subject of Peitersen’s images.

Rune Peitersen is the Operator; the Barthesian maker of a photograph. According to the French philosopher, death is the essence of the photograph. Next to its eternal present tense, death is an intrinsic part of the medium. All due to an eternal nowness that makes one aware of the passing of time, turning the photograph into a visual reminiscence of a moment and/or person. In the Safe Distance series this can be viewed quite literal. The images show moments of sheer upheaval and death, interspersed by remnants of air strikes, protests and haunted genius loci. In the High Ground series, the decisive moment gains an extra meaning: the moment when someone decides life becomes death. The direct actor determines whether the one perceived will remain alive or seizes to exist.

The direct objects can be called victims of our political actions that are set in place in order to keep ourselves in the safe zone. They do not have ‘the luxury of patronizing reality’ through media. They are the ones confronted with the Light of God – the laser beam that guides the drone missiles, or marking the spots for the allied forces to engage on – and might be vaporized by a mouse-click of an actor who is physically safe behind a screen in Nevada. The intense and direct influence that is felt through mediating screens is highly underrated. Their means to mediate reality, despite the safe bodily distance, does not exempt the viewer-actor from mental distress: distance does not equal detachment. Aside this direct PTSD-causing involvement, on a media level, according to Sontag, our chronic voyeuristic relation leads to ignorance due to repeated exposure, and our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs and its content of atrocities.

Similarly, those who are labelled as pirates are done away with ease. It is only justified to blow them up, while we look through our camera phone lenses or at our laptops and TV screens. Related, Ruins remind us of the grandeur of a world long gone. For those who glance swiftly at the pictures, it might seem an approaching army of battle droids at Naboo, a herd of strolling Strandbeesten at Scheveningen beach, or Constant’s New Babylon from afar – the latter two being highly possible in the The Hague context. However, the ruins depicted by Peitersen are recent. The footage used shows the almost completely erased airport at Gaza, Palestine by means of the Israeli army. The specific location does not really matter here, as the works address a common image that creates an interchangeable scenery. The pictures include a sense of generic universality, and therefore also include an archetypical aspect. This could be any day, anywhere – except here. So in that sense it could have been the archaeological site of Samarra, as much as Sir John Soane’s Bank of England depicted as a ruin by Joseph Gandy (1830). Or The Abby in the Oakwood (Abtei im Eichwald, 1809-1810) by Caspar David Friedrich that indicated the end of the German culture during the Swedish invasion. Both paintings deal with the splendour of the past and poetics of the picturesque. The ruin suggests the relentless passing of time, and the nostalgia attached to it. A Piranesi-like picture that puts affront a ‘melancholy that comes from reflecting on the decayed magnificence’ as William Shenstone calls it. Eventually, concerning a somewhat Romantic notion of a world in demise, addressing melancholia and vanity alike. It makes the viewer aware of the beauty that might lie in the Biblical relevance of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’

In this line of thought, Peitersen’s work is deeply embedded in art history. First of all by referring to the chiaroscuro of the 16th-century pictorial tradition: the shedding of a ‘spotlight’ on the main subject. This is best present in the initial Safe Distance series. In extension, the Pirates series carries the references to the Naval pictures from the 17th-century that deal with marine forces that fought their battles for overseas territory and had their victories depicted. Nowadays, territory is also at stake around Syrian, Palestinian or Somalian premises. Its casualties are extensively depicted in the media and on internet forums. In all cases, death and despair are aestheticized. The Raft of Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse, 1818-1819) by Théodore Géricault, with its casualties of monetary greed, relates to the Somali pirates as manifold victims of imperial ambitions from multinational and corporate fishing vessels, while the revolutions painted by Goya or Delacroix relate to the protests in Athens and Turkey that form the base of the initial Safe Distance series. Peitersen’s pictures too refer to Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (Der Mönch am Meer, 1808-1810) which relates to the endless global waters and the puny human being in the middle of portentous nature. The critically portrayed sublime grief of loss in the paintings connects well to the way an individual is nowadays put into a precarious position of actor within the trembles of daily world politics. At the same time Friedrich’s abstract depiction of the perspective, and layering of colour relate well to the methods and soothing visual presence of Mark Rothko and Peitersen alike.

Among such art historical references it is important to realize that history itself is not the subject in Peitersen’s work. He examines real time information transfer. The screen mediates a distance: an emotional, ethical and time-based lap. At the same time the works address the idea of the two dimensional surface as a window on the world. In the series, the viewer is confronted with places where misery has happened, or is happening still – additionally taking into account Barthes’ eternal present. As domination is disseminated through representation, as Stuart Hall says, it is highly important to take notice of the consumerist side of image circulation. The sense of non-reality in the images, due to its distorted nature, still entails a reality. However partially fictional, it forcefully taps into the expectations of the viewer annex consumer, and his/her relentless hunger for ominous spectacle.

In previous works, Peitersen focused on the way our eyes process visual information. In Safe Distance his aim is to confront us with the images that are presented to us. Especially those that (over time) make us indifferent to suffering. The disturbed nature of the way we deal with imagery and the severe outcomes this could have, was described by Alfredo Jaar in The Sound of Silence (1995). The Chilean born artist here unravels a narrative about a picture by Bang-Bang club member Kevin Carter who visually captured dreadful events and afterwards being criticized for his non-involvement in the direct situation. The ‘weight and seriousness’ together with the stringent comments and actually being a firsthand witness of such sinister affairs eventually lead to the suicide of the South African photographer.

Rune Peitersen uses atrocious material himself too. It consists out of found footage from online sources among which YouTube is most prominent. The vernacular source as input for an art practice to reflect on modern media and the construction of our visual culture is part of an important line within artistic heritage. The derived (digital) images of police, private and military violence, carry remnants of physical spaces loaded with memories, references and meaning. Eventually Peitersen aims to merge the studium and punctum. The studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, the punctum implying the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it. Alike Carter, Peitersen does not only aestheticize misery, he also engages with the truth. Be it with a considerable and safe distance, he aims to simultaneously depict and displace someone’s real-time perspective and thereby provoke a connection and sincere reaction with the spectator; resulting in identification and the creation of a human connection. Stories then might have two sides: according to Peitersen, the object and subject should be equally affected: In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni (We Go Round and Round in the Night and are Consumed by Fire).

Vincent van Velsen
Writer, critic and curator; currently a resident at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht