Visualising Spatial Injustice Q&A (Part Two: Miranda Pennell)

Aerial photograph of South-West Iran, sourced from the BP archive. ©The Host (2015)

In the second part of our Visualizing Spatial Injustice Q&A, the symposium organizers spoke to the London-based artist and filmmaker Miranda Pennell about her work following her keynote talk at the University of Kent. [You can read the introduction and part one here].

What is the importance of spatiality to your creative work and its political outlook?

Miranda Pennell: As I assemble fragments from a colonial archive, I am confronted with the question of how I can make visible the complex and fluid set of spatial and temporal relationships which these objects embody. Colonial remembrance is plagued by problems of dissociation, disavowal, denial and other forms of expedient ‘forgetting’ that frequently manifest themselves in contemporary narratives of colonial nostalgia or of mawkish regret – those narratives that serve to distance Europe from the troubling after-effects and continuities of colonialism.

My project is an effort to mobilise images in such a way as to undo those familiar conceptual separations that conveniently segment geography and time into disconnected autonomous, sovereign zones that give the illusion of producing events and experiences that are unconnected to one another. But my task is also to complicate the way we look at those images that work to smooth over and elide radically different and unequal experiences and perspectives. In order to make sense from such images, and to bring the colonial home, both for myself and for another viewer, I’ve tried to use the moving image as a tool that can help us to think about different spaces and different temporalities, together, at once.

The Host (2015) is constructed almost entirely from still images from the archive of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP). It reframes and rearranges hundreds of fragmentary remains with the aim of investigating how images produced by the oil company and its staff (including my own father) can usefully be repurposed to illuminate the British colonial encounter and its consequences. The work reframes and rearranges different orders of official materials (including geological surveys, public relations images about Iran, vernacular snap-shots from staff albums), and mixes them with a small number of my parents’ photographs from Iran, and images that I generated during the research process. The images are combined with sound recordings, and a first-person voice-over which speculates about the contents of the photographs and about past events.

On the one hand, the project traces an image of Iran in the British colonial imagination. On the other it traces the ways in which orientalist fantasies serve to justify the violence and injustice of the oil company’s extractive project in Iran and beyond.

It is striking that many of the images you have taken from the BP archive, predominantly photographs of landscapes and geographical topographies, mirror in certain ways the image regimes usually employed in processes of counter-cartography and counter-mapping.  How does your work attempt to use the BP archive and its image regime subversively, and more precisely, anti-colonially? 

Pennell: How can one re-present images that have been produced under circumstances of radical inequality, without simply reproducing the structural violence implicit to colonial ways of seeing? Can we, as spectators, read archival images without becoming complicit with the erasures that they perpetrate?

An account of a geologist’s discovery of an ancient Elamite complex in the Iranian desert in 1936 is accompanied by a series of night-time images of Abadan oil refinery in 1954. The film mobilises a correspondence between narratives about two empires: BP’s Empire, and the Achaemenid Empire of 5th century BC. This crude analogy allows the towering chimneys of Abadan’s refinery to mirror the towering pillars of the ruins of Persepolis, alternating the one with the other to emphasise the visual similarities. In fact, the British oil company and its staff produced this kind of juxtaposition throughout all of their representations of Britain’s decades-long project in Iran. The orientalist binary of modern / archaic time suffuses the British colonial imaginary. The film revisits this juxtaposition, in a move intended as a critical parody, but also as an opportunity to reflect critically on ruins, nostalgia and imperial power.

This film project approaches the problems associated with the colonial archive by interweaving several narratives and categories of image-making as a way to make images resonate with other images, so as to expose the fissures, the omissions and the contradictions within. The film combines and conflates several discrete micro-archives, connecting heterogeneous images, stories and threads. It mixes personal with collective memory, private and official photographs and testimonies, new and old, found and made records. Multiple narratives, archives, spaces and time zones become provisionally conjoined – not through the logic of cause and effect or chronology, but rather through anachronism, digression, coincidence and an associative poetics that inspires a speculative approach to historical knowledge.

The film uses the process of montage to put image, sound recordings and voice-over into relationship, to allow unexpected correspondences to emerge.  For example, BP’s aerial survey photographs capture the otherworldly geological formations of Iran’s mountainous areas. These already disorienting images become more so, through a confusion of scale. An account of a memory of my mother’s diagnosis and her illness brings the medical probing of a loved one’s body into relationship with the company’s scientific probing of a much larger body, that of the ‘host’ country. The process that puts different categories of image into relationship allows altogether new meanings to attach themselves to an image, while simultaneously allowing the viewer to hold an awareness of its original, intended meaning. This makes the archival photograph available to new, speculative analogies, and puts received knowledge about colonial image-making into question.

The Host’s imaginative time travel is mediated by slippages between multiple spaces and geographic zones. Its inquiry constantly moves back and forward from the archive, to the sites and histories it investigates, between the photographs and the story the filmmaker tells, and the material evidence of the process. Cumulatively, a series of discontinuities and tangents allow for an ever shifting, trans-historical and trans-spatial perspective to emerge.  The oil company’s 1931 aerial survey of Iran’s unusual topography is undercut by the equally strange formations of the site where the images are stored and meanings extracted: aerial views of Warwick University, near Coventry, where I sat at a desk in the BP archive, sometime in 2012 (see image below). The film returns the researcher-filmmaker to her place within the history she is making. Through the interplay of images, the stories we tell about ourselves and others are in dialogue, so that they can be performed and experienced through one another.

Aerial photograph of the University of Warwick, home to the BP archive,
sourced from the University website. ©The Host (2015)

While the colonial order of things is founded on rhetorical binaries that turn out to be based upon on contradiction (ancient/modern; civilized/primitive; culture/nature; reason/emotion), contradiction is also the stuff of montage. If colonial forms of classification and division in the visual archive are not ignored, but are instead attended to, reversed or conflated through montage, then the cultural clashes and misrecognitions that characterize both the colonial encounter and the archival encounter can, I propose, be productively played out through the collisions and coincidence of images. For this reason, this process describes a method of strategic, deliberate misreading, in which colonial image-making can be playfully repurposed, while making the construction of the image visible and open to critique.

In your presentation, you spoke eloquently of the untimeliness of history and your film as doing the work of history. The cognitive labour of working within the archive seems to be a significant dimension of this historical reconstruction. How do history and labour intertwine in your work? 

Pennell: I wanted to emphasise an order of historical meaning that registers through affect and the experiential. I wish to account for the ways in which archival photographs, re-appropriated within film, become meaningful through the way they shape a viewer’s experience of time, the past, and historicity. I think of history as an experience of untimeliness; and the moving image as a tool for unsettling the film viewer’s relationship to time, and to history. So I consider the colonial photograph as it is mediated through the moving image, from the perspective of its reception. This means focusing on what archive photographs embedded within film ‘do’, how they act on the viewer in the filmic encounter, and what they produce.

Looking at a photograph or being in a cinema messes with our perception of time. The unstable experience of time that is generated through a combinatory approach to photographs and film, through the ambiguity and in-between of stasis and motion, can augment and intensify the reception of the already complicated temporality of photographs. I propose that operating in this in-betweenness opens an opportunity for unsettling time and cutting through the some of the ways in which we habitually distance ourselves from images of our troubled collective pasts.

My consideration of temporal effects and affect begins with the experience of looking at photographs and searching for meaning over prolonged periods in an archive. The experience of archival research, and my dramatization of it through film, emphasizes ‘looking’ as a labour, and as a complex site where subjective and social processes intermingle. The ‘look’ is owned by an embodied receiver, and I am at once a processor and transmitter of impressions. So where this situated, embodied observer is one who does not resist her entanglement in the objects she studies, her research allows for the possibility that these objects may make claims on her, and eventually by extension, on us, in multiple ways.

In my presentation at the Visualising Spatial Injustice and Exploitation conference I showed a sequence in which I am fixed by the returned gaze of some oil workers in a photograph, and as a consequence, find I can neither turn the page nor leave. Tired and spooked my experience, I try to get home, but do not notice that I have boarded the wrong train and find myself hurtling along in the opposite direction.

It takes some cheek to compare two kinds of labour – mine, and the oil workers in Iran in 1936. But I want to draw attention to the embodied nature of research, of looking at photographs, and the effects these are likely to produce in a researcher or historian, however scientific the method. Some images have a habit of getting under one’s skin, and photographs, like the history, will haunt us.

The comparison between two kinds of labour that intersect only in an exchange of looks in the archive may be absurd and embarrassing but it pinpoints the source of the haunted feeling. That meeting of eyelines focuses my awareness of my position in relation to the exhausted, exploited oil worker in Iran. And as I say in the film, I was able to spend the next morning in bed, recovering.

As my hand intervenes, extracts, reframes and stitches together a new archive-in-motion, I start to consider the moving image sequence as a space in which to re-enact aspects of the researcher’s encounter with an archive; her encounter with colonial photographs; and a space in which to restage something of the experience of ‘looking’ and of searching for meaning – for another viewer. This interrogation of the process of looking occurs in the first place via formal means, through a speculative approach to re-framing, magnifying, sequencing and by associating sound recordings with photographs assembled along a digital timeline. And also, secondarily, through verbal narration. Once I am sensing and thinking still images through the temporality of film, the composite sequence compels me to look at a photograph, or rather at part of a photograph, for a prescribed duration. The repeated invitation to scan and to examine the image surface, foregrounds the imaginative labour of looking. Cumulatively, the act of looking itself becomes the subject of the inquiry.

In addition to this I am moved through the gaps between individual photographs in a sequence, in ways that conjure the physical pathways traced by the hidden figure of the colonial photographer, whose invisibility becomes increasingly palpable. As a consequence, I become aware of participating in the viewing processes of others, as I am forced to share the colonial photographer’s position or indeed the archivists position. I re-experience a process of looking, naming, and filing – and become implicated in it. Our shared eyeline, our acts of looking, cumulatively produce a discomfiting confrontation with something of what looking at, and classifying, others involves.

You also spoke of your work as being resistant to the melancholic. Given that your work has particularly personal stakes, how did you enact this process of resistance? 

The personal stakes are my start and my end point. They are also part of a method of analysis. This has never been a film about my family, so there is little room for nostalgia or melancholy in it (though I won’t say there is none at all). My family appear in this film only as semi-fictive characters that function as place holders, or points that can join up to form part of the larger colonial constellation in which we may all be enmeshed. I avoid attributing solidity or psychology to any individual person, in order for the wider question of accountability in relation to the colonial and to the colonized, to remain open for consideration as a collective question. With the refusal to develop individual characters, the space remains open for imagining those whose image went un-photographed and un-archived.

However, the conjunction of two archival bodies – family photographs belonging to my late parents and official photographs from the BP archive – is crucial to producing a lively relationship to the past. The gap between ‘Colonialism with a capital C’1Toni Morrison speaks of “Slavery with a capital S”, cited in Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, Minn.; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) p142. and the concrete particularity of a set of family snap-shots opens a powerful conceptual space in which the abstract, generalized movement of geopolitical processes intermingles with personal memory and the singularities of lived experience. This hybrid space mediates between the institutional and the personal and enables a critical site of analysis. The intermingling of imperial history and personal memory has the power to bring the colonial home, intimately.

But there is also an important theoretical and practical point to be argued about melancholia and the perspective from which we look at old photographs and how we think about history. Taking care to position photographs so as to generate lively experiences of ‘looking’ opens an opportunity to break with unhelpful habits and conceits of looking at the past, by engaging with the photograph’s present. This film project proposes that the effort to engage with a photograph’s present offers resistance to deterministic tendencies with regards to how photographs and histories are commonly viewed.2My focus is on photography, but see for example Bernstein on historiography and problems he associates with the narrative device of “foreshadowing” in his book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. For example, in his reflection on photography and trauma, Ulrich Baer is critical of the way that retrospective knowledge and retrospective certainty effectively robs photographic subjects of their interiority. The privileged perspective of hindsight works to confirm preconceived knowledge about the past, and certainty about its outcomes, rather than engaging with the myriad possible experiences captured in an image of the past, on their own terms.

So Baer’s work invites us to think about photographs from within the time of each image, rather than seeing photographs as interruptions to a flow of time or a historical narrative. He insists on the need to embrace the open-ended nature of the photograph, recognizing that “each photograph opens onto a future that, from within the image, is still radically undecided”.3Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), p6. From this perspective – from within the time-world of the photograph – he argues that a viewer can engage a different sense of historical time, thus shedding the protection of narrative distance.

In order to answer an ethical imperative that demands that each of us look with responsibility at those who are dominated and oppressed, such a re-education of the senses requires a radical shift in the perspective with which an archive photograph is viewed. This is a shift, I suggest, that can be apprehended in the reception of the photograph projected through the temporality of the moving image.


1 Toni Morrison speaks of “Slavery with a capital S”, cited in Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis, Minn.; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) p142.
2 My focus is on photography, but see for example Bernstein on historiography and problems he associates with the narrative device of “foreshadowing” in his book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History.
3 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), p6.
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