On Being OUTNUMBERED

Prof. Ed Osborn, Visual Arts Department

Jasper Rigole, Outnumbered, a brief history of imposture, 2009. Camera, photograph, computer, robotics, projection. Courtesy of the artist.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.  

Jasper Rigole’s OUTNUMBERED, a brief history of imposture (2009) takes this disclaimer and makes it both a starting and end point for the experience of photographic and documentary experience.  The phrase functions as an amen to any work of fiction (purported or otherwise): this is where disbelief ends its suspension and reality resumes. You laughed, you cried, just don’t call a lawyer.  The disclaimer exists because there is a chance that a legitimate claim of belief in resemblance could be made; it is a recognition of the existence and agency of the viewer.  It recognizes that the strength of the narrative it shields derives its power in part from the experiences we bring to it and our investment in it.

OUTNUMBERED is built around a quick illusion and revelation. A video projection of what appears to be a documentary, complete with British-accented narration and slow scanning of an old group portrait photo, occupies one space. In an adjacent space the video is shown to be derived from an elaborate construction in which a computerized camera glides across the face of an “historic” panoramic photograph.  The wide portrait image was made by a panoramic camera whose lens and iris pivoted horizontally across the scene and negative simultaneously.  We see not one moment in time, though it looks that way, but instead the several seconds it took for the camera to scan the courtyard. Even before Rigole got to it, the image is not what it appears to be. The chipcam that moves across the photograph’s face appears to reanimate it, but it was an unstill image to begin with. It used to be said that the camera never lies (that has long been an open question), but certainly here it never lies still.

Because the piece shows its hand almost instantly, it rapidly runs through the nominal questions any work of mediated experience might raise: What is it? What is it doing? How is it done? Is it for real?  That the piece makes no pretense of hiding the answer to this last question leaves several larger ones in its place: Are any images for real? How can they be trusted? How can we be trusted with them?

Looking at Rigole’s image-producing contraption, we seem to be standing in the place of the man behind the curtain, the place where the illusion is controlled.  But the reason the man was hidden was that he had an illusion to control, and in OUTNUMBERED we have neither illusion nor control: we are left with no narrative space – fictional or otherwise – and without it no agency of viewership.  We also have no place to hide from the fact that these images have no reliability even in fiction. There is no way to invest ourselves in the narratives here, even knowing that they are utterly fictional: they are so infinitely variable that any meaningful ordering of them depends solely on us, and the longer we look at the work the more undependable we become.

Before this piece we are outnumbered, our stories are outnumbered, our history is outnumbered.  Our objections would be outnumbered, except that there is nothing to which to object, least of all the object that spells all this out in flat detail. And this is the point. Objection needs veracity in order to exist, and this is precisely what OUTNUMBERED withdraws from us.  Not just the truth of the spoken narrative, which is revealed quickly to have no basis in anything beyond its own database, but more critically the chance to measure ourselves in relation to it. Once the construction of the piece is revealed, the question about whether its narratives are real or not ceases to matter.  And this cessation leaves a disquiet that easily settles over any constructed image, documentary ones most especially. I spent extended time with the piece on several occasions, and while it is fascinating to experience firsthand, even repeatedly, I know nothing more about the world after having seen this work than I did before. I probably know less.  This experience requires no disclaimer: nothing to believe here, folks, now move along.

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