Filtering News, Waiting for History




The authentic concept of universal history is a messianic concept. Universal history, as it is understood today, is an affair of obscurantists.

                                                                                         Walter Benjamin



One of Rainer Ganahl’s main obsessions aims to identify the process of news ‘digestion’ and the impact that information has on our everyday life. His targets include the unperceived influence exerted by its formal presentation in order to investigate the implied signification carried through by media’s graphic aspects. This critical practice aims to unveil the implication of the conceptual design of news, as the mechanisms of filtered presentation embody for the artist a hidden meta-language operating on a level whose ideological consequences are often overlooked. Ganahl’s works do not hold the artist’s direct opinions; he does not suggest alternatives, nor does he formulate accusations. His art rather indicates, through its formal component acquired in the process of its making, an unconventional way of looking at what is generally conceived as democratic. Such a practice mimics, to a certain extent, the structural procedures of academic research, picking elements from the artist’s understanding of reality that drawn together constitute the principle of an experimental study, a constellation that generates criticality by way of their interaction.


In his series Afghan Dialogues, the artist has explored his interest in the headlines and graphic banners used in television news bulletins, questioning the supposedly uninvolved position of those who compose them. The creation of these artworks follows quite a complicated production chain, in which every passage adds a new layer of meaning through cultural, political and social references. Such mode of production paradoxically mirrors in a more visible fashion the passages of increased manipulation that occurs during the process of refining any event while it is turned into the newscast. As a point of departure, Ganahl has taken pictures of a television screening international news and then he has removed from these the images depicting the event, the indexical component that is used to validate the narrative. What remains represents the disregarded and complex apparatus of signification in operation during news reception. The graphic elements contain ideologically charged tropes such as “Next Target”, “America Strikes Back “ or “Homeland Security”, embedding US government propaganda within the reported event. The visual result takes on a subliminal status on the border between language and image, allowing them to efficaciously operate on a semi-conscious level. This occurs thanks to the use of repetition, as the viewer, after continual exposure to them, stops perceiving them as influential elements on the TV screen that contribute together with images and narratives to the construction of our understanding of the story reported.


The second phase of Ganahl’s process consists of sending those isolated graphic elements printed on sheet of paper that maintains the original proportion of the TV screen to professional embroiderers in Afghanistan (the country under US attack during that period), with a set of instructions. The artist asked them to make embroideries containing each one of these graphics, keeping the white space left by the removal of the images. The dialogue invoked in the title occurs as Ganahl invited the craftsmen to add a comment to the graphic they received in this blank area. This symbolic gesture confers to the Afghans a space of visibility that brings to mind the long commentaries that the same people used to inscribe in the frame of Alighiero Boetti’s maps of the world.


This operation assumes a paradigmatic status that indicates an alternative conception of the multifaceted aspects that divide an event from its reportage, oscillating between personal memory and collective elaboration. The cooperative production that generates the artwork is not only part of the well-rehearsed poststudio strategy in which external professionals are used for their specific skills only. Every individual involved is in fact asked to leave a sign, a contribution to the multilayered writing of what could be considered as a sequentially fabricated document.  This has particular significance as the artist juxtaposes the ‘undeclared’ opinion of powerful information industries with the otherwise inaudible voice of the individuals upon which such events act with devastating effects. Bringing together the personal response of Afghans and the symbols of a televised event taking place in their country brings into question the notions of collective and personal memory as opposed but inherently linked within the most recent notion of historiography. Conceived in opposition to the kind of ‘political history’ that shapes the accepted narrative of global events, the embroidery series paradigmatically includes both the subliminal signification mechanisms and personal opinions equating them on the same surface. This intends to problematise the relation between the memories originated by the media representation of a conflict and the personal perception of people directly involved within it. Are they both valuable for the historians to come? What would be more reliable as a source? What would result from their dialogue?


As Jacques Le Goff explains, the work of the historian often consists of correcting through the study of documents, the altered perceptions that have sedimented in the so-called collective memory: “There are at least two histories: that of collective memory and that of historians. The first appears as essentially mythic, deformed, and anachronistic. But it constitutes the lived reality of the never completed relation between present and past. It is desirable that historical information corrects this false traditional history. History must illuminate memory and help it rectify its errors.”[1] What Le Goff aims to rescue professionally, Ganahl aspires to show in the process of its formation by questioning the apparatuses that condition such recollections and their mechanisms of ideological distortion.


In this context, the notion of shared memory has been repeatedly contested and visual imagery represents one of the trickiest tools in the hands of newspaper and TV. [2] The way mass media contributes to the staging of what is perceived as the evolution of contemporary events can be conceived as no less compromised than the subjective response of a single individual from the other side of the same conflict. Although unbalanced on the scale of power and sophistication the two factors juxtaposed in the embroidery are plausibly compared as voices whose partiality is surprisingly similar. Through this gesture, Ganahl acts as an illegitimate historian who uses facts and documents as metaphors in order to put into focus the gaps that separate the present from the past, personal from relevant information. This sheds light on the transient moment during which the sedimentation of interpretation converts narrative into the memory that historians consume their life correcting.


The series News Paintings explores further the idea of memory, putting it in relation to the new media. Hung from the ceiling as a three-dimensional succession of materialised windows of an Internet browser, these big unframed canvases depict several Web pages from Yahoo news or Fox news channels. Their size and quantity evoke the amount of information waste that is generated every day. The works are pervaded by a sense of instant obsolescence: looking at old pages of a constantly updated information platform hints to the strategic overload of material as the way to avoid the perception of decline.  Such an idea was sketched by Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project as the modern temporality of hell, in which the rhythm of news is a means used to avoid addressing death. Like fashion, news pages are the opposite of considered knowledge over an event as their flow rather than their content tends to get the lead role.[3] Ganahl deliberately references in this series the genre of history painting as a spectre  - presenting us with the return of the repressed news – in order for it to assume a distorted configuration the artist paid professional painters to depict his selection of ‘news stills’. 


The fleeting moment between event and memory is frozen in the News Paintings thereby obtaining a picture of one of the first phases of the conversion of the actuality into what Sontag defines as “collective instruction”.[4] One of the outputs of this process is arguably traditionally connected to the realm of aesthetics in the genre of history painting. One way of understanding Jeff Wall’s conceptual programme to merge such a genre with photographic recording and manipulation is to see it addressing the idea of staging representation for ideological and spectacularised consumption, Ganahl aims to break down the process of writing history by catching it a step beforehand, while information is turning into shared understanding. The artist aspires to address the content rather than the formal construction of history painting’s pictorial tradition. The composition of the text and images depicted is in fact the result of the work of an anonymous painter depicting the graphic layout managed by a news editor. The suffocating quantity of documents produced to disseminate news, and their new identity as icons of the transition between information and history, generate a sense of discomfort towards the speed of information construction and decay. Ganahl here aims to represent the fading flow of information that today substitutes the instructive role that history painting performed, the void left by the disappearance of this genre is filled with an accelerated stream aiming to keep us permanently engaged on the detail so that we are distracted from the construction of a bigger picture.


In News Paintings the Internet pages replace the picture of historical event, as if the responsibility of deciding what memory retains had to be given back to the reader. This gesture implies that the process of selection and linking of information should be practiced as a critical resistance to the conventional ways in which events are processed into narratives. News substitutes history in paintings that depict the Benjaminian notion of the ‘just-past’, thereby raising awareness of the process by which the machine that filters news to distil memory operates. Ganahl places himself in the cusp of this metamorphosis, often undertaking a path backwards in order to denounce through the rhetorical device of absurdity the canonised procedures of filing conflicts and tragedies in our memory under the category of the fading news.


Francesco Manacorda


[1] Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory, Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 111

[2] Talking about the visual component of media, Sontag clarifies how their apparatus instructs us rather than reporting information: “Photographs that everyone recognises are now constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Picador, 2003, p.85


[3] Referring to the quote by Balzac on the idea that nothing dies but everything is transformed, Benjamin comments: “The epigraph from Balzac is well suited to the temporality of hell: to showing how this time does not recognize death, and how fashion mocks death; how the acceleration of traffic and the tempo of news reporting (which conditions the quick succession of the newspapers editions) aim at eliminating all discontinuities and sudden ends; and how death as caesura bolongs together with all the straight lines of divine temporality.” Walter Banjamin, The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 66

[4] Cfr. Susan Sontag, Op. Cit. see note 2 above