From the policies of distance to the abolition of spaces, Kader Attia, 2015

PRIZE CEREMONY AND CONFERENCE Presented in conjunction with the exhibition: Abounaddara. The Right to the Image
The New School – New York City

Introduction :

From time immemorial, images have been shaping our thoughts. Before being made of letters and signs, words were images.

As Victor Hugo writes in his journey diary “Alpes et Pyrénées” : “Two rivers that flow on each side of a mountain and join at its bottom to make a river draw the letter Y.  “Y” could also be the figure of the man praying with his hands up in the sky…”

But these last decades, image has undergone an unprecedented evolution since the invention of mass media: video technology. The ease of video technology has exaggerated the illusion of our perception of space and time. This mutation has been moving constantly forward and faster since 9/11, thanks to 2 growing technologies : Internet, the virtual digital net, and mobile telephony. Virtual nets have abolished distances and spaces, and the always improved ergonomics of communication tools has made their daily use constant and even more nomadic.

One can, at any time and almost everywhere, access information into image, or be reached by these images taken on the other side of the world, as tragic as they may be. This spontaneity of violence on personal screens has become a mass culture, where the build-up of drama plays the part of Power, that exploit it in its policy based on fear.

Like the Western political power, radical militarized Islam is part of this new geopolitics of fear through image.

Nowadays, we receive new images of executions, staged in the indifference of the terrorists, of which they are both authors and actors, in the name of God.

And yet, what is at stake below and beyond these macabre productions is beyond the religious issue.

To understand this, we have to fix the damage caused by these images on our psyche. To do this, we have to trace the archeology of their meaning, the history of their existence and reason for being broadcasted, their construction, their production, in a nutshell, to decode them as Erwinn Panofski would have.

Political powers and today’s media revive everyday a secular fear that was born during the crusades, and that the hegemonic Western Christian iconography has endlessly infused in peoples’ psyche for centuries. What media and political powers tirelessly build as a new violence, the build-up of which would be constantly growing, is the continuity of a century long conceptual construction of an harmful otherness: the invention of evil, decisive element of the policy of fear.


Why does this fear last, and from which threat was it born ? 


Crusades happened during the most glorious and innovative time of the Muslim civilization, when sciences, arts and beliefs would coexist. On the contrary, at this time Christian civilization was deep into the Middle-Age and a century long demonization of sciences and philosophy.

Nowadays, one of these civilizations fights against the other, in order not to fall back into obscurantism. The other ones fights to get it golden age back, in order to grab the piece of modernity capitalism has promised. Since the end of Communism, the ideological model adopted by most of the Muslim countries that had gained their independence, Capitalism has become the inevitable synonymous of modernity.

The golden age of the Muslim civilization has forever left its mark on this people’s and Occident’s psyche. From Charles Martel in Poitiers, through the occupation of Southern Europe until the 15th century, until the siege of Vienna in the 18th century, Europe has been deeply marked by the power of the Muslim civilization.


Are the wounds of the Muslim world’s History only due to the loss of a past splendor ?


On the one hand, the immaterial wounds of the Muslim civilization are rooted in the Renaissance era, when Occident tries to radically change its Thought; hence the necessity of a policy of detachment towards the alienating proximity of the divine during the Middle Age.

The greatness of imperialism and its taste for spirit is sought until the deep Greco-Roman Antiquity. Muslims are pushed away towards their far Southern lands. Speculations are made about an even further world. It’s important to remember that the fall of Grenada – on January 2nd 1492, the last Muslim city in Spain, happens at the same time as the discovery of the new world, the same one that will become centuries later the most powerful empire in the world.

The other breach that stigmatizes the Muslim world’s psyche is embodied in the apparition of a radical different Thought towards image: the retranscription of the world through figurative images. Even if one often opposes the Persian miniatures to the dogma of non-representation in Islam, it is only an exception particular to this people’s history, that comes before the Renaissance. This exception could be explained through the Shiite orientation of this people. The rituals in relation to Imam Hossein’s and his 72 family members’ martyrdom, made of public intentional mutilations and self floggings, the build-up of blood of which shows almost an image of “passion”, reminds us the Catholic iconography and its controversy with Protestant iconoclasts during the reformation. Something always refused by the iconoclast Sunni Islam and its dogma of abstraction…


The retranscription of Reality, from a virtual skyline’s point of view, changed for centuries the audience’s visual addiction to images mimicking reality. The religious power rapidly seized what was a revolution of image, whereas it was only the echo of the Greek Thought, on which the Church had turned its back for centuries. The Sistine Chapel is the most beautiful example.

But if Renaissance spellt the end of Islam’s golden age, it was the ground for Descartes’ and Kant’s fundamental questions on reason to emerge. The Age of Reason was however not only damageable to Islam, since it also deeply shacked up the other great ruling monotheism at the time.

Modern Thought has indeed be a great threat for the Church, that eventually had to understand it had to evolve with the modern political power or loose its own.


Colonial expansion will give the Church the opportunity to make up its delay.

 Commencer ici le Diaporama de  « dispossession »


“We have to build a new world, and to do so we will have to tear the old one down”. This sentence from a speech of Lenine, during the Industrial Revolution, perfectly illustrates modernity’s dogma, of which the Vatican’s colonial policy in Africa in the 19th century will be an extension.

The Church’s colonization of cults, knowledge, and spaces has taken place in Africa in an unilateral way, following a modern project based on progress. On the one hand traditional ritual objects are denigrated, confiscated or destroyed: nkisi, masks, sacred sculptures, divination baskets, etc… And on the other hand, natives, from the older to the youngest ones, are used to build churches made of stones and missions to physically occupy, forever and always further, the mind and space of peoples. A dispossession of lands, beliefs, but also of objects of devotion, that end up either destroyed or in Western museums like the one of the Vatican, which today owns more than 90 000 objects. The Church will make up for its delay on modernity in the 19th century through the methodical deployment of legions of missionaries, until the most remote territories, agents of a modern Vatican conqueror of the past… (???) (je ne comprends pas bien)


Like all great empires, and the same way the Muslim civilization at its apogee got caught in the certainty of its own power, the modern political project started

to trap Occident in its opposition against the Muslim world through its own dynamic : progress.

As the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne describes very well, the modernization of public transportation in West Africa has helped the penetration of Islam in regions, which it had never reached before. Thanks to the development of Western railways, extremely remote societies, remained animist despite the Islamization of the previous centuries, have been Islamized.

The Western colonial expansion of the second half of the 19th century has paradoxically been gone with the expansion of Islam in deep African areas, from North to South. This new competition of Islam on colonial expansion ground will become a major stake, for which the colonial power and the Church will fight jointly, through a modern visual and written propaganda.

During the second half of the 19th century, the growing awareness of an Islam resisting inside these areas will reactivate old demons from the past…


Since 1830, when Algiers was taken, Occident of the 19th century proceeds to the conquest of the old Arab world and Africa. The Christian Occident then walks two distinct but parallel ways: on the one hand religion, and on the other and, modernity, or shall I say “modernities”. Each European nation pursues its intellectual and political modern project: France as the universal administrator of reason accompanied by the Church, the British crown, deeply capitalist and Anglican, will, contrary to the French, integrate local elites in almost each administration of its colonies… If each European country has a different specific project, a common denominator appears however: the representation of the Other and the origin then the organization of this representation that historians named “Orientalism”.

As an era following Romanticism, the second half of the 19th century spreads, through arts and press, the image of the Other as far away, embodying the phobia as well as the fantasies of another place to conquer and to dominate, haunted by the specters of Islam. Paintings and engravings then show scenes of places far away, where, in exotic landscapes, ruthless people execute women and children with knives. In “The death of Sardanapale” as well as in “The Massacres of Scio”, the oriental Muslim man appears as the designated killer. Even in scenes, the eroticism of which is equally exotic, of a woman in the hammam, there is always an underlying violence to the oriental beauty, contrasted by the presence of a janissary or a black slave nearby, making the feminine character, with brown hair but white skin, languishing by the water, look even more like a prisoner…

During the 19th century, and particularly during its second half, the treatment of information through image underwent a huge upheaval. The Industrial Revolution and the numerous technological progresses that came with it have made an always faster distribution of the information possible. And what first belonged to the fields of poetry, stories, painting salons, ended up to be trivialized on newspapers’ front-pages, going from one hand to the other. The outburst in the distribution of the press of that time is something new, that can only be compared to the larger distribution of the Bible allowed the Gutenberg’s invention. The impact it had on populations, well-read or not, can be compared to the revolution of virtual digital communication’s nets. In these three cases – the invention of printing, the outbreak of written press, and the revolution of the Internet, Religion, an hegemonic political power par excellence, has taken advantage of the evolution of these communication tools by image.


Commencer ici :  le diaporama de l’invention du mal : la politique de la peur


Today, many images show Daech’s jihadists wearing outfits that remind us of the past. A distant past when Occident used to fight Mahometans during the Crusades…


Why and how do these images frighten us ?


Because they revive in our psyche clichés that have been themselves reactivated during the 19th century by the outbreak of the press at the end of the Industrial Revolution, in all the Western European countries that had known the crusades. This mass iconography, based on fear, is at the chore of a project collecting Western newspaper of that time, connected to their contemporary alter ego: “The Invention of Evil: the Politics of Fear”.

Baggy outfits, turbans, swords, long beards, etc… can be found in images of the 19th century as well as of the 20th century. Deach’s soldiers think they dress and do their hair like the Prophet and his followers, when they actually look like characters in Delacroix’s, de Gleyres’, or Géricault’s, Gérôme’s, or Vernet’s paintings depicting massacres, slaves traders, ruthless sultans, and everything that was used by the sensational press of the second part of the 20th century to keep promoting the benefits of the colonial expansion.

The visual game Daech plays is the one Occident gave them through Orientalism. “Occident has orientalized Orient”, Franz Fanon used to say. Daech is trapped in its own ignorance of the representative codes of original Islam. But Occident is also caught up in its obsession for progress. The techniques used to produce Daech’s images of executions are as good as the ones used in the Western movie industry. The only thing is that, when Daech thinks they are true to the Prophet’s tradition, and to past values, they are on the contrary definitely modern !

But if deach is wrong, so is the Occident. Because what Daech do is only reappropriating the image of Islam, constantly shaped by the Occident since the crusades and spread towards Western and non-Western populations. The second trap, in which Occident has fallen, is to see the members of this cult only as mindless and thirsty for blood, despite their ability to learn fast.

The Occident has already lost one battle against Daech : the policy of distance. For centuries, since the Renaissance, the Occident and its project have focused on distant spaces, on the conquest of a new world, on colonization, orientalism. Today this policy of the distance has fallen apart. Daech has understood this very well and uses it very cleverly. Technological progresses now allow us to be informed by images of events that take place in areas that used to be far away, and that pop up on our so close screens. This abolition of spaces condemns us to an unbearable proximity, so much that the most raw images of violence constantly feed the policy of fear that rules these two polarized worlds around the issue of modernity.

The emotion created by Daech’s destructions is inherent in the act’s immediacy, the fundamental factor of which is technology. Without technology, no image, and then no awareness. Daech, like Islam in the colonial past, takes advantage of the Western technological progress to reappropriate its own image, turn it into a weapon, and take power where other less radical Muslim forces have failed. Daech produces images with so much care in order to terrorize the Occident and recruit always more candidates to the Djihad. At the time of abolition of spaces, they will spread instantly.

Orientalist painting has created clichés of representation, of appearances as well as violence, used by contemporary radical islamists like Al Quaeda, Isis, or Boko Haram, that play the stereotyped part that Occident has created for them, which they call “Others” : the black savage, the ruthless Arab, the killer, etc.. Daech answers with images.

Most of the leaders of these armed groups of radical Islam have been held in Guantanamo, like Daech’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdai, who spent 5 years there.