Images of Chernobyl
(Catalogue essa for Alice Micelli’s exhibition, Chernobyl Project, at the 29th Sao Paolo Biennial, 2010)
For Walter Benjamin,(t)he true picture of the past flits by” to be “seized only as an
image which flashes up at the moment of danger, instantaneously, when it can be recognized and never to be seen again.”
The coincidence of th past, danger and the image are the very elements that Alice Micelli’s Chernobyl Project witnesses. It is interesting that two of photograph’s early names,heliograph, a name Nicephore Niepce employed since 1826 and photogenic image/drawing used by William Talbot since 1837, seem to present the image as if it was(re)produced by the aid of nature. The idea of the heliograph suggests that the imageshave been written (Greek, graphein) by the sun (Greek, helios). Talbot’s photogenicdrawing, also purport to be a result of nature’s production (Greek, phos or  ight and genesis or produced / originated).
This predilection to impute to nature’s prowess what was/is technologically never free of human intervention seems to have been instrumental in retaining for
photography an element of mystical authori(iali)ty; almost authored by nature
with the photographer being a mere facilitator o the image coming into being.
Photography, the
name
we
have
settled
on,
exploits
this
semantic
(etymological)
ambiguity
through
the
Greek
suffix
“-­‐graph”,
for
it
could
be
translated
as
either
‘written’
or
‘that
writes’.
“Thus,
photography
is,
at
one
and
the
same
time,
‘light
writing
itself’
and/or
‘writing
with
light’,
a
system
of
representation
that
is
projected
as
both
(but
never
quite
either)
active
and
passive,
producer
and
produced,
inscribing
and
inscribed.”
(Batchen)
This
uneasy
relationship
between
nature
and
artifice
that
photography
as
a
technology
has
mediated
and
even
embalmed
in
its
very
nomenclature,
provides
an
interesting
reference
point
to
think
about
Micelli’s
radiographic
traces
of
/
from
Chernobyl.
The
artist
initially
began
with
the
pin-­‐hole
camera
to
capture
and
give
presence
to
the
radiation
using
a
method
akin
to
photography.
However,
Micelli
found
the
images
that
registered
on
the
radiographic
film
to
be
highly
restricted
by
the
confines
and
protective
mechanisms
of
the
camera
itself.
At
this
point,
her
investigations
led
her
beyond
the
pin-­‐hole
camera
to
methods
that
would
create
“direct
contact”
between
the
radiographic
film
and
the
radioactivity
that
permeates
Chernobyl.
Micelli
refers
to
the
technology
that
she
employs
as
‘autoradiographic’
insofar
as
she
conceives
the
radioactivity
to
inscribe
itself
onto
the
film
by
direct
contact;
that
is,
without
her
mediation.
The
films
were
allowed
to
come
into
unmediated
contact
with
the
radioactive
environment
and
its
objects.
It
is
of
course
readily
apparent
that
she
is
in
fact
the
person
who
makes
the
choices
of
what,
when
and
where
the
film
directed.
I
would
suggest
that
this
desire
to
let
the
film
do
the
work
of
directly
capturing
the
radioactive
presence
poses
the
artist
as
a
modest
witness

as
Haraway
defines
it
-­‐
“seeing;
attesting;
standing
publicly
accountable
for,
and
psychically
vulnerable
to,
one’s
visions
and
representations”.
Micelli’s
work
has
for
a
long
time
worked
from
an
imperative
to
bear
witness
to
things
that
have
happened
even
if
she
was
not
physically
present
when
/
where
the
event
happened.
For
example,
her
work,
88
de
14,000
(2004)
poignantly
reminds
us
of
88
prisoners
killed
in
a
prison
in
Phnom
Penh
by
having
a
picture
of
each
prisoner
appear
and
disappear
to
reflect
the
time
elapsed
between
their
entry
into
the
prison
and
date
of
execution.
Having
done
research
on
the
executions
of
these
prisoners
in
Cambodia
and
keen
on
developing
an
empathic
connection
to
their
lives,
Micelli
chooses
to
enact
a
temporal
restitution
of
their
fading
away;
a
veritable
staging
of
their
absence
to
make
them
present
to
the
viewers.
Micelli’s
work
here
as
well
as
in
the
Chernobyl
Project,
seeks
to
bear
witness,
not
as
an
objective
onlooker
but
as
an
empathic
nexus
to
an
event
that
itself,
is
characterized
as
and
is
irrecoverably
absent.

The
artist
reminds
us
“the
Chernobyl
accident
actually
produced
more
survivors
than
victims”

meaning
that
there
were
/
are
more
who
were
at
the
accident
than
those
who
perished
as
a
result
of
it.
However,
despite
the
fact
that
there
were
so
many
who
‘were
there’,
there
were
few
who
could
bear
witness
to
the
accident.
Micelli
cites
Swletana
Alexejewwitsch,
author
of
the
book,
“Voices
from
Chernobyl”,
who
observes
that
many
of
the
survivors
continued
to
insist
on
the
lack
of
any
reference
points
from
their
previous
experience
to
make
sense
of
this
event
-­‐
“I
have
never
seen
it
in
any
book,
nobody
has
ever
told
me
of
such
a
thing”.
This
inability
to
locate
the
accidental

i.e.,
the
rupture
of
/
from
the
normal

is
not
a
failure
of
language
but
a
failure
our
habits
of
history.
“The
tradition
of
the
oppressed”,
Benjamin
notes,
“teaches
us
that
the
‘state
of
emergency’
in
which
we
live
is
not
the
exception
but
the
rule.
We
must
attain
to
a
conception
of
history
that
is
in
keeping
with
this
insight.”
His
“Theses
on
the
Philosophy
of
History”
attempts
to
undermine
the
concept
of
progress
that
relegates
the
state
of
emergency,
the
catastrophic
and
the
accidental
as
exceptional.
Such
an
idea
of
progress
presents
whatever
happens
in
history
as
anticipated
and
as
necessary
in
a
way
that
makes
revolutionary
change
impossible
and
accidents
incredible.
He
claims
that
“(t)he
concept
of
progress
should
be
grounded
on
the
idea
of
catastrophe.
That
things
‘just
keep
on
going’
is
the
catastrophe.
Not
something
that
is
impending
at
any
particular
time
ahead,
but
something
that
is
always
given.”
Thus,
Benjamin
conceived
of
the
possibility
of
history
not
as
some
teleological
movement
of
events,
but
rather
as
that
which
establishes
“a
conception
of
the
present
as
the
Jetztzeit
which
is
shot
through
with
chips
of
Messianic
time.”
History
is
therefore,
not
what
is
past,
but
rather
what
“passes
away”;
that
which
“is
always
on
the
verge
of
disappearing,
without
disappearing”.
It
is
in
the
recognition
of
the
traces
of
the
past
as
and
in
such
traces
that
the
promise
of
history
holds.
“For
every
image
of
the
past”,
Benjamin
claims,
“that
is
not
recognized
by
the
present
as
one
of
its
own
concerns,
threatens
to
disappear
irretrievably.”
Instead
of
a
historical
truth
lying
in
wait
to
be
imagistically
revealed
to
an
inquisitive
eye,
Benjamin
posits
these
images
as
essentially
fleeting
and
involuntary
in
their
appearance.
“It
isn’t
that
the
past
casts
its
light
on
what
is
present
or
that
what
is
present
casts
its
light
on
what
is
past”,
in
the
image
of
the
historical
object,
“the
Then
and
the
Now
come
together
into
a
constellation
like
a
flash
of
lightning.”
It
is
this
capacity
to
constitute
a
dialectical
movement
between
knower
and
known,
between
“past”
and
“present”
even
in
its
“stasis”,
in
what
he
calls
the
“now-­‐time”,
that
leads
him
to
characterize
“image
as
dialectics
at
a
standstill”.
According
to
Benjamin,
the
photograph
presents
such
a
dialectical
image;
a
time-­‐kernel
(Zeitkern)
that
potentially
binds
every
photograph
to
every
one
of
its
observers
/
readers.
Micelli’s
Chernobyl
Project
presents
two
forms
of
witnessing

the
photographs
that
documents,
in
a
stark
and
historically
loaded
black
&
white,
her
journeys
to,
at
the
border
of
and
into
the
now
abandoned
‘zone’
of
the
accident;
and
the
‘direct
contact’
radiographs
of
the
spaces
that
bear
the
radioactivity
that
permeates
the
zone.
These
photographs
are
documents
that
‘give
place’
to
the
absence
insofar
as
they
locate
the
accident
and
its
evacuating
aftermath
in
a
specific
geographical
and
social
space.
The
images
of
the
bureaucratic
rituals
the
artist
endures
to
make
her
way
into
the
zone;
the
empty
neighborhoods
of
the
urban
areas
contiguous
with
the
zone;
the
gates
that
emblematically
announce
the
zone’s
intent
to
keep
one
out
in
the
name
of
danger;
the
passports
with
special
authorizations
that
insist
on
entry;
and
the
spaces
void
of
people
and
movement
in
the
zone,
are
dialectical
images
in
their
capacity
to
open
a
time-­‐kernel
that
connect
the
past
and
present,
the
accident
and
the
absence.

“Creation
or
collapse,
the
accident
is
an
unconscious
oeuvre,
an
invention
in
the
sense
of
uncovering
what
was
hidden,
just
waiting
to
happen.”
Paul
Virilio
In
developing
the
autoradiographic
method,
Micelli
was
creating
a
mechanism
that
would
give
presence
to
the
radiation
that
itself
is
invisible.
Unlike
the
conventional
pin-­‐hole
camera
that
imprints
the
image
by
a
photographic
process,
the
autoradiographs
are
created
by
direct
contact
of
the
radiation
on
the
film.
Insofar
as
these
are
created
by
direct
radioactivity
without
a
resulting
image,
they
are
strictly
speaking,
not
images
and
in
fact
are
closer
to
radiographic
objects.
However,
the
method
is
photographic
in
its
reliance
on
the
light
in
the
environment
where
the
direct
contact
occurs
and
therefore
also
continues
to
capture
the
objects
and
environments
it
encounters
albeit
obscured
/
affected
by
the
radiation.
The
resulting
radiographs
are
therefore
images
under
erasure;
images.
These
images
“exhibit
the
accident”
(Virilio)
that
cautions
against
our
conflation
of
progress
and
technological
development,
while
forcing
us
to
contend
with
our
complacent
relation
to
the
past
as
already
past
and
the
accident
as
exceptional.
Gunalan
Nadarajan
(2010)