Report of a Reading Room lecture by Felix Ensslin, Professor of Aesthetics and Art Mediation at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, on Thursday, 1 September, 2016. The theme of the evening was the exhibition Munich 1972, at Het Nieuwe Instituut, 12 June 2016 to 8 January 2017. The Reading Room is a series of evenings during which contemporary forms of reading are examined. The evening is spent reflecting on a text, design, object, series of images, or data and is led by a researcher, designer or thinker. For this Reading Room, Ensslin chose the photograph that is most symbolic of the kidnappings at the 1972 Munich Olympics to reflect on how images work.
The exhibition Munich 1972 sets out the design strategy for the Munich Olympic Games and confronts it with the hostage drama that took place there. On 5 September 1972, members of the Black September group forced their way into the Olympic village and took the Israeli team hostage, an act that ultimately ended in a bloodbath.
The Games had presented the host country with a perfect opportunity to show the world that it had put Nazism far behind it. The organisation, with Otl Aicher as the head of the design team, deployed all the design disciplines to present West Germany to the world as an open, peace-loving and democratic country. The Olympic Park was designed as a huge, open-air theatre, where sportspeople and public could mingle in a relaxed environment.
The hostage-taking is presented in the exhibition as if it were a performance in the Olympic Games theatre. Black September chose the Games as its stage, because of the massive international media presence. The attack was so timed that it wouldn’t coincide with any important competitions. The lead hostage-taker donned a light-coloured suit and painted his face black. In his introduction to the evening, Marten Kuijpers, the exhibition’s curator, asked whether we might view this act of terrorism in terms of design.
The society of the spectacle
Felix Ensslin doesn’t believe the terrorists consciously intended to produce specific images and he explained why. He began his lecture with an analysis of the photograph that became the ultimate symbol of the Munich hostage crisis: a grainy black-and-white photo of a terrorist wearing a balaclava standing on a balcony. An image of an intruder who disrupts an event, which was designed to radiate peace and democracy, in order to draw attention to global political issues. However, the photograph’s abstract qualities open it up to many more readings, Ensslin believes. The man wearing the balaclava reminds him of the hat he wore as a child in the 1970s to go skiing; there is no visible weapon; the man’s posture is more fearful and alert, than threatening and aggressive. And there is his eye: it’s not a human, individual eye, but a universal eye, a gaze that seems to extend beyond concrete biological seeing.
This image analysis took Ensslin to the 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle by French theorist Guy Debord. Following postwar, Western, Marxist tradition, Debord presented a profound critique of the notion, which also underpinned the design of the Olympic Games, that people are rational individuals, open to pedagogical development and who, in a political sense, can be liberated. They are obstructed in this, according to Debord, by the society of the spectacle, which makes them dependent on the circulation of images. In the case of Munich 1972, the break with civilisation, which had been caused by National Socialism, had to be restored by bringing individuals back to their own, natural, substantial identities. By no longer being the object of seduction, manipulation and alienation, people, as rational, autonomous beings, would be able realise the rational potential they were born with.
Absence of an artistic strategy
Another element in the reception of Black September’s terrorist strategy, which Ensslin refers to, is the fact that in the West, in Europe, and then particularly in Italy, Germany and to a lesser degree France, there is an inclination to see leftwing, anti-colonial, terrorist liberation strategies as not only rooted in an anarchistic, political history, but also in the artistic avant-garde of Situationism. This is, in his view, misleading. Unlike the terrorism that developed in the 1970s in a European urban context, such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, there is no direct link between Black September’s strategy and the artistic tactics employed by Situationism. Black September’s action had pragmatic grounds. The movement saw no other way to draw attention to the Palestinian cause. They drew inspiration from the anti-colonial struggle of the Vietcong and hoped to attract international solidarity similar to the civil rights movement, which had grown out of opposition to the Vietnam war.
That the images of terrorism at the ’72 Olympics became part of the society of the spectacle was not, according to Ensslin, the outcome of a deliberate strategy. Black September had the rational, albeit naive idea that the reason there was so little attention for the injustices being inflicted on the Palestinians was a lack of information and visibility.
‘The highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness’, Ensslin quoted Debord, who quoted Feuerbach. Ensslin emphasised that this is the main reason we are still talking about this image. You could say that the photograph of the terrorist on the balcony is, on a basic and banal level, an image of a terrible event and that is what has given it its iconic value. But, according to Ensslin, it has more to do with the society in which the image is received, namely ours. Debord’s society of the spectacle is not simply a society in which more images circulate than ever before. It is a society in which images communicate social relations, in which we are joined together as images and not as realities. Ensslin sees a connection between Aicher’s design strategy for the Olympic Games and Debord’s society of the spectacle: both refer to a rational understanding of our real, unalienated life; a level of life that in one instance was destroyed by the emergence of fascism and in another by the ubiquity of the spectacle. Both argue for a return to ‘real’ life. Ensslin quotes Aicher: ‘Instead of characteristics, we were looking for an atmosphere, instead of symbols a mood. This way, working on a visual identity evolved into directing, the colours and symbols became elements of a staging, [the staging of an] enormous open-air spectacle, an opera without theatre and orchestra . […] It was life itself, life played itself in one of its successful highlights.’
In the end, Ensslin claims, it was Black September that rescued the design project of the 1972 Olympic Games. The hostage drama made it easier for Germany to present itself as a democratic nation; against the backdrop of horror, everything else looked positive. The representation of the event was no longer dependent on the symbolic design of the Bavarian blue sky, but followed the logic of the spectacle.
Salò en de werking van het fantasme
Going deeper into the workings of the society of the spectacle, Ensslin looked at Pier Polo Pasolini’s film Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, which is based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom. The gaze, or the eye, plays an important role in this book.
The spectacle is able to communicate social relations through images, because those images become something other than representations, Ensslin explained. They are literally the vehicle for phantasms. A phantasm is not an ordinary fantasy. In a psychoanalytic sense it is an unconscious, grammatical structure. With a phantasm it is possible to adopt different positions in relation to a scene. Ensslin uses the example of a child that is being beaten: you can imagine yourself in the position of the person doing the beating, the child who is being beaten, or of an onlooker observing the event. This is particularly the case in certain kinds of dreams and (sexual) fantasies. Ensslin showed the final scene from Pasolini’s film Salò, in which these different positions are depicted.
If we understand the society of the spectacle as a phantasm, Ensslin believes, it is then impossible to establish where real life is; where the rational human is who has to be reintegrated into democratic political life – the ideal underpinning the design strategy for Munich ’72. That real life, he concludes, possibly doesn’t even exist.
Fame contains the promise of becoming awash with all the good things capitalism has to offer. The contemporary cult of personality consists of a grotesque depiction of celebrities’ lives and deaths. Being famous for the sake of being famous contains the spectacular promise of the complete breakdown of an autonomous life in exchange for an apotheosis as image. It is a modern wheel of fortune, with a central message: Everything revolves around luck; some are rich, some are poor, that’s just how the world is.
In an interview after Salò first came out, Pasolini said, ‘I’m not hoping to make a film that appeals to the emotions, but one that allows us to take different positions […] Each of us will have the philosophical pleasure of contemplation (the viewer), the particular abject pleasure of complicity, and the supreme pleasure of action.’
The photograph of Munich 1972, says Ensslin, does not work only as a literal representation. In his opinion, the image of the terrorist on the balcony in the Olympic village is iconic because it works as a phantasm; it presents us with the possibility of switching between three different positions as we look – and to enjoy doing so, Ensslin concluded, provocatively.
Agamben and the effect of the image
Ensslin ended his lecture with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In his work Profanations, Agamben describes the mediaeval philosophical background to the term ‘spectacle’ and refers to its relation to the term ‘species’. What makes humans special is that which sets us apart from other living beings. In the Latin scholastic tradition, the image does not exist in a material sense, but is created anew each time it appears and is seen. This is, according to Ensslin, an important factor in the relation to the iconic image. It means that the image is not objective in an ontological, material sense, but that it is recreated in the web of the phantasm, in the subject with his or her customs and desires. ‘Just as light is always created anew according to the presence of the illuminator, so do we say that the image in the mirror is generated each time according to the presence of the one the person who looks, not the one who shows,’ Ensslin quotes Agamben. Another important aspect of the image is that it has no form of its own, but is the representation of a form. The image has no fixed dimensions; it can be enlarged and yet still be the same image. The characteristics of the image do not consist of measurable quantities, but of aspects of species, modes of being and habits. The subject has the appearance of a species, a usage, a gesture. The image is never a thing, but always a kind of thing.
The image is not a simple duplication or alienation, nor is it an attribute of an individual substance. It creates a relation, which exists only at the moment of looking. This leaves two possibilities to avoid the airy and lofty and somewhat unstable position to be in relation to the image. Either you make the image a feature of yourself: my representation in an image is a personal quality of mine; I have control over my own image. The other option is to make the gap between the image and the viewer so great that every possibility of identification and experience disappears, so that it becomes a fantasy. On the one hand, there is a desire to avoid the uncertain status of the image by fixing it – in a passport, for instance – in order to be able to identify someone. On the other hand the image becomes so far removed from the reality it depicts that it becomes part of our fantasy life, as happens in celebrity culture. This is our man on the balcony, Ensslin concludes, and those are the iconic images of the society of the spectacle. Agamben uses this view of the effect of images, according to Ensslin, to avoid Debord’s substantialist, rationalist interpretation of the society of the spectacle, which takes for granted a return to natural life, a non-alienated existence. Agamben returns to what the society of the spectacle is, namely images, and not what it is made to be, namely identification and the stuff of usance in fantasy.
And so Ensslin took those present in the Reading Room through an extremely careful reading of that iconic image of the 1972 Olympic Games. From a man on a balcony, via the intentions of Black September and the Munich Games’ organisers, The Society of the Spectacle and the desire for a return to ‘real’ life, and the phantasm with its different positions, to how the image works. What is an image, to what degree does it represent what is being depicted, and who or what decides?
Report by Lotte Haagsma
Listen to the lecture by Felix Ensslin: