A solid block of black ink is left to soak in water. It becomes softer and easier to grind. It is Japanese sumi, an intense black ink made from soot and glue and used for calligraphy. It is ground with a pestle and mortar, or perhaps a shallow black stone container. The intensity of this ink is compelling. Deeply black, true black. Quite unlike blue black, red black, or brown black. Mixed with water, the ink generates a palette of grays. From the lightest delicate wash to the densest black: more like a paste than a liquid. It sits on top of a wash of water and dries into a flat matte surface. This deep black takes the light away.
To begin with, the ink is applied with a tiny delicate brush to make intense, highly figurative drawings of crowds on paper: mourning crowds, audience crowds, commuting crowds. They are representations of photographic images archived from media photography. Over time, the archive is refined. By the end, the images are solely composed of protest crowds. There is something about them alone—some other kind of energy—that keeps the brush in motion, which makes the marks. Ukraine. Egypt. Yemen. Occupy.
The ink on paper has a kind of dryness. The brush is repeatedly recharged with ink and water. The marks are built and maintained. Out of mark-making, there is motion toward a new representative schema. Images find composition in the infinity between black and white. In the absence of color, there is possibility.
After the international antiwar marches in 2003, the San Francisco activist group Retort asked what must be achieved in order that the multitude could be “more than an image moment in the world of mirages” (Boal et al. 2005: 4). After protest, they understood, the crowd dissipates. What is left except the image?
In 2011 and subsequently, these images multiplied. Always the same, always different. They relentlessly found our screens, multitudinous demands for change. There were concentrations and separations, precarious occupations, tented counter-cities within Cairo, New York, and London.
Frame and Time
The works frame a single moment. They are reworks of media images, always taken from above, the crowd framed by architecture and urban structure, by the photographer’s viewfinder. From the image, the viewer should recognize the place and the density of the crowd. However, the images are also named by place and date. Recapturing this moment, there is a slow looking and then a remaking. In the studio, time is both fast and slow. There are procedures, durations. Thought, testing, processing, and action. Nothing happens. There is a void, then speed.
Oblivion and Testimony
Reflecting on the moment at which he realized liberation was immanent, the French resistance poet René Char wrote that he and his colleagues had been left an “inheritance without testimony.” Hannah Arendt, in her commentary on Char, suggests these words refer to a “precarious freedom” that emerges in war and revolution, just briefly. A moment “between past and future,” its meaning is not decided until afterward. Its outcome not decided at the time of its presence. A fleeting “treasure”: held, savored, and eventually lost to the everyday world to come: “consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory” (Arendt 1993: 3–15).
Like Retort, Arendt spoke of the mirage: “There exist, indeed, many good reasons to believe that the treasure was never a reality but a mirage, that we deal here not with anything substantial but with an apparition, and the best of these reasons is that the treasure thus far has remained nameless” (Arendt 1993: 5).
Precarious Materials, “Black Light”
Something in the images needs to change.
The white of the image is the white of paper—the flat ground: transparent and opaque at once. There is a succession of experiments with materials; there must be a new ground on which the ink will gain fluidity, from which gesture and mark can work together precariously, unpredictably. Where is the moment when power slips and something changes? How to enhance the mark as interval “between past and future”? Then there is a new whiteness—a new ground in the form of fine primed linen. Everything changes. The black ink on linen is transformative. It sits lightly on the surface of the material, mercurial, almost alchemical. On the washes of gray, a pure black form can be added, soft at the edges, always moving. Vertiginous marks intensify the jointure of process and subject. And there is a shift in scale. The small intense drawings give way to large paintings, almost three meters long. The linen can be stretched to greater frame sizes, further disrupting the photographic schema of the smaller drawings, greater freedom from the original mediation of the archival images, from the scopic arrest of their moment.
You can photograph a mirage, but as you get closer, it disappears. There is no pure multitude outside history, no state of nature, except in the imagination of political philosophers. The histories of Tahrir, of the protests in Yemen and Ukraine, do not follow the trajectories of desire and imagination that created them. Others colonize the spaces they opened out. War—whose arrival the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described as the descent of a “black light”—illuminates those moments of precarious freedom by imposing its own truth (Levinas 1969: 21).