19.11.04 - 04.01.05

Claudio Hils | Archive_Belfast


Seeing, Perception, Consiousness

Claudio Hils Amongst the Archives in Belfast

By Klaus Honnef

One of the most ardent advocates of the new technical means of recording images was the French Minister of Police, Duchatel. On 15 June 1839, he pleaded energetically in the Chamber of Deputies that the French state acquire the patented new technology: 'In photography, objects preserve their form with mathematical exactitude. The drawing that can be achieved with the help of light furnishes us, for the first time in history, with an objective measurement, a scientific quantity, a cipher, a mark of identification.'

Passport photographs and 'Wanted' posters were one consequence of the purchase of the new technology. With the images captured by the camera, photographed people were transformed into police identification numbers to be subjected to comprehensive control. Even the modern camera in its original form, the camera obscura, permitted the user to see without beeing seen, a clandestine peering that did not endanger the observer. Not for nothing is there an unspectular shot of a roll of paper (of the kind commonly used as a neutral backround in photo studios) at the beginning of Clauio Hils' photographic project. But this roll of paper is set up in the photo studio of a police station. How many alleged or actual offenders have been photographed in front of it?

The next pictures, which record in fragmentary form a series of table-microphones and the details of feisty graffity reconstructed for a theatre production on a white-grey floral wall-paper, deepen the perspective of the observation. These are immediately followed by another two photographs - film critics would describe them as semi-long shots. The first shows a provisional-seeming archive in a monastery, the other a room (equipped with computer monitors) where data is collected, evaluated and supplemented. These last two photographs epitomise Hils' interest in the contemporary 'regime of perception' (Jonathan Crary) or reality and its manifold consequences which are the subject of this photographic exploration, along with the prevailing forms of public and private perception, and the fusion of both in an advanced media- and communication-society labouring under an excess of frequently superflous knowledge.

Claudio Hils is a prominent exponent of a fundamental aesthetic renewal of documentary photography that is content neither with a soberly accurate recording of definite facts nor with their comparative presentation in series of pictures and tableaux. Rather, he integrates seeing itself - the gaze that falls on external things - as a constitutive element into the realisation of his image world, so that perception is as dominant a motif in his photographs as are the objectss of its attention, the gaze that inspects casts them in a certain light. In a sense it introduces the indeterminacy relation into the usual traffic of images. Seeing, observation, perception - which 'frays' (Theodor W. Adorno) into multiple streams of communication and whose obvious records, mainly pictures and paper, in the end disappear unexamined onto shelves in a plenitude of largely unordered dossiers, but which can suddenly emerge out of the darkness with a certain explosive force - this is the real subject of Hils' project with its bewildering shots of strings, cords, banners, posters, tables, chairs, chests, boxes and images. On the other hand, from picture to picture, as in a film, the realisation slowly crystallises that the photographs have a politically, culturally and geographically definable site, namely Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. But nowhere does this receive any particular emphasis. The English of the slogans, the British flag on the painted red-brick terraced houses, the uniforms in a store room provide the sparing clues. But the horizons of Hils' photography of course reach far beyond the boundaries of the city. People appear in the photographs only as objects of glorifying memory or medical examination in x-ray pictures. Perhaps also as schematic reflexes on surveillance monitors, always, as it were, from somewhere in the backround, observed from the outside by a third party, and manifest in the trails they have left behind: archived files and video-cassettes, the detritus of propaganda, smashed furniture in a court room, windows barricaded against armed fire, model aeroplanes. The more bereft the images, the stronger the feeling of an oppressively present absence. Hils' photographic aesthetic subverts the eye of the police camera and alerts the spectator to the problems it raises. The imagination of the viewer supplements what is absent, in keeping with the fact that the photographer describes the perception of what despicts as a non-passive act of physiological seeing, a physical process that creates reality through images which often run ahead a cognition. Reality is obliged to test itself against the images, not vice versa, as most people believe. Thus Hils' photographic images lie athwart the images of everyday consumption disseminated by the mass media, painfully leaving out what the observer subliminally expects from them, and undermining their conventions. Nothing is clarified by his photographs; on the contrary, they intensify the process of questionning. They offer no easy explanations, and do not fall into the trap of attempting to provide spurious explanations for something that cannot be explained and is resistant to human reason. In this way it becomes apparent that Hils' photographs do not portray reality as it 'is or as it would be if I myself were not', in the words of a contemporary of the discovery of photography, the French historian Hyppolite Taine, but depict instead specifically subjective relations to reality, which are composed from a complex system of seeing, attention, perception and dawning consiousness. As a result, Claudio Hils' photographs add the dimension of self-aware perception to the spectrum of documentary photography.