A Flash of the Real: Re-situating
Pain in a Cyber-Practice
OISE, University of Toronto
appears... as mediator—an intermediary and go-between—between
life and death.
—George Bataille, The Tears of
Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)
addresses the power of the photographic image to haunt
us—to bring us closer to an understanding of the fragility
and mortality of human life. Sontag however, faults photography
for not being writing; it lacks narrative continuity
and remains fatally linked to the momentary. Photographs,
she says, cannot produce ethical pathos in us, or if
they do, it is only for a moment.
As a multimedia performance artist how do I make use of,
or challenge this as a premise to inform my making? How
do I as a woman with a disability, with chronic pain, communicate
my experience of pain? Why do I, as artist, make my pain
a matter of public exposure? Do my strategies control/limit/expand
the perspective(s) through which this pain is seen?
In my case, my pain is not always evident—the
marks of my mastectomy surgery hidden, the swollen joints
covered—on my body or in my art. Artists such as Orlan
(Hirschorn, 1996), document surgical procedure-as-choice
to concurrently nullify, support and question our refusal
to acknowledge pain. Others, such as Hannah Wilke (Narvey,
2002), map their failing, medically tortured body through
disease, exposing thereby our inability to comprehend
and to effectively respond to the suffering of others.
I take a different tact. Can the visual/affective/haptic
experience of the artist in multimedia photo-based performative
work, I ask, be given to the viewer? I turn away from
an assumption that the photo inherently has the power
to shock, and question the affective transitivity of
the photograph for political use. Rather than attempting
to push this agenda, I rather make my process transparent,
fugitive and yet accessible—in Travelling,
I reveal narrative and create distance.
My intention, through the use and performance of the
photographic image, is to capture the indefinable as/in
a “flash of the real” (Barthes, 1998), time “the decisive
moment” (Cartier-Bresson, 1952), and suspend the ultimate
act(ion) of tension or pain and possibilities (Barba,
1979). What concerns me are: the insertion of interpretation
in the captured moment, the use of multimedia strategies
to charge the moment, the creation of a visual narrative
to structure memory, and the exhibition or performance’s
tactic as time-based art to engage time, space and context
to encourage self-reflexivity.
The production of Travelling, as for much of
my work, engages this self-reflexivity. As a research
praxis it speaks to what I consider to be the pedagogical
moment—that intimate space and place where learning occurs
between self and phenomenon. I make an object of myself
to create a distance in which I can reinvestigate assumptions
about (in this case) pain, presence and image. Pain exists
as a generative potential for me. When I make art of
my body, I intentionally place my body in the world.
In doing so, I energize a site between meaning and creation—audience
and artist. Using my body as template, I bring images
of disability, age and gender into public space, and
in so doing, affirm the importance of such images, practices
and ideas in rendering the suppressed visible.
My desire in Travelling is not to be explicitly
direct. In this condensed version for Educational
Insights, content and viewing is intensified. While
body/image here is innocuous, ambiguous and inviting
instability, the speed of viewing causes ‘abject’ to
slip into’ object,’ and causes boundaries to blur. I
produce an image that, while not depicting a seared face
or mangled body, could potentially, I would hope, challenges
The action I use here to portray pain is the act of
walking. The photos are of my feet only, in varying but
specific locations, on different surfaces—inside and
out—in warmer weather, rain, and in snow. As I walk,
I move through pain—as walking is a painful act for me.
I shift weight, lift, move raised foot, suspend in transition,
place and repeat. Each image acts to record a decisive
moment—one in which choice, sensation, and action merge
as visual mimetic.
While pain in Travelling is central to the performance
field, it is not evident. It is left invisible as a problem,
as a presence. While such knowledge is not explicit,
I would hope it might not be imponderable. I attempt
to recreate pain as tension inherent in suspension through
the use of moving stills. Rather than video, each image
scrolls forward; sometimes the feet are blurred in action,
sometimes at rest. The feet create reflexive spaces in
their flexion and separation. The temporal and spatial
relocation of performative time, in the rezoning of skin/foot/flesh,
causes a reviewing. Bodily image shifts as does ground.
Interpretation becomes possible in the captured moment.
Time performs differently in virtual space: the exhibition
scrolls; images are framed on the screen differently
by different browsers; the viewer can halt viewing at
any time; pages can freeze and servers can crash. The
pained body encoded within media becomes less predictably
In Travelling, the body is in flux. It
appears as genderless, and yet it is embedded as image
within social systems that create both the framing for
pain and imagination. This signals another potential
for pedagogical investigation.
Rather then presenting easily recognizable images of the
disabled body, or sentimental representations, which require
little viewer attention, I search for innovative ways to
connect with viewers. Through an ongoing response, reflection
and critique, I hope to model and encourage viewers to
take on a richer engagement in the conditions, context
and positionality of our lives and living.
E. (1979). The Floating islands. Holstebro, Denmark: Thomsens Bogtrykkeri.
R. (1998). Camera lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.
H.(1952). The Decisive moment. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Michelle (1996). Orlan: Artist in the Post-human Age
of Mechanical Reincarnation: Body as Ready (To Be Re-)made.
In (ed.) Griselda Pollack, Generations and geographies
in the visual arts: Feminist readings. (110- 134). London: Routledge.
Caryn (2002). Venus ruined: Photographs from Hannah
Wilke’s “Intra-Venus.” Resources
for Feminist Research.
29 (3/4), 133-154.
S. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.